PM Pick

Morality as Collateral Damage

Sam Vaknin

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 The imperative 'though shall not steal' is superseded by one's moral obligation to spy for one's nation.

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

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image