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Ethics: Free will requires entering moral trenches

A UMNS Commentary
By David Briggs*
May 22, 2009


The atomic bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki Aug. 9, 1945, killed by various accounts an estimated 40,000 to 140,000 people.

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, U.S. forces dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender.

More than four decades later, ethicists still agonize over the decisions that killed an estimated 110,000 to 340,000 people, mostly civilians, but may have saved the lives of an estimated 850,000 to 1.8 million people, mostly civilians, by leading to a quick end to the war in the Pacific.

“We are presented with an impossible decision among courses of action that are all totally abominable,” writes Michael Bess in his excellent 2006 book, “Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II.” “Either way we choose—kill 200,000, kill 340,000, kill 850,000, kill 1.8 million—we are in effect giving our assent to an abomination in which hundreds of thousands of innocents will suffer and die.

“Either way we choose, we cannot but be morally lessened, spiritually wounded, by the choice.”

The only thing worse would be to not wrestle with the moral dilemmas.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we would do well to remember that among the sacrifices of those who serve in the military is the willingness to take up the moral burden required of those in the trenches of warfare.

The lure of absolutes

The moral complexities involved in confronting a foe willing to employ mass murder of non-combatants to achieve its ends confront the United States once more as it responds to the threat of terrorism.

The temptation is to stand on the extremes of the left or the right, and escape from the difficult realities on the ground by condemning and judging those who would depart from ideals of human behavior. So, some liberals toss around the word “torture” with little discretion for the interrogation techniques involved or the underlying aims, and some conservatives see nearly all human rights concerns as secondary to national security.

Even President Obama recently chastised what he called "absolutist" critics on both sides, who he said are more interested in scoring political points than finding solutions.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of civilians were murdered on U.S. soil, Americans know the seriousness of the terrorism threat. Real people have to make decisions in a way that often balances competing principles, such as the mandate to protect innocent life and the right of detainees to humane treatment.

"In a national debate that is often more about politics than morality, religious individuals have much to contribute."

Surveys show Americans recognize how difficult these questions are. More than two-thirds in some polls say there are at least rare times when harsh interrogation techniques are justified for terrorism suspects.

Sometimes those decisions seem impossible. Is it right, for example, to slap or push prisoners or make them stand in uncomfortable positions if it could prevent a suicide bombing? Is simulated drowning, or waterboarding, allowable if there is strong reason to believe it could disrupt a terrorist plot where hundreds of lives would be at stake?

But someone has to make those decisions. And those of us from religious traditions that prize the free will of an informed moral conscience, and have rich resources in Scripture and tradition to guide us along with experience and our capacity for reason, cannot avoid getting in the middle of these questions where the human condition leaves us with no good alternatives.

A role to play

In a national debate that is often more about politics than morality, religious individuals have much to contribute with analysis that brings in issues such as just cause, right intention, legitimate authority, violence as a last resort, protection of noncombatants, probability of success and the proportional good to be achieved from a violent act.


David Briggs

The United Methodist Church upholds high standards. The United Methodist Social Principles state torture for any purpose violates Christian teaching and must be condemned. The Social Principles also state “many Christians believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.”

In the summer of 1945, America was sick of war, and the combination of the atrocities committed by the military regime in Japan and its willingness to sacrifice its citizenry rather than surrender meant U.S. officials never considered not using nuclear weapons.

Now, we have an opportunity to reach a moral consensus on some of these difficult issues. These conversations are not going to be easy.

As Bess writes in discussing the use of the atomic bomb, when all the options are untenable, “our moral faculty cracks and groans under the pressure. If it doesn’t there is something wrong.”

Political zealots may try to stand above the moral dilemmas of the human condition, but this is not something the religious community can do. Leaving no room for free will in decision making is an abdication of moral responsibility.

Religious individuals are required to risk being spiritually wounded to exercise moral judgment even when staring down a moral abyss.

The brave men and women who sacrifice for their country deserve nothing less.

*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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