Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Monday, March 07, 2005

Morality and Authority

We finally got a little discussion of my last post, and i was delighted that one of the comments was not only very atriculate and well thought out but that it is a wondeerful example of one of the great successes of the American propaganda machine over the course of the last 50 years or so.

The poster slightly misinterprets what I am trying to say about the logical consqequences of the official goverment position on the September 11th attacks, but in a way that is perfectly understandable given the ideological framework in which such questions are discussed in mainstream American discourse.

The comment specifically mentions something calledd the "moral high ground," but this is a bit of a slippery term. What he is really referring to is something calledd "moral authority," which is the way that the idea of morality is usually handled in mainstream discussion in the U.S.

According to the poster, it is not logically inconsistent to say that the September 11th attacks were wrong because the terrorists are trrying to implement a worldview that is wrong (thus denying them moral authority) and we are trying to implement a worldview that is right (thus granting us moral authority.)

And the poster is right - within the ideological framework in which he is operating. Unfortunately that ideological framework, which also happens to be the dominant center-liberal ideology in this country, is completely defunct. The reason is because the entire concept of "moral authority" does not exist as a logically, ethically, or philosophically coherent concept. Indeed, the very idea that someone's actions, whatever they are, are good because the person's ideas are good is not morality but rather a complete abdication of morality.

So the question arises - what is morality? If I undertake a course of action, how do i know if it is moral? Well, the simplest test is the question - would I accept this action if it were undertaken by someone else in my situation? If the answer is no, that's the definition of hypocrisy, although those with parochial or even bible school educations will remember that in our era the idea of hypocrisy has been narrowed to "not practicing what one preaches," the wider (and more useful) definition apparently cutting a little too close to the bone for most American religious teachers.

In any case, it is thus quite easy to see that the idea that the Iraq war (or any U.S. war) is correct because the American worldview is correct clearly DOES absolve the September 11th attackers, since they were operating under the exact same assumption. If we say that we can kill people because we are right, anyone can say that. If we reject any ouside arbitration with regard to what is and is not justified (i.e. international law, which we clearly violated when we invaded Iraq), we have accepted the law of the jungle - what the biggest bully says, goes.


  • This discussion is of a certain kind of "moral" which has nothing to do with another concept which is "right and wrong". Moral, within the context of this discussion, is more acurately describe as "things we don't do regardless of outcome". Right and wrong, within this context, is all about outcome. As such, being moral allows us to have actions which result in outcomes that might be "wrong". That is the purpose of morals. They guide us on what to do so that we can divorce the outcome from our responsibility. It presumes that outcomes are a function of our actions.
    Right and wrong are creations of mankind, divorced from any need to have a relationship with reality. Therefor, things that are, despite being real, can also be wrong. Things that don't exist can be "right". Furthermore, two different people can have perfectly opposed definitions. Since there is no connection to the observable, neither can be falsified.
    Churchill's intent was to inflame. He succeeded. But furthermore, implied in his writing was the assumption that moral actions will prevent wrong outcomes. It presumes that wrong outcomes are founded in flawed morals. Neither is true.

    By Anonymous Uncle Carlos, at March 7, 2005 at 6:59 PM  

  • This is complete gibberish.

    Perhaps you could start over and answer this simple question - do you accept the elementary moral standard that if something is wrong when you do it, it is also wrong when i do it and vice versa?

    By Blogger RaulGroom, at March 8, 2005 at 5:13 AM  

  • No. If you do something wrong, it is wrong. What I do is immaterial. We cannot both do the same thing. We can each do things and their rightness and wrongness are unrelated to each other. I believe the colloquial is "two wrongs do not a right make". We can be "wrong" and it does not make it "right" to fly a plane into a tower full of people. "Unto thy ownself be true".

    By Anonymous Uncle Carlos, at March 8, 2005 at 12:57 PM  

  • Quote:
    do you accept the elementary moral standard that if something is wrong when you do it, it is also wrong when i do it and vice versa?
    [End Quote]

    The question is too ill-defined to answer. As an illustration, suppose you are running towards me with a knife and the evident intention to stab me, and I respond by punching you and knocking you out. If we consider my action to be "punching someone and knocking him out", then it would be wrong you do it, but right when I do it. If, on the other hand, we consider the action to be "punching in self-defense", then the action is right when either of us does it. There are typically many ways of characterizing (describing) an action, depending on how much of context of the action we consider to be "part of the action". In such situations, the answer to the test "would I consider the action wrong if done to me" depends on the way the action is characterized, as in this example.
    This problem, in some form or another, has been the bane of most ethical theories in philosophy.

    Kant, it seems, believed he had sidestepped the ambiguity by framing his categorical imperative thus: "Act according to a maxim which can be applied universally". However, many, including myself, believe he just shifted the problem over to the level of maxims, namely, given a particular action, deciding which maxim was applicable. In fact, I think this very question vitiates Kantian ethics.

    I have something more germane to the situation of the US and its foreign policy, in answer to your main post. But I have to get out from under a mountain of work before I write that.

    By Blogger heatkernel, at March 8, 2005 at 8:26 PM  

  • It seems to me that you are mixing together two somewhat different points in the latter half of your post. I will adress these points separately.

    Firstly, you are taking the position that a Kantian ethics (act only according to maxims that you can wish to be universally applied) implies that there can never be a justified war, or at least never a justified war based on claims of superiority of ideology. According to you, the reason is that if I wage war according to the maxim "it is right to wage war to promote a better ideology", then, applying that maxim to my enemy, I must believe that it is right that my enemy wages war against me, since he believes that his ideology is the better one; therefore, he is only following the same maxim. Against this, I would say that there is a difference, linguistically at least, if not in fact, between "a better ideology" and "an ideology that is believed to be better". Granted, each side believes that it has the better ideology. But that belief doesn't make the ideology better, since one party may in fact be wrong and the other right on some objective grounds. Therefore, your argument would work against someone who wages war according to the maxim "it is right to wage war to promote an ideology that one believes better" but not according to one who wages war according to the maxim "it is right to wage war to promote a better ideology", "better" in this instance meaning "better in fact, not just belief".

    Now, of course, this begs the question of what non-subjective means, if any, there be, of deciding which ideology is better, or if it is always, in fact, a matter of personal belief, even if language disguises this. Quite possibly, there are no means available to the purest Kantian, because such a pure Kantian is supposed to evaluate the moral worth of everything according to its "ability to be universalized", and any number of different, mutually incompatible ideologies, could be universalized without giving rise to internal contradiction. Now, most Kantians, it would appear, are not so strict, and actually allow for some appeal to utility. Ideologies could then, for example, be evaluated according to their tendency to promote human hapiness. I know there are some Kantians high-placed in our government (Lynne Cheney, wife of the current President and a de facto policymaker, being a Kantian scholar by training), and this may be their way of dealing with the problem. Alternatively, they may have convinced themselves that there are hidden contradictions in the ideologies of "our adversaries", but the "adversaries" are too ignorant or corrupted to perceive these contradictions. However, it is idle to speculate, and since I am myself not a believer in Kant's theory of ethics, for reasons I have already indicated or hinted at, and I much more interested in your second point.

    Your second point seems to have much more practical thrust than the first , and actually goes much more to the heart of the matter. Namely, you seem to be saying that a) third-party arbitration is synonymous with b) justice or fairness. Well, to be more charitable, I cannot tell if you are actually saying that there is an equivalence between a) and b) but your statements about "international law" seem to spring from the mindset that the more you have of one, the more you have of the other. I think that is often a casually assumed, but unexamined, premise in many of these discussions and it needs to be addressed. In order to do so, I would make a comparison with the situation of domestic law, that is the civil and criminal courts charged with enforcing the laws of this country (the US). I and many others have no trouble seeing that, in spite of their being a source of outside arbitration, this system is systematically unfair. To cite two examples: in trials and all other proceedings, the accused rich always have the services of better counsel than the accused poor, and the outcomes they achieve are, not surprisingly, notably better (compare to the procedures of ancient Athenian law courts, which show that the advantages of wealth can be mitigated if the system is set up with that goal in mind). Similarly, corporations have a status in which they enjoy many of the benefits/priveleges of personhood, without of course being subject to the penalties of imprisonment or death that actual persons most fear, and in practice, being virtually immune from large fines as well. I will stop with those two examples, because my point is simply that here is an example of a system of outside arbitration which is very far from being fair and is widely recognized as such. Nevertheless, virtually everyone in society submits to this arbitration system with rarely so much as a word of protest (with a few exceptions such as Thoreau, more recently, various countercultural groups of the 60s and 70s). The reasons are easy enough to see: the system is backed up by force. Thus, the costs to any resister are invariably much greater than any improvement that could be brought about to the system by such resistance. Thus, we have a system of outside arbitration which is manifestly unfair, but is nonetheless widely adhered to because defection from it is almost invariably harshly punished.

    Now, in contrast, in the case of arbitration between different countries, certainly as this is understood to involve issues such as International Law, the Geneva Conventions, the World Court, and the UN, the situation is exactly reversed. On the one hand, one has a scrupulously fair system, one which some might even say is unrealistic in its idealism. On the other hand, the costs to a nation of resisting this scrupulously fair system are usually minimal. Your own story of the World Court's judgment for Nicaragua against the US, and the US's simply ignoring the judgment, is an excellent illustration of both these aspects. I don't share Raul's confidence that we "clearly violated" intenational law in invading Iraq. But I do agree that the weakness of the systems of international arbitration allowed the Bush regime to go where it wanted on the Iraq issue. However, it is a common misconception, possibly not shared by Raul, that this indicates that the neo-Conservatives are just vulgar unilateralists, who simply want the US's acting alone to shape the world's direction, with no input from any outside arbitrator.

    The truth, I believe, is that the neo-Conseratives do not wish to do away with outside arbitrartion entirely, but to substitute one kind of of international arbitration, namely that represented by the UN, etc., by the type represented by the World Trade Organization, IMF, and World Bank. The reason is that they see the "old" international system as represented by the UN and its associated institutions, as 1) morally corrupted, because overly influenced by the socialistic worldview of their founders and also swayed by the socialistic sentiments of people outside the US and 2) especially weak at the moment, so ripe for overthrow. The IMF, World Bank, and WTO, on the other hand, have proven their worth and effectiveness at promoting the worldwide corporate agenda at the expense of national sovereignty, a project that the neo-Conservatives wrongly, but probably sincerely, believe is conducive to creating human happiness around the world. Interestingly, I think the recent pair of appointments of Bolton as UN Ambassador and Wolfowitz as World Bank head make this point nicely. Bolton is obviously an out-and-out clown whose appointment was evidently made as a sign of contempt on the part of the administration ideologues towards the UN. The Wolfowitz appointment is an entirely different matter, in spite of its tendency to offend: Wolfowitz is quite literally the best the neo-Con. movement has, their top statesman/intellectual. I believe they want him to "reform" the World Bank by counteracting the soft-hearted liberal tendencies of its career employees (admittedly, these are not very visible to people who are not neo-Conservatives), and the employees already realize this--witness their current movement to have him rejected by the Europeans (hopeless, of course: they are just providing him ammunition with which to justify his inveitable "house cleaning" after his inevitable confirmation). I would not rest my case for this interpretation of recent events on just these two appointments, but they do very neatly sum up the situation.

    The point of all this being: it is not lack of intenational arbitration that we (anti-neocons) have to fear primarily, but rather strong international arbitration of the wrong kind.

    By Blogger heatkernel, at March 20, 2005 at 4:32 AM  

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