18.1.03


THE SAD THING

The local community email discussion list has been buzzing with antiwar hysteria lately. The usual nonsense: this is all about oil, etc. I was trying to mind my own business and stay out of it. I mean, who has time? But when somebody posted with approval John Le Carré's London Times column (see below) I just lost patience and wrote up a reply. Another afternoon, gone forever. For what it’s worth, here’s what I said:

There’s quite a bit of publicly available information about the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and the reasoning behind it. What it all comes down to is this:

(1) There are lots of terrorists in the world who would stop at nothing to slaughter as many American civilians as they possibly could.

(2) There are a few “rogue” states which share the terrorists’ attitude toward America and which also possess, or are trying to acquire, weapons of mass destruction. These states include Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

(3) If the terrorists ever got together with the rogue states, they might well pull off an atrocity even worse than 9/11—for example, a smallpox epidemic, or a “dirty bomb” in downtown Washington, D.C.

(4) Given the limitations of intelligence gathering, if we wait for conclusive proof of particular plots before we act, sooner or later the bad guys will succeed. But that cannot be allowed to happen. Therefore, we must adopt a proactive approach.

(5) In the first place, we must hunt down and kill or capture terrorists. Unfortunately, to do this effectively we may have to relax some of our usual civil liberties protections (but only very slightly—nothing remotely comparable to FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II).

(6) In the second place, we must intimidate or overthrow the leadership of the worst of the “rogue” states. In some cases, that may mean preemptive war.

(7) North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and the regime is clearly mad enough to use them. So we must tread very cautiously there.

(8) Iran is riven by internal dissent. The mullahs may well fall of their own accord. So hands off—for the moment, at least.

(9) Iraq, on the other hand, is a proven aggressor that does not yet have nuclear weapons, but is actively trying to acquire them. It is weak enough to overthrow at relatively little risk to ourselves. A successful war there would also have a chilling effect on lesser threats like Syria, the Sudan, the PLO, etc. Moreover, the human rights situation in Iraq is so dreadful that a war of liberation would actually help Iraqi civilians more than it would harm them (just like in Afghanistan).

Now obviously there are debatable points in this line of thought. What are the potential benefits of any given relaxation in civil liberties? Are they worth it? How must our moral outlook change to accommodate preemptive war? Is that a change we want to make? What will a war cost in innocent Iraqi civilian lives? What will it take to give the Iraqi people freedom and prosperity after Saddam Hussein is gone? Are we prepared to pay the price? Would a successful war in Iraq be more likely to “chill” or to enrage other Arab peoples and their rulers? And so on.

The sad thing is, much of the left is too lazy and/or stupid to engage in the intellectual heavy lifting necessary to pursue such questions seriously. Instead, they prefer to spin conspiracy theories.

To wit:

(1) George W. Bush’s wealthy friends in the Texas oil industry have long wanted to seize control of the Middle Eastern oil supply, for purposes of personal enrichment.

(2) Meanwhile, a cabal of wealthy American Jews whose primary loyalty is to Israel is determined to exterminate the Palestinians and to squelch any manifestation of Arab freedom and independence.

(3) At the same time, a vast right wing-conspiracy of wealthy fundamentalist Christian zealots longs to rob Americans of their historic civil liberties and to transform the nation into a fascist theocracy where dissent and abortion will be punishable by torture and death.

(4) All three groups can further their aims through a trumped-up war on terrorism, on Iraq, etc.

(5) So these nefarious powers conspired to place the easily manipulable dolt George W. Bush on the throne (as it were). (Fortuitously, he even has a personal score to settle against Saddam Hussein.)

(6) 9/11 provided the excuse and the public support necessary to put the whole conspiracy into motion.

(7) –And, by the way, isn’t that convenient? Maybe—just maybe—Bush et al planned the whole thing—or, at least, knew about it ahead of time but let it happen, because they realized that it would line their pockets

This conspiracy theory is supported by the following evidence:

(1) George W. Bush and Dick Cheney used to be in the oil business.

(2) Some Jewish neo-conservatives are vocal supporters of both Israel and the G.O.P.

(3) Many conservative Christians believe that abortion is wrong and should be forbidden by law.

(4) George W. Bush’s S.A.T. scores (566 verbal, 640 math) place him in only the top 16% of college-bound seniors, and about the top 5% of all students nationwide. In other words, he’s a “moron” according to the modern left (which, in all other contexts, denies that S.A.T. scores mean anything whatsover).

(5) Last time around, Bush Sr., at Colin Powell’s urging, failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Hussein later attempted to have the elder Bush assassinated. So Dubbyah probably dislikes him (assuming that he has normal human feelings).

(6) 9/11 was preceded by a number of rather routine intelligence failures, most of which took place before the younger Bush took office.

Sorry, no number 7.

I’m afraid that’s it. The gigantic, obvious, yawning gulf between the conspiracy theory and the actual “evidence” that “supports” it is filled up with a steaming pile of rhetorical…uh…compost. (Let’s keep this a family site!)

I always used to think of conservatives as stupid (but often right) and liberals as smart (but often wrong). But the longer I watch the left wallow in this paltry and asinine fantasy, the more convinced I become that the tables have turned—with a vengeance. The *right* may or may not be *right* about Iraq and the war on terrorism. But at least they have interesting and intelligent things to say about it. The John Le Carré's and Gore Vidal’s of the world do not. They cannot be argued with. They can only be laughed at.

15.1.03


SILLY OLD FOOL

In sheer idiocy per square inch, John Le Carré's column in the London Times today suffers few rivals. Gore Vidal, perhaps. But somehow Le Carré feels even stupider—maybe because of his customary drab prose style.

So why are some people quoting this pretentious git as if he were some sort of moral authority?

In the bad old days of the cold war, he was satisfied with fashionable moral equivalence: America no better than Soviet Russia. Now he has moved on to the equally fashionable moral inversion of our own day: America worse than Islamofascism.

Not that this comes as a surprise. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie in 1989, John Le Carré sided with the mullahs.

"Great religions," he announced, "may [not] be insulted with impunity."

Of course, we always knew that Le Carré was a trashy writer. Somewhere between Stephen King and Tom Clancy.

What the Rushdie affair revealed was that he was also a moral half-wit.

His latest reveals him as a prematurely senile old fool.

He wouldn't last five minutes in a serious argument with the editorial board of the Washington Post.

And I don't even LIKE the Washington Post.

13.1.03


HEROISM VS. EGOISM I

Brink Lindsey—one of the best libertarian thinkers and writers—raises some hard question for libertarians—especially those who base their ethics on the pursuit of individual self-interest and their politics on the pursuit of national self-interest.

What about times which call for heroic self-sacrifice?

As Lindsey observes:

“Theories of morality based on rational self-interest run in to trouble on the question of heroism. We all recognize the moral grandeur of those who risk or lay down their lives to save others. Who, for example, could be so obtuse as to find moral fault with the firefighters of 9/11?”

But how can a libertarian who bases his moral theory on the rational pursuit of self-interest countenance such self-sacrifice?

Lindsey moves on to suggest that the threat posed by terror-states like Iraq and North Korea calls for just such heroic self-sacrifice:

“…mustn’t we recognize that statesmanship cannot be reduced to calculations of interest – that it requires, at critical junctures, some unflinching commitment to virtue? And that virtue in such cases consists of refusal to back down in the face of a predator’s threats?”

At least, I think that Iraq, North Korea, and such like are what he has in mind here. I’m not sure. And if he is suggesting that, I’m not sure whether or not he’s right. (Would an attack on Iraq really involve some huge national self-sacrifice?)

But, be that as it may, the theoretical question interests me: is heroic self-sacrifice compatible with the pursuit of self-interest?

Those who come by their libertarianism by way of Ayn Rand have a particularly hard time with this question. Skeptics of objectivist egoism will relentlessly confront them with cases where the only alternative to self-sacrifice is disaster. Since egoism seems to preclude self-sacrifice, mustn’t the objectivist choose disaster? But doesn’t this prove that this version of libertarianism is both ignoble and impractical?

Q. E. D.

Favorite cases of this sort tend prominently to feature either lifeboats or foxholes.

THE LIFEBOAT: You are an unattached libertarian with no dependents and no remarkable personal gifts or accomplishments. You are stranded at sea in a lifeboat with Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, the captain of the Harvard crew team, and a mother of six young children who is also a concert pianist. The captain of the crew team can row you all to safety, but there is only enough food to last for four. If no one goes overboard, all will starve before reaching land. What should you do?

THE FOXHOLE: You are, once more, a rather ordinary libertarian with no family ties. While fighting on the right side in a just war, you find yourself trapped in a foxhole with a half-dozen buddies, each more brilliant and talented than the last, and each possessed of numerous dependents: young children, elderly parents, etc. Someone throws a live grenade into the midst of your buddies. You are far enough away that, if you run for it, you can escape without injury. But you are close enough that you can throw yourself on the grenade, absorb the explosion, and save your buddies. If you run, they will all be killed. What should you do?

The egoist has three possible responses to such cases.

The first is to dismiss them as unrealistic. Hard cases, after all, make for bad law. The plausibility of an ethical view should be judged by how successfully it deals with the world as it is—not some philosopher’s fantasy land of perpetual emergency.

But such a response fails to appreciate the purpose of such problem cases. They are not supposed to be “realistic.” They are supposed to clarify concepts and reveal implications. They are like frictionless planes in physics. There has never been a real frictionless plane in the world as it is, and there will never be one. But just try to teach mechanics without them! Even if they only exist in imagination, they are essential for explaining physical theory. Just so, cases like the lifeboat and the foxhole may not tell us much about real life, but they tell us a lot about the differences between ethical theories and thereby help us do choose the right one.

The egoist’s second possible response is to bite the bullet and choose self-preservation. After all, what good does it do you if the worthies in the lifeboat or your buddies in the foxhole survive, if you’re not there to see it? Surely people who call for self-sacrifice in such situations are merely engaging in cheap moral exhibitionism. They wouldn’t really do it, would they? More likely, they would gang up on Mother Theresa and push her overboard. At least the egoist is honest about what he would do.

While this response has a certain cynical integrity, it is not the sort of thing that is likely to win friends or influence people. Perhaps only a few of us really have it in us to play the hero when heroism is called for. But more than a few of us would at least want to try, and would see little appeal in a moral theory that told us we shouldn’t bother. Such a position would seem, as I said above, both ignoble and, from all but the narrowest point of view, impractical.

So the egoist is likely to resort to the third possible response: that, contrary to appearances, self-sacrifice in an emergency can serve one’s self-interest. One can take a selfish pleasure in the act of saving others so great that it outweighs one’s whole future. So one jumps overboard, or throws oneself on the grenade, with a smile in one’s heart and a song on one’s lips.

At which point the cynics on the other side will begin to suspect that it is they who are witnessing an exercise in “cheap moral exhibitionism.” Who does the egoist think he is fooling, anyway? He was more believable—and possibly even more likable—when he defended pushing Mother Theresa overboard. Turnabout may be fair play, but this is ridiculous.

Brink Lindsey himself has doubts about this response:

“[C]an heroic acts be explained by self-interest? The only way to even try is to argue that a person’s self-interest must be understood broadly to include a compelling interest in being a virtuous person; accordingly, it can be “selfish,” in some expansive sense, to put one’s physical well-being at mortal risk in the service of a worthy cause.”

Lindsey doubts whether such an argument “can be made to work.” Even if it can, he concludes that “morality cannot be reduced to calculations of self-interest. Instead, self-interest reduces to considerations of virtue.”

So must libertarians—or, at any rate, most libertarians, those who defend the moral legitimacy of the pursuit of self-interest—give it up? Must they admit that, under certain circumstances, self-interest must yield to the common good (or to “virtue”)?

But then why not under all circumstances?

If libertarians concede this point, I think they give up their main claim to philosophical fame. All that would be left would be a purely empirical claim, to the effect that, most of the time, the common interest is served when people are allowed to pursue their own interests. In other words, they would be left with Adam Smith and his heirs: the logic choppers would pass from the scene and the number crunchers would inherit the tradition.

Sigh.

Fortunately for egoist libertarians, I think that there’s a way out of this problem. It all depends on what you mean by “self-interest.” Should we understand it in terms of pleasure, or in terms of desire? This seemingly trivial technical issue turns out to be crucial…

But all that must wait until I have another moment to post.