Apples, Oranges, and Moral Equivalence

September 29, 2007 § 13 Comments

One of the less edifying features of our current public discourse is the tendency to say “shut up!” by accusing someone of postulating moral equivalence between, say, ourselves and the terrorists who have attacked us.

Now it is doubtless true that many critics of the Administration’s follow-up to 9-11 really are attempting to draw a moral equivalence, or even worse, to displace moral blame for the attacks from those who carried them out to someone else. Certainly that is a dominant theme on the political Left, and the “Truther” phenomenon is its natural manifestation. If we are morally to blame then we must be the ones who actually did it, a priori: no matter how much people try to cling to the idea that we are responsible for outcomes rather than for our own acts, nature reasserts herself. The “Truthers” are just being more consistent with the reality of how moral responsibility works than other factions of the “blame America first” mob.

[Note to the paleo Right: if you don’t want to be like the Truther Left, then don’t be like them. You can choose.]

Now it would of course be very convenient for the administration hawks and their agitators if everyone who criticizes administration policy were drawing a moral equivalence or blaming America first. But about this the hawks are kidding themselves. Because in point of fact it isn’t our job, as ourselves, to make moral evaluations of our enemies (those not yet vanquished) at all. It is our job to make moral evaluations of ourselves; and to understand what we expect our enemies to do so that we can make prudent decisions, the making of prudent decisions also being our moral obligation. The required moral evaluation is all about us, and moral evaluation of them doesn’t enter into it. We need to know what to expect from them in terms of behavior. Our expectations about their behavior reflect on what we should and should not do morally and practically. That’s it, until such time as the particular enemy in question has been vanquished and is either dead or on trial.

So when we use the language of cause in reference to ourselves we are talking about something quite different from what we are talking about when we use the language of cause in reference to our enemies. The things that we do must be morally justified; the things they do must merely be understood. Understanding is not justification, and shouldn’t be confused with justification. It would be grossly immoral for us to march into a nest of vipers and unleash all manner of death and mayhem without all the usual prudential considerations being taken into account. This is true even if occasionally a viper enters our camp and kills one of our young: if dealing with the nest is beyond our morally-realizeable capabilities then we are left to dealing with keeping incursions as isolated – and yes, unprovoked – as possible.

The prudential – but no less morally binding for being prudential – requirement not to provoke the nest of vipers doesn’t make us morally equivalent to the vipers. Our expectations of what they will do is part of the prudential evaluation of our own acts. But it doesn’t say anything at all about them morally: apples are not oranges, and expectation is not justification.

We don’t have to justify what they do. We only have to justify what we do. No amount of outrage that God has allowed the serpent to dwell on this same earth with us can turn an apple into an orange.

(Cross-posted at What’s Wrong with the World)

"Illegal Combatant": Just a Blob of Tissue

September 28, 2007 § 5 Comments

The term “fetus” serves a particular purpose on the political Left: it ejects a particular person out of the domain of personhood, granting us a moral license to do something to her that it would otherwise violate our moral principles to do to an actual person.

The term “illegal combatant” appears to serve the same basic purpose for the political Right.

I suggest a little rule of thumb.

If we wouldn’t do it to Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who murdered and ate his victims, we shouldn’t do it to other captives.

Understanding Arabic Helps When Trying To Understand Arabs

September 27, 2007 § 5 Comments

Something for the Osama bin Laden really does have a strategy file.

It may be comforting to think that the people who attacked us “hate us for our freedoms”, and that they have nothing more in mind than opportunistically striking when they can out of some kind of blind undirected rage. Alternatively it may be comforting to think that the people who attacked us did so because of our meddlesome foreign policy.

Unfortunately, “comforting” and “true” are not always the same thing.

Material Prosperity Is Immoral

September 26, 2007 § 53 Comments

Well, OK, not really. But having as much material prosperity as it is possible for one to have is immoral. Which is to say, greed is immoral.

What is interesting though, and what I would like to discuss here, is that this doesn’t merely apply to individual persons. It also applies to transcendent entities such as countries and, what I will focus on here, economic systems.

One of the credal tenets of modern global capitalism is that maximizing material prosperity is compatible with the common good. In general, that is, maximizing some quantitative measure of prosperity (say GDP, or perhaps the annual income of the poorest person in a polity – this criticism applies equally well to a socialist conception of maximal prosperity as to a capitalist conception) is thought to be compatible with the common good.

This is, I believe, provably false: maximizing material prosperity (however defined) is in fact demonstrably, and in a very general way, incompatible with the common good. An actual proof with all the rigor the word “proof” implies would require more than a blog post can deliver, but I’ll attempt an outline of the gist of such a proof in this post.

At any given point in time, the system of global capitalism is defined in part by the billions of rules of which it consists. Suppose that in choosing those rules we are not constrained by concern for the common good. Under this unconstrained condition it is possible to achieve a quantitative prosperity value of [Pmax].

Now suppose we further constrain ourselves to choosing rules which are compatible with the common good. Our morally constrained economic system cannot do all the things that the morally unconstrained one can do. The morally unconstrained system has every material capability that the constrained one has, and more. There is nothing that the constrained system can do that the unconstrained one cannot, in terms of maximizing some quantitiative utilitarian measure of prosperity – any quantitative utilitarian measure of prosperity at all. So [Pmax-good] – the same quantitative measure of material prosperity we made of the unconstrained system, applied against the constrained system – will always be lower than [Pmax].

To be really geeky about it, an economic system unfettered by concern for the common good has many more degrees of freedom than a morally constrained system. As a result it has more free energy available to maximize whatever quantitative measure of prosperity we have defined. In every real-world case** the morally unconstrained system is capable of being more materially prosperous than the morally constrained system.

This same kind of argument can be applied to maximizing individual wealth; but for some reason people already intuit that a man who is literally as wealthy as he could possibly be is acting immorally, that is, is operating under the vice of greed. What is perhaps new here, or at least counterintuitive to the American cult of success, is that this is just as true institutionally: that is, transcendent entities like economies and countries which maximize their material wealth, under any quantitative measure of material wealth at all (including egalitarian measures), are necessarily doing evil.

The bottom line is that poverty is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of virtue, and wealth is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of vice: not merely in the case of individuals but in the case of economic systems. If we are not self consciously making choices that we know are reducing our material prosperity from what it could be, we are doing evil.

** In the science of statistical mechanics we allow for the possibility-in-principle of all of the molecules of a gas spontaneously ending up on one side of a box instead of all mixed up together. This doesn’t happen in the real world. Economic systems the rules of which are built on the premise of maximizing prosperity cannot cheat entropy in the real world any more than a real bottle of nitrogen can cheat entropy.

Talk About "Unit Cohesion"

September 20, 2007 § 12 Comments

Those wacky Aussies are giving female soldiers breast implants to increase their self esteem. Be all that you can be, ladies.

You can’t make this stuff up.

UPDATE: Jeff Miller points out in the comments that US forces are with the program too. Not only that, but in one case the life of a female Israeli soldier injured in a Hezbollah attack was saved by her implants.

So what I want to know is, why aren’t military issue breast implants made from Kevlar?

(HT: View From the Right)

From the "Water is Wet" File

September 20, 2007 § Leave a comment

No kidding?

Positivist Patriotism, Postmodern Patriotism

September 20, 2007 § 3 Comments

The perennial debate over the nature of patriotism carries on at WWWtW with a new post by Paul Cella. In one corner of the larger debate stands the “proposition nation” patriots, claiming that to be American in its essence is nothing but adherence to certain universal propositions. In the other stand the blood and soil patriots, seeing the essence of America in her particular history and people: blood and soil, and may that abstract propositional stuff be anathema! Various commenters stake out various positions, and the discussion is interesting and worth reading in its entiriety.

In the spirit of riding my own personal hobby horses to death I will say a few words about the subject here. I posted the following slightly edited comments in that thread, which I now reproduce combined into a single post:

In the spirit of potentially annoying everyone in the discussion, isn’t one core issue understanding propositions (doctrines) as erasing blood and soil, as opposed to being a modal aspect of them? Isn’t what is at issue really the attempt to saw abstract and universal truths off from history and incarnation, to treat them as a complete and free-standing system disconnected from its roots in reality? In other words, isn’t the real problem not propositions or adherence to universal truths per se but rather positivism?

After all, the world would be a better place in at least some senses as a universal Christendom rooted in Western Christendom. From my own standpoint it would be abstractly better if everyone on earth were formally a member of the Catholic faith. But as Americans one of our principles or traditions (it is difficult to say which really) is modesty in our encounter with the incarnate world: that is, that something may be abstractly desirable by no means licenses us to usurp its actual realization, in particular times and places among particular peoples, from Providence. It is this latter principle or tradition which I think began to wear at the edges during the Civil War and which was decisively pushed to the background in the twentieth century. And whether we call it principle or tradition by name, it is essential that it be recovered.

From a certain perspective the positivist-postmodern dichotomy represents an encounter between the abstract/universal and the particular/local/actual, where one attempts to dominate the other to its exclusion.

Clearly there are universal truths, and just as clearly there are local actual particulars: I take this as self-evidently true.

Positivism on this understanding attempts to take some set of local particulars and make an abstraction out of it: to make us omniscient in our knowledge of at least the domain in question; to in a sense reduce the domain in question to our abstract knowledge of it. For positivism the abstract/universal utterly dominates some sphere of the particular/actual: in this case, America becomes nothing but some comprehensive set of abstract propositions defining what it is to be American. Postmodernism realizes (correctly) that this isn’t just wrongheaded but literally impossible, and concludes (incorrectly, in what amounts to a temper tantrum directed at the impossibility of being an omniscient God over at least some domain) that this falsifies the possibility of universal truth. The postmodern is in this sense the particular/actual dominating the abstract/universal, flattening reality into a sea of equivalent sense experience subject only to whatever conventions we arbitrarily assign for our own purposes.

Both are wrongheaded, and indeed are in my understanding two sides of the same erroneous coin.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for September, 2007 at Zippy Catholic.