Archive for the ‘Barack Obama’ Tag

Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

Neighbor Love, Natural Law, and Universal Moral Norms

Last Thursday, Barack Obama spoke at the Annual Prayer Breakfast about his faith and what he sees as the role of religion in public life. Judging from the fact that President Obama referred to unbelievers as “humanists,” it is pretty clear what Obama thinks religion is there to do: help us love one another.

“Whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’

” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.

“It is, of course, the Golden Rule -– the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

The interesting thing about this claim our president is making is that it rests on anthropological and metaphysical principles that we all do not actually agree on. Conservative Christians, for example, lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of President Obama’s insistence that there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being when he has one of the most consistent pro-choice records of any politician around today. This is because Barack Obama does not think that the fetus is a full human being with full moral rights; Conservative Christians do.

Turns out, in the history of humanity, we have never been all that clear about what it means to be human or what counts as a full human being. Metaphysically, the question is “what is the essence of humanity?” Some people think we can resolve this question through practical reasoning and consensus. Jacques Maritain, for example, thought that natural law reasoning could provide the philosophical foundations for an anthropology that would support the drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought we could get all nations together and agree on such rights even if we did not agree on their metaphysical presuppositions. But as post-1948 history has illustrated, we might like the rights when they apply to ourselves, but it still isn’t all that clear who counts as human and gets to benefit from them. Our progressive-minded president draws a line in the womb somewhere. Peter Singer draws the line at infants. Aristotle drew the line at barbarians, women, and natural slaves.

A lot of people, many of them Catholic but not all, think that natural law can provide a fixed understanding of human nature. The idea is basically that human beings can rationally derive what it means to be a human, and what is normative for human nature, based on rational discernment about what is “natural.” Some have described this as an unwritten law on the human heart, and it is normally not thought of a religious way of thinking about humanity and morality. The Founding Fathers in the United States were deists, and were very influenced by natural law reasoning from the Enlightenment that led them to the American Proposition that “all men are created equal.” Because of its characteristic “unreligious” nature, natural law reasoning has been dismissed by many Protestants like Karl Barth who claim that God’s will, not human reason, is up to the task of figuring out what human beings are and what they are supposed to do.

Natural law, as defined by Aquinas (though Aquinas’ definition in no way exhausts all the different ways natural law has been conceived from the time of the pre-Socratics to the present) is the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law (I-II, Q. 91, art. 2). The natural law is a capacity to distinguish between good and evil that rational creatures are endowed with. This capacity is expressed through moral precepts like the Golden Rule. The natural law can yield more specific precepts and includes a fundamental capacity for moral judgment, but there is considerably less certainty on the level of particular norms. Basically, the Golden Rule might be absolute and universal, but how to apply it is not. Rather than thinking of the natural law as a series of universal norms, it is better to think of it a rational principle of discernment–a built-in mechanism human beings have to discern between good and evil.

What the natural law does not give us, despite what some people think, is a fixed understanding of human nature. Natural law does not allow us to grasp absolute, fundamental, and universal aspects of human nature. Rational discernment gives us an idea of what is fundamental to human nature, but our ability both to know these elements and to express them is limited, not only by our inability as finite creatures to grasp the absolute and the universal, but also due to sin which clouds our intellect and veils the truth. Moreover, human nature is not something that exists in a fixed way prior to becoming embedded in a culture, but is rather a political or social thing. God may know the essence of human nature, and what should be normative for human beings to do in any given situation, but human beings do not have access to such knowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the one absolute is that human beings do not know the absolute.

What we get from natural law reasoning are a lot of different norms and a lot of different ideas about human nature. Aristotle, Aquinas, Peter Singer, and Barack Obama are all using the natural law to make judgments about what is good and what is evil, and I am betting that none of my readers agree with all of them. Although modern natural law theorists have attempted to provide a universal moral code based purely on practical reasoning, I think this is an impossibility. Natural law reasoning, rather, is always embedded in a particular belief system and a particular metaphysical conception of the good. You cannot separate the work of practical reasoning from the political, social, and religious environs in which such reasoning occurs, nor can you present a definition of human that is detached from such an environs. At least, not an absolute or universal definition.

So what are we to do in this global environment where we are desperate, as President Obama illustrates, to find commonalities, or the universal among all the particularities? Does natural law provide us with any way of generating universal norms or a universal definition of what it means to be human? Jean Porter has argued convincingly that people like Thomas Aquinas thought of natural law as a Scriptural concept, that his understanding of human nature was guided by scriptural and theological principles of interpretation. Consequently, Aquinas’ idea of human nature was not grounded in the conclusions of pure practical reasoning, but rather in the image of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For thinkers like Aquinas, natural law reasoning occurred at the locus where reason and revelation occurred, and this allowed him to construct an elaborate, virtue-based ethic delineating not only what was possible but also what was desirable for human nature under the aid of grace. What is normative for the human being under such specifically Christian natural law reasoning is not just the Decalogue and the two-fold command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but also the call to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, and that ever-tricky love of enemy.

The consequence of this idea of natural law is that Barack Obama cannot just say that everybody across the globe knows to “love their neighbors as their selves.” I’m sure the Hutus bought into that as they were slaughtering the Tutsis. Good thing the Tutsis weren’t neighbors. The British probably bought into as well as they were legislating apartheid in South Africa to keep the non-neighbor Africans in their place. The German National Socialists, many of them good Lutherans in their free time, undoubtedly thought love of neighbor was important, but Jews and Communists and homosexuals were fair game. And Barack Obama can cite the universality of the command in front on the National Prayer Breakfast with a clear conscience, even though he thinks that partial birth abortion is okay, and has done all he can to make sure it stays legal in this country.

For Christians, who counts as the neighbor cannot be separated from what revelation through Scripture tells us. For the hard-core biologist, the neighbor will be defined differently, probably based on some scientific standard for who counts and who does not. For the philosophical humanist, we will get another definition. Barack Obama is right to point out the universal nature of the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule tells us practically nothing. As the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 indicates, the juicy part of that question is “who is my neighbor.”

Making Virtuous Sense of Public Opinion

I have been hearing a lot in the last week or so about the importance (or unimportance) of public opinion in political matters.

  • On Wednesday, September 3, Sarah Palin gave her speech at the convention accepting her nomination as John McCain’s running-mate. One of her themes was public opinion: “Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to win their good opinion.” She’s in good company among her running mate who is known as a contrarian, often irreverent straight-talker who doesn’t care what you or anybody else thinks so long as he is getting the job done.
  • President Bush is unpopular. We hear about it all the time. Throngs of Obama supporters shout “We want change,” every time the good senator tries to make a speech, and McCain has become increasingly emphatic that he too is a change candidate. Nobody wants to be associated with the guy who is obviously in the wrong. But according to an op-ed in the Boston Globe on Thursday, while Bush’s approval ratings may only be 30%, the Democratic-controlled Congress has a 9% approval rating.
  • On Thursday, September 4, I read a fascinating op-ed in the Boston Globe entitled “Bush’s enduring legacy in Africa.” The article was providing a counterpoint to those who bemoan the wide-spread animosity towards the United States President Bush has fostered abroad. The article claims that polling data from the Pew Foundation indicate this fear and loathing of the US is not as widespread as we may think: “Approval ratings for the United States exceed 80 percent in many African countries, some with large Muslim populations. In Darfur, many families name their newborn sons George Bush.” The article goes on to say that Bush’s humanitarian and economic initiatives—such as quadrupling foreign aid to more than $5 billion, providing peacemaking assistance in Sudan, and providing HIV-riddled countries with anti-retrovirals—are responsible for Bush’s popularity in Africa. The article concludes, “While Bush’s critics have given him little credit for his African initiatives, they will be among his most enduring legacies in a region of the world neglected by policymakers from both parties for too long. Africans will long remember what Bush’ critics have ignored.”
  • Last week, I watched Obama’s DNC speech with two Obama supporters, neither of which is particularly enthusiastic about voting for him, but think that he is better than the alternative. When I pressed them on what precisely made him better, one of the things they emphasized was that Obama would be more successful in making the United States more popular abroad. Public opinion matters, they argued, and Obama is more likeable than McCain to our European friends.

How important is public opinion, especially from a moral perspective? John Locke, in his “Essay on Human Understanding,” seems to have a strong view of the relationship between morality and public opinion:

For though men, uniting into politic societies, have resigned up to the public the disposing of all their force, so that they cannot employ it against any fellow-citizen any further than the law of the country directs, yet they retain still the power of thinking well or ill, approving or disapproving of the actions of those whom they live amongst and converse wit and by this approbation and dislike they establish amongst themselves what they will call virtue and vice. . . No man escapes the punishment of their censure and dislike who offends against the fashion and opinion of the company he keeps and would recommend himself to. Nor is there one of ten thousand who is stiff and insensible enough to bear up under the constant dislike and condemnation of his own club. He must be of a strange and unusual constitution who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society. Solitude many men have sought and been reconciled to but nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars and those he converses with.

The point here, and I think it is one that experience confirms, is that we have a tendency to judge whether we are right or wrong in light of what people think of us, both as individuals and a nation. Want to point out just how bad Bush is? Just look at his approval ratings. Want to prove that the Roman Catholic position on birth control is wrong? Just look at polls showing that the vast majority of Roman Catholics disagree. The problem with this is two-fold. First, public opinion is notoriously unreliable for figuring out what is right and wrong. Second, what people think of you depends on who you ask.

Regarding the first point, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1932 called Moral Man, Immoral Society that argued that human beings might, by themselves, be very moral people, strongly committed to certain principles like non-violence or social justice, but when put in a society, these principles ceased to hold the same importance for dictating behavior. As a result, you may have ordinarily very good people do ruthless, oppressive, and violent actions when part of a larger group. Niebuhr insisted that people in their social, racial, religious, or political groups could simply not escape supporting and doing immoral things, a view which was validated by the events of the Holocaust and the violence associated both with the civil rights movement and the violence associated with the Cold War in the following decades. For Niebuhr, the highest form of morality was challenging the group and opposing its morality, in the way of Socrates and Jesus. If we go with Niebuhr, we may ask quite simply: if people are less moral in groups, why should we trust public opinion to dictate what is right?

Regarding the second point, experience confirms that we are going to get the answer we want based on who we talk to. If you want to find out if you are drinking too much, best not to ask a frat boy. If you want to point at how unpopular Bush is, best to poll Europeans and not Africans. Regarding politics, our anti-aristocratic tendencies in this country may resist the basic platitude that the opinion of the wise is more valuable than the opinion of the many.

Of course, the realist might point out that the wise are few and far between, and thus, majority opinion is the next best thing. James Madison, in his Federalist Papers #49, is such a realist:

The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious, when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence, in proportion to the number with which it is associated. . . A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.

The point here is that the foundation of government in contemporary politics, which includes judgment of what is right or wrong, must depend on the opinion of both the wise and the foolish.

Despite all this, public opinion does play a somewhat important role in virtue theory. One way is in the matter of counsel. Aquinas says that a “choice is a judgment of the reason about what is to be done,” but in uncertain cases, reason does not provide a clear judgment without some sort of consultation, and this consultation is called counsel (I-II, Q.14, art. 1) Counsel is specifically about the means, not the end of an action. What this means is that if the end of action is to vote virtuously, counsel may be required to determine how one might go about accomplishing this end, but the end itself (that is, casting a virtuous vote) is dictated by reason. However, prudence dictates that counsel should only be sought from the wise. Aquinas says “It may happen that things which are most certainly good in the opinion of wise and spiritual men are not certainly good in the opinion of many, or at least of carnal-minded men. In such things counsel may be given” (I-II, Q. 14, art.1, ad. 3). The way I take this, Aquinas clearly thinks that majority opinion should be taken less seriously than the opinion of the wise and virtuous. The problem is, how is one to figure out who is wise and virtuous?

One way that Aquinas answers the question is theologically, specifically by identifying counsel as an infused gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Secundae Secundae under the topic of the gift of counsel, Aquinas says that “in the research of counsel, man requires to be directed by God who comprehends all things: and this is done through the gift of counsel whereby man is directed as though counseled by God, just as, in human affairs, those who are unable to take counsel for themselves, seek counsel from those who are wiser” (II.II., 52.1). Quite simply, the Holy Spirit helps the person determine whose opinion should matter about things to be done.

For the less theologically-minded, Aquinas answers the question of counsel from a more classically-oriented virtue theory perspective. In the treatise on prudence considered in itself, Aquinas says that counsel should be sought from those who seek the common good, and these people can be known by the fact that they seek their own good in a virtuous way:

He that seeks the good of the many, seeks in consequence his own good, for two reasons. First, because the individual good is impossible without the common good of the family, state, or kingdom. Hence Valerius Maximus says of the ancient Romans that ‘they would rather be poor in a rich empire than rich in a poor empire.’ Secondly, because since man is a part of the home and state, he must needs consider what is good for him by being prudent about the good of the many. For the good disposition of parts depends on their relation to the whole; thus Augustine says that ‘any part which does not harmonize with its whole, is offensive’ (II-II, 47.10, ad. 2).

On a similar note under the subject of the virtue of magnanimity, Aquinas says that “he that makes good use of great things is much more able to make good use of little things” (II-II, 129.2, ad. 3).

Quite simply, Aquinas is saying that the person most likely to know what is virtuous for the many (like the nation in our contemporary political system) is the one who knows what is virtuous for his own person and family. Plato does something similar to what Aquinas is doing here in the Republic where he says that justice is harmony of parts in a similar way that health is the harmony of parts in a body. A person, or a group of people, that are themselves ordered towards the good (that is, virtuous) and have harmony in their own person and family and community are the people most likely to have opinions useful for the larger common good. Thus, we should seek counsel from them.

How are we to apply this practically, especially in light of some of the examples I gave at the beginning of this rather long blog post? Let’s take presidential and vice-presidential candidates, for example. They may say that they are not going to Washington to win anybody’s good opinion, but they are going to Washington because they think that their opinions matter and that we, the American people, have reason to listen to them. In deciding if their opinion should count for anything, one clue would be to look at their personal lives and see the level of order reflected therein. An alcoholic, an adulterer, or a spendthrift are probably not the sort of people best-suited for figuring out what should be done for the sake of the common good. The level of virtue reflected in the personal lives of our candidates simply does matter for the sort of role they are looking to take on.

As far as nation-wide public opinion polls, I think (and I think Aquinas would agree) that they don’t count for much. In the fifties, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of pro-segregation legislation. In the months following September 11, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of Bush. The opinion of the masses does little in helping us discern whether an action or a person is moral. Bush’s 30% approval rating, and the congressional dismal 9% approval rating tell us that people are discontent, but these figures do little to help us determine whether Bush or congress are doing what is right. What we need in the upcoming months, as we prepare for our presidential elections, is less reflection on what people think and more reflection on what is right and virtuous and ordered toward the common good. Only when people think first of what is right and good will it ever matter what they think.