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Chapter 8: Life, Health, and Bodily Inviolability

Question C: When Is It Wrong to Accept or Risk Death as a Side Effect?

People intentionally kill only in willing death as an end or choosing it as a means. So, even if one knowingly brings about someone’s death as a side effect, one is not responsible for intentional killing if one neither wants the death nor chooses to kill. However, since side effects can be avoided by choosing not to do the act of which they are consequences, a person has some responsibility for any death foreseen as resulting, or possibly resulting, from carrying out a choice.

Accepting death as a side effect means making and carrying out a choice to do something other than kill and with a purpose other than death, but with the expectation that a death, one’s own or another’s, will result. Risking death as a side effect is similar, but the expectation is that someone’s death might result.

Responsibility in accepting or risking death as a side effect is not always guilt, because such a will is not always wrong. Jesus freely accepted death, and every Christian should be prepared to follow him and die a martyr. Moreover, it is impossible to avoid all foreseen risks to life, since virtually any form of work, play, travel, or other activity carries some risk. The question is: What factors distinguish between cases in which it is wrong to accept or risk death as a side effect and those in which it is morally acceptable or even obligatory?

1. Norms for Accepting or Not Accepting Death as a Side Effect

It always is wrong to accept one’s own or another’s death as a side effect of doing something that would be wrong in any case. The instance in which it clearly is praiseworthy to accept death as a side effect is that in which one’s own death is accepted in the line of duty or in doing some work of mercy. In other cases, fairness usually excludes accepting another’s death as a side effect of doing something otherwise morally good or even obligatory. But another’s death sometimes may be accepted as a side effect, for example, of the defensive use of deadly force. Still, it is not always right to accept death as a side effect even of efforts to serve genuine human goods or prevent real human evils.

a) Accepting death as a side effect of any sin is wrongful killing. If it is foreseen that a prospective act will cause someone’s death, that is a reason not to do it. The act, then, cannot rightly be chosen unless one has a morally acceptable reason to do it. But although a person can have strong motives, including reasons, to sin, there never can be a morally acceptable reason to do so. Therefore, one is guilty of wrongful killing whenever, in doing something that is sinful even apart from its deadly effect, one accepts someone’s death. For example, if Frank, accused of murdering Rosa, lies to save his life, knowing the lie will lead to Marvin’s death, Frank is guilty of Marvin’s death, since the lie is wrong in itself, and so cannot be chosen for any reason whatever that would justify accepting anyone’s death.

b) Unfairly accepting another’s death is wrongful killing. If it is foreseen that a prospective act, even though otherwise morally acceptable, will result in someone’s death, the question is whether accepting that death is fair and merciful. If not, one should forgo the act in order to avoid the incidental death; and if one chooses to do it, the choice is wrongful killing. For example, Mary, a fire fighter, jumps out a window into a net to save herself, leaving to the flames a child whom she could and, given her duty as a fire fighter, should have saved. She does not intend but only accepts the child’s death, and her self-preserving act otherwise would be morally good. But since the child’s death results from Mary’s dereliction of duty, she is guilty of it. Again, Sam, who has a wife and several small children, has acquired a place on a life raft by a fair lottery, but voluntarily gives it up to a single woman and goes down with the ship. If Sam’s act were not unfair to his dependents, it could be a heroic act of mercy; but this self-sacrificing act of his involves unfairly forsaking his wife and children, and so he should not accept his own death. His “heroic” act is wrongful killing of himself. (In both of these cases, the effect which strong emotion and confusion have on moral judgment and choice plainly could mitigate the sinfulness of the acts of wrongful killing.)

c) Sometimes death may or should be accepted as a side effect. If there is a morally acceptable reason to accept one’s own or another’s death as a side effect of doing something both morally good in itself and in accord with justice and mercy, one may, and sometimes even should, accept it. For example, the Uganda martyrs had a strict obligation to accept their own deaths as a side effect of refusing to do something wrong in itself: sodomy. Maximilian Kolbe mercifully accepted his own death as the side effect of saving a fellow prisoner’s life, while the fellow prisoner, in order to return to his wife and family, fairly took advantage of Kolbe’s offer, accepting the saintly priest’s heroic death in doing so.

Mary, the fire fighter, should have accepted her own death, if necessary, to save the child, for saving the child was her duty. Similarly, some crewmen on the Titanic rightly accepted their own deaths in fulfilling their duty to save the passengers; some passengers whose responsibilities allowed them the freedom to sacrifice themselves also rightly accepted their own deaths in order to save others, although they could have saved themselves; and some other passengers acted fairly in taking their places on the lifeboats and accepting the death of those for whom there was no room.

d) Deadly force sometimes is rightly used for defensive purposes. Wrongdoers confronted with others’ legitimate use of force plainly have no right to defend themselves. Innocent victims, whenever possible, should evade or deflect attacks, summon the proper authorities, or defend themselves by means unlikely to cause serious harm. Sometimes, however, people can defend themselves and/or others against unprovoked violations of person or property only by using means they expect to result in the death of the agent or agents of the violation.43 Assuming the death is not intended as an end (for example, to satisfy vengeful anger) or chosen as a means (for example, to forestall future threats), it may be accepted as a side effect of the use of the minimum adequate defensive force, provided one acts both fairly and mercifully in accepting it.

For example, bank guards, fearing the fire power of Ma Fia, an armed robber, and believing they cannot safely stop her except by shooting her in the chest, rightly do so and accept her death as a side effect of carrying out their duty to guard the bank (including its employees and customers) while also protecting their own lives. Similarly, a woman who can safely and surely stop a man from raping or kidnapping her daughter only by slicing his throat rightly accepts his death as a side effect of her protective act. In these cases, the defenders’ responsibilities preclude forgoing the use of the necessary, deadly force: the bank guards and the mother would be derelict in their duties, not merciful, if they were unwilling to accept the deaths they expect to result from their defensive acts.44

e) Fairness and mercy limit defensive uses of deadly force. If the violation is not to persons—for example, interference with something essential for some~one’s survival, a direct threat to life or limb, an attempt at rape or kidnapping—but solely to property, fairness precludes the defensive use of deadly force. People universally value their own lives and the lives of those they love above any piece of property which is not essential for survival, and so the Golden Rule forbids accepting another’s death as the side effect of using deadly force to prevent, for instance, nothing more than a thief’s escape with one’s wallet and jewelry.

Someone might object that fairness here must take into account the injustice the thief is doing: surely, a mugger’s victim may use force with the intention of disabling him. True, but even if the injustice is taken into account, the Golden Rule forbids killing the thief: nobody would want a loved one—a friend, a child—who went astray and committed such a crime to suffer death at the victim’s hands.45 Moreover, the objection depends on a claim about the injustice the thief is doing: but thieves are not always morally responsible for their actions.

In many cases, one’s own life cannot be sacrificed without unfairness to others, such as dependents, or detriment to the common good. But when no duty requires the use of deadly force in personal self-defense, mercy, the justice of the kingdom, should prompt one to suffer death rather than defend oneself by means that would bring about the death of an assailant, for whose eventual salvation one should hope. The model is Jesus, who, striving to overcome the wounds of sin and its consequences by love, did not wish to be defended against unjust arrest, suffering, and death by the wounding of those sent to arrest him.46

2. Norms for Risking Death as a Side Effect

Simply riding in an automobile puts life at risk. Yet not even those who engage in the most hazardous work—for instance, test pilots and the technicians who defuse terrorists’ bombs—straightforwardly accept death as a side effect; they only risk it, while expecting, hoping, and doing their best to survive. Risking death is conditionally accepting it: “Doing this, I know that death will ensue if things go badly, and I accept that.” Thus, the same principles that determine the moral character of accepting death as a side effect determine the morality of accepting a risk to one’s own life or another’s. But the application of the principles is more complicated, partly because risks of death vary so greatly.

Often they are rightly ignored. Many everyday actions, good and bad, carry with them low-level risks of death, others’ or one’s own. Thinking about such risks ordinarily nurtures fruitless anxiety, so in practical reflection there is no obligation to bear them in mind, investigate them, or take them into account. Moral questions about risking death arise only if a risk comes to attention, either spontaneously or by someone’s pointing it out, as a reason for not making a choice one otherwise might make.

a) Risking death as a side effect of any sin is always wrong. If a person becomes aware that carrying out a choice would involve a risk to anyone’s life, that is a reason not to do it, and the act cannot rightly be chosen without some other good reason for doing so. But there cannot be a good reason to commit any sin. Therefore, deliberately accepting any risk to anyone’s life in doing something otherwise sinful aggravates the seriousness of the sin. For example, people who wish to keep their weight down but eat too much—venially sinful gluttony (see S.t., 2–2, q. 148, a. 2)—and are warned that they are risking untimely death from arterial disease, commit a more serious sin if they do not try to change their habits and deliberately go on taking this unjustifiable risk to life.

b) One should strictly observe traffic laws. Like all laws, traffic laws must be interpreted reasonably, and doing so takes into account customs, with limits generally marked by a certain level of law enforcement, which diverge from the written law (see 11.D.1.c–d). Still, when reasonably interpreted, traffic laws generally are just and applicable, and then any disobedience to them is sinful (see CMP, 11.E). The risk of serious harm, including personal injury and even death to oneself and others, increases if they are disobeyed, and, being a side effect of sinfully violating the laws, it cannot be rightly accepted and increases the moral significance of any violation. Pius XII, pointing out that everyone has a “grave duty to respect the lives of others,” concludes: “The often dramatic consequences of violating the traffic code give its observance an extrinsic obligatory character far more serious than people generally think.”47

c) Fairness can require that a risk of death not be accepted. Sometimes one’s responsibilities to others make it clear that it is unfair to accept a risk of death to them or even to oneself. Clearly, for instance, business partners who market a product whose use might lead to fatal accidents, while warning their own loved ones not to use it, unfairly risk customers’ deaths. High public officials whose death would be detrimental to the common good take unfair risks if they evade their body guards out of mere bravado or annoyance with constant, close protection.

If someone doubts whether it is fair to risk his or her own or another’s death, and has no moral responsibility to take the risky alternative even if it is permissible, its riskiness is a reason not to take it, and so it is wrong to do so. Plainly, for example, those who drink heavily and drive act unfairly, since they are severely impaired. But if a person is only slightly intoxicated and it will be inconvenient to avoid driving, he or she might doubt whether it would be fair to take the risk. In such cases, the question is whether there is a morally acceptable alternative to taking the risk, supposing it permissible to do so; if there is, the risk should be avoided.

However, if someone doubts whether it is fair to risk his or her own or another’s death, yet would have a clear moral responsibility to take the risky alternative assuming it is permissible, the risk should be accepted. For example, John can earn a good living only in a hazardous occupation. He marries, and the couple begin having children. John’s wife worries about him and urges him to quit; he wonders whether it is fair to her to continue his hazardous work. But he judges that, in order to provide his children with better opportunities, his responsibilities would require him to keep the job, assuming that would not be unfair to his wife. So, he should dismiss his doubts about fairness to his wife and take the risk.

d) Sometimes significant risks of death should or may be taken. Physicians, nurses, police officers, lifeguards, fire fighters, priests, and so on undertake important duties toward others. At times, they must risk their own lives to fulfill those duties; and if, motivated by fear, they avoid doing so, they are derelict in their duty and sin gravely through cowardice. But if they do take necessary risks, they are only doing their duty with appropriate courage, and are not heroes in the same sense as those who do brave deeds beyond the call of duty.

Suppose someone is aware that a prospective act, not his or her duty but otherwise morally acceptable, would entail a risk to life; suppose, too, that he or she is certain that accepting the risk would not be unfair; then this individual should examine the motives inclining him or her to choose that act. Sometimes feelings unintegrated with faith and personal vocation may be at work. For instance, a young man offered a hazardous job at high pay should not take it solely out of a desire for the money; but he may accept the job if he needs the money for some good purpose or judges the work to be an important service to others. Again, a young woman might think of taking up sky diving merely in order to experience the thrill of this sport. On that basis, it would be wrong to take the risks involved. But she might have a sound reason for choosing a somewhat risky sport, for example, as a form of recreation which she thinks would help her overcome extreme shyness and meet some suitable young men, and so carry out what she thinks is her vocation to marriage. On that basis, assuming there is no other reason to avoid the risk, she may take it.

e) Wrongly accepting risks to life seems always to be grave matter. Whenever an act involves a risk to another’s life and is certainly unfair, the matter seems to be grave, since people regard risk to life as significant. Even if the risk is only to one’s own life but taking it certainly is unfair, the potential effect on others must be significant, and so the matter of the act seems to be grave.

It also seems that other cases in which someone admits it is wrong to accept a risk to life—excessive eating by the obese, smoking, unnecessary driving when slightly intoxicated, and so on—should be considered grave matter, since it is hard to see how someone who loves himself or herself and others can deliberately accept a risk to life, even if it is slight, while recognizing the wrongness of doing so.

Nevertheless, the Church’s teaching hardly touches explicitly on these sins and nowhere makes it clear that they are always grave. In the absence of clear Church teaching, one hesitates to assert that any kind of act never admits parvity. Thus, unless accepting a risk to life is plainly wrong and the risk is so great that almost everyone considers it significant, someone might be able to judge honestly that the matter is light.

3. Choosing to Risk Death Is Always Gravely Wrong

It is one thing to accept a risk of death as the side effect of some other act, but quite another to choose precisely to risk death, whether one’s own or another’s, as a means to some ulterior end. This latter choice always is wrong, and gravely so.

a) Choosing to risk death is choosing to kill. People sometimes precisely choose to risk their own lives out of bravado or for thrills. For example, young people play “chicken”: driving vehicles down the center of a road toward a head-on collision, with the understanding that the first driver to turn away shows lack of courage. In doing this, they choose the risk to their own lives (and accept the risk to others’) as a means to their end. Again, managers of some spectacles want performers to risk their lives in order to attract larger audiences through the morbid fascination of a dangerous performance.

In all such cases, where the risk to life is included in the proposal adopted by choice, the choice is gravely evil; it actually is a conditional will to kill, since the choice is of death if the risk should materialize, a contingency outside the power of the one making the choice, assuming the risk is real.

b) Not all death-defying acts carry out a choice to risk death. Sometimes an action involves a risk to life that enhances its value, yet the action can be chosen for a good reason, with the risk to life only accepted as a side effect, not chosen as a means. For example, because of the danger involved, high-wire performers who work without a net both require great skill and provide a more exciting performance. In choosing to work without a net, they can be choosing the more difficult, and so inherently more entertaining and rewarding, art; they need not be choosing precisely to risk life as a means to excite and entertain. The former choice is significantly different from that of a daredevil whose performance involves no special skill, but derives its value as entertainment entirely from the fact that the stunt may end in disaster. Here the choice is to risk life (to kill himself or herself if the stunt is unsuccessful) in order to attain an ulterior end (fame and fortune if the stunt succeeds).

43. Those who classify killing in self-defense as “direct” killing are compelled to make the justification of any such killing hinge on the moral status of the attacker as a so-called materially unjust aggressor, and in this way to bring the attacker into the class of the noninnocent. However, according to the preceding analysis, since the attacker is neither a criminal found guilty of a capital crime nor an enemy combatant in a just war, he or she must be considered innocent. The justification of killing in self-defense, therefore, depends entirely on the goods of the various persons at stake and the fairness and mercy with which a defender acts with regard to them.

44. It might be objected that such examples, and by implication the norms they illustrate, are morally irrelevant and otiose, since in such a situation a person can hardly engage in rational deliberation and make a free choice. However, it is good for anyone who wishes to do what is right in every situation to know sound norms applicable to such emergencies. Sometimes there is time for reflection, and in any case an advance commitment to act on sound norms both contributes to good character and predisposes to appropriate action in emergencies, in which grave consequences other than moral guilt might follow from doing the wrong thing or being inhibited from doing the right thing.

45. Although many modern moral theologians considered killing in defense of property justified, the position taken here agrees with the earlier tradition; see Shaun J. Sullivan, O.F.M., Killing in Defense of Private Property: The Development of a Roman Catholic Moral Teaching, Thirteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976).

46. See St. Ambrose, De officiis 3.4.27, PL, 16:153; St. Cyprian, Letter 60 (to Pope Cornelius), in S. Thasci Caecili Cypriani, Opera omnia, ed. W. Hartel, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (Vienna: 1871), 3.2:693 (cited in National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” 113, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 4:524); St. Bernard, De praecepto et dispensatione, 7.13, PL, 182:869. St. Thomas (and classical moral theology), on the contrary, thought that one should use deadly force, if necessary, in self-defense and accept an assailant’s death, “because one has a stronger duty to take care of one’s own life than another’s” (S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 7). This view, however, seems to overlook mercy.

47. Pius XII, Address to Delegates Attending the Second World Congress of the International Highway Federation, Discorsi e radiomessaggi 17 (1955–56): 275; The Pope Speaks 2 (1955): 335. Also see Daniel L. Lowery, C.Ss.R., “Moral Code for Motorists,” Liguorian 48 (Feb. 1960): 1–8.