Friday, October 31, 2008

Is War Ever Justified?

In the following post, you'll note a contradictory attitude towards war that appears in the post "Heideggarian Proclivities" or "Dove with Hawk-like Vision". I always fight myself on whether or not I think violence is necessary or morally justified. There is a mess of beliefs that I am trying to wrestle with, but honestly, it might take more reflecting than just blog-writing to get some consistency on these beliefs. As a professor of epistemology told me, "Grad school is about practicing ideas." You have to explore whole sections of the mall before you can shop in it effectively so to speak.

I am wondering whether or not such an answer can readily be provided to such a provoking question. Recently, I bought Larry May's edited anthology, War: Essays in Political Philosophy. These questions have been on my mind from some of the readings. Moreover, as the election rolls around, a reflective look of my nation's foreign policy is largely needed. Presidential elections are a good time for a fresh look at the mistakes and successes (if there are any) of our current President, George Bush.

In this post, war is the active strategy of employing violence for the achievement of some end, whether that end be political, economic or other. States justify war in any number of ways: some moral, others more prudentially. For our purposes, I assume the ethical perspective, that is, looking for moral justification as to why we fought Iraq. I argue that a lacking justification from self-defense undermines how justified we are in having ever fought the Iraq War. Consequently, since we lack moral justification for our waging a war, the longer we remain in Iraq the more complicit we are in doing the immoral thing, even though in keeping the peace we are attempting to stabilize a mess we caused.

In order to understand my argument, we need to talk about what it means to justify morally an action. To say that an action is justified morally is to say some action ought to be done for these reasons. There's an "ought" component, an evaluative reason claiming that some party ought to act or refrain from acting. Usually, a state justifies a war in the interest of preserving itself from a threat. If there is no demonstratable threat from a state, then there is no justification for going to war. In Iraq, we found no WMDs, and the threat of no WMDs fosters skepticism about the original justification for war. In so doing, the United States is now seen as acting preemptively on faulty intelligence. It can be said for these reasons that the Iraq War is morally unjustified.

Yet, this is a typical political response. I'm wondering something a bit more narrow. I'm wondering if there are reasons that "go all the way down" in justifying war. Are states ever justified in fighting a war? If you find that the content of morality is distinguishable, then are there duties to wage war? Immediately, I can think of a consequential argument for the non-existence of moral justification for war. If war hurts more people than those who fight in the war, then when a war happens more suffering is engendered by waging it. In other words, the moral cost of the war is too high to be paid, and since any reasonably educated person ought to recognize that more people suffer in wartime than in peacetime, then the promotion of peaceful ends over those favoring violence create more good in the world.

I don't know if this argument goes far enough, yet it does have some strengths. First, any waging of a war must acknowledge the fact that more suffer from wars waged than those that fight in them. This consequential argument is powerful with respect that you can see that it works for whatever your measure of the good, and many types of good--knowledge, pleasure or virtue. War forestalls cultural development, the stability needed to do science, with perhaps the exception of war related research--which is marginal by the standards of all scientific research and many other valuable activities. So, with these strengths why question the consequential argument against war? The limitations comes in the very form of consequential arguments take to justify morally right action, consequences.

Suppose we can formulate a scenario in which the cumulative goods maximized by not fighting war are outweighed by actually fighting in a war. Such an example would be hard to construe, but certainly not impossibly by any stretch of the imagination. Imagine a rogue state with a nuclear arsenal that has harbored technology that it could fight a massive war to confront the entire Western world. Perhaps, significant innovation in artificial intelligence? All the states must come together in orchestrating one decisive campaign against this rogue state (or even a collection of states) to defeat that which threatens all levels of society. On this score, I have always found consequentialism limiting in its capacity to distinguish satisfactory accounts of right and wrong. It would seem that good consequential arguments are relative to the time-slice in which they are made, and that future scenarios could always be imagined in which doing what is prohibited is better than not doing it.

A deontological argument against war preserves our backward-looking glance at our moral intuitions, and is stronger in making sense of not fighting war. Or is it? A deontological theory grounds rightness and wrongness in independent principle, or principles. These principles are grounded in our rationality, God's law or nature. Deontological approaches characterize matters of right and wrong in the language of rights. I believe a general prohibition on fighting war would turn on protecting the rights of those civilians in the field. However, this approach has a shortcoming that can be seen a mile away. Any defense of someone's rights, such as protecting the innocent from harm might rest on not waging a war to endanger the innocent, or waging a war to protecting the innocent from imminent threat. Such a principle would be grounded in a Kantian way (rationality), in the just war tradition (God's law in some instances) and nature.

The trouble in these last two approaches rests, I think, in that deontology is backward looking at our intuitions, and consequentialism is limited by its forward-looking perspective. What is needed, if there is a reason to never fight a war, is a normative theory that can preserve the large negative impact war has on those that suffer from its practice. For this is the wrongmaking property of war--the suffering it causes. I think that virtue ethics capable of giving us what we want. In brief, virtue ethics of the Neo-Aristotelian variety tries to achieve a conception of flourishing for all involved in our community by pinpointing those virtues that get us to live the flourishing life. At this stage, we are at the international level, and the question becomes the flourishing of human beings at large. The question then becomes: Does war ever lead to flourishing?

A Working Introduction to a Project of Mine

I have been focusing as of late on Heidegger's critique of presence. The critique of presence is hard to pin down for someone of analytic background since by presence Heidegger describes the relation either between the traditional subject relating to an object of experience, or the subject as related to its own awareness of itself. Analytical philosophers often have a hard time with the generality and obtuseness of Heideggerian language. However, there doesn't need to be any confusion. The two descriptions of presence are simply propensities that characterize much of the history of ontology, that is, how various philosophers have described the subject's epistemic relation with objects, and the characterization of the transcendental viewpoint of the Cartesian subject as aware of itself. According to Heidegger's thought, the overlooked propensities of presence are biased unquestioned assumptions in the history of metaphysics that require exposure.

In exposing these common interpretive assumptions, Heidegger feels justified in calling them into question, and so he should since no assumption can be left unturned in philosophy. However, what you find in Heidegger is an anti-metaphysical, or what one might call an uncritical dismissal of philosophies that violate/perpetuate a "metaphysics of presence." This assumption has formed the bedrock of European philosophy for the last century, and on its own merits paints a picture of philosophy unlike anything I would call "philosophy." In fact, it is this very dismissal I take issue with. As such, I disagree with Heidegger's conception of the subject and being-in-the-world. Instead, Husserl offers a much better picture of philosophy's capability to provide insight into the very relations Heidegger denies through his critique of presence. One guiding thought motivating this essay beyond Husserl is that if these are biases of our tradition, then the re-emergence of these biases in the history of ontology might be productive for understanding in the Gadamerian sense of "bias" rather than a historic failing on the canonized metaphysicians of Western thought since Plato.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Heideggerian Proclivities

A philosophy professor once remarked to me that philosophies are relative to a time and place. He made this remark in light of being a historian of philosophy--it was a course in political philosophy. At the time, I never thought about it, but when I explore Heidegger's writings, the theme of his Nazism always arises in me. Yet, it's not in the typical "where-is-the-Nazism-in-Heidegger's-philosophy" routine. Instead, my worry is more directed at myself. For I have a belief that can surface in odd ways, and it worries me to no end sometimes that I will end up like Heidegger.

I have an idea of America that is grandoise, reverent and special to my heart. While I do not think the United States is the best country on earth currently, I believe it very well could be. We have the resources, technology and know-how to do so much good in the world. At the turn of the 21st century, President Bill Clinton gave an interview in which he said the challenge facing America in the 21st century is how America uses its power. As an ethicist, I find myself examining political decisions about our foreign policy (in larger scope than the War on Terror). After examination, I have conluded two general beliefs:

1) The American political tradition and its values constitute the best ideal formation of government and Constitution yet known.

2) Given 1) and the fact that human beings are willing to sacrifice their lives for ideals, it follows that I tentatively approve that 1) entails my approval of policies that use violence in order to protect and enforce the benefit of 1)

Given these two beliefs, it logically follows that I approve of war as long as that war protects 1). Now, I don't know how the War on Terror in Iraq protects 1), but certainly the Taliban's unwillingness to cooperate with the force we were ready to bring upon them for sheltering our enemies has justification in light of 1). Thus, I approve of America's campaign in Afghanistan years ago, and fail to see Iraq's contemporary relevance in service of 1).

I have not mentioned reasons why I support 1), and that could be the subject of an entire post. Among some of these features of esteem, I feel that the separation of powers and prevention of tyranny of one branch of government over others to be a great innovation. Secondly, a continual living constitution protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority is the second greatest reason. A fully defensible Bill of Rights outlines and protects freedom and equality. These ideals when universalized to excluded populations find sanctuary in the United States, as long as the rule of law and order are preserved in the United States. With all the money and resources, the United States could, if it so chose, develop the sciences in ways that no other nation could. The list is exhaustive for reasons to favor the United States over other countries.

However, the worry comes back. My love for my home country, no matter if Canada treats me well, shines through. I wish for a better America, and if the chance to revitalize the idea and create anew arose, then I would in a heartbeat go back home to usher in a new America. However, I wonder how much Heidegger is in me at the love for America. Ultimately, compatible with 1) and 2) is a belief in the righteous quest for America to spread its values and ways of life to other parts of the globe. If it is even remotely defensible that the current political organizations of states has as its best version the United States, then the role of the United States -- like Rome -- would be to make other people Roman so to speak. This is entirely defensible if America's way of doing things is the best in principle. Now, I don't think I am as naive as Heidegger, but the danger to put my loves first uncritically stands to reason. I favor violence as a means to make the world safer for the best country on earth, and when I say that out loud, I endorse it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Leiter on Foucault

In a recent post on Leiter's blog, he shares a paper on Foucault he published on SSRN.
I wish to contest a portion of Leiter's text. Rather than specifically arguing for his assertion against Foucault's genealogical method (what I call his socio-historic analyses of various social institutions). On this apparent fatal weakness, Leiter simply asserts:
Yet it is now surely a familiar point in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science that the influence of social and historical factors might be compatible with the epistemically special standing of the sciences as long as we can show that epistemically reliable factors are still central to explaining the claims of those sciences.29 And that possibility is potentially fatal to Foucault's critique. (p. 16)
Mr. Leiter, this is a point you cannot get for free. What I feel you are missing is central to a proper understanding of Foucault, namely, that the sciences are historical activities by human agents. It is not that social and historical factors are alien, and the sciences can be seen as independently from these factors. Instead, science moves in history and culture. It is a human praxis. All that you have done is assert science's independence by philosophical name-dropping, nothing more. Surely, such independence, if won, would be fatal to Foucault's project. On this, there is no doubt. However, the burden of this independence is the very pretension Foucault resists because it is hard to deny the human agency in history and culture.

Moreover, reliability is just a substitute for independent-making feature of science Foucault is analyzing. Let us take an example. Suppose we want to criticize modern day chemistry as implicitly assuming that it is a good thing to master the forces of nature. A historical analysis of the origins of chemistry might tie chemistry to the unlocking of God's secrets in alchemy. Regardless of the reliability of, say, Avogadro's constant for calculating molar masses, the implicit norm of controlling nature is still a feature of the science. The reliability of Avogadro's constant does not negate the cultural and historical norm of controlling nature. Reliability doesn't seem to add anything.

Leiter takes issue with the suspicion Foucault's strategy casts on the special status of the human sciences. For Leiter, suspicion isn't argument, and the lack of substantive proposal is a shortcoming of the genealogical analysis of science through historical and cultural factors.

On the epistemic standing of the current human sciences, all Foucault leaves us with is a suspicion, rather than an argument. Suspicion is, as we have already argued,
epistemically important, but it needs to be supplemented with a critique of the truth of the claims at issue. p. 17
This isn't charitable at all. For Foucault, an interpretation is the argument. It is the whole genealogical aspect of exposing what is implicit through the genealogical method. Perhaps, Foucault is wrong, but meeting Foucault on the grounds of suspicious hermeneutics would, I think, involve showing why Foucault's interpretation is wrong. It seems that Leiter first accepts what Foucault's project is, but fails to meet it head on. Given his editorial supervision of a recent Continental Philosophy anthology, it is reasonable to think Leiter would know what is meant by the hermeneutics of suspicion. He should genuinely show Foucault as committed either to the wrong method completely (challenging this genealogical appropriation of one type of reading of Nietzsche), or committed to offering a different hermeneutics about science (he marginally approaches this with the comments on pedophilia towards the end, but it still remains highly underdeveloped). On the latter, he has nothing to say and on the former he merely asserts a potential fatal shortcoming without really arguing for it, as I have shown above.

Contrary to the tone of this post, I am only aggravated with Leiter. His tone of the essay ends fairly; I only question how he got there in the first place. Certainly, there are features of Foucault that need spelled out by his supporters. However, if we are to take your comments about his work seriously (as demonstrated by a decent exposition on Foucault) than the essential claims of weakness require bolstering of the same type you demand from Foucault's supporters.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reflections on God and Freedom: A Kantian Answer to Religion and Politics

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously declared if God is dead, “then all is permitted.” This is the most famous sentiment for both existential theorists countenancing mankind's existence as contingent and free; on the reverse, Christians underwriting religious conservatism see the liberal challenge of free-thinking atheists as undermining the possibility of a moral world order. For them, while God cannot be dead, endorsing such a view undermines a moral world order necessary for the salvation of humankind. Christians believe that this world will be the eventual fulfillment Christian prophecy, and when that prophecy comes to pass, the stronger the moral world order, the better all our chances are on being on the receiving end of God's promise for salvation. Therefore, one finds politically motivated Christians lining the partisan politics of the Republican Party on major ethical issues from abortion to the death penalty along these lines.

At the outset, I want to be clear. By freedom, I mean not just the politically-loaded term best summarized by Thomas Hobbes as the “absence of external impediments.” External impediments are contrivances of human activity, e.g. imprisonment or depriving of other rights in general. I mean the capacity of individuals to be free in relation to the order of nature itself. Thus, I am not simply talking about those conceptions of freedom of political and moral magnitude. These senses of freedom derive from a larger picture of metaphysical freedom meant here. However, it is also important to mention that this metaphysical sense of freedom is experienced morally.

Orthodox Evangelical Christians advocate that God created mankind and that he gave them free-will. They move from the concept God first to then justify freedom. Within the bounds of this freedom, God suggested a moral code, a way of living that is scripturally-based in what we ought to do. In this view, we are free to transgress against God, and the morality he commands of us. I disagree. I feel that paying attention to the relation of the concepts of God and freedom can shed some light on the overall political motives of the religious right. Ultimately, I argue the reversal of the priority in agreement with Kant. Freedom makes possible our belief in God. This has ramifications for the political story that infuses much of the Evangelical worldview. Like Islam prescribing what ought to be the case in all areas of human life, Evangelical Christians desire what ought to be the case, and such evaluative judgments are undergirded by a religious conceptual story---the concepts of God and freedom. If freedom depends on God, then God can make moral demands on us since he is also the source of the capacity to recognize those moral demands. A person may believe in God is thereby made good on this view.

Reversing the order of freedom to God implies that a person who believes in God is not made good. Instead, a good man must believe in God. In so doing, an awareness of our freedom is needed to make the decision to believe. Any knowing of God must come from our awareness of our freedom, and this is what is meant to subordinate God to the concept of freedom. Kant argues this on purely moral grounds. Our freedom to believe in God secures us from the skepticism that good deeds will have bad outcomes. For the fulfillment of our moral duties requires a belief in the fact that good deeds will have good outcomes. Otherwise, the fulfillment of our duty would severely conflict with the order of things if it is true that good deeds led to the suffering of the innocent and the victimizing of good people.

Issuing from the belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes implies another belief, the end of our short chain of concepts, namely, God. The fact that we believe that good deeds result in good outcomes implies a moral order ensured by God. The moral order is of a different world than the one observed currently. Not believing in the moral world order would admit of despair, and be contrary to our experience of life in general. Thus, Kant can be seen as advocating God qua moral being, and at the very least of the Enlightenment construal, a governor of the world order. On this account, Kant does not think these beliefs about God as a guarantor of a moral world order capable of rational demonstration. Instead, they are “postulates of practical reason.” Since they are not capable of rational proof, Kant is seen as “making room for faith” based solely practical grounds, not theoretical grounds.

As stated above, this reversal of freedom to God has political ramifications, the first being that morality is not dependent on God with respect to its content. Kant can be seen as subjugating all principles to freedom, including God. In this way, morality is a construction and agreement of practical reason, and morality is given an extension, or a lifting up by God. God guarantees the freedom of practical reason to proceed onward by elevating the contingency of human action to the absolute necessity, its categorically bindingness. If God dictated the moral law to us, then we would be no longer free beings, and this removes the capacity of religion to heteronomously impose itself as the standard of right and wrong. Thus, this reversal incapacitates the moral punditry of Evangelicals who wrongly move from the concept God to constraining the bounds of freedom. In addition, a pluralist conception of religion is possible here if the religion in question can integrate this reversal. Moreover, not transgressing the boundary of freedom provides us with a working principle to evaluate religions in a pluralistic climate.

Secondly, by keeping religion in check with reason, the charitable work of religion does with respect to morality can be gleaned as morally valuable, and the faith that engenders such morally valuable actions can be publicly endorsed. On the first, consider a recent conversation I had with a worker of This person told me that much of the work of human-trafficked people and refugee populations in Long Island is done by Catholic Relief Services. Certainly, CRS has its own Catholic mission, but a Kantian perspective allows us to see their work as morally worthy, despite any misgivings we might have of the religious ontology that motivates moral action. In regards to the second feature, many liberals advocate a type of secularism that pits religious citizens against themselves publicly. Such citizens are told to keep their religion to themselves, and their public life is half-alienated between whom they truly are from whom they must present themselves as being. The alienation felt makes people inconsistent within their lives. Such alienation need not endure if the view of religion is kept within the bounds of reason as discussed here. In this way, religion can be made consistent with Kant's “God of freedom” without succumbing to the public alienation one receives in a purely secularized realm of public affairs.

Finally, the political order and institutions have no divine mandate of rational demonstration. Reason is not a tool of faith, nor is faith a tool for theoretical reason since Kant's anti-metaphysical commitments reign in the employment of theoretical reason to never reason beyond the boundaries of experience. Instead, the good will – practical reason – is the ultimate ground on which both the metaphysical impulse of theoretical reason and power of faith turn. For Kant, human life is the center stage of wonder and the moral law. Hence, no scientific proponent of theoretical reason, nor any faith can impose itself as an institution that deprives me of my dignity, my autonomy. I am free, and that is what matters. No matter the directon of political justification, whether liberal technocratic tyranny or conservative religious zealot, no one can override my freedom. Moreover, to act morally is to always presuppose that I act under the capacity of freedom.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Feminist Commitment

Here's a "Hell Yeah" shout out to Linda Alcoff and Sarah Miraglia for an excellent well put essay on why Palin is not a feminist.

Alcoff and Miraglia essay link