Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1

Feser and Bessette take on this moral question:  Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty?  And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology.  So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward.  What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book.

The closest they come to discussing a respect for man’s inbuilt teleology is when they refer to Immanual Kant’s claim that one must never treat a person as a means to an end (page 63).  Even here, they do not address the situation as philosophers but as debaters: they show that people who hold to Kant’s principle are unwilling to apply it in the case of other punishments, and so they conclude that these people have no grounds for objecting to the case of capital punishment.  But this does not illuminate why Kant’s principle does not exclude capital punishment.  It does not bring out whatever element of truth there might be in Kant’s position and explain why it does not apply to the case at hand.

When John Paul II addressed the issue of respect for life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he did ground the immorality of killing in man’s telos or final goal.  Quoting the CDF’s instruction on respect for life, which in turn echoes Gaudium et Spes 24, he said (EV 53): “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.”

Just a bit further into the encyclical, when he magisterially defines that murder is morally wrong, John Paul II adds a line that sounds remarkably like Kant’s dictum (57):

As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used.

Kant reasoned that I cannot treat my neighbor as a means to my end because my neighbor is an absolute end in himself—and Kant’s argument was wrong.  But it is still true that I cannot treat my neighbor as a means to my end, the Church says, because my neighbor is ordered to God alone as his end.  He cannot be subordinated to any creature.

If killing an innocent human being is wrong because the human person is ordered to God alone, then the big objection to capital punishment must be this:  The guilty person is still ordered to God alone, even when he is guilty.

If Feser and Bessette say that justice by itself is reason enough for capital punishment, the response might be something like this:

Suppose my neighbor has an old junk car in his driveway.  Walking by, I realize that this car is non-functional, good for nothing but scrap anymore.  So I call the junk yard and have the car towed away to be scrapped.  After all, the car deserved nothing other than to be scrapped.  But my neighbor poses this valid objection:  true, the car deserved nothing other than to be scrapped, but it was my car and not yours; it was ordered to my use and not yours.

Here is another example.  When I was a kid, I lived in the country among cats and dogs and chickens and goats and so on.  While the family always had dogs, I owned a little dog that was all my own.  One day, my little dog went across the street and killed the neighbor’s chicken.  Now, I understood and accepted the law of the land:  once a dog had killed a chicken it would kill a chicken again, so the dog was worse than useless and had to die.  However, I tied my dog up so that it couldn’t kill any more chickens while I tried to locate someone in the city willing to adopt a chicken-eater.

During the night, my neighbor snuck into my yard, took the dog away, and killed it.  When I found out, I was outraged—not because the dog had died.  Hey, that chicken-eater had it coming.  But I was outraged because it was my dog, not my neighbor’s.  It was for me to dispose of, not for my neighbor.

The application should be obvious:  the criminal deserves to die.  What of it?  His life is not ours; it is for God alone to dispose of.  The human person has his own movements and his own possessions at his disposal, and he can even waste them if he wants; but his life is not at his disposal, and he can’t commit suicide for any reason.  In a parallel way, if the human person hurts people then the state can take away his movements or his possessions, but the state cannot take away his life for any reason.

Or if someone argues that we can inflict capital punishment as a way of defending society, the response might be this:

The reason we think we can kill a dog that eats chickens is because dogs, like other animals, are generally ordered not just to God’s glory but also to the use of men.  So when a dog comes into conflict with man’s good, man can morally kill the dog.  If we reason that we can kill a man because he has come into conflict with the good of other men, aren’t we subordinating his life to other men as a means to an end?

The fact that Feser and Bessette never raise the issue of man’s telos means that they never respond adequately to these objections.  In my view, one key to responding to these objections is another topic Feser and Bessette omit—but I’ll get to that in an upcoming post.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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