We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

What is the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? What should you do when, for example, you’re working for a company whose business practices you find exploitative? What if you’re working in a school system that embodies an educational philosophy you think is false or harmful?

Or consider the situation Orwell describes: When you are forced to choose between fighting in a war or capitulating to fascists?

This is a dreadful choice to make. On the one hand, fascism is ethically intolerable, and allowing fascism to conquer means allowing injustice to reign and persecution to run rampant. But to stop fascism means having to fight; and fighting means getting your hands dirty. “Getting your hands dirty” is, of course, a euphemism for all of the morally compromising actions that war entails. You will have to kill strangers, violently and indiscriminately; and in modern warfare the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, considering the weapons we use.

It is one question (which I don’t intend to address here) whether the so-called “collateral damage” of a conflict justifies the war. It is another whether the moral damage of participating in warfare compensates for the moral benefit of defeating an enemy. To use religious language for a moment, my question is this: Does inflicting violence for a good cause imperil your soul? Does the justice outweigh the sin?

Orwell thought the answer was yes, and he lived his principles. He fought passionately, both in word and action, against fascism, even taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. To pick another notable example, Malcolm X also agreed that violent means were justified when used against violent tyranny. If white people were going to violently oppress black people in America, then why shouldn’t black people fight back with any means necessary? Indeed, I think most people nowadays would agree that violence is sometimes justified by the outcome. Despite all the atrocities of the Second World War, fighting against the Nazis was morally preferable to letting them win.

On the other side of this debate are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The justification for pacifism is that violence corrupts, both the victim and the attacker. By committing violence, even in the service of a noble cause, we degrade ourselves.

This argument sounds religious, and it often is; but you can make this same argument from a secular perspective. James Baldwin, a man totally disillusioned with Christianity, was nevertheless a pacifist, because he thought violence, injustice, and oppression corrupts its agents. Baldwin thought this because the purveyors of violent oppression must create comforting myths for themselves so they don’t have to face their own immorality; and this leads to a disconnect from reality and an inauthentic life.

For my part, the risk with using unethical means for ethical ends is that it forces you to make exceptions in your moral code. You must create an inconsistency in your standards of right and wrong, and this may lead to a slippery slope. In other words, if you make a special rule to use violence against one type of person, this creates a risk that the rule can be abused.

For one, if you decide that violence is allowable against one special class of person—fascist soldiers, let’s say—this leads to the difficulty of determining whether any specific person falls into this class. If you make a mistake, you will commit violence to an innocent person. And it is clear that this rule can be abused (and certainly was during the Spanish Civil War), for example, by anyone who has a score to settle, through a false accusation or other forms of foul play.

The other risk is that, by creating one category of allowable violence, you set a damaging precedent. In the future, perhaps the category is expanded, or other categories of allowable violence are created, citing the first one for authority. In other words, you may unintentionally open the door for unscrupulous people, who wish to cloak their violence in legitimacy rather than use violence to accomplish a noble end.

I am not willing, for the moment, to assert that either Orwell or Baldwin are definitely right (although I admit I’m inclined to pacifism, if only because I’m cowardly). The “right” answer seems to depend heavily on the particular circumstances.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to decide whether to use violence against injustice. But by virtue of living in a society, we will certainly have to make many other, far less dramatic decisions about the right thing to do when given only undesirable options.

This question came to the fore during the 2016 elections, particularly among fans of Bernie Sanders. Many Bernie fans believed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were morally corrupt, and they were not content to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Now, in the case of Clinton and Trump, it seemed clear to me that Trump was incomparably worse than Clinton, so the choice wasn’t so hard. But in a general sense this question is certainly worth considering.

When faced with two unethical options, there is always a third option: don’t choose. That is, withdraw and refuse to participate. More generally, when you find yourself in a morally compromising environment, you can either attempt to navigate the environment in the least immoral way possible, or remove yourself from the environment.

Let me be a little more concrete. Imagine you are working in a business whose practices you disapprove of. Maybe you think the business exploits its workers—paying a low salary, with few benefits, and asking employees to work long hours—or maybe the business is selling a product under false pretenses, effectively fooling its customers.

Consider the latter case. To be even more concrete, imagine that you’re a salesperson selling a product you know is poor-quality. Your salary and your job security depend directly on how many units you sell. You have no way to improve the product. To sell it requires, if not lying, at least that you omit information—that is, that you fail to mention that the product is shoddy.

Maybe you’re first reaction is to say that the moral thing to do is to quit. If there is no moral way to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it, right? However, if you quit, do you really improve the world? The business will hire somebody else to replace you, perhaps somebody with less scruples, and the moral balance sheet of the universe will be unaffected. Indeed, by quitting, you inflicted harm on yourself by depriving yourself of the salary. And in that case is quitting the least moral thing to do?

This, I think, is the problem with morally compromising systems. By refusing to participate, all you do is damage yourself while allowing others to fill the same unethical role that you resigned.

True, you do have the option, in the example above, to try to create a movement against the business, to spread the knowledge that its products are shoddy (although this may be legally culpable if you signed a non-release form). Even so, when you think about it, the fundamental problem isn’t really that one business is selling a poor-quality product. The problem is that businesses can thrive by stretching the truth to sell products. (Or is the problem that consumers are not sufficiently well-informed? Where exactly does the business’s responsibility end and the consumer’s begin?)

Again, I’m unwilling, at least for now, to give a general prescription for conundrums like these. And yet the question cannot be put off. Life is one morally-compromising situation after another. How can we balance the need to look out for ourselves with the desire to harm as few people as possible?

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