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August 30, 2005

History, Politics, and Moral Philosophy

My wise ex-teacher Jeff Weintraub asks whether I really wish to endorse (see http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2005/08/kitten_blood.html) the:

specific formulation you quoted approvingly from... Lindsay Beyerstein... that there are "very, very few" westerners "who make excuses for brutal theocratic thuggery." [That] doesn't hold up under serious examination. Instead, it's the kind of polemical overstatement that slides into its own form of absurdity and outright... and, I suspect, it amounts to a distortion and trivialization of what you yourself actually believe. OK, perhaps she really meant to say something else, and just didn't get around to refining this formulation.... But if we take this claim seriously as stated, then I would have to say to anyone who found it plausible--I know people who do, and I read others--that they are describing a different planet from the one I'm living on.

Jeff lives on a planet on which he sees many Westerners "who defend the Iraqi insurgents, or at least justify their actions as being a supposed campaign for self-determination, allegedly justifiable rage at Western misbehavior, and so on." He proposes a list of people he thinks fall into this group: "Ken Livingstone, Naomi Klein, Nathan Newman, Michael Burawoy, anti-Orientalists... a lot of people whose stuff I read in obscure fringe publications like the Nation, the Guardian, the New Statesman."

I think I do agree with Lindsay Beyerstein. But I do agree that I need to think about these issues much more deeply than I have done so to date.

I think I live on a planet on which I think I see relatively few such Westerners who "defend... or justify" or excuse. I don't think that many of those whom Jeff regards as "defend[ing]... or at least justify[ing]" the brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombings wrought by Iraqi insurgents or by the favored children of Yasir Arafat are in fact defending or justifying. I think that they are explaining.

What's the difference? Let's back up to Niccolo Machiavelli, who started a form of argument that we fall into quite naturally these days. This form of argument starts with the assumption that we--the writer and his readers--are rational analysts and moral agents who care about consequences and understand what good states of the world would be. We are trying to figure out what to do in order to bring about as good a state of the world as possible. Outside this charmed circle of writer and readers, however, is everybody else. We do not think of the people who make up "everybody else" as rational analysts and moral agents. We analyze them as stimulus-response zombie-automata, who act in certain predictable ways when circumstances push certain of their buttons. We consider them "as they are, and not as we would wish them to be." Most of the consequences of our actions are the reactions they induce in other people. Thus key to figuring out how we should act is to understand what their hot buttons are, and how we can push the right ones to generate the reactions that we want to produce the consequences we desire.

Now things quickly get complex. One important button for us to push is to appeal to their belief that they are moral agents, and urge them to be their best selves. Another important button for us to push is to convince them that we are not rational analysts and moral agents who care about consequent states of the world, but are instead ourselves zombie-automata motivated by honor or revenge or pride--"we will never negotiate with the terrorists!" Explanations tend to leak into moral judgments and so become excuses because of our tendency to grade not on results but on effort: "Given who they are and where they were brought up, we should give them credit for their decision not to burn but only imprison witches." And when the charmed circle within which we demand moral agency is drawn not around us but around them, truly perverse conclusions follow. (Consider Noam Chomsky, who condemns the U.S. government and Israel but nobody else. The U.S. government and Israel are moral agents to be scorned and condemned for their failings. Everybody else... well, they're just reacting to stimuli and there's no point in judging them.)

Nevertheless, the underlying conceptual distinction is clear. We are trying to be our best selves, and are making moral choices. They are pre-wired and are reacting to stimuli. What are the right actions for us depends critically on what their internal wiring from buttons-to-actions happens to be--we take other people as they are, and not as we wish them to be. And for us to act in a way that predictably produces bad consequences because they act like the people they are rather than the people we wish them to be--that's a moral failing on our part.(1)

Where explaining crosses into justifying--or excusing--is when you go on to say not just "we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences" but also to say either that "in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives," or that "given their circumstances, we cannot condemn them for not being their best moral selves." Where I sit, I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral, or even that it is unfair to blame brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers for not being their best selves.

Where I sit, I see considerably more Westerners trying to spread ignorance by condemning explanations which they dislike as "excuses."

(1) Of course, their failure to be their best selves--who we wish them to be--is a fatal moral failing on their part.

Jeff replies:

I think it would be a good idea, in principle, for you to post something along these lines. The issues are important, and you're right that they underlie a lot of moral and political debates, blogospheric & otherwise. So they deserve more careful attention, and it would be useful and enlightening for you to deal with them.... [But] you... [need] to complexify and refine it a bit, precisely because the issues are important--and also, in some ways, more complex than either you or the (mostly right wing) people who were the polemical targets of the "Kitten Blood" post present them as being....

(1) I think [you present] my own position... in a slightly misleading way... in part because it eliminates some conceptual and empirical distinctions I tried to make, and conflates some of my points that are related but not identical....

(2) Even in terms of presenting your own argument, including the key distinction on which it's based--i.e., between "explaining" a phenomenon and "defending" or "justifying" it (or, I would add, straightforwardly endorsing it at one pole and absolving, whitewashing, apologizing for, and/or making excuses for it at the other)--I think you will want to refine and complexify your analysis a bit. (This is quite aside from whether or not, or how much, I think I will agree with your argument in the end.)...

In my humble opinion, the alternatives as you currently present them are misleadingly oversimplified, both conceptually and empirically (let me emphasize, not just oversimplified, but substantively misleading). 

You want to make the point that there is, in principle, an analytical difference between "justifying" and "defending" certain phenomena (including terrorism, mass murder, dictatorship, torture, jaywalking, failure to wear seat belts, plagiarism, student cheating, systematic lying by the Bush administration, murdering abortion doctors, etc.) and merely "explaining" them. I agree completely, of course, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. (OK, there are all those epistemological/axiological arguments about whether the fact/value distinction can really be made to hold up, and there's something to those arguments, but in the present context we shouldn't get too persnickety.)

However, it is also true that there are different ways to "explain" things. While it is certainly correct, and worth saying, to point out that NOT ALL analyses presented as "explanations" are always or necessarily identical to justifications, it does not logically follow that NO "explanations" (or pseudo-explanations) are intended to serve as justifications, apologies, or extenuations... or that they don't wind up being close to identical in practice, even when the people making such arguments aren't entirely aware of the conceptual slide themselves. 

I believe it was Madame de Stael who said that to understand all is not to pardon all. But the reason she took the trouble to say this is that many people DO believe that once you have "explained" something it is no longer possible to judge or condemn it, so that in practice an "explanation" falls somewhere between an excuse, an apology, or an outright justification. This is especially true when such a strategy of extenuating "explanation" is applied to SOME people, groups, actions, or institutions... but not others. Then what is going on falls somewhere between fallacy and hypocrisy, or some combination thereof.

Nor is this a purely hypothetical or uncommon phenomenon. I would go so far as to say that it pervades journalistic & blogospheric discussion on certain issues, on all sides... so thoroughly that it's almost difficult to decide on specific examples. Over the past year or so, Norman Geras (for example) has gone through the tedious process of identifying a large number of examples and analyzing the pseudo-"arguments" involved to demonstrate where and how these particular fallacies manifest themselves. (Just a few of the most recent examples are http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/mccarthyism_at_.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/roots_of_steele.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/asking_the_righ.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/kens_unfair_bal.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/apology_and_its_1.html... but let me emphasize that these are NOT at all the most significant or penetrating examples, just the ones that happened to be most recent. So if these particular examples don't convince you, Geras has dozens more from the past few years.)

At all events, in order to adequately address the issues that concern you, it is conceptually insufficient and misleading to rely exclusively on a simple binary distinction between "explanation" and "justification... or even between pure-explanation-without-justification and deliberate "explanation"-as-justification. There are a lot of intermediate steps between these two ideal-typical poles--and they happen to capture most of the actual debates in question, so that the binary distinction you want to use, while potentially a useful and clarifying opening step in a polemical response to simplistic attempts to equate all analysis with apologia, becomes a misleading (and even ideologically mystifying) false dilemma if it is used to shut out all the actual forms that most of the real arguments take.

(For example, consider the following possibility in purely conceptual terms. A typical fellow traveler--not a CP member--says in the 1930s about Stalinism in the Soviet Union:

Well, of course I think murdering millions of people and suppressing civil liberties isn't nice, and it would be false and despicable to suggest that I condone it in any way. At the same time, we have to recognize that Stalinist industrialization works, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs... and, anyway, it's clear that all the excesses of this process are completely explained--I'm just explaining them, not justifying them--by the effects of capitalist encirclement, anti-Communism, the need to suppress Trotskyite wrecking, etc.... and anyway, what about the history of western colonialism, the oppression of negroes in the US south, and other distracting subjects that I can multiply indefinitely? Superficial moralism is all very well, and I used to be a little uneasy myself about all those stories I heard about concentration camps and the rest, but I have just explained that everything happening in the USSR is necessary and inevitable, however regrettable... and it wouldn't be happening at all if world capitalism would just be good enough to curl up and die. So if anyone actually criticizes, condemns, or opposes Stalinism in the Soviet Union, they ought to be denounced as naively destructive at best, and in most cases as objectively fascist. And anyone who accuses me of justifying dictatorship, mass murder, and political repression is either confused, or else a liar who should probably be sued for libel. All I've done is to explain why everything that's going on--and maybe it's not really going on, anyway--is necessary and inevitable.

I'm not asking whether you think these quite typical kinds of arguments were factually valid and/or moraly defensible. I'm simply asking whether you think someone who offered these arguments was "making excuses" for the crimes of Stalinism, or "defending" them, or even perhaps "justifying" them. If your answer to all three is no, then we have a real disagreement--but frankly, I find the possibility that you would actually deny the undeniable in this case quite non-credible.)

(3) Regarding the argument you are trying to develop in order to draw the key distinctions ...

Where explaining crosses into justifying--or excusing--is when you go on to say not just "we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences" but also to say that "in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives." I see very few Westerners crossing that line. I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral.

This is intriguing and has interesting possibilities, but I also think it still needs some work. Even after it's refined a bit, I think I'm still not going to agree that this is the most appropriate or illuminating way to draw the line--conceptually, factually, or morally. (The criteria for "justifying" here is so demanding and exclusive that, in my humble opinion, it obscures the real isues rather than clarifying them.) But that's not my main point here at the moment. Even in its own terms, I think you want to reformulate your argument a bit to convey what you really have in mind. More on this later ...

(4) And then in empirical terms, I think you need to take more account of the fact that while pure-explanation-without-justification-or-moral-extenuation is certainly possible in principle, and sometimes even an accurate description of what specific people are doing in concrete cases, the mere fact that someone CLAIMS that this is what they're doing (or that third parties, on their behalf, claim that this is what they are doing) is not sufficient, by itself, to immunize them from criticism. In the real world, ideological polemics don't work that way. In some cases, claims of this sort are genuine and valid. In other cases, they are more properly described as examples of logical fallacy, bullshit, self-deception, and/or outright dishonesty. If you appear not to have noticed this distinction, that will simply weaken the force of your argument, and make it easier for the pseudo-moralists of the loudmouth right to dismiss the valid criticisms you are making. And once this distinction is recognized, it requires some argument to plausibly support the idea that certain of the people I mentioned really belong in the first category rather than the second. (In a lot of cases, as I noted above, Geras has established pretty conclusively that they belong in the second category, so it might be worth considering his painstakingly accumulated pile of examples. I think I've demonstrated that in a number of specific cases, too, by the way ... but not in such a thorough or painstaking way, or in a way that focuses so tightly on these specific issues.)

By contrast, I think (rightly or wrongly) that the blanket absolution you are currently offering does no service to our understanding of the realities of the situation or of the genuine issues at stake....

Addendum: Jeff Weintraub writes:

I didn't actually expect Brad to post this particular exchange of messages (I thought we were just in the middle of discussing the issues, and we hadn't even gotten to the concrete cases yet), but life is full of surprises, and no harm done. Reading it does seem to have boggled some people's minds, which can be a good thing. On the other hand, judging from the comments, the results often generated more heat than light, since very few of the comments had much to do with any of the arguments that Brad and I were actually making.

The main reason seems to be that some readers didn't quite understood what this exchange was about. In line with the topic of Brad's post, I'm willing to make some excuses for them--and they were indeed partly excusable--since they came into the middle of a conversation, and the larger context for these particular messages was missing. (For reasons of space, Brad also had to quote from my messages selectively, and there's no way he could link to the whole message.) So some readers were a bit bewildered, and they went looking for things in my message that belonged to different parts of the discussion, and sometimes they responded to things they assumed I was saying that weren't really there, confused me with Bill O'Reilly, and in other ways let their imaginations run riot.. Brad said he intended to invite people into a high-level virtual seminar, but sometimes things don't work out exactly as planned. Well, so it goes.

At this point, it's probably not worth trying to reconstruct the larger conversation that Brad and I were actually engaged in. But here are a few accumulated responses to some of the comments. Basically, all I'm asking is (1) that both pro-Bush and anti-Bush people should make more careful distinctions and avoid wild exaggerations, and (2) that if we're going to have serious arguments about these issues (about which there are a lot of legitimate positions) we should begin by facing reality, recognizing the obvious, and not trying to deny (or obfuscate) the undeniable.

None of my responses below is very extensive, but the ones to Arjun, Jim Dandy, meno, Bruce Wilder, and AlanDownUnder touch on the most important substantive issues.

Yours for reality-based, politically intelligent, and morally serious discourse,

Jeff Weintraub

Hi Bill,

obscure fringe publications like the Nation, the Guardian, the New Statesman"

Doesn't that formulation raise anybody else's eyebrows?

Posted by: here@now.netBill Jones | Aug 24, 2005 1:19:36 PM

This is what we call irony. My point was precisely that these are NOT "obscure fringe publications" ... so people can't evade these issues by saying that they're just lunatic-fringe positions that nobody of any significance actually holds.

Hi Jim Dandy,

Cutting through all this sophistry, it is worth asking Weintraub a very simple and practical question, for instance: how (whether) he “explains”, “justifies” or “defends” the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israeli settlers. This would be an interesting test, specifically on the philosophical issue of moral relativism that’s imbedded in this discussion.

Posted by: no@name.eduJim Dandy | Aug 24, 2005 11:35:04 AM

Where did you get the impression that I would want to defend the occupation? It so happens that I think one can explain that without justifying it--in fact, you can explain something and also condemn it. This may seem like a simple point ... but if a lot of people actually understood it, they wouldn't make so many silly arguments, and Brad and I wouldn't have had to go though such a long discussion (of which he posted just a part).

Since you were focused on points that neither Brad nor I made, you seem to have missed the points I was actually trying to make. If f you're really interested, then for a start see http://jonathanderbyshire.typepad.com/blog/2004/09/the_meaning_of_.htmlthis, then for an expanded version http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2004/09/the_meaning_of_.htmlthis, along with http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/bad_excuses_the.htmlthis & http://www.juancole.com/2004_09_01_juancole_archive.html#109419064196351096this & http://www.juancole.com/2004_09_01_juancole_archive.html#109419064196351096this.

He may or may not be “morally bankrupt”. It’s rather that he avoids addressing the real philosophical problem of moral relativism/absolutism by covering it up with the sophistry of “conceptual” distinctions.

OK then, since he is apparently concerned, as he says, with “understanding of the realities of the situation or of the genuine issues at stake”, let’s hear him respond to a very specific and practical test about any real situation. Let’s have him state (“explain”, “justify”, “defend”) his own position on any reality/issue of historical or contemporary relevance.

Posted by: no@name.eduJim Dandy | Aug 24, 2005 3:16:51 PM

Well, if you like, and the items linked to above aren't enough for you, there are a few more random examples http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2004/10/was_there_any_m.htmlhere & http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2004/09/not_an_illegal_.htmlhere & http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2004/08/28/sistanis_triumph.phphere & http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/01/the_iraqi_elect.htmlhere & http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2004/12/some_implicatio.htmlhere & http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/04/remember_afghan.htmlhere & http://www.petitiononline.com/j141789/petition.htmlhere.

Hi Ralph,

"...brutal theocratic thuggery"? I thought this was going to be an item on Pat Robertson, who has lots of defenders.

Posted by: x@x.comRalph | Aug 24, 2005 11:39:42 AM

No problem. In my earlier message to Brad, I emphasized that "brutal theocratic thuggery" covers a multitude of sins, including people who bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors who work there. There are people who "make excuses" for them, too. So that just strengthens my point.

Hi Arjun,

What an absurdly long post for a not-important couple of points.

  1. Some explanations are justifications.
  2. Some explanations are not justifications.

Posted by: aj@yahoo.comArjun | Aug 24, 2005 12:28:06 PM

Absolutely right ... and a good starting point for discussing the issues, that would avoid a lot of pseudo-problems and false dilemmas. Then the next step is to talk seriously about concrete debates. The points you make may seem obvious, and especially the fact that we don't have to choose between 1 & 2 ... but as I just said to Jim Dandy, if a lot of people really understood it, and also understood what it implied in making moral & political arguments, then they probably wouldn't make so many silly and pointless arguments.

Hi wml,

What's wrong with accidently or even purposely slipping from explanation to justification?  [....]

Posted by: cydmab2@hotmail.comwml | Aug 24, 2005 1:59:19 PM

There's nothing at all necessarily wrong with it, and in fact it often makes good sense ... as long as we understand what we're doing, and don't pretend that we're not doing it. Brad was the one trying to draw a sharp distinction between the two, not me. (And sometimes is also makes sense to try to draw those sharp distinctions. Again, it's important to know what you're doing, and not to fool either yourself or others about it.)

Hi bakho,

If Jeff whacks a hornets nest and get stung, does that make the hornets bad? Should Jeff assign moral agency to the hornets with their little bee brains?  [....]

Posted by: bakho@excite.combakho | Aug 24, 2005 2:28:17 PM

So humans and hornets are precisely the same, and neither hornets nor people are ever moral agents? OK, now I understand. Thanks for clearing that up.

On the other hand, you seem to think that Bush is a moral agent, with something bigger than a bee brain, so we should "assign moral agency" to him. How come?

Hi meno,


Been there, done that, seen this all before when I TA'ed freshman philosophy. Lots of people get confused by the fact that the blame-game is non-zero-sum. So lets drag out a simpler analogy:

I borrow your ferrari, and leave it sitting running with the keys in while I pop into the shop, and it gets nicked. Then I say "Why are you blaming me? The thief's the one who nicked it! Stop being an apologist for brutal ferrarri-theiving regimes!" That's confused.

I'm right that the thief is still doing something morally wrong, and my screwup doesn't let him off at all. But you have full right to blame me for what I did to create the situation: I am morally culpable for the loss of your ferrarri because I was careless.

Blame is non-zero-sum.

Posted by: junk@sean.geek.nzmeno | Aug 24, 2005 4:31:00 PM

Absolutely right, and nicely put. 

And at one level, this is such an obvious point that no one can blame you for yawning. But one of the implications of Brad's discussion, after all, is that a lot of people argue as if this point never occurred to them. (That would include both pro-Bush and anti-Bush people, incidentally, and also a lot of the people who wrote comments on Brad's blog about our exchange.) The only difference between Brad and me on this point is that he seems to think that, in the process, he is somehow defending people who argue this way against my criticisms. In fact, as you make clear, what he's shown is that they're simply confused (or disingenuous), and they either don't understand or pretend not to understand the elementary logical mistakes they're making..

See also my responses to Jim Dandy and Arjun.

Oh, in case I was unclear: This is why the 'explanations' of the insurgency/roots of terrorism are not morally neutral. There's real moral blame being attached to the US's actions.

Not only do some aspects of US foreign policy lead to more terrorism: you are morally culpable if you are through your stupidity causing more terrorism.

Which doesn't justify the terrorists' acts at all.

Posted by: junk@sean.geek.nzmeno | Aug 24, 2005 4:37:30 PM

Again, all this is right and admirably clear-headed. That's what arguments of this sort are really about, and these are the sorts of criteria they ought to be using. (We might want to go on to argue about whether the 2003 Iraq war, for example, was on balance a good idea or a bad idea. But at least that would be an intelligent and honest argument, as opposed to the usual sloganeering from all sides.)

Hi Ken,

I wonder what Weintraub would say about this:

"The US president [Bush] also said that he did not consider all the Iraqis fighting the US occupation to be "terrorists".

Weintraub would say that, in this case, "the US president [Bush]" actually said something that was clearly correct.. Weintraub would also say that, in general, Bush and a lot of other people throw around the word "terrorist" far too loosely and indiscriiminately--and they're not the only ones.

If Weintraub were then to say to Ken, "So what?" ... then I wonder what Ken would say.

"The suicide bombers are, but the other fighters aren't. They just don't want to be occupied. Not even me, nobody, would want to be. That's why we're giving them their sovereignty. We are guaranteeing them complete sovereignty from June 30," he said.

The US president also said that he did not consider all the Iraqis fighting the US occupation to be "terrorists"."

Is Bush explaining or justifying the Iraqi insurgents?

Both, up to a certain extent. And this was precisely my point. In real life, trying to pretend that there is always a sharp and clear distinction between "explaining" people's actions, on the one hand, and either defending, justifying, excusing, whitewashing, or extenuating them is untenable. Sometimes there is a sharp difference, sometimes there isn't. Usually, there is some mixture, and in itself there's nothing at all wrong with that, as long as people are honest about what they're doing. It all comes down to HOW we do it. 

For example.... It pains me to say a good word about Bush, and his public statements are rarely models of clarity or logic, but in all fairness, the statement just quoted makes a fair amount of sense. Bush is saying that some of the insurgents (not all) have motivations that are understandable and even valid to some degree, whereas the motivations and tactics of others in the insurgency are completely unjustifiable. Therefore, the US should try to address the potentially legitimate grievances of the first set, while continuing to condemn and fight against the second set. Sorry, but what's the problem here?

Ken's position seems to be, more or less, either you're for us or you're against us. Or have I misunderstood?

Hi AlanDownUnder,

Skimming the comments for continued comic relief, I came across your remarks.

We have a set of verbs which includes "support", "justify", "defend", "excuse" and "explain". When the objects of these verbs are controversial, arguments about correct verb usage arise. The more argument centers on verb not object, the less light is shed. For verbs we already have the dictionary.

I agree with all of this. My only point is that these verbs (we could add "whitewash" and "trivialize") mean different things ... which implies, among other things, that just because someone makes excuses for something doesn't necessarily mean that he or she actively supports or advocates it. The reverse also holds. Just because someone isn't actively advocating something, that doesn't necessarily mean that he or she isn't either justifying it, defending it, excusing it, or whitewashing it. (Politicians and press secretaries do these all the time, don't they?) Just because someone CLAIMS that he or she isn't whitewashing something, just "explaining" it, that doesn't automatically get them off the hook. We have to look at the actual cases.

All of this should be pretty obvious and non-controversial, and establishing it should be the BEGINNING of a concrete discussion. I think you and I actually agree on that. But if this point were really so obvious to everyone, then people wouldn't be making so many silly arguments, and very bright and thoughtful people like Brad wouldn't slip into the temptation of posing some misleading false dilemmas--e.g., either someone is "justifying" something OR they're purely "explaining" it, with no combinations and no possibilities in between. Brad doesn't really believe that, of course ... but some of the people engaged in the debates we've been talking about it (both pro-Bush and anti-Bush) seem to believe it, along with some of the people who read Brad's blog.

Jeff may not confine the correct use of "explain" to "because they hate our freedom", or indeed even accept the sole official state-sanctioned explanation, but after all that has been written this is just charitable assumption.

Posted by: flyhalf@dodgeit.comAlanDownunder | Aug 25, 2005 8:17:41 AM

Pardon me ... written by whom, where?

Hi Bruce,

An excellent post. The "we" moral agents vs "them" zombies analytical frame is useful.  [....]

Posted by: http://comingperfectstorm.blogspot.com/Bruce Wilder | Aug 24, 2005 1:03:00 PM

Do you mean that this "analytical frame" captures the way that many people argue (a point on which I agree) ... or that this is a "useful" framework for actually making sense of the world and for dealing with real moral and political issues? Do you really think it's either correct or illuminating to regard everyone else in the world (except for some flexible "us") as "zombies"? More generally, do you really believe that's useful or illuminating to divide up the world between some people who are "moral agents" and others who are "zombies"? OK, if you say so. 

I happen to think that the mode of thinking about political issues that Brad identifies, based on this kind of crude dichotomy, definitely exists ... but that it is precisely part of the problem. I also believe that, in the real world, most people are neither completely free, unencumbered, totally autonomous agents unaffected by different cultures and social constraints NOR pure "zombies" and "automatons who simply respond to external stimuli. Instead, most people most of the time fall somewhere in between, in different ways and different degrees--and this is true of both "us" and "them."

Posted by DeLong at August 30, 2005 02:52 PM