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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moral Absolutes and Foyle's War

Last weekend, in a keynote delivered before the annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that one of the primary features of theism is a belief in moral absolutes, the view that certain sorts of action ought never to be done no matter what the circumstances.

What does this mean?

A moral absolute is, first of all, a moral precept. A moral precept commands human beings either to do or to refrain from doing something. Where do moral precepts come from? The first part of the answer is that they come from the demands of our human nature in pursuit of its fulfillment. If, in other words, we as human beings are going to be happy as human beings are meant to be, then there are certain actions that we must take, just as there are certain actions that we must avoid.

Analogy: if the flowers in the garden are going to flourish as flowers do, then there are necessary requirements that must be met. They need adequate soil, sunlight, water. So too, if we human beings are going to flourish as human beings do, then there are certain requirements that must be met.

The analogy limps insofar as we, as rational beings, have the ability to reflect upon the meaning of our flourishing, and freely decide what course of action best conduces to it. But even so, our human nature, like that of the flower, has requirements, and if our decisions fail to meet them, then moral harm is the result.

An absolute moral precept, however, is not just any old precept. I may discern that it is prudent for me, in the present circumstances of my health, to refrain from eating red meat. This discernment of prudence binds me in the circs (as Bertie Wooster would say), but it does not bind even me, much less others, absolutely. In six months’ time it may be perfectly prudent for me to go back to eating red meat again.

But an absolute moral precept binds me and all other human beings always and everywhere, without reference to circumstances. It is, for example, always and everywhere wrong to murder. It doesn’t matter if one was provoked, if the murdered person “deserved” it, whether the murderer acted in a fit of passion, whether something very good resulted from it, etc. The circumstances of the crime may mitigate judgment, but they never change the intrinsically evil nature of the act itself. In the Catholic tradition, an action prohibited by an absolute precept is referred to as a malum in se, an action that is evil in itself.

Moral precepts have a second, and more important, source than human nature’s demands. For nature itself is something that has been made by God and directed toward God as its end. Absolute moral precepts help make up what in the Catholic tradition is called the natural law. But the natural law just is God’s eternal law, as seen from the perspective of human beings.

One of the things that makes absolute moral precepts so hard to swallow is that sometimes very good things result from breaking them. This is a great temptation. But as St. Paul stresses, we may never do evil so that good may come. However attractive the result may be of a murder—and the resulting consequence of an action is one of its circumstances—the  murder itself can never be morally licit.

That means never.

In any circumstances.


As examples of failures to abide by the absolute moral precept forbidding the intentional taking of innocent life, MacIntyre mentioned the Dresden bombings by the Allies during World War II and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in Iraq since 2003. I cannot recall if he also mentioned the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, but he well might have. Granted, there is a distinction to be made in warfare between actions that, despite one’s honest military intentions, result in the deaths of innocent civilians, and actions that are expressly intended to take their lives. But it is this latter action that MacIntyre follows Catholic Church teaching in always and everywhere condemning. (For particular statements, see here. Also see the pamphlet, "Mr. Truman's Degree," by the late Roman Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe.)

After MacIntyre’s talk, there was some chatter among the conferees about a failure on his part to account for the role of prudence in moral decision-making—especially in wartime. If by “prudence” is meant a regard for the good consequences that resulted from bombings such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then MacIntyre did well to discount it. For this is not prudence but rationalization. Prudence gets started from the respect for absolute moral precepts. These set the boundaries within which prudent choice is possible. Thus, to reject moral absolutes is to reject prudence, and to morally (and spiritually) damage oneself in the process.

“But what (it will be said) “about the x number of innocent lives that were saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Sometimes one has to do something awful in order to preserve a greater good.”

Generally, I believe that when someone starts using the phrase “the greater good,” something has gone dangerously wrong in his moral reasoning. For what the phrase usually appeals to is a good consequence (saving x number of innocent lives) so compelling that we should do whatever it takes in order to secure it.

But human nature, not to mention our Creator, forbids such reasoning. There are certain actions which in themselves destroy human dignity, and should never be taken no matter how much good accrues from doing so.

It is extremely rare to see in the artifacts of our popular culture a serious consideration of moral absolutes in times of war. That is why I was so glad to view recently the episode entitled “Plan of Attack” in the magnificent British mystery series, Foyle’s War, starring Michael Kitchen. “Plan of Attack” takes up the question of the morality of Allied bombings in 1944, when Germany was all but defeated, and the Allies were trying to force Germany into terms of unconditional surrender by indiscriminate bombing of public areas. The episode treats the issue of moral absolutes impressively through the vehicle of a conference of ecumenical churchmen and an important Roman Catholic character. In contrast to the way a television series such as The West Wing handled the question of moral absolutes in time of war, in which Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett was depicted as being “forced” to do evil so that good might come, the Foyle’s War episode shows deep respect for moral absolutes even in situations where it is most tempting to do otherwise. It is well worth a look if only for this, but the episode also sensitively handles questions having to do with faith, humility and forgiveness. Anthony Horowritz, the creator of Foyle’s War and screenwriter of this episode, is highly to be congratulated.

* In thinking through this episode of Foyle’s War I have learned much from “Faith Foretold is Faith Respected,” an unpublished paper by Nicholas Plants, professor at Prince George’s Community College, which he presented at the same Faith, Film & Philosophy conference at which I presented my paper, “On Mysteries and the Higher Mysteries,” the notes of which I provided in my three previous posts.


  1. FYA: "...hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in Iraq since 2003." Those numbers are from where, exactly? I don't speak for anyone besides myself, but I'm not going to bother checking the accuracy of the rest of your piece.

  2. Dear Anonymous: You were right to correct me. I picked up the number that MacIntyre (to the best of my recollection) used in his lecture, and it seems that it is not correct. In trying to ascertain the correct number of innocent civilian deaths in the Iraq War, I came upon this recent story from the London Telegraph, which zeroes in on a more accurate number:
    Surprisingly, most civilian deaths in Iraq, according to this report, came at the hands of "unknown perpetrators" that were not even military. All that being said, my main point in this post was a philosophical one about the relationship of certain absolute moral principles to good consequences that may follow from trespassing against them. On this general point I believe I am on firm ground. But I thank you for you correcting me as to the factual point about civilian deaths in Iraq.

  3. I would add further, in fairness to MacIntyre, that in his lecture he only accounted for some 100,000 civilian deaths in the second Iraq War (according to my wife, who was also at the lecture). One of the questioners after the lecture mentioned some 300,000 civilians killed by Saddam Hussein, and that number got lodged in my head. Again, apologies for the error.