Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Conservative's Moral Vision

Update: Infidel753 explicitly disclaims self-identification as a "conservative"; I can't change the title without breaking the links to this article, but I wish to acknowledge my mistake in applying the label.

Infidel753 responds to my recent article about the Iran war with his own justification.

I have a couple of quibbles. First, he[1] titles his post "my case for the airstrike". But not even the most optimistic analyst believes that a single air strike would do anything effective. In war we must plan for the worst; once we were to start such an endeavor, it is certainly possible that pure inertia might forced us to invade and occupy Iran. It's not possible to pull off another Osirak.

Second, I'm curious as to how he might substantiate his attribution of any particular theological beliefs to the Iranian government. Since theology is entirely fact-free (not even dependent on the literal text of its scripture) it is impossible to discuss theology independently from its explicit description by religious authorities.

But these are just quibbles. I'm more interested in the moral principles which underlie his analysis. I have reason to believe that Infidel753 does in fact have moral principles, but I cannot clearly discern them from this post.

He says, "My overwhelming priority in this situation is the survival of Israel." What specifically does the survival of Israel actually overwhelm? One might read his absolutist first paragraph as saying that any threat, however remote, would override any abstract moral principle, however important. The moral prohibition against wars of aggression and the respect for territorial sovereignty seem like important principles, and making "statements which can reasonably be interpreted as threats" seems like a weak justification for abandoning those principles.

Are there any moral principles which his concern for the survival of Israel would not overwhelm? He's specifically looking for a guarantee (using the word twice, once in italics). But guarantees are hard to come by. Would he countenance genocide or slavery to achieve a guarantee?

Why specifically Israel? Does the survival of, say, India (the world's largest democracy) have the same status? Especially in the light of Pakistan, a Muslim country with actual nuclear weapons, and which has not only made "statements which can reasonably be interpreted as threats" but which has fought three actual wars with India.

Are his moral principles regarding nations comparable to those regarding individuals? If not, why not? Suppose Allen were to say, "Damn that Bob, I wish he were dead." Suppose it was rumored that Allen had applied for a permit to buy a gun. Would Bob then be morally justified in throwing a stick of dynamite into Allen's house, endangering his wife and children?

Is his moral vision symmetric? In other words, if the same criteria were to apply to another country, would he offer the same moral approval? The United States, just to pick an example at random, has made statements that could reasonably be interpreted as threats to Iran, has a President of questionable sanity, demonstrably poor judgment and considerable bellicosity, and has actual nuclear weapons. Would Iran thus be morally justified in abandoning moral principles to react to this threat?

How does he reconcile the absolutist language in this post with his self-description on his profile as "suspicious of ideology and absolutism of all kinds?"

Of course, it might be the case that Infidel753 has no moral principles at all in this regard, merely the recognition that we have the power to do pretty much whatever we please, and any "moral" principles serve only to weaken our resolve. I sincerely hope, however, that this is not the case.



[1] I have no idea of Infidel753's actual gender, but I have to choose a pronoun. My intuition supplies "male" so I'll go with that. If I'm wrong, I'll be happy to apologize and fix it. Or, if Infidel753 prefers gender-neutral pronouns, sie needs but ask.

10 comments:

  1. Does the survival of, say, India (the world's largest democracy) have the same status?

    Presumably no one really gives a crap about what happens to those filthy, cow-worshiping wogs.

    Would Iran thus be morally justified in abandoning moral principles to react to this threat?

    No, because they are sand-stained Mohammedans and deserve to have nuclear hellfire rained upon their nether regions.

    /sarcasm

    I'm afraid, Larry, that you've wandered into the nebulous region of debate known to thinking people as The Arab-Israeli Conflict, to radical Leftists and Arabs as The Plot for Jews to Wipe Out the Innocent Palestinians, and among radical Right Wingers and Likudniks as The Leftist/Arab Plot to Annihilate the Diaspora on Behalf of Their Jesus-Hating, Brown-Skinned Overlords. Normal rules of logic need not show their faces; they'll just be sent home bruised and bloody.

    How does he reconcile the absolutist language in this post with his self-description on his profile as "suspicious of ideology and absolutism of all kinds?"

    He can't; by speaking in absolute moral terms about "guarantees" of Israel's security and so forth, he has revealed an inconsistency of thought. Rigidity in one instance is usually indicative of rigidity in others.

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  2. An additional thought: Having made the (dubious) ethical case that we must bomb the bejeezus out of Iran until Ahmadinejad calls Bush sobbing and promising to be a good boy from now on, what is the practical utility of this "moral imperative?" What is the realistic likelihood that we can meet the key proposition of "...guarantee[ing] that the regime cannot acquire these weapons"? And if we cannot, does that render his proof little more than an exercise in armchair moralizing?

    Furthermore, this part of his proof is erroneous:

    "However, Israel does not have as broad a range of logistical capabilities as the US has, which would enable the US to destroy the Iranian program with conventional weapons."

    Unless he's referring to so-called "bunker busters" - which we don't have either - he's being deliberately facetious. No, Israel can't launch Tomahawks, having no SSBNs (that we know of), but it is not lacking in the logistical ability to eviscerate Iran from the air. The IAF is second to none in the region, and it has arguably the most experienced ground-to-air fighter pilots in the world outside a few select British and U.S. units.

    Given that such a key component of his proof - that the U.S. must act where Israel lacks the capacity - is flat-out wrong, doesn't that undermine everything else?

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  3. I'm afraid, Larry, that you've wandered into the nebulous region of debate known to thinking people as The Arab-Israeli Conflict, to radical Leftists and Arabs as The Plot for Jews to Wipe Out the Innocent Palestinians, and among radical Right Wingers and Likudniks as The Leftist/Arab Plot to Annihilate the Diaspora on Behalf of Their Jesus-Hating, Brown-Skinned Overlords.

    Having been quite comfortable under my rock for the last 43 years, I was totally unaware of this dimension of the debate.

    Don't get mad, I'm just busting your chops a little because I like you.

    I know very well what I'm getting into. The wall may be thick, and made of solid rock, but it'll definitely be there forever if I don't do my bit to chip away at it. I'll sleep when I'm dead.

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  4. I'll respond to what you call your "quibbles" with one of my own: I don't self-identify as a "conservative". I'm pretty much used to liberals calling me a conservative and vice-versa, though.

    To me, the imperative to prevent the destruction of Israel springs from the same broad principle as my having engaged in abortion-clinic defense -- the broad principle of defense of freedom.

    I think one difference between your approach to "moral principles" and mine is that you apply them mostly to tactics and I apply them mostly to outcomes. You use your principles to classify particular tactics as allowable or non-allowable, and renounce the ones you consider non-allowable even if this results in an outcome which, overall, is worse than could be produced by utilizing those tactics. I use my principles to determine which outcome is most desirable (or, as in this case, least undesirable) and judge tactics by their likelihood of achieving that outcome.

    Most of the counter-arguments take the form of:

    (1) stating a historical or hypothetical situation which is claimed to be analogous to the Iran/nuclear issue;

    (2) describing a possible action which is claimed to be analogous to my own proposed action in the Iranian case (an airstrike) but which the reader is expected to judge to be self-evidently inappropriate or immoral;

    (3) claiming that the airstrike is thus also inappropriate or immoral.

    For me this kind of argument doesn't work. No two such situations are ever similar enough for the "wrongness" of a given action in one case to demonstrate the wrongness of a supposedly analogous action in another case. With hypotheticals, such as a Pakistani threat against India, there are so many factors to take into account that it's impossible to say what I would consider an appropriate response without having an actual case to look at.

    What the same arguments might or might not justify another country doing in an analogous position isn't the question I'm addressing. We are who we are, Americans, in a particular time and situation; the question is what action (or inaction) on our part gives the best or least-bad result in the situation we are actually in.

    I think it is worth pointing out that we have obligations toward our friends and allies and their interests which we do not have toward our enemies. Israel is our friend and ally, Iran is not. I consider it perfectly legitimate to favor the interests of the United States and of Western civilization simply because they are the country and the civilization I come from. This doesn't require me to believe that the US or the West are morally or otherwise superior to their rivals (though in fact I believe they are).

    Concerning Mr. Elliott's comments, I take responsibility only for what I actually said, not for what anyone else tries to read into what I said.

    Finally, I am not really trying to persuade anyone whose mind is already made up; that's pretty much impossible. You and I are not going to convince each other. The proper role of argumentation of this kind is to persuade those who are yet undecided. With that in mind, I can only invite interested readers to look at the original posting and see for themselves whether they think it makes a coherent case or not.

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  5. Infidel753,

    If you don't self-identify as "conservative", it's not proper to refer to you as such. I can't change the title without breaking the permalink, but I'll post a correction immediately.

    A reply to the substantive points of your post will be forthcoming.

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  6. Thank you. I do recognize and appreciate your painstaking efforts to be fair on this site, which are unusual.

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  7. If my observations of Infidel753's thinking were incorrect or amounted to incorrectly stating what he wrote, then I do apologize. Such was not my intent, but may have been the effect.

    I am, however, still interested in one question I posed in response, which I think fits into Infidel753's application of moral principles to outcomes (a question I myself am interested in as well). What is the practical utility of an airstrike on Iran? What good comes of it, and, if we can well predict that far more ill than good will come of it, does it lose its moral character?

    And if, by defending Israel thusly, we make the U.S. less secure, how do we then make that choice? Does Israel's right to exist in a secure state trump our own?

    I'm not terribly interested in whether or not war or war-like actions are moral; I am convinced that they are intrinsically never moral, but occasionally necessary. Practical utility, a clear statement of goals, and likely outcomes (will the goal be realized or not?) are the necessary criteria. I think that, evaluated on such a basis, the proposed airstrike fails to live up.

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  8. Well, I certainly never said anything that implied "filthy, cow-worshiping wogs" or suchlike.

    If you read my posting I don't see how you can ask what I think the "practical utility" of an airstrike would be, but to repeat myself: it will eliminate (or at least push back several years) a serious threat to Israel and likely to ourselves as well. Obviously I don't believe it will make us less secure or that more good than ill will come of it, or I wouldn't be supporting it.

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  9. Well, I certainly never said anything that implied "filthy, cow-worshiping wogs" or suchlike.

    No, no, no, that's me being an ass and making a poor joke (on so many levels), not a reflection on yourself. I'm like that. I certainly did not mean to attribute any such attitude to you and if anyone drew such a conclusion, the shame is on me, not you.

    it will eliminate (or at least push back several years) a serious threat to Israel and likely to ourselves as well.

    But on what criteria do you make that judgment?

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  10. "'it will eliminate (or at least push back several years) a serious threat to Israel and likely to ourselves as well.'

    But on what criteria do you make that judgment?"

    By the fact that if we destroy the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, they won't be able to build nuclear weapons.

    If your next question is going to be "what is two plus two", the answer is "four".

    I really think this is pointless. As I said above, I invite anyone who's interested in the practical issues to read my original posting and decide whether it makes a strong case or not. I don't plan to keep going back and forth in this comment thread.

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