One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.
It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.
Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”
I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.
While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.
Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.
In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.
Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.
The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.
While Ebola outbreaks are not new, the latest outbreak has provided some important lessons. These lessons are actually nothing new, but the outbreak does provide a focus for discussing them.
The first lesson is that most people are very bad at risk assessment. In the Ebola hot spots it is reasonable to be worried about catching Ebola. It is also reasonable to be concerned about the situation in general. However, many politicians, pundits and citizens in the United States are greatly overestimating the threat presented by Ebola in the United States. There are only a few cases of Ebola in the United States and the disease is, the experts claim, difficult to catch. As such, the chance that an American will catch Ebola in the United States is extremely low. It is also a fact Ebola outbreaks have been contained before in countries with far less medical resources than the United States. So, while it is prudent to prepare, the reaction to Ebola has greatly exceeded its actual threat in the United States. If the concern is with protecting Americans from disease and death, there are far more serious health threats that should be the primary focus of our concern and resources.
The threat of Ebola is overestimated for a variety of reasons. One is that people are rather susceptible to the fallacy of misleading vividness. This a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence. Ebola is indeed scary, but the chance of infection in the United States is extremely low.
Another reason is that people are also susceptible to a variation on the spotlight fallacy. This variant involves inferring the probability that something will happen based on how often you hear about it, rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Ebola has infected the 24 hour news cycle and hearing about it so often creates the psychological impression that infection is likely.
As I have consistently argued, threats should be assessed realistically and the response should be proportional to the actual threat.
The second lesson is that the politicians, media and pundits will exploit scary things for their own advantages. The media folks know that scary stories and fear mongering get viewers, so they are exploiting Ebola to the detriment of the public. Ebola has been made into a political issue, so the politicians and pundits are trying to exploit it for political points. The Republicans are using it as part of their narrative that Obama is an incompetent president and thus are emphasizing the matter. Obama and the Democrats have to strike back in order to keep the Republicans from scoring points. As with the media, the politicians and pundits are exploiting Ebola for their own advantage at the expense of the public.
This willful misleading and exaggeration is clearly morally wrong on the grounds that it misleads the public and makes a rational and proportional response to the problem more difficult.
The third lesson is that people will propose extreme solutions without considering the consequences of those solutions. One example is the push to shutdown air travel between the United States and countries experiencing the Ebola outbreak. While this seems intuitively appealing, one main consequence would be that people would still come to the United States from those countries, only they would do so in more roundabout ways. This would make it much harder to track such people and would, ironically, put the United States at greater risk.
As always, solutions should be carefully considered in terms of their consequences, costs and other relevant factors.
The final lesson I will consider is that the situation shows that health is a public good and not just a private good. While most people get that defense and police are public goods, there is the view that health is a private good and something that should be left to the individual to handle. That is, the state should protect the citizen from terrorists and criminals, but she is on her own when it comes to disease and injury. However, as I have argued elsewhere at length, if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from death and harm, this should also apply to disease and injury. After all, disease will kill a person just as effectively as a terrorist’s bomb or a criminal’s bullet.
Interestingly, even many Republicans are pushing for a state response to Ebola. I suspect that one reason Ebola is especially frightening is that it is a disease that comes from outside the United States and was brought by a foreigner. This taps into fears that have been carefully and lovingly crafted during the war on terror and this helps explain why even anti-government people are pushing for government action.
But, if the state has a vital role to play in addressing Ebola, then it would seem to have a similar role to play in regards to other medical threats. While Ebola is scary and foreign, it is a medical threat and thus is like other medical threats. However, consistency is not a strong trait in most people, so some who cry for government action against the Ebola that scares them also cry out against the state playing a role in protecting Americans from things that kill vastly more Americans.
The public health concern also extends beyond borders—diseases do not recognize political boundaries. While there are excellent moral reasons for being concerned about the health of people in other countries, there are also purely pragmatic reasons. One is that in a well-connected world diseases can travel quickly all over the globe. So, an outbreak in Africa can spread to other countries. Another is that the global economy is impacted by outbreaks. So, an outbreak in one country can impact the economy of other countries. As such, there are purely selfish reasons to regard health as public good.
ISIS (or ISIL) got America’s attention and now the war of rhetoric has begun in ernest. While the Republicans seem generally pleased that we are saddling up again, they have raised some criticism against President Obama’s strategy. Interestingly, many of these criticisms have been aimed at Obama’s word choices.
I recently heard an interview with Senator Marco Rubio on NPR. Rubio’s main criticism seemed to be that Obama was unwilling to commit to destroying ISIS completely. The interviewer pointed out that such groups tend to reform or create spin-off groups rather than be destroyed. When the interviewer asked him if that goal was realistic or not, Rubio responded by saying that it could be done and gave an example of how the group that became ISIS had been destroyed previously. The interviewer politely noted that Rubio had actually supported his (the interviewer’s) point, but let Rubio ignore his own example and switch quickly to another issue.
As a general rule, it seems difficult to bomb such groups out of existence, mainly because the groups are defined by ideas and killing old members tends to merely attract new members. Obviously, this method could work-with enough killing a group would run out of possible members. However, the history of radicalism and America’s attempts to kill its way out of a problem show that destroying a group by bombing seems unrealistic. After all, we are still fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS can be plausibly seen as a new brand of Al Qaeda.
Another common criticism of Obama’s words is that he did not say that he would do whatever it takes to destroy ISIS. He merely said he would do what it takes to do so. On the one hand, this could be seen as a petty semantic point, a mere whining about words. On the other hand, this could be taken as a more substantial point. After struggling to end the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that he inherited, Obama has been reluctant to get the United States into yet another costly, protracted and likely futile ground war in the Middle East. As such, when he has acted, he has done so with limited goals and minimal engagement. Interestingly, the results have been somewhat similar: we dumped billions into Iraq and ended up with a chaotic mess. We dumped far less into Libya and ended up with a chaotic mess. I suppose that it is better to get a mess on the cheap than for a high price.
Obama, I think, is wise to keep American involvement limited. The hawks crying for war seem to have amnesia regarding our last few adventures since Viet Nam. Unfortunately, escalating involvement (trying to do whatever it takes) has never paid off. It seems unlikely that this time will be the charm.
The obvious reply is that we have to do something, we cannot just let ISIS behead Americans and establish a state. I agree. My concern is the obvious one: doing something is not a good strategy and neither is doing whatever it takes. We should be honest and admit that we have not gotten it right in the past and that doing the same damn thing will not result in different results.
I am not going to tell McCain or Cheney to shut up-they have every right to express their views. However, they have no credibility left. So, they should talk-but it would be unwise to listen.
In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion. Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.
While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.
In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.
On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.
Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”
The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team. If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.
Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.
Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.
People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression. For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.
Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.
While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.
Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.
When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.
Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan. However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.
One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.
One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.
From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.
After a defeat, it is natural for people to try to explain why they were defeated. In some cases, the explanation provided is aimed at doing what an explanation is supposed to do: to provide an illuminating account of how or why something occurred. In other cases, the explanation is aimed primarily at influencing peoples’ attitudes and behavior. Not surprisingly, an explanation that is aimed at achieving these goals is a rhetorical device known as a rhetorical explanation.
This is not to say that a rhetorical explanation need be in error—it could provide an accurate account of how or why something occurred. Being a rhetorical explanation is more a matter of intent—that is, those offering it do so at least in part to cause people to have a positive or negative feeling about a matter.
Back in 2012, the Republicans lost the presidential election and various people endeavored to explain how this happened. Some folks pointed to the demographics of America and how minorities played a critical role in the election. Others claimed that the media’s love for Obama handed him the victory. One of the more interesting explanations was that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough.
More recently, the Republicans lost on their bid to get the Democrats to agree to delay or defund Obamacare. After this defeat, various explanations have been offered and among them is the claim that it was the result of the Republicans not conservative enough. In this context, this seems to mean not being will to let the shutdown of the government slide into defaulting on the national debt.
On the face of it, presenting the claim that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough seems to be a rhetorical explanation. After all, it seems to be aimed (in part) at chastising the Republicans who are being accused of not being adequately conservative. As such, people are supposed to feel negatively about these Republicans. It also seems to be aimed (in part) at creating positive feelings towards the conservative Republicans—it is supposed to be believed that they had the winning approach (but were betrayed by the Republicans in Name Only). This explanation might prove to have some bite—many Republicans are taking pains to cast themselves as being very conservative and repudiating the charge that they might be moderates.
While rhetorical explanations such as this are often used to make other people feel a certain way (positively or negatively), people can also use them on themselves. Whether the explanation is inflicted on others or self-inflicted, the problem is that such appealing explanations can make it very easy for a person to buy into an explanation that is not correct, thus leading to obvious problems. As such, it is worth considering whether the explanation about these defeats is correct or not.
If the explanation for the 2012 election was correct, then the prediction that would follow would be that the Republicans would have won if they had been more conservative. In this case, winning is clear—Mitt Romney (or a more conservative Republican like Michelle Bachmann) would have been elected rather than Obama.
For this to happen, more people would have had to vote for the Republican than Obama. Since this did not happen, for the explanation at hand to be correct, there seem to be three main options (and perhaps others).
One is that some conservatives voted for Obama because Romney was not conservative enough. They would have, however, voted for someone who was conservative enough. It seems reasonable enough to dismiss this option out of hand on the grounds that such people would not vote for Obama. Thus, it seems rather implausible to think that a more conservative Republican would have pulled votes away from Obama.
A second one is that some conservatives voted for someone other than the two main candidates or wrote in someone else rather than voting for Romney, thus allowing Obama to win. This is more plausible than the first option, but is still fairly unlikely. That is, it does not seem likely that enough people to change the election voted in this manner because Romney was not conservative enough.
A third option is that some conservatives decided to not vote at all because they thought Romney was not conservative enough, thus allowing Obama to win. Of the three, this is the most plausible. Elections in the United States have a low turnout and it certainly is possible that some of those who did not vote would have voted if there had been a candidate that was conservative enough. These voters would thus seem to have preferred allowing Obama to win over voting for Romney, but this would assume that the voters were rationally considering the consequences of their failure to vote. It could be a simple matter of motivation—they were not inspired enough by Romney (or their dislike of Obama) to vote.
It is also worth considering that the explanation is in error because a more conservative Republican would have merely increased the votes for Obama. As noted above, a more conservative Republican would not have pulled votes from Obama. What seems more likely is that a more conservative Republican would have lost the more moderate voters who voted for Romney. As such, if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been “conservative enough” Obama would have either still won or would have still won with a larger number of votes. After all, most Americans are not extremely conservative and being “conservative enough” would seem to involve holding views that most Americans do not hold. Thus, the explanation seems to fail.
Jumping ahead to the most recent defeat, the matter is somewhat more complicated in that the victory conditions are not so clearly defined. At the start of the battle, the Republicans wanted to defund or delay Obamacare—that would have been a win. However, as the shutdown continued, the Republicans seemed to become less clear about what they wanted—especially when Obama made it clear that he was not going to negotiate Obamacare.
Interestingly enough, the shutdown was explained by some as being the fault of the Democrats and after the Republican defeat, the more conservative Republicans are using the narrative that they would have won if the Republicans had been conservative enough—thus creating dueling rhetorical explanations.
But, to get back to the main point, the victory conditions were not clear. However, it could be speculated that a win would involve the Republicans getting more of whatever they ended up wanted than the Democrats got of what they wanted. So, I will go with that.
There is also the question of what it meant to be conservative enough. Given the rhetoric, it seems that what this means is being willing to take the United States into default if one does not get what one wants. If so, the Republicans being conservative enough would not seem to have yielded a win—unless what they wanted was a default on the debt and the ensuing economic and political disaster. If this is what counts as a win, then being conservative enough would have led to that “win”—a win that almost everyone else would regard as a disaster.
Most Americans disapproved of what Congress was doing and most blamed the Republicans. Presumably if the Republicans had been more conservative, this would have merely made people more annoyed with them—after all, the view of most people was that what was going on was bad, not that it did not go far enough into this badness. As such, it would seem that the problem was not that the Republicans were not conservative enough. They lost because they had a poor strategy and most Americans did not like what they were doing. The solution is, obviously enough, not being more of that—the result will just be worse for the Republicans.
As a general rule, it is a wise idea to properly consider victory conditions before engaging in military action. This consideration also involves assessing the means by which to achieve the proposed victory and the consequences of both success and failure.
In the past, we have gone off to war without proper consideration of the victory conditions and with delusions regarding how the war would play out. Iraq is, of course, the blood-stained example of this.
In some ways, Syria is reminiscent of Iraq: we have a president proposing military action based on claims about weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, we never found any such weapons. In the case of Syria, it seems rather certain that chemical weapons are present. It also seems likely that they have been used by someone. It is certain that thousands have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. There is obviously a need for something to be done regarding Syria, but what remains to be determined is what can be done and what should be done.
Because of the American experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has been proposing a very limited approach with no “boots on the ground.” The main objectives are to punish the government for allegedly using chemical weapons and to thus deter it from using them again (assuming they were used before). As such, one victory condition would be to punish Syria and another would be to deter the use of chemical weapons.
On the face of it, blowing stuff up would be punishment—so that is an easy condition to meet. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the punishment would be just. Deterrence is rather more difficult to achieve, although these seems to be no new evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons again (assuming they were used once). One rather important matter is that even if the Syrian government were deterred in regards to chemical weapons, they would still presumably be free to continue the battle with conventional weapons. As such, victory would seem to be that Assad’s forces are killing people with bullets, shells and bombs rather than killing them with chemical weapons. I suppose that might be seen as some sort of victory.
There is also the broader goal/victory condition of regime change. Although the proposed attack is not supposed to be aimed at toppling the government, one objective seems to be to get rid of Assad. This raises numerous concerns.
One is, obviously enough, determining what it would take for him to relinquish power. Can he be removed by diplomacy or will force be required? Another is, also obviously, what would happen if he leaves or is removed from power. As it stands, the opposition to Assad is divided into various factions and each has its own distinct agenda. If Assad left or was removed, then that victory could lead to some rather negative consequences. For example, the civil war might shift to a battle between the various opposed factions and the killing would continue. As another example, an extremist group might eventually take power. As another example, Syria might become divided into zones controlled by various factions—perhaps similar in some ways to the divided Somalia. A failed state would obviously be a problem for everyone with interests in the region. There is also the real possibility of significant outside intervention as well. Iran, Russia and China certainly do not want Syria to collapse and Israel certainly does not want to allow its bitter enemies to gain a solid base of operation in Syria.
One thing is rather clear—we cannot bomb Syria into becoming a democracy. It might also be the case that the only way for us to not lose in Syria is to not become entangled in the civil war. While it is horrible that people are being slaughtered and displaced, we most likely lack the capability to make things any better in Syria. After all we also cannot bomb Syria into becoming a stable, war-free country.
What we can do, which we are already doing to some degree, is to provide humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced by the war and to protect them from violence. After all, by leaving they have made it clear they do not wish to be part of the civil war and keeping them from being murdered would not be morally ambiguous.
While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”
While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter. As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.
In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.
Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).
A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.
Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.
Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.
There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.
The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.
Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.
The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.
Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.