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Tolstoy, Prediction, and Pacifism
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Via Jill, via David Appell, here's an article from the New Yorker about the use of torture. It's written by Hendrik Hertzberg, and what's interesting about it is the lead-in, which quotes Tolstoy and uses it to state what Hertzberg sees as "the traditional case for pacifism". Let's have a look at that lead-in quotation by Tolstoy:

"I see that a man I know to be a ruffian is pursuing a young girl,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.”“I have a gun in my hand—I kill the ruffian and save the girl. But the death or the wounding of the ruffian has positively taken place, while what would have happened if this had not been I cannot know. And what an immense mass of evil must result, and indeed does result, from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what may happen. Ninety-nine per cent of the evil of the world is founded on this reasoning—from the Inquisition to dynamite bombs.”

There's so much wrong with this that it's hard to know where to begin. Evil results from "allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what may happen". Think about that one for a minute. How does every action you take on a daily basis not arise from anticipating what may happen? Predicting causality is the root of our existence. Using Tolstoy's stunted logic, one would never take medicine or put money in the bank. That tumor just may disappear on its own, and why invest money when there's just no telling what may happen?

But let's take his example. A "ruffian" is "pursuing" a young girl (doesn't sound so bad, does it?). Tolstoy has a gun. Now, he says he has no right to shoot, because that brings about certain harm, and he's only doing so on basis of an uncertain outcome. I mean, we don't really know what the ruffian will do, right?

Let's make this vague description a little more concrete. Let's say Tolstoy is travelling home from a ballet, at night, and he hears noises in an deserted field. He moves closer to see a man on top of a girl, her clothes torn off, a razor held at her throat, and the man's pants are pulled down (a little more vivid than "pursuing"). Tolstoy has a gun, and let's say they are on a deserted country road, far from any help.

Now, Tolstoy's moral calculus still stands, right? I mean, the man has not raped the girl, right? He has not drawn blood. Who am I to "assume the right of anticipating what may happen"? The man could very well pack up his razor, pull up his pants, and go about his business. Should I inflict harm upon him on the basis of what he might do?

I hope this illustrates the ridiculousness of the quotation and the implications behind it.

Look, nearly every hour of every day we're confronted with situations in which we assess what other people are going to do, what will happen next, and we then act accordingly. You never know with absolute certainty that a particular effect will always follow from a particular cause. You never know exactly what someone is going to do next. So how do you decide how to act? Well, you look at the context and your experience.

Is it reasonable to assume that the ruffian on top of the girl is going to do something awful? Hmm...I'd say that's probably a safe bet. If a man were merely looking at a young girl on a street corner, you probably wouldn't be justified in shooting him, based on a shaky prediction that he might attack her in the future. Point is, we all make probabalistic assumptions about what others are going to do. We wouldn't be able to function otherwise.

Some outcomes are more probable to assume from a given context than others.

If you take the current war, many in the Bush Administration are making the assumption that because Saddam Hussein has clearly obfuscated for over a decade about his chemical and biological weapons capabilities, that he has used chemical weapons against both armies and civilians multiple times, that he is sympathetic to and provides funds for Palestinian terrorist efforts, that he has invaded two neighboring countries, and that he has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons technology for over 27 years...well, they believe this sum of behavioral factors poses a grave risk to our allies in the region and to our own security. Is this calculation wrong? What really are the chances of Iraq developing nuclear weapons? Zero? 10%? More? And then, if they did acquire them, what would be the probability of them being detonated, or being used to extort or provide an umbrella for renewed aggression?

The case is obviously not as clear as the ruffian on top of the girl, or even looking at her from a distance. I'd say the risk assessment is somewhere in between. But to say there is no risk is simply absurd.

And using Tolstoy's logic, we would never act based upon anticipation, no matter how looming or grave it might be. I assume that we would wait until the girl is actually raped, or her throat cut, before we would be justified in taking any kind of action.

Let's now look at Hertzberg's comments on Tolstoy's passage:

This is the traditional case for pacifism. It hangs on an insight about means and ends. “Thou shalt not kill”: whether the commandment is seen as coming from God or simply from self-evident moral intuition, few dispute that to kill is to commit a wrong, and that to refrain from killing is to prevent a wrong.

But he doesn't discuss sins of omission, which is surely an aspect of any moral calculations. Is it wrong to allow someone to kill another? If you have the means to stop someone, with force, from killing dozens of others, but you don't, is that the moral thing to do? Hertzberg frames the morality much more simply: Killing is bad; not killing is good. Well, yeah.

But he ignores the very real situation in which killing one or few prevents many more deaths from happening. What is the greater good in such a situation? More deaths or fewer deaths?

One would have to be mad or stupid to not admit that Saddam Hussein's regime is responsible for many, many deaths, and that left alone in power the death would be ongoing. People die in war, and people die under Hussein. Neither situation is free of death and suffering. Hertzberg's equation is not valid here.

In war, killing is the means. The end—the “war aim,” the putative goal of the killing—may be right, but it is speculative, possibly unachievable, off in a future that is more or less unknowable. By its example, and by its corrupting effect, killing begets killing, evil begets evil. To do evil today, in the expectation that in the future, at the end of a long chain of causation and chance, something good will emerge, is the wager that pacifists refuse to make.

And I think I've sufficiently demostrated why this thinking is completely bogus. In the case of the ruffian, we're not talking about a "long chain of causation and chance". The guy has his pants down and his razor to her throat. It doesn't take a mental giant to divine his intentions and make the causal link that something bad is going to happen unless you intervene. You have a choice. You let him rape her, possibly kill her, or you shoot. Which is more moral?

Now, aside from all this causality nonsense, if a pacifist simply said, "You know, I believe that by killing the ruffian I am corrupting myself. I don't believe ever using force, even on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves, even if it may prevent a greater wrong, is just." That, at least, would be somewhat consistent.

But hiding behind, "Oh well, there's just no telling what might have happened"...well, that's just a heap of cowardly bullshit.

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