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August 9, 2003

An it Harm None

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.

Do humans have the right to judge other the morality of other humans? If they do, do those sitting in judgement have the right to believe others should die for immoral acts or intents or beliefs or unknowing complicity or group affiliations, and by extension the right to celebrate the deaths of those others, or at least to not deplore the outright murder of those they feel are morally unforgivable?

There are no movements or philosophies or theologies that I am aware of that, as a practical matter, deny humans the power of moral judgement over others. Even among Christians, where there is a sound theological basis for such a view, there is no mainstream movement that I can find which argues that humans do not have the right to make moral judgements about others.

There are certainly those - I believe the Quakers qualify, for example - who believe that any deliberate taking of human life is morally wrong. Those people, I suspect, are few and far between, and can be separated out in that they would not - given a gun and an easy shot at Adolf Hitler, Iosef Stalin, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Bill Gates, J. Paul Getty, Richard Nixon, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Christopher Columbus, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan - kill any of them, and in fact would attempt to prevent others from doing so. There are very, very few people in that mold.

So the question becomes, if you believe that humans have a right to make moral judgements, and that some people are so beyond redemption that they must be killed, what makes it reasonable to kill another person? I suspect that most people would agree that the commission of sufficiently immoral acts - genocide, mass murder of political opponents, oppression of the masses, waging wars of aggression on other countries, murdering and eating children, killing people for fun, or whatever your personal moral code finds unforgivable - makes the killing of the actor reasonable.

There are a smaller number, but still a sizeable number, who believe that the intent to commit a morally unforgivable act is sufficient reason to work for the death of the one who so intends. For example, would you kill Hitler in 1937, to prevent the Holocaust, if you could? (For those who are fans of Hitler, insert any other name and intended future act.) I suspect most people would say that it is reasonable to kill another not as justice for a past act, but to prevent a future act.

The number of people, though, who would kill someone for their beliefs alone, is rather smaller. Certainly, some would say, merely being a Fascist, or a Communist, or an Islamist, or a Conservative or what have you, is sufficient reason to be killed. But not many would say that - or at least, not many would go so far as to say that belief alone is sufficient reason to be killed.

Very few would likely agree that unknowing complicity - indirect causation - is sufficient reason to kill. For example, even if you would kill Hitler in 1937, would you kill Hitler's father when he was a child? How many generations back would you go?

Most imcomprehensible to me, though, are those who would kill any Democrat, or Republican, or Muslim, or Jew, or American, or Catholic, or furrier, or meat plant operator, or Negro, or Caucasian, or rich person, or man, or woman, or homosexual, or UN worker, merely for their membership in that group. There is such a long line between saying, "some in group X act immorally ostensibly out of membership in the group, which reflects badly on the group," and saying "some in group X act immorally ostensibly out of membership in the group, and therefore any person in the group is culpable for those actions and is thus a legitimate target for killing."

That is why Trent Telenko and M. Simon (see the comments) have lost me over the UN bombing. I think that the UN is a deeply unprincipled organization - by design - and that in any such organization there are those who would take advantage of their opportunities for personal or political gain. Indeed, some in the UN and its associated NGOs have been complicit in acts which are beyond my moral limits of tolerance - genocide, tyranny, murder, rape, terrorism, slavery and more. That this is so, while the UN nevertheless fails in its primary mission (ensuring international peace) in the aftermath of the cold war, is a fine reason to withdraw from the UN, argue for its disbandment, and in every way refuse to support it. It is not a reason to cheer when a truck bomb demolishes a UN headquarters, killing a large number of people, most of whom probably had no connection to support for terrorism except for the extraordinarily tenuous bonds of membership in the class "UN workers."

If you argue that September 11, or the bombings in Israel, or similar acts are unforgivable, because the victims - or the majority of them - were innocent, then you cannot cheer for the death of innocent UN workers and be morally consistent.

Posted by jeff at August 9, 2003 12:00 AM

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