Tag Archives: Morality


Because my knowledge of the Palestinian conflict is pretty shallow, I’ll refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Israel’s recent military action. However, I think a renewed outbreak of violence raises broader questions about proportionality and the legitimacy of military retaliation that deserve to be addressed.

At Conventional Folly, I went a few rounds with Sonny Bunch over whether policymakers should consider “proportionality” when formulating a military response to terrorist attacks. You could read Bunch’s comments, but Ramesh Ponnuru has the Cliffs Notes version in the Washington Post:

Critics of Israeli military action say that it is “excessive” or “disproportionate” to Hamas’s provocation. But that’s the wrong way to think about proportionality in war. The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be “proportionate” in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That’s a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.

The newfangled proportionality standard has several perverse implications, not the least of which being that military victories would almost always be considered morally illegitimate.

In this context, enemy combatants – whether they’re members of an opposing military or an irregular guerrilla force – are fair game because they’re willing participants in armed conflict. Ideally, we’d like to minimize military deaths on both sides, but voluntarily signing up for armed service is entirely different from getting caught in the crossfire.

So if the Israeli military suddenly assassinated every single Hamas operative, I doubt anyone would call their response “disproportionate.” But of course that’s not what happened, so we’re left weighing the collateral damage incurred by Israeli strikes against the prospect of continued rocket attacks. So far, the death toll in Gaza appears to be winning.

Some commentators seem to think that Israel is morally obligated to retaliate whenever its citizens’ lives are threatened. I understand the political logic of this approach – would any politician have the guts to stand up and tell his constituents to “sit back and take it?” – but I don’t understand why retribution should outweigh the prospect of Palestinian civilian casualties. Unless we’ve decided that the safety of Israeli citizens should always take precedence over the condition of their Palestinian counterparts,  I think the moral imperative to spare as much innocent life as possible should be the determining factor when considering retaliatory military action. If an Israeli military response leads to more civilian casualties than the alternatives, I don’t think such action can be considered morally appropriate.


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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Terrorism

Bad Framing

This strikes me as a bad way to go about arguing against torture:

There’s something intuitive about torture. Hurt something until it breaks. The phrasing of the the 24 scenario plays implicitly on that intuition: Do you do the thing that works and saves lives? Or do you let abstract principle ensure the deaths of thousands? Framed thus, it’s an easy argument to win. When applied to policy, though, it directly ensures the deaths of thousands and fails to capture the worst of the terrorists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture is ineffective under most circumstances, though I suspect that Reuel Marc Gerecht, for all his ideological posturing, knows quite a bit more about the efficacy of coercive interrogation than the American Prospect’s resident health care blogger. Regardless, it’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario in which traditional interrogation methods are rendered inoperative. Perhaps an interrogator is faced with certain time constraints. Or perhaps a particularly hardened suspect simply refuses to break. In 2005, Charles Krauthammer summarized our dilemma thusly:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion–yes, in this case even torture is permissible–is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you’ve established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that’s left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when–i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Moreover, there are empirical examples that prove his point. Consider the following excerpt from a Washington Post article in 2005:

Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.

“If we’d been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held,” Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines.

My larger point isn’t that torture is appropriate or morally justified; simply that objecting to the practice on purely pragmatic grounds cedes too much to advocates of  coercive interrogation. There will always be instances where torturing a suspect is more expedient or effective than the available alternatives. But the case against detainee mistreatment was never a tactical one. It has always been grounded in an important moral insight: human dignity should not depend on the whim of circumstance. I think it’s foolish and morally dishonest to suggest that a blanket prohibition on torture will never hamper our intelligence-gathering capabilities. But some things are simply more important.


Filed under Morality, Terrorism


JL Wall and Mark were kind enough to respond to my original post on torture (read the comments section – Mark offers a few thought-provoking scenarios). The discussion at John Schwenkler’s place has also been excellent. My thinking on this subject isn’t particularly systematic, so I’ll restrain myself to two additional points:

  1. I think the War on Terror framework is silly and counter-productive, but the recent tragedy in India demonstrates the omnipresent risk of extremist violence in any open society. Opponents of torture should be forthright in acknowledging this risk, even to the point of conceding that certain restrictions on intelligence gathering are likely to hamper our efforts to reduce terrorism. Too frequently, the debate over interrogation methods revolves around whether a particular technique is effective or not. As I’ve said earlier, one can easily imagine scenarios where torture is the only pragmatic method of interrogation. In some other cases, it may be ineffective, but a purely utilitarian calculus will always allow for a few narrow exceptions. The case against torture, however, was never a pragmatic one; some practices are morally wrong, regardless of circumstance, and we should not be ashamed to make this point.
  2. I liked the framing in JL Wall’s original post. All people should be entitled to a certain standard of humane treatment. If basic human decency is entirely dependent on the whim of circumstance, I’m not sure there’s much point to codifying “inalienable” rights.

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Filed under Morality, Terrorism

More on Catholicism

Douglas Kmiec has penned a frustrating LA Times op-ed on abortion and Obama:

So can Catholics vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is yes, but as I found when I publicly endorsed Obama, you’ve then got “some ‘splain’n’ to do.” It’s a matter of conscience, but had Obama proclaimed himself to be pro-choice and said nothing more, it would have been problematic. But there are those additional words about appropriate education as well as adoption and assistance for mothers who choose to keep their baby.

This is not just debate posturing. It is consistent with Obama’s successful effort to add language to the Democratic platform affirming the choice of a mother to keep her child by pledging pre- and post-natal care, funded maternity leave and income support for poor women who, studies show, are four times more likely to pursue an abortion absent some tangible assistance.

Some might ask, isn’t John McCain, the self-proclaimed “pro-lifer,” still a morally superior choice for Catholics? Not necessarily. McCain’s commitment, as he stressed in the debate, is to try to reverse Roe vs. Wade. But Republicans have been after this for decades, and the effort has not saved a single child. Even if Roe were reversed — unlikely, in my judgment — it merely transfers the question to the states, most of which are not expected to ban abortion. A Catholic serious about preserving life could reasonably find Obama’s educational and material assistance to mothers the practical, stronger alternative.

What I find most interesting about the article is that Kmiec implicitly accepts Professor George’s formulation: for whatever reason, abortion as a political issue is considered separately from the economy, war, civil liberties, and social welfare. Not only does this put Kmiec at an argumentative disadvantage – he’s left attempting to convince us (himself?) that an Obama Administration will do more than McCain ever would to reduce abortions – it’s also surprisingly blinkered. Clearly, a more considered approach to war and peace says something about the value we assign human life. Why shouldn’t other moral issues weigh against the number of abortions each candidate is likely to condone?

It’s entirely possible that McCain, by virtue of his realist inclinations and high-profile opposition to torture, is a better across-the-board candidate for protecting the sanctity of human life. But I’m left wondering why Kmiec doesn’t endorse a more holistic assessment of the candidates. If nothing else, it would make his arguments a lot more persuasive.

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Filed under Conservatism, Presidential Politics, Religion

Moral Consequentialism and the Right

From NRO’s Corner, Michael Rubin:

Senator Obama’s senior advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Israeli counterterrorism and efforts to drive Hezbollah from Lebanon was little different from deliberate murder of hostages.

It would be good to hear Sen. Biden clarify whether, when he spoke of driving Hezbollah out of Lebanon, he agrees with Obama’s senior mentor who seems to believe that doing so is murder.  Frankly, it would be better to hear from Obama and his senior advisors whether they agree with Brzezinski.

Brzezinski’s comments in context (emphasis mine):

So I do not see Israel being able to change the mindset of the peoples involved and particularly not by use of force. Use of force can achieve certain short-term objectives, perhaps even today in Lebanon provides Israel some modest success in interdicting some Hezbollah military capability. But use of force breeds its own antithesis: the mobilization of deeper resistance, the radicalization of those around you, and a growing sense of outrage and determination to survive.

I hate to say this but I will say it. I think what the Israelis are doing today for example in Lebanon is in effect, in effect–maybe not in intent–the killing of hostages. The killing of hostages. Because when you kill 300 people, 400 people, who have nothing to do with the provocations Hezbollah staged, but you do it in effect deliberately by being indifferent to the scale of collateral damage, you’re killing hostages in the hope of intimidating those that you want to intimidate. And more likely than not you will not intimidate them. You’ll simply outrage them and make them into permanent enemies with the number of such enemies increasing.

Granted, Rubin’s just trying to score a few cheap points here, but his post raises a larger question. Is Brzezinski right and killing innocent civilians during a military campaign ethically indistinguishable from executing hostages in cold blood? Or should we all share Rubin’s indignation at the very suggestion of moral equivalence?

I don’t believe Bush invaded Iraq at the behest of a cabal of oil companies or because he’s a bloodthirsty maniac; in fact, I’m reasonably confident his intentions were quite noble. September 11th and its aftermath evidently had a profound effect on his worldview. Bush’s sincerity was also evident when he spoke of the need to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Does that mean we should judge his tenure less harshly? My own view is conflicted. I don’t think an Israeli fighter-pilot who accidentally kills civilians during a raid is the moral equivalent of a Hizbollah suicide bomber. His intentions are pure, and the mission was undoubtedly provoked by a perceived threat to Israeli security. Needless to say, the Israeli Air Force also takes greater precautions against civilian casualties than Hizbollah’s militiamen ever will.

But if the outcome of the Israeli fighter pilot’s mission is the same as Hizbollah’s latest suicide bombing, I’m not sure if Brzezinski’s conclusion is too far off the mark. For the people most affected by the attacks – namely, the victims – the results are nearly identical. With Iraq, Bush’s moral intentions are also quite irrelevant to the real humanitarian consequences of our invasion.

After Iraq, the Right’s moral certainty remains unshaken: our intentions were noble and the consequences of the war don’t implicate them. But my convictions have changed, and Brzezinski’s comments suggest I’m not alone. Ultimately, enhancing our own awareness of moral consequentialism is probably the best way to ensure we pay closer attention the next time we’re faced with the prospect of war.

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Filed under Conservatism, Foreign Policy

Libertarianism, reconsidered

Joe Carter posts a lengthy critique of libertarianism. Do read the whole thing, but I think this quote sums up his argument:

The primary flaw in libertarianism is that it is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics. Without a person developing the corresponding moral character necessary for self-restraint, his liberty is bound to result in the harm of others. In fact, freedom without virtue is corrosive and will destroy everything within its range. The Founding Fathers understood this connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry when they founded our republic. “‘Tis substantially true,” George Washington wrote in his farewell address, “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the first level of government (the individual conscience) to the last (the state). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue ethics, but it cannot be a substitute. Since it is based on the utilitarian principle that puts liberty, rather than eudaimonia as the chief end of man, libertarianism undermines order and becomes a self-defeating philosophy.

If libertarianism is best understood as a utilitarian philosophy, we should stick to evaluating the empirical validity of policies advocated by libertarians. Saying that libertarian philosophy lacks virtue ethics isn’t attacking libertarianism per se, it’s attacking the broader assumptions of modern liberalism, which holds that politics is about maximizing citizens’ freedom of action and quality of life.

So while libertarians, progressives, and moderates may disagree about means, we generally agree on ends, or what should constitute a ‘good society’. This isn’t to suggest that progressives and libertarians share that much in common, but we are operating under the same set of core assumptions.

So what do conservatives mean when they say libertarians (or liberals) lack “virtue ethics?” Liberalism, broadly understood, doesn’t seek to coerce people into adhering to a particular moral worldview. We may embrace paternalism to enhance the quality of life of individual citizens, but we generally shy away from forcing people to adopt certain values. In this respect, liberal philosophy is extremely inclusive.

Does this mean that libertarianism (or liberalism) is inconsistent with morality? Not necessarily. One of liberalism’s core assumptions is that morality flourishes when government stays out of the way. Given the United States’ robust tradition of religious toleration, this isn’t an unreasonable position. The law’s problematic history of enforcing morality (see, for example, Prohibition or the War on Drugs) also lends credence to this argument.

So the most persuasive critique of liberalism is not that it fails to enforce a sustainable moral order, but that it actively undermines traditional morality by implicitly supplanting ethical virtue with its own emphasis on “material pursuits.” This recent post from Patrick Deneen offers one of the better explanations for why liberalism is not a morally neutral framework of governance, and why liberalism’s core assumptions often undermine personal virtue.

So my question to conservatives is this: What do you mean by terms like “ordered liberty?” Liberty as understood by liberals and libertarians means freedom of action constrained only by the rights of others. How would you define conservatism’s alternate frame of reference? If we concede that government is never really a value-neutral actor, what guidelines should define our approach to public morality? Whose moral values should we adopt as our lodestar? Should the process be majoritarian, or should we rely on some other source(s) of authority for determining public virtue?

I’m pretty familiar with the conservative critique of liberalism, but it always leaves me wondering what the alternative to liberal governance would look like. So conservatives – here’s your shot. (Un)enlighten me!


Filed under Conservatism, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy