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The Morality of Resisting Occupation

Updated on August 19, 2010


Kant is a Deontologist, which means he believes there are certain things people must do, and certain things they must never do.  Kant argues that the only thing that can be good in itself is a good will.  There may be other things that are desirable, such as power and wealth, but they are not inherently good unless the person who has them is a good person.  Only good people will use what they have in a way that benefits society.  When people have these things they are likely to be corrupted by them, and corrupt people will become even more corrupt.  Thus a good will is better than what the person who has it does with it, because the person has the potential of doing good, whereas a person with a bad will doesn’t.

            Kant argues that people have wills that serve their own interests, because nature would necessarily provide people with the desire to do what is in their interest.  When people don’t do what their natural urges tell them to they live unsatisfactory lives.  They are using their reason for the wrong purpose.  Since the will is natural, and nature must intend people to do what is in their own interest, nature intends people to do what makes them happy.  Thus a good will is one that makes the person who has it happy.  People should be happy, because unhappiness can result in not living up to other duties, but people are more inclined to do things that make them happy than to do anything else.  In order to determine if a will is good or not it must be determined if they are obedient to their duty.  A person with a good will is going to obey their duty despite having reasons not to.  Actions done out of duty have a high moral value not because of their results but because they are done out of duty.

            It is not possible to have respect for the outcome of an action, or for the inclination for a particular outcome, but rather the struggle to achieve the outcome.  The only thing that can determine the will is the law, since actions taken out of any inclination other than duty do not require a strong will.  Thus the concept of law is the moral good.  A good will is one that aspires to act with respect to the law, to only take actions that would be consistent with universal laws, not just to obey the law out of fear of the consequences.  A good will follows commands of reason that are consistent with the law.  There are two types of such commands, those that require good ends, and those that are good in and of themselves; categorical imperatives.  There is only one categorical imperative, which is to do what you would want others to do, but there are also subcategories of that one imperative, which Kant calls duties. Those include not committing suicide and not lying.

John Stuart Mill is a utilitarian.  He argues that the purpose of justice is to make people safe, in order to increase everyone’s feelings of security, and happiness.  Justice isn’t a thing in itself but consists of the other qualities that make up a just act.  Law in itself is not inherently just, because it benefits some people while imposing evil on others.  It has been traditionally thought that what is just is conformity to law, even when people no longer believed the laws themselves were just.  It is also widely thought that many actions are just or unjust that should not be regulated by law.  In fact, people are constantly behaving in ways that are just or unjust, but most people don’t want those behaviors to be regulated by the law.  Most people want behaviors they consider unjust to be punished in some way, even if not by the government, so the idea that certain acts should be punished is still what the criterion of what makes an unjust act is.  People are morally obligated to not engage in acts that should be punished, that is, injustices.  Injustices exist when there is a wrong done and someone has been wronged; their rights have been violated.  Injustice needs to be rectified with justice.  Self defense and sympathy require that injustice be rectified with justice.  People believe they should defend themselves, their family, and their society against unjust acts.  That desire is moral when it is normalized by social feelings to act in ways that are conformable to the general good, that is, when people resent injustice because it harms society, not because it harms themselves. 

            People want society to protect their rights, by which they mean what society has an obligation to protect.  If society does not have an obligation to provide something to everyone, then it isn’t a right.  The only way to determine what is a right from what isn’t a right is the general utility.  That is, when it is more efficient for society to provide something to all of its members than for them to acquire it on their own.  For Mill that is security, the prevention of violent crimes.  The morality that prevents people from causing harm to each other is more important than any other kind of morality because it effects everything.  Violent crimes cause harm to the whole society.  When violence is a norm everyone is an enemy, so it is imperative that violent crimes are punished.  It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that they are.

            Neither of these theories is sufficient for every situation in which someone needs to determine what the right thing to do is.  For example, lets say it is 1940, the Nazis have just invaded France, and a Frenchman is considering whether or not to join the resistance.  Both Mill and Kant would argue that he shouldn’t. 

Kant would argue that he should not join the resistance because all actions must be consistent with the law.  Engaging in guerilla warfare against the Nazis would not be consistent with the legal law, since the Nazi’s control the government.  Nor would it be consistent with any universal law, since if everyone tried to overthrow their government there would be ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’.  Since the Frenchman would not be acting in respect to either the actual law or a universal law his actions would be evidence that he has a bad will, and is a bad person, so the Nazi’s should punish him.  He would also be violating categorical imperatives, such as not killing one’s self and not lying.  By joining the resistance the Frenchman would be likely to die in the war, which would essentially amount to suicide.  That would be contrary to his natural inclination, which would should make him want to improve his life, not end it.  The Frenchman would also be likely to lie during his service in the resistance, and it is against universal law to lie, since if everyone lied no one would be able to trust anyone else. 

Mill would also argue that the Frenchman should not join the resistance.  By working to overthrow the Nazi regime the Frenchman would be making everyone less safe.  The Nazis would be less safe because the resistance would be killing them, and the French people would be less safe because the Nazis would have to kill them in order to suppress the resistance.  He would also be making himself unsafe and unhappy because he would likely die a horrible violent death.  Since everyone would be unsafe, everyone would be unhappy, and that would be unjust.  Therefore joining the resistance would be an unjust act because it would make everyone unsafe and unhappy, violating their right to be safe and happy.  It would be a crime against society, and the Nazis should punish the Frenchman for it, because they control the government, so they have the obligation to punish people who commit violent crimes.   It would be more likely that the Nazis would be able to stay in power than it would be that the resistance would be able to overthrow them, so therefore the Nazis are the legitimate government.  To say they aren’t would be contrary to utilitarian theory, which says that what’s moral is what is most likely to create happiness, and leaving the Nazis in power is more likely to create happiness than trying to overthrow them.

            It is thus obvious that both Kant’s deontology and Mill’s utilitarianism are both might makes right doctrines that do not allow oppressed people to overthrow illegitimate regimes and set up democratic societies.  Both of these doctrines work in the favor of the Nazis by saying that what is of utmost importance is the prevention of violence. Of course, since the Nazis are the government, they are the ones most able to prevent violence, and the resistance is causing the violence.  In fact, Nazism is completely in agreement with Kant’s deontology and Mill’s utilitarianism.  Nazism holds that what is of utmost importance is the society as a whole, and the law which protects it.  It agrees with Kant that certain people have better wills than others, and those people should be the ones who have power.  It agrees with Mill that the best policies are those which protect society the most, (especially from the people who it says have bad wills, namely, Jews), and by protecting society increase happiness.  A good maxim to hold is that ideologies should be judged by what they do, not what they say.

We can see from this thought experiment that both consequentialism and deontology work to the favor of the Nazis, and work against those who would wish to overthrow them and replace them with a superior regime.  There are other moral doctrines that are superior to deontology and consequentialism, in that they put freedom rather than order as the primary value, thus allowing people to replace oppressive regimes with democratic societies.  Two of these are social contract theory and existentialism.

            Social Contract theory is essentially classic liberalism, which began as a revolutionary movement against feudalism, and was the primary ideology in the American war for independence.  Social Contract theory says, to quote the United States Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”. (Jefferson, Declaration of Independence).

Existentialism was developed primarily in Germany and France.  Existentialism is essentially the belief that “there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.  That being is man… Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward… Man simply is, not that he is what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills”.  (Sartre, 946).  Existentialism is completely different from Kantianism because Kant was an essentialist, he believed that peoples wills were inherent to them, and that some peoples wills are better than others.  During WorldWar Two two existentialists became prominent in both the French intelligentsia and the French resistance; Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.  Sartre said that to join the resistance would be an action addressed to a great end, the national collectivity.  (Sartre, 945).


Works Cited

Jefferson, Thomas.  “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America”.  In

Congress, July 4 1776.

Kant, Immanuel.  “The Categorical Imperative”.  From Socrates to Cinema; An

Introduction to Philosophy.  Ed.  Di Leo, Jeffrey.  McGraw-Hill.  (New York, 2007).

Mill, John Stuart.  “Utilitarianism”.  From Socrates to Cinema; An

Introduction to Philosophy.  Ed.  Di Leo, Jeffrey.  McGraw-Hill.  (New York, 2007).

Sartre, Jean Paul.  “Existentialism is a Humanism”.  From Socrates to Cinema; An

Introduction to Philosophy.  Ed.  Di Leo, Jeffrey.  McGraw-Hill.  (New York, 2007).



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