Weekend Ethics End Notes, 11/21/21: Rittenhouse Hangover Edition

July 5 Hangover

Arghh. Here’s one more thing to blame on Kyle Rittenhouse: in focusing on the deranged reactions to the verdict yesterday, I missed the opportunity to flag the anniversary of a landmark in world ethics: the beginning of the Nuremberg war crime trials on November 20, 1945. The trials were conducted by an international tribunal made up of judicial representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain. The defendants faced charges ranging from crimes against peace, to crimes of war, to crimes against humanity. The trials lasted 10 months and consisted of 216 court sessions.

There is no question that had the war turned out differently, it would have been Allied generals and officials facing war crimes charges. It is often said that the trials were unprecedented, but there was a precedent, and it was cited as one at the time: the 1865 trial of Capt. Wirz, the Confederate Commandant of the Andersonville prison. That trial raised many of the same ethical issues as its successor. I have serious reservations about the ethics of the Nuremberg Trials, and I am sure that in this I am reflecting the objections of my father, a WWII veteran who felt they were the height of hypocrisy. “All wars are crimes against humanity,” he said.

On October 1, 1946, 12 Nazi leaders were sentenced to death. Seven others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life, and three were acquitted.

1. Sorry, more Rittenhouse ethics offenses:

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Thoughts Upon Reading The Comments To The Recent “Conscience Clause” Post

The comments on the recent post regarding the so-called conscience rule being voided in court generated the comments the topic always does. What follows is a relatively short, general post to frame the issues as clearly as possible.  Admittedly, when a post is titled “When Law and Ethics Converge,” perhaps I shouldn’t have to explicate with a post focusing on the difference between law and ethics. I strongly believe that conscience clauses undermine the law, and are unethical, as you will see.

Law and Ethics are not the buddies people think they are, or wish they were. If you look around Ethics Alarms, you see why. Ethics, as the  process by which we decide and learn what is good and right conduct, evolves with time and experience. A predictable cut of a society’s ethics are always going to be a matter of intense debate. Ethics are self-enforcing, for the most part and by nature, because being ethical should make us feel good.  Once an authority or power starts demanding conduct and enforcing  conformity, we are mostly out of the realm of ethics and into morality, where conduct is dictated by a central overseer that, if it is to have genuine authority, must be voluntarily accepted by those subject to its power.

Society cannot function on ethics alone. Without laws, chaos and anarchy result. Because chaos and anarchy are bad for everyone, no individual who has accepted the social compact may decide which laws he or she will follow and which he or she will defy—at least, not without paying a price, which is society’s punishment. In ethical terms, this is a utilitarian calculation: we accept laws that individually we may find repugnant, because allowing citizens to pick and choose which laws they will obey as a matter of “conscience” doesn’t work and has never worked. Ethics pays attention to history.

Thus it is ethical to obey the law, and unethical not to,  even if good arguments can be made that particular laws are themselves unethical. This is where civil disobedience comes in: if a citizen chooses to violate a law on a the basis of that citizen’s conscience or principle, the citizen also has to accept the legal consequences of doing so as an obligation of citizenship. Continue reading

Introducing Rationalizations #25B, and #25C: “I’m Just Doing My Job,” and “It’s Policy!”

Here are two  more rationalizations for the list, bringing the grand total to 89.

#25B  The Nuremberg Rationalization, or “I’m Just Doing My Job!”

Amazing: 87 previous rationalizations described, and the word “Nuremberg” did not appear once.

Rationalization # 25. The Coercion Myth, covers the excuse for unethical conduct that the actor “had no choice,” and # 25A. Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!” posits that duty excuses wrongdoing. #25 B follows the theme of denying free will by using the fact of employment to justify or excuse unethical conduct. It embodies the defense of the Nazi officers at the Nuremberg Trials that because they followed the orders of others, they were simply agents, and their horrible crimes against humanity should not bring them punishment…after all, they had no choice. It was their duty to follow orders, because that was their job.

We all need jobs, but we all have a choice whether to remain in a job or not. Sometimes it’s not a very attractive choice, and even a frightening one, in which choosing the ethical course requires personal sacrifice. Nonetheless, when a job requires one to commit unethical acts, the choice is this: quit the job and refuse to perform the unethical act, or commit the unethical act, following orders but accepting the responsibility, accountability and consequences of doing so.

For inspiration, we need look no further than the first admittee to the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor, the amazing Henri Salmide.

From the Ethics Alarms post:

In 1944, Salmide was a German officer in the 159th Infantry Division of the German army occupying the French city of Bordeaux, the largest seaport on the west coast. It was August 19, and Allied Forces were spreading out from the beaches at Normandy and taking control of the war. An order came from Berlin calling on the Division to destroy the entire seven miles of port infrastructure before abandoning the city. The port’s destruction was scheduled to occur within a week.

“It fell to me,” Salmide recounted in an interview, because, as head of the bomb disposal unity, he had expertise with explosives. “I couldn’t do it. I knew the war was lost. What was the point of this, I asked myself. People would die and suffer, and the war would still be lost by Germany.”

On  August 22, he filled a bunker at the docks with detonators, plungers, timers and other hardware needed for the planned demolition. But instead of using them to destroy Bordeaux, Salmide blew them up with dynamite, in a terrifying explosion. “It was all I could do,” he said later.

French historians estimate he saved 3,500 lives by refusing to carry out his orders. About fifty Nazi soldiers died in the blast instead. “I could not accept that the port of Bordeaux be wantonly destroyed when the war was clearly lost,” he explained in an interview. “I acted according to my Christian conscience.”

Salmide deserted, and was hunted by both the Gestapo and the French authorities. He hid with the French Resistance for the remainder of the war. Then Salmide adopted a French name, married a local woman, became citizen of France, and raised his family in the very city his conscience had rescued. The Germans regarded him as a traitor, and even the French were reluctant to give him the recognition he deserved, according to his wife.

“No one wanted to admit that he had done it,” Mrs. Salmide told the New York Times. “If he had been French, it would have been easier for him.”  It was not until 2000 that the French government finally awarded him the French Legion of Honor,* and the Bordeaux City Hall said this week that it wants to erect a memorial to Salmide.

His best and most lasting memorial, however, would be for his story to be known around the world, and taught in every school, of every nation. For when any of us finds ourselves being required to act under authority to accomplish unjust and cruel ends—to blindly do our job, knowing that the results would harm others unjustly, and we wonder if it is fair for us to be accountable for our actions when, in reality, we seem to have no choice, we should recall Henri Salmide. His moment of courage should remind us that we are always accountable, and we always have a choice, provided we also have the ethics and courage to take it.

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Ethics Hero Emeritus: Henri Salmide, 1919-2010

Henri Salmide by the port he saved, and came to love.

Henri Salmide by the port he saved, and came to love.

In the Nuremberg war crimes trials following World War II, the Allies took the high-minded position that “just following orders” was no defense to “crimes against humanity” committed during wartime. It is and has always been much easier to argue for defying military orders in the abstract, however, than in real combat situations. Conveniently, the victors in a war can take such a position, even knowing in their hearts, as most honest soldiers do, that they themselves might not be able to muster the courage and conviction to tell a commanding officer, “No!”

Henri Salmide, a former German soldier in World War II who died in France this week, would have been an appropriate judge for the trials, for he would not have been plagued by any such conflict or hypocrisy. For Salmide, back when he was called by his birth name of Heinz Stahlschmidt, was a rare and remarkable man who did defy an order he knew was wrong, and saved a city with his courageous, dangerous, and principled actions. Continue reading