"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Against utilitarianism (again)

We knew this already but Johann Hari in this Hogmany piece explicitly nails his colours to the utilitarian mast. On the use of violence, for example:
"No: the only justification for using violence, ever, is a utilitarian one – to prevent even more violence occurring. To choose the least controversial example, innocent people died horrifically in the bombing of Nazi Berlin – but even more people would have died if the bombing had not gone ahead, so it was not only justified but morally necessary."
He then uses this utilitarian calculus to oppose the death penalty under any circumstances, even for Saddam Hussein - a case which he confesses to feeling ambivalent about:
"Does the relief and joy given to a once-tyrannised population outweigh the murder of a human being? No. In the end, I cannot find a morally justifiable explanation for my glee at Saddam’s death. The real test of your belief in human rights is not whether you support them for the innocent – the Marsh Arabs and the Ang Sang Su Kyis. No: it is whether you support them for the disgusting, the depraved, the genocidal – the Saddams."
I don't understand any of this. If you are a utilitarian, why shouldn't the 'relief and joy given to a once tyrannised population' serve as a perfectly good reason for welcoming Saddam's execution? The problem with utilitarianism, as every undergraduate philosophy student understands, is that it cannot in theory rule out the execution of the innocent, never mind a heinous tyrant like Saddam Hussein.

The other problem I have with this is the manner in which Johann links this calculus to war because the only way these can be justified with any degree of certitude is retrospectively. Since I began blogging, I have seen this done in relation to WW2 on a regular basis. Usually in a most ahistorical manner - as if we can know what the body count would have been had, say, the British opted for surrender after Dunkirk.

But, as Oliver Kamm has pointed out in a different context, this is a false calculus anyway because such was the nature of National Socialism, a 'barbarism without limit', that there can be no serious discussion of the consequences had we failed to defeat it.

That those who originally supported the invasion of Iraq and have subsequently recanted their position do not believe this reasoning is applicable to Iraq is something I have no problem understanding at all.

What I do have a problem understanding, though, is where they got their confidence from in the first place? Johann Hari used to be among those argued that who opposed the war should feel ashamed of themselves - now he feels ashamed for supporting it. I'd imagine this would be something of a morally-tortuous roller-coaster ride to find oneself travelling on, although I can't be sure because I don't understand the basis on which the original position was taken.

If you were a utilitarian supporter of the war, why did you do this to yourself? Given that human beings can't predict the future and that wars have especially uncertain outcomes, it was a mistake for utilitarian supporters of the war to accuse those who opposed it of being 'objectively pro-fascist', when they should have restricted themselves to the more limited charge of being 'objectively pro-disutility'. Doesn't have quite the same ring of certitude, does it?


Anonymous said...

Referring to your last paragraph, the accusations of being 'objectively pro-facism' may have had something to do with the fact that being anti-war effectively supported the status quo - i.e. Saddam stays in power, sanctions continue, he eventually dies and hands it on to another psycho like Uday. No other alternatives were offered by the anti-war crowd. The war was seen as an attempt to break the status quo and move the country in a better direction. Unfortunately this has not been very successful. Being seen to do something rather than nothing probably impelled many pro-war supporters to adopt their position. I'm not sure that this is less morally sound than just shrugging the shoulders and inviting the Iraqis to just suck it up as far as Saddam was concerned. Enough of the dribble, I need to find a job.

keelie said...

I like what "Anonymous" has to say. (I was once "Anonymous" myself.) The whole point is that words and moral fantasy can't be effective when you're on the wrong end of a gun or knife. At that point simple earthy nature kicks in and one's reactions are immediate and quite different from those one has while sitting quietly well away from the action. Visceral.

Let's get real. Let's consider first, that we live in a world that is simply a slaughterhouse; everything is killing (and often eating) everything else. There's a hierarchy of things feeding off other things. The food chain. We try to narcissistically convince ourselves that we humans are superior to all this mayhem; well above all that nastiness, but this superiority is merely a fantasy.

Let's look at reality in a more unusual way. Consider a Zen Master, some of whose students I know, who had one student who happened to be the target of a hit-man (as he was himself). His approach? Buy a gun. If someone tries to shoot you, kill him first if you can. The word "but" didn't manifest once in his instruction to his student. There were no conditions.

Two situations that, if I'm not mistaken, clash with our carefully cultivated belief systems regarding "normal" morality.

Bob-B said...

I don't see what was wrong with 'objectively pro-fascist'. Those who opposed Saddam's removal were saying that his fascism was the best that Iraqis could hope for for the foreseeable future. They believe the current situation shows that they were right. They have to hope that the situation will be much the same in five or ten years time. Otherwise it may be hard for them to go on claiming that they were right.

Shuggy said...

What I meant was that the charge of being 'objectively pro-fascist' implies a judgment about the character of the regime beyond an assessment of its disutility. Johann Hari and others are now saying in effect that they no longer believe this was justified. The question is, why?

Planeshift said...

"although I can't be sure because I don't understand the basis on which the original position was taken."

In Johann's case, his career. A young journalist fresh out of Uni, he needed a niche to establish himself. "I'm young, gay, take class A's, oppose the IMF...yet I'm pro-war". All of a sudden he gets access to the senior new labour establishment (he would have never got the interview with Blair if he was anti-war) whilst still being able to be anti-establishment. His market value to both the media and spin doctors increased a great deal.

Shuggie Murphy said...

Well bugger me - another shuggie, sorry shuggy.
Just read some of your stuff. makes a lot of sense.
I've tried beiong structured in my web-publishing, but the Daily Liar is as far as it got. I stopped a couple of years ago after a few years of therapy, but the unbelievable guff going on just now tempts me to take up the e-pen once more. Hope to bump into you at one of the many open mic sessions in North London.

Sid said...

I think because Johan Hari realised that objective-utilitarianism has a price that it wasn't willing to take human-cost into the calculus, and which outweighed it's theoretical benefit. You know, the killing and the torture and the destruction: that kind of thing.

Perhaps he wasn't willing to remain in the closet of anti-utility whilst living the lie of posing as an objective pro-utility/anti-facist.

Or maybe he's just bi-curious.

CuriousHamster said...

With regard to certitude as to the outcome of the invasion of 2003, I have to say that I find Kamm's piece to be disingenuous at best.

He approvingly quotes: "There are … several powerful counterarguments to the claim that post-Saddam Iraq was destined to be chaotic." The quoted passage then explains what could have been done differently but this is a straw man.

Kamm goes on say that "predictions of a ‘cakewalk’ in Iraq were frivolous. But the chaotic state of Iraq today was neither the inevitable nor even the probable outcome of intervention."

The problem is that he cannot say that "the chaotic state of Iraq today was neither the inevitable nor even the probable outcome of this intervention".

The mistakes which were made were an inevitable consequence of the fact that those who commanded the invasion did think that it was going to be a "cakewalk". They underestimated the difficulties they would face to an enormous degree and as a consequence, they were not prepared for them.

This unforgivable misjudgement by the architects of the invasion was well known before the event and this meant that it was actually perfectly possible to see that the consequences of this intervention were going to be extremely chaotic.

While I agree that it was not inevitable that post-Saddam Iraq was destined to be chaotic, Bush, Cheney and co.'s lack of understanding of what they would face there meant that I couldn't say the same about consequences of the 2003 invasion. Nothing that has happened over the last four years has caused me to reconsider that position.

Looking to the future, there are those, like Bob, who say that if the situation in Iraq improves in 5 or 10 years time, this will fully justify the war. This is based on the assumption that this war was the only possible way that Iraq could have been changed for the better in that period, that it was only possible to do it this way with the enormous loss of life and chaos that has accompanied it. That's an interesting subject to be certain of. To me, that really does seem to be departing into the realm of crystal balls and sheep's entrails.

By the way Bob, do you support immediate military action to remove Kim Jong Ill or are you "objectively pro shortarse Stalinist maniacs"? I'm not trying to be confrontational but by your own standards, you must be one or the other and I'm curious to know which it is.

Anonymous said...

I'm an anti-war turned pro-war utilitarian. I marched against the war cos I thought the neocon fascists would win. Now they're losing I'm all in favour.

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