Thursday, January 20, 2005

Evil Empires

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I found an article on evolution blog responding to Dennis Prager's claims that only theistic morality can be absolute. I have, of course, debunked such claims in earlier posts, but this is a good article to check out.

One thing struck me in the article, though, which was when Prager said:

That is why The New York Times, the voice of secular moral relativism, was
so repulsed by President Ronald Reagan's declaration that the Soviet Union was
an “evil empire.” The secular world -- especially its left -- fears and rejects
the language of good and evil because it smacks of religious values and violates
their moral relativism.

What is interesting about this to me is that I never thought the use of the word "evil" outside of explicity religious contexts "...smack[ed] of religious values..." I just think that 'good' and 'evil' are simplistic concepts that are difficult to apply in real life. They speak of a certain naivete which I do not necessarily connect with religion. I think nontheists are just as prone to black and white, good vs. evil thinking as theists, in fact.

Moreover, as Jason from evolution blog points out, Prager is missing the point of criticisms of use of confrontational language like "evil empire" or "axis of evil." Labeling the Soviet Union, Iran, North Korea, or Iraq as evil or having evil governments, no matter how appropriate that label, is not the job of the United States government, its leaders, or its foreign policy specialists. The job of the US government is to develop a foreign policy that helps protect America and American interests. Critics of phrases like "evil empire" and "axis of evil" are not claiming that the labeled nations are good. They're not claiming they're evil, either. They're simply criticizing the utility of such language in creating good outcomes for the United States. They are questioning whether or not calling one's opponents "evil" will help lead to a more secure, prosperous America, or a less secure, less prosperous America.

No one thinks of themselves as evil. As writers say, everyone is the hero of his or her own story. Once you paint an opponent as evil, you have lessened the chances of compromise and diplomatic success, both because it creates enmity with those labeled "evil" and because there can be no compromise with evil: It must be utterly destroyed. Calling other nations "evil" simply closes foreign policy options. If we choose to see the world in simplistic good vs. evil terms, then any accomodation or compromise with evildoers makes us evil as well. If the job of the United States government were to fight evil all over the globe, then perhaps this paradigm would make sense, as it would lead us to invade every corrupt regime in the world in order to set things right.

But that's not what the government of the United States is tasked to do. Invading every country that America perceives as evil will have disastrous consequences for the United States, as seen now in the invasion of Iraq. The United States is simply not powerful enough to correct all evils in the world with force. It would exhaust the US economy, cost the lives of countless members of the armed forces, weaken the ability of the US to defend itself, and cause widespread unrest among Americans. Only through diplomacy can the US protect its own interests and also hope to counter evil in the world, and critics of labeling other nations as "evil" believe it is a hindrance to succesful diplomacy.

Ironically, I personally disagree with these critics in part, as I believe that labeling nations as "evil" can actually aid diplomacy at times, but in a way that Prager does not consider. Reagan, whether he truly believed the Soviet Union was "evil" or not, was trying to force the Soviets to get into an arms race with United States that Reagan believed the Soviets could not afford and would thus topple the USSR. As it did. But the Soviets had to believe the US was truly a threat or they would not have taken the bait. It didn't matter whether the Soviet Union was actually "evil," nor whether Reagan actually believed they were. It was a foreign policy gambit of the first order, meant to accomplish the goal of removing the principle threat to American security at the time.

But calling other nations "evil" just to make your value judgment of them known, not as part of a greater foreign policy strategy, does nothing to advance the security of the US nor its interests. It's kind of like telling your asshole coworkers what you think about them. It may be satisfying at the time, and they may really be assholes, but is it really the best thing to do in the long run? Probably not.

So, while Prager sees everything in religious terms, thus mistakenly assuming that critics of using the word "evil" in foreign policy are squeamish due to religious concerns, the truth is that, in the real world, determining who is and isn't evil and labeling them as such is not the most important thing. More important is choosing language and diplomatic tactics that will accomplish the goal of making America safer and protecting American interests, and as satisfying as it is to go around judging others, even the Bible knows that it isn't such a hot idea: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."


At 7:10 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

In terms of pragmatism, your comments are dead-on. Bravo.

In terms of the basic philosophic argument, I have to say that this sort of argument Prager makes is always frustrating because it is based on such ignorance and arogance.

To Prager's remark that "There are no moral 'facts' if there is no God; there are only moral opinions," I refer him to Kant. Since Kant was quite thorough (though, perhaps, not entirely clear) on the subject of objective conscience, I'll not beat that dead horse. I'll just say that theists decrying the baselessness of morality without [Gg]od(s) should first read the very extensive metaphysics and ethics literature in the field of philosophy: Correct your ignorance first, then we'll talk.

In terms of his assertion that we non-thesists cannot have moral certitude and are uncomfortable with moral language because of that, I can only say this: no one has moral certitude, and if you do then you are either delusional or extraordinarily arrogant.

Let us suppose that [Gg]od(s) exist(s), and that there is an absolute moral "T"ruth. Prager knows this "T"ruth? President Bush knows it? Ah! It is in the Bible! But how can one be certain that the Bible is really the "Word of God"? Ah! Faith! Of course the Bible doesn't indicate which modern countries are "E"vil or "G"ood, so that much was decided by contemporary humans ... ones that apparently know the mind of [Gg]od(s). Now that's about as arrogant as it gets.

I'm uncomfortable using the language of absolute evil and good because I know that I am capable of error. Moreover, I know President Bush and Dennis Prager are, as well. Just as using the terms limits pragmatic diplomatic options, using the terms limits the way I am able to think about the issue.

And this is what Bush and Prager want! They (I surmise) believe that limiting the views you consider is a natural result of conviction, instead it is just stupid. If one cannot rettain their conviction in something while entertaining alternatives, then I question their conviction from the start. As many Christians might say, "How can you be sure of your Faith, unless it is tested?"

Pondering as many angles as possible is part of thorough and thoughtful consideration of complex issues. Simplifying and ignoring views is, as I have said, by definition foolishness. In my field, I have strong opinions about certain hypotheses and theories ... yet I am constantly considering alternative theories because I am aware of my limitations, both in terms of incomplete /inaccurate knowledge, and in terms of my own cognitive inabilities. This in no way diminishes my conviction, rather it enforces it.

As to the idea that somehow theists hold the corner on morality, someone should show Prager some statistics. Per capita, theists are more commonly convicted of major crimes: they are more often murders, more often child abusers, etc. Theist marraiges are more likely to end in divorce, and they cite "infidelity" as the cause more often than non-theist divorces (the largest cite by both is "financial", btw). The studies that produce this have serious flaws -- mainly due to the tiny, biased samples for non-thesis (non-theists tend to be much better educated, and that factor alone may account for most of this), but it is at least the case that there is absolutely not one shred of evidence that theists are more morally upright.

I submit that a person who believes in an absolute morality, and is arrogant enough to believe he or she has a handle on this divine knowledge, is far more "E"vil when they violate these standards than the person who is seeking to understand morality in terms of normative values in a complex world.

The truth is that theists do not use the language of morality because they believe in it as much as they use it to manipluate public sentiment to their liking without putting in any real effort to understand a problem. They casually toss around terms that they know almost nothing about as an appeal to authority because they lack the mental acumen to consider issues in their full complexity. It is easy to call a person or a country "E"vil, but it is much harder to understand the underlying factors that brought about the behaviors and to try to correct them in a productive way.

Put simply, labeling someone or something as "E"vil is a crutch for the mentally lazy (in my subjective opinion). Considering morality as subjective isn't a way to worm out of anything, quite the reverse: Subjective morality requires us to give serious and necessary consideration to real problems, and ponder the function and value of social norms and brocards. Assertion of absolutist morality is a way to worm out of that effort.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

I don't think the slack-jawed mouth-breathers who somehow fail to understand "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven" are going to be able to understand Kant either. But they don't need to: they know the Truth!

Unfortunately, the way theists weasel their way out of the statistics that theists are amoral at a much higher rate than nontheists is to simply reclassify criminals and offenders as "not true Christians." See how easy that was? It's like when I once asked my uncle if a murderer would still get into Heaven just for accepting Jesus as his savior, and he just kept saying, "if the murderer really accepted Jesus, he wouldn't commit murder."

Making what you want to be true, in this case "Christians are moral," a priori true, is a time-honored tactic of theists, as I'm sure you know.



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