Ask a Thomist

Batman and Blowing up Boats

I recently listened to episode 9.5 of Pints With Aquinas, and in it, Fr. Chris P. gave an example from the Dark Knight. In the example, the Joker put bombs on two boats, one with innocent civilians, the other full of prisoners. The detonator for each of the bombs was on the other boat. He said that if one boat chose to blow up the other, they would be let go. If neither boat chose to blow up the other, then the Joker would blow up both. In the movie, both boats decide that they are willing to die for the other boat, so neither of them chose to blow up the other. I love the way he explained this example, and I agree with everything he had to say about it, but I got to thinking… What if the detonators were in the hands of someone off of both the boats? When the people on the boat have the detonator, they are choosing weather or not they are willing to die for the other boat, but when someone else has the detonators, they are choosing weather or not they are willing to kill one boat for the other, and the morals seems a lot more blurry to me. On the one hand, if the person that is not on the boats does nothing (as the people on the boat would have  decided ), then it would seem to me as if he or she is responsible for the lives of one of the boats. And what if he or she doesn’t know that both boats are willing to die for one another? Would he or she be morally obligated to blow up one of the boats in order to save the other? Basically what it comes down to is weather or not it is morally acceptable to kill innocent lives in order to save innocent lives, and along with that, weather or not is it morally acceptable to actively allow both boats to die for each other (assuming that Batman won’t come and save the day like in the movie.) Thanks for your time! – Matthew G

The case that you give is a difficult one, and one that is hotly contested in contemporary literature. In fact, there’s a whole sub-discipline within moral philosophy called Action Theory or Moral Act Theory which is taken up with questions of this sort. The magisterium has ruled out certain approaches in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, but there is still a rather lively debate among those who fall within the bounds of orthodoxy as to whether or not killing of this sort is permitted. My answer is informed in part by a book called the Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act by Steven Long, but know that he has critics and his findings are not universally accepted.

Okay, so it seems that one cannot choose to kill those aboard either vessel. There are circumstances under which it is valid to use lethal force. For instance, in the waging of a just war, in the execution of a justly condemned criminal, or in the defense of one’s own life. In each of these situations, what one intends is the defense of the commonwealth or one’s own person. To that end, one chooses to deploy lethal force as an act that is per se ordered to the end. In your example, there is no intrinsic connection between intending to save those aboard one of the vessels and killing those aboard the other. Killing those aboard the one vessel cannot be deployed as a means to the saving of life. A classic example given in the literature along these lines regards craniotomy. Before caesarian sections were more common, when a child wouldn’t pass through the birth canal after long hours of labor, it could endanger the mother’s life. At this point, the question became whether you could crush the baby’s skull in order to pass it through the birth canal and spare the mother. Some ethicists argued that you could, because you were simply reshaping the skull in an act of saving of the mother’s life, rather than killing. Other ethicists, with whom I agree, were quick to point out that such a “creative re-description” is simply not valid. Reshaping the skull just is killing the child, and killing the child is not a valid means to the saving of life. Just so, killing those aboard the one vessel is not a valid means to saving the others. Rather, the moral agent, must choose not to act. For though it is tragic, it is better to suffer evil that to perpetrate it.


Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P. serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Outreach for the Thomistic Institute. Born and raised near Philadelphia, PA, he later attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville, studying mathematics and humanities. Upon graduating, he entered the Dominican Province of St. Joseph in 2010 and was ordained in 2016. “It was St. Thomas Aquinas who first introduced me to the Order, and by his prayers that I grew in knowledge and love of its saving mission and ultimately came to find my happiness in Order of Friars Preachers.”

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