My friend Vicente Medina (Philosophy, Seton Hall University) has a short piece out on the semantics of “terrorism” in Government Europa Quarterly, an online journal. We had a few discussions of Medina’s views on terrorism here at PoT in advance of the symposium on his book, Terrorism Unjustified, that took place at Felician about a year and a half ago (see here and here). A published version of the Felician symposium is about to come out soon at Reason Papers, consisting of three critical responses (by Graham Parsons, Theresa Fanelli, and myself), and a response by Medina. Continue reading
I’m teaching the issue of drone warfare and targeted killing in one of my ethics classes, the fifth or sixth semester in a row I’ve taught this material, via Kenneth Himes’s 2016 book, Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing. It’s been a frustrating, even despair-inducing experience: Of the 90 or so students enrolled, only half attend. Of the 45 of who attend, 40 are utterly indifferent to the material, unmoved even by the most shocking finding, revelation, or video I can throw at them.
My students–whether rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white–simply do not care whether drones increase or decrease the incidence of terrorist attacks, much less whether their use is in any sense morally justified. Whether drones kill innocents or kill “bad guys,” whether the targets are justified in resisting U.S. policy or obliged to lie down and take it: none of this is nearly as important as whatever they’re doing on their phones. Continue reading
I post this every year around 9/11, so here it is again. Though it isn’t up yet, Chris Sciabarra’s annual 9/11 series is always worth reading and should be up soon. And feel free to take a look at my recent apologetic essay here in defense of terrorism, eventually slated for publication in Reason Papers as part of a symposium on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified.
We’re just a few days away from the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from the last decade and a half of perpetual warfare. I offer them somewhat dogmatically, as a mere laundry list (mostly) minus examples, but I have a feeling that the lessons will ring true enough for many people, and that most readers can supply appropriate examples of their own. Continue reading
[This is a draft of the paper I’ll be presenting this Saturday at the Author Meets Critics session I’m organizing on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence, featuring presentations by Theresa Fanelli (Felician), Graham Parsons (West Point), and myself, with a response by Vicente Medina (Seton Hall). Comments welcome. For a link to an earlier discussion of Medina’s book at PoT, go here.]
Terrorism Justified: Comment on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified
Author Meets Critics Session
Felician University, Rutherford, New Jersey
April 21, 2018
Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified offers a comprehensive, clear, and thorough critique of terrorism. There’s a sense in which I agree with and greatly admire Medina’s argument, and a sense in which I fundamentally disagree with and reject it. In this paper, I’ll focus on the disagreement, in the hopes that in doing so, the implicit agreement will come out as well.
I begin in Section 2 by making some critical observations on Medina’s definition of “terrorism.” The definition, I suggest, pushes the reader in two different directions—a categorical rejection of terrorism, and a subtly conditional one. On the latter interpretation, terrorism can be justified, but only in situations that Medina regards as extremely implausible and unlikely. In Section 3, I offer an extended thought-experiment, verging on a fable, intended to give plausibility one such situation. In other words, the case I describe is one in which it seems (to me) justifiable to target people that Medina would regard as “innocent noncombatants,” or else to inflict foreseeable harm on them without having to meet a “reasonable doubt” criterion as to their moral status. In Sections 4 and 5, I make explicit what the fable leaves implicit. Continue reading
The Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs will be holding an Author-Meets-Critics session on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). The event takes place on Saturday, April 21, 2018, 1-4:30 pm, in the Main Auditorium (“Ray’s Place”) of the Education Commons Building on Felician University’s Rutherford campus (231 Montross Ave., Rutherford, New Jersey 07070). Light refreshments will be served.
Presenters include Theresa Fanelli (Criminal Justice, Felician; previously, FBI Counterterrorism Division), Graham Parsons (Philosophy, West Point), and Irfan Khawaja (Philosophy, Felician), with a response by Vicente Medina (Philosophy, Seton Hall University).
The event is free and open to the public. Parking is available onsite, and the Rutherford campus is easily accessible by mass transit from New York City (New Jersey Transit Bus #190 from Port Authority, at 42nd St). Continue reading
From a letter to the editor of today’s New York Times:
To the Editor:
Re “The Truth About the Cost of War” (editorial, Nov. 24):
I was in a unit in Vietnam in 1969 that called in air and artillery strikes on “free fire zones” in III Corps, northwest of Saigon.
I asked an Army officer how we knew that the people we fired on were all the enemy. “By definition,” he said, “if we kill them, they are the enemy.”
Part of the truth in your editorial isn’t that civilian casualties are underreported but that their deaths in battle are seen as irrelevant.
BRUCE W. RIDER, GRAPEVINE, TEX.
Jason Brennan has a post a few weeks back on abortion and self-defense (Nov. 30), written in the wake of the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs (Nov. 29). The point he makes is simple, and the argument he offers is, very narrowly construed, sound. But construe the conclusion slightly differently than he does, and the argument misses the point in an obvious way.
The claim in short is that if you think that abortion is murder, and its victims are innocent, you have the right to defend the innocent by force. If the force in question requires killing those who perform abortions, so be it. Brennan invokes a lot of “common law” reasoning to bolster the plausibility of the conditional*, but the appeal to common law is a dialectical fifth wheel that does no real work here. He’s just assuming what we all assume–that you can kill a killer. After some thought-experimental invocations of superheroes, we reach the conclusion that if you believe that abortion is murder, it would be permissible for you to go around killing abortion providers. Here’s the conclusion of the argument, put in the mouth of the would-be fetus defender:
“I will, if necessary (if there are no equally effective non-lethal means), kill any would-be child murders to stop them from killing children.” Again, this seems heroic, not wrongful.
Note the parenthetical. What we have here is a conditional claim whose antecedent involves another conditional. Let me re-phrase it slightly, without loss of authorial intention, but with a little gain in clarity:
If necessary, and if there are no equally effective non-lethal means, then kill those whom it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing.
Lots of modal claims going on there. Let’s rephrase once again:
If necessary, kill those it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing, but if it’s not necessary, do not do so.
What does “necessary” really mean here? I take it that “necessary” means “necessary for bringing about some end.” But the end is not plausibly construed as “bringing abortions down to zero, full stop, by all available means, regardless of any other normative considerations.” The end in question is some complex goal, e.g., a just society or the common good or whatever, where superordinate higher-order features of the goal regulate subordinate features, including strategies for achieving this or that political outcome.
So the anti-abortionist’s ultimate goal is not plausibly described as “do what’s necessary to stop the killing.” It’s “do what’s necessary to bring about the common good, stopping the killing in a way that’s compatible with bringing about the common good.” I’m pro-choice, but it seems to me that anti-abortionists (or pro-lifers or whatever we call them) are entitled to a plausible conception of post bellum considerations, no matter how militant they are about ending abortion. They don’t just want to end abortion, full stop. They want to live in a just society without abortion, and it may not be possible to do that if you try to end abortion by killing people. In any case, the two things–stop the killing and live in a just society without abortion–are not the same thing.
Suppose that abortion really is murder. In that case, killing abortionists would be one obvious means of stopping abortions, but killing would also likely have seriously adverse consequences. It might increase hostility for anti-abortionists to the point of instigating widespread persecution against them. It might even start a civil war. Further, it’s easier in talk than in practice to kill all and only the “right” people during a terrorist/vigilante campaign. Once the killing begins, the enterprise of killing is often overcome by some terrorist/vigilante equivalent of the fog of war, and the wrong people get killed with amazing frequency. Any of those outcomes could obtain, and any of them might end up being worse for the anti-abortion cause (much worse) than not killing abortion providers.
It’s hard to be precise about expected outcomes of this sort, so people reasonably disagree about them. Some people think that a campaign of killing would, all in, be good for the anti-abortion cause. Others disagree. Obviously, both the complexity of the calculations and the possibility of disagreement about them might help explain why even fervent anti-abortionists have a (disjunctive) principled reason for not going around killing abortionists. They may either think that doing so is self-defeating, or they might think that doing so might very well end up being self-defeating, and not worth risking, as long as there are relatively peaceful (or at least orderly) political means for achieving the same ends with fewer collateral damages.
In recent times, the history of the abortion controversy begins with a deceptively liberating case from the pro-choice perspective (Roe vs. Wade) and proceeds from there to a series of restrictions on the original Roe vs. Wade restrictions on abortion, so that abortion, though nominally legal in the U.S, is in many ways embattled and under siege. In other words, opponents of abortion rights have done a pretty creditable job of subverting the right to abortion by purely legal means. Of course, abortions do still take place, and on the anti-abortion view, those abortions are murder. But the question is whether a campaign of vigilante killing would have purchased more for them than the political-judicial campaign they’ve actually enacted. Hardly as obvious as Brennan’s argument suggests.
It’s an open question whether anti-abortionists could, by purely legal means, do a better job of subverting abortion rights than they could by killing abortionists. The United States ended slavery by warfare in 1865; Brazil ended slavery without warfare in 1888. Anti-abortionists could in principle plump for a Brazilian approach to the abolition of abortion on the grounds that while that approach would take longer, it might prove more counter-factually stable than a faster-acting but more violent approach. Arguably, violence would be counter-productive and self-defeating, possibly catastrophically so.
Since it makes no sense to enact a self-defeating strategy, and it’s highly risky to enact what could be (catastrophically) self-defeating, anti-abortionists need not worry that Brennan’s argument pushes them into wanton murder. Contrary to Brennan, “the” issue involved in the abortion debate is not just the moral status of abortion (though I agree that that’s the fundamental issue) but what to do about the fact that abortion is a complex issue that elicits widespread disagreement. In other words, the philosophical issue is not just the theoretical one of whether or not abortion is murder, but the practical one of what to do about the fact that certain ways of disagreeing about it are potentially murderous.
Now consider Brennan’s list of would-be objections to his argument:
There are a number of objections to this line of reasoning, including:
- It’s wrong to engage in vigilante justice.
- Batman must allow people to murder children because he has a duty to obey the law, and the law permits child murder.
- Batman must not kill the child-killers, but must instead only use peaceful means.
- Batman must not kill the child-killers, because it probably won’t work and won’t save any lives.
- Batman must not kill the child-killers, because they mean well and don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.
- Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the claim that “killing six-year-olds is wrongful murder” is controversial among reasonable people.
- Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the government or others might retaliate and do even worse things.
I think these objections are either implausible (e.g., 2 is absurd), or are at best mere elaborations of the necessity proviso of defense killing. (E.g., #4.)
Putting aside (4), Brennan is right to say that these are pretty pointless objections. Objection (4) is where the action is. (Construed a certain way,  might well entail : vigilante justice might be wrong because it’s likely to be ineffective, and it’s irresponsible to engage in a political strategy that might very well backfire. But I think Brennan intends  to mean that vigilante justice is deontically wrong qua violation of the law, full stop. So I’ll ignore it.)
Brennan dismisses (4) as a “at best a mere elaboration…of the necessity proviso of defense killing.” Well, that’s one way of putting things, and not a literally false one, I suppose. But it’s very misleading: a “mere elaboration” of a proviso can also explain why the proviso cannot be enacted under foreseeable conditions, and (4) does just that. In other words, what Brennan calls a “at best a mere elaboration” ends up explaining why, once we leave the thought-experimental laboratory, his suggestion makes no sense in the real political world where it’s supposed to have application.
Digression: the same sort of “elaboration” is the strategy behind what’s come to be called “contingent pacifism” in the just war literature; contingent pacifism is the strategy of justifying de facto pacifism by construing just war provisos in such a way that they can almost never be satisfied in the real world. This literature suggests that depending on how one construes its claims, just war theory (and its doctrine of necessity) can lead either to very hawkish policy prescriptions or to pacifism. But if the same theory leads different theorists to contrary outcomes with respect to the same issue, the differences between the different applications of the theory–the contingencies in question–can hardly be philosophically trivial. If my version of a doctrine leads me to wage war, and your version of the same doctrine prohibits you from ever going to war, it makes no sense to say, “Don’t worry, we’re agreeing on the theory; we just disagree on the contingencies.” In this case, the disagreement on the contingencies could mean the difference between a decade of war and a decade of peace. Conceptualizing that difference is a paradigmatically philosophical task.
Back to abortion: Not killing abortionists because you could get arrested, and/or because it would undermine the anti-abortionist cause, and/or because the collateral damages would be too high, and/or because it could start a civil war are not trivial considerations, whether “morally” or “practically.” From the first person perspective of an agent deciding what to do–not what to write in a blog post–these are all considerations of paramount importance. They make the difference between going ahead and killing someone and deciding not to. So a reader could grant 99.9999% of Brennan’s argument in principle, but still think that the 0.00001 remainder makes a crucial and theoretically significant difference to political practice. And he might insist that Brennan’s way of rendering the argument reveals a blind spot in his thinking about the relation between theory and practice.
I’d put the latter issue like this: Taken as an academic exercise, with all qualifications duly noted, and abstracting entirely from what would be necessary to enact his advice in practice, Brennan’s argument is perfectly sound. Taken as real-world political advice, however, and factoring in all relevant considerations–including prudential considerations about expected consequences–Brennan’s advice is myopic and insane. It seems to me that when the theoretical version of a prescriptive argument ends up sound, but the practical version of it is insane, we’re obliged to think harder about the relation between arguments, theory, and practice.
At a minimum, I think we’re obliged to note the huge gap that obtains between theoretical prescriptions and practical ones. It sounds oxymoronic, but it isn’t. A theoretical prescription is a prescription offered ex hypothesi, as an exercise in deontic logic, without pretending to guide real-life practice: it notes a normative entailment; it doesn’t claim to tell people what to do. A practical prescription is a prescription intended to guide practice, all things considered; it doesn’t just note an entailment, but tells us, all in, what to do.** Put differently, there is a huge difference between saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–but don’t actually do that, for God’s sake, I’m only pointing out where your views lead!” and saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–and if that’s where your views lead, so be it. So get your gun and hop to it!” Brennan is saying the former (I think), but you could be excused for interpreting him as saying the latter. The lesson here is paradox-like but not paradoxical: A prescriptive argument can be sound and yet defective as advice.
The underlying disagreement here, it seems to me, is a version of Hobbes versus Aristotle on prudence. Aristotle takes phronesis (‘prudence’) to be an intellectual virtue that guides individual, first-personal decisions. Despite its practical, individualized, contextualized, consequence-sensitive, first-personal nature, Aristotle insists that phronesis a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry and a legitimate source of knowledge (Nicomachean Ethics, VI.5-13). A view like this puts a certain premium on the nuts and bolts of deliberation, from acceptance of the premises that motivate an action down to the details of what ultimately produces the action in the real world. On an Aristotelian view, what’s philosophically interesting is not just the abstract schema that the agent accepts but how the agent translates that schema into the particularities of a particular action. “Translating a schema into the particularities of a particular action” is the work of phronesis.
Hobbes denies that prudence so conceived has any significant epistemic value (Leviathan, IV.46.1-6):
… we are not to account as any part thereof, that originall knowledge called Experience, in which consisteth Prudence: Because it is not attained by Reasoning, but found as well in Brute Beasts, as in Man; and is but a Memory of successions of events in times past, wherein the omission of every little circumstance altering the effect, frustrateth the expectation of the most Prudent: whereas nothing is produced by Reasoning aright, but generall, eternall, and immutable Truth.
Prudence, in short, is unscientific. It yields contingent, changeable, contextualized truths, neither important enough nor counterfactually stable enough nor wide enough in scope to count as genuine philosophical knowledge. How the agent translates an abstract schema into action is philosophically uninteresting. What matters is the schema–the model– itself. From this perspective, an inquiry into what the agent is, all things considered, to do seems too fine-grained, variable, and messy to be a genuinely philosophical or genuinely worthwhile activity.
Contemporary Hobbesians (as I’m thinking of them) prize thought-experimentation and social science at the expense of mere first-hand experience, and at the expense of an account of the requirements of first-personal deliberation (i.e., prudence). First-personal agents disappear from view, as do their deliberations and deliberative needs. From this perspective, the mere prudence required for intelligent political action is unworthy of philosophical inquiry. Anarchist Hobbesians have a plausible-looking rationale for this insistence: on their view, politics is an unworthy occupation, so it stands to reason that the epistemic virtues it require are themselves unworthy of sustained reflection.***
As I see it, one of the most valuable contributions of neo-Aristotelian theorizing (in the Nussbaumian mode) is to put social science and thought-experimentation in its place, and insist on the first-personal perspective of the agent and her deliberations–along with history, psychology, and common sense. On a view like this, it isn’t enough to know that if abortion is murder, and self-defense is justified, you can infer that defensive killing would be justified to save fetuses from murder. You need to know whether, even if that argument is sound, you should actually be out killing people. If so, you need to know whom to kill, when and how; how to prevent predictable disasters that arise when you start killing people; and how the killing enterprise fits into the larger aim of achieving the common good. That sounds like “mere strategy” to some people, but on an Aristotelian view, it’s precisely the kind of knowledge that the just and wise agent has, and that the political philosopher studies in order to grasp the nature of justice and wisdom.
Anyway, thought experiments and social science are of some, but relatively little value here. Eventually, thought experiments run out of prescriptive steam for the obvious reason that life isn’t an experiment. Social science runs out of useful things to say because we can’t do experiments on novel courses of action that no one has yet tried–but we can’t refuse to do novel things because there’s no existing social scientific literature about them, either. A virtue like phronesis is indispensable here, both for deliberative agents and for theorists theorizing about what such agents do. If you’re going to do something–e.g., engage in political action–you have to know how to do it, and the only way to know how to do something is to have done it (or have rehearsed doing something as much like it as possible). You need the kind of knowledge that Hobbes denigrates and that our neo-Hobbesians ignore.
Bottom line: even if you think abortion is murder, don’t do what Jason Brennan tells you. (PS: It’s not really relevant to my argument, but in case you’re wondering, I’m pro-choice on the abortion issue. I believe in abortion on demand from the moment of conception until birth, with some moral reservations about late abortion, while rejecting legal restrictions on it.)
*I corrected this sentence. It originally said, “antecedent of the conditional,” but what I meant was that Brennan invokes common law to bolster the plausibility of the conditional as such.
**I reworded the latter clause after posting. The previous version (which I’ve now forgotten) was wordier and somewhat unclear.
***”Anarchist Hobbesian” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but I don’t think it is. It could mean (a) an anarchist whose meta-philosophical views map onto Hobbes’s and/or (b) an anarchist whose account of political authority maps onto Hobbes’s, but who infers on that basis that no states have authority.
Fernando Teson continues his dialectical winning streak on Near Eastern topics over at BHL. His latest is an attempt to defend a full-scale war against ISIS via “just war theory.” He presents his “case” (scare quotes, not a direct quote) in the form of a list of numbered propositions. I don’t know if he realizes that a list is not an argument, but this list obviously isn’t one, and doesn’t provide anything that begins to resemble a case for going to war against ISIS. The first item on the list is as follows:
- The international community—represented by an appropriate military coalition—has a just cause to wage war on ISIS. That just cause is twofold: (a) the right of humanitarian intervention aimed at saving the populations in Syria and Iraq that are presently victimized by ISIS, and (b) the right of self-defense in response to ISIS’ attacks elsewhere.
I hate to belabor the obvious, but X has just cause to wage war against Y doesn’t entail that X ought, all things considered, to wage war against Y. At best having just cause to wage war is a necessary condition for deciding to wage war, in just the way that having a right to self-defense against someone who threatens you on the street is a necessary condition for deciding to fight back, but not by itself sufficient for deciding to fight back. Among the other considerations: the probability of victory; the nature of the victory envisioned and whether it’s worth fighting for; the price of having to fight relative to the benefits of fighting; the probable unintended consequences of fighting and their costs; etc. Teson doesn’t address any of those obviously relevant issues. He just invokes just war theory, handwaves his way through the details, and somehow concludes that it’s time to wage another Near Eastern war.
Another belaboring of the obvious: is it clear that full-scale warfare will diminish ISIS’s attacks on us? If so, what is the argument for thinking so? For now, the argument is MIA.
This is the mentality of our “expert” class of IR theorists: dominated by theories whose defects and indeterminacies they refuse to acknowledge, they seem incapable of learning from even the most recent history, and incapable of rising to the level of ordinary common sense. Yet another belaboring of the obvious: it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than Teson’s hand-waving to convince rational people that we ought to be venturing into another Near Eastern war (or any other kind of war) any time soon.
So try again, Teson. Or rather, do us all a favor and don’t try again. The accumulated weight of the unanswered questions in your arguments on this general topic are not exactly a credit to anything you’ve so far said on the subject. Time to hand the shovel up and stop digging.
Postscript, December 11, 2015: Fernando Teson may not regard my objections as worth responding to, and may not regard me as a worthy interlocutor, but I can’t imagine that he regards Andrew Bacevich as someone he can easily dismiss. This article from Wednesday’s New York Times gives a succinct summary, based on Bacevich’s arguments, of some of the most obvious objections to Teson’s “proposal.” And this article, published a year ago, gives readers a sense of the debate on ISIS we haven’t had, and aren’t having.
I have trouble understanding how anyone can be recommending war against ISIS while blithely ignoring issues like these:
If overwhelming firepower alone could guarantee success, the United States would have won the Vietnam War and emerged victorious from Afghanistan and Iraq. And 14 years after 9/11, the threat from Al Qaeda might have disappeared, rather than persisting, morphing and re-emerging as the Islamic State.
As if to underscore the inadequacy of a conventional military approach are terrorist attacks like the one last week in San Bernardino, Calif. It appears not to have been directed by the Islamic State, American officials say, but was simply inspired by it.
Middle East analysts across a broad spectrum — whether they call for more, fewer or different military interventions in the region — say that when it comes to the Islamic State, the West is acting as if it has failed to learn the lessons of the past.
Mr. Bacevich says “the lessons of these failures” are too rapidly forgotten as many Americans succumb to what he calls a form of militarism, “clinging to the illusion that because we have a splendid military, putting it to work will make things come out all right in the end.”
Unfortunately, he says, “little evidence exists to support any such expectation.”
This high-level rationalization for “expanded airstrikes” on Syria really defies commentary, from a News Analysis in this morning’s New York Times:
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, on Tuesday struck a testy note when asked whether there was a legal basis for airstrikes on Syria.
“We believe we have a basis for action,” she said, declining to describe what they were, because, as she said, it would depend on the action taken and under what circumstances. “In the event that action is taken, believe me, we will have plenty of time to engage on it.”
We believe you! Sorry for asking!
Check out the conversation on Syrian intervention at Notes on Liberty, “A Few Remarks on Interventions in Syria and Iraq.” And feel free to check out last year’s conversation on the same subject here, from the now-defunct Institute for Objectivist Studies blog (11 posts). If I can change one mind on the subject, I’d count my efforts as a success.
P.S.: In an earlier post, I described Bruce Ackerman as a strange bedfellow in the debate over Syrian intervention. But I think I’d have to kick Howard Friel, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Herman out of bed, despite agreeing with them on the narrow question of the need for a Congressional vote on Syria, and on the potential applicability to the case of Syria of the War Powers Resolution. In a letter published in today’s New York Times, Friel, Chomsky, and Herman casually (but dogmatically) assert the following:
While the president must request and receive congressional approval within the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, as both Mr. Ackerman and your editorial rightly demand, neither Congress nor the president is free to violate the United Nations Charter’s prohibition “against the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Individual nations are bound by their international obligations regardless of their constitutional law. Thus, the reach of law here goes beyond the War Powers Resolution to the United Nations Charter.
It’s a claim to confirm the most paranoid fears of the most paranoid right-winger: the United Nations Charter supersedes the U.S. Constitution. On the face of it, I don’t see how the United States (or any other country) can be “bound,” whether legally or morally, to adhere to the terms of a document when doing so would violate its own constitution. The perplexity is increased when you consider that it’s obvious how and why the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but not obvious that international “law” is law at all. Though it’s a bit of a distraction from the issue directly at hand, I’d be curious to see an argument for their claim.