Three literary homocides - are they morally licit?

Are any of these three scenes morally permissible?

  1. The titular character of Lawrence of Arabia deliberately shoots and kills his mortally-wounded adopted son, Farraj, while escaping, to save him from certain torture at the hands of the closely pursuing enemies. Farraj begged his father to kill him.

  2. In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George deliberately shoots and kills his low-IQ friend Lenny in the back, after Lenny accidentally killed the bosses’ wife. George desires to avoid the likely scenario where Lenny would likely be lynched or worse had he not killed his friend. Too much speculation on George’s behalf?

  3. In the movie Spartacus, the titular character kills his dear friend in arena combat since the Roman authority has declared the winner will be crucified (and I believe both will be crucified if they refuse to fight). He wants to help his friend avoid that horrible fate.

The analysis appears different than the more common assisted suicide analysis since the victim will not die by natural means, bur rather is a (virtually) condemned man, fairly or no, by the state or the most controlling local authority. On the other hand, this is different than the moral status of an executioner since the homocide is determined by private means, not the state. Where does Augustine’s “love, and do as you will…” figure into this analysis? Does it break down here? Were the protagonists not acting out of true love?

Good question.

Really, IMNAAHO, in contrived situations such as presented, it is almost impossible to know what is moral.


Just want to mention that T. E. Lawrence did indeed kill Farraj in real life. Farraj had been shot mortally by Turks, who were now bearing down upon them. All involved had agreed on previous occasions that should one be badly hurt, the others would kill him. This was done to prevent the greviously wounded from being burned alive by the Turks, something they had seen done before. Farraj knew what Lawrence was going to do and gave his tacit permission: “God will give you peace.”

Lawrence recounted this event in his autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.

On the flip side, to an extent is “Saving Private Ryan”.

Moral theologians have waded in on this issue before - it is not exactly new.

And while I will not say the moral theologians are incorrect, I will also say that they have not been in the same circumstances. Ultimately, it is for the one doing the killing to make peace with God, and for God to judge them.

I have only the descriptions you provided to go on - all 3 appear to be murder. Good Intentions or particular circumstances don’t change that.

Should the victim in each case have taken his own life, would we not call it suicide (however understandable and desirable that action might seem)?


Well, to the extent one is allowed to “play God” or “play the role of the state,” they would seem justified as the protagonists could argue they are acting as agent of the local state, though their actions are unauthorized (except in the arena example). But I won’t deny that seems to presume (too) much. All three involve outcomes that would likely be “substantially certain” in the eyes of an American court. But none have any absolute certainty (though doubtful, the authorities could change their mind/practice), on which the moral question may perhaps turn.

We have a non-intrinsically-evil end, and the means are debatable, inasmuch as they mirror the means available to the state, say, in its execution duties. So I think we have to keep an open mind.

The Gospel allows one to arrogate the choice (even the duty) to directly kill another human 1) in just war, 2) to save life or serious injury to self or other against an unjust aggressor, 3) in state-sanctioned punishment as a means for safety (some would argue retribution as well), or 4) as a direct command from God. Rau (or other), is there anything that convinces you intrinsically that this is not a rare “other” category? I know you could make the extrinsic argument that we don’t know of any condoned example by the Church, and that’s a decent argument, but it only carries so much weight. A preferred answer would go directly to moral analysis.

I apologize for any lack of clarity above. This perhaps deserves clearer treatment, yet I’m thinking on the fly…

Matters of the law, courts and precedents are not relevant to a moral debate. Murder referred to here is the intrinsically evil human act, not the crime.

There are no exceptions under which murder is ok, but as you note, acts which may kill are not all murder.

I would be interested in hearing any argument based on catholic moral theology that concludes any of the acts in the OP are moral. But intentionally killing to save the person from grave mistreatment sounds merciful, but it seems to be the ends justifying the means.

As far as I can see it is euthanasia, which is evil under all pseudonyms.

Yes. And it is easy to take the moral high ground, and say the end never justifies the means, and let your adopted son be tortured to death by Turks. It is also true that God might intervene and prevent that, so it would not be absolutely certain what would happen.

But unless we are there experiencing the situation, it is impossible to know what we would do or the pressures on us to take one or another course of action. It may be useful to discuss it, but it is futile to try and judge another’s heart and the extent of his sin. Only God can do that.
The protagonists are clearly acting out of love. But they are leaving Christ out of the equation. I really can’t picture any of the saints – St. Francis, for example – acting in this way.

I only said that the act is a grave sin. The responsibility of the actor is between God and him. Sin requires an evil act, knowledge by the actor, and freedom of action.

That’s correct. The key point often forgotten, but taught by the Church, is that some acts are always wrong, regardless of circumstances and motivation. The analytical challenge is identifying the true act in any given situation.

All three fail the possible hypothetical guilt test, which is a clear sign in my mind that they are wrong. For example, in all three cases, had there been an earthquake immediately afterwards that destroyed all enemies, or had the enemies arrived on scene miraculously ready to apologize (etc.), it is obvious that the protagonist would have felt very guilty and horrified over what he had just done. The future is in God’s hands, and to presume to prejudge it is to play God.

Thanks, all, for the replies.

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