Monday, December 7, 2009

Nat Turner: Martyr or Murderer?

In the past few weeks, I’ve done a good deal of reading about slave revolts. In particular, I enjoyed reading accounts of Nat Turner’s revolts. In the course of the revolt, he killed civilians including women and children. So is he a hero or villain?

I think it’s wrong to say he’s a villain, even though he did kill women and children. The reason is that his cause—to eradicate slavery—was just. Let’s consider another example. Most of us would say that Winston Churchill and FDR were in the right in doing their utmost to fight Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Yet they engaged in actions which resulted in the deaths of civilians, such as the firebombing of Dresden, which killed far more people than Nat Turner ever did. Despite this, no one would call Churchill or FDR a villain, mostly because we think their cause was just. And if ending Nazism was just, then so was ending slavery.

I’d also like to consider whether killing women or children in pursuit of a just cause is really worse than killing soldiers. Most of us would be inclined to say yes without hesitation. The reason would be that children can’t consent to a system of government, and neither could women historically. But I’m not sure this is sufficient warrant to say that killing them is more immoral than killing a grown man. Plenty of German soldiers were also killed during the war. Some of them were 18 years old when they went off to the front, and never had a chance to vote. They could only have refused fighting for Hitler by submitting to a gruesome execution. The truth is that they had no more choice than a child or a woman. Yet we are less bothered by their deaths in battle. Why?

Since it’s unclear whether drafted soldiers are more morally blameworthy than civilians, the only explanation I can think of is utility in the case of children. A child who’s killed would have had more years to live than a soldier at the front. He hasn’t gotten to enjoy a full childhood or a full life (although the young soldier hasn’t enjoyed a full life either). But it seems strange that peoples’ strong natural moral aversion to killing children could really be premised on utilitarianism.

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