Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Critical Evaluation as a Moral Necessity

“I swore to defend this country against all enemies, foreign, sir... and domestic.” ~Commander Anderson, The Rock

Last weekend, the FBI and the ATF arrested eight members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group called Hutaree; a ninth is still at large. This group is accused of planning to planning to murder a police officer, then set off an IED at the funeral – apparently in the hope of triggering a revolution by killing even more police officers. (Apparently the group thinks that police are the moral equivalent of Imperial Stormtroopers, working in mindless service to the Federal Government and the New World Order.)

Assuming that this assessment of their goals and methods is correct, this is a textbook example of terrorism. (Making Light offers another example of domestic terrorism in action.) Now, this isn’t an especially striking or controversial assertion. Terrorism is, basically, the use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce, particularly for social or political purposes. This group was proposing to use violence in order to provoke an uprising against the government. Therefore, they are terrorists; Q.E.D.

As I said, this shouldn’t be controversial. We could argue about whether the charges are true – innocent until proven guilty, after all – but if the accusations are correct in even their broadest outlines, it’s terrorism. Probably treason as well. Based on their online writing, we’re well past sedition already.

This being the case, one might expect a certain segment of American society to call for them to be treated like terrorists: try them in military tribunals, torture the ones we have in custody until they tell us what their co-conspirator is up to and where he might be, etc. I don’t actually think that will happen, at least not in any great degree. The sorts of people who are inclined to completely freak out when a Muslim fails to bring down an airplane, are also inclined to assume that it’s some sort of government frame-up when the perpetrators are white, Christian, and American citizens. There’s a sort of tribal double-standard here: “terrorism” is what the other guy does (much like “refugees” must always be foreigners*).

And that brings me, by a long and circuitous route, to my point. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think morality has anything to do with religion. I think that moral behavior has a lot more to do with paying attention to your actions: both what you’re actually doing, and what effects (obvious and subtle) your behaviors have. In other words, it’s not the source of your rules that matters, it’s how you apply them. Fred Clark of Slacktivist recently observed a related distinction between “values” (qualities you appreciate) and “virtues” (which require ongoing effort to cultivate as habits of thought and action).

So, on the general subject of applying morality to everyday life, I’d like to look at the process of making moral judgements. The example of domestic terrorism, and in particular the way the response to domestic terrorism differs from the response to foreign terrorism, illustrates a critical first step that a lot of people seem to miss. That step is, basically, to evaluate the situation. You can’t start with a moral rule and then try apply it to a situation; first you need to understand, as much as possible, what the situation actually is. Otherwise you tend to leap to the wrong conclusion – not because your logic was faulty, but because your assumptions were mistaken.

That means that a lot of moral judgements are conditional. For example: “It seems that management is taking advantage of the workers here. If that’s the case, it needs to stop.” This is a very different sentiment from “The workers should rise up against the management” – which may or may not be true, depending on the actual situation.

Granted, that can be annoying, unsatisfying, or both. Also, some people are going to see it wishy-washy, wimpy, or uncertain. Unfortunately, human beings are not, as a general rule, blessed with the ability to immediately and accurately assess any given situation that they happen to stumble into. In addition, situations in the real world tend to be complicated. As a result, conditional judgements are about the best we can do; the alternative is a false (and possibly damaging) certainty.

* * *

* True story. During hurricane Katrina, we had a great many people fleeing New Orleans and the rest of the coast. They were desperately in need of refuge, and a lot of them wound up in the D/FW area. As part of the relief effort, my employer arranged to offer shelter to some of them. We had no sooner put the information up on our website than the word came down from On High: no matter how badly they needed refuge, we couldn’t refer to them as “refugees”. They were, um, well... They needed... Well, we could call them... Oh, I know! They’d just been evacuated, so they were “evacuees.” Apparently “refugees” only exist in other countries.


  1. My morality has certainly been influenced by religion. Even now, as an agnostic I am aware how how much my moral and ethical framework is shaped by my religious past.

    Of course what I have retained may just be what is inherent to all religions. (and humanity in general)

    My sin list is definably smaller now than a year ago.


  2. Mine is almost an adaptation of the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm..." But the thing is, as a basic framework, I don't necessarily see anything wrong with using religion as a basis for your morality.


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