Morality as Collateral Damage

by Sam Vaknin

1 October 2003


The Anglo-Saxon members of the motley “Coalition of the Willing” (30 countries, named by the US, to be publicly associated with the US action against Iraq) were proud of their aircraft’s and missiles’ “surgical” precision. The legal (and moral) imperative to spare the lives of innocent civilians was well observed, they bragged. “Collateral damage” was minimized. They were lucky to have confronted a dilapidated enemy. Precision bombing is expensive, in terms of lives, the lives of fighter pilots, that is. Indeed, military planners are well aware that there is a hushed trade-off between civilian and combatant casualties.

This dilemma is both ethical and practical. It is often resolved by applying, explicitly or implicitly, the principle of “over-riding affiliation”. As usual, Judaism was there first, agonizing over similar moral conflicts. Two Jewish sayings amount to a reluctant admission of the relativity of moral calculus: “One is close to oneself” and “Your city’s poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)”. One’s proper conduct, in other words, is decided by one’s self-interest and by one’s affiliations. Affiliation (to a community, or a fraternity), in turn, is determined by one’s positions and, more so, perhaps, by one’s oppositions.

What are these “positions” and “oppositions”? The most fundamental position, from which all others are derived, is the positive statement: I am a human being. Belonging to the human race is an immutable and inalienable position. Denying this leads to horrors such as the Holocaust. The Nazis did not regard Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, and other minorities as human, so they sought to exterminate them. All other, synthetic, positions are made of couples of positive and negative statements with the structure “I am” and “I am not”. But there is an important asymmetry at the heart of this neat arrangement. The negative statements in each couple are fully derived from — and thus are entirely dependent on and implied by — the positive statements. Not so the positive statements: they cannot be derived from, or be implied by, the negative one.

Lest we get distractingly abstract, let us consider an example. Study the couple “I am an Israeli” and “I am not a Syrian”. Assuming that there are 220 countries and territories, the positive statement “I am an Israeli” implies about 220 certain (true) negative statements. You can derive each and every one of these negative statements from the positive statement. You can thus create 220 perfectly valid couples. “I am an Israeli . . . ” Therefore: “I am not . . . (a citizen of country X, which is not Israel)”. You can safely derive the true statement “I am not a Syrian” from the statement “I am an Israeli”. Can I derive the statement “I am an Israeli” from the statement “I am not a Syrian”? Not with any certainty.

The negative statement “I am not a Syrian” implies 220 possible positive statements of the type “I am . . . (a citizen of country X, which is not India)”, including the statement “I am an Israeli”. “I am not a Syrian and I am a citizen of . . . (220 possibilities)”. Negative statements can be derived with certainty from any positive statement. Negative statements as well as positive statements cannot be derived with certainty from any negative statement. This formal-logical trait reflects a deep psychological reality with unsettling consequences.

A positive statement about one’s affiliation (“I am an Israeli”) immediately generates 220 certain negative statements (such as “I am not a Syrian”). One’s positive self-definition automatically excludes all others by assigning to them negative values. “I am” always goes with “I am not”. The positive self-definitions of others, in turn, negate one’s self-definition.

Statements about one’s affiliation are inevitably exclusionary. It is possible for many people to share the same positive self-definition. About six million people can truly say “I am an Israeli”. Affiliation — to a community, fraternity, nation, state, religion, or team — is really a positive statement of self-definition (“I am an Israeli”, for instance) shared by all the affiliated members (the affiliates).

One’s moral obligations towards one’s affiliates override and supersede one’s moral obligations towards non-affiliated humans. Thus, an American’s moral obligation to safeguard the lives of American fighter pilots overrides and supersedes (subordinates) his moral obligation to save the lives of innocent civilians, however numerous, if they are not Americans. The larger the number of positive self-definitions I share with someone (i.e., the more affiliations we have in common), the larger and more overriding is my moral obligation to him or her.

Example: I have moral obligations towards all other humans because I share with them my affiliation to the human species. But my moral obligations towards my countrymen supersede this obligation. I share with my compatriots two affiliations rather than one. We are all members of the human race; but we are also citizens of the same state. This patriotism, in turn, is superseded by my moral obligation towards the members of my family. With them I share a third affiliation: we are all members of the same clan. I owe the utmost to myself. With myself I share all the aforementioned affiliations plus one: the affiliation to the one member club that is me.

But this scheme raises some difficulties. We postulated that the strength of one’s moral obligations towards other people is determined by the number of positive self-definitions (“affiliations”) he shares with them. Moral obligations are, therefore, contingent. They are, indeed, the outcomes of interactions with others, but not in the immediate sense, as the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested (Totality and Infinity, 1961). Rather, ethical principles, rights, and obligations are merely the solutions yielded by a moral calculus of shared affiliations. Think about them as matrices with specific moral values and obligations attached to the numerical strengths of one’s affiliations.

Some moral obligations are universal and are the outcomes of one’s organic position as a human being (the “basic affiliation”). These are the “transcendent moral values”. Other moral values and obligations arise only as the number of shared affiliations increases. These are the “derivative moral values”. Moreover, it would be wrong to say that moral values and obligations “accumulate”, or that the more fundamental ones are the strongest. On the contrary. The universal ethical principles — the ones related to one’s position as a human being — are the weakest. They are subordinate to derivative moral values and obligations yielded by one’s affiliations.

The universal imperative “thou shall not kill (another human being)” is easily over-ruled by the moral obligation to kill for one’s country. The imperative “though shall not steal” is superseded by one’s moral obligation to spy for one’s nation. Treason is when we prefer universal ethical principles to derivatives ones, dictated by our affiliation (citizenship).

This leads to another startling conclusion: There is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. Moral values and obligations often contradict and conflict with each other. In the examples above, killing (for one’s country) and stealing (for one’s nation) are moral obligations, the outcomes of the application of derivative moral values. Yet, they contradict the universal moral value of the sanctity of life and property and the universal moral obligation not to kill. Hence, killing the non-affiliated (civilians of another country) to defend one’s own (fighter pilots) is morally justified. It violates some fundamental principles, but upholds higher moral obligations, to one’s kin and kith.

* * * *

Additional Reading
Morality as a Mental State
Nature, Aesthetics, Pleasure, and Ethics

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

READ the article