Friday, March 20, 2009

Not Sure

Ethics is a class that everyone should be forced by law to take. Perhaps even two semesters of ethical studies. Why? Because so much of how we see ourselves and the world is seen through ethical and moral glasses.

Religion is founded on the assumption of a universal, objective moral structure of what is fundamentally "right" and fundamentally "wrong." We see "bad" people in the world, e.g. Hitler, and "good" people, e.g. Mother Theresa. But what makes these people good and bad? Why was Hitler bad? He killed a whole fuck-load of people, but then we have to explain why killing people in huge numbers is wrong.

Now I'm not saying that killing people is right (in my rather bizarre view of morals it and lying are really the only things that are morally wrong), but why is it wrong? What is it about human life that is fundamentally valuable? Religion takes the easy way out, I think, by simply saying that it's so because God decrees it.

I got on this tack after reading a New York Times article about an upcoming book outlining all of the torture, dehumanization, abuse, and other good stuff that the US inflicted on prisoners. The underlying assumption of this is that torture is bad. In fact, the very international law the US espouses the view that these actions are war crimes.

We won't even bother discussing the absurdity of war crimes, which assumes that there can be such a thing as law in war. But regardless, doesn't it make sense that if US officials thought they could get even an iota of intelligence from prisoners, isn't it their obligation to slaughter everyone in their path if needed? Their charge is the defense of the country, not the defense of prisoners.

Let's look at that. If every Iraqi on Earth died tomorrow, who would care? Not many people. The Iraqis are all dead, so they can't care. Family members in this country and others would be sad for awhile, but they'd get over it. What I'm saying is, in the United States, I don't care about Iraqis. I care about my "tribe." My family is paramount, neighbors next, then town, state, and finally country... and I guess continent, then by language spoken, then, ummm, by favorite movie, hair style... what I'm getting at is that a grand recognition of the brotherhood of mankind is damn near the bottom of a list of determinants of whether I feel a sense of camaraderie with a person.

As such, I see little problem, from that perspective, with going in to Iraq and killing everyone to get the oil our country needs. We're a tribe of people, with a government charged with out care, and we need oil. It's pretty obvious that much of the Iraq war's motivation was oil, and the only problem is that people continue to balk at that statement. Well why not?! We need the oil, they have it, let's take it. The discussion is instead focused on the absurd idea that oil either did or did not motivate the Iraq war.

Well of course it did! Oil is the blood in the veins of the world. It is the single most valuable resource we have. If we instead turned the argument to whether it's the government's responsibility to acquire the oil its people need or not, the national discussion would be much more interesting and not nearly as black & white as the current framing. From that perspective, I think both sides have good arguments, as opposed to keeping of a masquerade.

Now, all that being said, I do not subscribe to that argument. Not because of some grandiose idea of humanity and its value, but because of practical considerations. Morals, as I see them, are rules for behavior without which society could not work. Killing is immoral because if everyone killed society couldn't work. Stealing is immoral because if everyone stole the economy would cease to function. Lying is immoral because if everyone lied social interactions would fail.

War crimes work because it's like a pre-nup agreement. Everyone agrees that, even though we're cool now, if we're ever not cool we agree to not do this crazy shit. That eliminates a great deal of possible tension (no worries of mustard gas) and actually acts like a pressure-release valve, preventing outright conflict. There will always be the loony who will rise to power and ignore this laws, and at that point the laws are pointless since I think their primary purpose is the prevention of war. (EDIT: I didn't really finish my point. Even after that loony has arisen, the laws must be obeyed or else possible future opponents won't trust you to follow those laws, thus eliminating the benefits of trusting that your possible future opponent won't open up a can (literally) of mustard gas on you and you on them.)

This recent controversy is nothing new. I assume most people don't realize that the United States has never been the good guy. No one has. The good guy doesn't exist. It's a great ideal that I hope the US can achieve within my lifetime, but we're a selfish species. We don't care about Iraq because if our ancestors had made a habit of caring for their neighbors, they wouldn't have survived. Selfishness is good. Greed is good. It's good that we want to take Iraq's oil. Our self-important sense of morals is the opposing force, and that's also good. Morals are what has allowed our advanced civilization to arise. A sense of right and wrong resulted in structured society.

These gray areas, this moral ambiguity that is at the root of the actual argument is what we should be discussing. Everyone in the country should be thinking about this because it directly applies to our sense of nationalism. The United States is the "good guy," but how? And if we aren't the good guy, is the country the problem or the expectation of moral superiority? I think these are questions we should be discussing.

On Torture and the Rule of Law (

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