Monday, July 11, 2005

Kant and Operation Yellow Elephant

Some of you may have already seen the effort, appropriately called Operation Yellow Elephant, to encourage College Republicans to enlist in the army. I discussed how chickenhawks tend to rationalize away any personal sense of duty to the Iraq War in an eariler post andPhoebe asked whether young, well-off Democrats who don't want to see poor, minority youth fighting by themselves have an equal obligation to join the war in order to support and fight alongside the troops already there. When I posted Chickenhawks Rationalize, I thought about including a paragraph addressing that question, but didn't have anything lined up, so I went ahead and posted without it.

Now, I've done the necessary thinking and I have a response that both answers the question and helps to illuminate the sickness at the heart of pro-war, enlistment-age Republican movement. The place I looked for some enlightenment was Kant's Fundamental Principals of the Metaphysic of Morals, written in 1785. (Obviously, not the best place to look to convince a conservative of much of anything, but if they're going to be talking about duty, they should at least be able to deal in an intellectual way with a guy who was really all about it.) What follows is a quick rundown of Kant's ideas, so if you know this already, feel free to skim/skip entirely. At the heart of Kant's ethical worldview is the idea of the "categorical imperative"—a duty to action that is moral regardless of circumstances. In order to know whether an imperative (e.g. Thou shalt not kill) is indeed a categorical imperative and thus universal law, it's useful to think about the categorical imperative in three ways, which Kant outlined.
  • The first (Universal Law formulation): "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
  • The second (Humanity or End in Itself formulation): "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
  • The third (Kingdom of Ends formulation) combines the two: "All maxims as proceeding from our own [hypothetical] making of law ought to harmonise with a possible kingdom of ends." (Taken from the Wikipedia article on the Categorical Imperative.)
For the sake of a quick example in how to think like Kant, take this excerpt from Fundamental Principals (also called the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals), in which Kant makes an example of a line of thinking that violates the first formulation because it cannot become a universal law—everyone cannot do as the man in the example does without arriving at a logical inconsistency:
[A man] finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He
knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing
will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a
definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so
much conscience as to ask himself: "Is it not unlawful and
inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?"
Suppose however that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his
action would be expressed thus: "When I think myself in want of money,
I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I
never can do so." Now this principle of self-love or of one's own
advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare;
but the question now is, "Is it right?" I change then the suggestion
of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: "How
would it be if my maxim were a universal law?" Then I see at once that
it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would
necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal
law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be
able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping
his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as
the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider
that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such
statements as vain pretences.
Everyone still with me? If you understood the example, we can move on, because I'm just going to use the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative to answer Phoebe's question and make some other points.

Let's look at a young college Republican's maxim, or principle, as Kant would. So a young pro-war Republican's maxim is this: "Do not fight in a just war if fighting would put your ambitions and safety at risk, but instead ensure the war is fought by other people." (I assume that a "just" war is a war that can be ethically fought, which is a big assumption about a lot of things, but let's just take it.) Now, if we were to make this universal law, clearly no one would be fighting any wars (which wouldn't be a bad thing). Running around shooting at people who are shooting at you is risky business, and there's no fighting in a war and being perfectly safe. So if everyone adopted that maxim, there would be no militants, there would be no war, and there would be a contradiciton, since the war would not be fought and the maxim would be violated.

And to further clarify things, that maxim also violates the second formulation of the categorical imperative. By ensuring that a war is fought by others and not by you, you make those other people means to an end, and do not treat them as ends in themselves. Those people are protecting you from doing your own duty (we're talking about a "just" war); they are a means to the fulfillment of your career ambitions. So, the young Republican maxim clearly violates the "categorical imperative." Their maxim is immoral.

What about the young Democrat's maxim? I'll state it as this: "If a war is unjust, do not fight in it and work to free others of any legal requirements to fight in it." Basically, don't fight an unjust war and try and get the enlisted men and women who have to, by their terms of duty, out of there (or if they're also following your maxim, make sure there are no legal ramifications for their refusal to fight). Can this maxim be made into universal law? Certainly. Whenever an unjust war would come along, no one would fight in it. There would be no unjust war, and, if you believe there's no such thing as just war, no war at all. There's no contradiction there. The maxim stands as a categorical imperative; it is moral.

* * * * *

Let's leave the dry philosophy behind. The logic at work in Kant's imperatives also reveals how the argument that Republicans are making is fundamentally despotic and the position of young Democrats is fundamentally democratic. In a despotic society, we can all make other people do our bidding; we can force them to do our true duties for us if those duties are unpleasant. If there was a society that operated only on the young Republican maxim, the most powerful would enslave the weaker, sending them out to fight war after war while the powerful fulfill their ambitions and are made happy and fat. Basically, you're talking about feudalism.

If you imagine a society where everyone follows the Democratic maxim, you have a democratic society. Not fighting in unjust wars is pure democratic action; the government is at the mercy of the people. Bureaucrats cannot wage unjust wars because they are rendered army-less by the maxim. The government is at the mercy of the people.

This is what I mean by illuminating the sickness at the heart of the young Republican movement. These arguments really reveal how the young, Republican, pro-war movement is not a democratic exercise—these are a bunch of despots we're talking about. These are men and women who wish to use their fellow Americans as means to their ends. These are not democrats in the little-d sense. Values of democracy, citizenship, civic duty have all disappeared from these students' thinking and in their place is despotism, entitlement, and ambition.

I'm not seeking absolution for Democrats who sit around and do nothing but wring their hands. I'm seeking justification for the position that you don't have any duty to fight for a mistake—that you're not doing anyone but the power-hungry any favors by making yourself a tool of a mistaken military project. Instead, you have a duty to keep your fellow citizens from dieing for the wrong cause. Alongside Operation Yellow Elephant must be a rallying cry for young democrats (little-d) to lobby their Congressmen and their fellows for peace and as swift an end to our involvement in the Iraq War as we can manage. In the meantime, we all should be working to support our troops in the truest sense—doing everything we can to see them home safe.


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