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Anti-PC League

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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Morality, Reason, Ideology, John McCain...

Charles Krauthammer makes some of the same points in his article in National Review that I have made on this blog. He also breaks through the black-and-white arguments and argues honestly about the moral dilemma brought on by this subject, and the practical considerations we must take into account.

A couple of his points:
First, there is the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle. There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head. His detention has but a single purpose: to keep him hors de combat....Second, there is the captured terrorist. A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war....He is entitled to no protections whatsoever. People seem to think that the postwar Geneva Conventions were written only to protect detainees. In fact....The idea was to deter the abuse of civilians by promising combatants who treated noncombatants well that they themselves would be treated according to a code of dignity if captured--and, crucially, that they would be denied the protections of that code if they broke the laws of war and abused civilians themselves.

Which is true, technically those terrorists within GITMO and reported to be held in the CIA's "black sites" do not fall under such conventions, as the very modus operandi of a terrorist is to threaten, harm, and ultimately coerce civilian populations to meet a political or military end, rather than doing so via political or military means. And as the Geneva Conventions clearly state, one who breaks the conventions is no longer legally able to claim protection from them.

The danger in providing for terrorists all the considerations and rights provided by the Geneva Conventions (which again, was written to discourage the very act of terrorism) is that it threatens to legitimize them. Terrorism should never be legitimized, regardless of the cause. It is a foul and barbaric act that should be treated as such in order to discourage it.

Mr. Krauthammer also touches on another issue I feel is at the source of the whole debate, the concept of a black-and-white level of moral absolutism:
Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.....Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Yes, you say, but that's an extreme and very hypothetical case. Well, not as hypothetical as you think. 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......That is why the McCain amendment, which by mandating "torture never" refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of any moral calculus, cannot be right. There must be exceptions. The real argument should be over what constitutes a legitimate exception.

Some of you may be balking already, maybe even feeling that the (heavily abridged) points above are cruel, inhuman, and only worthy of a fascist autocracy where people are gassed and thrown into ovens.

That's what I feel we must address: The concept that a general moral stance can have no moral exceptions.

Often I refer to "ideology", usually in the negative; that is because in my view, an ideology is a system of belief that one holds to be so true that it is absolute and can be easily applied to every situation without objective analysis as to the value of the results. Ideologies, whatever they may be, have become a sort of "secular religion" among many, often taught in our universities, schools, and the shelves of the local bookstore and library.

There is also a difference between an ideology and a belief. One who simply believes can understand that logically there are exceptions, however unpleasant one finds them emotionally, to every view. An ideologue makes no such exceptions, and will even reject facts and logic to the contrary. These people can be found in almost every political movement and often are involved in advocacy groups, whether it's environmentalism, animal rights, gay-rights, socialist, Libertarian, Democrat, Republican, pacifist/anti-war, etc. If you name it, there will be someone in it that will take the cause to the extreme.

Yes, I myself have occasionally slipped near the edge on this issue. I often proclaim the virtues of a free-market, capitalism, and small government; I also realize that there are exceptions. An absolutist-view of democracy and personal rights does not result in an effective military; government must be relied on to build some infrastructure (such as roads and bridges) and protect the citizenry from force and fraud; welfare is permissible among those who are physically and mentally disabled, and so on.

However, even these points can be argued and be given exception to a certain degree. I say a "certain degree" because there must be limits, or else we have argued ourselves into a circle without a 'moral compass' to straighten ourselves out. Yes, this implies that there are instances where moral absolutes do exist, and must be fought for. There inlies the point, while your compass may point you into a particular direction you must be able to deviate a little in order to get around obstacles while still maintaining course.

Let's look at some other issues:

1) The pro- and anti- abortion movements, where those on both sides of the issue could make exceptions for (i.e. when a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother) or against it (in the case of late-term or partial-birth abortions).

2) The pacifist movement that believes there is no case for killing. Yet in self-defense, or in the defense of another, one can see where it is permissible. Sometimes even when one's self-defense is not imminently at stake - as when the U.S. defeated Hitler, or in the current war - or, in the execution of a serial killer, one may kill as a means of justice or deterrence.

After many examples of how moral absolutism can lead to a immoral result, Mr. Krauthammer wraps-up this part of his arguments against McCain with this [emphasis mine]:

.....Faced with a similar choice, an American president would have a similar obligation. To do a deeply immoral betrayal of a soldier and countryman. Not as cosmically immoral as permitting a city of one's countrymen to perish, as in the Ethics 101 case. But it remains, nonetheless, a case of moral abdication--of a kind rather parallel to that of the principled pacifist. There is much to admire in those who refuse on principle ever to take up arms under any conditions. But that does not make pure pacifism, like no-torture absolutism, any less a form of moral foolishness, tinged with moral vanity. Not reprehensible, only deeply reproachable and supremely impracticable. People who hold such beliefs are deserving of a certain respect. But they are not to be put in positions of authority. One should be grateful for the saintly among us. And one should be vigilant that they not get to make the decisions upon which the lives of others depend.

I encourage all of you to read the Krauthammer article, it takes a very good, but very hard look - rife with practical examples - at the implications and contradictions of the McCainist argument against anything percieved as torture. Yet I think we all need to go deeper and realize how a absolutist-view of the issues of our day is shaping society, and how we ourselves must be willing to balance our beliefs with reason and practicality.