I'm asking in the context of the Catholic Church's doctrines on just war and self-defense.

  1. Is it justifiable to kill an innocent person in order to prevent a greater evil, with no other practical alternatives available in the situations described below?

  2. Is there any difference with intentionally killing innocent people and allowing innocent people to die to prevent a greater evil such as in World War II when the Allies didn't want the Germans to know that Enigma had been broken?

Context: My question was heavily edited but was primarily motivated by warfare and espionage wherein sometimes double agents have to kill innocent people or allow innocent people to die in order to maintain their cover because their mission is crucial in the sense that a lot more people will die. I don't see how them doing that is any different from ending an ectopic pregnancy on the former case in this passage from Wikipedia:

advocates of double effect typically consider the intentional terror bombing of non-combatants having as its goal victory in a legitimate war morally out of bounds, while holding as ethically in bounds an act of strategic bombing that similarly harms non-combatants with foresight but without intent as a side effect of destroying a legitimate military target

Of course double agents will usually do everything in their power to minimize the loss of innocent lives by convincing their false superiors to take hostages or to tolerate in some way, but if there's no other practical alternative, why not kill innocent people? It's not like you intend to do it like what terrorists do. It's something you have to do in the while being undercover in the enemy camp (it could be a drug gang or terrorist group).

Thought about it more and it seems that you're actually being forced or blackmailed by the enemy. So really, it's like they're killing the innocent people. I think what's important here is intention. No double agent intends for innocent people to be killed. Those innocent people are collateral damage. Terrorists incorrectly use the term "collateral damage" since they intend for innocent people to be killed.

I'm going to give some examples:

  1. In Harry Potter, Snape kills Dumbledore in order to prove to Voldemort that Snape is not loyal to Dumbledore. This is extremely critical in the plot to defeat Voldemort. There are no practical alternatives and not doing so leads to a lot more death and suffering if Voldemort comes to power. It's not really something Snape does out of his own free will. Voldemort intends to kill Dumbledore so Snape is forced.

  2. In a thriller I saw, the protagonist, who was with legitimate authority, had to shoot her partner in order to prove to the drug dealers that she was not working with the legitimate authority. If the protagonist refuses, the protagonist, her partner and countless others will die, and the drug dealers will succeed in their drug dealing. Again, it's not really something the protagonist does out of her own free will. The drug dealers intend to kill her partner so the protagonist is forced.

Are they not forced? Is there a really a choice to make?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on a compound hypothetical. Perhaps first, find out if it's permitted to even be a double agent within Catholicism! – Flimzy Oct 11 '15 at 19:23
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    I think the core of the question is, “Is it justifiable to kill an innocent person for a sufficiently noble cause?” In that case, the answer is rather straightforward: it is never OK to kill an innocent person (one who is not threatening you or others at the present moment) for any reason whatsoever (CCC 2258). I agree that the question of double-agency (which is much more nuanced) should be a separate one. – AthanasiusOfAlex Oct 12 '15 at 6:28
  • I think the answer simply depends on what your definition of 'murder' is and what that means in context of 'innocent'. – Pistachio Oct 13 '15 at 1:11
  • @Pistachio The question does not mention 'murder', although we can choose to define it as the killing of innocent people. – Dick Harfield Oct 13 '15 at 4:40
  • @AthanasiusOfAlex Sorry, the question is actually meant to be in the context of double-agency. Please help improve my question. Thanks. – Red Rackham Oct 18 '15 at 20:32

The issue of 'double agent' is a furphy, but the question raises a significant issue in more practical instances.

The Church Father Augustine was a proponent of 'unqualified absolutism'. Norman L. Geisler says, in Christian Ethics, page 82, Augustine said that one must never commit a great crime of one’s own in order to avoid someone else's greater crime. An example given was lying to ward off rape or even to save a life, which is strictly forbidden.

The modern Catholic Catechism, at least in part, supports the teachings of Augustine. It is forbidden to kill an innocent person for any reason:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

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  • Of course the ends do not justify the means. But there are justifying circumstances, right? I'm going to edit my question – Red Rackham Oct 18 '15 at 20:19
  • Edited my question. Does your answer remain the same? – Red Rackham Oct 18 '15 at 20:33
  • @RedRackham It's a little risky to incorporate references to fiction in a question, as that could make the question out of scope for this site. However, if it remains in scope, I think my answer addresses this. People do die rather than commit a grave sin - it's called martyrdom - so no one is really forced to kill others. Our answers should come from Christian tradition (not opinion), so my refs to Augustine & catechism apply to these hypothetical circumstances. Hope that helps... – Dick Harfield Oct 18 '15 at 21:27
  • @DickHarfield I think I may have been unclear with the question in its original form, and maybe the editors misinterpreted my intention. My question is not very clear or incorrectly stated. Just focus on the situations below, please. I think your answer applies to situations like killing a security guard in order to steal a drug in order to save your loved one's life. The references to fiction are attempts to be more concrete in the general double agent situation I gave. – Red Rackham Oct 18 '15 at 21:40
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    @RedRackham No, stealing drugs is not a noble cause - even if the loved one could die without the drug. So, killing a security guard in order to steal drugs is not killing in a noble cause. Saving a girl from rape is a noble cause, but Augustine said that I could not tell a lie (a very minor sin) about where the girl could be found - in order that she not be raped: that is unqualified absolutism. The Catholic catechism gives an official, modern answer: "One may not do evil so that good may result from it." – Dick Harfield Oct 19 '15 at 0:24

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