Sunday, October 20, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- Sartre and Jesus on Responsibilty
For Sartre, any explanation that deflects ones complete responsibility is an example of bad faith. Do you agree? Are there cases where people should not be held accountable for what they have done? Or cases where it is legitimate to say, I had no choice? Explain
To Sartre, and many other existentialists, there was no escaping your responsibility for your own decisions. Circumstances might limit the range of choices available to you, but you always have choices that are up to you and you must make the best choice possible under the given circumstances.
This is reminiscent of the Greek attitude toward your responses to your Moira, your net of fate. While the Greeks insisted that there was no escaping your fate, you were still able to make choices. You could decide how to react to your fate. You could fight against it, you could accept it, you could cry about it, or many other choices. Even under circumstances where your fate was firmly set and sealed, you had some choices.
Eventually Western civilization developed this idea of freedom into what we refer to as Shakespearean tragedy. Remember, this is when circumstances may give you a bad situation but you have many choices about how to react to that bad situation. You are no longer fated to a certain end of absolute inevitability. I earlier spoke of you about how, if Romeo and Juliet had responded more thoughtfully to their circumstances, things might have turned out well for them. Consider also Macbeth. He was tempted to commit murder so that he could become king, but he was not forced to do so. He could have chosen to ignore the prophecy of the witches and the pressures of his wife.
Sartre believes that people trick themselves into thinking that they have no choice. In this way, they excuse themselves from doing things that they know are wrong and which should not have been done. Earlier we talked about how many people said they had no choice but to help Hitler commit his mass murders. It's an excuse that was often used after the war when there were trials for those who had participated in these horrible acts. Sartre would say these people were deluding themselves and trying to escape responsibility for their own decisions. After all, they could have resisted, accepted imprisonment and death, run away, or done many other things.
Sartre is angry when people say they had no choice. Let us look again at the person who assisted in the Holocaust. He may well declare that he had no choice. Had he resisted the Nazis he would become a victim of a Holocaust. Sartre says that this person made a choice as we discussed above. Of course, one wonders how much responsibility a person must take for such a terrible choice. What if the man's entire family would have been sent to a death camp if he have not done what the Nazis perceived as his duty?
I am not arguing with Sartre's point about moral responsibility. The man did make a choice and he should not pretend he did not. However, should we condemn him for a choice made under those horrific circumstances? Do we really think he should have said, "Yes, go ahead and murder my family. As long as I don't have to do anything wrong."?
Now let's consider the issue from the viewpoint of justice. Imagine you are assigned to decide whether a person should or should not be charged with war crimes. When you interview him you realize he never hated Jews and never wanted to kill anyone. He really participated only because he was told his family would be murdered if he did not. Should he be tried for his crimes? Is he the abuser or the victim?
Perhaps he's some of each. Certainly, a person forced to do something he did not wish to do, that is, forced to make a decision he did not want to make, should not be charged with as serious a crime as a person who committed a war crime because he wanted to do so.
Sartre would certainly say that this man should admit that he made a decision to do a terrible thing and take responsibility for doing so. I do not disagree. However, I think it is also fair for a man to say, "I made this horrible decision because I thought the alternative decisions were even worse."
For example, many Americans talk of World War II as the Good War. This always upsets me.There has long been a concept in Christian circles of a just war. This also upsets me. This is because I can see no war as either good or just. War is always evil.
Yet, I am not a total pacifist. I am a pacifist insofar as I believe we should always try to avoid war. However, I recognize that sometimes war is forced upon you.
This is not an attempt to evade responsibility. I recognize that I am responsible for my choice if I decide to support my government going to war. Still, I insist that this might be the lesser of two evils. The evil of allowing Hitler to take over the world would have been even worse than the evil of going to war to stop him from doing so.
Because of the circumstances, I had to choose between one evil or the other. That does not completely excuse me from responsibility. On the other hand, you can hardly say that I had a choice which would have allowed me to escape responsibility for either going to war to stop Hitler or taking actions which would allow him to conquer the world. Even by taking the option of declaring I was a pacifist who would not fight, would have denied my government my assistance in stopping this evil man. Arguably, refusing to fight would have been helping Hitler to win.
So I must agree with Sartre that you must take responsibility for your own decisions. However, I must remind everyone that the decisions you have available to you may be very limited indeed. You can't be blamed for having only a few choices when circumstances have forced them upon you.
We should also remember that Sartre's advice is very good for people who are natural leaders. Such people naturally make up their own minds and are hesitant to simply do what others tell them to do.
But he seems to ignore the fact that not everyone is a natural leader. In fact, since we are a social species, we must be like other social species. That is to say, most of us naturally are followers, not leaders. For a great many human beings the most natural thing to do is to do what you are told to do by the people you respect. I agree that this does not make for a very good excuse when you do awful things. However, we would be foolish to ignore this hard, cold reality of human nature.
Does this mean that there is a free pass given to the majority of human beings who are naturally followers? No, it does not! After all, even followers have to make a decision as to whom they will follow. If a person decides that he will follow Rush Limbaugh and believe whatever that leader tells him to believe, that person is responsible for believing the horrible lies that have been told to him. No one made him choose that person to trust. That was his own choice and he must take responsibility for the consequences of choosing that person as his leader and for giving that person his trust.
I don't know if I told you this particular example before, but I think it's very appropriate here. As usual, I will return to my favorite case of extreme focus. I use extreme focus to demonstrate moral problems in the most extreme circumstances, and what is more extreme than the Nazis?
During World War II, France surrendered. Part of France was occupied by the Germans. The other part was allowed to have it's own French government, but under strict Nazi control. French policeman in this supposedly French country were given strange orders. The Nazis ordered the heads of the French government to tell their policeman to start arresting Jewish families.
Most of the policeman did what they were told. After the war many of them said they didn't want to do it, but they were policemen. A policeman is sworn to do his duty and that duty is to enforce the law. A policeman isn't supposed to choose which law to enforce and which one not to enforce. He is supposed to simply enforce the laws and let the courts make the decisions about what is right or wrong. So, where the French policeman wrong to enforce be a law when they knew the law itself was wrong?
I'm sure Sartre would say they were, and I would agree with him.
Now let's pull back from extreme focus and take a look at America today. There are two bitterly different attitudes toward how we should treat our citizens. This difference is tearing this country apart right now. Democrats believe that we must do more for the poor, the young, the old, and others with difficulty taking care of themselves. The Republicans say that this is creating a culture of dependency and that we can't afford it anyway.
My position on this is very clear. Every year tens of thousands of Americans die because they do not have health insurance. Many of these are children. My moral position is that as a country, we are guilty of the blood of those children. And I most especially believe that Republicans are morally responsible for letting them die. As a religious individual, I believe that one day they will be judged and found guilty of having allowed those children to die.
Some Republicans say that it is the fault of the parents who do not work hard enough to care for their own children. Others say they recognize that it isn't the children's fault, but insist that we just don't have enough money to do this, so we have no choice. I must agree with Sartre. There is always a choice and these people have made the wrong one.
I say this even of those who say that they had no choice. Of course they did. As in the case of choosing whether to go to war or to let Hitler win, sometimes our choices are so limited that whatever we decide will support one or another outcome. This is rare. Usually there are many more choices than just two. But sometimes circumstances are so extreme that there really are only two basic choices. We in America are living a very wealthy country. We could choose to provide healthcare for all American citizens if we wished to do so. Of course, it would be expensive. Of course, it would have some negative effects.
Of course, it would also save tens of thousands of lives every year.
Let me point out that Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act, only partly fixes this problem. It is far from adequate. As a nation we have made this choice. We must take responsibility for it. There are no valid excuses.
We either act to save tens of thousands of American lives a year, or we fail to do so. There are no excuses, there is only responsibility for the choice we make.
Mark 9:42 KJV
And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.
Although I love this quote in many ways, I am offended by the fact that it seems to protect only little ones who believe in Jesus. I believe God loves them all and wants them all equally protected.
But putting that aside, I wonder what Republicans, who frequently declare their Christian faith, plan on saying when they stand before Jesus in judgement and Jesus asks, "Why did you let my little ones die? Why did you deny them healthcare? Why did you deny them food stamps?" Do these people really believe that Jesus will be convinced when they say, "Why Jesus, I did it to save money!"?