Thursday, September 16, 2010

Statement of the Issue:

...And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Thus penned Jefferson, and signed the delegates of the Continental Congress in 1776, pitting grave resolve in the cause of liberty. This line struck me in relation to our discussion of "just wars" last night. In the depths of specificity and nuance, I think we may have at points left the ground of common experience which calls forth just war. This ground I believe to be the idea that one has a duty to protect one's family, clan, city-state, and country, with the understanding that family, clan, etc. are impossible without such a duty. Along these lines, Chesterton said, "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he hates what is behind him"; Ben Franklin (not necessarily our standard of moral rectitude, but a man capable of wisdom) said, "They who give up an essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety"; and probably many other people have said many similar things. What I am observing is not a specific moral formula but a common thought that has a long tradition in humanistic history.

**Now, it could be argued that aggressive war also has a long tradition (God wills it!). However, it does seem that defensive war tradition is distinct in being accepted on its own merit, as opposed to requiring an outside motivation and legitimization (such as the will of God, realpolitik, or the requirements of a particular social system).**

It is from this tradition that this discussion begins. The claim of pacifism then enters the dialogue: the moral values from which we draw in order to defend defensive war (defending the innocent) are in fact grounded in the truth of human dignity. Thus when defense against evil resorts to killing human beings, it attacks its own moral foundations. The old tradition was a disordered legitimizing: like aggressive war, it held certain goals to be worth causing the destruction of human life. Even though those goals were the protection of innocent human life, and even though the ultimate and indirect cause is the aggressor's, the defender's decision to use force to the point of death is a breach of the fundamental moral value.

But is this the final word? Is this indeed the certain end of the conversation?


  1. A common theme which came up in our discussion was the broad moral interpretation of whether killing is permissible or not. To complicate things even more, what situations can a person take another person's life. Clearly within those theories which allow for killing (either aggressive or defense), there are many different lines drawn, some more stringent than others. And it is precisely this ambiguous, even dangerous, measurement of human worth regarding taking life that is altogether unacceptable. When it comes to life and death, there should not and cannot be any uncertainty, lest we play the role of God.

    This is one line of argument the pacifist employs. When I think about it, it is a great stance and an ideal which upholds human dignity with absolute and objective certainty. Where this ideal becomes weakened (in my opinion) is in situations where someone will in fact die by another, whether it be one or many in conflict.

    The examples brought up which raised the question of the legitimacy of an extreme pacifist approach, were ones where duty to protect one's family (or any defenseless person) come into play. The question then becomes one of higher priority: duty to defend by killing, or to abstain from taking action when killing is the only resort. From the examples posed, (butcher is attacking a baby where you have a the trigger to a bomb strapped to the butcher's head, etc), however ridiculous, are just as ridiculous as some situations people face in domestic, war, and terrorist situations.

    When we posed the question to whether you would protect, even by killing, an innocent person being raped in an allyway, most of us feel intuitively compelled to say we would kill the rapist, or at least use lethal force (especially when we posed the victum was your daughter). And there is a part of me that thinks, yes, this seems right to me, and also validated by many others who think it right. If someone (whom I will call Matt) posed whether Christ would use force knowing that it might be fatal for the rapist, I would still think, yes, Christ would do that. Is this situation shrouded in moral amibugity? Maybe. But that does not change the fact that I still think it right, certainly on a subjective level, but also on an objective one as well.

    Let's take a parallel example: God. For all those who point to the supernatural and claim (dare I say know!) that there is a God, yet precede to explain and understand this God in so many different ways, does that take away from the fact that there is, in fact, a God? God, and religion in general, are facts of human life that are interpreted in oh so many different ways. Yet do say that because of this there is no God? No.

    Therefore, the absolute pacifist is most certainly also an athiest.

  2. Isn’t conscious inaction a decision with moral implications? So although it may seem like killing to save a life (since human life is sacred) is undermining the sacredness of human life, the inaction of a person may also be an indirect cause of a person’s death. If someone comes to me to kill me, I might say, “I must not strike to kill because that would undermine the reason I am defending myself, because I am sacred.” However, standing there and doing nothing is a moral decision, and it may be a decision that results in the death of life – so it too might result in undermining the fundamental value of life, which was the very reason I chose not to act. I think that some decisions call for a choice that necessarily, as far as our human reason can discern, involves the ending of a life, directly or indirectly. If this is the case, are both choices undermining the value of human life? This might lead us to say that life doesn’t have value, or perhaps that there’s no correct way of acting in certain decisions. To me, though, it simply shows that we’re going in the wrong direction with this sort of logic.