Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, February 03, 2012

We Are All Crabs on a Beach Under a Crashing Wave

So I have been reading about Guatemalan atrocities. It seems as though Guatemala entered a kind of prolonged hell - constant violence, rampant crime, no one to trust, no justice.

I also recently read a book set in Nazi Germany. Again, a kind of hell. Resistance is futile (if morally mandatory), everyone is compromised. You really can't do much. If you fight back, you will quickly be crushed. If you don't help crush other people, you will be crushed. [Note: not all resistance was futile, of course. It's just that it took special circumstances for anyone to be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. Schindler and Duckwitz, yes, but not really von Stauffenberg. Nice try, though. Same for the Hampels (the subject of the book I read, Every Man Dies Alone.]

So, my theory: morality as punctuated equilibrium. Most moral decisions are minor. You shouldn't cheat on an exam, you shouldn't cheat on your taxes, you shouldn't cheat on your wife. These things really do matter, I don't mean to minimize them. But it's far more important to prevent Nazi Germany than it is to make some token resistance once Nazi Germany is in place. We avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings, to quote (misquote?) Justice Jackson.

So my claim is simply, every once in a while, you face a decision on which a tremendous amount hinges. Usually, not much hinges on your decisions. And when you are in a "constitutional moment" (I've forgotten whom I'm plagiarizing here), it's pretty fucking crucial for you to be clear-headed and decisive. You've got to shoot Hitler in the face or issue a declaration calling for a general strike and a speech from Mikhail Gorbachev or something.

Again, it's not that morality doesn't matter in day-to-day life. But practical men are the slaves of defunct moral actors who seized the moment and changed history. Take a moment and be grateful that you live in a society where you don't have to make the compromises that the Guatemalans and the Germans had to make.

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