Is there a moral path here?
By Joseph Ellis
International Ethics must be a class somewhere, but it isn’t something I can remember being offered at any time during my educational experience. Yet, is there a topic that has been at the fore front in American debate more, aside from the economy (which one could argue was entrenched in questions of international ethics as well)?
I wrote earlier this week about how the Obama administration seemed to want Libya to be different from our other conflicts. However, it also brings to mind another issue we have been dodging as a nation. Namely, are there such things as moral acts of war? Is there definitive right or wrong, black and white in a situation like this?
To begin with, I want us to think about it metaphorically, a parable if you will. Let’s say a teenager has lived under the tyranny of an abusive father all her life. This father has hit her, sexually assaulted, verbally abused her, and even killed one of her siblings when she was a child. She fantasizes of running away, but has no family, (where would she go?); and all her friends are in similar families. Finally, one day, an opportunity arises and she is able to take hold of one of her father’s guns and shoot him, ending once and for all the horror she lived under. Was she right in doing this?
In this situation, I think many of us would say yes, justice has been served. The father got what he deserved, and the girl is free to try and move on. However, what if she didn’t get the opportunity to shoot him, and instead had stolen one of his guns – she and her father were in a fight that involved her locking herself in her room and her father was trying to break in and shoot her? Also, let’s suppose that, somehow, she was able to get word to you that she was in desperate trouble and her only hope for freedom (and life) was if you agreed to come and kill him? (I know I’ve just stretched most people’s ability to imagine this, but just go with it ) What would justice and morality look like in this scenario?
Now, I’m not giving us the option of choosing to call the police. I don’t want you or I to have the ability of skirting the difficult choice this situation presents. If she is unable to defend herself, is it moral for you or I to kill her father knowing she will surely die if we don’t? Does knowing of her plight give us the right to go into this man’s home and kill him in order to save the girl?
If it’s difficult in the micro circumstance, it is impossibly difficult on the macro international scale. I know others have criticized the administration in their handling of Libya, but a quick jab comes to easily and dismisses the profound questions Libya has raised for us once again. Perhaps the ethics and morality will always be gray in situations like this. But, can we at least answer it with this question: Does it look like justice?