Sunday, September 6, 2020

For the Tribe

The danger of this [tribal] mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious.
Peter Wehner. "Why Trump Supporters Can’t Admit Who He Really Is"
So what is an unethical means to survive, I wonder? There are some "obvious" answers; many people would, I suspect, say that it's unethical to set fire to an orphanage to save one's own life, but that's one of those cases that outside of most people's lived experiences. I don't know of anyone who has ever had to make such a choice. As I remember it, Roman Catholic doctrine says that parents should be ready to give their lives for their children, and this is part of the reason why "health of the mother" isn't considered a legitimate reason for aborting a fetus. I also recall a college criminal-justice class where it was stated that a person threatened with homicide unless they commit a homicide themselves would still be guilty of murder if they went through with it. Those are the only "real world" situations that come to mind.

But it's a question that I'm not sure that American society is really well-equipped to answer. Especially when it comes to politics, rather than the actual act of ending a life (either born or unborn). The idea of a Just War certainly would allow for the deaths of others in self-defense, since, well, deaths are pretty much unavoidable in declared wars. And if a group of people who legitimately feel themselves threatened may go to war over that, surely otherwise shady political maneuvering is allowed.

And so I think that what Mr. Wehner is actually getting at is the idea that one's fellow countrymen are such a threat that any means of self-defense are justified is more cynical then genuine. We are still left with the question, however, of what is the ethical limit for someone who understands their survival is at stake. Commonly, power decides. The Native American population of the United States avoided extinction as much by luck as anything else, because it seems fairly clear that the federal government and citizens alike considered their attempts to defend themselves and what they had to be crimes.

And perhaps this is what drives the tribalism that Mr. Wehner references; the understanding that what has been done unto others in the past can be done unto people in the present. If the native people were displaced from their lands by a superior force, demographic change can create a superior force that would expropriate that same property from it's current owners in turn. And if the dead and displaced have no recourse to ethics, maybe there's nothing unexpected about people taking them to be an unaffordable luxury.

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