Friday, February 11, 2011

Faith and Firearms, Part 3: Double Effect

Part Two of "Faith and Firearms" left off with a discussion of exactly what constitutes "legitimate defense", and a few statistics to highlight the reality that law enforcement cannot be everywhere at all times to protect us in the critical moments of a violent encounter.

My apologies for the delay in being able to get out this Part 3; as always, life is happening and when it comes to spending time with our precious Abigail or blogging, her smile and laugh takes the cake.

But, now that I'm actually here, I wanted to return from the practical to the philosophical with a brief recap of the  doctrine of double effect.  I emphasize the word brief because this doctrine has been explored and pored over by moral philosophers for centuries, and could be the subject of extended discussion.

The doctrine or principle of double effect was introduced by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7).  His doctrine makes the point that, as with all of our actions, the lawful, natural, and right action of defending one's life against the unjust action of an aggressor often has more than one effect.  In the case where lethal force is used, the secondary effect could very well be--and often is--the death of the aggressor.

Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. … Accordingly, the act of self-defense may have two effects: one, the saving of one's life; the other, the slaying of the aggressor.”

His discussion continues with the follow-on assertion that such an action is justified, provided that the primary effect--protecting one's own life--is justified, but that the justification of such an action also comes with conditions:

“Therefore, this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being as far as possible.  And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore, if a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful, whereas, if he repel force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.”
In other words, it is permissible to use as much force as is necessary to repel or stop the intended aggression, but anything more (excessive force) renders the act unjust.  A second, equally critical condition is that the act may not be committed in anticipation of unjust aggression.  The act of aggression must have already begun in order for it to be justly and lawfully repelled.  This puts the defender at a distinct disadvantage, because the aggressor more often than not has the elements of both cunning, skill (violent criminals are often repeat offenders), and surprise.   This is where the importance of being aware of surroundings, being selective in personal associations, and following your gut instinct come into play.  Violence, just like with sin, should be avoided at all costs.

It is just--and in some cases an even a greater good--to forgo one's right to self-defense for the sake of charity.  Christ himself, who is the personification of charity, modeled this most perfectly by refusing to defend himself from the most heinous of violent actions, and clergy are called to model this same charity.  However, as I discussed in Part Two, there are other situations and offices where a person's duty or obligations require the defense of either themselves or of another person, for example a father to defend his children or a husband to defend his wife.

So how does this all relate to "keeping and bearing" a firearm?  The stark reality is that violence is not always avoidable.  Sometimes the aggressor finds us regardless of our intention to avoid them, and in those situations we must be prepared to respond according to our responsibilities.  As Cody Alderson, the author of a thought-provoking article entitled, "It Bothers Me," (Concealed Carry Report, February 2, 2011) put it,

Unfortunately, the force needed to put a criminal into a condition of not being able to continue their heinous crime of rape, maiming, or murder can very well cause loss of life to the criminal. We have no reliable system or tool to render rapid and total incapacitation that can be used by the public in defense against crimes of violence other than the gun. It is by far the best available tool for a victim to be able to use to deploy enough force to rapidly incapacitate a violent criminal.

That's it for "Faith and Firearms" for now.  I may revisit the topic sometime in the future, as the Spirit prompts.  In the mean time, for a more in-depth discussion of the Catholic teaching on self-defense, visit New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Self-Defense."  A deeper philosophical discussion of double effect can also be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


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