My recent posts on honoring the dead has brought forth a couple of commenters presenting test cases.
I argued that a person who sacrifices his or her life has performed a noble sacrifice if he or she acted on a good desire – a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. We honor the sacrifice of such a person by acting to make true the proposition that was the object of the agent’s desire. We cannot honor the death of anybody who dies for religious reasons because we cannot make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires.
Mistaken Beliefs and Good Desires
Today, I want to discuss some cases mentioned by the commenter olvlzl.
In your list of ways to give up your life on the basis of religion you left out a few things. Being killed while a medical worker in a war zone, Catholic sisters targeted for teaching peasants, priests murdered for speaking up for the rights of peasants not to be murdered by a fascist government, and we haven't even left El Salvador of the 1980s yet. Since those who died based their adherence to these causes on their religion, you would classify them as futile. Odd way to run a system of ethics, that.
To examine this case, we need to ask what these people really wanted – what was really important to them. We can get at this by asking how these people would behave if they came to believe that the proposition ‘God exists’ is false.
I want to look at two possible responses.
Response 1: The individual comes to believe that no God exists, but says, “It doesn’t matter. These people are suffering, and I cannot leave these people to suffer. I must do something to help them.”
Response 2: The individual comes to believe that no God exists, and says, “Hey. I never cared about these people. The only reason that I came here was so that I can buy a ticket to heaven. If there is no ticket to heaven to be bought, I am out of here.”
The first person has a genuine interest in the well-being of others. She has a desire that they not suffer. She may have this desire in the context of a belief in God, but the quality of her character depends on the quality of her desires. This ‘desire that there be less suffering in the world’ is a desire that can be made true in the real world. We can honor the life of such a person, just as we can honor her death.
The second person has no interest in the well-being of others. She is only interested in heavenly reward, “What’s in it for me?” When she dies, we have no reason to honor her life or her death. We cannot make true the proposition that was the object of her desire (‘that I have a ticket to heaven’) and have no particular reason to want to make it true.
A third type of position that we can imagine is one in which a person desires to serve and obey God, and thinks that God commands her to perform this services.
However, no God has ever given anybody a command and nobody has ever obeyed God. So, where did these things that some people thought were commands from God come from?
Scripture (in every major religious tradition) is so filled with inconsistencies that people can find whatever they want to find within them. If a person finds in scripture a command to be generous and compassion to others, we have reason to assume that this is a person who desires to be generous and compassionate, so that she wrote those virtues into her interpretation of scripture. When another person reads the same scripture and finds commands to take up arms against unbelievers or other enemies of the church, then we have reason to believe that this is somebody with a love for war and power, reading into scripture a command to see the war and power he loves.
The people Olvlzl wrote about are people who wrote their own concerns for justice and the welfare of others into their interpretations of religious text. The compassion came from the individual, not from the book; and it is the individual who deserves the credit for those concerns.
The Virtuous Victim of Lies
Olvolzl also brings up a test case where a person was caused to sacrifice his life for what he thought was a good cause – only he was tricked into doing so. His example of the soldier who went to Iraq thinking he was there to defeat terrorists and prevent an attack on the United States using weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he went there to help secure profits for contractors who would be given no-bid contracts to ‘rebuild’ the country.
There is no way to make the lies that the invasion of Iraq were sold to the American People with, true. They weren't the real reason for the invasion, that, as always with the Bush Crime Family and its associates, is about money and the power necessary to steal more of it. Anyone who went to Iraq and died believing the lies died for something that didn't exist.
I am sorry, but I must offer an aside to say that I do not (yet) accept one of the assumptions in this question. I think it is possible that many of the leading advocates of the invasion of Iraq thought that this would be a good way to defend the United States from terrorist attack. Their plan was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, be greeted as liberators, and establish a freedom-loving democratic state in the model of Germany and Japan that would become the envy of the Arab world. As the desire for the peace and prosperity of such a state spread, the whole Middle East would become a flowering democracy and America’s fear of violence coming from the area would be lessened.
The desires that these people have read into their interpretation of scripture are often desires that can be fulfilled. Whether that person has lived well or died for a good cause depends on the quality of the desires that the person has read into his or her interpretation of scripture.
Unfortunately, their arrogance and intellectual recklessness – their tendency to think that they could appeal to their ‘gut’ for the right answers – got in the way of good decision making. They felt like they already knew the right answers, and based their evaluation of the quality of the evidence on whether it supported what they believed, rather than basing their evaluation of what they believed on the quality of the evidence.
Be that as it may, the question still turns on the issue of what happens when deceivers take advantage of another person’s good moral character.
The agents of this decision, in this case, rob their victims of an opportunity to do great things – causing those victims instead to work for something of much lesser, and perhaps a negative value.
These agents of deception cannot take away the soldier’s virtue. The soldier who is willing to risk his life in the defense of what is good remains a virtuous individual, even as others deceive them about whether a given act is promotes something good. The soldier is still somebody worthy of our honor and respect. It still makes sense to honor that soldier by making true the propositions that the soldier wanted to make true, not the propositions that the agents of deception sought to manipulate the soldier into making true.
In these types of situations, it will often mean holding those who manipulated the soldier into sacrificing his life for that which had no true moral value, but which merely served the interests of the manipulators, morally responsible for their shameless exploitation of the soldiers’ virtue. This is one way we can honor the soldier, and what the virtuous soldier truly valued.