Saturday, July 03, 2004

i get responses

A while back, I linked to an Explananda dissection of a Paul Berman article on post-invasion Iraq, adding my own nasty little hoots and jeers to Chris' reasoned refutation. In particular, I balked at the following statement by Berman:

To understand Saddam Hussein and the history of modern Iraq, you have to feel anger--or else you have understood nothing.

Chris noticed, and responded:

Now, I think this is precisely wrong, and I found it interesting that although I disliked the Berman piece, I actually nodded along with the offending quotation. Two points: First, I don't think there's anything objectionable in the notion that some circumstances call out for certain kinds of emotional response. That does not mean that we have to script out every reaction to everything we come across. It means that we should recognize that a certain range of emotional responses will be more or less appropriate in certain circumstances, often because they will be associated with (part of?) moral judgments. There is typically a fairly close connection between moral judgment and emotional response. In general, where certain moral judgments are called for, so will the emotional responses that go along with them (shame, disgust, outrage, etc.). Indeed, it seems to me that the reductio might just as easily be run in the other direction. Is it really odd to say this: "To understand the holocaust, you must feel sorrow, or you have understood nothing"? I don't think that's odd at all.

Second, even if we think that my first point is usually mistaken, I think the reductio only appears to succeed because it fails to take the vileness of the Ba'ath regime sufficiently seriously. That is, even if in most cases, understanding and emotion are easily separable, we ought to recognize limit cases in which they will - for almost all of us - go together. Iraq was surely one of those cases. I opposed the war, but the reading I did on Saddam Hussein's Iraq made me helpless with anger. It also gave me nightmares. And I confess that it is difficult to imagine reading and understanding and not feeling this anger.

Damn. I'm going to actually have to think about this. OK, here goes with the counter-response:

What really irritated me about the original statement was the word nothing. Certain circumstances may call for certain kinds of emotion; it may be that lacking that emotion makes your understanding deficient in a moral sense. It doesn’t follow that this moral deficiency means that one fails to understand whether the invasion of Iraq is likely to succeed in its aims, whether the people undertaking it are sincere in these aims, or whether these aims are likely to be welcomed by the people on whose behalf one is feeling anger. That requires kinds of knowledge that are irrelevant to whether anger is felt or not.

Conversely, there are circumstances in which don’t require anger which might justify war. Significantly, these were the arguments put forward by the government, namely that Saddam was a serious security risk to the region and the world as a whole. Justification for war was presented as a concrete threat rather than a moral cause, because this was seen as a stronger argument. Therefore anger at Saddam is neither sufficient nor necessary cause for war. Without feeling anger, one’s understanding of Iraq and what is to be done about it are not harmed in any significant way.

Berman’s article as a whole struck me as fairly typical of the pro-war left’s response to their project gping off the rails: we were wrong, but in a wider sense we were right, therefore whatever the actual results we should do it again. This is a dangerous way to go about making foreign policy.

It’s all about moral one-upmanship. Unless you realize this then you have understood nothing about the pro-war left.