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Moral Choices

This is going to pass perilously close to political commentary, even though I describe this as an “aggressively non-political” blog. It’s not that I claim no political opinions; it’s just that we’re at a stage in history where disagreeing with someone’s political opinions can be enough to discredit any thought they might have about anything.

Of course, even saying that presupposes there was another time.

The truth is, my political opinions are sufficiently non-Euclidian that I’ve never had a friend or acquaintance of the sort who will excommunicate people of other opinions who hasn’t eventually excommunicated me, right, left, center, or from the Eighth Dimension with Lord John Worfin.

Today, though, I want to say something about politics, politicians, political bloggers, and political blog commenters in general; I read more blogs on one side than the other, but I read on all sides, and the phenomenon I describe appears uniformly. It’s a phenomenon composed of two parts self-righteousness and three parts naiveté, and it’s characterized by the unstated axiom “it would all turn out better if I were in charge,” usually compounded with a little soupçon of “… and had been in charge for the last fifty or one hundred years.”

I saw an example today, and no I’m not going to link it, on purpose, because I don’t want to talk about some individual. A few days ago, Aden Hashi Ayro was killed in in Somalia by a Tomahawk missile; it’s been variously reported (as Sky News does in the linked piece) that from five fighters and a house maid were killed, up to “collateral damage” as many as twenty civilians.

The blog post that had me thinking made the argument that an attack like this, done “over the horizon”, might have gotten a Bad Guy, but would invariably anger all the families of all the civilians who were killed, and so wasn’t productive. The writer was obviously correct that it would anger all the families of all the civilians — but then, wouldn’t we expect it to anger the families of the Bad Guys too? And what about the families of people the Bad Guy might kill if he weren’t stopped? Don’t people get angry at the US now because we don’t send troops to Darfur and the Sudan?

Of course, one might adopt a Gandhian pacifism, but Gandhiji’s ahimsa, to me, always seemed best suited to the Raj: the British had limits. When he suggested the Jews could have dealt with the Holocaust by suicide, there was at the bottom of it an unworldly assumption that the Nazionalsozialisten would have been somehow embarrassed or deterred by mass suicide. Since the goal was Vernichtung and an Endlösung, “obliteration” and a “Final Solution”, this seems to me improbable. In any case, it was a tactic: historically ahimsa wasn’t pacifism, and in the Gita Krishna teaches Arjuna why it is sometimes necessary to fight and kill.

If you use an “over the horizon” attack, you are responsible for the deaths of people — some combatants, some not. This is unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if you don’t use an “over the horizon” attack and instead, say, send troops, aren’t you then responsible for any deaths or other casualties among those troops that would otherwise not have happened? If you use “moral suasion” and diplomacy, when military action could have shortened a conflict, don’t you bear some responsibility for the suffering of people hurt by the conflict? If you do nothing, aren’t you then responsible in part for what comes to pass?

If you adopt the notion of “doing no harm”, aren’t you then responsible for harm that comes because of what was left undone, or done some other way?

The arguments about torture seem to me to have the same flavor. Is torture a desirable or satisfactory thing? No, I don’t think so. On the other hand, the use of waterboarding on a few people, we are given to understand, saved many lives. Are we to understand then, that waterboarding — an extraordinarily unpleasant experience, I’m quite certain — is so unpleasant as to overwhelm the harm to the people who would have died, and their families who would have suffered and grieved?

If you use torture, you’re certainly responsible for the harm that causes. If you refuse to use torture, no matter how many people might be harmed or killed, don’t you then necessarily have some responsibility for that harm as well?

What I see in these arguments is not a high moral tone, but a very low one: they assert moral authority without accepting the necessary and consequential moral responsibility. By asserting a high-minded and plausible sounding abstraction, they avoid responsibility, at least in their own minds.

It seems to me that moral choices, true moral choices, can’t avoid both making the choice and taking responsibility for that choice. If you believe an “over the horizon” weapon is appropriate, then you have part of the responsibility for collateral damage; if you believe it’s inappropriate, you bear part of the responsibility for the harm done in a more intimate action; if you believe nothing should be done, you bear part responsibility for what happens. More than anything else, it seems to me that if you choose to criticize, you assume a moral responsibility to recognize that the person you criticize has the same dilemma you do: no matter what action they take, even of inaction, they also have to bear the consequences.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Wingborn | 2008-May-03 at 17:03 (@752) | Permalink

    Charlie, I wholeheartedly agree. Whatever you decide to do, even if you decide to do nothing, then you bear the responsibility for your decision.


{ 2 } Trackbacks

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