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Flashback: Conscience Of The King

Aug. 24th, 2009
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I was out-of-town, off-line, and otherwise occupied over the weekend, so no new DJ today. Instead, I thought you might enjoy this column from August of 2004, in which I tie together the TV show Benson, Chinese philosophy, and a dead snake in my garage. Back tomorrow.


RALEIGH – On Sunday, I killed.

I am no pacifist, but neither am I sure I would be a particularly good soldier. I apologized to my adversary before I did him in, and felt regretful afterward even though I know, intellectually, that it was a necessary act.

The adversary in question was, as far as I can tell, a copperhead. It had crawled into my garage while I was out mowing the lawn. At least, I think that was the sequence of events, since it was waiting for me when I drove my lawnmower back in. Coiled to strike, flicking its tongue, the snake brought back memories of confronting several of his rather-scary predecessors at my parents’ home in rural Mecklenburg County.

Here’s the irony of the situation: during my yard-work travails, I had been listening to another in Knowledge Products’ excellent series of audio recordings on the great issues of morality and philosophy. The current volume is entitled War, Terrorism, and Violence, and is effectively narrated by Robert Guillaume. Yes, you really haven’t heard Thomas Aquinas on the theory of the Just War unless you’ve heard it from the mouth of Benson.

It so happens that I was finishing a section of the presentation on Just War theory when I pulled in, saw the copperhead lying in wait, and had to decide what to do. The author had divided moral theories about war and violence into the three standard categories: realism, pacifism, and just-war concepts. As we in the West are used to considering these issues within a Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian framework, I think it was especially interesting to hear the ideas expressed within ancient Chinese philosophy.

Sun Tzu, of The Art of War fame, is classified as a realist. He argues that war is endemic in the human condition, that it may be tragic and dangerous but cannot really be evaded, and that seeking to impose external moral constraints on war misses the point that war is inherently amoral – outside of the bounds of ethical decisionmaking. One should impose internal constraints on warmaking, Master Sun suggests, but only because it will benefit you and your army. For example, reciprocity might have your soldiers well-treated by the enemy if you treat captured enemy soldiers well.

Lao Tzu, of Taoism fame, is classified as a pacifist. While it is not entirely clear from traditional Taoism that all violence is inherently wrong, this tradition certainly questions the need for governments or individuals to take any decisive action (which has sometimes implied to libertarians that Taoism is a kindred philosophy, though I think that misses the extent to which Master Lao’s principle of non-action applies not just to political power but to all sorts of individual initiative and effort). Pacifism generally teaches that war and violence are inherently immoral.

K’ung Fu Tzu, of Confucianism fame, and many of his followers and quasi-followers are classified as just-war theorists. For them, the morality of war depends on whether it meets standards of justice. The Western version of the doctrine evolved within Christianity to the point where specific conditions needed to be met, such as the declaration of war by a legitimate authority and the invocation of a just cause. Chinese philosophers emphasized a broader view. A thinker in the generation after Confucius, Mo Tzu, hated war but argued that preparing for war could well be an effective means of guaranteeing the peace – an idea that applies as much to today’s international situation as it did to Mo Tzu’s China in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

One famous story had Mo Tzu hearing of a plan by the state of Chu to invade the state of Song (where he was born). He sent some 300 well-armed followers to Song to prepare its defenses, while himself heading to the court of Chu to talk the ruler out of attacking. Using props to stand in for armies and geographical features, he invited the Chu general to propose plans of attack against Song, which Mo Tzu then repelled (in their war game). Eventually, the general said he had a secret plan that he declined to reveal. Mo Tzu replied that he knew what the plan was: it was to murder Mo Tzu and thus deprive Song of such an effective strategist, but Mo Tzu said that his followers were equally skilled and thus there was no point in it. At this, the ruler of Chu said he had decided not to attack. Deterrence had prevailed.

Well, I can’t say that deterrence succeeded in my case. Twice, I picked up the copperhead with a rake and threw it out of the garage, hoping it would just slither away. Twice, it returned. So I chopped its head off.

After apologizing. I may have been fighting a just war, but killing still didn’t come naturally. And, as Mo Tzu teaches us, we shouldn’t really want it to.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.