RE: MD Understanding Quality And Power

From: David Buchanan (
Date: Sun Dec 12 2004 - 01:48:52 GMT

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    Sam, msh and all MOQers:

    dmb says:
    There are lots of "powerful" issues here, but I want to focus on "moral

    Mark Steven Heyman asked - Wednesday, December 08, 2004 8:59 PM:
    This idea of "moral equivalence," though it's frequently tossed
    about, seems to me to be rather ill-defined. Can you tell me what
    you mean by it? And did you find that Solomon advocated this idea?
    Or was this something you sensed just from reading the MOQer posts.
    If Solomon, can you remember a specific column or two? Or maybe
    another example of the moral equivalence argument in action, and who
    made it?

    Sam Norton explained - Thursday, December 09, 2004 3:32 PM:
    ...I can explain what I mean by 'moral equivalence'. Formally the argument
    looks like this: Country X acts immorally by doing action A;
    Country Y acts immorally by doing action B; therefore Country X is as bad as
    country Y, because they are both immoral. When it's spelt out like this it
    becomes obvious where the flaw is, because for that argument to hold, A and
    B have to be morally equivalant - hence the name. I think that the issue is
    how bad A is compared to B (and how far that should constrain the way that
    country X or Y acts as a result).

    dmb says:
    I think this is one of those culture war things and the phrase "moral
    equivalence" is to be contrasted with "American exceptionalism". And what we
    see here in Sam's formulation reflects a condemnation of the former and an
    assertion of the later. To conservatives, America is that city on a hill, is
    unique in the world and so no other nation can rightly be compared. It says
    that when we do nasty things, it is a abberant mistake, a fluke that will
    not be repeated, a horrible necessity of doing god's work and winning the
    cold war. Moral equivalence is a cold war phrase, used by anti-communists as
    a label for those who did not accept the notion that America gets to play by
    different rules, who do not accept the notion of American exceptonalism.
    See, to those who do not buy the notion the formulation looks much
    different. It says something more like... Country X acts immorally in doing
    A; Country Y acts immorally in doing A; therefore A is immoral no matter who
    does and even if we do it. When seen that way, it is not a bonehead idea, it
    is the negation of a bonehead idea. American exceptionalism is rarely
    anything more than nationalism and cultural bias. Its on a par with loving
    one's mother. Its all fine and good and normal to love one's mother, but
    c'mon. If we're talking about an honest appraisal of US foreign policies, I
    think such sentiments only get in the way of clear thinking.

    Sam had said:
    An example would be something like: the US has acted immorally in Latin
    America for decades (you know the details); Saddam Hussein acted immorally
    throughout his tenure on power; therefore the American invasion of Iraq is
    wrong/hypocritical (because the US is as bad as Hussein - the moral

    dmb says:
    Maybe somebody actuall made that argument but, again, that looks like the
    characterization of a hostile witness to me. I think the actual argument, or
    at least the one I have pressed upon my friends, is that the stated goal of
    ending tyranny and fostering democracy in Iraq is contracted by the actions
    the the USG elsewhere. And that insonsistancy does not require us to compare
    apples and oranges. The charges of hypocracy stem from the facts already
    mentioned, that Saddam's atrocities were carried out with the support of the
    USG. He and Osama are blowback. Like lots of thugs around the world, they
    were originally trained and supplied by the USG! This is not just cold war
    stuff either. Please recall the current administration's support for the
    coup plotters in Venezuala or the escort service they provided for Aristide
    a few months ago. I mean, no reasonable person should even be tempted to say
    "the US is as bad as Hussein". That would be comparing a person to a
    country, for starters. And I don't know who might want to sort out nations
    on the basis of their propencity for evil. I think the critics of US policy
    merely want the nation to be principled and consistent when it comes to
    living up to our ideals. I think anyone who loves these ideals would be and
    should be outraged at the idea of overthrowing a democracy in order to
    ensure cheap bananas, coffee or oil. That's wrong no matter who does it,

    Sam continued his splainin':
    The key concept for me is the complexity of the actor/state. In other words,
    I don't automatically agree that because the US state acted immorally in
    sphere A (Chile for example) it is likely that it
    will act immorally in sphere B (Iraq). I don't think it's possible to be
    that consistent, either in the description of acts by the state or in the
    performance of acts by the state, the latter being far too protean and (yes)
    dynamic in many ways. So I think what needs to be done is to establish the
    morality or immorality of a particular act (invasion of Iraq) largely
    independently of actions elsewhere.

    dmb says:
    I don't know Sam, it sounds like you're giving your mother permission to be
    hypocritical. Of course one bad act doesn't mean the thing is pure evil or
    incapable of good acts. But if we see a pattern, and I think we do, of
    consistently violating our own principles and beliefs for geo-political and
    material reasons then we MUST object, no?

    msh earlier:
    But I also understand your reluctance to reject the idea that OUR
    leaders are somehow different in nature from THEIR leaders. This is
    the expected result of being told from the cradle, every day in a
    hundred ways, that our country is great and good, our leaders
    beneficent and wise; though they may make a mistake here or there,
    our leaders are diligently and selflessly striving to make the world
    a better place for all. But the educational and mass media
    apparatus of EVERY state is dedicated to inculcating these exact
    notions. This fact alone should make us suspicious of our own
    beliefs along this line.

    sam replied:
    Yes, but even after viewing comparative political systems through the
    hermeneutic of suspicion I remain of the view that the "Western"
    system (I'm thinking specifically of: the rule of law; individual
    autonomy; democracy; free speech etc) is indeed better than the

    dmb says:
    Well, yes. You're talking about the dignities of Modernity, the intellectual
    values that Pirsig specifically sites as the values that should guide
    society. I hope we all agree that these are the principles at issue. The
    questions really revolve around how well those are served and how well we
    adhere to them in international relations and such, right? I think these
    ideals are so well loved that they are presently being used as window
    dressing for policies that have very little to do with actually fostering
    them. Its just packagaing and if I thought they were correct and sincere,
    I'd go along with the war. But I think the case for war was littered with
    talk of democracy and rights for the same reason it was littered with talk
    of mushroom clouds. And that reason? Emotional impact. It has a way of
    clouding the mind and the issues when its all wrapped up in flags, apple pie
    and the spectre of death, you know? And its not that I automatically
    disbelieve them becasue they are conservatives or Repulicans, its just the
    track record of these particular individuals and this administration. (Paul
    Wolfowitz, for example, is one of the chief architects and cheerleaders for
    the war and he also happens to have had a hand in propoing up most of the
    major I think they reveal themselves in their actions and hide their actions
    behind those words. This explains why the administration acts as if facts
    and the news together constitutes a conspiracy against them.

    sam before:
    Thing is, I was also having this argument with a friend, and saying
    that Bush wasn't quite as immoral as my friend was alleging. And
    then my friend pointed out that Bush was happy to execute minors and
    the mentally retarded, and I was silenced, because (as my friend
    well knew) I think capital punishment is indefensible.

    dmb says:
    This serves as a good example of viewing these guys through their actions
    rather than their speeches. The man who was responsible for bringing the
    final pleas of death row inmates before then Governor Bush consistently
    provided information that was thin and incomplete, thereby removing any
    chance of a stay of execution. (Even if they are crazy women or retarded
    boys.) This same monster wrote the now famous torture memo explaining how
    and why the USG was not bound by the Geneva Conventions or other
    international laws prohibiting torture. Abu Grab-ass followed in its wake.
    And what does Bush do with such a lethal and cruel man? Appoints him to be
    our new Attorney General. See? The ones who exhibit the greatest degree of
    contempt for rights should be condemned as anti-American but are instead
    given great authority and prestige. When one apparently so eager to execute
    criminals and allow torture is promoted to be the chief law enforcement
    officer in the nation, it sends an extrememly anti-democratic message. Its
    says volumes about what this crowd REALLY believes. Are you gonna believe
    thier speeches or your lying eyes? With apologies to Groucho...


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