Monday, December 11, 2006

Moral seriousness

From the latest edition of "Decentiya" (thanks to an anonymous commenter for that name), a "morally serious" contribution to "the torture debate". Personally, I gave up half way through, finding the experience of reading it to be unpleasantly like gargling with treacle. However, I know it is morally serious because it has been so judged by the Decent Norm Of Civilised Society (as opposed to the decent norms of civilised society, which have less of a place in this debate).

(Update 17:23 by Dave Weeden - the other BB. I think it's worth pointing out, and linking to, other reactions to that article. Shuggy has a post up on his own blog and the Drink-Soaked Trots for War and both have comments threads. Shuggy then replies to Norm's reply in which he says Stephen de Wijze does, in my opinion, have a too soft attitude towards torture .... I share this reading. I can't speak for the other BB.)

I am not sure what it means to be morally serious. As far as I can tell, it involves being very intelligent and thoughtful, while holding exactly the same opinions on a given subject which would be held by a moron. Philosophers are very good at this; as noted in the Bluffer's Guide to Philosophy, Professor RM Hare reached the most exalted level at which he was able to convincingly claim not to know what the word "it" meant.

If you look at Stephen de Wijze's actual position on the question of torture, it is this:

"When debating the problem of whether or not to use torture in the face of 9/11 style terrorism (and in some other rare cases), any proper decision is bound to leave those who decide, whichever way they do, with dirty hands. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Both sides of the argument are right and both sides are wrong. What is more, pointing out that this is a situation of ambiguity, uncertainty and legal and moral muddle is also right. It might be the best we can do under the circumstances"

Of course, this is not the same thing as:

"I don't know"

because "I don't know" would surely not be morally serious, and this is. Or is it? As far as I can see, de Wijze's actual view here picks up the balls and runs with it ... precisely nowhere. Unless he is badly misrepresenting this book, the entire moral and ethical content of it is precisely equal to the series of two or three thoughts that ran through your mind during the half a second after the first time you heard the phrase "ticking time bomb scenario". Plus a load of legal argumentation of the kind which is sensibly classified as "interesting, but not as interesting as a really good soup recipe".

De Wijze's own contribution to the debate appears to be the introduction of "the theory of dirty hands". Which is apparently on the cutting edge of modern moral philosophy, but if you were to hook my balls up to a van der Graff generator and say "Bruschettaboy, can you see a single thing in this theory which is anything more than a redescription of the problem", I'd say "No", at least until the thing warmed up.

I am very troubled by the suspicion that "Moral seriousness" is, like so much else in Decent politics, an aesthetic quality rather than a practical one. Like the ineffectual sorrow of Brian Brivati or the stentorian regret of Norm himself in the aftermath of Lancet 2006, and as I've mentioned before, what actually happens in the world often seems to be vastly less important than the attitude adopted to it. In intemperate moments, I've lashed out at Decents and suggested that they seemed more concerned with the welfare of their beautiful souls than with the victims they appeared to be crying crocodile tears over. I now think this that this is probably unfair; the problem is not so much one of good old fashioned hypocrisy as a lack of respect for the good old principle of cause and effect.

This was a passage in the Great Lost Paul Berman Review; that the Decents appear to have a strange contempt for something called "realism". As Oliver Kamm, who would, I think, generally count himself on the more hard-headed side of the Decentsphere puts it, the chief enemy of Decency is "a foreign policy tradition - commonly known as realism - that stresses interests rather than values". Berman characterises realism as an unproductive cynicism about the motivations of enemy actors. A significant subtext of the Mearsheimer & Walt kerfuffle had to do with the rejection of realism in international relations, the school of thought with which Mearsheimer is associated.

On the other hand, rejection of "realism" in this specialised academic sense shouldn't make one think any worse of "realism" in the more normal sense of the word. This would be the kind of realism that notes that dead people can't be brought back to life, that soldiers in Asia can't simultaneously be in Africa and that bullets once fired are gone and taxes will have to be levied to buy new ones. And similar common-sense points. It strikes me as notable that much of what is intrinsic to Decent politics has been the diagnosis of irretrievable moral corruption on The Left based on the symptoms of a large number of people making sensible practical comments. The argument for making this diagnosis appeared to be that there was a perceived immorality (or lack of "moral seriousness") in doing so when sufficiently great issues were at stake. And I really believe that in a number of cases - particularly Norm and Nick Cohen, who have obviously been vastly influential in second hand terms - the original source of this vehemence has been Berman's attack on "realism".

Could it be the case that the whole of the political tendency which had its culmination in the Euston Manifesto, rests on a simple linguistic confusion over the specialised and ordinary sense of the word "realism"? Could the whole of Decency be based on a mistake on a level with Christmas cracker puns? Could it?

Of course, this is not morally serious at all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Decents seem to see "values" and "realism" as opposites. I disagree. I have values, but I try to be realistic about how to achive those values. I believe in democracy, but organising a vote in a country with deep social divisions and/or very weak institutions is not going to create democracy. It could even set it back. That is why I find Aaro's recent piece in the Times deeply annoying: he doesn't seem to understand how his own naive views about democracy in Iraq (perhaps atoning for having been in the CP) have been part of the path that led to the tragedy of Iraq.

12/11/2006 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Callan said...

I think the first BB may be conflating two different things.

Decent anti-realism springs from two sources. The first being the quite sensible realisation that Saudi Arabia is not the most reliable ally in a conflict with Islamists, the second being the rather less sensible belief that 'totalitarianism' is a kind of primeval urge in the human psyche which cannot be explained or understood but which can only be defeated. (I blame Hannah Arendt.)

Decent equivocation on torture is simpler. If you have decided to dramatise the world into an ethical conflict between the U.S. and the T.H.E.M. you have to minimise unethical behaviour on the part of U.S. So one cannot very well hold that torture is an intrinsic moral evil because that would imply that U.S. are engaged in an intrinsic moral evil which doesn't play very well with a narrative where good is in conflict with evil. Consequently torture becomes a difficult existential choice, akin to Sartre's young man agonising as to whether to join the resistance or care for his aged mother, rather than something that is simply indefensible.

As l'autre BB points out this is not a position universally held among Decents. But where it is held, it derives from the fact that western governments have decided to torture people and that in the Decent mythos western governments are the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness. The stuff about what one does in the event of holding a terrorist in custody whilst a nuclear device ticks down the seconds (a scenario which is presently confined to '24' and such like) is merely ideological cover.

12/12/2006 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

T.H.E.M? The Hierarchy for the Enslavement of Mankind? or the Empowerment of Muslims? Terrorists Helping Exteme Mullahs? Wasn't al-Qaeda a good enough name, and now they want a SMERSH-like acronym?

12/12/2006 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

De Wijze's position seems to me to be ven worse than you describe. He is not just saying "I don't know" - he is suggesting there is a "Moral equivalence" (tm and copyright decents everywhere) between torturing and not torturing. On the one hand , torturing in bad, degrades the victim and the prepetrator. On the other hand, not torturing may be just as bad because it will let terrorists get away with bombs , leaving blood on the non torturers hand .. It is a great rallying cry - 'those who refuse to torture have the blood on their hands ". But of course torture is at best speculative - the torturer does not know the terrorist has a special code to stop a ticking bomb (outside tv shows, he probably doesnt care), that is why he is torturing - he may well be wrong, and torture without producing life saving information. I think it is commonly said that those brutalised as children are more likely to be violent criminals when they grow up, but in De Wijze's logic, refusing to suffocate abused children may leave you repsonsible for the murders they may just commit when they grow up. So "morally serious" does seem perilously close to "mad as a hatter" here


12/13/2006 10:40:00 AM  

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