>> Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So, continuing the discussion on manipulation and those that crave power, it seems naturally to move into a discussion on responsibility. If someone does a bad thing, who's responsible?

The easy answer is the individual involved. But is that always the whole answer?

I'm a big one for personal responsibility and accountability, but the truth is, there are times when that's not a sufficient answer. There are few religions out there that do not see murder as a serious sin, but what about a soldier? He is murdering others. He trained to do so, often traveled to do so, has weapons and used them against other human beings, without knowing them personally or knowing why those people stood against him. Nor are enemy soldiers the only ones who die during war. So, is every soldier that took another life evil? Is ever bomber pilot responsible for every soul lost to the bombs he dropped? I can't say they're absolved - I don't have that power- but I'm not comfortable with seeing them as simple murderers.

We can bring up self-defense, but, as we haven't fought any wars on our own soil, really, since the civil war, that's pretty specious. Wandering into someone else's nation with tanks and guns is hard to defend with "self-defense". However, we have defended others' nations and we have defended our own interests in others' nations - which should not be confused with each other.

Were all of those wars necessary? Only history will say for sure. Are there wars when soldiers did unspeakable things (often on either side)? Yes, most of them, but it's hard to define where the line of responsibility ends. War has gotten too impersonal with thousands killed without those doing the killing even seeing a face.

If you are manipulated to do something unspeakable - design the nuclear bomb, or a rocket that can rain fire on people half a continent away, or simply keep your mouth shut when someone opens a concentration camp 2 km outside your town - how much of that responsibility is yours? If you torment or torture someone but tell yourself for the greater good, who's responsible? If someone holds a gun to your daughter's head, your mother's, your wife's, how much responsibility do you have for what you do to keep someone from pulling that trigger? If you are young and impressionable, fed lies and depersonalizations to convince you to kill others on sight, who's responsible?

They are tough questions without easy answers, at least for me. In the end we all make our choices, true. And sometimes the paths we tread are not the ones we would have wanted. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes we are too easy on ourselves, finding excuses for doing the inexcusable.

In the end, we'll all have to face ourselves, and live with the choices we've made.


  • flit

    hmmm...seems like last bit is missing? Now who is responsible for that? Not me!! LOL

    A very well written series you've got happening this week.

  • Shakespeare

    I liked the last (complete) sentence... the one about living with the choices we make. Of course, many of us go to our graves never facing what we've done at all--but does that mean the self-examination ends there?

    I think not... or, at least it makes me feel better to think not...

  • Boris Legradic

    Two quick things before I descent into my dungeon-lab - I'll revisit this very interesting post in the evening.

    First, I don't think you should be throwing aroud words like 'evil' casually, especially in this context. Evil has meant many things to many societies - there have been societies where it was considered evil not to eat your dead enemies, or not to smite the infidels, or marry sombody of another race, or not to defend your honour at gun-(or sword-)point. What is acceptable or not (good and evil if you will) depends on a vague consensus of the society we live in.

    Second, and here I am showing my bias as a scientist, I don't thing inventing or discovering something should ever be considered as wrong. The responsibility of using the nuclear bomb (to take the most obvious example) rests in the hands of those that ordered it built and dropped. Especially since much of the technology can be used for civil purposes as well.

    Most of your post was about personal vs. institutional responsibility, and I'll chime in on that later, but my supervisor is already giving me the evil eye, so I'll have to go work on our nuclear super-laser now...

    Kidding. It's process plasmas for solar cells - but I wouldn't be averse to working on a nuclear super-laser ;)

  • Stephanie B

    Woops, thanks for the catch, flit. That's what happens when you write a bunch in a hurry.

    I'm with you, Shakespeare.

    Boris, I do believe there is evil, but don't disagree that the line delineating it varies from culture to culture and even person to person. However, saying there's no "evil," just cultural differences doesn't wash for me.

    Ditto for the notion that scientists share no responsibility in what they do. I may be able to understand how Von Braun was convinced to support Hitler's plans and why conscientious scientists developed the most destructive weapon of all time, but I'm not willing to say they hold no responsiblity (and many of them agreed with me).

    But let's do continue this discussion.

  • David

    I think the only thing that justifies war is necessity. War is always evil, always a tragedy, even the most justified war. World War Two was a horrible evil. Innocent women and children were slaughtered on all sides. But it was necessary. Which is why the choice to go to war is such a grave decision…it is choosing to do the greatest evil man can commit. Better be a damn good reason for that. Was invading Iraq necessary? Nope, it was Bush’s war of choice, and done lackadaisically too. All the evil done during that war is Bush’s personal responsibility. That war was very VERY bad karma for Bush and the U.S.

  • Poetic Shutterbug

    First I completely agree we all make our own choices. While I abhor violence of any kind, if someone were threatening a loved one I would absolutely do all I could to protect them.

    As for wars, I never see any justification. There is always a diplomatic solution and to automatically initiate a war is disgusting. As for soldiers, I believe they also have choices. They do not need to enlist or fight wars initiated by our Government.

    Great post here.

  • Boris Legradic

    Hey Stephanie,

    finally found a few minutes to write a bit more about responisiblity. First, I'd like to absolve all scientist from all past and future responsibility for what other people do with their discoveries ;)

    I think blaming a scientist for discovering a principle you can turn into a weapon is somewhat akin to the following scenario:

    Suppose you ask a safety engineer to look at a bridge. He does so, and then tells you: "Well, this bridge is pretty safe, but if you drive a truck with more than fifteen tons over it, it will collapse." Since you have this ongoing vendetta with truck-drivers (they killed Fluffy!), you quickly paint over the warning shield, thereby killing the next unlucky truck-driver. Is the engineer to blame? No, it's you, because you painted over that sign.

    Now I suppose you could assign partial blame to our unlucky safety-engineer if you'd come to hime beforehand and told him you'd like to kill truck drivers, and what would be the best way to do it given the bridge on hand. But still, the engineer would know that knowing the weight limit of the bridge might have other uses than killing truck drivers. Should he refuse to find out because you want to kill with it? I think not!

    But the old science-responsibility problem wasn't the thrust of your article, that's just me riding my favourite pet peeve (while sitting in my ivory tower). You talked about when your actions become your personal responsibility. I'd argue that there are actually two different takes on this: moral responsibility and legal responsibility.

    I'll tackle legal responsibility first, especially with respect to war, because it is far easier, even if my understanding of international law is quite vague.
    As far as I know, all (western?) armies have a definition of illegal orders. They vary from country to country, but all include stuff like "don't break the geneva convention". So, if your superior officer gives you an order to, say, torture somebody, you are not only allowed but required to disobey. If you don't, you will take the full responisiblity later on.

    As an aside, that is why I am quite furious with the US government right now. If they really don't prosecute the torturers because they were "just following orders"... but let's not go there.

    So, legal responsibility is yours if you follow manifest illegal orders. But. What about moral responsibility, especially in a situation that is a bit less black-and-white situation than war and torture?

    Well, this comment is already quite long, also I have no idea what I would write anyway - I'll have to think some more about it. I might actually steal that to post on my blog, now that I think of it...

  • Stephanie B

    If I'm a scientist and I'm testing chain reactions, your analogy is right. If I'm a set of scientists making a bomb, including finding methods to reliably overcome critical mass to a catastrophic chain reaction or design an autonomous flying bomb rocket using your rocketry knowledge - you just, in my opinion, can't absolve yourself of responsibility, even if there's someone else pulling the specific trigger.

    If I'm a safety engineer and I know the bridge has limitations, but I let the bridge engineer fail to or mislead on the warning, I AM responsible, too.

    I wasn't really talking about legal responsibility - that just depends on law - and varies; and when you talk legal, there is the question of being caught vs. actual wrong.

    In the end, it's living with yourself.

  • Relax Max

    American soldiers in the course of their legitimate service do not do murder.

    Killing has many contexts and not all killing is murder. Murder is always bad and wrong. Killing is NOT always bad and wrong; indeed it is very often justified, such as if your home is invaded and your children are being tortured to death in the bedroom; or if your homeland has been attacked.

    Please, Stephanie. Soldiers, in the course of their duty, do not murder. And if they DO murder (as some American soldiers in Iraq have done, for example) then they are not doing so in the course of their directed duty, are they?

    Would you not have shot down the airliners before they struck the World Trade Center? Would you not have killed the terrorist crew of those airliners as they walked through the Boston airport, for example, before they had had a chance to hijack the planes to do their evil destruction? Such killing would not have been murder had you done it to them. This, of course, is theoretical and asks the question, "If you knew what you know now, would you have killed them in Boston?"

    Stephanie, just to clarify my own thinking, do you think the American passengers who killed the terrorists over Pennsylvania and crashed the plane were murderers?

    To murder is to wrongfully take a life. Some believe it is ALWAYS wrong to take a life; some even subscribe to the silly notion that society as a whole does not have the right to protect itself by taking lives, but that, too, is theoretical and in practice only serves to make societies die with a "clear conscience."

    But these last things are beyond the scope of your post. Your fault, Stephanie, because you went and made me start thinking again. :)

    How easy it is to judge wars in hindsight, no? Wouldn't it be great if they would let us buy lottery tickets the next day after the drawing? Unfortunately in both cases one must make a decision based on the facts he thinks he has on the day BEFORE the event.

    Sigh. And just because you aren't dumb enough to fight your enemies on your own soil doesn't mean it isn't self-defense.

    Great post oh wise rocket one. As usual. Perhaps a bit weak on documentation this time, but mighty fine controversial heart-felt statements. Can't beat that. I love it. :)

  • Stephanie B

    David and Poetic Shutterbug, I tend to agree, but I have to admit, as Relax Max says, looking after the fact, it's easy to see things that aren't justified.

    BUT, I'm in complete agreement that wars are universally terrible things, so terrible they should only be used when no other options exist, when the alternatives are much worse that war. Frivolous wars, in my opinion, are criminal not only against those unjustly attacked but also those soldiers dragged into a frivolous war without reason.

  • Stephanie B

    Oh, Max, what a debate we can have. Killing is not always wrong (and I'm not sure murder is always wrong), but killing (even if it isn't murder) and murder are generally wrong.

    What is murder, though? Most legal definitions involve premeditation/intent. Do you think that someone who drops napalm on a town built of paper or bamboo houses didn't intend to kill, has not committed murder?

    And that's the problem, Max. If we absolve soldiers out of hand, what about those on the other side - aren't they as innocent as our own soldiers? If not, why? Who decides who was ideologically better? The victor? Aren't we civilized enough to know better than to think might always makes right?

    What about the collatoral damage? In Iraq, I've heard estimates in the 100's of thousands to millions. Is no one responsible?

    I think it's too easy to absolve ourselves of responsibility for these and it's a sad reality that comparing the collatoral damage of the wars of this and the last century vs. wars in the centuries before argues we are more and more cavalier when it comes to civilians.

    I'm not just talking about the US (though that's certainly true for us), but wars in general. It used to be that killing civilians was taboo and a relative rarity. Now we routinely kill 10, 100, 1000 civilians for every soldier.

    I don't know that war makes monsters per se so much as allowing people who were potential or existing monsters a venue. Although good people can be taunted or pressured into doing bad things, monsters like Mengele had to have something pretty awful in them.

    I also believe that it is largely because there is so little rationale for some of the more recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq) that mental disorders are so prevalent. WWII was horrible, but freeing a concentration camp was an effective way to remind a soldier what they were doing there.

    Having said that, I don't think any of us are absolved of responsibility for evil done in the name of the US. Not those of us who disagreed but let it happen. Not those of us who agreed because of our fear. And, no, not those involved in the killing. We all have a measure of responsibility for these actions and pretending we don't will always leave us open to be used and manipulated again.

    In my opinion.

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