Archive for April 29th, 2009

Political Principles

(This reflection is motivated in part by responses to yesterday’s post ‘Tortured Logic’ and the principle behind rejecting torture.)

The term “principle” gets used a lot by people to justifytheir political beliefs.  Principle usually means adherence to a particular position, and the more principled one is, the less willing one is to compromise.  But rarely can principles be followed without compromise.

If someone is anti-abortion and wishes to use government force (rule of law) to prevent abortions from occurring, a few things follow.  First, there is a principle of the sanctity of life, defining life at conception.  Second, there is recognition that governmental force to limit freedom can be legitimate.

This can lead to dilemmas.  Someone cannot have a principled position against abortion and yet support the death penalty or the use of war as a policy tool.  War kills.  80% of the deaths in modern war are innocent civilians.  Balancing that cost with the benefit of using war to achieve ends (e.g., protect the country from dangers, overthrow dictators) makes the principle of ‘the sanctity of life’ something which can be compromised for political expediency.    If that’s true for war or the death penalty, it certainly can be true for abortion (which is why the Catholic church opposes all three).

The same goes for government coercion.  If it’s OK here, in principle there is nothing against government using force for anything — how it gets used becomes a political issue, rather than one defined by principle.

Another example:  Anarchists believe that government is immoral, claiming freedom as their principle.   However, in anarchy powerful people can use that power to force others to do their bidding, even without government; if that’s OK, then the core value isn’t freedom, but individualism.  A collective should not be empowered to deny an individual to do what he or she wants.   Yet even a voluntary collective acting to protect individuals within it contradicts the principle of individualism.  To the person being acted upon by this voluntary collective, it may as well be a government limiting their freedom.  When worked through logically, it becomes virtually impossible to justify anarchism on the basis of principle.   Alas, the same is true with taking a principled stand against torture.

The principle behind opposition to torture is opposition to the violation of another person in ways that cause psychological and physical distress.   To hold that principle absolutely would be to become a complete pacifist — more so even than the person who opposes abortion, since there the concern is life, not injury.

If there is ever any reason where doing physical or psychological harm to someone is permissible, and then the issue becomes how those conditions get defined and under what contexts.    Is water boarding torture?  How about pulling out finger nails?   Why one and not the other?  One can point to legal definitions, but those definitions are simply the result of somebody else grappling with these questions.

Approaching it this way, torture is a linguistic marker, delineateing those acts of coercion we consider immoral.   And, since it assumes that some such acts of coercion can be allowed, the drawing of the line is driven by compromise and personal/cultural norms rather than clear analytical principles.    It involves the level of damage to the individual, the amount of pain, long term psychological damage, and perhaps also violation of social norms.   One can build arguments rationalizing virtually no physical or mental coercion, to one that justifies even ripping out finger nails if effective at getting information from an enemy.   Once it becomes a matter of drawing lines, we can find ways to justify drawing the line anywhere.

I would argue this that is true for every issue, the number of people who truly live according to clear, uncompromised principles is exceedingly small.  Even then, their reason for embracing a principle is personal — it appeals to them somehow, probably at an emotional level.   Principles are held because of ones’ personal belief system.   Moreover, both our principles (values we hold as true) and the compromises we make involving them are driven as much (or more) by the heart as the head.  Emotion often trumps reason.  The emotion can be fear, anger, insecurity…or love, concern, and empathy.

So perhaps it’s wrong to look to reason and the head for core principles.  Maybe it’s best to start from things like putting love, empathy, and contentment as core values, and examine our points of view on politics and life by asking whether or not we’re being motivated by something like love, or something like fear.   That won’t give us clear, objective methods for determining what is the right thing to do — but the kind of objectivity offered by using reason is, as noted above,  an illusion.   And, while the head can build complex modes of rationalizing what one wants to believe, the truths of the heart and/or gut might be harder to obscure.

And why love and empathy rather than fear and anger?   After all, many people feel far more comfortable rationalizing fear and hatred, and see love and empathy as ‘wimpy’ and unrealistic.   To me that comes from a deeper principle, a sense of unity in all reality.   Plotinus called it “the one,” while Muslims embrace it as Tawhid.  But if there is a union beneath all reality, then love is acceptance of this reality, while anger and fear is an attempt to flee reality.  Accepting reality usually works best.  And this principle seems to work for me, so I choose to hold it.

So what is torture, when are certain kinds of physical and psychological acts against individuals immoral?   I can’t say for sure, I have to look at the case at hand and then look into my heart and decide.   If I see anger, fear, or hatred as a core behind my thoughts, I step back and question my reactions.  In much of the torture debate it is the rhetoric of fear and anger that drives defense of these practices, while those who see the humanity of the victims have their ability to show love and empathy derided — how can one feel any sympathy for a terrorist.   And the terrorists, I’m sure, feel the same way about American military personnel.  I chose not to participate in that dance of fear and hatred.

Moreover, fear obscures.   It causes the imagination to massively magnify threats, what one imagines suddenly becomes what one expects.  That adds to the capacity to rationalize any act to counter that fear.  And when people sacrifice what they know is right in the name of fear, they start to hate themselves and soon become unable to break loose and get stuck in an edifice of rationalizations and compromises of principle that swallows them up, causing them to see the world as a cold, dangerous, place, full of enemies.   I choose not to live in that kind of world.