Monday, August 9, 2010

Moral Urgency

Encountering moral problems is an inherent facet of living in a society of more than two people. People will do things that other people will think are bad. It doesn't seem likely that there is a chance of this ever changing, though certainly the things people do to each other will change. For example, while there are certainly still many modern and horrifying instances of slavery, our civilization has decided in the mainstream that slavery is an unambiguous wrong (though the definition of slavery hasn't really been agreed upon)*. That means that for our enlightened selves, leveling judgment upon slavers is easy; they're wrong and they can't be allowed to do it. If someone started rounding up black people and put them to work without pay and with threat of pain and death for leaving their post, we'd send the police around to arrest the slaver. The question of what we should do in the face of such moral evil doesn't seem hard to answer at all: it must be stopped. But what happens if the societal agreement is not nearly so cohesive as the one we now have against slavery?

Imagine, for a moment, that you're an abolitionist in 1859. Slavery is still around, the Civil War hasn't started, and for all appearances it doesn't look like the South is planning to voluntarily give up on slavery anytime soon. You see people, fellow human beings, being forced into labor and suffering across the artificial border between slave states and free states. Because of the unhappy accident of being born to slaves, that fellow human being is subjected to a lifetime of servitude in a system designed to break their spirits if they consider themselves anything approaching equal to whites. Even if the moral arc of the universe curves towards justice, to paraphrase MLK, these people might not see that day. Even if their grandkids are free, it wont matter to the man or woman who spends the totality of their days laboring without reward or choice. If the situation does not change NOW, their lives may be spent in intolerable injustice. This is an urgent evil.

How do you work to rectify this evil? All debate and discussion about slavery, all the arguments about the morality and practicality and legality have left slavery as an institution intact. The South is not going to stop of their own volition no matter what kinds of pleading or begging you might urge your Northern state government or the Federal government to do. In fact, with the Dred Scott decision, words seem to have turned slavery into a more grounded and secure institution. Sneaking slaves out one by one has definitely worked to help some individuals, but the major evil can't be mitigated piecemeal: you'd never be able to free even close to a fraction of the whole, with 3.75 million enslaved blacks living in the south. The South doesn't appear able to give up slavery willingly, and it doesn't look like slaves can be freed in large enough numbers by nonviolent means alone.

You might think that society has dropped the ball to help these people. You may not be able to call the cops and have the slaver thrown in jail, but dammit if that means you're just going to sit back and do nothing. You might follow the path of John Brown, who tried to lead a slave insurrection in Virginia. He felt that the evil of slavery was an affront to the God of Christianity that he believed in, and that the evil needed to be righted by any means necessary. He went down to Virginia and tried to raise a rebellion, and deaths resulted. But if nothing were done to stop slavery, an unimaginable injustice would continue to be perpetrated against the black populace of the South, which outnumbered the white populace of some states, like South Carolina. Wouldn't it be a greater evil to sit by and let that injustice happen? If violent action was the only option, wouldn't it still be an option that must be taken to free the slaves?

This question is easier for some to wrestle with given the context of history. The North ended up going to war with the South, and in the bloodiest war in American history, the institution of slavery met its end. To me, this seems like a large scale version of the above moral conundrum. While there were certainly many reasons for the Civil War and most of them were not as altruistic as the abolition of slavery, slavery was a key and central aspect to the nature of the Civil War. It was the reason for Southern secession, and the North took the step of linking together the Civil War with the cause for abolition by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Many today would feel that the Northern cause was just; the South was beholden to an evil and expanding institution, and the only recourse to end it was war. It was a tragedy, but there was nothing else for it; the injustice could no longer be stood.

However, the horror of that choice, the horror of inflicting death upon people because you feel that their actions are morally evil, cannot be clearly seen until you see it inflicted upon yourself. A good analogy, it seems to me, is the abortion debates. To clarify: abortion and slavery are TOTALLY DIFFERENT MORAL ISSUES. I didn't think this needed saying, but recently there's been a trend for anti-abortion advocates to equate abortion with slavery. For a discussion on why this falls flat, I point to Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, who writes about this from time to time as it comes up. In short, he points out two things: slavery wasn't necessarily about who is a person, but which persons are equal; secondly, he argues that it's important that black people themselves drove the fight for abolition, an aspect that the abortion debates can never have, since embryos are without self-advocacy ability. These distinctions are very important, and they need to be dealt with in order to make moral equivalency arguments about slavery and abortion. However, my point isn't about what's equal, but to examine the nature of coercion to right moral wrongs, as one sees them. You could replace the Civil War in this analogy with World War II, or veganism, as TNC suggests. Those debates are obviously not morally equal. I don't know any vegan who thinks that I'm as bad as Hitler for enjoying eating meat. The point I want to make is about the use of coercion, not the equivalence of the evils. Anyway, caveat over...

There are people in the United States who believe that abortion is murder. Whether or not they are correct, it is easy to understand why they think so. For instance, most people would think it an atrociously evil murder to kill a newborn infant for the sake of convenience for the mother. There's a reason why anti-abortion advocates use the word "infanticide." It calls up horrific images in our minds, since we hold that killing infants is wrong. For the anti-abortion advocates, it seems to be a trivial distinction to say that the baby is not a person before it leaves the womb, but suddenly a person after it does. Why should that matter; the baby is not really fundamentally different when it's being held by the doctor just after birth from two days before labor. That's likely why America allows restrictions on abortion in the third trimester, given that the fetus is so close to being born that most accept its personhood. But why the third trimester? What is the important distinction between one day after the trimester and one before? And they day before that? Since the nature of the change from bunch-of-cells into person is poorly understood and largely arbitrary, would it be better to be safe rather than sorry? Wouldn't it be better to not kill any of them, for fear that we're wrong and committing an atrocity of infanticide?

You might think that you can make a meaningful distinction for when something's a person and when it isn't**, but imagine for a moment that you believe abortion is the killing of persons, and that excepting in the cases of rape, incest and danger that this would come to the level of murder. But you can't call the cops on someone giving abortions, because society have approved of this murder. What do you do? It doesn't look like the abortion debates of the past forty years have made a whole lot of traction in society; abortions are still happening and happening at unsettling rates, if you considered them to be murder. Indeed, 22% of all pregnancies end in abortion. With a society sanction, this will continue to happen. What can you do to stop it? What can you do to keep this injustice from happening, even if you can only stop one abortion?

For the murderer of George Tiller, the answer was to kill. And most of our society condemned it as terrorism and as murder. But if you look back at John Brown, people called him a murderer, too. And indeed, many feel that whatever George Tiller's murderer might think about abortion, he has no right to kill for those beliefs. But what beliefs do we think you do have a right to kill for? Slavery? Murder? Self Defense? National Self-determination? Ideology? Justice? Our answers to these questions are varied and seem dependent largely on circumstance. It's wrong to kill for Marxism, but alright to kill for democracy. It's right to kill for self defense, but wrong to kill to rid society of evil men. It's wrong to kill depose tyrannies in Iraq, but right to kill to depose them in WWII Germany. When examining whether or not one has the right to take violent coercive action in order to right perceived moral wrongs, I think it's useful to imagine yourself on the receiving end. Would you be with John Brown, raiding Harper's Ferry? Or would you feel that George Tiller's killer overstepped the bounds of moral society by enforcing his moral beliefs by murder? If you want to do both, I think you need to think quite carefully about what the differences are between them. And make sure that you could stand on the opposite side of your belief and say "This person has the right to come and kill me."

* For instance, some believe taxation to be a form of slavery.This seems to be pretty far from the mainstream most of the time, but especially these days you hear this rhetoric pop up. What convincing argument can you come up with against it? If taxation means taking part of someone's earnings for their labor away, then isn't that slavery on a small scale? One way of countering it is saying that slavery was more than just taking away the rewards for labor: it was taking away the choice of whether to labor or not, or what to labor in. Is that enough to counter the idea of taxation as slavery?

** Expect a later post for why I don't think you need to make that distinction in order to think that abortion should be a morally allowable procedure, even outside of cases of rape and incest and danger to the mother.

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