Ends and Means


Some people seem to think that Leon Wieseltier is an excellent literary critics, and certainly I’m in no position to question anyone’s literary criticism skills. As an amateur philosopher, though, he’s pretentious and bad. I think I’m in sympathy with the point of this passage but this is ridiculous:

I am not unmindful of the relationship of means to ends. I took Kant. But an election is not a seminar; and to worry the means so much more than the ends is also to distort the relationship. The air of ethical exquisiteness in which Barack Obama wraps himself has psychologically hobbled his party. It finds itself elevated and stunned.

For one thing, to have picked up the bit of shopworn wisdom that the “ends don’t justify the means” hardly requires deep engagement with Kant. For another thing, this isn’t what Kant’s discussion of ends and means is about. Rather, Kant’s principle is that we must always treat human beings as ends rather than as means to our own ends. This has a great deal of relevance to our understanding of Kant’s moral philosophy. But nothing whatsoever to do with what Wieseltier is writing about here. But, hey, why not name-check Kant in an ignorant way? That’d be fun!

He then skips on from ignorant philosophical commentary to ignorant foreign policy commentary but, again, with agonizingly pretentious and awful writing:

The latest refinement of the Democratic creed of soft power is the view that environmentalism is a foreign policy. A week after the Russian invasion of Georgia, I was present at a conversation about whether the crisis around Russia’s borders could be relieved in part by the greening of Poland. I agreed that Putin has been emboldened by the new riches of Russia’s natural resources, but I averred that even if Poland found a way to emancipate itself from foreign fuel, so that every one of its schools was powered by the sun and every one of its cafes by the wind, there would still be a foundation in reality for the anxiety about Russia. The new Russian imperialism is animated by more than the new prices of commodities. Chávez does not owe his socialism to his petroleum. And the horror in Sudan has not been perpetrated by the weather. The verdure of the Democratic foreign-policy discussion is a proper retort to George W. Bush’s astounding delinquency about climate change; but energy does not explain everything. Green is not the only color. Indeed, monochromacy is a form of color-blindness. Even if we were to conquer our oil habit, we could not stand idly by if, say, jihadists came to power in Riyadh. (Israel is not the only reason.) A green world will not be a good world.

Anyone who doesn’t think the weather is relevant to “the horror in the Sudan” doesn’t actually know a damn thing about the Sudan. Rather, he’s someone who likes to use the horror in the Sudan as a political bludgeon with which to beat liberals. Which is to say, he’s a New Republic foreign policy writer.

Similarly, is the new Russian imperialism animated by factors other than commodity prices? Sure. But without high commodity prices Russia wouldn’t have any capacity to threaten its neighbors. Similarly, one major source of concern for Europe about Russian behavior has to do with Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. A greening of Poland really would make it harder for Russia to push Poland around. And, again, whether or not it’s the case that “Chávez does not owe his socialism to his petroleum” (which I think is debatable — the primary thing he has socialistic views about is Venezuela’s energy industry), Chavez certainly does owe such clout and popularity as he has to petroleum. And then there’s this business about Saudi Arabia. We could not stand idly by, he tells us. And then, parenthetically, he assures us he has reasons for thinking this. Reasons he won’t tell us! But surely we would care much, much, much, much less about what happens in Saudi Arabia if Saudi Arabia didn’t have oil. This is common sense.