How About Some Honesty?

In recent discussions with so-called pro-war propagandists I have begun to think about the validity of arguments. This is not validity in a philosophical sense, but rather an assessment of the argument’s validity in terms of the proponent’s honesty. Of course, one shouldn’t “shoot the messenger” even if the message itself is fundamentally offensive or disturbing. But it should be fair to require some honesty from the proponent of certain policies or advocates of certain measures.

Too many people have very clear and convinced positions on issues without making the connection between the view and the values, or the view and their own persons. Is it possible to advocate certain views without also advocating the values necessary for these views? Is it possible to advocate certain views without accepting them if they were applied to one’s self?

I would call such an advocate dishonest, the very opposite of a serious debater. To me, it is obvious and necessary that I myself accept the content and consequences of my views if I advocate them. I cannot advocate what I cannot personally accept; I cannot believe what I cannot personally endorse.

But to most people it seems totally acceptable to advocate something for other people that they would never ever accept if the same happened to themselves. This is where the war issue is interesting – war proponents seem to have no problem with advocating and even calling for war, bombing, and murder on foreign soil, and they have no problem with torture, warrant less searches, phone taps in their own country. The argument is often that is is for their own “security” and that the alternative is worse. Yet none of the war proponents I have discussed this issue with would accept the authorities torturing them, searching their homes without warrant, or listening in on their private phone calls.

I guess they reason they are not the enemy. After all, they didn’t do anything (except for advocating that these measures should be used on other people).

Sure, I’m not being completely fair. Most of us think murderers should be locked up for decades in jail or even get “the chair” without accepting the state locking us up or frying our brains. We didn’t murder anyone, so the analogy isn’t perfectly valid.

It is however true that advocating torture, even though most people know anyone tortured would willingly tell the torturer whatever he wants to hear (rather than the truth), doesn’t mean only the guilty will be tortured. It doesn’t mean the advocate of torture will not be tortured – there may be coincidences or leads making it “necessary” to torture the torture-advocate sooner or later. So the analogy is also not as bad as you might think.

But there are other arguments that even more clearly show that people generally leave themselves out of the “equation.” And this is, I’m afraid, a thesis that is valid no matter if the person advocating whatever measure is a member of the large number of average Joes, a powerful politician, or a philosophy scholar.

Take for instance the argument for war. I have personally no understanding whatsoever for this position – I cannot understand how anyone can actually argue for such a terrible thing. And I cannot for the world understand how someone could claim the right to argue for something that effectively and violently ends the lives of thousands or even millions.

I could perhaps see the logic if war is argued for as a despicable but “necessary” last resort, that all other means have been tried and it is the only way to not become extinct yourself, to engage in war. But to advocate waging war in order to stop someone from having a weapon that they might be trying to make, which they might then use, and – in that case – perhaps could use against “us”? (Read: USA vs. Iran.)

This is certainly not a last resort kind of argument – this is advocating war.

So what if you advocate war? The argument usually goes something along these lines: It is “necessary” to wage war for “our safety” and [sometimes] “we” have a “responsibility” or “duty” to protect our culture/traditions/values/part of the world/…

Now, if this argument is valid philosophically (and let’s assume it is), then what can we say about the “messenger”? If it is really “our duty” to go to war, then it should be each and every individual’s duty to do so. It should also be the duty of the person using the argument – I would say it is especially this person’s duty, since he or she uses the argument and makes the claim that there is such a duty.

In the case of Iran, or Iraq for that matter, any person advocating the war should have the same duty as any other person using that argument or being included in the “we” used. The duty is his or hers as much as the it is the duty of the people who have signed up with the US Army. Actually, since it is so easy to join – even if you are not an American citizen – practically anyone could do it.

So what about this duty of ours, how many of the advocates for war have joined the Army (or Navy or Air Force or whatever)? It is safe to say most of them haven’t. Now how could this be?

I haven’t found a universally acceptable answer to this question yet, and I’m sure there isn’t one right answer for all of the war advocates. But I would believe the argument would usually include some kind of avoidance of the issue at hand – either the person would claim to be “too important” to leave their current job/community/family/whatever or they have already “done their share” or “fulfilled their duties” (whatever that means). I would also expect most of these arguments are really ways to hide the fact that these people would never go to war themselves, but they all want to “enjoy” watching the slaughter on CNN with their team “winning” while having a few beers.

This is certainly an utterly dishonest position, no matter what made-up argument they use for not enlisting themselves. (By the way, would they support members of their families enlisting? No?)

I have come across a large number of Swedish conservatives and libertarians supporting the war on Iraq and a future war on Iran, but none of them have joined the US Army. Many of them have even managed to avoid the Swedish draft! Is this an honest position? Can you really argue for war yet yourself act to not be part of the war machine and be credible? I doubt it. I find it utterly dishonest.

But this problem of debating, the inability of some people to connect their arguments with their actions, is a general problem in argumentations per se. It is not specifically a war problem, even though it is much more evident in this issue since it so obviously is possible and even rather easy to “do you duty” yourself. This problem of advocating one thing but not doing it yourself is prevalent in discussions on philosophy, morality, and politics. Where does it come from? And, more importantly, why do we accept it?

As far as I am concerned, an American saying pinpoints the problem at hand with these dishonest debaters: they don’t “put their money where their mouths are.” They certainly don’t, they call for certain precautions and actions taken by the anonymous masses while never ever thinking the same argument should be equally applicable to themselves. Actually, the guy next door might very well be arguing for the same thing – having you in mind as front-line trooper for the next “surge.”