A reader writes:
As Holy Innocents Day approaches, I take the liberty of presenting for your consideration a problem which is currently exercising me.
The morality of intentionally shooting-down passenger aircraft believed to be under the control of suicide hijackers.
Post September 11, it is assumed that if a passenger aircraft failed to respond, and appeared to be heading towards a 'big' target eg a city, the government would assume it had been taken over by suicide hijackers and, as a last resort, order the Air Force to shoot down the passenger aircraft to reduce the loss of innocent life at the assumed target. This seems the 'sensible' utilitarian things to do.
Is this a Utilitarian calculus, where the laudable end (preventing the deaths of thousands of non-combatants) is gained via the impermissible means of the deaths of hundreds of non-combatants? or are the passengers' deaths a double-effect ie a foreseen but not (primarily) intended consequence?
The prohibition against intentionally killing innocents (ie non-combatants) is absolute.
Intentional = as a means towards an end (not whether one likes or loathes the means). The definition of non-combatant is not always black and white, but the ordinary passengers of a normal civilian airliner eg those used on 9-11 are clearly protected non-combatants.
I don't know that aircraft are automatically assumed to be under the control of hijackers simply because they fail to respond by radio and are heading toward a city. I think that they're looked at and fighter jets are scrambled to intercept them and determine whether they are under the control of hijackers. There are a variety of ways that this can be assessed by an interceptor, such as looking into the cockpit (do the people at the controls look like real pilots? are they awake and in control of the plane or could they have just passed out?), sending hand signals to the pilots, using wing waggles and message lights, etc. I'm no expert on all the techniques that can be used, but I know that they do exist.
In some cases there might not be time to try all of these things, but my understanding is that, even post 9/11, the assumption is not automatically made that a plane has been hijacked just because it isn't responding by radio. There can be innocent reasons for that, most notably equipment failure.
What if it turns out that the plane has been hijacked?
In that case it must be assumed, post 9/11, that the hijackers are planning to use the plane as a weapon of mass destruction (assuming that there is anything within the plane's range that is a plausible target or target of opportunity--which will be the case almost anywhere). Prior to 9/11 it would have been assumed that the hijackers weren't planning this, but that presumption changed as soon as the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center, and we'll have to live with it for the foreseeable future. Even if the hijackers get on the radio and say that they just want to negotiate the release of prisoners or something, you can't take them at their word. It could just be a ruse to let them get near their target.
So can you shoot them down, even knowing that there will be civilian lives lost in the process?
This is a situation in which a straightforward application of the law of double-effect is possible.
The law of double-effect can be formulated various ways, but let's formulate it like this:
1) An action is morally permissible if it has two effects, one good and one bad, if and only if
2) The action itself is not morally impermissible and
3) The bad effect is not an end in itself and
4) The bad effect is not a means to the good end and
5) The good effect is proportionate to the bad and
6) There is no better, alternative solution
BTW, for folks keeping score at home, note that we just used the word "proportionate." This term or a synonym is always present in articulations of the law of double-effect, showing that proportion is a valid consideration in Catholic moral theology. Not all reference to something being proportional means that a person is committing the error of proportionalism. Proportionalism treats the proportion of good and bad as the only morally relevant criterion in a moral system. The truth is that it can be a criterion in a moral system but not the only criterion, as is the case here, where we've got conditions (2)-(4), which are clearly non-proportional.
So let's look at conditions (1)-(6) and ask if they are fulfilled, or potentially fulfilled, in the case of shooting down a plane whose hijackers must be assumed to plan on using it as a weapon of mass destruction.
Is condition 1 fulfilled or fulfillable? Yes. Shooting down the plane will have the good effect of stopping it from being used as a WMD. It also has the bad effect of killing everyone (or virtually everyone) on board, as well as additional possible people on the ground who might get killed or injured when the plane comes out of the sky.
Is condition 2 fulfilled or fulfillable? Yes. It is not immoral in itself to shoot down a plane. If it were then it would be immoral for the British to shoot down Nazi bombers in World War II.
Is condition 3 fulfilled or fulfillable? Yes. The deaths of the people in the plane and on the ground are not an end in themselves. The object of the moral act is stopping the plane.
Is condition 4 fulfilled or fulfillable? Yes. The deaths of the passengers and those on the ground are not the means by which the plane is stopped. The plane itself is stopped, and the people's deaths are a side-effect of that.
With the fulfillment of this condition we pass into the realm whereby the act of shooting down the plane is potentially morally justifiable. We have established that the act (physically disabling a WMD) is not wrong in itself (condition 1) and that the deaths that will ensue from this act are neither a means nor an end, meaning that they are a side-effect of the act, which is what needs to happen for the law of double-effect to apply.
There are still two conditions that need to be fulfilled, though, before you can actually fire the missle.
Is condition 5 fulfilled or fulfillable? Whether it's fulfilled in a particular case would depend on the circumstances, but it's certainly fulfillable in some circumstances. If there is a target within range of the plane that would result in more harm being done than the cost of the lives that would be incurred by shooting the plane down then the good to be achieved (keeping it from its target) is proportionate to the bad effect of the act of shooting it down.
Is condition 6 fulfilled or fulfillable? It's fulfilled if you don't have any better way to stop the plane from reaching its target than shooting a missle at it. I suspect that, much of the time at present, this is the most effective and least harmful way to keep it from its target. However, I suspect that in some circumstances, and increasingly with time, it will be possible to find other, better solutions.
For example, means might be found of denying the hijackers control of the plane without totally disabling it. This could happen if there was a way to kill or render unconscious everyone in the cockpit and still have the plane be flyable afterwards. Or devices might be built that would allow people on the ground to gain remote control of the plane and safely bring it down.
I'm not an expert in such matters, or knowledgeable about what may already be possible in these respects, but the advance of technology should allow more "surgical" and less-lethal solutions to the problem that may not be practical at the moment.