Ethical situations on the subject of killing and the sacrifice of human lives are always subject to critical analysis and intensive argumentation. The so-called sacrifice of the few for the good of the many is usually founded upon Aquinas’ Natural Law and Doctrine of Double Effect, both of which were logically formulated by the philosopher yet both also lend themselves to criticisms.
Aquinas defines the Natural Law based on the Eternal Law. He formulated the Eternal Law in his Summa Theologiae and defines it as “the idea in God’s intellect by which He governs the world” (Magee, 1999). The Natural Law according to Aquinas is “humans’ participation in the Eternal Law through reason and will” (Magee, 1999).
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The Doctrine of Double Effect, on the other hand, is defined as a set of ethical criteria for evaluating whether one should do an act that would, in the process of producing a positive effect, also produce a negative effect (McIntyre, 2009). Our ethical proposition “It is always wrong to kill innocent people, even if you could save many other lives by doing so” is a rather weak proposition after it is analyzed with reference to Aquinas’ two aforementioned doctrines.
With Reference to the Natural Law. There are various different levels of precepts that the Natural Law entails. The first of which is “Good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided” (Magee, 1999). However, Aquinas has specified that a “good” thing is something “that we know immediately, by inclination…that [would] count as good and thus to be pursued” (Murphy, 2008). Aquinas specifies these things as life, knowledge, procreation, society, and reasonable conduct.
First Precept. Applying the above precept to the given ethical situation, “It is always wrong to kill innocent people, even if you could save many other lives by doing so,” one can see that the whole proposition logically satisfies the first part of the precept “Good is to be done and pursued.” Both the act of not killing innocent people and saving many other lives are believed to be inherently good, that is, good in itself. However, the proposition might not in a way satisfy the second part of the precept “[that] evil [should be] avoided.”
This is because the proposition implies a prohibition of killing innocent people, which, if done, would result in a possible non-fulfillment of the second part of the proposition: “You could save many other lives by doing so.” If many other lives are not saved, then this means one has allowed the evil of death to take lives away, thus evil is not avoided, which is the second part of the precept. In short, our proposition fails the first precept of the Natural Law.
Second Precept. Another precept of the Natural Law is that it “commands that we preserve ourselves in being” and one thing that can be deduced from this is that one is required to “take care of [his life] and transmit that life to the next generation” (Magee, 1999).
This may obviously refer to the goodness of procreation but it may not be necessarily the case because such a statement may translate to the preservation of the self for the benefit of the next generation. This precept on preservation may agree with the first part of the given ethical proposition: “it is always wrong to kill innocent people,” for the killing of people, whether innocent or not, opposes the idea of self-preservation. However, the second part of the proposition, “you could save many other lives by doing so, or by killing innocent people,” does not agree with the precept on preservation.
The reason is that if you decide to preserve the lives of the innocent, then your action may result in the non-preservation of the lives of many others. This now serves as another proof of the weakness of the given proposition vis-à-vis the precept of the Natural Law on preservation. With Reference to the Doctrine of Double Effect. The proposition, “It is always wrong to kill innocent people, even if you could save many other lives by doing so,” lends itself to more criticisms on the weakness of its argument when criticized with reference to the Doctrine of Double Effect.
The doctrine consists of four conditions that must be met before one can declare an act morally permissible (McIntyre, 2009). And for this the proposition should be constructed into a conditional sentence: If one kills innocent people, it is wrong and hence presumed to be not morally permissible. Therefore the moral permissibility of the killing of innocent people will be evaluated vis-à-vis the four conditions of the Doctrine of Double Effect. Furthermore, the claim of the proposition that killing innocent people is morally wrong under all circumstances will be logically investigated.
First Condition. The first condition is the nature-of-the-act condition, which states that “the action must be either morally good or indifferent” (McIntyre, 2009). This may somehow oppose what we are intending to prove. It is indeed true that the killing of innocent people is not morally good nor is it morally indifferent. Second Condition. The second condition is the means-end condition, which states that “the bad effect must not be the means by which one achieves the good effect” (McIntyre, 2009).
This is also a proof in favor of the proposition. If the goal is to avoid the death of many other lives, then it follows, according to the second condition, that death should not be meted out on innocent people just for the sake of the many others. Based on the second condition, death must not be utilized to avoid death. With the second condition, he proposition remains solid.
Third Condition. The third condition is the right-intention condition, which states that “the intention must be the achieving of only the good effect, with the bad effect being only an unintended side effect” (McIntyre, 2009). It is now here that the proposition weakens.
Based on the context of the proposition, the killing of innocent people, without any regard to the inherent morality or immorality of the act, has the intention of achieving only the good effect of saving many other people’s lives, thus making the killing of the innocent a morally permissible act. The bad effect, which is the death of the innocent, is anyway simply a side effect.
Fourth Condition. The last condition is the proportionality condition, which states that “the good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the bad effect” (McIntyre, 2009). Although there will always be a question about the exactness of such an equivalence of importance, the majority may agree that, in the proposition, the saving of the lives of many far outweighs the killing of the lives of but a few innocent people. This therefore dismisses the killing of the innocent as a morally permissible act and such an argument counters the proposition.
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