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Randula, the Altruist Slayer
This is vintage George H. Smith, eloquently explaining the power of ideas—specifically ethical ideas—on social thinking, politics and, by extension, on intellectual history. When he is on his game, no one does it better. More than 35 years after its original publication, Atheism: the Case Against God remains one of my all-time favorite books. It is, I think, vastly superior in many respects to the more recent works of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, et. al, precisely because it does such a masterful job of tracking the destructiveness of religious ideas and their tragic consequences.
You have to wonder what Smith would have to say to the naysaying author of the following passage:
“There is an unfortunate tendency among some Objectivists to map out a short and easy route through the history of ideas that will take them to a predetermined destination. The destination, more often than not, is ‘altruism’—an evil that lurks behind every bush and every rock in the history of philosophy. More pernicious still, according to these Objectivists, are the seeds of altruism that, once planted, can lie dormant and undetected in the soil of seemingly benign theories, only to emerge decades or even centuries later as full-blown doctrines of self-sacrifice. In their early stages, these seeds can be subtle and elusive as to be perceptible only to dedicated altruism hunters.”
The author of those words seems to be implying that economic, social, and political thought can be understood outside the framework of ethics. If altruism is not highly relevant to such analysis, then ethics is irrelevant, because altruism happens to be a consistent thread running through vast theoretical regions in the history of ideas.
“Almost all ethical systems that have achieved any degree of world influence,” writes Nathaniel Branden, “have been, at root, variations on the theme of self-surrender and self-sacrifice. Unselfishness is equated with virtue; selfishness is made a synonym of evil…So prevalent has this concept [i.e., altruism] become that it is no longer regarded by most people as the name of a particular view of morality but rather as a synonym for morality…” (Honoring the Self, p. 206)
As it turns out, we don’t have to wonder what Smith would say to the author who decries the Objectivist obsession with the “pernicious” influence of altruism, because the author happens to be George H. Smith. The above quote can be found in an article by Smith in Liberty magazine (May, 2008), entitled “Thinking About War.” (p. 32) The article consists of a detailed critique of another article—“ ‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense,” by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein, published in The Objective Standard (Spring, 2006).
Smith indicts the authors’ handling of just war theory “in the broader sense” as “outrageous” because Brook and Epstein associate just war theory with altruism. Smith offers the following quote from the article in question: “Just war theory…is the application of the morality of altruism to war.” This is a “remarkably silly claim,” says Smith, largely based on his belief that the tradition of just war theory has embraced too many different approaches for anyone to categorize them all under any single banner. (p. 32)
Ostensibly, the theme of Smith’s essay is the defense of just war theory on the grounds that the just war tradition is way too diverse for anyone to say that it is based on altruism. But if that were all he wanted to say, it is doubtful anyone would care. And the truth is, his indictment of Brook and Epstein goes far deeper than that. To fully comprehend the significance of his article, we must begin at the beginning.
Smith starts out by characterizing just war theory as “the application of fundamental moral principles to the subject of war.” (p. 29) He thus equates just war theory with any and all theorizing about the morality of war, which seems odd, since it is often contrasted with pacifism, the belief that war of any kind is morally repugnant. Pacifists reject the very notion of “just war,” typically on moral grounds. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, just war theory is a Western perspective on the ethics of war with its origins in Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian thought. That strikes me as a much more accurate description of its meaning.
The first part of Smith’s essay discusses the bizarre views of Murray Rothbard, whom Smith credits with having made “good progress” toward the development of a coherent libertarian version of just war theory. Rothbard, an anarchist, objects in principle to wars conducted by nation-states, “since all states exist and have their being in aggression against their subjects…” In addition, Rothbard implies that, based on the principle of individual rights, a “libertarian country” attacked with bombs could legitimately retaliate only with less destructive weapons (e.g. rifles) that would not threaten “innocent” bystanders.(p. 30)
This is the sort of thinking Smith praises for being pregnant with infinite wisdom, and which he proceeds to contrast with what he demeans as the “silly” and “absurd” approach of two Objectivist thinkers. Smith does admit at one point that Rothbard’s position has a “sense of unreality” to it (p. 31). That might be in the running for understatement of the year. It would be charitable to describe Rothbard’s views as rationalism run amok. His preposterous ideas exhibit all the real world credibility of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’
Smith writes: “Rothbard is correct to maintain that to use force against innocent people, even in the course of legitimate self-defense, would constitute a violation of their rights…”(p. 31) But how does Rothbard define “innocent”? Smith suggests the following criterion: “people who are in no way responsible for the situation in which I find myself…”(p. 31) Rothbard (along with Smith) clearly implies that this would apply to any non-combatant, including the citizens of the aggressor nation-state who actively or passively support their government and help to keep it in power. In truth, of course, the only innocent citizens would be those actively engaged in opposing their leaders’ aggression—and they would likely be supportive of any foreign government which rises up to put an end to that aggression.
For Rothbard, individual rights are absolute, and hold “regardless of the subjective motives for the aggression.” (p. 31) That would mandate respecting the rights of the citizens of an aggressor state. But that position is untenable, because it entails a contradiction—no one can make legitimate claim to rights which necessitate the abrogation of the rights of others (i.e., the nation acting in self-defense). It is their own criminal government—not the defending state--that is violating their rights, and that includes any retaliatory force by the non-aggressor. Their government is as much their enemy as it is the enemy of the nation acting in self-defense—and they have the moral responsibility to oppose it.
The best that can be said for Rothbard’s ‘theories’ on war is that he is at least consistent—consistently out of his befuddled mind.
While acknowledging that Rothbard’s approach has serious drawbacks, Smith states that he “addresses in a serious way the complicated and disturbing problems raised by just war theory. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a recent article by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein, ‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense,’ which appears in The Objective Standard….” (p. 31)
Having just extended credibility to what amounts to abject nonsense, the reader would have to wonder just how much worse the Brook-Epstein article would have to be to deserve such a negative comparison. To assure the reader that his analysis will be fair, Smith offers the following disclaimer:
“The lengthy article by Brook and Epstein is an ambitious mixture of political analysis, historical interpretation, and political theory. Such articles will necessarily contain claims which cannot be defended in detail, so it is a relatively simple matter for a critic to attack isolated remarks and focus on them at the expense of more significant points. I will do my best to avoid this kind of picayune criticism and deal instead with basic themes. I will concentrate on the wholesale repudiation of “just war theory” by Brook and Epstein.” (p.32)
Smith comments that, contrary to some critics, “there is considerable evidence that [Ayn Rand] would have endorsed their major theoretical conclusions…” (p. 31) This leads Smith to question whether Rand’s own views on the conduct of war were consistent with her theory of individual rights. Brook and Epstein, needless to say, “do not even consider [this] possibility…” Of course not, George. All Objectivists are brain-dead zombies who accept everything Ayn Rand ever said as scripture. Very clever of you to have picked up on that.
Smith states that Brook and Epstein misinterpret Michael Walzer, the author of Just and Unjust Wars, an important contemporary text, on the just war principle of “last resort.” “Brook and Epstein appear not to have read Walzer’s book very carefully,” he says (p. 32). (The charge of sloppy scholarship is one which Smith makes repeatedly throughout his critique.) Brook and Epstein criticize Walzer based on a quote from the New York Times in which he argues that “a nation cannot go to war immediately even when there is an objective threat.” The Times’ quote states further: “you…have to wait until you are about to be attacked.” Smith says this misunderstanding is clarified in Walzer’s book, and faults Brook and Epstein for not giving sufficient attention to that source.
But the New York Times quote is very explicit, and the book excerpt cited by Smith is anything but. The book excerpt names “sufficient threat” as the standard, contrasting this with “imminent attack.” So how are they different? Walzer describes “sufficient threat” as “necessarily vague.” He says he wants the phrase to “cover three things,” including “a degree of active participation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk.”(p. 32, emphasis mine) How is that manifestly different from “imminent attack”? The distinction, if any, is far from clear. The Times’ quote cited by Brook and Epstein mitigates the ambiguity of the book.
What is Walzer’s example of a “sufficient threat” that can legitimately justify pre-emptive war? The Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel launched a pre-emptive strike after Egypt had amassed 1000 tanks and 100,000 soldiers on their border, closed the Straits of Tiran to all ships flying Israeli flags and called for unified Arab action against Israel. That situation clearly went way beyond an “objective threat.” The New York Times’ quote seems to be a more accurate delineation of Walzer’s position than the book excerpt cited by Smith.
It is here that Smith proceeds to indict the authors’ “wholesale repudiation of just war theory’ as “outrageous” and “remarkably silly” because Brook and Epstein associate just war theory with altruism. He then “summarizes” their argument as, in effect, the following:
(1) We must eliminate the threat of Islamic terrorism.
(2) Drastic action is necessary to achieve this end.
(3) These actions are inconsistent with just war theory.
(4) Therefore, just war theory “is a prescription for suicide for innocent nations.”
(5) Therefore, just war theory is “rooted in altruism,” and demands that we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
This is what Smith calls a typically Objectivist shortcut “through the history of ideas.” This is where Objectivists are characterized as engaging in an intellectual witch-hunt, where the evil “always turns out to be altruism.” (p. 32)
A few paragraphs earlier, Smith seems perturbed that Brook and Epstein chose to attack just war theory “root and branch” –i.e., as an integrated body of ideas which share fundamental themes. He complains that he cannot discern what specific account of just war theory the authors are discussing: The contemporary form, or the ‘generic’ version that encompasses “every just war theory from Augustine to the present day.” Elsewhere he calls the basic principles of just war theory “elastic,” and states that “just war theory is a big tent in which a wide range of policies can find shelter.” (p. 35) Smith implies that he would have had no problem if the authors had simply presented “their version of just war theory and its application to the ongoing conflict with what they describe (correctly, I think) as Islamic totalitarianism.” (p. 32) But Brook and Epstein get carried away, it seems, with this wacky Objectivist obsession with “altruism hunting”—and this prompts them to tack a simplistic ethical label on a “long and rich tradition.”
Smith: “The subtext here is one that we often find with Objectivist writers: everyone got it wrong until Ayn Rand happened onto the scene. Not until she developed her ethics of rational egoism was it possible to slay the dragon of altruism that had hitherto vitiated every just war theory, so we have nothing to learn from this long and rich tradition.” (p. 32)
And this Objectivist obsession prompts the following spurious conclusion, according to Smith: “It seems that the failures of the Bush administration in dealing with terrorism are owing to its adherence to the principles of just war theory, which have imposed altruistic restraints on measures that are required for the defense of the United States…” (p. 32)
This last sentence seems to be particularly telling: It is as if Smith wants to deny that altruism is the underlying explanation for our current foreign policy, and that Objectivism offers the solution. Smith’s criticism about painting with a broad brush is his way of undermining the real point of Brook and Epstein’s article--that our national leadership’s adherence to just war theory effectively amounts to altruism in practice. To an entrenched libertarian like Smith, political theory trumps ethics. We don’t need to look for underlying explanations like altruism. We just need to focus on promulgating “liberty,” and just war theory—not ethics-- is an effective means to that end.
Parenthetically, Brook and Epstein do acknowledge the diversity of just war theory as follows (without suggesting that the various approaches do not share certain fundamental ideas): “The President’s version of Just War Theory is not the only one; there are many different varieties of the theory, and their various advocates emphasize and interpret the rules differently…But such disagreements are ultimately insignificant as far as America’s self-defense is concerned, because none challenges the theory’s basic altruist premise.” (Objective Standard, p. 43)
Smith’s perverse “summary” of their argument (steps 1 through 5 above) amounts to the accusation that Brook and Epstein rationalistically attack “just war theory” because it is inconsistent with their own moral-political position, without further evidence that it is grounded in altruism. This is argument by caricature, and is used as a straw man to justify Smith’s use of words like “remarkably silly.” Curiously, after insulting Brook and Epstein (and Objectivist scholarship in general) in this way, Smith feels obligated to review some of the details of their actual argument.
Smith notes that Brook and Epstein cite the strong influence of St. Augustine on just war theory, and even agrees that Augustine’s altruist-Christian outlook had a “significant impact” on the entire just war tradition. But he attacks the historical scholarship of Brook and Epstein as “peculiar” for implying that Augustine was “an originator of just war theory, per se.” (p. 33) The only problem is, Brook and Epstein never said nor implied that.
The relevant quote from the original article is as follows: “To zero in on this idea, let us turn to the origins of Just War Theory, the writings of Christian theologian St. Augustine on the proper use of violence by individuals.” (O.S., p. 29) To say that Augustine, in 400 AD, can be seen as a source of the origins of just war theory, is not to say that he originated it. Here is a relevant quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Many credit Augustine with the founding of just war theory but this is incomplete…[In] its origins just war theory is a synthesis of classical Greco-Roman, as well as Christian, values. If we have to ‘name names,’ the founders of just war theory are probably the triad of Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine.” Apparently the authors of this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are also guilty of a “peculiar” perspective on intellectual history. So much for Smith’s expressed intent to avoid “picayune” criticism.
Smith goes on to say that St. Thomas Aquinas was largely responsible for rooting out Augustinian altruism from just war theory. Aquinas placed paramount importance on the right of self-defense. He quotes a passage from Aquinas, then adds: “Even the most dedicated altruism hunter would have difficulty locating his prey in these remarks.” (p. 33)
Smith credits Brook and Epstein with acknowledging this development, then implies that their altruist-phobia prompts them to ignore its significance, because certain just war principles—e.g., proportionality and discrimination—still amount to self-sacrifice in practice. “Our intrepid altruism hunters claim to have found the evil for which they were searching.” And what is that? Such principles prohibit “Sherman-like tactics” of targeting civilians and razing cities. (p. 34)
At this point, once again, Smith goes on the “I’m a scholar and you’re not” attack: "Here as elsewhere it is painfully evident that [Brook and Epstein] have not read even the most prominent just war philosophers, such as Francisco de Vitoria, who is widely acknowledged as the founder of modern international law.” (p. 34) Vitoria, it seems, was a big advocate of what might be called "scorched earth" tactics in the conduct of war.
Not only that, George, but Brook and Epstein could also have read the entire works of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Emmerich de Vattel, not to mention Hugo Grotius. In fact, given that Montesquiieu’s treatise, Spirit of Laws, alone required 20 years to write and offers no less than 3000 citations, their research should continue for at least another 5 years. Then maybe, according to you, they can write their article.
Does Smith really know whether or not Brook and Epstein read Vitoria? (Or Grotius? Or Vattel? Or anyone else?) Obviously not. The fact that they do not mention Vitoria simply means that they did not regard his thinking as “essential” to their presentation of just war theory. Like any movement with a long intellectual history, much of the writing which belongs to that tradition was either incorporated into other prominent works or did not have a long-term impact on the evolution of its ideas.
Vitoria was a 16th century Spanish theologian who apparently had a strong influence on Hugo Grotius, a major historical player with respect to both just war theory and international law. Smith discusses Grotius with the same maudlin adoration he extended to Rothbard, while acknowledging that he was anything but a “liberal individualist.” According to Smith, John Locke believed that Grotius (and Pufendorf, who continued Grotius’ work) “presented a theory of natural rights that could be used to solve the fundamental problems of political philosophy.” (p. 35)
To reveal the diversity of the rich tradition of just war theory, Smith devotes substantial space to Grotius, who “based his theory of rights [including the right of self-defense] on an ethics of rational self-interest.” (p. 36) The upshot of Smith’s discussion, however, is Grotius’ belief that we must be take into consideration everyone’s rights before engaging in war, because “even a just war will involve the killing of innocent people…” (p. 36) The analysis of these issues undertaken by Grotius and his colleagues was from the perspective of a “state of nature”—i.e., society without government. Smith regards this analytical framework as the one “best-suited” for libertarians and Objectivists—a framework which drops the context of a governmental agency that derives its authority from its citizens. This anarchistic perspective accomplishes nothing but to further cloud the critical moral distinctions between the citizens of a free state and those of an aggressor.
Smith contends that Pufendorf’s argument that “every man is allowed to be most Dear to himself” during a lifeboat emergency disproves the thesis of Brook and Epstein. (p. 37) So the fact that one well-known author in the just war tradition advocated range-of-the-moment selfishness in the midst of a life-threatening crisis disproves the thesis that the fundamental principles of just war theory promote self-sacrifice. Libertarians might call that profound. Objectivists call it being concrete-bound.
Despite his insistence that the just war tradition defies all attempts at synthesis, Smith ultimately concedes that its many variants do share certain themes in common. He makes the following general statement (the middle passage is by Brook and Epstein):
“Brook and Epstein summarize some of the leading principles of just war theory as follows:
‘Broadly speaking, Just War Theory holds that a nation can go to war only in response to the impetus of a “just cause,” with force as a “last resort,” after all other non-military options have been considered and tried – with its decision to go to war motivated by “good intentions,” with the aim of bringing about a “good outcome.” And it holds that a nation must wage war only by means that are “proportional,” to the ends it seeks, and while practicing “discrimination” between combatants and noncombatants.’
“This is a fair and accurate account, one that might have heralded a valuable critique of just war principles from an Objectivist perspective, had these authors retained their own objectivity.” (p. 38)
With this concession, Smith jettisons his earlier claim that the just war tradition is too rich and diverse to be criticized “generically,” or “root and branch”--i.e., that “every just war theory from Augustine to the present day” cannot be accurately synthesized into a set of ideas which share certain fundamental themes, including altruism. Smith states that the principles can be interpreted by advocates in a variety of ways depending on the “moral standards of their time” (p. 35), but this is misleading. With the exception of classical and Hellenistic Greece, there has never been a time in human history where some form of altruism has not been dominant. Given conventional views of “the good,” it is not possible to interpret any of these principles from the perspective of rational self-interest.
His charge of “remarkably silly” is shown to be, well, remarkably silly.
Smith then goes on to discuss these four essential principles of just war theory: good intentions, last resort, proportionality and anticipation, presumably to demonstrate how wrong Brook and Epstein were in their interpretation of its altruistic base.
With respect to good intentions, Smith repeats his prior allegation about the “absurdity” of Brook and Epstein’s analysis. He acknowledges that Augustine’s approach was indeed altruistic, but states that the contemporary view of ‘good intentions’ departs from Augustine and amounts to “moral integrity”—i.e., consistency between avowed reasons and actual motives. (p. 39)
The fact is that both “good intentions” and “good outcome” are not only ambiguous but inherently ethical—they necessarily reflect a specific value perspective. The glaringly obvious fact—strangely ignored by Smith--is that, as with the term morality, the term “good” is typically held to be synonymous with altruistic. Brook and Epstein cite, among other sources, an article from the Claremont Review of Books, obviously written from a just war theory perspective, in which the author commends Bush for using such theory as grounds for waging war in Iraq. Do we really need to devote energy and time to debating about how our evangelical President understands the term “good”? “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? Give me a break. Bush went to war in Iraq on an openly altruistic pretext, both with respect to intentions and outcome, and with a ‘just war’ sanction. To obfuscate that fact by discussing all the different ways just war theorists have traditionally interpreted “good intentions” is to thumb your nose at the obvious.
With respect to the principle of “last resort,” Smith argues that Brook and Epstein were wrong to cite this as ‘altruistic’ since it was often defended by Grotius and others as an issue of self-interest, because the cost of war can be so enormous. Aside from being irrelevant—no doubt multiple defenses were offered for all these principles—in the context of the run-up to war, this amounts to defending cowardice on the grounds of a cost-benefit analysis. (p. 39) If a nation surrenders its freedom to domination by an aggressor because its leaders decide the price of forcible resistance is too high, we are assured of this much: rational self-interest had nothing to do with it.
Brook and Epstein clarify how the pronouncements coming out of the defense department and the Bush administration reflect the influence of just war theory—and demonstrate how ‘last resort’ thinking explains our nation’s history of passive inaction in response to terrorist acts such as the Teheran hostage crisis, the Salmon Rushdie fatwa, the bombing of the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. These incidents did not meet the just war standards of “last resort,” so little or nothing was done. The refusal to act in self-defense is altruism. As Brook and Epstein state, “ ‘self-defense’ as a ‘last resort’ is not self-defense.” (O.S., p. 33)
With respect to the principle of proportionality, I will simply offer this quote from Smith:
“….I freely concede that some of the objections raised by Brook and Epstein are well-taken (if we put aside the usual nonsense about ‘altruism’)…” (p. 40)
The “objections raised by Brook and Epstein” amount to the transparent observation that placing arbitrary limits on retaliation jeopardizes the lives of the innocent soldiers who must tiptoe around such rules and restrictions, and that this is altruism. Self-interest demands that our military be free to do whatever is necessary to destroy the enemy’s will to fight and terminate the conflict while minimizing our own losses. Countless American lives have been sacrificed in the name of “proportionality” in Iraq—and every single one of those deaths constitutes an unspeakable obscenity. Since the criticisms of Brook and Epstein are based entirely on the pernicious influence of altruist premises, it is bewildering to see Smith acknowledge the validity of those arguments while denying their foundation.
Smith notes above that the principle of “discrimination” between combatants and noncombatants is “fair and accurate,” but does not discuss it, even though Brook and Epstein devote considerable attention to it. This principle is brazenly altruistic, because it puts innocent soldiers acting in self-defense on a level with the citizens (‘noncombatants’) of an aggressor state who are giving aid and support to their criminal government. (This issue was discussed in my prior remarks about Rothbard’s singularly foolish viewpoint.)
The issue of “anticipation” also involves the legitimacy of pre-emptive action, and Smith simply elaborates on the points made in the prior references to Walzer and ‘last resort’—e.g., that fear alone is insufficient justification--which is much too obvious to require elucidation. (p. 40) The only “objective standard” we need is clear evidence of the willingness to commit aggression. Once again, to deny the altruist implications of precluding or forestalling appropriate pre-emptive action is patently ridiculous.
Smith’s anti-climactic “conclusion” is that libertarians and Objectivists should take a closer look at their intellectual predecessors. Needless to say, having unleashed such a vile, sneering attack on Brook, Epstein, and Objectivism in general, Smith’s apparent intentions went far beyond that. At minimum, it was to cast doubt on the moral certainty of the actions which those two authors spelled out as absolutely crucial to this nation’s long-term survival, to undermine their egoistic arguments with insults, innuendo, pedantry and intellectual frippery. It was a typically near-sighted libertarian assault on the rational ethical foundations of capitalism and individual freedom, coming from a singularly brilliant intellect who should have known better.
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