Sunday, July 03, 2005

The lesser of two evils: responsibility

In the comments section of my Reagan post, an interesting question came up. How responsible are politicians (or, as they used to be called, statesmen--now we'd have to say "statespeople" instead) for the consequences of their actions? Are they responsible for all of them? Should they be able to have foreseen everything?

Of course not--but how much foresight is it reasonable to require of them? How much is humanly possible? And do we understand that there are no actions one can take in the political realm that don't have some negative consequences?

Commenter "Huan" had the following excellent point to make: people are responsible for their actions, but "the lines of guilt only go so far"--otherwise the arguments will resemble "butterfly wing flutter causing a hurricane bizarro world" absurdities.

That's a pretty good description of some of the arguments I've heard from the left that attribute every evil on earth to the actions of the United States. Although the entire science of ethics is an attempt to make the best and most moral decisions knowing that, in the real world, a perfect decision is not possible, sometimes it seems to me as though the left is dedicated to ignoring that obvious fact (except, of course, on the not-so-rare occasions when they themselves have been the ones making the decisions with the terrible consequences).

(Huan's "butterfly wing flutter" is a reference, by the way, to chaos theory, which states that there are always unpredictable results to any event.)

I read a story a while back that brought the point home to me that no one can know the ultimate effects of their (or anyone's) actions. I read it so long ago that I don't remember the book, so I can't offer a link, but the author was talking about an incident in Hitler's early adulthood:

During Hitler's "struggling artist" days he went through a period in which he was down and out. He wanted desperately to be a painter, but was twice refused entrance by the Academy of Arts in Vienna. He even stayed for a time in a shelter for the homeless. At one point, he became desperately ill and was in fact near death, but was found by a kindly couple who took him in and nursed him back to health.

So here we have three acts that might have changed the course of history. If only the Academy had thought better of his art, he might have finished out his life as a journeyman painter. If the homeless shelter hadn't fed and housed him, would he have survived? And of course that kindly Good Samaritan couple, the protagonists of the story that grabbed my attention--did they later have reason to regret their well-intentioned act? In one version, I think the couple even may have been Jewish--which makes me think the story was apocryphal. But no matter--true or not, it illustrates a point.

Obviously, these acts are somewhat different than the decisions a politician faces when deciding whether to support the lesser of two evils. Feeding the homeless, nursing the ill--surely, these are unambiguously good acts, and we would never want people to stop performing them. But, like the flutter of those butterfly wings, we can't ignore the fact that even unequivocably moral acts can have terrible consequences. However, we cannot hold the people committing those acts responsible for all those consequences--even though, if they were to learn of those consequences, they themselves might feel terribly guilty.

Politicians make decisions constantly, and must bear the consequences. But, in judging the degree of their responsibility, we need to be cognizant of what they knew at the time, what could have been reasonably predicted as consequences--and, most especially, what were the available alternatives, and what were the likely consequences of not acting.

That's an awful lot to chew on. It's far easier to make facile criticisms that assume the 20/20 perfection of hindsight.

One of the best writers on the scene--and yes, a neocon, although certainly not a neo-neocon--is Charles Krauthammer. He recently wrote a highly recommended article (hat tip: Dr. Sanity). It features, among many other things, an excellent discussion of the "lesser of two evils" dilemma. If you have a moment, please take a look.


At 3:11 PM, July 03, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

The endless screed "Bush's War" conveniently ignores the legislative support necessary for us to have acted.

The Democrats present their support then as the result of being lied to, conveniently ignoring the body of intelligence extending back to the eighties and their support for regime change under Clinton.

And if push comes to shove, most of the Democrats who aren't blessed with living in blue fiefdoms like Massachussets or California still regularly vote on the side of funding the war and increasing security - because they are responsible to the majority of the people they represent even before being responsible to the judgement of history.

At 4:18 PM, July 03, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Yup, it was a large majority of Congress that authorized the use of force in Iraq, and no, we don't hear much complaining when all of a sudden the funding gets passed. Tmjutah makes a good point. I sure remember Bill Clinton on Larry King talking about WMD in Iraq. " We knew he had them in 98'" were his exact words.

At 4:37 AM, July 04, 2005, Blogger Foobarista said...

I also think one failing of responsibility is the tendency, which seems strong among many on the Left, to want to do things and advocate policies that are known or have been proven to not work, "just because it's the right thing to do". Sometimes I think of this as "blinded by the eloquence of the mission statement", or "at least we're trying, even if it doesn't and can't work". This seems particularly strong in education and anti-poverty work.

An aside: the Live-8 approach is particularly prone to this sort of thing: "Look, we're all so caring and wonderful and PC! Even if every penny ends up in Switzerland - or funding civil wars - at least we tried!".

Obligatory geek-quote: Do, or do not, there is no try...

At 8:33 AM, July 04, 2005, Blogger Huan said...

I think it is crucial for all to take responsibility for our action. This is in no way punative but empowering. Through our judgement and action the world is changed, from the most of minute occurence to the largest of world events.
That a kind couple saved Hitler does not abrogate Hitler's own responsibility for his own action. And this principle is reiterated in the Nuremberg trials, that regardless of orders (which supercedes payment, influence, and support) we as individuals are still responsible to choose the appropriate action to take, and not to take.
Responsibility for our individual action ends when another individual chooses to act.

At 7:58 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

In causality, event a causes event b which causes event c. So while it would be true to say that A started the causation chain that lead to C, it is not exactly accurate to say that A "caused" B, cause causality is a chain, not a quantum teleportation effect.

And if a person's action, A, did not cause the result 10 people removed, then action A was only one set of actions that could have contributed to the end result.

Sort of like a tree where the end result, Z, is right at the bottom of the trunk where there is only one result, and where if you keep going up (towards the original cause) things start branching off, again and again.

Action A could be a leaf for all we'd know, and very hard to find and link to the result.

Chaos Theory, therefore, is a way to compile the randomness of the positions of the leaves (actions) and see what kind of results occured.

In the realm of responsibility, a tree branch contains more material linked to the base of the tree, than what connects a leaf to the branch and to the base.

Therefore a person defending himself against a murderer is only fractionally responsible for the murderer, even if he had known the murderer in child hood and bullied the murderer. Because, the action of the murderer is several people (and temporal displacement) removed from the victim and the current action in time/space.

In a military sense, anyone above you in rank takes 50% of the responsibility of your actions in terms of degree, and 100% responsibility for your actions as their subordinate in terms of numbers. And your boss's boss is then responsible 25% for your actions in terms of degree, and 100% in terms of numbers.

Therefore while you might die for your actions, your superior will only be punished 50% of the degree of your punishment.

The President, is thousands, millions, billions removed from the ultimate end result of his actions. For every order he gave to invade Iraq, there were a million thoughts from regular Americans supporting war with Iraq.

The only reason why the President is responsible for anything is the fact that many millions of American voters placed their power, and hence the responsibility for the results of that power, unto the President. But it was only a loan.

The President is not electing his power, but the people's power in their stead.

If he's responsible for the war that the people wanted by majority, then the majority people are responsible for the war, because the majority of people are the President's boss. No single person may be the President's boss, but collected all together, the President suffers more of the blame than the people, and if you divide the blame to the people by about 170 million, then that isn't a lot of blame campred to what one person, the President, got for the war.

The arithmetic isn't very fair, and it is also misleading. Which is why it is so useful to blame the President for propaganda purposes, a lot of people would rather blame one person than themselves, justifying that the President has "more" blame then they do.


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