Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Morally Relative Moral Analysis: A Disconnect

There are threads being pulled in the context of many national discussions lately that all, troublingly, seem to lead back to the same bare argumentative spool. The argument is one that leads to a moral judgment in favor of, and sometimes absolving, an individual or group engaged in conflict. It goes something like this:

"X has been MORE moral than Y, therefore X's actions are morally just."

This strikes me as being morally obtuse, and even surprisingly so. It's surprising in that it ignores our most basic notions of morality, and yet undoubtedly it implies the use of a tiered moral analysis to arrive at such a conclusion - the person must FIRST make a moral assessment given the existing circumstances; and then once said assessment reveals a party to be relatively moral in their actions, then the initial assessment is abandoned. I could only describe it as a kind of moral meta-judgment.

One of the news-worthy events for which this kind of moral reasoning has been pervasive is Israel's recent actions towards Gaza. Defenders of the IDF have, of course, engaged in all kinds of broad arguments spanning from historical to religious contexts. But when it comes down to morally justifying any particular action, and specifically ones that have irrevocably diminished the lives of innocents, this aforementioned line of argumentation is prevalent. The moral claims are many, "Well, they try to pin-point strikes...they telegraph their punches far ahead of time...they've acted with incredible restraint...they're dealing with terrorists...their enemies use human shields...their enemies kill the innocent...their enemies are on a religious crusade."

Now, on their own, many or most of these claims can be (and probably are) true to some extent. And so, ignoring deeper arguments about the way in which the IDF is constituted, we could then claim that they may in fact be acting more morally than their enemies. But it still does not follow that their actions are just, only that their actions are relatively just.

Supporters of the relatively just seem to want to say that the impetus of what would otherwise be seen as immoral acts falls upon the relatively unjust. But it's not immediately clear by what kind of moral reasoning such a transference is possible. Any ethical framework of rights that validates the enforcement of others' obligations to respect your own life must surely bind you to respect the lives of others as well - even if, in many cases, it would prevent you from sufficiently enforcing the obligations of others towards you.

Say, for instance, that an armed man is attacking you from a distance. He has surrounded himself with innocent hostages. You are in possession of a firearm, but are not in a position to return fire without predictably harming or killing innocents. What can we say about this situation? Well, if we believe in some reasonable right to self-defense, we can conclude that you are within your rights to bring force against your attacker to stop him. On the other hand, adopting that conception of rights also places an obligation upon you to not take the lives of the innocents involved if at all possible. That obligation may not be ultimately indefeasible, but the presumption is at least very strong.

You fire at the attacker, taking the life of a hostage before bringing his attacks to a point of cessation. What can we say now? It's probably reasonable to conclude that your actions are at least relatively just when squared against those of the attacker. But were your actions, ultimately, morally just? If our obligations to respect the rights of others are fairly weak, then perhaps so. Although, it would seem that watering down our obligations to respect the lives of others would, conversely, reduce the paramountcy of the right to forcefully defend your own life. On the other hand, if those obligations aren't so easily defeasible, we may be left with the conclusion that both acts were unjust, and simply one less so than the other.

The move the defender of the relatively just seems to want to make here is to claim that the relatively unjust is at fault for the incident and, so, is morally responsible for the actions of both parties. In this claim, the defender of the relatively just would be both partially correct and partially incorrect. There is little doubt that it is the initial aggressor who is at "fault" - namely for setting the whole chain of events in motion. It is partially for this reason that he is likely to be relatively unjust. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the relatively unjust is wholly responsible, in a moral sense, for all of the choices of various other agents that interject further down the causal chain. In fact, it doesn't even necessarily follow that the party who initiated this particular causal chain of events will even end up being the relatively unjust party. Think, for example, of someone who firebombs a city in order to stop a murderer who resides there. Surely such a reaction is dreadfully more unjust than the unjust acts that preceded it, and surely it's our obligation to respect the lives of innocents that would lead us to the moral intuition that such an act would be morally unjustifiable.

It's that particular moral outlook that I find to be in concordance with so much of what I embrace in the libertarian ethic. So you can imagine my surprise as I've watched so many prominent libertarians, who had staunchly defended and used that kind of moral reasoning to decry the U.S. government's killing of innocents in its foreign entanglements, leap to the defense of Israel and the actions taken in its own quest for "defense." It's something that's been very hard to reconcile. The same arguments that neo-conservatives and various other nationalists have been using for decades to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for their actions are now being employed by many of the same people who fought them so vigorously. Here there is a disconnect.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thick and Thin - Out of the Abyss

It's no secret that, as of the last several months, one sort of libertarian in-fight has risen to prominence within the heart of the movement; the battle over thick and thin conceptions of libertarianism. For the uninitiated, it's an argument about whether sets of values outside of the N.A.P. (Non-Aggression Principle) set are needed for, expected of, or implied by libertarianism as a school of thought. Admittedly, I myself was very skeptical of so-called "thick" conceptions of libertarianism. It seemed to me that the bundling of additional values with the N.A.P. could act as a wedge that could hold open a door for physical coercion.

That being said, I now think that not only have thicker conceptions of liberty (particularly of the left/eudaimonia variety) introduced incredibly valuable insights for the movement, but they actually provide much stronger, and more philosophically grounded, arguments for a very radical kind of libertarianism that its detractors aim to preserve. But what I wish to focus on here is not the many justifications for thick conceptions of libertarianism, but rather the reaction and behavior of many of its opponents which I find somewhat troubling. Here I will outline three particular categories of reaction that I see often enough to give one pause.

A. Bluster

This, of the three categories I'm outlining, is what most of what bothers me would fall under. And the subsequent categories could almost qualify as sub-categories to this one. These would be your emotional and irrational non-sequiturs. Often in a facetious, mocking tone, someone will reply to the notion of "thickism" with hyperbole and ad hominem.

"Well, I'd totally be on board with the 'thicks' but, you know, I'm not a commie."

These responses are completely devoid of substantive arguments. And, even explicitly prompting for arguments, you'll find yourself being given more of the same emotional reaction that you got previously. Moreover, they often seem confused that you don't believe refrains of "Commie!" and "Libtard!" to be actual arguments. This type of behavior has been insipidly pervasive throughout the thick/thin debate.

B. Character Assassination

Another form of argumentation (if we can call it that) is a slightly evolved version of the first which substitutes ludicrous, general assertions for more specific, and yet unrelated ones. Instead of grappling with the propositions themselves, some detractors pick out particular proponents of said propositions and attempt to refute those propositions by smearing the person behind them. And by merely knocking down certain people behind the ideas, they believe themselves to somehow be knocking down the ideas themselves. Of course, this is not how philosophical arguments work.

But, of course, this is only a side-step outside of the first behavior, improving little upon it. Instead of simply refuting ideas by claiming their proponents to be "communists", they can at least appear to have a formidable argument by providing evidence of their opponent's heterodoxy in some unrelated capacity. But this is merely another link in the chain. Calling out someone's heterodoxical parlay in one area or another is not enough to dismiss their idea(s), even if the divergence lies at the point of the subject that's currently being broached. The assertion collapses into an argument from authority/antiquity.

C. There is No Spoon

The third type of behavior is perhaps the oddest one. In this situation an interlocutor will claim victory in an argument by simply claiming that there is no argument to be had. This line of thinking goes something like:

"Thin libertarianism is the only libertarianism because libertarianism itself is thin. Of course you have other values, but they aren't related to your politics. You're just a libertarian."

But this is, I think pretty obviously, begging the question. It would be like Catholics arguing against Protestants by appealing to the idea that what it means to be Christian is simply to say that you're Catholic. Well, if you're Catholic, maybe that kind of defense makes sense to you. But Protestants believe themselves to have substantially different beliefs about certain aspects of Christianity; from its justifications, to its content, to its applications.

Now, for obvious reasons, you may wish to define out the "non-Catholic" parts as not being Christian anymore, but rather something else. But that would seem like a fairly peculiar way to look at things. If a deviant group has not truly deviated in any meaningful way, then what is the argument over? It would seem that simple engagement in an argument over the orthodoxy of this or that would entail at least, well, differing views on what should or should not be orthodox.


I've brought these things up because they are things I have seen repeatedly, over and over again, in various discussions over the last few months, and that is disconcerting. It's disconcerting because it's behavior that's unbecoming for libertarians. It's disconcerting because if we want to show the reasonableness of our political conclusions, we have to be able to appropriately illustrate the reasonableness of the concepts that underlie them. And, perhaps more personally, it's disconcerting because I've been the type of person who used to have those kinds of reactions.

I remember holding a standard neo-conservative political position. I remember the bristle and bluster I would exemplify when someone made arguments (good or bad) against my views. And, more importantly, I remember that among the monstrous sea of dissenting voices, it was those that exemplified reason and understanding that finally pulled me out of that abysmal place. And, like so many others, that was just the beginning for me. Person by person, like a chain, I was pulled by reasonable people to a reasonable place. I cannot over-stress this point.

So when I see libertarians, and particularly those of radical stripes, gnashing their teeth and substituting emotion for reason, what I see are shipwrecked friends leaving the beach and heading right back into the crashing waves. And I know that place. I know the chaos and destruction of it. I know what little good comes from it. And I know that perhaps the only thing more distressing than seeing the people still drowning in those waters is seeing survivors go back in and swim among the bodies with reckless abandon. We help no one by doing that. We need to return to higher ground.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Surfing and Diffusion of Power

A common and fundamental disagreement at the heart of a good part of American political discourse revolves around the nominal balance of power between the individual states and the federal government they constitute. Of course, the disagreements are not always expressed explicitly in these terms, but it is nonetheless integral to even the most base discourse. Should the greatest power be held by federal government, or spread among the states? I'd like to explore and confer my thoughts on this.

It's most common for modern conservatives to fall on the side of "states' rights" (at least nominally); that being that the balance of power should fall away from the federal government and into the arms of the individual states. The reasoning for this, as far as reasoning for something as bad as governments go, is a generally good one. It relies on the liberal insight that giving governing bodies power is dangerous, and that, if we must have them, their power should be divided as to pit government(s) against itself. It's not all that different than the rationale for divided powers among, say, the federal government itself.

And even beyond that (the self-juxtaposition of government power), there are also geo-political implications for power being spread out across multiple geographic entities. It leaves us with something that is more (albeit still only partially) analogous to market-competition. It's, at least in theory, easier to escape the despotism of one state by fleeing nearby to another. The prospect of escaping from underneath the thumb of an oppressive federal government seems a little less rosy.

So, this is the general idea. And I happen to think it's correct for the most part, but there is a good deal of opposition to it as well. Detractors will (and often do) claim that giving the individual states too much power will result in bad outcomes. It will allow the states, they say, to run roughshod over peoples' rights, and without a strong central government to provide correction, there will be terrible consequences. Well, do our detractors have a point?

If you think that their concerns are unfounded, they will be glad to point you to America's own history. There are certainly terrible things that states have done in the past to which the federal government justifiably put a stop to. Our history of slavery and the lingering oppression of racism seem to speak to that, do they not? After all, without the federal government, for how much longer would slavery have continued - particularly in the deep south? How much longer would have been acceptable?

I think those are serious questions and reservations; ones that honestly are not always responded to in the best way. So while I'm not going to offer any rhetorical support of individual state governance in itself (secession should end at the individual), let me at least offer my thoughts on why diffusion of power is still very important.

The criticism I want to make is that many of us have a very thin view of history. We have a view that is often, at best, cursory - a jumble of names and dates garnered from textbooks we didn't particularly enjoy reading in our youth. I think what we really get is a kind of contextless goop...and I mean this even in a post New-Left world. It's very easy to segment history in a way that we tend to pick and choose what we get out of it. And given the common progressive historical refrain regarding the justification for centralized power, a more complete understanding of historical implication is important.

Let's take the example of slavery, which is a pretty common example brought up in the course of justifying federal power. Now, it's true enough that, at certain points, the federal government stepped in and stopped certain states from upholding governing practices which were clearly wrong. But that is just a small slice of a more robust historical progression - a snapshot in time. The truth, of course, is that for the federal government to have had the democratic weight it would have taken to allow for such a thing, a cultural plurality of support must have already existed. And yet, it hadn't always existed either. So what are the implications of that?

Well, at some point slavery was generally accepted in the United States (even though there were, of course, many detractors as well). Throughout the 19th century, a cultural shift in the direction of abolition begin to swell - particularly among a few states in the north. These were the first governments in the Union to enact pro-abolitionist reform. And it was this period that stands as a historical inverse to the periods for which supporters of strong centralized government lend support.

This was a time before such sentiments flourished in any kind of meaningful demographic sense. States with strong anti-slave laws were, at the time, very out-of-step with the rest of the country. It's a time when the reins of centralized government were in the hands not of abolitionists, but of those who supported slavery. And because of that the whole of the country was burdened by deplorable laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act(s), which ostensibly forced anti-slave states to do the bidding of slaveholders by returning to them their refuged "property".

This isn't something that usually comes up in discussions about the balance of state power. And, quite frankly, that is just baffling considering the modern implications that are still in front of us right now. Right now there are states out there on the forefront of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. But, as far as I can tell, the D.E.A. is still busting down doors in no-knock raids and dragging people into cages on the daily (at record rates, no less). Or how about states that are opening up to gay marriage? Do supporters of centralized government imagine them to have the power to bar these states from doing such? What do they have to say about D.O.M.A.-type legislation?

The point of all this isn't to excuse the abuses of power perpetrated by individual states. They abound, and by my count they are no more or less wrong than the abuses of larger governments. The fundamental difference is that we've ostensibly limited the geographic scope of these particular governments a bit more. It's not a guarantee against corruption, it's just a backstop that arguably makes those instances easier to handle.

The argument for diffusion of government power is, at the very least, not completely insane. But, I think the larger point is that we need to kind of expand the context around the points in history we tend to focus on in our justifications. We tend to think that political movement and action is only present at the crest of that particular wave; that what happens between them is not important. But, in fact, it's all of what happens in between that leads to the crest in the first place. And so it goes too with history and politics. If we imagine ourselves competent enough to navigate those waves, we have to understand them in their entirety.