Justification in The Killing of an Innocent Person

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Cleveland State Law Review


John Finnis advances the notion of side effect to provide a non-consequentialist approach for justifying certain acts that result in the killing of an innocent person. He depends on the reader's own intelligent grasp of the basic forms of good to convince the reader of the merit of his argument, asking the reader as a first premise to acknowledge merely whether he or she thinks particular values are basic human goods. One of these values is life, and Finnis asks, "Life 'is a good, in itself, don't you think?"' To answer this question, Finnis invites his reader to look at the problem from the inside out. An effort of such practical understanding is an effort to grasp and identify the human good of actions in which we participate and from which we derive feelings, spontaneities and behavior. Therefore, if one is to capture the account of human nature that leads one to affirm life as a first basic value, one must not only understand but feel the conflict in the problem of justified killing raised by Finnis. In attempting to reach this state, let me share this scenario with you. Imagine with me that my two children are playing quietly on the balcony overlooking a twenty-story view of our summer resort town. The birds are singing in a blue sun-filled sky when, suddenly, I see the whole balcony quiver and start to fall away from the building. As my children look up in alarm I speed towards the open sliding door. In that split second they start to scramble back towards the door but the balcony is tearing away from the building too fast. I grab for their hands, arms, clothing whatever I can reach. As my hands close firmly over the wrist of one and the shirt of the other, the balcony with a grating shriek of metal and concrete rips from the side of the building. I feel the full weight of my children pull me out the sliding door and as my feet catch the edges of the door I find myself suspended in mid-air with both children dangling at the end of my arms. There is no way I can move to get the children safely back into the apartment. No one else is in the apartment. I call frantically for help and hope that the noise of the balcony falling will attract immediate aid from next door neighbors. After what seems like an eternity, but must be only moments, my children start slipping from my grasp. What to do?! With the children slipping away I have to make a decision. Either I can continue to hold both children, in which case I feel that I would lose them both at the same time, or I can let one child go in favor of devoting my full efforts to the somewhat more realistic chance of saving the other. I release the grip of my left hand. Minutes later help arrives and pulls me and my one child into the apartment. But my other child lies dead on the pavement below. This event did not actually happen. Thank God! But we may dream in dread of such an event happening. I have four children and have puzzled painfully through my feelings in this scenario. Somehow there seems to be no satisfactory answer as to which choice is the better one. In the scenario I had to choose between releasing one child or possibly losing both. I released one, but the fact that the other was saved does not assuage the guilt that arises from participating in an act that leads to the death of the first. I did not have the desire to do that act but I did have the intent. I chose to act in a way that caused the loss of a child's life. Does this guilt suggest that the choice to let one child die in favor of saving the other is wrong and should be punished? I would have felt guilt if I had not let the one child go and both children had fallen from my grasp.

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