Saturday, July 22, 2006

Moral Complexity

Luke Mitchell has a thought provoking essay in the current (August 2006) issue of Harper's (though I don't believe the essay is posted on the website).

The essay is entitled "God Mode" and refers to a feature in shoot-'em-up video games that allows the player to play on endlessly. Mitchell uses this as a metaphor for current U.S. foreign policy:
We, as a nation, seem to be seeking a technological circumstance that allows the United States not just to dominate but to dominate so absolutely and effortlessly that we need not even think about our enemies, much less fear them.

Mitchell's example is the force-feeding of prisoners in Guantanamo. The force-feedings raise ethical questions: on the one hand, there is a medical responsibility to preserve life; on the other hand, there is a moral imperative to respect the prisoners' autonomy and right to protest their incarceration, in perhaps the only way still left open to them.

Mitchell describes his conversation with Dr. William Winkenwerder, an assistant secretary of defense and "chief architect" of the force-feeding policy. Like other aspects of U.S. foreign policy, the force feedings are pre-emptive: fasting prisoners are force fed in advance of any specific medical problems.

Winkenwerder tells Mitchell that the policy isn't to prevent hunger strikes, but rather to prevent deaths as a result of hunger striking. Mitchell, rightly, I think, sees this as inconsistent, since preventing the deaths means preventing the hunger strikes. But Mitchell also concedes that Winkenwerder is completely sincere, despite the inconsistency, and that his sincerity depends on the inconsistency. It's because the situation is complex that Winkenwerder can sincerely endorse a policy that, on the face of it, is inconsistent.

Winkenwerder never did make clear to me what was so complex about the decision to force a man to eat. Maybe he couldn't. Or maybe he conceived of that complexity as a final form of defense.
I feel for Winkenwerder because he's not pretending that there's a simple black-and-white answer to this problem. (I disagree with Mitchell that force-feeding isn't a complex decision.)

Historically, philosophers have pretended that these issues are black-and-white, so I'm all in favor of recognizing the complexity and ambiguity of real-life moral dilemmas. But Mitchell is right that recognizing the complexity can also be a dodge, a way of shrugging one's shoulders and doing whatever one would have done anyway. And, of course, a kind of ethical relativism is the next logical step (which puts us all in "God mode").

So, while it is important to recognize complexity, to look at the specifics of the case, etc., it's just as important to make sure that this doesn't lead to moral paralysis. Complexity isn't the same as inconsistency, so recognizing the former doesn't entail embracing the latter.

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