Andrea Morisette Grazzini, September 2011
When you juxtapose soldiers and peace activists you notice both follow a code of moral conduct so compelling they are willing to put their lives in peril.
“Doves” of peace believe humanity ceases to be humane when it is organized around killing and war. Military “hawks” believe societies can’t survive without establishing clear boundaries via military engagment.
Both, at their core, care about human potentials. Both, in their most idealistic moments, care about human justice. Both possess some level of empathy for others.
But, is it working?
The harder questions they face, however, aren’t whether their morals are the better angels or lesser evils. But rather how effective their methods are in achieving their most humane ideals.
For hawks this means: How are all those billions of dollars and millions of deaths working to achieve human progress?
For doves this means: How are your humane methods missing the mark, if ever more millions are still dying?
Answering these hard questions requires understanding the often flawed rhetoric around which we orient our moral codes.
Empathy, like compassion (which suggests concerned action) has lost much in translation. Indeed, I’d say they’ve been so over-used they now imply something closer to inertia and impotence, if not, at worse cloaked insincerity.
We’ve attached too much self- and social identity to these internalized “aren’t I/we humane because we/I feel and care” and too little to externalized “it’s my job as a person of conscience to take humane action.”
Though it is true people of humble morality feel compelled to act without need for reward. Their challenge still amounts to one of philosophical transaction. Something of an “if/then” equation. The variables are short-term self-gain v. long-term moral-self gain.
The Limits of Empathy
In his article “The Limits of Empathy” David Brooks’ cites subjects of the famous Stanley Milgram experiments who “felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.”
And “Nazi prison guards (who) sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but (…) still did it.”
The Nazi’s genocidal interpretations of this if/then equation I posit was: “If I kill these people, then I’ll protect my self.”
Code of Moral Action
Rather than this alternative: “If I kill these people, then I am violating my job as a humane man.” Or, put another way: “If I kill these people, then I couldn’t live with myself.”
Neither are static expressions of empathy or compassion. Instead, they speak to transaction.
The Nazis chose to “trade” others lives for their short-term gain. They could have made a different choice, like: “I am not willing to trade my morals to save my job/rank/title, or even, my life.”
This latter choice is the kind both soldiers and peace-activists make nearly daily. It is not a self-detached behavior. Rather it is a conscious choice to enact one’s code of conscience.
As Brooks notes, this is a code oriented to positive, enacted passions.
I’d add the active pursuit of living up to this pro-social standard produces rich returns for ones self-identity. And powerfully demonstrates in the “doing of acting humane” how others, too, can raise their moral standards for living.
Imagine if soldiers and peace activists connected their passionate forces to demonstrate how real people sustain their core moral ground by co-developing and building non-violent, humane societies?
And, most important, achieved their highest moral standards, together.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a leadership innovations consultant and participatory researcher. She founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009. Her work has influenced numerous regional and national conversations on co-productive change. Including online forums at TEDTalks.