4 Mar 2010

Who is responsible? A moral question

I met a nice family of church-going Christians in the campgrounds the other day. The father, mother and four kids were on vacation from his work at Boeing.

He works on aircraft maintenance for the C-17, a cargo plane that the Australian (and US) airforces use in Afghanistan.

I've long thought about the role of the individual in supporting causes that may conflict with that individual's moral stance. In this case, I was interested to know if the guy felt a conflict between his Christian beliefs (thou shalt not kill) and his job (supporting an army in war).

Unfortunately, I did not discuss this topic with him, but perhaps we can here.

So, does an individual have a responsibility for the actions of his employer (as a cog in the machine) or is s/he excused ("I just work here")?

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I want to hear what you all have to say.

(As most of you may know, I have issues with working for the government or as a professor where my time may be wasted on regulations and "useless" research, respectively. That said, I am a postdoc at UC Berkeley who's considering running for Congress, so I am tipping back and forth.)

Right -- so what's your opinion? Your personal experience?


  1. 'Thou shalt not kill' is a simplified translation of the original Hebrew. The actual meaning (contained in the old and new testaments, the Torah, and many other religious writings including writings on 'just war') is much more complex.

    The extremely short version is that, for many people, 'thou shalt not kill' is not the same as pacifism. For the pacificist Christian or non Christian sects, of which there are many, usually the sect can be pacificist because they have created rules that allow them to be protected by a non-pacifist sect or government.

    The discussion of this is thousands of pages long and so does not fit into a blog comment, even with cutting and pasting.

  2. If you are considering running for Congress, here are a few questions.

    Why are Congressmen, Senators, and legislators so adamant about not understanding the economic or scientific consequences of their policies? Many of them act as if economics does not exist.

    How might you change these attitudes given that as a junior congressperson, no one has an incentive to listen to you. Specific details of how you would start to change a system that does not want to be changed would be appreciated.

    You might want to give examples of how to change the California legislature's behavior. ROTFL.

    Actually, if I were to consider voting for you, I would need to see a plan that I agreed with and that I thought would work. Anger at the status quo is not a plan although it is often a successful campaign.

  3. David, good luck in any decision you make, and I mean that in the most positive spirit. Participation is hard, but wonderful and needed.

    As for the larger ethical question, the clearer translation of the Commandmant is that thou shall not murder, or kill without just cause.

    Every person is responsible as an equal in their choices and actions.

    Will he have a problem reconciling his worldview with his profession? Perhaps - thankfully, in Christianity there exists a concern about that. Should he?

    Yes, he should.

  4. The behaviors proscribed in ancient religous texts are actually not what they seem, as Eric points out. Consider those concerning adultery. Actually, many of the devout commit adultery while continuing to pray, attend religious services, and donating substantial sums to the coffers of their religious institutions. Some prominent religious leaders have been caught committing adultery.
    One can search through the ancient texts and find many rationalizations that would allow adultery, ditto for the other proscribed behaviors.

  5. One of the problems of understanding ancient texts is exegesis -- what did the text mean to the original audience.

    This is problem is deep. The Hebrew and Greek words tend to have connotations and denotations that are very difficult to translate. The word 'mamonas', for instance, has many meanings in Hebrew far beyond the English word 'money'. Similarly, the Hebrew word for adultery seems to be about breaking contracts and is far wider in meaning than the English word 'adultery.'

    Making interpretation harder is the fact that these ancient societies were mostly honor and shame societies. Americans tend not to live in honor and shame societies. In such societies, the action is not the important even but whether the action brings honor or shame. In the book "Exile", the two main characters have a disconnect because an action, an affair, is dishonorable for one character all the time but is dishonorable for the other character only if the action becomes public knowledge and brings shame. Without the bringing of shame, the action is not forbidden.

  6. Eric, I kinda agree with you, but it is also true that the current scriptural interpretations are also vitally important to understanding folks' decisions today.

    As for the ancient texts of the Torah and Talmud, I don't completely agree with you that they were written as supporting the society you describe. I do believe they were written within the society you describe, but were written as an excoriation of those habits. The Torah is chock-full of "you may think you got away with it, but the Lord knows!" admonitions.

    Of course, it is much more nuanced than either of our positions here, and I think we both have wiggle room. Also, I like your thinking, and mean no disrespect.

    Fixed Carbon, as for pointing out personal failings when attempting to live up to scripture as an inferential attack on belief systems, I've always thought that a cheap shot, because what, then is the alternative? If ethical relativism, then you must allow nazism as an equally viable ethos to, say, U.S. traditional liberalism, and I do not buy that.

    Yes, religions often hold high bars for their followers, and many don't always clear that bar every time. Taking the bar away, however, doesn't often change the reality of the situation.

  7. Josh,

    I think that we both have lots of wiggle room since our actual positions are much longer and more nuanced than what we wrote here.

    In addition to exegesis -- what did it actually mean to the original audience, I also like hermeneutics -- given what it actually meant to the original audience what should it mean to us.

    I am working hard on the exegesis part and finding that what ancient texts, religious and otherwise, meant to the original audience is very different from what I was told they should mean.

    All of this discussion is nominally a long way from water and economic issues except that understanding what the original meant makes a person immune from being attacked with incorrect interpretations and allows focusing back to the actual issues to be resolved. (For a spectacular example of refocusing see William Ury's "The Power of a Positive NO" and his handling of the Chechnya-Russia conflict)

  8. While the religious framework many have taken is appropriate considering your christian C-17 worker reference, I think a broader philosophical approach to morality yields much more interesting results. Debates among christians often stall quickly, as interpretations of 'scripture' often differ.

    My (short) view is that we are all responsible for everything we do, regardless of whether or not we experience personal, material consequences from our choices. Modern society is efficient in that it allows us to defer decisions to higher authorities (say your boss, CEO, legislators). You will not be held legally responsible for the deaths of others if you follow the 'rules'. You can safely choose to be a gear in the machine (although Spain may prove me wrong) and live a comfortable life.

    But this assumes you're comfortable doing amoral things, your actions are consistent with your morality, or that you're uninformed or uninformable. For all but the last there's no way to escape responsiblity - only culpability - and even then the 'escape' is uncertain. I've seen how living with internal and external conflicts takes a long-term toll on happiness.

    So for me, given that I am in the position to choose my actions, the choice is whether or not I want to make choices that reflect that I am 'of this earth' and that my happiness depends on the health of my environment (ecological, social, political, economic, etc) as well as my relationship to it - or if I want to be an opportunist. Hell, I might have been an opportunist back in the old days of robberbarons, runaway industrialization, colonization, or whatever, but I know too much now. The cost of those things is too high.

    Sometimes it amazes me that we've come so far as a people given our propensity to rationalize crazy shit. Perhaps that's our greatest strength, but it could also be a very serious weakness. The only thing that could push back is our environment, and it is.

    My bottom line is that I am uncomfortable participating when participation leads to negative outcomes. Like most people I can separate myself from the greater picture, but I don't prefer the personal fragmentation or the cumulative toll it takes on my happiness. Impartiality and neutrality have no place in morality, and I wonder what the C-17 worker would say if he had to take a (rightful) personal stand.

  9. With all do respect this is one of those important questions that has a very boring right answer.

    Of course individuals have some measure of responsibility for their employers actions to the extent that they are enabling those actions to occur. The more difficult, frankly impossible, question to answer is how much responsibility. Everyone pretty much has to work that one out for themselves.
    This is not uniquely a problem for religious people. Everyone has a moral code, even if it is not written down in a crusty old book, and so has to struggle over the extent to which they are willing to compromise that code for their job.

  10. @JK -

    I get your point but would suggest that employees are not at all responsible for the actions of their employers. They are, however, entirely responsible for their own actions. That's an important distinction. If I thought promoting continued oil consumption was immoral I may be acting morally if I worked for an oil company that wanted to begin ventures into clean energy. The point is that my actions and my contribution are my responsibility, while the actions of others are theirs.

    Also - religion is not a requirement for morality. In fact, it may be an impediment. As an agnostic, my sense of right and wrong is not clouded by religious doctrine, and I am free to choose my values without the pressures of demagoguery or being restricted by outdated beliefs or binarisms. Absolutes hinder our collective intellectual and moral progress, and I am thankful to be free of those things. I wish more people were. Religion served an important social purpose at one time, and will probably always have a place in individual lives, but I see the ways institutionalized religion has hindered social progress and I'd rather we not be bound by those things.

  11. Justin,

    The problem can easily get much more complex.

    For instance, if my moral code says, 'Don't touch weapons or load planes that carry weapons' then my choices are straightforward. But if my code says, 'Do not kill' and my not loading the plane results in people being killed who would not have been killed otherwise, then I have a more complex moral problem. It seems that there are morals having to do with actions, but there are also moral consequences of inaction. The Amish have an interesting code in which they do not commit certain acts but they accept that someone else must do these acts for the Amish to survive. These Others, no matter their nationality, are called, by the Amish, 'the English.'

    As to the crusty old book, if you do not read it, it is easy to ignore it. If you read it (CAL has a good course), then you find it has great value independent of your belief system. Its greatest value seems to be in teaching us how to deal respectfully with others.

    If the book, as many believe, was actually written by the creator of the universe (whether each person believes this or not) makes the book important. One hint about how important comes from Thomas Acquinas, "The destruction of the entire universe would have no effect on God."

    Stated differently whether you or I believe that the Bible was written by God has no effect on whether it actually was. So rejecting it out of hand may not be a best strategy. Rejecting it without study strikes me as worse than politicians rejecting economics (David, we talk about economics sometimes ;-) )because they don't want to think about it or they do not care if they impoverish our children and grandchildren. "Just run deficits. Someone else will pay for them."

    Just a thought.

  12. @everyone -- these are great comments on an interesting topic. I agree that it's complex and also that it's useful to take "old wisdom" with a pinch of salt. I like JK's point about doing what's right (and what occurs to you as right), and Andrew's point (echoing thoughts I had) that morality and legality are not always the same. (I did some economic work on this in the past, Eric :)

    In short, there are no hard and fast rules, morals and religion are guides that can be broken, and we all need to take responsibility. As you can tell from this, it will be hard to deal with others, be they irresponsible or part of a different belief system.

    Oh, and Eric -- that political ambition of mine centers on my plan to get elected on a platform of "do right" -- all I need is to get releected. Observe Ron Paul in reality of Charlie Wilson in reality/fiction.

  13. "Do right" is a good platform. Remember, however, Bill Clinton, "It the votes." The hard part seems to be where "do right" is in opposition to getting enough votes to win the election.

    As Nancy Pelosi will tell you, it is easy to make enemies and lose the votes that you need.

    Good luck.

  14. Perhaps you should also factor in that the C-17 is also vital for ferrying humanitarian aid.

    Does that balance out it's use in other operations?

    It would be nice if we all had the luxury of finding employment compatible with our moral/philosophical beliefs. Unfortunately we can't always be so choosy/lucky.

  15. @Eric -- that's why I advocate a minimalist gov't -- fewer policies to piss off people :)

    @Ger -- you make my point. If people followed their moral instincts, these immoral businesses would be fewer in number. Perhaps you'd be willing to murder, for the right price? :)

  16. What does 'minimalist government' mean, department by department, employee by employee, program by program?

  17. Eric, it means "doing right", or doing good...
    : )

    Now, if you take a look at Aristotle's definition of the greatest good, you have come a complete circle.

    It's still fun.

  18. Josh,
    Good try.

    Who gets to define 'doing right or doing good'?

    You or someone who disagrees with you?

    Who gets to enforce this definition?

    Will you follow this definition if it disagrees with your own definition?

    Hence the problem.

  19. Hence, the smiley-face, Eric. I was being silly.

    Did you read Aristotle before commenting to me? I've posted it on my blog, if you are interested (it is very neat, but doesn't answer this question as directly as we'd all like).

  20. Josh,
    Now I have read Aristotle on your blog.

    Very nice.

    Who knew Aristotle wrote in English. ;-)

  21. We all make moral excuses for our actions usually along the lines of: "This benefits my country" or "This helps these people" while ignoring who an action hurts or what alternative or compromising effects it might have.
    In the case of the army I tend to think that it depends a lot on the psychological process of the individuals involved and the majority of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the authority.
    Soldiers are citizens in that they need to feed their families, but their work means killing people. So the question becomes: Are you more important than a stranger. Most people would say yes. That makes the strangers expendable to you.

    In short. I suppose one could get away with the phrase "I just work here" but as soon as you pass from taking orders to do a job and crossing certain lines in the name of those orders (torture etc...)Then it becomes the responsibility of the individual.

  22. @Tyler -- agreed, but that line arrives far earlier than most people admit.

    @Eric -- minimalist gov'ts are smaller in scope and can thus do less harm. Consider gov't phone companies...

  23. The bible doesn't say "thou shall not kill" in the original text it says thou shall not murder, there is a difference.

    I'm a PK (preachers kid) so I know a lot about all this stuff. so much that now I'm not a believer.


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