04 September 2013

'Ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody'

Leon Wieseltier in the September 16 issue of The New Republic:

Ambivalence is inevitable, at least in morally scrupulous people; but ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody. The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes. The recent insistence on the decline of American power is in part the expression of the wish that America be less powerful. But it is too late for that, too. If our might cannot make right, it can at least serve it.

Wieseltier has long advocated action against the Syrian government on humanitarian grounds.  He claims to enjoy the "panicking" or "realists" over the new likelihood of American military action, but unsurprisingly finds the President's intentions "shatteringly late" and too ambivalent for his own tastes. He seems disgusted by the ideal of "intervention without interventionism," to be demonstrated, in his pessimistic prediction of "a cop-out in the shape of a cruise missile," a strategic slap on Assad's wrist, and a consensus that "once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing."

In the quote above Wieseltier criticizes the attitude often described sarcastically as the "beautiful soul." The beautiful soul trembles at the means to any desired end, always reluctant to dirty its immaculate hands, seemingly concerned more with its own karma than the good to be done for others. Such souls are at best ineffectual, at worst essentially selfish in a narcissist manner. Wieseltier is right to question this possibly impossible ideal, but his consideration of "evil" seems less nuanced. He may not believe in immaculate ethical perfection, but he does believe in an evil that might seem like the equally unreal opposite of that perfection. He may locate evil in acts like the chemical attack in Syria, if not in its presumed perpetrators, and he can certainly insist on a practical, empirical definition of evil measured in human suffering. Ultimately, however, "evil" is a label applied by us ever-imperfect people, usually as a means to an end. For Wieseltier, "evil" is an override code rationalizing his entitlement to "rescue" someone without regard to considerations that might otherwise regulate or constrain his action. He may think of that entitlement as a self-evident imperative, but it isn't mere ambivalence to question whether that imperative overrides all questions of jurisdiction or authorization as easily as he assumes. If the beautiful soul is to be dismissed because moral questions aren't only about him and his soul, shouldn't we be nearly as skeptical when someone claims a superhero's exemption from authorization, since the issue isn't all about him and his moral instincts.  The superhero sees only himself and the victim to be rescued, but even in comic books he consciously takes his chances with authority by acting, while authority not unfairly insists that other considerations do matter.  Those other considerations don't add up to ambivalence. It is not ambivalence to question whether a country or coalition of countries has a right to attack another country over that country's conduct of a civil war. Nor is it moral indifference to insist that the fate of the helpless is not the only moral consideration in such a case. Wieseltier may think that his little aphorism at the end of the excerpt answers any questioning of his entitlement to intervene. To "serve right" rather than make it, in his view, may be to disclaim a personal entitlement to act, but it may still be argued, whether he likes it or not, that right is always made, even if not by might, and doesn't simply exist to be served by whoever discerns it. To be less obscure about it, we could say that thinkers like Wieseltier are the real cop-outs so long as they claim moral rights to wage war while doing nothing to advance the true world government, whatever its costs, that would render moot all the questions every particular intervention raises.


Anonymous said...

...and he can certainly insist on a practical, empirical definition of evil measured in human suffering.
How about the human suffering caused by greed? Does his interventionist policies on the side of "right" also cover that? Should we not, therefore, start lobbing cruise missiles at every corporation that outsources jobs and makes American working class less secure and less "powerful"?

Samuel Wilson said...

While Wieseltier probably counts as a "liberal," he probably shares the establishment assumption that only when someone is physically attacking you -- shooting, bombing, gassing, etc. -- is a crime against humanity taking place.