Moral fallacies

By Nono Alfonso, SJ
Published in November 22, 2017

Can a Christian support the government’s war on drugs that has already claimed thousands of lives? If the surveys are to be believed, the majority of this predominantly Christian nation has spoken. Despite the Fifth Commandment, which they have memorized since childhood, and the often-heard Church’s teaching that killing is intrinsically evil, their answer is in the affirmative.

Here are two of their well-meaning but misguided answers. First, surely there is an exception to the rule. The rationale of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill (Ex 20:13),” is clear. Life is sacred because it comes from God; it is the sole property of God and any violation or abuse of it is an affront against God himself. And yet, as Scripture and Jewish custom would tell us, indeed God seemed to have allowed exception to this rule. In particular, the Jews of the Old Testament times practiced capital punishment and wars. The “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” gives us a long list of the capital crimes under Ancient Israel, such as murder, child sacrifice, manslaughter, keeping an ox that has killed a man, etc. On the other hand, the great patriarchs of the Bible led Israel to wars. So how does one reconcile these with the Fifth Commandment?

The consensus among exegetes or biblical scholars is twofold (William Barclay, Walter J. Harrelson, and Yiu Sing Lucas Chan, among many): First, there is an exception, but the exception is given only by God. Life belongs to God and only God can take it. In concrete, in Ancient Israel, these two exceptions were allowed only if these were done by the community in the name of God or on behalf of God. Secondly, in order to ensure that these were undertaken pursuant to the will of God, strict legal procedures were put in place, such as the requirements of eyewitnesses and competent judges in the case of capital punishment—what we now call due process.

The second major fallacy being put forward in support of the war on drugs is that it is “the lesser evil” — that is, the deaths of these drug users, drug pushers, and druglords, including so-called collateral damage, are the price we must pay for the future of the country. How similar is this to the words of the high priest Caiaphas that condemned Jesus to death: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” In moral philosophy or ethics, this argument is called proportionalism or consequentialism. Simply put, an act is considered moral if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

But in “Veritatis Splendor,” Pope John Paul II discredited this argument. First, what makes an act moral is primarily its object and not the intention or circumstances around it. We open ourselves to relativism (i.e., alibis) if we allow the latter. Secondly, it is impossible to calculate the so-called proportions (one human action has multivaried consequences), to say nothing of whose benefit is being calculated (one’s luck is another man’s misfortune).

For his part, Barclay has simply this to say: “In any situation and in any choice, the Christian question is not ‘What will happen if I do this?’ It is quite simply, ‘Is this right or wrong?’”

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Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ, is a board member of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues, and the executive director of Jesuit Communications.