A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

 

  • Cartoonists pay Tribute to Charlie Hebdo attack victims - 25 Cartoons

By David Ozar

I am a philosopher and ethics professor.

Some of what has been said about the murder of staff at Charlie Hebdo has seemed to me to make very good sense; but some of it has been muddled by treating together a number of ideas that are very different from each other. There are at least three sets of ethical or social-ethical issues that these events put on the table for careful reflection.

I began writing about these issues because I was pretty sure that drawing a clear conclusion about one of these issues does not lead us to clear conclusions about the others.  I offer my reasons for this point of view here in the hope that they will help others think carefully about these issues and, if I am correct, avoid muddling them together.

One set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo focuses on whether killing people to prevent them from speaking their views is ever morally/ethically justifiable. Very few people in the world believe it is.

No philosophical and theoretical position, Islamic or otherwise, that affirms every human being has a value that does not depend on what the person believes or how he or she acts would ever support such killings as morally/ethically justifiable.

Clearly, committed terrorists of any religious stripe or of no religion view humans differently.  But I am assuming the fact that there are people who hold other views about human beings is not counter-evidence enough for the rest of us to withhold judgment about the value of a human being, or a reason to view terrorists as anything but profoundly mistaken and dangerous enough to the rest of us that ethically extraordinary measures may be necessary to prevent them from acting on their views.

But as I said, I don’t think being clear about this set of issues provides clarity to the other two.

A second set of issues concerns what is or is not required of Muslims who seek to act faithfully in accord with the Koran.  The fact that the jihadists we are dealing with say they read the Koran as justifying acts of terrorism — and let us assume this is genuine and not strategic posturing for the sake of grabbing power or whatever, though their being genuine in this is also something that would need evidence for us to be sure — tells us nothing at all about other strands of Islam and nothing dependable about the Koran and surely provides no evidence about Islam in general or Muslims as a group.

I have no detailed knowledge about Islam and its many varieties and all the Muslims I have known personally have been good people whom I would be happy to call my friends. My guess is that there are as many strands of Koranic interpretation as there are regarding interpretation of the Judaic and Christian Scriptures; and the news about the Paris massacre has evidenced many devout Muslims who condemn terrorist acts of all sorts as being clear violations of Koranic teaching.

In fact, while these terrorists and ISIS do use the word “jihad” to describe their efforts, this probably tells us nothing specific enough to draw conclusions about jihad itself as this idea occurs in the Koran or is understood by Muslims generally.

For I do not know – and we would need to listen carefully to Koranic scholars to draw any conclusions – whether the notion of jihad in the Koran or in various Muslim traditions of interpreting it always requires terrorism. Religion-based wars have been fought — by partisans of many different religions — without resorting to terrorism. That is, in accord with the rules of ethical war (articulated for example, but not exclusively, in the West’s understanding of “Just War Theory”). There could just as easily be Islamic traditions that interpret jihad this way rather than seeing it as requiring terrorism.

And ethical/moral questions about what justifies acts of mortal violence under any circumstances, much less circumstances having any relevance to the present situation of various peoples in the Middle East, is a huge set of questions I am not even attempting to say anything about here.

Anyone wishing to understand the ethical issues involved in justifying war’s violence will find a good, careful discussion in Michael Walzer’s book, Just and Unjust Wars. A good example of a discussion of the ethical issues involved specifically in addressing the threat of organized terrorism that our country learned it must deal with in the events of 9/11 is Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book, Just War Against Terror.

The third set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo concerns journalists and their various appropriate professional roles.  In an essay entitled, “An Explanation and Method for the Ethics of Journalism,” which I co-authored with another philosopher/ethicist, Professor Deni Elliott, I proposed an answer to the question “What Values Do Journalists Bring About For Those They Serve (i.e. in their designated social role in our society)?”

The book is: Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach edited by Christopher Meyers, pp.9-24. This is a central question to reflect on when asking about the professional ethics of any profession.

I argued there that Needed [by the public] Information comes first and Valued [by the public] Information comes second.

Clearly the creation and publication of humor, and more narrowly of satirical humor, is not part of the role of journalists to provide the public with needed information or even information which the public does not need but values having for one reason or another.

I argued that the other kinds of good that journalists can do may well be ethically appropriate to their professional role, at least in Western societies, and I think that producing humor is one of these, either as entertainment or as something valued for other reasons, perhaps including thoughtful social criticism.

But I take it for granted that every profession’s ethics are the product of a dialogue between that group and the specific larger society in which it functions. So I think that, in today’s world where the products of journalists’ work go far and wide, it is a complex question to know whether societies where other things besides these two are not part of journalists’ social role are ethically justified in those societies.  This is a question I will not try to comment on here, but which would make a great topic for discussion by those who care about journalism’s professional ethics in today’s digital world.

With that as background, I can pose the key question about journalism’s professional ethics that is at stake here: Is satirical humor sufficiently socially-ethically justifiable within the social-ethical role of a professional journalist or professional journalist organization that such humor continues to be ethically justifiable when it is highly offensive to large numbers of otherwise reasonable, not-fanatic, peace-loving and neighbor-caring people?

This is a very complex ethical question.  What a person finds offensive is, for want of a better word, painful to them, it hurts.  And in general we think hurting others’ feelings ought to be avoided unless there is a good reason for it. In addition, it is rare that we judge hurting someone’s feelings, offending someone, for no other reason than to entertain other persons (besides the one who is hurt) to be something that is morally/ethically justifiable if the situation is one in which the hurt party has little realistic opportunity of avoiding the hurt.

The great American philosopher, Joel Feinberg, determined that his examination of rights should include a careful discussion of the extent to which offense can ever be morally/ethically justified and if there are circumstances in which it should be legally prohibited.

The work ended up taking him a whole, complex book to sort out. [The book is: Joel Feinberg, Offense To Others.]

So it seems to me that well-thought-out answers to the question I just asked are going to take time and effort to sort out, especially in an international digital world in which “news” of all sorts is flashed on screens, billboards, etc., at least in many parts of the world.  For that means that the ethical issue is not resolved by just saying, “Well, if you think it will be offensive (or even know it because they said it would be), just refuse to buy Charlie.”

That is not a realistic answer to the opportunity-to-avoid question in a world where the line between information, entertainment, and advertising has been blurred so thoroughly (although this blurring has not been solely the result of the changes in journalism in recent decades, but on the other hand journalist organizations have certainly played a part in the process).

So I think there is a lot here that is worth discussing, especially if we are willing to assume that short, quick answers are almost certainly going to be too simple once we get past the “do not kill” part of the matter.  That’s my ‘two cents” on this. Well, to be honest, it’s quite a few cents! But then I am a philosopher and I am unwilling to pretend complex ethical things are simple !

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