“Society Chooses Its Dead” Pt. 2: The Wickedness of Human Life

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When Killing is Actually Encouraged

But is it true that a person’s death is always seen as a tragedy? Is it true that, by recognising the humanity in another person, the other person will always be seen as an equal, and that harming that person will therefore always be morally objectionable? I will argue that at certain times, it is almost as if it doesn’t matter whether the other person is considered to be a human or not. In fact, in some other time, it is precisely because the other person is recognized as a human being like you and me that he is seen as such that his death becomes demanded by everyone else. Take for example when Paris was thought to be surrounded by soldiers during the eve of the French Revolution. Was it precisely because the soldiers were seen as a person that they were perceived as such a threat? Was it not precisely because de Flesselles was seen as a person that he was thought of as being capable of deceiving the revolutionaries, and that because of his possible crime, he suffered greatly at the hands of the mob? If he was not seen as a man, or perhaps if he was not a man, but instead a dog, would they sever his head and put it on a spike and then parade the head all around Paris for everyone to see? 

But perhaps it is possible that one might say such violence happened because the revolutionaries ignored many ethical laws. But then is that so? If an ethical law is ignored, is it as good as not being a piece of law at all? Can there be a law that is not manifested in any way whenever and wherever? And on the contrary, is it impossible for us to find justifications for killing in exactly the same sets of laws which at the same time might prevent killings as well? Take for example the fight between Catholics and Protestants during the middle ages. Didn’t they believe in the same loving God? And yet, didn’t they actively demand the death of the other during certain times? Didn’t they actually believe that what they’re doing is for the good of their society, or even more, in the name of the same God? To take another example, haven’t we found that, for the sake of society, a person is willing to destroy another person’s livelihoods, or even to displace, kill, and destroy an entire culture just for the sake of filling one’s belly such as during the American migration to the west as a part of manifest destiny? 

For examples which we have cited above, the reason for such killings is usually “for the greater good of the people or the society we live in”. Now before we continue, it is true that the struggle between Catholics and Protestants were not just because of some religious beliefs. There were also political and economic reasons which soured the whole situation, such as giving reasons for nations to strive for political and economic dominance in Europe. But to reduce everything to politics and economics would make us lose sight of the reasons taken up by normal citizens. Catholics killed Protestants because they thought Protestants posed a kind of a threat; they were spreading a sinful way of living which might invite condemnation from above, a poison which might contaminate society as a whole and corrupt Catholic children and caused them to be sent to eternal condemnation by the very same God they worshiped. Protestants also had a similar way of thinking. The Catholics were seen as people who have deviated from the scripture, and that they are oppressive and persistent in their way of perverting the Christian tradition. True, in those struggles, one must also be aware of the political struggle and the economic struggle. But I’m not sure all those really matter when it comes to a poor villager who’s now lynching his enemy to death. For them, the hatred is against his fellow man. If only the other isn’t a man, he wouldn’t pose such a threat. It is because the other person is a man just like you and me that he became such a threat that must be eliminated.

Human and Anti-human

Here we see two interesting cases. While on the one hand, seeing the humanity in another person causes us to feel pity for him, or as in our first case about abortion, causes us to defend passionately the other person’s right to live despite the possibility that the child might fail to lead a full life because of its difficult upbringing (or even the possibility that the fetus itself might not be a person as such), in another situation, such humanity inside a person is ultimately the reason why he has to die. How is that possible?

In order to answer this, we should look no further than what we’ve considered before when we look for justifications not to kill a person. Based on our previous discussion on how a person’s life is sacred we see that it is because he is in himself precious, a miracle with so many possibilities. He has the capacity to create something of himself, to rise above what has been given to him at birth, and to creatively make a future for himself and for those around him. That is indeed the joy of being a human being, isn’t it? To make something more from what we were born with. To have a mind rich with wisdom and experience. To lead a life that is full of love, joyful experiences, in short, a life that is full of virtuous acts and things that fulfill ourselves. We can help sustain the society we are a part of and leave a mark on future generations.  And even if perhaps our life is not filled with great accomplishments, at least here in our little homes, we have indeed made the world a better place, or at least, if we want to think that the end of an act is in the person itself, we could say that we have indeed lived and had a wonderful life. 

But the reverse is also true. It is because a person holds so many possibilities that he is dangerous. When a hiding Protestant looks at a Catholic mob, the hiding protestant sees in the mob the possibility of his own end. The same possibility stems from the same look which in another situation might bring the hope of salvation, if for example both of them are a part of an army that is at war with another country. But the situation now is such that it is neighbor against neighbor, not nations against nations. It is true that, in most cases, killings are based primarily on “serial identifications”, identities which might be thought of as assigned from the outside, or derive their significations not primarily from the person himself but from the social life around him. After all, being a Catholic, being a Jew, being a German, is only significant in a social situation in which they are treated as significant. Being German, while in another place at another time might just be treated as an administrative identification (nationality, for example, for creating passports), could also be used to signify that he is the enemy in times of war. But such identities are significant not only because they are socially significant but also because they are attached to a human being. Serial identity is an identity because they are a part of a person’s life. So in a sense, the person is not just seen as someone dangerous because of their serial identities, but precisely because this serial identity is what they are. Being a German, while in times of peace is no more than an administrative identity, in times of war, being a German is precisely my life, my transcendence towards the future. It is for Germany that I fight against the French in the trench. And thus, since they live it, these identities are not seen as just superficial differentiations, they are “moving ideologies”, a living ideology. It is an ideology, you might say, that has the impetus of a human being. It can think, anticipate your moves, make plans for the future, rearrange the landscape around him for his own benefit, counteract my moves, and at last be your destruction. In the end, although the trigger rests on serial identifications, the real reason for murder remains the fact that the other person is alive. 

The fact that the other person is alive, and that he is a human being instead of a duck, change everything. That person can have a future, a future which we have no control of. He has the capacity to understand what it is that we are doing, and then to use this understanding to trap us, ensnare us without us realizing it. If this he does not do through influencing other people, then he might do this not through sociality but through the matter around him. He could possibly be manufacturing a bomb which could be used to end me. He could be seen as an equal by others, therefore in some ways capable of influencing others with his corrupting behavior. His capacity to act is equal to, or even exceeds, my own capacity to act. He might be more resourceful, more intelligent, more perceptive than we are. Even if I could protect myself from him, it is capable that he will ensnare those that are weaker than me. He cannot be trusted. He could deceive us, or deceive those who are important to us. Beneath his face lies not kindness but evil. If he is able to influence others, it is possible that he will use his influence to turn others against me. These capacities can only belong to a human being. Everything that a person could do for the good of society can equally be done for the destruction of it, and everything that a person is, his faculties, his future, could be utilized for the destruction of others. And this destruction will always be perceived as real. There can be no gradient, no probability calculations. The stake is too large. We cannot wait for him to initiate his plans first before we realize what is going on, for if we wait, we might be too late to save anyone. Changing a certain way of life will invite eternal damnation from above. There can be no room for chances, for investigations. In times of life and death, an action has to be taken, and no other action is as certain as the elimination of the threatening other.  

Perhaps some might argue that in the act of killing, the person being killed isn’t seen as a person. Perhaps they’re seen as no more than animals, no more than “sub-humans” at the very least, which grants the killer a certain moral leeway to do what needs to be done. But it is precisely that he is recognized as a human being that the killer must think that he is not a person. If what is about to be killed is a dog, will the killer have to think that the dog is a dog and not a human being? It is true that it is possible to pity a dog as well, out of the virtue that it is a living being. However, no one will think of beheading a dog and sticking its head at the top of a stick just to parade it around. Likewise, while it is possible to make a “subhuman” classification which will allow depopulating a given continent to be easier, the treatment given to them betrays the subhuman classification. A slave, while being thought of as inferior to the master, will still be given a harsh punishment if he disobeys, and that punishment will not just serve as a punishment. It also serves as a manifesto, an example to keep the slaves in check. It is also to make a statement that the master and the slaves belong to two different worlds. Such an example won’t be needed if the slave isn’t a human being. It is because it is such a slippery slope that the master needs to reaffirm his status. It is because of the capacity of both to understand their situation in the same way, in the same human life that the punishment derives its significance. It is because the master fears the same possibility which eludes him, the possibility that the slaves can see even though they belong to the very same world that the master needs to make the statement over and over again. 

Indifference Towards Death

But then these cases are perhaps a little bit extreme. There are indeed cases in which killings are condemned in words, but are allowed to continue in practice. Take for example the time when factory work was dangerous (it still is, but it is less so compared to the 19th century, for example), while the pay was low. In this case, perhaps the division between “human” and “subhuman” was much less encouraged. After all, the workers were here by contract, and therefore in a sense, by their own free will. The contract supposedly guaranteed equal power between the workers and the factory owner. However, as we all know, the contract was nothing more than a guise to keep the workers under control. The worker would have no choice but to accept the harsh terms of the contract, and the factory owner could sleep well, thinking that he had fulfilled his moral obligations to society. After all, his hands were clean. He reached his position through his hard work and ingenuity. It’s not like he legally stole anything from anyone, nor did he break the law to reach his position. He, just like everyone else, was just trying to make a living. And it’s not like he didn’t deserve to sit at the top. He had to work hard in his youth, running errands here and there, eating only once a day. And due to his hard work and ingenuity, he happened to be able to outsmart anyone and reached the top. And if he inherited his riches, it was not like he was spoiled when he was young. On the contrary, his father made him work hard at the factory and didn’t spoil him even for a little bit. And because of this, he was therefore is justified in his actions, since he worked hard just like everybody else. 

But here legality was nothing more than the guise of legal extermination. But it is not an active extermination, but rather a subtle one. By ensuring low wages, he kept his product competitive by undercutting his competitors, and therefore in a sense, provided the workers with the wage they needed to stay alive. And yet, the low wage was only possible because the workers would have no choice but to accept it, and due to the fact that they had nothing else but their labor power, they are then treated as nothing more than just another component to keep the machine going. In itself the worker was sustained just enough to keep the machine running, for his worth is no more than what he could give to the machines. If wages were too low, then death would occur, and if the working population decreased in number, the employer would have no choice but to listen to the demand of the working class. This created an interesting situation. They needed the laborer, therefore they gave them wages which were just enough to sustain them. But the workers themselves, due to their large population, had to compete amongst themselves to get the work they needed, and therefore the number of the universal worker allowed wages to border on the impossible. And thus, the wage was there just so that indifference towards death was possible. As a result, the working condition was bad, the air became polluted, and work-related death became common. But the contract covered it all with a sense of good morals. After all, it was not like they were here contrary to their will, and they were paid “justly”. To be sure, the employer wasn’t actively trying to reduce the working-class population. On the contrary, the employer needed them. In any case, this was more similar to indifference towards death than to active extermination. In the eyes of the employer, low wages were inevitable since he had to compete with their competitor. And if the employer failed to adapt to the changing times, he himself would be ruined. Therefore, in the eyes of the employer, everyone was in the same boat. It was either to create a profitable business or starve. If he was not smart enough, his business would fail, and everyone would be sent jobless, including the workers, and the town itself would be struck by an economic catastrophe. And thus, to create his factory in that particular town could be thought of as a kind of gift to the town itself. And since he was always one step away from ruin, in the eyes of the employer, he would never have enough. Wealth was only there to ensure he had a backup plan against circumstances which could be detrimental to his interest. But what are interests if not the employer’s lives? Even if he already had a king’s fortune, in his eyes, he would still be one step away, one mistake away, from financial ruin. And thus, it was important for him to reinvest his fortune back into his business. It was important for him to keep his product competitive in any way possible. And therefore, if the workers revolted, it was they who broke the contract, and disrupted what was lawfully protected by the law. And thus, shooting them was justified, at least in the eyes of the employers. 

References:

Dupré, B. (2013). 50 ethics ideas. China: Quercus Edition

Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington: Washington

Sartre, J. (2004). Critique of Dialectical Reason (Vol. 1) (A. Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Verso

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