June 10, 2009

George Tiller revisited

My previous post on the murder of Kansas abortionist George Tiller on May 31 gained me a few comments. Most notable are (as of now) the two most recent, from "Blaise" and "Doh."

First of all, Blaise wrote:

I think you're inconsistent. You preface that you're against this type of "vigilantism," but then say "Good Riddance." If Hitler or Stalin would have been assasinated, would we say we condemn that action? Tiller the Killer killed how many babies and would have continued to kill how many more? I think the man who assasinated him should be a hero; he saved many babies. Proof in point; if a man were attempting to stab little kids in your neighbor's back yard and you shot the perpetrator before he could do harm to them, would we condemn the man with the gun in his hand? I think not; nor do I condemn or disagree with this man's courage in defending the babies.

The ends don't justify the means. It's a proverb so entrenched in our moral thinking that it's almost redundant even to state it explicitly. Everybody recognizes that good outcomes may be reached by bad means. Hypothetically, had George Tiller been indicted and convicted of some gross form of malpractice (i.e. some more serious charges than the misdemeanours he was acquitted of earlier this year), that would have been a moral means to the same end. Similarly, so would banning abortion on demand through the usual legislative process. There are means that are justified by the ends. Shooting isn't one of them. The Ten Commandments prohibit murder (Exod. 20:13), and an accused murderer could not be convicted or put to death without due process (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). Similarly, the apostle Paul reiterates that the civil government bears the sword to punish evildoers (Rom 13:3-4). God has not given this judicial power to the church or the individual - and there's no exception clause for odious people whom we think deserve to be offed.

On the other hand, the Bible repeatedly tells of good ends from bad means. Joseph acknowledged that when his brothers sold him into slavery, they were evil; but God's purpose was to put him in a position where he could save many lives (Gen. 50:20). According to the book of Habakkuk, the Babylonian invasion of Judah was God's righteous judgment on the covenant-breaking Jews, although the Babylonians would themselves face judgment for their own evildoing. And Jesus himself was "crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23), but every Christian recognizes this act of ultimate evil as God's plan to bring about ultimate good.

So there is no inconsistency. There is the human perspective, in which we are held morally responsible for obeying God's revealed moral will, and there is the providential perspective, in which all things are part of God's own plan, and we are not responsible to "help" him carry out his intentions - he does just fine without our help.

In that light, it's easier to evaluate Blaise's case studies. Since the outcome is God's business, we can focus on the morality of the act itself. Is it morally justified to assassinate Hitler or Stalin, knowing that we may prevent many, many more deaths? In wartime, I would say yes: enemy leaders are a valid military target. In peacetime, that is not the case. A man attempting to harm children is committing a crime, and the law recognizes that it may be justifiable to use deadly force in their protection. (The law is not so easy on excessive force: compare the druggist in Oklahoma City recently charged with murder for allegedly emptying a handgun into a robbery suspect who was already down.)

There are relevant differences between these two scenarios. George Tiller was not in a state of war with his murderer, and in any case a private citizen has no authority to declare or carry out a war on his own initiative. Nor was he committing a crime in his jurisdiction, and he had not been convicted and sentenced to death. Tiller was deprived of due process, because his assassin was not authorized by the civil government to carry out an execution. Finally, the maniac stabbing small children is only a relevant analogy if he were also doing so at the request and with the approval of the children's mothers, who actively sought him out to procure his "services."

Next, Doh said:

Wow - you contradicted yourself pretty quickly there. Not condoning the violence - but hey if that's how God chose to take him out, so be it. I never understand the seriousness with which so many of your kind take the unborn child - something that is sorely lacking in most as soon as that unborn child takes a breath and becomes a burden you don't want to help care for. The spirits of these children - if they are yet that - are with God and go back to God. I have 3 nieces that would not exist if my sister hadn't had an abortion when she was 14. Her life would have taken a completely different trajectory. I thank God I have these three girls in my life. I wouldn't change one thing. God can work with all the choices a woman makes to bring about blessings.

I can't win with either Blaise or Doh. Blaise thinks I'm inconsistent because I ought to approve of the means by which Tiller was dispatched in addition to the outcome. Doh, on the other hand, thinks that if I don't condone his murder, I should tacitly approve of his abortion practice. Not so, for the reasons I have already given above.

This is merely an emotional appeal. It plays on pity ("Her life would have taken a completely different trajectory") and consequences ("If my sister had not had an abortion, I wouldn't have three beautiful neices to love"). But it ignores the real issue: what is the unborn? If it is a human person, then we cannot justify killing it merely because of the good outcome. It is axiomatic that you cannot kill a person if doing so gives you something you like (e.g. a better life, cure for disease, love from other family members, and so forth). Whatever joy someone gets from his nieces, the fact remains that a fourth niece or nephew died, having done nothing to deserve it, to make that joy possible.

By this same logic, the death of George Tiller is a greater moral good, since the end of his abortion practice brings joy to many pro-life advocates all over the world. (Indeed, it was recently announced that the clinic itself would be closed permanently.) Pragmatism is an unworkable ethic, which is why I took some pains to avoid it in my previous post.