Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Compassion and Violence

I think that violence and compassion are not as essentially irreconcilable as many would think.

In my last post, I discussed why I think that war – competition between social groups through organised, calculated, physical violence – is essential to the human social condition, and an inevitable occurrence despite the development of government. I think that for many, that discussion was likely to be moot, and for many others likely to be insufficient. But there is an ulteriour motive to my actions here: I want people to become more comfortable with talking about political violence as something that people just like us can do, and to think about which social circumstances or political institutions affect how we do it.

I’m very interested to examine how secular humanists should think about war. While secular humanism is a very broad philosophical camp, and those within it define the objective of good behaviour varyingly as human flourishing, pleasure, happiness, or benefit, I do think that if there’s one underlying principle that spans such a plurality of perspectives, it’s compassion. In particular, a non-discriminating compassion which regards the suffering of any human being as bad, and those who suffer as deserving the alleviation of their plight. Certainly compassion is not particular to secular humanism, but it is fundamental to the special regard secular humanists have for the welfare of other human beings. Yet the condition of war seems as though it should be anathema to the compassionate. War is the breakdown of human concern for one-another, and a powerful cause of suffering. Does this mean that the compassionate should unequivocally condemn the prosecution of war?

I think they – we, I hope! – should not. I think that there are situations where the dictates of compassion obligate us to wage war.

If I am right, then secular humanists should concern themselves with how to wage war efficiently, such that political goals we pursue through it obtain with minimal trauma to those affected.

Most of us find the use of violence in self-defence acceptable to some extent. Were a man to attack me with a lethal weapon, and the process of defending myself from otherwise-certain death I killed him, most people would not condemn me. At least, if my use of lethal force was not excessive for thwarting my attacker. And they’d be right not to condemn me. First [1], almost everyone will defend themselves if attacked, driven by a basic need for survival (consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), and it would be unreasonable to expect me to do otherwise.  An ethical code that demands unreasonable standards is pointless. Second [2], if one wants to alleviate human suffering, one should affirm the right of people to struggle against the cause of their suffering, at least such that their struggle does not cause greater suffering. Since responding to lethal force with lethal force does not violate this principle, I would be within that right. Third [3], if some perpetrators of violence risked harm if their targets fought back, then affirming the right to self-defence might deter them.

If you accept the above argument, then you find the use of violence in self-defence acceptable at least so that it accords with two principles: the principle of necessity and the principle of proportionality.

But why should our life be worth more than anyone else’s?  If you accepted my hypothetical act of self-defence for reasons [2] and [3], then you should be comfortable with another hypothetical case in which I kill someone to defend the life of another,  such as a child. . Presuming I was brave enough; I’ve never been in the situation, and I can’t imagine how I’d react. Or perhaps a child is a bad example, since children are not very capable of defending themselves? How about the life of a champion rugby player? I don’t think it should matter.

For some it might. For example, some utilitarians will debate whether it would be a good thing to kill a temporarily insane surgeon to save the life of a drug-addicted vagrant, because the harm caused by the death of the former might vastly outweigh that caused by the death of the latter. I might have to argue very eloquently about the value of adhering to general imperatives of defence to pursuade them otherwise.

Luckily for me, though, I don’t really need to do this if I shift my case from an altercation between two persons to an altercation between two social groups. Imagine two tribes: Haram and Treif. Both tribes are large enough to contain several generations, at least two genders, and the means to independently develop culturally and materially. Imagine that the chief of Haram covets the livestock of Treif, and sends a raiding party to take it. Perhaps the raiding party contains a doctor or some other person with suffering-alleviating job? It doesn’t matter, really, because the stakes are higher than any one life. Were Treif to lose their livestock, its members would starve, and it would appear weak to other neighbouring and potentially predatory tribes. So Treif is justified in battling the raiders: despite the suffering experienced by the raiders (and their families), as least as much suffering would be caused by the loss of livestock. And the outcome of the battle not only affects the lives of those personally fighting, but of some or all of both tribes, in the near or more distant future.

So the right of self-defence extends to violent threats posed by one group to another. And while the principle of proportionality still applies, the calculations of the utilitarian must take into account the possibility of future threats, according deterrence more gravity than they might in looking at the consequences of any altercation between two people.

But what if the members of Haram are starving? If their lives are just as valuable as anyone else’s, do they have the right to take what they need from Treif? Perhaps if Treif has a compassionate culture, its members will share their food and find a solution to the crisis. But if Treif doesn’t share, we may find it hard to condemn Haram for trying to take what they need to survive (though we could condemn them for trying to steal more than is necessary). In such a situation, it would seem that Treif’s bloody defence of their livestock may still be proportional to the threat posed by its loss, but it wasn’t the only option. The suffering caused by their refusal to share makes that refusal condemnable, and Treif must share some if not all of the ‘blame’ for the ensuing violence. One might certainly raise the objection that Treif must consider the long-term consequences to its own survival of sharing food regularly, but that objection wouldn’t invalidate the basic premise: war should be the last resort, not merely the most convenient.

So defensive violence mustt adhere to another principle: last resort.

These principles are beginning to look a lot like those of Just War theory. Basically, this theory states that one may not go to war except under the following conditions:

  1. Just cause
  2. Right authority
  3. Right intention
  4. Reasonable chance of success
  5. Proportionality
  6. Last resort

We’ve already reached principles 1 – defined as the defence of human life – 5 and 6. Principle 2 would, in applicable, be the agents of a legitimate government representing a people if such a thing existed and had retained specially designated people to commit defensive violence.  Principle 3 may not matter to a consequentialist, but if it does matter, it would presumably need to match 1. Finally, 6 is obvious: if going to war will not produce a good outcome, then it becomes a needless cause for suffering.

Just War theory further states that the use of force in war is justifiable only if it is in pursuit of goals necessary for victory, proportional to the value of achieving those goals in the suffering that it causes, and discriminates as much as possible between those fighting and those caught in the  ‘crossfire’.

Actually, I think that many of these principles can (and do) apply to the use of force in altercations between individuals, and not merely social collectives.

I think the principles of Just War theory could serve as a framework for using violence compassionately. Whether in defence of ourselves or in the defence of others, in some situations we may be obligated by our regard for human welfare to be violent, either personally or by proxy. We should do our best to ensure that such situations don’t happen, recognise when they happen despite our efforts, and develop enough capacity to use violence effectively and efficiently if it is necessary.

But I also think we should forgive those who pause out of fear for themselves or for the consequences of overreaction. Fear isn’t something we choose to feel, and while should try to do our best to temper it with reason, in the end we are guided by it. One could debate whether caution is the better part of valour, but it certainly seems advisable when human life is at stake.


2 responses to “Compassion and Violence

  1. Ian August 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I may have to get you to turn these last two posts into presentations for the BC Humanists.

    • Said Simon August 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      The plan is for me to give a talk this fall, hosted by SFU Skeptics, on ‘secular humanism and the ethics of war’. It would include the stuff I talk about here, along with more specific discussions of a couple interesting cases or trends. I’d love to give something similar to the BC Humanists.

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