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: