Rebirth of Reason


Moral Cowardice
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the most interesting aspects of modern morality is how far people are willing to go to pretend that evil doesn't exist. In a different article, I wrote about the word 'threat' and its many uses. The word is often narrowly used in order to avoid calling something a threat. If a country says they will kill any and all Americans, they are ignored. If a country says they will preemptively attack, they are ignored. In the process of ignoring them, they'd say that those people "aren't really a threat". The only threats people seem to recognize are ones where violence is imminent and there can be absolutely no doubting that it can happen.


So why is this? Why are people so determined to pretend a threat is not a threat? Why are they so hesitant to name evil, let alone confront it. It can't be out of fear of losing. It applies even in cases where one side is much stronger than another. In fact, those cases may be even more common. So what is the root of it?


I don't have a complete answer. That's why the topic is interesting. But I believe the root of this cowardice is in the nature of the morality adopted by people. It is their moral views that govern this behavior. It is generally believed that this kind of cowardice is a new phenomenon, and only really applies in the western world. There is no such hesitation in many of the African nations, or even Islamic nations. There's something specific about the altruistic morality that's widely accepted in the west that promotes this approach. And that's where any investigation of the topic needs to start.


One of the important characteristics in an altruistic society is that there is a general distrust of the strong and a general sympathy for the weak. In the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel is considered the stronger party and condemned for it. They are considered bullies. When Palestinians ruthlessly attack people with primitive weapons, Israelis are condemned for retaliating with more advanced weapons. To many people, the issue of whether one side is initiating force or retaliating is unimportant. It is the strong that are condemned for the fact that they are strong.


This stems from the altruistic morality that upholds the poor and needy as worthy of help. Altruism splits the world into those that need, and those that have, and the latter are to be sacrificed for the former. One side is expected to make sacrifices, and the other side is deemed worthy of receiving the benefits of those sacrifices. Altruism sees one man's gain as another man's loss, and condemns the wealthy and reveres the poor. Altruism must have winners and losers, and so the only question is whether you support the little guy or the big guy. Altruism says the little guy should be supported.


So given this worship of the weak over the strong, it explains some of the moral cowardice in action. If a country is stronger than another, the natural sympathy of altruists will be for the weaker country, no matter how vicious. And even if the leaders of a country don't buy into this, they will be concerned about public opinion. When matters of right and wrong are ignored in favor of weak vs. strong, there are good reasons to ignore even obvious threats.


A different reason for hesitating on threats is altruisms view of others vs. self. The source of all evil in the altruistic view is selfishness. If a country wages war on another, it doesn't take long for accusations of selfishness to appear. The Iraq War was condemned as blood for oil. All of the reasons for the war, including Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors as required by the peace treaty of the earlier Gulf War, were completely forgotten and the worst motives were offered in their place. And this wasn't done by our enemies. This was from citizens and member of our own government. Even the Afghanistan war, clearly done in response to 9/11, has been attacked as imperialistic, expansionist, and self-serving.


Any war or foreign policy that has any possible positive side-effect for our country is viewed as an intolerable crime. Whatever the reasons for it are, they are all ignored except some possible remote benefit. It doesn't matter if the Iraq war cost us more than we'll ever get in oil. If there is a chance of getting some of it back through oil, than that is assumed to be the only reason for it. The worst motives are always held up as the "real" explanation for the actions.


This all stems from the altruistic view of selfishness. Any potential benefit, no matter how small, is seen as totally corrupting a moral act. If you give generously to charity, but receive public praise in return, your actions are dismissed as trying to manipulate public opinion. The only possible moral act is one that is made at a complete and total sacrifice to yourself, with no possible benefit.


And we see this effect in foreign policy. The Democrats tend to favor wars or foreign policies that we have absolutely no national interests in. They're okay with waging a war in some land nobody has heard of where there's no benefit. Those wars are "humanitarian" wars. They are done for the benefit of others, at a great cost and with no possible hope of benefiting. But if we would benefit from it, the war becomes automatically immoral.


In terms of moral cowardice, this moral objection to selfishness means that any war, no matter how justifiable on grounds of self-defense, defense of our citizens, defense of our allies, or even humanitarian grounds, will be condemned as selfishness, arrogance, and disdain for others. The only wars that are legitimately fought are ones where the other side is allowed to attack unimpeded (the altruist would say unprovoked). Only when the war is inevitable is it allowed to be fought. And even then, that moral support may be limited.


A different reason morality encourages cowardice is that it often promotes pacifism as an ideal. It doesn't distinguish between initiations of force or retaliatory force. There is no such thing as good violence. All violence is considered evil. So even in the face of a hostile nation threatening to attack our citizens, this view of morality encourages pacifism, dialogue, and even appeasement.


If a country does wage war, the only excuse is that it is completely unavoidable. If there was any chance of averting the violence, even through appeasement or bribes, it would be seen as preferable to actual violence. And if a country is not willing to do whatever it takes to avoid violence, they are assumed to be secretly happy to wage war. Some selfish benefit will be assumed.


Related to the general promotion of pacifism and general hatred of violence in any form, there is a particular viewpoint that is widespread. This viewpoint is that violence is caused by fear and misunderstanding. So in the face of hostility, the best thing to do is to try to reassure your enemies that you mean no harm. Offering gifts is one way to do that. Unilaterally disarming is another. Giving them access to all of your military technology might help. Removing troops and defenses from your border works. By leaving yourself in a very weak position, you remove the possibility that they'll fear you. The weaker you are, the safer you are according to this view.


In terms of moral cowardice, the lesson here is that you should never stand up for yourself or resist hostility. If you do, you'll likely provoke them and cause what you were trying to avoid. If their hostility is out of fear, or even if they think it is warranted by your own actions, standing up straight might push them over the edge. The morally preferred goal is to back down to diffuse the situation. And once again, cowardice is the result.


So we have a number of reasons why moral cowardice exists as a product of moral beliefs. There's disdain for the strong and sympathy for the weak. There's a fear of being accused of selfishness. There's the belief that violence is always wrong and should be avoided at all costs. And there's the belief that standing up to evil might unintentionally provoke it.


While this analysis discussed foreign policy and wars, the same moral cowardice exists within a society and among individuals. Confrontations are avoided at all costs. Threats are ignored. Criminals are treated as victims and not taken seriously despite the harm that they do. Retaliatory force is treated the same as initiations of force, as merely violence, and abhorred in general. All of these causes have personal effects as well.


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