In Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Gray offers one of my favorite pieces of both moral and spiritual wisdom. After Frodo states that Bilbo should have killed Gollum, Gandalf replies, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends”.
I was recently reminded just how far-reaching this wisdom is.
Obviously, this statement applies quite well to the logic of war (especially preemptive war), capital punishment, and any other time that we are called upon to consider doling out death. It provides two arguments for why we should be very careful about doing these things. The first is the less impressive argument. Gandalf is saying that no one can tell the future. The problem, of course, is that those determined to dole out death often think that they can, or simply don’t care. They often think that the crimes of the past are enough to justify choosing to end a life. It is true indeed that we can’t see all ends, and it is also true that if Gollum had died Frodo would have failed.
But there’s another part to the argument. Gandalf also points out that it is immoral to choose to deliver something that cannot be reversed, a negative thing, too readily, when we cannot also satisfy the positive side of justice. We can’t give people life, so we shouldn’t be too quick to take life away from those who have it. If we’re not able to give life to those who had it taken away unjustly, then we are not fulfilling justice when we are taking life from those who may deserve to die.
A friend of mine has had very rough experiences with men. She is also extraordinarily beautiful, and thereby attracts men willing to leave their wives and families for her. She has been willing to play with these men like flies caught in her web, and her justification has been, “They deserve it”.
And maybe she’s right. Maybe guys who would so quickly tear apart their family, deny their vows, break their word, and do all this while talking about how hot someone’s titties are should be viewed as pretty vile pieces of shit.
But there’s a flipside here. How many men in the world deserve better than what they get? How many men who may be shy, or hurt, or just unlucky, deserve a sincere second chance with women? And how many men in the world have been manipulated by women in ways that were unfair, when they were acting with an open heart?
In fact, Gandalf’s argument applies to almost every instance where we consider doing something to rectify an apparent imbalance.
We can agree that a particular government is dictatorial and should be overthrown, but maybe we should be careful about destroying a social order when we consider that throughout history there were just societies that were rent asunder unfairly.
Someone who steals from a big corporation or from a thief or conman under the logic that they do not deserve it has to consider if they can bring back the property of those who had it taken without justice.
Maybe a murderer, or a rapist, or a pedophile, should be removed from society, even if we do not use capital punishment. But how many people throughout history were deprived of their freedom unjustly, people who we cannot now free? How many people in the United States have been imprisoned unjustly, whether due to procedural failures that led to men innocent under the law being imprisoned or laws such as the criminalization of marijuana that have no coherent justification leading to non-violent people being sent to jail instead of rehabilitation?
Maybe torturing a terrorist to get the location of a device that will kill thousands can possibly be justified. But how many people have we tortured as a species for reasons that do not pass muster? Can we turn back the clock and save those people from that pain?
One of the most pernicious ideas that I fight against is the concept that justice is purely about taking things away, that morality is about avoiding immoral acts. These are in fact the barest and earliest steps to true justice. Our job is not just to preserve the status quo and prevent any harmful deviation from it. Our job is to make the world better. We have to improve the circumstances of living.
Our moral duty isn’t just to not insult people. We have to actively treat them with dignity, respect and kindness. Our goal isn’t just to avoid making anyone cry or scream in anger; our goal is to make them smile when they otherwise would not.
Our moral duty isn’t just to protect people from harm. We want to improve the latitude of their lives. Sometimes, that means we have to take away the freedom of a few who have abused that freedom. But the idea that that is all we need to do to defend freedom is grotesque.
Our moral duty isn’t just to not speak harmful words. It is to use our words to guide, to heal, to help, to inspire, to educate. Freedom of speech isn’t just a right that lets us speak hateful things if we so choose. It’s a responsibility to have better conduct, better deed and better vows.
I’m against capital punishment in principle, yet I actually approve of the executions in the Nuremberg trials conceptually. The evil of the Nazis was so unprecedented that the human species needed to draw a line in the sand. We had to say, somehow, “We as a species refuse to ever let this kind of evil go unpunished again. We must never let the mass extermination of a people proceed once more”. The sanity-defying, world-shattering atrocities in World War II had to be sealed up decisively. Maybe death wasn’t the best solution, but I have yet to consider another one that would have worked.
But after Nuremberg, we allowed Rwanda to happen. We allowed Presidents of the United States, Premiers of the Soviets, and Prime Ministers across the world to get away with massive violence. It is a sad fact that every post-War President was responsible for coups, acts of aggression, and violence that would if the standards from Nuremberg had been enforced led to their executions.
We allowed the line in the sand at Nuremberg to become blurry again. And though we have never seen something of the scale of the Holocaust, there’s still been plenty of bloodshed across the world, including bloodshed prosecuted by ostensibly civilized states, democratic states where the people may have been able to do something. The American crimes in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia whittled away at the second chance that Nuremberg may have given us as a species.
We have to demand better. We have to demand that our conduct isn’t just not bad, but is actively good. We have to make up for the injustices of the past.
At the very least, when we consider doling out death, punishment, imprisonment, torture, or even manipulation and insults, we should think about what we are powerless to reverse.