Moral Rhetoric vs. Reality

by | May 13, 2021

Moral Rhetoric vs. Reality

by | May 13, 2021

john stuart mill by london stereoscopic company, c1870

Philosophers tend to divide normative theories of morality into two broad categories: deontological and teleological. Deontological theories prioritize right action over good outcomes. If an action is wrong, then it is intrinsically wrong, regardless of the consequences which may ensue. The Ten Commandments and Kant’s Categorical Imperative are classic examples of deontological theories, and the libertarian non-aggression principle (NAP) is another one: Do not initiate violence against any person or damage or steal his property. Teleological theories, in contrast, define rightness in terms of goodness. One determines what to do in part—if not exclusively—by considering the likely outcomes or consequences of one’s prospective action.

Arguably the most famous teleological theory is utilitarianism, articulated by British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to the simplest formulation of utilitarianism, what one should do is always act so as to maximize the good outcomes (happiness or pleasure or something else positive—Bentham and Mill called this “utility”), and minimize the bad outcomes (unhappiness or pain or something else negative) for the greatest number of people. Without delving too deeply into what consistently applied utilitarianism would actually entail, the idea seems prima facie reasonable to many, and is appealing to “social justice warriors” and others who believe that the government has and should play an important role in improving the lot of the citizenry through engineering the society in which they live. This basic outlook informs socialist economic theories according to which wealth should be redistributed so that the goods of society are shared rather than “hoarded” by the small percentage of the population comprising the elites.

The theoretical problem with utilitarianism is that there is no hard limit on what can be done to a few people in the name of the net good of the greater group. Everything is, in principle, permissible, depending only on the context and likely consequences. If torturing or killing one innocent person will save the rest of humanity, then it may in fact be the right thing to do, according to utilitarianism. The hypothetical scenarios used to elicit utilitarian responses tend to be highly simplistic, such as the “Trolley problem” discussed in many college ethics courses. One version of the Trolley problem involves a conductor who must decide whether to kill five people (say, senior citizens) on one track, or to divert his car to another track and thereby kill three other people (say, toddlers). Those who devise such thought experiments are attempting to isolate the variables, rendering it possible to gauge sympathies for or against utilitarianism in spite of the inherent complexities of reality.

Because human beings live in societies, the political realm abounds with utilitarian-esque rationalizations for any- and everything. Currently many of those calling for universal vaccination against COVID-19 are reasoning as utilitarians when they presume that the relatively small number of outlier deaths and severe harm caused to a few of those vaccinated will be vastly outweighed by the lives saved. Those who decline vaccination are denounced in the harshest of terms as “selfish,” when in fact they may simply disagree with either the projected result (that millions of people will be saved from the virus and few killed by the vaccines) or else the risk calculation in their own case, based on the statistical data for COVID-19 vulnerability and the complete absence of data on longterm vaccine side effects. That competent individuals alone should make determinations of which risks to assume is a deontological position, denying as it does that “the greater good” is a sound pretext for stripping persons of their liberty and right to control their own body. Forced vaccination would constitute a flagrant violation of the libertarian’s non-aggression principle, so for libertarians who support universal vaccination, the only consistent approach is to persuade others to join them in rolling up their sleeves.

On the economic front, one occasionally finds people today explicitly asserting that humanity would be much better off, for example, if all of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s massive wealth were taken from him and used to put an end to world hunger. The people who make such suggestions (when they are serious), appear to assume that the accumulation of wealth is a zero-sum game, and they reject the “trickle-down” economic theories which may inform a more liberty-forward approach. Supporters of a socialist agenda are wont to ignore the lessons of failed experiments such as that of the former Soviet Union, maintaining that if only socialism were implemented correctly, then the world would be a better place. Needless to say, the persons to be harmed in such hypothetical scenarios tend not to agree with what would be the sacrifice of themselves or their property for the greater good of everyone else. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have been known to take aim at Bezos despite the fact that each owns multiple houses but neither offers them (as far as I know) as shelter to persons worse off than themselves. Critiques of the “failure” of Amazon to pay any taxes are especially odd coming from the very legislators who write and ratify laws which permit companies to take advantage of loopholes in order to avoid paying taxes.

In any case, the same critique, that our society tolerates “obscene” disparities in wealth, can be directed toward anyone whose material conditions are significantly better than anyone else’s—which is arguably everyone in the United States, all of whom are better off than most of the people inhabiting third world countries—and yet chooses not to redistribute his own property. As much as caricatures may abound of libertarians as rich old white men unwilling to share their wealth with the descendants of the victims whom their great-great-grandparents oppressed, no one agitating for the mass redistribution of other people’s wealth need be taken seriously unless they make themselves into the extraordinarily rare example of someone willing to invite everyone less off than they are into their own home. Until their comportment is modified to match their rhetoric, the shrill virtue-signaling of Bezos haters and others of their ilk can be safely ignored.

Needless to say, such conflicts between moral rhetoric and reality are ubiquitous. People who denounce manmade climate change sometimes fly to global warming conferences in private jets. Nor do those who incessantly warn about global warming typically renounce their private cars, even when they live in cities with efficient public transportation systems. People who express concern about environmental pollution and the ocean life blighted by plastic waste may nonetheless continue to imbibe water from single-use bottles. That moral rhetoric and reality so often diverge illustrates what is the practical problem with implementing anything even vaguely approaching utilitarianism and is metaphorically expressed by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The truth is that human beings, as a matter of fact, care much more about themselves and their family members and friends than random compatriots. Moreover, they largely ignore the plight of persons beyond their own borders, even when the taxes levied on their personal income have been used to generate widespread misery abroad. It is utiliarianian-esque reasoning when someone claims that wars may harm some people but on balance serve the aims of democracy and peace. Most of the victims of wars over the past century have been unarmed civilians, not soldiers, but their “sacrifice” is nonetheless reimagined by those who support every new war proposed as having contributed to the establishment of a better world.

The prevalence of this type of rhetoric, and its associated pseudo-moral rationalizations for policies which harm or even destroy other people, explains bizarre phenomena such as Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s public expression of gratitude to George Floyd for having been killed by police officer Derek Chauvin. Many people found Pelosi’s statement inappropriate and tone deaf, but she was essentially reciting a version of the same script which is rehearsed every single time soldiers are sacrificed needlessly and so-called collateral damage is “tolerated” in wars perpetrated abroad. Slogans such as “Freedom is not free!” are frequently slung about by military supporters, who assume that, on balance, the comportment of the U.S. Department of Defense has been good, even if mistakes are sometimes made, and even if a few “bad apples” emerge here and there to perpetrate the occasional atrocity, for example at My Lai or in the Abu Ghraib and Baghram prisons. Judging by their docile acceptance of the foreign policy of Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden, most Americans have yet to acknowledge that the twenty-year “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) has been a colossal failure: politically, economically and, yes, morally. The only people to have benefited from the non-stop bombing of the Middle East are war profiteers. Some people are more equal than others.

The long entrenched dogma that, all things considered, the world is a better place because of U.S. military intervention abroad explains why citizens continue dutifully to pay federal taxes while delegating all policy-making decisions to the legislature, who in the twenty-first century flatly renounced their authority to decide when and where war should be waged. The AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) granted to President George W. Bush in October 2002 has been invoked by every president since then to claim the authority to bomb anyone anywhere in the world where the executive branch of government has deemed such action desirable.

“We are good, and they are evil,” is a time-tested trope which allows government administrators, whether elected or appointed by those elected, to get away with anything, on the pretext that the evil enemy must be defeated, and the perpetrators of mass homicide are acting only and everywhere so as to protect their constituents. Or to spread democracy and save the world from a despicable tyrant, all of which are essentially equivalent, or so the rhetoric goes…In the lead-up to every new war, citizens, having been subjected to vigorous fear-mongering propaganda campaigns according to which their very lives are at stake, tend momentarily to forget that politicians are liars. They listen attentively as quasi-utilitarianism is trotted out yet again to secure popular support for bombing campaigns through soundbites such as: “The war will pay for itself!” “We will be welcomed with flowers as liberators!” “The conflict will be short—in and out—with minimal collateral damage!” When the real consequences prove to be nothing like those projected by hawkish “experts” with financial ties to military industry, the warmakers then revert to defending themselves by appeal to their good intentions.

War advocates are able to sleep at night not because of utilitarianism, according to which the rightness of a war is determined by its outcomes, which any rational and informed person must own have been catastrophic throughout the Middle East, but because they have another theory to whip out in their defense whenever their “good wars” have infelicitous or even appalling consequences. That framework derives from just war theory, specifically, the doctrine of double effect, according to which what really matter, in the grand scheme of things, are the warmakers’ own intentions. “Stuff happens,” explained former Secretary of Defense and sage epistemologist Donald Rumsfeld in assuaging concerns that the conditions on the ground in Iraq were chaotic, with monuments and museums being looted, persons murdered and maimed, robbed and raped, among other unanticipated results of the 2003 bombing campaign.

Policymakers such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Tony Blair may assuage their conscience by professing the purity of their own, subjective, intentions: “We meant to do well!” Along these lines, ancient Greek philosopher Socrates reputedly quipped, “No one knowingly does evil,” by which he may have meant that everyone seeks what they regard as good and avoids what they regard as evil. What, after all, could they base their actions on, if not their own values? In other words, viewed at the level of individual action, “We meant to do well!” may hold true in the case of anyone who does anything, from the thief who steals to feed his family, to the serial killer who derives immense pleasure from destroying other people, to the warhawks and profiteers who persist in perpetuating and even expanding the War on Terror, though it has already destroyed or degraded the lives of thousands of Americans and millions of persons of color abroad.

Some people are more equal than others is assumed by anyone who claims to wish to even the economic playing field at home while altogether ignoring the plight of the millions of people who are not only not earning $15 per hour for their labor but in fact have been killed as the so-called collateral damage of wars supported or condoned by lawmakers with financial interests at stake. The forever war in the Middle East and Africa plods on with little protest, and some of the very people who vociferously demand justice for individual victims of police brutality such as George Floyd turn a blind eye to the plight of the thousands of victims of the bombing campaigns, despite the fact that the former can be said to derive in part from the latter. Not only does the Federal government set a highly visible example of how to resolve conflict through the continual perpetration of mass homicide, but police departments have been furnished with military equipment and are staffed in many places by veterans of U.S. wars, some of whom apply wartime techniques and tactics in combating crime.

With regard to the killing of persons of color within the United States, we have witnessed former President Barack Obama making public pronouncements on the outcomes of the George Floyd and Trayvon Martin cases, while declining to say anything whatsoever about his very own administration’s targeted killing of sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen incinerated along with a group of his friends by a missile launched by the U.S. government from a drone flying above Yemen in 2011. If presidents themselves can simply pretend that some of their very own victims never even existed, then it should not be all that surprising when Americans more generally follow their lead.

Self-styled progressives, for example, may agitate for the restriction of firearm possession domestically, while ignoring altogether the exportation of weapons in record numbers (since Obama’s presidency) to regimes and factions in Syria and other places where they are predictably used to harm human beings, primarily persons of color, on a completely different magnitude than occurs within the country where the weapons are produced. It is of course possible consistently to maintain, as do advocates of the right to bear arms, that guns are morally neutral but become implements of murder when wielded by murderers. But anyone who insists that gun possession leads to murder within the United States would seem to be committed, logically speaking, to the position that the many innocent persons killed abroad by U.S. weapons (whether by the U.S. military itself or by governments, factions or individuals armed by them) were, materially speaking, the murder victims of those who furnished the killers with the weapons. And yet, some (not all) of those who dispute citizens’ Constitutional right to bear arms are not only silent on the issue of weapons exportation but in fact complicit in enriching this industry and sowing the seeds for mass homicide abroad through their uninterrupted payment of federal taxes.

A similarly untenable duality would seem to be Senator Bernie Sanders’ outspoken opposition to capital punishment, which he manages to hold within his mind while simultaneously supporting the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to kill terrorist suspects abroad. One of the most cogent arguments for abolishing the death penalty derives from the indisputable fact that convicted persons are sometimes exonerated posthumously. Mistakes are made, and erroneous executions are irrevocable. An equally compelling argument concerns racial justice. Among all convicted murderers, a disproportionately high percentage of persons of color are sentenced to death, in all likelihood because juries and judges perceive them to be more dangerous than white murderers. But each of these lines of reasoning applies a fortiori to the persons eliminated by missiles launched from drones in countries where nearly everyone is a person of color, and the victims are not even charged with crimes, much less given the opportunity to defend themselves against their killers’ allegation that they are evil terrorists who deserve to die. Why should a suspect have more rights within than outside the arbitrarily drawn borders of a land? If suspects have rights, then does it matter where they happen to stand? And if even convicted murderers should not be executed, as Sanders appears to believe, then how can mere suspects abroad be annihilated on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence such as SIM card data, drone video footage and the bribed testimony of destitute, and therefore corruptible, informants on the ground?

It may be tempting to conclude from examples such as Senator Sanders that lawmakers and the citizens who elect them and pay their salaries are simple hypocrites. It is more charitable, however, and at least as plausible, that they have been trained effectively to compartmentalize spheres of reality so that what seems obviously desirable within one domain has no implications whatsoever for anywhere else. Modern people have been effectively conditioned so as to find nothing wrong with applying completely different standards to different spheres of reality. Their rhetoric may be absolutist, but the moral requirements upon them as individual moral persons are assumed to be a function of the context and circumstances. No less than the politicians who enthusiastically advocate for bombing abroad while decrying police brutality in the homeland, most people appear to hold a motley assortment of arguably contradictory moral beliefs, which they apply to different groups of people according to caprice and mostly determined by what they have been indoctrinated to believe, above all by the media. In effect, modern people have developed split personalities. The innocent victims of Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s and now Joe Biden’s perpetual motion bombing campaigns do not exist in the minds of those who ordered or paid for their deaths, and are therefore excluded from all moral calculus.

The smallest sphere of morality, or moral community, comprises one’s self. At this level, morality and prudence coincide. Applying utilitarian reasoning to one’s self alone yields a theory according to which one should maximize one’s own happiness (or pleasure or well-being), even at the expensive of others, because they lie beyond the bounds of the sphere under consideration. The next smallest sphere of morality includes one’s family. After that, one’s friends may be included. Then one’s neighbors, one’s compatriots, and finally humanity. No finite person can perform a full and accurate utilitarian projection of the results of his prospective action on all of humanity, and people generally consider only the short-term effects on the persons with whom they interact and of whom they are directly aware. The answer to the question “What should I do?” will vary greatly depending on whether one considers the moral community to comprise one’s self (ethical egoism) or one’s compatriots (nationalism) or humanity (globalism). Utilitarian-esque rhetoric pervades public discourse because it seems reasonable and sounds “moral” (rather than “selfish”), but most people either do not recognize or do not agonize over the manifest inconsistencies between what they say and what they do in the various communities in which they interact.

Avoiding altogether this morass of moral relativism, the libertarian upholds the non-aggression principle (NAP), which is an easily applicable proscription: Do not initiate—or threaten—violence against other human beings. Period. Do not indulge in casuistic rationalization of why it is supposedly right to bomb countries abroad when in fact there is near certainty that persons of unknown identity (and therefore not known to deserve to die) will be destroyed, no matter what the warmakers’ intentions may be. Libertarians have many outspoken, virtue-signaling enemies these days, but in fact their theory is consistent, including as it does all people everywhere. If it is wrong for government agents (such as police officers) to kill suspects in the homeland, then it is equally wrong for government agents (such as drone operators) to kill suspects abroad.

Most of the federal discretionary budget goes to the military, which is why utilitarian-esque defenses of federal taxation are delusive, especially in view of the twenty-year War on Terror fiasco. Their rhetoric notwithstanding, the policymakers who determine how much to tax citizens and where federal funds are to be allocated prioritize the interests of not humanity, nor their compatriots, but the MIC, or military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics-banking complex, all tentacles of which have teams of lobbyists in Washington, DC. In order to be completely consistent, then, it may be that libertarians should join the ranks of the war tax resisters, which is however easier said than done, given the harsh and coercive measures deployed by the state, again, in the name of “the greater good.”

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About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, You Can Leave, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique.

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