On Moral Authority

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On a recent trip to Holland, I went to The Hague for an on-site visitation with two of our school’s students who are on externships there. The visit renewed a long-standing interest I have had in the role that moral authority can play as a countervailing influence to political power. Mankind is always in need of voices that transcend institutional power structures in order to help restrain their destructiveness.

There is, of course, no end to the list of people and organizations that engage in moral posturing as a way of lending credence to some political program. I am not speaking of those for whom "morality" is only a device for rationalizing one’s self-interest, or of those who self-righteously seek to inflict an ideology upon their neighbors. I use the word cautiously and reluctantly, particularly in a world in which the words "good" and "evil" have become rallying cries around which the politically ambitious organize humanity on behalf of murderous crusades.

In a world in which the lure of political power infects the minds of even the most sincere defenders of humane values, is it possible to discover voices that transcend ambitions for human domination? If those who express genuine moral concern over the direction taken by organized society have in mind a political agenda for change, no real transformation can take place. Only in the absence of coercive power can one have moral influence. Coercive power operates as a magnet for division and conflict, as contentious interests compete for the control of its tools of force.

There have been a number of men and women who have challenged the destructiveness of politics from a deep moral sense without, in the process, becoming corrupted by the trappings of power. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, recent popes, Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, Krishnamurti, Carl Jung, Viktor Frankl, Amnesty International, Mother Theresa, and Eric Hoffer, are some of the more prominent examples. Albert Einstein was an examplar, particularly when he was wise enough to turn down the offer to become the first president of Israel. Martin Luther King also performed this role in his early days but, unlike Einstein, managed to get seduced by the lure of political solutions to social problems.

Numerous philosophers, novelists, and poets have fulfilled this role. Shelley’s characterization of poets as "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," while employing an unfortunate political metaphor, reflects this need for voices that speak to power from deep within the human soul. Even journalists — such as Mencken and Nock — have been effective voices.

Like a good parent or teacher, what such people have shared has been a desire to help others develop into self-directed, self-sustaining individuals. They have not tried to create followership, but only examples from which others could learn. They have also offered to their neighbors a sense of companionship in a world in which people often feel alienated from one another. There is a strength of courage that comes from realizing that others share your sense of what is right and wrong with the world.

In an age of collective rather than individualized expression, so-called "think tanks" offered early evidence of serving this function. But most of these organizations have either been created or co-opted by political interests so as to make them little more than the intellectual arms of state planning and coercion. That so many of such bodies were either established or relocated in the Washington, D.C. area, should inform us of the audience they wish to address.

As I returned from The Hague, I pondered the role that an international court of justice could perform as a moral authority, provided it was completely divorced from the exercise of any political power or dependency upon political systems. I suspect, however, that most of those who now work for a "world court" do so in longing anticipation of the day when a coercive international government is able to formally legitimize their edicts.

Such international courts — like "war crimes" tribunals — do not qualify for the role of which I speak. The Nuremburg trials and their progeny stand for little more than a perversion of moral judgment, what others have called a system of "victor’s justice." They play a cruel hoax upon mankind in perpetuating the illusion that the state may rightfully employ deadly force for reasons that the prevailing practitioners of such violence can convert into self-fulfilling rationales for their viciousness.

If the state is to persuade us to participate in wars, it must overcome our reluctance to kill others — particularly strangers who have done us no personal harm. War crimes trials provide this service by getting us to believe in the idea of the "moral war;" the belief that there are "good" and "bad" reasons for the mass slaughter of human beings, and that the state exists to reinforce such distinctions.

It is just such deranged thinking that allows us to regard the mass killing of civilians in concentration camps — when done by "them" — as "atrocities," while the mass killing of civilians carried out by nuclear bombs dropped from airplanes — when done by "us" — as necessary wartime acts. It also permits television newscasters to refer to American soldiers who kill people in foreign countries as "peacekeepers," while resisting locals are dismissed as "terrorists." War crimes trials were concocted for the benefit of such people as my former student who declared "at least we have the decency to drop bombs on people from airplanes!" This legalistic ritual offers a convenient way to reinforce popular commitments to statism, giving people the comforting feeling that their having succumbed to the mass-mindedness of warfare was not a psychotic lapse on their part, but a commitment to moral behavior!

The concept of "war crimes" is a form of political correctness extended to an international stage, struggling to make a meaningless distinction based on nothing more than the misfortune of ending up on the losing side in a war. If you doubt this, then please explain why the likes of George Bush (father and son), Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and other recent forms of moral detritus, have never been prosecuted for their murderous deeds. What else can explain the absence from the dock at Nuremburg of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, and the other moral degenerates who planned and carried out the massive butchery of civilians at such non-military targets as Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Hamburg?

Tom Lehrer has said that satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! International courts of justice and war crimes trials share this Lewis Carroll commitment to absurdity disguised as reason, and because of this I can place no confidence in their being able to function as voices of moral authority. They are too much a part of the political power structure — or seeking to become same — to be able to transcend the inhumane and savage nature of all political systems.

Those who would express moral authority against coercive power must be persons devoid of conflict, not only within themselves, but with others. Such persons must be capable of transcending the partisanship that fuels the conflicts of the world. It is not a role to be exercised by those with divisive interests that separate humanity into competing groups, with political systems acting as the arbiter of disputes they have created. It is for men and women who grasp that one attribute of equality worthy of defending, namely, the inherent and undifferentiated worthiness of each individual to live and act for their own purposes. What we have in common is a need to protect one another’s inviolability from those who would subject any of us to their control.

Above all else, such moral authority must be the expression of a genuine strength of character that arises from deep within the individual and resonates with the inner being of others. It is not in sloganeering or ersatz moralizing that such influences can be found, but only in a transcendent state of mind that recognizes both the plight and the hope of humanity: we have created our well-organized madness together, and we can regain our sanity together.

To whom should we look for such moral authority? Who embodies the integrity of character that is capable of pulling us from the moral quicksand against which we now hopelessly struggle? Is there anyone other than ourselves who can become such a moral authority for us? Are there others who are more capable than you of bringing your life to order? Might you become a voice to help others restore their sense of humanity?

"But how can I become a moral influence in the world?," you may be asking yourself. The answer to such a question was provided by the late J. Krishnamurti in a talk at which I was present. He was discussing the importance of our awareness of the movement of thought, and of the need for us to become more self-directed in our thinking. Sensing an uneasiness in his audience, he asked: "would you like to know how to accomplish this?," to which many voices and nodding heads answered in the affirmative. "How will you find out?," he asked, and quietly walked away.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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