April 13, 2022

What is your moral responsibility in Ukraine?

Philosopher John Martin Fischer says 'guilt' does not describe what you're feeling, and says there is something you can do

Author: J.D. Warren
April 13, 2022

Letters to the editor populate the pages of media outlets, speaking to America's and Americans' moral authority to act, or not to act, in Ukraine. You and I didn't cause this. Then why do we feel we should be doing something more - and what do we do with that anxiety? We turned to John Martin Fischer, a UC Riverside philosophy professor who is a world-leading expert on free will and moral responsibility. Fischer's ruminations on near-death experiences have been consumed by millions in his writings and on YouTube videos.

John Martin Fischer
"We should not feel guilty about these horrible things out of our control, but it is totally appropriate to feel badly about them," says John Martin Fischer, a UC Riverside philosophy professor and widely published author.
Q: The consensus of opinion, politically, holds that NATO should not enforce a no-fly zone, nor commit to troops on the ground, even as the Russians commit atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. Do you have any advice for how to best navigate this conversation, from the perspective of moral responsibility?

This is an extremely difficult position we are in, and the issues are complex.  We picture us down the road, when this is all over, looking back and being appalled at what has happened and our own inaction when so many people were being killed and suffering terribly.

When the Nazis murdered many millions of innocent persons, including six million Jews in the Holocaust, the world said, “Never again!”  But here we are again, it seems. Have we not learned the lessons of history?

These concerns, and the strong feelings they evoke, are troubling. In my view (and I’ll elaborate below) they come from a good place — a sense of connection and involvement with other human beings. In fact, in my opinion, connection is the most important meaningfulness-enhancing factor in our lives, and it is no less important to our psychological well-being.

We do however need to subject our feelings stemming from human connection to rational scrutiny, taking into account all the factors that are relevant. It is of great importance that we coordinate our response to the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine with our allies and partners in NATO. In order for them to trust us and for all allied nations to be strong and able to protect innocent persons in our nations and the world going forward, we have to keep our promise not to go it alone. America must live up to its promises, if we genuinely do care about preventing innocent deaths in the future. We must remember that in the first instance any conflicts and loss of life resulting from seeking to enforce a no-fly zone (and thereby shooting down Russian planes) will take place in Europe and affect our NATO allies directly, no doubt causing huge amounts of suffering and deaths of innocent people.

Although it is perhaps natural to imagine our future regret at our inaction to save Ukrainian lives, we have to keep in mind the fact that we

"When the Nazis murdered six million innocent people, mainly Jewish people, the world said, 'Never again!'" writes John Fischer. "But here we are again, it seems. Have we not learned the lessons of history?" | Getty Images

would have put millions of innocent persons at significant risk by enforcing a no-fly zone. We could have precipitated the use of chemical and biological, and even nuclear, weapons, killing millions and causing extraordinary and widespread suffering. Minimizing pain and death for some might cause even great death and suffering for others. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable and dangerous madman changes the stakes.

The above suggests a way to think about the refusal to enforce a no-fly zone, but it does not alleviate the feelings of distress and the human tendency to hold ourselves responsible for not acting, and to feel guilty about not preventing what we are witnessing. These feelings are “natural” — deeply human — and understandable, and I will return to them below.

Q: Recently, we read news and saw graphic images from a Russian detonation that killed four people, including a mother and her two children as they crossed a bridge. The reaction was vocal and widespread. Why do people have a greater reaction to an episode such as this rather than to news of — for instance — of dozens of people dying at a train station? Why is it convenient for us to dismiss death when it’s large-scale?

As the saying goes, pictures are worth a thousand words. Graphic, “up-close” images of death and human suffering have a more profound impact on us than more “abstract” knowledge of similar (or even greater) suffering. I don’t think that it is a matter of “numbers” or “scale” of deaths, but of graphic versus “sanitized” depictions. It is perhaps harder to give such depictions when there is larger-scale loss of life (and suffering), but I doubt that it is the scale in itself that makes a difference. So, for instance, if we had up-close and graphic videos of people dying in horrific ways in the train station, I think we would react in the same sort of vehement ways. It may not be “rational” or ethically defensible, but that’s the way we humans are hard-wired, ethically speaking.

Some interesting empirical work exploring peoples’ reactions to different conflict situations brings this out clearly. If you can switch a runaway train from one track to another to save five lives (but killing one), many think it is permissible to do so (given no other way to save the five). But pushing a large (buff!) person off a railroad bridge onto the tracks to stop the oncoming train is thought to be impermissible, even supposing that’s the only way to save five innocent persons. This is one scenario in the (in)famous “Trolley Problem.” Even though I cannot fill in the cases suitably here, I hope it suffices to note that we respond differently to more graphic and “hands-on” depictions of saving the five, as opposed to more detached and “abstract” ways. Careful and large studies of human reactions to such moral puzzles — begun right here at UCR through a collaborative project by the evolutionary psychologist Lewis Petrinovich and me — establish this beyond a doubt.

That we tend to respond this way — emotionally rather than rationally, one might say — is a fact about us, but it does not show that these reactions are morally justified. This tendency does however explain why people suddenly attend to terrible deeds that have been going on for awhile already. Doesn’t it seem morally jarring that, given all the Russians have done thus far, certain very recent photos and videos will catalyze the leaders of the NATO countries to apply new sanctions? Hadn’t they already done enough to justify all the sanctions we could apply? The answer lies in the way we are hard-wired, but not necessarily our rationality.

Q: How can we hope to grasp death and suffering on the scale of what’s happening in Ukraine? Is it beyond our comprehension, or is that a cop-out?

Comprehending (or grasping) is different from picturing or feeling. I cannot picture all the horrific pain and suffering, and no matter how empathetic I am, I certainly cannot feel it (or feel anything comparable to it). But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand or comprehend the magnitude of the suffering. I can understand it to be greater than the suffering of a smaller group of innocent persons, and this understanding might lead to differential actions.

"We don’t always get serenity from recognizing the inevitable, and our proper attitudes toward the situation in the Ukraine illustrate this point," John Fischer writes. | Getty Images

As an (imperfect) analogy, consider the set of positive integers. It is an infinite set, and I cannot picture it; I cannot picture the infinite set of numerals denoting the numbers. I can, however, understand or grasp the set because I know the algorithm that determines membership in it: 1 is a positive integer, and for any positive integer N, N+1 is a positive integer. Knowing this, I can figure out various properties of the set of positive integers without having to picture it.

Same with suffering and death.  I can picture and empathize with another human being’s suffering, and I know that for every such individual, there’s another (up to a very large number but short of infinity) — equally real and valuable human being — experiencing something similarly terrible. I don’t have to picture all these individuals suffering; I can grasp it and understand its significance by knowing something like the “algorithm” that generates the larger group.

So it is just untrue that we cannot comprehend large amounts of suffering, and it would certainly be a cop-out to invoke the fact that we cannot picture it to justify not getting involved. There may be justifications for inaction, but not this one.

Q: Is there a fallacy at play when we allow ourselves to feel guilt – i.e., “I’m doing nothing to help” – re. atrocities committed in another part of the world?

This question gets to the heart of much of our emotional turmoil during these times. I think the basic issue is not about what happens in another part of the world (although that is relevant to what is in fact fundamental). It is about our feelings with respect to things for which we are not to blame. I will assume at this point that we are not to blame for the atrocities — after all, we did not order them or participate in them, and we cannot ourselves prevent them. NATO leaders are perhaps in a different situation, but then it is still an open question whether their inaction is blameworthy, given the analysis above. We’ll focus on us ordinary citizens.

How is it not a “fallacy” to feel guilty about something for which you are not blameworthy? You have done nothing wrong, but you still feel guilty. Perhaps you think it is wrong for you not to help by donating to charities that are coming to the aid of the Ukrainian people. This is something you can relatively easily rectify, but the bad feelings or “guilt” many people feel is deeper — it is about the fact of our more “large-scale” inaction as these horrific events are unfolding, quite apart from whether it would be right to get more involved (and blameworthy not to).

The answer lies in distinguishing guilt from what the English philosopher Bernard Williams (recently passed away) has called, “agent-regret.” Agent-regret is having bad feelings about something one caused blamelessly. Suppose you are driving along, minding the speed limit and undistracted. You are driving carefully and well, but suddenly a young girl, having lost control of her bicycle, darts in front of your car. You cannot stop in time and, tragically, the crash kills the girl. It was not your fault — you were not driving too fast, recklessly, negligently, and so forth. You are fully aware that the crash was not your fault. And yet you feel horribly — a feeling that might last a lifetime. Williams urges that we be precise: this is agent-regret, not guilt. You feel badly because of your causal role in what happened, even though you were blameless. Agent-regret is a deeply human emotion.

I suggest that agent-regret, and not guilt, is what many of us feel in the present circumstances.  We do not believe we ourselves are morally blameworthy in not intervening or doing what we can to cause a NATO intervention — we realize we can’t as individuals or even groups do this. We identify with our country, and with our allies, and we feel badly — even devastated — by what is happening, although we do not believe we are blameworthy for not doing significantly more to stop the Russians’ actions. This is agent-regret.

This is however not quite the same as in the tragic bicycle death. There you feel badly because you were causally responsible for the bad thing, although not morally blameworthy for it. The case of the Ukraine shows that we can have moral regret for an omission, just as much as for an action: we can feel bad about not doing something, even while holding that it is not wrong to refrain from doing it.

In the case of the careful but unfortunate driver, you are suddenly thrown into a relationship with a perfect stranger — you are suddenly causally connected to (and involved with) this individual. Your causal connection changes things. Similarly, the NATO countries are connected to (and involved with) the people of Ukraine: if we were actually to intervene (in certain ways), we could alleviate some of their suffering. This fact changes things: even if we believe it would be wrong to intervene in Europe, we feel badly in the agent-regret way for what is happening there.

Is agent-regret irrational or a “fallacy”? I don’t think so. It emerges unavoidably from something that we care deeply, perhaps most deeply, about: human connection. There are emotions that stem from morality — we feel guilty when we have done wrong. Other emotions stem from a broader fact of human connection. Given our psychologies, we cannot help but have agent-regret, even though we recognize that we are not blameworthy for the act or omission.

Think of it this way. Morality is a set of norms that help us to coordinate our behavior and live together with minimal conflicts. There are other norms and associated psychological structures that facilitate our living meaningful (as well as moral) lives. The fundamental such norm, in my opinion, captures the importance of making valuable connections — with other human beings, with something (a being or perhaps ongoing activity, such as science, art or athletics) larger than oneself, and so forth. Given that we have psychologies that allow us to live ethically and meaningfully, we will unavoidably have agent-regret. It is a package-deal.

Q: How should we navigate these turbulent emotional waters?

Putin and Russia have not just invaded Ukraine, but also our hearts. They have caused death and suffering — this is the deepest tragedy. They have also caused great human emotional distress and confusion.  What are we to do about our psychological suffering?

First, we need to see that it is not, properly speaking, guilt.  Guilt, but not agent-regret, requires an apology; making amends for something for which we are blameworthy symbolically expresses a recognition of wrongdoing and an apology. Second, we should recognize that even agent-regret requires making amends in some way (although not the way of blameworthiness, guilt, and apology). It is not simply that other human beings are hurting, but that others to whom we are connected in a special way (we could mitigate their suffering) are. We need to make amends. It is not a moral duty, but a duty of human connection.  You might say: “Make amends, not war.”

Think of the famous “Serenity Prayer,” first formulated by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s based on Ancient Stoic writings, and then taken over by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs in mid-20th century. It goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is often interpreted as asserting that accepting the things we cannot change will lead to serenity, but the “prayer” actually has it the other way around: we need serenity to accept the inevitable. Consider the “standard” interpretation, according to which accepting the things one cannot change leads to psychic harmony and serenity. So it should go: “God grant me the serenity coming from accepting the things I cannot change…”  This just isn’t true. We don’t always get serenity from recognizing the inevitable, and our proper attitudes toward the situation in the Ukraine illustrate this point. We can’t do anything about what the Russians are doing — at least as individuals — and yet it is perfectly appropriate to experience agent-regret as a result of them. The same is true of global climate change.

The Stoic formulations of the prayer are subtly (but importantly) different. They do not suggest indifference to what we cannot change (or serenity in the face of it).  Rather, they urge us not to be “troubled” by them or waste our time and energy deliberating on how to prevent/change what we cannot affect. This is exactly what I would propose. We should not feel guilty about these horrible things out of our control, but it is totally appropriate to feel badly about them. We need to make amends, and this implies actively seeking out ways of helping the refugees, and so forth — ways that are indeed in our control. We need not “doom-scroll” and fall into despair about global climate change; we can find ways to exercise our agency to help in any way possible, even on a relatively small scale.

One cause of depression is a sense of “helplessness.” The psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, pioneered studies of “learned helplessness” as an explanation of depression. Agent-regret, however, is not depression, and it can lead us to find ways of exercising our agency in ways that do not just help others in need, but assist us in achieving psychological health, even in a morally messy world that gives rise to emotional complexity and ambivalence. So far as our affective states mirror the world, it is not surprising or discordant to find that they are not unified. The world is in some ways broken, giving rise to value-fragmentation.

The proper understanding of the Serenity Prayer does not counsel us against emotional complexity or even pain, but encourages us to focus our deliberations and decision-making on what we can control. The Ancient Stoic insight is to counsel practical rationality, even in a world of emotional turmoil.  

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