Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"For the greater good"

I read this on a forum somewhere. Someone was asking whether or not it would be justify to kill someone or commit torture in order to save a large number of people. Their examples, I believe, were if a serial killer were loose in the city and the police decided to frame a bum in order to relieve social tension and prevent a riot (and presumably loss of life and property), or if a kid saw some terrorists, would you torture them to get the information and save lives.

According to the way I think both of these examples are somewhat flawed because in both cases it's really impossible to determine the outcome of either of these situations. Who can really predict if the city will riot or not? Information obtained during torture is similarly unreliable. Will it save lives, or will you just be stuck with a charge of crimes against humanity and nothing to show for it. (This would be if my country even acknowledged the Geneva Conventions, and y'know international law, but I digress.)

That said, there are other situations in which a similar question might be asked. If there was someone who was carrying a deadly disease in the general population, would you kill them in order to eradicate the disease and save lives?

This is sort of a high school question, and in some ways I really hate these kinds of questions, because they have this "do or die" switch built in. In real life, choices are rarely this clear cut simply because life is fundamentally unpredictable. However it made me think, and I'll take intellectual stimulation where I can find it.

The needs of many over the needs of the few is a dangerous one. I've heard it used to justify the atomic bombing of Japan. We would have spent a longer time conquering Japan and therefore more people would have died etc. so bombing civilians without warning was justified. When they talk about more people, are they talking about American lives, Japanese lives, or both? And from their (American) perspective, which lives are more important?

The question I always end up asking in these situations is the needs of which many and the needs of which few? People in this day and age are impossible to separate from the various markers society assigns to them. It's easier to bomb a city full of women, children, and old people, if they are not OUR women, children, and old people. It's easier to scapegoat a person if they are disenfranchised by our society, poor, homeless, "crazy," or young.

These factors go through the minds of decisionmakers and they go through the mind of the public. I had a conversation recently with FireflyNightLight in which both of us noted that it's easier to feel an empathetic connection with someone if you feel that they are somehow "like" you. It's human nature on some level I think. However, I do think that this response on our part makes it impossible to simply divide people up into the many and the few.

The few that people choose to sacrifice will probably always look the least like "us." Whoever "we" happen to be at any given time. Were those few to look more like "us" the choice to sacrifice them would be unthinkable.

So what conclusions have I come to exactly? That it's impossible to define the many and the few in a way which transcends societal markers? That human nature is fundamentally bad. Maybe I've been reading too much 荀子. Have I been chasing my tail this whole time? Damn, this really is like high school.

1 comment:

exangelena said...

It's generally in a country's self-interest to protect the lives of its citizens over those in other countries. However the two words "Witch Trials" should shut down any discussion about the efficacy of torture. I was watching Chris Matthews a while back and he had an FBI interrogator on his show, who said that torture as a means of extracting information is BS, for obvious reasons - for example, that torture might kill a possible source of information. Then Matthews starts blathering to this guy who's a professional interrogator and he's like, "But what if it's like in this movie or that TV show" and I pretty much wanted to kick a hole in the TV.
I agree that it becomes easier to commit brutal violence against people who are perceived as the "other" but I wouldn't limit it to appearance. The British and the Irish have been living in the same geographical area for millennia and are both northwestern Europeans, but the British (even as recently as the 1970s and 1980s) abused and tortured Irish prisoners. Also - Yugoslavia, the Spanish and the Basques, the Japanese in Korea and China, etc.