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Xenocide: An Examination of Inter-Species Genocide
After seventeen years of living among the strange beings who call themselves Homo Sapiens, I have come to the conclusion that man loves to argue. To disagree, to contend, to snipe, to fence, to differ, however you choose to label it, humankind adores it. And few subjects exist that provoke such fervent attacks and defenses as literature and philosophy. Particularly when the two are combined. An example of such fiery contention I have recently come across is a classic science fiction work called Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Fans and haters rant and rail, alternately defending and denouncing the book. Why? The heart of the matter is that the main character, a twelve-year-old, destroys an entire species. Was this act morally permissible in view of the fact that he was defending humanity? Or was it utterly abhorrent, an undeserved attack on another sentient race, a moral travesty?
Before beginning any discussion of morality or ethics, it is necessary to define both morality and ethics. Every rational being in existence has a set of beliefs regarding the nature of morality and immorality that govern his actions. You may not agree with my set of beliefs, and my purpose here is not to change your beliefs, only to explain mine, in order to explain my reasoning.
The Biblical God, who is omniscient and omnipresent, embedded laws of morality into the nature He created. The idea of 'good' embodies those qualities within Himself; the idea of 'evil' embodies the lack of such qualities. Therefore, morality separated from God has no meaning or definition. Humanity inherently shies away from acts that contradict the nature of God. Perhaps I make too many preliminary assumptions, but it is from this premise that I proceed.
And now on to the main event: delicious controversy. In this case, the controversy is over the morality of science-fiction author Orson Scott Card's most famous character, Ender Wiggin. In the story, Ender commits genocide by leading an army to utterly destroy of a race of alien Formicas that had attacked Earth; only after the war's end does he discover that the Formicas' intentions had not been belligerent. There are two camps here: those who cry 'Hitler!' and those who cry 'Innocent victim!'. For reasons into which I will not delve here, Hitler actions, by almost any moral standard except his own, ignored all shreds of ethical decency. So the question is, were Ender's actions comparable to those of Hitler, or was he morally justified in the extermination of a race?
To simplify the matter, bring the problem down to the level of two individuals. Is it morally acceptable to kill in self-defense? Most people would answer in the affirmative. I certainly would. Life is a gift every person has the right to keep, unless he has forfeited it through deliberate, life-altering, harmful actions toward others. Therefore, every person has the right to protect that gift against those who would try to steal it, even to the extent of depriving the aggressor of his own life. If you are walking down the street and a man tries to knife you, you have the right to take your knife and knife him to prevent your own death. Now here is a situation: you are walking down that street and a man pulls a knife on you, trying to slash you with it. You take your own knife and plunge it into his chest. At the trial, it turns out the man had thought you were wearing Kevlar (a leap of logic, I know, but so is a hive queen connecting an ansible to philotes in order to transport ships Outside so she can facilitate faster-than-light space travel). Are you now guilty of murder, whereas if you had responded exactly the same way to exactly the same attack but one with different intentions you would have only committed a homicide in self-defense? Do you now deserve a double life sentence in prison because you and Mr. Kevlar had a little communication problem?
Now pull back out, to planetary size. Alien spacecrafts appear in close proximity to Earth and give humanity a vivid demonstration of their superior weaponry, causing destruction and fatalities the world over. Mankind retaliates, defeating the aliens. However, it is subsequently discovered that the aliens did not mean humans harm. The attacking aliens assumed that, like themselves, humans lacked individuality, being nothing more than the fingers and toes of a singular mind, and therefore were individually insignificant. Does that make man's retaliation a moral crime, that his enemy had no intention of murder? Does he deserve two life sentences in a Star Fleet-operated intergalactic prison? In the end, it comes down to this: do intentions outweigh actions, or do actions trump intentions? They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but is not also the road to Heaven, or at least Purgatory? Good—there's a tricky little word. I had an English teacher in high school who said to avoid this four-letter word at all costs when writing. Unfortunately, though, not too many philosopher and theology professors seem to agree with her. Good itself—that is, moral blamelessness—is not relativistic, but interpretations certainly are. So 'good' intentions would be those intended to comply with the nature of God. The human armada attempting to protect the gift of human life by defending themselves against invading aliens are intending to comply with the nature of God, therefore being 'good'.
Are the armada's 'good' intentions enough to counterbalance its slaughter of a species whose intentions are also 'good'(to colonize new worlds without the aim of causing harm to other sentient beings)? It is possible to parties on opposite sides of a confrontation to both be equally blameless. This would be an issue of miscommunication rather than deliberate attempts to punish an innocent species. If every rational being has the right to protect its life, then any actions other than the ones taken by both the Formicas and the humans would be fatal passivity.
Of course, if the morality of a human retaliatory strike was the only issue for consideration, I doubt the controversy would be so heated. No, it is the fact that humanity's retaliation is an act of genocide, or xenocide, as Card terms the annihilation of an alien race. Upon fighting his warships into range of the Formicas' homeworld, Ender detonates a Molecular Disruption Device, the planetary equivalent of a nuclear bomb. It had the effect that Little Boy would have had, had it been dropped on an anthill instead of Hiroshima. Of course, because each individual Formica was insentient, it could be reasoned that the destruction of the Formica homeworld was the moral equivalent of bombing a military headquarters in answer to a mistaken offensive, rather than decimating a civilian-populated area for the same reason.
But ignoring this issue, the question remains: is it morally permissible to commit genocide in order to defend oneself or one's country from the threat of death? I suppose it comes to whether or not it is permissible to punish a people for the actions of their government. The idea is disturbing. It brings to mind images of barbarians fighting their way across enemy territory, burning villages, raping women, and enslaving children as they go. It brings to mind newsreels of recent African civil wars, as far from civilized European as gorillas are from men, we think. Maybe. It's a topic for a different essay altogether. For now, realize that this type of genocide, the systematic reduction of enemy populations, is just civilian casualties, only on a greater scale. And though we may cluck and shake our heads when civilians are killed in an attack directed at military personnel, we do not picket the White House demanding a withdrawal of all our troops, a cease-fire, and an immediate peace conference. At the same time, we do cry out in outrage at the aforementioned civil wars that slaughter thousands of civilians. Therefore, we have the idea, even if we think we don't, that a certain number of civilian deaths are allowable, but not too many. It is impossible to fight a war with zero civilian casualties, unless possibly the war took place in outer space and was fought by robots—and even then some poor civilian sap would get his fingers caught in robot soldier-producing machinery, get a blood infection, and die. By necessity, then, if war is morally permissible, then at least a certain amount of civilian harm is permissible.
So what's the line? What number, what percentage of civilian casualties crosses the bounds of moral decency? Tricky, tricky, tricky. There's no passage in the Bible that says, 'Thou shalt not kill more than .025 percent of thine enemy country's non-militants.' There's no moral Geiger counter that begins clicking a drum roll when too many bodies pile up. There's no automated e-mail sent to CO's: 'Good morning, sir, this is just a friendly notification that according to ethical boundaries, you are now approaching the legal limit of civilian deaths; please refrain from causing any more such deaths.' Was America morally reprehensible when she bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians? Or was it simply good strategy, ending a war of attrition that would have ended thousands upon thousands more lives? The short answer is that no clear line exists. The long answer might be that it is permissible to do the amount of damage to your enemy that he is attempting to do to you, in order to prevent him from carrying out that damage. So to simplify the problem, it is moral to end your enemy's life to keep him from ending yours, but it is not moral to puncture his kidney to keep him from pulling your hair. Still, the issue is complicated by the fact that not every person in a country agrees with its military's decisions. Is the situation more like killing a man and his wife and children to keep him from killing yours? To the best of Ender's knowledge, the Formicas were attempting to annihilate humanity. Therefore, he may have been in the moral right to annihilate them in self-defense. If your hand is on the activation button for the nuclear missile, may you press it, knowing that if you don't your enemy will set off his own nuke and obliterate you and your nation? The answer is probably yes, referring back to the self-defense clause.
In the end, the likely answer is that Ender was not morally obligated to withhold from using the Molecular Disruption Device. Should he have sought more communication with the Formicas? Probably. Was he obliged to spend his command merely attacking spacecrafts containing the equivalent of the hive queen's fingers and toes? Probably not. Did he have the right to defend his life and those of his kin? Certainly. Was the best solution a peaceful agreement? Most definitely. But then, rarely is a flawless option possible. After all, if humanity had done nothing, then, intention or not, the Formicas would have eradicated mankind. And we have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We have the right to defend ourselves. Even against a mistaken aggressor.