On Irresolvable Conflicts of Interest in a Patriotic Context
Today, October 12, 2011, is not only the day that Europeans celebrate the initiation of their conquest of the Americas, but also the hundred and forty-first anniversary of the death of Robert E. Lee, a man I admire greatly and one who had to live through some of the greatest ethical conflicts to ever face a patriot: irresolvable conflicts that could not be ignored.
It is impossible to understand his decisions without understanding that the United States, prior to the War Between the States, was a completely different entity qualitatively, and, as a reading of the Federalist Papers and the Anti-federalist papers (they should never be read in isolation) clearly demonstrates, one where it was anticipated that the States would be preeminent. The world would be a much different place had those promises been honored, albeit whether a better one or not we can never know.
There is no question about the evils of slavery and nothing can justify that institution yet, while he was the most prominent military leader in the Confederate armies, he abhorred slavery and had freed all his slaves before the war, freed them the moment he inherited them. On the other hand, the vice president of the Union was a slave owner, making clear that the war was not just between those opposing slavery and those who sought to preserve it, but more importantly, between those who wanted to preserve State preeminence and those who sought the centralization that the promoters of the Constitution swore would not occur.
He was a noble man fighting a hopeless cause, one he did not fully believe in, because patriotism to his state trumped all other considerations. What happens when patriotism clashes with other values? How would we react?
Although the world has changed drastically since General Lee’s days, that is a position too many of us find ourselves facing today. And it has no good answers.
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2011; all rights reserved