Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gradients of Evil

Further evidence to myself that I am not a moral relativist on reading Menachem Begin. The gradient of evil between Stalinist prison camps and Nazi extermination camps has got me thinking about what I think is more evil than what. A lot of people consider child molestation as worse than even cold blooded murder, and certainly, I was one to think that if you look at the raw numbers of deaths and suffering between Stalin and Hitler, one might even think Stalinist crimes against humanity to be worse. This book said little about the nazi crimes, but his experience of the soviet system clarified that the morality of the abuse, or rather the lack thereof, is linked to the intent of the abuser. Whether a crime is merely bad or heinous is about what is happening in the mind of the criminal.

Hitler and his leadership group had decided on mass murder, and that at no military, economic or moral justification, or even gain.

Stalin, on the other hand, had in mind disposable convict labor. Genocide was not what he was trying to achieve, even if his tactics to extend an empire involved mass torture and essentially working prisoners to their deaths.

To extend this to compare the morality of suicide terrorism against territorial containment, the intent with suicide terrorism is to kill - often innocent and random civilians. Territorial containment can cause considerable destitution and strikes to enforce it can cause more deaths than the terrorism it is aiming to contain, but the intent indicates a much lesser evil.


Dr Clam said...

As a moral absolutist, I would strongly deny that the heinousness of a crime has anything to do with what is going on the mind of the criminal. It is solely the effects of the crime that should be considered; a people cannot suffer, only individual persons, so it does not matter whether or not genocide is intended.

To my mind Stalin was worse, because in Nazi Germany most people who were not categorised as 'enemies of the state' could keep their heads down and obey the regime and hope to survive; but the random paranoiac nature of Stalin's terror meant that this was not an option, so the long term psychological and social trauma resulting from Stalin's regime has been much worse.

Marco said...

I don't think so. Unintended consequences, even foreseeable ones are not the same as deliberate ones. Whether a lifestyle choice causes miscarriage vs abortion, or blocking off a border meaning thousands can't get to work vs confiscating their money,

Dr Clam said...

"Unintended consequences, even foreseeable ones are not the same as deliberate ones."

Why? This to me is the pure spirit of moral relativism.

Dr Clam said...

Hmm, it just strikes me that I may be talking at cross-purposes with you. I am deeply imbued with the pragmatist idea that 'once you know the consequences of a thing, you know all there is to know about it'; and also with the Christian ideas of making a distinction between the sin and the sinner and 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God'.

So we should look at the consequences of the crime on the world at large - which is the important measure for balancing evils, which will always be necessary, and taking action to mitigate harm (this is the scale of heinousness I have been affirming; but we could also look at the consequences of the crime to the soul of the criminal - which is the important measure for meting out punishment, and perhaps also in the eyes of God (which seems to be your scale of heinousness).

Am I on the right track in following Marco-thought? :)

Marco said...

Yes. I also often confuse lack of information about possible consequences with the morality of the act.

I am never sure whether it is "mitigating circumstance" or it being a lesser crime in the first place, whether in the eyes of God or the law.

So yes, in the eyes of God, or whether we are punishing leaders perpetrating the crime, Hitler was worse than Stalin, and leadership of a terrorist organization is worse than the leadership of Israel - in my mind.

However, if we are looking at the consequences of the crime on the world at large, I suspect it would reverse both of those in my mind.

Dr Clam said...

In any consequentialist morality, it is not enough to calculate the consequences of an act, but the consequences of the other potential courses of action. In your Hitler example this is trivial, since the alternative action '*don't* kill everyone' is a no-brainer, but with Israel/Palestine it is a very complicated piece of moral algebra.

If you consider the last time the Jewish and Arab populations could mix freely, in the last decade of Mandatory Palestine, the result of an Arab campaign of terror against the Jews was a non-state Jewish campaign of terror against the Arabs. In the absence of any effective government action to protect them, it seems very likely to me that the Israeli people - with their universal experience of military service and high degree of political involvement - would go the same way again. The overall situation in terms of security, economic development, and access to services for an Arab population being ethnically-cleansed by non-state terrorism in the context of a dysfunctional state might well be much worse than the status quo.

Parenthetically, thinking about lack of access to jobs, health care, and being left to the mercies of a corrupt administration: is the 'territorial containment' of the Palestinian Territories any worse than what we did by giving PNG indpendenece?