In my recent post on "The Ten Amendments", one commenter, Oz, raised two considerations that deserve more air time.
My original point was that the principles written into the Bill of Rights either represents moral codes (which define how people ought to be treated even if they are not Americans), or they identify a political convention whereby there would be nothing actually wrong with treating Americans the way we treat citizens of other nations.
The argument employs the principle that moral statements are universal, so it is either (a) morally wrong to do to non-Americans what it is wrong to do to Americans, or (b) morally permissible to do to Americans what it is permissible to do to non-Americans.
Of these options, I argue that (a) is more defensible.
In response to this, Oz raises the following two points.
(1) If inalienable rights do not exist, and morality is pragmatic, then it is certainly pragmatic to kill terrorists than to be killed by terrorists.
(2) Morality allows favoritism. A parent, purchasing a present, does not have to give the present to the most needy child, but can favor his own children with presents more than other peoples' children. Even in the area of saving lives, a parent may favor saving his own children over saving other peoples' children. Similarly, Presidents can favor saving American lives over the saving of other peoples' lives.
I hope that these interpretations are accurate.
The Universal Nature of Moral Claims
The rule of favoritism does not actually contradict the rule of univeralizability. We do allow the President of the United States to favor American lives over foreign lives. Yet, at the same time, we allow the President of France to favor French lives over American lives. In this, we are allowing the French President to do that which we would do ourselves. We are not promoting two different moral standards, but one standard that allows for favoritism.
If you rushed into a burning building and pulled your child out, while your neighbor’s child dies, he would have no grounds to condemn you unless he had reason to believe that you could have saved both children. Similarly, if your neighbor was the one who got into the house and saved his child while yours died, you would have no reason to condemn him unless he could have saved both. The principle applies equally, regardless of who gets into the house.
On the other hand, if your neighbor killed your child to save is own, you would condemn him, under exactly the same situations where you would hold that it is wrong to kill your neighbor’s child to save your own.
This is the type of universalizability that I am talking about. Universalizability is compatible with favoritism. Universalizability only requires that favoritism be allowed to all people equally. You may favor your children over your neighbor’s in exactly the same ways in which you neighbor may favor his children over yours.
In the blog post "Rendition" I applied this to the American practice of kidnapping people from other countries and flying them to secret prisons for "interrogation."
If we applied the principle of universalization to rendition, our attitude towards the rendition of foreign citizens should be the same as the attitude that we would take toward their rendition of Americans.
For example, think about how we would greet a newspaper story saying that the Russian government is capturing American citizens, throwing them into cars, and hauling them out of the country for interrogation. If they had the cooperation of our government, would we shrug our shoulders and say, “then it must be okay,” or would we condemn our government and demand a change?
Whatever position we take should be universal. We should consider it just as wrong to do to the citizens of other countries what we would view as wrong if done to the citizens of this country.
If It Works…
If rendition works, then we should use it, yes?
This suggests that, yes, if rendition works, then we should use it.
But what does it take for something to ‘work’?
I use the test, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” quite often in my essays, because this is useful test for determining what “works” in terms of a moral principle.
When we examine a moral principle, we are examining whether a particular desire or aversion, if made universal (spread around the whole population) actually works. To determine if it ‘works’ we imagine a society in which everybody had the relevant set of desires and aversions, and then examine what the implications of that would be.
The test of whether morally permissible rendition ‘works’ can be approximately determined by asking, “What if everybody were permitted to practice rendition?” This, in turn, can be tested by asking people if they would see society as ‘working’ if the rendition of Americans was as permissible as we view the rendition of foreigners.
I suspect that a lot of people would be uneasy about the unrestrained rendition of American citizens by foreign governments, and the primary reasons for that uneasiness are all of the problems that instantly come to mind when one imagines this type of situation. It involves the risk of one's life being disrupted by suddenly finding oneself in a foreign jail being tortured, and the pains one would have to take to make sure this did not happen, particularly if the government refuses to help because rendition is promoted as being permissible.
The "do unto others" test saves a lot of writing. I do not need to specify all of the problems with claiming that “the rendition of people is morally permissible.” I simply need to ask readers to imagine such a state and reasons come into their own mind.
I expect that many (most) readers will see why a universal practice of allowing renditions – including the rendition of American citizens by foreign nations – does not work. Our best option is to categorize rendition as something to which a good person should be adverse. In order to tell people elsewhere that the rendition of Americans is wrong, we need to express and promote the attitude that the rendition of others by Americans is just as wrong.
We need to do unto the citizens of other countries what we would have them do unto Americans. Otherwise, we cannot honestly claim that we are a moral and just society.
So, are we willing to permit foreign governments to engage in the rendition of people in America in the same way that engage in the rendition of foreign citizens? Is the Bush Administration willing to allow the capture of Americans, their confinement for years without a trial or even access to lawyers, without logging diplomatic protests and listing suspect nations that violate these rules as terrorist countries properly subject to American wrath to the point of violence?
However, I have to ask what the Bush Administration is saying to the leaders of other countries. Certainly, when the Administration sought the rendition of people in other countries, the leaders of those countries have asked, “Will you allow us to do the same to Americans?”
The Bush Administration could not have said ‘no’ without the hypocrisy and immorality of rendition being blindingly obvious.
So, did they say ‘yes’ instead?