Friday, August 04, 2006

Death Values

Is it morally okay for me to value one person's life more then another? Especially in International Affairs?

I was brought to this by thinking about the Israel/Lebanon conflict. Most Israel/Palestine/Lebanon talks I've encountered focus on who is RIGHT. And that leads to a wealth of issues -- ancient rights to the land, territorial aggression, long-term considerations like birth rate & availability of weapons, broader regional concerns, the morality of technological imbalance.

I can't sort it all out. Nor can you. That can lead to one of two conclusions, I think. The first is that you base the RIGHTNESS of a conflict on a heuristic of incomplete information and news reports. There's nothing wrong with this, we do it with everything.

But the other is that you don't care about, in close calls, who has the absolute rightness of the situation. I call this the Football Side. Now, I have family in Israel, soon. My Fiancee has an Israeli father. And I have a lot more in common with Israel's western, modern culture then anything in Palestine or Lebanon. So while it's not quite 'My Country, Right or Wrong,' it's certainly 'Israel until undeniably proven otherwise.'

And even should Israel mess up horribly, chances are I'll still see the issue from Israel's side -- as a failure among the political/military elite, rather then an indictment of the country. Just as I would see something similar in America, viz Guantanamo.

This being the case, is it inevitable that I'm valuing Israeli lives more highly then Lebanese lives? And if so, is that morally respectable?

Even if we don't have enough information -- if we ever could! -- to judge the rightness of a situation, we do have body counts. If I'm not bothering to figure out who is right, I can at least count corpses. Regardless, I am on Israel's side. And, honestly, I feel it more strongly when someone is killed in Tiberias, where I've been, then when distant Lebanese are killed. Is this just a normal part of human experience -- no one would question it if I felt more strongly for a friend then a stranger -- or mere cultural prejudice, a demonstration of bigotry based on nothing more then national borders?


Rebecca C. Brown said...

I'm no biological psychologist, but I think it is an inborn trait to care more deeply about things to which we can related. Just the other day, Paul, Tom, and I watched the 1985 007 flick "A View to a Kill," and while it sucked just as hard as any of the fourteen previous Bond movies we'd watched, I was more interested in this film's ridiculous fight scenes because they took place in San Francisco rather than, say, the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. "Hey, I've been there!" And suddenly the overacting is more tolerable.

This natural response to more highly value familiar things is okay if it influences one's preference for movies or music or sports (don't ninety percent of sports fans root for their home team?) or anything else inconsequential.

However I think we're morally obligated to combat this inherent bias in matters of life, death, torture, and equity. Of course an American life isn't more "valuable" than an Iraqi life. It's just not logical. The Lebanese woman whose baby daughter is killed by Israeli bombs certainly doesn't care that your fiance is a Jew.

We're too quick to say, "Oh, value and morals and right and wrong are all so relative that it's not worth trying to ascertain what the correct thing to do is; I'll just go with my inherent bias." So along those lines I disagree that it's fruitless to ponder "rightness" in this situation. I would differentiate this conflict's participants from non-participants, though. The aforementioned baby girl never agreed to be part of this.

Humans have a lot of instincts that are worth overcoming. And I'm devolving into territory unrelated to your post.

Paul said...

I've heard reasonably compelling arguments that we can justifiably, in at least some cases, give more moral weight to our fellow citizens than to foreigners. Those arguments tend to depend on facts of reciprocity - by cooperating to keep American society functioning, Mr. Smith and I have entered into an agreement that gives us additional obligations to one another - so I can see trying to extend them to foreigners who live in countries with whom we have treaties and friendly arrangements of various kinds.

Problem is, there are also what I view as more compelling arguments to the effect that even if nationality or the expectation of reciprocity affect the moral weight we give to other people, there are other, more important factors, such as, "Who has contributed more to to the conflict at hand?" and "Who is worse off to begin with?" (Or even, "It's pretty coincidental that so-and-so was born in this or that country, so who cares?")

Then there's the fact that whatever the reason we'd be inclined to give more weight to, say, the Israeli side - they're more like us, or they're our allies - presumably those reasons apply a fortiori to Americans - who are even more like us and are even more entangled in relationships of reciprocity with us. So when American and Israeli interests diverge, one would think Americans would win out, at least by those criteria.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Kudos to both of you, Kevin for using part of the name of his old humor mag in his post, Paul for using the name of his old blog in his comment. Hopefully I haven't *squelched* your happiness by pointing this out.