Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Innocence and Innocents

Amid working at an extraordinarily efficient pace in my new job I've had the opportunity to return to that old mainstay, Three Kingdoms, perhaps the finest novel ever written (and one of the first). In view of this and a question asked of me recently I paraphrase a tale from the novel. Cao Cao on the run from the tyrant Dong Zhuo is forced to seek aid from a family friend. He is accompanied by Lu Bu's eventual strategist Chen Gong, an extremely honorable man.

Suspicious of their host Cao Cao investigates a nearby barn where 8 innocent civilians are preparing a feast for him and his companion; but thinking them a murderous party they act impulsively and slay the 8 civilians. On the way out from this calamitous event they meet their host on the road; Cao Cao insists he must leave at once, but then retreads upon the host and slays him as well; so that the word might not get out of the previous atrocity committed. Cao Cao is certainly at a vulnerable state in this point and the move is tactically sound in the vein of self preservation; he even states "Better to wrong the world then have it wrong me." The duality of these 2 events; one an accident and the other wholly intentional is incredible. While the first act was terrible it wasn't premeditated, but the later act of killing his host is a deliberate action to murder an innocent in order to save one's self. These are but 5 pages from a 2400 page book, filled with riveting tales of the same ilk; but yet they resonate even today.

My question is: Is there a point at which killing an innocent civilian in secret to save yourself is good enough for society to be justified? By John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism any action must be considered based on the amount of happiness that it will produce; can the disruption of your personal character, cognitive dissonance, and guilt alongside the death of the innocent be countered by the later societal impact of your demise. If you're say Alexander at his peak, or Bonaparte, or Hannibal and your death would throw your nation into chaos; can you justify this act? In the future you save millions of civilians; is the loss of one innocent and your personal innocence enough to negate that action?

Personally I value the lives of innocents above all else so it would take quite the thing; the first impulsive act I would likely have never performed; preferring to outwit the ambush at the point of attack rather than act uncertainly upon potential benefactors. But the second act is what gives me pause. 1 life or millions; what is the choice, how much happiness is lost, how much is your salvation worth, how much is the world's salvation worth? Indeed the Messiah himself may have thought of such things, both literally and figuratively. An inversion of his ultimate sacrifice. Can another's unwitting forced sacrifice save the world, as it were? Is it ever worth considering such an action?

The eventual end here is probabilistic. What is the expected value of your death upon society, what is the expected value of your loss of afterlife and the loss of the civilian; assuming that is the highest cost to be paid here? Naturally for everyone alive in almost the past 2 centuries it would not ever reach that level; but in the past there have been such men who were in pre-eminent positions. Cao Cao himself would eventually be in such a position; but at that point in his life it was not clear and the act is extremely selfish. Can one selflessly preserve one's self for the betterment of society through a single horrific action? Certainly a lofty thought experiment this; and something to consider. Justice is not so convenient as to align perfectly with morality; even in the absence of a flawed judicial system; it is naive to think you can prevent your own corruption, your own moral depreciation; speaking as a person of the highest moral standard. Deterioration is inevitable; though never unforgivable as Barabas and Christ's companion on the cross would point out; but could you forgive yourself for such a cold, calculated act? Questions without answers these; eternally pondered yet not solved. Yet.

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