July 06, 2006

On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility (I)

After I had posted an entry the other day, A Land of Evil, I began to reflect once again about evil, how we use the word (or, which is more common today, how we tend to avoid it, especially in discussions of U.S. politics), and when evil is the only appropriate word and what it properly should refer to. As I thought further, I realized that several equally complex, related issues are involved -- issues concerning guilt and responsibility. We often tend to use these terms interchangeably but, in fact, they refer to very different things.

At this moment in history, I think it's important that we use terms such as evil, guilt and responsibility with care and precision, and we should be prepared to defend the manner in which we employ them. So what follows is my attempt to explain what I mean by these concepts, and when and in what contexts I think they should properly be used. I have no doubt that I'll have occasion to revisit these issues in the future, and to refine these observations more.

Let's start with evil itself. I offer one very hard, bright line test, and one subsidiary example. Life is the sole fundamental value without which no other values are possible, and upon which all other values depend. Life is the primary individual value: I have my life, you have yours, and every other person on Earth has hers or his. And each of these lives is unique and irreplaceable, as I discussed in Of Fundamental Moral Principles, and the Value of a Single Human Life:
There is one final point to be made about all this -- and that has to do with the supreme value of a single human life. In our desensitized, dehumanized age, most people have almost no appreciation for what I'm talking about, and our political establishment and media only make this grievous failing worse. Each of us is unique; not one of us can be replaced. Each of us has a family, loved ones, friends and a life that is a web of caring, interdependence, and joy. When even one of us is killed or horribly injured for no justifiable reason, the damage affects countless people in addition to the primary victim. Sometimes, the survivors are irreparably damaged as well. Even the survivors' wounds can last a lifetime.

This is of the greatest significance. There is nothing more important or meaningful in the world. No moral principle legitimizes our invasion and occupation of Iraq, just as it will not justify an attack on Iran. Therefore, when the first person was killed in Iraq as the result of our actions, the immorality was complete. The crime had been committed, and no amends could ever suffice or would even be possible. That many additional tens or hundreds of thousands of people have subsequently been killed or injured does not add to the original immorality with regard to first principles. It increases its scope, which is an additional and terrible horror -- but the principle is not altered in the smallest degree.
In all the discussions of tens or (much more probably) even hundreds of thousands of slain innocent Iraqis, and of all the futile American casualties, we tend to forget this principle: the very first unnecessary death was the original unforgivable sin. All the subsequent and equally futile deaths increase the scope of a horror that is truly unspeakable -- but we were entitled to pass full moral judgment when the first woman, man or child was killed by the invading American forces.

And we are entitled to say that the first unjustified killing was evil. Any killing that is not an absolute necessity in one's own self-defense, or in the defense of one's nation (in the case of war), is evil. Period. This is not to say that we may not commit forgivable errors of judgment in our own defense: for example, we may think that a person was pulling out a gun when, in fact, he wasn't. If we reasonably but mistakenly believed our own lives were in imminent danger and we killed our attacker because of that belief, the mistake remains a terrible and tragic one, but it is understandable. The law makes allowances for such incidents.

Our invasion and occupation of Iraq do not fall into this category. We massed forces around Iraq over a period of many months, our leaders very carefully orchestrated a process that was intended to provide justification for the attack to the world -- and all our phony "diplomacy" and all the justifications were nothing but a series of outright, unforgivable lies. Our leaders knew that Iraq represented no serious threat to us, and they ordered the invasion despite that knowledge. Therefore, all those who planned and implemented the invasion -- and all those who direct and enable the occupation today -- were and are committing acts of evil.

At this point, you might well ask: But what about the individual soldier? Is he committing evil as well? The answer is a very complicated one, and I will address it in detail in Part III, when I discuss guilt and responsibility. For the moment, I will note that not every soldier follows orders and goes into battle, when he knows the cause is an utterly indefensible one. Some soldiers say no, and are prepared to pay the price for their refusal to obey illegal orders.

This leads me to the subsidiary example of evil. To commit evil, it isn't necessary that we take another person's life. In a manner that deliberately avoids the prisoner's death -- which makes the evil still greater in one sense -- we can inflict agonizing, unbearable pain, even when we know that doing so serves no purpose and that, if we are honest, it only represents sadism for its own sake. That is, we might torture a helpless prisoner delivered into our control. I wrote an extended analysis of torture and many related issues some months ago: all the entries, with descriptions of the contents of the individual essays, will be found here.

In Part III of that series, Brutality and Sadism as National Policy, and the Monsters of Our Time, I offered this description of torture:
For the moment, only one key fact needs to be remembered, and we must never, ever forget it: Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever. As we shall see, the rationalizations used to make torture "acceptable" on even one occasion are only that: rationalizations for other motives and other concerns. The excuses used to justify the practice of torture are the lies that serve only to disguise the nature and extent of the evil being committed.
Rereading this now, I see no reason to alter that description, or the judgment I offered. The intentional infliction of agony on another person for no legitimate reason whatsoever cannot be other than evil.

And just as there are always those soldiers, very regrettably few in number, who will refuse to follow illegal orders, so too there are always those individuals who will refuse to torture another human being. In the concluding parts of my series, when I discussed Andrew Sullivan's opposition to torture, why it is ultimately unpersuasive, and how it is based on assumptions that are radically different from mine, I wrote:
When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

Every conflict in history sees such people -- people who will not be moved from what they know to be right, to be human, to be decent, to be civilized. Many of us celebrate their stories. We draw inspiration from their unbreakable courage. They are the people who will not compromise their most fundamental values, or what they know to be the essence of their humanity. They refuse to surrender it -- no matter the cost, regardless of the pain they themselves may bear as a result, setting aside all the consequences that may ensue.

They will not do it -- even when they know to an absolute certainty that their refusal will mean their own death.

Yet the defenders of torture, and even many of those who condemn it, never mention these men and women. For them, it is as if such people never existed, and are nowhere to be found in our world today. Why?
In the final part of On Torture, I answered those questions. In part, I wrote:
In the previous essay, I analyzed how Sullivan approaches the question of torture as a political one: he considers the legitimizing of torture in terms of its effects on the United States as a political entity. He discusses torture's ghastly effects on the victim -- but only in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if he were writing a textbook on political theory. And, very significantly, both [Charles] Krauthammer and Sullivan -- even though they come down on opposite sides of this dispute -- exhibit the same blind spot: the reality of the person who will always refuse to inflict torture on another does not appear to exist for them. We are left with the sense that, in their world, if the order comes down to torture, the order will be obeyed. So the critical question for them is whether that order should ever be issued. Krauthammer says it should, and Sullivan says it must never be.

For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that [Alice] Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what?
These thoughts serve to introduce some of the issues that require more detailed exploration. But note that it is far from sufficient to claim, in any form and with regard to any circumstance, that "the system made them do it." Most of us reject this kind of defense with regard to Germans during World War II, for example -- but today, many of the same people use the identical defense with regard to American soldiers in Iraq. But as Hannah Arendt incisively observes: "[W]here all are guilty, no one is." Blaming atrocities on the "system," failing to make more precise moral judgments, and avoiding the fact that there are always individuals who say "no," will not suffice.

I'll leave these troubling and critical inquiries here for the moment. To be continued. And if you were wondering: yes, some Arendt essays on these issues will figure very heavily in the concluding part of this series.