Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Death, Life; War, Peace: The Human Basis of Universal Normative Identification

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Death, Life; War, Peace: The Human Basis of Universal Normative Identification

Article excerpt

Two photographs serve as metonyms for the peace movement that preceded the invasion of Iraq and the illegal assault itself. The first, taken at the massive protest in New York City on February 15, 2003, shows a pregnant woman holding a sign that read, "Power is in Giving Life."1 The second, which received global distribution in the mass media, emerged in the days following the end of the military phase of the invasion and showed twelve year old AIi Ismael Abbas, his arms blown off by an American missile, his head bandaged and flesh burned, his life-giving parents absent, having been killed in the strike. The peace movement was generally derided in the popular press, when it was mentioned at all, while the anonymous airborne killers and maimers of Abbas and his family were celebrated as heroes. What is problematic is that a significant number of ordinary citizens seemed able to both identify with the invading force and with the plight of young Abbas, a victim of those very forces.

This problem is made more complex by the fact that the end of the peace movement as a mass mobilization in the belligerent countries can be precisely correlated to the moment of invasion. The scale of opposition to the war (especially in Britain) prior to its outbreak and the majority support for it after it had begun means that a significant number of opponents must have switched their view once soldiers set foot on Iraqi soil. The problem runs deeper than explaining this shift of opinion, however. For once the major military operation was concluded, headlines were dominated by the picture of Abbas, and the worldwide outpouring of offers of assistance means that many people who supported the war now wanted to help the young boy whose harm was caused by the very attack his Western sympathizers supported. I am not a statistician, but the scale of the shift of public opinion must mean that there was a subset of war supporters who were initially opposed, then switched their opinion, and then were moved to help the young victim of Anglo-American aggression. This radical oscillation of political opinion raises very deep questions about the causes of what I will call normative identification. By normative identification I mean the ability of people to consider other beings as deserving of moral regard, where moral regard means not only (as in Kantian inspired theories) concern with the dignity of people as rational beings, but also concern for them as embodied beings capable of suffering harm and deserving of material conditions which promote their integral well-being.

A cursory examination of the evidence from the polls might suggest a pessimistic conclusion, to wit, that the complexity of the world outstrips most people's capacity to make sense of events and maintain a coherent worldview in light of constantly shifting geo-political realities.2 A closer examination of the causes of normative identification might yield a less hopeless assessment. A full examination of those causes would go beyond the scope of the present essay, as it would require an empirical examination of the control and dissemination of information in the mass media and the social-psychological processes through which citizens assimilate it. I will confine myself to an examination of the philosophical side of the problem, namely, the foundational presuppositions that structure the scope of normative identification. I will address the specific questions of what presuppositions determine the range of normative identification and whether there is one presupposition that would make possible a universal form of normative identification embracing human life as such.

This essay will be divided in two sections. In the first section I will examine the complexity of empirical identity in general. I will attempt to isolate the grounds for normative identification in a dialectical relationship between empirical identity and systems of value. The first section will thus clarify the meaning of normative identity and explain why it is capable of narrower or wider scope. …

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