Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Philosophy paper about the War

It is boring at this point to cite more instances of how left-wing scholarship pervades academic life. We have all heard the stuff about left-wing indoctrination in the classroom. David Horowitz has been making a big deal about it for a long time. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, the American Philosopical Association (an organization I happen to belong to) passed a resolution against the war by something like 1220 to 263. The fact is though, that left-wing bias invades scholarship to the point that it is clear that articles about right wing-causes are not read by anyone with a critical eye.

The latest issue of the Journal Social Theory and Practice (April 2006) has an article with the following obnoxious title: "Why (Most) Rational People Must Disapprove of the Invasion of Iraq" by C. D. Meyers.

(In case you were wondering the parenthesized "most" in the title is there to exclude nihilists, ethical egoists, and war fanatics. It fails to account for people who find obvious flaws in the argument.)

Now any competent reviewer who had an inkling of an understanding of why some people would be sympathetic with the war would not have let this article go through. It would have made the back pages of Mother Jones, or some such magazine. But STP is a real philosophy journal, and it should not have let the article go through. Having worked on more than two philosophy journals, I can tell you that reviewers frequently send back reports that say things like "this needs work" or "the author failed to tke in to account . . ." This article was a big set of straw men, and needs a lot of work.

In case you wonder whether I am just making this up, I will proceed to outline the article and draw out the problems. The argument is roughly as follows. There is a principle GR (for Golden Rule). The principle is derived from two basic assumptions that we can all accept: "UP" and "PP". (UP) or the Universalizable Principle states that if you think that it would be morally permissible to do some act A to someone, then you must think that it would also be permissible for someone to do the same to you in similar circumstances. (PP) or the Perscripitivity Principle states that if you think that it would be morally permissible for someone to do A to you, then you must consent to the idea of someone doing A to you. Together we get a formal version of the Golden Rule (GR) - if you think it would be morally permissible to do A to someone, then you must consent to the idea of someone doing A to you under similar circumstances. This does not give us a moral theory, but does put a consistency constraint on our actions. On pain of contradiction, if we accept GR, we have to consent to the idea of us having done to us, if we would do it to others.

So far so good. While I personally do not agree with GR, I am more than happy to grant it for the sake of the argument, as I have attempted to pass the exact same thing off to my own students. In my weaker moments I actually rely on it. So let us agree that GR is useful. (Meyers spends way too much space arguing against straw-man arguments like the Might Makes Right Principle which I have no interest in here, nor do I need to deal with it for my purposes.)

But does GR compel us, on pain of irrationality (remember the title of the article) to oppose the war in Iraq? Prima facie the answer is obviously no. (How Chris Meyers got "yes" I am not sure; Wittgenstein’s phrase “in the grip of a theory” comes to mind.)

Before we elaborate as to why, let us clear a few things up, that the author fails to do. First we must ask what an Iraqi is. Clearly it is a citizen of Iraq. But are (or, more precisely, "were at the time of the US invasion") all citizens of Iraq the same? Clearly no. Are they all identical qua citizen? The answer again is clearly no.

The argument asks us to put ourselves in the position of the Iraqi and ask if we would have consented to be invaded under similar circumstances. The answer I would think is obviously yes. Naturally I am not in favor of some random country preemptively attacking my country for no reason. That is unjustified and would probably unnecessarily disrupt my life with no benefit to me, and possible harm to many things I care about. Even if I was in the place of the average Iraqi I would probably not want to have it invaded for no reason.

But was that what happened? No. The US articulated many reasons for the invasion of Iraq. Again it is boring to articulate them here. But some are called "after-the-fact justifications" by Meyers, so it is worth remembering that many justifications were articulated before-the-fact. Specifically the humanitarian issues. Meyers discusses human rights abuses, but misses the relevant points. Let me explain. Meyers asks whether we would consent to be invaded by a democracy like France or Israel if we lived in a non-democracy like Saudi Arabia. I have no idea why this is similar. Who would consent to be invaded by anyone by dint of the styles of governments of the invading and invaded countries?

The key issue here, and what would make the situations similar is whether you, if you were in a country where you were completely politically disenfranchized to the point of torture and genocide, would consent to your country being invaded for the sake of (or partially for the sake of) your liberation. It is hard to imagine a scenario where I would hesitate to say "yes". Naturally if I was a resident of Halabja or Dujail or of a Kurdish or Shite group that had been oppressed for decades I would welcome the opportunity to have my country invaded.

By the way, the morality of the cause is independent of the emphasized reason. Many reasons were articulated. Some by the administration officially, some by intellectuals and cabinet members informally. And lest you need to be reminded of how clear this reason was stated, the official name of the war is OIF, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. I assume that makes it clear that at least one goal of the invasion has something to do with freeing Iraqis. That is not to deny that there were other stated goals of the war, some which in retrospect were way off base. But the important thing is that there were clearly articulated politically enfranchising goals articulated. Everyone who watched the news heard Bush talk about freedom for Iraq repeatedly.

Now, back to an earlier point, Iraqis come in many varieties. Meyers tries to get us to think in terms of being part of the Iraqi political establishment. (It is clear he has never identified with a disenfranchised person before. Spoiled white boy. ) Even if I were a Sunni, who was part of a political elite would I consent to the idea of an invasion of my country? The answer again, if I was following the GR, would have to be yes because despite the fact that I am the disenfranchiser, if I followed the GR, I would want to be invaded if I was in the circumstance of the disenfranchised.

To make the last paragraph clearer, let us make a rough analogy to something closer to home, namely the invasion of the US. The US has been invaded in defense of oppressed minorities - in the US Civil War.

If I were a slave in the south prior to the Civil War, I certainly would have sanctioned someone stepping in and invading the US for the purpose of ending slavery. As a matter of fact, in retrospect, I heartily approve of the US Government doing it itself. (The fact that ending slavery wasn't the primary, or even stated goal is irrelevant. It was a goal, however secondary, and an intended consequence that would justify the invasion.) I would wonder if Meyers would have sided with Lincoln even if there was not credible evidence that the south would have seeceded from the Union. It is easy to argue that invasion or war of various sorts might be justified for the sake of political enfranchisement. Certainly it would not be irrational. If it were, then any peoples violently fighting for enfranchisement of any sort are automatically wrong. This is highly counterintuitive. While non-violent measures sometimes work, say in the case of India overthrowing British colonial rule, there is little reason to think that it will be the case in general.

So I am not sure where the charge of irrationality comes in. Actually I am. If you are part of an oppressive majority (or in the Iraq case the 20% oppressive minority Sunni), it would be irrational to consent to the idea that you would want to be invaded. But if you are any other Iraqi, naturally you would hope that someone ended your oppression - even at considerable cost. So that being said, can I apply the GR to myself. Yes. If the US government decided to politically disenfranchise me, to the point where (1) there was a dictator and I couldn't freely vote for the candidate of my choice and was thus effectively politically disenfranchised, and (2) I did not have the usual personal liberties like freedom from religious discrimination, freedom of speech, the press, or assembly, (3) my ethnic group was the target of genocidal policies, e.g., the gassing of my town to death, or general rounding up and imprisoning and torturing members of my ethnic group, then yes, I would have to say that I would want to have my country invaded and toppled in favor of a better one.

It is hard to gauge the actual attitude of Iraqis, especially those who benefited from the fall of Saddam Hussein, but a common refrain immediately after the invasion was "Thanks for ousting Saddam, now go home." Attitudes like this indicate that one can be an Iraqi and rationally want Saddam ousted by US violence.

Now nothing I just wrote is all that novel or deep. But it was generally ignored by Meyers. The only hint he makes toward addressing this is the "threshold problem". This says that we needn't do more than the situation warrants. I am unclear what this actually means. It is from the original Just War Theory, that says that the response ought not to be greater than the problem. Earlier on in the article Meyers wisely said that he will not assume any of classical Just War Theory because that would need independent justification, which one can disagree with. So why is he relying on it now? I would never agree to the proportionality constraint. Moreover, a few sentences later he says that "the Ba'ath regime was nowhere near as oppressive as the Taliban government in Afghanistan". Um, I beg to differ. You have to ignore issues of genocide to make that statement. (Recall that as of today Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes against humanity. No such charges are raised against anyone in Afghanistan. Nor has anyone asked for there to be some.)

So in sum, I can make a few banal statements about the disenfranchised of Iraq, and rationally agree to have my country be invaded, yet his article gets published. Why is the Left so exempt form having to put any thought in to their work?

1 comment:

Shosh said...

good post! my head hurts ;)
I hope you don't actually have to pay mempership dues to the American Philosophical Association. What a rip off.