Friday, 14 January 2011

What is an 'Innocent'?

I've noticed that when Catholics want to appeal to the emotions with regard to abortion or similar topics they frequently use terms such as 'slaughter of the innocents' and other phrases including the word 'innocent'. 
I really don't get it.  If one's fundamental position is that all life is sacred, and it is only God who has the right to give and to take life, why should it matter whether the person is an 'innocent' or not?  Is it less bad to kill a person who has committed a sin?
It seems to me that so much of the Catholic way of thinking is based on emotion rather than reason, and yet many take great pride in stating that they embrace reason.  Conversely they accuse those who relinquish their faith of being guilty of pride.
This morning I was reading the blog of the Archdiocese of Washington.  To an outsider these people appear to be so wrapped up in their narrow view of life that they have lost touch with what it is to be truly human. In one thread they repeatedly assert that someone who has relinquished his faith must have done so out of ignorance, and they all say they will pray for him.  I guess that's a charitable thought, but do please keep your prayers for someone who appreciates them.


  1. Hello! When I use the word "innocent" I use it to mean "not guilty of a crime, free from moral wrong, not intended to cause harm." I've heard people assert to that an unborn child, a fetus, is not innocent if he is using a body without consent.

    Is it bad to kill a person? Yes, unless it is justifiable defense, I.e., an intentional attack from someone who intends to harm or kill you or another innocent person. I am against the death penalty unless that's the only way to keep someone from killing, but when incarceration is possible the death penalty is wrong.

    Some religious people do loose touch with being human. I suppose it's easy for anyone to do, but I try not to myself (imperfectly). And when I pray, I pray and only tell someone if I think they want to know. It's private though.

  2. Thanks for that Stacy. Here I think I see again your religion informing your morality. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it might explain why our views are different.
    If you think that man is born a sinner, it might be logical to assume that the unborn child ws still without sin, and therefore innocent, and of a different, speacial status.

    Conversely I think the death penalty for committing a crime can never be justified, under any circumstances.

    The two times I think killing can be justified are in defence of oneself or others if that is the only available option, or killing an unborn child before it has the ability to feel pain or understand that it exists. This is becasue I do not regard life itself as sacred from a religious perspective. My guide is that those who are capable of feeling it should not be made to suffer pain or distress unless there is absolutely no alternative. I do not regard a foetus as the same as a fully formed human.
    I also happen to think that it is wrong that abortions should be carried out because of such things as the paretal requirement for a male when tests confirm a female.

  3. On innocence, I just keep it simple and that definition is from the Oxford dictionary. If someone can't intend harm, they are necessarily innocent. But, I do know the arguments for abortion that hold the offending being is not innocent independently of intent. In the bizarre hypothetical that abortion proponents like to use about an unconscious man trying to harm a woman in his sleep, sure I won't deny that it would be moral to protect yourself and remove the zombie-like being.

    I think we agree on the death penalty.

    I've had plenty of arguments about abortion, but regarding the ability to feel seems inconsistent to hold that it is morally OK to kill someone who can't at the present feel pain. That would make it OK to shoot someone sleeping, or even a drunk passed out on the street.

    That's just to give you the counter argument. I won't deny that at the core of my beliefs on abortion is that I am a mother and I know from direct experience that that thing growing is my child from the moment it exists. I won't pretend my argument against abortion is purely based on hard, mathematical logic either - but reason often involves more than hard logic.

  4. I was just looking at your blog post about mothers Stacy. I can't help but admire you. I really don't know how you manage to do everything you have to do and still find time to write your thoughtful and beautifully written posts!

    Regarding pain - I had this same argument with someone on another blog - to me it is not the same thing when someone is temporarily unable to feel pain (but would be aware of it but for this temporary lapse), as that time before the unborn child is sufficiently formed to even be aware of its existence, and therefore not yet able to know that it is alive or to experience anything at all. In other words it is not yet a conscious being. I agree that it is difficult to determine exactly when the change from unsentient to sentient happens, so I think that we must err on the side of caution and only allow elective abortion in the early stages of pregnancy unless there is some over-riding demand such as the life of the mother. If it were a stark either/or choice I would always put the life of the mother before the life of the unborn child.
    I hope I am a pragmatist. It is this that informs my morality. I am also a relativist.

  5. Thank you. My husband is a partner and that's really how we both get it all done. I can't take credit without giving him his due!

    Help me understand pragmatism, because based on the definition of it "success of practical application" is the goal. What is that? Wouldn't a true pragmatist have no basis to declare such atrocities as those committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pot Pot as moral crimes? Whose success are we talking about and if you are a relativist then how do you have any standing to judge another's definition of it?

    Do you see why I find that philosophy unsatisfactory? It ultimately takes away any acknowledgement of our shared humanness. It sounds more to me like a forfeit of declaring any morality at all.

    I have thought about these things. I didn't reject them lightly, but I do reject them for a pretty simple reason...I couldn't raise my children with that philosophy.

  6. Thanks Stacy. I should have defined pragmatism related to philosophy. Maybe the wikipedia definition will serve

    Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected...
    As a Humanist I have a view on what constitutes a satisfactory outcome, and on this count all the dictators you quote fail dismally. I sense that your core belief is that without God it is not possible to share a common view of morality. I would disagree. After all, atheists obviously view the God of organised religion to be a human creation. Thus whilst it may appear to you that morality comes from God, we would say that it comes from exactly the same place as for atheists - from us humans, acting alone and in community. This tends to explain why there are common core moral concepts across civilisations, including those with no religion.
    In no way is this abrogating our responsibility with regard to morality. Indeed we have to work that much harder to arrive at our own view, as we do not have the benefit of formalised written instructions. Hitler, Pol Pot and their like were not evil dictators because they were atheists (if indeed they truly were).
    I have raised my children without religion, preferring instead a humanist philosophy, and I wish you could see for yourself how thoughtful, empathic and compassionate they are. They have been taught to think things through for themselves rather than being told that 'this is the way it's going to be because God ordains it'

  7. I hope you can see my confusion. As a "humanist" you have a view of a satisfactory outcome and on that basis call other's choices evil or good. How is that any different from religion or objective morality?

    If you really believe that morality is determined by what an individual considers practical success, then how do you justify imposing your ideas on the actions of another?

    Regarding raising children, I have no doubt about what you say. I didn't mean to imply that what someone calls himself determines truth or not. I have no doubt a humanist can raise wonderful children. It's just the definitions and reasoning that are not making sense to me.

    You have adopted a moral code and teach it to your children. Same for us. How is that approach any different? What I meant when I said I couldn't raise my children with relativism/pragmatism is that it would never work to teach them that morality is a matter of what they think is practical success. That would mean teaching them that it's OK to steal or lie as long as they got what they wanted. That's forfeiting teaching any morality at all.

    What am I missing?

  8. I think you said something very apt Stacy when you wrote How is that any different from religion or objective morality?

    In effect our views on what constitutes moral behaviour are extraordinarily similar in most respects even though we are poles apart in belief. Why do you think that is?

    My contention is that we have very similar views precisely because of our humanity. We each have a different view from whence comes our morality, but I would suggest that in fact we both think the way we do only, and crucially, because we are humans.

    There is no higher outside influence directing us or guiding our decisions and actions. There is no higher purpose. There does not have to be one. I know that is difficult to accept or to comprehend, but logically it is no more impossible to accept than the idea of God. Indeed I would suggest that it actually makes more sense from the perspective of parsimony. (Used in the sense "no more causes or forces should be assumed than are necessary to account for the facts")

  9. I think it is because we have come out in many of the same places through our reasoning processes. Stipulate for the sake of argument (which I believe anyway) that we have free will. That doesn't mean that we all *must* reason the same thing. Objective morality refers to a claim that there are some things that are always wrong or always right. Whether someone reasons to that conclusion or not is still a matter of free will.

    Subjective morality/relativism/pragmatism holds that right or wrong are a matter of opinion or perception. It is that idea I reject as an absolute.

    Back to your original post about innocence. That is a word and if we both agree on the objective definition then objectively speaking someone is either innocent or not innocent. If you define it differently than I do, then of course you can make your argument work logically, the same way if we defined numbers differently we could each make a mathematical statement be logical.

    The paragraph starting out "My contention..." I actually agree with you pretty much. I attribute humanity to being created in the image of God.

    I do see a higher influence and purpose. It's personally empirical, something I've experienced internally. I understand and conceded that not everyone will experience the same. It's like when you decided to become friends with someone and you thus decide to know them better. You will experience things internally and know that person in ways that no one could ever convince you of by using merely logical or systematic arguments.

  10. Thank you Stacy. You certainly give me some things to think about!

    To address specific points:
    I think it's reasonable to argue for an objectve absolute morality, even though I don't agree. But that objective morality can still be a human construct. Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that God does not exist; that does not take away your certainty in objective morality, and that in itself makes this a valid argument for you.

    I too believe in free will, though perhaps I arrive at that conclusion via a different route.
    I understand that an innocent person is different from a person who is not innocent, no matter how you define the word innocent. My point is that humans are humans, whether a small child or a serial killer. The fact that someone has committed a heinous crime does not alter the fact that one is killing a human being. If one regards an 'innocent' as particularly worthy of saving then one risks creating a sliding scale of how worthy a particular person is to be allowed to live. I think we'd both find that unacceptable.

    I may be cynical but to me the emotive use of the word 'innocent' is specifically designed to make people feel more guilt about abortion. How can an unborn child be either innocent or guilty. It exists, but has not yet in a position to display guilt or innocence. It does not add anything to the facts (to me anyway).

    I don't understand how you can be empirical about a higher influence and purpose when these concepts are by their nature unprovable. I grant that you might be totally convinced within yourself, but that is not the same as empirical proof.

    But this is also why I don't assume that my beliefs are any more worthy than anyone else's. I may indeed be wrong. For the same reasons you cannot prove God's existence, so I cannot prove the non-existence of God.All we areboth left with is opinions. I don't think there is a God or a higher purpose. You do. And yet we can live eqaully 'good' lives. In the end a Humanist outlook on life is almost indistinguishable from a liberal Christian outlook, exepct for the belief in a supernatural entity.

  11. Simian, you write "I may be cynical but to me the emotive use of the word 'innocent' is specifically designed to make people feel more guilt about abortion. How can an unborn child be either innocent or guilty. It exists, but has not yet in a position to display guilt or innocence. It does not add anything to the facts (to me anyway)."

    You're not being cynical, you're being observant. As you've said previously, Catholics use a lot of emotive language to frame the argument in terms that suit their perspective. It's very much the same reasoning behind describing a foetus as an "unborn child." By that logic, I'm an undead corpse!

    The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently established that the foetus cannot feel pain before a gestational age of 24 weeks. And that's only pain. Consciousness is more sophisticated than that, and anything we could describe as even limited consciousness comes later, with very premature infants not interacting with their mother in the way that full term ones do. They have to develop before full consciousness is possible.

    I think it would be fair to say that people who support a woman's right to choose do so largely on the basis that a foetus isn't a sentient being. It is not simply unconscious: it is incapable of being conscious.

    A being with consciousness has no capacity for either guilt or innocence. To describe a foetus as an "innocent" is meaningless. But it's definitely very emotive, and this is why it's used.

    Of course, in Christian terms, probably the only time any of us are innocent is before we take our first breath. After that we're sinners all the way... As my dear Papa's favourite line goes ‘Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.’

    I object to the use of the word "innocent" in the abortion debate, as well as the daft phrases "unborn child", "preborn child" - a foetus is indubitably a potential child, just as a child is a potential adult. But a foetus is not a child any more than a child is an adult or I am a corpse.