On Caring About Foreign Wars
We don't have to have pure intentions to be on the right side.
When moral and political reasoning goes sideways, it’s often because it muddles the distinctions between several different standards of value. These include the concepts of intention, consequence, obligation, and character (including questions of virtue and vice).
Consider the following objection to those of us who are rooting for Ukraine, and would like to see it given arms to help it defend itself:
The tweet is seemingly about the nefarious—and apparently monolithic—intentions of “the US establishment.” It’s irate enough to overgeneralize, but eristic enough to edge away just slightly from the totalizing quality of the generalization, as if there were a convincing rhetoric of precision involved in going from 100 to 99+ percent.
The establishment is accused of being “pro-war.” A more benign interpretation of their intentions is that some people think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an outrage, that Ukraine has a right to defend itself, and that NATO—and really the world—ought to help as much as they can in this defense. Such sentiments aren’t limited to an “establishment.” And that’s unsurprising, because it reflects very natural human reactions—as selective as they might be—to seeing another country invaded and bombed.
There are real criticisms to be made of such reactions, even when they are well-intentioned. Human motives are complex. How do distinguish moral outrage from the desire for revenge, and the thrill of vicarious participation in a violent conflict? General sympathy from tribal loyalty? Altruism from exploitation? Realistic concerns about Russian aggression from anti-Russian paranoia and jingoism? These aren’t easy distinctions to make, because they are often alloyed. But this complication doesn’t require that ethical impulses are universally reducible to something sinister. Nor do they require that our intentions be pure, if we are to act.
On its face, Tracy’s position implies a sort of pacifism, in which an invaded country ought to lay down its arms when invaded, because otherwise the “ensuing warfare” must reflect the worst possible “pro-war” motives. He might respond to this criticism invoking a distinction between the right of a country to defend itself, and the right of other countries to help it defend itself. Perhaps the impulse in both cases is inevitably tribal, but in ethically distinct ways; understandable in the former case, but in the latter, a matter of bloodlust or the vicarious enjoyment of violent conflict.
Yet if a country has the right to defend itself, it can’t—whatever our motives—can it be wrong to help it do that? (And could it wrong for me to save my account from drowning, not because I care about human life but because I need him to do my taxes?)
The question can’t be answered without an appeal to practical consequences. One might say that to accuse someone of being “pro-war” is just to say that their impure intentions make them bad at evaluating consequences. In this particular case, the “ensuing war” is the consequence whose evil outweighs all other considerations.
Unfortunately, the utilitarian calculus in this case is unworkable. What variables are relevant? Is it just a matter of loss of life and limb? In that case, an invaded country is better off immediately surrendering in almost every case. Even in the olden days, you could often count on a Julius Caesar to spare you if you cooperated, and kill you if you were defeated in resistance (as in 40,000 at Avaricum—almost every man, woman, and child put to death). But then again, you might also get incorporated into his killing machine, which makes it difficult to understand where the concept of “ensuing warfare” stops.
More importantly, how do we factor into our utilitarian calculations the value of a nation, culture, a way of life, national pride, a liberal system of government, freedom, and so on? How do we factor in the potential oppressions of an occupying power, even when they aren’t physically violent? How do we factor in the value of national sovereignty more generally? And what of the example set for other would-be invaders? We could expand this list indefinitely.
Apart from having to argue about what variables we include in our calculus—beyond from near term lives lost and destruction—we have to say how they are weighted. Then we have to determine whether we really know enough to make predictions about consequences. Then we have to say how far in the future we are supposed to try to look—do the ripple effects of 50 years from now count? 1,000? Finally, we have to figure whether human rights matter, or whether we can indiscriminately feed people into a “utility monster”—or “break a few eggs” for the sake of the utopian omelet, as Lenin put it.
Some of us are obsessed with what’s going on in Ukraine, and horrified about it. We ask ourselves why someone like Tracy would be more concerned right now about the sentiments and actions of the American establishment than the Russian establishment.
We can interpret this a propensity for self-critique, or internal critique, and an allergy to tribalism and its many vices, including hypocrisy. There’s a certain segment of dissident left-wing journalism that makes such self-critique its priority, and wants to explode the self-delusions of America and the West, to reveal its propagandizing media; its authoritarian suppression of dissent; its tribalistic public, which is outraged by the transgressions of other countries but not its own, and is only selectively sympathetic to the victims of wars in foreign countries; its strategic mistakes—past and present; the existential dangers of intervention; and—given its adventures in Iraq—the establishment’s moral and political hypocrisy.
As a consequence, these critics—including Michael Tracy and Glenn Greenwald—are routinely and unfairly accused of being traitors and Russian puppets, spies, or sympathizers. Critics like them actually serve a very useful role in society, and the establishment hypocrisies they expose are often real.
But in this case, the preoccupation is ethically warping. It makes right action depend, when convenient, on impossibly pure intentions. Because human motivations are imperfect, they can always be impugned, along with any manifestations of supposed altruism. Ultimately, the only way to justify this indiscriminate assault on intention is with a reductive utilitarianism that obliterates any considerations that don’t involve immediate survival, and so universally recommends our capitulation to the interests of others.