Saturday, January 17, 2009

This I Believe, part I

Last night, I ended up staying up far too late, and found myself politics and philosophy on Facebook. Which in turn reminded me of just how confused my ideas about this stuff are. So, as much for my own benefit as anyone else's, I figured I'd lay down some baselines.

My formative moral influences are Christian. Partially because I grew up in Western civilization, and partially because of more direct parental influence, and a great respect for non-violent resistance and pacifism. So I start with a basic idea that violence is bad, and ought to be avoided.

Ok, pretty simple here, and few people would disagree with that under most circumstances. Where I started getting into trouble was, if violence is so bad, why the hell do we have armies? Or, for that matter, cops?

Because law enforcement is, fundamentally, state-sanctioned violence. That's not an argument about the validity or morality of law enforcement, but that's what it is. Contrary to what I always enjoy reading from Dennis "Marx was right, marriage really IS prostitution!" Prager, laws are not a psychic expression of a citizens' collective moral values. A law is nothing more and nothing less than an authorization of the state to use violence against its citizens under certain, carefully delineated circumstances. Some people might quibble with this, stating that some (most) infractions are dealt with via alternative means such as fines. Well, ok, you have to pay a fine. And if you don't pay it, alternative means of acquiring it are employed. If that doesn't work, agents of the state are authorized to kidnap you for the length of your trial and, if applicable, subsequent incarceration. If you run, they are authorized to chase you down and subdue you by force. If you fight back, they're authorized to extend that force. If you fight back enough that the agents' lives are in danger, they're authorized to kill you.

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with any of this--well, I did as a kid, and will discuss that in a minute--but this is what law is. Right or wrong, it's serious business, and ought to be taken seriously.

As a kid, I had a fundamental problem with the idea that any freedom, even the freedom to do violence to others, would be so unevenly applied between the state and its citizenry. There are reasons for this, many of them good, but we're in flashback mode now. I grew to identify as an anarchist. As I got older, and got into gnosticism and deontological ethics, I made the connection to Christianity. How can one be morally ok with any form of government when said government depends on institutionalized violence for its very existence?

"Well, because otherwise you'd be dead," was the common answer. And that works out ok if we assume that life matters more than principle. It seemed/seems to me that the Christian, pacifistic reply to this claim, however, is some variant of "so the fuck what?" Doesn't this world belong to the sinners anyway? Isn't this entire enterprise founded on martyrdom? In this sense, a "Christian state" becomes something of a contradiction in terms. An army of pacifists? More to the point, even Christian leadership of a democratic state presents some issues: if a president believes that martyrdom is a higher good than "defensive" killing, it doesn't seem like something that'd be wise or moral to put into practice if the voters don't agree. Martyrdom is one thing; volunteering others for martyrdom is trickier.

But, leaving aside Christianity for the moment, even a baseline belief that violence is wrong on a basic and transcendent level makes it difficult to interpret law enforcement morally. The most commonly employed argument is a utilitarian one, the "necessary evil" referred to in Common Sense: violence directed towards a net reduction in the total violence of a system is moral. The death of a multiple murderer is an evil to be balanced against the good it creates, i.e. a less fearful populace and a few lucky individuals who avoid being murdered by that particular person. But utilitarianism has its own problems that I don't particularly feel like going into here; suffice to say that this argument always kinda rubbed me the wrong way.

So what's left? Pacifism, I suppose, would seem to be the conclusion, except I'm not sure it's possible to practice it. I can sit here and promise not to kill, even in self-defense, and it might sound moral or crazy or both. I can even make it more ambiguous and promise not to kill in defense of others. But the society of which I am a part--there's extensive documentation on this, no matter how much of a shut-in I might be on a given day--has already taken extensive action on my behalf to ensure that I don't have to. Armed, uniformed men and women walk the streets of the city in which I live, and when something happens, they check it out, fill out a great deal of paperwork to ensure a record of the event, and when possible, arrest people who are then tried and imprisoned. I benefit from the violence done on my behalf, funded by my taxes and moderated by representatives elected by people like me. And, short of finding an unclaimed patch of land somewhere in the Massachusetts area that has no legal jurisdiction, there is no way for me to opt out of this system. I cannot avoid benefitting from the violence of others. And thus, as a citizen, I must accept that the violence done in my name is, on a psychic level, my own.