header icons

Review of John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., Who Count As Persons?: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001)

By Alfred J. Freddoso, University of Notre Dame

These are bleak days for moral theory in mainstream professional philosophy. At the heart of the matter lies our inability, within contemporary liberal democracies, to come to a consensus on the deep issue of what we are as human beings and where our true good lies. Because of this, any moral theory built on a rich view of human nature and of the good for human beings is automatically viewed with suspicion. And, in fact, there are few such theories around. Instead, the lack of agreement on the deep issue is typically taken as a sign that moral theory should proceed as if there were no philosophical anthropology that yields a true and detailed account of human nature and the good for human beings. The reasoning goes like this: Either there is no such account or, at the very least, no such account has the degree of certitude required for philosophical inquiry.

The results of this form of skepticism are everywhere to be seen. Some theories simply accept without question what people in fact want and view any system of moral rules (or of justice) as simply an attempt to coordinate everyone’s pursuit of what he desires. Such theories come in different varieties, depending on whether their proponents are optimistic (like David Hume) or pessimistic (like Thomas Hobbes) about our fundamental sentiments as human beings, i.e., about whether we are basically benevolent or basically self-centered.

Other theories at least draw a distinction between what we in fact desire and what we ought to desire. But, according to these theories, what we ought to desire by way of fundamental moral rules is in the end a matter of which rules we would choose under certain idealized and depersonalized conditions in which we suspend our deepest convictions in order to imagine ourselves with very different ones. Under these idealized conditions of choice, the argument goes, what we ‘ought’ to choose are, among other things, certain strong formal principles of tolerance built upon our uncertainty about the deep questions concerning what we are and what is good for us as human beings, combined with the fact that the ways in which we come to embrace our fundamental convictions about the world are (at least from a secular perspective) highly contingent.

On both sorts of moral theory, each person’s deep convictions about the good for human beings and the meaning of life are given equal weight, and so any strongly held moral or religious beliefs I might hold are in effect privatized, since only those beliefs around which a consensus can be formed are in the long run eligible for public discourse in a liberal democracy. And because the dominant values in consumer-driven liberal democracies tend to be things like individual autonomy and independence, economic prosperity, and various goods that make possible a ‘pleasant’ and (what each one takes to be) ‘fulfilling’ life, these values are the ones upon which consensus is built. Thus, for instance, in the present international crisis, if President Bush wants to mobilize public opinion in support of the war against terrorism, he must claim that what is under attack is “our freedom” or “our way of life,” where this way of life is mainly to be spelled out in terms of autonomy, economic prosperity, and the ability to pursue in safety whatever conception of the good life we have as private individuals. This view has become enshrined in recent Supreme Court decisions, according to which each of us as an individual has the prerogative of stipulating what the meaning of his or her own human life is. After all, the argument goes, no one is in a better position than I am to say what the meaning of my life is. There just is no authoritative position on such matters.

This is the context within which to situate Father John Kavanaugh’s project in Who Count as Persons? To put it succinctly, Father Kavanaugh offers a personalist and Thomistic alternative to the current fare. In the opening chapters he constructs a rich philosophical anthropology that tries to cut beneath skepticism about ourselves in order to make the case that we are embodied persons who are constituted as persons by our ability to be “aware of our own awareness,” and that each of us is gifted with a human life that it is up to us to fashion, keeping in mind our essential dependence on others for our flourishing:

“The human person is an embodied, self-conscious drama. We are life stories, narratives that start with endowments that make possible our becoming aware of our own stories and eventually writing our own autobiographies within the limits of our diverse histories” (p. 62).

The problem, as Father Kavanaugh explains, is that within our consumerist culture it is easy for us to ‘depersonalize’ our existence and thus to open the way to treating ourselves and others as nonpersons. We hide in fear from the deepest questions about ourselves, becoming willfully forgetful of our own dignity as human beings and losing ourselves in the many distractions made available by modern technological sophistication. This forgetfulness extends to the dignity of others as well and is manifested in that almost unconsciously habitual disregard for the life and well-being of others that Pope John Paul II has dubbed the ‘culture of death’. Even philosophy itself, Father Kavanaugh charges (and rightly so), has become forgetful of the quest for meaning or wisdom and instead occupies itself with problems which, while not unimportant, are detached from any context in which their connection with deeper questions about the human person is clear. More fundamentally, philosophers lose sight of the fact that they do not as philosophers cease to be embodied and dependent persons who are seeking self-understanding. As things stand, when philosophers turn to ethical questions, they often assume in effect the stance of detached observers-a stance that is made all the more possible by metaphysical theories, whether dualist or physicalist, that view the human person or human self as standing over and above an otherwise meaningless corporeal reality and endowing that reality with whatever meaning and value it has. On Father Kavanaugh’s view, in contrast, we do not determine the meaning of our own lives, but rather “write our autobiographies” within a rich context of meaning that is already set in place by the sort of embodied social animals we are.

Applying his anthropology to morally upright human action, Father Kavanaugh forges an alternative that falls between Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on the centrality of our being motivated by our duty as autonomous rational agents, independently of the con-sequences of our actions, and John Stuart Mill’s emphasis on the centrality of maximizing the good produced as a consequence of our actions, independently of how they are motivated. Despite their partial truth, each of these accounts of moral goodness fails to safeguard our dignity as individuals, either in itself, as with Mill’s consequentialism, or in the form it has taken in contemporary practice, as with Kant’s emphasis on the moral autonomy of the rational agent. (In a striking but all too common vignette, Father Kavanaugh tells of a friend who deserted his wife and children because “I had a duty to myself to do it.”)

On the Thomistic alternative morally good action is fundamentally connected with becoming a virtuous person, where a virtuous person is one who has habitual dispositions to do what is good. On the surface this might sound a bit individualistic. But the fact is that the two most important virtues are justice and charity, virtues of the will that make us good in the various roles we play with respect to God (creature and, under the Christian dispensation, filial friend) and with respect to other human beings (friend, parent or child, teacher or student, benefactor or recipient of benefaction, stranger, etc.). Hence, to be a morally virtuous person is on this account to be a person who lives his life in the service of God and neighbor, all the while respecting the dignity of persons simply because they are human persons and regardless of whatever good or evil they have done. (In his book, Father Kavanaugh does not emphasize the theological character of the Thomistic account of flourishing, but it clearly stands in the background.) What’s more, this account recognizes all human beings as intrinsically valuable, even when, because of their abnormal condition, they make special demands of dependence on others, as in the case of unborn children, the mentally handicapped, the impoverished immigrant, the elderly feeble-minded, the terminally ill, and other ‘unproductive’ or ‘inconvenient’ human beings.

In keeping with this account of the human being, Father Kavanaugh asserts with St. Thomas that the intentional killing of the innocent is always and intrinsically bad; it cannot be justified even by appeal to duty or other noble motives or by appeal to the good consequences it will produce. To think otherwise is to reduce another human person to the status of a nonperson:

“Because the very impulse to be ethical affirms the personal reality from which ethics springs-because the very placement of an ethical act is, of its essence, a ‘yes’ to personal dignity-one cannot be faithful to the moral universe in doing any act that in itself negates personhood in oneself or another. Fidelity to human personhood, the affirmation of the intrinsic value of human persons and adherence to the truth of personal moral dignity, requires that we never reduce a human person to the condition of being a nonperson, that we not negate the personhood of ourselves or others, that we not treat a person as a mere thing or object” (p. 119).

However, Father Kavanaugh’s “radical personalism” goes beyond St. Thomas in claiming that the principle of not reducing a human person to a nonperson rules out not only the intentional killing of the innocent, but the intentional killing of anyone at all, even malefactors who threaten the common good in the serious ways that are commonly thought to justify war and capital punishment.

Father Kavanaugh’s emphasis on human dignity might seem at first to rule out any sort of right to punish malefactors or to defend oneself against them. But later on he asserts that his radical personalism does indeed recognize a right to defend oneself (and presumably to punish) that is itself rooted in the inherent dignity of human persons but that does not include the right to kill someone intentionally even in self-defense or as a form of punishment. Unfortunately, he does not explain just why a radical personalist should draw the line at intentional killing and those forms of punishment, such as torture or mutilation, that obviously “negate personhood,” i.e., treat someone as a nonperson. Why, for instance, doesn’t imprisoning a malefactor negate his personhood? What we need is a more precise account of just what it is to negate someone’s personhood.

Father Kavanaugh goes on to devote special attention to war and terrorism, capital punishment, the killing of undeveloped human persons such as embryos, fetuses, and infants, and, finally, the killing of those who are dying. Given recent events, along with the fact that among Thomistic personalists there is little substantive disagreement about abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia, I will focus on Father Kavanaugh’s treatment of war and terrorism.

The most gripping part of his case against killing in war consists in anecdotal evidence suggesting that as long as one is open to the possibility of justifying war, it is almost inevitable-especially given today’s combination of sophisticated weaponry and media-driven propaganda-that atrocities will end up being ‘justified’ against those innocents who come to be counted as nonpersons or expendable persons. In other words, the concrete application of just war theory seems ineluctably to sanction the intentional killing of the innocent. Take, for instance, Madeline Albright’s infamous remark that though innocents will unfortunately suffer and die as a result of the trade sanctions against Iraq, “we” think it is a price worth paying. This sort of remark is especially galling when it comes from the likes of Albright or, say, Tony Blair, whose governments are enthusiastic exporters of aggressive and coercive population control programs to Third World countries and yet who defend their position on war in Iraq or Afghanistan by appealing to their adversaries’ lack of respect for human life and dignity. Father Kavanaugh graphically describes several other such “ironies.”

Still, I am not sure that Father Kavanaugh’s argument, as it stands, succeeds here. For in his argument for the right to self-defense he implicitly makes appeal to the principle of double effect, which presupposes the important distinction between intending evil and merely permitting foreseen but unintended evil. Given this distinction, it is not immediately clear why Father Kavanaugh condemns all acts of war-whether violent ones or nonviolent ones such as economic sanctions-that result in the death of the innocent. After all, the agents of such acts often explicitly disavow the intention to bring about foreseen “collateral damage,” as they call it nowadays. I am not saying that Father Kavanaugh is wrong to condemn all such acts, only that he has not clearly enough explained why he does.

In his defense, however, I should note that the use of the above mentioned distinction in practical affairs is often fraught with self-deception. For instance, it seems that economic sanctions destabilize regimes precisely because of the damage they directly cause to innocent victims, who are then expected to agitate for a change of regime. In such cases, whatever the agents of such sanctions might claim or even believe, the harm to innocent victims is not merely foreseen, but is instead intended as a means to an end. The same sort of dubious justifications are often offered for violent acts of war, especially the not-so-surgical bombing of populated areas. More disturbingly, another type of justification offered for the “collateral damage” produced by violent acts is straightforwardly consequentialist–for instance, that wounding and killing some significant number of innocent civilians will save thousands (or hundreds or even tens) of “our kind.” In one section of his chapter on killing Father Kavanaugh spends some time citing the expressed motives of terrorists and political authorities for acts of violence that occurred in the last part of the twentieth century. It makes for some chilling reading.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to point out the nearly irresistible tendency to misuse just war theory and another thing to impugn the theory itself, especially given that the theory’s intent is to protect innocent human life and that it has been a staple of Catholic moral teaching. Father Kavanaugh’s view of war, as well as of capital punishment, depends ultimately on the principle that all intentional killing-and not just the intentional killing of the innocent-is always and intrinsically wrong because it reduces a person to a nonperson. But, as I hinted above, it is not clear to me that he has made a compelling case for this principle.
As I see it, there are two alternatives to Father Kavanaugh’s strategy that will get one to basically the same conclusions on war and capital punishment.

The first is to embrace, in the manner of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian pacifism that takes the intrinsic wrongness of all intentional killing to be Gospel imperative. Father Kavanaugh seems reluctant to appeal directly to the Gospel, presumably out of the conviction that the Gospel will not be universally appealing to the wide audience he is trying to reach with his book. (Even in the last chapter, which recommends meditative solitude as a way for individuals to come to a deeper appreciation for their own dignity and a fortiori for the dignity of others, Father Kavanaugh does not mention prayer to a personal God as the best form this solitude can take.)

The second alternative is to adapt to the case of war the line of reasoning that Pope John Paul II applies to capital punishment in Evangelium Vitae. As I read this encyclical, along with the relevant sections of the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Holy Father is not overturning the traditional Catholic teaching that the death penalty is permissible in appropriate circumstances, but is instead insisting that the conditions that make the death penalty permissible seldom if ever obtain in the contemporary world. In like manner, one could argue plausibly that even though war is conceivably permissible in the appropriate circumstances, the conditions that make warfare permissible seldom if ever obtain in the contemporary world.

As a complement to this second alternative, there is another consideration, very much in the spirit of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, that pertains directly to Christian witness in the contemporary world. The formal or informal profession vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is especially impressive in western liberal democracies, given our penchant for the greedy accumulation of wealth, for the inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure, and for excesses in the name of personal autonomy and independence. So, too, given the penchant for violence and the use of coercive force that seems to characterize all sectors of our society, it may very well be that God is calling many people in the Church to a special witness of nonviolent peacemaking. Just as the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience play an important role in the lives of all Christians by reminding them of the constraints that charity and justice put on the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and personal independence and of the dangers attendant upon this pursuit, so too a vow or promise of nonviolent peacemaking can serve as a nettlesome reminder of the dangers attendant upon the use of coercive power, even in the pursuit of just ends. One is reminded of Chesterton’s remark, in speaking of the paradoxes of Christianity, that even though Christianity’s “fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other, still, the crusaders were very fierce and saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency.” We seem to need a lot more indecent meekness nowadays.

I have not been able to convey in this brief review the enormous amount of insight and wisdom contained in the pages of Father Kavanaugh’s book. He seems to have read and digested everything under the sky that is pertinent to his topic. (The endnotes by themselves constitute a book within a book.) This is especially true of the chapters that lay out his philosophical anthropology and of the discussion in the last chapter of how to enhance our appreciation of human dignity by spending time with “people who are considered worthless.” The book is obviously a labor of love and the labor of a lifetime. And it is a book that manages to make you feel uneasy throughout. That, at least, is what it did to me, and I am deeply grateful for the experience.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January-February 2002.