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December 17, 2004

Comments

George Turner

Zuzu,

Kerry continued in the US Naval Reserve and was subject to continued training in uniform. Military lawyers say that if he had shown up for such training he would've been subject to the full penalties of the UCMJ, however nobody can figure out if was in fact called up, was AWOL, or what, because he won't release his military records (still).

Mythago, Islam-Online isn't exactly a fringe group, and the Saudi News, Star of Lebanon, Egyptian dailies, and hundreds of other mid-east papers have no qualms about linking neo-con speicifically to Jewishness. Then again maybe it is just a crazy conspiracy theory to hide the truth that the neo-cons really are involved in an clever conspiracy to steal all the oil.... Could be a plot by reptile aliens from Mrocklon VII, though.

djw

When I saw that this thread had grown in length, I clicked with anticipation of a discussion on pacifism, perhaps even pacifism and the doing/allowing distinction problem. That would be a fair bit more edifying than a "John Kerry: traitorous villian or villianous traitor?" debate.

I've seen this bizarre claim about Kerry and Hanoi before; in general, when one asks for evidence more compelling than screeds from like-minded conspiracy theorists, it is not forthcoming.

George Turner

Um, John Kerry admits he held secret meetings with North Vietnam, and admits it on national television. That's not exactly a conspiracy.

Barbara Preuninger

Um, George T., I also prefer the debate on pacifism. I kept reading this thread, and reading, hoping against hope that the subject would somehow recover itself.

Oh dear. Yours was the last post. :p

yami

Shall we try to re-hijack the discussion? As a non-theist peacenik type, I've also been disappointed in the progress of the thread... I haven't reached many conclusions myself, and was hoping to listen more than speak, but I suppose even half-formed thoughts are better than a portrait of a senator as a young man!

I'm not sure if or how it works as an ideology, but I'm convinced that pacifism has immense value as a practice. Which is in part because it helps us find third alternatives, but also because conceptualizing peace as a practice leaves more room for the failure and ambiguity that characterize human affairs.

Any kind of consequentialist ethic can be attacked through a series of silly hypothetical cases. Attempting to duck around these cases by insisting that they don't exist is a bit of a dodge. On the other hand, asking if it is "better to allow someone else to kill millions than it is to stop him by killing a few thousand yourself" is also a bit dodgy. It's plopping someone down in 1938 and asking them to pick up moral agency, when the seeds of war were planted at the Treaty of Versailles or earlier. We can't be effective peacemakers without understanding the root causes of violence, so posing an ethical dilemma without reference to those root causes is in some sense missing the point.

Yes, I realize that this means that entire generations have "missed the point" when faced with a complex situation they were too young to bear any responsibility for. If we keep practicing, we'll get better at providing choices for our sons and daughters, but I don't know what we should do when we fail.

Sometimes, life is a Greek tragedy, and you have no acceptable choices. This is the point where Hugo can come in with the deus ex machina of Easter, so we can have our consequentialist ethics without actually needing to worry about the consequences, and atheists are left hanging. I can note that such situations often come as the consequence of some previous wrong choice, and mumble something about not needing to have all the answers, but that's obviously unsatisfying. I'm inclined to say that moral judgment is, if not wholly meaningless, at least of a different character in such a context; the fact that something is the least evil of the available options shouldn't be enough to make it right. But I'm not enough of a metaethicist to explain or defend such an assertion.

djw

yami, so much good stuff to respond to; don't have time now. Do check later, I'll be back tonight or tomorrow to continue. Thanks for running with my suggestion.

djw

OK, my grades are in now and I can breathe...

I'm not sure if or how it works as an ideology, but I'm convinced that pacifism has immense value as a practice.

On the one hand, I agree to some degree about the value of pacifism as practice. My opposition to pacifism should in no way be confused with my deep and unabiding love for peace. In fact, as far as I can understand, I've lived a life entirely consistent with pacifism. I've not struck anyone with intent to cause pain since before adolescence, and even when I'm very angry, I'm not particularly tempted to. When someone seemed to seriously want to fight with me (something that seems to have more or less stopped since my teenage years), I just walked away. It seemed (and seems) like a no-brainer to me.

But I recognize I'm incredibly lucky in one regard: in almost 30 years on the planet, my deep distaste for violence and doing the moral thing have gone together quite nicely. My family and friends need no protection from me; nor does my community. But that, of course, is becuase I've outsourced the violence to protect them to agents of the state. (Here's that doing/allowing distinction again--I don't do violence, but I allow, sometimes passively, other times actively--the state to do it in my name and for my safety. Just because I don't agree with every act of violence they do doesn't get me off the hook.) We all disagree about the importance of recent wars for our security, and about certain police tactics and forms of punishment, but it's hard to live in the world and not acknowledge that a good number of activities the police engage in activities that are a) clearly violent, and b) release me from possible moral duties that involve violence (ie, protecting those unable to do so from agressors).

It's really quite interesting how differently Hugo and I think about this--for Hugo, who obviously thinks hard and deep about the privileges he is afforded due to his identity and social location, pacifism is hard spiritual work. For me, I can think of no better evidence of my immense privilege that I've been able to avoid violence altogether without any moral qualms at all. In many ways, this privilege has made me a better person, or at least a person I like being. I do see a link between acting in a peaceful way and being at peace. But again, this strikes me as evidence of profound privilege rather than a particularly noteworthy accomplishment. And the thought that keeps me up at night (well, not really, but it occasionally worries me) is that I'm so accustomed and comfortable with non-violent responses to the world that I won't be able to act to protect the vulnerable should I find myself in that situation.

Any kind of consequentialist ethic can be attacked through a series of silly hypothetical cases.

Well, sure, pure consequentialism without intervening principle. But the same goes for pure principle-based reasoning without any regard for consequence. We can all stipulate situations in which it would seem pretty ridiculous to go down either "pure" route. That's why I love people like J.S. Mill so much--he saw power and promise in utilitarianism, but realized it needed an injection of principle to realize it's full promise. There is little I believe as strongly as this: the hard work of moral theory and actual moral reasoning involves muddling through; not relying on a particular principle or logic to do your work for you. Becuase no one principle can do that hard work for us. Being moral is a bigger challenge than that.

Hugo

"And the thought that keeps me up at night (well, not really, but it occasionally worries me) is that I'm so accustomed and comfortable with non-violent responses to the world that I won't be able to act to protect the vulnerable should I find myself in that situation."

You and me both, DJW, you and me both. I do appreciate the remark about " outsourcing" violence. Well said.

djw

Oops, posted before I was done...

We can't be effective peacemakers without understanding the root causes of violence, so posing an ethical dilemma without reference to those root causes is in some sense missing the point.

Well, I think this is a bit truncated about what kinds of peacemaking situations we face. Ultimately, bringing an end to violence against children (for example) in our society will certainly involve wise educational and social policy that make take note of root causes. But to speak about those issues simply in those terms, which are amenable to pacifism, doesn't do justice to the fact that children need our protection right now. If I stumble upon a child being savagely beaten, the root causes of that situation won't be a particularly useful guide to doing something about it. And we have a duty to think about violence against children (and various other plagues of violence our world faces) in the short term as well as the long term, and they require thinking about the problem in very different ways.

I keep using personal hypotheticals, so let's put this in foreign policy terms. I've long thought that the greatest moral failure in the foreign policy realm in the post-cold war world was the willingness to allow a genocide in Rwanda in the Spring of 1994. (I won't defend that position here, as my posts are quite long enough without such a defense, but I'd be more than willing to privately or otherwise). Now, if the world community had taken steps to decrease political tension between Hutus and Tutsis in that region over the last 30 years, this genocide might have been unavoidable. However, that fact doesn't ameliorate our duty to act in 1994--if anything it exacerbates that duty. Again, focusing on long-term solutions may be an advantage of pacifist ways of thinking, but that doesn't change that fact that shorter-term moral and ethical dillemas are quite real.

This is the point where Hugo can come in with the deus ex machina of Easter, so we can have our consequentialist ethics without actually needing to worry about the consequences, and atheists are left hanging.

Some atheists find Kantian ethics helpful in this regard. I maintain the limits to radical deontology are similar to the limits or radical consequentialism, but that's just me.

zuzu

I understand your points, djw, and I think you've stated them pretty well. However, with regard to outsourcing violence and force: can one be said to have truly outsourced those things when one is simply born into a society where that has already been done?

yami

DJW, thanks for the response. I too should thank my lucky stars that I can afford such gentle, contemplative discussions. (Though I do expect my mother to nag me about filing some preemptive conscientious objections with the local Friends Meeting this Christmas - I don't worry about the draft, but worry is a mother's job! :)

I'm short on time today too, and might not be able to respond in full until after Christmas. I think the question of police violence, though, is key. I'm not a pure pacifist; I do distinguish between lethal vs. nonlethal violence and accept the need for minimum-force policing. I would favor the use of such "police-like" force in situations like Rwanda.

I keep trying to avoid Kant, but it's getting tricky. One of these days I suppose I'll be stuck with no options but to wade through the old nosewampus...

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