June 5, 2016 § 34 Comments
Reader GJ uses the term “weaponized ambiguity” in the comments below, as a cognate of what I have called weaponized nihilism and of what others have referred to as the motte-and-bailey strategy. These are of course all forms of the venerable bait and switch, with the psychological feature that the person doing the arguing may be unaware of his equivocation.
Weaponized ambiguity strikes me, not without irony, as a very clarifying term. It captures and clarifies the way in which the execrable hides behind the banal and tautological.
Examples are always helpful.
Feminism is just the acknowledgment that women are people too … when it isn’t instigating mass murder.
Game is a toolbox of techniques which empower a man to be socially dominant … so pay no attention to the fact that the reason you will only learn it from the male equivalent of sluts is that it is the male equivalent of sluttiness.
Usury is charging unjust interest on loans … pay no attention to the fact that usury is any contractual profit at all on mutuum loans, and that even unjust interest charged on non recourse loans is not usury strictly speaking. The main thing we need to do is to avoid moral clarity.
Contraception involves a purely subjective feeling that you want sex but do not want a baby right now. Pay no attention to the minor matter of choosing objectively mutilated sexual behaviors versus abstinence.
And adultery is sex outside of marriage. But of course you can marry whomever or whatever you want whenever you want, and marriage lasts only as long as you want it to last.
Which is how Humanae Vitae becomes Vix Pervenit.
May 3, 2014 § 44 Comments
Folks are always trying to pretend that “opportunity costs” are real. Opportunity costs aren’t real. Opportunity costs are by definition an imaginary exercise in what might (or might not) have happened if we had chosen a different course of action from the one we actually did choose.
At the fork in the road before we make an actual choice, our imagination can be helpful. We can tell stories about what might happen in the future under various scenarios, and try to make better choices after reflecting on those imaginary stories about possible futures.
But the temptation to treat these imaginary stories – and associated “opportunity costs” – as if they are actually real is very strong, and as a subtle kind of lie this temptation frequently leads unwary moderns like us astray.
Once you’ve seen this kind of rationalization in one place you’ll start to notice it everywhere.
Murdering civilians in wartime, it is thought, must not be judged apart from “opportunity cost”: the quantitative consequences of incinerating two cities filled with civilians using atomic bombs has to be compared to the “opportunity cost” of an imaginary land invasion and all of the imaginary consequences that flow, in the fictional story, from the fictional invasion. Divorcing her husband was necessary because of the imaginary life of misery for herself (and her husband and children, because if Momma ain’t happy nobody’s happy) in the fictional story of the imaginary future in which she had actually kept her vows. Charging profitable interest on a full-recourse loan (usury) was justified because in an imaginary alternate reality the lender could have invested in something profitable. In the Jerry Bruckheimer film I imagine in my mind, failing to torture terrorist captives led to mass murder and destruction in Los Angeles. Joining Team Litterbug was justified because heck, in the story I told in my head I actually won the lottery and lived happily ever after.
Our imaginations are powerful things, and when they are made unequivocally subservient to the moral law they can be a very good thing. But we must never be fooled into thinking that something imaginary out of a fictional story we tell about something that didn’t happen – something like “opportunity cost” – can justify choosing concretely evil actions.
So don’t play the part of the modernist chump who can’t distinguish between fiction and reality. Always do what is upright and morally good, and let imagined realities that might come to pass if we choose evil stay in the realm of fiction, where they belong. The future isn’t in our hands anyway; it is in the hands of Providence.
August 11, 2012 § 9 Comments
I’ve frequently used the individual choice to drive a car and the policy choice to permit the use of cars to illustrate what foreseen but accidental death looks like. This corresponds quite closely to the individual decisions made in a war and the policy choice to engage in a just war. After all, if we didn’t allow people to drive cars and trucks millions would starve. The consequences of refusing to allow the use of vehicles would be dire indeed; so we choose to permit it, even though we foresee that thousands will be killed every year in traffic accidents.
Now, someone might claim that by permitting people to drive cars we are “murdering” the people who die in accidents in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. Someone else might claim that by banning driving we would be “murdering” all the people who starve to death for lack of food distribution in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. But most people with an ounce of common sense can see that those contentions are as dumb as a bag of hammers. People who can’t see that have put themselves beyond the reach of reason.
That doesn’t mean that moral reasoning stops once we’ve determined that traffic deaths are not directly intended by drivers and policy makers, of course. But for my purposes in this post, the rest of that discussion is an aside.
My purpose in talking about traffic is to show the contrast between accidental death and deliberate killing in a context that we all understand. It also encompasses both the policy decision and the fact that once a policy decision is made, that clearly doesn’t license every possible individual act with a vehicle: jus ad traffic policy and jus in driving.
Today we live in a climate of pervasive moral relativism: a moral relativism which has infected the thought of virtually all political views, left, right, center, and fringe. That isn’t to say that there is a moral equivalence of all political views: far from it. It is just to say that genuine moral absolutists are hard to come by these days, other than in obscure corners of the blogosphere, and often not even there. There are plenty of pretensions to moral absolutism. But when it comes to the absolute prohibition of killing the innocent, we are always treated to bluster about how we can’t judge it immoral apart from the concrete situation. In other words, some concrete situations make killing the innocent morally acceptable: moral relativism with lots of foot stomping and protest disclaiming that it is not moral relativism.
That is too bad, because moral relativism is false, and calling a pig a bird won’t make it fly.
When it comes to war people are constantly attempting to justify killing the innocent by claiming that we can conjure away our intentions. By wishing that circumstances didn’t make it “necessary” to do what we propose to do, we can claim that we didn’t intend the behavior that we chose. Translating that same reasoning to driving in traffic illustrates the unseriousness of the claim. If we had to drive from point A to point B to stop a bomb from going off (or do some other Really Important Thing), and a big crowd of people was in the way, and we ran lots of them down in order to get from A to B, it is the height of sophistry to claim that we didn’t “intend” to run them down.
So all the folks out there who claim that it is morally licit to kill innocents in war when the stakes are high enough ought to just come clean with themselves and with us. They are moral relativists. If that is what you are, then be that. But don’t pretend you are a moral absolutist. You aren’t.
August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
August 7, 2012 § 6 Comments
It is always immoral to deliberately kill the innocent, even in prosecuting a just war. Shorthand for “innocent” is “anyone not choosing to engage in combat or combat support actions”. At a minimum, the unborn and small children actually killed deliberately by Little Boy and Fat Man were innocent in the pertinent sense.
The fact that it is possible to enter and conduct a war justly does not imply that it is morally ok to do evil during a war. It is never ok to do evil. That is what “evil” means.
The difference between anticipating that innocents will be killed by accident in a just war and a supposed moral license to kill them deliberately is the same as the difference between anticipating that innocents will be killed by accident on the freeway and a supposed moral license to go run them over on purpose. It isn’t a difficult distinction: it is one every child knows intuitively. When weapons fire kills innocents by going astray from its target, or because it was not known that innocents were at the target, that is an accident. When weapons fire hits it’s target, a target known to include innocents in the morally pertinent sense, that is on purpose.
Only when the work of attempting to justify slaughtering civilians on purpose in war comes up does the distinction between foreseen-but-accidental and on purpose become so befuddling.
(This post brought to you by the committee to enable Zippy to link to a post rather than rewriting the same bloody thing over and over again to endlessly befuddled commenters in comboxes around the web).
July 27, 2012 § 39 Comments
I find it more than a little ironic that the sort of people who quite rightly ridicule the ridiculous attempts to model complex reality in the form of anthropocentric “climate change” are often the very same people who are so utterly confident of their own little models of possible alternate realities during World War II. Everyone seems to find himself in the epistemic position of tinpot omniscient god over the epistemic domain of his own counterfactual “war game”, whether it is predicting the outcomes of an Allied blockade of Japan or rising sea levels overtaking California.
There is a reason why as Catholics we are to develop the virtues, habits of doing the right thing here and now, of avoiding concretely evil acts and doing concretely good acts, rather than fooling ourselves into thinking we can know and control all of the consequences. As Veritatis Splendour puts it:
[E]veryone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects — defined as pre-moral — of one’s own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?
I think the Pope is far too optimistic with that initial “Everyone”.