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There’s The Outrage

By Matthew Yglesias on November 6, 2006 at 4:07 pm

"There’s The Outrage"


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Good Catholic and double-effecter Ross Douthat objects to my efforts to even loosely equate Dujail and Fallujah. There’s some factual uncertainty as to exactly what went down at Fallujah (a point I’ll return to) but one of the main things at issue here is intentions. Saddam was given to doing things like deliberately killing civilians as a counter-insurgency tactic. Bush, not being a monster, doesn’t do things like that. Instead, he deliberately adopts counter-insurgency tactics that foreseeably kill civilians. There’s definitely a large intuitive difference here. “Monster” seems to fit Saddam, whereas Bush much more seems the bufoon who just kind of blunders into policy errors. On the other hand, this buffoonery has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. So one starts to wonder. Obviously, there’s a time-honored philosophical dispute here that a blog post is unlikely to resolve, but I still think it’s useful to try to lay out my thinking a bit.

The trouble with good intentions, as Max Weber points out (I think) in “Politics as a Vocation”, is that it becomes the enemy of responsibility. The good thing about well-intentioned people is that, by their nature, they don’t want bad things to happen. Normally, then, having well-intentioned people in positions of power is a good, albeit imperfect, check on the occurrence of very bad things. Certainly, it’s superior to having ill-intentioned people, monsters like Saddam, in charge of things. Once we admit the existence of good intentions as an exculpatory defense to the occurence of bad things, however, a paradox arises and bad things result.

The well-intentioned person, being well-intentioned, will try his best to ensure that bad things don’t happen. If things that occur as a result of well-intentioned actions are defined as not-so-bad, however, then the well-intentioned person doesn’t really need to try his best to ensure that bad things don’t happen. After all, the person, being well-intentioned, by definition isn’t going to do any very bad things. The things he does, after all, are all well-intentioned things, not bad things.

Well-intentioned leaders, on this view, don’t “kill hundreds of thousands” in the way that monsters do. They simply make policy errors. Errors that, in the course of things, may happen to kill hundreds of thousands.

The trouble, of course, is that part of being well-intentioned should be a determination to be very careful that you don’t actually kill hundreds of thousands. Severe aversion to carelessly causing mass-death should, after all, be one of the cardinal virtues of having the well-intentioned in positions of authority. This only works, however, if what well-intentioned people do is consider themselves responsible for the actual consequences of their actions. Insofar as the well-intentioned are convinced that their own intentions are all that matters, then good intentions are sapped of most of their value.

And, yes, I’ve just made a consequentialist argument for consequentialism; or perhaps a pragmatic argument for pragmatism. It’s turtles all the way down. I was going to end this post with the suggestion that one could probably write a good book about Iraq called “The Politics of Good Intentions” so I checked Google and, indeed, there’s a book called The Politics of Good Intentions. Publicity material says:

Tony Blair has often said that he wishes history to judge the great political controversies of the early twenty-first century–above all, the actions he has undertaken in alliance with George W. Bush. This book is the first attempt to fulfill that wish, using the long history of the modern state to put the events of recent years–the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the falling out between Europe and the United States–in their proper perspective. It also dissects the way that politicians like Blair and Bush have used and abused history to justify the new world order they are creating.

Jason Moring’s review in The New York Observer even says the author, David Runciman, “borrows from thinkers like Max Weber to shed light on contemporary politics.” Just like me.

So now back to Fallujah. It’s very hard to say exactly how bad what happened at Fallujah was, for the simple reason that we have no real idea how many civilians were killed or maimed in that battle. Being reality-based, I’m left unable to really say what happened or to evaluate it. Nor is our ignorance about this unusual — we don’t have a good sense of how many civilians were killed or wounded because the US government makes no effort to rigorously quantify civilian deaths. Instead, they assure us that they make every effort to minimize civilians casualties.

Anyone who follows the contemporary American military will tell you that there’s a lot of truth to that claim. Equally, though, anyone who follows the contemporary American military will tell you that it’s frustratingly difficult to say how successful it is at minimizing civilian casualties since, after all, the military doesn’t count civilian casualties.

But there you have it. If Bush really wanted to minimize civilian casualties, wouldn’t he order the Pentagon to keep track of civilian casualties? That way you could see how effective the casualty-minimizing tactics employed in this situation or that were. You could, by comparing different efforts, be constantly improving our methods of casualty-minimization. Any serious effort to minimize (or maximize) anything requires an effort to quantify the minimized or maximized quantity. But Bush doesn’t do that (and he’s not unique among world leaders or US presidents in this regard) because he’s not, at the end of the day, trying very seriously to minimize civilian casualties. He’s trying to minimize his perceived responsibility for civilian deaths. Part of this is taking steps thought likely to reduce civilian casualties. Another part is to prevent quantification of civilian casualties.

The lack of quantification assists the effort to evade responsibility but undermines the effort to actually minimize civilian casualties. This is why we get curious things like the White House response to the Lancet study. They assure us it’s wrong. Badly wrong. But do they rebut it with alternative, superior studies? No, they don’t, because the allergy to quantification is integral to the strategy. Which, again, just goes to show that the core of the strategy is avoiding responsibility rather than avoiding casualties.

The Slip

The Unwashed Masses

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