Sunday, July 18, 2004

Moral clarity?

A long one this time, mostly written on a plane back from Alberta...

I find it interesting that Bush has recently begun again pushing "values" on the campaign trail - that the guy for whom the term "moral clarity" was coined is trying to take an advantage of this in the pools. Bush certainly comes across as a straight-talker on TV, which is part of his appeal, but morality is not the same as sincerity or even good intentions. Part of the red-blue split in the US might be due to different understandings of what morality really is.

Here's my view of all this (as a computer guy that knows basically nothing of ethics or religion). The "natural" way for people to behave is based on expedience. You could fill libraries with books on decision theory, but simply put, a person normally takes the actions that he thinks will benefit him the most in the future.

Morality is a fundamentally different way of deciding how to behave. Moral behavior involves taking actions based some fixed rules about "goodness" or "badness" of the actions. A moral choices might be very different from the expedient choice (but of course it isn't always), and are not based on what you expect to benefit yourself, but what you believe to be consistent with your rules of conduct. Rules of moral conduct are different in times and different cultures, but usually they're close to the Judeo-Christian "do unto others" stuff we learned in grade school.

If you think about it for a while, morality is kind of a strange idea, and most of the arguments in favor of it that I've heard seem more like wishful thinking than sound reasoning (is virtue its own reward, or its own punishment?) As a computer guy, I personally believe the value of moral behavior has something to do with globally optimal versus locally optimal behavior. The reward of morality is living in a community of moral people. Given that so many of the ways to benefit yourself end up hurting someone else, the world quickly turns into dog-eat-dog (or nation-eat-nation, depending on the scale of things) if we all act according to our own personal, local notions of expedience.

Bush's foreign policy at least appears to be driven wholely by expediency, not morality. The clearest example of expediency over morality is the whole torture thing. What was the legal justification for what would normally be completely unjustifiable, and what is obviously wrong? Expediency. Anything could be justified, in principle, if it would save Americans from another terrorist attack. Another example: in his TV speech last year announcing the war on Iraq, Bush discussed efforts to involve other nations, but emphasized that following UN procedure was in no way a constraint on what the US would do. This is from memory, so I may not have this exactly right, but I believe his words were "This is not about a process, this is about obtaining a result." In other words, the ends justify the means.

Aha, you say, but isn't it true that sometimes the ends do justify the means? If someone breaks into your house wielding a machete, aren't you justified if you pull a gun? Well, yes. As they say, every rule has its exception. But there are good reasons why one should be very suspicious of decisions to pursue actions like war or torture based on arguments of expediency. And unfortunately, Bush has given us some very clear case examples of reasons why ends-justifies-the-means is not a rule by which civilized, moral societies can function.

Reason 1: Justifications of an end tend to look very different, depending on which "end" of the justification you're on. For instance, consider this question: how many Iraqi civilian deaths is it worth to avoid a hundred American deaths in a 9/11-style attack? 100? 1000? 10? Now consider, how would an Iraqi answer that question, or a Japanese, or a European?

This is not an academic question by any means. We know how many American soldiers have died, but estimates of Iraqi civilian casualities vary widely, and run easily into the tens of thousands. Surveys of morgues suggested over 5000 violent deaths in Baghdad alone---many more than died in 9/11.

Reason 2: It's hard to see the end. Elimination of terrorism, safety from WMD, a stable democracy in the Middle East---all of these would be great. But instead, we didn't find WMD, so if there were any, they are still there, in a country in which al-Zarqawi roams apparently at will; violence is out of control in Iraq, and apparently on the rise in Saudi Arabia; and Iraq is certainly years from any sort of self-sustaining democracy, if indeed it ever gets there.

This should not really be a surprise. Republicans talk a lot about Democratic "pessimism", but the there's also a lot of overly optimistic thinking going on in the world, as anyone who owned stock in 1999 probably knows.

Reason 3: What goes around comes around. This is the main reason why career army officers were by and large not behind the prisoner abuse: they don't like the idea of the same happening to American soldiers in a future conflict.

Reason 4: You can get used to anything. Like, for example, torture. As it turns out, Seymour Hersh's original New Yorker piece is a pretty good moral fable. The US started after 9/11 with a few top-secret centers, outside the normal legal system (in Thailand and who knows where else) to wring information, by any means necessary, out of "high value" captives. The system was then expanded, by fits and starts and with some hand-wringing and backtracking, first to Gitmo and then (almost certainly) to Iraq, finally spinning out of control and into the public eye. Most of the subjects of those lovely pictures we all so much of this spring were carjackers and looters, not terrorists.