Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Situational Over Dispositional: Iraq, Ethical Failings, and Public Reorientations


There is little doubt that the particular situations that we find and put ourselves in and determine to a significant degree our ability to act morally or correctly. As such this idea leads to a reorientation of 1.) our moral judgments (what classifies as an ethical failing) as situational and 2.) ethics as largely a public affaire.
Numerous psychological experiments have been done to prove that the nature of a situation (whether we are in a hurry or not, From Jerusalem to Jerico) as well as the role we are assigned and we (choose to) take on in that situation (if we are the prison guard or the prisoner, Stanford Prison Experiment) determines to a large extent the way we will act. For example, when you are in a hurry and preoccupied, you are less likely to stop and help a distressed person, than when you have more time and a less cluttered mind.

On the historical level, equally troubling is the fact that Germany, a country at the height of intellectual, philosophical, and academic ethics, and its people willingly went along with and enacted the slaughter of innocent peoples. We often want to blame Hitler and his Nazi organizers for dreaming up and putting in service these organized killings. But I often equally want to blame the German people for their participation in these killings, even though, as the psychological experiments I just mentioned show, their behavior was to a significant degree determined and manipulated by the nature of the situation. Pressured by the historical card-dealing after the WWI, Hitler and co. saw the state of things as unjust and consequently imagined the return of an Age of German Glory. With these ideological, a new system of administrative and military power-structures were dreamed up and slowly enacted. The old “rules” and “regulations” were ignored or deemed as not necessary in the current situation. Accordingly, a new script of “correct” behavior was written, roles were distributed, and this horror play went into constant 24-hour (maybe even lifetime) performance. In spite of themselves, I would claim, the German people became prison guards and executioners.

[![][5]][5]All of this leads to my first conclusion that the situational determines in a more significant way the way we behave morally than the dispositional. Metaphysically, we may claim to have a “kind” or “good” disposition, but it’s the realistic situation that determines how will act. (This first conclusion needs to be further clarified by a critique of possessing an “interior nature” and a more nuanced enactive account of all-encompassing, interacting and co-determining structures. A topic I’ll have to reserve for another blog entry.)

On the contemporary level, a single event in September 11, 2001, brought about a new question of priorities with security over existing laws and ethics. President George W. Bush and his advisors manufactured a media-event and subsequently a political argument about why we must invade Iraq. I must sadly say that, like the Germans before and during WWII, much of the United States bought their ideological-infused proof. An ideological and legal justification was put in place. A political decision was made by many, many Americans (arguably people that in the aftermath are avoiding taking responsibility for their pro-war vote). And soldiers, tanks, jets, bombs, missiles, and US dollar went to war in a place halfway around the world with people we had never met. Like the WWII Germans and those Stanford prison guards among others, U.S. soldiers were put into the very definition of a morally impossible situation, meaning whether they are kind, peaceful, or comic in their non-war-time life, their war-time life or disposition meant something else. Professional Soldiers from the United States, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime before, are currently in the process of torturing and killing innocent people. To a large extent, I would say, it isn’t their fault, and they would probably prefer to do otherwise than kill people, but the situation is as it is. It’s war. I often want to blame US soldiers for their active participation in the Iraq war, but that’s giving them too much credit for acts better classified as simply doing their jobs or, to be more intellectual, as passively-repeated enactments of a performative role. They’re soldiers, not ethicists.

This all leads me to my second conclusion that if the situation to a significant extent determines our disposition, then ethical failings and evil actions in times of lawless war shouldn’t be scored up and judged as purely and absolutely personal failings. Moral actions relate largely to the situation that is in play and, as such moral judgments or non-judgments relate to our structuring situations. Who we are depends on where and in what situation we find ourselves in. As anyone pressed on time knows, the quality of a piece of work is largely determined by the way we have time and space to think, reflect, and finally, enact. When pressured, we follow sans hesitation our habitual ways of thinking. An anxious soldier in a crowed market who suddenly feels that he is “under attack” will act with a shred of philosophical, ethical or religious reflection. Their thoughtless killing is the result of what was or should have been a thoughtful choosing of the situation, a political decision that was made by the informing few rather than the informed and discussing many. As such, if ethical failings are not to be judged morally as entirely personal affaires, then where do these ethical failings take place?

This question leads me to my third and final conclusion. The ethical failings of individuals acting out dispositions determined by their context need be viewed in public terms, and as such, whether in Iraq, in WWII German, or in the Stanford Prison experiment, situational, ethical failings need to be met with external and public (re)orientations.

In my opinion, the role of ethics and ethicists is largely a public one. Leaving aside the question of whether ethical behavior or thinking can be taught, the most important thing we can do to avoid ethical failings is to avoid putting people in lawless, survival-of-the-fittest, ethical wastelands. Situations need to be managed such that people aren’t put into the shoes and uniform of a torturing or murdering soldier, a role only the psychologically-deranged would take pleasure in acting-out. We have to assume that people in normal situations don’t generally want to kill others.

It’s time for the United States and its politicians (including Hillary Clinton) to take responsibility for the situation they put their soldiers in as well as the geopolitical state of affairs the world finds itself in. We have to keep building and maintaining international, legal conditions (like the U.N. and the Council of Europe) that make human rights and progressive bettering more important than bloody revenge. We have to avoid situations where the rules of war trump the rules of peace, because in war everything gets broken.