Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking • For January 7 weekender, 2017
Virtue as Control
David W. Hegg
In 1924 Winston Churchill wrote an essay on the horrible problems posed by modern warfare entitled “Shall We Commit Suicide?” After proving the history of mankind is the history of conflict, much of it barbaric, he went on to declare we have been saved from total destruction as a race only by our own incompetence. “The means of destruction at the disposal of man have not kept pace with his ferocity. Reciprocal extermination was impossible in the Stone Age. One cannot do much with a clumsy club.”
But, as history progressed we merged into nations, built roads, organized armies, and unlocked the monumental power of science. And then we built weapons. The very intelligence that allowed for the rise of our modern world, with its prosperity, civility, and luxury, has also given us the competence – for the first time in history – to destroy ourselves.
Churchill considered this achievement constituted a most serious decision-point in human history. “Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities.”
It is this last point that Churchill went on to elaborate. With self-destruction now possible, he called on his nation to consider what new level of virtue, or ethical resolve and restraint, was necessary to corral the natural bent in mankind to destroy the enemy now that the weapons designed for that use would precipitate reprisals in kind.
Today, almost a hundred years later, we are in even more danger of the horror Churchill envisioned. Now we have weapons much more powerful and prevalent. And now we are a world awash in a post-modern, post-truth, post-civil, post-human soup that threatens every nation, and every individual in it. As our ability to destroy has grown, it seems as though our consciences, once stalwart guardians of truth, dignity, and the sanctity of life, have been so seared as to consider evil good.
Churchill was right in 1924. While a strong military capability is a good and necessary means of defense, and a grand deterrent to enemy aggression, it will only remain so if we are an ethical people, resolved to carefully guard against a hasty or excessive use of it. But even then, there is a problem.
What happens when we, an ethical society committed to peace, come head to head with those committed to destruction at any cost? What happens when Churchill is faced with the barbarism of Hitler? What happens when we are faced with the unimaginable carnage perpetrated with glee by Islamic terrorists?
There are only two answers. We become barbaric, throwing off the restraint of our basic values and ethical convictions and stoop to the level of our enemies. Or, we use the power at our disposal responsibly, wisely, carefully, seeing war as a last resort, but a necessary one if the alternative is the destruction of our society.
Winston Churchill stood up to the bully, his ringing rhetoric infusing courage and grit into the very veins of Britains as they stood toe to toe with the Nazi war machine. Without a full reservoir of virtue, neither the leader nor the country would have remained. But they did, and they did so without losing their humanity. May we heed the words and example of Sir Winston in our day, for the good of America, and the good of the world.