Epistemic Spelunking

January 4, 2006 § 14 Comments

When out shopping for a moral license to do as we will rather than as we should, one of our common human tactics is to hide the morality of the desired act in an epistemic cave. Because only I can know the interior moral dimensions of my act, this approach holds, only I can tell whether or not my act was good. “Judge not” means that the moral nature of an act is utterly mysterious to everyone except God and the person who performs the act. Therefore nobody is in a position to criticize an act other than the person who actually performs it (unless God personally speaks on the matter, of course).

Naturally everyone who takes this approach does so selectively, only with respect to whatever particular sorts of acts they want to protect from public moral critique. But it is such a commonplace tactic that it doesn’t fool anyone other than the acutely slow-witted and the person himself, hiding in his epistemic cave: “I may be wrong but you can’t know that I am wrong.”

Feh.

This approach isn’t limited to those on the political and social left, out fishing in their usual places for moral and political licences to commit consequence-free fornication, adultery, sodomy, murder, divorce, and other moral crimes.

When it comes to the Iraq war, one of the common claims in comment boxes (here is the blog post to which the comments are attached) is that we as laypeople are not qualified to judge the justice of the war because we are not the competent authority. Only George W. Bush truly knows whether the war is just, because he is the competent authority charged with making the prudential judgement about whether the war is just. That is, it is GWB’s role, and only his role, to apply the Just War criteria to the facts and make the definitive and binding determination of whether the war is just or not. Anyone who states as a fact “the Iraq war was just” or “the Iraq war was unjust” independent of the President’s judgement is making an outrageous presumption, on this epistemically peculiar view.

Even as well (and rightly) respected a Catholic figure as George Weigel falls into this self-deceptive trap:

Finally, the criterion of “competent authority” involves the “location” of moral judgment in matters of war and peace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite explicit: “the evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” [No. 2309]. Responsible public authorities make the call. Religious leaders and religious intellectuals must teach the relevant moral principles, insist that they inform public and governmental debate and bring their best prudential judgments to bear in those debates. But the call is made by others.

The equivocation is breathtakingly obvious, and is unworthy of a man of Weigel’s intellectual stature. Yes, the nation-state and specifically the President are the competent authority, and it is his responsibility to make the decision whether or not to go to war. The war would necessarily be unjust if it were waged by someone other than the competent authority. But that doesn’t mean it is epistemically impossible for the poor incompetent rest of us to determine as a matter of fact whether or not the decision to wage war was just. Even though I was not the duly elected Chancellor of the Reich during World War II I am perfectly comfortable saying that Germany’s war on the allies was unjust. And I am perfectly comfortable saying this not as an uncertain opinion but as an unequivocal fact: that only someone with a terribly damaged ability to reason or a complete ignorance of the facts could possibly disagree.

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§ 14 Responses to Epistemic Spelunking

  • Because as everyone knows, its only the Magesterium that people should never question or disagree with

  • zippy says:

    In point of fact, the Magisterium has no special authority to evaluate the facts of the Iraq war and say whether or not it meets the Just War criteria. Weigel has pointed this out any number of times too, and he is quite right about that. The problem Weigel has is that the facts of the Iraq war quite clearly <>didn’t<> meet the Just War criteria. So he has to erect this infinite-suspension-of-judgement facade: he has to pretend that the “competent authority” part of the Just War criteria can be invoked to hide the moral status of the war in an epistemic cave, inaccessible and unknowable to the rest of us. It is a parlor trick unworthy of him.

  • john di says:

    Zippy, read your own post. Weigel said “…Religious leaders and religious intellectuals must teach the relevant moral principles, insist that they inform public and governmental debate and bring their best prudential judgments to bear in those debates…” He’s saying that people like you (I’m putting you in the religious intellectual category) have a duty to express your opinions on the Iraq War. Your post implies that Weigel is saying that people like you should keep quiet.

  • Rob says:

    John di–The problem there is that Bush, if we are to believe his PR machine, is in constant touch with spiritual advisers, all of whom are apparently reinforcing his absurd conviction that he is exercising a righteous moral mandate in the execution of the war in Iraq.That’s why I say: Prove it just from the Gospels.

  • c matt says:

    Not only that problem, but john would seem to imply that we are never to make a judgment on our own regarding whether a particular war met just war criteria. Competent authority as used in just war means authority to carry out the decision to wage or not wage the war; it does not mean the only authority to judge whether such decision was moral or not based upon the criteria. As Zippy points out, the authority to carry out the action is incorrectly equated with the authority to judge for yourself (through application of right reason with a well formed conscience) whether such action in fact does or does not meet the criteria.I do not have the authority as Joe Citizen to wage a just war on Iraq or any other nation. GWB as Pres of the US does.However, I do have the authority (and the duty) to evaluate for myself whether GWB as Pres correctly waged a just war. I am not allowed to blindly follow his decision simply because he may have the authority to wage a war. My role as citizen is not merely to advise or direct debate, but also to DECIDE whether the war was in fact just and take action accordingly (vote, financially contribute (or not), etc.)

  • c matt says:

    IF Weigel is only saying that the call whether to take up arms is W’s, I have no problem with it. However, it seems by this passage he is saying the call on whether the war is <>just<> (even though you noncompetents can give your opinion) belongs to W alone. Note how after he allows for noncompetents to provide their input, he then emphasizes that the call is made by others. That “call” can only refer to the call whether the war is just. That is simply incorrect.

  • Rob says:

    Actually, the power to wage war is supposedly invested in Congress, not in the executive branch. Since legislators are representatives of the people, the power to wage war ultimately derives from the electorate. So, if Bush is dropping white phosphorus on civilians, he’s doing it in your name, if you’re an American citizen and eligible to vote.

  • Rob says:

    Amend that: Congress has the power to *declare* war. It also controls the funding. So, although the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the power to *wage* war (once declared), it is Congress that makes the decision to fight, and to buy the guns.

  • zippy says:

    <>Your post implies that Weigel is saying that people like you should keep quiet.<>It is a bit more subtle than that. (I doubt that a person of Weigel’s intellect would be capable of fooling himself in this way if it were not). It isn’t so much that I shouldn’t speak as that what I say doesn’t really matter, because I am not the competent authority. He is skipping over the question of what is <>objectively true<> and insisting that the opinions of the competent authority are what matter when it comes to determining the morality of the war. When he says this:“Finally, the criterion of “competent authority” involves the “location” of moral judgment in matters of war and peace.”He is shifting our attention away from being concerned about what is <>true<>. He is attempting to provide a layer of insulation from criticism, not on the question of who has legitimate authority to declare and prosecute war (and the responsibility to do so morally), but on the question of who has standing to say whether the war is or is not just: he is attempting to hide the moral question in an epistemic cave, insulated away from criticism.And that he does so equivocally is a bug in his argument not a feature, in my view.

  • john di says:

    Zippy wrote, “…It isn’t so much that I shouldn’t speak as that what I say doesn’t really matter, because I am not the competent authority…”I don’t read Weigel that way. I think what he’s saying is simply that the president (or Congress) has the grave responsibilty of making the decision whether or not to use force. The president could very well be wrong in that decision (and that could go both ways: i.e. if he doesn’t use force when he should) but he has to make the decision. The opinions of others, far from being unimportant, are crucial in this decision-making process.Along this line, I don’t read Weigel to be skipping over what is objectively true. He’s not saying that a president’s decision to use force makes a war just. Again, he’s just saying that the president, God help him, has the responsibility to make the decision.

  • zippy says:

    <>I don’t read Weigel that way. I think what he’s saying is simply that the president (or Congress) has the grave responsibilty of making the decision whether or not to use force.<>Then he certainly has confused < HREF="http://www.haloscan.com/comments/chezami/113626914410390687/#417809" REL="nofollow">quite a few people<>, and he ought to clarify the scope of his comments clearly and forcefully. As far as I know he has not done so, and until he does so I will continue to consider his position equivocal, where one of the voices is that the moral status of the war hides in an epistemic cave inaccessible to us incompetents.(By the way, the fact that you can read a true understanding in his words in addition to the false one is the nature of an equivocation: an equivocation is when someone speaks in two voices, one of which speaks the truth, but in such a way as to lend the credibility of that truth to the false voice. That has clearly happened here whether Weigel intends it or not).Weigel aside, if you completely and unequivocally disavow what I see in Weigel and you don’t, then I have no beef with you.

  • Rob says:

    “…then I have no beef with you.”It seems that you’ve left John Di some Weigel-room there, Zip.

  • al says:

    Right on Zippy. The Weigelian “competent authority” is a sort of special charism belonging to the laity–a sort of neo-liberal reinvention of protestant prejudices against the clergy, by claiming novel, and ipso facto capacities to produce prudential results.But prudence is simply right reason about things to be done. The problem is his neo-liberal, attenuated conception of Authority (as opposed to say, Yves Simon or Charles DeKonnick), which requires him to accrete to prudence what he detracts from authority.

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