The general and the specific: Aristotle’s moral reasoning

(Note: A new section, “Note on Voegelin and Aristotle,” has been added to the original entry.)

As a corrective to the abstract and unreal moral casuistry employed by the Catholic conservatives at the What’s Wrong with the World website to determine what is the moral use of force (see this, this, and this), below are excerpts from Eric Voegelin’s essay, “What is Right by Nature.” Drawing on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics as filtered through Voegelin’s “experiential” approach to philosophy, the essay helps provide philosophical support for the commonsense, intuitive idea that we cannot determine what is right for political leaders to do regarding the use of force without consideration of the concrete totality of the circumstances those leaders are confronting.

The 4W group’s moral reasoning starts from the statement that it is immoral to kill an innocent person. But of course we already know that. As Voegelin writes, “[I]n ethics the generalities are relatively uninteresting (possibly because they are already universally known). It is only on a lower level of abstraction … that we get to the important things, and to these lower levels Aristotle attributes the greater amount of truth.” But for the 4W people, the general ethical principle, thou shalt not kill an innocent person, is the final, not-to-be-qualified statement on the matter. Therefore, since it is immoral to kill an innocent person, you shall not bomb a city if such bombing is likely to kill an innocent person, even if it will end a war, save literally millions of lives, save a country from utter destruction, and defeat a regime that is actively murdering and torturing people. Similarly you cannot shoot down a hijacked airliner with 40 innocent (and imminently doomed) people aboard even if will prevent, say, the destruction of the U.S. Capitol building, a choice our country almost faced on September 11, 2001. For the 4W people, any further consequences of a leader’s actions or inactions are morally irrelevant. The only thing that matters morally is that the decision-maker not himself commit an immoral act. The fact that by refusing to shoot down the hijacked airliner (which is doomed anyway) the decision-maker is letting many more people be killed who could easily have been saved and is allowing vast harm to our country is of no moral importance to the 4W contributors. All that matters to them is that immoral acts be avoided. Whether such avoidance allows vastly greater immoral acts to be committed is irrelevant.

One of the immoral consequences of the 4W contributors’ moral purity is that it would encourage terrorists to engage in future acts involving innocent hostages, since the terrorists will know that once they have a hostage at their side, our morally pure government will not defend itself from their terrorism.

Further, in keeping with their ideological, hot-house mentality, the 4W contributors treat one moral principle as absolute, while ignoring others. For example, even as they say that deliberately killing an innocent person is never allowed, and make that their all-ruling idea, they cast aside another moral principle which is also true, the right of self-defense. C.S. Lewis skewered such false reasonings in The Abolition of Man. If you’re going to base yourself on objective morality, Lewis wrote, you can’t simply select one objective moral truth (say, the obligation not to harm people), and dismiss all others (say, the obligation to protect one’s country). These different truths need to be brought into a proper relation with each other, which is the work of philosophical reasoning. A thinking process that reduces all moral truths to a single all-ruling moral truth, “thou shalt take no positive action to harm an innocent person,” is not philosophical reasoning, but a gnostic operation aimed at appropriating to oneself the essence of God that is hidden from normal humans.

The 4W people call the opposite of their position “situational ethics.” This is a smear. “Situational ethics” is a form of relativism that dispenses with general ethical principles. Aristotelian ethics grounds itself in general ethical principles, but recognizes that they must be applied in particular circumstances. Indeed, all of ethics is the application of general ethical principles to concrete circumstances. As Voegelin writes, man is the being who mediates between the general truth and its specific applications. [Note 8-31-07: a few days ago I added a correction to this paragraph saying that the charge of “situational ethics” was a false characterization but not a “smear,” and now to my embarrassment I see the correction was missing. I saved the change but apparently the save failed.].

In response to the argument that it is morally right to shoot down a hijacked plane with innocent passengers aboard if doing so is the only way to save a city from imminent destruction, the 4W people construct creepy hypotheticals, such as “Would you shoot a seven year girl in the head if it would save the human race?” I have refused to engage in these perverse casuistics with them, because there is no question of shooting a girl in the head to save the human race. There are actual circumstances with which actual political leaders have to deal. Those situations can be terrible enough, without adding on unreal dilemmas that are even more tortuous than the real ones but that lack the specific, embedded facts that provide the indispensable context for any real-world decision.

With that background, here are my excerpts from the Voegelin essay (I found an online version of it at, of all places, Free Republic):

From “What is Right by Nature,” by Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, pp. 55-65.

In classical philosophy “right by nature” was a symbol, with the help of which the philosopher interpreted his noetic experience of right human action. Through dogmatization of philosophy, which began with the Stoa and has not been wholly overcome until today, the symbol of noetic exegesis was gradually separated from its underlying experience and, under the title “natural law,” turned into a topic of the philosophic schools. This topic, the idea of a body of norms with the claim of eternal and immutable validity, has had considerable effects since the seventeenth century, even though its noetic premises did not become very clear. Today the revived debate about natural law unfortunately still suffers from the topical character of its object, separated as it is from the experience containing its meaning. We shall try to get behind the topos of dogmatic philosophizing and to reconstitute the symbol of noetic exegesis.

To this end we shall examine the occasion on which the expression of “right” and “nature” first were related within a larger theoretical context, namely the Aristotelian physei dikaion. This case obviously merits our attention, not only because it is the first of its kind so that we may hope to discover in it the experiential bases of the symbol, but also and especially because the physei dikaion of Aristotle is supposed to be valid everywhere and for all time but all the same is a kineton, everywhere changeable….

What is right by nature is not given as an object about which one could state correct propositions once and for all. Rather, it has its being in man’s concrete experience of a justice which is everywhere the same and yet, in its realization, changeable and everywhere different. There is, thus, an existential tension that cannot be resolved theoretically but only in the practice of the man who experiences it. Mediation between poles is not an easy task. We know Solon’s complaint on the occasion of his reform: “It is very hard to recognize the invisible measures of right judgment; and yet this measure alone contains the right limits peirata of all things” (Solon 4, 17). It is very easy to lose this invisible, divine measure, and then its place will be taken by a legislator’s arbitrariness pursuing his special interest. In order to deal somewhat adequately with this task, man needs an existential power, a special quality, if his action is to mediate between the poles of tension. This power Aristotle calls phronesis….

Aristotle’s ontological interest manifests itself when he attributes to concrete action a higher degree of truth than to general principles of ethics. In Nichomean Ethics (1107a28 ff), he follows up a definition of virtue as the mean between extremes with an observation about the value of general concepts in ethics. We must not dwell on the generalities, says Aristotle, but we must look at the hekasta, the concrete facts or cases. In the science of human action, the general principles may have a wider application (or: are more widely accepted; the koinoteroi is not unambiguous), but the specifics are alethinoteroi, i.e., have more truth, for in action we are dealing with concrete things (hekasta) and must adjust to them. While other sciences endeavor to attain general principles with the widest possible area of application, in ethics the generalities are relatively uninteresting (possibly because they are already universally known). It is only on a lower level of abstraction, in the doctrine of particular virtues and in casuistics, that we get to the important things, and to these lower levels Aristotle attributes the greater amount of truth.

Now it does not go without saying that the lower levels deserve the attribute of more truth. Even if concrete action is more important, why should general principles and definitions be “less true” than decisions in particular cases? In this identification of truth with the concrete, there emerges the almost forgotten knowledge of the philosopher, that ethics is not a matter of moral principles, nor a retreat from the complexities of the world, nor a contraction of existence into eschatological expectation or readiness, but a matter of the truth of existence in the reality of action in concrete situations. What matters is not correct principles about what is right by nature in an immutable generality, nor the acute consciousness of the tension between the immutable truth and its mutable application (possibly even with tragic overtones), but the changeability, the kineton itself, and the methods to lift it to the reality of truth. The truth of existence is attained where it becomes concrete, i.e., in action….

The normal case is not that of the fortune-favored unwise, but rather that of the wise man. The wise man, however, deliberates on the basis of his knowledge; and this knowledge may be ordered and expressed in the lasting form of propositions of various degrees of generality, which are called ethics. Insofar as this constant knowledge is the instrument used by the divine to attain truth in the reality of action, ethics itself is a phase in the movement of being that ends in the kineton, and its creation is a labor of serving the unmoved mover. The philosophical achievement of ethics has its dignity as a part of the divine movement that leads to the truth of action….

The degree of permeability for the movement of being determines the rank of human beings, the highest of whom is the spoudaios. The spoudaios is the mature man who desires what is in truth desirable, and who judges everything right. All men desire what is good, but their judgment of what is good in truth is obscured by lust. If we tried to find out what is truly good by taking a poll in any given collectivity of men, we would get as many answers as the characters of those we have asked (1113a32), for each character considers that good what he desires. Hence, we must ask the spoudaios, who differs from other men in that he sees “truth in concrete things” for he is, as it were, their measure (1113a34)—a principle of the method to which our “empirical” social scientists should pay attention. [LA note: the full passage in The Nichomachean Ethics is: “… and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each moral question, since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions.”]

The passages concerning the spoudaios shows very clearly that, for Aristotle, what is right by nature cannot become a set of eternal immutable propositions, for the truth of a concrete action cannot be determined by its subsumption under a general principles but only by asking the spoudaios. Appeal is made, therefore, not from the action to an immutably correct principle but to the existentially right order of man. The criterion of rightly ordered human existence, however, is the permeability for the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in its turn is not a proposition about something given but an event, and ethics is, therefore, not a body of propositions but an event of being that provides the word for a statement about itself.

The ontology of ethics is completed by the theory of phronesis, that virtue for Aristotle is the locus at which the movement of being in man becomes reality and simultaneously becomes articulate. Phronesis is the virtue of correct action and, at the same time, the virtue of right speech about action….

- end of Voegelin excerpt -

Note on Voegelin and Aristotle

I’ve quoted Voegelin at length because of the importance of his and Aristotle’s idea of mediating between the general and the specific. At the same time, I must say that I am not completely on board with Voegelin in the above passages, since he seems at times to give a higher priority to the spiritual experiences of the morally mature man, the spoudaios, than he does to the objective truth that the spoudaios is actually experiencing. It seems to me that in focusing perhaps too much on man’s experience in the “in-between,” by way of challenging the immanentization of truth, Voegelin risks a derailment into a subjectivism in which the idea that there is an objectively existing truth would be undercut.

It does not, for example, seem self-evidently true to me that “[w]hat is right by nature is not given as an object about which one could state correct propositions once and for all.” To the contrary, I think we can say that murder (taking into account of course the usual qualifications and mitigating factors such as self-defense) is simply wrong. I think we can state true propositions about the wrongness of murder, without having to mediate the question through the experience of the polar tension between the one and the many; or, even if such experience were necessary in order to determine the truth, that the truth ultimately exists independently of our experience of it. Thus, to repeat the point again, the question arises whether Voegelin has gotten so far into the subjective experience of the mediation between the two poles of a justice “which is everywhere the same and yet, in its realization, changeable and everywhere different,” that he has lost the sense of the objective aspect of the justice that is being experienced.

The proof of what I just said is seen in the passage of Nichomachean Ethics that Voegelin is explicating.

Thus, what seems good to a man of high moral standards is truly the object of wish [i.e., what seems good to him is in reality the good that ought to be wished], whereas a worthless man wishes anything that strikes his fancy…. [A] man whose standards are high judges correctly, and in each case what is truly good will appear to him to be so…. and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each moral question, since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions. The common run of people, however, are misled by pleasure. For though it is not the good, it seems to be, so that they choose the pleasant in the belief that this is good and avoid pain thinking that it is evil.

Now in one sense, Voegelin is correctly explicating this passage in that he is bringing out Aristotle’s statement that the good is not known apart from an experiencing human being who knows it. The good is not a hypostasized “thing”; it must be experienced.

But in another sense, Voegelin is distorting this passage in that he lays such emphasis on the experience of the truth, that the truth that is being experienced gets pushed into the background—and perhaps even out the door: “What is right by nature is not given as an object about which one could state correct propositions once and for all,” Voegelin writes. But that does not seem to be what Aristotle is saying. Aristotle says that the man of high moral standards “sees the truth in each moral question.” This means that the moral truth objectively exists. Man can see it, because it is an object to be seen. Yes, it is not an object like an object in the material world, it is an object that is known through an internal human experiencing; but it is nevertheless objectively real, otherwise there would be no way to distinguish between those who mistake pleasure for the good, and those who see the good correctly.

In brief, Aristotle, unlike Voegelin, truly maintains the tension between the experiencing human consciousness in the in-between, and the poles of the tension that are being experienced. With Aristotle, there is both the experience of the good, and the good that is being experienced. But Voegelin, whose great achievement it was to explicate this experiential dimension in Aristotle and Plato, thus rescuing the good and the true from hypostasization (i.e., from treating an experienced spiritual reality as though it were a thing), has himself lost the experience of the objective good which is both known by human experience and independent of it—since if it were not independent of human experience, there would be no way to tell the difference between that which only appears to be good and that which really is good.

- end of initial entry -

Ralph P. writes:

The ethics of a situation arising in which an innocent may be sacrificed to prevent greater evil is really quite simple. What is immoral is the desire to kill an innocent. It may even be immoral to desire to kill an aggressor, in the absolute sense, but the fact remains that the situation will determine the action. So regardless of how you feel it is morally justified to eliminate an immanent threat. But as far as innocents are concerned then (true) intent is the dividing line.

Personally I believe that in most cases people arguing the absolute pacifist position are cowards. This is evident when, rather than dealing with real situations, such as what might have happened if a military jet had caught up with Flight 93, they throw up absurd extremes, such as killing a seven year old to save the human race. That example is particularly galling, as it not only tries to erect a hard and fast absolute behind which to hide but also crassly and clumsily tries to shame the opposition into adopting their position, as if anything other that a no answer makes one a gleeful sadist.

What makes them cowards is not their reluctance to face up to such hard choices. Most of us might shrink from such a decision at the moment it has to be made, which is why we cultivate that quality in our military and law enforcement as well as in other professions (medicine, e.g.). What makes them cowards is the denial of their fear of the aggressor and their attempt to cloak themselves, of all people, in a mantle of heroism for holding such “noble” principles against the howling mob. This is why they are often so vitriolic against those in the West, whom they are sure will not react violently, and pathetically obsequious towards the truly violent.

The good news, such as it is, is that as things get worse pacifists become irrelevant, since most people at that point will not give a damn about such sophistry and rely on their own common sense in defending themselves.

Gintas writes:

I finally waded through the threads at What’s Wrong with the World last night and this afternoon. I think you are right, there is a lot of abstract theorizing going on there. It’s all hypotheticals, and abstractions. A comment is answered by a ridiculous hypothetical situation. I myself find the nuclear-armed passenger plane ridiculously implausible, but such scenarios seem the norm in such discussions. “Instead of some number of random people dying of smallpox reactions, now you must kill them in advance. Can you do it??” Of course, that shocks a person, but what’s the point? Can proper moral reasoning occur when the situation is so implausible?

I’m not someone who’s read a lot of the ancients on moral reasoning, but it seems you are closer to the classic understanding. Casuistry is often waved off as “situational ethics” but it’s my understanding there is a fine tradition of casuistry that takes into account the nearly infinite complexities of life. (Never mind the fever swamps of implausible scenarios.)

LA replies:

The nuclear-armed airliner was my idea, which was very useful in that discussion because their response to that hypothetical was what made their extreme pacifism evident. However, in the entry today at VFR, to make it less extreme and hypothetical, I changed it something that has actually happened, a hijacked plane aimed at the U.S. Capitol.

Gintas replies:

I just read your post today about Voegelin, and it’s good. I think the nuclear-armed airliner is implausible, but I suppose it’s useful in its way. I do like the shift to the U.S. Capitol, that’s not just logically possible but probably in some terrorist’s mind even now. Maybe in a few Americans’ minds too. Was it the movie “Independence Day” where some audiences cheered when the aliens wrecked the Capitol? Or was it the White House?

Hannon writes:

If I may take the liberty of moving Voegelin’s concept over to another venue, I have long felt that in education a similar observation and argument can be made. The mind gathers its reference material naturally by rejecting and adopting bits of knowledge and experience over time, followed by the later formation of generalities. The mistake that is prevalent, in my opinion, is that the K-12 curriculum routinely introduces general precepts in a vague sort of way, such as a timeline of U.S. history. This is not prefaced by any in-depth review of, say, Jefferson’s complex life or exploring the minutiae of daily life in the early 19th century in Maryland. It is not even a backwards approach since meaningful and contextual details are largely absent. As Voegelin implies, general principles are like trading cards in the appraisal of things, useful to be sure, but no substitute for that which is more visceral and borne from one’s own or another’s personal experience.

LA replies:

There’s something to what Hannon is saying about education but it needs to be worked out better. Does he really think that teaching K-12 pupils about Jefferson’s complex life or the minutiae of daily life in early 19th century Maryland will make them have a whole sense of America? Let us not forget that the school of social history, which has dominated the history profession in recent decades, is a left-wing project that distances people from their society, refusing to present any coherent and positive picture of their country and its history.

I would suggest this: There used to be a normative history and presentation of America. It did not deny problems, but it presented the country as coherent and good. History was a series of stages that made sense, the explorers, the Puritans, Colonial America, the Revolution, the Constituion, the Westward expansion, the industrial age and its conflicts, the great immigration, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War. Also, while there was reference to ethnic diversity, it was downplayed. Americans were one people. THAT’S what gave young people a concrete sense of their country and its history, as distinct from the vague liberal generalities of today that alienate young people because the main lesson is that their country is eternally failing to live up to those generalities.

Hannon continues:

I thought this quote from Ralph P. was outstanding:

“What makes them cowards is the denial of their fear of the aggressor and their attempt to cloak themselves, of all people, in a mantle of heroism for holding such “noble” principles against the howling mob. This is why they are often so vitriolic against those in the West, whom they are sure will not react violently, and pathetically obsequious towards the truly violent.”

Not only is there a denial of fear but also, by extension, a denial that self defense by use of force can ever be justified. “War is not the answer” is not merely a reaction to the Iraq quagmire but a blanket statement against self-preservation by any assertive means.

LA replies:

To deny one’s fear is the act of a coward. Only by admitting that there are things that we rationally fear because they threaten what we hold dear, will we have the courage to resist those things. People who say they fear nothing are saying there is nothing they hold dear. Of course, those same people constantly hyperventilate about their fear of Bush-Cheney turning America into a dictatorship. So there is something they hold dear after all, but it’s not America, it’s left-liberalism and its paranoid world view.

Josh writes:

This discussion reminds me of the interview I heard between Sean Hannity and the father of Nicholas Berg. Mr. Hannity asked Mr. Berg if he had the chance to stand between his son and Zarqawi would he kill Zarqawi to save his son? All Mr. Berg could do was repeat over and over that he “would not kill.” He could only speak generally but would never answer the particular question. He could not say that he “would not kill to save his son.” In his mind, he remained true to his pacifist beliefs without ever proclaiming that he would not defend his son’s life from a cold-blooded murderer. It was very chilling, indeed.

LA replies:

I remember Michael Berg’s statements at the time of his son’s horrifying murder. I described Berg Sr. as a vile combination of sickness and evil.

LA continues:

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I must point out the close logical parallel between Michael Berg’s comments to Sean Hannity and the arguments of Zippy Catholic and his right-wing Catholic colleagues at What’s Wrong with the World. Zippy argues that a person is under no positive obligation to perform an act of wrongful violence to save the innocent from wrongful death. A person’s single transcendent duty, rather, is to avoid any positive act that would harm the innocent. Mutatis mutandis, Michael Berg says the same thing. His entire focus is on his own moral purity in refusing to perform what he sees as a wrongful act of lethal violence, even as he also refuses to admit that his refusal to perform that act of lethal violence would allow his son to be slaughtered like a sheep. The act of letting his son be killed has no moral meaning to Berg Sr. The only act that has moral meaning to him is his refusal to kill anyone, period.

Sounds like the devout conservative Catholics at 4W ought to invite the secular leftist Jew Michael Berg to join their staff of contributors.

LA continues:

I ask readers to focus on Zippy Catholic’s comment at 4W that I linked in my previous comment. He is replying to T. Hanski:

In the case you proposed, you asked me if I would kill someone in order to prevent him from performing what I understand to be an intrinsically immoral act. I would have absolutely no reason to do so, as far as I can tell. His guilt is not mitigated in the least if I kill him to prevent his act. And at bottom, the reason he shouldn’t commit an intrinsically immoral act is because it damages his own soul; yes, even if he is unaware that the act is evil and is not directly culpable it still damages him and his relationship with God, as well as the common good. Every time we commit an evil act we make ourselves into a worse person than we were before, even when we perform the evil act with the best of intentions.

Zippy has gone beyond his previous shocking statements. Previously he condemned as the worst sin any act that, to protect innocents from being mass slaughtered, would kill an innocent person, even if the latter was about to die (e.g. a passenger in an airliner that had been hijacked by terrorists). Now he says that he would not even kill a would-be murderer to stop the murder of an innocent person. The only thing that matters to him is the moral state of people’s souls. Since stopping the murderer from committing murder would not improve the state of the murderer’s soul, Zippy has no further interest in the matter. All that matters is people’s purity before God. And Zippy thinks his own purity before God is ensured by his letting a murderer commit murder.

LA NOTE: I have deleted the rest of the previous comment that I had posted here. I had mistaken the nature of the question that T. Hanski had asked Zippy. Hanski had not asked Zippy if he would kill the prospective murderer to protect the innocent. Rather he had asked him, if a fighter pilot were about to shoot down the airliner with 200 people aboard in order to save 2,000 people on the ground, an act Zippy considers absolutely immoral because it involves killing 200 innocent people, would Zippy shoot the fighter pilot in order to prevent him from shooting down the plane and killing the 200 and saving the 2,000? And Zippy answered no to that. The original question and answer appears about 30 comments earlier in the thread from the comments of Hanski’s and Zippy’s where they are restating their previous exchange but without all the details, which explains why I misunderstood what Zippy meant when he said, “you asked me if I would kill someone in order to prevent him from performing what I understand to be an intrinsically immoral act. I would have absolutely no reason to do so, as far as I can tell.” The “intrinsically immoral act” being referred to is not that of the terrorist flying the plane with 200 paseengers into a building and killing 2,000 people; the intrinsically immoral act is the act of the pilot shooting down the airliner to prevent it from killing 2,000 people. Here is Hanski’s original question, and here is Zippy’s original answer.

I regret the error, but I’m glad to find out that it was an error, because it means that Zippy is not 100 percent wacky, as I mistakenly thought, but just 50-75 percent wacky.

Terry M. writes:

I was in a debate some time back wherein the issue of using torture to extract vital information from “enemy combatants” was the topic. My opponent, with a vehemence reminiscent of Zippy, kept insisting that “torture is immoral” and therefore I was immoral for even entertaining the idea that it might actually result in saving lives. Eventually I decided to put him to the test:

Question: If you were left only with the alternative of using torture to extract life-saving information about a family member from someone you were reasonably sure had that information but would not yield it under lesser conditions, would you use torture then?

Answer: No! Torture is immoral! I would never use torture under any circumstances!

After which he proceeded to take me to the woodshed about how immoral I was to entertain the idea that torture of the guilty is a lesser crime than murder of the innocent, and that refusal to use torture under those circumstances would be the greater crime by far that using torture.

I of course had a few choice words of my own for him in reply, but more importantly I informed him that his family could rest assured that I for one would not hesitate to use torture on someone to save them given the opportunity, and under those circumstances. I also noted that he could be thankful that, though it would not be my intention to do so, his own sensibilities would also go unmolested as a result of my being willing to use torture to save his loved ones.

In my blog post on this topic, I ask the perplexing question that has always attended my reflections on that conversation:

When push came to shove, would these people actually adhere to this line of reasoning, abandoning their very families in favor of protecting their own sensibilities, or, is part of their defensive posturing really just a disguise for their knowledge that if they allow an exception to their rule, their whole argument at once breaks down?

David G. writes:

Your recent posts on the leaflets story and Christian pacifists spurred the recollection of one of the most memorable stories of the sheer other-worldliness of decisions made in war time that I have ever read. It deals with the mercy killing of children, the killing of whom most of us would be hard pressed even to imagine justifying

It goes to the core of the issue as to whether the killing of innocents is ever justified in war. Just reading this story is enough to keep you up at night. Think for a moment, after you finish reading this, of the instinctive decency of Michael Witowich—whether you agree with his actions or not. This was not a decision made in the comfort of one’s den or decided upon after long reflection in an Ethics and Morals class.

Here is a slight paraphrasing of the story as it was recounted in the book Horror in the East, Japan and the Atrocities of World War II, by Laurence Rees.

The story takes place on the Japanese mandate island of Saipan. Saipan was held by the Japanese before the war and “the arrival of the Americans on it shores marked a worrying development for the Imperial High Command … the enemy … had certainly arrived in their backyard.” The 2nd and 4th U.S. Marine divisions compromising some 77,000 men landed on Saipan on June 15, 1944. As the battle for the island went against the Japanese army they played a key role in encouraging civilians to die, convincing them that it would be shameful to survive the occupation of the island and that the Americans would torture, rape and kill them if they were captured alive. Thousands of civilian women and children killed themselves as a result.

Michael Witowich, a veteran Marine who had earlier fought on Tarawa and who witnessed and survived horrific battles, was on a patrol nearby remembers the events:

‘They [women] would get the child in their arms and they would bend over and jump off the cliff. They’d jump and you could hear the screaming of the children on the coral [below].”

Seeing the children waiting to leap to their deaths he decided to act:

“I used to shoot the children as they went down, so they wouldn’t suffer when they hit the coral. I used to think in my dreams whether it was right for me to do that, so they wouldn’t suffer when they went down. ‘Cos when they hit the coral they’d still be alive and have a horrible death, so it’s like shooting a horse that breaks a leg—and this is a human being.”

I had a professor in college who said that the answer to the question posed to a mother by a Nazi commandant, as to which of her two children she would save and which she would render unto death was “beyond good and evil.” I don’t think that I have ever heard it put more precisely. While the situations are not wholly analogous, I put Witowich’s actions within the same framework—beyond moral judgment.

Tom S. writes:

The gang at W4 simply refuse to live up to the logic of their assertions. They would not shoot down the fighter plane that was about to destroy the airliner, because they would “have no reason to do so.” Oh, really? According to them, the pilot of the fighter jet is about to commit murder. They would be commiting a sin of omission if they could stop him safely and did not. So, if shooting down the airliner is murder (which they wrongheadedly maintain), the pilot of the fighter jet is attempting murder, and so they would be morally OBLIGATED to shoot down the fighter jet.

It’s easy to see why the gnostics over at W4 don’t want to admit this—because, if their assumptions are true, the would have to essentially HELP THE TERRORIST carry out his plot (by shooting down the fighter) in order to be moral, and this is such an obvious moral absurdity, they shrink from it. As an old philosophy professor of mine once said, a morally absurd conculsion is almost always a sign of faulty reasoning, and that is what we have here. There are only three choices; (1) Shoot down the fighter, and help the terrorist, which is a moral absurdity; (2) Try to get rid of the whole idea of a “sin of omission” which contradicts everything in Christianity going all the way back to the Good Samaritan; or (3) Admit that shooting down the airliner would be the moral choice, based on tradition, intuition, reason, and authority. The choice is obvious. Case closed.

LA replies:

But at 4W, Zippy has quoted JPII on the distinction between commands not to do bad things and commands to to good things. The former are more compelling.

Tom S. replies:

But according to them, there is no bad element in the act of shooting down the fighter plane, since the pilot is attempting what they consider to be murder, and stopping murder is certainly an unmixed good thing. Of course, there would be bad consequences, but they have just lectured us for a week on their belief that consequences don’t matter. Besides, if one interpreted JPII’s statement the way Zippy does, then we could NEVER perform an act that had both good and bad consequences, which would pretty much destroy the traditional Catholic “Doctrine of Double Effect,” and I doubt if this was the intent of a document that was formulated explicitly to DEFEND Catholic tradition …

As I have noted before, the W4 gang may be many things, but “traditionalist” they are not. Personally, I doubt if any Catholic prior to this generation would have answered the airliner question in this way—certainly Francisco de Vitoria, the Jesuit who laid the foundations of Just War doctrine, would not have done so.

George R. writes:

I have to admit that I was puzzled by you refusal to respond to Zippy the Catholic’s hypothetical question, “What action would you as Truman refuse to do if it were a way to bring about victory quickly against the Japanese?” This was a fair and relevant question. Your refusal to answer it left the field wide open to Zippy and his essentially untenable position. Up to that point you were mopping up the floor with him. It was like watching a boxer that had won every round suddenly get knocked out—by a jab.

LA replies:

Don’t understand. I thought my reasons for not answering Zippy’s demand for hypotheticals were good. First, such hypotheticals are unreal and lack the density and specificity of real-world fact of real-world decisions. For example, a typical 4W-type hypothetical would be: would you be willing to slit a 10 year old girl’s throat to defeat Japan? Such a hypothetical is not the moral equivalent of bombing an enemy city producing military goods during war time, though of course the 4W people insist it is, since, in that uniquely Catholic way of putting vastly different levels of sin in the same category, they view any deliberate act resulting in an innocent person’s death as the moral equivalent of all other acts resulting in an innocent person’s death. But they are not, and that is why such hypotheticals cannot be a sound basis for moral reasoning. Second, Zippy expected me to come up with my own hypotheticals. How could I answer, since I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what I would NOT do to defeat Japan? It was as t hough he was asking me to speak Chinese. If Zippy had asked me a specific question, and if it was not of the creepy kind of hypothetical to which the Zippy school of moral reasoning is addicted, I might have answered him. But he didn’t ask such a question.

So you tell me, what should I have said that I didn’t say?

T. Hanski writes:

You wrote: “Hanski had not asked Zippy if he would kill the prospective murderer to protect the innocent.”

Well, I think I did that, or what amounts to that. Here goes:

1. Zippy believes that shooting down an armed airliner on its way to kill 20,000 civilians is inherently immoral act because the airliner has 200 innocents onboard. Zippy believes that killing the 200 innocents is murder in ANY circumstances.

2. I ask Zippy if he would try to prevent, what he believes is, murder (of the 200) by shooting down a jetfighter attempting to shoot down the jetliner.

3. Zippy says: “No. (because) There is no positive obligation to act to prevent other people from doing evil in all circumstances.”

So here we have the prospective murderer (jetfighter’s pilot), 200 innocents and Zippy’s refusal to act to protect the innocent. If it is possible to understand it otherwise I would like to know it.

Also, I think that “there no positive obligation to act to prevent other people from doing evil in all circumstances ” implies that there ARE circumstances where one HAS obligation to prevent other people from doing evil, only that Zippy doesn’t think this is the case. In other words Zippy sometimes would and sometimes would not act to prevent what, he considers, murder of 200. It all depends on Zippy’s own assessment of the situation and of course his belief in his own papal-like infallibility.

Besides, in my eyes, the total moral incoherence of Zippy’s position [is really what calls] “modern situational ethics,” which, he lets us know, is something he would never soil his absolute moral standards with.

Ian B. writes:

Reading through the comments in “The general and the specific: Aristotle’s moral reasoning,” I noticed a contradiction in Zippy’s reasoning.

He wants to say that all instances of performing an act that will knowingly involve innocent casualities are in the same moral boat as murder. Thus, if you shoot down an airplane with 40 innocent hostages aboard, in order to stop it from flying into a crowded city and detonating an on-board nuke that will kill 1,000,000 people, it’s morally the same as murdering 40 innocent people.

On the other hand, he says that if he had an opportunity to kill a fighter pilot who was about to shoot down that airplane to prevent the attack, he wouldn’t feel compelled to do so.

Now, here’s the contradiction. Given the opportunity, would Zippy feel morally compelled to shoot down someone attempting murder if there weren’t any civilian hostages involved? Presumably so, unless he really is guilty of the “100 percent wacky” view that you mistakenly attributed to him at first. However, in order to justify this, he must make a moral distinction between a murderer and the fighter pilot who shoots down an airplane with innocent people aboard in order to prevent a murderer from killing more people. And that means that the two acts are not in the same moral boat after all.

Furthermore, any reasoning Zippy uses to justify distinguishing between the fighter pilot and the no-hostage-murderer can be used by the fighter pilot to justify his own actions.

Perhaps Zippy would distinguish between killing the fighter pilot, and killing the no-hostage-murderer, based on the outcome of the two acts. That is, if he kills the fighter pilot, 1,000,040 innocent people end up dead versus 40 if he doesn’t, whereas if he kills the no-hostage-murderer 0 innocents end up dead versus 1,000,000 if he doesn’t. However, if Zippy uses this moral calculus in his decision making, he’s engaged in precisely what he has denounced as “situational ethics.” And not only that, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Once it’s been established that such moral calculus is acceptable, the fighter pilot may use it to justify his own actions.

Alternatively, perhaps Zippy would distinguish between the fighter pilot and no-hostage-murderer based on intentions. That is, he is compelled to kill the murderer, because the murderer is acting with the intention of killing innocent people, whereas the fighter pilot is acting with the intention of saving innocent people, and the 40 innocent he must shoot down in the process are unfortunate collateral for him. If Zippy uses this reasoning, then not only could the fighter pilot use the same reasoning to justify his own actions by appealing to his good intentions, Zippy has practically done it for him.

The only fallback Zippy has at this point is the distinction between intentionally causing something to happen, and knowingly allowing it to happen. He could point out that he only said that he wasn’t morally obligated to shoot down the fighter pilot, not that it would be morally wrong to do so. However, this would only dig him into a deeper hole.

The followup question would be to ask him if it is morally permissible to shoot down the fighter pilot. If he says yes, then not only is the resulting viewpoint morally despicable and inhuman, it’s also self-contradictory, since by doing so he’d be intentionally performing an action that would knowingly result in the death of 1,000,000 people.

On the other hand, if he says no, then the next question is whether or not it would be morally permissible to kill the no-hostage-murderer. If he says no to that, then he’s committed to a position of absolute pacifism. If he says yes to it, then he’s committed to making a moral distinction between the fighter pilot and the no-hostage-murderer. And as above, any rationale given for this distinction can be invoked by the fighter pilot to justify his own actions.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 26, 2007 03:35 PM | Send

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