Wrongs That Are Right

A recent blog I posted elicited a most interesting comment from my blogging buddy “BTG” (“Big Tall Guy”). I argued for the objectivity of moral judgments, when well-reasoned, and he raised the following issues:

Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

I made a brief, but altogether unsatisfactory response — as one does with comments on a blog post — and then realized that the issues BTG raised deserve extended response. So here goes. Let’s begin with one of his examples. Let’s take the case of Mrs Jones who has been repeatedly battered by her husband, several times seriously enough to require trips to the hospital. After a series of such events, including one beating in a hotel elevator that was caught on CCTV and  “went viral” arousing the ire of millions of people around the globe, she reaches out during one such beating, grabs a bronze statue on the bedside table and kills her husband. Assuming that the case ever goes to trial, there is little doubt that a jury would consider this a case of “justifiable homicide.” It is wrong to kill, but under the circumstances one would almost assuredly regard the killing as “the right thing to do” — or if we hesitate to use the word “right,” at least we must admit it was expedient and therefore justified in the circumstances. That’s my point: killing is wrong, but in this case, within the context of this event, it is justified because there is a reasonable case to be made that if Mrs. Jones had not killed her husband he would eventually have killed her. It was self-defense.

My point is that we can reason about such events. We need not just rely on “gut feelings” or “intuition.” It’s not just a question of personal opinion. We can try to distance ourselves from the event and examine it as objectively as possible, separate out its grisly elements and render a  judgment. It’s what would be done in a court of law, and it is what we can do on a daily basis if we choose to venture beyond the realm of grunts and hunches. Ethics need not be reduced to the level of personal feelings, simply.

But there are cases which are even more troublesome. Take the case of Henry Smith who has joined the U.S. Army and is now in Afghanistan where he is called upon to kill people regarded by his country as enemies. He has no bone to pick with these people, and in the case of the war in Afghanistan it is not clear that the folks who fall before his automatic weapon are in fact enemies in any real sense of that term. And even less clear is the case of the airman who sits in a room somewhere in Nebraska and directs drones half-way around the world to “take out” presumed enemies of Freedom.

St. Augustine argued that the only justification for killing in war is in the case of defense of home and hearth, a defensive war. It’s not clear that the so-called terrorists Smith is killing pose any direct threat to Smith or his home and hearth. In other words, it is not clear that this is a “just war,” in Augustine’s sense of that term. He is simply ordered to kill and in many cases because of his situation, the men he kills are trying to kill him. Unless he is guiding a drone, his act is one of self-defense. But this act is complicated by the fact that Smith might well have chosen to take a job at Walmart rather than to enlist in a war that might be over nothing more vital than the country’s supply of oil — or poppies. He made a choice, presumably. It’s not as clear-cut as the former case — though we might revisit the former case and ask why Mrs. Jones didn’t simply leave her husband before putting herself in a position to have to kill him rather than be killed herself.

The point of this extended discussion is that we can pick out the various elements of each and every situation and examine them in the air of dispassionate scrutiny and render a judgment that stands up to criticism. To the extent that it can withstand criticism we can claim it is true — so far as we can tell at present: we have no absolute knowledge. We can say that Mrs Jones, for example, was trying to work through the domestic violence because deep down she loved her husband and leaving him was never a real option — she genuinely believed that things would work themselves out. But Smith is more culpable, despite the fact that our country keeps telling us that these young men and women are heroes, they have all made a decision to engage in a war that is of doubtful legitimacy: it is not clear just how those “enemies” in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to Henry Smith or anyone else in the U.S. of A. If he had been drafted the situation would be entirely different, but as it is his killing raises a number of problems regarding the rightness of his actions.

But in the end, the point I want to make is that we can discuss it: we can draw out the particulars and try to determine whether his action is right or wrong. I would simply note, again, it cannot be both. It’s either right or it is wrong. The problem we have, if we decide to think about such things rather than dismiss them with a grunt, is deciding which it is.

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11 thoughts on “Wrongs That Are Right

  1. “… dismiss with a grunt…” just getting people to think about these issues is helpful. many people have become calloused or they are so involved in themselves that they don’t care, as long as it doesn’t affect their orb of life. others might be prompted to ponder, thanks to posts like this.

    one never wants to be placed in those life-or-possible-death shoes, but by contemplating stories, we might wonder what we might have done under the extreme stress of the moment. it’s easy to say what might have been a more-evolved solution, but it’s quite different when one is in the arena.

    • Well said, Z. There’s a world of difference between dissecting an ethical problem in one’s closet and actually being in the situation — just as there is a world of difference between justifying an action that is clearly wrong and living with it later. Dostoevsky (who knew whereof he spoke) was fascinated by this problem, especially in “Crime and Punishment.” It’s the difference between justification and reconciliation.

  2. Hugh, good post and thanks for the well thought out response. I like Z’s comment as well, as your posts make us think about the key debates over what is right and wrong. I like the fact you mention the clinical ease in which drone “navigators” can kill people a half a world away, making it seem like it is a video game. The clinical nature of the drone killing detach the reality of a right and wrong decision and its consequences, so that the person just pushes a button and families are dead. Even George Orwell could not have envisioned the guy in Nebraska doing this. Thanks, BTG

    • As you know, this is one of my major criticisms of our country’s war on terror. The killing of “enemies” by remote control is barbaric and sets us apart as worse then our enemies. It’s interesting in this regard that at least one young airman who had been directing these drones suddenly realized what he was doing, went public, and refused to continue. Apparently his conscience finally got through to him. There is hope….

  3. I couldn’t have said it better…everything that z and that tall guy said. It would have, however, taken a whole lot longer. Great piece, Hugh. As I age…am finding the wiggle room between right and wrong to (seemingly) occupy the same space. ..and…I’m now more adamant in observing their fine lines. And about those gerbils…keep feeding them!

  4. Hugh, I wonder if it is possible for a response to start out as right and then shift to becoming wrong. That’s perhaps what happened to our retaliation efforts after 9/11. We struck at the Taliban in Afghanistan initially, which had merit that was two-fold. The Taliban harbored bin Laden and much of the rest of al Qaida, plus the Taliban was (and is) a ruthless, intolerant totalitarian group that killed and tortured any and all who would not conform.

    But our mistakes began, and our claim to the more higher ground began to erode, when the Bush administration first bombed and then invaded Iraq. Most intelligent people knew even before the later investigations confirmed it that Iraq had no WMD, plus the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Saudi Arabian natives who trained in Afghanistan, Germany and the U.S. There were no connections to Iraq. In Iraq, we killed perhaps 100,000 civilians — many of them remotely, too, via cruise missiles and smart bombs — and initially barred members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from any role in government. In doing all that, we antagonized the population we occupied and we prevented any experienced civil servants from helping rebuild the country. It created power vacuums with in Iraq, filled at first by a new group — al Qaida in Iraq! — and now by ISIS. Basically, we created enemies where we had none.Multiple recipes for disaster in all that. Perhaps that is what one deserves for waging an unjust war, indeed, for expanding war into a country that had no role in attacking us.

    We further veered into the wrong through the rampant torture and detaining of terror suspects, both from Iraq and Afghanistan, and later from other nations, too. As the Senate report summary showed this week, all of that torture produced little in the way of useful information. Even the CIA’s head of the program — as detailed in the opening of a New York Times story on it — quit in disgust over it. When someone that high up in the CIA is disgusted at the CIA itself, you know it’s bad!

    • Excellent point. I hate to say it, but I don’t think America has any idea where the moral high ground is. Augustine would say the retaliation for the attacks on the Twin Towers were justified, but once Osama was killed it should have stopped there; and the killing of civilians can never be justified — even as “collateral damage,” as we say.

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