Sunday, February 11, 2007

Truth, Justice and The American Way

In his latest statement, Infidel753 comes out for freedom. Ok. I'm all for freedom myself. I'm all for mom and apple pie; truth, justice and The American Way. These are broad principles, indeed broad enough to justify most anything. They're ideals, not moral principles.

Yes, Israel is our ally. Yes, at an abstract level, the continued survival of Israel has substantial positive value. But that's not what this issue is about. This issue is about to what degree Israel's survival is threatened, and what actions are or are not morally sanctioned , given the knowledge we actually have.

I'm still unclear whether Infidel753 attaches any negative moral value to specific actions, without regard to their outcome. Such a stance does not preclude evaluating the use of those actions with regard to outcomes, but rather impels us to set a standard as to how bad an outcome might be to justify the use of the action.

For example, I consider killing someone to be intrinsically bad, but I consider letting someone (including myself) be murdered to be even worse; I would therefore (in theory) kill someone if I were confident that I were preventing a murder. On the other hand, I consider the theft of $10 to be bad, but nowhere near as bad as killing someone; I would not kill someone even if I were absolutely certain that doing so would prevent a $10 theft.

The intrinsic badness of an action also sets an epistemic standard. Yes, I might kill someone to prevent a murder, but I must also be extremely confident--to the point of practical certainty--that my failure to kill would indeed result in a murder. It's possible that my neighbor might secretly be a serial killer. But anything's possible[1]; I would hardly be justified in killing my neighbor on such shaky epistemic grounds. Furthermore, the intrinsic wrongness of an action places the burden of justification on the proponent of that action, not its opponent.

So let me rephrase my question: Precisely how intrinsically morally wrong is aggressively violating a nation's territorial sovereignty and murdering thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of its citizens? What level of threat would overwhelm that wrongness? How confident of that threat must we be? How methodologically sound must our evaluation be? Infidel753 might have a "gut feeling" that it's virtually certain that a nuclear-armed Iran would destroy Israel, but gut feelings are on an entirely different epistemic basis than rational scientific analysis.

It's very clear that on a rational level that the case for the threat is at the very least ambiguous; we do not have rational justification to consider the threat to be anywhere near practically certain--as certain as, say, an actual invasion. The use of nuclear weapons violates authoritative pronouncements of Islamic morality. Iran could not possibly destroy Israel's second-strike capability; the Iranians must know that a nuclear attack on Israel would be national suicide. Iran has made diplomatic overtures to mitigate the threat. And, of course, Iran does not at this time actually have any nuclear weapons; the threat today is entirely hypothetical. Of course, there is perhaps some evidence that Iran might be threatening; my case is not for the non-existence of a threat but rather for its ambiguity and uncertainty.

I'm puzzled that Infidel753 does not appear to have apprehended the gist of my original argument. To paraphrase, he claims that the argument for the immorality of an attack on Iran rests on drawing an analogy between this situation and other situations where the use of force is known to have been immoral. I absolutely agree with him in that "this kind of argument doesn't work," at least not in this case. But it was commenter Gary Robinson who made this argument (in the positive), and I who pointed out that the analogy was inapt. In fact, I've never seen the argument from analogy made by opponents of war, only its proponents[2].

My invocation of the Pakistan/India situation was not intended to draw any analogy justifying the immorality of bombing Iran. Rather it was an attempt to elicit, in the face of at least a superficial similarity, the underlying moral principles which Infidel753 might use to differentiate Pakistan/India from Iran/Israel. These are principles which, despite his evasion, I'm still very much interested in knowing. Yes, the Pakistan situation is complex, but so is the Iran situation; if Infidel753 is capable of forming a firm conclusion about Iran, I see no reason why he cannot do so regarding Pakistan.

My fundamental argument, that aggressive war, war absent a clear, unambiguous, unequivocal defensive justification, is morally wrong does not at all rest on casuistry (even in the second sense). It is, rather, a declaration of a fundamental moral principle. It's not a matter of "truth"--Infidel753 is under no rational obligation to agree with me--but if he does disagree, it would be valuable, I think, for him to express his disagreement explicitly and unequivocally.

All I know about Infidel753's moral principles are that he likes Israel more than Iran. To be honest, I like Israel more than Iran as well (I have a serious hair across my ass regarding Islam). But my mere dislike of Iran's government and culture does not, in my opinion, come anywhere close to justifying an aggressive war.

[1] For the quibblers, I'm using the phrase idiomatically to invoke the concept that unconditioned possibility is enormously broad.

[2] There might, of course, be one or two who have made such an argument. Even so, and even if the analogy were inapt, it is a logical fallacy to conclude the falsity of a proposition from the existence of some bad argument in its favor.


  1. I really think we are close to exhausting the subject, but I have a couple of last comments.

    (1) My assessment of the risk that a nuclear-armed Iran would try to destroy Israel is based on much more than just a "gut feeling". It's based on the statements of the Iranian regime, and on the doctrines, mentality, and track record of Islam, a subject I have studied exhaustively for several years and know very well. No one can claim absolutely certain knowledge of what other people would do in a given situation, but I do claim far greater knowledge than someone who is not a specialist in the field would have. The nature of the real world is that we constantly need to make decisions on the basis of, not absolute certainty, but the best information we have.

    (2) Unlike some people, I don't believe that action and inaction should be judged differently. Just as we are responsible for the reasonably-foreseeable consequences of our actions, so we are equally responsible for the reasonably-foreseeable consequences of our failure to act.

    (3) No, I don't believe that it ever makes sense to judge actions (or inactions) independently of their consequences. The act of pointing a gun at a person and pulling the trigger cannot be judged independently of the foreseeable effect which the bullet will have when it hits the person. Similarly, a decision to take no action and allow the Iranian nuclear program to proceed cannot be judged without reference to the very-likely consequences of such inaction.

    The available information convinces me that the very-likely consequences of not launching an airstrike against the Iranian nuclear program would be far, far worse than any plausible consequence of going ahead and launching the airstrike. It is this comparison which I consider to be the only acceptable basis for judging the proposed action.

  2. In reply to infidel753, you need to take up some new studies. There are few countries in the world that could hurt Israel for real without also taking a serious pasting or even being eradicated. Iran isn't among those few.

    If by the whim of Yahweh's own man Azra-el the Iranians were able to get even one first generation atomic weapon off on Israeli soil, Iran would cease to exist as a nation within hours.

    There are a lot bigger worries, like the barely stable Pakistan which is packed with real nuclear weapons, not Fat Boy sized test pieces.

    Rhetoric is not a pointed gun. You don't get to kill people on the suspicion of a threat. If that were morally justifiable, we'd all be in trouble because every single one of us is considered a threat by someone else somewhere. You and your kith, for example, are a threat to America in my view. Lucky for you guys I don't share your sense of morality.


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