Sunday, December 21, 2008


Reading historians, and especially anthropologists, it is easy to see why they tend to be very liberal in their politics. Their identification with Western civilization in general, and America in specific, is counteracted by their identification with other cultures. I don't mean that they necessarily favor other cultures over ours, but national and cultural loyalties are weaker for them. Our country perceives itself to be in danger and wishes to go to war; they can instantly name a dozen other cultures that felt as strongly about defending their way of life. Because all times and places have their loyalties, they see loyalty as a constant, and all loyalties as somewhat equal. Because New Guinea tribesmen or minor Celtic kings got all worked up about their own power and influence, they see American aspirations as little better.

They consider it their job, in fact, to point out to the rest of us how unspecial we are. With that as a mindset, it is easy to see why they would reflexively oppose wars - don't all nations feel justified? Doesn't every culture try to use its religion to support its secular aims? Didn't the Mongols equally believe they were worthy of conquering others? Also, they often adopt a cultural neutrality in their professional work in order to better understand a culture. They train themselves not to conclude too quickly that something is good or bad. Therapists, another batch of liberals, do much the same professionally.

Because it is their cast of mind professionally, they easily gravitate toward believing that this is a good way to think generally. That's rubbish, of course, but it is the rubbish of certain educated people decade after decade, so it's worth taking into account. They are not going to stop thinking like that. People in the social sciences are going to believe in social equivalence, no matter how ludicrous it seems.

We, however, can step back from them a bit and observe them from the outside, much as they observe the rest of us. They delight in going against the common wisdom, seeing good and usefulness in things we call evil, and pointing out that what we call good is evil from another perspective. Unless you have done this type of thinking yourself, you can't know how delicious it is. To see what others miss! To understand what others dismiss! It is so ubiquitous in these fields that the participants no longer see it as a type of thinking. Does a fish know it is wet? They believe it is Real Thinking, which they can do and others only attempt.

Because they know all the black hats and white hats are actually gray, they become unable to distinguish between shades of gray. If one carries that thinking to its extreme, there is never any cultural or moral progress, only change. They don't actually believe that in their heart of hearts, of course. They have strong opinions about what constitutes a good society. Cultures that treat social scientists as special people and fund them generously are good societies, for example. Cultures that believe in moral equivalence in matters of sex and religion are good societies.

Just for fun, let's take an opposite view as better for mankind in the long run. We should always root for the side that is 51% righteous against the side that is 49%. No dithering, or apologies, or faintheartedness: if country A is slightly more humane, generous, intelligent, whatever, we should assist it against country B. Even if A wants to wipe B off the map, we should be on their side. Eventually, we would all be better off, right? Four, five centuries of this and we'd be a better people.

It sounds like a shoddy morality to us because the percentages are so close. But this is in fact how Western Civilization has moved forward, and brought us to a place where lives are long and few citizens are absolutely wretched. We can usually do better than 51% morality if we look for it - the northern states versus the southern in the the 1860's, for example. If we required then that we wait until one side is the 80% moral one and the other 20%, we would never have freed the slaves. Real people and real cultures never get to that superdominance in morality. But rather than being a reason not to go to war, as social scientists think, perhaps it is actually a justification for some wars. The enormous human cost makes marginal moral gains not worth it. 51-49 is out, then. How about 60-40? 70-30?

It is legitimate for those who greatly oppose wars to try and push the requirements as high as possible. But those who live under injustice think that it might be justified at 51%. Certainly, there is a point at which it is a sin not to eliminate the evil.


Your Correspondent said...

Once you see that history is written by the winners, it's hard to see beyond this insight. Anthropologists had to become more value neutral in order to do their work. And historically, a lot of their work was in support of imperialism.

They've now reached the point where they feel that they're smart enough to prescribe solutions. Come the clash of civilizations, the final clashes as the world globalizes and unifies, they want to pick the winners, or at least shape the conflict.

But having left their values behind, they have little to go on but pseudo-rationlistic hedonism and rent-seeking.

Nevertheless, we can not do without studying other cultures. Insight and change are well within the value system of Western Civilization, and can perhaps be found elsewhere.

The resolutions of the clashes between cultures has historically involved war. In the nuclear age, it is rational to look for alternative means of conflict resolution. That doesn't mean that these alternatives actually exist.

Currently, it would be good if the Ayatollahs of Iran would catch the multi-culti virus, and it must be tempting to try to teach by example. Such teaching methods tend not to work unless accompanied by strong physical shock.

However, the effect of weak shocks is the opposite from that of strong shocks; The tendency to dig in. Compare the response of Great Britain to that of Japan under bombing. The bombing of Japan created a greater cultural change because it was more thorough.

If we don't win, we don't get to write the history books.

Anonymous said...

AVI, you may well be a more moral person than some of your next door neighbors. I'll take it as a given. Some of them may litter or drink too much or neglect their kids or cheat on their taxes.

Do you also feel entitled to kill them? Are you entitled to steal from them and appropriate their property? Would that be on balance moral behavior that should be countenanced as advancing the cause of civilization?

What you are engaged in is not moral reasoning, but its opposite: rationalization. If you come down from the realm of abstraction into the realm of responsibility, your argument falls away.

Tom the Redhunter said...

AVI - Insightful post. It is indeed the inability to see the difference between 51 and 49 percent that is at the heart of so much moral confusion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless Israel does everything perfect, it is condemned. Meanwhile, the Palestinians can do everything wrong yet it is all excused.

copithorne - It's hard to know what exactly your argument is, but you seem to be equating relations between neighbors on a street with international disputes. If so you're being silly.

I challenge you to be clear in what you are saying. Are you making a roundabout criticism of our war in Iraq? Be clear and provide examples, please.

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure about what may be unclear about my simple post. I can try to say the same thing a few different ways.

Moral reasoning is something we apply to actions rather than to individuals. So, simply because we judge an actor to be consistently better than another does not mean that all their actions are unblemished or warrant our support or are inappropriate to criticize. Israel may be a consistently better actor than the Palestinians. That does not mean that it makes sense to countenance an Israeli plan to commit genocide on the Palestinians. It does not excuse the actual moral lapses or shortcuts made by the Israeli government. I still believe that both the United States and the state of Israel would be best served by living up to the highest ethical and moral standards.

Moral reasoning is not about making excuses. It is about holding ourselves to standards. Moral reasoning is not: ‘It is OK to do what we want because other people are even worse.’

Yes, I would say the war in Iraq is an example. George Bush and his supporters simply assume that they are acting with good intentions and their intentions are better than those of their enemies. Because they make that assumption, they feel entitled to start a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. The rest of the world sees things very differently because they do not give credit for good intentions. Giving credit for good intentions is not moral reasoning.

You regard it as silly to equate state actors with individual actors when evaluating moral claims. Why is that? I intend it as an accurate analogy and would look to have your view that it is not explained to me. Often it happens that states do not hold themselves accountable to standards of morality. However, in this post, AVI is engaged in moral reasoning about the behavior of states as though they should be. I am engaging AVI in his argument as it stands.

Anonymous said...

A Utilitarian definition of moral choice: the greater good for the greatest number (essentially, a cost-benefit analysis). The Deontological view, on the other hand, is morality defined by our Maker - regardless of outcome.

Anonymous said...

This discussion about morality is interesting, to say the least. I understand morality to mean a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong. What we know of this comes to us through society’s acceptance of philosophy, religion, or individual conscience. We perhaps understand that morality today is not the same as it was in another era, even if we think it should.

Morality may also suggest an ideal code of conduct, applied by rational human beings under specified conditions. For example, we may argue that murder is immoral, and yet we may concurrently argue that some murder is justified—and we can do this sans “moral skepticism.

Finally, we may argue morality as an ethical standard, but even then, we can say that it depends on any number of situations. Yes, it is immoral to kill another human being, but justified in some cases; we have the right and the obligation to protect ourselves and loved ones; we have a moral obligation to maintain communal or national security.

It is certainly true that no nation ever maintains the moral high ground; we are human beings and subject to human error. Still, in the case of terrorists, I’m not sure why we suppose it is immoral to kill people who, for the past sixty years, have dedicated themselves to the murder of non-combatant civilians, including schoolchildren and people attending wedding celebrations. Moreover, we have seen that it is not even practical to suggest “peaceful negotiation” to those who fundamentally believe (for example) that Jews should be murdered, or that a Jewish state has no right to exist.

I believe it is fallacious to argue Israel has a plan to inflict genocide among Arabs living in the region of Palestine. I have seen no evidence of this, even in spite of the fact that both “actors” have behaved badly. I would even agree that the situation in the Middle East is a sort of epic version of the Hatfield and McCoy’s. When either actor refuses to agree that change is needed, then we find a situation in which there can be no change. But let me be clear . . . I do not always agree with US policy makers, but I will never agree that extremism is ever acceptable behavior, no matter which side is guilty.

To say it is an error for the United States to claim their intentions are better than their enemies is to over-simplify the situation in the Middle East. I may not have made the decision to invade Iraq, but then I did not have information that was available to the decision-makers. I might agree that the road to perdition is paved with good intentions, but I also do not believe that it is appropriate for moral nations to observe pure evil and do nothing. What I read here is a contention that Americans engaged in genocide in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Such a claim is patently false. If so many in fact died in Iraq, it was at the hands of terrorist insurgents and under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But if we are still t talking about morality, then I have to ask, “How moral is it to become apologists for people who are not only the murderers of innocents, but who also promise more of the same until Israel is wiped completely off the map?”

Anonymous said...

TomG, I’m not entirely sure what to make of your sentence fragments. Most schools of moral reasoning with which I am familiar – and all those to which I subscribe – hold individual human beings to have intrinsic worth.

So, I would say with Aristotle, Christ, Kant, Rawls that it is not moral to kill other people in order to engineer a better world. Isn’t there an old Ursula K. LeGuin story about a happy community the health of which is mystically dependent on a wretched, suffering, tortured child? I would understand that to be a story of Utilitarian immorality.

And Mustang I don’t mean to say that the Israel has plans for genocide of the Palestinians. I was using that as an example to counter AVI’s argument: “if country A is slightly more humane, generous, intelligent, whatever, we should assist it against country B. Even if A wants to wipe B off the map, we should be on their side.”

When I recast AVI’s argument in concrete language, the horror of this moral reasoning becomes apparent.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Copithorne, I understand that it is difficult to fully get an argument that one is unsympathetic to, but I will have to say that you have just plain missed my point.

Of course there is horror in going to war when one has only a 51-49 advantage in morality. But there may be equal horror in not protecting - even if that includes war - a people that have a 90-10 moral advantage over their attackers. Once this contrast is grasped, it becomes a very painful task to decide where lines can be drawn.

Anonymous said...

Certainly you will need to modify your original argument to make it conform with acceptable moral reasoning. I appreciate that you are beginning to do so in light of my response.

Now in your comment you are citing a party that has a moral score of 90% that is ATTACKED by a party with a moral score of 10%. You speculate that we may wish to respond in this case in support of the attacked party. We may well. There are certainly many acceptable schools of moral reasoning which hold that it is legitimate to respond to attacks. The United States has in the past and will in the future join responses such as that.

In your original post you made no mention of the superior party responding to attacks. You said in any war with a morally superior party and a morally inferior party we prefer the morally superior party “even if A wants to wipe B off the map.” It seemed as though you were suggesting that moral superiority is in itself a moral license to initiate attacks.

This is the moral reasoning that commonly prevails in the contemporary justifications of the war in Iraq. It is failed moral reasoning.

If I now understand you that you are clarifying your post to withdraw the possibility of that interpretation then I expect we will be in general agreement.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The easier-to-see moral case I mentioned in the comments flows without interruption into the more difficult one of the post. That is the point.

Anonymous said...

So I understand now that I did understand you correctly the first time.

It seems as though the distinction between starting a war and responding to an attack is a difference you would like to be vague about. If you can retreat to a level of abstraction in which this distinction is obscured you can create a sphere of rationalization for starting wars.

But that distinction is THE crucial one. As I said in my initial post, this distinction is the difference between the realm of abstraction and excuses and the realm of responsibility.

In response to your ambiguity, I can only witness to my own sense of clarity, backed by the world's traditions of moral reasoning. It is not moral to start a war in order to make the world a better place. Moral superiority is not a license to kill others or otherwise a good excuse for immoral behavior. I am not able to discern whether you agree with these assertions or disagree. But there they stand.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"...the distinction between starting a war and responding to an attack is a difference you would like to be vague about..." Actually, it is reality that tends to be ambiguous on precisely this point. How do you decide between the Russians and the Georgians in their recent conflict? Between the Syrians backing Hezbollah and the Lebanese government? Sometimes there is a clear aggressor. Usually there isn't.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what action you are asking me to evaluate for consistency with principles of moral reasoning.

It would be the moral thing for both sides of each of these conflicts to descalate hostilities. That's my recommendation. As far as I understand it, that is the position of Barack Obama and also the current US government.

For the actions of the United States government I would not recommend trying to assess which side is marginally more moral and intervening on that side in support of wiping out the other side or any other military objective.

Broadly, I do understand there is ambiguity. I acknowledge that I view the US intervenion in Bosnia as an intervention to stop a war rather than the beginning of a war. I would have seen intervening in the Rwandan genocide as an intervention to stop a war rather than the beginning of a war. I can understand that these may be matters of interpretation.

But those basic standards of moral reasoning and American tradition -- the promise of John F. Kennedy that the United States would not start wars -- has been profoundly degraded under the Bush administration. It is very important for the future of the country that we recover the ability to uphold these basic standards. These standards are ones which I see you obfuscating rather than clarifying.

Der Hahn said...

...the promise of John F. Kennedy that the United States would not start wars...

Other than that little bit of unpleasantness in SE Asia, I guess.

@nooil4pacifists said...

This is your best post ever. Nothing in Just War reasoning requires a nation resort to war when the calculus is 51/49, but the opposite view--that certainty or 90/10 or 80/20 is necessary--is equally at odds with the Just War doctrine, and morally paralyzing. Contrary to the anthropologists, inaction can be more deadly than war.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interestingly, actual Just War Doctrine does require war in some circumstances, declaring it a sin for the powerful not to protect the weak when necessary. That part has been swept under the rug these days, along with all the other inconvenient parts.

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with all those throughout history who have either feigned or deluded themselves with the proclamation that "the gods" or "God" is on his/her side - and that this enlightens and empowers him/her to act as an agent for moral change. So that the Crusades, Inquisition, and even Joan of Arc give me a queezy feeling - the incredible mass hysteria and misguided beliefs that allow one group to torture and exterminate another - with a deistic.theistic mandate no less! With the help of prophets and revelatory truths, we're able to aver trust in certain ontological views - but no one can make a conclusive statement that it's God's will that he/she intervene violently in what one judges as immorality. There are of course our natural instincts to self-preservation that make it easy to act in self-defense - but when the calculus starts getting complex, the lines between right and wrong, and what's deemed 'good' and 'evil' become fuzzier and fuzzier ... to where only the eventual victors (naturally and predictably) get to state the overall cost-benefit equation - of it all being worthwhile (many question the validity of such equations for Viet Nam and Korea, for instance). Cheers, Tom

Assistant Village Idiot said...

TomG, you have hit on a topic I have posted on frequently. I submit that there is a distinction between we are doing an honorable thing that God approves of and God told us to go to war. In the former, we are reasoning out what we believe to be good and just; in the latter we are claiming to have no need for moral considerations. This came up a great deal in the willful misinterpretation of George Bush's remarks. It would be so cool, and so damning if we could catch him at the latter that we'll just pretend he did say that. We know that's what he means anyway, so it doesn't really matter what his actual words were. We'll pretend we don't understand a distinction we make in other situations daily.

As to the Crusades, Inquisition, etc, I have posted on this often. Spoiler: most of what passes for axiomatic truth these days is myth.

The Big Bad Three
Wars of Religion
Everyone Orders Off The Menu

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I admit, we're all so much guilty of hypocrisy - the degrees varying most likely by how much power we wield even. And I don't shed tears for the deposing of any tyrant the likes of Saddaam - even if the underlying assumptions (such as WMD) were flawed. And certainly the eventual blossoming of true democracy beats any other system yet thought of for maximizing freedoms - and the elimination of intolerant fanaticism (religious or otherwise) that professes that "you're either with us, or dead", is definitely Good to a balanced mind. The questions remains though, whether brute force is necessary at any point in time - or could things have been evolving (more slowly, granted) toward that same Good - and is the cost in lives worth the results. Above that even, is the moral question of whether God looks favorably upon such undertakings, generally or specifically - and that's the part I don't think we can know for sure, but only rely on our overall sense of right and wrong (smell test) and how it sits in the pit of our stomachs (subconscious stressors perhaps). We can't know whether we're doing His will, or whether we ought to do what Quakers do for instance - and even if sub-optimal is deemed "good enough" or "partial credit" or "evil" in not having been the fulfillment of His plan. Knowing what to do (or not) is the greatest mystery. Falling into delusion is so easy because it can fool our sense of wellbeing that our actions are justified. I think I'm rambling now, so will stop. Thanks for the comments and your other sites' addresses for me to enjoy reading and pondering next. Cheers, and Happiest of New Years! TomG