Dissent’s Root

Below is a snippet of an email conversation I had with a friend, a woman with whom I’ve had some disagreements about the war. Now while we disagree, I think that she’s genuine and thoughtful (although wrong) about her stance, and I appreciate that she struggles with it (as I do with mine).

I think her issues are shared by a lot of people, and so worthy of consideration. So here goes (the opening quote is from my email to her):

&gt And I’ll suggest a simple test. If you think George
&gt Bush and Saddam Hussein
&gt are morally equivalent, or that Bill Clinton and
&gt Milosevich are equivalent,
&gt then your argument holds water.

This is not to say that we are all morally equivalent. In my morality, Saddam and Hitler will be bunkmates in hell. I am, of course, being somewhat facetious here and in the next sentence as, truly, I do not know who will be or won’t be in hell, if hell exists, and I fully anticipate I will find out via my own experience of it, if it exits. However, in my morality, Clinton and Bush will bunkmates there as well–on a different level perhaps with day passes. But, on this level of reflection, I think–hell is hell and does it ultimately matter what level we end up on in there–will there be a popularity contest, benefits to be garnered, an advantage to be gained if one is on a higher or lower level? I don’t know. It is enough, simple as my theology has devolved to–that one has not lived in such a way to avoid hell and that’s all that matters. This goes to my belief that one is just as guilty if they steal a million dollars buck by buck as if they took it all at once…

Furthermore, I am all too aware of my own sins and foibles. … Sigh. Thus, I find myself singularly unable to pass judgment–intellectually–on others. There but for the grace of God? Pot calling the kettle? Regardless–there you have it. I am a sinner and am unable to tell whether I myself am a sheep or goat let alone anyone else.
So, no, they aren’t equivalent, but I cannot say, morality-wise, that they are significantly different as I do not know ultimately and in the light of eternity what good or ill each will have wrought…

And I, as student and as sufferer and as perpetrator, know painfully well the pavement on the road to hell. More evil, imho, has been done in the name of good than has ever been perpetuated by the truly evil. And, yet, I cannot find it in my heart to categorically blame them (intellectually) for the results of their good intentions. Blame in one way, but not in another–if that makes sense.

Thus, I do not know and thus, I hesitate to pass judgment as to what is truly evil.

Now, emotionally, oh, that’s another story. I rage, I cry, I stomp about and I send all kinds of people to hell for much less than even poor Dubba or Bill has done. Emotionally, I am quite willing to draw a distinction between a million at once and a million a buck at a time. Emotionally, though, I also see (and intellectually) that people are wounded and influenced by things that others may not even notice–that we are flawed but worthy of love–so I am in a real conundrum here.

And she’s not alone in that conundrum.

As I talk to people about the war…particularly people who oppose it…I am constantly struck by what they would call even-handedness.

It’s a weird thing.

I’m pretty unhappy with Ashcroft’s loose interpretation of the restraints on the U.S. government’s ability to infringe on my rights. But I sure as hell don’t stay up nights worrying about being summarily executed or tortured, or being restrained while my children are tortured in front of me. And I’m skipping the more lurid tales of brutality that can be told about monstrous dictators like Milosovich or Saddam Hussein.

Somehow the fact that I’m opposed to one (the bureaucratic infringement of my liberties) doesn’t come close to making me feel that it’s the equivalent of the other (the knock on the door, the executioner’s bullet), and I don’t understand how other people can.

In part, I think it’s the same kind of misperception I talk about when I discuss our misjudgments of risk. The kind of thing where we see one incident tragedy in the news…a man shot by the police when he reaches for his wallet…and map it to other stories which have the same emotional impact, even though they represent far greater tragedies. Rwandan genocide appears alongside a battered child in the newspaper; each is unspeakably tragic in and of itself, but…

…are they morally equivalent?

Is there some greater moral weight that we can give to evil (or good, for that matter) when doing it, rather than fighting it, is a matter of social policy?

People like my friend think not. They see themselves an entrapped in a world of evil, where every action carries with it, not the possibility of hope and the risk of tragedy, but the certainty of failure.

And if we are ever going to be conquered, this is what will do it.

7 thoughts on “Dissent’s Root”

  1. This is why I recommend utilitarianism over religiously based bullshit as a basis for ethics and morality. It’s simple, enjoyment is good, suffering is bad. Now make plans that try to maximize the first and minimize the second for everyone for now and in the future.

    Yep. planing involves thinking about the future, which is uncertain and very very very hard work.

    You won’t find simple rules, simple solutions or guaranteed sainthood anywhere in this neighborhood, that’s the breaks when you actually deal with messy reality.

    Here’s my moral slogan:
    “There’s no substitute for thought, there’s no substitute for inteligence and there’s no substitute for hard work”

    Bad luck for most ethicists eh?

  2. Duno, A.L. I listen to stuff like this and I hear someone who is terminally confused – not just with respect to politics but with respect to her whole life. I’m listening to someone admit they have no anchor, and no reference point to judge themselves. This is either borderline nuts or less than honest. A lot of – to be kind, I’d call them “issues” – are obviously at play. I can’t understand the thinking either, and I can’t imagine how anyone could build a fulfilling life on this foundation.

    What would interest me is greater understanding of how a philosophy like this appeals to people, and what need it serves. Maybe then I’d have a better handle on why it was so widespread.

  3. It’s possible to get into similiar dilemmas in utilitarianism. As the analysis goes to greater and greater depths, unintended consequences become more significant.

    I’m reasonably certain Hitler in no way desired for his attrocities to lead to the creation of Israel. Similiarly, I doubt aid workers intended for their relief efforts to lead to another larger generation facing starvation. These are admittedly poor examples. They are simply intended to demonstrate the antithetical results that are sometimes produced.

    … or maybe I’m just trying to evaluate results that are beyond my analytical skills.

  4. Joe:

    I don’t disagree that this – snippet, remember, or a longer conversation – sounds confused. But as you note, it’s a widely shared confusion.

    What it is and why it’s so common are the damn good questions. I’d love an answer…


  5. Why is this thinking common?

    Because it’s the easy way out.

    –Furthermore, I am all too aware of my own sins and foibles. … Sigh. Thus, I find myself singularly unable to pass judgment–intellectually–on others. —

    I am aware of my own sins and foibles, but if I acknowledge other peoples’, then I might actually have my sins and foibles staring back at me every time I look into a mirror and it just my force me to work on mine. And that’s hard. Much better for everyone to be lowest common denominator.

    Then she uses “intellectually” instead of “morally.” Having morals and living up to them is hard work. And actually judging someone might mean you’re insensitive (or a pubbie, ‘cos we’re all cold-hearted.) (And being a worker bee, I think one of our problems is that we have too many people thinking “intellectually.” Sometimes a spade is just a spade, no matter from how many angles you look at it. It’s also great for not getting a darn thing done.)

    Kathleen Parker said it best a couple of years ago:

    “Who are we to judge? We are the parents, adults and moral standard-bearers of our homes, schools, cities and states, not to mention a pretty large chunk of what remains of Western civilization. It was once understood that certain moral absolutes exist independent of subjectivity.

    If we don’t know what those are any more, we’d better figure them out and soon. Someone has to judge, or there won’t be anything left worth judging.”

  6. For some reason I am reminded of a passage in Mike Tanner’s excellent new novel, Acting the Giddy Goat:

    “Is there any one difference between the leading men in the movies of, say, 1940, and the leading men in movies today?” Susan mumbles something about they’re being better dressed, but in bars most questions are rhetorical. “They were MEN then.” Brewmaster retorted. “Men! M—E—N. Not young adults, not adolescents, not boys, not tykes. They were better dressed because they were full grown adults, pillars of the community. The protagonists had jobs, they were part of the mainstream, they upheld the establishment. They owned suits and tuxes and knew when to wear them. They feared God and respected the President…”

    Grown ups…which is why we have the responsibility to judge.

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