16 September 2006

a statement of belief

Pacifism is something I've struggled with since at least mid high school. When the President started making waves about Iraq, the American Left moved strongly towards an isolationist/pacifist stance, and although I was nervous about the occasional paleoconservative philosophy, I was already on the bandwagon, having felt that the President's hasty response in Afghanistan was poorly executed, hasty, and morally questionable. At the same time, however, I was reading A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power, a fantastic book by a New York Times writer that lays the blame for the 20th Century's genocides squarely at the feet of this country and its reluctance to involve itself militarily in foreign affairs.

I did, at the time, describe myself as "trying to move towards pacifism". In my case, it wasn't a question of will power, but of wrestling with the morally ambiguous issue of military humanitarian intervention.

Having grown up in a Christian society, immersed in "turn the other cheek" rhetoric, I definitely understand the appeal. It is the noble thing to do for the resource-rich. For the resource-poor, "turning the other cheek" effectively means not responding to oppression, and it is totally not clear to me, in instances of direct physical threat, when the switch from resource rich to resource poor happens.

Were I attacked, would I be able to kill someone? No. Of course not. Do I think it would be moral to do so? Probably not. Were I to watch someone rape and murder my sister, I still would probably be unable to kill them; were the choice between killing them or having them rape and murder my sister, I think that I would not be able to bring myself to killing someone. But the moral action? Probably, yes, to prevent imminent harm murder might be valid.

More generally, I simply do not believe that retributive justice is ethical. And since it is unethical to deprive you of the right to make personal decisions about life and death (you, for instance, have the right, in my mind, to suicide), it is certainly unethical to do so as punishment. But incarceration has four uses (and, since I don't value life per se the way many people do, I see murder as essentially a complete and violent form of incarceration) --- as retributive justice, as a way of bettering people, as deterrent, and to prevent other harm --- and the last is potentially ethical (the second would be if it were effective, but it is not). I can morally justify murder for, and only for, the purpose of preventing future harm, only as a last resort, and only when "turn the other cheek" is not the correct response. Ultimately, ethical decisions do involve balancing acts.

So what about the utilitarian test of the tourist, who may either kill one captured Indian (setting the rest free), or allow all twenty to be killed? I think that either choice must be allowed as an ethical choice; I myself would be entirely unable to fire the gun. But ultimately the answer is not really either: the completely ethical action is to consult first with the Indians and ask what they want. What's unethical about the situation is that the tourist is ultimately one of the oppressors, making life and death decisions for the oppressed people. Perhaps one Indian is willing to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps they decide to draw straws. Or perhaps they decide that they would all be happier dying than knowing that they lived only because someone else died for them. It should be their decision to make.

Similarly in international affairs, if we see endemic oppression, we may, and indeed we must, involve ourselves to help the oppressed. We must be careful to do the most effective things, and this is rarely, I believe, militaristic, and we must base our decisions strongly on what the oppressed people would like us to do. (This is, of course, hard. The most oppressed people are often sub-altern.) But, when we have the resources to just stand in the way of oppression, and absorb the onslaught of violent attempts to maintain the oppression while "turning the other cheek", then we cannot justify engaging ourselves in violence.

And, yet, we often find that we do not have such resources. And then is humanitarian military aid ethical? It helped, Power says, in Kosovo. I don't know.

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