A reader offers the following comment on the immediately preceding post on the problem of dirty hands:
You write that even if one admits an absolute moral standard there are (hypothetically) situations wherein 'moral considerations are trumped by survival considerations'. Yet surely the latter collapses into the former, for what is the implicit presumption that it is good to survive but an axiological position? I use 'axiological' because it has a wider remit than moral/ethical . . . . In other words I would deny that your scenario actually 'gets outside' morality at all.
The issues are deep and difficult. I should make clear that I was not asserting that there are situations in which moral justifications are trumped by survival considerations, or by any non-moral considerations. I was merely examining how and whether this proposition enters the structure of the problem of dirty hands.
The question is whether both of the following propositions could be true. (1) It is objectively and absolutely morally wrong to kill innocent human beings, by nuking the cities of an enemy, say. (2) It is nonetheless justifiable in non-moral terms for a state, a nation, a culture, to do this to survive. (A 'reasons of state' justification.) If the joint truth of (1) and (2) is conceivable, then it is conceivable that there are situations in which moral considerations are trumped by non-moral ones.
Note that the issue is not whether nuking enemy cities, say, can be sometimes justified by moral reasoning. It can. Consequentialist moral reasoning justified Harry Truman's decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The issue is whether, on the supposition that nuking enemy cities and thus killing vast numbers of noncombatants is absolutely morally wrong --wrong always and everywhere regardless of circumstances and consequences -- the absolute moral prohibition can be trumped or overruled or suspended, not by a further moral consideration, but by a non-moral one.
To get a feel for how there might (epistemic use of 'might') be a trumping or suspension of the moral/ethical, consider the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. This is an example of what could be called 'trumping from above.' On Dylan's telling, God said to Abraham: "Kill me a son!" But Isaac was innocent and in killing him Abe would be violating God's own Fifth Commandment. Had Abe slaughtered his son he could not have justified it in terms of the moral code of the Decalogue; nor can I imagine any consequentialist line of moral reasoning that could have justified it; but he could have justified it non-morally by saying that God commanded him to sacrifice his son and that he was obeying the divine command. If God is absolutely sovereign, then he is sovereign over the moral code as the source of its existence, its content and its obligatoriness. He is outside of it, not subject to it; it is rather subject to him and his omnipotent will. We are in the vicinity of something like Kierkegaard's "teleological suspension of the ethical" as conveyed in Fear and Trembling. We are also hard by the vexing Euthyphro Dilemma. (Is a command obligatory because God commands it, or does God command it because it is obligatory?) I bring up Abraham and Isaac only to suggest how there might be a 'dimension' relative to which even an absolute morality can be relativized -- to put it paradoxically.
If morality can be trumped 'from above,' it can be trumped 'from below.' Imagine someone arguing that moral prescriptions and proscriptions are for the sake of human life and not the other way around. Morality is for the living, not the dead. Now human living is always the living of particular animal individuals and particulars groups. So preservation of life, my life, our life, underpins all morality. Morality is for human flourishing; it cannot enjoin our destruction. Socrates was wrong: it is not better to suffer evil than to commit evil. It is sometimes better to commit evil than to suffer it, not morally better, but better for the sake of our preservation. The non-moral imperative of survival trumps the moral imperative to not shed innocent blood. If it is us versus them, it is better that we nuke them than that they nuke us. In some circumstances there is a non-moral rational justification for violating an absolute moral prohibition.
The Counterargument. "You are assuming that survival is a value, and you are justifying the contravention of the absolute moral prohibition by invoking that value. But that value is an objective moral value. So you are not outside morality, but presupposing morality."
A Response. First, survival is something we human animals value, but it is not a moral value; it is pre-moral presupposition of their being any moral values at all. Without agents, there are no actions, hence no free actions, hence no morally responsible actions, hence no moral and immoral actions and failures to act, hence no actions attuned to moral values. The existence of agents and their preservation are values prior to the moral sphere.
Second, survival cannot be an objective moral value. In Kantian terms, consider the "maxim" of the action that would flow from the objective moral value of survival if the latter were an objective moral value. The maxim would be something like: One ought always to look to one's survival first regardless of moral prohibitions which, if honored, could terminate or severely impair one's quality of life.
Example. Iran together with other rogue-state allies launches a war of annihilation against Israel using so-called conventional weapons. Applying the above maxim, Israel could justify nuking Teheran and others population centers. But now here is the question: could the maxim be universalized? What is universalizability?
The requirement that moral judgments be universalizable is, roughly, the requirement that such judgments be independent of any particular point of view. Thus, an agent who judges that A ought morally to do X in situation S ought to be willing to endorse the same judgment whether she herself happens to be A, or some other individual involved in the situation (someone who, perhaps, will be directly affected by A's actions), or an entirely neutral observer. Her particular identity is completely irrelevant in the determination of the correctness or appropriateness of the judgment. (Troy Jollimore, SEP)
It seems to me that the survival maxim cannot be universalized. I cannot coherently will that it should become a law of nature that everyone act according to the maxim. Kant's moral insight is that morality requires impartiality; it requires that one view matters impartially by abstracting from one's particular circumstances and identity. But survival is inherently partial. Living and surviving and flourishing in a material world is inherently one-sided: one cannot help but privilege one's own point of view.
My conclusion is that surivival, while a value, is not an objective moral value. So it seems to me that a survival justification of action that violates absolute moral norms is indeed non-moral and not moral in disguise.
Consider what a Stateside conservative talk jock, Dennis Prager, recently wrote:
The most moving interview of my 33 years in radio was with Irene Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman. Opdyke became the mistress of a married Nazi officer in order to save the lives of 12 Jews. She hid them in the cellar of the officer's house in Warsaw. There were some Christians who called my show to say that Opdyke's actions were wrong, that she had in fact sinned because she knowingly committed a mortal sin. In their view, she compromised Catholic/Christian doctrine.
In my view -- and, I believe, the view of most Catholics and other Christians -- she brought glory to her God and her faith. Why? Because circumstances almost always determine what is moral, even for religious people like myself who believe in moral absolutes. That's why the act of dropping atom bombs on Japan was moral. The circumstances (ending a war that would otherwise continue taking millions of lives) made moral what under other circumstances would be immoral.
Surely Prager is contradicting himself. As Keith Burgess-Jackson comments, "It's shocking that this man doesn't understand the nature of a moral absolute. What he is espousing is situational ethics!" If there is an absolute prohibition against the taking of innocent human life, then this prohibition is in force regardless of circumstances and consequences. What is absolutely immoral cannot be "made moral" by a particular set of circumstances.
Can a view like Prager's be rescued from contradiction? It is clear that what is absolutely immoral cannot be morally justified. But it does not follow that it cannot be justified. For there may be non-moral modes of justification.