Moral Precepts and Suicide Pacts

You may recently have seen this blog post floating around, brought to prominence by some neo-Nazis getting more open than recently normal. Tolerance is not a Moral Precept, which says:

Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business.

And this far, I basically agree. This is why tolerance is important, and why it is necessary. But then the author goes on to say: “It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.” And here I strongly disagree. For example, we have no peace treaty with the state of North Korea. This does not mean that we are legally or morally licensed to resume hostilities from the fifty-year ceasefire whenever we like. We could have, many times, destroyed the country; it would have been advantageous and simple in the past, though since they’ve recently acquired a credible nuclear threat to parts of the mainland US, it might not be now.

If we consider this in the frame given here, that a peace treaty is only a promise to be peaceful to those who are peaceful unto you, then we have committed a wrong in not having long since crippled the Kim dynasty and its military. It would be better for us, for our allies, for world stability, and for everyone except the at-the-time citizens of North Korea. But we did not, and that was correct.

Peace treaties are good, but they are not enough. They are one means of credibly committing to live together in peace, but, like Bismarck’s Prussia as it grew into Germany, the mere existence of a peace treaty is not a great reassurance if you cannot otherwise trust the other signatories. A person or country who is champing at the bit for war, but under a treaty to stay at peace, is less trusted to remain peaceful than a country with no treaties but also no prominent militarist factions. To be trusted to remain peaceful, you must be the kind of person who remains peaceful.

And to be a peaceful person and earn the trust placed in you, you must be peaceful even when you have every right to fight. If you aren’t, and take every opportunity to pick a fight when a half-decent excuse is available, your peace treaty is almost worthless, since anyone can see that you will break the spirit as soon as you can find a loophole in the letter.

It’s the same with tolerance. If you want to shut up your argumentative opponents and vigorously retaliate when your opponents show signs of intolerance, you will not be trusted to be tolerant to others who are tolerant, even those who basically agree with you. If you instead treat intolerance tolerantly, other tolerant people will know you are a trustworthy ally to influence your community to remain tolerant and only retaliate in any way when collective action and collective decisions deem it appropriate.

It is what you do in the hardest, most tempting cases – dealing with explicit Nazi rhetoric, eyeing the underdefended soft underbelly of France with your newly-unifying Germany – that draw the contours of your policy of trustworthy peace. Had newly-formed Germany not been so rapacious when it had the opportunity, England might not have felt the need to protect Belgium against the advance of the German army through it on to France, and the First World War could have gone much better for the Central Powers. Similarly, how tolerant you are of hateful fringe religious groups – i.e. the Westboro Baptist Church – determines how well you can be trusted to be tolerant of minority religions which aren’t outright intolerant but have strongly-held convictions you find enraging. That’s critical if you want religious help with a cause you share an interest in.

Another, similar concept is “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Starting from Thomas Jefferson and passing through Lincoln and a number of Supreme Court justices, this is the idea that the protections of the Constitution, while strong, can be suspended in extremis, replaced with undeclared martial law and states of emergency when a threat is great enough. As you might guess, I don’t like this idea. I will give its advocates this: the law is not a suicide pact.

Many laws on the books are important to stick to normally, but if following the letter would lead to opening yourself up to attack, then yes, it is legitimate to suspend the law until the danger has passed or the law has been amended to be safer. To give an example: many states have an “Open Meeting Law”, which says that any group of three or more elected officials must announce the time and place of their meeting in advance, and publish all proceedings afterward. If the Weather Underground has been attacking government officials in your area, it would be dangerous to comply with the law for meetings where you discuss how to deal with the problem and formulate a plan to catch them. Since the alternative is for the government to grind to a halt, unable to do business due to deadly threats, it is clearly the best thing to do. Circumstances have demanded the law bend, and it is correct for us to make them do so.

But that doesn’t apply to the Constitution. Unlike the informal British constitution, ours is very explicit. It sets the “guardrails of democracy”. It is, explicitly, the places where the law cannot and must not bend to fit circumstance. Someone may be publicly advocating sabotage-by-inaction to make it more difficult to prosecute an active war, which does pose a danger, but their right to free speech protects them anyway. People may meet to discuss whether the police are their enemies (perhaps for racial reasons) and what to do to resist law enforcement if so: this damages the rule of law and is obviously a conspiracy to make illegality easier, but the right to free assembly protects them anyway.

This is important, because being able to rely on those protections even if you are doing something blatantly hostile to the government’s interests is a strong demonstration that the protections are not fickle. Make rare exceptions, and what speakers and groups won’t wonder whether they’re the next exception? Maybe you trust the government today at the time, and think “This is a clear case; Al Qaeda are violent enemies of the state and its people, and advocating for them should not be protected.” But having made an exception once, and established a procedure for doing so, what else might use that procedure? Will Black Lives Matter be listed as a terrorist group? Environmentalist protestors trying to disrupt the power plants that, as the Saudi Arabia of coal, are the USA’s most secure power supply? In the past, this would all be an academic thought experiment, but today we live in the America At the End of All Hypotheticals. Give away the power to cross the guardrails once in a specific spot, and someone you trust not at all less may get that power and use it to attack someone you like and agree with, who can’t fight back effectively.

The unifying principle behind these is not easy to articulate. Pieces of it are: Ben Franklin’s self-paraphrase, “They who can give up essential Liberty to obtain a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”, is an important piece. The Kantian notion of universalizable rules is another. (If that connection seems a little tenuous, I suggest reading Ozymandias on The Enemy Control Ray.) But the unifying principle, to me, is Thomas Schelling’s thoughts on bargaining, applied to political and societal norms.

Summarized, those are this: A rule never to do X, with no exceptions, is more stable and more credible than ‘never do X, unless someone did Y because Y is beyond the moral pale’. It’s easy to say “never restrict speech”, and it’s easy to check if someone else is holding to that rule. If your rule is “never restrict speech unless it’s hateful”, there will always be room for argument about what counts as hateful. If 100% of people agree about hatefulness 100% of the time, then it’s still stable. But that’s never true; almost no one is the villain of their own story, and almost no one ever feels that their beliefs and opinions are disproportionate. They may admit that they dislike their enemy a little more than is justified, but they will insist that they didn’t start it, that they are only reacting. So if you say that their speech is hate speech, they will disagree, as will many others like them. From their perspective, you are banning perfectly reasonable, justified speech that disagrees with you politically, so even if they respect the non-escalation principle, from their perspective the rule you are following is “Restrict speech if it’s loud and expresses inconvenient truths or disagrees with me politically.”, and that’s the rule they’ll follow if they get power.

So: tolerate everyone, even the intolerant. “An it harm none, do what ye will”, and only when someone has done harm, in a way everyone can recognize, is it permissible to punish them for deviation. Live and let live, even those you hate and who hate you. Their right to swing their fist ends where your nose begins, and so does their right to free speech, free assembly, free worship. Up until you’re defending your elegant schnozz from blunt force trauma, you are bound, by a suicide pact and a moral precept, not to retaliate.

One thought on “Moral Precepts and Suicide Pacts

  1. […] Moral Precepts And Suicide Pacts by Perfecting Dated Visions – “To be trusted to remain peaceful, you must be the kind of person who remains peaceful. And to be a peaceful person and earn the trust placed in you, you must be peaceful even when you have every right to fight. It’s the same with tolerance. If you want to shut up your argumentative opponents and vigorously retaliate when your opponents show signs of intolerance, you will not be trusted to be tolerant to others who are tolerant, even those who basically agree with you.” The constitution, World War 1, Nazis today. […]


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