September 11 and the Death of Moral Judgment

September 11 and the Death of Moral Judgment

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September 11 and the Death of Moral Judgment

 

The nation is in crisis: a national security crisis and a crisis of moral judgment. What is the right thing to do? People disagree. Then comes the big mistake: observing disagreement, people conclude that there is no right answer, no way to make a judgment. Worse, they conclude that to judge is arrogant and dangerous, so that in an odd twist, the only thing that appears to be morally irresponsible is the attempt to make a morally responsible judgment.

 

On the contrary, abdicating judgment is the problem. Democracy itself is based on the notion that reasonable people will disagree and that it is possible to make judgments about our disagreements - not that there is necessarily one right answer; there may be several partially right answers. But there are certainly some wrong answers and better and worse judgments about them.

 

So, how do we judge? First, we can think clearly about the words we use. Second, we can stop looking for pure good or pure evil; innocence and guilt are not found in pure forms in the real world. Third, we can learn to distinguish among kinds and degrees of evils (And there are plenty of kinds: cruelty, neglect, exploitation, etc.)

 

To illustrate:

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Many people fighting for very different causes call themselves "freedom fighters." But they usually let us know what they mean. Osama bin Laden's statements tell us that his goal is to free the Muslim world of infidels and their influence. He seeks freedom to establish theocratic regimes that would suppress women, as well as religious and political dissidents. We can argue about whether or not this is "freedom" in any meaningful sense, but the important thing is to be clear about what he means. For the sake of argument, let us say that he is a freedom fighter. Martin Luther King was a freedom fighter. Mahatma Gandhi was a freedom fighter. Neither could be called "terrorist" by any stretch of the imagination. They renounced violence as a means. Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, embraces a strategy of targeting civilians in order to terrify and intimidate the population, undermine opposing governments, and achieve his political aims. Whether he is a freedom fighter or not, he is a terrorist.

 

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend"

This is an important practical principle, but it is not a moral principle.

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Fighting on the right side doesn't make you a good guy. The search for pure good and evil can deceive us here. The U.S. will have many allies in the fight against the evil of terrorism, but not all of them will be angels. Remember that Osama bin Laden fought against the Russians too.

 

The Left is not immune to this problem either. If capitalism and globalism are evil, that doesn't mean that all opponents of capitalism and globalism are good. There is a history of delusion as to the character of the opponents of American power. Look at what was said on the Left about the North Vietnamese and Pol Pot before they came to power.

 

"We have to understand why they are so angry at us."

This is certainly true; an effective response requires understanding underlying causes. We need to understand, but then we need to pass judgment. The statement usually implies that we ought to understand instead of passing judgment. It is the inability to distinguish among evils that leads to the question "Who are we to judge?" If the terror is a response to grievances caused by our actions, we cannot label it "evil." Why not? Can't there be more than one kind of evil in the picture at a time?

 

Certainly we can raise the question whether the terrorist attack is a proportionate response to the grievances. That is, after all, the standard we are now applying to our own response to injury as we undertake military action in Afghanistan. It is arrogant and disrespectful to treat others as if they do not also make choices; choices for which they deserve to be held responsible. An oppressed or impoverished people does not automatically attribute all of its suffering to a foreign "Satan" rather than to its own political leadership. And terror is not a natural and spontaneous response to oppression. Leaders of this movement have chosen terror as their preferred strategy. Let each government, people or movement be held responsible for its own contribution to the injustices of the world. There is plenty of guilt to go around.

 

The fact that our country is guilty of injustices does not absolve us from the responsibility to pass judgment on others. I would suggest the opposite. For example, the United States was certainly a more racist country in the 1940's than it is today. Does that mean we had no grounds for opposition to the racist policies of Nazi Germany? Or does it mean that those who opposed racism at home and abroad had the right idea? It was WWII that led to desegregation of the nation's armed forces. Clear opposition to evils abroad can have a clarifying effect on our moral values at home as well.

 

So, when confronted with moral and political disagreements, let us neither abdicate judgment nor settle for sanctimonious wordplay. We need arguments backed up by the facts. As a friend of mine remarked: "It's like modern math homework. It's not enough to get the answer right, you have to show your work." If we proceed with the confidence that informed judgment is possible, we might find the least bad way to effectively make the world a safer place.

 
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