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.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    I personally think Thomas is onto something, but explicated from an “Eastern Orthodox” perspective on a Trinitarian anthropology, the violation of community (the Trinitarian existence) IS a primary consideration as “the image of God”. In Genesis 9 the command to Noah to kill the murderer is precisely because the image of God has been violated. We tend to think of “the image” individualistically in Western thought. In the East the “personal but communal” aspect of Trinity is core. We do not “not kill because of the image” as most modern anti-death penalty advocates will argue, we kill BECAUSE the image has been violated, and that image is one of “communion in love”. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I did an 8 part podcast series on pro-capital punishment that references Aquinas’ arguments and many others. The first podcast of the series begins here: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/stevethebuilder/capital_punishment_part_1
    the rest are sequential in the archive.

  • GaryH

    Thanks for the comment. Could you clarify something? When you say that in murder the “image has been violated,” who are you talking about? The murderer or the victim?

  • StuntMonk

    Great article. My only push back would be that the issue of man in the Image of God shouldn’t just be pushed to the side. When Yahweh spoke to Noah about instituting the death penalty for murderers, He founded that law on the fact that man is made in the Image of God.

  • StuntMonk

    Woops, didn’t read the first comment. Essentially… well… “Yeah. What he said.”

    And Gary, I would say that the phrase “the image has been violated” would refer to the victim. The murderer is the violatOR, not the violatED. To try to change this around would be to make the murderer into the victim, and would make it unjust to apply a penalty.

  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Gary and StuntMonk, Yes, the image has been violated by the murderer. The theology of the veneration of icons as explicated by St. John of Damascus and the 7th Ecumenical Council, “The honor given to the image passes to the prototype” is based on the same principle as the Noahic command: The desecration of the icon (image) of God in a human being passes to the prototype, that is, the Trinity.

  • GaryH

    I agree that Thomas thinks murder is wrong because it’s a violation of the image of God (even though Thomas does not use the phrase “image of God” in his articles on murder; he talks instead of “the nature that God has made” (article 6, respondeo)).

    But he also thinks that the murderer has in some sense violated the image of God that is in himself, too, because he has committed an unreasonable act and has departed “from the order of reason” and fallen away “from the dignity of his manhood” (article 2, reply 3). Furthermore, it is only because the murderer has renounced the moral status granted to him by the image of God in him that the state is justified in killing the murderer (if, of course, the murderer is a danger to the community). If the murderer himself were still in possession of the image of God, no one would be justified in killing him because we would still be bound to respect the nature that God made.

    Perhaps an example will help. Think of what happens to Voldemort when he murders: he disfigures/splinters his soul (i.e., the image of God).

  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Gary, Precisely. The murderer’s image too has been violated because he did not live in communion. It is not merely a violation of “the other individual”, it is a violation of the entire created order of Trinitarian communion in love of which the murderer and his victim is a part. When we sin we do not merely insult (harm) God or the offended, we insult (harm) our own selves. Broken communion is a shattering of something that involves God, self and others.

  • Pingback: Thomas Says: A Recap on Killing | Mere Orthodoxy

  • Matthew Cooper

    Many thanks for the link, Jake! I really appreciate it.

    I do tend to have more sympathy for post-mill theories than for pre-mill ones, though the position of my church is broadly a-mill. I’d be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on the subject!

    All the best,
    Matt