February 20, 2009

Working in theory

Theory provides the context for moral distinctions between different actions

“That’s all well and good in practice...but how does it work in theory?” So goes the joke on many University of Chicago T-shirts. But in fact, this attitude is no joke at all. It is the bedrock of both our democracy and our civilization—and it is under attack.

In his inaugural address, President Obama said the following to the American people: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” While Obama is no closet authoritarian, this is surely one of the most anti-democratic remarks an American president has made in our lifetimes. The question is not whether government works; in theory, a benevolent dictatorship works much better than the most admirable democracy. The real question is whether a government not only works in the present, but will continue to work over the long term. Having a righteous king is all well and good, but who can vouch for the integrity of his children? The President’s remarks could have come right out of the mouth of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s government “works” in practice: His despotic rule is overwhelmingly popular in Russia. It is President Obama who is being “cynical” by disparaging the motives of those who seek the welfare of their country by fighting for free markets or limited government. Look up “stale political arguments” if you want to know what China’s Politburo thinks of democracy itself.

Theory means context. Without theory, killing in self-defense is no different from premeditated murder. With an eye only to practical consequences, even the just war is merely an act of institutionalized murder and torture. My thoughts are drawn to a story that came out of Hiroshima: A mother watches helplessly as her daughter, trapped under an immovable pile of rubble after the atomic blast, begs for aid as the surrounding flames slowly envelope her. Has America been a torturing country not since George Bush but since George Washington, when the Continental Army severed limbs with its cannons and drilled holes with bullets into its enemies?

This is the logic of barbarism. Although the primary mechanism that Al Qaeda sadists and other fiends use to justify their horrors is to posit a bubble of infallibility in which anything they do is justified as long as it has the proper aim, their second most potent rationalization is to equate their acts of savagery with acts of war.

Increasingly, many in the West are buying into this logic. Tens of thousands of Europeans protested the recent war in Gaza not because of any principled stance but merely because they had done a little math: While only a few Israelis were dying, Gazans were falling by the hundreds. But war isn’t a simple game in which the party with the most casualties on the scoreboard at the end of the day emerges the moral victor. Motives count. Objectives count. Circumstances count.

While these may be mere abstractions to the dead and maimed, it is abstractions in which we trust and that define us as a civilization: Abstractions like freedom, fairness, reason, equality, and—the most airy one of them all—the social contract that is the heart of any democracy. Abstractions like these are worth dying for—and killing for.

And yet, while our theories about morality make us proud, it is certainly humbling to realize that it is only a thin veil of abstraction that separates us from abject barbarism. In practice, we are not so different from our ideological opponents. But we are right.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.