The (Economic?) Case for Babies

I’m in the market for babies and, based on the research, it’s prime time to be having them.  Happily married, financially stable, and with a happiness quotient that should make the rich and famous envious, my wife and I are in a place to “make the plunge.”  However, lots of our friends and acquaintances don’t quite understand why we would want to do that.  If we express interest in raising a family, we often are thought to be either out of our minds, or members of an exclusive order of saints—altruistic beyond comprehension, and perhaps a little out-of-touch with reality.  After all, the standard assumption is that children impose a major limit discretionary time, money, and, well, everything.  But, there are a number of voices arguing the opposite.  While it’s fairly easy to find religious writers, and especially prolific Catholics, making the case for having children, the argument for kids in the press is harder to find…and even harder if you’re looking for an argument that doesn’t depend on altruism and total self-abnegation for its impetus.  Enter Bryan Caplan from EconLog.

Some might take offense at Bryan Caplan’s non-traditional and un-altruistic approach to marriage and family, however, upon closer inspection, his work presents a delightfully subversive argument that undercuts the worst aspects of our obsession with self-esteem and personal fulfillment even while ostensibly appealing to those very cherished values.  For example, scan through his Wall Street Journal article “The Breeder’s Cup” and you might think that the only good reasons for having children are the economic viability of the endeavor and the resulting personal happiness that parents find upon birthing progeny.  And from a guy writing a book titled, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” you are likely justified in thinking that this guy can’t stop thinking about himself.  In the midst of such egotistical considerations, where is the fabled altruistic maternal love, the sacrificial self-denial, and the all-encompassing charity that we’ve heard so much about (no doubt from our parents when they roll out the guilt-trip strategy in the high-stakes bid for our presence at the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday reunion)?

But take a closer look at the article before you consign it to the heap of selfish drivel spewing from a self-satisfied culture that will only act in ways that are bound to deliver on the promise of personal happiness.  In advocating for more children against the traditional axiom that children are diametrically opposed to personal happiness, wealth, and leisure, Caplan argues for a new conception of happiness.  Rather than limit happiness to the standard magazine advertisement fare of cruises, designer labels, and nymphomania, Caplan suggests that any definition of happiness ought to include satisfying personal relationships.  In fact, his interpretation of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, he concludes that “the people to pity are singles, not parents” because the security and companionship provided in marriage far outweigh the ephemeral benefits of the single life.  In other words, love and commitment still matter.

And with that conclusion, things begin to get really interesting.  In families with parents who love each other and their children, the traditional down-sides to parenting—the pressure to make your kids successful, the constant giving without receiving—all but disappear.  Working at loving your children and developing relationships with them are more likely to produce happiness than making big sacrifices accompanied with self-pity (hey, just like doing the same thing with you spouse rather than being a jerk and making up with expensive presents).  After all, kids are people, too and since many of us are happiest when we have meaningful relationships with others, it should come as no surprise that having more meaningful relationships will increase happiness.

That happiness, though, really is different than the consumer-oriented variety you get from your HD TV commercials in 3D (yes, odds are they are here to stay).  Rather than finding happiness in the options to gratify various desires, the happiness Caplan refers to is related to an older notion of happiness (hello, Aristotle) from before the era of 1960’s behaviorism.  Happiness, in the older sense, is related to doing the things you were made to do, and doing them well.  Disputing the various ends of human action until you’re blue in the face makes little difference for this view of happiness; whatever the final outcome, this older definition of happiness says that the man who does what he was meant to do is the happy man.

Without delving into any major scientific enigmas, it remains obvious that human beings are biologically intended to reproduce.  Thus, reproducing (and then cultivating the fruits of that reproduction) well should, according Aristotle and company, tend towards greater happiness.  And this is the final point that Caplan makes.  The happiness that comes from raising kids can’t be undercut by various pragmatic considerations; in fact, data may suggest that those considerations might actually give support to the case for children.

No one should have children for purely economic reasons, but, it’s refreshing to discover that economics promote rather than discourage a few American values: life and the pursuit of happiness.


A Letter to a Former Student, on the Occasion of a Difficult Day

Newer readers to Mere-O may not know that for two years I worked as an educator, and was blessed to have an incredible set of students.  This is a letter I wrote tonight to one of them.  I post it here because it is broadly applicable, and because it may give you a better understanding of who I am as a thinker, writer, and person.  The name, naturally, has been changed.


I can’t thank you enough for your gracious and overly kind note. It is really a joy to hear from you, even though I can hear anguish and frustration in your voice. I am at a point in my life where I do not take for granted the former student who takes the time to let me know how they are, for good or bad. It happens rarely, and I find myself feeling exceedingly grateful for the opportunity I had to be involved in their lives every time it does. In a small, but important way, it reminds me of who I am and why I think God has placed me in this world. So, thank you.

If you don’t mind, then, allow me to dispense some friendly encouragement to you during your difficult time.

You say that you don’t know why you’re at school anymore, and that you have “lost sight of the end.” I am not surprised to hear this. It is always difficult amidst the books and papers and confusing relational lives to keep our eyes on the reasons why we have decided to undertake the endeavor of learning. The sophomore year is a particularly troublesome time in that regard: the thrill and novelty of the new way of doing things has worn off, and the fruit of your labor is not yet evident. It is often full of drudgery and pain.

It is easy to become discouraged during this season, and for that reason it is all the more important and helpful to surround yourself with a community who can encourage you. I suspect–though of course don’t know for certain–that your situation is not as bleak as you suggest. Lapses in memory, reading the wrong book, not having anything to say in class–all those are par for the intellectual course. I have done them all (or as in the case of speaking, not done them!) many times. Perhaps a better witness is that of my more successful friends, who I am confident would attest to the same. Reading the right book for class is not itself the barometer of educational success–and the second we begin to take such measures as such is the second that we lose sight of what our education is for, which is to hone our vision and understanding of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and the world that he is Creator and Lord over. Continue reading

Fear and Greatness: Why American Citizens Should Worry That the Terror of Terrorism Has Such Little Effect on the Behaviors and Beliefs of Men

Every generation struggles towards a certain self-understanding as its members move from immaturity to adulthood and walk through the trials of growing, thinking, discovering, and confronting responsibility.  This path of maturation cannot be trod by a substitute, nor can it be avoided through deliberate torpidity—time marches onward and compels all men to move forward whether they like to or not.  However, the solitary activity of growing up and growing old need not be performed in isolation.  Travelers further along the path leave messages and instructions for those who follow, and many times they set an example worthy of imitation.  It is in this regard that George Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is a lure and a goad to study the course of human events.

Consider, then, the example of Rome—a great civilization and one of considerable importance to all Western societies.  The Roman Empire covered vast tracts of land, assimilated countless cultures and languages, dominated world affairs for hundreds of years, and fell with a reverberating crash, hollowed out by greed, lust, and vice.  The reasons offered for the fall of Rome are varied, and often reflect the prejudices of succeeding cultures.  However, when the analysis of the degeneration of the Roman Empire is shared by two men who have little in common but their Roman citizenship, it may be worth sitting up and taking note.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, whose mother most likely affectionately called “Sallust” (apparently the name stuck), is considered the first Roman historian due to his attempt to interpret rather than simply chronicle historical events.  Born in 86 B.C., he lived to be a friend of Julius Caesar and wrote a Histories of the Roman people that was heavily relied upon by St. Augustine in his analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Augustine, writing at the end of the Roman era and minutely examining its history, shares little in common with Sallust other than Roman citizenship.  Where Sallust claims, “Justice and goodness prevailed among [the first Romans] as much be nature as by law,” Augustine sees ambition fed by lust for power and fame.  Sallust wrote his Histories in order to defend Rome and promote action that would restore her peace and prosperity and paints a glowing portrait of Roman virture.  Augustine penned his City of God in defense of Christianity, criticizing the immorality and incontinence of Rome.

However, both men agree upon the basic cause of Roman greatness: Fear.

In his explanation of the cause of Rome’s great expansion after the expulsion of her kings and the rise of the consuls, Sallust states, “The rule of equitable and moderate law lasted, after the banishment of the kings, only until the fear of Tarquin and the grievous war with Etruria were ended.”  Once the fear dissipated, oppression and injustice were the norm, to be checked only by the need for unity in the face of a common enemy during the second Punic War.  Similarly, Augustine acknowledges the unifying power of fear and traces the fall of Rome to the inequity, immoderation, and various vices that arose once fear was removed.
If two men who disagree on almost every point can agree that fear has great power to constrain men and vice, it may be worth taking heed to the warning latent in this analysis of Rome.

If fear gives rise to unity, and unity is necessary to the growth and flourishing of a civilization, then America and the West ought to be inextricably united against the fear of terrorism and growing into a vast, powerful, virtuous and exemplary civilization.  But this is not the case and the implications are profound.

Americans briefly united in common cause following the devastating attack on September 11, 2001.  Banners flew, flags were visible in windows, hanging from porches, snapping from windows of cars zipping down the interstate, and plastered on bumpers, telephone poles, and t-shirts.  Since the initial movement towards unity, however, America has become woefully disunited.  Opinion polls reflect an increase in polarized politics with a large portion of Republicans demonizing Obama and the Left, and an equally large share of Democrats returning the favor with gusto.  Every issue is turned into a politically divisive issue by pundits on both sides and those few politicians who strive for bipartisan cooperation and moderation are villainized by the Left and the Right.  The past two elections were both won on the popular level by slim margins, and states continue to remain split in their constituencies.  The presence of such radical disunity and polarization in the face of the terrorist threat is unsettling.

Are American differences so radical, so deeply divisive, so irreconcilable that even the presence of a common enemy cannot motivate unity?  I’m not sure.  It may be that there are other forces driving the disunity, or at least the apparent disunity, that need be examined.  However, if fear is not motivating America to unite and establish security and protect her position in the world, what will?  If Sallust and Augustine are correct, the end may be at hand.  I’m hoping that a fear of our foolhardy fearlessness might do the trick.

Old and Relevant: Leviathan

When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan, the English were in the midst of a series of civil wars, battling their brothers over religious and political issues.  Charles I struggled with a Puritan Parliament that, among other things, aimed to build a polity sharply shaped by the Scriptures.  The civil war was so odious to Hobbes and detrimental to life in England that he determined to re-think the political theories that were in vogue; he set out to write a political treatise that dispensed with religious considerations completely and rested upon a universally available deductive logic.  The appeal of such a position is readily apparent to anyone who has lived through the events and consequences of religiously motivated conflicts and wars.

It often seems that the world would be a much better place, and more peaceful, if men were not divided by religious sentiments and diverse opinions.  Of course, one of the great and sobering lessons of the 20th century is that the common ground of reason is itself a tenuous foundation upon which to build an edifice of human solidarity and community.  But more of that later.

Hobbes deductive approach to anthropology and political theory began with a theory of language.  Briefly, this theory states that all that we know is what we say.  Our concepts, understanding, and knowledge are wrapped up in the words we use and, by carefully defining our terms, we come to know things more fully.  Reasoning is the activity of defining our terms.  “For Reason, in this sense, is nothing but Reckoning (that is, Adding and Substracting) of the Consequences of generall names agreed upon, for the Marking and Signifying of our thoughts.”

All this might seem quite vague and irrelevant, the meandering thoughts of an irrelevant old Englishman.  However, it becomes quite exciting when this linguistic and ontological theory is played out in ethical considerations. Continue reading

Thomas Says: A Recap on Killing

This is the last post in the Thomas Says series on killing. I want to summarize some points Thomas makes in this question of the Summa.

First, let’s note the obvious, which hasn’t been noted yet in this series: The question of killing falls under the heading of “Justice.” In particular, it is in the section dealing with vices causing “injury to a neighbor against his will . . . by deed.” There are other vices of injustice that cause injury through words, both in legal and nonlegal contexts. Murder is an act that violates justice, which means that the murderer has failed to act in a way that promotes in himself (and others) the virtue of dealing correctly with his fellow human beings. Thomas also says that an unjust act (or a character disposed toward injustice) is opposed to the right.

A few of the conversations in the comments raised important issues. I want to focus on a very important one that was left open. The question is whether there are ever good grounds for killing another human being. In article 6 Thomas says, “If we consider a man in himself, it is unlawful to kill any man, since in every man though he be sinful, we ought to love the nature which God has made, and which is destroyed by slaying him.” This sentence of this quotation seems to mean that if we consider a human being only as an individual, there are no grounds to ever kill anyone. This is because “we ought to love the nature which God has made.” I think “the nature which God has made” is an allusion to the nature of a human being as an image of God. Similarly, in article 3 Thomas says that “a man who has sinned is not by nature distinct from good men; hence a public authority is requisite in order to condemn him to death for the common good.”

But if a person still retains their nature even after committing murder, in what way can anyone be justified in killing that person? Thomas’s view is that a proper authority can put to death a murderer because the murderer does not retain the dignity of his nature. This seems clearest in article 2: “By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood” and “although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned.” The implication in the latter quotation is that one who has sinned has failed to preserve his dignity.

This loss of dignity must be connected with the fact that the murderer harms the common good. For it is only in connection with considerations about the common good that Thomas thinks anyone is ever justified in putting another human being to death. He says, “the slaying of a sinner becomes lawful in relation to the common good, which is corrupted by sin.” In Thomas’s thought the maintenance of the dignity of one’s nature is connected with the goodness of commonwealth. The connection depends on his conception of what makes the common good good. The common good is good in part because the individuals composing it are good. In article 6 Thomas says that “the life of righteous men preserves and forwards the common good, since they are the chief part of the community.” I cannot maintain my dignity and go against the common good. Once I go against the common good, I lose my dignity. (As one commenter pointed out, we should be careful to understand what Thomas means by “common good.” His understanding of the common good is too large to be explained here, but suffice it to say that he is not a communist or crypto-communist.)

Here are links to all the posts in this series:

Killing Plants and Animals

Killing Sinners

Why You Can’t Kill Sinners

Why Clerics Can’t Kill Sinners


Killing the Innocent

Killing in Self-Defense, part 1 and part 2

Accidental Killing

Thomas Says: What Happens if, Whoops, I Killed You?

This is the second-to-last post summarizing the position on killing laid out by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa. In the concluding post I will pull together a number of points about his position on killing. In this post I will discuss the last question in the Summa’s article on killing: “Whether one is guilty of murder through killing someone by chance?”

As in other questions (e.g., article 6 on whether it’s lawful to kill the innocent), the answer to this question isn’t as significant as the reasoning that supports it. Of course Thomas says that accidental killing is not the same as murder. Why?

The main idea is that sin is a moral evil, which means that a sin is an act that is not in accord with right reason and eternal law—“not in accord with” signifies lack or privation or deficiency, which is the essence of evil, and “right reason and eternal law” indicate that the evil is moral in nature, as opposed to physical or metaphysical. (For more on these distinctions, see Thomas’s Quaestiones disputatae e malo (Disputed Questions on Evil); Regan has a good translation.) As a morally bad thing—note that Thomas includes the notion of offense against God in his definition of “moral”—a sin essentially involves a failure to follow right reason and the law of God. And as a morally bad act, a sin essentially involves a voluntary choice to disobey right reason and the law of God.

To summarize: In order for an action to be sinful, it must be a voluntary choice to go against right reason and the law of God.

Thus, an accidental killing is not murder because it is not a voluntary choice. As Thomas quotes from Aristotle: “chance is a cause that acts beside one’s intention.” So killing someone by chance (or accidentally) is by definition beside one’s intention, and as we’ve seen throughout this question on killing, especially in the article on self-defense, it is one’s intention that makes the (moral) difference. I think it’s clear, but it should be said anyway, that the outcome of an accidental killing is still bad, even though the person who caused the accidental death has not done a morally evil act.

I hope what has been said so far is clear because Thomas is about to make things a little more complicated. Or, I should say, Thomas isn’t making things more complicated; he just recognizes that things aren’t always this simple.

Here’s the complication. Thomas says, “Nevertheless it happens that what is not actually and directly voluntary and intended, is voluntary and intended accidentally, according as that which removes an obstacle is called an accidental cause. Wherefore he who does not remove something whence homicide results whereas he ought to remove it, is in a sense guilty of voluntary homicide.”

For the Latinists among us, I should note that Thomas’s Latin in these two sentences is a bit unclear. In particular, it’s not clear how to understand the words “removens prohibens” in the first sentence: “Contingit tamen id quod non est actu et per se volitum vel intentum, esse per accidens volitum et intentum, secundum quod causa per accidens dicitur removens prohibens.” The gist of the passage seems to be that accidental intention happens when someone removes something they ought not to, that is, something that is prohibited for one to remove. But in the next sentence Thomas says that if someone does not remove something they should remove and homicide results, the person who did not remove what should have been removed is in a sense guilty of murder. What I think Thomas means is that if you remove an obstacle to someone’s death that you ought not have removed, then you are “in a sense” guilty of murder.

Old and Relevant: Plato's Anthropological Principle

Perhaps the most famous dialogue penned by Plato is his far-reaching Republic.  In this work he addresses the popular philosophy of his day—a philosophy that was promulgated by a group of teachers known to us as Sophists.  The Sophists were the ultimate pragmatists or realists.  They argued that truth was, more or less, whatever worked; and whomever held power set the standard by which men could determine whatever worked (if this sounds strikingly similar to something you heard at your university, on the news, or in any number of Hollywood films you shouldn’t be surprised—the Sophists are attempting a comeback).  Plato set out to disprove the Sophist thesis, arguing that truth is objective and external, and men will live well and successfully when they live in accordance with the truth.

In a day and age where the importance and value of individual men is sometimes overlooked in the bustle of mass media, mass marketing, polling samples, demographic analyses, and sweeping generalizations about the “youth,” the “elderly,” Americans, white males, working moms, hipsters, and blue collar voters, Plato’s means of arguing his thesis is a fascinating departure from the norm.  Rather than accept the prevailing view that a city is merely a place where people live and work or an institution to be controlled and managed, Plato suggests that cities are organic networks that cohere along lines very similar to those found in men.  For Plato, cities are primarily human conglomerates, and the attitudes, beliefs, values, and dispositions of the men living in the city amount to the soul of the city.

The genius of Plato’s principle is seen as he draws out its ramifications for political science.  Continue reading

Old and Relevant: Augustine's City of God

No doubt many of our readers are very familiar with all the quotable (and some unquotable) C. S. Lewis, so they should not be surprised to be reminded that the eminently understandable academician said, “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Our own intellectual blind spots can be uncovered by availing ourselves of the perspectives of the living and the dead.

This is one reason I’ve been reading Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine on poli-sci. Every time CNN or Fox News makes a claim about politics they both operate with certain assumptions that quietly unite them against the ideas of past and future ages; in order to uncover those assumptions and critically assess them we must compare the general outlines of our thought to those who held very different opinions.

Augustine’s City of God against the Pagans is a massive compilation of twenty-two volumes attempting to shift the Roman empire’s cyclical and pagan interpretation of history and government to a linear interpretation based upon the Christian theology and anthropology. While the tome addresses much more than political science issues, it lays a foundation for centuries of later political thought.

Among the major concepts that form this foundation is Augustine’s formulation of the summum bonum or Supreme Good, Continue reading

Thomas Says: Why You Can (And Should) Kill in Self-Defense, Part 2

In this post, I want to conclude my summary and discussion of Thomas’s reasoning about killing in self-defense by examining the objections to his position that he considers and his replies to those objections. (The first post is here; the article in the Summa is here.)

To review, Thomas’s position is that it is morally permissible to kill an assailant in self-defense, even when the assailed is not a public official or soldier, but only when it is necessary to preserve one’s life and only because the action that brings about the death of the assailant is a foreseen but unintended consequence of the action. In order to be morally licit, the lethal action taken in self-defense must not spring from an intention to kill the assailant; it can only spring from the intention to preserve one’s own life.

The first two objections Thomas considers attempt to put him at odds with Augustine. For Augustine says (in a letter) that “I do not agree with the opinion that one may kill a man lest one be killed by him.” And elsewhere (On Free Choice of the Will) an argument can be cobbled together for the same conclusion. Thus it appears that according to Augustine, Thomas is wrong.

Thomas’s reply is that in the letter in question (scroll down to section 5) Augustine does not contradict him because Augustine means only that “one may [not intend to] kill a man lest one be killed by him.” And this agrees with what Thomas has said: In defending my own life, I cannot intend to kill the assailant.

On the face of it, Thomas’s interpretation isn’t obvious to me. It’s true that a little later in the letter, Augustine says, “The precept, ‘Resist not evil,’ was given to prevent us from taking pleasure in revenge, in which the mind is gratified by the sufferings of others, but not to make us neglect the duty of restraining men from sin.” (This line of reasoning also summarizes Thomas’s reply to the fifth objection about a passage from Romans 12:19, which seems to prohibit self-defense.) The point Augustine makes suggests that the command to “resist not evil” is not given to prevent a man from acting with the intention of preserving his own life, but it doesn’t make that clear.

The second objection refers us to Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will. (The relevant section is 1.5, which is one source of the famous phrase “an unjust law is no law at all.”) Here Thomas’s interpretation is that what Augustine really means (again) is that it is ultimately unlawful to defend one’s life (with lethal force) for the wrong reason, namely, with the intention of killing the assailant. On this point all I can say (again) is that I have read the relevant section of On Free Choice of the Will a number of times, and it isn’t obvious to me that Thomas’s interpretation is correct. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of this text can defend Thomas. I cannot. (In the first place, which one of the characters is presenting Augustine’s position? “Augustine” or “Evodius” or both? In the second place, the position that seems to stand is that the positive (human) law permits lethal self-defense even though those acting so in self-defense will be subject to a divine law.)

The third objection (which raises a question I was curious about before reading this passage) has to do with whether a cleric is permitted to remain a cleric after killing another person in self-defense. Thomas’s answer is no. This is because the question of “irregularity” (not adhering to the rule (regula) of Holy Orders) is not only a matter of intention but also of act. (I think the same distinction is present in Old Testament law in the distinction between “being guilty” and “being unclean.” Both are bad, but only the first involves intention.) Note that Thomas does not say whether the cleric’s irregular status is partial or total, perpetual or temporal. These further clarifications probably depend on circumstances.

The fourth objection is useful for clarifying Thomas’s point about the double effect of the act of self-defense. The objection is that since no one is morally permitted to fornicate in order to save his or her life, and since murder is a more grievous sin than fornication, so no one is morally permitted to do commit a more grievous sin than fornication, namely, murder, in order to preserve one’s life.

Thomas’s reply is that “The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.” This point is clear enough, I think. The idea is that the act of fornication is not “necessarily directed” to saving one’s life. Suppose a male assailant promises not to harm his female victim if she consents to have sex with him (putting aside questions of the legitimacy of such “consent,” which surely is not consent in this case.) Thomas’s point is that it wouldn’t be morally permissible for the victim to consent to this because the act of sex is not necessarily directed to letting her go. That is, whether her life is preserved depends ultimately not upon whether she consents to have sex but on whether the assailant chooses to let her go. This is unlike an act of self-defense (say, punching or shooting) which does not depend on a further action (choice) in order to secure one’s own life. The act of shooting that is done with the intention of preserving one’s life is the very same act that causes the assailant to die. So Thomas’s point is that the difference in the grievousness between murder and fornication is not relevant here. What is relevant is the connection between an act and its effect(s).

Thomas Says: Why You Can (And Should) Kill in Self-Defense, Part 1

Fewer topics in Thomas’s moral philosophy have received more attention than his treatment of what has come to be known as double-effect. What is particularly interesting is that Thomas manages to inspire such interest in the space of one paragraph, namely, the paragraph in which he answers that it is lawful to kill a person in self-defense.

We have seen that Thomas does not think that killing other human beings is always wrong: It is permissible to kill the one who “departs from the order of reason” and “falls away from the dignity of his manhood” by sinning in a manner that renders him “dangerous and infectious to the community.” We have also seen that this permissibility does not extend to everyone. It extends only to lawfully-ordained public servants, and it excludes clerics and private citizens. In the present article Thomas argues, however, that it is morally permissible for even private citizens to defend themselves with lethal force.

In this post, I want to outline Thomas’s reasoning about killing in self-defense. In another post, I’ll go over the objections and replies.

I mentioned above that Thomas’s reasoning involves something called double-effect. If you have time, you can read this very good (and free!) article on double-effect. And if you have more time, read the relevant section in this article on G. E. M. Anscombe. But to get the basic gist of Thomas’s point, you only need the time it takes to read and understand the following sentences: “Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention . . . . Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor.”

We can see where the name “double-effect” comes from: Thomas says that it’s possible that one action can have two (kinds of) effects. One kind of effect is intended, and the other kind of effect is unintended—even when it is as clear as can be that the unintended effect will happen. That is to say, the unintended effect can be foreseen. I added the “(kinds of)” in order to make it clear that an action can have more than two effects. In fact, a single action often has many effects, but that is not Thomas’s point. His point is that there are two kinds of effects an action can have: intended and unintended.

I suppose one might be puzzled by the statement that “moral acts take their species according to what is intended.” (But, really, it’s difficult to guess what readers might be puzzled by. I suppose that’s why we have comment boxes.) Perhaps it helps to clarify that the two relevant species are good and bad. So a moral act is good if the person performing the act intends something good. There are lots of things to clarify there, e.g., “intends” and “good” and “act.” I’ll spare the details unless asked to provide them, but it’s important to note that whether an act is good or bad is not determined by the consequences/outcomes of the act but by what the agent intends to bring about.

Now, the really controversial part is whether we can defend the claim that in the act of self-defense “one [effect] is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor.” That is, the intended effect = saving one’s life; the unintended (but foreseen) effect = slaying the aggressor.

You might ask: How can this be possible? How can I intend to bring about something good (staying alive) through an act that also brings about something bad (a human dying)? In this article, Thomas doesn’t say. He takes it for granted that one can so intend and not intend. (He also points out that it is good (and lawful) to intend one’s own survival “seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible.”) Others have disputed or defended the distinction Thomas makes here. (Read the above articles on double-effect for criticisms and defenses.)

Thomas does say, however, that simply having a good intention is not sufficient to make the act good. If I intend to defend my life using “more than necessary violence” my action is unlawful. This is often called a proportionality condition. It simply says that the means I employ in defending myself must be proportional to the threat.

Furthermore, what I (as a private citizen acting in self-defense) cannot intend is the death of my assailant. I must intend only my own self-defense. (Thomas explains again that only public officials are permitted to intend to kill others (namely, those who threaten the common good); soldiers are thus exempted (under certain conditions) from the ban on intending to kill others.) Notice again that this is a limitation on my intention, not on what happens. Of course, if it’s necessary for me to use lethal force and if my self-defense is successful, then the assailant will be dead. I will have killed him, but (to be morally in the clear) I cannot have intended to kill him.

Before closing this post, I want to explain what is meant by adding “(And Should)” to the title of this post: “Why You Can (And Should) Kill in Self-Defense.” Thomas says that it is not “necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.” That is, it is not a hindrance to salvation (i.e., on his teaching you won’t commit a mortal sin) if you kill another person while defending yourself. Why? Well, you are “bound” to take more care of your own life than that of another.

Thomas’s argument (in article 4 of question 26 of the second part of the second part of the Summa) concludes that in the order of things to be loved, only God is loved more than myself. The argument depends (as far as I can tell) on the fact that I myself have a share of the divine good whereas my relation with others (my “neighbors”) is not like that. I only relate to them as others who also have a share in the divine good. In that sense we are partners in fellowship with God (i.e., we are alike in that we share in the divine good). But the nature of my relation with myself—namely, a unity—provides a “more potent reason” for loving myself than the nature of my relationship with my neighbors, which can only be a union of fellow partners.

So, out of charity one ought to take more care for oneself than for others. This is not, on Thomas’s view, because one is being selfish but because one is following what is reasonable. Of course, this does not mean that I should ignore the needs of my neighbors. It only means that it is reasonable for me to love myself more than my neighbors.

So, out of charity I ought to take more care to defend my own life (within the moral limits prescribed above) rather than the lives of others. Thus I am not obligated to refrain from killing another human being, and in fact I have a duty to defend myself to the point of using lethal force against an assailant. This action shows a proper love of myself. To let myself be killed would be to fail to demonstrate that proper love.