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Evaluating the “Caiaphas Ethic” of Charles Krauthammer

“But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘you know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.’” John 11:49-50


Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?” With this case study Charles Krauthammer seeks to engage his reader in a debate about the ethics of torture. (Charles Krauthammer, “The Truth about Torture,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 011, Issue 12 (December 5, 2005)

An analysis of Krauthammer’s argument reveals that he believes the following:

1. A terrorist is not “entitled” to any form of protection.

2. By assumption of his argument, the potential targets of terrorism are “entitled” to be left alone—not harmed.

3. In the event of terrorism, proportionality is the key principle that ought to be used to settle any apparent moral dilemma. According to Krauthammer, proportional action is necessary not only to stop unjust violence already happening but to prevent a predicted tragedy from taking place.

4. “Any rational moral calculus” should not only tolerate torture in certain cases but demand it as a “moral duty.” Krauthammer’s depiction of a “rational moral calculus” tracks along the following flow of ideas:

a. Terrorism is evil.

b.. Torture is evil.

c. Terrorism will hurt (or has the strong potential to hurt) many innocent people while torturing the terrorist will harm only one or a few who are not innocent.

d. Viewed proportionally, torture is the lesser of two evils.

e. Torture will prove an effective means to gather information to stop terrorist plots.

f. Therefore, it is better that one “miscreant” be “hung by his thumbs” or “spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire” than for the nation to suffer harm. Or to put it more simply, Krauthammer claims that on “any rational moral calculus” there are times when two wrongs will make a right.

What remains for the thoughtful and critical reader is to evaluate whether or not Krauthammer’s claim that “any rational moral calculus” should lead one to his conclusion that sometimes the “monstrous evil” of torture is not only justifiable but a “moral duty.” What follows, then, is a two-part response to Krauthammer’s article and the larger issue of torture. The first part seeks to set forth and explain appropriate basic principles of a Just War theory as they apply to conduct in war (jus in Bello) in order to establish the meta-ethical grounds upon which to debate the larger issue. The second part then provides a more direct response to Krauthammer’s argument.

Guiding Just War Principles

Neighbor Love as Motivation

Whether or not any particular Christian stands for a state-sanctioned use of force or military engagement usually depends on how he or she negotiates the tension involved in the application of neighbor love. On one side of the coin the Christian is called to express a strong moral compulsion to love all others as neighbors including a criminal or enemy. On the other side of the coin there is likewise a strong moral compunction to love all others with an emphasis on the protection of the innocent (or victim). In any debate about issues such as war, capital punishment, or in this case, torture, the moral inclinations that revolve around the application of neighbor love often serves as the motivation for the debate.

With this in mind it is imperative to recognize that in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) Jesus clearly indicates that victims of injustice are worthy of neighbor love. Likewise it seems appropriate to understand that as the Jew and Samaritan were “cultural enemies,” Jesus also taught that our treatment of the “enemy” should also be shaped by the principle of “neighbor love.” While I am not suggesting a direct analogy of circumstances, there is nonetheless an important principle at work that applies. Jesus shifts the focus away from what qualifies the other person as the recipient of love to how one can and ought to demonstrate neighbor love regardless of who the other is. Paul Ramsey comments to this end when he argues that the good Samaritan parable “actually shows the nature and meaning of Christian love which alone of all ethical standpoints discovers the neighbor because it alone begins with neighborly love and not with discriminating between worthy and unworthy people according to the qualities they possess.”

Therefore, because the Christian must treat both parties (victim and attacker) with love, if a given situation calls for use of force as the most appropriate way to express neighbor love, then that use of force must be employed with a heart to protect one neighbor (the victim) from harm while limiting the way force is used on the other neighbor (the attacker). There is no room for the Christian to argue that this person is somehow less worthy of love or care. Concern to properly demonstrate neighbor love to all should simultaneously motivate one to just action and limit one from unjust response.

The larger question for the believer, then, is not whether or not he or she would personally support torture, but whether the state is given the right to use this kind of force in its God-given role to protect its citizens.

The Principles That Guide Neighbor Love

The question then becomes how to determine the appropriate expression of neighbor love when one is engaged in a just conflict. Just behavior in war depends much on the principles justifying going to war in the first place. For example, if peaceful resolution is the intended goal, and “peace” is defined simply as the absence of conflict, then any behavior—such as torture—that expedites the goal would not only be a justifiable means to the end, but arguably the best choice for it could be accomplished the quickest. Obviously the intended goal would have been met, but at what moral cost? If, however, the correct aim of war is “a just peace,” as John Rawls argues, then “the means employed must not destroy the possibility of peace or encourage a contempt for human life that puts the safety of ourselves and of mankind in jeopardy.”

For Christians, then, utilitarian ideas like “all is fair in love and war” or “war is hell, therefore fight like a hellion” are not acceptable. While neighbor love provides the impetus for engaging in a just war, this proper motive does not legitimate any kind of behavior. As Jesus himself commented, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). True love is guided by commandments. Thus, while neighbor love serves as a motivating virtue it remains only a formal category until other principles guide it, order it, and give it proper shape in a real life context. Three such principles are crucial to this discussion.

First, the behavior of the just warriors must be subject to the deontological limits established by a legitimate authority. The establishment of a legitimate grounding authority forms the logical foundation upon which the entire discussion must rest and the boundaries within which appropriate discussion must fall. For the believer, the highest authority must be God and His Word. Just behavior in war requires acting in light of the legitimate authority that rests on scriptural principles to guide such questions as: “Who may be attacked?” “How may they be attacked?” and “What force is legitimate when one is attacking?” While I do not agree with Norm Geisler’s overall moral calculus, he is right to point out that “No individual member of the armed forces of any country should be excused for engaging in a war crime simply because he has been ordered to commit the act by a superior officer. Evil is evil whether a government commands it or not.”

Second, precisely because neighbor love does not rank the value or worthiness of neighbor and because individuals matter to God, it is imperative that the principle of discrimination be applied next. Jesus clearly taught that “as you do to the least of these so you have done unto me” (Matthew 25:40, 45). The just warrior, therefore, must be careful to be discriminate about not only who falls under the category of legitimate target, but how those targets are treated. Scriptural passages prohibiting murder (Exodus 20:13) as well as those encouraging virtuous behavior (Micah 6:8—justice and mercy) transcend circumstances. In the treatment of prisoners, including terrorists, it is important to be shaped by the potent words of Christ. Therefore, both the targets of violence and the form of violence are subject to the category of discrimination. Arguing that terrorists are legitimate war targets does not therefore mean that it is morally appropriate to “string them up by their thumbs” or “put them on a spit and roast them over a fire.” In fact, the exact opposite would be true.

The fact that napalm has been outlawed as a legitimate form of weapon against persons in warfare is an indication that certain types of force are simply beyond the boundaries of what is right or permissible. Neighbor love and the golden rule, in cases like this, not only serve as controlling elements of personal conduct, but shape what ought to be seen as permissible and impermissible for the state. Napalm may be effective, but the slow burning death of legitimate targets is simply wrong.

Third, once the legitimating authority of Scripture shapes the deontological limits of what type of force may be applied and to whom, the question of proportionality becomes appropriate. The Scriptural principle of lex Talionis lies behind the idea of a proportional relationship between the projected gain from any particular act and its projected cost. The Exodus 21:24 instruction of “an eye for an eye” is meant to be a limiting factor in the expression of retaliatory force. Only what is necessary and appropriate to a given scenario.

While the just warrior may be tempted to engage in an ethic of utility where “the ends justify the means,” a biblical ethics do not allow such reasoning to rule the day. What results from the application of these criteria is an ethic of proportionality violence within deontological limits. That is, weighing the potential positive effect versus the probable negative effect must be done only after one has first determined whether a particular form of engagement or use of force falls within predetermined deontological limits. The justifying claim that “it works, therefore its right” is based more on pragmatism than on a principled biblical morality of neighbor love. For this reason proportionality must be rejected as the chief determining mechanism for jus in Bello and only employed once the deontological limits of discrimination are firmly in place.

A Response to Krauthammer

Returning to Krauthammer’s argument, it is now appropriate to evaluate the claim that “any rational moral calculus” would lead to the conclusion that in certain scenarios the “monstrous evil” of torture is “a moral duty.” The following is a point-by-point response to Krauthammer’s argument as delineated above.

1. Krauthammer is right. Because the terrorist operates on a level of perfidy and subterfuge, terrorists are not entitled to the same forms of protection as a “non-combatant.” However, as a human being they remain “neighbor.”

2. While theologically speaking there is some question about any human’s “innocence” before God, as far as the context of terror goes the potential targets of terrorism are indeed entitled to be left alone and remain unharmed.

3. In the event of terrorism, both discrimination and proportionality are principles that must be engaged to settle the apparent moral dilemma. Thus, proportional violence can be used, but not any type. The State is given the sword (Romans 13:1-7), but to use the sword to slowly carve the enemy apart is unjust. Even the State’s behavior must fall within deontological limits. Torture, then, once it is clearly defined, would be off limits.

4. Contra Krauthammer’s claims, it is simply wrong to claim that “any” rational moral calculus should tolerate torture and even further demand it as a “moral duty.” Further evaluation of Krauthammer’s moral calculus indicates why:

5. There is no doubt that terrorism is evil.

I am in full agreement with Krauthammer that torture is also evil. It is most probably true that the act of terrorism will physically harm many “innocent” persons while torture would inflict harm on relatively few guilty persons. But it is important to note that the assumption of Krauthammer is that the terror act will happen, not just that it might happen. Such certainly is reliant upon a predictive claim that would require omniscience in order for the torturer to act with certainty. While a comparison of potential lives lost may indicate that torture is the lesser of two evils, potential life lost is not the only morally relevant means of moral evaluation. What about the cost to the moral soul of a nation? How can we know for certain the net evil of torture would be less? On what basis is it possible to accurately measure the cost of disobeying a divine command in doing the admittedly “monstrous evil” of torture versus avoiding torture based on an allegiance to obedience and trusting in the Lord to work out circumstances while a third option is employed. After all, there is no guarantee that torture will provide an effective means of gathering information, or more importantly, accurate information given in a timely enough manner to make any difference.

While the so called “moral realist” or “conflicting absolutist” may argue that in certain “borderline cases” evil must be done to stop evil, the Christian places command above circumstances and allows love to guide proper expression of love. If the argument stands that torture is contrary to commandment, then even in the so-called “borderline case” or “moral dilemma” the Christian is not at liberty to break the command. Two wrongs do not make a right.


While admittedly, the anti-torture stance argued for here may not satisfy the pragmatist, the Christian must remember that life on a fallen planet does not guarantee the kind of safety, security, and consequences Krauthammer is trying to use as motivation to justify torture. Nor does it become justifiable to break a command based on circumstances or an uncertain prediction of future events—even when the event appears likely. One does not always have to like the boundaries that commands give us to know they are best to be obeyed. Thus, the just warrior engages the enemy within principled boundaries if for no other reason than it is wrong to do so and breaking the boundaries makes him no different than the one he is combating. We worship God, not safety.

In making his case Krauthammer makes reference to George Bernard Shaw’s joke about the man who asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. When she says yes, he asks if she’d sleep with him for five dollars. Indignantly the woman then responds, “What do you think I am?” The answer given is: “We’re already established what you are, ma’am, now we’re just haggling over the price.” What strikes me as amazing about Krauthammer’s argument is that he so readily admits his is an ethic of prostituted principle. In his citation of Shaw, not only does he cavalierly toss aside the foundations of just-war principles at the price of speculative safety, like a profligate schoolboy he has the audacity to claim this is the only path to the moral manliness of his “rational moral calculus.”

One can’t help in the final analysis recall the words of Caiaphas as he argued that crucifying Jesus was the only way to save the way of life the Pharisees had come to love and cherish: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” Caiaphas was right in the sense that his prediction did prove to be of great value for the many, but this does not justify the ethic under which he functioned. One would need to be perfectly omniscient in order to have proportionalism or utilitarianism be the guiding moral principle. For those of us who are not omniscient, commands and principles must lead the way and shape how a utilitarian calculus is employed. Certainly one could foresee that if employed Krauthammer’s Caiaphas ethic may indeed provide the results he argues for—but at what price? The argument may sound good, but we must be careful lest we forget that this “Caiaphas ethic” is far more dangerous than it appears. Indeed, it can even be used to justify the murder of God.

Dr. Mark D. Liederbach is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC).

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