Affiliation and Morality

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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What should prevail: the imperative to spare the lives of innocent civilians - or the need to safeguard the lives of fighter pilots? Precision bombing puts such pilots at great risk. Avoiding this risk usually results in civilian casualties ("collateral damage").

This moral dilemma is often "solved" by applying - explicitly or implicitly - the principle of "over-riding affiliation". We find the two facets of this principle in Jewish sacred texts: "One is close to oneself" and "Your city's poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)".

One's affiliation (to a community, or a fraternity) is determined by one's position and, more so, perhaps, by one's oppositions.

One's sole organic position is the positive statement "I am a human being". All other positions are actually synthetic. They are subsets of the single organic positive statement "I am a human being". They are made of couples of positive and negative statements. The negative members of each couple can be fully derived from (and are entirely dependent on) - and thus fully implied by - the positive members. Not so the positive members.

Consider the couple "I am an Israeli" and "I am not an Indian".

The positive statement "I am an Israeli" implies about 220 CERTAIN (true) negative statements of the type "I am not ... (a citizen of country X, which is not Israel)", including the statement "I am not an Indian". But it cannot be fully derived from any single true negative statement, or be entirely dependent upon it.

The relationship, though, is asymmetrical.

The negative statement "I am not an Indian" implies about 220 POSSIBLE positive statements of the type "I am ... (a citizen of country X, which is not India)", including the statement "I am an Israeli". And it can be fully derived from any single (true) positive statement or be entirely dependent upon it (the positive statement "I am an Indian" being, of course, false).

Thus, a positive statement about one's affiliation ("I am an Israeli") immediately generates 220 true and certain negative statements (one of which is "I am not an Indian").

One's positive self-definition automatically yields multiple definitions (by negation) of multiple others. Their positive self-definitions, in turn, negate one's positive self-definition.

It is possible for more than one person to have the same positive self-definition. A positive self-definition shared by more than one person is what we know as community, fraternity, nation, state, religion - or, in short, affiliation.

One's moral obligations towards others who share with him his positive self-definition (i.e., with whom one is affiliated) overrides and supersedes one's moral obligations towards others who don't. As an Israeli, my moral obligation to safeguard the lives of Israeli fighter pilots overrides and supersedes (subordinates) my moral obligation to save the lives of innocent civilians, however numerous, if they are not Israelis.

The more numerous the positive self-definitions I share with someone (i.e., the more affiliations) , the larger and more overriding is my moral obligation to him. My moral obligation towards other humans is superseded by my moral obligation towards other Israelis, which, in turn, is superseded by my moral obligation towards the members of my family.

But this raises some difficulties.

It would appear that the strength of one's moral obligations towards other people is determined by the number of positive self-definitions he shares with them (i.e., by the number of his affiliations). Moral obligations are, therefore, not transcendent - but contingent and relative. They are the outcomes of interactions with others - but not in the immediate sense, as the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas postulated.

Rather, they are the solutions yielded by a moral calculus of shared affiliations. The solutions are best presented as matrices with specific moral values and obligations attached to the numerical strengths of one's affiliations.

Some moral obligations are universal and are related to one's organic position as a human being (the "basic affiliation"). These are the "transcendent moral values". Other moral values and obligations arise as the number of shared affiliations increases. These are the "derivative moral values".

Yet, moral values and obligations do not accumulate. There is a hierarchy of moral values and obligations. The universal ones - the ones related to one's organic position as a human being - are the WEAKEST. They are overruled by derivative moral values and obligations related to one's affiliations - and are subordinated to them. The imperative "thou shall not kill (another human being)" is easily over-ruled by the moral obligation to kill for one's country. The imperative "though shall not steal" is superseded by one's moral obligation to spy for one's nation.

This leads to another startling conclusion:

There is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. The derivative moral values and obligations often contradict each other and almost always conflict with the universal moral values and obligations.

In the examples above, killing (for one's country) and stealing (for one's nation) are moral obligations, the outcomes of the application of derivative moral values. Yet, they contradict the universal moral value of the sanctity of life and the universal moral obligation not to kill.

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