Just war and justly pro-life

Heavily armed RCMP officers enter a residence during manhunt
 for shooting suspect in Moncton (New Brunswick),
 Thursday, June 5, 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/ THE CANADIAN PRESS)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 18, 2014
Just war and justly pro-life
A friend asked me the following question to challenge my non-pacifist, just war position: How can you be consistently pro-life without also being against the use of lethal force to resolve conflict?
Here’s how: by simultaneously applying two distinctions: (1) absolute vs. prima facie; (2) innocent life vs. life that’s forfeited the right to life.
Human life has great worth, but the prohibition against its destruction isn’t absolute. Sometimes, say, when a murderer is engaged in a shooting spree in a school, a police officer may have to kill the murderer—and this killing is just.
Yes, the shooter has the right to life, but it’s a prima facie right, not an absolute right.
“Prima facie” is Latin for first appearance. In ethics it means duty X is what apparently ought to be done, unless a more pressing duty Y outweighs it. For example, I have a duty to keep my promise to Morgan to meet him for lunch, unless I must save Patricia from drowning while on my way to meet Morgan.
Also, police officers have the duty to protect school shooters, but the duty to innocent students being shot outweighs the duty to the murderer. If lethal force—killing the shooter—is required to defend the lives of innocents, then the shooter forfeits his right to life.
Biblical history provides ample evidence of people who engaged in activities that forfeit their right to life. There are occasions when people are justly killed by God either by natural means (e.g., flood, pestilence) or by human agents of God’s wrath (e.g., the sword of government).
In other words, humans are made in God’s image and thus have great worth, but they aren’t God and thus don’t have absolute worth.
Sadly, if we allow evil aggressors (who require lethal force to be stopped) to murder innocents, that is, if we preclude all lethal police/ military interventions, then we sacrifice innocent lives—people who haven’t forfeited their right to life—to evil forces. This is neither pro-life nor just.
But wait: what about abortionists who kill innocent children? Should I apply lethal force to the abortionists? My answer: No.
There is still some reasonable debate or doubt about whether the unborn in the early stages is an actual human being or person (though the reasonableness of this doubt is shrinking as more science and careful thinking are done), and there are still peaceful means that have promise of success to enable the protection of the unborn (e.g., education, law reform, crisis pregnancy centres).
But in the case of, say, ISIS, there is no reasonable doubt that innocent human persons are being murdered. And there is no reasonable doubt that there aren’t any wholly peaceful means which will actually enable the urgent protection of the men, women, and children who are presently being murdered and targeted for murder. Also, ISIS is clear that the only “peace” it wants is a peace in which all opposition is destroyed.
Unlike the abortion situation, then, with ISIS we have a case in which killers are clearly on a murderous rampage—a rampage whose explicit murderous intent, brutal track record, and dangerous growth make it not at all amenable to being stopped by a non-lethal force.
But how does the just war view relate to the pro-life view on euthanasia? I think that here we have to keep in mind that whereas ISIS has engaged in acts which forfeit their right to life, the elderly and disabled and terminally ill haven’t engaged in acts that forfeit their right to life.
Thus, by making two careful distinctions—absolute vs. prima facie, and innocent life vs. life that’s forfeited the right to life—one can be consistently pro-life and pro-just-war.
Surely it’s reasonable and good—and pro-life—to favour the judicious, wise use of lethal force to protect innocent lives—especially the weak and vulnerable—from murderous aggressors. That’s why we arm police officers.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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