Choosing Life or Death

Two clashing worldviews exist. Most of our decisions are made, our values formed, against the background of the view we endorse.

One is what I call the compassionate, nonviolent, or optimistic worldview. This holds that people are essentially good, and that violence is an aberration or a malfunction. It is the root of Christianity and all other religions promoting the Golden Rule, that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is the backdrop to Gandhi's statement that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. It is the root of Harry Truman's belief that the best way to determine if you can trust a man is to trust him. For those who hold this belief, it is confirmed again and again by the experience that if you treat people openly, honestly and with compassion, they will return the favor.

The second view is the Hobbesian, violent or "NRA" view of the world. This holds that people are essentially violent, and that goodness is the exception in the world. Its corrolary is that we must be prepared at any moment to defend ourselves, and in fact to strike pre-emptively where necessary for our survival. The world, as Hobbes said, is a war of all against all, and to protect ourselves and what is dear to us, we must carry the biggest stick, and hit first and decisively. The violent worldview holds that violence is normal, that it will always be with us, and that the good man must therefore be the most violent, albeit righteously so. At best, the violent worldview promotes an orderly, Apollonian violence, rather than a chaotic, Dionysian spasm.

In the violent world, the compassionate man is a sucker, just waiting to be taken advantage of, plucked if not murdered by the first comer. And, due to his naivete and failure to be violent, he is himself to blame for his own victimization or murder; he "had it coming". Compassion, though we pay lip service to it, goes almost unrecognized in the violent world; we either have no time for it, or it is a luxury we cannot afford, or it makes us vulnerable, or (at best) it is a limited duty owed only to a spouse and our own flesh and blood.

The violent world is the place of the Mosaic law. We start with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, until some bright legislator recognizes that we can go on exchanging teeth for teeth, eyes for eyes, all day long. Lets put a stop to this now; the next time the enemy takes a tooth, we'll have his eye; the time after that, we'll take his life. That will put an end to this kind of behavior.

Both world views are, of course, self-fulfilling prophecies. The Hobbesian man is more likely to kill someone--in fact, he is more likely to "have" to kill someone--because he expects to, and governs himself accordingly. This year in Houston, a driver used a legal, concealed weapon to kill an assailant who punched him through his car window after a fender bender. Had he lacked either a gun or a Hobbesian worldview, he probably would have driven his car away without any loss of life (the energy and motor skills required to find, aim and fire the weapon and to turn on, shift and steer the car are remarkably similar).

Contrast this remarkable story, told by the naturalist William Bartram, of an encounter in the 1770's, as summarized by Patrick O'Brian in a recent article ("Discovering the New World", New York Review of Books, October 17, 1996, p. 4):

Riding through dreary open country one evening, beyond the limits of white settlement in that particular part of Georgia, he noticed an Indian, a Seminole, armed with a rifle, crossing the path some way ahead. Bartram would rather have avoided the encounter, but the Indian saw him and galloped up. "I never before this was afraid at the sight of an Indian," he says...."but at this time, I own that my spirits were very much agitated"--he was, after all, alone and unarmed. However, he put the best face on it and advanced, holding out his hand to the obviously furious Indian; after an angry hesitation, the Indian spurred forward, took the proffered hand, and they parted on good terms, the Indian pointing out the way to the trading-post. There they told him that the Seminole had been there the evening before-- a noted murderer, outlawed by his own people. The traders had beaten him and broken his gun; but he escaped, catching up a rifle as he went, and he called out that he would kill the first white man he met.

Here is where the path divides. To a Hobbesian, the story is incomprehensible; that Bartram should travel unarmed in such obviously dangerous country is senseless and frightening, even disorienting; the only way to restore any balance to the world is to say that Bartram was unhinged, and as a result, deserved whatever happened to him. Thus, to a Hobbesian, the only rational version of this adventure ends with the Seminole dead in the path, and Bartram coolly putting away his gun, proud of his own marksmanship. But the nonviolent individual is charmed by the story, because he knows that if you go around in the world honestly, speaking the truth to everyone, looking everyone in the eye and behaving firmly but respectfully, you have a better defense than ten guns. Bartram rode many thousands of miles around the country without coming to any harm, returned to Philadelphia and spent another 45 years tending his garden.