Ye shall know them by their fruits (I am back!)

I hit quite a block after posting that acknowledgment of what a superior blogger Yglesias is. To what extent was it ego? I don’t know: it is difficult to be sure, but I suspect it was one of several factors.

Now you might think that I ought to know the cause of the break. But why? This is one of our greatest confusions with ethics. Most people are aware that the motivation is crucial, but few are aware of the epistemological problem of determining one’s own motivation. (Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind alerted me to this; by no means do I agree with Ryle on everything, but he got some things right and this was one of them [the linked-to Penguin edition of Ryle’s book replaced Ryle’s preface with Dennet’s dribbling introduction: this ought to be a capital offence].) How often do I hear people saying that my motivation is pure (Anthony Blair was a master of this), and believe me all these people are careful to fool themselves in the first instance. If everyone that Blair held dear to him were living in Iraq he would have behaved quite differently in 2002, believe me. This is not to say that in the hypothetical situation his judgment wouldn’t be equally shot, but the counterfactual illustrates the reality of his profession to have the interests of Iraqis at heart, along with every single person that I have seen advancing this justification: entirely bogus. Of course there is no end to this as people can claim that they really would start a war where everyone they cared about was living, but that they claim this doesn’t say anything about their altruistic intentions. Whatever was driving the push to war we can be perfectly sure that it wasn’t care for Iraqis. (The situation now is more complicated of course, but needless to say, our continued involvement is not driven purely by the welfare of Iraqis.)

The extraordinary thing is that some people who vehemently opposed the war from the outset will still distinguish Anthony Blair from the American Neoconservatives. I remain unconvinced. He set out in the 1999 Chicago speech the political blueprint that was followed for the Iraq war, he lied his party, parliament and country into the war (especially in his case about when he was committed to war), and was astonished that anyone should think that it was anything other than his own policy and his own convictions. The crucial distinction was that he politically needed the appearance of a coalition of the willing whereas the Bush administration didn’t. When given the option by Rumsfeld of not taking part in the invasion, we saw panic and declarations that “If the Americans go in, we go in too”.

A paragraph from the above article by Rawnsley on Blair’s convictions is remarkable.

Instead of staying in the Commons, the Prime Minister took up an invitation from ITN’s political editor Nick Robinson to argue his case with six sceptical members of the public. When the cameras had stopped recording, he did not sweep off to his next engagement. Despite his frantic schedule and the agitation of his aides, he took the six into the Cabinet Room where he spent another half hour trying to persuade them. So utterly embedded is Mr Blair’s conviction that he is right, he believes that if only he could reason with every member of the public in person, he would convert the whole country.

It is this passionate belief in his own rightness and righteousness in the face of all the evidence that is the hallmark of a Neoconservatives. The passion of his conviction leads us modern sentimentalists to believe that he may be confused but that his intentions were honest. But this cannot be (as Jane Austen understood so well.) It just leads to the development of supremely gifted method actors who convince themselves first, from which they have the perfect platform to use executive power to do anything at all (whatever the actual motivation) on the basis that they are being totally sincere. Alexander Chancelor got it about right.

God did so despite the fact that His vicar on Earth, and leader of the church that Blair recently joined, considered that invading Iraq was a bad thing to have done. So what made Blair so certain that he was doing right when even the Pope disagreed?

Blair seems to have fallen for some Lewis Carroll-type logical fallacy that runs something like this: I believe in God; people who believe in God are good; people who are good do not do wrong; therefore, what I do is good. Maybe Blair is not quite as mad as that, but sometimes it feels like it. It sometimes even feels as if he measures the rightness of his actions by the amount of opposition they provoke.

I always suspected Blair of unwholesome self-righteousness, and now he has come very close to confirming it. With the born-again George Bush suffering from the same problem, the poor Iraqis never had much of a chance.

This scepticism about our own intentions is a crucial first step to what used to be called self-knowledge (a point that pervades all of Austen’s writing, where the reading of the novel itself can become a tool of self-exploration). Just as with science we study physical causation by aggregating observations, looking for correlations and making predictions, so we have to do the same in ethics. We call in a physician rather than just assuming we know what is going on in our body; shouldn’t the same care be taken with our minds?

Ye shall know them by their fruits (Mathhew 7:16). Could it be that the most important and perhaps elusive one to know is no. 1.


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