Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dostoyevski and Omelas

Betsy Newmark looks at the question raised by Dostoyevski, and echoed elsewhere throughout the world.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, he poses the moral question of whether a person could or should kill one person if it would benefit humanity. Would you agree to the death of an unknown person in China if no one would know and the Chinaman's wealth could be used to benefit you and your family. Raskolnikov goes beyond the death of a stranger in China to the murder of a crabby pawnbroker to get the money to help his impoverished mother and sister. The reader, while understanding his motivation, still recoils at his moral choice.

But killing for wealth is something that most of us would reject. However, that is a relatively easy moral question. A much tougher one was the question in front of the Bush administration with the capture of high level Al Qaeda operatives. Would you agree to what some perceive as torture in order to save the lives of innocents around the world? That is a much more difficult one and all of us are reacting with different answers. Some seek to define what was done not as torture, but something just short of torture. Limiting sleep and simulated drowning is markedly different from acts that leave a permanent, physical mark such as the torture that we've read about in other wars. But even if you endorse the broadest definition and classify sleep deprivation and waterboarding as torture, would you be willing to accept this if it saved lives? Throw in that the person undergoing it was one of the most evil in the world, a man responsible for conceiving and planning 9/11. Now would it be worth it?

Others come at it from a different direction and reject the proposition that the information that was given up as worth anything. They want to downplay its value or posit that the detainee would have given up that information if we'd just had world enough and time to wait until he gave it up on his own.
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Ultimately, it all comes down to a moral question worthy of Dostoevsky. Fortunately, we don't face such questions in our ordinary lives. But back in 2002 and 2003, members of our government, tasked with the responsibility of preventing the deaths of innocent Americans had to answer that question. They chose one answer and the evidence seems to bear them out that the result was information that prevented further attacks. You can debate the value of that evidence, but can you deny that there was the will on the part of Al Qaeda to kill many more Americans and that there haven't been such attacks since 9/11? Do you think they just gave up?

Some experts even posit that the captured members of Al Qaeda had accepted a certain amount of treatment so that they could satisfy themselves that they'd resisted enough and could then give up that information.

In Ursula LeGuin's short story, everyone in the town of Omelas is perfectly happy. Well, almost everyone. The price for the happiness of these people is that one child is kept in utter misery. As part of growing up in Omelas, everyone is taken to see this child, so everyone in the town knows the price that's being paid. Only a few choose to walk away from Omelas.

Here, we have a case where some people have been made unhappy in order to save lives. Most of the population is content with that choice.

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