Friday, June 18, 2010
To Shoot a Man Trying to Kill Your Children: A Moral Trap for Pacifists
One of the major underlying forces behind modern political thought is pacifism; that the use of violence in of itself immoral. This is not to say that most modern people, even modern liberals, are active pacifists, but there is an admiration of pacifists (Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are two of the most revered figures of the twentieth century) and a given assumption that they hold the moral high ground. Would not the world be a better place if everyone pursued non-violence? There are real life consequences to this sentiment as it puts anyone not following a pacifist path on the defensive, particularly when going up against an opponent with at least the pretense of pacifism. For example the State of Israel opening fire on the flotilla of aid ships. (The passengers attacked first with knives and poles, but those are just technical details.) Israel is forced to fight the moral censor from western liberals that they should pursue a more "ethical" path, one that turns away from violence. At the same time our western liberal (particularly if they are Jewish) are allowed to, without cost to themselves, grab this moral high ground for themselves, as the opponents of violence by "both sides," and judge Israel for their lack of moral enlightenment. As such I believe it is important to confront this ideology of pacifism head on. Not only is pacifism not a worthy ideal to be pursued, it is itself fundamentally immoral and those tainted by it are de facto apologists for and aiders in the abuse of human rights that they claim to oppose.
There is a challenge that I often put to people who claim to be categorically against the use of violence: a martyrdom seeking terrorist is pointing a gun at your child with the clear intent to kill. You have a gun; do you shoot or do you allow your child to die? Alternatively, the SWAT team has the man in their sights and can take him out by sniper fire; do you call the sniper and tell him to back down? As should be clear from this example, for pacifism to be meaningful as pacifism it must be pursued even when it ceases to pragmatic, even at the expense of innocent lives. In essence, pacifism kills. There is a long tradition of people sacrificing their children for various causes and it is perfectly plausible that pacifism should simply be one more such example. But I think that most people would view someone who refused to fire as failing in their responsibility as a parent and partially responsible in the death of their own child, most certainly not a paragon of moral virtue.
The moment we decide to open fire then we have crossed an ideological Rubicon and we can no longer categorically oppose violence. All slogans of "make love not war," "war is not the answer" and "give peace a chance" fall away to be replaced by a discussion of where violence is appropriate and is even "the answer" as something virtuous. One would still be free to oppose specific military actions, such as the war in Iraq, but now the opposition must be couched in language other than simple opposition to war. Of course no value is absolute. One does not believe in truth less because he points a potential murderer in the wrong direction away from his intended victim. The difference with pacifism is that by definition it is an absolutist ideology. One is not a pacifist if one merely does not like fighting. Furthermore pacifism requires the denial of any virtue of those who would pursue its opposite; it cannot acknowledge any virtue in taking up arms for a just cause.
It is funny how despite the numerous times I have raised this issue with pacifist sympathizers, I have never been given a straight answer of shoot or not to shoot. They will try to dance around the issue by saying that they would not be in possession of a gun in the first place or would simply shoot to wound. The point of a moral dilemma is that it is supposed to be simple and extreme, far more so than you would likely find in real life. In our terrorist scenario you are not in a position to stop him in any other way but to use violent force. He has a gun pointed at your child's head. Either he dies or your child goes. Whose life do you pick?