Know Your Enemy

Know Your Enemy October 4, 2012

I’ve been introducing one of my housemates to Battlestar Galactica and we got into an argument about whether it’s acceptable to root for the Cylons or specific Cylons.  Luckily for blog readers you don’t watch BSG (shame on you), this spilled over into a more general argument about what qualifies an individual as an enemy.

I don’t think there are any humans about which you can exuberantly say delenda est – that which must be destroyed.  There are times when lethal force or imprisonment is the least bad solution we have; we don’t have enough time to stop and heal someone before they seriously harm themselves or others.  But putting them out is something we should do with regret, and not with a sense of justice.

Imagine switching places with the person you’re fighting.  In the inevitable Nazi-related hypothetical, imagine you were offered a choice of being born to and raised by nice but not necessarily good Germans in enough time to be an adult during World War II.  Your other option is something unpleasant like losing your leg now.  Most of us would take a lot of pain to avoid putting ourselves at moral risk.  Plenty of ordinary people didn’t overcome those circumstances.

When you wouldn’t be willing to switch places with your enemy, when you see their tendency to fly off the handle as a burden you’d like to avoid, I’d argue that’s revealed pity.  You’d give a lot to be saved from having the misapprehensions/weaknesses/flaws of your enemy, and, if that were impossible, you’d want to be stopped. There’s no ontological difference between you and the person on the other side that means they wouldn’t want the exact same thing, if they were in full possession of the facts.

If I have a friend who struggles with alcoholism  they may interpret my concern and interventions as enmity, but I would say that my enemy was the alcoholism, the thing my friend has difficulty resisting.  If I’m in a fight, I’m in an alliance with my ur-friend, trying to free them from an oppressive force.

You can misidentify which part is the error and which part is your friend-as-they-are, but that mistake still shouldn’t lead you to ever think of a person as your enemy.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Of course, people who are not over-consuming moralizers simply don’t think this way. A healthy-minded and less précieux person would, in time of war or another occasion of justified application of violence, happily shoot the enemy dead and feel plenty of sense of justice.

    • anodognosic

      Hear, hear! Only those over-consuming moralizers worry about namby-pamby, précieux notions like human rights. Let us healthy-minded people declare a civilizational war on an entire religion, rain bombs on civilians and torture every single person named Mohammad. Or better yet, nuke every single majority-Muslim country. If the past, present and future greatest nation on Earth doesn’t project that kind of moral clarity, then we’ve already lost to the Muslim Communist gay atheist liberals. America!

    • Peter S.

      I guess I’m inclined to side with Zinc here, at least as best I understand Leah’s argument. There may be no ontological difference between myself and a cylon chasing me down with a gun (is her name Starbucks?), but in participating in a xenocidal extermination campaign against the entire human race, the cylon is committing unjust acts with an unjust goal. I haven’t watched enough of BSG to know how plausible it might be to attempt an education campaign to give the cylons “full possession of the facts,” but assuming such a campaign is impractical, it is just to respond proportionately to unjust lethal force by killing the enemy cylon.

      And in fact, I think it makes sense that I could simultaneously be just in killing an enemy soldier, and feel pity for her getting swept up in an unjust cause. If an alcoholic friend was threatening to drive in a school zone while drunk, I would simultaneously be justified in forcibly keeping her out of the car, and in pitying her plight of alcoholism.

      • Adrian Ratnapala

        Nah, Starbuck is one of the pilots. Starbucks (with an s) is a white whale. Or something.

  • Is this a claim about Homo Sapiens or about people? Is it possible that we could encounter (morally evil) aliens who would never want to be stopped, no matter which facts they knew?

  • I wrote a short piece published today that was inspired by your arguments-as-soldiers thing. This is only analogically relevant, but I was going to either post it as a comment or email you about it.


    • leahlibresco

      Tell Fare Forward that the RSS for the blog is coming through all wonky and without line breaks.

      • Joe

        I tried to comment but the ant-spam thingy is broke or something. I love the article by the way the anti-drinking link had me chuckling like a buffoon!!

  • Niemand

    In the inevitable Nazi-related hypothetical, imagine you were offered a choice of being born to and raised by nice but not necessarily good Germans in enough time to be an adult during World War II. Your other option is something unpleasant like losing your leg now.

    Maybe I’ll take option one because I’m innately moral enough to withstand the programming of my new childhood and end up as one of the people who hid Communists, Jews, and Gypsies in their basement or protested the atrocities in a direct manner (probably ending up in a concentration camp for not keeping my mouth shut). I expect such a decision would be a potentially morally dangerous one (am I really SURE I’ll make the right moral decisions?) but is it an immoral one? (Especially given that it involves a lot of risk of eventually losing one’s leg or other body parts to an allied bombing raid.) If I made that decision, would the friendly and morally correct thing to do be to try to talk me out of it? To take off my leg so that the decision will have been made and I won’t be at moral risk any longer?

    • Iota

      Niemand, (it struck me that your nickname is a German word – a coincidence?)

      “I expect such a decision would be a potentially morally dangerous one […] but is it an immoral one?’

      If I understand correctly, you’re asking about a kind of self-sacrifice or martyrdom (i..e. I chose to be born in the Third Reich and risk death in the concentration camp so that there will be a larger chance that more people will be saved from genocide).

      I think this is where analogies to the Nazi regime break down fast. Because all of us know what many people then didn’t (many people, I’d assume also Germans not living in occupied territories, simply didn’t believe that the Third Reich would have any reason to carry out industrial-scale-genocide), forget what the laws were like back then (in occupied Poland a Pole could be killed for giving a Jew a loaf of bread, I’m convinced the punishment for a German wasn’t much more lenient), forget that the threat of reprisal involved the whole family of anyone who was discovered to be hiding Jews, or that, practically, helping one person usually meant involving other people and they had to be as trustworthy as you were (you were putting everyone’s lives in their hands).

      On the other hand, we have the feelings of instant disgust and condemnation that make us want to do something.

      I’m reminded of Milgram’s experiment – when Milgram tried to estimate beforehand what the results would be, he got a much more optimistic picture than when he actually ran the experiment.

      I’m not Leah, but here’s what I’d tell anyone who asked if choosing to put yourself in moral danger as a sacrifice is immoral, in my (worthless) opinion – not necessarily but probably yes. Because actual self-sacrifice requires a lot more strength than fantasizing about it does. Strength you can obtain, but you need to practice. So if you suppose you could do it because “you are innately moral enough” then the first question to ask would be: what are you doing with now, when you are much safer and probably have quite a few ways to influence the lives of people who are suffering right now? My initial bet is that most people who fantasize about martyrdom couldn’t, honestly, say that their life (as it is being lived) is sufficiently sacrificial to others. If so, what grounds do we have to say their death (or life under extreme pressure) would be? Sure, it might happen that given higher stakes they actually act more morally, but why bet on it?

      Footnote: AFAIK In Catholic moral teaching people are advised against seeking out martyrdom and suffering for that very reason (in previous ages, when ascetic practices were more common, it seems the gold standard was to seek the approval of a confessor or a spiritual director first, although you might want to check that). Martyrdom or suffering may come but seeking them because you think you are good enough for it is dangerously close to pride and self-delusion…

      • Ted Seeber

        A good example were the set of nuns who *stopped France’s Reign of Terror*, the Martyrs of Compiegne.

        15 of the 16 nuns made a big show of asking the Mother Superior for permission to die before going to the Guillotine, Mother Superior was the last killed for violating the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the atheist attempt to suppress Catholicism in France.

        The outcry from this act gave the political pressure needed to other groups to stop the Revolutionary Government’s Reign of Terror.

    • How can you know that you are innately moral and not moral by circumstance? I am not questioning your morality; I’m questioning your epistemology.

  • Ted Seeber

    My first job out of college, my project manager claimed that his parents were planted in the Rogue Valley by the Nazis in the 1930s, specifically to look for the best place along the San Andreas to plant a nuclear weapon.

    He was one seriously screwed up individual- right up to getting arrested in the early 1970s for avoiding the Vietnam War draft and getting out of it because he as the only son of foreign nationals. That, and he had no fingernails- would bite them right down to the skin.

  • Jacob

    I’m really loving all the posts on vice being more detrimental to the aggressor than the victim. Are there any books out there on that issue inparticular?

  • joannemcportland

    I sympathize with some fracking toasters more than I do with some humans. That’s why I love BSG. 🙂

  • Xanthate

    Leah-I got to ask, as a Christian, how do you feel comfortable watching media which frequently glamorises violence, non-married sex, and other sins? I’m a recent convert, and I’ve chosen not to watch/read this sort of stuff, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Also, thanks for a cool blog.

    • I can’t speak for Leah but this is one of those things that falls under Paul’s “everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial” as well as the not eating meat sacrificed to idols and causing my brother to stumble.

      For me, watching a violent show or one that glamorizes sex etc. is culturally instructive. I see shows like that as reflecting the underlying values of our society back at their ‘target audience’ and it helps me to understand people better to understand the media they consume. Admittedly, some things are not to my liking and others may indeed be a near occasion of sin which is prudent for me to avoid (most of the HBO shows fall in this category). I also have to check myself to make sure I am not approving of things I ought not to approve. A good example would be shows like 24 (torture porn) or Burn Notice (my favorite but filled with moral ambiguity and questions of ethics – which when decided wrongly often have negative results which I like).

  • Joe

    I’m definitely curious as to how you would apply/relate this to the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexual marriage?

    The below quote seemed to me to reflect how the Catholic Church views sin in general, but also the common response it receives in particular to it’s stance on homosexuality.

    “If I have a friend who struggles with alcoholism they may interpret my concern and interventions as enmity, but I would say that my enemy was the alcoholism, the thing my friend has difficulty resisting. If I’m in a fight, I’m in an alliance with my ur-friend, trying to free them from an oppressive force.”

    • JoeC

      I saw another Joe in a comment up above so I figured I should clarify that I am a different Joe. 😛

    • Erick

      Be careful how you apply terms, Joe.

      While the Church teaches us against homosexual activity and same-sex marriage, homosexuality as an orientation is not considered intrinsically evil — a sin in and of itself.

      • JoeC

        I suppose I was slightly ambiguous, I meant for the term “stance on homosexuality” to include that nuance. That was perhaps assuming too much.
        I suppose I should also be more specific in my actual question since it seems a bit vague. More specifically, I suppose I would like to know whether the activities of the Church in attempting to legally forbid same-sex marriage are valid activities given that they do believe that the action is harmful to those who participate in it as well as society, or if the matter is too personal for an institution such as the Church to interfere in outside of it’s own members? Since this is an argument I come across frequently, I was wonder how, if it is possible, this post could be applied to the topic?

        • Ted Seeber

          I don’t think there is a universal answer to this question. It comes down to where you are with respect to personal sin on the libertarian/authoritarian axis of politics.

          Most of the Roman Catholic Church Hierarchy are moral authoritarians. They hate sin so much, and do believe sin to be as harmful to the sinner as it is to wider society, that they would like to see secular law reflect natural law.

          The other half of the equation are the moral libertarians- who believe all sin is private and the government should have NO say in any sin that does not have a clear materially harmed victim. For them, homosexuality would certainly fall in the “too private for the Church to ask any but her own members to follow” category.

          Most people fall in the range in between.

          I have been known to argue in the past that libertarian theology is incompatible with Catholicism, but that might be just my own bias.

    • Ted Seeber

      It’s also how we see homosexuality in particular. Read paragraphs 2357-2359 of the CCC.

  • Paul makes essentially the same point in Ephesians 6:12. The flesh is your brother; the spirit of evil (or “wrong idea” or “rage” or whatever modern term you prefer to use) is your enemy.

    And yes, JoeC, that should be pretty much the standard Christian response to evil or sin, in general.

  • As so often happens in this blog, I got a bit lost in the comments 🙂 Leah’s original post started off with “a more general argument about what qualifies an individual as an enemy,” and then talked about lethal force and a few other things.

    So as I understand it, her post raises three intertwined questions. What makes someone an enemy? What actions are we justified in taking against them? Would thank us for opposing them, if they were in possession of “all the facts” (whatever those are)?

    The answer to the first I think is fairly straightforward: an enemy is anyone that you are obligated to oppose, either by your own moral code or by being ordered to do so if you’re in the military. You may respect them or, in other circumstances, even be able to be friends with them, but while those conditions are in place, they are — and must be treated as — your enemy. (The Christmas Truce is instructive here: when the soldiers chose to forget or ignore those conditions, they were instantly able to treat each other as fellow human beings and friends.)

    The answer to the second, I think, is that one should do as little as is required to achieve victory (by “victory” I mean “stopping your enemy from whatever it is you’re trying to stop him doing”). Inhabitants of Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy world, The Land, take The Oath of Peace:

    Do not hurt when holding is enough
    Do not wound when hurting is enough
    Do not maim when wounding is enough
    And kill not when maiming is enough
    The greatest warrior is he who does not need to kill.

    I think those are excellent principles for deciding what actions we’re justified in taking against an enemy.

    As to the third question, whether they would thank us for opposing them, I think that depends on whether the opposition (enmity) between us is due to differences in belief/interpretation, or differences in knowledge of facts. If I’m missing a crucial piece of data that causes me to make a bad decision (“Wait, it wasn’t Fred who egged your house, it was George!”) , of course I would want to be opposed/stopped from acting on erroneous information. On the other hand, if the “enmity” arises from a difference of opinion (my god is better than yours; that’s my piece of ground and you took it unfairly; you’re too rich and damn it you should share with me), then obviously no, they won’t thank you for opposing them because they are already in possession of the facts, it’s the interpretation that differs.

  • ” If I’m in a fight, I’m in an alliance with my ur-friend, trying to free them from an oppressive force.”

    I agree in principle. I am concerned, though, that this is difficult to practice psychologically. Can we both love the sinner and hate the sin? It does not seem easy. Maybe it is easier if we remember the twin idea, that we are also beset by oppressive forces others may seek to fight, and that we are, in fact, trying to be in alliance with our ur-selves to free them from an oppressive force. I think you (Leah) are assuming this, too, but I think we cannot really do what you suggest in this post without also seeing ourselves as occupied territory as well. (That is, I’m transmuting the “imagine if you were in their place” to “remembering thatyou are in a comparable place.”)

    • leahlibresco

      Yes! And I like phrasing it as remembering that I am occupied territory.

      • The one place where I appreciate C. S. Lewis’ military metaphors is when he uses “occupied territory,” and the language a resistance and underground and secret radio broadcasts, to discuss being Christian in a secular world. As is my way, I changed the ground of that metaphor from societal to psychological, but I must give the credit to Lewis for the initial image.

        • In a country where 76% of the population self-identifies as Christian, it’s a little hard for me to see “occupied territory” as an apt metaphor. If you extend the examination to all religions, something like 90% of the country self-identifies as religious. If anybody is in “occupied territory” it’s us atheists!

          • Mark D

            Uh, Delphi, that is certainly NOT what C. S. Lewis meant by occupied territory. He meant occupied by the spiritual forces of evil.

          • Ted Seeber

            Hate to pull the no-true-scotsman fallacy here, but I’d say from an orthodox Catholic standpoint, the true number is a little under 10%.

            Theism/atheism isn’t the wall in the United States from an orthodox Catholic point of view. The true wall is relativism/rationality. And on that wall, many atheists are actually on the same side as Catholics in actually following Christ’s Rational Father, as opposed to the irrational subsets of God others seem to worship (far more popular in the United States than Jehovah are the unholy trinity of Mammon, Mars, and Moloch, at least based on what people do when they aren’t in Church).

            Oh, and my above percentage is a guess as well. Basically, I took the 24% of the US Population that is Actually Catholic, divided it by a third for the number who actually attend Mass regularly, and bumped it up to the nearest 10% to account for other rational religions such as atheist scientism.

        • @Mark D: Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification — I misunderstood.

  • DaveJ

    Can our definition of “enemy” be based totally internally? For example, if the other defines us as his enemy, which he is determined to destroy/harm/control, is it reasonable to deny that definition in return, at least where physical violence is threatened to us, or, more difficult, others for whose welfare we are responsible? (If only our own welfare is involved, we can choose a martyrdom of whatever sort, but can we chose it for others? What if the occupation is to be of our community, family, country?)