Sunday, November 11, 2007

(A?)morality of nonviolence

This weekend we went to a conference at Hampshire College on animal rights, and before the conference there was a lot of sound and fury over Jerry Vlasak being invited to speak, because of the highly controversial statements he's made.

But this isn't a post about whether or not he should have been allowed to speak. This is, though, a post thinking about the things he said that got everyone all in a tizzy; namely, statements affirming the validity of employing violence as a tactic. If you google Jerry Vlasak you will find a lot of "Jerry Vlasak says to go kill scientists!" stuff, where what he actually said was that for people who can be convinced no other way to stop murdering animals, employing violence against them is morally justifiable. I know, I know, semantics: but it is an important distinction. Also important is to keep in mind context (which is inevitably left out), which is that the remarks were, just as this post, an academic discussion about tactics/ethics. Philosophizing about the morality of violence isn't at all the same as urging people to commit it.

But thinking about it brought to mind some questions that I've been discussing with people:

1) Is violence ever a morally justifiable tool?

2) If violence is ever a morally justifiable tool (e.g., self-defence, defence of innocent life/prevention of more violence), are there ever times it is amoral not to exert force?

3) (Which is really just reiterating the firsts in slightly more concrete terms): If there are things occurring such as murder, torture, etc., and you are in a position where you can stop it (by any means necessary; such as force if no other solutions are viable), and you do not do so, is that wrong? (If someone is standing in front of you with a gun to a child's head, and diplomacy has failed, is it wrong to take a sledgehammer to their head? Is it wrong not to, if you have the opportunity and you know that not killing the abuser will mean the death of the innocent party?)

Which all leads to question 4) If animal liberationists truly believe that animals have just as much right to live as the rest of us, that taking their lives is murder, then are they in violation of their own moral code if they fail to take necessary steps to prevent such killings?

I also would like to add that these questions have nothing to do with what anyone's views on animal lib are, and that clearly if animal liberationists use force to prevent the killing of animals, they are in violation of the law and probably in violation of a whole lot of other people's moral codes. But I'm not trying to answer the question of the sanctity of animal life here -- that's a whole other question. I am questioning whether or not, if someone truly believes in the sanctity of a life, does that equal ethical justification or even obligation to protect it, when the opportunity arises?

I'd also like to point out that I am not arguing one way or another about any of this. Construing questions as arguments assumes you know what my answers would be, and I assure you, you don't. I'm just thinking.

N.B., These questions apply equally to anyone who espouses belief in the sanctity of any life; the same question could be applied to pro-lifers.


Blogger RightWingWarrior said...

I believe in the sanctity of life. My opinions on your questions.

1-sometimes (see below)

2-yes, and yes for self-defense/defense of others

3-yes, not taking action is amoral, but i have no strong opinion on animal rights

7:15 PM  
Blogger Forsety said...

Heh, tough questions :) I'll assume you're asking us in terms of our individual morality.

1: I wish I could say no, that I could say for me, it is not morally justifiable. The calculus of killing is not something which I have much taste for..."end justifies the means" doesn't work so well for me, because I don't think there is a permanent "end" which will be coming about because of our actions. But, if I was in some sort of crisis where my family was threatened or something...I mean, I really can't say I know myself that well, because I don't.

2: I'm going to jump to a global scale first (ie war) because it is easier for me. I don't see our actions, or their effects, as being predictable enough to be morally right/wrong. That is, take Iraq (ugh...but too lazy to think of another example): granting every negative charge made against their government etc was absolutely true, does that necessarily mean war was a good choice? Are we seeing the iraq war as a force which is overall moving the tensions in the middle east to a better point?

Violence cannot solve violence. Using violence as a way to change the world makes us come across as the enemy. Which in turn makes it harder for anyone else to trust us, makes them more disposed to strike back violently instead of trying to talk to us. Wars only engender further hatred - the only way there will be a "war to end all wars" is if that war involves the destruction of humanity.

3: I guess my gut question is "is there a way to use force which does not permanently injure/kill this person?" My second question would be "with a gun to the kid's head, is there any chance I can take a swing faster than he kills the kid?"

But I think your answer to both is no. I think you're asking me whether I would save the kid and kill the gun holder, or do nothing and watch the kid die.

Confronted with the situation, I don't know for sure what I would do...but I think I would swing the sledgehammer...

4: Well, it depends. Is that the single overriding concern of their personal morality?

There is a belief that to me is wonderful, even though I have problems accepting it. In judaism, saving a life is considered equal to saving the entire universe, destroying a life is equal to destroying an entire universe. If the animal right's person held to a belief along those lines, then they would only be able to act to save animals in a nonviolent fashion. In other words, killing 1 scientist to save a few hundred, thousand, or million animals is wrong. Rather, the only morally justifiable option when holding such a belief to be true would be (as I see it) to work towards convincing scientists and the american populace that animal testing is overly cruel. Even if the "net lives saved" is smaller because you were unable to make a small sacrifice of lives to save a larger one, you yourself should not be an agent of the destruction which seems to hold sway in this world.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Forsety said...

Sorry for leaving another comment, just thought of something.

I think that animal rights people cannot morally justify killing scientists to save animals even if they believe that killing animals is as bad as killing humans. If they say that killing humans is ok if it means saving animals, than the reverse is also true - killing animals is ok to save humans. Which is what scientific research involves.

Perhaps some is utterly wasteful and cosmetic. However, in the case of medication testing etc, it would seem to be justified morally in the exact same way as justifying the killing of scientists for the sake of animals.

But I just came up with this so I mcould have easily missed something or made too large a logical leap.

3:14 AM  
Blogger Ash Tha God said...

Oooooh. Props for bringing up some tough questions, especially for those of us who consider ourselves anarchists and revolutionaries. I'll also assume you're asking us in terms of our own personal moral/ethical code, as I don't believe in some absolute morality, which is universally applicable. As Nietzsche said, "There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena."

1 & 2) Yes there are times, though very rare, when violence is justified. These cases include when there is an immediate threat to your own life (self-defense) and, in the case of the defense of others, when all the means to achieving a peaceful solution have been tried unsucessfully. Many times, people will disregard viable methods of peaceful solution, jump to being violent, and then claim that they had no other choice. Anytime you kill someone, you should be extremely reluctant to do it. As for not acting, I think its always amoral to not take action. I don't believe in some Kantian imperative which states that we have a duty to protect others. You can't blame a person for simply not wanting to get involved or who simply does not have the heart to kill someone, even to save the life of another.

3) In the case of someone holding a gun to child's head, after diplomacy has failed, and if there were no way to injure/hurt the armed guy without killing him, then I'd probably swing the sledgehammer to his head. But if someone chooses to not act in that situation, no blame should be put on him for "allowing" the murder of a child through his inaction. Not everyone is comfortable with taking a life.

4)In the case of animal liberationists, they're definitely not morally justified to use violence if they believe that all organisms have an equal right to life, lest they end up in absurdity. Forsety made a good point when he said "If they say that killing humans is ok if it means saving animals, than the reverse is also true - killing animals is ok to save humans. Which is what scientific research involves." Also, does this imperative to kill to protect the lives of animals also extend to animal-on-animal violence? Do the animal liberationists then have a duty to kill lions to protect antelopes from being killed? Aren't they then killing animals which would justify other animal liberationists to kill them? Where is the line drawn when it comes to which animals have a right to life? Do bacteria, viruses, or insects have an equal right to life as a human? Where does one draw the line without it seeming arbitrary?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Forsety said...

Oh, by the way, any way we could get your (ie author's) opinions on these?

I know you said "I'd also like to point out that I am not arguing one way or another about any of this," but I thought it'd be worth a shot to ask you for your own input.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous madhuharad said...

Dear Ms keyes, I would like to be able to sends you facinating excerpts from India's Vedic writings(such as the Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam) which illuminate the issues you've raised.These writings not only deal with intellectual understanding,but awaken our own higher consciousness and realization about ourselves and all living beings and our relationships within this material world. I feel the world is actually hungry for this knowledge and that you could be a worthy instrument for delivering it and illuminating so many contentious issues. I'm an admirer of your great father and recently learned about you in trying to contact him about these very issues. In fact, I was able to briefly question him on a conference call on his feelings about the treatment of animals in this country and he mentioned that he's had discussions on these issues with you. I feel you are in a special position to arm both yourself and your father with the above mentioned universal vedic knowledge (which, historically, the world's great thinkers have studied).I feel your father lacks the truly scientific understanding of God consciousness and morality that these writings afford and that if you could help arm him with this knowledge, you could help him become a truly great and knowledgeable leader with a universal appeal- who could greatly benefit this beleaguered world. Thanks. Sincerely, Mark (

7:25 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yes, Yes and Yes, but with the understanding that the ends never justify the means.

That may seem like a contradiction, but I don't think it is. In the situation where a man has a gun to a child's head you are presented with a choice. For reasons beyond your control, you have the ability choose which of the two dies. Theoretically this sounds like a case of the ends justifying the means, but at a gut level we all can tell it is not. The two events are tightly bound.

But killing someone because he might kill in the future has no such tight binding and is not justified. The variety of options are too plentiful and the knowledge of the future too limited.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Mol said...

To Forsety and Ash, re: killing a human to save animals being justified means killing animals to save humans is justified:
While I see what you're trying to get at, the two situations aren't analogous. In the first, you are killing a specific human who is directly threatening the life of a specific animal: it isn't killing someone for the 'greater good', it is stopping a murder from happening. In the other, you're taking innocent creatures who haven't acted to cause death, and trying to say that it is justified to take innocent life to save other, unrelated lives.
Maybe that's an argument you want to make! It could be a valid argument in its own right, but it isn't an applicable argument to this situation.
If Person A mugged me on the street and was about to kill me, I would feel justified in using force against him: this fact in no way means there would be justification to turn to some completely innocent, unrelated Person B, and use force against them to save the life of some other person who Person B had never ever harmed.

As to my own opinions, I didn't give them because I didn't have them to give. Part of me feels that of course it is justified to use force to prevent a murder. I suppose the part of me that thinks this is a bad idea is the part of me that is considering the good of the cause rather than the good of the individual animals in question: for the individual beagle who is saved from getting tortured and killed, a great good has been done, but acts of violence against human animals, even in the defense of nonhuman animals, are not viewed favorably by the speciesist majority who views the latter as not as deserving of life as the former.
I'll put it this way: if someone came into my house and was about to stab my ferret, you'd better believe I'd beat them bloody to protect her, if necessary. I don't view harming people who are harming animals in other circumstances (laboratories, factory farms, etc.) as intrinsically any less justified. But in the latter case, it becomes an action, for better or for worse, that is on behalf of a movement. As uncomfortable as moral relativity can be, I guess my mind is still split over the question of what course of action, ultimately, would do the most good for animals as a whole. I'm not sure that violent direct action is a good answer.

1:24 PM  

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