Once you’re done amusing yourself on this lovely Friday afternoon, give Christopher Tollefsen’s interesting argument against Terry Jones’ (the infamous Koran burning pastor) a read.

Tollefson’s basic point is that Jones is morally culpable for being lethally reckless, on grounds that he foresaw potentially deadly side-effects to his action and yet proceeded anyways:

Such side effects were foreseeable and extremely grave, yet Jones did not reck them; his actions were reckless, and lethally so. And in consequence, while he did not cause the deaths of those innocents, and while his own culpability does not mitigate the responsibility of those who did cause those deaths, he bears a not insignificant moral responsibility for those deaths.

Senator Graham is, I believe, absolutely right to wish that there were some way for Jones to be held accountable. There appears not to be, legally, however, and perhaps this is for the best: upholding and applying a law that forbade the burning of holy books might be overly intrusive, and might be in tension with constitutionally protected rights. But Jones should not be allowed to hide behind his right to free speech to shield him from moral blame, nor should he be allowed to hide behind the only apparent gap in gravity between what he did, and what was done by the rioters. Willingly to accept the risk of such great damage to innocent human life for such a meaningless bit of self-expression is a morally grave wrong, even if it is not the wrong of intentionally killing the innocent.

What I like about Tollefsen’s case is his narrowing of the forseen side-effects that we are, or are not, morally accountable for.  There’s a subtle argument going on here about the “doctrine of double effect” and when and where it applies.  Tollefsen’s suggestion is that we’re culpable for unintended negative side-effects when our intended actions are either morally wrong or not-obligated at all.

The only way through, I think, is to suggest that Jones might have forseen potential attacks on himself or even on his church, but not on totally unrelated parties.  There may be, for instance, a sort of “moral proximity” case that might suggest that the spheres in which the side-effects occurred are  so far removed from the action itself and there are so many layers between his action and theirs, that he can’t be held accountable for them.

However, whether that rejoinder is plausible is very much an open question.

(HT:  Justin)


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. Tollefson’s basic point is that Jones is morally culpable for being lethally reckless, on grounds that he foresaw potentially deadly side-effects to his action and yet proceeded anyways.

    Jones is as guilty as Theo van Gogh was, and the Dutch cartoonists were, which is to say, not at all. Tollefsen’s lame attempt at psycho-analysis is a sideshow–that would only matter if you accept the moral guilt of Jones in the first place. Jones is (intentionally or not) pointing out the folly of attempting to have our troops support a government without a prior agreement that religious toleration must be one of the conditions of our support. They have threatened to kill converts to Christianity more than once, and may yet carry out a death sentence. If we didn’t actively encourage Sharia to be the law of their land, Jones wouldn’t have a point to make.

    Here is Lincoln in his famous Cooper Union speech, where he neatly showed the sophistry of those who were trying to place blame on his party for the secession that they were planning to perpetrate unless their opponents agreed to their demands.

    “But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.”

    I know you’ll say “Oh but Jones was the actor, and if he’d done nothing then no one would have been killed.” Need I remind you that in the “Koran flushing” incident in which seven people died was perpetrated by a Muslim prisoner attempting to clog a toilet? Apparently we need thought police to tell us what will offend the sensibilities of these folks so we can keep from being murderers. At some point in time Muslims will have to abide the burning of the Koran if we are going to live in peace with them. If they never do, we never will. You can criticize Jones and say “not now,” but since few seem to grasp this basic point I can only ask you when will it be ok to demonstrate this right, without which there can be no peace.


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