That the deliberate targeting of noncombatants is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified under any circumstances is one of the entailments of Catholic just war doctrine. I am sensitive to its moral force. I am strongly inclined to say that certain actions are intrinsically wrong, wrong by their very nature as the types of actions they are, wrong regardless of consequences and circumstances. But what would have been the likely upshot had the Allies not used unspeakably brutal methods against the Germans and the Japanese in World War II? Leery as one ought to be of counterfactual history, I think the Axis Powers would have acquired nukes first and used them against us. But we don't have to speculate about might-have-beens.
If I understand the Catholic doctrine, it implies that if Harry Truman had a crystal ball and knew the future with certainty and saw that the Allies would have lost had they not used the methods they used, and that the whole world would have been been plunged into a Dark Age for two centuries -- he still would not have been justified in ordering the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, if the deliberate targeting of noncombatants is intrinsically evil and unjustifiable under any circumstances and regardless of any consequences, then it is better that the earth be blown to pieces than that evil be done. This, I suppose, is one reading of fiat iustitia pereat mundus, "Let justice be done though the world perish." Although I invoked an historical example, nothing hinges on it since a matter of principle is at stake.
This extreme anti-consequentialism troubles me if it is thought to be relevant to how states ought to conduct themselves. Suppose that there is no God and no soul and no post-mortem existence, and thus that this life is all there is. Suppose the political authorities let the entire world be destroyed out of a refusal to target and kill innocent civilians of a rogue state. This would amount to the sacrificing of humanity to an abstract absolutist moral principle. This would be moral insanity.
On the other hand, extreme anti-consequentialism would make sense if the metaphysics of the Catholic Church or even the metaphysics of Kant were true. If God is real then this world is relatively unreal and relatively unimportant. If the soul is real, then its salvation is our paramount concern, and every worldly concern is relatively insignificant. For the soul to be saved, it must be kept free from, or absolved of, every moral stain in which case it can never be right to do evil in pursuit of good. Now the deliberate killing of innocent human beings is evil and so must never be done -- regardless of consequences. On a Christian moral scheme, morality is not in the service of our animal life here below; we stand under an absolute moral demand that calls us from beyond this earthly life and speaks to our immortal souls, not to our mortal bodies. Christianity is here consonant with the great Socratic thought that it is better to suffer evil, wrong, injustice than to to do them. (Plato, Gorgias, 469a)
But then a moral doctrine that is supposed to govern our behavior in this world rests on an other-worldly metaphysics. No problem with that -- if the metaphysics is true. For then one's flourishing in this world cannot amount to much as compared to one's flourishing in the next. But how do we know that the metaphysics is true? Classical theistic metaphysics is reasonably believed, but then so are certain versions of naturalism.
I am not claiming that classical theism false. I myself believe it to be true. My point is that we know that this world is no illusion and is at least relatively real, together with its goods, but we merely believe that God and the soul are real.
If the buck stops with you and the fate of civilization itself depends on your decision, will you act according to a moral doctrine that rests on a questionable metaphysics or will you act in accordance with worldly wisdom, a wisdom that dictates that in certain circumstances the deliberate targeting of the innocent is justified?
An isolated individual, responsible for no one but himself, is free to allow himself to be slaughtered. But a leader of a nation is in a much different position. Even if the leader qua private citizen holds to an absolutist position according to which some actions are intrinsically wrong, wrong regardless of consequences, he would not be justified in acting in his official capacity as head of state from this absolutist position. The reason is that he cannot reasonably claim that the metaphysics on which his moral absolutism rests is correct. God may or may not exist -- we don't know. But that this world exists we do know. And in this world no action is such that consequences are irrelevant to its moral evaluation. By 'in this world' I mean: according to the prudential wisdom of this world. Is adultery, for example, intrinsically wrong such that no conceivable circumstances or consequences could justify it? A worldly wise person who is in general opposed to adultery will say that there are conceivable situations in which a married woman seduces a man to discover military secrets that could save thousands of lives, and is justified in so doing.
Anscombe's case against Truman does not convince me. Let the philosophy professor change places with the head of state and then see if her moral rigorism remains tenable.
We confront a moral dilemma. On the one hand, a head of state may sometimes justifiably act in the interests of the citizens of the state of which he is the head by commanding actions which are intrinsically wrong. On the other hand, no one may ever justifiably do or command anything that is intrinsically wrong.
Of course the dilemma or aporetic dyad can be 'solved' by denying one of the limbs; but there is no solution which is a good solution. Or so say I. On my metaphilosophy, the problems of philosophy are almost all of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but none of them soluble. The above dilemma is an example of a problem that is genuine, important, and insoluble.
Patrick Toner holds that waterboarding is torture. I incline to say that it isn't. But let's assume I am wrong. Presumably, most who hold that waterboarding is torture will also hold that torture is intrinsically wrong. But how could it be wrong for the political authorities to torture a jihadi who knows the locations and detonation times of suitcase nukes planted in Manhattan? Here again is our moral dilemma. I suspect Toner would not 'solve' it by adopting consequentialism. I suspect he holds that torture is wrong always and everywhere and under any conceivable circumstances. But then he is prepared to sacrifice thousands of human lives to an abstract moral principle, or else is invoking a theological metaphysics that is far less grounded than the prudence of worldly wisdom. I would like to hear Toner's response to this.
Some have tried to solve the dilemma by invoking the Doctrine of Double Effect. But I am pretty sure Patrick will not go that route.
Related: The Problem of Dirty Hands