And thus, we have seen that to see what is special about a human being could lead to two outcomes, both equally justified: to save or to eliminate. And yet, where do we draw the line? Where should we say that in this case, it is justifiable to save this person, and in that case, it is justifiable to eliminate that person? But to assume such different justifications to be possible, there have to be differing characteristics, either in circumstances that could lead to either of those two outcomes, or perhaps in the justifications that could justify either of those two outcomes. And yet, as we have seen, justifications which apply to one case, for example, to stop an abortion, are also perfectly applicable to the other case, such as to kill a person from a different religious background. Therefore, to appeal to the “sanctity of human life” to differentiate between these two cases would not be fruitful, since the same argument could then be twisted to form the “wickedness of human life”. And thus, we can conclude that it is not the particular expressed justifications themselves that are different, but instead the underlying, unexpressed justifications, reasons which hold the sway on the expressed justifications which are different.
What are these unexpressed justifications? These can be “conditional justifications”, such as giving different treatments to those who are similar to us and dissimilar to them. Perhaps the “though shall not kill” rule only applies in order to create a stable society, which means it is not society that serves the moral imperative but instead it is the moral imperative that serves society. Perhaps the rule is just ignored by the person doing the killing. However, we’re not talking about single individual cases, we’re talking about something done by society at large. Therefore to appeal to a certain rule will not make sense, since what is a rule but its implementation in a given society? A rule that is ignored by everyone cannot be called a rule. Therefore since a rule can only be one if society chooses to adopt it, it is not the moral imperative that holds supreme power, it is society that chooses to implement it or not.
In order to better understand the “conditional justifications”, we should take a look at actual circumstances in which people do kill. What is different in those circumstances. Is it because the other is threatening me? But then we have to clarify, in what sense is he a threat to me? Is it because he threatens our way of living, or because he could invite eternal damnation from above, or is it because he would kill me? But even in a life-threatening situation, we then have to determine the bigger context. To take an example of a colonizer and the colonized, is the colonizer a threat because he threatened to starve the colonized by looting the place and seizing the lands, or is the colonized a threat because he could loot and kill the colonizer in cold blood? In short, who fired the first shot, and who was justified in defending himself? Is the second-generation colonizer who happened to be born there and is incapable of changing the colonial system is to blame because he happened to earn his living at the expense of the colonized? Must he suffer because of the sins that his parents committed? Should the colonized, in turn, just roll over and die on his own accord because it would be unjust to punish those who didn’t choose to be born there in the colony as another colonizer?
But perhaps it was a mistake to take a detached view on who to kill. It is true that “who to kill” is intricately linked to “what belief is being held by a given society”. If every rule is subservient to what a given society needs, then it is logical to conclude that the conditional justifications are tied to what that society needs at any given moment. Keep in mind that this does not mean that every individual is dissolved and be treated as an amorphous whole, nor should there be an explicit consensus based on discussions on who to kill. When the Germans thought that the French were going to harm them, an explicit consensus based on a discussion would take too long to form. It was enough that the Germans feared for his life, simply because he realized that he was in danger just because he was a German, or even that someone said that France is becoming a threat to Germany because it is unwilling to do such and such. This fear is shared by his neighbor not through rationalizations but through a shared serial identity of being Germans. Therefore, no consensus is reached explicitly, it was just fear spreading like a wildfire. Every man feared for his life, and every man realized that his neighbor shared his thoughts, not through reason but through serial identities. And thus, based on this fear, lest they all got defeated and enslaved by their enemies, everyone agreed that the threat must be dealt with. The French must die.
The same applies as well to something more benign, like for example the consensus between employers to cut the wages of their respective workers in the 19th century. There was no discussion, no propaganda. Each realized that it was necessary to keep wages low so that their products remained competitive. It was through the “other direction”, the nameless, faceless other who might be undercutting my product that I should innovate to keep my production cost low. It was a consensus among the employers that some life needed to be ignored, that some life needed to be eliminated if they broke the contract, and therefore caused a disruption which might lead to my ruin.
What Ought to Be and What Is
As we can see from our discussion so far, elimination is closely tied to what is needed at the moment by a given society. What is needed is then tied to what is thought to be the ideal state of that society. If this society needs certain things to be done in order for its own survival—a society full of dead people is hardly an ideal one—then it will stop at nothing but to achieve it. Based on these necessities, the idea of good and bad are formed, not to define what the necessities are but to serve these necessities. Take for example the Blance Monnier case. Didn’t her mother think that her behavior was justifiable and necessary based on what she thought to be the ideal state of her family status? But perhaps we could object to this conception. That ideal state was a personal one, and one could certainly doubt whether such an ideal state is actually one that is actually ideal or just a twisted one. One couldn’t really say that the status of her daughter after captivity to be closer to her ideal state compared to her condition had she married the lawyer. But here we would have to ask ourselves what counts as an actual ideal state and a twisted one? Could we all agree that a society that is full of prosperous people to be one that is ideal? Perhaps not, some would argue that prosperity could breed weakness, since people would then be complacent to their surroundings. Could we agree that the ideal society would be one in which everyone could live happily and be free to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm others? Perhaps not, for some people’s ideal societal state consists of observing strict religious morality. And how are we to decide which one is better than the others, if not by measuring it according to our own ideal societal state?
According to what process are we to form these ideal societal states? Should it be by reason alone, or passion for kindness, or faith? If we are to strive for human kindness, then in what sense should it be enough kindness? What kind of kindness is wanted? Had there been a society that is so expressive in its desire to go against human kindness? Even the Nazis in World War 2 expressed that what they did was for the good of everyone. You may disagree, but could you be sure your “kindness” doesn’t sacrifice anyone? Clearly to form an objective ideal societal state is impossible. Even if there is such a thing as an objective state that is desired by the people, objectivity alone isn’t enough to push people to do things. What is is different from what ought to be. What ought to be has an element of obligation, a gravity which attracts people to achieve it. That is why it is “ought” to be. On the contrary, what is is just what can be seen around us. It is things as they are. In themselves, they are meaningless and without any attraction. They are just contingent and cannot give any reason for us to do something. The only reason why what is here now could be seen as a calling for us to do something to it is only because we see the “what is” in light of the “what ought to be”, and what ought to be is closely tied to what is it that we want to achieve in the future based on our personal choice as a free agent.
But don’t mistake personal choice with chaos. It is true that every member of a society has to choose what is to be seen as the best for a given society, but this does not mean everyone will always choose anything different from what their neighbor chooses. Previously we have seen how seriality could cause conformity on the basis of superficial serial identity. But there is another reason why freedom of choice doesn’t always cause chaos. A choice is always based on what is there to choose in front of the chooser, and based on the choices which the chooser has made until now which has made who the chooser is now, the chooser would choose what’s already available to him. With this, conformity is assured, not only by the meekness of the people, or the serial identity of the people, but also since for them, this is just how the world is. To go against it is not to go against a mere idea but it would be as if the person goes against the world itself. For the people living in it, such ideal states would not just be seen as a mere idea, but an obligation, a duty, the good, the structure of the world, a necessity, what is normal, a series of rights, or the road to salvation, to name a view. It is in the right of the head of the family in Rome to hold life and death power over their family members, and for them, it was the right thing to do, it was the duty of the head of the family to maintain order in the family. It is only by looking through a different lens, a different ideal societal state, could we say that it was the wrong thing to do. Had we shared the same ideal, we would no doubt agree with the heavy-handed approach of Roman discipline. And thus, it is impossible to say that my ideal societal state is better, or maybe more enlightened, than yours. It is only better only if I already make a decision to make my ideal state better, to take a stand and look at everything from that particular perspective. There could be no objective state, no blank-state, from which we could look at things without already taking a stance regarding the matter.
But what if freedom as it turns out is just a lie, and that every choice we made had been, in one way or another, predetermined by our biological and/or psychological predispositions? Would that then allow objectivity to give necessities to a person? In a sense, perhaps, but such necessity would be totally indifferentiable from contingency. If a rock was to be pushed down a hill, would the fact that it then rolled down the hillside be a contingency or a necessity? And in what sense would that, therefore, allow society to no longer need human sacrifices? On the contrary, it would then make killings no more than another fact of life. Just like sometimes an earthquake is inevitable, then human sacrifices every now and then in certain situations are also inevitable.
Now we can conclude that the determination of who to die is inevitably linked to what kind of societal order is being pursued. The capitalist pursues the capitalist order, and the fascist pursues a societal order according to its image. The neo-liberal pursues a societal order that suits its needs, and the religious pursues a societal order which suits its needs either. Of course, no one will see this elimination as active killing. They will usually see it in a more euphemistic way, such as “locking away dangerous elements of society in order to protect the rest from harm”. “We are doing this to protect ourselves”, they might say, “it is either that or we risk letting our losing our lives altogether”. And indeed they might be right, is it not what the paradox of tolerance is, that if you let intolerant ideas roam free in the name of free speech, then you risk losing your country to authoritarianism? Perhaps that might be so. But then as we have seen, things are rarely so clear-cut. While we speak loudly of this obvious intolerance, most of the time we don’t really care about the people who we cannot see. And how could we realize it if they are actually the target of our extermination? Numerous countries will say something against what they think is bad while disregarding, at least silently, the lives of those they wasted. “It is just how things are”, “it is just what is best for this society”, or even perhaps completely disregarding the fact that it is basically human sacrifices that they’re doing and twisting it into an ideal state that everyone should strive for instead, such as “working hard in your youth is important so that you could be prosperous in your old days” to justify overworking, while completely disregarding the emptiness that everyone feels in their days especially as the result of these ideas. “Good order”, and not our humanity, not our love for others, and certainly not our God-given basic human rights, will determine what will be seen as sacrifices and what will be seen as the human ideal, and even what our rights will be.
Of course, what fits the need of such ideal states does not have to be reached through any active discussion. “Good order” is an order of the faceless, the nameless who might agree on this consensus. And since everyone is afraid to disagree with what his neighbor might be agreeing, everyone, therefore, agrees on what the “order” is supposed to be. Therefore, a silent nod is usually what it takes to choose who is to be dealt with, either by force through the justification of the law, such as the death of enemy soldiers in times of war, through the justification of some kind of social norm, such as the persecution of homosexuals in some conservative societies, or by being indifferent towards the death of a certain group of people, such as the death of the working-class during the 19th century. It is not because they are seen as “sub-humans”, but simply because they are human beings living a life contrary to “good order”.
And thus, abortion is thought of as murder only because it is contrary to the “good order” of certain societies. In some other societies, “good order” is based on forced sterilizations and aborting fetuses which might disrupt the “good order”. And because of this as well, we find cases in which a society contradicts itself, such as going against abortion but allowing the murder of undesirables. And it is not like we are above this contradiction. While we might agree that murder is a bad thing, it’s not like we really care if our actions do harm to anyone, especially if those people are invisible. To hoard wealth is to prevent others from attaining the same wealth. To attain order is to eliminate the disorder—the undesirables who are the root of that disorder. But it’s not like we want to do anything about it. This isn’t to say that murder is a good thing and that it should be encouraged, nor is this to say that murder is a bad thing as well. It is just something that we do, whether we like it or not. We always feel that we need a certain kind of societal order, and every order, every ideology, even those that preach for equality and are against murder, will always find a target to eliminate. This is the reason why Sartre reaffirms Sauvy’s statement “society chooses its dead”. To take someone’s life away could indeed be seen as a shameful act, but then, it is no more shameful than anything which we’ve ever done before and certainly not shameful enough to make us think that we should never ever do such a thing.
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