Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Who may punish the guilty?
Was it wrong to shoot Tiller? Yes, yes, yes, I have said, repeatedly and unambiguously. But here’s yet another guy who simply will not take yes for an answer. Because I hold that (1) a murderer loses his right to life and (2) Tiller was a murderer (indeed a particularly heinous murderer), it follows – this guy, like Leiter and Shipley, claims – that I must be committed to saying that it was OK to shoot Tiller. Well, that simply does not follow at all, certainly not from the point of view of natural law theory, which informs my own approach to morality.
It does follow from (1) and (2) that (3) Tiller lost his right to life. But it does not follow that any private individual may take his life. On the contrary, classical natural law theory holds that (4) the right to punish and deter evildoers belongs to lawful governmental authorities alone, and not to private individuals. So if we hold – as I do – that (5) the governmental authorities who have jurisdiction in this case are lawful ones, then it follows that (6) neither Tiller’s murderer nor any other private individual had the moral right to kill Tiller. That the lawful governmental authorities were, because of bad laws and bad court decisions, etc., not doing their job – which need not require executing Tiller in any case but only imprisoning him – does not entail that any private individual can usurp their authority.
But what if a pro-lifer concluded that the governmental authorities in question were no longer lawful or legitimate ones, or, even if generally lawful, were nevertheless so extraordinarily derelict in their duty in the grave matter of abortion that drastic action was called for? Would that not justify vigilantism? It would not. For in that case, as John Zmirak has pointed out in an article I linked to earlier, the would-be vigilante, in opposing the existing governmental authorities, would in effect be putting himself into a state of war with them, denying as he implicitly would be that they have maintained their moral right to govern, or at least their right to stop him and people like him from carrying out acts of vigilantism. But in that case (as Zmirak notes) the just war criteria elaborated by natural law theory kick in. And since (a) those criteria include the requirements that any just war can only be undertaken if there is a reasonable chance of success and if the war will not do greater harm than good, and (b) it is obvious that neither of those criteria are met by any would-be vigilante action, it follows that such action is ruled out, and on moral, not just pragmatic, grounds.
Hence vigilante action of the sort Tiller’s murderer carried out simply cannot be morally justified from the point of view of natural law theory.
No doubt people will want to challenge this or that point of the above. Fine, go at it if you are so inclined. The point is that to anyone familiar with natural law theory, and in particular with the NL approach to governmental authority and just war, it is obvious why a reasonable person could hold both that Tiller was a monster and that it was nevertheless wrong to kill him. Even if someone rejects the line of argument I sketched above – and keep in mind that it is just a sketch, not intended to answer every possible objection – it is unreasonable to claim that no reasonable person could hold it in good faith. Certainly no one unfamiliar with the NL approach to rights, government, capital punishment, just war theory, etc. has any business accusing those who endorse this line of argument of insincerity.
In short, there is no case whatsoever – zip, zero, bupkis – for holding that those of us who regard Tiller as a monster on a par with or even worse than Jeffrey Dahmer must “really” approve of his murder. Anyone who still says otherwise is, I dare say, obviously not trying to understand the actual views of his opponents, but is interested only in smearing them for political purposes. Such a person is himself guilty of the grave moral offense of calumny.
So. Cut the crap, people. It’s played out. Move on to some new talking point.
(Addendum: As Francis Beckwith shows, if these people were consistent, then they would have to count Leiter himself and other shrill Bush critics as "apologists for murder.")