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June 29, 2007


Yes, but Publius there's no such thing as a "clean slate" when you talk about epistemology. Every single person has a particular perspective, with a particular set of values, predetermining both how people will frame an issue and what conclusions they'll reach about it.

I agree that this can result in all sorts of horrible things but it doesn't change the fact that that is the way humans work.

Now in foreign policy, I am certainly on guard against murky abstractions such as Liberty and Justice, but I am even more wary of anyone who maintains that they are objective because they have no particular bias (ie perspective/values) or agenda (ie goal). Because of course being human they do, they are just hiding what that perspective and agenda is.

Ah, this will have to wait for tomorrow. But it will be a fun argument!

Family Feud? Who gets to play Richard Dawson?

The view of war presented in the Iliad is a lot more than "battles between abstract Gods swooping through the sky"! Its ghastly & horrible aspect is there too. It's a minor point, but it bothers me because Victor Davis Hanson & the neocons would have us think that their nasty brand of militarism is the sole content of the grand western tradition, and it just ain't so.

i agree with that -- i'll confess that I didn't finish the Iliad, but I got close. It's often depicted as sort of the ideal romanticized view of war. but i actually thought it bordered on black comedy at times -- it had ironic undertones. for instance, the fighting in the tents about going to war for a bride could pretty easily be seen as saying "this is all for really stupid reasons."

the odyssey is cool, but this sort of dark, ironic side of the Iliad is why I actually liked it better. but dear lord, it's tedious.

(shakespeare's take on the iliad is also very dark. but he's clearly poking fun at the reasons people go to war -- poking fun in a black comedy kind of sense)

I highly recommend Christopher Logue's War Music, a verse translation/rendition of various parts of the Illiad. He's done different parts of the Illiad, and continues to work on it, and the parts he's done are available under various titles, (Kings, Husbands, All Day Permanent Red, Cold Calls), but there was a volume that had everything published up to that point, entitled War Music. George Steiner wrote the best review in the TLS, but I can't seem to google it, but this review gives you a sense of the book.

Publius: Nothing about appealing to a theory (or appealing to values, for that matter) flips empiricism on its head.

For one, the issue of what values we ought to support generally comes prior to the conversation of how to support them. If there's simply no way to support them or if it turns out that supporting them contravenes other values we support, then we go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and choose an alternative plan of action (which would support those other more urgent values). This is just what reasonable people do. There is no point in this process at which appealing to values presents a danger, if undertaken by minimally reasonable people. We all do this, every day. We just stop doing it when we get on podiums and run for political office. Why? Probably because the consequences of political choices tend not to be as immediate for us as the consequences of our everyday choices, so -- sadly -- we tend to be a lot less careful about them. And politicians do it, because they know we will let them get away with it. And they also know that it gratifies our impulse for simple, emotionally gratifying answers, which is a perennial winner with the voters. So the whole process of rationality breaks down when we begin making collective decisions.

At the very least, for every horror story you can imagine about being misguided by airy conversation of values, I can imagine a horror story of people pursuing certain outcomes (or consequences) without paying attention to the question of why they were pursuing those outcomes. But it would be premature to infer merely from the possibility of this kind of idiocy that considering consequences was an awful thing to do!

I sense you are not talking about values or theory, but rather about a particular use of values and theory: namely, propaganda. We might say instead that propaganda flips empiricism on its head, but that's not all that informative. After all, if something were empirically true, it wouldn't be propaganda. And propaganda does tend to be laden with talk of values. When people insisted back in 2002 that there would be a democracy in six months and a domino effect across the Middle East, I think it would have been fair to call that propaganda. Sure, it is also a theory, in a manner of speaking. And sure, in a different universe, these things may have been true, in which case they would not have been propaganda at all. What makes them propaganda likely comes down to the reasons why they were promulgated and the actual evidence for them. But here's my point: you usually can't tell the difference between destructive propaganda and a perfectly good theory just by inspecting the form of the assertion. That is, you cannot always tell by appearances. To be blunt, I think that kind of simplifying assumption is guilty of exactly the same vice that the theory-makers are guilty of. It's an effort to make things simpler than they really are. I reluctantly point out that it is itself a theory, and a pretty big whopper of a theory.

It's not so simple as to say that heeding individual cases are good and abstractions are bad. Some abstractions are enormously useful *in predicting consequences*. For example, when people study levels of belligerence between nation states, they might group countries based on the abstraction of their political sytem. You simply don't get empiricism without abstractions, because you don't get generalizations without abstractions. And without generalizations, we can't formulate laws. Forget laws: you can't even make statistical statements.

Now, it is likely that morons who wish to pay no attention to the actual consequences of what they advocate will indulge in theory and values. After all, they have to fill the air with something. But that is no reason to impugn the good name of theory and values, which are things we cannot do without. There is nothing substantive in pointing out that meaningless abstractions are harmful (fighting for "freedom"). That much is plain. But you can't go from that example to arguing that all abstractions are flimsy and near-meaningless or that they are all harmful. Freedom is one of the best abstractions we have. And it's a fascinating one, considering that, practically speaking, many of us are not that free in the choices we get to make every day if we wish to survive. But it is not the final word in deliberating on whether we should invade a foreign country.

Unfortunately, what we really have to do is get down to and do the messy work of figuring which abstractions are good for a given purpose and which ones are not.

Most abstractions are perfectly good for something or the other. Terrorism is a very useful abstraction. It describes a kind of violence. And I'd like to know what causes that kind of violence, how to prevent that kind of violence, and when to expect that kind of violence. But it seems to me that terrorism is not a very useful abstraction for talking about what we ought to base our Middle East policy on. Focusing too much on terrorism might lead us to neglect opportunities that will be better off for everyone in the long run. For example, focusing too much on terrorism might have led us to have taken a disastrous policy towards Gaza that actually made it more likely that Hamas would take over. It is just a case of an abstraction misapplied, but not a bad abstraction.

I will say this: the debate that's brewing here reminds me of a distinction I realized a long time ago when I was learning how to play chess. I see it all the time in politics. It's kind of a lodestar of intelligence versus stupidity for me. When you are first learning how to play chess, you learn a whole bunch of principles: castling is good, fianchettoing your bishops is powerful, moving flank pawns prematurely is a bad idea. Unfortunately, applying these simple rules does not get you very far in chess. At some point, you realize that what you actually have to do is calculate, not simply apply rules. The reason we use the crutch of rules is because they are a lot simpler. In the beginning, they are a great learning device. It is easier to keep the simple rules in your head than a giant decision tree of concrete analysis. And rules tend to answer questions decisively: a rule will tell you whether to do something or not to do it. A concrete analysis might be a lot more inconclusive. Our brains tend to shy away from the complex and inconclusive in favor of the simple and decisive. Humans get a kick out of snap judgments. I realized, listening to right wing radio (though the same thing is true of left-wing radio), that people approach politics like this. They would have simple rules -- government intervention is bad -- and it takes next to no intelligence for them to apply rules like that to a particular case. O'Reilly does this all the time. It is much more difficult to find out what the consequences of some proposal will actually be than to apply a simple ideological rule to it. Often, we just are not informed enough to know. And just as often, the outcome is genuinely inconclusive, even to experts. So all we are left with is our simple rules. Young college students who become enamored with some single-principled monomaniacal point of view (like libertarianism) tend to do this too. I don't have a nifty label to get at this distinction, but it's always been an indicator to me of the difference between an expert and a duffer.


"Who gets to play Richard Dawson?"

Just wait until he starts trying to kiss all the female contestants. We could restart the sexual harassment debates in the middle of a foreign policy one.

On topic, I viewed Klein's argument as more of a call for vonian "US interests should shape our policy" realism (how's that for trying to egg on the family feud) than anything else.I don't necessarily agree with Klein (or von) on the subject, as it seems to be short-term thinking about what our interests are, whereas promoting a set of values are the long-term way to improve what our real interests are.

Any definition of what US interests are must include or at least spring from a set of values of one kind or another.

What I think creates an issue is a conflation of the terms "values" and "morals". The two can ride in tandem, but they are two different things.

Also, what has irked Klein, IMO, is the incongruency between the actions of this administration and its declared values in regards to freign policy.

It is not whether or not opur foreign policy should have some sort of a value base, but whether or not the actions flow from that value base.

With this administration, the stated values (democracy growth, stability, etc) are not necessarily the actual values that they have used to create their actions.

But then, I think in most cases and with most countries, stated policy values are meant for domestic and to some degree foreign consumption, while the actual value system of the people in charge may differ. But there is an awareness that to put into words the actual values underlying a policy may result in rebellion of one sort or another.

OCSteve referred to elitism in the other thread on this subject. I think on both sides of the aisle there is a sense of elitism that those in power know more and have better judgement than the peopns in the boonies. So they sooth our consciences with uplifting value talk while doing things for a whole different set of reasons.

In that sense, Klein is correct that value talk is meaningless, and actually harmful, if the values being talked about are not the real values that underpin our policy. Perhaps, rather than no value talk, there should be honest value talk.

I am glad to see these two posts, and I hope to have more to say on this later today when I'm not swamped by work. I think this is the most important debate going on in America today. Not abortion, not immigration. The question of how America will relate to the rest of the world ought to be the main issue of the 2008 elections.

I have to get back to work now, but I want to recommend the book "Ethical Realism" by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, which I think addresses very well the need to balance what Ezra Klein calls values vs. consequences.

More later.

ara - good comment. i don't disagree, i just think that the theory that i meant (foreign policy values/theories/abstractions) are not the kind deduced from lots of empirical observations.

"freedom" is not exactly as precise as the "earth orbits the sun," though both are theories. i meant a more specialized sense, but your point is still well taken

The problem with value based policy objectives is that we improperly advertise their priority in the process of getting elected and making great speeches.

The compromise of values for needs is a fine thing to do if you must. However because we advertise that democracy is our number one objective, we look dishonest when we compromise on our values in order to meet our needs.

The values that we espouse are terrific. However we also need a world that is full of stable economies, fuel to power industry, clean air and water.

Just like in our personal budgets we must pay for our needs (food, electricity, toilet paper) before we can acquire our desires (ice cream, sports cars and new TVs)

Therefore in order to be on the level we must either start being honest about the priorities we place on values in comparison national interests or we need to be willing to sacrifice interests to attain our values.

Oil is the perfect example. We would like to see a democratic and stable Saudi Arabia. For the time being we can not apply pressure to Saudi Arabia for democratization or human rights because they are our supply of oil. The same thing applies to most Persian Gulf states.

Either we need to be honest and say that stable oil supplies are more important than democracy promotion or we need to find a way to get off oil. We do very little to gain either if we fail to match our priorities against the effort we put into gaining them.

Semi OT, but apparently there is a lot of unrest in Iran right now. The only thing that may save the current government is a significant outside threat.

How is this administration going to screw this one up?

For more details hit on the link to Sullivan.

I really enjoyed that Ara.

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