In the rather endless recent comments on war, torture, and politics, both Rob and Dan have made variations on the claim that it is better to suffer death rather than commit certain sorts of moral wrongs. Rob’s claim to me is more interesting, because as a pacifist he seems to claim that it is better to be killed rather than kill another. Dan and Rob, are of course, free to object that I am putting words in their mouths (which is probably correct), however, the basic proposition raises an interesting question: Why might killing be worse than death?
The problem of course, is that death and killing seem to be very nearly synonomous. Oviously they have different meanings. However, generally we think that killing is wrong precisely because (for lack of a more artful phrasing) it results in death. The Anti-Nephi-Lehites present a more interesting position. They seem to think that suffering death is not such a big deal. One will return to one’s Savior and provided — I assume — that one is properly prepared, this will be a wonderful experience. Yet if death for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites isn’t such a big deal, why is it a big deal for those that they might kill?
There are a couple of answers to this question. First, some scriptures suggest that it may be that one runs the risk of sending a person back to God unprepared to meet Him. Hence, the evil of killing lies in the fact that it may damn another’s soul. I am not sure that this position is theologically tenable, however, because it seems to suggest that the one can be damned by the choices of another, which runs counter to both the idea that we are responsible for our own salvation and the idea that God has the power to make up for the evils inflicted on us by others.
Second, one may point out that killing a person inflicts hardship and suffering here and now on those with whom he or she is related. The problem with this, is that presumeably death would inflict the same hardship on Rob’s family were he to be killed as a result of his pacific principles. Why favor those related to the slaughtering Lamanites over those related to the slaughtered Anti-Nephi-Lehites?
Third, one might argue that death, while perhaps not an eternal tragedy, nevertheless involves a real loss of mortal enjoyments and opprotunities, which are not without value. Again, however, we run into the problem of why the lost opprotunities of one are to be favored over another. Remember, the problem comes from the fact that we think that killing is worse that death. Hence, the puzzle assumes that at least one death will result.
Finally, there may be something about the act of killing itself that imposes such tremendous costs on the soul that death is preferable. If this is the ultimate justification, there is an oddly self-centered quality about it. It is not really the death of the other than is decisive but rather the self-inflicted spiritual wound.
Just to be clear, I am not arguing that killing people is not generally speaking a horrible wrong. I am not even arguing that death is never preferable to killing. I am simply pointing out that there is a real puzzle here. In particular, if death is preferable to killing in some cases, it seems that we need some way of understanding why some deaths are less grievously evil than others.
A final thought: if we do have some theory that adequately explains why some deaths are less grievous than others, then we may have the beginning of a justification for war. Hence, there is an odd sense in which the pacifism of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites may contain within itself the seeds of its conceptual destruction. This is only speculation, however, since I freely acknowledge that it is not at all clear to me what the theory that we are seeking actually looks like.