Pragmatic vs Cowardly Non-resistance
I'm listening to an interesting lecture by philosopher Sarah Buss on the question of the moral virtue of resistance vs 'keeping your head down', and even before I've finished it (I have a long drive ahead of me so I'm saving the second half), I'm already provoked into sharing its framing theme. Essentially, this is the question of how we should distinguish between pragmatic non-resistance to power as opposed to cowardly non-resistance.
Her main example is pretty compelling in my view. Imagine yourself a classic Tolstoy-style rural peasant family of the sort that has tended the fields throughout the agrarian world throughout most of history - proud, long-suffering, at the mercy of a thousand external factors:
Their days were filled with hard labour... they were at the mercy of those who had power over every aspect of their lives, yet they did not complain. They raised families and vegetables, they had meaningful friendships. When they weren't working or sleeping, they spent time enjoying the company of their family and friends. All the while they accommodated their political circumstances as they accommodated the weather. They put up with the constraints on their choices as they put up with the arbitrary exercise of power to which they and their neighbors were subjected. They did their best not to provoke the wrath of those who had tight control of their lives, refraining from protesting when this wrath was directed at others. Under the circumstances this coping strategy was the better part of wisdom.
That sounds like a reasonable way of life, no? The trick is this same spiel can be applied to the 'Good Germans' of World War 2 - the people who could have resisted Hitler but didn't, and not out of ideological agreement with him but personal pragmatism. And even if we don't want to judge these people too harshly, we still recognise there's at least the possibility of a kind of moral mistake there. If you'd witnessed the murder or abduction of your townsfolk and said nothing, not even raised a word of denunciation in semi-private circumstances, it's hard not to imagine you'd feel some guilt in subsequent years. Likewise, many of us would recognise that some moments of deep moral progress in human history - whether it's the American Revolution, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the birth of the Civil Rights movement - required individuals to stick their head above the parapet and risk it all for the sake of some greater good. But how can we identify when we're confronted with such a moment, as opposed to simply facing an opportunity to get ourselves beaten up or shot?
I'd imagine many of us here are inclined to view these kinds of problems via a narrow consequentialist lens - if individual resistance to tyranny on my part can do more good than the harm I incur as a result, then it's justified; otherwise not so. But of course, we don't normally have any idea about the likely downstream consequences of our actions. Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the Arab Spring, couldn't have dreamed he'd set in motion a series of events that would topple multiple governments and lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. And then there's the co-ordination problem aspects - if you call out tyranny, how many people will be inspired to join you? And isn't it in each protester's interests to let the other guy go ahead, take the brunt of the riot cop's anger? This combination of deep epistemological and game-theoretic problems leads me to think that kind of moral situations described above constitute a powerful class of instances where the kind of rationalist mindset that works for effective altruism or electoral fundraising or economic projections tend to flounder. But I don't have a good alternative methodology in mind, aside from something vague like identifying your deep moral sentiments and ensuring they see adequate expression, and hoping that others feel the same.
Another issue I'd flag: it's easy to think in an era of political polarisation and anger that sin lies in inaction, but listening to Buss's talk, one other interesting class of people came to mind namely, the 'clutch non-players' - the anti-Gavrilo Princips of this world, the people who had every ideological right to take some drastic action yet refrained on pragmatic grounds and thereby saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives. These people are anonymous, but we know they must exist: the pious heretic who kept their theological doubts to themselves and thus prevented a pointless religious war, the nationalist who accepted an extra hundred years of subjugation by an outside power and thereby prevented a genocide, or the communist who opted for incremental progress rather than class warfare and avoided a million dead in a purge. We can easily identify the evil actors (the Hitlers) and the evil non-actors (the enablers of Hitler), as well as the virtuous actors (the Gandhis). But the virtuous non-actors are almost by definition invisible. It strikes me that someone should set up a museum to them - perhaps somewhere unobstrusive and out of the way.