Foot and the Fat Man, Terrible Trolleys, and Threatening Tyrants

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Thomas Aquinas is credited with introducing the principle of double effect in his discussion of the permissibility of self-defense in the Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7).

Aquinas was struggling to reconcile the law of בא במחתרת with various Christian teachings that seem to forbid homicidal self-defense, as well as other moral arguments:

Article 7. Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?

Objection 1. It would seem that nobody may lawfully kill a man in self-defense. For Augustine says to Publicola (Ep. xlvii): “I do not agree with the opinion that one may kill a man lest one be killed by him; unless one be a soldier, exercise a public office, so that one does it not for oneself but for others, having the power to do so, provided it be in keeping with one’s person.” Now he who kills a man in self-defense, kills him lest he be killed by him. Therefore this would seem to be unlawful. …

Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.

On the contrary, It is written (Exodus 22:2): “If a thief be found breaking into a house or undermining it, and be wounded so as to die; he that slew him shall not be guilty of blood.” Now it is much more lawful to defend one’s life than one’s house. Therefore neither is a man guilty of murder if he kill another in defense of his own life.

I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (II-II:43:3; I-II:12:1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. 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, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

Reply to Objection 1. The words quoted from Augustine refer to the case when one man intends to kill another to save himself from death. …

Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.

Aquinas’s position is difficult to understand: why does killing the home intruder not constitute the unlawful act of “killing a man in self-defense”? Indeed, as philosopher Thomas Cavanaugh, who literally wrote the book on double-effect reasoning, notes, philosophers have struggled to try to pin down exactly what Aquinas meant by “beside the intention” (praeter intentionem), with some suggesting that he merely condoned “accidental killing in the course of a struggle.” Cavanaugh himself concludes that:

Thomas does not use DER to justify a private individual’s homicidal self-defense in cases where the aggresor’s death is forseen as inevitable. He does use it in cases in which the assailant’s life was risked.

He acknowledges, however, the more customary interpretation of Aquinas (as expressed here by philosopher Jeff McMahan:

Aquinas … assumes that it is possible for one to forsee with certainty that one’s act will kill one’s assailant without intending the killing as a means of self-defence. … To illustrate [this] view, consider:

Self Defence 1: One’s only defence against an unjust and potentially lethal attack is to shoot the attacker at close range with a flame-thrower.

Cavanaugh drily argues that this understanding:

“attribute[s] to Aquinas an idiosyncratic account of intention which he does not have. … If one thinks that a defender can shoot one’s attacker at close range with a flame-thrower, and that this is not intentional, then one seems to rely on a very narrow conception of what it is to intend a means.1

The halachah, of course, has no need to resort to Jesuitic casuistry to justify the law of רודף, since it simply rejects the assumptions of Augustine et. al. that a private individual has no right of homicidal self-defense.

I recently read with great fascination the following analysis by the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., Roman Catholic priest and neuroscientist, Director of Education and Ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (the interviewer is Catholic blogger Kathy Schiffer), within the framework of the principle of double effect, of the use of the drug Methotrexate to end an ectopic pregnancy:

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is one in which the fertilized ovum implants in the fallopian tube or in some other location that poses a danger to the life of both the mother and child.

Is it morally acceptable to use the drug Methotrexate to end an ectopic pregnancy?

Methotrexate is sometimes used to address the problem of a fallopian tube ectopic pregnancy. The Magisterium has not taken a position on the use of methotrexate by name for the condition of the fallopian tube ectopic pregnancy. It has only affirmed that direct abortion is never permissible, while the indirect taking of a life may be tolerated when all the requirements of the principle of double effect are satisfied. The matter of methotrexate therefore remains a question for individual conscience to resolve, until such time that there is an authoritative teaching on the question.

A person in these circumstances should learn about the differing views on this issue held by theologians and ethicists whose work is in accord with the Magisterium, and should then make a decision in good conscience.

How does Methotrexate work?

Methotrexate is an anti-cancer drug, which interferes with DNA synthesis and attacks rapidly dividing tissue. The trophoblast cells that surround the embryo (and which will later become the placenta), are rapidly dividing. The intent and effect of administering the drug is the release of the improperly attached surrounding cells from the fallopian tube wall. In the process, the embryo also is impacted and expelled. This results in the death of the embryo.

Differing Viewpoints Regarding Use of Methotrexate

Some respected Catholic moralists justify the use of methotrexate in an ectopic pregnancy under the principle of double effect:

  1. The Object of the Act Must be Good or at Least Morally Neutral: The object is to stop the destructive action of the embryo’s surrounding tissues, which have attached to the fallopian tube and will lead to the rupture of the tube and the loss of the embryo, as well as creating a potentially fatal, or at least very critical, condition for the mother.
  2. The Good Effect Must Be Intended and the Bad Effect Merely Foreseen: The intent here is to prevent the rupture of the fallopian tube and its results; the foreseen, but unintended, bad effect is the demise of the embryo.
  3. The Bad Effect Cannot Be the Cause of the Good Effect: The bad effect (death of the embryo) is not the cause of the maternal cure; rather, stopping the invasive cells is the cause.
  4. The Good Effect Must Be Proportionate to the Bad Effect: Preventing the death of the mother and therefore the deaths of both mother and child together has a moral value not any less significant than the indirect and unintended loss of the embryo.
  5. There are other ethicists who disagree. They deny that methotrexate is morally permissible because they view the surrounding tissue, and the ensuing placenta, as a vital organ of the fetus, essential to providing nourishment and protection. They would hold that stopping the development of such tissue is intending to stop the development of a vital organ of the embryo, which is to intend the death of the embryo. …

    In summary, then, there are two opinions on Methotrexate: one is that it is licit to use, as it releases the trophoblast (the layer of cells over the blastocyst, where the newly fertilized egg will implant) and secondarily impacts the embryo. The other is that it attacks a vital organ of the embryo: the trophoblast, which will become the placenta (thus, not licit). The Magisterium has not spoken on this matter specifically, so individuals must make a conscientious and informed decision.

    Father Tad, since there are faithful Catholic ethicists who hold each viewpoint in this important matter, could you share what you personally believe?

    I personally believe the use of methotrexate in ectopic pregnancy is never morally defensible and represents an action directed against the body-person of the growing human being.

    In my discussions with physicians, they acknowledge that methotrexate affects not only the trophoblast, but also the bodily tissues of the embryo itself that are rapidly dividing, and for this reason there is the danger of birth defects associated with its use. Hence I believe administration of the drug constitutes a direct attack on the embryo and is never morally permissible if the embryo is alive. …

    For more information, refer to Fr. Tad Pacholczyk’s longer article on ectopic pregnancy.

About eight years ago, we noted that:

British philosopher Philippa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem [has been] extensively analyzed over the last half century in the literature of both academic moral philosophy as well as the Halachah

Foot actually introduced the Trolley Problem (along with the “Fat Man in the Mouth of the Cave” and sundry other moral dilemmas) in a paper titled The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect:

What I want to do is to look at one particular theory, known as the `doctrine of the double effect’ which is invoked by Catholics in support of their views on abortion but supposed by them to apply elsewhere. As used in the abortion argument this doctrine has often seemed to non-Catholics to be a piece of complete sophistry. In the last number of the Oxford Review it was given short shrift by Professor Hart. And yet this principle has seemed to some non-Catholics as well as to Catholics to stand as the only defense against decisions on other issues that are quite unacceptable. It will help us in our difficulty about abortion if this conflict can be resolved.

The doctrine of the double effect is based on a distinction between what a man foresees as a result of his voluntary action and what, in the strict sense, he intends. He intends in the strictest sense both those things that he aims at as ends and those that he aims at as means to his ends. The latter may be regretted in themselves but nevertheless desired for the sake of the end, as we may intend to keep dangerous lunatics confined for the sake of our safety. By contrast a man is said not strictly, or directly, to intend the foreseen consequences of his voluntary actions where these are neither the end at which he is aiming nor the means to this end. Whether the word ‘intention’ should be applied in both cases is not of course what matters: Bentham spoke of ‘oblique intention’, contrasting it with the ‘direct intention’ of ends and means, and we may as well follow his terminology. Everyone must recognize that some such distinction can be made, though it may be made in a number of different ways, and it is the distinction that is crucial to the doctrine of the double effect. The words ‘double effect’ refer to the two effects that an action may produce: the one aimed at, and the one foreseen but in no way desired. By ‘the doctrine of the double effect’ I mean the thesis that it is sometimes permissible to bring about by oblique intention what one may not directly intend. Thus the distinction is held to be relevant to moral decision in certain difficult cases. It is said for instance that the operation of hysterectomy involves the death of the foetus as the foreseen but not strictly or directly intended consequence of the surgeon’s act, while other operations kill the child and count as the direct intention of taking an innocent life, a distinction that has evoked particularly bitter reactions on the part of non-Catholics. If you are permitted to bring about the death of the child, what does it matter how it is done? The doctrine of the double effect is also used to show why in another case, where a woman in labor will die unless a craniotomy operation is performed; the intervention is not to be condoned. There, it is said, we may not operate but must let the mother die. We foresee her death but do not directly intend it, whereas to crush the skull of the child would count as direct intention of its death.

This last application of the doctrine has been queried by Professor Hart on the ground that the child’s death is not strictly a means to saving the mother’s life and should logically be treated as an unwanted but foreseen consequence by those who make use of the distinction between direct and oblique intention. To interpret the doctrine in this way is perfectly reasonable given the language that has been used; it would, however, make nonsense of it from the beginning. A certain event may be desired under one of its descriptions, unwanted under another, but we cannot treat these as two different events, one of which is aimed at and the other not. And even if it be argued that there are here two different events-the crushing of the child’s skull and its death-the two are obviously much too close for an application of the doctrine of the double effect. To see how odd it would be to apply the principle like this we may consider the story,well known to philosophers, of the fat man stuck in the mouth of the cave. A party of potholers has imprudently allowed the fat man to lead them as they make their way out of the cave, and he gets stuck, trapping the others behind him. Obviously the right thing to do is to sit down and wait until the fat man grows thin; but philosophers have arranged that flood waters should be rising within the cave. Luckily (luckily?) the trapped party have with them a stick of dynamite with which they can blast the fat man out of the mouth of the cave. Either they use the dynamite or they drown. In one version the fat man, whose head is in the cave, will drown with them; in the other he will be rescued in due course. Problem: may they use the dynamite or not? Later we shall find parallels to this example. Here it is introduced for light relief and because it will serve to show how ridiculous one version of the doctrine of the double effect would be. For suppose that the trapped explorers were to argue that the death of the fat man might be taken as a merely foreseen consequence of the act of blowing him up. (‘We didn’t want to kill him . . . only to blow him into small pieces’ or even ‘. . . only to blast him out of the cave.’) I believe that those who use the doctrine of the double effect would rightly reject such a suggestion,2 though they will, of course, have considerable difficulty in explaining where the line is to be drawn. What is to be the criterion of `closeness’ if we say that anything very close to what we are literally aiming at counts as if part of our aim?

Let us leave this difficulty aside and return to the arguments for and against the doctrine, supposing it to be formulated in the way considered most effective by its supporters, and ourselves bypassing the trouble by taking what must on any reasonable definition be clear cases of ‘direct’ or `oblique’ intention.

The first point that should be made clear, in fairness to the theory, is that no one is suggesting that it does not matter what you bring about as long as you merely foresee and do not strictly intend the evil that follows. We might think, for instance, of the (actual) case of wicked merchants selling, for cooking, oil they knew to be poisonous and thereby killing a number of innocent people, comparing and contrasting it with that of some unemployed gravediggers, desperate for custom, who got hold of this same oil and sold it (or perhaps they secretly gave it away) in order to create orders for graves. They strictly (directly) intend the deaths they cause, while the merchants could say that it was not part of their plan that anyone should die. In morality, as in law, the merchants, like the gravediggers, would be considered as murderers; nor are the supporters of the doctrine of the double effect bound to say that there is the least difference between them in respect of moral turpitude. What they are committed to is the thesis that sometimes it makes a difference to the permissibility of an action involving harm to others that this harm, although foreseen, is not part of the agent’s direct intention. An end such as earning one’s living is clearly not such as to justify either the direct or oblique intention of the death of innocent people, but in certain cases one is justified in bringing about knowingly what one could not directly intend.

It is now time to say why this doctrine should be taken seriously in spite of the fact that it sounds rather odd, that there are difficulties about the distinction on which it depends, and that it seemed to yield one sophistical conclusion when applied to the problem of abortion. The reason for its appeal is that its opponents have often seemed to be committed to quite indefensible views. Thus the controversy has raged around examples such as the following. Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob has five hostages, so that in both the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five. The question is why we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that the innocent man could be framed. It may be suggested that the special feature of the latter case is that it involves the corruption of justice, and this is, of course, very important indeed. But if we remove that special feature, supposing that some private individual is to kill an innocent person and pass him off as the criminal we still find ourselves horrified by the idea. The doctrine of double effect offers us a way out of the difficulty, insisting that it is one thing to steer towards someone foreseeing that you will kill him and another to aim at his death as part of your plan. Moreover there is one very important element of good in what is here insisted. In real life it would hardly ever be certain that the man on the narrow track would be killed. Perhaps he might find a foothold on the side of the tunnel and cling on as the vehicle hurtled by. The driver of the tram does not then leap off and brain him with a crowbar. The judge, however, needs the death of the innocent man for his (good) purposes. If the victim proves hard to hang he must see to it that he dies another way. To choose to execute him is to choose that this evil shall come about, and this must therefore count as a certainty in weighing up the good and evil involved. The distinction between direct and oblique intention is crucial here, and is of great importance in an uncertain world. Nevertheless this is no way to defend the doctrine of double effect. For the question is whether the difference between aiming at something and obliquely intending it is in itself relevant to moral decisions; not whether it is important when correlated with a difference of certainty in the balance of good and evil. Moreover we are particularly interested in the application of the doctrine of the double effect to the question of abortion, and no one can deny that in medicine there are sometimes certainties so complete that it would be a mere quibble to speak of the `probable outcome’ of this course of action or that. It is not, therefore, with a merely philosophical interest that we should put aside the uncertainty and scrutinize the examples to test the doctrine of the double effect. Why can we not argue from the case of the steering driver to that of the judge?

Another pair of examples poses a similar problem. We are about to give a patient who needs it to save his life a massive dose of a certain drug in short supply. There arrive, however, five other patients each of whom could be saved by one-fifth of that dose. We say with regret that we cannot spare our whole supply of the drug for a single patient, just as we should say that we could not spare the whole resources of a ward for one dangerously ill individual when ambulances arrive bringing in victims of a multiple crash. We feel bound to let one man die rather than many if that is our only choice. Why then do we not feel justified in killing people in the interests of cancer research or to obtain, let us say, spare parts for grafting on to those who need them? We can suppose, similarly, that several dangerously ill people can be saved only if we kill a certain individual and make a serum from his dead body. (These examples are not over-fanciful considering present controversies about prolonging the life of mortally ill patients whose eyes or kidneys are to be used for others.) Why cannot we argue from the case of the scarce drug to that of the body needed for medical purposes? Once again the doctrine of the double effect comes up with an explanation. In one kind of case but not the other we aim at the death of an innocent man.

A further argument suggests that if the doctrine of the double effect is rejected this has the consequences of putting us hopelessly in the power of bad men. Suppose for example that some tyrant should threaten to torture five men if we ourselves would not torture one. Would it be our duty to do so, supposing we believed him, because this would be no different from choosing to rescue five men from his torturers rather than one? If so, anyone who wants us to do something we think wrong has only to threaten that otherwise he himself will do something we think worse. A mad murderer, known to keep his promises, could thus make it our duty to kill some innocent citizen to prevent him from killing two. From this conclusion we are again rescued by the doctrine of the double effect. If we refuse, we foresee that the greater number will be killed but we do not intend it: it is he who intends (that is strictly or directly intends) the death of innocent persons; we do not.

At one time I thought that these arguments in favor of the doctrine of the double effect were conclusive,but I now believe that the conflict should be solved in another way. …

Some of Foot’s dilemmas are directly addressed in our classic sources. One of the most fundamental of these to the entire system of Jewish ethics is the Threatening Tyrant, various versions of which are discussed in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Palestinian Talmud, and Genesis Rabbah:

וכן נשים שאמרו להן גוים ע”א תנו לנו אחת מכם ונטמאה ואם לאו הרי אנו מטמאין כולכם יטמאו את כולן ואל ימסרו להם נפש אחת מישראל:3

סיעה של בני אדם שאמרו להם נכרים תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרגהו ואם לאו הרי אנו הורגין את כולן יהרגו כולן ואל ימסרו להם נפש אחת מישראל אבל אם ייחדוהו להם כגון שיחדו לשבע בן בכרי יתנוהו להם ואל יהרגו

א”ר יהודה במה דדברים אמורים בזמן שהוא [מבפנים והן] מבחוץ אבל בזמן שהוא מבפנים והם מבפנים הואיל והוא נהרג והן נהרגין יתנוהו להן ואל יהרגו כולן וכן הוא אומר (שמואל ב:כ) ותבא האשה אל כל העם בחכמתה וגו’ אמרה להם הואיל והוא נהרג ואתם נהרגין תנוהו להם ואל תהרגו כולכם ר”ש אומר כך אמרה [להם] כל המורד במלכות [בית דוד] חייב מיתה.4

תני סיעות בני אדם שהיו מהלכין בדרך פגעו להן גוים ואמרו תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרוג אותו ואם לאו הרי אנו הורגים את כולכם אפילו כולן נהרגים לא ימסרו נפש אחת מישראל ייחדו להן אחד כגון שבע בן בכרי ימסרו אותו ואל ייהרגו

א”ר שמעון בן לקיש והוא שיהא חייב מיתה כשבע בן בכרי ורבי יוחנן אמר אף על פי שאינו חייב מיתה כשבע בן בכרי

עולא בר קושב תבעתיה מלכותא ערק ואזיל ליה ללוד גבי ריב”ל אתון ואקפון מדינתא אמרו להן אין לית אתון יהבון ליה לן אנן מחרבין מדינתא סלק גביה ריב”ל ופייסיה ויהביה לון והוה אליהו זכור לטוב יליף מתגלי עלוי ולא אתגלי וצם כמה צומין ואיתגלי עלוי אמר ליה ולמסורות אני נגלה א”ל ולא משנה עשיתי א”ל וזו משנת החסידים5

תני, סיעה של בני אדם, שאמרו להם גוים תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרגנו ואם לאו אנו הורגים אתכם, יהרגו כולם ואל ימסרו נפש אחת מישראל! ואם יחדוהו להן כשבע בן בכרי, נותנין ואל יהרגו כולם.

אר’ יהודה: במה דברים אמורים? בזמן שהוא מבפנים והן מבחוץ, אבל הוא מבפנים והן מבפנים, הואיל והוא נהרג והן נהרגים, יתנו להם ואל יהרגו כולם, כגון: שהוא אומר (שם כ): ותבא האשה אל כל העם, הואיל והוא נהרג ואתם נהרגים, תנוהו להם, ואל תהרגו כלכם.

ר’ שמעון אומר: כל המורד במלכות בית דוד חייב מיתה.

עולא בן קישר תבעתיה מלכותא קם וערק לגבי רבי יהושע בן לוי ללוד. שדר פרדיסקי בתריה. איטפל ליה רבי יהושע בן לוי ופייסיה. ואמר ליה: (מוטל) [לכאורה צ”ל מוטב] דלקטיל ההוא גברא, ולא ליענשי ציבורא על ידיה. איפייס ליה ויהבי ניהליה, הוה קא משתעי אליהו בהדיה, כיון דעביד הכי, לא אתא לגביה. צם עלוי תלתין יומין ואתחזי ליה. אמר ליה: מאי טעמא אפגר מר? אמר לו: וכי חבר אני למוסרת?! אמר לו: ולא מתניתא היא, סיע של בני אדם וכו’? אמר: וכי משנת חסידים היא?! מיבעי להאי מלתא מתעבדא על ידי אחריני, ולא על ידך.6

These scenarios were unfortunately not merely theoretical or limited to ancient history; Rav Yoel Sirkes (the Bah) discusses a Christian libel in the city of Kalush, around the turn of the seventeenth century, of host desecration or a similar offense against a certain Jew, in the course of which an ultimatum was issued to the leaders of the Jewish community that if they did not produce the accused and turn him over to the authorities, they would be punished in his stead:

על דבר עלילות שקר שהעלילו בעיר קאליש על יהודי אחד בדבר גואל [=פסל] שלהם ותפשוהו, ובשעה שהוליכוהו לקח כיסו ומסרוהו לבני ברית, שהיה בתוך אסיפת הגוים רבים בשעת הולכתו, והיו שם חמיו וגיסו.

ועתה לאחר שקידש את השם, חזרו המעללים לתבוע את הקהל בטענה שחמיו שהוא שמש של הקהל לקח הכיס מיד הנתפס, ובכיס היה הגואל, ופסקו השרים בחצר המלך שהראשים מחוייבים להעמיד את השמש למשפט בפני הוואייוודא”י, ואם לא יעמידוהו למשפט יכנסו המה תחתיו לכל עונשים שיצאו מפי המלך.

ושמש זה כבר ברח ונמלט ונטמן אצל יהודי אחד, ובאם יעמידוהו לפניהם למשפט יש לחוש שמא חס ושלום יביאוהו לידי עינויים שלא כפי הדין של נימוסיהם, וכאשר עשו בפסק זה שפסקו על הקהל, כי לפי דתיהם ונימוסיהם לא התחייבו הקהל למשפט, וכיון דראינו שעושין כפי רצונם שלא כדת איכא סכנת נפשות כשיעמידוהו למשפט. מה הדין האיש הלז, אם יש היתר להעמידו למשפט אם לאו.7

The seventeenth century Lithuanian scholar Rav Hillel b. Naftali Hertz discusses a similar case, of an allegation against a girl that she had promised a certain non-Jew that she would apostasize and marry him. When the girl’s uncle learned of the danger she faced as a consequence of this allegation, he spirited her out of the jurisdiction of the local ruler, who proceeded to seize the rabbi and the [leaders of] the community, and demand that they produce the girl (who bitterly protested her innocence, denying that she had ever discussed such a thing with the non-Jew):

נשאלתי בבתולה אחת שהיה אצל דודה בקהל אחד והעליל עליה עכו”ם אחד שהבטיחה אותו שלעבור על דת יהודית ולהיות לו לאשה. וכשנודע לדודה שהעליל עליה שלחה להקהלה אחרת תחת ממשלת שר אחר. ואחר כך כשראה העכו”ם הנ”ל שנשתלחה הלך אצל השר ותפס השר את הרב והקהל יצ”ו באומרו להעמיד הבתולה לפניו למשפט. והנה שלחו הרב והקהל הנ”ל אלי שישלח הבתולה לעירם כדי להעמיד לפני השר למשפט ולהציל את עצמם מהתפיסה והבתולה צעקה במר נפשה שלא דברה עם העכו”ם מעולם מעסק זה שום דבר וחצי דבר.

והנה שלחתי השאלה הנ”ל לבית דין הגדול לק”ק בריסק דליטא וכתבו אלי מה נדע אשר לא תדע. …8

We will, בג”ה, continue to consider the approaches of halachah to the various moral dilemmas raised here in one or more follow-up posts.

  1. Thomas A. Cavanaugh, Aquinas’s Account of Double Effect []
  2. Blowing up the fat man with the dynamite seems quite analogous to the shooting of an attacker at close range with a flame-thrower discussed by McMahan, who apparently assumes that Aquinas would indeed allow such forms of self-defense. Foot, like Cavanaugh, assumes that these actions would constitute intentional homicide and would be prohibited under the double effect doctrine. []
  3. תרומות ח:יב []
  4. תוספתא שם ז:כג []
  5. ירושלמי שם מז.‏ []
  6. בראשית רבה ויגש סוף פרשה צ”ד []
  7. שו”ת הב”ח הישנות סימן מ”ג []
  8. בית הלל יו”ד סימן קנ”ז ס”ק ה’‏ []

Tortious Malediction

For S.B., who is a blessing, not a curse.

Prof. Eugene Volokh:

Prayer as Attempted Murder?

A reader asks an interesting question:

Some Christian Reconstructionists are urging their fellows to pray for the death of John McCain so that Sarah Palin will be become President. [Example here.] Are those who pray for McCain’s death guilty of attempted murder, and are those urging them to do so guilty of incitement? It seems to me that they are. Although I don’t believe that their prayers can have any effect, it seems to me that this falls into the same category as the oft-discussed firing of an unloaded gun or firing a gun into a bed that turns out to be empty. The intent to kill is present and an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal. Christians should presumably be all the more clear that this is attempted murder insofar as they believe prayer to be efficacious.

This, it seems to me, is a good illustration of the limits of analogy. It’s true that asking someone to commit murder may well constitute attempted murder (as well as the crime of solicitation). The test for attempt is generally not just that “an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal” — different jurisdictions require different amounts of conduct, but all require more than just “an action” for an attempt prosecution (as opposed to for a conspiracy prosecution, where an agreement plus an overt act, even a relatively minor one, generally suffices). But when a person has asked another human being to commit the crime, especially when he hopes that the other person will commit the act with no further help from the requester, that would usually qualify. And indeed it generally doesn’t matter if it turns out that the request couldn’t possibly work, for instance because the person asked would never commit the crime, or was accidentally given an unloaded gun, or some such.
But people aren’t the same as God, either to atheists or to religious people. One way of seeing that is that God’s action wouldn’t be illegal. To those who believe in God, as he is conceptualized by most Americans, God’s action wouldn’t even be immoral. (It’s true that some people say “If God killed people for this-and-such, he would be evil,” but usually they are people who don’t believe that God does that.) It would be within his authority as, in a sense, the ultimate sovereign of the world.
In fact, if there is an analogy here, it would probably be to a petition to the President asking him to order an assassination that he could lawfully order (or, as to the other part of the reader’s question, to exhortations to the public aimed at getting people to petition the President to order such an assassination). I would say that it’s even legal to petition the President to order assassinations that are illegal; but, as I said, there’s nothing illegal in God’s hastening someone’s death.
We could try to come up with precise constitutional foundations for this, for instance that the request to the President is protected by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, and that a request to God is protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Or we could focus on a legal distinction between asking someone to do something that is legal for him (or Him) to do from asking a contract killer to do something that is illegal for him to do. Or we could focus more practically on the relative unlikelihood that a person who tries to cause death by prayer will switch to a gun if prayer fails. (That’s one reason we punish attempted killers even when their attempts were factually impossible, for instance because the gun is unloaded: We figure they are quite likely to try with a loaded gun next time.) But we don’t have to choose, because all these factors strongly point in the same direction, and strongly suggest that asking God to end a person’s life is very far from asking an acquaintance or a prospective contract killer to do the same.
(I should note that there has been a little judicial commentary on attempts to kill by voodoo or witchcraft, as best I can tell unanimously opposing criminal liability in such situations. See Commonwealth v. Johnson, 167 A. 344 (Pa. 1933) (Maxey, J., dissenting); Attorney General v. Sillem, 159 Eng. Rep. 178 (1863). But I’m not sure this is a perfect analogy, either, and in any event there’s not much real law on that.)

I imagine that what little law there is in this area will concern crimes such as attempted murder, as the law will generally not (at least in the modern era) recognize any actual supernatural causation of harm. Halachah, by contrast, has no general crime of attempted murder (עדים זוממין being a notable exception), but on the other hand, mainstream halachists typically do believe in the possibility of supernatural causation of harm. [In fact, contrary to what I assume is the markedly negative direction of the historical trajectory of belief in the supernatural within the secular juridical profession, belief in the supernatural is arguably more widespread among contemporary halachists than it was, say, among their medieval counterparts, during the heyday of Jewish rationalism.]

The question of the halachic liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means was first considered in a terse responsum of Rav Ya’akov Hagiz, which suggests the possibility (“אפשר”) that murder via [the utterance of] a [Divine] Name, or sorcery, is analogous to, inter alia, killing via a fired arrow, as per the Biblical expression “Their tongue is as an arrow shot out”:

שאלה ההורג נפש על ידי שם או כישוף מהו.
תשובה אפשר דכיון דבדבורו עביד מעשה הו”ל דומיא דמימר וכזורק חץ להורגו ועליהם נאמר חץ שחוט לשונם (תלים קכ”ז) [ירמיה ט:ז].1

Rav Yehudah Assad accepts this position unreservedly:

ועל דבר מי שהרג נפש מישראל על ידי שם או כישוף פשיטא מלתא דחייב כמו שהבאת בשם תשובת הלכות קטנות .. וטעמ’ נראה לי דקרא כתיב ומכה אדם יומת.
והנה במרע”ה מצינו שהכה בשבט פיו ובשפתיו המית רשע כמאז”ל ופירש”י הלהרגני אתה אומר כאשר הרגת את כו’ שהרגו בשם המפורש וכתיב ביה לשון ויך את המצרי אם כן גם כה”ג במשמע ובכלל מכה אדם יומת הוא כיון דבדיבוריה עביד מעשה היינו הורגו בידים וחייב עליו כנ”ל.2

Rav Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) has a lengthy discussion of this general question; his conclusion distinguishes between the reliable harnessing of preexisting paranormal forces, where he strongly feels that the causation of harm is considered the invoker’s action, and the request or instigation of the Heavenly Court to impose punishment upon another, which he considers to be merely indirect causation (גרמא):

ונראה דדוקא תפלה או קללה שאינו מובטח שתפעיל [רק בהסכמת הבית דין של מעלה באותה שעה על ידי זה נענש הלה] דכל כה”ג לא מחשב מעשה של המקלל רק מעשה בית דין של מעלה אבל קללה בהאי רגע דאז כביכול זה כבר הובטח מתחילת הבריאה דזה מועיל ומשום הכי נחשב “מעשה דידיה” היינו מעשה של המקלל עצמו ולא רק כגורם שהבית דין של מעלה יענשו …
וממוצא דבר יתבאר שמכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל אין ראיה לנדון הלכות קטנות שהורג על ידי שם או כישוף דכאן כבר נגזר משמים באופן הכרחי שהשבעה כזו או כישוף כזה תהרוג ומתייחס ההריגה לאדם העושה את ההשבעה או הכישוף ומחשב רוצח גמור כדברי הלכות קטנות, ואינו דומה לכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל שהבית דין של מעלה גומרין הדבר על ידי פסק דין של מעלה והאדם הלייט אינו אלא גרמא וכנ”ל, כנלענ”ד בירורא דהאי מילתא.3

I recently gave a lecture which began with a survey of the various opinions in our tradition as to whether Balaam’s curses, and curses in general, actually have any supernatural power to cause harm, and proceeded to a discussion of the above sources on criminal and civil liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means, and related topics; a recording of it, as well as my notes on the topic, are available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת הלכות קטנות ב:צח – קשר. []
  2. תשובת מהרי”א / יהודה יעלה אוח:קצט ד”ה ועל דבר מי שהרג – קשר. []
  3. קהלות יעקב בבא קמא (הוצאה שניה: בני ברק תשמ”ח) סוף סימן מ”ה (“בדבר מזיק על ידי סגולה”) עמודים קמג-מד. ועיין חבצלת השרון (ירושלים תשס”ו) שמות עמוד לו; עם התורה מהדורא ב’ חוברת י”ג תשמ”ז עמוד יג – קשר. []

The Pious Poisoner

We have previously seen various cases in the Halachic literature of wives poisoning their husbands; I recently came across this dramatic tale, out of the eighteenth century Ottoman Empire (translated from the original in Spanish, from “Barbaria”):


מארץ ישמעאל. משרת יהודי אחד העיד שהיה בעיר פלונית ושמה היו יושבים שלשה תפוסים ונהרגו שנים על ידי יסורים קשים ומרים וכאשר ראה השלישי גודל יסורים של אלו הסכים בדעתו להפך עצמו לדת הישמעאלים ואשתו היתה מביאו לו תמיד מאכל ומשקה כאשר שמעה כן אז ביום ד’ בלילה אור ליום ה’ האכילה אותו סם המות וביום ה’ יצא הקול מהישמעאלים שמת בתפיסה והתחילו להכותו אחר מותו כי נסתפקו שעושה עצמו כאילו מת ועדיין חי הוא וכאשר ראו שאמת שמת היו מרננים להעליל על האשה והחביאה עצמה בהחבא

והיה מונח בהתפיסה ושום יהודי לא בא שמה עד שעל פי פעולות ביום א’ קודם הלילה ניתן רשיון והלכו היהודים להתפיסה ולקחו אותו משם ועדיין היה מלובש בבגדיו וקברו אותו והמשרת הנ”ל ראה אותו והכירו כי כל פרצוף פנים היה שלם בלי שום חבלה וגם הכיר כל בגדיו שהיה מלובש בהם שהם שלו. כן העיד המשרת הנ”ל.

גם האשה בעצמה העידה כי גם היא היתה בשעת קבורה בצינעה והכירה את בעלה גם הכירה המלבושים שאלו המלבושים היה לבוש בשעה שהאכילה אותו סם המות כנ”ל.

עכ”ל הגביית בית דין הנשלח מברבריאה, הועתק מכתב ספרדי לכתב שלנו:


והנה מדי עברי פה ק”ק זסלב הובא השאלה הנ”ל לפני. ומה שמסתפק בשאלה הנ”ל תרתי קיוהי קחזינא חדא דהוי קטטה בינו לבינה ואפילו המקילים במומר דלא הוי קטטה טעמייהו משום דהיכא דארגיל איהו קטטה לא אמרינו דמשקרא אבל כאן שהאכילה אותו סם אין לך מרגלת קטטה יותר מזה …1

We are not told the woman’s motive: anger at her husband for planning to abandon Judaism, worry over becoming an Agunah, or even concern for the state of her husband’s immortal soul, along the lines of the celebrated Jewish cry of “או יהודי או צלוב”; the latter is the suggestion of the חן טוב:

עוד נראה דגם להמחמירין במומר אין זה בכלל קטטה דאדרבא היא סברה דטבא ליה עבדא ליה מוטב שימות זכאי ומאין הרגלים לחושדה שדעתה קלה באיסור אשת איש …2

[We have previously considered the legitimacy of resorting to murder to save the victim from apostasy.]

  1. שו”ת נודע ביהודה (קמא) אה”ע סימן ל”ח – קשר []
  2. חן טוב – זבד טוב, ס”ק קנ”ג – קשר, הובא בלקוטי הערות על הנודע ביהודה מהדורת מכון ירושלים, ובאוצר הפוסקים אה”ע סימן י”ז ס”ק שס”ד אות ג’ ד”ה אבל בחן טוב []