When I was in college, I took a single class in Philosphy (Introduction to Ethics) that really left a mark on me. I had a truly amazing professor, who had the remarkable ability to espouse nearly any ethical position without actually endorsing it. He would set up wonderfully complex ethical dilemmas, and then counter every single position we’d take. He was challenging, he was interesting, he was entertaining, and he made us think.
One of the things I took from his class was the idea that the difference between sins/lies of omission and of commission is illusory. It is the consequences of such acts that matter in the long run, not whether you acted or simply allowed events to unfold. If you have the ability to prevent a wrong and choose not to, then you have become a party to that wrongdoing.
This ethic is found in the U.S. Military. Cadets at the service academies are required to live by an Honor Code that not only says they will not cheat, steal, or act dishonorably, they will not tolerate others doing so and will act to prevent such deeds. It’s carried out beyond the academies, where simply standing by while others violate laws or regulations is not an option — failing to stop wrongs is a serious offense.
This is an ethic that seems to be lost on a large portion of the Left. I recall many instances of opponents of the war in Iraq saying we shouldn’t have toppled Saddam because “our hands weren’t clean” — we had supported him in the past, supplying him with weapons (a very small percentage, around 1%, but some nonetheless) and the like. The argument seems to be “it’s good that he was deposed, but the U.S. shouldn’t have been the one to do it.”
This attitude, to me, reveals an egocentrism of the left. They are more concerned with the burdens of their own conscience than the general welfare of the world. It’s OK that the Iraqis continue to suffer under Saddam and the consequences of his reign as long as they don’t have to sully their hands in taking action.
The classic argument I have cited recently was “when is it acceptable to kill innocents?” The Left draws an absolute line on the ground — never. It is NEVER acceptable to kill innocents, regardless of the consequences.
The counterargument I have come up with is simple, and derived from one of the now-debunked myths surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Suppose you are a United States Air Force pilot, and you are in a fighter trailing a hijacked jetliner. The plane is heading towards Washington, D.C. and you have every belief that the hijackers intend to crash it into the White House or Capitol Building, killing all aboard the plane and countless more on the ground. It’s currently over vacant land. Do you shoot down the airliner, killing all the passengers on board?
The Left answer is “no.” The passengers are innocent hostages, and we must not kill the innocent, regardless of the circumstances. Try to force the plane to divert, to land safely, but under no circumstances should the plane be shot down.
I’m a pragmatist. I’d look at both possibilities and outcomes. If I shoot, all the people on the plane will die. If I don’t shoot, the plane will crash into its target and all the people will die, along with who knows how many more on the ground. A third possibility is that the passengers will revolt and re-take the plane, as nearly happened with Flight 93.
With that possibility, I think I would wait as long as possible for signs that it had happened, but ultimately I would fire. I’d have to live with the guilt of having killed all those people, but I’d know that I had saved many more on the ground.
A further benefit of this would be to discourage future hijackings. Once it is shown that the tactic will not work, most terrorists will start looking at other tactics. Dying for your cause while striking a great blow against the enemy is one thing; dying for your cause while achieving absolutely nothing is just stupid.
In the Terri Schiavo case (which I NOT taking sides on — I intend to maintain my personal boycott of the topic), the pragmatic approach for the “remove the tube” side would be to say that removing the tube would not be acceptable. If the decision is that her body be allowed to cease functioning, then simply allowing her to expire by neglect is needlessly cruel. A quick, painless passing would be better than simply standing by while starvation and dehydration take their toll. A large dose of a sedative (much like the way we execute prisoners) would be more ethical — even if it means that someone has to live with the burden of being the “executioner” of a woman who certainly deserved better than her fate. And if that smacks of euthenasia, that’s because that’s what it is — the only difference is in the level of compassion being shown and having the courage of your convictions.
The drawback of the pragmatist’s approach is having to live with the burden of your actions. I’m not certain how well I could handle the responsibility of the above actions, but I’m not going to put that above the greater good.
Sometimes doing the right thing requires sacrifices. And some sacrifices are harder to make than others. To some, the sacrifice of one’s personal self-image is too great to make.
Sometimes I envy them. But mostly, I just find them contemptible.