03 July 2007

Courageous COWARDism: What would you do...?

Courageous COWARDism: What would you do...? discusses a common hypothetical moral dilemma that militarists pose to pacifists, or proponents of non-violence:
Those of us “pacifists” who have gone the conscientious objection route have heard all too much of the familiar question: “What would you do if…?” For those of you who are in the dark, let me reconstruct the argument used to challenge the nonviolence as a viable means of conflict resolution.

The accuser begins by placing you in a hypothetical situation in which you a faced with a choice of killing an aggressor that threatens the life of a loved one. You, the subject, hold the power to decide between one life and another. For example; your grandmother, sister, niece, or mother is held captive, a gun to her head (it seems arrogantly patriarchal that the victim consistently is portrayed by a feminine figure…), and you have the power to prevent the crime. Many accusers also insert the stipulation that death is the only thing that will stay the attackers hand. The great responsibility of choosing the moral necessity of killing the attacker rests upon you. What would you do?

The argument typifies so much of what seems wrong with the Western mindset from an Orthodox point of view. I'm not concerned to analyse the argument and discuss all its flaws -- the original blogger whom I've quoted does that quite well, and also points out some of the flaws in the assumptions on which the argument is based. The main assumption, of course, is that moral principles should always be sacrificed to self-interest. It is the idea of the just war writ small -- the just homicide. And there lies the core of the problem -- Western theology is obsessed with justification: not merely justifying sinners, but justifying war, and homicide. It is the same kind of argument that is used to justify the killing of doctors and nurses at abortion clinics -- think of all the babies one is saving.

The Orthodox understanding is somewhat different. It is not so wedded to sets of moral principles, which one is obliged to apply with instant omniscient wisdom when someone has decided to murder one's grandmother. Christos Yannaras wrote about The freedom of morality, which includes the freedom from the necessity to justify. One may, perhaps, kill the would-be murderer of one's grandmother, and thereby save her. But one would not attempt to justify the deed. No, if one killed such a person, far from attempting to justify it, one would repent, and confess the killing as a sin.

Orthodoxy has had both those who have fought in wars and those who have refused to fight, and honours as saints some among the first and likewise some among the second. In this world, wars happen. But they are never just.


Anonymous said...

Saw that you stopped by my blog (journeyguy.com) and trotted over here. Good stuff. Will follow for a while to see where it leads! ;)

Walton said...

This is an excellent post, Steve, and I was pleased to read it. I think I agree with you. I am an intellectual pacifist, but realise a deeper morality might kick in in some situations.

I think the Dalai Lama was once asked whether, if he had the opportunity to prevent the Holocaust by killing Hitler, he would do so. "Yes", he replied. "I would kill him with love and compassion".

It's an interesting perspective.

Steve Hayes said...


And there is a story told that when Moses and the Israelites had escaped across the Red Sea, and were celebrating their escape with singing and dancing, and the returning water drowned Pharaoh's pursuing army, God rebuked Moses, "My children lie drowned at the bottom of the sea and you sing and dance?"

I'm a pacifist too, and not a militarist. But I don't regard myself as a doctrinaire pacifist, with unbending moral principles. Rigid moral principles are too often used as a stick to beat others with. Yes, if there was a war and I were called up to fight in it, I'd probably be a conscientious objector. As another friend of mine once said, however, it is better to do wrong for the sake of love than to insist on doing right because of my lack of it. But those who use the kind of arguments in the blog post i was discussing are twisting the meaning of love.

Unknown said...

"...One may, perhaps, kill the would-be murderer of one's grandmother, and thereby save her. But one would not attempt to justify the deed. No, if one killed such a person, far from attempting to justify it, one would repent, and confess the killing as a sin..."

Well, I suppose this is where our worldviews differ irreconcilably. I would certainly not feel the need to repent for the "sin" of killing someone who tried to kill my grandmother. I consider self-defence an intrinsic right that all humans are entitled to by natural law (even though states sometimes try to take it away), and I wouldn't feel compelled to ask forgiveness for exercising it.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, worldviews do differ.

Yours certainly couldn't be described as "prolife".


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