Trafficking in War
August 11, 2012 § 11 Comments
I’ve frequently used the individual choice to drive a car and the policy choice to permit the use of cars to illustrate what foreseen but accidental death looks like. This corresponds quite closely to the individual decisions made in a war and the policy choice to engage in a just war. After all, if we didn’t allow people to drive cars and trucks millions would starve. The consequences of refusing to allow the use of vehicles would be dire indeed; so we choose to permit it, even though we foresee that thousands will be killed every year in traffic accidents.
Now, someone might claim that by permitting people to drive cars we are “murdering” the people who die in accidents in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. Someone else might claim that by banning driving we would be “murdering” all the people who starve to death for lack of food distribution in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. But most people with an ounce of common sense can see that those contentions are as dumb as a bag of hammers. People who can’t see that have put themselves beyond the reach of reason.
That doesn’t mean that moral reasoning stops once we’ve determined that traffic deaths are not directly intended by drivers and policy makers, of course. But for my purposes in this post, the rest of that discussion is an aside.
My purpose in talking about traffic is to show the contrast between accidental death and deliberate killing in a context that we all understand. It also encompasses both the policy decision and the fact that once a policy decision is made, that clearly doesn’t license every possible individual act with a vehicle: jus ad traffic policy and jus in driving.
Today we live in a climate of pervasive moral relativism: a moral relativism which has infected the thought of virtually all political views, left, right, center, and fringe. That isn’t to say that there is a moral equivalence of all political views: far from it. It is just to say that genuine moral absolutists are hard to come by these days, other than in obscure corners of the blogosphere, and often not even there. There are plenty of pretensions to moral absolutism. But when it comes to the absolute prohibition of killing the innocent, we are always treated to bluster about how we can’t judge it immoral apart from the concrete situation. In other words, some concrete situations make killing the innocent morally acceptable: moral relativism with lots of foot stomping and protest disclaiming that it is not moral relativism.
That is too bad, because moral relativism is false, and calling a pig a bird won’t make it fly.
When it comes to war people are constantly attempting to justify killing the innocent by claiming that we can conjure away our intentions. By wishing that circumstances didn’t make it “necessary” to do what we propose to do, we can claim that we didn’t intend the behavior that we chose. Translating that same reasoning to driving in traffic illustrates the unseriousness of the claim. If we had to drive from point A to point B to stop a bomb from going off (or do some other Really Important Thing), and a big crowd of people was in the way, and we ran lots of them down in order to get from A to B, it is the height of sophistry to claim that we didn’t “intend” to run them down.
So all the folks out there who claim that it is morally licit to kill innocents in war when the stakes are high enough ought to just come clean with themselves and with us. They are moral relativists. If that is what you are, then be that. But don’t pretend you are a moral absolutist. You aren’t.