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Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.

References

Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.

 

 

Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm

Righteousness (Δικαιοσύνη)

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sir-joshua-reynolds-justice-1779

1. CONFUSION about what ‘Justice’ means is a major source of psychological and social problems today.  The basic argument herein is that the cardinal virtue usually called ‘Justice’ in modern English is more accurately termed Righteousness.

2. It’s vital to understand that Justice itself is something much greater than mere retributive justice (punishment, revenge, etc.) or equity (treating all people equally). While Justice itself — like Truth and Beauty, to which it is related — can be experienced and intuited, it is not easily defined.  We should therefore try to look at it from various angles, hoping to reveal its true moral meaning meaning.

3. First we consider the etymology and cognates of ‘Justice’.  Doing so we notice a variety of words and phrases in which the root, just, has a meaning that refers not to laws, but to exactness and perfect measure.  For example, we routinely use phrases like ‘just in time,’ ‘just right,’ ‘just as I hoped,’ and so on.  Here is our first clue: that what we call justice might be more accurately called just-rightness, arightness, or the like.

4. We should also seek out ancestral wisdom on a matter of such enduring and central importance to human welfare as Justice.  Accordingly let us consult various sources.

5. In Greek mythology we find that Justice and retribution are distinct: the former is represented by the goddess Dike; and the latter by the goddess Nemesis.  These are two separate entities, and separate principles.

6. Justice/Dike is often represented as holding golden scales.  Justice is associated with scales not because ‘the punishment must fit the crime’, as some suppose; rather, a much broader and beautiful meaning is alluded to:  that, for everything in life, indeed for everything in the Universe, there is a perfect mean or measure — neither too much, nor too little — in which amount, it contributes harmoniously to the cosmic symphony.  In Egyptian religion, this cosmic meaning of Justice is even more apparent, where the counterpart of Dike is Ma’at, goddess of Measure and Balance.

7. Justice, as a personal virtue, is a main concern of the New Testament, where it is termed in Greek, dikaiosyne, and commonly translated into English as righteousness. An indication of the central importance of righteousness in the New Testament is that it figures prominently in not one, but two of the nine Beatitudes:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Matt 5:6)

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

8. A few lines later are these words:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Most Christians are familiar with the phrase, seek ye first the kingdom of God, but perhaps few realize that they are instructed as well to seek his righteousness — which we may understand as meaning to seek to understand and know what divine righteousness is, and to possess this virtue in our own life. This fits exactly with previous comments on the kingdom of God

9. But in equating Justice with righteousness, have we solved anything?  What does righteous mean?  There is some confusion here also, as indicated by the phrase, righteous indignation.  This phrase is internally contradictory: righteousness and indignation have little affinity for each other, and, in fact, are almost diametrically opposed.  A truly righteous person is more characteristically patient, long-suffering, charitable and meek — not indignant.

10. Thayer’s Greek Definitions, a definitive biblical reference, relates the primary meaning of dikaiosyne with “integrity, virtue, purity of life, and rightness and correctness of thinking, feeling and acting.”  It thus means a person who is right (in the sense of ‘just right’, well measured, or harmonized) with God, with him/herself, and with the Universe.

11. We find that dikaiosyne is a principle concern of St. Paul’s epistles as well.  He frequently emphasizes a distinction between legalism (slavish adherence to fixed laws) and righteousness — an ethical orientation in which ones choices are spontaneously guided by Conscience, our innate spiritual sense of rightness.  Seeing this helps us understand one of St. Paul’s most famous doctrines: that one is justified (i.e., made righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ.  This could be understood psychologically to mean that the act of turning ones heart to Jesus re-aligns ones moral apparatus, reconnecting one to ones spiritual Conscience — thereby permitting one to act and think in accord with God’s will, and putting one again in harmony with all creation; one becomes, that is, ‘aright’ again, regaining a state of natural bliss and attunement.

12. Plato devoted his greatest dialogue, the Republic, to the question, what is righteousness?; the ancient subtitle of the Republic, in fact, is ‘On the Righteous Man.’  That Plato wrote a lengthy dialogue on this topic indicates that he considered this question an important one, and that (as today), ordinary notions of what Justice means were confused or mistaken and needed clarification.  In the Republic, Plato explicitly rejects a definition of righteousness as mere equity (‘giving to each man his due’), in favor of a meaning of right measure that contributes to Harmony, Balance, Order and Beauty.

13. Plato also considered Justice (righteousness; dikaiosyne) to be one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Courage, Temperance and Prudence.  Of these,  Justice is the greatest, as it is necessary for the others.  Each of the other cardinal virtues is a rightly measured mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is the right mean between cowardice and rashness.  We need dikaiosune to judge what the right amount of some specific virtue is that a given situation demands.

14. Plato concludes the Republic with Socrates confidently announcing that the righteous person is the most happy — where happiness means a certain divine state of mind.  This agrees with the Beatitudes, where we are told that the righteous person will attain the condition of bliss or blessedness (makarios).

15. Considering all the preceding — what may we infer?  We know that righteousness brings happiness, and that this righteousness is far removed from anything like revenge or retribution.  Likewise is does not consist in mere performance of social duties, including important ones like helping the needy — though these, of course, would usually be part of the life of a truly righteous person.  Specific actions are important —  but not as important as the very means by which we may discern what actions would be most truly beneficial, productive, beautiful, harmonious and ‘just right.’

16. Therefore while it’s clearly important to relieve the oppression, mistreatment, poverty, hunger and sickness of others, we should not, in the process of pursuing these things, whether through anger, indignation, agitation or disturbed thinking, disconnect ourselves from our own righteousness, nor act in ways that oppose Divine Harmony.

17. This true meaning of righteousness is conveyed in the following lines of Orphic Hymn 62, To Dikaiosyne (in Greek mythology, the goddess or spirit Dikaiosyne was righteousness personified, a daughter of Dike):

O Blessed Dikaiosyne, mankind’s delight,
Th’ eternal friend of conduct just and right:
Abundant, venerable, honor’d maid,
To judgments pure, dispensing constant aid,
A stable conscience, and an upright mind;
For men unjust, by thee are undermin’d,
Whose souls perverse thy bondage ne’er desire,
But more untam’d decline thy scourges dire:
Harmonious, friendly power, averse to strife,
In peace rejoicing, and a stable life;
Lovely, loquacious, of a gentle mind,
Hating excess, to equal deeds inclin’d:
Wisdom, and virtue of whate’er degree,
Receive their proper bound alone in thee. (Thomas Taylor, translator)

18. Occupying the deepest level of our moral consciousness, Dikaiosyne is potentially related to the symbols of the angel guarding the gates of Paradise, the Pythogorean Y at the entrance to the Isles of the Blessed, and the ancient mystical allegory called the Choice of Hercules.

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19. Let us not emulate the unvirtue of those who hold up angry signs at public demonstrations that say, “No Justice, No Peace!” or the like — making, in effect, a threat, and expressing a sentiment as far removed from the true meaning of Justice as it is from Peace.   We should, rather, remind ourselves, “No Peace, No Justice!”  Peace removes the mental agitations that distort our thinking and impede our ability to see the right course, and the way of Truth and Beauty.  Conversely, whatever opposes Peace, opposes righteousness, by producing discord, enmity, and disturbed and erroneous thinking.

20. To summarize, what emerges is that Justice/righteousness is a state of mind, a cosmic principle, and an attribute of Deity — one with much in common with Truth and Beauty.  Justice is the joyous and glorious Divine Harmony of an all-good God.  It is something which, the more we understand, the more we love.  Indeed one could easily argue that divine Justice and divine Love are virtually the same thing.

21. Well may we reflect on the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where, in speaking of authentic charity (agape), he may just as well be describing the sublime virtue of righteousness:

[1] Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

[2] And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

[3] And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

[4] Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

[5] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

moreau_gustave_-_hesiode_et_la_muse_-_1891

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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

Religious Exemption from the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

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In view of today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the individual health insurance mandate, I’d like to make a few brief comments on certain legal, religious, and moral implications.

As the law now stands, (1) citizens may opt out of buying into the national health insurance system based on a religious conscience exemption; but (2) only members of certain state-recognized religions, like Christian Science, can apply the exemption.  This is a huge problem.  The federal government has no business telling us what is and what isn’t religious conscience.  If someone, unconnected with an established religion, were to decide, based on honest and informed examination of conscience, that buying into a national health insurance plan is immoral, then he or she should have the same right to exemption as a Christian Scientist.  This principle – which affirms the conscience of the individual – is explicitly stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The operative words here are “either alone or in community”, with emphasis on “alone”:  you don’t have to be a member of any specific church to have a conscience, or to have the right to act on that conscience.

It is entirely possible that a person’s moral reasoning may following along these lines:

1. At least half of all health problems are the result of wrong moral choices (overeating, intemperance, risky practices, etc.).

2. When bad health is the result of wrong moral choices, the ensuing pain and inconvenience motivates one to improve morally (or to not make moral errors in the first place).

3. If medical treatment is too inexpensive, it reduces motivation to avoid or minimize the immoral choices that produce sickness.

4. To force other people to subsidize a system that, in a sense, encourages immoral/unhealthy life choices is unethical: it forces the moral people to be complicit in a system that hurts others.

5.  Moreover, it is basically unjust to require one person to pay for the consequences of someone else’s wrong moral choices.

6. Further, the entire health industry today is a Tower of Babble – a vast, corporate-run system that subordinates human welfare to profits and materialistic values.  By marrying this monstrous system to the federal government, it threatens to make things worse, and also more difficult to change.

An individual could therefore potentially conclude that he or she has a moral duty – to others, to oneself, and to society – to opt out of the national health insurance plan.

Where does this leave us?

We’ll have to see what happens in the coming weeks.  But it appears there will be an important opportunity here for philosophers, moralists, theologians and civil libertarians.  The first three groups need to flesh out the basic argument sketched above concerning the link between physical health and health of the soul, and the moral implications.   I would suggest that this argument is fully consistent with Greco-Roman philosophy (e.g. Stoic and Natural Law ethics), as well as traditional religious (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist etc.) thinking.  Civil libertarians will have to tackle the problem of the federal government presuming to require affiliation with pre-designated religious organizations as grounds for a religious conscience exemption.

p.s.  Here is the law relating to religious exemption from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA):

RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE EXEMPTION — Such term shall not include any individual for any month if such individual has in effect an exemption under section 1311(d)(4)(H) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which certifies that such individual is a member of a recognized religious sect or division thereof described in section 1402(g)(1) and an adherent of established tenets or teachings of such sect or division as described in such section.

and here is section 1402(g)(1) of the IRS tax code:

(g) Members of certain religious faiths

(1) Exemption

Any individual may file an application (in such form and manner, and with such official, as may be prescribed by regulations under this chapter) for an exemption from the tax imposed by this chapter if he is a member of a recognized religious sect or division thereof and is an adherent of established tenets or teachings of such sect or division by reason of which he is conscientiously opposed to acceptance of the benefits of any private or public insurance which makes payments in the event of death, disability, old-age, or retirement or makes payments toward the cost of, or provides services for, medical care (including the benefits of any insurance system established by the Social Security Act). Such exemption may be granted only if the application contains or is accompanied by –

(A) such evidence of such individual’s membership in, and adherence to the tenets or teachings of, the sect or division thereof as the Secretary may require for purposes of determining such individual’s compliance with the preceding sentence, and

(B) his waiver of all benefits and other payments under titles II and XVIII of the Social Security Act on the basis of his wages and self-employment income as well as all such benefits and other payments to him on the basis of the wages and self-employment income of any other person, and only if the Commissioner of Social Security finds that –

(C) such sect or division thereof has the established tenets or teachings referred to in the preceding sentence,

(D) it is the practice, and has been for a period of time which he deems to be substantial, for members of such sect or division thereof to make provision for their dependent members which in his judgment is reasonable in view of their general level of living, and

(E) such sect or division thereof has been in existence at all times since December 31, 1950.

An exemption may not be granted to any individual if any benefit

or other payment referred to in subparagraph (B) became payable (or, but for section 203 or 222(b) of the Social Security Act, would have become payable) at or before the time of the filing of such waiver.

 

Related posts:

Is Cicero the Father of Just War Theory?

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Introduction

Who is the father of Just War Theory?  Some occasional nods in the direction of Plato and Aristotle notwithstanding, this honor usually falls to St. Augustine, but there are good reasons to question that choice.  Here we shall consider arguments for selecting the great Roman politician, orator and philosopher, Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) for the distinction.  At the same time we shall explore a second question, one of perhaps more practical relevance, namely whether Cicero’s writings may have unique value to inform and clarify modern concepts of just warfare.

The Father of Just War Theory?

First we should note that Cicero (who wrote four centuries before St. Augustine), presents a clear just war theory, acknowledging virtually all the commonly recognized principles associated with the just war tradition.  It helps that his main treatment of the subject occurs in one source, Book 1 of On Moral Duties (De officiis), written close to the end of his life.  There his just war theory is fully integrated within a larger, cogent and consistent ethical framework.  An integral connection of his just war theory to his political thought is similarly found in a single source, his On the Commonwealth (De res publica).

We should further consider the several ways in which Cicero was in a unique position to formulate a just war theory.  To begin, there is his political experience.  Rising through the ranks of the Roman cursus honorum, Cicero held progressively more responsible civil appointments, including that of consul (i.e., one of two annually elected ‘presidents’ of the Roman Republic) in 63 BC, senatorship thereafter, and, in 51 BC, governorship of the Roman province of Cilicia in Northern Turkey (where he directly oversaw and participated in military actions.)

Cicero was also a direct witness and participant in the tumultuous political changes that marked the transition between the Roman Republic and Roman Empire.  These included numerous civil wars and insurrections, international wars, conquests, threats of invasions, and, in general, military conflicts of every form and scope.  Moreover, Cicero was an intimate friend, relation, or working colleague of many of the other Roman leaders and generals of the age, including Julius Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, Cato the Younger, Brutus and Cassius.  Combining this with his excellent knowledge of Greek history, Cicero could command an immense amount of knowledge about warfare, politics, and law in formulating his just war theory.

It is of further help to us that Cicero was not just an excellent writer, but, in the estimation of many, one of the greatest literary geniuses of history, being noted for  exceptionally clear prose.

To these credentials we should add another important one:  his unique command of the entire Greek philosophical tradition since Socrates.  Educated by the best philosophers of the times, Cicero freely took and integrated what was best in each of the dominant philosophical schools that emerged in the wake of Socrates:  Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and (to a lesser extent) Epicureanism.  The Socratic philosophical tradition has obviously exerted enormous impact on the Western mind, and it was Cicero who first integrated this into something like a coherent whole and considered its practical implications.

One might ask, If Cicero is so important for Just War Theory, why hasn’t his role been emphasized previously? To address this we must first recognize that today’s Just War Theory has evolved almost exclusively in the Christian tradition, and Cicero has, generally, been problematic for Christian writers.  Dismissing the superficial and somewhat irrelevant complaints lodged against him (e.g., that he divorced his wife unfairly, or was either too eager, or too hesitant, to oppose the ambitious reforms of Julius Caesar), some Christian writers have found it awkward to recognize the virtue and lofty morality of the pagan, Cicero.  As often happened, Cicero’s ideas were absorbed by Christianity, without due credit being given.

Not just Christian writers, but secular writers since the Enlightenment have also generally found little use for Cicero, perhaps because they have deprecated his strong religious orientation.  A contributing factor is that one of Cicero’s most important political works, On the Commonwealth (De res publica) was lost for over a millennium until its rediscovery in 1820.  The net result of these factors is that Cicero’s ideas on just war are much less known today than they deserve.  A corollary of this, however, is that, as his contributions become better known, they will almost certainly achieve greater appreciation.

Before proceeding further we should perhaps back up the claim that Cicero’s writings include all the main elements of what today we call Just War Theory.  This topic is broadly treated by John Mark Mattox in St. Augustine and the Theory of Just War, who supplies examples from Cicero’s writings of the specific principles of just cause, last resort, comparative justice, right intention, public declaration, proportionality, discrimination, and good faith.  One may also easily identify these principles for oneself with reference to a single, short section, On Moral Duties 1.11.33 – 1.13.41.  A fuller treatment of Cicero’s just war principles and theory, however, rightly deserves a dedicated article or book.

A Modern Foundation?

As already suggested, precisely because Cicero’s just war writings have been neglected by both Christian and modern writers, his works now offer the general advantage of a fresh perspective with many unique ideas.  We may point to several specific examples of this, as described below.

The similarities between Cicero’s Rome and today’s United States are numerous, striking, and important. Like today, Cicero’s times were ones of immense cultural and political upheaval.  Rome was emerging as something like an unrivaled global super-power.  The Roman military machine was unparalleled in technological sophistication.   Like today, imperial expansion was judged as an economic necessity.   But also like contemporary America, Cicero’s Rome was marked by a distinct sense of exceptionalism, and a conviction that imperial ambitions were not entirely selfish.  That is, they were partly justified (or perhaps rationalized) as a humanitarian and mutually beneficial attempt to unite all nations in a single, civilized community, where Rome was only a ‘first among equals’.

Not only was Cicero an experienced politician himself, but the work that contains the essence of his just war theory, On Moral Duties, was written specifically as a long letter of advice to his son.  Cicero had every reason to expect his son would, like him, one day reach a position of leadership (the younger Cicero did, in fact, later become consul).  Cicero thus imbued this work with the kind of loving attention and inspired wisdom characteristic of a parent. It is a very practical and honest work.

These complex factors, when blended with Cicero’s characteristic warmth,  kindness, humanitarianism and love of country, produced a highly nuanced just war theory, something we might call semi-realist in orientation, in contrast with the hard-line Realpolitik so typical today.  For example, at the same time Cicero can regret as inhumane and unnecessary the Roman destruction of Corinth, yet accept as  necessary (and, hence, just) the similar razing of Carthage.  The difference was that Carthage was a genuine threat and (in the Romans’ eyes) a brutal enemy, while Corinth was merely a potential threat to Roman hegemony.

Last, we must give special attention to the distinctly religious orientation of Cicero’s works.  Modern cultural commentators have pointed to the desirability of developing a non-sectarian spiritual framework for understanding and coping with the problems of the modern world.  Ideally such a framework should be compatible with basic religious beliefs common to all religions, and also congenial to secular institutions like governments, public universities, etc.  Cicero’s just war theory, along with the rest of his ethical writings, is firmly rooted in Platonic-Stoic religious ideas and virtue ethics.  In particular, it is wedded to Stoic Natural Law theory; this holds, basically, that all that happens in the world is orchestrated by a Divine Intelligence, and that both justice and personal happiness are achieved by acting in concord with this plan.  Failure to do so – for example, to wage war unjustly – must necessarily meet with divine disapproval and corrective punishment.  This provides an additional incentive for nations to act justly.  Importantly, this framework establishes a basis for judging an action moral or immoral that is absolute, not relative or merely based on expedience or utility. Indeed, one of Cicero’s main philosophical achievements is to drive home the point that (in war, as generally), what is immoral can never truly be expedient or advantageous.

A second, related legacy of Cicero’s Stoic leanings is his emphasis on cosmopolitanism.  That is, for Cicero, all human beings, enemies included, are part of the human family, to all of whom we have strong moral responsibilities.

As part of a non-sectarian religious philosophy, Cicero’s just war theory is something that can be discussed and developed by members of all religions on an equal footing – something equally acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, New Age hippies, and agnostic theists alike.  At present, any serious discussion of religious or spiritual moral principles by government officials, intellectuals, or public news media is a taboo.  In consequence we have totally dissociated Just War Theory from spiritual and transcendental principles, which is both ineffective and absurd.

Let us, then, give Cicero’s just war theory a unprejudiced and thorough look.  We may discover that Providence has, in his works, supplied many treasures.

Written by John Uebersax

May 24, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Drone Strikes: What Are the Moral Issues?

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As suggested in a previous post, certain ambiguities associated with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen make it difficult for the public to understand the issues, and for activists to mount effective opposition.

Above all we must not let this confusion distract attention from the basic moral issues and harms.  Therefore, in the face of constant double-talk by government officials, we respond with the potent weapons of simplicity and clear presentation of issues.

To repeat what was said previously, drone strikes are of four kinds:  (1) targeted killings, (2) signature strikes, (3) overt combat actions, and (4) covert combat actions.  The moral issues listed below apply in different degrees to each type of drone strike.

The specific moral harms can be broadly aggregated into two groups, according to seriousness.  We shall name these the top tier and second tier moral issues, respectively.  After presenting the issues, some brief suggestions will be made for how the US might conduct drone strikes — if they are truly necessary — in a more just and moral way.

Top tier issues

  • Civilian deaths/casualties. Clearly the most important moral issue is that drone strikes, especially in Pakistan, have killed or injured many innocent civilians.  Serious consideration must also be  given to the gruesomeness of the injuries and manner of death, and the associated effects of this on survivors and relatives of those killed or injured.
  • Terrorization. Very plausible reports have circulated concerning the mass terrorization of civilians in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan because of drones.  In some areas, drones, often several at the same time, can be heard constantly, even at night.  Whenever a drone is present, nobody can be sure they will not be killed in the next instant.
  • Racism. The civilian-to-militant casualty ratio deemed acceptable by US government officials is evidently very high.  This suggests that the life of civilian Pakistani or Yemeni has comparatively little value in the eyes of the US government.  So high a level of ‘collateral damage’ would be not be accepted were these British, German or French citizens.
  • Disregard of religious customs and principles. Particularly questionable is the use of follow-up drone strikes, which attack people who come to rescue or remove bodies from the scene of an initial strike, and strikes directed against funerals of slain militants.  Civilized and decent people have always granted enemies the right to collect and bury the dead.  In any case, a funeral is a religious ceremony, and no moral people would attack another during a religious service. Moreover, the US has launched strikes during its own religious holidays, such as on Good Friday, and on January 1, both holy days for Christians.  It is also reported that drone missiles travel faster than the speed of sound, and therefore kill victims without any advance warning.  If so, this removes the possibility of praying or collecting oneself in the moments before death (however ‘unfashionable’ it may be these days to mention such an issue, it is nonetheless a significant one).
  • Secrecy. If the strikes were just and honorable, the US government would conduct them in a transparent way, explaining its procedures and admitting and making restitution for collateral damage.  But the strikes are cloaked in secrecy. The secrecy is, then, evidence that the strikes are immoral:  otherwise the US government would more readily admit them and disclose details.  Moreover, the secrecy is a moral harm itself:  it reduces government credibility, fosters ill-will between nations, and alienates the US government from its own citizens.
  • Effects on drone operators. It is wrong for any nation to induce its citizens to act as cold-blooded exterminators of other human beings.  This is utterly incompatible with human nature, and must be producing terrible psychological damage in drone operators.

Second tier issues

  • Issues of international law. The drone strikes, especially in Pakistan (where citizens consistently voice their disapproval), are illegal because they violate the sovereignty of other nations. Civilian drone operators are illegal combatants under international law.  Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia constitute a form of undeclared war, which is illegal both under international and US law.
  • Issues of democratic principles. All available evidence suggests that most Pakistan drone strikes are what an earlier post termed covert combat actions: they are targeting ordinary militants, not high-level terrorists.  The evidence also suggests that this is done by covert collusion between the US government and conservative factions of the Pakistani government.  Both governments must issue deceptive statements to their respective citizenries to cover things up.  This removes the citizens from oversight and direction of their own lives. In the case of the US, it is also probable that defense contractor lobbying is instrumental in expanding the drone strike campaigns.
  • Arms escalation.  Eager use of drones and rapid development of more advanced systems by the US is setting the stage for an international drone arms race.  Especially disturbing is the current development of autonomous drones, which may attack and kill without human input.
  • Inhumane treatment of enemy militants.  We are required to show respect for enemies, and to always regard them as human beings; killing by remote control is antithetical to this principle.
  • Nonexpedience. The aggressive drone strike campaigns are also immoral because they harm US national security: the strikes produce more new enemies than they neutralize.  They also erode the moral foundations of American society and damage its reputation abroad.  By producing new enemies, and, consequently, potentially new wars, they threaten America’s economy.
  • Evasion of responsibility.  The drone strikes (and the global ‘war on terror’ generally), demonstrate a reluctance by the US to admit its own partial responsibility for creating global instability.  The attacks of 9/11 and on the USS Cole in Yemen were morally evil, to be sure.  Yet the US must honestly consider the extent to which it helped provoke the attacks by a long standing policy of crass imperialism.  The US has also been complicit with the illegal efforts of Israel to functionally annex the West Bank territories of Palestine.  These things do not justify the terrorist attacks on the US, but should be considered as mitigating factors in determining our response to the attacks.
  • Dishonorable warfare.  When soldiers engage under more or less equal terms, there is potentially a kind of honor associated with warfare.  When one party has an immense advantage, killing becomes mere slaughter, with no trace of honor.

If the US wishes to conduct drone strikes in a more moral manner, then particular attention should be given to the top tier moral issues.  The main requirement is to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum.  This can most effectively be done by limiting the number of strikes, such as by restricting them only to targets who are genuinely direct and immediate threats to US domestic security.  In any case, the CIA and Department of Defense obviously monitor strikes closely, and have data on civilian casualties.  They should routinely report these data (consistent with the Geneva Conventions).  If a strike is deemed genuinely necessary, the US should be able to defend it openly in the court of public opinion.  The US should also issue public statements of regret for civilian casualties, and make restitution.

Related:  Vatican statement on autonomous weapons and lethal drones (14 Nov 2013)

The Four Kinds of Drone Strikes

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Drone (appears to be General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper)

Regrettably, the US government is continuing its shell game of distraction, disinformation, and shifting definitions to thwart any serious attempts to impose transparency on its drone killing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  A good example is found in the headlines of Monday, May 21, 2012.  One news story reported that several anonymous government officials disclosed (off the record) certain new regulations concerning selection of drone strike targets.  The new regulations probably mean very little, since, as we shall observe below, targeted strikes of terrorist kingpins are relatively infrequent.  But ironically, a second story summarized the latest brief issued by the CIA in its ongoing legal battle with the ACLU (the ACLU is suing, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the government to supply more information about drone strikes, including data on civilian casualties.)  The gist of the CIA response is that, even though the existence of drone strikes is common knowledge, and the government informally acknowledges the strikes, it does not officially acknowledge them, and to do so would somehow jeopardize national security.  So, in short, on the same day the government is both leaking carefully prepared propaganda about the strikes in an evident move to assuage public opinion; and also refusing to admit that the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan or elsewhere.

In the face of such contradictory and confusing tactics, we, the American public have only one recourse:  to doggedly pursue the truth, and to not cease asking questions until we are entirely satisfied with the answers.

We must begin with clear terms, and that is the purpose of the present article.  Drone strikes, that is, the launching of explosive missiles from a remotely operated aerial vehicle, come in four varieties: targeted killings, signature strikes, overt combat operations, and covert combat operations.  We shall consider each in turn.

  • Targeted killing. This occurs when a drone strike is used to kill a terrorist whose identity is known, and whose name has been placed on a hit list, due to being deemed a ‘direct and immediate threat’ to US security.  The government would like people to think this means these strikes target a terrorist literally with his or her hand on a detonator.  But, in actuality, the only real criterion is that the government believes the target is sufficiently closely affiliated with terrorist organizations (e.g., a propagandist or financier) to justify assassination. This is likely the rarest form of drone strike.  However it receives the most publicity, because the government likes to crow when it kills a high-ranking terrorist.
  • Signature strikes.  In signature strikes, the target is a person whose name is not known, but whose actions fit the profile (or ‘signature’) of a high-ranking terrorist. There is some ambiguity concerning the meaning of this term.  Some use it in the sense just stated — i.e., a strike against an anonymous terrorist leader.  Others use it more broadly to include killing of any non-identified militants, whether high-ranking or not.  However from the moral standpoint it makes a major difference whether an anonymous targeted victim is  a high-level leader, or simply an anonymous combatant.  For this reason it is advantageous to restrict the term “signature strike” to the targeting of anonymous high-level leaders,  and to assign strikes against anonymous non-leaders to the two further categories below.
  •  Overt combat operation. This category includes drone strikes conducted as part of regular military operations.  These strikes are presumably run by uniformed military personnel according to codes of military conduct, and are, logically and legally, not much different from ordinary air or artillery strikes. As a part of routine warfare, such strikes are subject to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.  Three items of the Geneva Conventions are of special interest here:  (1) strikes should occur only in the context of a legally declared war; (2) they should be conducted by lawful combatants (which, many experts believe, excludes use of non-uniformed, civilian contractor operators); and (3) standard provisions concerning the need to report casualties, especially civilian casualties, are in effect.
  • Covert combat operation. Finally, there are covert combat operations. These, like the former category, are launched against usual military targets – e.g., any hostile militant, not just high-ranking ones.  But why should these strikes be covert?  The obvious answer is: to mask something shady. Covert combat strikes can evade all those irritating constraints on military tactics imposed by the Geneva Conventions, International Law, public opinion, and basic human decency.

The specific terms used above to distinguish these four kinds of strikes are admittedly arbitrary, and perhaps some other nomenclature would be more advantageous.  But we need some fixed set of terms to refer to these fundamentally different kinds of strikes. Without such terms, the US government will continue to have its way by relying on public confusion and terminological sophistry. For example, if there is only a single generic term, the government may issue a claim such as “drone strikes comply with international law.” This is perhaps technically true for, say, overt military drone strikes, but it is not true for signature strikes. With more precise terms, it would be more difficult for the government to mislead the public.

The last two categories of strikes correspond to what (according to the New York Times) the Department of Defense calls TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes.  This term is a misleading euphemism, however.  It invites the interpretation that such strikes aim to disrupt potential terrorist attacks on the US.  But what these strikes actually seek to counter are things like cross-border raids from Pakistan to Afghanistan, attacks on supply lines, militant engagements with US forces, and actions of insurgents within their own countries.

Statistical tabulations compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other sources show convincingly that most strikes in Pakistan must belong to the last category, covert combat operations.  The sheer number (300 strikes, with thousands of casualties) rules out targeted killings and signature strikes: there simply aren’t that many high-level terrorists.  What seems much more likely is that the US military feels the need to attack Taliban fighters within Pakistan – both to prevent Afghan Taliban members from hiding in Pakistan, and to counter strikes by the Pakistan Taliban and affiliated groups on NATO supply trains.

This, of course, is completely illegal, inasmuch as the US is not at war with Pakistan, or, for that matter, with the Pakistan Taliban.

“But”, drone strike zealots will plead, “what if we have the permission of the host government to conduct strikes in their territory?”  This is bogus logic to begin with.  Suppose some brutal dictator gives the US permission to launch drone strikes against innocent civilians in his country?  Would that permission somehow make the strikes just and legal?  And in any case, what good does such permission mean if it is not public, not acknowledged by the host country?

What really appears to be going on in Pakistan is this:  the US military in Afghanistan has a decided military interest in launching combat operations against the Pakistan Taliban.  However, this is illegal.  Meanwhile, conservative factions of the Pakistani government would love to see the Pakistan Taliban eliminated.  Unfortunately, the hands of this faction are tied by an uncooperative and unreliable military, and by other powerful Pakistani factions that are not so interested in seeing the Taliban destroyed, and certainly not at the price of trashing national sovereignty.

The solution is obvious.  The Pakistani conservatives give a wink and a nod to the US to do the dirty work.  “You launch the strikes, then we’ll officially disapprove of them.”  This works until the toll of innocent civilians killed by the strikes becomes too great, and pressure mounts on the Pakistani government to denounce them.  But, as modern politicians understand so well, the public has a short attention span.  All that need happen is for the strikes to subside for a few weeks until the anger abates, only to begin again.

To summarize, the US government thus far has promoted and capitalized on public confusion about the nature and purpose of drone strikes.  Most strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are likely covert combat operations.  The government, however, would gladly have the public believe these are targeted killings and signature strikes against high-level terrorists.  As covert combat operations, the strikes are illegal under international law, and extremely harmful to US dignity and security.  Further, unlike targeted killings or signature strikes, which might potentially prevent a terrorist act, collateral civilian damage of covert combat drone strikes is unacceptable.

John Uebersax is a psychologist, writer and former RAND Corporation military analyst.

Cicero, Just War and American Foreign Policy

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Cicero_in_Senate_detail

Cicero, Just War, and American Foreign Policy

Despite the combined opposition of legal experts and activists, US government disregard for just war principles keeps getting worse.  The latest example is the Obama administration’s announcement that it will relax requirements for selecting drone strike assassination targets in Yemen.

To resist this seemingly implacable trend, perhaps we need some new ideas.  We might get them from an unlikely source:  the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE).

This is too large a topic to deal with fully in a blog post – a book or long article would be more fitting.  But we can at least touch upon some main points, hopefully stimulating interest and further inquiry.

Why Cicero?

Cicero, who could easily be considered the father of just war theory, deserves our attention for several reasons. First, he presents a concise, coherent, and surprisingly modern just war theory, all in a single place:  the first book of his work, On Duties (De officiis, 1.11.33–1.13.41).

Second, an important feature of Cicero’s virtue ethics – predominantly Stoic, but also influenced by Aristotle and Plato – is that morality is absolute, not relative. In his view, virtue, not material comfort, is the highest good (or perhaps the only good). Material comforts or discomforts, temporary, are of little importance compared to health of the soul, which is eternal.  As Socrates put it, “A person who harms my body does not harm me.  Only I can harm myself.” –  and that by acting nonvirtuously.

It follows from the absolute basis of morality that nothing can be expedient if it isn’t moral, and that the moral choice is also the most expedient, even if it may appear inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Third, Cicero’s ethical theory is embedded within a detailed and compelling Natural Law philosophy, explained both in On Duties, and other works like Republic (De republica), On Laws (De legibus), and On the Gods (De natura deorum).  Consistent with the cosmopolitanism prominent in later Stoicism, Cicero maintains there is a community of all human beings, and that our moral duties extend to everyone, not just family and country.  Man is a social animal, and any anti-social action is also anti-self, because it violates ones moral nature.

Moreover, to violate Natural Law is to act contrary to the order of the universe, and therefore to invite divine punishment. As surely as Providence aids the righteous, or those who follow Nature, it also responds to immoral personal or national actions with ‘divine frowns’.

Fifth, the parallels between the situation of the US today and Rome’s in Cicero’s time are significant.  He was familiar with the ethical ambiguities associated with preserving and defending a global superpower with military force.

Guilt vs. Honor Cultures

Anthropologists make a distinction between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture’.  In a shame culture (which could also be called an honor culture) morality is inseparable from an instinctive urge to be socially accepted and respected.  To act immorally is to suffer shame, the low opinion of others, and social ostracization.  To act morally is to merit a good reputation and honor. In a guilt culture, morality tend to depend more on abstract or codified (and not infrequently incorrect) ideas of right and wrong, and fear of punishment.

A shame-honor culture, based on social instincts, is arguably more compatible with Natural Law ethics than a guilt culture, based on rules and concepts, in which rationalization and sophistry can easily obscure ethical duties.

Most people agree that Western culture today is a guilt culture.  Cicero, however, wrote in the context of a Roman shame-honor culture.  The historical transition to a guilt culture has, arguably, diminished the natural, instinctive moral sense in the West, producing, in the end, the radical moral relativism we see today.  Cicero, by connecting us with natural, instinctive morality, may supply a remedial influence.

Ciceronian Ethics and Political Realism

Ciceronian Natural Law ethics could even be seen as supplying a definitive answer to political realism. Realism asserts, in short, that the end justifies the means, and that the strong not only may, but should, exert their will over the weak. Cicero replies that nothing is more expedient, pragmatic, and self-serving than to act virtuously and morally.  To act immorally is to become dissociated from one’s own moral nature, to become inauthentic,  to “flee from oneself”, to violate ones conscience  — and to suffer inevitable adverse consequences as a result.  Hence, what the realist considers expedient is not expedient at all, if it violates moral law.  Only what is moral is truly expedient.

Cicero relates an example (On Duties 1.13.40) involving the Greek general, Pyrrhus of Epirus, with whom Rome fought for supremacy in southern Italy around 280 BC.  A deserter from Pyrrhus’ army offered to return to camp by stealth and assassinate Pyrrhus.  Despite the fact that it would have assured their military victory, the Roman Senate would have nothing of it – they promptly had the would-be assassin returned to Pyrrhus.  Here is a striking example of the Roman sense of honor in war.

Cicero was also keenly aware of the need to follow the spirit of the law, and not merely its letter. He describes (Duties 1.13.40) an incident when, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal released and sent ten captured Roman soldiers to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, having first make them promise to return in the event of their failure .  After their release, one prisoner immediately returned to Hannibal’s camp, pretending to have forgotten something, and then left again.  He later claimed that he had fulfilled his promise to “return”, and so could remain in Rome.  This was utterly detested by the Romans themselves, and the censors penalized the man for the remainder of his life.

A Non-Sectarian Religious Morality?

American foreign policy is schizophrenic.  One the one hand, our actions are governed entirely by realist policy and expediency. And yet Americans profess to be deeply religious.  The motto of the United States, ‘In God We Trust’ seems diametrically opposed to and utterly irreconcilable with realism.

Were one to seriously suggest that we ought to base foreign policy on religious virtue ethics, one could well imagine the chorus of voices that would complain how this violates the principle of separation of church and state.  But Ciceronian ethics could supply what many social critics have already called for: a moral system that is religiously based, yet not connected with any particular religion, sect, or denomination.

The alternative is to remain mired in relativistic ethics, political realism, and an increasingly inhumane and unnatural society.

Cicero on Just War

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 BCE)

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).    Harvard University Press, 1913.

De officiis (On Moral Duties), 1.11.33-1.13.41, 3.29.107.

11. Again, there are certain duties that we owe even to those who have wronged us. For there is a limit to retribution and to punishment; or rather, I am inclined to think, it is sufficient that the aggressor should be brought to repent of his wrong-doing, in order that he may not repeat the offence and that others may be deterred from doing wrong.

[34] Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second, by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.

[35] The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Aequians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all.

Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.

[36] As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Popilius was general in command of a province. In his army Cato’s son was serving on his first campaign. When Popilius decided to disband one of his legions, he discharged also young Cato who was serving in that same legion. But when the young man out of love for the service stayed on in the field, his father wrote to Popilius to say that if he let him stay in the army, he should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance, for in view of the voidance of his former oath he could not legally fight the foe. So extremely scrupulous was the observance of the laws in regard to the conduct of war.

[37] There is extant, too, a letter of the elder Marcus Cato to his son Marcus, in which he writes that he has heard that the youth has been discharged by the consul [Lucius Aemilius Paulus (B.C. 168)], when he was serving in Macedonia in the war with Perseus. He warns him, therefore, to be careful not to go into battle; for, he says, the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe.

12. This also I observe — that he who would properly have been called “a fighting enemy” (perduellis) was called “a guest” (hostis), thus relieving the ugliness of the fact by a softened expression; for “enemy” (hostis) meant to our ancestors what we now call “stranger” (peregrinus). This is proved by the usage in the Twelve Tables: “Or a day fixed for trial with a stranger” (hostis). And again: “Right of ownership is inalienable for ever in dealings with a stranger” (hostis). What can exceed such charity, when he with whom one is at war is called by so gentle a name? And yet long lapse of time has given that word a harsher meaning: for it has lost its signification of “stranger” and has taken on the technical connotation of “an enemy under arms.”

[38] But when a war is fought out for supremacy and when glory is the object of war, it must still not fail to start from the same motives which I said a moment ago were the only righteous grounds for going to war. But those wars which have glory for their end must be carried on with less bitterness. For we contend, for example, with a fellow-citizen in one way, if he is a personal enemy, in another, if he is a rival: with the rival it is a struggle for office and position, with the enemy for life and honour. So with the Celtiberians and the Cimbrians we fought as with deadly enemies, not to determine which should be supreme, but which should survive; but with the Latins, Sabines, Samnites, Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus we fought for supremacy. The Carthaginians violated treaties; Hannibal was cruel; the others were more merciful. From Pyrrhus we have this famous speech on the exchange of prisoners:

Gold will I none, nor price shall ye give; for I ask none;
Come, let us not be chaff’rers of war, but warriors embattled.
Nay; let us venture our lives, and the sword, not gold, weigh the outcome.
Make we the trial by valour in arms and see if Dame Fortune
Wills it that ye shall prevail or I, or what be her judgment.
Hear thou, too, this word, good Fabricius: whose valour soever
Spared hath been by the fortune ofwar— their freedom I grant them.
Such my resolve. I give and present them to you, my brave Romans;
Take them back to their homes; the great gods’ blessings attend you.”

A right kingly sentiment this and worthy a scion of the Aeacidae.

13. [39] Again, if under stress of circumstance individuals have made any promise to the enemy, they are bound to keep their word even then. For instance, in the First Punic War, when Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, he was sent to Rome on parole to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; he came and, in the first place, it was he that made the motion in the Senate that the prisoners should not be restored; and in the second place, when his relatives and friends would have kept him back, he chose to return to a death by torture rather than prove false to his promise, though given to an enemy.

[40] And again in the Second Punic War, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal sent to Rome ten Roman captives bound by an oath to return to him, if they did not succeed in ransoming his prisoners; and as long as any one of them lived, the censors kept them all degraded and disfranchised, because they were guilty of perjury in not returning. And they punished in like manner the one who had incurred guilt by an evasion of his oath: with Hannibal’s permission this man left the camp and returned a little later on the pretext that he had forgotten something or other; and then, when he left the camp the second time, he claimed that he was released from the obligation of his oath; and so he was, according to the letter of it, but not according to the spirit. In the matter of a promise one must always consider the meaning and not the mere words.

Our forefathers have given us another striking example of justice toward an enemy: when a deserter from Pyrrhus promised the Senate to administer poison to the king and thus work his death, the Senate and Gaius Fabricius delivered the deserter up to Pyrrhus. Thus they stamped with their disapproval the treacherous murder even of an enemy who was at once powerful, unprovoked, aggressive, and successful.

[41] With this I will close my discussion of the duties connected with war.

Pirates, the “common foe of all the world” not “lawful enemies”

In 3.29.107, Cicero makes these remarks:

[107] Furthermore, we have laws regulating warfare, and fidelity to an oath must often be observed in dealings with an enemy: for an oath sworn with the clear understanding in one’s own mind that it should be performed must be kept; but if there is no such understanding, it does not count as perjury if one does not perform the vow. For example, suppose that one does not deliver the amount agreed upon with pirates as the price of one’s life, that would be accounted no deception—not even if one should fail to deliver the ransom after having sworn to do so; for a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is the common foe of all the world (communis hostis omnium); and with him there ought not to be any pledged word nor any oath mutually binding.

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).  Harvard University Press, 1913.

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