Pairwise civilizational verdicts and the Arab Israeli conflict: a sketch

I recently had a “debate” about Israel and Palestine at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian website. I wrote my post at the suggestion of Roderick Long (Auburn) in response to one by Fernando Teson (Florida State University College of Law); Long posted it as a guest blog at BHL as well as at his own website and at that of the Center for a Stateless Society. (I’m not an anarchist myself, but I occasionally consort with anarchists, e.g., when they post my decidedly non-anarchist writings on their blogs. By the way–thanks, Roderick!)

One topic that repeatedly came up in the debate, and that repeatedly comes up in debates like this, is what I call inferential license via pairwise civilizational verdict. The basic idea is this: you’re trying (in moral terms) to adjudicate a dispute between two parties, X and Y–where “X” and “Y” are typically distinct “cultures” or “societies,” and in this post-Huntingtonian-but-still-Huntingtonian age, therefore belong to different “civilizations.” In order to adjudicate the dispute, however, you assume that you’ve got to begin with premises that express a kind of global moral verdict on each society. That’s the pairwise civilizational verdict. Once you have that verdict in hand, you can then use it to regulate whatever inferences you want to make about the dispute. If, for instance, you find that X is morally superior to Y, you then systematically give greater weight to X’s claims in the dispute, and greater plausibility to evidence that seems to favor those claims. That’s the inferential license. Put the two things together, and you have a classic recipe for coherence-without-input-from-the-world. In other words, you have a recipe for generating a coherent (or apparently coherent) grievance-narrative that feeds all claims about the conflict through a filter that favors one side in the conflict. As I’ve argued elsewhere (but in somewhat different terms), that’s fundamentally what I think the Arab/Israeli conflict is.

There are at least two sets of questions lurking here. One concerns the legitimacy of making pairwise civilizational verdicts as such. Roughly: are they legitimate, and if so, how or why? Another concerns the legitimacy of using such verdicts to regulate disputes. Supposing that they are legitimate, should one use them to regulate particular disputes; if so, how and why?

Here’s a very quick thought on the first set of questions (the “are they legitimate” questions). It seems to me that the idea of a pairwise civilizational (or cultural or societal or national or ethno-national) verdict is a highly equivocal one. Suppose that I say that culture X is superior to culture Y. The claim should provoke some obvious preliminary queries. For one thing, we have to be clear about the values for “X” and “Y”: what exactly are they, what are the truth conditions for claims about “them,” and how do we justify those claims? They also have to be comparable entities; we can’t be engaged in the moral equivalent of comparing apples and frog’s legs. Finally, we have to know how defeasible they are. How many exceptions (or what kind of exception) would defeat a generalized verdict about the superiority of one culture to another?

Given that (which is a lot to give), the “X is superior to Y” claim is ambiguous as between any of the following six claims:

1. The norms we associate with X are superior to those we associate with Y (not that we have any empirical evidence of causal connection; we’re going by associations).
2. The norms expressed by X are superior to those expressed by Y (assuming we have a way of identifying when a norm is expressive of a culture).
3. The political regime of X is superior to the political regime of Y, and superiority of political regime reflects superiority of culture.
4. The average citizen/denizen of X is morally superior to the average citizen/denizen of Y.
5. More of the citizens/denizens of X are morally superior to more of the citizens/denizens of Y.
6. The worst aspects of X are not as bad as the worst aspects of Y.
This isn’t the place for a full “chisholming” of these claims, but I think they require chisholming before anyone can be very confident about the legitimacy of any particular pairwise verdict. I also think that the more chisholming they undergo, the more problematic the overall strategy will come to seem. I don’t mean to suggest that pairwise cultural or civilizational comparisons are always or necessarily wrong or unjustified. I just think they’re more complicated than some overly gung-ho moral realists (or ethno-national tribalists) have realized.
(Thanks to David Bernstein, Mark Friedman, Sergio Mendez, Alice Raizel, and Michael Young for inspiring this comment, in some cases by exemplifying the confusions I’m implicitly criticizing.)

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