Thursday, May 23, 2013

When Logical Fallacies Get the Better of You

As I worked through my thoughts -- out loud on my blog, oops! -- on Obama's deeds and how I evaluated them, I made some value judgments, judgments I now, with hindsight (read more thought), regret.

It's all too easy to commit logical fallacies, unintended ones, when you go easy on yourself, especially if it's to prove a point you're predisposed to assert. The two that jumped out at me from yesterday's post on Barack Obama were my take on the legitimacy of drone strikes and the moral acceptability of one death-penalty application over another. It's not hard to notice that the two are somewhat bound together.

To establish the heart of the matter earlier rather than later: My justification of drone strikes was flawed, and my rationalization of approving of the execution of Timothy McVeigh was at the very least much too convenient. In other words, on second thought, I think I'm dead wrong.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need drone strikes or executions. In a near-perfect world, drone strikes and death penalties would work. In a deeply flawed world, we do best to stay away from such judgments. That's why I'm a pacifist who opposes the death penalty.

That's the position I wish to affirm today.

In a sideways approval of Barack Obama's drone-strike approach to fighting terrorism I asserted that it was far superior to the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger's carpet bombing of Hanoi. But here's the logical fallacy: Rather than rounding up our enemies, Srbrenica-style, and mass-executing them, it's much better to place snipers on rooftops and clinically pick them off as the occasion arises.

Carpet bombing versus drone strikes: only a matter of degree.

Because I would like to eliminate the sources of terrorist threats and doing so is really, really hard -- or at least hard to broadly envisage -- I'd choose drones because, uh, drone attack and terrorists dead!

In this I'm certainly wrong, for which I apologize. The same goes for picking off evil Americans abroad because we can. The truth is that this method does include collateral damage -- a reality that Timothy McVeigh blithely dismissed when taking about dead children in the rubble of the Murrah building -- and likely stirs more adherents to terrorism while wrecking our international relations and thus harming our national security.

The whole process is a moral failure and needs a deeper look.

As for the death penalty and Timothy McVeigh, just because I, like so many others, wanted to see him rot in Hell -- and I don't even believe in Hell -- doesn't mean we advance the cause of justice. We demean it and ourselves in the process. Again, I apologize. I was swept away and not myself.

Back in 1970, I was picked out of the crowd of protestors at an anti-Vietnam rally at Santa Clara University -- one of seven so singled out -- and brought up on charges of disruption in front of a disciplinary board comprised of administrators, professors, and the odd student or three.

I had made my pacifist case rather well, I had thought, when the chair of the Engineering Department asked, "Do you feel you have the right to be a pacifist?" I replied, "Of course." To which he quickly countered, "Then don't you feel that others have the right to be non-pacifists?" I mumbled a feeble word or two in counterargument, then gave up.

As I left the hearing, I was flummoxed, and later, when I was found guilty and suspended from the university, I was not surprised.

A few years later, I related this event to friend, who turned out to be smarter than I. "There was a good answer, you know." What, I asked. He said, "You should have told the professor that he had invented a false duality: the choice is not between those who love war and those who love peace. The choice is only peace."

Therein lies my fallacy. The goal is peace. Morally, the goal can never be war.

That's a first principle simply stated. Life is never so simple, but that doesn't mean we should casually toss principles aside. We do so at our peril, morally and actually.

The greatest generation? Morally, the luckiest generation: Their war was just.

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