Historical Explanation and Moral Justification

by Gene Callahan

Imagine that I have just "done in" my grandma. Unfortunately for my plans, the police arrive before I can make my get away.

"But, don’t you see," I tell them, "my act was not criminal at all: Grandma was ill and would have died in a few years anyway. Furthermore, she was very rich, and I am her sole heir. And, I plan to use my inheritance to open an AIDS clinic in Africa, alleviating a lot of suffering."

The police, of course, will arrest me despite my explanation. I am guilty of a category error: I have mistaken the reasons I acted as I did for a justification of my action.

On the other hand, when my case comes to trial, the district attorney will doubtlessly be very interested in my story, and will present it to the jury as the motive for my crime. Few people would mistake his description of my motive for an attempt at exonerating me. He is not attempting to convince the jury that what I did was justified, but to present a narrative that explains why I did it, making the case against me more persuasive.

The mode of historical discourse is that of just such explanations. The historian qua historian is not concerned with the morality of a course of action. He is concerned with explaining why that course of action, and not some other, actually was chosen. The result of his efforts is a coherent narrative that describes how historical events arose from various actors’ understanding of their circumstances.

Moral justification does not concern itself with such explanations, but, instead, with whether or not some action conformed to a tradition of moral practice. A genuine moral justification must attempt to show that the person defended really was acting in accordance with the relevant moral rules. Ethically speaking, I can defend myself against a charge of murder only by showing that what I did was not, in fact, a violation of the rule forbidding murder — for instance, because Grandma was coming at me with a butcher knife. In that case, I am acquitted of murder not because I had a good reason to commit a murder, but because what I did was a killing in self-defense and therefore was not a murder.

But it is easy to lose track of these distinctions in more complex circumstances, especially those playing out within a broad historical context, involving many governments and numerous individuals, and encompassing a multitude of lesser events. So it is not surprising to find a great deal of confusion about these categories in the commentary following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. But confusion is not likely to be helpful in a crisis, so it’s important to dispel the foggy thought, to whatever extent possible. I’ll present and analyze some instances of this error, as it is valuable to be able to spot this confusion when it arises.

To begin, we can contemplate chastizing Justin Raimondo and Harry Browne: "Raimondo and Browne have attempted to mitigate terrorists' accountability for massacring thousands of Americans [by blaming American foreign policy for the attacks]."

But if you read the articles by Browne and Raimondo, you’ll find that they consist of historical analysis of how US policies were precursors to the attacks, along with a few lines of "I told you so," contending that an event like this should have been foreseen. Such analysis may be wrong, but it can only be countered by other historical narratives, specifically, by those that make better sense of the events in question. The evocation of “autonomous choice” as a refutation of Browne and Raimondo is a symptom of confused thinking. Historical explanation presupposes the category of autonomous choice, and proceeds to explain why one choice was made rather than another.

For example, an historical narrative tracing the roots of World War II back to Versailles is not claiming that Hitler was "caused" to act as he did. History does not deal with cause and effect, categories of the physical sciences, but with understood situations and conscious responses to them. And to construct a coherent historical narrative that explains, for instance, Hitler’s hatred of Jews, in no sense excuses his actions toward Jews.

But let’s move on to our next case in point. Jamie Glazov wrote a piece for FrontPage entitled, "It Doesn't Matter ‘What Made These People So Angry.’ What Matters is to Eliminate Them."

Glazov wonders if we should ask why the terrorists were angry "…for the sake of minimizing their responsibility so that blame can be attributed to the United States?" He answers his own question: "No, I don't think so."

But an understanding of what made the terrorists angry is not an excuse for what they have done, or an attempt to blame someone else for their actions. (In Glazov’s defense, it must be said that a few of the people pleading for understanding do regard historical circumstances as an excuse for the attacks: see John O’Sullivan’s recent article in NRO for some examples.) Somewhat oddly, immediately after concluding that we don’t have to contemplate what made these people angry, Glazov launches into an explanation of what made them angry. Perhaps he means that no explanations other than his should be considered.

In two other articles evaluating the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Glazov attempts to justify the American actions through an account of the historical circumstances that led to the decision to drop the bombs. Because Glazov has confused historical explanation with moral justification, he rejects any historical approach toward actions of which he does not approve, but employs just such an approach in attempting to justify actions of which he does approve.

Similarly, and again in FrontPage, Chris Weinkopf criticizes "the return of moral equivalence":

"By this logic, targeting innocent civilians is an offense roughly on par with defending the Middle East's lone democracy, maintaining bases in a Muslim country with that government's approval, liberating one Arab nation from the occupation of another, or using sanctions to thwart a tyrant's unchecked nuclear-weapons program."

Weinkopf has shifted realms of discourse, from moral to historical, in mid-sentence: the evil of the terrorists is shown by the methods through which they seek their ends (and here he is quite correct), but the goodness of America is illustrated, with the sole exception of the Saudi bases, by the ends it seeks: exactly the tactic he correctly forbids his opponents. (Consider that a "justification" such as "defending the Middle East's lone democracy" can be used to excuse anything that achieves that end, including pre-emptive nuclear strikes on all countries within some radius of that "lone democracy." Asserting a worthy end simply does not justify every action that might help achieve that end.)

We see this confusion again in a Washington Post article by Charles Krauthamer, where he closes by saying: "This is no time for obfuscation. Or for agonized relativism. Or, obscenely, for blaming America first… This is a time for clarity. At a time like this, those who search for root causes, for extenuations, are, to borrow from Newsweek’s Lance Morrow, ‘too philosophical for decent company.’"

But a clear moral condemnation of the terrorist acts is not at all incompatible with a clear historical understanding of the circumstances that led to those acts. Such historical comprehension does not involve blame, moral relativism, or "root causes." (Again, in Krauthamer ‘s defense, it must be said that some of the people he’s arguing against do confuse an historical explanation with a physical cause.) An historical explanation does not equate or render relative various moral choices, because it is not making any sort of moral pronouncements at all. It is a search for clarity, not obfuscation, although the clarity it provides is historical and not moral.

To attack every effort at historical understanding as moral equivocation is not mere intellectual confusion. If we fail to comprehend our historical situation, we condemn ourselves to fighting with our eyes closed. As Edward Said says, "Intellectually, morally, politically such an attitude is disastrous since the equation between understanding and condoning is profoundly wrong…"

2001, Gene Callahan

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