Friday, August 18, 2006

Selfishness and Self-Defense

I found this John Hawkins article of last week to be of interest, in part because of some excellent points he makes, including:
If Hamas and Hezbollah deliberately place legitimate military targets in areas frequented by civilians, why should Israel show greater concern for the safety of those civilians than their own government did in the first place? Since the people of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have chosen to support Hezbollah and Hamas at the ballot box, despite knowing the tactics that they use, haven't those civilians essentially agreed to serve on the front line of any conflict as human shields?
However, the "cycle of violence" doesn't have to continue. As Curtis Lemay once said, "If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting." If the Israelis are willing to kill enough of their enemies and destroy enough of their property, eventually they will be left alone. But, if that's ever going to happen, Israel needs to stop treating civilians in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories like innocent victims of the terrorist groups they support. These civilians have voted these terrorists into office, they've encouraged them to make war on Israel, and they've allowed their homes, schools, mosques, ambulances, and even children to become part of the fight. Because of that, it's time for Israel to make the civilians in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories pay a much steeper price for their actions than they have in the past.
Yet while the article is much better than almost anything one finds in the media, it also caught my attention because I’m on the lookout for examples concretizing the role of deeper philosophical ideas governing both the culture and the thinking of individual intellectuals. (Objectivists hold that political arguments always rest on deeper views in morality and epistemology, and so one’s primary focus should be on trying to change the culture’s underlying philosophy rather than concentrating on political action. I’m sympathetic to this view, but am still trying to collect enough instances to make it “real” in my mind.)

In the Hawkins case, we have a columnist who obviously feels viscerally and to the bone that free men should defend themselves at all costs, yet due to deeper conflicting premises, he is unable to make a consistent argument throughout his piece. Specifically, it is his acceptance of altruism which undercuts his arguments at key places.

Most notably, Hawkins sets the stage for his entire argument by paying lip service to our more “moral’ age (emphasis added):
Had the war we're seeing today in the Middle East broken out a century and a half ago, it would have been rather short indeed because the stronger force, the Israelis, would have simply massacred all their enemies. Today, in a more moral age, we find such acts to be savage and barbaric -- as well we should.

However, while civilians should be protected in wartime, we also need to recognize that such protection can, and in fact has, gone too far in many instances.
The highlighted sentence undermines -- if not flat out contradicts -- his subsequent arguments. If he held that men have a right to live free from force, and that if aggressed against, they can and should do whatever necessary to defend themselves and eliminate the threat, then he would recognize that just as bombing Hiroshima was moral, so too is it moral for Israel to use every means to eliminate its enemy and their supporters. Or to put it another way, a victim’s self-defense is a profoundly moral act – there is nothing “savage” or “barbaric” about it.

Unfortunately, in today’s world the only ethical doctrine taught is the Judeo-Christian theory of altruism which holds that a man’s moral purpose is the fulfillment of other men’s needs and desires (including those of the enemy) and so as much as Dawkins wants to act otherwise, his acceptance of this idea causes him to cede the most important principle from the very get-go. That is, it is impossible to consistently advocate self-defense if you don’t believe that the self is one’s primary moral goal. Only by grounding arguments in an ethics of egoism can men morally and consistently defend their absolute right to life and, by consequence, to its uncompromising defense.

This acceptance of altruism, coupled with an under-appreciation for fundamental philosophic principles and ideas, is what hinders even our best columnists, and helps explain why they often can’t quite see root problems, as keenly intelligent and perceptive as many of them so obviously are. In another example from last week, we find Mark Steyn searching for what’s wrong with the world today, wondering why the best countries can’t muster the moral certitude to proudly stand up for themselves and righteously demolish their would-be assassins. He hits upon some critical issues in his search for answers, but they never quite crystallize for him (emphasis added):
In fact, the notion that "fighting" a war is the monopoly of those "in uniform" gets to the heart of why America and its allies are having such a difficult time in the present struggle. Nations go to war, not armies. Or, to be more precise, nations, not armies, win wars. America has a military that cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but so what? The first President Bush assembled the biggest coalition in history for Gulf War I, and the bigger and more notionally powerful it got, the better Saddam Hussein's chances of surviving it became. Because the bigger it got, the less likely it was to be driven by a coherent set of war aims.

So even the most powerful military in the world is subject to broader cultural constraints. When Kathryn Lopez's e-mailer sneers that "your contribution to this war is limited solely to your ability to exercise the skillset provided by your liberal arts education," he's accidentally put his finger on the great imponderable: whether the skill set provided by the typical American, British and European education these last 30 years is now one of the biggest obstacles to civilizational self-preservation. A nation that psychologically outsources war to a small career soldiery risks losing its ability even to grasp concepts like "the enemy": The professionalization of war is also the ghettoization of war. As John Podhoretz wondered in the New York Post the other day: "What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"
This is true in so far as it goes, but unless you understand that the “skill sets” produced by our educational system are the necessary product of the ideas taught in our educational institutions, there is little that can be done to oppose it. Specifically, when one teaches subjectivism and skepticism in epistemology and altruism in morality, students will naturally be unsure of themselves, of their thinking and of their very self-worth. (To the extent they take the lessons of skepticism straight up, they literally won’t know anything.) Had our intellectuals done what they are entrusted with doing, viz. providing the thinking methods and content necessary for the establishment and continuance of an advanced society, they would be teaching students that reality is absolute (i.e. you can not fake it or create a new one in your own mind); that reason is man’s only valid means of knowing -- and thereby of dealing with -- reality; and that each man’s life is his proper moral purpose. A society with such teachers would be crying for an intransigent national defense policy, not lapping up every faux picture from Al-Reuters and Al-AP.

Similarly, Podhoretz’s identification of “humanitarian concern” as an impediment to survival, would have much more impact if it were stated in the form of a principle, i.e. that consistently practicing an ethics of altruism will lead to your own failure and death. For if you accept altruism, you will not be able to argue or act for your own survival, since you hold that the good rests in self-sacrifice. And as much as you may deplore the evident death of the once-great civilization around you, until you can identify and challenge the root principles responsible, you won't be able to reverse its decline.

This brings me back to Objectivists, because as far as I know, they are the only intellectuals around today whose approach is one of dealing with essentials and, as a result, they are the only ones who can both offer analysis of current problems and propose fundamental solutions to them. Let’s hope that their voices soon become part of the mainstream debate, for without a rational moral base upon which to proudly advocate our own self-defense, I fear that our days of freedom are severely numbered.

(HT Isaac Schrodinger for the John Hawkins piece)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

" today’s world the only ethical doctrine taught is the Judeo-Christian theory of altruism..."

Great post but I wonder if this is strictly true. Is Kantian ethics (which is worse) also taught in today's colleges? If so, then the culture is caught between a rock and a hard place; ie between Kant and Christianity.

The reason why I ask is b/c Christianity has been a dominant source of ethics throughout the 20th century yet 60 years ago the West was able to crush Japan and Germany with the likes of Patton and McArthur. Today, the West is suicidally pacifist. What happened intellectualy over the last 60 years? A rise in religion? The final death throws of post modernism? The death of reason and all remnants of the Enlightenment? I don't know.

D. Eastbrook

8:48 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Hi D.,

It's a great question to which I don't have a full answer, but I'll try to post a few thoughts for discussion within the next few days or week.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great. I look forward to it.

D. Eastbrook

7:29 PM  
Blogger Wolfgang said...

Very interesting! Two very smart German columnists (Maxeiner and Miersch) recently wrote that the Germans of today are no more Nazis, but that they are all hippies now. I agree but christianity is on decline in Germany for years and the reason for the pacifistic and altuistic trend in Germany and elsewhere in Europe might be found more in postmodernism than in christianity.

2:54 AM  

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