Sunday, August 21, 2005

Reciprocity and World Making

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes about an ethical dilemma. We would consider torture wrong under any circumstances. But consider this situation: a terrorist that you have captured boasts that he has placed a nuclear bomb somewhere in the a large population area. It will go off in 24 hours. Would torturing him to find out where he placed the bomb be wrong?

Against this, he compares the use of bombs used on military targets near civilian populations. We drop these bombs, and expect some collateral damage. This inflicts suffering on innocent people equal or greater than the suffering inflicted in torture. Yet we are willing to accept this outcome. Harris believes that this is because we don't directly experience the suffering we cause. He mentions a Russian soldier who said that shooting a man at point blank range was terrible, but killing en masse, in combat, was actually fun.

But in the case of the terrorist, I would offer this analysis. The terrorist has abandoned the social contract by which we limit the harm done to others by our actions--indeed, he has abondoned all social contracts. His target is nothing less than civilization itself. He intends to cut the ties that bind societies together, to wreak havoc and chaos wherever he can. He has abandoned all social contracts; or, he has entered a new one, in which there are no restrictions. And so, there should be no restrictions in dealing with him.

The answer to this would be that we should not sink to his level in dealing with him. But think about war. Do we not sink to our enemy's level in accepting the contract of war? Because it is a contract, as the Geneva Convention demonstrates. And yet, we don't flinch from this contract when faced with a military threat. Under this contract, killing is not only permitted, it is actually celebrated.

Think about something closer to home. You go to a restaurant with someone. They eat a meal, and then demand that you pay for it. Naturally, you get angry, and insist that they pay for their own meal. This anger and reaction would not be justified without the breach in ethical behaviour. It would be inappropriate to eye someone suspiciously and insist that they pay for their meal if they haven't given you cause to believe that they won't. You have accepted the modified social contract, because the normal one has been breached. This is reciprocity. This is how we learn and correct aberrant behaviour. This is everyday justice.

Beliefs and actions shape the world around us. In nearly all formulations of the Golden Rule, there is an element of contagion. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" carries the notion of reciprocity--there is an unspoken expectation (thought not a guarantee) that others will respond in kind. Kant's categorical imperative is even clearer: "Act only by that maxim whereby you could will it to be a universal maxim." Inherent in this is a form of world making, the creation of a social contract of mutual respect and fair play. If we are conscious of the effects of our actions, we attempt, through ethical action, to create the world we want to live in. This is also expressed in the idea of paying it forward--good deeds are propogated through others, and shift the world towards a better state of affairs. And by reciprocity, we are able to live, to some extent, in the world we seek to create.

Now consider what kind of world the terrorist is attempting to create: hell on earth. He is attempting to disrupt all social bonds, sow discord and mistrust at every level. He is trying to unravel the social fabric and bring about a state of universal warfare, bringing social, economic, and political ruin, with a resultant list of casualties that far outstrips the casualties he inflicts with his act of terrorism. This is the world he seeks to create, and this is the world which he has volunteered, by his actions, to live in. The terrorist has volunteered to sit in the iron throne. He has asked to be tortured. By the principle of reciprocity, we owe this to him. Or, at the very least, we have to show him the abyss he is opening under his own feet. Perhaps a glimpse of this moral black hole will achieve more than torture itself will. He will never learn unless he can see where his actions are leading. But we also owe it to him to warn him and others, in advance, of where his actions are leading.

Note that this does not excuse torture of captives suspected of terrorism. This is a preemptive breach of the social contract. Until a fairly strong proof of guilt is established, this encourages a reciprocity with the act of torture as the originating point of a negative chain of tit-for-tat. In other words, it provides a source of justification for potential terrorists. The torture of innocents as part of a war on terrorism amounts to giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In this case, the defenders of civilization are themselves breaching the wall of civility, exposing a weakness to their enemies.

In this light, it is easy to understand why terrorists are suicidal. They have no desire to live in the world that will result if they suceed. Nor, indeed, do they wish to live in the world as it is. As my wife Debbie pointed out, the terrorist is attempting to create hell on earth because he already believes that earth is hell. He believes that the Devil rules the world. As Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God, all is permitted. But if the Devil is seen to hold sway over the world, God is completely eclipsed and utterly absent. God here can simply stand for the belief that there is something good in the world worth saving, the Devil for the degree to which the world is corrupt and worthless. Substitute for God and the Devil the utopia and bane of any political or conspiracy theory, and you can see where supposedly secular terrorist groups are coming from. The configuration is the same, and the result is the same. No bounds need be respected in dealing with others, nothing is to be spared, all is to be destroyed and swept away.

The most frightening statistic about the religious right is that 65% of Americans believe in Satan. The Left Behind series clearly illustrates that Christians who read these books consider the rest of the world to be the province of the Devil, to be destroyed and swept away. If they suffer a dramatic setback, quashing their belief that God will intervene and rapture them away from all harm, what happens then? An America convinced that the world has gone to hell, armed with a nuclear arsenal, may decide to send it to hell, hoping to be raptured up in the mushroom clouds.

Believe strongly enough in the Devil, and you become him.