The most undignified conflict I ever got into was with a child affected by thalidomide in hospital when I was nine years old. I was wired in a primitive orthopaedic machine, pinned like a fly in a human-sized spider's web. The other boy, with his small arms and legs, couldn't get out of bed even if he wanted to.
I can't remember what we were fighting about, something that involved our pride or dignity. I do remember a bitter determination on both sides to fight, fuelled no doubt by an equally bitter determination to deny that our weakness was in any way comparable. He had been in the bed next to me but the nurses moved him to the other side of the aisle after we squabbled.
I remember using a spoon to catapult mushy peas in his direction halfway across the ward and getting a direct hit, splattering green mush across his bed. He tried to retaliate but with his small arms he could hardly throw and all his shots landed on the floor. Dignity was not restored on either side. The nurses gave us both a row, changed his sheets and mopped the floor.
We think we are being moral when our moral compass aligns with those around us. But that way, our morality moves like a murmuration of starlings. Collectively, we can allow terrible things and hardly know we are doing it. Only by viewing the murmuration from the outside can we see the direction we are going in. This external view is what we think of as God's omniscient view. God does not provide morality but by simply imagining God's view, we see it. So the religious argument goes.
While morality is often illustrated with religious stories, more often now Disney-Pixar stories, there are also simple logical moral principles. Simple 'story-free' moral statements exist. The most well-known of these appear in many texts from Confucius to Jesus and goes something like this: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'.
Another, but logically different, variation is: 'Do not do to others as you would not have done to yourself'. Either version has a Boolean logic about it and we feel, logically, that were the people of the world to adhere to these principles, the world would be a better place.
The Golden Rule, as it is often called, is not a religious statement but a scientific one relating to an understanding of mutual benefit. It is scientific because such a law invites us to carry out a scientific experiment in the mind, what Einstein called a Gedankenexperiment
. We must imagine the particular situation a person is in to judge whether they have done right or wrong. Morality is situational and dynamic.
Napoleon claimed that by slaughtering a single Italian village he prevented an uprising that would have cost thousands of lives. He might have been right but the same logic took him on to lead hundreds of thousands to their death in the years ahead. Some 500,000 of his own men died on one venture alone, on the road to and from Moscow. Their names were meticulously recorded in the army records to be used for such things as the distribution of pensions. Some additional hundreds of thousands of civilians went unrecorded and their children uncompensated.
Warmongers have a perverse way of seeing themselves as humanitarian heroes. If you can justify the death of one, you can justify the death of thousands. The horror Napoleon brought to Europe is almost beyond belief and for what? In order to impose his governance, justified by some economic and moral principles.
People did conspire to kill him. On one occasion leaving a bomb next to a child selling flowers along the route his cavalcade would take to some theatre. Fortunately for him and unfortunately for Europe, he was running late and passed the dead child and the devastation without stopping, arrived to see the start of the show and behaved as if nothing had happened.
Napoleon did the economic warfare thing too. He banned imports from England, though he was later forced to make some exceptions (French army uniforms were made in Halifax).
A valid conclusion to the Golden Rule Gedankenexperiment
relies upon the person having some sense of empathy but what if empathy is not a sense that they happen to have? Just as some of us lose our sense of smell and can no longer judge whether fish is fresh or off, what if a person simply lacks the capacity to understand or care how others feel? Perhaps as a result of their own childhood experience. Nobody cared about them so they do not care so much about others.
In the practical matters of the world, where one man falls into what feels like justified conflict with another, a dispute over land or property, the application of the 'do unto others' logic can become very fuzzy. What if someone does unto you what you would not do unto them? Takes something from you that does not belong to them because they want it and do not care about you? A muddled interpretation might be if a person harms me, then I should equally harm them back for they must think that it is fair to do that unto them? What do we do when faced with injustice? Do we do something or nothing?
Religion and philosophy split along this line. The do-nothing philosophy is pacifist and by that route can sometimes allow a great injustice to be rewarded, giving the aggressor the impression they can do it again and again. But will they? The do-nothing people do not believe they will. The 'do-something' philosophies often have a set of prescribed punishments for each deviation. 'An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth!' But there can be quite a long delay between one eye being plucked out and the other. So long that the guilty are long dead and the eye must be plucked from some innocent offspring. And then it starts again.
Adhering strictly to one morality algorithm or the other may fail to bring about a just world which leaves us having to conclude again that morality is a dynamic mixture of things and not a set of formulaic responses. We should sometimes do nothing and sometimes do something. It is not always the case that silence equals violence. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it brings peace.
A lucky reader will never have encountered a deep injustice but many may have experienced a petty one: being wrongly blamed by their insurance company for a minor car accident, or fined by the town council for leaving rubbish outside their house when it was left by someone else. Many people experience a rage induced not because of the petty accusation and punishment, but by the abstract infuriating injustice at being found guilty when it simply is not true. That an untruth can prevail in the world and be believed by others, when it is known to the person most certainly not to be true, is quite naturally infuriating and in some cases leads to madness, even violence.
The Scottish psychotherapist R D Laing thought the denial of truth an important cause of mental health problems. A kind of fracture in reality for those unfortunate enough to experience it. I think it is important to understand that, in many conflicts, one or both sides are enraged by the denial of some reality they fully hold to be true. 'This is our land.' 'No, it is not.'
A heated debate is not a conflict. Real conflict arises out of a heated debate. It arises when one person becomes fully convinced that the other person does not care much about their feelings or the impact on them, and also considers them to be a cause of some unhappiness in an otherwise happy life. A feeling of mutual contempt can appear almost simultaneously on both sides: entangled particles of contempt.
If these people are to live together, it would be better if they could forgive each other but forgiving, much like forgetting, cannot be consciously or wilfully done. The time it takes to forgive or forget will fill itself with further conflict that splits seemingly infinitely into micro-conflicts. People can go their separate ways, and often do, but nations cannot go anywhere and their neighbours, the neighbouring nations, are their neighbours forever.
When this critical point of not caring is reached between nations, when the people of one nation become convinced the people of another nation do not care for them and would in fact rather they did not exist, this opens the gate to war. A violent atrocity is used to justify a greater atrocity in return, greater because it has to be equal plus a little bit more to emphasise to the enemy that they should never try it again.
It is no longer an eye for an eye. It is an eye for an eye plus an ear. People end up behaving like animals simply because they think the other does not care about them, their pride is hurt and as a consequence they also cease to care about the other. Both are locked in a feedback loop of mutual contempt.
Christians say 'Love your enemy' but really that is asking a bit much. It might, however, be very important and perfectly possible to care about your enemy.
Many paths to peace are pursued before war but the fact that both sides think they should invest time in trying to find a path to peace means that both sides have already seen the seeds of war. On this path to peace, they are often invited to look ever more closely at these seeds which, by that old quantum mechanical trick of simply being observed, are caused to germinate. The path to peace can be the very thing that leads them to war.
To go back to the conflict I started with, that those two children in such suffering would fight at all is what astonishes me most now. It is a predominantly male phenomenon, I think. That desire to fight. For years, what struck me was the indignity of it all, some sense of shame, but now in the back of my mind, I wonder why is it that the thought of two disabled children fighting seems undignified and hopeless, while a fight between two action men is dignified and heroic? Are those men not also undignified and hopeless? Equally frightened of facing their own weakness?
That a nation fights a nation while even in peacetime they each have people who are hungry, cannot afford heating, are homeless, are sick and need help, breaks my heart and I have sometimes, while watching the news, been surprised by that sudden unexpected deep intake of breath that immediately precedes tears. While the Russian Government may not lose this war, they have already lost their dignity. The Russian people who are in reality dignified and caring, will never forgive their government for that.
The details regarding Napoleon were taken from 'Napoleon the Great' by Andrew Roberts. The origin of the Golden Rule from 'A Little History of Religion' by Richard Holloway.
John McGrath is a retired teacher of Physics and Maths who lives with his partner and daughter in Portobello