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Chickens and International Warfare
For most of us, it's pretty obvious that wars, of the kind that took place over most of history, are a Very Bad Thing. Killing people, enslaving them, stealing their resources, are all terrible crimes. Right?
But what about chickens?
Most people in the world eat chicken and eggs. And yet chickens are genetically developed and raised in such a way that they live the most appalling lives of suffering.
This is not a blog post about encouraging people to be vegetarian. (And I am not vegetarian.) It's about facing up to what our moral code actually is. We are perfectly ready to inflict harm upon certain types of "others" when it's for our own basic well-being. And I'm not saying that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, neither from a Torah nor a secular moral perspective. From a Torah perspective, there are definitely hierarchies which allow one group to take advantage of others - such as people taking advantage of animals. And from a secular perspective, the entire biological drive is based on trying to improve the lot of your own group, regardless of others.
A similar argument is developed in detail by the late distinguished political scientist Felix E. Oppenheim, in an article titled "National Interest, Rationality, and Morality." He points out that it only makes sense to talk about moral choices when there are different options realistically available. When there are no options available - such as when there is only one course of action that can ensure survival - morality is simply irrelevant. The international relations scholar Arnold Wolfson stated that "Moral advice not to submit to the necessities of survival... would be advice to commit national suicide" - but Oppenheim adds that it would suffer the more basic problem of not being rational. "Given that the national interest is the only valuational standard practically available to statesmen, acting accordingly is to be characterized as rational, but not as ethically right or wrong."
Of course, history is rife with examples of this being abused. False claims of "national security" have been used to justify all kinds of unjustifiable atrocities. But this doesn't mean that it is never correct to use this approach. The fact that people sometimes are lying when they claim "I killed him in self-defense" does not mean that it is not legitimate to kill in self-defense!
Rav Yaakov Ariel points out that the Gemara (Berachot 3b) rates engaging in military action to ensure national survival - even in terms of economic survival - as perfectly normative. This only sounds shocking to some of us today is because we don't understand what economic survival really means. It doesn't mean avoiding a market crash. It means avoiding starving to death.
The only reason why we condemn warfare is that we have the luxury to do so. And we have the luxury to do so because we live in an era where our basic needs for survival can be easily met, and never require us to fight others in order to attain them. As Yuval Harari brilliantly explains in Sapiens, one of the results of science and technology on society and the economy is that warfare dramatically declined. Most nations can easily provide for their own needs, and whatever problems they have wouldn't be solved by waging wars on others. In today's world, you're much more likely to improve your nation's economy by forging trade partnerships with your neighbors rather than by invading them.
If we were in a situation where we and our countrymen were starving to death, and the only way to save us all would be to raid another country, you can bet your bottom dollar that we would all be in favor of that. There would be no objective standard by which to judge it as "right" or "wrong" - it would simply be the only rational course of action (just as the only rational course of action by the neighboring country would be to defend itself).
If you disagree, then I expect you to say that you don't eat chicken or eggs.
(UPDATE: From the initial reactions to this post, I see that a lot of people are making unwarranted assumptions. I urge everyone who thinks that they find something here disagreeable to read Oppenheim's article, published in Political Theory, at this link.)
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