Philosophy

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What We May Do to Others in the Name of Security - Part I

This is the first of a series of informal thoughts about what we - a people, a nation - may do to other people, nations, or individuals, in the name of our security. Much of what I say today is unoriginal. Still, it helps to get our thoughts sorted out.

By "may" I mean what we morally, ethically may do to others; what morality allows us to do, not what we are physically or psychologically able to do. And keep in mind what morality allows us to do might not always be the best morally commendable choice; it might simply be what morality minimally sanctions.

Let's start with a simple example, not meant as an analogy or comparison with anything but only meant to raise a point. Suppose that I KNOW that someone - let's call him Richard - is about to physically attack me. Clearly, I am morally allowed some form of self-defense. What am I allowed to do to Richard to stop him from attacking me? May I punch him? Break his knee(s)? Kill him? It does not seem that we can answer these questions until we know what Richard wants to physically achieve in attacking me. I mean that we first need to know whether he wants to punch me, slap me, kill me, or maybe just pinch me. Why do we need to know this first? Well, suppose we say in answer to the above questions, "You may do to Richard whatever is necessary to stop him from attacking you." This answer will not do on its own. Suppose that Richard is trying to pinch me; just pinch me. He wants to, say, grab me hard and pinch me in the arm. This will definitely be painful. But it is by no means fatal. Now suppose that the only way - the necessary way - to stop Richard from pinching me is to kill him. No doubt, it is difficult to imagine such a case. But perhaps Richard is one of those single-minded people - I mean really, really single-minded people - who will not stop until he achieves what he wants to achieve. So suppose Richard will keep at it until he manages to pinch me, and the only way to stop him is to kill him (injecting him with a sleeping drug will only postpone his attempts to pinch me till after he wakes up). May I kill him? Clearly not. After all, why not let him pinch me and just get it over with? (If the case were such that Richard wants to spend the rest of his life giving me one pinch after another, then we have a whole different case on our hands.) Killing Richard to prevent him from pinching me - even if that is the only way to prevent him form doing so - is just plain wrong. A pinch is just a pinch, after all. But killing is, well, much, much more morally serious.

The above reasoning, it seems to me, applies to a whole lot of things over and above pinching. I may not kill Richard even if that's the only way to prevent him from smelling my flowers, eating my French Fries, blowing in my ear, punching me in the face (or the arm, etc.)... you get the point.

Well, may I kill him if that's the only way to prevent him from chopping off my arm or my leg? From turning me blind? From giving me one pinch after another until he (naturally) dies? If we reason along the lines we just did, we'll have to say, "No, you may not kill Richard. After all, having an arm chopped off is just an arm chopped off, whereas killing is killing. And if Richard is just adamant on pinching you on and on and on, you'll just have to live with that; it's an inconvenience, and a serious one at that, but it is not as bad as killing someone!"

But something has gone seriously wrong here. It is one thing to claim that, on a general level and all things being equal, death and dying are worse than, say, losing a limb, but it is a very different thing to say that, everything else being equal one may not kill another to prevent that other from chopping off one's limb. I'm not sure why. I think it is because it has something to do with autonomy, with the fact that when it comes to MY life, I have to be able to live it in a minimally decent way, which includes having my health (including my limbs) intact as much as possible, and being able to be free from constant pain and constant pestering by others (including being pinched around the clock). That is to say, we all need to be able to chart our lives as we see fit; to be able to do so, we need certain things in place. If someone tries to deprive us of these things, we have may stop him or her. If the only way to do so is by killing him or her, well, then, so be it.

Note that this does not include killing Richard because he wants to pinch me once. The ability to chart our lives as we see fit does not mean treating others in any way we want; we need to be moral. Getting pinched once or twice or a number of times by Richard is annoying, yes, but it is not going to prevent me from living my life. So I may not kill him if that's the only way to stop him. I may not even chop off his hand. I may not (perhaps) even punch him.

All of the above assumes that the only way to stop Richard from pinching me is by killing him. But if that's not the only way, then OF COURSE I may not kill him to prevent him from pinching me.

Now suppose that Richard wants to kill me, not pinch me. It is clear that if killing him is the only way to stop him, I may do so (although this is subject to some amendments - more on this later). But it is also clear that if one way to stop him is by yelling, "Richard! Do not kill me!", and if I am capable of yelling these words, then I may NOT kill him to prevent him from killing me. I must use the morally most acceptbale means to do so, in this case, yelling at him.

But suppose that I don't know whether Richard will try to kill me. Suppose that all I know is that it is possible that Richard will try to do so. What may I do then? Well, possibilitity is too weak. It's possible that a tree might fall on my head. So what? If it's mere possibility that we're talking about, then I may do nothing to Richard.

But suppose now that there's a good chance, a high probability, that Richard will try to kill me. What may I do then?

This will be the subject, along with some tentative conclusions, of the next blog. Soon enough, things will get much more complicated. I will not derive any general general conclusions until these complications are accounted for. That is why this is a series.