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Irregular Jonathan Speaks: Challenge

You have selected the following challenge:
Imagine two scenes:

  1. A parent slaps his or her child and yells, "Don't hit your younger brother!"
  2. Nation A bombs nation B in response to nation B's use of violent force.

What makes one action effective and moral and the other action ineffective and immoral?

Use the form below to respond to the challenge. We'll post your contribution for others to read within a day or two. If you'd like, scroll past the form to read and respond to the comments of others.

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Answer the challenge right here...!

Readers' responses:

Name: Tim Byard-Jones
Date: March 5, 2000

Comment: There are, as I see it, two fundamental distinctions in practice:

  1. Slapping a child does not necessarily cause death (though I admit that if 'inappropriate force' is used this may be an unintended result), bombing (see numerous reports on Iraq and Yugoslavia) causes many deaths by its very nature.
  2. Bombing may punish the victims of aggression as much as the perpetrators. See for example the case of the 64 Albanian refugees killed by a NATO bomb in Kosovo. A better analogy with bombing would not be a parent slapping a 'guilty' child, but lashing out with closed eyes and hitting the bullied younger brother as often as the bully.

For the record, I am against the corporal punishment of children, and was in favour of NATO bombing in Kosovo on the grounds that something had to be done, though the reality of what it did caused me some anguish.

Is the real question here whether international law supersedes national sovereignty in the same way that national law supersedes personal decisions about the use of violence?

Irregular Jonathan replies: Tim Byard-Jones' thoughtful comment is in response to an earlier version of this challenge in which readers were asked to identify "the fundamental difference" between the two above scenes. We have re-written the challenge to more exactly reflect our concern. We agree with you, Tim, on the harmful outcome of bombing as a punishment, and appreciate the analogy. The challenge was originally meant to (and we believe as revised better does) ask about the moral distinction between the two. Why is it that the first scene is commonly rejected as a shameful (and even counter-productive) act, while the second is widely embraced as an appropriate tactic of international politics?
- Irregular Jonathan

Name: Tim Byard-Jones
Date: March 10, 2000

Comment: Good call Jonathan: you realized that I took advantage of careless wording! Your site goes up in my estimation (which was pretty high to start with) for not just abusing me like some sites do with comments that challenge or disagree with the webmaster.

Anyway, to get back to the challenge: is bombing morally acceptable in a way that corporal punichment of children isn't? Well, the short answer is 'no'. But let's take it a stage further: is there ever such a thing as a 'just war'? And what criteria does military action have to take to fit it?

From this [European] side of the Atlantic, it sometimes seems that the US has a big problem with wars: it loves them, but hates the thought of any US servicemen getting killed. Successive US governments have seen 'bombing' as an 'acceptable' form of war-making because, and only because, it promises to minimize US casualties. The idea that you have to win a war by sending in ground troops and getting thousands of them killed seems to be politically unfeasible: is this still a case of bad memories of Vietnam dictating US policy? And while on the subject of Vietnam, don't forget what US bombing did to Cambodia.

Surely the point is that when you judge a war to be just and necessary, you have to fight it, not try to get away with bombing as a substitute. An unimagineably large number of bombs were dropped by the British and Americans on Nazi Germany; it still required millions of casualties in the Soviet army, and the Normandy invasion and subsequent push across Europe from the West before Hitler was knocked off his perch. The British drove the Argentine invaders out of the Falklands in 1982 by fighting for it yard by yard in old-fashioned infantry combat (not by bombing Argentina). The US wimped out of finishing off Iraq in 1991 out of fear of public opinion turning against the war; nine years later Saddam is still there. Over the same period, how many American children have been killed by guns in the USA compared to service personnel killed bombing Iraq?

Basically, I agree with you; if anyone can explain to me the rationale behind US strategic decision making (the same thing that confuses you) I would be much enlightened.

Yours towards a world of mature choices and honest politicians,

Irregular Jonathan replies: Thanks again, Tim, for a thoughtful response.

There's an interesting moral argument in your latest comment -- an unusual application of the Golden Rule. "Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You" usually is taken to mean that you should treat others nicely, since that's presumably how you'd like to be treated. But adherence to the Rule also implies that if you're going to be nasty to others, you should be willing to have them do nasty things back to you. According to this moral rule, both a parent hitting a child and U.S. bombing tactics are inappropriate because they involve the use of coercive and damaging force with nary a possibility of that force being returned.

There's a similar implication of this kind of moral extension of the Golden Rule within a nation. The presidents and legislators who declare war and send others into battle do not have to go to battle themselves, while those who fight the wars typically have no say over whether, when or how they go to fight. Politicians "do unto" disproportionately poor and powerless others that which they have no intention of visiting upon themselves. How differently would wars be fought if members of Congress and the President's Cabinet were executed in proportion to the deaths of and killings by those they send into battle? How often would otherwise "unfeasible" nonviolent options make themselves clear?
- Irregular Jonathan

Name: Brown County Manitope
Date: April 28, 2000


  1. First, let me address what makes the actions effective. Both actions are instances of violence intended to modify someone else's behavior. Presuming the ability to really scare the victim exists, they will both cause the victim to change his or her behavior. The child will not hit his or her younger brother when the parent is watching. Likewise, the country bombed will try to cover up evidence of violence when the human rights workers come around. Will the precedent set in either case contribute to the purported goal, i.e. reducing overall violence? Probably not. But it will be effective inasmuch as it puts a monopoly on overt violence into the hands of the parent on the one hand and the bombing nation on the other; this is probably the real goal anyway.
  2. Of course, if we consider an overall reduction of violence in the world to be good, then we can hardly consider violence as retaliation for violence to be moral, since it leads to a potentially endless spiral of violence. However, most people seem to generally consider even huge amounts of violence to be morally acceptable as long as they don't suffer any negative consequences themselves. So if lots of violence can be OK, we need another perspective from which to judge whether the action was right or wrong. If we consider right and wrong to exist as eternal abstract truths that apply to some actions and not others (regardless of the ultimate effects of those actions on people), then I can insist that one thing is wrong and you can insist that it's right until we're both blue in the face. What makes it moral in most people's minds is a preponderance of rhetoric. For example: "He's like Hitler [tastes like chicken]." "Spare the rod and spoil the child." "It [bombing] was our ! last best chance for peace." "I'm doing my job as a parent." These do NOT have to be convincing by virtue of rationality alone, but will work precisely because they don't make sense and will therefore distract people from the actual motives behind the actions they take. Inasmuch as "morality," is a category created by people, morality is manipulable, and people in power will be able to make whatever they do moral by hiring good PR people.

Talk your way out of that one, ya hippie!
- Brown County Manitope

Irregular Jonathan replies: Gee man, how'd you know I was a hippie? must be kind of like some kind of karmic chakra planetary alignment. Wow.

But let me gather my dope-addled brain for a quick response to ol' BC. Let's summarize his argument:

  1. Both a parent hitting a child to stop him or her from hitting another child and bombing a country to keep it from using bombs are potentially effective actions.
  2. Morality is overrated. It's really based on selfishness and rhetoric, and we weak-minded humans (I shouldn't include myself in that category, really, having transcended the Earthly plane through flower power) are too easily swayed by our own petty needs and by basically meaningless trite phrases.

I don't necessarily disagree with these contentions. Slapping children into submission works pretty well, and we've seen too many educational initiatives drown under the weight of speakers droning on about how "the children really are our future," as if that's supposed to clarify anything (gee, I thought they were our past).

However (as you say yourself), slamming some person or country into submission isn't effective, especially in the long run. Where do we think uzi-toting massacre-ers and terrorist operations come from? The hand you slap often comes back to slap you in time. The "morality is a sham" response is a cop-out -- I'd wager most of us operate by some moral rules, even if they don't make sense when exposed to the light of day. In fact, perhaps one of the points of this challenge is that compared to formal systems of morality (like the above-mentioned Golden Rule), the systems of morality we informally bring to play in our lives look pretty shabby.

This response to the challenge fails on the technicalities -- namely, you don't answer the challenge. How could physical abuse of a child be ineffective while physical abuse of a nation is effective (an unsubstantiated claim we hear all too often out there)? And, within any moral system, regardless of its inanity, how could one action be considered moral and the other immoral?

So the challenge continues...can anyone show us the error of our ways? Come out of the closet, ya hawks! Step out into the sunshine, ya kid-slappers! Show me the error of my bleeding-heart ways -- post your own response! Or are ya chicken? (bawk bawk bawk bawk bawk ba-GAWK)

I'm sorry...that was out of line. It must be all the stress at work that makes me so ornery. Or maybe it's the acid flashbacks. Still, write in, join the movement, reach out and touch somebody's hand, cause what the world needs now is love, sweet love...
- Irregular "Hippie" Jonathan

Name: The Hippiviporous Manitope
Date: April 30, 2000

: Oh, I get it. In order to even begin to answer your question, I have to agree to your premises in the first place. Very slippery move, oh paisley clad one.

Well, Monsieur le Frequenter de Drum Circles, let me clarify my response by arguing that both actions are effective--just not effective in bringing about the ends you imply [but don't state] are intended by the act. The wording of your question doesn't force me to argue that hitting a child or bombing a country will be effective in reducing violence, or that it is in the ultimate best interest of the parent or bomber to perpetrate a violent act. But, as you admit, these acts are effective in subduing the victim. My suggestion here is that while overtly these acts purport to try to reduce violence, on a deeper level they really constitute attempts to use violence to coerce someone on a short-term basis, and they can be very effective at that. So I'm afraid we can't all join hands and prance around singing Koombaya just yet.

Also, has the new condition you stipulate in your response manifested itself through your contemplation of a psychedelic poster or something? Why should I prove that violence which purports to attempt to prevent violence is "moral" "in any moral system?" Have the patchouli fumes induced such a haze in your mind that you fail to see that the vast majority of times people justify their actions as "moral," they don't do it on the basis of any "moral system" whatsoever, but rather on the basis of what they darn well feel like they can get away with calling "moral" at that given time?

By the way, I'm not the cop-out, you're the drop-out (...turn on, tune in...). So why don't you just repaint that ol' VW van and cut your hair?

P.S. What's the deal? Is Jerry, like, grateful now?
-- The Hippivorous Manitope

Irregular Jonathan replies: This hippie thing has gone too far, so let me make this clear: I am not a hippie. I just play one on TV.

In order to show that one action is immoral and the other is moral, at least in a way that makes some kind of rational sense, you have to be able to define morality and immorality in some fashion. When Monsieur le Manitope says people just aren't rational, that they say things are moral just because they darn well feel like it, he concedes the point. It may be true that people aren't rational, but that doesn't mean that the moral arguments they make are OK. It just means they don't know what they're talking about. If the standard of proof is reduced to "just cuz", then that's no standard at all. Of course you have to argue rationally and consistently in this kind of forum -- I thought that went without saying.

Herr Manitope's other point, that violence isn't effective in the long term but sure works in the short term, may be right. So move on and answer the original question: what makes slapping a kid ineffective and bombing a country effective? If your answer is "they're both effective", you're not answering the question. Changing the question to suit yourself doesn't work.

But hey, Manitope-n-me mostly agree on the substantive point, so let's let bygones be freeways. Is there anyone out there who abhors child beatings but approves of war (or are there any foreign policy pacifists who burn their kids with cigarettes)? We want to hear from you!!! Tell us why we're wrong and you're right. Can anyone answer the challenge?