(Skippable) Introductory Concept: On Moral Dilemmas
Watching this neat video of an ethics class, I thought: people need a paradigm shift for thinking about moral dilemmas. We want to come up with the “right answer”--the best option, what you’re supposed to do. Ethicists try to tease out the moral principles involved and discern how they apply in a given situation, hoping to end up with a list of propositional statements which can be expressed in logical symbolism, making it possible to create a formula, from which we derive the correct course of action.
I still find such an approach natural, and think it immensely useful, except that it misses the big picture. And the big picture truth is that reality is messy, people’s intentions are typically unclear even to themselves, they are influenced by a whole range and variety of factors which perhaps no one will ever know completely, and even the consequences of one’s actions are always uncertain.
I think we need to stop thinking of ethics as a way to determine the single, formulaic “right” way to act (a la Kant especially, but Utilitarians and others as well) and instead accept that moral dilemmas are probably always going to be more complex than any individual is going to wrap their head around, and that the best we can do is consider carefully the competing values we recognize as applicable, and weigh them against each other as best we can.
What does this have to do with bin Laden?
Well, Americans have really vilified him, but he believed he was doing the right thing, and he has quite a number of admirers who still think so. Americans fail to appreciate that bin Laden and other revolutionaries of the Arab world find themselves faced with a genuine moral dilemma, and we ought to have greater respect for the choices they have made, given their situation.
Now, I want to acknowledge, explicitly, that acts of terrorism are an absolute evil. Killing non-combatants is murder; it’s wrong, no question. But if we stop there and just call Osama bin Laden an evil man because he was a terrorist, we fail to appreciate the complexity of the situation.
America and its ally Israel compose a modern day Goliath to the Arab world’s David. Particularly in the Palestinian experience (which was a driving impetus behind the September 11 terrorist attacks), Arabs have been horrifically, unjustly victimized by ruthless displays of our vastly superior military might. They have no way of fighting back against our tanks, bombs, soldiers, etc. So they choose the only target available to them: civilians.
As I said before, attacking civilians is evil. I do not condone such a practice. But consider this: the United States is a democracy of sorts. That means every citizen does hold some responsibility for the political actions of our nation, including military actions, including our support of Israel’s semi-covert attempts at eradicating the Palestinian people (a.k.a. ethnic cleansing or genocide). In ancient Greece, military service was a prerequisite to voting. We could stand to learn from such a policy that having a say in the fate of a nation means accepting the consequences of our decisions, including the ugly consequences of bad decisions. If we choose to inflict violence on others, we should expect a violent response, and we should take responsibility for provoking it.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright was not being anti-American when he pointed out that on Sept. 11 we were reaping what we ourselves had sown. In fact, he was showing greater patriotism than all the flag-waving horn-honkers who rejoiced at bin Laden’s death this week. Why? Because citizenship is not about “hooray for our side”; it’s about wanting our country to be the best it can be--and that’s not possible if we continue to ignore the truth about ourselves. The truth is, we are a violent nation, and that’s not acceptable. Violence begets violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Osama bin Laden may have been an evil terrorist, but he was also a prophet. We should listen to him.
Addendum:I just want to express my irritation at two details of media “spin” in coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death: first off, it was misleading to say he died “in a firefight,” as it appears to have been a completely one-sided fight--he was shot, unarmed, for not immediately surrendering. I have no doubt that, tactically, this was entirely sensible, but I do think it’s regrettable he was not taken to trial. And I believe it is also misleading to talk about Zawahiri as the “second in command.” Hasn’t he been the head of al-Qaeda for years? Bin Laden was a powerful spokesperson for the organization, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t having a whole lot of direct influence on things during his time on the lam. I’m just irritated by the way the media are trying to make this out to be more of a victory than it really was.