Follow-Up to a Footnote On Philippa Foot and the Fat Man

Our previous post cited Philippa Foot‘s discussion of “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, 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?

In a footnote to the post, we asserted that:

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.

There are, of course, at least two highly significant distinctions between the two cases:

  • Unlike McMahan’s attacker, the unfortunate fat man stuck in the mouth of the cave has absolutely no malicious intent, and would like nothing better than to extricate himself from his plight (particularly in the case where his head is in the cave and he, too, is doomed to drown).
  • Also unlike McMahan’s attacker, who is threatening to directly cause harm to his victim, the fat man is not the actual cause of the danger to the potholers, but merely an obstacle preventing them from escaping the danger posed by the rising water.

When we asserted that the two cases were “quite analogous”, we merely meant that the degree of intentionality involved in killing the attacker with the flame-thrower and the fat man with the dynamite seemed equivalent, and the two dilemmas should therefore have the same resolution under the doctrine of double effect. From the halachic perspective, however, where the relevant framework is not the doctrine of double effect but the law of רודף, the two aforementioned distinctions are indeed highly significant. The latter distinction, between a direct cause of harm and an obstacle preventing escape from harm, we have previously explored; the former issue of intentionality hinges on the interpretation of the classic if rather laconic Talmudic discussion of aborting a fetus to save the life of the mother:

אמר רב הונא קטן הרודף ניתן להצילו בנפשו קסבר רודף אינו צריך התראה לא שנא גדול ולא שנא קטן

Rav Huna says: If a minor was pursuing another person in order to kill him, the pursued party may be saved with the pursuer’s life. That is to say, one is permitted to save the pursued party by killing the minor who is pursuing him, and one does not say that since the minor lacks halakhic competence, he is not subject to punishment. The Gemara explains: Rav Huna maintains that a pursuer, in general, does not require forewarning, and there is no difference with regard to this matter between an adult and a minor. The essence of the matter is rescuing the pursued party from death, and therefore the pursuer’s liability to receive the death penalty is irrelevant.

איתיביה רב חסדא לרב הונא יצא ראשו אין נוגעין בו לפי שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש ואמאי רודף הוא שאני התם דמשמיא קא רדפי לה

Rav Ḥisda raised an objection to Rav Huna from a baraita: If a woman was giving birth and her life was being endangered by the fetus, the life of the fetus may be sacrificed in order to save the mother. But once his head has emerged during the birthing process, he may not be harmed in order to save the mother, because one life may not be pushed aside to save another life. If one is permitted to save the pursued party by killing the minor who is pursuing him, why is this so? The fetus is a pursuer who is endangering his mother’s life. The Gemara answers: This is not difficult, as it is different there, with regard to the woman giving birth, since she is being pursued by Heaven. Since the fetus is not acting of his own volition and endangering his mother of his own will, his life may not be taken in order to save his mother.1

The question of whether the status of רודף applies to an unintentional pursuer thus hinges on the meaning of the evocative but difficult to translate phrase דמשמיא קא רדפי לה. The above translation (by R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz) assumes that the Talmud is excluding from the category of רודף one who does not act of his own volition, but this is actually not at all clear; the precise meaning of the phrase is considered by Rav Noson Nota Kahana of Ostroh in his classic responsum regarding the heartbreaking case of a woman hiding from murderous enemies (presumably during the terrors of Tach Vetat) whose infant began to wail, creating the risk of the discovery of her hiding place by the enemy. The mother therefore “killed the child, saying better that one should die than two”, but was subsequently struck with remorse over the enormity of what she had done, and wondered whether she required repentance / penance:

שאלה. אשה שברחה והמליטה על נפשה מפני רעש מהומת רקים פוחזים, ועמה ולד שלה היה עדיין בן שלשים, ויהי בהרימו את קולו הולד בבכי, מתיירא לנפשה פן יוודע להרקים את מקומה, ותסתכן למיתה כאשר עללו ולא חמלו ועשו כלה להשמיד ולהרוג מנער ועד זקן טף ונשים מעולל ועד יונק, ועל ידי זה המיתה הולד באומרה מוטב שימות א’ ולא שנים. ועתה באה האשה בקול המולה ויללה והיא מר לה, לשאול אם צריכה תשובה או לאו, ע”כ.

תשובה. לכאורה היה נראה דא”צ תשובה דבדין עשתה. חדא דהו”ל הולד רודף דניתן להצילו בנפשו של רודף. …

אכן האמת יורה דרכו דאינו כן, דבסוף פרק [ז’] דאהלות תנן … הרי התם דהולד ממש בגופו רודף להאם דחזינן שתסתכן האם על ידי הולד ותמות בודאי, … ואפילו הכי אין נפש נדחה מפני נפש, והיינו טעמא דאין דין רודף אלא במכוין להורגו וכאן ליכא כוונה כלל וק”ל, מכל שכן בנידון דידן דאינו רודף כל כך כמו התם, דהכא אינו אלא גרם למיתתה על ידי השמעת קולו בבכי, דכל שכן הוא דאין נפש נדחה מפני נפש, וק”ל.

R. Kahana then introduces the Talmudic passage, and initially apparently construes the phrase משמיא קא רדפי לה quite narrowly, assuming that this exception from the category of רודף would not extend to the crying infant, who would indeed have the status of רודף despite his lack of volition:

הגם דבפרק בן סורר ומורה … משמע התם דאפילו קטן כשהוא רודף ניתן להצילו בנפשו של רודף, ודוקא התם המקשה לילד לחוד ביצא ראשו הוא דאסור להציל בנפשו, משום טעמא אחרינא דאית ביה משמיא קא רדפי לה, והאי טעמא לא שייך בנידון דידן דבכיה לאו משמיא הוא, וק”ל.

Ultimately, however, he arrives at a broader understanding of משמיא קא רדפי לה, expanding it beyond its literal meaning (“לאו דוקא”) and indeed equating it with lack of volition, and therefore extending it to the crying infant:

הלא כשתעיין ברמב”ם .. תראה ותבין דאין לחלק, דכתב … וכן נעתק בית יוסף בשלחן ערוך שלו סימן תכ”ה [סעיף ב’] בחו”מ. והנה לכאורה דבריו מגומגמים דלפי טעמא דמותר לחתוך העובר מפני שהוא כרודף, אם כן מהאי טעמא גופא נמי משהוציא ראשו הי”ל להתיר גם כן מפני שהוא כרודף, ואם שזהו טבעו של עולם בכך בביאתו לעולם, אם כן מהאי טעמא נמי אף קודם יציאת ראשו נמי לאו רודף מיקרי, וק”ל.

וצריך לומר דעיקר טעם היתר דקודם יציאת ראשו דמותר לחתוך העובר, משום דלא נקרא נפש (אלא מעים כמש”נ [בראשית כה:כג] ממעיך יפרדו, הרי שקראם מעים), וכן לענין נוגף אשה הרה ויצאו ילדיה דאינו חייב אלא ממון, וכן פירש”י [סנהדרין שם ד”ה יצא] וז”ל

דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו, ע”כ

ולא קשה למה לי טעם להרמב”ם שכתב מפני שהוא כרודף, תיפוק ליה בלאו הכי מטעם דפירשנו, יש לומר לאשמועינן שלא תטעה לומר דשרי לחתוך העובר בבטן אמו אפילו ללא צורך גדול, קמ”ל דאינו כן אלא דוקא לצורך כגון שהוא רודף והיינו במקשה לילד אבל בלאו הכי לא ודו”ק, ואין הכי נמי הרמב”ם קיצר קצת במקום שהיה לו להאריך טפי בטעמא שהי”ל לפרש האי טעמא נמי שאינו נקרא עדיין נפש ופשוט והו”ל לפרש המשך דברינו.

אכן אכתי צריכין לדקדק בסיפא למה לי טעמא דזהו טבעו של עולם, ולא קאמר טעמא האמור בגמרא משמיא קא מרדפי ליה. הן אמת בכסף משנה כתב אהאי טעמא דגמרא משמיא קא רדפי לה,

וזהו שכתב רבינו וזהו טבעו של עולם ע”כ, כלומר דטבעו של עולם הוא היינו דמשמיא הוא הך רדיפא, מכל מקום הי”ל [לומר] לישנא דגמרא. אלא ודאי כוונתו לאשמעינן דלאו דוקא הוא, אלא כל היכא שהוא כעין רודף והיינו שאינו מכוין לרודפו ולהמיתו אלא שהוא על פי הטבע, כמו בנידון דידן שהבכיה של תינוק הוא על פי הטבע דרבייתו כך הוא, שאין כוונתו משום גרם מיתה אלא על פי הטבע שרוצה התינוק לינוק לא מיקרי רודף, וק”ל. …

כלל העולה בידינו שהאשה הזאת לא טוב עשתה בעמו במה שהמיתה הולד דאין לו דין רודף כלל2

A lecture I gave on this topic about seven years ago is available at the Internet Archive, and we shall further consider the question of whether volition is a necessary ingredient for the status of רודף in a follow-up post, בג”ה.

  1. Sanhedrin 72b []
  2. שו”ת דברי רננה (ברוקלין תשמ”ד), סימן נ”ח עמודים רנ-נב []

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’‏ []

The Law of War

My weekly lectures for parashas Shelah (including handouts), on the topic of halachic perspectives on the law of war, are available at the Internet Archive.

I subsequently recorded a lecture on the halachic justifiability of Shimon and Levi’s massacre of Shechem – a (temporally) shorter, and perhaps tighter and more rigorous, treatment of some of the same territory. It, too (along with accompanying notes), is available at the Internet Archive.

In the course of preparing for the latter lecture, I encountered a curious error in an otherwise impressively erudite and comprehensive article by Yechiel Goldhaber. The context is Rambam’s justification for the massacre of Shechem:

וכיצד מצווין הן על הדינין. חייבין להושיב דיינין ושופטים בכל פלך ופלך לדון בשש מצות אלו. ולהזהיר את העם. ובן נח שעבר על אחת משבע מצות אלו יהרג בסייף. [כיצד? אחד העובד עבודה זרה או שברך את השם, או ששפך דם, או שבעל אחת משש עריות שלהם, או שגזל אפילו פחות משווה פרוטה, או שאכל כל שהוא מאבר מן החי או בשר מן החי, או שראה אחד שעבר על אחת מאלו ולא דנו והרגו – הרי זה יהרג בסייף]. ומפני זה נתחייבו כל בעלי שכם הריגה. שהרי שכם גזל והם ראו וידעו ולא דנוהו. ובן נח נהרג בעד אחד ובדיין אחד בלא התראה ועל פי קרובין אבל לא בעדות אשה ולא תדון אשה להם:1

Goldhaber claims:

ביאורו של הרמב”ם לא הובא בשאר ספרי הראשונים [להוציא מושב זקנים], אלא אצל רוב חכמי תימן הקדמונים. אלו שהביאו טעם זה הביאוהו בלשון הרמב”ן.2

This is incorrect; I am not sure whom Goldhaber has in mind by “those who bring this explanation” and what he means by “the language of the Ramban”, but Hizkuni’s language is quite similar to Rambam’s:

ויהרגו כל זכר. לפי שבני נח מצווין להושיב ב”ד בכל פלך ופלך והם ראו שגזל את דינה ולא עשו בו דין3

Ralbag, too, offers (inter alia) this justification for the massacre:

והנה לא היה אפשר להרוג שכם אם לא בזה האופן כי אם יהרגוהו לבדו ינקמו נקמתו אביו וכל יושבי עירו וידם גם כן היה במעל הזה כי היה בידם למחות לו לעשות זה הפועל המגונה או מפני שלא השתדלו שיהיה נהרג עליה במשפט ולזה הרגו כולם4

Ralbag’s first explanation is quite interesting and provocative: Shimon and Levi massacred Hamor and the population of (the city of) Shechem to prevent them from avenging the execution of (the person) Shechem. This seems to be the assertion of a novel and profoundly important extension of the law of the pursuer (רודף): even someone who is not currently engaged in any sort of hostile activity, and has made no declaration of intent to do so in the future, may be killed based upon the mere expectation of his future conduct.

Other Rishonim justify the massacre of Shechem by more traditional applications of the law of רודף:

מושב זקנים

ואם תאמר בשלמא חמור ושכם היו חייבים מיתה, אבל כל בני העיר למה נהרגו. [ובתירוצו הראשון כתב כדברי הרמב”ם ושוב כתב:] ועוד יש לומר שהרגו תחלה חמור, ואחר כך באו בני העיר לעזור לחמור, ועל כן הרגום.5

אור החיים

קשה למה יהרגו מי שלא חטא: ועוד למה לא הקדימו בבעל עבירה תחילה:

אכן הנה בני יעקב לא היה בדעתם להרוג אלא בעל עבירה אלא שכל בני העיר רצו לעמוד בפרץ כנגדם לבל יהרגו מלכם אשר ע”כ הרגום מדין רודף והוא אומר ויהרגו כל זכר ובזה השיגו להרוג את חמור ואת שכם וזולת זה לא היו יכולין לנקום נקם מהמחוייב להם מיתה:

עוד טעם שהרגו כל בני העיר לצד שהם היו בעזר שכם לגזול דינה ובני נח מחוייבים מיתה על הגזל אבל על העריות אין חיוב כי דינה לא היתה אשת איש: …6

In a legendary, possibly apocryphal account of the tragic fate of the Convoy of 35 (מחלקת הל”ה), the brave but humane Israeli fighters seal their own doom by declining to execute one or more Arabs they encounter, who subsequently sound the alarm and trigger the fatal ambush. I have long wondered whether the halachah would have actually allowed the execution of the Arab(s), insofar as their future hostile conduct was foreseeable. Ralbag’s radical extension of the law of רודף would indeed seem to justify such a preemptive execution.

  1. מלכים ט:יד []
  2. יחיאל גולדהבר, מעשה הריגת עיר שכם, עמוד ה’‏ []
  3. חזקוני לד:לא []
  4. רלב”ג וישלח באור הפרשה []
  5. מושב זקנים בראשית לד:לא []
  6. אור החיים בראשית לד:כה []