Desert and Merit (5)

In a concluding section near the end of his chapter on desert and merit, George Sher makes a final, and to my mind puzzling claim, or set of them. Here’s the relevant passage, at length:

When someone satisfies criteria of performance established by fixed sets of conventions, he ought to receive whatever prizes, recognition, or grades those conventions dictate; and when an applicant is best-qualified for a job or educational opportunity, he ought to receive that opportunity. Yet these desert-bases, however important, do not exhaust the forms of merit that are said to create desert. We also say that persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard, that superior political candidates deserve to be elected, that authors of outstanding books deserve recognition, and that scientists who discover vaccines or generals who lead victorious armies deserve honors and awards. We cannot plausibly ground these desert-claims in either the principles of veracity or fidelity or the requirement that pesons be treated as rational agents.…Thus, barring further developments, our working assumption–that all major desert-claims have real normative force–must here be abandoned; here, we must settle for a non-justificatory account (Sher, Desert, p. 129). 

The non-justificatory account turns out to be a Humean error theory: 

In such cases, we project our inclinations onto the world and call them values or obligations. The tendency to do this–an instance of what Hume called the mind’s ‘great propensity to spread itself on external objects’–can be expected to operate whether or not a given desert claim is justified (Sher, pp. 130-31). 

For ease of reference, let’s refer to justification by “the principles of veracity or fidelity” as the conventionalist justification, and justification by “the requirement that persons be treated as rational agents” as the Kantian justification

I don’t understand Sher’s counsel of despair about the cases he cites here. Suppose that Sher is, in a general way, right about the the conventionalist and Kantian justifications of merit. Isn’t it plausible enough to say that the four or five cases he cites (and others like them) can be justified by one or both of those desert bases?

A preliminary point: I say “four or five cases,” but I really mean four, since I propose to drop Sher’s last case, that of “generals who lead victorious armies,” as too problematic to merit inclusion. For one thing, victory by itself is insufficient for deserving honors or awards; the war itself has to be justified before anyone deserves anything of the sort. Second, even in cases where a war is justified, it’s doubtful that generals are the ones who deserve the honors and awards for victory. Generals don’t fight; ordinary soldiers do. If effort is a relevant desert-basis, then soldiers deserve rewards for victory more clearly than generals. Beyond that, war seems so morally ambivalent a phenomenon that it’s arguably inappropriate to think of it in terms of honors and awards, even in cases of justified victory. And if what is being rewarded in warfare is courage, then perhaps the example is best discussed, if at all, under the rubric of desert and virtue rather than desert and merit.*  

Here are the four cases again, in sequence:

  1. Persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard. 
  2. Superior political candidates deserve to be elected.
  3. Authors of outstanding books deserve recognition.
  4. Scientists who discover vaccines deserve honors and awards. 

Let’s call these the controversial cases. The controversial cases are, to be sure, different from the cases Sher discusses elsewhere in his chapter. In Sher’s conventionalist cases, we have a rule-governed competition of some sort, with fixed (conventional) criteria that dictate what a person deserves. In his Kantian cases, we have a set of candidates for a job opening or other position, and are tasked (on Kantian grounds) with finding the best candidate(s) for the position. In the controversial cases, by (apparent) contrast, there are no formal competitions involved, hence no obvious, uncontroversial conventions of merit to apply. And there are no literal openings in question, hence no literal selection from among candidates for it. So it’s tempting, I suppose, to think that neither the conventionalist nor the Kantian justification applies here. 

But all of that seems like over-literalism in the application of both justifications. The question at issue is whether the individuals involved in the controversial cases deserve our attention on the basis of their merit. The answer appears, plausibly enough, to be “yes.” Despite Sher’s skepticism, the controversial cases seem close enough to the cases Sher discusses elsewhere in the chapter to satisfy either the conventional justification or the Kantian one or both

The key to seeing this is to think of attention as a resource in scarce supply, and to think of the individuals in the four examples as vying for that scarce resource. Because attention is scarce, it has to be rationed. Viewed in this way, attention is a matter of open competition, so that we can either think of it as an informal analogue of the more formal competitions associated with the conventionalist justification, or view “slices” of attention as analogous to the job or other openings associated with the Kantian justification (or both). Either way, we reach the desired conclusion. 

More specifically: In conventionalist terms, we can conceive all four of the controversial cases as operating in informal competitions where the point of assigning a “grade” or giving credit to a set of achievements is in part to determine whether any of the members of the set deserve the prize involved in giving them our attention. If the criteria for grading are set up so as to identify the candidate(s) with the best claim on our attention, then the primary award just is our attention. Any formal award is just a conventional means of marking “fitness for attention.”   

In Kantian terms, if we think of slices of attention as analogous to job slots, we can conceive of achievements as candidates for filling those slots, from best to worst. Just as a job has a job description, attention has its own perhaps implicit descriptions: pure whims aside, what engages our attentions is something that satisfies certain determinate criteria for better or worse. What best satisfies those criteria most deserves our attention; what fails to satisfy them, doesn’t. 

Though somewhat metaphorical, the preceding seems good enough to fit the bill. Consider the cases again.

(1) Persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard.

To evaluate this example, we have to put it in the context of something like a specific “marketplace of ideas”–a particular arena or milieu in which people self-consciously engage with one another about ideas, with a view to promoting a set of commonly-held discursive ends, whether theoretical or practical. Within this context, ideas will be evaluable in terms their conduciveness to these ends. If the aim is a certain kind of knowledge, then ideas with certain epistemic credentials will have the relevant sort of “interest.” If the aim is the promotion of some practical end, then ideas with practical merit will have “interest.” And if the aim is purely aesthetic, then the aesthetic dimensions of the idea will have “interest,” and by implication, merit. 

Implicit in the wording of Sher’s example is a sort of tacit Mill-inspired caution to pay attention to dissenting, unconventional, or easily ignored ideas: all truth-conducive, practically useful, or aesthetically interesting ideas have merit (insofar as they do), and all deserve some attention (by someone) insofar as it’s possible to give them that attention, regardless of our tendency to seek the least common denominator of mental effort. 

Case (3) is similar enough to (1) not to need much further discussion:

(3) Authors of outstanding books deserve recognition.

We might quarrel with the specific criteria employed by the committees that award, say, the Nobel, Pulitzer, or Booker Prizes, the National Book Award, or the more ephemeral results of a position on the latest best-seller list, but assuming that determinate criteria are involved, there seems no difficulty in principle in recognizing that books and authors get prizes on either the conventionalist or Kantian justifications, or some combination of both. 

Case (2) strikes me as so obvious that I’m at a loss to understand Sher’s skepticism about it: 

(2) Superior political candidates deserve to be elected.

An election just is a conventionally-structured competition with conventionally-settled criteria for the ultimate award. Put differently, an election just is a procedure designed to fill a job opening. So it’s unclear (to me) why Sher thinks we can’t “plausibly ground” (2) in either the conventionalist or Kantian justification, or both. It’s one thing to say that the criteria involved in electing a candidate to office are unclear or contestable, but that’s equally true of many of the cases Sher seems to regard as relatively uncontroversial. The candidate with the right combination of knowledge, skill, and character has the most electoral merit, and thus deserves to win the election. We might reasonably argue about what that amounts to while agreeing on the principle. 

As for (4):

(4) Scientists who discover vaccines deserve honors or awards.

This proposition seems no different, in principle, from (1) or (3). Indeed, if we imagine (1) as involving the ideas of a vaccine researcher, and (3) as involving her published work, the differences between (1), (3), and (4) start to evaporate or seem trivial.

Put it this way: given the imperfect nature of the duty to award the meritorious, we have no strong obligation to give honors or awards to every meritorious person, scientist, or immunologist. But nothing prevents us from doing so, either. Suppose, then, that we have a stake in maintaining a sense of priorities about those things in the public sphere that ought to get and ought not to get our attention. We know that given the tastes of the public, relatively frivolous things will get attention, while relatively important ones will go ignored. So we devise a mechanism for singling out the latter for sustained social attention.

Since attentional resources are scarce even here, we stipulate that for any field deserving attention, we will–by the award of honors or awards–single out the best for special attention. And so we devise an honorific mechanism for identifying, say, the most important ongoing vaccine research. Notice that simply declaring this research as important would, in a sense, function as an “honor or award.” Pace Sher, we don’t need a Humean error theory to explain why vaccine research ought to play a more prominent role in, say, the country’s newspaper of record than some prurient episode in a celebrity divorce. Public recognition or credit would be sufficient to give vaccine researchers the honor or award they deserve (over and above the relatively generous compensation they already get by way of, say, salaried remuneration or grant funding, etc.)

I’ve probably belabored issues that will strike many readers (and, I think, struck many of our online discussants) as too obvious for lengthy discussion. And so, to quote Wordsworth, I’ll leave the matter there.

                                              Having now
Told what best merits mention, further pains
Our present labour seems not to require
And I have other tasks. 

(William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XIII, lines 365-70). 


* Consider Avi Shavit’s description of the “democratic” quality of the Israeli national military cemetery at Mt Herzl outside of Jerusalem, which he calls “an unmonumental monument”: 

The military cemetery is also democratic and subdued. The ranks of the fallen are not engraved on the gravestones. In almost every section, generals are buried besides corporals. There are no patriotic inscriptions praising heroism and homeland. There is no attempt to deprive the dead of their individuality. On the contrary, the small stone plaques emphasize the fact that what lies under each one is a human being. The simple epitaphs do not sanctify death in war but leave it as it is: final and horrific (Avi Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, p. 397).

Having visited it just once, I don’t quite remember Mt Herzl as Shavit does, but I agree, in principle, that if we’re to have military monuments at all, they ought to take the form he describes. That said, it’s worth pointing out (as Shavit himself does) that there is no monument to any of Israel’s military massacres (and few, if any, to any of our own). It’s an interesting question (unaddressed by Sher) whether atrocities deserve public recognition, and in what sense. Generally, nations feel the need to give public recognition to massacres that they’ve suffered, not ones that they’ve perpetrated. The Wounded Knee Memorial on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a notable exception, but arguably exists only because it’s located on a reservation. 

For similar (but more polemical) thoughts on the desirability of “unmonumental” monuments, see Ayn Rand’s “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness

21 thoughts on “Desert and Merit (5)

  1. As an anarchist I have reservations about “superior political candidates deserve to be elected” similar to your reservations about “generals who lead victorious armies deserve honors and awards.” Does the nicest mafioso deserve to be the Godfather?


    • On a slightly more serious note, I guess I’d say two things. I don’t regard political candidates as ipso facto morally on par with generals leading unjust armies. But the broader moral issue is one about candidates for elected office (bracketing institutional arrangements), not about candidates for offices within The State per se. Anarchists can still elect candidates to anarchist office, and private institutions hold elections for non-state-governed purposes. The point I make in the post can be regarded, mutatis mutandis, as applying there.


  2. If one grants that military tactics and strategy are objective fields of knowledge, then military officers who demonstrate mastery of either or both deserve to have that mastery recognized, regardless of whether the campaigns where they did so were morally justified. That holds both on the conventional and the Kantian basis. And military strategy, in particular, is practiced only by commanding officers – generals, colonels, etc – not by simple soldiers.

    A type case here would be Napoleon Bonaparte, whose mastery of military strategy is not questioned; his campaigns are still studied today for that very reason. Obviously many – most – of Napoleon’s campaigns were not justified wars, but they remain examples of great skill in fighting wars despite that.


      • Well, if your country were at war, and you had to choose between Napoleon and, say, George Custer to command an army, you’d be a fool not to put Napoleon in command, as he’s far more suited for the job. And once a man is in overall command of all a nation’s armed forces, if he continues to win campaigns, you can’t promote him any farther – but his successes still deserve recognition and honor. Whether his campaigns are just is not his business, unless you make him Emperor as well.


    • (Responding to Michael Brazier):

      It seems to me that unjustified warfare is a large-scale injustice morally on par with the very worst crimes that human beings can commit. It also seems to me that culpable behavior deserves condemnation, and egregiously culpable behavior deserves execration. So any “honors or rewards” that the leaders of unjust military forces deserve would have to be compatible with execration. If that sounds oxymoronic (and I think it does), perhaps it make more sense to say that what such generals deserve is recognition rather than “honors or rewards.”

      I agree that even the leaders of unjust armies have tactical (though not strategic) knowledge. Perhaps they deserve recognition for that, but if so, the recognition they deserve is satisfied by the simple acknowledgment that they have great tactical knowledge or skill, full stop, e.g., in textbooks or classrooms of military science. That seems sufficient to give them what they deserve; they don’t deserve more than that. (Josef Mengele might deserve a page or two in a textbook of surgery, but only as a case study in technically proficient psychopathology.)

      Classically understood, strategic knowledge is tactical knowledge integrated with the proper ends of politics, including justice. But that’s precisely what the leaders of unjust military forces lack. So any discussion of their tactical merits would have to be balanced by a discussion of their strategic demerits. No textbook of warfare could discuss, say, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt without raising (at the very least) the political wisdom of initiating such an invasion.

      If the possession or mastery of any genuine form of knowledge deserves recognition, then ordinary soldiers deserve it to at least equal degree with many generals. Good generals have a knowledge of strategy and tactics, but good soldiers know how to fight. They’re both genuine forms of knowledge, and both essential to the conduct of war. I don’t see why generals should be singled out as having the superior form.

      That said, knowledge isn’t the only basis of claims of desert. People can deserve credit for enduring duress, or deserve remembrance or recognition for being the innocent victims of injustice. Both sets of claimants are endemic to warfare, and both compete for our attention with the recognition due to military officers.

      That’s what makes warfare so morally ambivalent: it makes too many simultaneous and rival claims on our moral attention to allow us to treat any one response as the whole story. The time we spend honoring generals is time spent ignoring the suffering of innocent victims, and vice versa. There are too many deserving claimants of too many different kinds to do justice to them all. Any proper response to warfare has to acknowledge that moral ambivalence. So while I’m not averse to recognizing technical prowess even in the morally culpable, there is the real danger, in honoring military leaders, of falling into triumphalism or losing sight of the larger moral reality of war. The passage from Avi Shavit that I quoted at the end of my post gets that right.


      • While I won’t dispute your main point, I must say that “Classically understood, strategic knowledge is tactical knowledge integrated with the proper ends of politics, including justice.” is a definition of “strategy” I have never previously heard of, and doubt that anyone but yourself has ever used. In all other contexts the distinction between tactics and strategy is a matter of scale – tactics being concerned with immediate objectives, while strategy addresses the long term. Both, however, involve dispositions of means towards ends, and don’t address what the proper ends of action are, which is the concern of morals and politics.

        Continuing the example of Napoleon, it’s coherent to say that he had a sound strategic aim in conquering Egypt for France, as that would have seriously impeded Britain’s trade with India had it succeeded; and, at the same time, to admit that there was no just cause for such a conquest, so that he acted immorally by attempting it. I don’t think it sensible to claim that the Egyptian campaign was poor strategy because it was an unjust war – that just confuses concepts that are better kept separate.


        • The idea behind my conception of strategy is a commonplace of political science: war is instrumental means to aims beyond it. War aims at a peace better than what would have obtained by the refusal to fight. In other words, to be rational, war has to have some real chance of leaving the warring party better off than it would have been had it not fought. But “better off” is obviously a normative concept, and in part a moral one: morality defines what it is for someone to be better off relative to some baseline. A general who flouts these facts is irrational on what I would call strategic grounds. He’s employing an instrument, warfare, in a counter-purposive way, in just the way that Mengele employed medicine in a counter-purposive way.

          That’s the general idea behind my use of the term, “strategy.” I think its legitimacy can be defended independently of any claims about its being the classical conception of “strategy.” But I happen to think that it really is the classical conception. One classic statement of that conception is Clausewitz’s On War, but On War was an unfinished work easily liable (by its author’s own admission) to misinterpretation.

          The book that gives best expression to what I’m calling the “classical conception of strategy” is Liddell-Hart’s Strategy:

          I don’t think any fair-minded reader can read Liddell-Hart’s book and claim that my conception of “strategy” is idiosyncratic. I essentially got my conception from him, he’s considered one of the modern masters of modern strategy, and his books are considered classics in the field, taught in every military academy in the English-speaking world. Not coincidentally, he regards Napoleon as a failed strategist.

          The “Egyptian campaign” was an invasion. Invasions are acts of aggression, and I would say that acts of aggression are poor strategy in part because they’re unjust, and in part because they’re irrational. Irrationality and injustice are different concepts, but also closely related. We ought to be able to distinguish them, but we ought also to be able to see the connections between them. I would say that Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt failed for three reasons: it was irrational, it was unjust, and its irrationality and injustice were not accidentally related to each other. I have no problem giving Napoleon credit for that accomplishment, among others.


          • I don’t at the moment have the time to give Liddell Hart’s Strategy the close reading it deserves, but – based on a mere quick reading of obviously relevant passages – I think what you call “strategy” is what Liddell Hart called “policy”. There is of course an overlap between the two, and Liddell Hart uses the term “grand strategy” for that overlap. But as a general rule, “is it rational to begin this war” is a question of policy, while “how may we best gain victory in this war” is a question of strategy (though it will be informed by policy, of course.)

            And – again, I’m only skimming and may be wrong, but – Liddell Hart’s discussion of Napoleon’s career doesn’t ascribe his defeat to his moral failings, but to a definite change in his strategy (as commonly defined.) Namely, in his early campaigns Napoleon consistently attacked the junction between the forces allied against him, to force them apart and break their morale; while in the invasion of Russia, and at Waterloo, he mostly abandoned that method in favor of direct assaults. And as it’s Liddell Hart’s general thesis that indirect attacks are always and everywhere better strategy than assaults on the enemy’s strong point, it isn’t surprising that he faults Napoleon for making just that mistake.

            Finally, I wish it were true that acts of aggression were always irrational, in the sense of being poor instruments for achieving political ends, as if it were so states wouldn’t fight wars – the damage they do would exceed any possible gains from them. But that’s not the world we live in, either within states or among them.


            • @Michael Brazier: Even on your reading, if “Is it rational to begin this war?” is a matter of policy, and grand strategy involves an overlap of policy and the narrower aspects of strategy, it still follows that policy matters are strategic matters. If policy matters are moral matters, then strategic matters are moral matters. Grand strategy is, after all, a species of strategy.

              “What is the ultimate objective of the war, once begun?” is clearly a matter of policy. In some sense or another, that matter of policy is a strategic matter, whether you want to use the unadorned word “strategy” for where it belongs or relegate it to “grand strategy.” If the war is to leave the population better off than not fighting, then unless you insist that “better off” must be an amoral concept, or must be understood in amoral terms, then there is no way to escape an overlap of moral and strategic considerations. It’s a commander’s duty to ensure that the answer to “What is the ultimate objective…?” is answered correctly. Part of answering it is addressing post bellum considerations. What is to happen the day after the peace treaty is signed? And one obvious consideration is whether the peace envisioned is worth fighting for, i.e., just. Not even Hitler thought that the post bellum order he envisioned as a result of the would-be victory of the Axis would be unjust. The Final Solution was, in his view, the most just solution to the “Jewish Problem.”

              A military commander who fails to ask “What is the ultimate objective…” is failing to do his duty as a military commander. A military commander who thinks he describe the ultimate objective in non-moral terms is fooling himself. He has to have a direct answer to the question, “Will this war leave us better off?” There is no way to answer that question without introducing considerations of justice. The question is a matter of strategy, as is the answer. You can insist that it be called “grand strategy,” or rest content with calling it “strategy.” I would just insist that it’s a matter of strategy.

              Liddell Hart’s book is not as explicit about the moral issues as I would have been had I written the book, but his claims are consistent with what I said, and I think it’s very clear that he condemns Napoleon on both moral grounds and well as on the narrower grounds you mention. He may not come out and say, “I condemn Napoleon on moral grounds,” but that remains an accurate description of what he does.

              I don’t think it’s true that if aggression were always irrational, states would never engage in it. States engage in an enormous amount of irrationality without blinking an eye about it. I think aggression always is irrational. It’s engaged in despite that.


              • “Even on your reading, if “Is it rational to begin this war?” is a matter of policy, and grand strategy involves an overlap of policy and the narrower aspects of strategy, it still follows that policy matters are strategic matters. If policy matters are moral matters, then strategic matters are moral matters.”
                Fallacy of the undistributed middle.

                “It’s a commander’s duty to ensure that the answer to “What is the ultimate objective…?” is answered correctly … A military commander who fails to ask “What is the ultimate objective…” is failing to do his duty as a military commander.”
                But it is not the duty of a military commander to provide that answer himself – that duty belongs to the ruler, the head of the polity whose agent the commander is. A commander who defines the ultimate objective of the war himself is presuming above his station. (This is why, for example, Truman rightly dismissed MacArthur during the Korean War; MacArthur was trying to change the goal for which the forces under him were fighting, a political question not within his remit.)

                Similarly, “will this war leave us better off?” is fundamentally not a strategic question. Or rather, it can be separated into two questions, one of strategy, the other of policy: “Can we win this war, given our resources, and what will it cost us to gain the victory?”; and “Will gaining victory, given what it may cost us, leave us better off than we would be if we didn’t fight?” Only the latter, the political, question involves moral considerations.

                Another point. As already mentioned, military officers are told to study the campaigns of Napoleon to become better strategists. Nobody studies the experiments of Mengele to become better physicians or surgeons. If the relation between strategy and justice were as intimate as the one between surgery and health is – if it were, indeed, a perversion of strategy to fight an unjust war – then study of Napoleon’s work would be as pointless for military officers as study of Mengele’s work is for surgeons. Since this is patently not the case, strategy must have as its proper end something short of the just polity of Aristotle.


                • Since we had this exchange, I went back and re-read Liddell-Hart’s Strategy for the first time in a very long time. I first encountered the book when I served as a discussion leader for a class on strategy taught by Angelo Codevilla at Princeton in 2003. My memory of what Liddell-Hart said about strategy was accurate.

                  LH’s book is not primarily about the ethics of war, and so, doesn’t spend much space on ethical questions. But what he says about “”strategy,” “grand strategy,” and “policy” all support my interpretation. “Policy” is just a catch-all term for the principled course of action undertaken by a government. Properly understood, “policy considerations” are informed by normative ones involving the promotion of liberty and justice. LH reserves the term “strategy” for the use of specifically military force to effectuate the aims of policy, and uses “grand strategy” for the sum total of means at the State’s disposal for the effectuation of policy. Since both strategy and grand strategy promote policy, and policy itself promotes justice, it makes perfect sense to think of both strategy and grand strategy as integrated with moral considerations, just as I said.

                  It also makes sense to say that an immoral strategy is defective qua strategy. The simplest illustration of the preceding point: Liddell Hart insists that a strategy is defective if it commits the strategist to a direct attack on his adversary, leaving no possibility for either an indirect approach or better yet, complete abstinence from warfare. But aggression by definition commits the strategist to precisely that. Its immorality explains its defects as a strategy.

                  The Mengele/Napoleon argument you make isn’t conclusive, but it also proceeds from the false assumption that medical students don’t learn about immoral misuses of med school. Yes, they do. Mengele doesn’t typically come up, but the Tuskegee experiments do. Programs of this nature are becoming increasingly common at med schools, and spend a fair bit of time on bioethics, including the ethics of immoral medical experiments or other misuses of medicine.


                  Arguably, there is something to be learned about medicine from studying Mengele, just as there’s something to be learned about strategy from studying Napoleon. But that doesn’t disprove the point I was making.

                  The original topic, though, was whether Napoleon deserves reward for the merit he displayed as a strategist. I don’t share your estimate of Napoleon as a military genius. But I don’t think that the claim I made about him has really been rebutted or touched: yes, he deserves recognition for his technical merits as a general. But he’s gotten it. He is, with justification, taught to students of military history and military science. I have no objection to that. What I object to is the treatment he gets at a place like Les Invalides, a monument supposedly reserved for the “heroes” of war. A “hero” he wasn’t.



          • “Classically understood, strategic knowledge is tactical knowledge integrated with the proper ends of politics, including justice.”

            What Aristotle says about the strategos could potentially be understood either way. He says that the standards for good bridle-making and the appropriate use of bridles are set by the experts in horsemanship, and the standards for good horsemanship and the appropriate use of horses are set by the strategos (it helps to recall that in ancient Greece, horses were used almost exclusively for warfare rather than for transportation or agriculture; hence horses’ being a luxury good in peacetime, hence affordable to own only by the upper class, hence the snobbish popularity of names with hipp in them: Hippocrates, Hipparchus, Hippias, Philippos, Philippides, Pheidippides, Aristippus, Leucippus, Melanippus, etc.), and the standards for good strategia and the appropriate use of the strategos‘s skills are set by the expert in the political art.

            This could support your view, in that the standards for good strategy are external to it, and strategy is ultimately answerable to the requirements of justice and the common good. That might mean that no one is a good strategos unless they are in fact promoting justice and the common good.

            But it could also go against your view, in that it represents the strategos as having a set of skills that might be either appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstances, depending on how things are judged at the level of the political art; that means the skills of a strategos can be identified independently of justice.


            • Aristotle also says that the specific goal of the strategos is VICTORY. That seems to support the non-moralised understanding of strategy.


              • Re Mengele, there’s a related dispute among scholars of Plato and Aristotle as to whether they conceive of medicine as a value-neutral skill that becomes valuable only when used wisely (“the physician who is best able to cure is best able to kill”; “wisdom is the only skill that cannot be misused”), or whether they instead see health as the proper goal of medicine, and using medicine to cause harm is a perversion of medicine contrary to its natural telos. There’s some evidence on each side.


                • On Mengele: I suppose it’s possible to condemn Mengele with equal harshness on either view you describe, but I incline to the second view. What Mengele did was not really medicine at all. Likewise, the Tuskegee experiments were not bona fide medical experiments. The skills involved were medical skills, but the activity engaged in was not an instance of medicine. I would say that an activity x counts as medicine only if those engaged in it are aiming at health. If not, they’re doing something else–even if they’re aiming at ~health now to promote health later.

                  That goes for lesser instances, as well, not just Mengele and Tuskegee. A surgeon who churns out cases simply to make money, totally indifferent to the health of his patients (or concerned only to limit his legal liability or generate publicity), is neither engaged in medicine nor in surgery. He’s using surgical techniques as a means of revenue maximization or some other external good. That’s not medicine. It’s some fucked up thing of its own. It doesn’t have to be motivated by money, either: Victor Frankenstein wasn’t after money, but he wasn’t, on my view, engaged in medicine.

                  In a more pedestrian vein, my view of medicine entails that the administrative parts of our health care system should not really be called parts of “the health care system” at all. Patient Financial Services, Insurance Verification and Authorization, Utilization Management: none of these things are medicine or health care. Similarly, hospital revenue cycle management (what I currently do) is not “health care,” either, even when it takes a pro-provider stance (“You focus on your patients; we’ll focus on your revenue cycle”). It’s an ancillary task external to health care. This despite the fact that its practitioners regularly describe themselves as “being in health care.” They’re not.

                  By contrast, environmental services really is part of health care despite the fact that almost no one sees it that way. Indeed, I’d call EVS a specifically medical activity, a sort of applied epidemiology. I have not met anyone in revenue cycle management who thinks about clinical outcomes while doing his job. By contrast, I never met a hospital janitor who didn’t think about clinical outcomes while doing hers. It would be considered pretentious for anyone in EVS to say, “I work in medicine,” but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely true. When the patient is bleeding out, and you’re the only one in the whole OR who can prep the OR suite so as to wheel her in, put her on the table, and save her life, then conventional usage and class biases aside, what you work in is medicine.


                • I would say that, while Mengele’s activities were perversions of medicine because they actively opposed the end of medicine, namely the patient’s health, a surgeon who only worked for the money without caring whether his patients benefitted from his surgery would not be perverting medicine, as long as his surgeries did do his patients some good. Indifference to the proper end of an activity isn’t a perversion of it. It’s proper to say Mengele did not practice medicine; our hypothetical surgeon on the make, however, would be doing medicine, just not as well as he might.


              • @Roderick: I intentionally bypassed Aristotle’s view of victory. When I referred to the “classic view,” I didn’t so much mean “the view we inherit from classical antiquity” as “a classic view in the history of military thought.” I probably should have said “a” classic view, not “the” classic view, since so many different views qualify as classic.

                I don’t think that that the Aristotelian claim you cite supports the non-moralized conception of strategy. That depends on the meaning of “victory.” There are moralized and non-moralized conceptions of victory, as there are conceptions of strategy.

                The non-moralized conception of victory effectively conceives of warfare as a series of bloody athletic competitions with no rules except the one that defines a “score.” Whoever scores the most wins “victory.” This conception abstracts away from ad bellum, in bello, and post bellum considerations, imagines that every battle has a decisive “winner” by some easily operationalizable metric, and then conceives of overall victory as “winning the largest number of battles” during some defined period that counts as “the war.” I find this an extremely implausible (even ludicrous) conception of victory, and am skeptical that this is what Aristotle had in mind by the term. A general who conceives of victory this way doesn’t deserve honors or awards. Arguably, he deserves to get his ass kicked. Sadly, though, both the war colleges and the police academies are full of people who think like this.

                A moralized conception of victory dispenses with the whole athletic games metaphor, internalizes ad bellum, in bellow, and post bellum considerations, conceives war in terms of an architectonic conception of the ultimate aims and ideals of the polity as a regulative consideration, concedes that not all battles have decisive winners, and conceives of victory as fighting for the sake of defending the polity against external attack (when doing so is better than not fighting). That sounds more Aristotelian a conception of victory to me than the non-moralized one. Victory is the aim we achieve when we successfully defend the ultimate aims and ideals of our polity against an external threat. In this sense, it’s perfectly coherent to say that victory may not be achieved until generations after the formal peace treaty is signed.

                That said, I haven’t closely studied what Aristotle actually says about warfare in the Politics or anywhere else.


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