The warmonger’s dilemma.

There is a sort of moral dilemma that most supporters of collectivist beliefs eventually have to face and rationalize. It goes something like this:

1. The State/God is good/necessary/our standard of morality.

2. Genocide/murder/war/extortion/kidnapping/rape is evil/bad/undesirable.

3. The State/God commits or encourages genocide/war/murder/extortion/kidnapping/rape.

4. But the State/God can’t possibly be evil/bad/undesirable!

This is the point at which you have to rationalize like crazy in order to maintain the moral superiority of your belief system.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when talking to warmongers, as they must simultaneously be cheerleaders for murder and deny that they are advocating murder. This is a real juggling act. Recently, I have applied myself to the task of talking to these strange creatures. And of course I also have extensive experience discussing with theologians, who are also rationalizers of murder (although in this case mostly mythical Biblical ones). I have divided the rationalizations for murder in three main categories:

1. “They deserved it!” (“terrorists,” “insurgents,” “sinners”)

One way to rationalize murder is to paint the victims are immoral, thus proving the murders to be in fact justified. This defense is used by both parties extensively.

Warmongers argue that the “insurgents” deserve it because they are fighting against “our troops” (as if the insurgents started first). When one points out that the American Revolutionaries did basically the same thing, their reply is that the “insurgents” are also fighting against each other. But what about individual cohesive groups of “insurgents”? Are they “legitimate” as cohesive groups, and “illegitimate” when taken as a whole? This is all doublespeak nonsense.

Religionists routinely rationalize atrocious genocides with the same general strategy (except in this case it is even more dubious to believe that one could threaten god). My friend Zachary Moore has written an excellent entry detailing the rationalizations used in those cases, here and here. His conclusion, “two wrongs don’t make a right,” is worth noting. As for the real-life genocides and murders, they are usually rationalized away with the No True Scostman fallacy: “the people who did this were not real Christians.” This, of course, begs the question of what a “real Christian” is: if murder disqualifies, then the god of the Bible is definitely not a Christian.

2. “It’s sanctioned!” (legal authority, divine authority)

Another way to rationalize murder is to divert the issue from moral considerations to completely non-moral or amoral considerations, such as what the law says, what the ruling class says, what the Bible says, or what god supposedly says. It must be emphasized that none of these things can possibly justify murder. If the law sanctions murder, then the law is illegitimate. If some members of the ruling class officially approve of murderous acts, then they are criminals. If the Bible sanctions murder, then it is an evil book. If god sanctions murder, then it is evil.

A related way to argue this is to promote the ends of the criminal actions, and ignoring the means. For instance, many warmongers will argue that “they are fighting for your rights.” This is not only plainly false, as I never asked anyone to fight for me for any reason whatsoever, but also downright silly. No one can grant right or protect rights any more than they can grant or protect the fact that two and two make four, or that things what go up must go down. How does one grant or protect a fact of reality?

Another more vague rationalization of this type is the belief that murder is a “necessary evil,” necessary in order to bring about some greater good, as if killing hundreds of people was comparable to a visit to the dentist.

This is used more often in the case of Christian apologetics, where evil in the world is deemed “necessary” for a greater purpose, such as bringing about second-order good. Once again, it is hard to compare the horrible suffering of millions of people in the world to something that actually does bring second-order good, like a visit to the dentist, or an amputation. There is no clear good that is brought about by the suffering extant in the world, and even if there was, it would not justify the suffering inflicted by god in order to get it. God could, obviously, bring about any good it wants without needing to use suffering at all: god supposedly can do anything. Although for believers of the “Bruce Almighty” persuasion, god is little more than a space janitor, but that’s pagan nonsense.

3. “It’s not their fault, they’re just following orders!”

Sometimes we are told to disagree with the war if we want, but not with “the troops,” as they are just “following orders.”

I must say this argument baffles me most of all. How is acting completely irresponsibly an absolution? It’s not like they have brain damage and cannot take responsibility for their actions. How do they not bear full responsibility for their crimes simply because “they are following orders”? Certainly they took the fully voluntary decision of becoming ruling class mercenaries and knew that they would have to “follow orders.” What reasonable person voluntarily puts his moral sense in the hands of someone else, without knowing that someone else or his interests, and thinks that he is immune from becoming an agent of evil?

It is part of natural law, and well known to all individuals, that killing other people is immoral. It takes a lot of belief and rationalization to get oneself to ignore this principle. However, I think it is fairly clear that these rationalizations do not stand the test of morality.

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