Saturday, November 01, 2003

SPEAKING OF TERRORISM: It would be remiss to fail to mention the terrorist attacks that have been occuring in Iraq all throughout the occupation there, and especially the increasingly frequent, damaging, and barbaric attacks that have occured over the past week.
I think that these attacks are not at all surprising. I think that the Bush administration should have been ready for them. I think that they are to some extent inevitable and unstopable; but I do think the administration might have done more to prevent them. I think that going into Iraq without making clear these probable consequences of invasion to the American people, and without securing sufficient international support that would provide sufficient resources for protecting against terrorism, was deeply irresponsible (though, at the same time, I think that anyone in the US who didn't expect this and is now indignantly surprised, was incredibly naive and probably willfully ignorant.)
So I think there's plenty to blame the administration for. But I think that we mustn't let this distract us from blaming those who are truly and fully guilty of these atrocities -- the terrorists, be they from within or outside of Iraq, be they Ba'athists or jihadists. They are, ultimately, murderers, and murderers who kill civilians and humanitarian aid personnel, as well as soldiers, not in the name of freedom, but in a fight against it -- a fight against democracy on behalf of authoritarian fundamentalism or secular, tribal totalitarianism. There is no way to avoid these people being are enemies; and, having gotten involved in Iraq (and by that I don't just mean the invasion; I mean decades of interference with Iraqi politics), there is no way we can simply disengage. We've committed ourselves, whether consciously or not, to this battle; we have no choice but to see it through; and we have a duty to see it through, since it is ultimately a battle for the freedom and well-being of another people -- a people that we should not be ruling over, but which also cannot free itself without our assistance.
So we must go on; we mustn't pull out now. (A point that Richard Cohen makes very well in this recent column)
But just because we ultimately must pay the price, doesn't mean that we should deny or minimize it. The deaths of all of those American soldiers, all of those UN and Red Cross personnel, all of those Iraqis -- these are awful losses. The only response to them should be, has to be, grief. And to the extent that these deaths are the result of the war to topple Saddam -- the unavoidable and predictable and direct result -- we must recognize that the war is the cause of great, undeniable, unalterable suffering and evil. This suffering, these losses, are prices that are being paid by others for a war that some of us, however ambivalently or equivocally, supported, or at least believed justified. It is evil and suffering 'in our name', but not on our part. And for those of us in this particular position, there is a necessary response aside from and secondary to grief: a sense of humility and, if not guilt, than at least moral uneasiness -- even shame before those who are actually paying for our moral aspirations.

TERRORISM: CRIME FOR HUMANITY, OR CRIME AGAINST? II: Last week I mentioned and linked to Richard Wolin’s critique of Ted Honderich’s book After the Terror, and explained why, although I disagree with Honderich, I think charges of anti-semitism against him are ill-founded. Now I want to deal with Honderich’s arguments, as depicted by Wolin, and Wolin’s critique, more fully. What follows are my reactions to these. I’ll be looking at this from the perspective of moral philosophy (though what I’ll be doing is really responding to the arguments presented, rather than advancing a philosophical argument of my own), rather than international law, about which I know too little – and which also doesn’t seem to me to be the main point here.

Wolin’s first criticism of Honderich is that Honderich’s blaming of all Americans/Westerners for third-world poverty is simplistic and unfair. This is I think hard to dispute. Another point I’d make is that it seems to me that Honderich’s claim, if Wolin presents it fairly, makes two assumptions which, while not necessarily wrong, are I think dubious. One is that there can be such a thing as collective guilt – that all Americans are in some way guilty for the actions of some Americans. Now, this seems to me to get into all sorts of questions about the nature and origins of guilt, the relation of guilt to agency, and thus the actual agency of most Americans. It does seem to me that one could argue that all Americans who actively or even passively assent to the policies pursued by the US and by American companies that contribute to third world poverty, bear some level of guilt. But I don’t know that you can assume that all Americans QUA AMERICANS are guilty, and I think that one needs to make the point that the level or kind of guilt of, say, an American citizen who votes for elected officials who then vote in favour of trade laws or regulations that harm third world countries is very different from the guilt of, say, an American corporation that exploits third-world workers in sweatshops. (This, of course, leaves aside the question that Wolin rightly raises as to how much the US and US citizens are to blame for the plight of third world countries. Obviously, their/our guilt is great; whether it is complete is, however, I think doubtful).
The second assumption that I feel may lurk under Honderich’s argument, though I’m not at all sure and may be doing him an injustice here, is the idea that to benefit from something, even if you have nothing to do with it and indeed oppose it, makes you guilty for it. Thus, Americans live in affluence, an affluence achieved in part by exploiting others; in so doing, they all become guilty.
Now, I think that there is a strong moral intuition on the part of many of us that we should feel badly about benefiting from the suffering of others. But feeling badly, and being guilty, are different things. I think that we’re only actually morally guilty or blameworthy – as opposed to prone to feel guilty – if we’re actually responsible for something, that is, have either caused something to happen, or been in a position to prevent it happening and failed to make an effort to do so. (Incidentally, much might be said – and probably has been, but I’m too fearfully ignorant to know of it – about the confusions caused by the word guilt’s application to both a moral/legal concept and a psychological state)
Now, let’s get to Honderich’s more controversial point, as reported by Wolin: that the attacks on the WTC of 9/11/01 might have been justified had they had a reasonable chance of succeeding in alleviating third-world misery (we’ll leave aside the question of whether doing so was the intent of the hijackers or bin Laden; I tend to buy the theory that, while their anti-US ire was likely fueled in part by the misery caused by the US’s policies regarding the Middle East and other areas of the world, they were more powerfully motivated by a religiously-inspired hatred of the US and its presence and influence throughout the world. But this doesn’t affect that argument we’re pursuing here). Let us also consider Honderich’s taking of solace, in Wolin’s words (more or less), from the fact that the attacks occurred on symbols of world capitalism.
Let’s be clear what Honderich is saying here. He is making one claim, and seems to me to be tacitly endorsing another. The explicit claim is a straightforward consequentialist argument that if terrorism serves the ‘principle of humanity’, it’s justified. The implicit view, it seems to me, at least from Wolin’s admittedly rather hostile account, is that everyone in the WTC deserved to die.
Yes, everyone. The evil US businessmen, and the poor immigrants who served them lunch. The executive officers, and their secretaries too. The firefighters, the security guards, the janitors. And the families of those in the WTC deserved to be bereaved, too. Because all were morally implicated in the crimes of global capitalism.
This seems to me to involve dehumanization on a quite remarkable scale. And it does seem to me to be a separate issue from the consequentialist argument. One could say that, IF the attacks would have ultimately benefited humanity, they would have been justified – but that it still would have been tragic that so many people would have had to die, and that their deaths, while justified, would still not be just – that indeed their deaths, which were the result of their being at the wrong place at the wrong time, were fundamentally unjust. But if Honderich does regard the attacks as being on a symbol of global capitalism, and therefore at least partially morally legitimate (to again paraphrase Wolin) – well, then, he seems to me to be reducing all of those people to ‘symbols’ as well. And I think that by now someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Honderich should be very aware of just how dangerous it is to reduce people to symbols – and then regard their deaths as accordingly, if not justified, then at least carrying some positive symbolic resonance.
As perhaps he does; I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that Wolin is just taking Honderich’s words out of context, misrepresenting his position, and that therefore the implicit view I’ve identified is one that Honderich doesn’t hold at all. This could well be the case. If it is, I still think Honderich is ultimately wrong, for reasons I’ll get to; but he does at least make a theoretically respectable argument. If he does, however, hold this view, implicitly or explicitly, I think that’s contemptible.
Now, let me take a break from critically scrutinizing Honderich, and critically scrutinize his scrutinizer. Wolin makes several points that are, I think, flawed, even if his account of Honderich is fair. The first is this: “from the standpoint of moral philosophy, it is not "instrumental" criteria like success or failure that determine whether or not an action is right; rather, it is the action's intrinsic qualities” Now, this seems to me to reflect a strangely basic mistake. Whether ‘instrumental’ criteria determine an action’s moral worth is precisely at issue in moral philosophy. Moral philosophy doesn’t provide a single ‘standpoint’; it involves a consideration precisely of problems such as, do an action’s intrinsic moral properties (whatever these are and however these are identified – which are also questions for moral philosophy), or its intent, or its consequences, determine its moral worth? Wolin seems to me to here be confusing one position in moral philosophy – an anti-consequentialist or deontologic view – with moral philosophy itself, which strikes me as rather an eccentric and limiting view. Wolin also seeks to respond to Honderich’s moral argument with a legal argument – or, rather, he seeks to take legal precedents as evidence for making a moral argument, namely, that terrorist attacks on civilians are immoral. Now, I’m far from thinking that legal precedents are unimportant; but I do think Honderich is making a moral-philosophical claim, and to respond to him, one needs to engage with that claim, not just point out that international law disagrees with Honderich. International law could, after all, be wrong (though I tend not to think so in this case; but that needs to be established).
Wolin’s main argument seems to be that terrorist attacks target the innocent. Yet if Honderich does imply that the targets of terrorist attacks, through their involvement in an unjust system, aren’t innocent, as the positions ascribed to him by Wolin suggest, then it would seem that it is precisely this is begging the question. As for Wolin’s claim that he can’t think of a single thinker in the history of Western moral philosophy who justifies killing innocents for political ends, it depends on what you mean by ‘moral philosophy’, ‘justifies’ and ‘political ends’. But surely Machiavelli’s Prince would seem to do this? Surely if the ends were sufficiently desirable, they’d be justified under at least some versions of Utilitarianism? What about Rousseau’s insistence that ‘Who wills the ends, wills the means?’ Again, Wolin’s conception of moral philosophy would seem to be weirdly restricted and restrictive.
On the other hand, Wolin makes one, to my mind, utterly knock-down argument. Honderich’s defense of terrorism is based on the goals that it serves – on effectiveness, in other words (or at least the possibility of effectiveness; this variation may save Honderich from the inconsistency I’m about to mention, but I think would make his argument all the more morally dubious). Yet the suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists have thus far been far from successful. Indeed, they’ve been – I think any realistic observer would have to agree – pretty damned counter-productive from the point of view of achieving Palestinian statehood and ending Israeli occupation, oppression, and aggression. So, by Honderich’s own argument for why the WTC attack might be justified or isn’t, one would have to conclude that, if they’d been effective, terrorist attacks on Israel would be justified; but they haven’t, they are highly unlikely to be, and so they aren’t. That Honderich seems to say that they are in fact justified (as opposed to claiming that they might be justified under certain conditions, which he may be doing) suggests to me either that he has a pretty unrealistic view of the likelihood of such attacks to succeed; or his thinks that, aside from the end results, these attacks are justified based on their intrinsic moral worth as opposed to their consequences. If the latter is the case, then he would a) adopting a position at variance with the argument that, at least according to Wolin, he proposes, and b) believe that Israelis – all Israelis – deserve to die (or that Palestinians are justified in killing Israelis in revenge, which is either the same thing, or so close to it as to be indistinguishable.) Since he doesn’t seem to actually say this about Americans – even if Wolin shows him coming close at times – this suggests a different moral standard for Israelis. Which is troubling.
Wolin also tellingly points out that Honderich has insisted that he believes Israel has a right to exist; yet that the major organizations behind suicide bombings have declared as their objective the destruction of Israel. So, if they are in fact successful – if they do achieve the consequences that they’re aiming for – then they would achieve something that Honderich believes to be wrong. Which, again, undermines his consequentialist argument: surely one can’t argue that intrinsically immoral means are justified if they tend towards what one has declared to be an unjust end? So, Honderich’s position would only make sense if he believes that the suicide bombers are either a)lying, and not really bent on Israel’s destruction, or b) thinks that they’ll never succeed in destroying Israel, but will succeed in winning independence for Palestine, through such means. The latter is of course a coherent position – just, I think, a fairly naïve one.
But I think that, however much one might try to examine Honderich’s position in terms of the consistency or credibility of the argument, one also needs to recognize that, not only is this, of course, a very emotional subject; but there’s more going on in Honderich’s work – some of it very far from coolly reasoned, and not all of it captured in Wolin’s account – that should be considered, even if no sure conculsions can be drawn.
Let’s take one of Honderich’s key passages, quoted by Wolin: “Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves. This seems to me a terrible truth, a truth that overcomes what we must remember about all terrorism, and also overcomes the thought of hideousness and monstrosity." Now, there are at least a couple of strange things going on here that Wolin doesn’t note, aside from the obvious fact that Honderich is saying that terrorism against Israelis is justified. One is the use of the term ‘sanctified’ by a, I presume (perhaps wrongly; perhaps Honderich is really an Islamicist?), secular philosopher. This it seems to me carries much stronger connotations than does the word ‘justified’: the act of murder is not just excusable, it is actual noble, even holy. It seems to go beyond a mere consequentialist argument – such acts are nasty and unfortunate, but ultimately conduce to good and so may be justified in the long run – to an actual ennoblement of murder and murderers. Yet, at the same time, Honderich does seem to acknowledge the fact that there is something that ‘we must remember about all terrorism’, something hideous and monstrous – which seems to me an acknowledgment that, yes, terrorism is awful and monstrous, but that the injustices that it seeks to fight may be worse, and that, if it is successful in fighting them, that is ultimately more important than its inherent awfulness.
So we see Honderich, as he comes across in Wolin’s article, occupying a somewhat tense position. He seems to suggest both that terrorism is justifiable purely on consequentialist grounds – that it is justified if it achieves a just end – and that it is justified as a means of revenge against a guilty party or parties. He also seems to at least suggest an acknowledgment of terrorism’s intrinsic evil, which may nevertheless be overwhelmed by the desirability or justice of terrorism, and to suggest that terrorism may in fact, so far from a necessary evil, be a heroic or even holy – a ‘sanctified’ – act.
There are therefore two distinct lines of argument that one can pursue against Honderich. One is to deny his consequentialism, and assert that terrorism’s intrinsic immorality makes it an unacceptable means. The other is to dispute either the idea that terrorism can ever be justified as just retribution or punishment for crimes, or Honderich’s own judgments of guilt, either on general grounds (a denial, in principle, of the idea of collective or passive guilt), or particular grounds (and argument that the Americans and Israelis are not, in fact, guilty of wrongdoing as either individuals or collectives with regard to their alleged victims)
All of these are possible courses, and I’m somewhat sympathetic to all of them, but I don’t think they’ll all really work – or at any rate, I’m not convinced by all of them. To take the last first, I do think that America and Israel are guilty of considerable wrong-doing; and I do think that many, if not most, of the citizens of both nations are implicated in this wrongdoing.
On the other hand, I don’t, in principle, believe in the idea of collective guilt. Or, to be more precise, I think that it’s fine and even right to feel a sense of guilt for the wrong-doings of one’s own ‘people’, however defined; but I don’t think individuals should be punished for crimes they did not themselves commit, or the commission of which was beyond their control. And I certainly don’t think that individuals should be punished with death for crimes they themselves did not commit (I also don’t think that individuals, in just about all cases, should be punished with death for crimes that they did, in fact, themselves commit.)
However, this alone can’t rule-out, or provide grounds for condemning, terrorism. There is still the possibility of terrorism directed against less disputably guilty parties – say, military personnel who really are doing something wrong. In such cases, one must either claim that the ‘crime’ of which the victims are accused isn’t really a crime; or that terrorism is simply not an acceptable means of vengeance. The former is an empirical question, though one also based on certain moral beliefs (is occupying another people’s country in itself a crime? What reasons might justify the occupation, and thus make ‘punishment’ of the occupiers – the British in Palestine, the Israelis in Gaza, the US in Iraq, the Germans in France, the Soviets in Poland, etc. – unjust?
Let us say for the sake of argument that the terrorism is genuinely a case of ‘freedom-fighting’ – that the occupiers really don’t have a right to be there, that ending the occupation really is a desirable goal, etc. (a view, incidentally and just to be clear – since, given recent events, it is very necessary to be clear on this – that I reject with regard to the current US occupation of Iraq. Regardless of whether terrorism ever might be justified, I think that recent terrorist attacks on US forces – and, even more blatantly, on humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross – cannot be morally defended. The other cases cited, and many others I might have cited, seem to me more difficult.)
So, we’re left with the two possible justifications for terrorism: to punish wrongdoers, and to achieve desirable ends. Again, let’s start with the latter.
Now, one could simply attack consequentialism in ethics. I’m tempted to do so, at least in part – to say that some means, at least, are never justified by ends, whatever they may be, however noble they may be. But I’m not sure that this is a wholly sustainable position.
Let’s try to give a hearing first, though. Terrorism may be defined as the commission of actions the intent of which is to strike terror into the hearts of an entire group. Many would further specify that terrorism only applies to actions against civilians – that acts of terror against military personnel should be called something else (say, guerilla warfare). As a legal argument, this seems sound to me; as a matter of semantics, it seems to me a bit shakier, if only because it doesn’t quite fit with (though it doesn’t quite contradict) the traditional use of the word. (In the past and on this blog, I’ve referred to the OED definition, which I’ll now – at the risk of the unpardonable crime of sounding like Antonin Scalia – repeat: 'A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized.') So, the anti-consequentialist argument might essentially run something like this. Terrorism by its nature involves killing some, maiming other, bereaving other, and terrifying still more, innocent people. As such, it involves an intrinsically unjustified violation of individual’s rights, the infliction of horrible suffering or, indeed, obliteration on those who do not deserve it, the use of human beings as means to an ideological end, etc. And, if you accept Kantianism, or most versions of natural law theory, Epicureanism (or at least some readings of it), or a number of other variant moral philosophies, this is just plane wrong and must be ruled out. There may be some cases – departing from a strict deontological position (as I think one really must if one isn’t to fall into absurdity sooner or later, though of course many very wise and good people will disagree) – in which ends do justify means; but there have to be limits – there has to be a recognition that certain means are just too intrinsically horrible to ever be justified.
Another argument against consequentialism rests on the unpredictability of consequences. Think, in this case, of Herzen and Berlin’s warning against sacrificing human beings in the here and now for the sake of the felicity of future generations – the turning of the present into a charnel house in order to lay the foundations for a future Garden of Eden. Yet we don’t know that a garden will ever emerge; and, indeed, our knowledge of history suggests that charnel houses tend not to produce gardens, but wastelands flowing with blood. The tendency of those who say that omelettes can only be made by breaking eggs is to go on breaking eggs, without ever producing omelettes. Not only is the price too high; what all the sacrifice and crime is supposed to be purchasing is too uncertain, too unlikely to ever arrive.
Both of these arguments seem extremely powerful to me; I believe in them to a great degree, and would like to let the matter rest there, with a stringent condemnation of terrorism.
But I don’t think it’s quite that easy.
We usually don’t, and can’t with any certitude, know the consequences of our actions; but to be paralyzed by this, to not act because we can’t be sure that we will succeed or that we won’t go terribly wrong, is to cross the line, in some cases at least, that separates responsibility from cowardice. Sometimes we must act, not knowing what the consequences will be, and be ready to accept responsibility for things if they go terribly wrong – because we know that to do nothing would be a far greater dereliction of moral duty (this is, as I understand it, one point Weber was driving at in outlining his ‘ethic of responsibility’)
But, surely, the line should be drawn at some point – at, say, the killing of innocents. But should it? What if the killing of innocents, the resort to terrorism, really is necessary – or there is good reason to think that it is necessary (even if it isn’t certain that it is sufficient) – to preventing great evils? What if terrorism is necessary to defeat Hitler? What price is too high for that? Should Leningrad have capitulated? Should the Soviets have halted their drive to take Berlin?
It seems to me that one can’t simply rule out terrorism a priori. One must look at any given situation, and do one’s best to determine whether terrorism is in fact necessary – whether the moral price of terrorism isn’t too high to pay, because the moral price of the alternative is even higher. I tend to think that, in nearly all cases, terrorism will ultimately be ruled out – that very rarely will it be the best or most certain course of action, and very rarely will its cost be acceptable (this, to my mind, is the case with Palestinian terrorism against Israel; and also with Zionist terrorism against the British Mandate, incidentally.) But there may be some cases where terrorism is justified; and judgments about this will always rest on one’s interpretation of events and situations, which will always be a highly disputable matter, lying at it does where empirical and moral considerations – both themselves deeply contentious, in different ways – overlap.
So, consequentialist defenses of terrorism are often dubious, at the very least; and I think the burden of proof should generally be to prove that terrorism is justified on consequentialist grounds. And we may reject many consequentialist justifications on both moral and empirical grounds – that is, we may say either that it is too unlikely, to simply too uncertain, that terrorism will yield results that are desirable and just, or desirable and just enough to outweigh the inherent evil of terrorism; or that the evils of terrorism are greater than the evils of the status quo, or the likely results of not resorting to terrorism. But I think that saying that terrorism is simply never justified – or, more exactly, that it never MAY be justified – as an inviolable a priori principle can’t be sustained.
What about the argument for terrorism as a punishment for wrongdoers – an argument that so far as I can tell Honderich doesn’t actually set out to defend, but which he does seem to be somewhat tacitly partial to? Again, I don’t think we can rule this out completely. We may talk about moral humility, and ask whether we have the right or ability to decide who deserves to die for their wrongdoings. A very good question, and in most cases I think we should be very wary of claiming such a right.
Still, if you gave me the choice of deciding whether Hitler had a right to live in 1941, say, and gave me a chance to blow him up or shoot him, I don’t think I’d have suffered from too much moral humility. Oh, I’d have been troubled by the thought of taking a human life, to be sure – I think one can’t decently not be (and I think most terrorists aren’t, not sufficiently, which is one of the grounds on which I condemn them). But I think I would’ve done it. And I think I would’ve done it later, as well, in 1945, even after it was too late to save all of those who died thanks to Hitler. Because I do think Hitler (or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, etc.) did deserve to die, and if given a unique chance to see to it, I think I might have done so.
But, again, these are exceptional cases. I think that very rarely do the civilian victims of terrorism deserve to die. In fact, I can’t think of any cases in which I think they do. There may be times when it is impossible to kill the guilty without also killing the innocent. But killing the innocent is still and always a crime against humanity and a violation of basic moral principles; it can never be justified, tough it may sometimes be necessitated. When it is necessitated, we’re in a situation where we’re forced to do something that is evil in order to prevent or defend against a greater evil; but what we do is still evil.
I think that, further, the commission of such evils really can only be justified on consequentialist grounds – that it really will achieve a necessary objective, and, further, that this necessary objective has to do with protecting other innocent people. Killing innocents simply in order to punish (as distinct from protecting against) the guilty, beyond a point, seems to me unacceptable. It might ultimately be necessary to, say, kill some innocent people in order to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, in order to prevent them from doing further damage. But if it comes down to killing the innocent as part of a purely retaliatory, as opposed to ultimately defensive, action, then I think we must refrain. Retaliation is not a morally empty or worthless concept; but it does seem to me to rate lower on the (always less than certain or final) ranking of goals than protecting the innocent.
I must stop these ramblings now, and try to sum up – although I know there is much more to be said about these matters, and many things that I thought of saying at some point but have forgotten. So, in summary and conclusion: I don’t think one can simply dismiss Honderich’s arguments out of hand, by saying that terrorism is NEVER justifiable. But I do think that Honderich’s arguments as I understand them do ultimately fail. I do think there are good reasons to say that terrorism is ALMOST never justified; and I think that Honderich, both with his (as I understand it) ends-justify-the-means argument and his (implicit) the-bastards-deserve-to-die argument (which is pretty much what it comes down to, is it not?), fails to make a convincing case for terrorism. I think that there are times when terrorism may be a crime for humanity; but it will also, always, be a crime, and a crime against humanity. And it will more often simply be a crime against humanity, than a crime both for and against humanity. And that seems to me to be the case both with the attacks on the WTC, and the continuing attacks on Israeli civilians, and the attacks on the US forces of occupation in Iraq. Others will of course disagree; but I do think that they are wrong, and that, while their intentions may be noble and they may have good and compelling arguments on their side, their views are, in a good many cases, ultimately evidence of moral fanaticism and irresponsibility.

Friday, October 31, 2003

NORM GERAS has a particularly interesting post where he takes on (as he all too often has occasion to do) the bien pensant British Left. I think that Norm's first point is a very good one.The question of the relationship between anti-Semitism and vehement anti-Israelism is a difficult one, which I've given a lot of thought to; Norm's post both makes some points that I've thought about now and then very well, and has also made me reconsider and alter my own view somewhat. Norm's third point is also good, though it does need balancing: I do think that many of the Iraqi people are better off now than under Saddam, and I like to think that, ultimately, they'll be much better off. But whether their liberation lasts, and whether it indeed proves to be a blessing rather than a curse (which it could be, if the country degenerates into all-out civil war) remains to be seen. The US and its allies have toppled Saddam, but they've yet to defeat Ba'athism, jihadism, the various anti-democratic energies currently swirling through Iraq, and the destruction and disorder that war, together with decades lived under the heel of tyranny, have caused. So, I think that we shouldn't yet be saying whether the Iraqi people are better or worse off -- only time will tell.
But anyone who doesn't feel a surge of joy in his or her heart that Saddam is gone and his images removed from the Iraqi public square, has serious problems, as Norm says.
I do have a problem with his second point though. As an American living in Britain, I appreciate any Brit standing up against the anti-Americanism displayed by some -- not in my experience all that many, but too many -- of his countrymen. And the comments Norm quotes from the Guardian really are appalling. But, I fear that when he turns his criticism to Americans in the UK who bash Bush, I go from feeling defended, to feeling attacked; for I am one such.
For the record, I don't criticize Bush in order to fit in or be liked or disassociate myself from my country, which I'm quite grateful and dedicated to. When other people criticize Bush, I agree with them, because, well, I agree with them. Sometimes they go too far, and say things that I think are too simplistic, that are unfair or untrue. But I also do a good deal of Bush bashing myself. And I do so because I honestly think that he's an awful president who's doing all he can to ruin my country, who's incompetence and arrogance have jeopardised and threaten to undermine the necessary and just wars on terror and despotism that he has undertaken, and a deeply self-righteous, thoughtless man. And while I'm damned if I'm going to let a lot of anti-American rubbish make me disavow my country or remain silent about its achievements and virtues (which Norm has in the past movingly evoked), I'm also damned if I''m going to let my desire to defend my country and defie its detractors force me into silence about my own strongly-held political views.
Of course, there are those who mouth anti-Bush sentiments out of conformism, and I agree with Norm that this is ignominious. But I suspect that more of those who criticize Bush do so out of genuine belief than a desire to please, and I think it's unfair to assume otherwise.
As for Norm's comparison to Weimar Germany: I think they had better cabaret.
UPDATE: Norm responds to my post here; his response is very generous, despite the fact that, as he gently points out, I somewhat mis-read and/or over-reacted to his original point. I don't think Norm and I really disagree, and I was in part willfully misinterpreting his post in order to make a point that I've been wanting to get off my chest for a while, which was unfair of me, and I do apologize. I should more rightly have urged a milder, less grandiloquent caution: that judgment of motivation is always tricky, and it isn't always easy to distinguish those Americans who criticize Bush out of conformism -- who are indeed, as Norm suggests, craven -- and those who criticize Bush out of conviction. And I do think that attacks on the former can all too easily be used, by less scrupulous souls than Norm, as a means of unfairly attacking those who do genuinely believe that Bush is really deplorable. It was out of that concern that I wrote; but I should not have projected what I wanted to write against unfairly onto Norm's post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

A GOOD DAY FOR OXFORD (MOSTLY): This makes me very proud of my fellow Oxford students (and will hopefully lay to rest the impression, that some people I've talked with in the US seem to have gotten, that all Brits are rabidly anti-Israel -- although unfortunately, the incident the OUSU is responding to suggests that some Brits indeed are).
On the other hand, the large, bearded man who interrupted a lecture I was at earlier today by blowing a really loud whistle, waving a stuffed sheep around, declaiming poetry and then launching into a rant about how muliculturalism is ethnic cleansing, Tony Blair is a Zionist agent, and the Jews are 'the true separatists' -- well, it does show that Oxford is a colourful place. However, the incident ended fairly peacefully, with a couple of determined, grim-faced, rugged-looking older men walking up to the nutter and suggesting that he might leave; without good grace but without too much fuss he agreed, saying that he and his 'little friend' (as he called the sheep) would leave, which he duly did. (The lecture, by the poet Paul Muldoon, was on Matthew Arnold's poem 'Dover Beach' -- a favourite of mine. The incident did call to mind Arnold's description elsewhere of Oxford as the home of lost causes; and was a good reminder that some of those causes really deserve to lose. Happily, I've found people like Muldoon to be far more typical of this city of dreaming spires than the raving loon with the sheep.)
UPDATE: Patrick has a longer and more accurate account of the Muldoon lecture, as well as some thoughtful, substantial, and charming words about Paul Muldoon.
I hope that, if he does invite Paul Muldoon out, he'll ask me along -- I did wear my green tie for the occassion yesterday, after all!

Monday, October 27, 2003

INTERMISSION II: Distractible as ever. A second post on Honderich is coming, eventually.
But in the meantime, I've finally finished reading Martha Nussbaum's remarkable piece on Bernard Williams. Nussbaum provides a fittingly honest tribute to the author of Truth and Truthfulness, and it makes for some very striking reading. Nussbaum concludes with several questions she poses to Williams, connected to her suggestion -- which she admits stems from a difference of personal temperaments -- that he gave into despair, and thus, to some extent, let himself, and us, too much off the hook morally. (Nussbaum writes: "Over the years I began to notice that he was never angry (whereas I am angry more or less all the time). Contempt, world-weariness, cynicism, even an irritability linked to the world-weariness, but never just anger, the sense that wrong has been done and that one had better go out and right it." Well, I think that it's a very good thing for our world that there are people like Martha Nussbaum who are so passionately, yet so thoughtfully and rigourously and even wisely angry all the time. But, given a choice, I think I'd probably prefer William's weariness to Nussbaum's anger -- though, really, both are incomplete responses, and one doesn't want to be labouring under either ALL the time.)
Williams of course can't answer Nussbaum's questions, any more than he already has (and, as she notes, he may already have done so in his work -- he was like that; he had that gift). And no-one can answer for him, and certainly not I, who know his work very little indeed, and knew the man not at all (though my encounters with him, like Nussbaum's, were memorable occassions, even though they did not, to my lasting regret, yield to acquaintance, let alone friendship). And I think Nussbaum's questions don't really have answers; or, rather, I think everyone must answer them for her or himself -- there isn't a single right answer out there for any of them (though there are good answers and bad ones, better and worse ones).
So, I'd just like to put down my own knee-jerk responses to them, because I do think they're suggestive and important and ultimately convey a lot about one's attitude to that Greek question that's preoccupied both Williams and Nussbaum, namely, how should one live?
The questions, and my replies:
"Isn’t it perhaps all right to try to engage one’s philosophical energies so as to make things a little better in the world, and can’t one do so without being duped by any teleology of progress? Or: Isn’t Kant’s sort of “good news” worth working for, even if Hegel’s sort may indeed be a delusion?

Well, of course it is all right, and of course one can try to improve the world without being duped by a teleology of progress (though I think Kant WAS so 'duped', and so I think Nussbaum's attempt to rescue Kant doesn't wholly work, and her opposition between him and Hegel is too kind, from her and my perspective, to him, and too unfair to Hegel. ) I think that what needs to be replied to this is, first, one should undertake the task of trying to make the world better with wariness, and humility, and a resolve that will resist reversal; one needs to be prepared for frustration and failure, and one needs to recognize that there will almost always be a price, and that some prices mustn't be paid. See Weber's 'Politics as a Vocation' on this (Weber being, along with Williams, one of the great readers, though not I think disciples, of Nietzsche). And while one may and should bring one's philosophical energies to bear on this, one must recognize that philosophy and its energies do serve other good purposes which may be quite removed from the task of improving the world, and those activities are also valuable and shouldn't be disdained. And, finally, one must remember that philosophy means love of wisdom, or of truth, or of understanding; and while wisdom and understanding and truth may help one to improve the world, they won't necessarily, and their acquisition may at some points be at odds with improving the world. To have the energy and will to improve the world, and to take that task seriously, generally requires hope; and the need for hope can lead to wishful thinking. And while despair is often deceptive, I tend to think that wishful thinking is, in most cases, even more so. (But I may think that just because I’ve spent a little too much time under that English sun, or because my temperament is closer to Williams’ than to Nussbaum’s in that respect.)

Isn’t it not boring but rather exciting to see what one might do under the aegis of anger and hope? (Or: Isn’t Dickens more exciting, really, than Nietzsche?)

This does seem to me a very subjective question. It certainly is exciting for some to see ‘what one might do under the aegis of anger and hope’. But not for all, and anyway, what’s exciting isn’t always what’s best (though what’s truly boring to one really should, I think, be avoided whenever possible. Though admittedly, how much one minds being bored also varies from person to person). As for the parenthetical version of the question: of course not! Again, this is purely subjective, and I’m a bit surprised by Nussbaum’s levity in writing this way in the midst of a so characteristically sincere and thoughtful piece. I don’t think that Dickens is inherently more exciting, ‘really’, than Nietzsche. Indeed, for me the answer is a clear no. This isn’t because I’m a big admirer of Nietzsche – like Berlin and unlike Williams, I’ve never found myself especially drawn to him – and nor is it to bash Dickens (though, after reading Hard Times, I was certainly ready to do so). They are very different, they both have many appealing qualities, and I find them both ultimately unsatisfying. But I do find that Nietzsche poses more fundamental challenges to the way I think and want to think about the world, and I find that more exciting (though I find Dickens easier and pleasanter to read, and find that at his best at least he provides both a vividness of characterization and an opportunity for emphatic feeling that makes reading him a more emotionally pleasant and satisfying experience than reading Nietzsche. But that’s different from being more exciting.)

Is despair possibly a sin, as well as a psychological problem?"

Two answers. One is, no, it’s not, and to say it is both cheapens the concept of sin, and shows a lack of understanding for the experience of despair. The other answer is, yes, it is, sometimes; but it depends on the sort of despair, and what it leads to – the despair in itself isn’t a sin, it only becomes one when it results in a certain character and certain actions – and even so, it is one of the less serious and sinister of sins.
Now, first of all, let’s be clear here: Nussbaum’s piece speaks of ‘a powerful depression’ and ‘even despair’ as the psychological root of Williams’ elegant, sometimes dismissive, pessimism. I don’t know to what extent Nussbaum is actually making a clinical claim here, and I’ve no idea about it’s truth. But if we are talking about clinical depression here, I think it’s rather harsh to say that it’s a sin. Or, let’s put it this way. There seem to me to be essentially three, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but all quite distinct, causes for despair. One is simply chemical/biological, and it is generally classified as a mental health problem. The second is, as Nussbaum suggests, a defeatist or fatalistic attitude which is adopted as a way of justifying passivity, of allowing oneself relief from the emotional drain and practical demands of hope. The third is a recognition of the truth, an appropriate reaction to reality. The first I don’t think should be called a sin because, despite the importance of Williams’ own concept of ‘moral luck’, I don’t think we should describe as ‘sins’ states of being that are beyond people’s control (and which indeed they might rather like to be able to change if they could. I believe it’s generally agreed despair and depression aren’t pleasant experiences.) The term ‘sin’ – as opposed to weakness or failing of fault – does seem to me to suggest a measure of agency, of active control or the ability for control, that one simply doesn’t have over one’s own biological makeup, in most cases. (Incidentally, the use of the term sin seems to align Nussbaum more with the Christian tradition she seems somewhat critical of in her article, than with the Greek world-view she tries to attractively endorse.)
Now, let’s take despair/pessimism of the second type, or following from the second proposed motivation – let us call it despair as escapism. This does seem to me to involve a certain failure of moral resolve, or moral energy, or moral dedication. So, I do think that this constitutes a real fault or failing (as I don’t think actual clinical depression does). But, again, I think ‘sin’ is too strong a word. Sin seems to me to be a concept involving a very serious offense against – well, something or other. Nussbaum doesn’t explicitly say against what despair may be a sin, but presumably, given the world-view that emerges from her work, we can assume it’s not God. No, I’d guess it would be other human beings, or the idea of humanity as a whole. Now, it does not seem to me that despair itself is a sin against humanity. It may lead to a misanthropy or selfish cynicism that could potentially lead to the commission of sins against humanity, though I suspect fairly minor ones (self-righteous anger, on the other hand, seems to me to have led to more serious sins). But I don’t think the despair itself, even if adopted as a means of moral escape, is a sin. Indeed, I’m rather leery of the whole idea of calling attitudes or thoughts or feelings in and of themselves sins. It would seem that Nussbaum actually, if she is making a possibly valid and convincing point, is talking not about despair itself, but passivity or inaction. Now, here, we need to ask whether one has a moral obligation to devote one’s life to the improvement of the world, and whether failure to do so involves not just a failing or flaw or a falling short of perfection, but so serious a moral offense as to be classified as a sin. And we have to ask what the results of one’s inaction are. Certainly, if I see a child (say) being pursued by a lynch mob, and I do nothing, saying ‘Oh, well, they’ll kill the child in the end anyway, or if not that child another one, or the child probably has done something wrong, or would have a rotten life anyway’, and fail to do anything – maybe then inaction justified by despair is a sin. Though, again, I think that it’s the failure to rescue the child – which in this case may be taken as tantamount to collaborating in its death (I’m assuming I could actually save the child, and do so without being killed myself). And we can extend this to other cases. But what if I walk by a group of people who are standing over a prostrate child, who has fallen from a tree and is in a coma; the people are consulting about how to deal with the child’s injuries (assume no doctor is present and that rushing the child off to hospital isn’t a viable course of action; they need to decide how to try to save the child then and there). I don’t have any authoritative knowledge of medicine myself, though I may be able to come up with ideas that won’t occur to others. I don’t walk by; I stop; I observe what’s going on. But I’m not sure of what to do, and I don’t say anything. Sometimes people say things that seem to me ill-advised; but I’m not sure that their advice will either be heeded, or do any further harm; and I suspect that they’re probably too upset to be calmed and listen to reason – at least reason that doesn’t offer them any reliable alternative course. So, I don’t have anything useful to say, and say nothing.
It seems to me that the philosopher who refrains from action is more often in a situation more like the second scenario. S/he isn’t sure what the right answer is, and rather doubts that the problem is solvable, and rather doubts that his/her voice will have that much power anyway. And so s/he remains, as a philosopher, passive, and resigned to watching human tragedy unfold.
It’s admittedly an imperfect analogy – indeed, probably a very bad one – but I do hope it suggests the distinction I want to draw between cases where passivity is indeed a real sin, and cases where, while hardly admirable, it seems that passivity isn’t a sin, because one’s capacity and responsibilities aren’t as great.
So, we can I think agree that there is something morally flawed in adopting despair as an excuse for inaction, as a way of evading moral responsibility. But the despair itself is not a sin, but rather a rationalization for actions that may, depending on the nature of the moral responsibility, be justifiably called sins, or not.
Finally, there’s the third type of despair: despair as appropriate reaction to a recognition of the truth. It seems to me that, while truth and goodness may not be identical, and the pursuit of truth may involve one in all sorts of moral offenses and even, indeed, sins, acknowledging the truth to oneself is not in itself a sin. Indeed, it seems to me a virtue – we often call it honesty, or truthfulness. I don’t think that there’s a moral responsibility to close one’s eyes to the truth when its unpleasant, or to go on thinking and feeling and acting in such a way as you would if you didn’t believe or recognize the truth; I think that this would constitute denial, dishonesty with oneself, possibly foolishness and folly. One may not like the truth, one may wish it were otherwise – and one may indeed feel so strongly about it that one prefers to fight against it, or deny it, or at least question it. All of which is fine. But I don’t think that one should accuse those who are less resistant to what they see as the truth, less willing or able to ignore or ride-over the harsh truth that they see, of being guilty as a sin.
I suspect that underlying Nussbaum’s questions and my responses are certain very different beliefs about morality and reality. I think that Nussbaum simply doesn’t accept that reality may, in some cases (I wouldn’t say all or even most), call for, or at least justify, a response of despair, as opposed to determination to resist, righteous anger, defiance, condemnation of the state of things, etc, to the same extent I do. I also think that I tend to have a less demanding view of what individuals’ essential and vital moral responsibilities are, and what extent of failure to meet these may be called a sin or considered a major moral offense. And I think that, in particular, Nussbaum regards failure to act far more harshly than I, in many cases, do.
I of course don’t know if I’m right about any of this. But I do think that my own view has some plausibility to it. And I also think that, our uncertainty about human responsibilities and possibilities being what it is, and the reality of tragedy and claims of pessimism being what they are, it is morally melodramatic, unjust, and ultimately unhelpful to apply the language of sin to despair.
Nussbaum of course doesn't go so far as this; she just wonders if perhaps despair is 'possibly' a sin. As explained above, I think it's possible for despair to lead to the commission of sin; but I do think that the answer to the question of whether despair itself may be an actual sin is, no.

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