If Hawks & Doves Married Moral Codes

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Courtesy artist Annie Young

Portions of this essay were highlighted as “comments that best represent a range of views” in The New York Times. Also published in Australia’s political and social e-journal, OnLine Opinion.

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.

Copyright 2011

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.



  1. Posted 1 Oct ’11 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    You’ve presented some thoughtful ideas here. Thanks. I have a quick comment on David Brooks and his conclusion. He is correct in stating that empathic thinking/feeling many not directly lead to empathic action. However, that’s assume that cause and effect are directly correlated, that feeling an empathic impulse must lead to some direct action or else such a feeling has no impact on a person’s life. I’d suggest that such cause-effect relationships cannot so easily be understood. We all have all sorts of feelings and insights that turn into other feelings and insights and actions at some unexpected point in the future. This is the problem of science and our attempts to quantify and measure the complexities of living. We often change for reasons that we’ll never know or understand. “I’m not sure when or why I decided that factory farming was a bad idea and that I would stop eating factory farmed animals. It just happened…and long after I first learned about factory farms and animal abuse.”

    Just a thought.

    • Posted 6 Oct ’11 at 12:07 am | Permalink


      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree cause-effect can be exceedingly hard to isolate and quantify when it comes to human actions. And that we can be quite unconscious about how the ayssemtrical paths the feelings/insights continuum you refer to translates into in our lives.

      That said, rhetoric is a powerful force for abetting and, when overused, diluting our insights. I reacted to Brooks’ challenge of the empathy/compassion rhetoric, which while both are among the most humane of human traits, don’t always add up to transformative action.

      This takes nothing away from the value of your comment. Which, gets, in my mind to the point of how consciousness evolves over time. The work you do in the Global Conversations Project serves as important example of how communications can help elicit insights, which, when added to our lived experiences and unconscious inklings, can, in turn catalyze change.

      Many thanks your reply,


  2. Richard
    Posted 11 Oct ’11 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, are you saying that killing in self defense and protection of our moral standardards as a society and thus defined as humane is acceptable to the peace movement? After all is it not considered humane to put down an injured horse or animal?

    • Posted 12 Oct ’11 at 2:31 pm | Permalink


      I’m not speaking for peace activists or for those who believe in military engagement and/or their respective disagreements.

      But, rather illuminating where their deeper morals and ideals overlap. Which is around the concepts of empathy, compassion and constructive, pro-social humane practices between humans.

      My focus, thus, doesn’t seek to encompass the question of whether killing injured non-human animals is humane or not. It is on humans trying to live together.

      My goal here is to put out for reflection and discussion where and how otherwise diverse interpretations of humane treatment of people can intersect. And, more broadly, how different people can find those moral spaces from which to co-create the “civilized” civilization nearly all desire.


  3. Posted 24 Oct ’11 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Tough topic, great article.

    I wonder, who really are the hawks and doves? Do they even know themselves? Seemingly there’s a continuum with doves on one end, some group on the other, and a bunch of different folks in the middle. Are these middle folk the hawks? Where is the line between doves and the rest? Is it only the very end? Or, how far from the end does it extend? If an enemy has no interest in peace and wants to attack and kill, to what extent can someone defend themselves and still be a dove?

  4. Posted 1 Dec ’11 at 11:56 pm | Permalink


    After our conversation in the salon the other day I couldn’t shake the invigoration I felt. It seems that the synergy of our conversation around this topic could have evolved into many different social and civic platforms. What I would like to ask is in the case of the hawks and the doves, do they have to be mutually exclusive? Is it possible that becuase of our humanity we often transfer in and out of each role even daily. In my mind one of the determining factors as to which species we portray at any moment is the motive behind the action. Are we excercising compassion for another person with the motivation to receive something in return, either physically or supernaturally? Or is the motive that there really is a “no strings attached” motive? And, can there ever truly exist, this side of heaven, a pure dove?

  5. Osman
    Posted 3 Mar ’12 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Very interestng and contraversial topic, but worthy of bringing it up for discussion.
    I personally don’t have any problem with a solder fighting another solder or an armed country fighting another armed country in a defined battle ground. They’re trained to fight and they know people die in wars.In the argument of should there be fighting at the first place or is self defense justified. I think there has always been fighting. And as resources dwindle there will be fighting. Self defense is justified simply because it is natural to react to danger, the question is are some dangers enhanced and fabricated. Are there pseudo dangers? I’m also having trouble justifying what Brooks is trying to defend here in terms of empathy. A solder who knowingly is firing to a civilian zone taking orders from his superior will be off the hook as far as Brooks writing is concerned. Since there can’t be total pacifism and total peace how can we avoid civilian casualty in wars.

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