Wednesday, May 18, 2011

pacifism and intention

Note: Because I am incompetent, I accidentally deleted this post, and I can't find any way to restore it through Blogger. I had to go into Google Cache and republish it. Sorry to those of you who lost comments. -FdB

I think that absolutely everyone should read this profoundly necessary evisceration of Sam Harris, the Moe of the New Atheist Three Stooges, written by Jackson Lears and published by the Nation. It may be my favorite essay published this year; it goes well beyond the usual stalking horses of New Atheism and speaks to some of the fundamental analytical and ethical issues confronting our species, particularly when it comes to progress and the limits of knowledge. Read the whole thing, seriously.

I just wanted to highlight one particularly effective part of the essay because I think it connects with some of the issues that have come up regarding the Osama bin Laden killing. There's nothing remotely unusual, for me, about feeling totally alienated from the political blog mainstream, but it's worth saying how profoundly, dispiritingly wrong the conventional politico mainstream is when it comes to pacifism. And it comes from a place, as most political conformity does, of incoherent moral reasoning.

Lears rightly dings Harris for his inconsistency when it comes to pragmatism, consequentialism, and intentionalism.

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.
Indeed. Harris must defend the moral supremacy of intentions, as any defender of American aggression must, because that is the fig leaf with which we defend our ceaseless appetite for killing innocent people. As it has become harder and harder, thanks to digital technology, to deny that we and our proxies routinely kill civilians whose only crime was living outside of the developed world, it has become more important for those who insist on the superior morality of the United States to, say, Hamas to defend our rosy intentions. The problem with intentionalism, of course, is that intentions are impossible to empirically verify, and thus intentionalists are endlessly vulnerable to the dishonest. (This is particularly a problem for a defiant empiricist like Harris, although as Lears makes plain, Harris's commitment to empiricism is similarly inconsistent.) I am frequently aghast at the prevalence of foreign policy intentionalists in the political world; such people have no capability whatsoever to condemn a power like the United States, which kills innocent civilians as a matter of routine and yet claims always that such killing is not its intent.

Israel is perhaps the most striking example of the degree to which intentionalism can be applied like magic to inoculate a nation against criticism. It is taken as an article of faith that Israel never intends to kill innocent people while Palestinians always do, despite the fact that, in recent Israeli military campaigns like the Lebanon or Gaza incursions, the IDF kills far more civilians than terrorists do. Those of use who are critical of Israel are constantly called on to reconcile three divergent thoughts: that Israel never intends to kill civilians; that Israel has one of the most advanced, best trained militaries in the world; and that Israel is constantly killing civilians. You can detect the tension, I'm sure.

Now consider Adam Serwer, in response to yours truly:
Pacifists and many on the right actually retain similar moral frameworks when it comes to violence, although they come to different conclusions. Both are absolutists in that neither make real moral distinctions between different kinds of violence. In practice, the latter aids the former by blurring the moral lines between preemptive war in Iraq and violence in self defense. So while I don't think pacifism in this case is particularly moral, in practice their blurring of the distinction between justified and unjustified acts of violence gives them a kind of moral equivalence torture lovers are furiously trying to achieve.
 Now, one needn't target Serwer specifically; this sort of profoundly grown up moral logic is, after all, the bread and butter of establishment liberalism. But you'll note the difficulties bubbling under the surface, and you'll recognize why left-wing defenses of actions like the killing of bin Laden are typically so rife with anxiety. This is a consequentialist criticism; it asks us to consider what effect pacifism has in a world where others won't honor the pacifist moral code. Indeed, an intentionalist moral framework seems to me to privilege pacifism above all others. If intentions are what matter, pacificism is the logical endpoint of human moral progress as typically defined. Pacifists don't want anyone to commit violence or kill. The relevant criticism of pacifism is necessarily consequentialist, as is expressed here.

The problem with consequentialist arguments against pacifism is that consequentialism is the enemy of all projections of political violence. The OBL raid killed several other people, after all. Did they deserve to die? A pacifist has the clarity to say that no one deserves to die. For most of us, the question is tangled and provisional, but sure few would argue that the others deserved to die for the same reasons as OBL. If the consequences of killing bin Laden include the death of those who we are less morally justified in killing, I don't know how a consequentialst reading of the killing concludes that the operation was moral with anything like clarity or certainty. All of this occurs, also, as part of a broader conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, purportedly part of the same struggle that resulted in the bin Laden killing, where innocent life is taken daily and as a matter of course. Intentionalism requires that we respect those who would avoid the intentional taking of human life altogether; consequentialism requires that we judge those who kill children with drones in an equivalent moral vocabulary that we judge those who fly planes into buildings.

Perhaps I'm guilty of hypocrisy here; it would be far from the first time. At its worse, this kind of tangled logic strikes me as "any port in a storm" moral reasoning, where you throw together a potpourri of justifications and ethical theories as necessary to get to the point where you can justify America's various acts of violence. (It seems to me that this is pretty much the only way you could ever justify our endless capacity for military projection, through ethical frameworks tailor made for that task.) But I, too, am neither a consequentialist nor an intentionalist, or any other -ist, out of a fussy commitment to going through life with my political and ethical frameworks unnamed. This is why, despite my great admiration for their total indifference to the conventional definitions of seriousness in our corrupt political dialogue, I can't call myself a pacifist. I'm just muddling through as well.

But surely context matters. This conversation has been happening in a landscape where only a tiny handful of voices have expressed a measure of skepticism or uncertainty about the raid that killed bin Laden, where the national mood was one of abject joy. The most commonly expressed opinion, even among liberals, was that this was not only a moral action but one of unquestionable moral value. I can't tell you how many liberals I know responded to my questions by saying some version of "wait, we're doing this now? Even bin Laden, you've got to find a way to undermine America's righteousness?" This is the atmosphere that has been meticulously created and jealously defended by establishment liberals, one that has been enforced through the kind of endless hectoring and demonizing of dissent that Glenn Greenwald has endured on Twitter. (I know, I know-- the progressive cause will fail until Greenwald's hands hang from Bob Kuttner's mantelpiece.) Surely, the bar is higher for those who claim not only that OBL's killing was moral and legal, but that these facts are facts and uncontroversial. 

All of this, I think, is deeply unhealthy to a muscular, unapologetic left. Never mind that "on this point, we can all finally agree" is a sentiment that is inherently illiberal. The OBL killing demonstrates, painfully, that the American left has retained its worst impulses, impulses which 9/11 and its long, sad aftermath revealed-- the seemingly ineradicable urge to purge in the contemporary American left, and the omnipresent specter of "I've got a big dick" liberalism, where nominal lefties demonstrate their toughness and courage by advocating that other people go die in war. This dynamic will never leave us; I'm sure William Saletan will desperately signal what a terribly tough guy he is by saying others should go fight for the rest of his life. What the OBL affair demonstrates so unmistakeably, and so depressingly, is that many other prominent liberals can, in the face of such extreme events, get with the nationalist program, and take their turns policing the discourse.


  1. This is just splendid writing and thinking, as usual.

    I wonder if "intentionalism" and "consequentialism" seem inadequate as moral grounds in the case of OBL's assassination because so much of the judgment you're bringing to bear on it (plus "the national mood," etc.) is, after all, aesthetic.

  2. Good insight. Tough question!

  3. well fuck i had a comment here

  4. I admit to being sympathetic to Harris' argument about equating morality with things that improve the well-being of people in general. If there can be an objective definition of well-being then it is surely worth pursuing. I read The Moral Landscape a few months ago and didn't necessarily see it as a defense of American exceptionalism or wars of conquest to tame the savages. I took it as an attempt to define morality in terms an atheist would find useful. Attempting to measure the effects of human behavior on well-being seems like a good place to start.

  5. As a Quaker, I come to--well, not pacifism, but a commitment to non-violent resistance--from a different perspective, but I still deeply appreciate this post for skillfully revealing the threadbare nature of the consequentialist and intentional defenses of violence. Well done!

  6. Just want to say: call Hitchens or Harris stooges, and you'll get no argument from me (perhaps for reasons having less to do with their atheism than yours, but nevertheless). But if the Third Stooge is supposed to be Dennett (I hope not; now that I think about it, it's likely Dawkins), then I have to throw down the gauntlet. However extreme his rhetoric on God and religion (I'd say it's not at all), Daniel Dennett is the furthest thing from a Stooge to be found on the intellectual (public or less so) stage today. Dawkins is only marginally more Stoogey, meaning that he isn't a Stooge either. I realize these things are subjective, but I would hope we would be able to draw a bright line between the arguments and methods of Harris and Hitchens and those of Dennett and, (perhaps benefitting slightly from association,) Dawkins. In the best scenario, there is a Third Stooge who isn't either of these Ds, and is morelike one of the Hs, that you were referring to...;)

  7. I hadn't really seen the inconsistency so starkly before. It's crazy that a liberal interventionist can attack pacifists for being unserious and heedless of their pacificism's (feverishly envisioned) consequences, and then turn around and defend totally predictable civilian deaths as acceptable because not specifically intended.

    I do think that the Nation article misses the mark when attacking positivism. The idea was that moral statements were the equivalent of nonsense because they weren't varifiable. Positivism wasn't just one grand failure to make the fact-value distinction.


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