A Paradox of Humanitarianism

6 January 2012


Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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