Nagel offers little in the way of argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. But, there is a criticism of absolutist condemnations of certain kinds of violence which says that the absolutist is simply reluctant to get his hands dirty (in other words to sacrifice his integrity.) The criticism is an attempt to psychologize and therefore explain absolutism as based upon non-rational desires rather than sound reasons.
Nagel, however, says that this criticism from dirty hands is confused.
First, it is a confusion to suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity might be the source of an obligation. [SNIP] Secondly, the notion that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably…is an incoherent notion.In fact, the criticism from dirty hands rests on no such confusions. It contends that the absolutist is afraid of taking a moral stand that requires boldly indecent acts, preferring to hope that meekness and pusillanimity will pass as morally sufficient stances in situations in which a compelling argument for violence is obvious. It is an insufficiency of spleen to the extent that one is unable to grow morally into the person who recognizes when sacrificing one’s decency is morally justifiable. It is a hope that in the final reckoning, as it were, the judge of us all will not have the heart to give the performance of the meek and earnest amongst us a lower score lower than the brazen and brutal, even when the latter got things right. There is sufficient hope to allow the absolutist to forego mustering the spleen necessary to pull the trigger or drop the bomb or to appear immoral to his friends.
In sum, the criticism from dirty hands does not suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity is the source of an obligation; it suggests that absolutists believe that clean hands are a sufficient stand-in for righteousness. And the criticism from dirty hands does not assume that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably. It assumes that one might engage in indecent acts justifiably. Nagel fails even to begin to turn the criticism away.
The point is that it there is no sound argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. Absolutism remains just a theory with no sufficient basis. Therefore, we may turn to psychologism, in order to explain the fact that people hold to this theory. Otherwise, with no psychological explanation handy, one might suspect that the cause is indeed a sufficiently rational basis in the many thousands of pages of absolutist writings since Kant. But psychologism is not philosophy. The philosophical point is that the absolutist intuition that it is absolutely (i.e., indefeasibly) wrong to conduct strategic bombing of innocents or use weapons of mass destruction has no basis.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at what little argument Nagel offers for his absolutism: that one should do something to another only with the intention of treating him as a subject who will receive it. Meanwhile, consider this:
Your country is a totalitarian regime which seeks to extend brutal totalitarian hegemony across its hemisphere. It unprovokedly attacks another country and massacres its people, with no moral justification at all. The other country correctly determines that there is little hope of rescuing itself from your government’s brutal oppression unless it bombs your city, in effort to weaken the resolve of your country to continue its aggression. Do you object?