Blog Bites Metaphor

June 29, 2006 § 15 Comments

Money quote:

See, I don’t want us to ever get to the point where “Americans torture detainees” also becomes a “dog bites man” story. What InstaPundit calls moral equivalence is actually a gross dis-equivalence. Americans are held to a higher standard than Al-Qaeda is.

May it ever be so.

My only quibble is a pedantic one: that it isn’t true that AQ is objectively held to a lower standard. What is true is that AQ does abominable things, failing to adhere to the standard which applies to us all.

May the moral failures of our enemies never, ever be invoked as an excuse for us to do evil. May America never, ever settle for “sure, we’re evil, but we aren’t as evil as them.” May wickedness of Americans at war forever remain a man bites dog story, unbelievable on its face, a wild and rare exception to the overwhelmingly dominant rule.

UPDATE: Seamus’ quotes from Chesterton in the comments are not to be missed.

Chesterton is the bee’s knees. The cat’s pajamas. The lobster’s dress shirt.

The Right Version of "They are going to have sex anyway"

June 28, 2006 § 32 Comments

One of the things that has become increasingly clear since September 11, 2001 is that the American Right and the American Left think a great deal alike. That may seem like an odd statement, because the acrimony and polarization between Left and Right has become increasingly shrill in that time. But despite the genuine polarization, September 11 has brought America together in some unexpected ways.

Left liberals like to tell those on the Right how unrealistic they are about morals. Kids are going to have sex anyway. It is just what happens. It is the natural course of events. It is wildly unrealistic to have a standard which will never be universally adopted in practice. So give them condoms. Make sure, because they are going to have sex anyway, that they have safe, educated sex. Make sure that abortion is legal and available to ensure that lives aren’t destroyed, because abortions are going to happen anyway. The Right’s take on morality may be nice in the abstract, but it doesn’t match up with reality. So deal with it: deal with reality instead of getting lost in silly ivory-tower morality that doesn’t apply to the Real World. The moralizing of the Right is not legitimate to Leftist eyes: it reflects a meddling pharisaical sanctimony faced with a real-world problem it does not wish to acknowledge. The lack of compromise on the Right is just smugness masking moral paralysis.

Right liberals – or at least some right-liberals (I am reluctant to use the word “conservative”, since a conservative today is, as far as I can tell, exactly the sort of person we would have called a “liberal” not too long ago) – will respond that this so-called “realism” is an abomination. When it comes to bedrock morality no facts or circumstances can change an evil act into a good act. It isn’t “realism” to define deviancy down, it is surrender to wickedness. It is in the fallen nature of our world that some men will not live up to the moral law some of the time: indeed all men will fail to do so some of the time. This does not mean that murder, or various forms of “murder lite,” putatively humane versions of murder, ought to be enshrined in our laws. A nation which has enshrined evil in its laws as though evil were good is on perilous ground. Whether such a nation is approaching imminent self-destruction because of its reversal of good and evil is of secondary concern: of primary concern is whether men of good will, noble inheritors of the treasures of Western Christendom, standing tall against the backdrop of the most technologically advanced human civilization of all time — whether those sorts of men can tolerate living their lives in such a morally compromised state. The confrontation is over whether good men can act as though evil were inevitable in service to a misguided pragmatism.

And this is all to the good. But this posture toward the moral law has become remarkably selective on the Right. September 11 has brought Left and Right together in an embrace of doing evil in the pursuit of the good; doing evil in the name of pragmatic realism. Left and Right have become the same sort of creature: different in the particulars of their compromises with evil, but not different in the fact of compromise with evil.

But we can’t compromise with evil. All we can do is become evil. Or not. The choice is ours.

It used to be that the job of the political Right was to stand astride History shouting “Stop!” with the admonition directed toward others. It is high time for that admonition to be directed inward.

“The day may come when the courage of men will fail; when we will forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. It is not this day.” – Aragorn, Lord of the Rings _The Return of the King_.

Our courage must not fail, in this hour of darkness. The courage we need is the courage to do the right thing: the courage not to give into the temptation to defeat the enemy by becoming the enemy. The courage we need is the courage not to do evil in the pursuit of the good.

Doing evil in the pursuit of the good may be understandably human in very hard cases. It may be something with which we can feel some empathy. The man who feels no empathy toward the single expectant mother at age fourteen, alone and facing the world, with everyone telling her not to ruin her life; the man who has no empathy for her is no man at all.

Courage can feel empathy. But it doesn’t compromise with evil. Not ever.

(Note: cross-posted at Enchiridion Militis)

Imaginary Justice

June 24, 2006 § 42 Comments

I am beginning to suspect that we have reached a cultural tipping point. Not necessarily in the obvious way, in terms of morals and practice, etc. I am beginning to suspect that whole generations of people have become incapable of living out in actual reality, as opposed to in their imaginations.

I am more of a commenter than a blogger: the blog is more or less just a parking lot for general ideas that come out of discussions in the comboxes of other blogs. One of the things I’ve noticed in the commentosphere is that a great many people have difficulty distinguishing between imagination and reality; and I wonder if this is the result of several generations being raised in full-immersion television.

The comment threads I most often end up immersed in of late are the ones about topics which, oddly, don’t really interest me that much. I mean, they interest me a great deal in terms of their moral and civilizational import, but they aren’t the sort of thing where I get up in the morning and say with a smile “Hey, today I’m gonna go talk about the Iraq war and torture! Woo-hoo!” All other things equal I’d rather be flying my little airplane over the mid atlantic countryside. And often enough I get to do just that, praise God (and my thanks for the intercession of St. Joseph of Cupertino).

When talking about justice, most modern people seem incapable of staying in reality and out of their imaginations. This is especially true when discussing the Iraq war with the postmodern Right. I was recently discussing the facts which would have to obtain in order for the war to be just, and a commenter responded that what I was saying was ridiculous and too high of a bar because we would be justified in responding to an unprovoked chemical attack on our troops. It apparently never occurred to him that I was talking about actual reality, not imaginary reality. Sure, if that imaginary event had occurred then the imaginary war which followed might have been a just war. That stipulation has exactly zero relevance to this real war though.

Postmodernism sees social reality as a human construction; as a product of human imagination. As a result all that really matters is who gets to tell the story: what matters is who gets to write the script for this week’s episode of ’24’. The justice of the imaginary Iraq wars in the heads of the postmodern Right depends on whatever imaginary facts and imaginary circumstances surround them.

But reality isn’t television. The justice of imaginary wars might make for interesting entertainment, but it isn’t real justice. It is imaginary justice.

A Plague on Your iPod

June 23, 2006 § Leave a comment

I haven’t listened to the podcasts, but I have read the book. Doctor Janeway’s Plague by St. Blogger John Farrell is a very interesting, intelligently designed, palpably real-feeling tale. But you can’t have my copy of the out-of-print book, so you’ll have to listen to the podcasts.


June 23, 2006 § 21 Comments

“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” – Vice President Dick Cheney

I’ve remarked before on a number of occasions that when evaluating the criteria for a just war, a ton of gravity doesn’t equal an ounce of certainty. If the quote and its implementation as the “one percent doctrine” is accurate and reflects administration policy, then early in the days after 9-11 the administration explicitly rejected a key element of the Just War doctrine.

Justification versus Rationalization

June 20, 2006 § 13 Comments

The key difference between a valid justification and an invalid rationalization is that a justification is the sort of thing which actually causes us to act, while a rationalization is a reason we give that putatively morally justifies our act, but it didn’t actually cause us to perform the act (or in another form of rationalization, was not truly sufficient cause for us to perform the act). Rationalizations are not justifications: a rationalization cannot make an otherwise unjust act into a good act.

Say, for example, that we capture three enemy soldiers. These enemy soldiers technically meet a positive law definition of spy, but we know that they in fact aren’t spies, they are just regular soldiers who strayed from their units and were captured. Or, lets suppose they actually are spies, and we are authorized to hang them on the spot. But we wouldn’t do so in general. In general we would transfer them to the POW camp with everyone else. But the other side just hanged a stray soldier of ours; a soldier who was not a spy. They did it just to be cruel, to attack our morale, not because our guy actually was a spy.

Someone who believes in the moral quiddity of rationalizations might think it was acceptable to just up and hang three of theirs in response. The hanging wouldn’t have anything to do with the men themselves: we wouldn’t have hanged them for any crimes they committed, even if they had actually committed crimes, had the other side not just hanged one of ours.

This is clearly a wicked thing to do. And that is what happens when we vivisect justification for our acts, disconnecting what causes us to act from what putatively justifies our act. There is no just cause unless the thing that causes us to act is just.

Just Abortion

June 16, 2006 § 1 Comment

Tom suggests that “justice” has two completely distinct meanings, which I will refer to forthwith as “subjective justice” and “objective justice”. I am not at all sure that there truly is a dualism here, but what are the consequences if there is one?

If there is a true dualism here, then it is possible at least in principle for a woman to have a subjectively just abortion, for the Nazis to carry out a subjectively just holocaust, and for the Iraq war to be subjectively just; even though all of those occurrences are clearly unjust under an objective understanding.

UPDATE: Tom objected to me using my own labels to refer to the two distinct concepts. That is fair enough. His own words are “the virtue of justice” and “the object of justice”. I am perfectly content to use those words too, as long as we acknowledge that someone with a less than perfectly formed conscience and less than perfect information can act in accordance with the virtue of justice by following his conscience. (And if we don’t acknowledge that we aren’t really talking about human acts at all).

Another way to define things would have it that the virtue of justice doesn’t make mistakes, I suppose. So mistakes are unjust by definition. And no doubt there are other possibilities.

All that aside, Tom rephrases my basic question as “In what sense, if any, can it be said that a man acts in accordance with the virtue of justice when he mistakenly fails to give to another his due?” But that isn’t my question at all. A better rephrasing might be to ask: in what sense, if any, can it be said that a man gave another his due even though he didn’t, in fact (by mistake or otherwise), give another his due?

The Basket Case for War

June 15, 2006 § 10 Comments

I’ve been critical of the laundry list approach to justifying the war in Iraq before, and perhaps that has confused a particular point. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a basket of reasons – taken together as the lasting, grave, and certain threat required by the Just War doctrine – as just cause. In order to be just cause, though, that basket of reasons has to be both sufficiently justifying, taken in itself as a basket, and it has to be the actual sufficient cause, taken in itself as a basket.

That is why the objection that there were reasons other than WMD’s falls flat.

It isn’t that it is impossible in principle for a different basket of reasons (one not containing the “disarm Hussein of WMD’s” reason) to do the work of justifying a hypothetical war against the Hussein regime. It is that the war we actually fought was caused by the WMD case, and that if the topic of WMD’s had never come up we would not have launched that war at that time.

You can’t have a just cause without both the “just” part and the “cause” part. Arguing that war would have been justified under a hypothetical basket, different from the basket which actually caused this war, is invalid after-the-fact rationalization. The hypothetical basket didn’t cause this war.

The moral of the story is that, if you are the sort who thinks that a basket of threats justifying war is better than a single clearly sufficient lasting, grave, and certain threat, you’d better be certain about all of the reasons you are putting in the basket. If you can’t cause the particular war to actually happen at that particular time without including a particular reason, your “just cause” can’t do without that reason.

So at the end of the day, if you need to do the work of justifying the launch of a particular war, it is better not to use the basket case approach. Having lots of different reasons doesn’t make your war more likely to be just; it makes it less likely to be just, particularly if any of those reasons aren’t really certain.

Justification, Cause and Effect

June 15, 2006 § Leave a comment

In acts undertaken by whole communities, if J is a justification for doing act A, then J is a cause of act A. If J did not cause the community to engage in act A, J is not a justification for act A.

Where the Metal Meets the Meat

June 15, 2006 § Leave a comment

If the execution was the result of a good-faith mistake, then it’s not injustice, which means that, morally speaking, the act is one in conformity with justice.” – CAEI commenter Seamus, whom I thank for the thoughtful post.

Acts aren’t purely subjective things though: they have both objective and subjective components. An objectively unjust act can be subjectively justified – an honest mistake. But upon learning of the mistake it is wrong to insist that the act overall was just, because insisting that the act was just encompasses not merely its subjective component but also its objective. “We executed the wrong guy, but it was a just execution” is incorrect precisely because it is ignoring the objective element of justice. It is more accurate to say “We executed the wrong guy unjustly, but it was an honest mistake” because that deals with both the objective and subjective elements.

If someone holds the position that starting the Iraq war was unjust but an honest mistake, I really don’t have any problem with it. What is a problem is when people insist that starting the Iraq war was categorically just. If it was categorically just that means it was just in both its subjective and objective characters. And this of course assumes that the war was started with the intention of adhering rigorously to the JW doctrine, that the assessment of the putative WMD threat was in fact done with objective prudence, etc. I think those assumptions are themselves pretty suspect, but they are at least arguable.

I don’t really have a quibble with someone who says that under the JWD the Iraq war was a mistake, rather than strictly speaking unjust. A mistake allows for both the objective and subjective elements of justice, rather than refusing either of them entry into the discussion.

If we rule the objective element of justice out of our discussion a priori though then we get to all sorts of ridiculous results: e.g., that particular abortion wasn’t unjust because the person having it doesn’t subjectively believe abortion to be unjust. Bosh! She may not be subjectively culpable, but it is ridiculous – I daresay postmodern – to say that therefore the abortion she had was a just abortion.

Many on the Right want to rule the objective component of justice out of bounds when it comes to the war. That is because it is precisely in the objective elements of justice, where the metal meets the meat, that their arguments in favor of its justice break down. And it is the same trick – starting from the fact that there is a subjective element and inferring incorrectly that all that there is, or all that is pertinent, is the subjective element – which is invoked under postmodernism in general.

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