Sophistry and War

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There are those who profess to be conservative who are nothing of the kind.

Case in point: the Afghan war.

For writers such as John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg, the war on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban is a chance to sing paeans to Western civilization.

Which is odd, considering that these writers do not embrace all that is essentially Western, namely, Judeo-Christian ethics and Greek philosophy. To be more precise, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by Machiavelli.

For example, Jonah Goldberg, in the tradition of the sophists of antiquity, contends that “the ends sometimes justify the means.” Goldberg himself will let us know when an evil action may be performed with a good end in mind.

In “Clinching the cliches,” published in the Washington Times on October 20, Goldberg attacks the proposition “the ends never justify the means” by contending that while it is generally unacceptable to break down a man’s door, this is permissible to save him from a heart attack.

Goldberg’s comparison is poorly made. I must confess that I am completing my PhD in Philosophy, and that I not only value clear thinking, but that I view rational argumentation as essential to social order. Goldberg might say, as he has in the past, that it would “take a truckload of Metamucil” to move a LewRockwell.com writer off a minor point. So be it. I would rather be right when it comes to opposing the murder of innocent civilians than I would care to be quick and shallow, or trendy and hip, in my thinking. Serious thinking requires serious study, a serious mind, and a great deal of time. One does not think philosophically merely be deciding that he would like to do so. Philosophical thinking also requires a recognition of one’s own errors, so that one may learn from such errors.

That being said, breaking down a man’s door is a human action which falls under the category of damaging someone else’s property. Like theft, it is wrong, in the moral sense, to intentionally cause such damage for the sake of causing such damage, or to facilitate further evil, such as theft. Accordingly, the common law recognized such intentional damage as a trespass. The common law, by the way, was not created by any Parliament or King; it was recognized by judges as what people already took to be the rules of human behaviour. Common law judges are not supposed to make law, they are supposed to apply the law to a particular case. But I digress.

The problem with Goldberg’s analysis is that he ignores the principle of double effect. If a man acts to save his neighbor from death by heart attack, his action is properly characterized as rescuing his neighbor. It may be that the man smashes down the neighbor’s door to save the neighbor, yet the man did not intend to destroy the door merely to destroy the door.

This is what is known as double effect.

If one were to intentionally destroy someone else’s door merely to do so, this would be wrong. If one seeks to save another’s life, however, such an intermediate action as breaking down a door is subsumed within the larger action of rescuing.

Similarly, if one were to cut open someone’s stomach with a knife, this would be wrong. It is of course emphatically not wrong to cut open someone’s stomach in the course of performing surgery.

In other words, Jonah Goldberg, apparently not having bothered to study moral philosophy or logic, misses the fact that he has mischaracterized the human action at issue. In the example above, it is insufficiently precise to define “cutting” as the human action at issue. Instead, the two human actions which compete for our moral evaluation are killing and healing; cutting, as an action, is insufficiently defined.

Cutting, we might also say, is itself neither good nor evil, but neutral. It depends on the type of cutting, i.e., the end, to determine whether or not Smith ought to cut Jones. Is Smith a surgeon, or is he a robber? But, of course, even if Goldberg had properly defined the human action at issue in the case of breaking down a door to save a man from death, there is an additional step which he has not supported by rational argumentation, namely, the step to justifying the intentional killing of civilians, i.e., noncombatants, also known as innocents, during wartime.

It is more useful to conceive of ethics in the manner of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, namely, as a full evaluation of who is acting and the circumstances in which they are acting. As Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics, generosity is different for a poor man and a wealthy man. Similarly, cutting open a man’s stomach is different for a surgeon and a thief.

If one simply must used the ends and means analysis, however, and the end is “winning the war in Afghanistan,” such an end can never justify an evil means, namely, killing those who do not deserve to be killed, because they are non-combatants, and are thus not attempting to cause harm to the United States. In that regard, if a good end can justify an evil means, then no actions are good or bad in themselves, they are only good or bad by reference to the motives behind such actions.

Men already understand that thievery and murder is wrong. Sophists, however unintentionally, cloud our moral knowledge with argumentation. Suffice it to say that bad philosophy is a failure to make clear distinctions. Sophists do not care whether clear distinctions are made, for sophists disdain truth itself.

The principle of double effect is rather obviously applicable to wartime. During the Gulf War, for example, the Iraqi military stationed anti-aircraft batteries on top of apartment buildings. Was it moral to destroy such anti-aircraft artillery? Yes. To destroy an anti-aircraft battery may be a legitimate act during war. Although it may turn out that destroying the anti-aircraft battery causes civilian casualties, it is a very different matter from intentionally causing the death of civilians.

Which is what has been called for by another alleged conservative and defender of Western civilization, Jonah Goldberg’s fellow-traveler at National Review, John Derbyshire. As Derbyshire writes, during World War Two,

the Royal Air Force firebombed Hamburg, completely leveling eight square miles of the city and slaughtering 40,000 people u2014 most of them civilians u2014 in one night alone. Six months later came the destruction of Dresden, a joint operation with the USAF, in which 135,000 people were incinerated or buried alive. The children of Dresden were in carnival costumes, as it was Shrove Tuesday. From Sir Kingsley Wood to “Bomber” Harris (Arthur Harris, Churchill’s wartime chief of RAF Bomber Command, a strong proponent of massive aerial bombing), you see the coarsening effect of war, the moral slide that always occurs, especially when people come to feel that the existence of their country is at stake.

Accordingly, Derbyshire contends that a similar “coarsening effect” will lead the United States to

mite those enemies hip and thigh, laying waste their cities and fields with our most terrible weapons. When we have won, we shall, of course, do all we can to help rebuild what we have laid waste, in the spirit of magnanimity and foresight that created two stable, prosperous nations out of post-WWII Germany and Japan. But first, we have to win.

First, there was no magnanimity and foresight behind the “creation” of Germany as a stable and prosperous nation after World War Two. The Allies would have been content to leave Germany broken and administered by foreign powers, if it had not been for the sudden realization that the Soviets (whom Goldberg contends it was not merely expedient, but just to ally ourselves with, due to the need to defeat Hitler) posed a threat to Western Europe. There was considerable consternation in the corridors of power in Britain and the USA over the issue of whether the Germans should be re-armed so soon after the defeat of National Socialism. In addition, the Germans themselves adopted free market principles, and thus made themselves prosperous.

Second, and much more importantly, notice that Derbyshire merely argues that war “has a coarsening effect.” He does not argue against this coarsening effect as immoral or contrary to Western cultural values.

And, of course, such targeting of civilians is entirely contrary to Western values, by which I mean Christianity. Whether or not you are a Christian, it cannot be denied that Christianity has defined Western civilization for, roughly, the last 2000 years. (Even if one argues that the West was not Christian until maybe 1600 years ago, it remains the case that what came to be the dominant Western view was Christianity, which began 2000 years ago).

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas addresses the question of killing as follows. First, Aquinas observes that the Commandment does not read “Thou shalt not murder.” It reads “Thou shalt not kill.” The Author of Life has forbidden men to kill. Aquinas, however, notes that killing is permissible in certain circumstances, namely, when the regime uses the authority it has from God, more specifically, in cases of: (1) war; and (2) capital punishment.

God has the power of life and death. God similarly allows his creatures to govern the world politically; we are our brother’s keeper. The power of life and death, then, is delegated to man in very limited circumstances. Notice, however, that Aquinas does not conceive of anything like the modern, secular state. For Saint Thomas, the best regime was the ancient Hebrew state; having the Ark of the Covenant on hand made for a close relationship with the Highest Authority. Similarly, medieval rulers, even those that had never claimed the “divine right” of kings, had their authority from God, i.e., they participated in the Divine governance of the universe, and so they had authority over life and death.

But such authority can be abused. Killing cannot be justified in the abstract, but must be justified in concrete circumstances, in a particular case.

In keeping with the Thomistic tradition, the intentional killing of innocent civilians is regarded as immoral by Christianity. It is contrary to the idea of a “just war,” i.e., a war fought for the right reasons and in the right way. Even capital punishment must be highly circumscribed, so that the punishment fits the crime.

Derbyshire quote’s Paul Johnson to the effect that

the experience of the twentieth century indicates that self-imposed restraints by a civilized power are worse than useless. They are interpreted by friend and foe alike as evidence, not of humanity, but of guilt and lack of righteous conviction.

This is not about to persuade me to abandon my faith. Who are the friends and foes to which Johnson refers? Politicians, and more specifically, 20th-century politicians, i.e., the worst kind of scum. Recall that the 20th century was the most violent and bloody century in the history of the world: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and all that.

Should any self-respecting man care for the opinions of such “great leaders?” Only if the self-respecting man is Machiavelli.

By the way, such concerns of moral philosophy are separate from a concern of political philosophy: the wisdom of performing an act. Although both Augustine and Aquinas maintain that “an unjust law is no law at all,” it does not follow that one must engage in civil disobedience in the face of every injustice. The reason is that disobedience can erode respect for the law, and erode the social order. Disobedience is thus to be taken very seriously, and to be engaged in after a careful weighing of all the relevant circumstances.

Thus, even if one were to concede Goldberg’s claim that the end justifies the means, it is a separate question whether it is always and everywhere a good idea to kill innocent civilians for some higher purpose. This is a practical question. I contend that not only is such killing immoral, it is unwise, meaning imprudent, meaning destined to backfire by causing yet more young boys to grow up wanting to be terrorists. This is not to say that any future acts of terror would be justified. This is merely to say that if you want to make more terrorists, killing civilians is the way to do it.

In closing, those who pass themselves off as conservatives today miss the point where the cultural ramifications of the Afghan war are concerned. Although there are those in the Arab world who dislike the West, and its Christian legacy, the Afghan war is not a genuine cultural war. If it is a cultural war, it is one-sided, for only the Arab world continues to recognize and appreciate, let alone defend, its own culture.

Remember Marxism, political correctness, deconstruction, and feminist literary criticism? They’re not only still around, they’re running the universities today. The West committed cultural suicide decades, if not centuries, ago.

If sophists such as Richard Rorty are correct, and the West has moved from a post-religious age to a post-metaphysical age, then there is literally nothing Western left about the West to defend.

Rorty maintains that the West stands for the proposition that “cruelty is the worst thing that human beings can do to one another.” And yet Rorty believes, because there is no religion and no metaphysics, that there is no truth. And so the distinctive proposition at the core of the Neo-West is rationally indefensible; it is not true because there is no such thing as truth.

Which is to say that the neo-conservative Neo-West is ultimately indefensible.

Which is to say that it is only a matter of time before some other culture comes to dominate the West, also known as the vestiges of Christendom.

In The Question of Christian Ethics, Notre Dame philosophy professor Ralph McInerny writes as follows:

In a famous passage in the Summa contra gentes, Thomas [Aquinas] observes that there are two kinds of truth about God, those which can be arrived at by the use of unaided natural reason, and those which God has deigned to reveal. If God had not revealed it to mankind, we would not know that there are three persons in the Trinity, that Jesus is human and divine, that sins are forgiven by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, and so on. Almost any article of the Nicene creed would illustrate the point. If we are asked why we hold the truth of the Trinity, our answer must be because God has revealed it. Such truths about God, Thomas calls mysteries of faith.

As opposed to what? There are some truths about God that can be grounded in what everyone, believer or not, knows — truths such as that God exists, that there is only one God, that everything other than God depends on him in order to be, and so on. If Thomas is a lot clearer on this distinction than his predecessors, this is because of historical factors…St. Paul’s statement that the Romans’ misbehavior, which he chronicles, was inexcusable because they could “from the things that are made, come to knowledge of the invisible things of God” was from the beginning recognized as saying that pagans can arrive at knowledge of God from their knowledge of the things of this world. Thomas, living at the time when the Physics and Metaphysics of Aristotle became available in the West, was able to compile quite a list of such truths about God that philosophers had acquired. (pp 41-42)

Where am I going with all this? I’ll tell you.

Contemporary, mainstream American culture takes it as a given that one should not believe in God because God does not exist. If this agnostic or atheistic tendency has been arrested after September 11, I am not sure. But religious believers, certainly during the late 1980s and early 1990s, were regarded as quaint, perhaps weird or dangerous, characters.

In a graduate seminar on Philosophy and Religion at the University of Illinois, in 1992, there were exactly three religious men in the group of 15 or so students. Myself and another Roman Catholic, and a Muslim who was once a Roman Catholic seminarian; there was also an atheist Jew. The rest of the group was wholly agnostic or atheist, and they regarded religious believers as a sort of curiosity, pets to be tolerated so long as they appeared harmless and content not to question the reigning secular views.

In short, the mainstream of American culture, or, rather, the elites who control the media and the political realm, are secular.

And yet Thomas Aquinas contends that there are truths about God — including that God exists — which are knowable to any human mind, simply from reflection upon the natural world, including human beings as part of the natural world.

Where does Goldberg come down on Thomistic metaphysics and theology? Where does Goldberg come down on the secular nature of the state whose killings he would justify?

That’s the tough thing about metaphysics and philosophy — they bring you the truth. Many people, rather than accept the truth, or delight in it, rebel against it. Marxism was such a reaction to economic truth.

When Jonah Goldberg attacks “rigid ideological thinking,” he throws away the very essence of Western civilization, namely, the distinctively Western ideology which values individual human beings precisely because they are human beings, and which recognizes truth and reason.

There are certain “rigid ideologues,” known as martyrs, who have died rather than “compromise” their fundamental beliefs. They died in ancient Rome, and men such as Thomas More died more recently (well, in 1535). Thomas More, by the way, was killed by his formerly good friend, King Henry VIII, over a political and theological issue; he would not assent to Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Similarly, Thomas á Beckett was murdered (in 1170) because he dared to defend the independence of the Catholic Church against the English king, Henry II.

Goldberg urges us to forget the idea that right and wrong are different, and to settle for pragmatism, the idea that getting things done is the only thing that matters. Give up on ideas like private property, the sanctity of individual life and liberty, and salivate at the expansion of state power.

No thanks. Goldberg, like Rorty, is a mere sophist.

It is beyond dispute that Christ, and the Old Testament prophets, did not teach mere expedience, but rather taught an adherence to the will of God, i.e., to right and justice. Of course, pre-Christian philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle similarly recognized such “rigid” ideas as truth and justice.

It is more than a little odd to pounce upon the alleged enemies of Western civilization on the one hand, while not defending the essence of Western civilization on the other hand.

It is, in fact, the very opposite of conservatism. It is mere pragmatism, the anti-individual and execrable philosophy of the statist John Dewey. It is the will to power, posing as tradition and right. One might say that this is “cafeteria conservatism,” picking and choosing what elements of Western civilization to “conserve,” much as certain nominal religious believers pick and choose what elements of faith, taught infallibly, they will in fact believe.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the West must choose between nihilism, or a new, doubtless very different Saint Benedict. If the mainstream commentary on the Afghan war is any indication, the West is continuing its slide toward nihilism.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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