Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Consequentialism or Providence?

Regarding the recent murder of the well-known abortionist George Tiller, the question has arisen over what is the proper Pro-Life response to this killing. Tiller was one of the most vocal, unapologetic advocates of abortion and estimated that he had personally killed over 20,000 babies without an ounce of regret. Yet many in the Pro-Life movement, while rightly condemning vigilantism, are coming out with way over the top statements almost in defense of Tiller - for example:

Today's actions were tragic, and serve as another reminder that all human life is sacred. Pro-lifers by our nature and commitment to human rights reject violence as a means of resistance. Our thoughts and prayers indeed extend to the Tiller family and the community at Reformation Lutheran Church (American Life League)

This senseless act of violence represents the utter antithesis of a people of life. The tens of millions of Americans who peacefully pray and work every day for the protection of all human life are rightfully grieved by this news (President of Catholic

I understand expressing a healthy Catholic sentiment that God rejoices not in the death of the sinner and that cold blooded murder can never be sanctioned. And yet, I find these "condolences" a bit too much. I'm not "grieved" at the news of his death. I am grieved not that he died, but that he died unrepentant.The man had ample opportunity to repent and chose not to. I see his death as a way of God stopping something that we should have stopped by legal means long ago.

As has been pointed out by many others, he Pro-Life movement is operating under a modern and fallacious assumption that it is always wrong to kill or take any life (as opposed to the traditional understanding which prohibits murder but allows for other licit circumstances for taking life). Much of this "sympathy" I think has to do with the Pro-Life movement not wanting to offend the politically correct media or do anything that would make them look less mainstream.

So, on the one hand, we have many bubbling affectionate platitudes about how all killing is evil and expressing regret for Tiller's death. Then, on the other extreme, would be those who would say that vigilante killing is a legitimate way to right the wrong of abortion since the powers that be will not take care of it. I cannot agree with this position. Though I don't personally know anybody who holds it, it appears the killer did. It is true that murder is still murder, and that vigilantism cannot be condoned, because along with the truth that it is sometimes necessary and just to take life comes the corresponding truth that only the legitimate authority can undertake this, and only through morally licit means (ie., the proper legal channels). So, I cannot support the position that "anything goes" in the fight to stop abortion.

The Catechism makes an interesting statement with regards to war that I think is applicable in this situation, too: "The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties" (CCC 2312). In the same way, just because we are in a state of "war" against the culture of death does not mean that any method is licit in the winning of this fight.

Then what is the proper response to Tiller's murder? I have taken the approach that while I can never condone vigilante killings, I view this particular killing as providential. That is, I don't condone the means, but now that it is done, things are better off with him gone.

However, some may say that this opinion is consequentialist, meaning that I am wrongly judging moral actions based on the outcome or consequences without taking the act itself into consideration. Accordingly (some would say), if we condemn the means we have to condemn the end as well.

I don't think my position on this matter is consequentialist for a few reasons:

1) Consequentialism would be saying that the goodness or badness of an act is derived from its consequences alone. I am making no such assertion about the act; I maintain that the act of murdering George Tiller was an objectively evil one and I think the person who killed him sinned thereby (though I agree the culpability might be mitigated due to who Tiller was). It is possible to judge the act bad and the consequent good. Like supposing an arsonist sets your house on fire, but when it is burned down, you get a $1,000,000 insurance payment and get a much nicer place, so that in the end you can say, "I don't condone arson or anything, but I came out of this pretty well!" I don't condone vigilante killing, but now that he is in fact dead we are better off. I'm making a statement about the state of affairs we currently find ourselves in without reference to how we got here.

2) The means by which Tiller met his end are really inconsequential in the long run. We are all going to die, and the world will either be better or worse when we do for every one of us. What if Tiller had lived out his days and died peacefully in bed at age 90? Well, the world would still be better off without him, I'm sure. When he's dead he's dead, and the means by which one dies is really only a matter of importance to the one doing the dying. But if he had lived out his days and died naturally, would the Pro-Lifers still be offering all these condolences? After all, in some sense, it's tragic when anybody dies under any circumstances. Of course not. If he had died naturally, nobody on the Pro-Life side would be saying any such things as we here now. This demonstrates that they are overly focused on the inconsequential fact of how he died instead of the monumental fact that he is dead. The fact that I could say "The world is better off without Tiller" regardless of how or when he died is evidence that my judgment is completely separate from the act, and the fact that he is dead is what I think is good. I could care less how he went out, whether from a gunshot or heart attack brought on by cholesterol; death is death, and if he was bragging about performing 20,000 abortions, then I'm glad he's gone.

3) I admit that I am indeed focusing on the consequence here, but I am not saying the act is good because of the consequence, and therein lies the distinction between a consequentialist approach and just saying that Tiller's death is providential. God, in His providence, decided the time was right and allowed this fellow to be removed from the earth. We should neither be hot for blood and more vigilante killings (Ezekiel 18:32 reminds us that "God hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked"), nor should we weep with sympathy that the poor abortionist had somebody else take his life from him (everybody has their life taken from them, and if God in His providence chose to do it by the hand of man, that is His prerogative) - we should, I think, stoically assert that in God's providence Tiller got what he deserved and stand back in marvel in awe at how God works things out, giving thanks that Tiller's death means life for untold thousands, regretting that he died unrepentant, and all the while shrinking in humility, knowing that any of us could be taken out by God at any time with equal and unannounced celerity.


Kate said...

I must disagree with you - I don't think this is provident. For one thing, although Tiller will (obviously) no longer be performing abortions, this doesn't mean those abortions he would have performed will not take place, merely that the sinful action will be on the soul of another doctor. If nothing else, gyn. in Kansas city who were not previously placed in the position of being asked to perform abortions may find themselves under pressure to do so over the next few weeks as Tiller's replacement is sought.

In the broader view, Tiller's murder does little to save lives...but conceivably serves mostly to injure the pro-life movement, provide new fuel to smear campaigns, give the President justification to grant abortion clinics and providers even greater 'protections' both legally and actually and put pro-lifers firmly on DHS 'watch lists' for the forseeable future.

Most grievously, this 'confirmation' of the 'radical nature' of 'anti-abortion zealots' may damage the inroads the pro-life movement has made in popular opinion over the last year. Recent polls showed that pro-life sentiment has been increasing - and while that may not lead directly to legal changes, it certainly makes a difference to the help pregnant women receive from their friends and family. Any set-back to that will almost definitely injure the pro-life cause on the political and the personal level.

Paul S. said...

These excellent posts at CatholicCulture makes similar points about how the Pro-Life movement should be articulating its response to the murder of George Tiller.

Sam Danziger said...

It seems to me that it's not quite correct to say of Tiller that "the world would still be better off without him."

The world is better off without him performing more abortions. It would have been a far better outcome if he had repented...

Boniface said...


I think that is a much more precise and accurate way of saying it, but you know what I meant. :)

Lucille said...

Kate: that might make sense, if he performed abortions before the normal statutory limit of 24 weeks gestation, when most abortions occur - but abortions after that point are rare and more restricted, and there are fewer OB-GYNs who perform late-term abortions.