A MORAL DILEMMA LAID BARE

morality

Timothy Kuo’s recent essay, “How we learned to kill”(in the New York Times, 2/27/2015) is just the latest searing gift we are receiving from returning soldiers about the ghastly wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan.  They are laying bare realities we shudder to acknowledge.  Horrors were not only inflicted on supposed enemies but on our soldiers — our own decent, innocent sons and daughters — whom we allowed to “learn to kill” (or as General Omar Bradley reminded American mothers during the Second World War, “we are converting your sons into killers”).  Kuo tells us “killing became banal” and “If this war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will have to face a reckoning.”

Just what is that RECKONING?  What must we learn?  Is the process of “learning to kill” so murky that we cannot disentangle it into something we can realistically confront and control before it destroys more decent, innocent people?

First of all, behind “learning to kill” is the reality that the physical techniques for “learning to kill” is a minimal part of the actual practice of warfare.  Far more important is the moral component of killing — “claiming the moral sanctity of killing” as Kuo reminds us.  In their civilian life most of our soldiers were brought up to honor the sanctity of human life. Yet they now find themselves in situations where killing of designated enemies is supposedly morally acceptable, where killing is sanctified.   Just how does that moral component work?

We humans are morally guided creatures.  We get our sense of identity and purpose in life from  moral contexts.  These contexts can be  our country, our family,  and any other association or group to which we belong. From all of them we receive codes of conduct that specify acceptable and laudable behavior.   “Other” moralities are sometimes  defiantly excluded from the morally acceptable.  I have been calling this the Closed Moral World phenomenon.

Yet there is also quite another characteristic of Closed Moral Worlds.  Their content can be drastically changed, and still demand our full allegiance — even excluding as “other” Moral Worlds our own upbringing and our former allegiance.   Here is an example:  In a previous Blog I pointed out that at the beginning of the Second World War the Allied countries expressed  moral outrage that Germany was targeting civilians.  Yet toward the end of that war these same Allied countries were firebombing and dropping atomic bombs on entire cities — and claiming moral justification for doing so.  Here, surely, was a drastic moral transformation.  The moral outrage against targeting civilians, so loudly voiced a the beginning of WWII, was now silent. A new Closed Moral World was asserting itself.

When such a moral transformation happens, is the old morality destroyed or is it merely held in abeyance, shunted into a silent niche?  Within the individual soldier, do drastically incompatible Moral Worlds co-exist, giving rise to such issues as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders?  It may well be that PTSD is primarily a moral dilemma, based on incompatible, but co-existing Moral Worlds asserting themselves within the individual.

Kuo gives an insight into the collision between what one might call civilian and military morality.  In the war zone the military Closed Moral World prevails.  Yet the civilian Closed Moral World may unexpectedly re-emerge.  Kuo tells us that after a successful battle against the enemy, members of their group boisterously  expressed satisfaction — military morality was being honored.  But if the soldiers realize that they have just killed civilians, there is only silence.  For these soldiers who have just killed civilians, Kuo tells us “there is no absolution” — just as there was “no absolution” for American soldiers returning from the  Viet Nam conflict.  In both situations a civilian morality awkwardly, but disturbingly speaks up.

Summarizing — We are left with a deep moral dilemma:

1. Shared morality, what I call Closed Moral Worlds, is the very core of human life  in a social context.  It makes it possible for a large number of people to live together.  They have  a sense of community because of that common moral core.

2. Closed Moral Worlds claim to provide definitive guidance for people’s day-to-day behavior.  It may deliberately exclude different moralities.

3. The actual content of a Closed Moral World may change drastically.  And demand that the “new morality” be fully accepted and implemented.

4. (a) With the arrival of a new Closed Moral World, the previous one may disconcertingly assert itself, producing great pain for individual participants (as in PTSD among soldiers?) and fissures in a society, as happened in the United States in the late stages of the Viet Nam and Afghanistan  wars.

4. (b) Discredited Closed Moral Worlds may stubbornly persist in a dormant state — and be available for subtle and spasmodic activation.  I am thinking of the moral components of the culture of Slavery in the American South before the Civil War — and its partial re-activation after Reconstruction and in subtle forms of racism in contemporary attacks on President Obama.

 

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ISIS: A MOST STRANGE AMALGAM

amalgams, ISIS, modernity, morality, religiosity, social space, tribalism

ISIS is a baffling phenomenon. It practices public beheadings and deliberate and exuberant mass killings of enemies that modern Westerners associate with primitive tribalism we left behind many centuries ago. From our Bible we read about King David exuberantly slaughtering two thirds of the Moabites – and tell ourselves, “this sort of thing, once sanctioned on supposedly religious grounds, is really a form of ancient tribalism”, long forgotten and left behind by Modernity, with its far greater reverence for life. Now, surprisingly, we discover that religion-grounded tribalism is currently embraced and practiced by contemporaries calling themselves ISIS.

Yet the members of this same ISIS also practice the most sophisticated social media techniques we associate with the height of modernity – where the brutal, religion-grounded tribalism has surely been surpassed long ago.

I have been trying to help us get a better understanding of the Social Space in which we humans live – the subtitle of a book of mine is “How we Cope in Social Space” (*). One of four attributes of that Social Space is that we humans often live in a Closed Moral World. It gives us our sense of who and what we are; it provides us our moral moorings. Yet such Closed Moral Worlds sometimes become totally impervious to other beliefs, to other perspectives of what is decent and worthy. This characteristic of Closed Moral Worlds is surely at work among contemporary ISIS adherents. Its practitioners seem totally shut off from Modern sensibilities about human life, yet imbued with the passionate sense that they are acting Morally.

Nonetheless, the ISIS phenomenon teaches us something new about the nature of Closed Moral Worlds. It is that within such Closed Moral Worlds there can develop unique amalgams that defy the external world’s ideals about human life. This, it seems, is what is happening in the ISIS phenomenon. It amalgamates ancient tribalism with selected parts of Modernity.

(*) The full title of that book is “Our quest for effective living: A window to a new science / How we cope in Social Space.” For a description of that book, including the Closed Moral World construct, see, http://www.questforeffectiveliving.com

MORALITY

genocide, identity, mass killings, morality, social psychology

WE HUMANS ARE MORAL CREATURES:

WE USUALLY HAVE SOME SORT OF A MORAL CONTEXT IN MIND. IT  GIVES US OUR  SENSE OF WHO WE ARE, WHAT OUR LIFE IS ALL ABOUT, OUR LIFE’S PURPOSE.

YET MORALITY CAN BE CORRUPTED TO SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGE HORRENDOUS CRUELTY:

HERE IS AN EXAMPLE (I COULD MENTION OTHERS):

MIND-BOGGLING GENOCIDES GO BEYOND EVEN THE  HORROR OF THE MASS KILLINGS. THOSE WHO DO THE KILLING USUALLY FEEL MORALLY JUSTIFIED IN WHAT THEY ARE DOING — THAT MORALITY IS ON THEIR SIDE.

This is addressed in Fred Emil Katz’ book, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.”

And in his short E-Book, “Closed Moral Worlds.”

Closed Moral Worlds

morality, social psychology

Why did I come to be interested in what I call “Closed Moral Worlds”?

I.     My discomfort about the most famous social psychology experiment conducted during the last century: Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment.

— The Milgram experiment:

——claimed to study obedience-to-authority.

——Milgram had groups of individuals believing they were taking part in a learning experiment – where individuals who made mistakes were punished by receiving an electric shock.

——Actually, this was make-believe – there were no electric shocks. But the subjects of the research did not know this. They believed they were actually punishing innocent people by giving them electric shocks. They were told, by doing so, they were making a real contribution to science. And they believed it. And followed the instruction to inflict electric shocks to    learners who made mistakes.

II.     I admire the ingenuity of that experiment. But disagree with Milgram’s own interpretation of what he discovered:

— That it was only about obedience-to-authority.

—–What actually happened is that Milgram – unwittingly, but actually – created a distinct “morality” in the confines of the experiment where the participants found themselves.

——–The “morality” Milgram created in the experiment:

———–Had very real incentives and rewards for the behavior demanded of the participants.

———–Participants were led to believe they were making important  contributions to science, and doing so by temporarily being part of a famous university (Yale).

———-Deliberate exclusion of participants’ “outside” morality — which would be appalled by hurting innocent persons.

III.  I looked at other Closed Moral Worlds —   not merely the one in an artificially contrived laboratory experiment, as Milgram had done – but in real life situations. Here is one:

—-“Ordinary Men” (the  title of a study by the historian Christopher Browning ) of older men, who were not crazed Nazis or zealots of any sort, but who, during the Holocaust, became active exterminators of thousands of innocent people in Poland.

——–There, too, a Closed Moral World came into existence

——– with its own set of incentives and rewards that produced a “morality” of its own. (I describe this much more fully in the book “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space /A window to a new science”).