4.0983 War and the Philosophy Teacher (1/90)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 5 Feb 91 15:48:44 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0983. Tuesday, 5 Feb 1991.

Date: Sat, 2 Feb 91 16:51 EDT
Subject: 4.0952 On War --"jes folks"

From: Terrell Ward Bynum, Director, Research Center on
Computing & Society <BYNUM@CTSTATEU.BITNET>

Subj: 4.0952 On War -- "jes folks"

I've read with interest the comments about humanists and war, because my
"President's Message" in the most recent issue of *AAPT News* (the
newsletter of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers) struggles
with the question "What can philosophy teachers do, if anything, about
war?" In case some HUMANISTS out there are interested in the (very
limited) results of the struggle, I attach a copy:

"From the President," AAPT News, February 1991

As I write this message, war is raging in the Persian Gulf. Armies are
killing each other, and innocent civilians are victims as well. The
worst oil spill in history has been intentionally inflicted upon
innumerable animals and plants. More acts of apparent madness and
desperation will likely follow!

In terrible times like these, one wonders what we, AS PHILOSOPHY
TEACHERS, can do. As private citizens, of course, we can write or
telephone our political leaders to express our views and feelings, we
can participate in public meetings and demonstrations, we can volunteer
for military duty or for the Red Cross, or whatever. But what does OUR
CALLING--PHILOSOPHY TEACHING--have to offer in such tragic times? Are
we simply helpless witnesses to disaster?

In one sense, we are. For after the madness of war has begun, no
philosophy or philosopher can simply rush in and put an end to it.
Nevertheless, I do believe that philosophy has some positive things to
offer humankind in efforts to avoid war in the first place, as well as
efforts to cope with war's awful consequences when peacekeeping fails.

The term "philosophy" means "love of wisdom"; and at its very best
philosophy offers insight into "justice," "compassion," "rationality,"
"love," as well as "greed," "power," "prejudice," and
"misunderstanding." If this is so, then teaching philosophy
successfully can help our students, ourselves and our society gain
perspective and insight into some of the causes and consequences of war.

On a less abstract or "more nitty-gritty" level, teaching courses in the
several branches of applied ethics can provide helpful knowledge and
skills for people trying to cope with war. For example, a background in
medical ethics can aid a battlefield doctor or army medic in making
agonizing decisions of justice and triage--in deciding which soldiers to
treat first and how to parcel out dwindling medical supplies. In the
heat of battle, such decisions must get made quickly; there is no time to
ponder and wonder, or to refine one's ethical intuitions and judgment.
Such pondering should have been done in a medical ethics program when
the doctor or medic was in training.

Computer ethics courses raise a number of practical questions regarding
the use of computerized weapons. For example, on the one hand "smart"
weapons can make war more deadly by delivering bombs more accurately. On
the other hand, if such accuracy is used to minimize civilian deaths,
the war could be less disastrous for innocent bystanders. Does this
make the war "more just"? Does the danger of computer malfunctions, or
of enemy- implanted computer viruses, make the use of computerized
weaponry irresponsible or reckless?

Environmental ethics certainly raises some important questions about
war. The first, and often most devastated, victims of war are the
animals and plants on and near the battlefield. Can there be a "just
war" that causes untold suffering and death to billions of animals and
plants--that lays waste to an entire ecosystem? (What, for example, is
to become of the Persian Gulf now that HALF A BILLION GALLONS OF OIL
have been spilled into it?) Does the development of new weapons systems
and the stockpiling of such weapons require or justify irreparable
damage to the earth?

Business ethics also raises some relevant questions. Are some wars
caused by bad economic policies? Is the Persian Gulf War, for example,
really about "blood for oil"? Do self-serving business practices cause
wars-- or make them more likely? Would you sell a powerful computer or
poison-gas chemicals to Saddam Hussein?

As the above examples illustrate, I believe (naively?) that it is
possible for philosophy--and therefore the teaching of philosophy--to be
a positive force for peace in the world, and to provide practical tools
for coping with the terrible consequences of war. I like to think (Is
it WISHFUL thinking?) that philosophically enlightened world leaders
would be less likely to go to war and more likely to limit wars when
they do occur.

All of this presupposes, of course, a conception of philosophy as AN
one means by the term "philosophy" some close-minded dogma or theology,
then that so-called "philosophy" is more likely to cause war than
prevent it!