Sunday, October 09, 2005

Two Victories for Morality

In the past week there were a couple of positive developments in the morality realm to report.

(1) Israel's Supreme Court prohibited the practice of using innocent shields in arrests.

When the Israeli army went after suspected Palestinian terrorists, they would sometimes take an innocent neighbor from his house and require that he be the first to approach the suspect residence.

The army defended this practice by saying that the suspects would be less inclined to shoot at a neighbor than at an Israeli soldier, thus reducing the chance of a gun-battle.

In one such instance the innocent shield was 19-year-old Nidel Daraghmeh. He died in the gun battle that followed. In other incidents, innocent shields were wounded.

It is important to note that the people forced to act as innocent shields were not, themselves, suspects. It would be as if the police came to your house, told you that they thought that there were armed murderers a few houses down from yours, pulled you out of your house and forced you to go first into the suspects’ house. The police, of course, would be wearing their helmets and body armor. You would have on a T-shirt and pair of jeans.

I remember hearing of the concept of innocent shields brought up in my ethics class in school. The professor (I do not recall which one) would describe incidents during World War II where the Nazi army would fasten innocent shields taken from a village to their tanks when they went out to fight the partisans. The partisans could not attack the tanks without risking death or injury to the innocent shield.

It is not a tactic that we would expect from people of good moral character. In fact, using this tactic assumes that the enemy, in this case, has a better moral character than the protectors – that the suspect is less willing to risk the lives of innocent people than those who would use the innocent shield.

Here is a test for somebody who thinks that it is okay to take a stranger from his house and use them in that type of situation. Have the person who thinks that this is moral take somebody from his own family along to play the role of innocent shield, or to suffer the same fate. If the innocent shield should die, the family member also dies. If the innocent shield is wounded, the family member suffers the same wound.

Would the person employing innocent shields be willing to agree to this?

Morality is concerned with universal principles -- principles that apply equally to anybody. Failure to apply this concept equally leads to charges of hypocrisy and the infamous "double standard."

We tell the person of good character from those who are not because the person of good character lives by rules that he or she is willing to apply to everybody. If he is not willing to allow his own family to suffer the fate of the innocent shield, then he will not force that fate on others, then he is a hypocrite and certainly not a person of good moral character.

(2) Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) got the U.S. Senate to pass an amendment to the military spending bill that provides that “no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The law is in response to reports that have frequently come out of US controlled prisons of prisoner maltreatment. The Bush Administration has answered these challenges by saying that those who actually torture prisoners and treat them inhumanely are being dealt with, but that its interrogation techniques count neither as torture or inhumane.

It is an attempt to make these acts legal by changing the definition of the words used in the law. It would be like arguing that the 20-year-old caught drinking did not break the law by asserting that 20 is greater than 21, and thus his acts are not illegal.

McCain, who was a prisoner during the Vietnamese War and tortured by his captors, stated that one of the firm beliefs he and his fellow prisoners had that helped them through this time was the belief that we were better than they were. McCain proposed this amendment as a way of preserving the moral high ground – a high ground that says that we are not only stronger than our enemies, but that we are better than them as well.

The Bush Administration argues that these techniques are necessary to save lives. However, we must also ask what it is that makes a life worth saving. The standard should be that the life saved belongs to somebody who holds to certain minimum standards regarding how others are treated.

The murder facing a death sentence that wounds a police officer in the course of his escape can honestly say that he is trying to save lives – in this case, his own. However, he is not saving a life that deserves saving, so his actions do not grant him the moral high ground.

Every day, the moral person gives up some personal advantage for the sake of what is right. He sees property he could take, but does not do so, because it is wrong. He sees a way to gain an advantage by lying, but foregoes the advantage, because lying is wrong. It is Machiavellian, at best, to argue that gaining some advantage is all that is needed to justify certain actions.

Others see this as well. In deciding who to support and how much support they deserve, they are wise to do so by looking at which side is the most deserving. It is reasonable to expect that those who look at the actions and policies of the Bush Administration find in them a team that is not worthy of as much support as they would otherwise be willing to give.

Some, perhaps, do not see much difference between us and our enemies. McCain’s Amendment, on the other hand, forces the recognition that ours is the morally superior side in this conflict. We recognize standards of human rights and decency that our opponents seek to ignore.

Nor can I ignore the fact that I, at least, cannot say who is being tortured. I have not heard of any trial taking place to determine who the victims will be. For all I know, the military picks up a group of citizens, tortures them for information, and keeps those who provide something useful. However, the guilty and innocent alike may be subject to torture.

I am not saying that this is taking place. However, the moral character of those who are responsible for these activities tells me that I cannot be sure that they are not taking place.

The next step for this law is a conference between the House and the Senate to iron out differences in the two versions of the bill. There is still a chance that this amendment may die in conference, giving Senators a chance to say that they voted against torture (by an overwhelming margin), while still allowing the practice of torture to go unchallenged. However, for this to happen, McCain would have to allow his amendment to die a quiet death.

I hope that this does not happen. I hope that we can prove that we are better than that.


Michael Bains said...

It is Machiavellian, at best, to argue that gaining some advantage is all that is needed to justify certain actions.

Remembering that Machiavelli wrote "The Prince" as a "shield" against a more powerful neighbor, one wonders what the decades following the public release of his treatise may have been like had he been roundly - and duly - criticized for this method of "self-defense."

I tend to think people like W are still the immoral norm for our species. The nature and delivery of your essays readily points out their failings and disingenuities.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

No human shields? No problem. Instead of risking soldiers' lives with house-to-house searches, the IDF will simply drop bombs on the terrorists. Is collateral damage more moral?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Nope. It's not. See Atheist Ethicist: Military vs Civilian Choices for my comments about this option.