Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Communism and moral choice

David Schraub posts a tendentious and absurd criticism of my recent post Revolution and Reform. The criticism is ridiculous, hinging as it does on an illiterate reading of the word "palliative". It does, however, bring up — in a backhanded, oversimplified way — an important ethical dilemma of both political and philosophical interest: How do you choose, and how do you evaluate others' choices, when those choices are socially constrained?

Social constraints are more interesting than physical constraints because individual ethical choices and social constraints feed back to each other: there is a continual dialectic between the individual and the social.

Suppose we have two mainstream candidates: The "right" candidate wants to torture 1,000 babies to death; the "left" candidate wants to torture only 500 babies. There's also a "far left" candidate who doesn't want to torture any babies at all, but this candidate has no reasonably chance of winning.

There are ex hypothesis no objective physical reasons why any babies at all must inevitably be tortured to death — e.g. they're not dying of some terrible terminal disease we're powerless to eradicate — although we can suppose there are objective physical consequences of torturing or not torturing babies to death. The choice is neither forced nor gratuitous. (This is a very different situation than the one I posed in my earlier essay: actually not torturing some babies is not a "palliative" in any reasonable sense of the word.)

Suppose further that given an accurate understanding of the physical circumstances and consequences, 40% of the population have no serious problem torturing babies, 40% are strongly opposed to torturing any babies at all, and 20% are undecided.

What are the ethical obligations of those such as myself among the 40% who strongly oppose torturing babies?

Schraub and his ilk seem to see this dilemma in very narrow terms: Anything less than unqualified support for the "left" candidate — especially support for the "far left" candidate — makes the election of the "right" candidate more likely (and I'll stipulate that this statement is objectively true). Anything less that unqualified support for the "left" candidate is therefore effectively endorsing the torture of 500 more babies. Those 500 babies are being sacrificed to the principles of those supporting the "far left" candidate.

Note that even saying, "I don't like torturing babies, but I'm going to 'hold my nose' and vote for the 'left' candidate," risks alienating the undecided "middle" and makes it more likely for the election to go to the "right" candidate.

Let's make the question even more complicated: Suppose that 40 years ago, the "right" candidate advocated the torture of 100 babies and the "left" candidate the torture of only 50. In subsequent elections the number of babies on both sides has steadily increased, with the "left" candidate typically advocating only half the baby torture of the right. And suppose further that we've seen that the candidates are indeed mostly accurate: historically when a "right" candidate is elected, we see a lot of baby torture; when a "left" candidate is elected, the baby torture goes down relative to the previous "right" government, but goes up relative to the previous "left" government.

I see the whole situation differently, in the larger, strategic context.

First, I'm primarily responsible for only my own actions; I'm less responsible for the actions of others. It is those who vote for the "right" candidate — not me — who bear the primary responsibility for torturing babies; my responsibility is only secondary.

Second, I have to ask: why is the choice being framed so weirdly? If 40% of the population is against torturing babies at all, then why isn't this option realistically on the table? And not just now, but why hasn't it been on the table for 40 years? To the extent that I narrow my choices to only the immediately expedient, I'm unreservedly endorsing the framing itself. But I oppose the frame: I want a choice not between torturing more babies or fewer, but between torturing some babies or none.

If nobody at all ever challenges the framing, the larger "strategic" context, and instead always focuses on the narrow, expedient choice, then it seems obvious that the number of babies being tortured is going to ratchet higher and higher until some physical limitation is reached: the choice then will be between torturing 100,000 babies to death and torturing 99,999 babies to death. On the other hand, because the framing manifestly exists as a social constraint, opposition will start as a minority, and will probably at some point actually push some specific election the "right" candidate by withdrawing support for the "left" candidate.

This is a complex ethical question, with — assuming an accurate understanding of objective reality — no objectively correct answer. I understand and respect — to a degree that I do not respect a "right" candidate supporter — someone who chooses the lesser of two evils and unreservedly supports the "left" candidate.

But I cannot. My ethical position compels me to try to change the framing.

It irritates me when those such as Schraub accuse me of being "indifferent" or callous to immediate negative effects that might be mitigated by expedient action. Unreserved support for the Democratic party entails support for actively oppressing and exploiting some people; support for actively pursuing the wars in the Middle East; support for actively torturing some people; support for some domestic spying; support for some censorship; support for some oppression of women, gays, immigrants and racial minorities. Less than that of the Republicans, but still some. If Schraub and his ilk wish to call me callous for foregoing expedient action, they should by the same token be called callous for their indifference towards those who still will be affected negatively even with expedient action.

I'm not a revolutionary communist because I'm enamored of some pretty idealism and I just don't care who has to suffer and die to achieve it. It's an obvious lie to impute such motives to me; Schraub escapes charges of libel only because he's a pipsqueak who lacks the power to harm me.

I'm a revolutionary communist because my conscience is deeply shocked by the crimes perpetrated by our existing political system. I'm shocked by the suffering and oppression this system entails, proven by both empirical historical evidence and theoretical analysis. I'm no longer willing to work within a system that gives me only the choices between bad and worse. I'm no longer willing to remain silent about some suffering only to avoid even worse suffering.

Just asking for a little less oppression isn't enough for me any more. I may be mistaken, but I believe that a radical transformation of society — and only a radical transformation — can end all oppression.


  1. You have just perfectly explained why I didn't vote for a presidential candidate.

    In Nobama's case, I'm more pleased with my abstinence as each day reveals clearly what a liar and opportunist whore he is.

  2. Interesting, ddjango. I'm don't see Obama as either: He's acting pretty much as I expected to, even if it's not how I would have wanted.

  3. I is also not good at typing English goods, neither.

  4. So strange. I had an argument with a good friend this evening and wasn't nearly so eloquent in describing the nature of our political differences. Such a relief to hear it done so well.

  5. ddjango: Criticizing a politician for being a liar and an opportunist whore is like criticizing a professional basketball player for being tall.

    My (immediate) problem with Obama is that he's the wrong kind of liar and opportunist whore.

    Of course, I'd like to have a political system where lying and opportunistic whoring were not a job requirement, but that'll take a revolution. ;-)

  6. I believe only a radical transformation of the human psyche itself can end all oppression. Unfortunately, as long as human beings are just apes with delusions of grandeur, biologically programmed to follow an "alpha male", we're going to have "alpha males" (or females in this world), those who because of accident of biology or birth have resources greater than others and thus appear "alpha-worthy". And as long as we have "alpha males", we have the problem of power, said problem being, eventually all power leads to oppression.

    The problem of power, the central problem of anarchist theory and the problem to which they have no solution other than "eliminate power" (which as I point out requires that we re-wind evolution and re-evolve mankind from some other kind of animal), is one which you have still not addressed other than hand-wave and say "it isn't a problem under real Communism." You continue to define it away rather than address it. That doesn't work in real life. That's like the Bushevik regime's continued efforts to define away their defeat in Iraq as "victory". You can define all you want, but reality simply is, and doesn't care about your attempts to change it by changing the definitions of common words to be what you want them to mean.

    - Badtux the Power Penguin

  7. If all societies have the problem of power, and if the problem of power is the only problem, then all societal power relationships are the same. Therefore American democracy and Nazi fascism, because they both are founded on the problem of power, are therefore equal. This seems like a counter-intuitive notion.

    It seems like an obvious empirical conclusion from the study of history that there are better and worse ways to exercise and manage power. The communist position is that communism is a better way of managing power relationships in a society and a step towards a society where power relationships do not dominate society.

    If you have something substantive to contribute, BadTux, you're welcome to comment. But the charge that I have been handwaving away the problem of power as a non-problem under "real" communism verges on malicious or grossly negligent bad faith and intellectual dishonesty.

  8. If you have something substantive to contribute, BadTux, you're welcome to comment.

    Strike that. Just go away. You're not an honest seeker after the truth. I have no more patience for you than I for with garden-variety cretinists or libertarians.


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