Thomas Says: Scandal, It’s So Special

This is the third in my intermittent series on Aquinas on the topic of scandal, which is covered in question 43 of the second part of the second part of his Summa Theologiae. In the first two posts I covered the main contours of his thinking on the issue. First, scandal is defined as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.” Second, there are two aspects of scandal: active and passive. Active scandal occurs when a person sins (or even has a strong appearance of sinning) and thereby causes another to sin. Passive scandal occurs when a person is enticed to commit a sin after observing the actions of another—regardless of whether those actions are sinful. The upshot of this is that there can be cases of active without passive scandal, or passive without active scandal.

In the third article of his question on scandal, Thomas raises the question of whether scandal is a special sin. A strange question, until you understand what he means by “special.” He’s not asking whether it is unique. By asking whether scandal is a special sin, he’s asking whether it is a specific kind of sin—like murder, theft, gossip, which are all opposed to some specific kind of virtue or good. As he mentions in the first objection to his claim that scandal is a special sin, scandal is defined as something less rightly said or done, but that applies to every sin. So, it would seem that scandal is not a special sin.

Thomas’s first point is that the idea that scandal is a special sin is supported by scripture, specifically, Romans 14:15: “If, because of thy meat, thy brother be grieved, thou walkest not now according to charity.” Hence, scandal is specifically opposed to charity (love).

Beyond this point, however, Thomas makes distinctions (as is his wont). First, passive scandal is not a special sin, because you might fall into any kind of sin through the words or actions of others. Second, some kinds of active scandal are special. In particular, accidental active scandal is not a special sin because someone who commits such a sin does not intend to lead others astray. But direct active scandal is a special sin because a person intends to draw others into sin through his own sinful words or actions—or at least through words or actions have the appearance of sinfulness. To summarize: all scandal is sinful, but only direct active scandal is specially opposed to charity.

Here’s an example from everybody’s favorite recent topic: Newt Gingrich. Was (from what we can tell) Gingrich guilty of the sin of scandal in committing adultery with Callista? Clearly, Gingrich’s actions were “something less rightly done,” so they qualify as active scandal if they occasioned the spiritual downfall of someone else. And, to be clear, “occasion spiritual downfall” means “encourage toward sin.” Notice that scandal does not mean that Gingrich caused someone else to sin; it only means that his actions encouraged others toward any kind of sin (lust, adultery, covetousness, hatred, etc.). We can’t know whether anyone else was encouraged to sin by Gingrich’s actions, but I’d say that, with the number of people who know about it, it’s likely that someone was led to sin after hearing about Gingrich’s infidelity. Perhaps a warning to those in the limelight.


Thomas Says: So Scandalous It’s a Sin

In the first post in this series on Aquinas’s account of scandal, we saw that Aquinas defines scandal as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall” and that he distinguishes between active and passive scandal. In this post, I want to cover his argument that scandal is a sin. Of course, we always have to keep in mind the distinction between active and passive scandal, so the question to answer is twofold: Is active scandal sinful? Is passive scandal sinful? But even these aren’t adequately formulated. We should ask instead: Is active scandal always sinful? Is passive scandal always sinful?

The answer to both questions is yes.

The reason the first answer is affirmative is that the person who causes scandal either does so in virtue of sinning or of doing something that only has the appearance of sin. Thomas says that anyone who does something that only has the appearance of sin is guilty of active scandal (and has thus, ironically, really sinned) because actions that have the appearance of sin “should always be left undone out of that love for our neighbor which binds each one to be solicitous for his neighbor’s spiritual welfare.”

Now, it’s true that a person’s good deed might be the occasion for someone else’s downfall. Suppose, for example, that I perform a manfully courageous deed that arouses jealousy and resentment in others who might hold their manhoods cheap. I have done nothing wrong even though my action has become the occasion for another’s downfall. But here we have a case of passive scandal without active scandal, not a case of an active scandal that is not sinful.

The reason the second answer is affirmative is that passive scandal means that someone has acceded to his own spiritual downfall. Someone who is scandalized in this sense has always sinned. (It’s important to remember that Aquinas is not using the current sense of “scandal.” The pious grandmother who says she was scandalized by seeing the girls wearing their skirts up to here is not saying that she sinned.)

Lastly, it’s encouraging (in some way) to see that bad hermeneutics has been with us since at least the thirteenth century. It’s nothing new. In the first objection to Thomas’s claim, he summarizes the following (unsound) argument:

(1) All sin is voluntary.
(2) Jesus says, “It must needs be that scandals come” (i.e., Scandal is necessary).
(3) What is voluntary cannot be necessary.
(4) So, scandal cannot be a sin.

I won’t get into Thomas’s response to this argument, but it’s interesting that he provides not one but three possible interpretations of Jesus’s words that are consistent with his position. On this point, he isn’t concerned to establish a single true interpretation but to simply show that there are interpretations that are reasonable and (importantly) consistent with his account of scandal.

Thomas Says: So Scandalous!

Because you can never have too much Aquinas, I’ve decided to reboot my blogging here with another series on the thought of the Angelic Doctor. The first topic in the series was Thomas’s thoughts on killing. For no particular reason, this time I’ll take up the topic of scandal.

We often hear about various scandals in the news. Right now, if you search for “scandal” in Google News, you get about 22,000 hits. In this context one reads articles about Herman Cain or Penn State or at least scans headlines such as “Solyndra Scandal”  or “Judge Rejects Arguments for Separate Trials in Alabama Bingo Scandal.”

Christians also encounter a slightly different use of “scandal” in their local congregations when one congregant is offended by the actions of another. In such cases, one is apt to recall, if one was raised on the King James, Paul’s admonition from Romans 14:21: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” Paul’s use of “stumbleth”—he was a good Elizabethan, after all—here never fails to raise questions about what it means to make another stumble. These are the kinds of questions Thomas wants to provide clarity about. (By the way, if you weren’t raised on the King James, then you probably don’t recall the uses of “offended” and “made weak” because it wasn’t in your Bible. The critical text just has the Greek for “stumbleth,” “proskoptei.” Thomas states (in the “I answer that” section to article 1) that in the Vulgate, Jerome is simply explaining the possible meanings of the Greek “skandalon” by adding the other two words.)

Thomas is, unsurprisingly, concerned more with the latter kinds of scandal than with the contemporary, thinned-out notion expressed in news headlines. Being a good thinker, Thomas starts the section on scandal (which is question forty-three of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica) by stating what kind of thing he’s talking about and giving a clear definition of what he is talking about. In the first place, scandal is a vice that is contrary to “beneficence,” which is simply doing good to someone. Beneficence is an act of charity (love), and so scandal is contrary to love. People characterized by love of God and neighbor do not scandalize others. This means that they are not the occasion for scandal, which is “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.”

Now, the main question that most of us have about this sense of  “scandal” is whether a person who causes another to stumble has done something wrong, perhaps even sinned. Thomas, like the good philosopher-theologian he is, says, “It depends.” And then he makes a distinction. (If I ever write a book about Aquinas, that will be the title: And Then He Makes a Distinction.)

The distinction he makes is between active and passive scandal. First, active scandal = an action that is sinful in itself that also leads (or could lead) another person into sin. A person who commits active scandal always sins. Not all sinful actions lead others into sin as well, but those that do are scandalous in addition to whatever other kind of sin they are (lustful, greedy, hateful, etc.).

Secondly, passive scandal = an action in which a person succumbs to a spiritual downfall. This is done by a person who “stumbleth.” It’s important to realize that by “passive,” Thomas does not mean that a person is not responsible for sinning. Quite the opposite. Sin can only come about through an act of the will. A person cannot be forced to sin. Any sin involves a choice on the part of the sinner to sin.

This distinction between active and passive scandal does not mean that they always go together. It is possible for there to be active scandal without passive (e.g., if I do something sinful in public, but no one chooses to sin after seeing it), passive without active (e.g., if I do something good, which becomes an occasion for you to envy me), or active and passive together (e.g., I sin, and you choose to sin (in part) because you witnessed my action).

On the question of “eating meat offered to idols,” Thomas says that “since it has a certain appearance of evil, and a semblance of worshipping the idol, it might occasion another man’s spiritual downfall.” Notice how careful he is in wording this: “a certain appearance,” “a semblance,” “might occasion.” But this careful wording is not to excuse someone who might eat meat offered to idols. Thomas doesn’t say this explicitly, but he seems to hold that someone who ate meat offered to idols was guilty of active scandal even if no one was thereby guilty of passive scandal. Why? Because a person is guilty of active scandal by doing either something sinful or something that appears to be sinful. In the next article, Thomas will explain more why giving the appearance of sinning is sufficient to count as scandal, and therefore sin.

We should note that eating meat offered to idols has the appearance of sin because it is closely connected with the worship of idols, which is sinful. Thomas, and the apostle Paul by extension, is not discussing situations in which a person does something morally neutral (or good) only to have another succumb to passive scandal. No. In order to qualify as an act of active scandal, a person must do something that is either a sin or closely connected with something sinful.

In later posts, I’ll take up the rest of the article on scandal and apply it to a number of related contemporary issues such as drinking alcohol, dressing modestly, and so forth.

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.

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.

Thomas Says: Why We Shouldn’t Kill Each Other (And Why Sometimes We Should)

This question really is a no-brainer. It’s wrong to kill innocent people, right? Right. On a question like this, the answer isn’t surprising, so we need to pay attention to the reason why Thomas thinks it’s wrong to kill an innocent person.

The basic distinction Thomas makes (and, remember, he always makes a distinction) is between a man considered in himself and a man considered in relation to others. If we thought about everyone simply in terms of what each person is in himself, Thomas says it would be unlawful to kill anyone because killing a person would destroy the nature that God made. What makes killing another person lawful is taking into consideration the relation that each individual bears to the community. If a person has sinned, which is a state Thomas has already considered, then it is lawful to kill them to preserve the common good. But if a person is just, then it is not lawful to kill them because such a person preserves the common good; in fact, such a person is “the chief part of the community.”

Thus, Thomas’s basic reason for saying it’s not right to kill an innocent person is that (1) such a person has done nothing to harm the common good and (2) such a person in some sense is an important part of the common good.

Since the answer to the question is plain, the objections that Thomas addresses are in some sense sophistical. One objection concerns a hypothetical judge who, being bound by the rules of judicial procedure to accept the testimony of false witnesses, condemns a man to death on the testimony of those false witnesses knowing that the condemned is innocent. What should the judge do? Thomas says: cross-examine the false witnesses as carefully as possible in order to reveal their bad motives. If that doesn’t work, send the case to a higher authority. If that doesn’t work, follow the rule of the law and condemn the innocent man—but knowing in this case that the false witnesses and not the judge have condemned the man wrongly.

If that objection doesn’t move you, try this one: If you kill an innocent person, that person goes to heaven. If you kill a guilty person, that person goes to hell. So, better to kill an innocent person, right? Wrong. You should not follow this reasoning for four reasons: (1) You should love the just man more. (2) The just man is less deserving of injury than the guilty. (3) You deprive the community of a greater good. (4) You despise God (on the basis of Luke 10:16).

If that objection doesn’t move you, perhaps the next one will touch your Kierkegaard-loving soul: What about Abraham, who was willing to kill his innocent son? Thomas will have none of Kierkegaard’s (or, really, “Johannes de silentio’s”) worrying: If Abraham had killed his innocent son, he would have done nothing wrong because he would have been following God’s command. And whatever God commands in matters of life and death is right. End of story.

I think what we see in Thomas’s reasoning about killing the innocent is a consistent dependence on the appeal to the common good. You shouldn’t kill an innocent person because that person “preserves and forwards the common good.” He does not appeal to an argument that appeals to the image of God in a person. In fact, if I understand him correctly, such an argument would conclude that we shouldn’t kill anyone. Killing the guilty is only justified by appealing to the harm they cause to the common good.

Thomas Says: Thanksgiving Edition

It shouldn’t surprise us that Thomas has written about thankfulness. There are very few topics that he did not cover. He devotes an entire question of the Summa to thankfulness. (It is part of his section on justice.) I’ll just mention a distinction—one that surprised me—that he makes in article 4 of the question on thankfulness.

The question of article 4 is whether a man is bound to repay a favor at once. At first this seemed to me like a silly question. But on reflection I can see Thomas’s point. According to Thomas, it might seem that one ought to repay a favor at once, but he quotes Seneca’s maxim that “He that hastens to repay, is animated with a sense, not of gratitude but of indebtedness.” There’s the fundamental distinction to observe: Do I react to a favor because I am thankful or simply because I am indebted.

Of course, says Thomas, we ought to be quick to repay the favor as regards the affection of our heart—that is to say, our attitude of gratefulness ought to be immediate. From Seneca again, Thomas quotes, “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” The attitude of thankfulness is primary; it is what forms and maintains character most of all.

But with respect to making repayment with an actual gift, Thomas says that we ought to wait “until such a time as will be convenient to the benefactor.” Quoting Seneca a third time, Thomas writes that “he that wishes to repay too soon, is an unwilling debtor, and an unwilling debtor is ungrateful.”

What is of interest to me in this article is the fact that a certain behavior—repaying a favor quickly—might seem wholly proper when in fact it demonstrates a lack of virtue. Simply repaying the favor is not sufficient to be grateful. One must be careful to repay the favor at the right time, in the right manner. This is what “the rectitude of virtue demands.”

I can remember making the mistake Thomas describes: A neighbor gave us an unexpected gift, and I immediately invited him over for dinner. It was an awkward moment, and I felt that I should not have sullied the neighbor’s gift with my too-quick repayment. In that case, would that I had read Thomas before offering to repay so soon.

Thus, Thomas distinguishes between acting out of gratitude and acting out of indebtedness. One test to determine which of the two is animating our action is to assess how comfortable we are in deferring repayment of the favor to a time that is appropriate for the benefactor. If we are comfortable waiting to repay, that’s a sign we’re genuinely grateful. If we are hasty to repay, we should reflect on whether we are truly grateful.

Thomas Says: It’s Wrong to Kill Yourself

After discussing questions about killing plants, animals, and sinners by private citizens, public officials, and clerics, Thomas picks up the weighty and delicate subject of suicide. His position is that “it is altogether unlawful to kill oneself.” Thomas isn’t messing around here. He usually reserves language like “altogether unlawful” for serious purposes. And this is the only place in the eight questions about killing that he uses such strong language. Furthermore, Thomas usually considers only three objections to his position. On suicide, he considers five objections.

Whenever I discuss the morality of suicide with students, two considerations usually come up: The first is that a person can do whatever he wants with his own life—it’s his life after all; the second is that a person can commit suicide to avoid something bad, pain from terminal illness, for example, or even shame. Thomas addresses each of these points, and he throws in a discussion of Samson for good measure.

Before addressing these objections, let’s get clear about Thomas’s reasons for thinking it’s altogether unlawful to kill oneself. He’s got three reasons.

First, “everything naturally loves itself.” (Note the “naturally” and the “loves.”) This means that everything naturally strives to keep itself in existence. Thus, suicide is contrary to the “inclination” of nature and to “charity whereby every man should love himself.” The person who commits suicide not only violates the natural law but also does not love himself.

Second, since every person belongs to a community (Thomas actually says “the” community, that is, (I think) the community of human beings), and every person is considered to be a part of a community, a person who commits suicide injures the community by removing a part of it.

Third, God is the giver of life, so life is subject to God’s will. Thus, anyone who kills himself sins against God by taking something that does not belong to him. I think Christians are most familiar with this third line of reasoning. I won’t discuss this anymore.

Returning to the first two reasons: There have been those who doubted whether a person has a duty to himself. C. S. Lewis wrote (somewhere) that he thought, for example, that a person (like himself) who was learning to swim had a duty to himself also to teach himself to learn to dive even though diving was frightful. Kant wrote (somewhere) that a person had a duty to himself to develop his talents, abilities, etc.

But Thomas isn’t concerned with duties to oneself. His argument is about having charity toward oneself, loving oneself. (In fact, Thomas says that we each owe the greatest love to ourselves. This is in part because the person I am best able to love is myself.) And if you love something, then you want it to continue in existence. This brings up, tangentially, the question of what a person is because of course Thomas thinks that the death of the body is not the end of the person. So it must be that I need to love myself qua embodied person. Suicide (even attempted suicide) evidences a failure to love oneself as an embodied being.

In addition to the issue of loving oneself, there is also the consideration that individuals are not autonomous. They are intrinsically members of a community, and their community makes legitimate claims on them from which they cannot extricate themselves. If I kill myself, I harm my community because I am a part of it. I cannot simply choose to not belong to a community.

Thus, Thomas rebuts the consideration that a person commits no injustice in killing himself by arguing that he does act unjustly toward God and his community, and he undercuts the consideration about injustice by stating that justice is not the only relevant virtue—we must consider charity, too.

Now to the consideration that killing oneself is not lawful even if one does it to avoid some other bad thing. In the first case, if death is the greatest evil, then it makes no sense (says Thomas) to avoid a lesser evil by bringing on a greater one. And, in general, evil may not be done that good may come. In the particular case of committing suicide in order to avoid shame, Thomas says that this action is not courageous; it’s faux courage: “a weakness of soul unable to bear penal evils.”

And what about Samson, who killed himself in bringing down the pillars? The real difficulty is not that the Old Testament records Samson’s action but that Samson is listed among the men of faith in Hebrews. Thomas says Samson must have made that glorious list because the Holy Spirit “secretly commanded” him to bring the building down on himself (and everyone else). This kind of response will come up again in Thomas’s explanation of why Abraham was a good guy even though he was ready to kill his innocent son: Abraham was obeying God. (Note that Thomas does not try to excuse Samson on double-effect grounds. (If you don’t know what double effect is, we’ll get to that in the article on killing in self-defense.))

One last point about the seriousness of suicide. I noted at the start that Thomas takes suicide very seriously. This is because in killing oneself one has no time for repentance. If a person murders another person, the murderer at least has time to repent of his sin. Not so in the case of suicide. Thus, suicide turns out to be worse than murdering another person.