Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Judging the past

In light of yesterday's post about Nagasaki, I wanted to share this from Darwin Catholic--though I have to be honest; I'm still trying to figure out just what it means:
The fact of the matter is, identifying the right side of history is easy -- indeed so easy that it's easier if one doesn't actually know much about history. So easy that there is virtually no moral action involved.

To be sure, choosing the wrong side of history can be a significant moral wrong. To support the Nazis or support slavery or support Stalin in this day and age shows a deeply twisted moral sense. But to oppose these three is so easy, and so obvious, from this point in history, that there is little to no virtue involved.

To congratulate oneself for admiring the right side of history is to assign oneself virtue one has not earned. Indeed, it is often more a sign of pride than of virtue. Without question, we should admire those in history who acted virtuously, but we should not consider ourselves to have performed any great virtue by doing so. Nor should we be quick to consider ourselves the superiors of those "ordinary people" in history who failed to rise to the standards of our heroes. We look at their actions with all of the clarity of distance, and none of the danger of immediacy.

UPDATE: Jimmy Akin with an important new post on the subject.


eulogos said...

If you are right, and this is what a serious Catholic ought to believe, than no serious Catholic ought to be president of the United States, because the person in that position has to put defending the United States first. It would be impossible to conduct modern warfare without violating these standards, not just atomic warfare, but anything involving the bombing of cities for instance. You would also have to say that taking out (killing) intelligence operatives who have been exposed, for instance, is wrong. You would have to say that if we could have managed to have Hitler assassinated, that would have been wrong.

I don't see any way of operating a modern state according to these principles.

Susan Peterson

Theocoid said...

I would be very surprised if Darwin meant the latter. We can and should evaluate previous actions if for no other reason than to shape our moral understanding and avoid illicit action in the future.

Susan, you're failing to make a very important distinction. It is always intrinsically evil to deliberately target innocent people. Not all bombing falls into this category. When a target is chosen that has clear a military function, it can be targeted licitly, even if collateral damage is posible, as long as all attempts are made to avoid deaths of innocents. In most cases, targets are chosen with these considerations in mind. In addition, the munitions used these days allow for much more precision in targeting, so modern warfare can still operate under the doctrine of Just War.

As far as targeting exposed operatives or world leaders, we certainly can operate without doing either and, in fact, operate under these constraints the majority of the time. We should do so always.

Jimmy Akin has an article up at NC Register explaining how the principle of double effect works in such circumstances and thedifference between an act that is intrinsically immoral and one that is extrinsically immoral.

Red Cardigan said...

Susan, the Catechism puts it this way:

"2314 "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."110 A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes."

Now, some people have argued, re: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the bombings were not *directed to* the killings of innocent civilians, but that their deaths were "collateral damage." While that strains credibility on its face, even if it were true, there is no way that the killing of a combined total of roughly 200,000 people was a *proportionate* risk--in other words, no military target's destruction could possibly be worth the deaths of 200,000 people.

And one may not kill civilians disproportionately or "indiscriminately" as the Catechism puts it. Bombing a military building knowing that a certain number of civilians may be inside or nearby is one thing; dropping a nuke on the city to get the building knowing that 100,000 civilians will die is another.

And as far as I know--someone can correct me if I'm wrong--the assassination of a political leader is also outside the bonds of Catholic teaching.

eulogos said...

What I am questioning, which Theocoid addressed to some extent but you are not, is whether it is possible to defend a modern state within the bounds of what the Catechism states is moral.

John Thayer Jensen said...


I don't see any way of operating a modern state according to these principles.

I don't understand. Why can't you run a modern state according to these principles?


Darwin said...

Red Cardigan,

I'll admit one of the reasons that I happened to type up the post that day was that I'd seen a rather "look how enlightened I am compared to most Americans" post in reference to the anniversary of Nagasaki, by it's actually a post I'd had in hopper, so to speak, for a number of months. There are 1-2 follow-ups I need to write to complete the thought, dealing with proxy morality through advocacy.

For what it's worth, I originally hit on the term when I realized that I allowed myself to feel rather too much righteous anger and virtue through identifying strongly with the North during the Civil War. And this led me to think of other examples where we allow ourselves attribute virtue to being on the right side of history in regards to events safely before our lifetimes.

Red Cardigan said...

Darwin, thanks for this! I agree with you that the temptation to think that we're more virtuous than the people of the past remains strong in all of us. We should never say "Look how enlightened we are," or even "Look how sinful they were."

Instead, we should probably say, "Look at how people with a stronger cultural awareness of God still failed to recognize the evil of this particular act--God spare us from a similar fate!" Because there, but for His grace, go all of us.

Mark P. Shea said...

On the other hand, Scripture is chockablock with "we have sinned, us and our fathers before us". Like it or not, later generations critique the moral choices of their ancestors. And with good reason: our ancestors are subject to sin like we are and we are expected to learn from their mistakes. That's not an ocassion for pretending we are better than they are. But it is an occasion for the action of grace.

Darwin said...

That, and I think it's important to avoid "I'm a good person because..." formulations with which we attempt to tell ourselves that we're uniformly good because we:

Would have marched with the civil rights movement.
Would have helped hide our Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.
Advocate against abortion.
Advocate for the environment.
"Are in solidarity" with the poor.

Virtue is something we achieve through action, one action at a time. We don't simply become "good people" because we're on the right side of some one, big abstract thing.