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.


  • Raja I didn't know you had a blog. That's so emo of you.

    By Anonymous Chris Naka, at 4:08 PM  

  • I am definately not an expert on the I-P conflict so therefore I can not choose sides, etc, but there was one point in this blog that I found bothersome. Raja says "...requiring that both sides be represented makes sense. In the case of the I-P conflict, it does indeed have many complex aspects. But at its core, it is a simple conflict and is about giving the Palestinians their just due." This bothered me because Raja went on and on about presenting both sides of an argument in order to be unbiased, and then didn't once mention an adverse Israeli point of view. I think if Raja had mentioned an Israeli point of view and then disproved it on whatever grounds, that would have been more fair.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:58 PM  

  • Raja, I just saw you on WFLD, Fox news, defending Hezbollah terrorist's bombing of Israel. I don't need to waste my time trying to put any statments into a million words like you do after that. Thus all I shall say is you're fucked in the head.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:32 PM  

  • To the person who wrote about seeing me on Fox defending Hizbullah, I never did such a thing. I criticized Israel, which is not the same thing as defending Hizbullah. Both of their actions can be wrong, you know. Pay attention and think before you hurl obscenities at me next time.

    By Blogger Raja Halwani, at 9:03 AM  

  • Then I stand by my obscenities. Criticizing Israel in this case is ridiculous. Try criticizing Lebanon in the first place for letting these terrorists exist in their country and doing nothing about it when they attack Israel. All Israel is doing here is defending itself, to criticize Israel for doing that proves you're siding with the Hezbollah terrorists in this case.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:49 AM  

  • Raja, I think that you should pinch this guy.

    By Anonymous Esteban Schimpf, at 8:25 PM  

  • Raja-

    I can certainly understand your point that Israel's response to Hezbollah's aggression as being excessive and disproportional. However, you fail to point out that the problem in Lebanon lies mostly on the irresponsible and hostile acts of Hezbollah themselves. They are strictly serving the interests of Syria and Iran, and not Lebanon. As a Lebanese (you and I) need to face the obvious and talk about the facts rather than gloss over these issues and always look across the fence and blame Israel for the problems that were incurred. Hezbollah's millions of dollars are coming from Iran; Hezbollah's objection to the UN inquiry into Prime Minister Harriri's assasination is only for the purpose of protecting their other master, Syria. So, Hezbollah is most definitely a terrorist organization, and should be labeled as such by all (including you). They have led to the destruction of Lebanon because they are serving their two masters, Iran and Syria. So, let's be honest with ourselves, and call "a spade a spade"!

    I wish you luck in your career and in your blog. But, please let's be honest with ourselves first, and not overlook the obvious.

    By Blogger Mark, at 3:57 PM  

  • TO Raja Halwani

    I have tried various ways to reach you about writing an entry for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics.

    Every time I found an email address that I am assured will work . . . it doesn't.

    I don't like doing this. . . but the only other option I could find is just move on to the second person on my list.

    If you are all all interested, please email me.

    Sorry again for intruding onto your blog.

    By Blogger Hugh LaFollette, at 6:21 AM  

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