Saturday, January 06, 2007

Absolute prohibitions

Daniel Hill draws my attention to a Jewish moralist's summary of moral absolutes - things one can never do under any circumstances at all - as a very short list: murder, apostasy, and one or two other things (I think). Can the Catholic tradition produce a similar, neat list?

It looks as though it should be able to. There is a healthy debate on whether lying is forbidden absolutely, or only in certain circumstances. Killing the innocent is clearly prohibited absolutely, as is apostasy. So where's the list?

The problem (if it is a problem) is that Catholic moralists seem to want every prohibition, or at least as many as possible, to be absolute. So, faced with a situation in which a certain class of actions is permissible in some circumstances, and not in others, the tendency is to define a sub-set as being forbidden in all circumstances. So, with lying, for example, we have the taxonomy of officious, jocose and malicious; the last is absolutely forbidden; the jocose lie is not forbidden at all (or at least not on pain of mortal sin), and we can go on arguing about the officious one, but it's probably absolutely forbidden too.

Similarly, to argue that in some cases (the 'starving man and the rich man's surplus') theft is permissible, turns into an argument in favour of a narrower definition of theft, with the starving man case excluded from it, which is absolutely forbidden.

Is this a good or a bad methodological tendency? Although it seems confusing, I think it is the inevitable consequence of two good things. First, it derives from an attempt to cover every case in a clear way. Jewish casuistry is equally interested in hard cases as Catholic casuistry, but is less interested (as far as I can see) in reducing the casuistical analysis to a statement of principles. (Ie to say: now we've got a set of cases where the act is wrong and a set where it is right, what exactly is the principle dividing them?) With the ultimate focus on specific morally relevant principles, rather than more general principles with a set of exceptions, you end up with more moral absolutes.

Second, the role of intention (as usual!) has a role here. The concept of intention makes it possible to produce these plausible and specific moral principles, since the intention of each kind of harm to another is something which can be absolutely forbidden. The exceptions to rules such as 'do not kill' mostly turn out to be cases in which the killing is not intended.

In dealing with non-intended harms there is, instead of an absolute prohibition, the principle of proportionality.

In conclusion, one could say (although the manualists don't talk like this) that there is just one absolute prohibition in Catholic ethics: do not intend harm. And one non-absolute restriction: do not cause foreseen and disproportionate harm. (Plus there are positive duties, such as the duty of worship and obedience to God, and the duty of aid to our neighbour.) Since the question of what is 'harm' in the necessary sense is a controversial one, it is more usual to specify the absolute restrictions as: do not intend deaths, losses of property, etc., each of which has a sister-principle limiting non-intended harms of that kind by the principle of proportionality.


Daniel Hill said...

(1) 'murder, apostasy, and one or two other things (I think)' -- the list is actually 'murder, adultery, and idolatry'.
(2) 'there is just one absolute prohibition in Catholic ethics: do not intend harm'
(a) I wonder whether this is really absolute. May one not in warfare or self-defence or judicial punishment intend harm? Indeed, may one not intend small harms (e.g. cuts and bruises) in order to prevent large harms?
(b) I wonder whether this is really the only absolute prohibition. Does idolatry necessarily involve the intention to do harm? The tradition has it (wrongly, I think) that God cannot be harmed, and so there'd be an argument from tradition that one cannot intend to harm God since anyone able to form that intention would realize its impossibility and therefore not intend it. Does the committing of adultery necessarily involve the intention of harm?
(3) 'And one non-absolute restriction: do not cause foreseen and disproportionate harm'
I wonder whether this is really non-absolute. If one knows that the harm is disproportionate surely there is an absolute ban on causing it?
(4) God can, of course, intend harm.
(5) Is deception a harm? If so, that would have an interesting bearing on the question of lying: if one told a known falsehood without intention to deceive that would probably be justifiable, but if one intended to deceive that would not be justifiable. I fear, however, that such things as camouflage, disguise, leaving lights on to deter burglars (see a previous post), would all then be ruled out as attempts to deceive, even though the tradition is, I think, inclined to rule them in.

Joseph Shaw said...

'Do not intend harm': that's a simplification, admittedly. One can certainly intend harm to the non-innocent. Aquinas explains the Sacrifice of Abraham (and God intending harm to humans) by saying that humans are never innocent, in relation to God: all being under sentence of natural death on account of Original Sin.

Another exception is 'for the benefit of the victim': cutting through healthy skin is a harm, even if it is to get at a burst appendix.

So I agree with you, Daniel: I don't want to bring in double effect to explain away all the harms inflicted in medicine, punishment and warfare.

'Don't cause disproportionate harm' is absolute? Well, in a sense it is, but it is a prohibition against harms over a certain threshold, not against actions of a certain descriptioin: unless 'causing disprortionate harm' is taken as the action-description (which is could be, I suppose).

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for this, Joseph. Could you give me the Aquinas reference, please?

Yes, I think we should take 'causing disproportionate harm' as an act-description: that way allows us the benefit of an absolute prohibition (modulo my previous reservations).

Joseph Shaw said...

Reference for what?

Daniel Hill said...

The reference for this:
Aquinas explains the Sacrifice of Abraham (and God intending harm to humans) by saying that humans are never innocent, in relation to God.

Anonymous said...

Aquinas wouldn't say that 'don't cause disproportionate harm' could be an act-description, because acts are specified by their intentions (or perhaps by their objects or ends). But for modern purposes I take the point.

Reference for Abraham and Isaac: ST Ia IIae Q.94 a. 5, objection 2 and its reply.