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The Limits Of Individual Morality

By James Rothenberg

12 February, 2008

If we as individual citizens are to remain allegiant to the abstraction known as the United States of America, do we have to alter our innate sense of morality where it seems at variance with the morality of the state? Or, in a weaker version, to what extent do we have to alter our innate sense of morality in order to bring it into line with the morality of the state?

Thanks to a new entity known as Wikileaks and the anonymous leaker, ‘Peryton’, we are provided another formal measure of the moral capacity of our government, specifically in how it relates to our conduct in our role as invader and occupier of Iraqi sovereign territory.

The leaked document in this case is the US Forces Rules of Engagement for Iraq, classified Secret. Protocol concerning the authorization for the use of force is specified for circumstances where there can be expected a level of collateral damage.

Leaving aside the moral ambiguity inherent in the use of deadly force in an area where even “no collateral damage” is expected (but may occur), there remain the two higher classifications of expectation, “low collateral damage” and “high collateral damage”.

Dealing with the most obvious dimension of collateral damage, that of non-combatant casualties, we’re taught how to distinguish between the two. The “high” assessment occurs when there is a probability of ten percent that the damage would amount to an estimated 30 or greater non-combatant casualties (sometimes known as “innocents”).

We can infer from this that an assessment of “low”, at least as pertains to non-combatant casualties, would cover the estimated range of 1-29.

The distinction between each of the three assessments (no, low, and high) represents a shift in moral category and therefore signals a shift of moral responsibility for initiation of an action.

Upon the authority of the Multi-National Corps Commander, a low collateral damage strike can be initiated. The high collateral damage strike requires the authorization of the Secretary of Defense.

This means that it takes the Secretary of Defense to authorize a strike with consequences on the order of the Columbine massacre (counting injured as casualties) and the Virginia Tech massacre.

Since we have no hesitation in describing these school shootings as massacres, and since we have no such proclivity (officially speaking) in the case of a mission authorized by our Defense Secretary, the difference would seem to be the stakes.

From the point of view of the state, a massacre is the killing of innocents when there is nothing to be gained (low stakes). When the Secretary of Defense orders a strike with a high collateral damage assessment, the justification is (and must always be) that there is sufficient gain involved (high stakes).

If the morality of an act cannot be ascertained save for its postulated benefit, then who gets to do the postulating? If we can agree that this matter cannot be left in individual hands, this leaves only a collection of hands (an abstraction).

If we regard this collection as valuable, we are led toward answering the question first proposed in the affirmative. We will have to alter our innate sense of morality.

To pose the weaker version of the question is to admit the abdication of individual morality, which can now be no more than a reflection of the collective.

To the extent that one’s patriotism manifests itself as allegiance to the state, such patriotism will involve a forfeiture of individual morality. This is less a statement about the merits of allegiance than it is about its limits.

It simply posits a necessary sacrifice, in this case distinct from the sacrosanct sacrifice (for one’s country) customarily thought of as patriotic. This is the sacrifice of one’s own morality.

Those who regard this sacrifice as low stakes may feel comfortable in the role of patriot. Those who regard it as high stakes may feel more comfortable in the role of partisan. The words have apparent similarities, but the latter is far more involving.

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