Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Exceptionless Rights

ANY ADVOCATE OF NATURAL LAW will recognize that there are some acts that are intrinsically evil and that no circumstance will justify them. In short, they will recognize some exceptionless or absolute norms that under all circumstances apply. It follows that when these are "translated" into rights, that there will be some rights that are absolute, exceptionless, inalienable, inviolable. There are some moral (human) rights of persons that cannot be violated--whatever the circumstances--without injustice and moral fault. "Correlative to the exceptionless duties entailed by this requirement [to use practical reasonableness and never act against the basic values, whether in oneself or other human beings] are, therefore, exceptionless or absolute human claim-rights--most obviously, the right not to have one's life taken directly as a means to any further end."*

For the calculative utilitarian or consequentialist, always attune to expediency over morality (or perhaps, more accurately, equating morality with expediency), the notion of absolute rights is, of course, folly. For a utilitarian or consequentialist, the statement "Whatever the circumstances, φ ought not to be done, φ ought not to be treated that way!" is incomprehensible. He would not be caught dead saying such a thing, although he might capitulate to some moral sense if the φ was killing him painfully for another's pleasure.

Civilian Victims of Firebombing Dresden

Finnis has this striking J'accuse against every government in the world, one that merits quoting whole for its boldness:

What is more striking, perhaps, is the fact that, whatever may be commonly professed in the modern world, no contemporary government or élite manifests in its practice any belief in absolute human rights. For every government that has the physical capacity to make its threats credible says this to its potential enemies: 'If you attack us and threaten to defeat us, we will kill all the hostages we hold; that is to say, we will incinerate or dismember as many of your old men and women and children, and poison as many of your mothers and their unborn offspring, as it takes to persuade you to desist; we do not regard as decisive the fact that they are themselves no threat to us; nor do we propose to destroy them merely incidentally, as an unsought-after-side-effect of efforts to stop your armed forces in their attack on us; no, will destroy your non-combatants precisely because you value them, and in order to persuade you to desist.'

NLNR, 225.

And before we exclude our own government from this harsh accusation, we ought to remember that it was we who targeted innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear holocaust and Dresden with conventional firebombing. We ought to remember our flirtation with, if not outright participation in, torture of Islamic terrorists. All manner of sins can be authorized under our consequentialist ethics, as by definition consequentialist ethics deny the absolute. There are no lines a consequentialist or utilitarian will not cross, and we are all utilitarians, all consequentialists now.**

*There are others mentioned by Finnis: "the right not to be positively lied to in any situation (e.g. teaching, preaching, research publication, new broadcasting) in which factual communication (as distinct from fiction, jest, or poetry) is reasonably expected; and the related right not to be condemned on knowingly false charges; and the right not to be deprived, or required to deprive oneself, of one's procreative capacity [remember here the lionized Justice Holmes's words in Buck v. Bell: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."]; and the right to be taken into respectful consideration in any assessment of what the common good requires." NLNR, 225.
**And even if we have not slipped into consequentialist or utlitarian clothes, we may be closet consequentialists or utilitarians dressed in classical morality but with a casuist's and not an innocent's heart. We may abuse the principle of unintended consequences or double effect so as to play with what intended, versus what is not intended or what is only an indirect or collateral effect. Although abuse does not condemn use (abusus non tollit usum) of these principles, we must protect against abuse.

No comments:

Post a Comment