Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lying and killing

It initially seems to be a strange combination of views that (a) killing in defense of the innocent is sometimes permissible, but (b) lying is never permissible, not even in defense of the innocent. Yet that is the predominant view in the Christian tradition. Does this mean that truth is more valuable than life? That doesn't sound right, at least not in general.

I want to try a very speculative solution to this paradox, one I don't want to fully endorse as it raises some further problems. Thomas Aquinas has an interesting position on the lethal defense of the innocent: only officers of the state are permitted to kill intentionally, while private citizens may use defensive means that they foresee could be lethal only if they don't intend death.

Why the difference? Well, here is my crazy thought: perhaps all instances of permissible intentionally lethal defense of the innocent are effectively instances of the death penalty. In emergency situations, where there is an imminent threat to innocents, the state authorizes its officers to execute aggressors on the spot, without the usual legal safeguards. Every instance of permissible killing in a just war is an execution--we just don't call it that, because the emergency context makes very different procedures appropriate. Note, further, that as we learn from John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae, the death penalty is only permissible when there are no other means to the defense of society. Thus the intentionally lethal means to the defense of the innocent can only be deployed as a last resort. That is why, say, prisoners of war are not killed--there is no longer a need for an emergency execution once they are disarmed.

Suppose that this eccentric theory of lethal police and military action is correct. Then it is easy to see why there is a distinction between intentional killing and lying. Permissible intentional killing is an act of justice, an imposition of a just penalty on an aggressor. If we add Boethian idea that it is an intrinsic benefit to one to have justice done to one, then the aggressor is directly benefited by being punished. But even without that idea, the distinction between a defensive act of justice and a merely defensive act seems significant. There is a fine Kantian thought that just punishment constitutes a showing of respect to the person being punished; but a lie is innately disrespectful to the rationality of the person lied to.

Still, the puzzle remains. Why is it that the greater harm of death is appropriate punishment while the lesser harm of being lied to is not? But not every harm is appropriate as a punishment, and sometimes a lesser harm is inappropriate as punishment while a greater is appropriate. Sometimes, this is for reasons of dignity. Thus, it is a lesser harm to lose one's arms than to lose one's life, but judicial amputation is barbaric and contrary to the dignity of the criminal (it is hard to fully explain this intuitive judgment). Sometimes, the lesser harm just wouldn't fit the crime, or maybe ven any crime. Suppose a politician misused her office. Public infamy could be fitting punishment. But while the harm to reputation is greater in public infamy than in gossip, it just wouldn't be a fitting punishment to have officers of the court gossip about the politician behind her back. In fact, being gossiped about simply doesn't seem to be the right sort of harm to be a punishment--maybe it is the essential isolation of it from the consciousness of the person being gossiped about that makes it be inappropriate. I have the intuition that being lied to is pretty much like that--it is essentially isolated from the consciousness of the person being lied to (it's not a lie if they tell you they're lying to you!), and it just doesn't seem the right kind of harm to be a punishment.

The difficulty with this account is that modeling intentionally lethal police and military action as a form of the death penalty suffers from serious problems. The main one is that we have good reason to think that many enemy soldiers, even if their side is opposed to justice, are likely to be non-culpable, because they are likely to be ignorant of the fact that their side is opposed to justice. Perhaps, though, in an emergency situation--and a war is always an emergency--the evidential standards can be much lower, and so we don't need to examine culpability. Another problem is that this account will not allow the police to engage in intentionally lethal action against a clearly insane attacker. But perhaps that's the right conclusion.


Angra Mainyu said...


I think the objection (and/or some related ones) you raise is decisive, for (among others) the following reason: a punishment is just only if it's deserved. The theory you suggest holds that permissible intentional killing is an act of justice, yet there would be plenty of intentional killings that are not acts of justice, and furthermore, the people doing the killings do not have the belief (or should not have it the belief) that the people they intend to kill deserve to be executed.

I don't think that saying that the standards are lowered changes things. They may be lowered for killing, but not for the belief that the person deserves punishment.

A related objection is that in many cases, when people intend to kill in a justified manner, they actually do not intend to kill as a means of punishing the people they target, and so those are not cases of punishment.

Another related objection can be based on the following more general principle:

GP: For all A and B, if A and B are persons, and A does not believe and should not believe that B deserves to suffer S, then A has a moral obligation not to attempt to inflict S on B as a means of punishing B.

That principle seems plausible to me (though I don't think a general principle necessary or as strong as the intuitions in individual cases).

Regarding the Kantian thought, I don't believe it's true. But here's a thought in a similar vein: imposing a punishment that a person does not deserve while the punisher knows that the target does not deserve it, is disrespectful to the person punished.

Here's another difficulty: with modern firearms, children can and often are capable of easily killing adults. Suppose some evil group launches a strike carried out by hundreds of child soldiers, all of them between 9 and 12. There is no way to stop the attack other than by lethal force. Should the defending army allow the attackers to overrun them, let the evil group take over, commit genocide perhaps, etc.?

Heath White said...

This is not to your main point, but....

I have always been puzzled by the Thomist idea that intentional killings are only authorized for officers of the state; everyone else has to foresee-without-intending death. The oddity is that this only makes sense for a relatively sophisticated polity; a lot of people throughout history have not lived under a state, or in conditions where there were no reliably available officers of the state. I think the fact that American law developed partly in a frontier context (hence no available officers of the state) has something to do with why our rules about self-defense do not line up with European ones.

You might approach it like this, though. Without a state, the lex talionis rules: people avenge the deaths of their loved ones privately, and they defend themselves as needed. The creation of a strong central state essentially nationalizes the protective and retributive functions; in those conditions, only the state should be doing any killing. But in non-state situations--construed as any case where there is no actual state control in the immediate situation (e.g. being lethally attacked, in warfare, on a frontier or disputed area, etc.) the lex talionis is back in force, and the people on the scene have the rights which we have otherwise delegated to the state.

Brandon said...

The puzzle seems to arise only due to a structural mistake; it is mislocating the analogy. Lying and killing in defense of the innocent are not relevantly parallel; the obvious parallel is not between these but between deceiving in defense of the innocent and killing in defense of the innocent (which in the Christian tradition are both considered permissible under appropriate conditions) and between lying and murder (which in the Christian tradition are both considered impermissible under all conditions).

I also don't think (related to the issue raised by Heath) that it's quite correct to say that for Aquinas only authorized officers of the state can authorize intentional killing -- it's not exactly wrong, but you have to take it 'authorized officer of the state' to mean 'someone who is in charge of taking care of common good, in a matter in which common good is threatened'. The state's authority is not fundamental in Aquinas; it arises out of the authority shared by the members of the community. Nothing in Aquinas would prevent, for instance, something like the medieval Icelandic system, in which everyone had authority to enforce the most important laws; in such a system everyone would count as an 'authorized officer of the state'. (Njal's Saga shows why someone might think the disadvantages of doing things that way are pretty severe; but it still had all the conditions that Aquinas mentions on the subject.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe it's reasonable to assume that people are responsible for what they are doing, absent specific evidence to the contrary.
The child case might constitute such specific evidence. I think it's reasonable to say that intentionally lethal action cannot be taken against children too young to be responsible. Nonetheless, one could take nonintentionally lethal action, much as Aquinas says a private citizen can in self-defense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a disanalogy: What defines murder as a species of intentional killing is a moral feature, that the act is unjust in the relevant way. But lying is defined in entirely nonmoral terms, as an assertion not reflecting the speaker's mind.

Your point about officers of the state seems correct.

I've wondered whether US laws authorizing killing in self defense by private citizens don't effectively make the private citizen into an officer.

Angra Mainyu said...


I agree that in general it's reasonable to assume that people are responsible for what they are doing, but absent specific evidence, it would not be reasonable to assume that they deserve to be executed for what they're doing, and I would say that one should not execute a person for what they're doing (i.e., as a punishment) if one does not have beyond a reasonable doubt evidence that they deserve such punishment.
In war, enemy combatants are usually responsible for their actions, but most of them do not deserve to be executed for them. In fact, I would say most of them do not deserve to be punished at all just to be fighting a war for their country. Generally speaking, it's not immoral to join a country's armed forces, or to follow the order to fight against enemy soldiers (absent specific reasons why it would be immoral).

In re: child soldiers, some of them might be old enough to be guilty, but their guilt is probably diminished to that execution would be too much. Others may well be too young as you say. There may well not be a way to stop them other than firing on them with lethal weapons (i.e., to kill them). If the non-intentionally lethal action avenue works, then why not extend it to the general case of war?
It seems to me it would resolve the problem a lot better than the punishment option: it would always be immoral to take intentionally lethal action in war, but non-intentionally lethal action would be okay, and that would cover using lethal weapons but somehow not intended to kill.
Personally, I don't think this is the solution in the general case: the use of weapons designed to kill, which normally kill, in ways in which one could expect would kill the target seems to be pretty much an intent to kill. Yet, that would be needed in many circumstances to defeat forces composed entirely or primarily of children.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I think the "beyond reasonable doubt" criterion may be too stringent in emergency situations.

2. "pretty much an intent to kill" is not the same as intent to kill.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Let me add that it is immoral to fight in an unjust war. Someone who fights in an unjust war is either committing murder or is helping others to commit murder. And a handy rule of thumb is that an invasive war is unjust, barring special circumstances. It's the responsibility for this immoral act (qua immoral) that I am not confident enough in to be comfortable with the account that I offered in my post.

Angra Mainyu said...

1. I haven't been able to find a counterexample. I'll keep looking, but do you have any?
I think in emergency situations, self-defense or the defense of others may well require the use of lethal force even without evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of an offense that would make them deserve the death penalty, but in that case, the intent should not be to punish, but to defend people. I think beyond a reasonable doubt evidence is required only for punishments.

2. Sorry, I was unclear I should have said "in nearly all cases, that reveals an intent to kill".
I can think of examples in which one could avoid that by having a different target. For example, fighter pilots might target the enemy plane rather than the enemy pilot, and the intent may well (even realistically) be to shoot down the plane, not to kill the pilot. The same goes for sailors trying to sink an enemy ship. But that's very difficult when it comes to, say, pilots dropping bombs on enemy infantry or bases, or infantry soldiers shooting at each other - let alone snipers shooting at the head. In cases like that, it seems clear to me that the targets are people, at least nearly always (and those events happen much more frequently than the previous ones).

In any case, if generally there is no intent to kill, or at least it's in practice doable to avoid it, wouldn't it be a simpler and less problematic theory to hold that it's generally or always immoral to intend to kill in war, and not just in special cases such as child soldiers?

Wars could still be fought in a just manner, if one can in practice use weapons designed to kill, which normally kill, in ways in which one could expect would kill the target, and I would add expecting to kill the target, but not intending to kill the target.

Angra Mainyu said...

With respect to fighting in an unjust war, I disagree that it's always immoral to fight an unjust war (but then, I don't think there are nonculpable immoral acts; else, I don't know about immorality - my moral sense doesn't seem to work like that; it detects culpability), even if one knows it's unjust.
But leaving that aside, in some (or many) cases, military personnel are not privy to the actual reasons they're sent to war. They generally know what government officials say, but that may well be a lie (or a falsehood, resulting from someone else's lie), and wars are sometimes fought for reasons that aren't the stated ones.
In fact, some (many) combat operations do not take place in the context of a declared war. Also, many actions take place in contexts in which no country is invading another country. Sometimes, they're sending troops into the territory of another country in order to carry out a limited engagement. Or maybe it's not the actual territory of any country, but different groups are vying for control of the territory (even if formally it's considered part of a country's territory).

In some cases, people on both sides seem to be acting in a way that is either not immoral, or clearly not immoral enough to deserve the death penalty (granted, you think there are behaviors that are immoral but not culpable, while I don't. Assuming that distinction, I would say that they're not culpable, or not culpable of something deserving the death penalty).

For instance, if a special operations team from country A launches an operation against a military base on country B, the defenders may well non-culpably have no idea who is attacking them, whether the attackers are behaving in a just or unjust manner, what they want, etc. - they're just under attack, and return fire, targeting the people shooting at them. That seems clearly morally acceptable (or if you like, non-culpable) regardless of who the attackers happen to be.

On the other hand, the attackers may only know that there is a prisoner in the base they attack who is loyal to country A, and they want to rescue the prisoner (or to kill a high-value target, etc.). They're not given info on the basis of which they might assess whether the person deserves to be rescued (or killed, etc.), because it's a secret mission and information is for security reasons only given on a need-to-know basis.
So, people on both sides end up shooting at each other; those on one side fire because they've been ordered to attack, and those on the other side because they're under attack by unknown assailants.

I don't think in situations like that (and many others), it would be reasonable for people on either side to believe that those shooting at them deserve to be given the death penalty, and I don't think generally all of the people involved deserve the death penalty (or all of the people on one side, or most of them, etc.).

bethyada said...

It initially seems to be a strange combination of views that (a) killing in defense of the innocent is sometimes permissible, but (b) lying is never permissible, not even in defense of the innocent. Yet that is the predominant view in the Christian tradition.

b is incorrect. Lying is permissible. Not all lying, but some.

Lying is deceit. Are we allowed to deceive? What if we tell the "truth" but in a way to imply the truth is not true. That is a lie. What if we camouflage our soldiers so they look like a tree or a desert and not a person. That is a lie.

The work around is not getting to grips with permissible killing, rather permissible lying.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

Lying requires communication at the very least. Camouflage is definitely not lying.

Brandon said...

There is a disanalogy: What defines murder as a species of intentional killing is a moral feature, that the act is unjust in the relevant way. But lying is defined in entirely nonmoral terms, as an assertion not reflecting the speaker's mind.

I don't think that this is true; 'assertion' in this context can't be a logical judgment but has to be an action of self-representation, which is a moral act, and just as murder is marked out by being unjust, lying is marked out by being untruthful, were truthfulness is a virtue closely analogous in structure to justice.

bethyada said...

I'll rephrase:

lying is a form of deceit
camouflage is form of deceit
camouflage is permissible
deceit is sometimes permissible

Are some forms of lying permissible?

(I don't think I am equivocating with "deceit" here)

Alexander R Pruss said...

If what made lying wrong was simply that it involved deceit, then this line of thought would give us good reason to think lying is sometimes permissible.

But what makes lying wrong isn't just the deceit. It is the *kind* of deceit: a deceit that involves (according to Jorge Garcia) a solicitation of and simultaneous betrayal of trust.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

OK. Let's say you are running for your life from a drug gang. You come to my place and I agree to hide you be because you have a family and are a nice guy. The gang leader knocks on my door and asks if your hiding out at my place. I will do the right thing and let my yes be yes and my no be no. And since all lies are of the devil, I'll say yes. Too bad for you, too bad for your family, but I sure won't risk hell over that.