Morality and Killing
October 1, 2011
The United States government has just killed an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki. Many people think that’s okay. In fact, I suspect that a majority of Americans -- who know anything about Awlaki at all -- think not only that it’s okay but that it’s great. I do not think it’s great, nor do I think it’s okay.
If I and one of the above mentioned majority were to be placed in a room together, we would have nothing to say to one another about Awlaki's killing, so far as morality is concerned, other than that he, or she, thought it was okay and I didn’t. We could stay in the room arguing for a hundred years and I doubt anything would change. That’s because we are differently constituted. We are not of the same psycho-physiological state, as certain sort of moral philosopher might say.
There could be some things we could talk about, and maybe get somewhere. We could stop talking about whether it was right or wrong to kill Awlaki, and turn to talking about whether it was stupid to kill him. If we could agree that by killing Awlaki we were likely to bring forth five persons motivated in the same way he was, we might inch towards concluding that the killing was unwise. But that would depend on whether we were both constituted to think that it’s better not to have people in the world who wish to kill us or that we wish to kill.
You might say everyone would wish that. I’m afraid, though, that’s not the case. There are considerable numbers of our fellow humans who find their deepest meaning in killing someone. Without the sense that there is somebody around they need to kill, life would lose much of its savor for them. It’s unfortunate but true that a goodly number of persons who are so constituted find themselves gravitating towards government work.
The problem for a person like me, who doesn’t want to kill anything, and certainly not other human beings, is how to interact with the killers, that is, a majority of my fellow citizens. It does no good to tell them they are wrong. As I’ve said, I could tell them that for decades and have no effect on them at all.
I could try to engage them about certain sorts of killing, and point out some of the consequences of such action they may not have thought about. It’s possible that by doing that carefully and persuasively I might change their thinking to a slight degree. Therefore, it’s incumbent on me to seek out conversations of that kind, and work to train myself to get better at them.
I can look around and try to find people constituted as I am about the efficacy and glory of killing, and then try to join with them in political action. And that I intend to do.
I can engage in a kind of scornful description of the killers, which seeks to make them look like fools. By doing so I will earn their enmity, and probably make them even more stubborn in their killing propensities. Yet, I might also goad them into behavior repulsive to those who are still in the process of forming their basic constitution. I might, in short, reduce the percentage of killers by helping people wish to be unlike them. The problem with this tactic is it involves uncertainties. I don’t know for sure how people do form their personal constitutions. If it comes about through birth alone, there may not be much opportunity to use obnoxious behavior in this way. Still, all in all, I think scornful description is not a bad tactic, that is if it’s pursued with a certain touch of irony. Besides, I have to admit to myself, I like to do it. So, I’ll probably keep on in that line.
Perhaps the best thing we people who don’t like killing have going for us is that a great many who do like it don’t want to admit that they do. It’s the same sort of thing we see in members of the Tea Party who don’t want to admit that they are racial bigots. How this disinclination to admit who one is came about, I don’t know. But I’m glad to see it happening. It seems to have the effect, over time, of actually changing some people’s minds. First, they take up hypocrisy, and then, through decades of living with it, they deceive even themselves. The next step then can be that their descendants actually do come to believe what their ancestors pretend to believe. Something of that sort has taken place over the course of my lifetime with respect to racial attitudes in America, and it has been, perhaps the best thing I’ve been privileged to observe.
I shouldn’t let myself get too optimistic though. Racial prejudice is a deeply ingrained human preference. Yet it doesn’t go down as far as the lust for killing does. The latter is really near the core of millions, maybe billions, of humans. It’s not going to be washed out for a long time to come.
We will continue to slaughter one another and to feel noble for having done it. I hate to have to admit this kind of thing to myself. But what else can I do? I have just read dozens of essays applauding the killing of Awlaki. They more than confirm philosopher Bernard Williams’s judgment that the philosophical errors of morality are the most abstract expressions of a deeply rooted and still powerful misconception of life.
©John R. Turner
All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont