Dying for a cause.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Why are people sometimes willing to give their very lives for a cause?
The question of how it is possible that such a phenomenon exists should not be that difficult to answer. The assumption that an individual’s core programming consists of our drive to survive does not always hold. It may be more accurate to say that our programming mainly consists of achieving the mission we are convinced is most important, and if self-sacrifice is the best way of furthering that mission, then we will do that too.
A different question is what makes a culture or ideology advocate willingness to die or even commit suicide. What does this say about the values of such a system and is it correct to condemn such a system for advocating death over life?
It seems plausible to argue that the potential to condemn another belief system because it condones suicidal attackers is based on the terror we experience when faced with the possibility of such attacks. Throughout history, our basic protection from each other has relied on a system of deterrents based on the consequences of aggressive action. A person in the process of giving up their life to attack us, however, leaves us defenseless. This may explain why we would strongly condemn the values of the society that sends the attacker.
One basis for the moral condemnation of the society that encourages such attacks is the fact that the tactic today tends to target civilians. However, another basis for condemnation is the fact that there must be something deeply unethical about a belief system that prioritizes some vision of truth over life itself. It is this second line of condemnation that is being considered here.
Is this line of moral condemnation consistent? After all, many of the belief systems that we ourselves value, or consider enlightened and advanced, are also willing to pay homage to those who gave up their lives in order to defend their ideology. They are seen as martyrs for a worthy cause.
Does prioritizing an ideology over the value of life necessarily imply that the value of life itself is being undermined? In order to answer this question, one must ask what it is about life that we value. If there are situations where life itself is absolutely unbearable, then surely one cannot condemn a belief system that prioritizes preventing that, even at the cost of life itself.
However, if the basis for prioritizing a value over life itself is based on such extreme cases, it should not be extended beyond those extremes. Listing a few core principles that might make life unbearable is understandable, but extending this to temporary compromises on any of a long list of demands is unjustifiable.
Another moral consideration is whether the cause is based on preservation or driven by the belief that everyone else must adhere to the same ideology. If an ideology advocates martyrdom in preference to being forced into a life its own members would consider unbearable, that seems reasonable. If, on the other hand, martyrdom is advocated as a means of imposing their narrow view of the truth on everyone else, then the ideology should be condemned.
The last argument focuses on who is supposed to become the martyr. Individuals can be manipulated and brainwashed. Moreover, it is often the weakest, poorest, and least educated members of society who are most susceptible to being used as human weapons; they can even be threatened or blackmailed using physical or reputation threats to their family.
It seems difficult to condemn the very idea of sacrifice for a cause. However, the devil, as always, is in the details.