Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ezra’

Machiavelli on Necessity, Fighting, and Fear: Comment by Leo Strauss

In Just War, Philosophy on November 2, 2014 at 2:32 PM

In his Discourses on Livy (Book III, Chapter 12) published in 1531, Niccolò Machiavelli argues that a prudent military commander must impose on his troops an absolute necessity to fight. He quotes Livy who refers to fighting through necessity as the “ultimate and most powerful weapon of all.”  The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss, commented on this very eloquently in his book, Thoughts on Machiavelli, (The University of Chicago Press, 1958). I found his argument so well made that I thought I would copy it below. (From pages 247-8).

[Machiavelli] gives some indications of what he understands by “such necessity” as make soldiers operate perfectly. To speak here only of Machiavelli’s primary examples, soldiers fighting against a superior enemy operate perfectly if they have no choice except to die or fight; they cease to operate perfectly if they can achieve safety by flight or surrender. To be driven by necessity means here to have no choice except to die or fight; for to have this choice means to have no choice at all since men are compelled by nature to try to avoid death; fighting is chosen because it is the only way in which in the circumstances certain and imminent death could possibly be avoided: the choice of fighting is imposed by necessity. If the soldiers can save their lives by flight or surrender, they choose flight or surrender as offering a greater prospect of avoiding death and as requiring a much smaller effort or as being easier. Fighting as well as flight or surrender aim at the same end, namely, the preservation of one’s life; this end is imposed, as we may tentatively say, by an absolute and natural necessity. If the enemy makes impossible flight or surrender, fighting is imposed on the soldiers in question as the only possible means to achieve the end mentioned. On the other hand, if the enemy gives them the opportunity to flee or surrender, flight or surrender is imposed on them as the better or easier means to achieve that end. Yet in the latter case, we do not speak of necessity prompting them because flight or surrender are easier than fighting, i.e., because they go less against the soldiers’ natural inclination. We shall then say that the necessity which makes soldiers fighting against a superior enemy operate well is the necessity, rooted in fear of death, to act against their natural inclination but within their ability. Generalizing from this, we may say that it is fear, the fundamental fear, which makes men operate well.

I think Machiavelli, as interpreted by Strauss, has made a compelling argument.

Ignorant, Erroneous, Unjustified

In Book Review on October 30, 2014 at 1:24 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on October 21st 2014, 2:39 pm

Book Review:

Owen Jones, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, (Allen Lane, 2014).

Owen Jones, the Oxford-educated left-wing Guardian columnist, has written a book about the establishment. For Jones, the establishment comprises anyone he does not like. Its main activity is to conspire against the working class.

Some of his claims are simply startling. For example, he accuses the current coalition government of privatising the NHS. This might be news to anyone who has recently visited a NHS GP or hospital without being handed a bill for healthcare.

Commenting on the 1992 general election, he states: “the combined political power of the British media had been unleashed against Kinnock’s Labour Party.” Perhaps Jones thinks the Daily Mirror and his own paper, The Guardian, both of which supported the Labour Party, are not part of the British media. More notably, the paper widely read by establishment figures he despises, The Financial Times, backed Kinnock’s Labour Party.

Jones attacks the charitable status of private schools, saying that this benefits the wealthy to the tune of £88 million per year as a result of tax breaks given. This figure, if true, ignores the fact that the wealthy, by sending their children to private schools, are saving the rest of the population substantially more than this as they are not utilising the state system of education to which many would be entitled.

He provides support for the Financial Transaction Tax, claiming it would be a “tiny levy on transactions” that would promote “economic stability.” The truth is that it would be a disaster for the UK. The proposed levy of 0.1 percent on securities would mean a tax on $100,000 on every $100 million bond transaction. If a bond trader working in Dubai could call someone in London to do the trade and suffer $100,000 tax or call someone in an offshore jurisdiction where the tax is not implemented and not pay any tax, it is obvious where he will call. The telephones would stop ringing in London dealing rooms and redundancy notices would be issued.

Jones comments on the percentage of British companies owned by foreign investors – but there is no corresponding figure for foreign companies owned by British investors. Similarly, he mentions British companies now in foreign hands – but he does not mention foreign companies taken over by British companies.

Jones’s scholarship is sloppy. He provides an unsourced 1970s quote fromHarold Lever. When, post-publication, he was asked for a source, he claims it came from an interview with Neil Kinnock. It is at no point clear that this quote is based on a decades-later recollection from someone else.

Of all the things that Jones despises, the City of London is at the top of the list. He cites a former City trader as saying the people who work in the City “are largely despicable, venal, greedy.”  Jones has no comment on ARK, a charity popular with City and hedge fund types, which, in one gala dinner in 2012, raised £14.5 million for children’s health and education around the world.

A central villain is Madsen Pirie of the libertarian Adam Smith Institute. Jones claims that Pirie’s ideological zeal is “shared by politicians of all parties.” But this leads him into a mass of contradictions. He refers to the bailout of the banks in the credit crisis of 2007-9 as “socialism for the rich on an epic scale.” If libertarian thinkers such as Pirie had as much influence as Jones imputes to them, then the banks would never have been bailed out in the first place. Piriespecifically argued against such state action.

Jones simply does not understand finance. The errors are embarrassing. He confuses exchange rates and exchange controls. He refers to the private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts as Italian, when it is headquartered in America and does not even have an office in Italy. He states: “Mortgage books that were in actual fact junk were rated as ‘triple A’.” In fact pools of subprime mortgages were securitized and sliced and diced into tranches; the most senior tranches were rated AAA and these were not junk. His claim that packages of mortgages “with very low actual chances of being repaid were rated as having a 99 percent repayment likelihood, if they were structured in a certain way” is false. Specific tranches of structured pools of mortgages were given a high chance of repayment likelihood because this was deemed to be fair.

Jones ends his book by calling for nationalisation of the utility companies, strengthening trade unions, increasing the top rate of tax to 50 percent “as a start” with an implication that 75 percent might be preferable, and by urging the people to “use their collective power to win social justice.”

Oddly, he never employs the words, “Workers of the world, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Eichmann’s Fanaticism

In Book Review, History, Holocaust, Jewish Matters on October 30, 2014 at 1:11 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on October 2nd 2014, 10:44 pm

Book Review

Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) 608pp.

When I first became aware of Bettina Stangneth’s new book on Eichmann, I rolled my eyes and asked myself a question: how much of the book is really about Hannah Arendt?

This cynicism is not unfounded. The main text of David Cesarani’s 2005 biography, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, is 368 pages. The index informs us that Hannah Arendt or her Eichmann thesis are discussed on 29 of them. So much of Deborah Lipstadt’s 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial, is about Arendt that there is a picture of her on the dust jacket. And one only has to consider the choice of title of Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, to realise that it is an allusion to Arendt’s own Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am therefore not surprised that Stangneth views her whole book as a “dialogue with Hannah Arendt.”

In fact, Eichmann Before Jerusalem provides a meticulous account of Eichmann’s time in Argentina. This was where he hid after evading capture as a war criminal after the Second World War. It was in Argentina that Eichmann spent a substantial amount of time with other Nazi bigwigs who likewise had escaped Germany and still believed in the cause. With these insalubrious characters, Eichmann did not have to use his assumed name of Ricardo Klement, he was “Adolf Eichmann – SS-Obersturmbannführer (retired).” There was the Dürer publishing house that published Der Weg, a magazine that was “as openly anti-Semitic, racist, and National Socialist as if the Third Reich had never collapsed.”  In 1954, Der Weg published an article entitled “The Lie of the Six Million.” They were denying that gas chamber existed for the systematic murder of Jews long before Ernst Zündel, Arthur Butz and David Irving. There was also Willem Sassen’s circle. It was here that Eichmann, other unreformed Nazis and their fellow travellers sat around discussing news reports and books that were appearing on the Third Reich, much of which they derided as emanating from the “Jewish enemy.”  Many of these conversations, where participants discussed historical documents and argued over their interpretation, were deliberately recorded and transcribed. Stangneth tracked down twenty-nine hours of the recordings.

Eichmann remained a dedicated anti-Semite and his output was prolific. His so-called “Argentina Papers” contain a 107-page manuscript (with the didactic title, “The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak”), over one thousand pages of Sassen interviews, “several introductory essays with accompanying notes, and around one hundred more pages of notes and commentaries on books.” Stangneth’s task was onerous but much of what she was able to access was available neither to the court in Jerusalem when Eichmann was tried, nor to Hannah Arendt for her famous but controversial report of the trial. However, not all of Eichmann’s known writings in Argentina could be seen by Stangneth. He wrote a 260-page document known as the “Tucumán Novel” in which he “attempted to give a detailed account of his life and actions, explaining himself first and foremost to his children, his family, and the ‘generations to come.’” The Eichmann family have this document but – nauseatingly – would not allow Stangneth access without “an appropriate level of remuneration.”

While in Argentina with such septic waste, Eichmann even planned to write and have published an open letter to the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. As Stangneth explains, the Nazis were not just recording conversations and writing for the benefit of the history books, “they wanted to make a difference, to get back to Europe and involve themselves in West German politics.” The dream was a revival of National Socialism. In order to do this, history was being rewritten and an attempt was being made at redeeming Hitler.

In order to realise this dream, many of the Nazi exiles in Argentina thought it best to minimise the destruction of the Jews. But this was not Eichmann. For him, the Jews were to blame – they were the guilty ones. He raved that Chaim Weizmann had declared war on the German people “in the name of Jewry.” Millions of Germans had died in the war. They were the true victims. The Jews were always the aggressors – so Eichmann pointed out with respect to the Suez crisis – and they were the true war criminals.

Eichmann was proud that one of his superiors said to him, “if we’d had fifty Eichmanns, we’d have won the war for sure.” He was also proud of his Nazi achievements. He is notorious for saying at the end of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews [‘enemies of the Reich’] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He retained that view in 1957 in Argentina: “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one.” If he had any regrets it was that they had not managed to kill all the 10.3 million Jews in his sights. Only by doing so would they have fulfilled their duty.  After such admissions Stangneth notes that the Sassen project ran into insurmountable problems. Victims’ testimonies and other documents about the killings of Jews could be dismissed as “anti-German,” “propagandist,” “exaggerated,” or “counterfeit,” but Eichmann, a dedicated National Socialist, and the man they hoped would be their chief witness, “had laid a few million more lives on the table.”

What Stangneth has uncovered with her research is remarkable, but she admits there is more work to be done on Eichmann’s Argentinian Papers, and she encourages others to do it. Her research was not plain sailing. In her book she has not been hesitant to make caustic remarks about those who have been less than forthcoming with assistance. In one example she states “I have not been able to convince Daimler that the possibility their staff may have included not only a mass murderer but also someone who aided a famous German attorney general makes cooperating with a researcher a worthwhile exercise.” And in her acknowledgements: “A few inquiries remain unanswered. I would still be delighted to hear from David Cesarani….”

In a review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem for The New York Times, Seyla Benhabib comments:

Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it. [Emphasis added.]

I am surprised that Benhabib, an Arendt specialist, has made this statement, because it is the exact opposite of what Arendt concluded. This is what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

[Eichmann’s] was obviously no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatsoever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater. To be sure, there were fanatic anti-Semites among his closest friends…..but this, according to Eichmann, was more or less in the spirit of “some of my best friends are anti-Semites.”

Arendt had a lot to say in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Some of her very controversial comments about the Jewish Councils in Nazi occupied Europe are not even discussed by Stangneth. But from now on, and as a result of Stangneth’s research, those who wish to defend Arendt’s claims will have their work cut out for them.

How to be an amateur art critic

In Art on August 27, 2014 at 9:06 AM

1. Go to the Tate Modern.
2. Pay £14.50 (without donation £13.10) entrance fee for Malevich exhibition.
3. Enter Malevich Exhibition
4. Look for the painting called “Black Square.” It should be easy to find. It is black and it is a square.
5. Spend five minutes looking at said painting.
6. While looking at said painting use words and phrases and say things such as: “powerful”, “uncompromising”, “iconic”, “stark message”, “a religious experience”, “life affirming”, “dominating,” “suprematism”, “magical” and “bold.”

Et voilà! You are now an amateur art critic!

How to be a professional art critic.

Steps 1,3,4,5,6 are the same as above. Step 2 is unnecessary as you will get a press pass.

Add step 7. This is more advanced. It helps if you can cite Kant and say something such as the following when looking at the painting:

The experience of viewing the painting…involves a feeling of pain brought about by the breakdown of representation followed by a powerful sense of relief, even elation, at the thought that the formless or massive can nevertheless be grasped as a mode of reason. In other words, the failure of the black square to represent this transcendent realm serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature.

19th Century Marxist Mantra in 21st Century Feminist Garb

In Book Review, Feminism, Marxism on August 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Book Review

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.

Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and  enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published.  She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and  to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.

Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist.  She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”

The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.

And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.”  Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.

After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.

According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.

On Slave Reparations – A Response to Boonin 3 – The Individual Rights Based Objection.

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 3:57 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on  July 31st 2014, 6:58 pm

This is the third and final post in a series of posts responding to the arguments made in favour of slave reparations by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions.  The first post can be seen here and the second here.

A key reason why I think Boonin’s argument should be rejected is that he fails to treat people as individuals. He treats people as a part of a collective. And that collective is identified purely by the colour of someone’s skin.  If we accept the premise that coerced slavery was wrong, it follows that those coerced into slavery or the direct descendants of those slaves are entitled to compensation. This would be in line with Robert Nozick’s theory of entitlement that he outlined in the second section of his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Boonin specifically rejects the idea that the compensation should be to descendants of slaves. For as he states:

[T]he compensation argument, it’s important to emphasize doesn’t operate according to bloodlines. It claims that currently living black Americans are owed reparations not because they’re biologically descended from the victims of slavery and its aftermath, but because they continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery and its aftermath.

This means that Boonin is not looking at a particular black American as an individual citizen but as a black citizen. He is lumping all black Americans together. He is suggesting African Americans from the homeless guy in Detroit through to Tiger Woods and Barack Obama continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery. Boonin has not explained exactly in what way Oprah Winfrey is suffering. The reason he has not done so is that he could not care less about Oprah Winfrey as a person in her own right. All he cares about, in relation to his reparations argument, is the colour of her skin. He classifies people by skin colour and judges them by skin colour when it comes to entitlement to reparations. He sees black Americans “on the whole” and not as individuals in their own right.

Elsewhere, Boonin argues that he defends his claim on reparations “without appealing to any kind of objectionable racial collectivism.”  This statement is patently false. He repeats in his book that he views black Americans as “a whole.” It is therefore, whether he likes it or not, as David Horowitz suggested, a racist argument and should be rejected.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 2. Recipients and beneficiaries

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:51 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place July 30th 2014, 11:55 am

This is the second post in a series of three responding to the arguments made in favour of reparations for slavery by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. The first post can be seen here.

As I commented in my last post, Boonin argues that “the U.S government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.” One of David Horowitz’s objections to slave reparations is that “Most Living Americans Have No Connection (Direct or Indirect) to Slavery.” He explains “The two great waves of American Immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What logic would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans[,] Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims to Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?”  Boonin answers this question with a valid point:

When you freely choose to become a citizen of a country, that is, you incur a duty to help your country fulfil all of its obligations, including those obligations that it occurred before you arrived. This includes having some of your tax money go to paying off a national debt that you had nothing to do with generating, paying to fund programmes that were adopted before you were born, and so on.

One could compare the idea of immigrating to a country to that of becoming a new shareholder of a corporation. When someone buys shares in a company he takes on, in his stake, his share of the liabilities of the company. If the company borrowed money for thirty years by issuing a bond five years earlier, the new shareholder cannot simply write off that debt: he takes on the obligation. This is a reasonable argument. If the US government does owe a debt to its black population then Boonin’s response to Horowitz’s objection as it stands seems valid. But Boonin creates a new problem for his argument.

I will assume that some immigrants into the United States since the end of slavery have not simply been the groups that Horowitz mentioned, but has also included, either in or out of those groups, some black people. By Boonin’s argument these new black immigrants should also pay their share of “the national debt.”  This is not a problem. What is the problem is that Boonin argues that “compensation is owed not to the biological offspring of particular victims of previous injustices, but rather to black Americans who continue to suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.” Because Boonin argues this, he would have it that, as an example, a new black immigrant to America whose family had lived, as an example, in the United Kingdom for generations is due compensation. But this is a nonsense: not only is this black immigrant not descended from American slaves, neither he nor his family have suffered the effects of American slavery or racial separation – for the simple reason that they never lived in America.  In order for Boonin’s argument to hold water, he must explain why such an immigrant is entitled to reparations. He has not done so.

In my final post on this matter I shall discuss what I will call the individual rights based objection – the idea that an African American should not be treated as part of a collective of African Americans but as an individual.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 1. Causation

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:40 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 29th 2014, 1:48 pm

In 2011 Cambridge University Press published philosopher David Boonin’s book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. Chapters 2 and 3 of the book deal with the idea that America owes slave reparations to its black population. In 2001 the conservative commentator David Horowitz wrote Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too. Horowitz’s points were published as a one page advertisement. In chapter 2 of his book, extending over some 53 pages, Boonin responds to Horowitz critically arguing against each of them.  In chapter 3, at 58 pages in length, Boonin extends Horowitz’s points and comes up with further arguments in favour reparations only to knock them down, too.  His position is that “the U.S. government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.”

Boonin believes his argument is both “coherent and defensible.” This is the first of a series of three blog posts to attack points of Boonin’s arguments. In this post I deal with the causal claim. In the next post I deal with the payments and beneficiary issue. And in my final post I shall deal with what I will call the individual rights argument, against Boonin’s collectivization of the black population. It is in these three posts that I hope to demonstrate that Boonin’s arguments are unsound.

The Causal Claim

Boonin defines the causal claim as “the acts by which previous generations of American citizens wrongfully harmed previous generations of Africans and African Americans continue to cause harmful consequences for black Americans today.” He admits that this claim is “absolutely essential” to his argument: “if the past wrongful acts involving slavery and its aftermath are not currently exerting any harmful influence on the present generation of black Americans, after all, then the compensation principle won’t entitle the present generation of black Americans to any compensation because there won’t be any damages to compensate them for.”

He believes that “black people in the United States today, on the whole, are disadvantaged relative to white people” and he has tried to seek an explanation. He rules out genetic differences as “thoroughly discredited within the relevant scientific communities” and concludes that it therefore must be differences in the social environment “that makes it more difficult, on average, for black Americans to flourish.” With no evidence whatsoever, Boonin makes a leap: “The most obvious candidate for such a difference by far is the existence of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. And so the most reasonable conclusion to draw, on this account is that slavery and its aftermath do, in fact, continue to exert a negative influence on the life of Black Americans.”

David Horowitz argued that the economic adversity suffered by many black Americans does not arise from the lingering effects of the slave trade but from “failures of individual character.”   Boonin responds, again with no evidence, but just because he cannot think of any other explanation: “if black Americans really are more likely to suffer from failures of individual character than are white Americans, this discrepancy must be due to the lingering and discouraging consequences of slavery and its aftermath.” Boonin cites John McWhorter, who argued that the reason why black students did not try as hard as white students is that they “belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain” and “defeatist thought patters.” Shelby Steele is also cited for the claim that the reason for the respects in which black Americans on average lag behind white Americans is that they “internalize a message of inferiority.” Finally Dinesh D’Souza is cited for the claim that black Americans have “destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behaviour.” For exactly the same reason, i.e., he cannot think of anything better, Boonin attributes the reasons for any cultural factors leading to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans to the legacy of slavery and its aftermath.

It is fair to comment that Boonin does make an appeal to authority. He states that McWhorter, Steele, and D’Souza all “endorse the claim that the American legacy of slavery and its aftermath is at least in part to blame for the rise of a dysfunctional black American culture.”  Such an appeal to authority does not seem impressive. One could presumably just cite other writers such as Horowitz who would dismiss such a claim.

In 1865, with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery officially ended in the United States. It had been made illegal much earlier on in many states. Boonin argues that if there are any cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans that lead to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans today, these can be traced back to the way different black people were treated in America up 150 years ago and perhaps even further.

My argument against Boonin is this. If he is right that a black person today can be culturally affected by the harmful treatment of a different black person say 200 years ago, then why stop there? Why not go back to a period before slavery? Boonin has simply not considered that cultural behaviour might have much longer roots and date back from a period of time before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. I am not saying that this is a reason for black Americans not doing as well as white Americans. What I am arguing is that Boonin’s argument has failed. His reason for blaming the academic and financial underperformance of black Americans on slavery and its aftermath is not that he has evidence that this is so, but that he has ruled out other factors such as genetics. The world did not begin with the discovery of America. Boonin seems not to have even considered this fact.

In my next post I shall deal with the payments and beneficiary problem.

Jonathan Freedland’s Utilitarian Problem

In Israel, Just War, Utilitarianism on August 15, 2014 at 3:32 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 28th 2014, 2:56 pm.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland has argued that not only is the Israeli government’s action in Gaza wrong, it is “utterly self-defeating”:

More Israelis have died in the operation to tackle the Hamas threat than have died from the Hamas threat, at least over the past five years. Put another way, to address the risk that hypothetical Israeli soldiers might be kidnapped, 33 actual Israeli soldiers have died.

I first should point out an inconsistency in his article. Freedland earlier states that the Israeli concern is not that specifically soldiers will be kidnapped but that civilians might be. The tunnels are “designed to allow Hamas militants to emerge above ground and mount raids on Israeli border villages and kibbutzim, killing or snatching as many civilians as they can.”  He even seems to accept that the tunnels are intended for kidnapping purposes by noting that “tranquillisers and handcuffs were reportedly found in those tunnels.”

His implication is clear: perhaps the odd person might get kidnapped, but better that than 33 soldiers lose their lives trying to prevent such an action.

I disagree with Freedland and I will do so initially by highlighting an analogy which in itself fails on certain levels to be a good analogy, but on another level it is an ideal analogy. The analogy is one discussed by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his popular book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Penguin, 2010). It is a true story and dates back to the 1970s.

In summary, Ford had a car, the Pinto, where it knew the fuel tank was prone to explode in the event of a collision. For a small cost per car it could fix the problem. But Ford chose not to do so for a utilitarian reason. Ford estimated that the cost in compensating those that died through exploding tanks would be less than the costs of installing a safety device in all the cars. This was the approach taken. Ultimately the decision process reached the court and the jury was outraged. Ford were fined punitive damages for such behaviour.

The flaws with this analogy are obvious: comparing finances with lives lost. However, the principle is valid: the right thing to do is not necessarily the thing that costs the least. And it does not matter if that is in lives or in money. The simple utilitarian approach is not satisfactory. It ignores duty. In the case of Ford its duty was to install the safety device and, in the case of Israel, very high on the list, is the duty to protect its population from a hostile attack.

While Freedland’s negotiated solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians might be ideal, this takes time (and has not proved successful for decades) and the Israeli government’s knowledge about the tunnels might not allow so much time. Something had to be done. It is unthinkable that a government, any government, should acceptably say to its population: “Some of you might get kidnapped. We are sorry about that, but we are not willing to risk our soldiers’ lives to protect you from kidnap.”

The Israeli government could not know in advance how many, if any, soldiers’ lives would be lost following the Gaza ground invasion decision. According to the Jerusalem Post, the toll by yesterday stood at 43. Unfortunately, in war, soldiers do die. But it is understood that this is a risk soldiers (even conscription soldiers) take. Civilians also die in war, but they should not be deliberately targeted and they should be protected. Hamas fail on their side of the equation. They deliberately target civilians and hence commit war crimes. On its side of the equation Israel should not also fail. It should protect its population.

A following point is also relevant. For Freedland’s utilitarian calculation the input data should also be accurate. He seems to assume that the number of soldiers or civilians killed or kidnapped via the use of Hamas’s network of tunnels will be miniscule. The Gatestone institute report of a plot planned for the Jewish New Year, September 24:

The Hamas plan consisted of what was to be a surprise attack in which 200 fighters would be dispatched through each of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel, and seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.

We are dealing here in counterfactuals but if this alleged plot was allowed to proceed, the amount of Israeli citizens killed or kidnapped might be far greater than the amount of soldiers that lose their lives in the actual Gaza offensive. If so, under its own fundamental principle, Jonathan’s Freedland utilitarian argument would be completely shattered.

Combatants and human shields: some inchoate thoughts on the ethics of war

In Just War, Philosophy on July 14, 2014 at 5:17 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s  Place on July 10th 2014, 2:25 pm

The ethics of war, as we tend to understand it in the West, is handed down to us through the Catholic tradition. Just War Theory is broken down into two important areas (using pretentious Latin names) – jus ad bellum(legitimate reasons to go to war) and jus in bello (legitimate actions in war). For this post I am considering the actions in war: jus in bello.

There is a rule that is widely accepted and built into the Geneva Convention: non-combatants have immunity from attack. The term “non-combatants” tends to be used as opposed to “civilians” as it encompasses, as examples away from civilians, prisoners of war, army chaplains and army doctors who also cannot be deliberately targeted.

The Catholic tradition has built into it something known as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). This doctrine differentiates between what is intended and what is foreseen but unintended. Consider the following: a combatant from Ruritania fires a missile into a city of Boldavia with the deliberate intent of killing Boldavian non-combatants (civilians). This is clearly prohibited by the Just War Doctrine. It breaches the idea that non-combatants are not to be deliberately targeted. Now consider the Boldavians. Fed up with missiles being fired into their cities targeting civilians they fire a bigger missile back specifically at the Ruritanians’ missile factory. When doing so the Boldavians foresee that not only will they destroy the missile factory as intended, but they will also realistically kill some civilians who happen to be in the area. These civilian deaths are foreseen but unintended. Using a standard military euphemism, they are “collateral damage.”

A way to think of the differences between the two cases is that the Ruritanians will feel they have wasted a missile if they have not killed Boldavian civilians whereas the Boldavians would be delighted if there were no civilians killed when they destroyed the Ruritanians missile factory. The deaths of the civilians is a bad consequence of the Boldavian action not an intended one. The Doctrine of Double Effect sets out the conditions that allow these foreseen but unintended bad consequences. The key points being that the bad effects are not intended, the act itself was a good one (eg destroying the missile factory) and that the foreseen bad effect is proportional. What is and what is not proportional can be in practice a hotly disputed matter.

Now consider human shields. I will break them down into two types: non-voluntary human shields and voluntary human shields. A non-voluntary human shield is simple to comprehend. It could be, for example, a child who is kidnapped and tied to the front of a tank, or patients in a hospital from which missiles are being fired. It is in breach of the ethics of war to use such human shields. Doing so should be seen as a war crime. But does this mean that the use of such human shields prohibits the targeting of a building used in such a way? The answer, in standard war ethics, can be found by applying the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Imagine the Ruritanians are firing not very accurate or powerful missiles into Boldavia from the roof of a hospital that contains one hundred patients. The Boldavians could destroy that missile capability but to do so they would also destroy the hospital foreseeing the deaths of the patients. If, as said, the Ruritanians’ missiles are not very accurate or powerful and, in practice, strike terror into Boldavians as opposed to killing them, it seems disproportionate for the Boldavians to target the Ruritanians’ hospital missile base. However, if the Ruritanians’ missiles get more and more powerful and more and more accurate, then targeting the hospital missile base might well be justified as it could be proportional. Consider, in the extreme, that the hospital missile base contained a nuclear missile that could wipe out a city of millions. The hospital patients’ immunity from being killed by a legitimate military action by the Boldavians is greater the more ineffective the Ruritanians’ missiles are.

Voluntary human shields are a different case entirely. Imagine Ruritanian civilians who answer a plea from a Ruritanian military general to sit on the roof of a building that contains military weapons. The purpose of them sitting on the roof – they understand. They are to be human shields whose mere presence is to deter the Boldavians destroying the building. I wish to argue that because they voluntarily respond to a military call they cease being non-combatants and become combatants. To explain further. Imagine Ruritania has a population of one million with 50,000 combatant members of its army. They have 1,000 missile bases. In advance of any military actions the head of the army puts out a call and asks for volunteers to sit in or near these military installations. Imagine 20,000 volunteer to do so. These 20,000 people, I would argue, become crucial to the military strategy of the Ruritanians. Because of the nature of their role I take the view that it should ethically fail: the human shields become combatants and not non-combatants and are thus they lose their immunity from attack. The proportionality requirement is relaxed. Boldavians do not need to be as concerned if voluntary human shields seated on the roof of the missile store lose their lives in an attack on the missile store if the missile store is a legitimate target.

UPDATE

It has been brought to my attention on Twitter by Mugwump that my views on the differing treatment of voluntary versus non voluntary human shields are not original. They are in line with Yoram Dinstein’s interpretation of international law. These views were published in his book, The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict, (Cambridge University Press, 2004) pp.130-131. The relevant pages can be accessed freely via Google Books, here.

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