Books, Exegesis, Reviews

The Least of All Possible Evils :: Review

One of the important problems concerning Terranism is what ethical structure will found my myths, ritual, and moral codes. Examining this problem brings me back to The Least of All Possible Evils by Eyal Weizman, where he gives a scathing account of “humanitarian violence.” He examines the logic behind moderating violence, and how it is integral to violence. This book is emotionally difficult to read, but rich with insight.

Quotes

Divine examination, evaluation, calculation and choice operate thus within a complex economy in which good and bad could be transferred and exchanged. … If this description of the economy of divine government is already reminiscent of the logic of contemporary wars, with its own scales of risk and proportionality used to evaluate the desired and undesired consequences of military acts, it is hardly surprising to find it in an early reflection on the concept of ‘collateral damage’. (pg. 2-3)

But just as the general outlook of liberalism shifted from Voltaire’s and indeed Jeremy Bentham’s later focus on the ‘greater good’ and the responsibility of government to increase happiness to the greatest number of people, to the liberal canards of ‘just wars’, and their increasingly sophisticated technologies for minimizing the number of ‘necessary’ corpses, the search for ‘the best of all possible worlds’ started giving ground to the present neo-Panglossian pessimism of the ‘least of all possible evils’. (pg. 3)

The fundamental point of this book is that the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence. (pg. 3)

Gaza – where the system of humanitarian government is now most brutally exercised – is the proper noun for the horror of our humanitarian present. (pg. 6)

Augustine taught that it is not permissible to practice lesser evils, because to do so violates the Pauline principle ‘do no evil that good may come’. But – and here lies its appeal – lesser evils might be tolerated when they are deemed necessary and avoidable, or when perpetuating an evil results in the reduction of the overall amount of evil in the world. (pg. 7)

Lesser evil argument are now used to defend anything from targeted assassinations and mercy killings, house demolitions, deportation, torture, to the use of (sometimes) non-lethal chemical weapons, the use of human shields, and even ‘the intentional targeting of some civilians if it could save more innocent lives than they cost.’ In one of its most macabre moments it was suggested that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima might also be tolerated under the defense of the lesser evil. Faced with a humanitarian A-bomb, one might wonder what, in fact, might come under the definition of a greater evil. (pg. 9)

Within the frame of international humanitarian law the clearest manifestation of the lesser evil principle is the principle of proportionality. … Proportionality is thus not about clear lines of prohibition but rather about calculating and determining balances and degrees. … The purpose of proportionality is not to strike a perfect balance, but rather to ensure that there is no excessive imbalance. (pg. 11)

It is the very act of calculation – the very fact calculation took place – that justifies their action. (pg. 12)

To put it simply, if you kill (or neutralize in other ways) 20-25 per cent of the members of an organization – any organization – there is an 85 per cent likelihood that the confusion and knowledge loss generated will lead to its collapse. If you kill 50 per cent, the formula has it, the result converges on 100 per cent probability that it will collapse. (pg. 14)

Military violence, then, endeavors not only to bring death and destruction to its intended targets but also to communicate with its survivors – those that remain, those not killed. The laws of war have become one of the ways in which military violence is interpreted by those who experience it, as well as by global bystanders. (pg. 19)

Indeed, a significant aspect of the idea of the lesser evil has been lost in its process of secularization from early Christian theology into the utilitarian foundations of liberal ethics. (pg. 21)

The contemporary forms of power unpacked in this book are no longer so singular and unified. Rather than a bull, these may appear to take on the shape of a multiplicity, a diffuse field of forces simultaneously aggressive and benign. It is a form of power that not only charges forward; it surrounds, immerses and embeds. Political activists must constantly invent new forms of struggle that are recognizant of this paradigm of power, but which also evade and subvert its embrace, attempt to rewire its webs in order to escape its calculation. The characters that inhabit the chapters of this book have stepped right onto the thick of this web of forces: their movement through them offer valuable examples and lessons. Some paths must be avoided at all costs; others illuminate possible courses of action within the intricate workings of the humanitarian present. (pg. 23-24)

The controversy surrounding the Ethiopian crisis of the 1980s made apparent the potential for abuse in humanitarianism, the fact that it can aggravate the suffering of the people it is intended to help; it is also heralded a new possibility: the withdrawal of aid workers from desperate but potentially compromising situations. (pg. 28)

The notion that the nouveaux polemicists espoused was fixed not on what we must do, but on what we must never again permit to be done. (pg. 38)

The earlier obsession of humanitarianism with identifying and sorting out perpetrators from victims is here rendered irrelevant as both categories morph into that of the potential migrant, whose entry into western countries cannot be countenanced and must be stopped at any price. (pg. 57)

Rather than simply acting as retroactive justification of action already perpetrated, the High Court has become an instrument in regulating the occupation by slightly alleviating the worst effects of military violence. (pg. 76)

Material proportionality, then, must be the name of the process by which proportionality analysis helps configure structures and territorial organization. It is the process by which an ethical/legal economy intersects with the science of engineering and the making of things. Through it, the law is mobilized in material action, arranging the distribution of rights across architectural formations and technological systems. (pg. 77)

As such, acts of torture and terror aimed at forcing civilians into political compliance conferred on their makers a dignified image. Those proportionally administering the level of pain could now see themselves as being responsible for the necessary and tragic task of calculating and responsibly choosing the lesser of all possible evils. (pg. 87)

In this circular logic, the illegal turns legal through continuous violation. There is indeed a ‘law making character’ inherent in military violence. (pg. 94)

But when international law stands as an obstacle in the way of state militaries it is easy to see why military lawyers would adopt an attitude of those scholars seeking to challenge rigid definitions and expose the law as an object of critique and contestation. … Most human rights groups have correctly pointed out that international humanitarian law was not properly observed in Gaza, in the sense that it was used too permissively. (pg. 95)

In this case buildings must be seen as frieze shots in processes of constant formal transformation – they are diagrams of the social fact itself and of the forces and complex flows that are constantly folded into their form. (pg. 111)

The Least of All Possible Evils – Eyal Weizman

Summary

In The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman explores humanitarian violence. His central thesis is that “the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence” (pg. 3). A general focus is on the Israeli-Palestinian war and how Israel uses the logic of pursuing the “least of all possible evils” to conduct horrific war-crimes. Throughout the book he shows how pursuing the “least of all possible evils” is a function which condones and encourages violence, along with how it has perverted humanitarianism and international law. Stark and insightful, the book reveals uncomfortable truths about humanitarianism and war.

Thoughts

There is so much richness set within the dismal pages of this book for the syntheist scholar. Weizman elucidates the profound interrelationship between framing and action so frequently and clearly it could be described as the secondary point of the book. As macabre as the content is, there is case study after case study of magical manifestation and how it works.

There’s a quote on page 65 which I want to highlight in particular:

In a diary entry written during his time as an Austrian soldier in World War I, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted the following incident. In a trench on the Russian front he found a magazine that described a court case in Paris involving an accident between a truck and a baby’s pram. At the trial a scale model was presented. The relation between the truck, the pram and the people involved was represented by miniatures and dolls. Wittgenstein, who was, a few years later, to engage in architecture, became fascinated by this model. Because the representative elements in it – the street, houses, cars and people – bore a scale relation to things in reality, Wittgenstein thought that the model was a good example of the structure of language. Not only did it illustrate the language by which the trial was conducted, the model was a proposition; that is, a description of a possible state of affairs. The only thing missing, he thought, was the pain. It then occurred to Wittgenstein that one might reverse the analogy – that a proposition might itself serve as a model that could structure reality.

The Least of All Possible Evils – Eyal Weizman, pg. 65.

This central epiphany, that “a proposition might itself serve as a model that could structure reality” is the syntheist epiphany. It is upon this foundation that the Terranic doctrine of magic is based. Magic then, is the development and cultivation of propositions by which we can structure reality.


I have not yet decided whether I want to base Terranic ethics in a deontological or utilitarian framework. As a religion, I’m inclined to be like the cool kids and just choose deontology, but in many ways I find utilitarian arguments compelling. Weizman’s book has served to make me cautious of utilitarianism due to his excellent arguments, but his criticism is quite focused on the “least of all possible evils”. I’m sure an utilitarian apologist would argue that, while Weizman’s critique is well put, it deals with a perversion of utilitarianism. The military and government leaders who use utilitarian calculus to justify their sins are perverting the maxim of “maximizing happiness” which is utilitarianism’s golden rule. The method of action should be positively framed by “maximizing good” rather than “minimizing evil”. Weizman describes the historical precedent of how utilitarian logic could be perverted. However, this does not compel me to believe that utilitarianism must always become perverted in this way.

Further, I believe that any moral system shifts and transforms depending on the context it is used in. For example, I think there is a strong argument that moral people may use utilitarian principles as a default, whether they ascribe to being a “utilitarian” or not. However, put that person into a position of power (government, military) and in all likelihood they will begin to pervert the principles that were so simple for them in their daily life. They might go in the direction of Weizman’s critique, or a new one entirely. It seems clear to me that context shifts morality in much the same way a medium refracts light. It doesn’t matter how well formulated your ethical framework is, change the context of your actions and an identical action will have a different effect or interpretation.

I’m not sure how to react to this understanding for Terranism. In my personal life it is easy and obvious how I must act, and by what standards I should hold myself to. I don’t come to this conclusion based on theory, but rather from my experiences and desire to make others comfortable and happy. However, as a prophet, what should my ethical framework be? What maxims do I choose which organize Terrans to simultaneously act morally as individuals, and act morally as an institution? What does an ethical institution look like? Is it built into the mechanisms of the organization; the rules the members use to emerge together? Is designed into the architecture of its aesthetics, ideals, motifs, and/or infrastructure? Is it a standard by which all will fall short, or a foundation upon which all will build upon? Do I make the ideal unattainable so that all members can easily default to a “no true Scotsman” fallacy when one of their ranks does evil? Do I make the ideal so easy to achieve that members who do evil will be blamed entirely for their sins, potentially smoothing over relevant context? As the architect for a religion, I am trying to create a spiritual model, but does this spiritual model provide a moral code for just the individual and not the organization? Can the emergent morality of an organization be compared directly to the morality of their members? Can I rely on the morality of an organization following directly from the members, or must I account for it emerging into something no one member agrees with?

All these questions and more weigh on my mind. I have tentative answers for some of them; for instance I think that an organization’s morality is emergent and therefore potentially different from the members that make it up. Further, I believe that an organization’s morality depends largely on the magical mechanisms which make it up rather than the persuasions of its members. You can have a good organization full of evil people, so long as those people correctly operate the mechanisms of the organization; it doesn’t matter whether they are assholes, the organization will still function morally. For example, you can have a hospital filled with most despicable nurses, doctors, and support staff, but as long as they continue to operate the hospital correctly, they do good in the world. In the same manner, you can have an evil organization filled with good people; so long as its members correctly operate its mechanisms. A great example would be the North American police officer; a district of cops may all be wonderful people, but they still function within a white supremacist institution.

Of course, the morality of an institution and its members are not discrete. My belief about the emergent morality of an organization being determined by its magical mechanisms IS NOT an assertion that organizations have no effect on their members or that their members have no effect on them. They do. The mixture of the parts and the whole must be made healthy; police officers must work to reform their institution, and the hospital must discipline its staff. My emphasis is on the members operating the organization correctly. We must remember all humans have magical powers, and all can change the magical mechanisms of their organizations (see quote from pg. 23-24). Emergence does not mean that the emergent level is divorced from the component level, but rather, that are different and connected.

But that is as far as I can go with my current understanding. How does a person reconcile their standard for moral actions with the actions needed to create good organizations (assuming they don’t align)? Further, once the organization functions morally, what is required to maintain it?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I believe I have some directions to guide my path. Firstly, Good and Evil are magical; they are created by us (I say “us” deliberately here to infer how humans tend to have tribal normative standards). Secondly, I don’t believe a single philosopher or theologian can answer these questions. I think that, in order to figure out a moral code for an organization, an organization much develop it. This reflects my understanding of morality refracting according to the medium it’s in; it seems important to develop a moral standard within the medium it will be used. Beyond this, I do not know. I don’t know whether to choose a deontological or utilitarian framework, or even if such a choice is necessary. I must study more.


Further Study:

  • The Least of All Possible Evils – Eyal Weizman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s