Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nagel’s False Dichotomy between Absolutism and Utilitarianism

I suppose this is the last of my posts on “War and Massacre.” Afterwards, Walzer and Brandt. Down the road, Machiavelli and Melville’s Billy Budd will come into this little series on war. If you haven’t read Billy Budd, give it a whirl, and afterwards see Terence Stamp portray the title role in the 1962 movie rendition.

The last point about Nagel is typical of a problem to be found in many ethics articles. Nagel offers a false dilemma between absolutism and utilitarianism. How many undergraduates are asked to take either of these two sides in term papers, by the way? A lot. If they are less unlucky, they will have a virtue ethics alternative, as if it were a competing alternative, and as if it were the only one. W. D. Ross is forgotten. Alan Goldman’s books fall stillborn from the presses.

In any event, Nagel says that either we accept the utilitarian view of moral deliberation over war or we accept that morality requires a less “administrative” and more personal mode of justification. The latter course requires that we be prepared to justify our decision to each affected party, rather than to justify them by some higher level calculus, as utilitarians try to do. It therefore entails that absolute constraints on utility maximization be maintained. As a result, weapons of mass destruction, the strategic bombing of innocents, and other modes of massacre are to be considered absolutely wrong (i.e., wrong in any case.)

I’ve argued in the previous post that this is a non sequitur. We can justify to each individual the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This points to a defect in Nagel’s dilemma, wherein he implies that either one is with the absolutists or with the utilitarians. The third alternative, unchecked by Nagel, is that there are no absolute constraints upon the use of weapons of mass destruction or the strategic bombing of innocents, even though utilitarianism is not the correct view to take of the matter.

Instead, one might opt for a common-sense approach to war and massacre. Common sense bids us to weigh individual rights to go unmolested along with the reasons to promote utility of one’s own society under undeserved attack. Neither has an absolute trump value over the other. Other common-sense factors enter into the matter, such as the membership of the victims of the bombing in the society that has launched the undeserved attacks. (Bad luck, to be an innocent member of a bellicose society and as a result to be a victim of its victims’ retaliation.)

Of course, when some one mentions “common-sense” as a reason for his position, you should reach for your wallet, as it were; expect an unsatisfying argument. But in this case, I am not arguing for an alternative to absolutism or utilitarianism. I’m merely showing that there is a common-sense alternative to them. However, I would be prepared to argue for the common-sense view. But enough has been said on this blog over the last few weeks, let alone five years, to obviate that necessity now. The point is that much common moral argumentation is neither absolutist nor utilitarian. To overlook it is fatal to any formal treatments of morality, such as Nagel's.

Walzer next. And we will return to our series on Kekes's The Art of Life