Friday, February 29, 2008

Birds of Iraq

is back over at da man's place!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Real Hope

It is the hour of change and hope. We need both.

Now, when it comes to hope, there is something I don't mean. I'm not talking about Americans who unfortunately suffer in dire circumstances of poverty or ill-health that have occurred through no fault of their own. We all agree that we have an obligation to help those who suffer misfortune. They are a special case of the requirements of justice, but they are not at the center of controversies about justice and the role of government that we face at this time in our history.

No, what is at issue when it comes to hope is the rest of us, we who are not unfortunate but have our health and therefore, as the saying goes, have everything. We have what we need to pursue and win happiness. We are blessed with personal gifts, be they small or large, be they obvious to all or in need of personal discovery by ourselves. We are blessed with personal relationships with our families, our friends and others in our lives who have their own personal abilities and gifts to offer and bring into our lives, and with whom we can cooperate in creating good lives for ourselves and achieving real happiness by pursuing projects that we freely choose, embark upon, and bring to fruition of our own accord. These gifts are within all of us. Most of us believe it is God who created us with these gifts, but we can all agree that we were created with them.

This is a blessed situation in which we find ourselves. There is no need for any of us so blessed to envy one another, to be covetous of those of us who have achieved the most prosperity and fulfillment. Envy and covetousness are vices because they are based upon the ignorance of the immense value of one's own gifts. God never intended us to be envious and indignant of those of stellar accomplishment while we ourselves have beautiful families, personal talents and middle-class lifestyles consisting of more than one car, convenient electronic gadgets of every imaginable function all around us, and air in our houses heated and cooled to a degree of perfection that our grandparents would find astonishing. God certainly never intended us to whine and moan about the fact that we need to use personal initiative and to practice self-reliance in order to keep our lives the way we want them. No one said it was supposed to be easy. Americans have never been afraid of hard work. The system is not rigged. Happiness by its very nature requires self-reliance because it is one's own pursuit.

There simply is no problem of justice amongst us who have our lives and our health. Only envy and covetousness makes it seem otherwise. This is a lesson as old as the story of Cain and Abel.

If you're an atheist like me, go back if you like and take the God and Bible references out of what I've just said and rewrite accordingly. Express it in terms of good character or common sense if you like. It makes no difference how you express it. It's true.

In a situation as fortunate as ours, what we should hope for is that we can be allowed by our government to fulfill the promise of our gifts. These gifts are destinies of grand and modest orders and all orders in between. They are potentials that we have in virtue of being human. Because we are human, it is self-evident that we have rights to the pursuit of these destinies, rights protected here in the United States of America by foundational documents, The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence, which state that the government's principal duty is to protect each one of us as we go forward in our pursuit of personal happiness.

Since this is what beings such as we should hope for, it is particularly unseemly of us to complain that the rich in this country aren't taxed enough by the federal government, when in fact the rich pay almost all the federal income taxes. Google that. When you see how little the middle class and the poor pay, in comparison to the wealthy, you'll see how absurd it is for any politician to play class warfare in this country, to play us like a pawn against the rich in order to sucker you out of your vote by appealing to our envy and covetousness and ignorance of the facts. We should inform ourselves of the facts about who's paying the taxes, realize that we are blessed, and get over our petty envies and covetousness. They don't become a people as blessed as we.

But we do face an issue regarding the nature of government at this moment in our history. The issue is not how to soak the rich even more and use the money to buy happiness for the rest of us. Absurd as it is to say it, that mindless misunderstanding of the issue - and of American political philosophy - is the fundamental platform plank of many of our politicians. Sadly, this absurdity has become assumed and commonplace in the political debates we have in this country. It's so familiar that we don't even notice that it is there, let alone how shameful it is. The hatred, envy and bombast that show up in those debates as a result have contributed mightily to poisoning our political culture in this country. We cannot move forward as long as we keep arguing about how much more the wealthy should be made to give to others who are already blessed.

We all know that there are numerous politicians who, upon hearing me say what I've just said, will tell us that my kind of talk is an attempt to hoodwink us and that we ought to be outraged at it. These are politicians who will stoke our fires of envy all the more and attempt to sucker us into rejecting what we know to be true and accepting an absurdity instead. The absurdity, again, is this: that the political philosophy we should cherish in this country is that the government's job is to take money from the rich and use it to purchase happiness for the rest of us. You should make up your own mind whether those politicians have given you a reason to vote for them and accept this absurdity, or whether they've done nothing more than to appeal to your envy and resentment. Go ahead and think about it for a while. It's a simple matter. If you decide to side with the politicians who play one class of the blessed off of another, if you're a healthy American blessed with a precious life and you still want the government to take even more money from your boss and give it to you just because your boss is rich, then there is no need for you to read further.

If you're still with me, then let us consider, What is the issue we face if it isn't how to select the next tactic in class warfare and set the next tax increases? While government is meant to protect us, and also help the unfortunate amongst us, the problem is that government can threaten us, as well. Government is supposed to preserve our blessed lives and solve problems that threaten them. But unfortunately, government has a tendency to become the problem instead of solving the problem.

When government begins to provide for us we begin to lose our willingness and ability to provide for ourselves. It also ruins our economy with its waste. There's your trouble, as mechanics say.

When government gets big, we start demanding that it provide medical care for us instead of making sure the economy and the legal and regulatory environment are such that hospitals and insurance companies can put the money we give them into taking care of our health, rather than into bureaucracies and nuisance lawsuits. Absurdly, we demand that a fat, bloated, and dysfunctional health insurance system be given more power and responsibility over our health, or even more absurdly, that the government that caused the bloating and dysfunction be promoted to manager of the very system it broke.

When government gets big, we start expecting not to have to rely on the nuclear family to raise our children to stand on their own two feet and discover their own gifts. We expect instead that the government will provide money to take the place of these families and babysitting to take the place of real parenting.

When government gets big, we start being reluctant to manage our own retirement planning. We instead demand that a government bureaucrat, who has already spent most of our retirement contributions and who refuses to invest any of the money in anything but a savings account with almost no interest, will magically be able to provide for us when we grow old.

When government grows as bloated as ours, it begins to ruin our economy instead of staying out of our way, feeding its addiction to spending and bloating by printing more money, driving down the value of the dollar, and taxing American businesses so heavily that they are driven overseas just to drive the value of the dollar down even more as we succumb to our horrendous trade deficit.

When government grows as bloated as ours, it grows its debt to the point that those to whom the bill will come, our children, will be saddled with an unjust and unshoulderable burden. This is theft from children. We're out spending our kid's inheritance. Worse, we're letting politicians pour it down the drain.

The government wastes money as easily as it uses it wisely. We are much better at using our own money efficiently. A bigger government means more waste, more of our wealth down the drain, a worse economy with fewer opportunities for us to find our happiness.

The issue we face is how to shrink our government, not how to grow it fat with the money we imagine the rich owe us. The rich don't owe us, and the government can't make us happy. We can find our own happiness by pursuing happiness on our own, by discovering the individual talents and gifts each of us has. The injustice we are grappling with now is the injustice we do to ourselves by tolerating a government that is too big, too fat, and by its very nature unable to provide happiness to us.

Real hope lies in the discovery of a way to turn the behemoth of government around, shrink it, and get it out of our lives. Real hope lies in a vision of an America in which government protects us, helps the unfortunate, and otherwise stays put of our way. Real hope lies in seeing that LBJ's Great Society turned out to be not great and in resolving to stop it before it gets any worse. Real hope is an individual matter of a person's own vision of the potential that lies inside him and his own determination to pursue his own happiness by developing that self-chosen potential by relying on himself, his friends and family, others in his civil society, and on the protection of government. Yes, we can. But hope is also a political matter of creating a government that is consistent with keeping that hope alive. Current American government is sadly not that kind of government. We need change. Each individual has a duty to himself to get involved in the politics of producing a smaller government that does just what it should and not all the shameful and absurd things that our government does now.

This is the real hope for change. Yes, we can.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Some Points on Conservative Distributive Justice

More detail later, but just to sum up at the moment:

If you have your health (and liberty), then you don't have a basis to claim that you are a victim of distributive injustice.

However, an individual's remediable ill-health is not evidence (conclusive or even prima facie) of distributive injustice.

("Health" here is broadly construed, such that ill-health includes the poor bodily states of a person who cannot procure enough food or shelter. Ill-health is the state of pain or bodily malfunction induced by adverse physical circumstance.)

So, ill-health is a necessary but not sufficient condition of distributive injustice. Liberal concepts of distributive justice should say that it is not a necessary condition; they are wont to say that it is a sufficient condition. Libertarian conceptions should say that it is neither necessary not sufficient because in principle there is no such thing as distributive injustice.

In any event, the conservative view is that there is a duty from distributive injustice to render aid only if someone lacks in health. If someone lacks in health, then this fact by itself counts only as reason to take a look at his situation to see whether there is an injustice that we should rectify.

This view of the shape of distributive justices countenances great gaps in wealth. It surmises that a society is just, even if it has vast distances between the levels of wealth of the haves and the have-nots, as long as the have nots have their health. The reason is that distributive injustice generates a duty to render aid, but there cannot be a duty to render aid to someone who has, as the saying goes, "everything."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Recapping: Happiness and Distributive Justice

Chatting with Richard Chappell in the comments to the previous post, I stumbled upon the hackneyed expression "just the frosting on the cake." Hackneyed expressions often have a lot in them.

Consider three cupcakes representing people. (This is so silly. But it works.) The cake part is the fundamental happiness I've been talking about in these posts: health and liberty. The frosting represents supplementary happiness: education, career, raising kids, hobbies, travel, luxuries, etc. One cupcake, A, has no frosting. A isn't in abject poverty, but he is a member of our society who has enough to be happy. B has a medium-size layer of frosting, and C a thick layer of it. C lives in luxury and has various fulfilling activities open to him that A does not. B has some of these, but not others. They are all three happy, though B is happier than A and C happier still (assuming that B and C don't have psychological maladies preventing their enjoying their situations.) There is no imperative to transfer any frosting from C or B to A. If A lost a chunk of his cake through no fault of his own and was a decent and just person, then C and B might perhaps have a duty from distributive justice to help. (That's for the next post.) But there is no duty from distributive justice for the haves to give frosting to the have-nots. C and B can get together and decide to give frosting to A, and that might be reasonable and good. But there is no duty there. A has his health, so he has everything. What B and C have in addition is just the frosting on the cake. Justice doesn't enter in there, because justice is a very serious matter. We can't be serious about a duty to give A frosting, because we can't reasonably lament (Richard's term) that A lacks it. This is because A should not lament it himself.

Now, Richard comments, is surely desirable to bring about "a better society", as you put it. (Whether this is "owed as a matter of distributive justice", or a more broadly consequentialist imperative, does not seem to me an important difference.)

On the contrary, the difference is very important. I don't believe there is a consequentialist imperative, but I do agree that liberalism (leftism, what have you) is committed to there being one. The conservative view is that bringing about a better society (call this value U) is one among a set of values which we ought to promote (where "better" means "having more happiness spread amongst more people in it.") We ought to maintain distributive justice and procedural justice. We ought not to harm other societies for no good reason. There may be other values in the set, though at the moment, that seems exhaustive. U may be defeated (overridden, trumped) by any of these three other values in the set. In fact, the two justices are particularly tough cookies, and may be defeated by U only in extreme circumstances. For the conservative, these things must be kept clearly distinct so that deliberations about them can get them right. The liberal view Richard adheres to avowedly blurs the distinction. It may indeed increase happiness to take frosting from one who has a lot of it and give it to one who has only a little of it. But there is no overriding imperative to do so, and certainly not an imperative from distributive justice to do so.

That's a recap of the view. The reasons to accept it are in the previous two posts and the comments.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happiness and Distributive Justice

P: If you have your health, you have everything.

P is true. Well, as long as we take it as going without saying that you have your freedom, as well. Chuang-tzu eccentrically opined that not even health is necessary to contentment, and perhaps freedom is not necessary as well. I think even he would admit that it takes a person of extraordinary character to grasp the truth of this extreme view. So, leave that possibility aside. We're interested in political philosophy here, principles that pertain to the lot of us, not just to the eccentrics. For our purposes, if you have your health (and freedom), you have everything.

P is perennial wisdom. It runs deep. To deny it is to put an insurmountable barrier between oneself and happiness; it is psychologically unhealthy.

This old wisdom has a role in distributive justice, the topic in political philosophy. Libertarians, given their principles, should scoff at the notion of such a topic, as from their point of view any redistribution of goods obtained by free and informed transactions and labors is illegitimate. Liberals, given their views, should scoff back at the callousness they perceive in anyone unwilling to acknowledge the justice of redistributions aimed at transferring wealth from rich to poor. Conservatives who accept that some such redistribution is required by justice or at least allowed by it can expect to be scorned by libertarians for confusing justice with theft and scorned by liberals for countenancing only a niggardly transfer. I have had this scorn heaped on me by both libertarians and liberals. I delight in this irony.

What the conservative has in mind is that it is unseemly for anyone who has his health to feel it an injustice that he doesn't have more (when he hasn't done anything to earn more.) It is more than unseemly. It is morally and psychologically dysfunctional. It is an atavism, to use the Nietzschean term. It entails that someone who has every externality required for happiness and has not had anything he earned taken from him deserves to be given more goods. It entails that such a person has a grievance. It is sick to have everything one needs and believe one is owed by everyone who has more. This is a frame of mind incompatible with happiness. It also militates against self-reliance, one of the most important internalities required for happiness and for building a good life.

The liberal view of distributive justice of a society is that it is roughly inversely proportional to the degree of disparity in wealth between the society's haves and the have-nots. There is no sound argument for this position. In addition, it is unhealthy. It's not just that the radical redistribution advocated by the liberal is, as a matter of empirical fact, corrosive of tendencies to self-reliance or that it violates the property rights of the wealthy. Radical redistribution is based upon an unhealthy conceptual confusion about happiness; it is based upon a failure to recognize that P is true.

There are some additional issues regarding what exactly is owed by the haves to the have-nots, according to the conservative position I'm developing here. What of the scorn heaped by the libertarian and the liberal on this tepid view of redistribution? We'll take these issues up in the next post.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


There is a way of liberating oneself from the din of petty and mundane difficulties such that one is palpably and profoundly gratified by the fact that this world exists and the fact that one is alive in it. I experience this gratitude often and every day, and it is always present as a backdrop to the course of mental events that offer both din and tune, rhyme and rancor. The backdrop depletes and deadens the din and the rancor by depriving them of their habitual sustenance: attention, concern and valuation. The backdrop is perspective. This is the perennial wisdom. (You can find it most emphatically propounded in Chuang-tzu, though also most eccentrically.) Certain meditation techniques can accomplish it.

It's amazing to me that one can be this happy. I can't see how I am not the luckiest person who has ever lived, even though I know it cannot be so.

But Chuang-tzu eccentrically neglected the virtues and good form: ways of life suited to beings such as we and therefore inextricable from happiness. He failed to see that the backdrop must be a backdrop to something worthwhile if the scene is to amount to happiness. One's actions must be good and one's virtues flourishing if one is to be happy. Certain meditation techniques can create the backdrop of supreme gratitude. Both the areteic and the gratitudinal components are necessary for happiness.

There is a theological aside here. To whom is the atheist grateful? To no one, of course. Use "glad," instead of grateful, if you like. By "grateful" for this world and one's life, I mean glad and joyously humbled by them. Neither is a God to whom one is grateful entailed nor is He ruled out. It's a theology-neutral analysis of happiness.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Justice of Progressive Taxation

Consider a small group of people surviving in an isolated region by their labors. If the functioning of this little society necessitated that the group procure commodities (for example, materials for the construction of an aqueduct), then it would seem that each member of the group would be obligated to contribute an equal amount. It wouldn't be fair to require one of the members to contribute most of the wealth required by the group. Nor would it be fair to allow one to contribute less than a proportional fraction of the amount required by the group.

We can use this case to argue by analogy that taxation in a modern society such as America ought to be a matter of absolutely equal shares: a case that progressive taxation is wrong. Right away, we run into exceptions for children and the handicapped, of course. These are trivial cases where justice obliges us to waive the requirement of contribution. (Libertarians will say it isn't justice but charity that obliges us, but I don't wish to argue that point again.) The wealth or poverty of any individual wouldn't seem to be relevant to the amount he ought to contribute in tax, given that the success or failure in amassing wealth of any person in the small society imagined above wouldn't be relevant to the amount of aqueduct stones or mortar that he ought to contribute. There may be at the margin exceptions analogous to handicap amongst the poverty stricken: cases of bad luck similar to the impoverishment brought on by handicap, such as, for example, a man whose wealth is blown away by a tornado. Those are, again, trivial. The point is that thus far there is no prima facie requirement that the wealthy pay a greater absolute amount in tax than people in either the middle class or lower classes. Even taxation in proportion to wealth would be, prima facie, an injustice to those more wealthy than average. No, the prima facie case is for taxation in equal absolute amount.

Yet, an additional consideration weighs in. The amount procured by taxation in equal absolute amount would be insufficient for the functioning of modern and developed societies such as ours. Therefore, the matter comes down to this: Either the wealthy prefer to partake in such a society or they don't; it's at their discretion. And if they opt to do so, then as a matter of practical entailment they prefer to pay sufficiently for the functioning of the society and therefore more than the non-wealthy. In addition, the development of the society that makes it possible for people to become wealthy also supports this entailment. If one opts to get wealthy in a society of this sort, then it is because of the development and modernity that one eventually succeeds. So, again as a matter of practical entailment, one prefers to pay by opting to become rich in such a society. So, yes, the case for taxation in absolutely equal amount is defeated when we move from primitive little groups to modern and developed societies. This is the case for progressive taxation.

However, this case is severely limited in power. It holds only to the extent that the functioning of the society is the measure of sufficiency of contribution. The modern welfare state remains excluded by the original prima facie case because it moves well beyond societal functioning. Moreover, there is no good argument that the wealthy ought to provide for the food, housing, healthcare, etc. of the non-wealthy. Rawls's case is the best and it fails.

Therefore, currently the wealthy are required to pay more than their fair share in the U.S., since they are required to purchase a welfare state for the non-wealthy. The position held by many that they ought to pay still more is a non-starter.

This is the case from economic justice in favor of abolishing the welfare state. There are weightier considerations against the welfare state, such as the case from the danger of big, centralized government and the case from the morally corrosive effects of such government. We can consider those cases some other time.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The McCain - Conservative Spat in the GOP: Facts
  1. The spat is a sign of vibrant health, not dysfunction. It's a sign of a party with a big tent and a large set of precious values the correct ways of adherence to which are not easy to discern. This is a heritage of values amongst which we are meant to dispute, and the dispute can wax rancorous proportionately to the preciousness of the values at stake and the difficulty of negotiating their trade-offs. In contrast, the leftist party is devoid of vibrant philosophy and therefore there is only a drone about two or three egalitarian and pacifist shibboleths where a deliberation should be.
  2. McCain is a conservative of mediocre judgment. That's the bottom line in the present dispute over his worthiness as a candidate. Neither staunch McCain supporters nor his vociferous detractors will agree with me. But I'm right. Any conservative with good judgment should, upon reflection and in a cool hour, be able to tell that this is so. The evidence that he is a conservative is conclusive. The evidence that he has made many bad calls is also conclusive.
  3. The GOP did not put up an excellent conservative candidate. Therefore, the conservatives in the party did not get robbed.
  4. Any intent of conservatives not to vote in November when the candidate is McCain is patently irrational. It's understandable, and I succumbed to it a few days ago myself. But it is irrational. To use it as a political bludgeon, as a threat meant to pull McCain toward conservative positions on pain of losing conservative votes, is to practice Mutual Assured Destruction. It is to threaten to do something irrational. If they persist in the threats even after having "calmed down" and reflected for a while, then ironically it is they who are the RINO's. More importantly, they are ideologues in the negative sense of that term, lacking in political or practical intelligence beyond the abstract conservative ideas. They are as poor conservatives as McCain.
  5. Any non-conservative supporters of McCain who want conservative Republicans to shut up and drop their objections at this time are also RINO's. See point #1.
Don't want to be a RINO? Then support McCain and raise any conservative objections to his record that you have. Raise them vociferously and acerbically if you like. Or if you have no objections to McCain's record, then review the objections of conservatives who do and reply to them or admit that they are right.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I Won't Pay

When Clinton installs a mechanism by which to garnish my wages in order to force me to purchase health insurance, I would like to know who would be willing to garnish them. Would you? You know, at your computer in the Department of Healthcare Services. With your mouse.

Or if I am paid in cash and keep this cash in my house, who would be willing to kick in my door in order to extract the appropriate sum?

Any Clinton supporter who believes that doing these deeds would be morally reprehensible should consider whether voting for Clinton is not, by the same token, equally morally reprehensible.

To the rest of Clinton supporters I say this: I won't pay.
Calmed Down a Bit, Thank You

I've overcome my little spate of melancholy. To withhold one's vote from McCain next November is indeed to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, given the elderliness of many Supreme Court Justices. I let a little despair about the health of the GOP cloud my vision of that point.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Holding One's Nose and Voting

Of course, there's a time for it. Namely, most of the time. Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Avoiding foolish idealism. That sort of thing. It's all well and good.

However, there comes a point in the progression of a political system's dysfunction where both candidates are so bad that the fact that one is not quite as bad as the other becomes insignificant. It rather becomes time to stop supporting the system because the system is sick. Here I'm talking about the Democrat-Republican party system. With enough voters abstaining from voting for either of the major candidates, a signal is given that there is room for a new political party. The signal would be clearer if like-minded abstainers would write in the same name.

I'm a conservative. I can't vote for McCain or the Democrats. Don't want to write in George Washington. Too august a figure. Nor Thomas Jefferson, my hometown hero.

I will write in John Adams this November, in the event of a contest between McCain and the Democrats. If you are of like mind, I suggest you write in Adams, too, and suggest to your like-minded friends that they consider doing so, as well.

I dream of a puzzled TV news anchor reporting that so-and-so is our new president but that there seems to have been one million write-ins reported for John Adams. Energetic individuals who might start a conservative party would take note of the opening.

UPDATE: I was wrong. As Hugh Hewitt has been arguing, it is significantly preferable that McCain pick the next half-dozen Supreme Court justices than that Obama or Clinton do so. My mistake.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Goldberg and the Conservative View of Deliberation

A few years ago, Jonah Goldberg had an insight into the conservative view of moral and political deliberation. He included it in his recent book, to the delight of one of his readers:

I have to say though, that I think one of my favorite sentences in the whole book is when you say, "But what the conservative understands is that progress comes from working out inconsistencies within our tradition, not by throwing it away." That is the conservatism I love and I wish more people understood this basic principle.

Coherentism is a little-known view in normative ethics, best articulated on this blog and also in Alan H. Goldman's books on ethics. I don't believe Goldman, my dissertation advisor, ever saw his way clear to conservatism, but it is an intrinsically conservative position, as Goldberg apparently recognizes. I think that coherentism (I've also called it common-senseism) is the best moral theory. It is also the best theory of conservative deliberation over matters moral and political, an issue which is motivated by the questions, What distinguishes a reactionary from a conservative? and How can one be conservative and change one's moral or political opinion when reason requires it? Coherentism carries a lot of weight and does so quite successfully. So, I admired Goldberg's having reaching a similar conclusion, although he hasn't developed it in any detail or depth. That's the philosopher's job.

Here are posts which develop this moral philosophy of conservatism:

Here's one.
Here's a second.
Here's a third.
Here's a fourth.
Here's a fifth.
Here's a sixth.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Walzer’s Use of Moral Dilemmas in "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands"

Walzer attempts to prove that moral dilemmas cannot be dissolved by either intuitionist or utilitarian models of moral judgment. The intuitionist would like to show that in a dilemma one can just tell the right thing to do; it is simply and clearly overriding in weight when compared to alternative courses of action. But this view is inconsistent with the fact that one must be able to explain and justify one’s determination of what is right. The utilitarian must take the moral rules, which dilemmas require that we violate, as either mere rules of thumb or hard-and-fast dispositions which we must cling to as more reliable than our faculties of judgment. But rules of thumb are mere heuristics with no intrinsic moral weight and are therefore quite unlike the regrettably foregone horns of the dilemmas we decide. And if the rules are strong dispositions, then utilitarianism, if true, is a truth that may not be divulged, lest it destroy the disposition needed to follow it - a prospect which is absurd.

So, Walzer argues that there really are moral dilemmas. These are more than tough cases to judge. Call them “hard dilemmas:” cases in which neither of the alternative courses of action is permissible, and you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Politicians who face them and make momentous decisions therefore necessarily commit crimes and should be punished for them. Only if by the course they have chosen they have succeeded in “eliminating social classes” or “deny[ing] power and glory to the greatest liars” may they be excused and escape punishment.

Or so Walzer argues. His subject is political action such as conduction war. He means to argue that the politicians who must face the war’s terrible dilemmas and decide who is to die should be punished for whichever decision they take, except in certain cases, as listed above.

It’s interesting that Walzer has arranged it so that all politicians should be punished except those who succeed in achieving Walzer’s preferred egalitarian goals. In any event, the argument for moral dilemmas is lacking. It is obvious that people who have decided moral dilemmas have been able to give reasons for their decisions, reasons which do not bear any mark of a commitment to utilitarianism. They show that one horn of the dilemma was the right one because of the case’s similarities to other, less controversial or even non-controversial cases. Common sense moral reasoning works. For Walzer to overlook what it has to offer and imply that only two arcane academic theories are on the table is fatal to his argument. So, intuitionism and utilitarianism cannot dissolve moral dilemmas. This doesn’t mean that common-sense moral reasoning cannot.

Of course, there are cases in which neither alternative course of action can be shown to be on balance morally better than the other. But Walzer offers no argument that even these are hard dilemmas. In fact, the concept of a hard dilemma is incoherent. For the notion that both alternative courses are both right and wrong is incoherent. Instead, there are soft dilemmas, in which it is strictly permissible to take either one course or the other, and not also impermissible. For example, in the case in which the lifeguard can save only one of two drowning swimmers, we have no reason to think that either course of action is wrong, as well as right; instead, either is simply right. Walzer, as the champion of hard dilemmas, bears the burden of showing that they are not incoherent. Merely challenging other theories to show that they are reducible to soft dilemmas is no argument at all but rather a confusion.

Yet, I owe Walzer my own explanation of the tragedy of some moral dilemmas, so as to provide an error theory for his confusion. Some moral dilemmas – call these “grave moral dilemmas” - require an indecent act, but not, contrary to Walzer’s view, a crime. Indecent acts, so commonplace in war, are the kind of acts that, while not morally wrong, are not enjoyable to undertake by a man of virtuous character. These acts require doing great harm and a virtuous character therefore undertakes them with melancholy. This is why moral dilemmas can seem to Walzer to require a crime; they merely require an act that, unlike other right acts, cannot be rightly enjoyed by the agent. The agent doesn’t have the guilt of a crime on his shoulders. He does have a duty to do what is repugnant to his virtuous character. The difference between grave moral dilemmas and run-of-the-mill trade-offs and compromises countenanced in moral reasoning is that the grave dilemmas are cases in which great evil must be done. This explains the special momentousness of these dilemmas. They entail that the agent must do what is almost always considered a great crime. The human character, when virtuous, is by nature repulsed by them. Usually for such a character to act rightly is enjoyable. But not in these cases.

Politicians who send soldiers and civilians to their deaths when confronted by grave moral dilemmas are not by that fact criminals. The fact that Walzer used a shoddy argument to portray them as criminals only to excuse the few whose courses of action promoted his favorite political ends strikes me as sophistical.
John Ray's Blog

To my delight, I see John Ray is still blogging. Click over to begin dissecting!