Who Deserves Afghanistan?

The expected consequence conception of desert says that, pro tanto, we deserve the expected consequences of our actions. A recent line of argument inspired by the Taliban seizure of Afghanistan both employs this conception, and unwittingly illustrates the problems with it.

Bret Stephens’s argument in the preceding column is, in effect, that Joe Biden “deserves” what is happening right now in Afghanistan. Here’s the argument reconstructed:

1. Joe Biden made the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan on a quick timeline.

2. The decision to withdraw US troops on a quick timeline could reasonably be expected to lead to a Taliban seizure of power, along with a large measure of brutality, chaos, and betrayal.

3. Hence Joe Biden deserves the Taliban seizure of power, along with the brutality, chaos, and betrayal that has arisen in its wake.

I guess it’s supposed to follow from (3) that Biden is an immoral man, and that Biden’s troop withdrawal is (or was) an immoral policy.

One obvious problem with the argument is that it’s not valid as stated, but set that aside on the assumption that someone could likely produce a technically valid version of it if they tried.

A second problem is that premise (1) states a half-truth: Joe Biden didn’t unilaterally decide to withdraw US troops on the current timeline; he was abiding by an agreement made by Donald Trump. Stephens seems to be arguing that Biden should have abrogated this agreement, and kept troops in Afghanistan longer than the agreement stipulated. He makes this argument while also arguing that the US ought to make a greater effort at exhibiting the virtues of fidelity. Never mind that the combination of claims is incoherent. Let’s just pretend that (1) is true.

Premise (2) is another half-truth. It’s certainly true that the decision to withdraw US troops on a quick timeline could reasonably be expected to lead to horrendous consequences. But it also could reasonably be expected to lead for good consequences for the Americans who would otherwise have to fight the war, and/or bear the consequences of any casualties. So if Biden deserves the bad consequences of troop withdrawal, he deserves the good ones, too. That seems to suggest that he deserves a mixed set of consequences yielding a mixed moral verdict. But Stephens has no interest in a mixed verdict; he’s obviously invested in a full-fledged condemnation.  Though I don’t think he has an argument for the claim, and don’t think he deserves our credulity, let’s pretend that (2) is true anyway.

What’s remarkable is not the invalidity of the argument or the falsity (or half-true quality) of its premises, but the obscurity of the conclusion, (3). What does it mean to “deserve” a set of expected consequences at all, especially consequences that you’re walking away from, or are at a distance from?

A few examples should convey the point better. Imagine that I had access to an ICBM with a nuclear warhead, and covertly fired it at some faraway place, killing everyone there. Imagine that I was sure to go undiscovered in doing this, and sure to be insulated from the consequences of the action. The consequences would still obtain, of course, albeit at a great distance from me. And they would be expected. But what would it mean for me to “deserve” them? Though the claim seems at first to have a surface plausibility, on second thought it’s not clear that it has any meaning at all. Do I deserve the spectacle of the bomb going off? Or do I deserve the visual spectacle of the carnage produced by it? Or the carnage itself? Do I deserve the physical states of affairs produced by the explosion? Or only the notional ones? If I “own” all of these, can I then sell them? Does it make sense to say that you acquire a property right in a place by firing a missile at it and blowing it up?

We could multiply examples to similar effect (so to speak). Here’s a rather pedestrian one. Suppose I litter. It’s an expected consequence of littering that there will be litter where I littered. But what does it mean to say that I deserve the expected consequences of my littering? Do I deserve the litter? Or do I deserve the spot where I littered? Or is it that I deserve the novel ugliness that I’ve now brought into the world as a result of my littering? Or do I, finally, deserve a punishment assessed against the disvalue created by my littering? The concept of expected consequences doesn’t have the resources even to indicate an approach to these questions, much less a conclusive answer.

There are two different puzzles here. One is: what does it mean to deserve a state of affairs at all? What does it mean to say that I “deserve” the causal consequences of an action that ex hypothesi has no effect on me?

You might say I deserve opprobrium, condemnation, blame, or punishment for the wrong I’ve done. But those are attitudes supplied by third parties, not the state of affairs itself. And the verdict of wrongness involved in the preceding claim imports a normative element to the claim not supplied by expected consequences on their own. So expected consequences can’t do the work of explaining or picking out the wrongness of the act. Poetic justice might require that I suffer a karmic consequence from my actions, but that’s a flight of fancy, not ethics. Stephens says that Biden “owns” the consequences of his troop withdrawal, but that property-based metaphor raises as many questions as it answers. As I’ve just said, it’s not as though Biden could sell the consequences of this particular action, or claim ownership over all of Afghanistan as a result of leaving it.

The claim of “ownership” has a certain vague plausibility: it seems analogous to what one might say of someone who had abandoned a dysfunctional car in the street: he owns it, we might say, hence has responsibility over it, hence has the obligation to dispose of it. We might say something similar of someone who buys a house, then walks away from it without having paid off the mortgage. Walking away from the mortgage doesn’t absolve you of the obligation to pay. The obligation follows you wherever debt collectors have the power to go. Indeed, it follows you where they don’t.

This latter car abandonment/mortgage interpretation might solve Stephens’s problem, if only the analogy actually carried over to the case at hand. But it doesn’t. The problem here is that Biden’s action is a withdrawal from Afghanistan, not a further involvement in it, something more akin to an omission than a free-standing act. How do you own something by abandoning it? You might first have owned it, then abandoned it, but how can the act of abandonment be the act of appropriation? In order to say that Biden owns the consequences of withdrawal from Afghanistan, one has to say that he owned the war ab initio in a way that morally precluded departure. But that takes a lot more work than the expected consequence account is in a position to deliver.  

A second puzzle is: even if you suppose that expected consequences yield desert over a state of affairs, what state of affairs is the relevant one? The causal consequences of a nuclear blast persist a long time, and have innumerable ramifications. If I fire a nuclear missile at some faraway place, which of these consequences do I come to deserve, supposing that I expect them all? All of them? A proper subset? If so, a proper subset delimited how? Richard Nixon withdrew US forces from Vietnam in 1975. Does he deserve everything that’s happened in Vietnam since then? Or just everything that’s happened as a result of the US withdrawal, whatever that amounts to? On the other hand, litter often decomposes fairly quickly. If decomposition is an expected consequence of littering what is biodegradable, it appears that I deserve little or nothing for littering, at least if I wait until it degrades.

On reflection, one realizes that the expected consequence account of desert shares an affinity with Locke’s theory of initial appropriation: it sounds like it makes more sense than it actually does.* A further irony is that even if we grant (3), the further implication Stephens wants–that withdrawal from Afghanistan was, all things considered, an immoral act or policy–still doesn’t follow.

It’s not clear to me that Sher’s account of the expected consequence conception of desert has the resources to handle examples of the preceding sort. At best, it fits Sher’s category (5) of apparently troublesome cases, “the results of choices made under threat, or in some other illegitimately structured choice situation” (Sher, Desert, p. 45). But even if it nominally fits that category, it’s a very atypical case. What Sher seems to have in mind in those cases are situations in which someone faces an asymmetry of power from a position of weakness. But that doesn’t easily describe the situation of the President of the United States, facing a guerilla army of tribal theocrats. The result seems problematic both for Stephens’s argument and for Sher’s, a consequence they both seem to deserve. Oh the irony.

*That, I suspect, explains the vague affinity between some of the arguments I make in the post, and some of the criticism Nozick makes of Locke’s theory of property in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (pp. 174-82).

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