Friday, December 01, 2006

The Question du jour

In morality, which is primary: intention? or actions?

Via Atrios, we have this from William Saletan.

As Saletan implicitly accepts, we have worked ourselves into a moral dilemma in Iraq. Convinced we must either save ourselves from the incipient mushroom cloud of WMD, or that we had to make the world safe for democracy once again, or that the world was counting on us to remove a dictator from power, we girded our moral loins and waded in to fight the good fight. And now we can't leave, because we kicked over the ant bed, and we've acquired moral responsibility for the chaos that was once a country. This, now, is the problem: if we leave, we are responsible for the deaths that occur as we flee for safe havens. As someone said on NPR yesterday, if the US withdraws, there are a lot of Iraqis we have to take with us, because otherwise, we condemn them to death.

Shades of Vietnam, indeed.

And so we have the question: in the arena of morality, is it intention that matters most, or actions? The law distinquishes between intentions in order to judge criminal culpability: negligent homicide is not as heinous a crime as intentional murder, although in both cases someone ends up dead. Should our morality recognize the same gradations of culpability? And if so, can we apply those standards to ourselves, and justify what we have done in Iraq, or whatever we will do to withdraw (which is, in the long or short run, an inevitability)? Are we to be judged by what we have done? Or by what we intended to do, either in invading, or in leaving? If purity of heart is to will one thing, is it merely disunity in our politics that keeps our national heart from being pure?

ADDENDUM: Let me reiterate (rather than start yet another post) that the interesting quandary we now find ourselves in, is that morally we are responsible for the state of Iraq, and yet morally, we were required to invade Iraq. Glenn Greenwald notes one particular:

In column after column prior to the war, Friedman argued that invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam was a noble, moral, and wise course of action. To Friedman, that was something we absolutely ought to do, and as a result, he repeatedly used his column to justify the invasion and railed against anti-war arguments voiced by those whom he derisively called "knee-jerk liberals and pacifists" (so as not to clutter this post with long Friedman quotes, I'm posting the relevant Friedman excerpts here).
Greenwald goes on to discuss the logical inconstencies of Friedman's position, but it was not illogic that got us into this dilemma; it was morality. We had a moral duty to invade Iraq (we were told); we have a moral duty not to leave it in chaos. But we also have a moral duty not to leave our own military there in a fruitless and futile effort. What now?

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