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Monday, March 24, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 2

If good and bad were as easy to distinguish as black and white, would people ever make bad decisions? This is not a new question. It’s been around since, oh, roughly the dawn of mankind in The Garden of Eden. God said don’t eat from that tree or you’ll die. That’s easy to understand. Eat = die. Don’t eat = live. It’s a simple black-and-white choice. But then Satan asks Eve if she understood God correctly, or maybe God really doesn’t know everything. That plants seeds of doubt in Eve’s mind. Now the equation looks more like this: Eat = ? Don’t eat = ? The rest is history, a history of humanity leaving The Garden and spreading all over the globe to grope in the darkness for a certainty that’s no longer there.

We no longer live in the black-and-white ethical world of The Garden. Things aren’t simple in a fallen world. The Russian officer Denisov finds himself caught up in a sort of gray area between necessity and military regulations. Here are two black-and-white choices facing Denisov: (1) his men are starving. Some of them are literally dying. Should he let his men starve? This isn’t a difficult decision: no. (2) A military (Russian) caravan of food is passing close by but that food is headed to another Russian regiment, not Denisov’s men. Is it ok to steal? No, not ordinarily. However, these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Is it wrong to take food intended for another regiment and give it to your own men if they’re starving? Given this situation the decision is more difficult than a simple yes or no, so let’s examine two possibilities.

First answer: Denisov was justified in taking food that was not intended for his regiment. His men were starving. He was their commanding officer. It is his responsibility to take care of them to the best of his ability and that’s what he was doing. Denisov himself put it best when he asks the simple question “am I to let the men die of hunger?” Who among us is so callous to sacrifice our own men for the sake of formalities? This food was intended for soldiers at the front. Your soldiers need food. The quartermasters at the rear don’t have a clear grasp of what’s going on, or who needs what. Therefore, you did what you had to do: you took the food.

Second answer: Denisov violated military regulations by stealing supplies. The question isn’t what condition his men were in. Many Russian troops were in bad condition. Many were starving. The Russian command center was trying to relieve their condition in an orderly manner. Commander Denisov actually made conditions worse for the Russian army by circumventing the plan established by the quartermasters to get as much food out as they could, as quickly as possible. Denisov should be court-martialed for violating military regulations.

Which of these two answers is correct? Pick a hundred jurors at random to decide this case and you’ll probably get a split decision. In modern American terms, those who would defend Denisov (or find him not guilty) tend see the Constitution as a flexible document that should be adapted to conform to human needs and changing circumstances. For them the world is gray so the Constitution shouldn’t be interpreted in black and white terms. Denisov’s men needed food and Denisov did what any good commander would do under the same circumstances. Denisov bent the rules but did not act on selfish or criminal motives.

Those who would prosecute Denisov (or find him guilty) tend to see the Constitution, and the world, in different terms. They believe precisely because the world is gray that we need to have some objective black and white standard to determine what is and is not acceptable. The Constitution is that standard. In this case, Denisov’s men were hungry. But so were other Russians. Did that give him the right to make up his own rules? That way only leads to anarchy.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Actually, there is no such thing as a "black and white ethical world." The so-called black & white ethical world of the garden of Eden was nothing of the sort. The garden of Eden was a pre-political society composed of two individuals, neither of whom had any notion of good and evil. Ethics requires the clear knowledge of good and evil, and the capacity to choose one over the other. Prior to eating fruit from the tree of Knowledge, mankind possessed no moral capacity to choose one over the other. In point of fact, life in the Garden of Eden is a mythical creation based on a philosophical conundrum: that one can be good without choosing the Good, or that one can know Good without knowing its opposite. Ethics is not about feeling good or being happy or content. It requires a conscious choice on the part of an individual to do one thing rather than another.

The question for Adam and Eve is not choosing good over evil. They have no conception of evil, so how could they possibly choose it? The question is whether or not they will obey God's law. On the other hand, if one assumes that any disobedience of God's law is evil, then clearly Adam and Eve could be described as doing evil. The moral question is whether Adam and Eve are truly given the freedom to decide how they should live...either to obey God's law or not. Yet, Satan tells Eve that God is not telling the truth and is withholding some crucial information. According to Satan, eating from the tree of knowledge will not bring about mankind's ruin but instead mankind's freedom from bondage. Unfortunately for Eve, she allows herself to believe Satan rather than God, and hence the fate of mankind is decided by a single bad decision.

God's law is inviolable. It is what it is for all time. Yet the attempt to compare our constitution (a document created by mortal men with finite reason) with God's eternal law is a verbal confusion. Let's not forget that even God's law, which is eternal and perfect, must be interpreted by fallible human beings. And since human beings are fallible, they will always disagree on their understanding of God's law. When it comes to our own constitution, the Founding Fathers recognized the need for laws to reflect the state of a changing society. The mechanism of constitutional amendment is built into the very heart of the document. Otherwise, it would never have been adopted by the colonies. Our ongoing disagreement over constitutional matters results from our inability to interpret the constitution in a manner that satisfies everyone at the same time. But good judgment doesn't always imply universal agreement. Human judgment, unlike divine wisdom, benefits from the lessons of human experience. Likewise, the constitution guides us just as the North star does without shackling our need to occasionally change direction. As Aristotle might say, the art of navigation requires the foresight to see trouble ahead and avoid it if possible. Otherwise, like the RMS Titanic, a ship of state will collide with the unexpected and sink because its captain failed to make the necessary change in direction.

3/24/2008 8:26 AM  

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