Ron Paul’s Foreign Policy: Golden Rule or Relativism?

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If you move about those regions of the internets in which righteous display their moral superiority by posting sixty second video clips showing just how bad their opponents are, you have probably seen headlines lately along the lines of “Christians Boo Jesus” or “Republicans Mock Golden Rule”. Of course, one hardly needs to watch the clip, because in the dualism that is politicization, everyone already knows that they’re right and their opponents are wrong. But after the fifth or sixth iteration, I had to go ahead watch Ron Paul (who else) present his Golden-Rule based foreign policy to boos. Here’s the clip in question:

Or if, like me, you tend not to watch posted videos, here’s the money quote:

“My point is, that if another country does to us what we do to others, we aren’t going to like it very much. So I would say maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?”

Now, this sounds superficially high minded, and some people who really are high minded seem lured by it. Kyle, who has an genuine and expansive desire to understand “the other” has his dander up and says:

Last night, while listening to the latest debate, I heard the audience boo the suggestion that we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings and relations with foreign powers and people. Ares forbid we treat strangers the way we want to be treated. Woe to those who put themselves in another’s place and consider the world from his or her perspective.

He links approvingly to Robert Wright over at The Atlantic, who quotes some of the other examples of Ron Paul’s “moral imagination”, which has made him the unlikely darling of the far left:

Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans….

After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, “Why wouldn’t it be natural that they’d want a weapon? Internationally they’d be given more respect.”

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

A favorite Paul pedagogical device is to analogize foreign situations to American ones. A campaign ad promoted by a Paul-supporting super PAC begins by asking us to imagine Russian or Chinese troops in Texas. The point is that this is how our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan look to locals.

If you want to see that particular piece of imagination, here that is too:

The closing line here is actually a pretty good example of where this “imagination” breaks down, so although it’s a minor detail I’ll begin there: “The sad thing is, our foreign policy WILL change eventually, as Rome’s did, when all budgetary and monetary tricks to fund it are exhausted.”

This ties into one of our pervasive historical myths about the Roman era: That Rome was good and stable and virtuous so long as it remained a localized Republic, but that once it turned into an empire and got big, decay and debauchery soon set in and it fell. This misses out on the fact that the Roman Empire, from Augustus Caesar to Romulus Augustus, lasted some 450 years and was, for all its faults, generally more stable than the Republic had been. Moreover, it was primarily the imperial phase of Rome which provided Roman cultural to the entirety of the known world, a culture which has remained one of the foundational elements of Western Culture (and now global culture) ever since. When the Roman Empire gradually came apart, lapsing into “barbarian” successor kingdoms in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East, this is generally seen as a bad thing, not an improvement. It’s commonly called the “Dark Ages”, and although there’s some serious historical prejudice going on there, the period from 400 to 800 was indeed generally a lot dimmer than the period from 1 to 400. For whatever reason, however, libertarians of the Ron Paul persuasion seem to be on the side of collapse in regards to this type of history.

With that bit of historical perspective, let’s think a little more deeply about Ron Paul’s “moral imagination”. Looked at a little more closely, I think we’ll find that “moral equivocation” is a little more like it. Let’s try a little moral imagination of our own:

Think on the lot of the gang leader. There he is, running a great business of selling crack on the street corners, extracting protection money, and pimping out hos, when what should happen but a bunch of cops show up pointing guns at his gangbangers, knocking down doors to his crack houses, arresting his homeboys. What can you expect him to think? If the cops have guns, he’s going to want to have guns. If the cops knock down his door, he’ll want to knock down their doors. If they lock up his people, he’ll lock up their people. How can we go treating these gang members in ways that we don’t want to be treated?

Now, as the basic level, this arguably does describe the logic of the gang leader. If he wants to keep doing what he’s doing despite the pressure of law enforcement, he’s going to resort to violence and intimidation in response to what he sees as violence and intimidation aimed at him. Does that mean, however, that the solution is simply to cede ownership of swathes of large cities to gang leaders because doing otherwise would involve an escalation in mutual violence between gangs and government authorities. Well, actually, with Ron Paul, he may mean that. But for those of us who are sane, there’s a difference between the two side of this situation which this exercise in imagination fails to grasp: the gang leader is breaking the law of being destructive to the common good while the law enforcement is trying to enforce the law and protect the common good.

Is protecting the common good, occasionally by resort to force, a violation of the Golden Rule? Only if the Golden Rule is applied with complete moral relativism. Understood properly, arresting people who gun down their rival crack sellers or extract protection is money is compatible with the Golden Rule, because through their endorsement of the legal order those who enforce the law by arresting these lawbreakers also want to be arrested if they too break the law. They are enforcing the laws that all of us have chosen to live by, and in so doing we as a society are treating others as we want to be treated.

When we elide the moral context, we can make it look like enforcing any kind of justice or order is a violation of the Golden Rule, but as the above example shows, this is clearly not the case.

Having established this basic principle, it now remains to address Ron Paul’s more specific points. After all, it might be that police enforcing the law against gang members is perfectly legitimate, but does that principle apply to the US having military bases in foreign countries, or to trying to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Aren’t all countries, at least, basically equal and deserving of equal rights?

Let’s think about Ron Paul’s logic a bit here.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

Well, yes. It is logical for Iranian leaders to think this way. They’re maintaining a moderately brutal dictatorship that many of their own people would like to see replaced with another form of government, and they’re trying to exert greater power in the region after being moderately successful in fighting a low level proxy war against the US in the Shiite regions of Iraq. The other regional powers are Turkey and Israel, both of which have nuclear weapons, and if they could get their own nuclear weapons they would insulate themselves from outside attack (as North Korea has by acquiring nukes) while perhaps buying themselves some time from their own people if regional domination wins them benefits which can be shared around at home.

But what all that internal logic leaves aside is: Does that mean that we, as an outside power, should simply shrug and not mind if they acquire nukes with these aims?

After all, isn’t it a generally good thing that Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist dictatorship fell (as the citizens of the other Baathist dictatorship in the region, Syria, are dying in large numbers to achieve in their own country) and that Qaddafi’s oppressive regime has also fallen? Isn’t it generally a bad thing that the neo-Stalinist regime in North Korea has won added staying power (and the ability to continue killing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their own citizens every year through oppression and starvation) through acquiring nuclear weapons? Not to mention that it may yet turn out to be a very bad thing for some of North Korea’s neighbors if the regime goes unstable and actually does launch nukes at South Korea or Japan?

Moral imagination can help us understand that many in the Soviet Union of the ’30s really were convinced that “wreckers” were threatening the socialist paradise and needed to be stopped, that many in Wilhelmine Germany really did think that they needed to start a European war before Russia overtook them in economic and military power, and that many in the ’30s really did think that “Judeo-Bolshevism” was the greatest threat to their freedom. It can also help us understand that which side of a war someone fights on (and what someone believes about the purpose of a war) often has a lot more to do with where that person was born than with any kind of cool consideration of the issues at stake.

But it does not mean that none of these issues matter, and that there is not a right and a wrong side to a dispute. (Or in the gray tones of the real world: a better and a worse side.) It’s all very well to ask how people would feel if there were a Chinese or Russian military base in Texas. However, it would be most fruitful to ask people in Tibet whether they’d rather have an American military base in the area, that behave roughly the way the US military bases in Japan and South Korea do, or if they’d rather stick with the way the Chinese occupation treats them. Openmindedness is somewhat fetishized in our relativistic society, but the fact of the matter is that being “occupied” by the US is generally a much more healthy experience than being occupied by the Chinese or the Russians. This by no means should be taken to mean that the US never does anything wrong while acting as the world’s policeman, but when you look at the other folks lining up to be world or regional policemen, it looks like a pretty attractive alternative.

The Christian approach is not found in pretending that there is no difference between viewpoints in disputes between nations, but in realizing that even when we are locked in combat with “the other”, we must recall his humanity. C. S. Lewis, I believe, staked out the true Christian viewpoint on such issues when he said in Mere Christianity:

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.

I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever.

More to explorer

Bob Hope and the Mayflower Compact

Under the Julian Calendar in effect at the time, the Mayflower Compact was signed on November 11, 1620.  Under the Gregorian Calendar


  1. If Ron Paul’s foreign policy and spending priorities were enacted (which is, perhaps appropriately given his other policy stands, a pipe dream) it would pretty quickly not be the case that no other military in the world could take away our freedoms — much less other people’s freedoms. We too easily forget the advantages that come to us and others as a result of living in a unipolar world.

    That doesn’t mean that we should be quick to dismiss our freedoms at home, but it does underline the basic insanity of Ron Paul’s non-interventionalism and isolationism.

  2. WFB, Jr. on the problem I have with Paul’s thinking:

    “… to say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”

    ~ William F. Buckley

  3. Darwin, a major kudos to you for ending with C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary statement:

    I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever.

    The dualism that inhabits Lewis’ theology is nowhere more stark than here. The interior life and the exterior life have been entirely divided. Our interior beliefs (“man lives forever”) do not modify our external acts: “one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him.” This kind of disconnect between belief and act poses a major threat to the Gospel: it turns grace into a program for pagan virtue training.

    If we believe that man lives forever, if we truly believe this, then everything changes. If we believe that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, then everything changes. If we believe that mercy triumphs over sin, then everything — everything inside us and outside us, from every thought to every act — changes.

    Even national policies related to security changes.

    While I thank Ron Paul for bringing scripture into the national debate, the heart of the Gospel is not the Golden Rule, but rather the cross and the resurrection. The cross and resurrection, presents us with an entirely new way of facing evil in this world. A national security policy based upon an invincible trust in Christ’s death, life, and love is what the Gospel calls for.

  4. Nate,

    I don’t think that Lewis is being particularly dualistic here. Rather, he’s seeing how the human person, as an integrated person, is not confined by the exigencies of the world in which he finds himself — exigencies which may place him at odds with his fellow men, whether through his fault or his unknowing. To quote that second bit at greater length:

    I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bead, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

    I admit that this means loving people who have nothing loveable about them. But then, has oneself anything loveable about it?

    Now, I suppose one can take our immortality one of two ways. One can either say that because we are immortal, and God will judge each one of us in his infinite knowledge and mercy, that when we are forced to kill in order to protect the innocent and the common good, we do not thus condemn the person killed to non-existence or to perdition. Or one can say that because we are immortal, it isn’t worth using violence in order to protect the innocent or the common good since, after all, there are worse things than being killed or having all your possessions destroyed.

    It seems to me that Lewis is saying the former, while you are implicitly arguing the latter. The Church has had members who have gone both ways, but if one actually looks at the doctrines of the Church, it pretty much comes down on the former side. While the Church recognizes the heroic nature of self-sacrificing non-violence, it also states that it is the duty of those in authority to preserve the common good and protect the innocent, and it acknowledges that this sometimes requires the use of force. Indeed, the catechism states that defending one’s country in the armed forces (as Lewis references having done in WW1) is at times an obligation.

  5. Ron Paul’s foreign policy mindset is informed entirely by notions of moral equivalence. Nothing else can explain his analogizing of Osama bin Laden to a Chinese dissident here in the U.S.

    I’m starting to have flashbacks to the arguments of the anti-anti-communists of the 1980s. The only difference is that these days, they call themselves libertarians instead of liberals.

  6. Bravo Darwin! More thoughts this evening after I wade through 20 return calls to clients, dictation, and a meeting with clients. Spending most of the day in court wreaks havoc on a lawyer’s schedule!

  7. Hold on, Mike, I could swear that one of the doyens of the Catholic blogsphere established that pushing old ladies is intrinsically evil, in which case saying that it’s or wrong right depending on whether you’re pushing them in front of the bus or away from the bus is just so much consequentialism.

  8. Darwin, double kudos for further quoting Lewis. I’d forgotten that he’d double-downed (it’s been years since I read Mere Christianity).

    We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.

    If this isn’t dualism — dividing the body from the soul, the thought from the act — I don’t know what is. He might have well as said, “We may murder millions of babies if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.” The passionless extermination of the unborn may not be accompanied by passionate feelings of hate, but it is no less an act of hate and a sign of a hateful heart.

    Hate isn’t a disembodied emotion with no connection to our external acts. Neither is faith, hope, or love. Mother Theresa spent the last forty years of her life without any emotional conviction in God’s existence or love. Nevertheless, her life demonstrated a heart of immense faith.

    Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth
    — 1 Jn 3:18

    If faith and love are demonstrated by our acts, then so too hatred.

  9. To be a little more academic, the whole doctrine of double-effect has immense applicability to the idea of killing without hatred. It is possible to kill without hatred only if our intention is not to kill.

  10. Nate,

    No, you’re weirdly twisting Lewis’ argument and inserting assumptions of your own which neither he nor the Church shares with you.

    First off, you’re inserting the assumption that the act of killing necessarily involves hate, and thus that if one acts in a way one knows will cause death (to go with Lewis’ example: firing a rifle at a soldier charging at you across the no man’s land) that one is performing an act that necessarily is connected with hate. However, the Church has clearly taught that the use of lethal force in order to protect oneself, the innocent and the common good is, at time, not only morally acceptable but a duty.

    Next, you take the argument as if Lewis is saying that the only reason killing is every wrong is if you hate:

    He might have well as said, “We may murder millions of babies if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.” The passionless extermination of the unborn may not be accompanied by passionate feelings of hate, but it is no less an act of hate and a sign of a hateful heart.

    If Lewis had said that, he would clearly be wrong. But what Lewis is objecting to is the error (which you seem to be making) that killing is necessarily and always an evil, that it is never just. Abortion is always an evil, not matter what emotions one is feeling (and surely you realize that Lewis is not talking about the emotion of hate but rather hate in the theological sense: that act of the will of wishing another person ill) because abortion is the killing of an innocent person. Killing in self defense or in defense of another, etc. is not in and of itself an unjust act. The Church recognizes and teaches this, even if you disagree with the Church in that regard.

    Finally, you misunderstand the concept of double effect:

    To be a little more academic, the whole doctrine of double-effect has immense applicability to the idea of killing without hatred. It is possible to kill without hatred only if our intention is not to kill.

    You need to be more careful in your use of the world “intention” here. In double effect as regards to killing, your “object” cannot be to kill. So, for instance, if Lewis is standing on the firing step and a German soldier is charging towards him, Lewis may shoot at the soldier in order to stop the soldier from attacking him. If the soldier suddenly drops his rifle and puts his hands up, Lewis may not shoot him, because the object to stopping the attack has already been achieved. However, that doesn’t mean that when Lewis fires his rifle at the oncoming soldier he needs to be thinking, “Well, gee, I’m shooting a rifle at him, but really, I have no idea if this will kill him.” Not having killing as your object is not the same as ignorance of the likely effects of one’s action. The phrase is “forseen but not intended”, as in, you know it will happen but it is not your object in performing the action.

    But since you’re enjoying the Lewis quotes so much, here’s one from slightly before (this is all from Chapter 17: Forgiveness) that should blow the modern mind:

    For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.

    The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad ass it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

    Now a step further. Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment – even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I’ still think so now that we are at peace. It is no good quoting ‘Thou shaft not kill.’ There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when He met a Roman sergeant-major- what they called a centurion. The idea of the knight – the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause is one of the great Christian ideas. War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken, What I cannot understand is this sort of semi-pacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage – a kind of gaiety and whole-heartedness.

  11. “The sad thing is, our foreign policy WILL change eventually, as Rome’s did, when all budgetary and monetary tricks to fund it are exhausted.”

    The idea that the Roman Empire fell because it was a hugely expansionist power is completely falacious. The Empire stopped expanding under the first emperor Augustus just before the time of Christ. The only large scale exceptions to this were the conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in the first century, and of Dacia in modern day Rumania in the second century, which was abandoned by the Romans in the third century. Rome under the Republic was ruthlessly expansionist; under the Empire it was almost always in a defensive mode.

    Rome fell in the West for a multitude of reasons, but one of the primary ones was the hiring of barbarian mercenaries, and an ever lessening willingness by citizens of the Empire to enlist in the Roman military. The barbarian mercenaries eventually held all the real power in the empire in the West and often made common cause with the tribes which made successful invasions in the fifth century. Frequent Roman civil wars also weakened the Empire, but the main reason for the fall of the Empire in the West is that the Empire ceded military supremacy to their adversaries.

  12. Darwin, a lot of these words are slippery, including both ‘intention’ and ‘object’. By intention, I mean ‘object of the will’ rather than motive. I’m grateful for your impersonal use of logic with these questions, and always have been. I think, however, that you’ve misunderstood double-effect theory.

    The phrase ‘object of the will’ does not refer to the motive for an act, although the simple word ‘object’ might. I think that’s where you’ve made a mistake.

    For example, someone might say, “the object of going to school is to become educated”. One could never say that about the ‘object of the will’. The object of the will of going to school is much more discrete, much more direct. It is getting in the car. It is driving. It is getting out of the car. It is sitting. It is listening to the teacher. It is reading the book. Those are all ‘objects of the will’ — deliberate acts. These are all ‘objects’ chosen by the will.

    Lewis may shoot at the soldier in order to stop the soldier from attacking him. If the soldier suddenly drops his rifle and puts his hands up, Lewis may not shoot him, because the object to stopping the attack has already been achieved. (my emphasis)

    I think this quote shows that you are using ‘object’ in terms of motive rather than deliberate choice. Think of ‘object’ less in terms of subjective reasoning, and more in terms of objective outcome. The object of the will of Lewis shooting the Nazi is, well, aiming the gun, squeezing the trigger, putting a bullet in the Nazi’s chest, twice preferably. The precise ‘object’ is a bullet-wounded Nazi.

    If we can agree on these points, I’d love to press forward with the discussion.

  13. I should clarify even further (since we’re getting all philosophical), that “object of the will” should really be the “immediate object of the will”.

  14. Nate,

    I similarly appreciate your calm and reasonable discussion. 🙂

    I agree that the terms being used are slippery, and probably doubly so as different philosophical and theological schools use the same terms differently. Additionally, I should confess right up front that as an interested amateur who’s training is in classics rather than either theology or philosophy, I am probably additionally muddying the waters in that my experience in reading Aquinas, Aristotle and Plato is in “getting the sense” of the original Latin or Greek, and so I’m probably doubly imprecise in the “somewhere between the various definitions in the dictionary” kind of way that language folks tend to be.

    All that said, maybe it’s best if we take a look at where Aquinas lays out the principle of double effect in Summa Theologica Q64, Art. 7:

    I answer that, 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, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). 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. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it 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. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

    From this I’d take a couple things:

    1) Aquinas does not think that one actually needs to appeal to double effect in order to justify a soldier killing another soldier in combat, he sees that as springing from the right of authority (the state’s) to protect the common good.

    2) That aside, in the case of someone using lethal force in self defense, Aquinas seems to be talking about one’s “intention” as being what I’d call the “end of one’s actions”, as in, that for which purpose one acts. This is not the same as “motive”, exactly, but it is more a matter of purpose, I think, than the examples you give. I’d say that in our example Aquinas is saying you can “shoot to stop” in self defense, which in practical terms is often the same as “shoot to kill”, but you may not in fact “shoot to kill”. The big difference, from a practical point of view would be when you stop. If you’re shooting to stop, you stop shooting when your assailant stops attacking. If you’re shooting to kill, you keep on till you know he’s dead. (Again, the practical difference here in many situations may be nill.)

    Anyway. Hopefully that’s enough to move the discussion forward a step. As I dig into this, I find myself thinking about writing a post specifically on double effect, which is a model that I’ve had mixed feelings over in the past — though I’d have to think if I’d still address the topic in the same way I did then.

    (Also, just as a historical side note: Lewis never shot at a Nazi. He fought as an infantry officer in World War One, in the trenches of the Somme, but was too old to be called to serve in WW2.)

  15. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Darwin!

    1) You’re absolute right. It is one of the most interesting loopholes in Catholic doctrine that I have ever found. While Aquinas and others give plenty of justification for double-effect defense when it comes to civilians, there is a real lack of justification when it comes to soldiers and police. What is stranger is that the modern Catechism doesn’t address the issue at all, and in fact seems to apply double-effect reasoning to soldiers. There’s a pretty good scholarly article about this that I read years ago, about how if double-effect reasoning is applied to soldiers (as the Church’s teachings seem to be headed), then war would have to be fought on very different terms. Unfortunately, I can’t find this article.

    2) It’s my understanding that Aquinas uses the word ‘intention’ with a wide variety of meanings, but I agree that Aquinas doesn’t seem to be using it in the sense that double-effect doctrine currently does. But because I’m not that familiar with Aquinas’ vocabulary, or with Latin, I’m not going to try to get much deeper into his thought.

    Lewis makes an interesting point:

    There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder.

    The funny thing is that if you try to define what murder is, you end up with “unjust killing”, and if you try to define what is unjust, you end up with . . . something pretty close to what the Catechism says: “The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful.”

    And unfortunately, there’s where that slippery word comes in again: ‘intention’. Intention could mean, on one very far end of the spectrum, motive, and on the other very far end of the spectrum, the immediate object of the will. But in double-effect reasoning, what counts is both: both the immediate object of the will and the motive must be good or neutral.

    Veritatis Splendor makes this point:

    78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”

  16. Darwin,
    I was threatened by a criminal a year ago with gun retaliation after I defeated him in a fight after he fled my secondary inherited home in an edgy neighborhood…(a house I’m working on to sell)… which he had broken into (I arrived home to hear him slam the side door). My instincts were correct in chasing him to ambush him after hearing the door slam because he had stolen inter alia….a weapon….which I retrieved. In the NY harbor area, that weapon would have been sold by him and killed someone someday. I pray for his salvation and keep a tactical shotgun ready to kill him if he carries out his threat. Why don’t I plan to wound him? One’s goal is to stop the trigger finger and you do that by death only unless you can shoot a man’s hand off which is a
    delusional goal where there is movement….if you wound him, he can still kill you or paralyze you.
    Aquinas passage seems to imply that only soldiers can self defend. But the modern states depute civilians through gun licenses to protect themselves in their homes in my area….outside the home in many states.
    The gospel is fascinating in that repeatedly, disciples of Christ are found to be carrying machaira…war swords….both prior to Gethsemane and Peter at Gethsemane. Christ rebukes Peter for “living by the sword” in his Gethsemane choice to assault a temple soldier….but Christ nowhere stops any of them from what Pennsylvanians call….open carry. Christ’s good Samaritan parable is about a mugging and if you let muggers damage your body pre modern surgery, you may well be lame and unable to work for life. Hence it strikes me that Chrst therefore let them carry machaira….for opposing muggers….but not for attacking authorities as Peter did at Gethsemane.

  17. I know less than nothing about philosophy and theology.

    Here’s what I see. Jesus advised, “Sell your coat and buy a sword.” He taught the man who sliced the temple guard’s ear if he lived by the sword he would perish by the sword. OTOH, Jesus taught if you call your brother “fool”, you will be subject to judgment and fiery gehenna. See the difference?

    St. Bernard de Calairvaux’s endorsement of the Templars contains concepts (evil may be violently confronted) that have been largely discarded by humanists and liberals.

    St. John the Baptist taught repentance, charity and justice, not pacifism or tax evasion, he did not tell the soldier to desert or the tax collector to quit.

  18. Don,

    The more I think about it, there’s probably some really interesting historical analysis to be done over this whole myth that “first the Republic was replaced the by Empire, then it got too big and it got degenerate under Caligula and Nero, and next thing you know the whole thing fell apart and Rome fell.” It gets caught up in popular culture where you see things like Marcus Aurelius being made out as a secret republican in Gladiator.

    My instinct would be that it crept in in the English speaking world via the Whig political philosophers who took Polybius as guide on how to set up a balanced republic that would last. From there it’s easy to root for the Republic and to see its fall as the “beginning of the end”.

    Is this something that springs from Gibbon? (Whom I confess I’ve never read, though I know you have.)

  19. It is fascinating Darwin how this myth of imperial overstretch has been imprinted on the public mind. For generations movies have shown Roman decadent early emperors as you point out, and I agree that people believe that this demonstrates how rotten Rome was, and that it was doomed to fall. Yeah, four centuries later! Most people, including quite a few people with intellectual pretensions, know very little about Roman history, which is a complicated and vast topic that stretches over a thousand years of history. Roman history is usually used as a handy vehicle when axes are ground in contemporary political conflicts, and it is normally a safe vehicle because so many people are simply bone ignorant on the subject.

    Gibbon is not responsible for this. He considered the fall of the Empire to be caused by the triumph of Christianity and Barbarism. He was nonsensical as to the first ground, but on stronger footing as to the second. Roman elites in the fourth and fifth centuries began aping barbarian fashions and contrasting the “honest barbarians” with their increasingly decadent world. The Empire in the West suffered a crisis of confidence among their elites and in that limited sense Gibbon was on to something.

    My favorite living historian, Victor Davis Hanson has summed up that line of argument well:

    “The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing. Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended. Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared.”

  20. Nate,

    I feel like part of the issue here is that Aquinas and I (and, I would argue, the weight of Church history and doctrine) are reasoning from the assumption that killing in just war and self defense are murder (not unjust killing) and working back from there to figure out why, while you’re working from the assumption that all killing is unjust and looking to see if there are any exceptions.

    Thus, you say:

    The funny thing is that if you try to define what murder is, you end up with “unjust killing”, and if you try to define what is unjust, you end up with . . . something pretty close to what the Catechism says: “The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful.”

    And my immediate response would be, “Yes, but the catechism immediately goes on to explain that using lethal force in a just war, in self defense and even at times in capital punishment is not unjust killing.” I see the short bit you quote as necessarily incomplete because it hasn’t yet got into the boundaries to the basic principle that is being stated, while you seem to be assuming that this is a moment of clarity in which the full truth is stated before rationalizations set in.

    On 1) I think the “loophole” actually comes from the Church historically taking the importance of the “common good” as being so great that it outweighs the needs (including the life) of the individual. In our more individualistic age, people often go the opposite direction and hold that person defense is perhaps permissible, but that the polis or civitas is not worth taking life to defend or enforce. (Puts a whole new spin on that emphasis on “common good” which the Catholic left is usually so comfortable with.) This seems exemplified by the Augustine quotes that Aquinas uses:

    Objection 1. It would seem that nobody may lawfully kill a man in self-defense. For Augustine says to Publicola (Ep. xlvii): “I do not agree with the opinion that one may kill a man lest one be killed by him; unless one be a soldier, exercise a public office, so that one does it not for oneself but for others, having the power to do so, provided it be in keeping with one’s person.” Now he who kills a man in self-defense, kills him lest he be killed by him. Therefore this would seem to be unlawful.

    Objection 2. Further, he says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): “How are they free from sin in sight of Divine providence, who are guilty of taking a man’s life for the sake of these contemptible things?” Now among contemptible things he reckons “those which men may forfeit unwillingly,” as appears from the context (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): and the chief of these is the life of the body. Therefore it is unlawful for any man to take another’s life for the sake of the life of his own body.

    On 2) I guess now I’m trying to understand how you’re using “intention” or “object of the will” in relation to double effect. In the more modern summaries that I’d read, it seemed to me that the idea was that you have an “intention” or “end” and an action that you’re going to perform to achieve that end. The action has two effects, one intended, the other foreseen but not intended. So in one example I’ve read before: Your end is to blow up an enemy missile installation via an action: a missile precision strike. You foresee that because the installation was put in an ordinary neighborhood, you may well accidentally kill innocent civilians nearby, but this is not your intention, it’s a foreseen effect of acheiving the effect you intent: to blow up the missile site. The remaining question is one of proportion: Are you using no more force than is necessary to achieve your end, and is the end itself sufficiently worthy to justify the unintended effects. The thing you can’t do (and this is where people often slip up) is to provide a “motive” such as “I want to end the war quicker” and to achieve that pick a means “kill ten million civilians via a biologically engineered plague” which you think will achieve that motive, because in that case there are not two effects, there’s just one: kill ten million people. (explained with my typical lack of precision vocabulary)

  21. Bill,

    I’m rapidly running out of time for my morning’s blogging, but just to be clear: Aquinas actually is supporting the idea that the individual person has the right (and at times duty) to use lethal force in self defense or for the common good. He’s arguing against another interpretation which was apparently around that the time that only those acting directly on behalf of the state could use lethal force.

    One’s goal is to stop the trigger finger and you do that by death only unless you can shoot a man’s hand off which is a delusional goal where there is movement….if you wound him, he can still kill you or paralyze you.

    I guess the thing I’d point out is that while you shouldn’t shoot at anyone you’re not willing to kill (otherwise, why are you shooting a gun at them?) most shootings aren’t fatal. I think people are always kidding themselves when the imagine every police officer, soldier or citizen should be some kind of Annie Oakley shooting guns out of hands or shooting people in the knee, etc. At the same time, most gun wounds aren’t fatal. The moral (if unprecise) point would be: Once the person is no longer a threat to you, you can’t shoot him.

  22. Darwin
    I agree with your final idea….when he is no longer a threat, you can’t shoot him. Shotshells to the chest at close range in a house would have lethality rates far above 9mm fights on the street though. In the dark or half dark of flashlights, one can not easily determine an enemy’s being no longer a threat….ergo one may well keep shooting if one has not seen that man’s gun drop from his hand. Scripture thus in the ancient Jewish context allowed killing a night intruder and forbade killing a daytime intruder if he could be subdued (intruders then didn’t have glocks).

    Exd.22:1 “If a thief is found breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him;
    Exd 22:2 but if the sun has risen upon him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.”

  23. The moral object of an act is a slippery critter. One can begin with the thought of Martin Rhonheimer particularly in regards to Summa Theologica II q. 64, a. 7. As we see, Aquinas allows for self-defense even if the result is the death of the aggressor. Here he notes that an act can have two effects. One can kill a person who is attacking in order to defend oneself. But what is the effect of the act that determines the moral quality – the killing or the defense? Again Rhonheimer states that it is what is intended by the actor. It is that which is intended and not which is besides the intention (praeter intentionem). Acts, as noted, are not merely a physical process but rather they “…take their moral species according to what is intended and not according to what is besides the intention.” But self-defense is not an exception to the prohibition of killing as Aquinas notes that excessive force should not be used. The death of the aggressor cannot be intended and if it is then the act is immoral. Thus there is no weighing of the good of one’s life versus that of the attacker in this analysis. For Aquinas, the act solely consists in what is intended, which is the defense of one’s own life. What is “indirect” is the physical effect of killing. But this is non-intended and as such is purely a physical effect from a moral perspective. There are not two moral acts of killing and defense but only a physical act with a specific moral intent – defense. The killing is praeter intentionem even if it occurs as the “…immediate effect of the action.” Thus the physical event is no longer the object of the action but an accidental event. There is thus no “direct” or “indirect” as in PDE but only intended and what is praeter intentionem. Human acts thus should not be judged on the basis of the physical causality of the act but on what the person acting wills as the immediate end of the act.

    This is not to argue that resolving vital conflicts for Rhonheimer is a matter of self-defense. Rather, he uses this thought of Aquinas as the basis for his understanding of the moral object of the act that holds for his subsequent analysis in vital conflicts. That is, any moral analysis must be directed towards “…what is actually willed, on the level of means and end, in a concrete action.” The analysis for Rhonheimer thus becomes not whether something was done physically “directly” or “indirectly.” In self-defense, the defense comes directly from the physical killing of the aggressor. The good comes from the killing. But this is only in physical terms – an indirect willingness. This physical act is of the genus naturae. What is intended is the act of stopping the aggressor. In other terms, a direct killing is not merely a physical end of an act. Rather, directness is what is chosen as a means to an end. It is not the physical act itself that determines the moral object, but the intention of the actor. The object of the action is always conceived of as the object of the will informed by the judgment of practical reason. As a result, what occurs as a physical consequence of what is directly willed is not formative of the morality of the act. Thus, in an analogous fashion, one can consider that reason determines the species of an act as the form determines the species of natural objects. That is, reason is to the moral object as form is to matter. It is reason that determines the species of the moral object. This is of the genus moris.

    This is all of course only true if Rhonheimer’s understanding of the autonomy of practical intellect from the speculative intellect holds. If not, then we have to consider that the physical act has some bearing on the moral object.

    Obtuse enough?

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