Monday, September 04, 2006

If This Pisses Anyone Off, It's Not My Fault

Imagine I worked in a department store, and one day sold someone a knife. Further, imagine that that person was buying a knife with the intention of using it to murder someone else, which they then did. We would find it difficult, presumably, to hold me responsible to any significant degree, if at all, for that murder. People buy kitchen knives and don't murder people all the time. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate uses of kitchen knives. Still, there are conditions under which selling someone something which they then used to murder someone would make you at least partly responsible for that murder: if they were clearly insane, or violent, or the object in question was one whose only plausible use was to harm other people. Moral and causal responsibility are not identical, but they do overlap.

Buried in this series of relatively brief comments on other people's posts, including a somewhat over-enthusiastic defence of London, is an attempt at an argument against meritocratic justifications of laissez-faire capitalism. Accepting for the sake of argument that laissez-faire capitalism is meritocratic - not something I'd accept otherwise - it runs something like this:

a meritocratic distribution is one where various costs and benefits are distributed according to some fairly assessed criterion of merit;

100m sprinting involves a fairly assessed criterion of merit, in particular, the ability to run short distances quickly;

a distribution which distributed costs and benefits on the basis of results in 100m sprints therefore would be a meritocratic distribution;

a distribution which distributed the cost of lifelong slavery on the basis of results in 100m sprints would therefore be a meritocratic distribution;

any distribution involving lifelong slavery would not be just;

therefore, not all meritocratic distributions are just;

for some property x to be a sufficient condition of some other property y, all things which are x must also be y;

therefore, the property of being meritocratic is not a sufficient condition of being just.

Now, that argument may not be watertight. In particular, the first two premises might be dubious. We might deny that the ability to run short distances quickly counts as a merit. We might also deny that any distribution which involves distributing costs and benefits on the basis of merit is meritocratic, on the grounds that the merit should be connected in some way to the costs and benefits which are distributed on the basis of it. Notice what wouldn't count as an argument against it though: simply denying it by saying laissez-faire capitalism wasn't like sprinting in a number of ways other than sharing the property of allegedly distributing benefits meritocratically. To do that would be to refuse to engage with the argument at all, because, after all, the argument doesn't claim that sprinting is like laissez-faire capitalism, except in this one respect - that it is allegedly meritocratic. Obviously, the argument is entirely comfortable with the fact that laissez-faire capitalism doesn't typically involve wearing tight-fitting lycra, because it picks out one common feature, their meritocracy, and so saying 'laissez-faire capitalism doesn't involve wearing tight-fitting lycra' would be avoiding the question. We might call doing that being incorrigible, literally impossible to correct, since persistently doing that would be effectively totally avoiding any attempt at an argument a disputant put to you.

The point about moral responsibility is of course that some principle roughly like 'you, barring insanity, incapability or serious coercion, are morally responsible to some degree for outcomes which are predictable consequences of your actions' is broadly true. It is far from being the only principle with which we might assess the moral character of particular actions, and has nothing at all to say about how we assess the moral character of the outcomes of particular actions: it merely assigns some indeterminate degree of responsibility for outcomes which could be predicted as the result of actions. That indeterminacy is also important. It allows us to distinguish between naivety, negligience, passive assistance and active doing, and distribute responsibility appropriately. We might think, for example, that leaving your car door unlocked when nipping into the shops for five minutes would leave you less responsible in the event that it is broken into than if it was left unlocked overnight in on a street where it was public knowledge that cars were frequently broken into. However, assuming you are not mad, you are still to some degree responsible.

On the assumption that the risk of terrorist attacks on the UK has increased as a result of British participation in the war in Iraq, and that there was no proximate threat from Iraq - which could serve as coercion - the British Government is, on the basis of that principle, to some degree responsible for that increase in risk. The responsibility is also clearly morally serious, since it involves a breach of the duty that governments surely have to take special care over the safety of their citizens. That is not to say they are wholly or even mostly responsible for that increase in risk: obviously, almost all of the responsibility falls on those willing to commit acts of terrorism against British citizens. Neither is it to say that this is the only consideration which bears on moral assessment of British participation in the war in Iraq: most obviously, any increased risk of terrorist attacks on Britain that have from the war in Iraq are hardly its most prominent consequence - ask Iraqis how safe they feel. But neither of those facts remove the first: that, if Britain has been exposed to a greater risk of terrorist attacks as a result of participating in the Iraq war, then those who took the decision to participate bear part of the responsibility for that risk.

Further, some of those who took that decision have denied that responsibility. To say

Our opponents will say: you made terrorism worse... I believe differently. I believe this global terrorism will exploit any situation to further its cause. But I don't believe that its cause is truly to be found in any decision we have taken

is to first admit that the cause of terrorism is furthered by decision you have taken - if you're exploiting something, you must be getting something out of it - and then to distance yourself from that furthering - its true cause is found elsewhere, and so I have nothing to do with it. Causal responsibility does not in this case result in moral responsibility. To describe the claim that

Iraq... is seen by extremists as a fertile ground for their recruiting


a statement of the obvious

is obviously to acknowledge some causal relationship between the decision to invade Iraq and a greater ease of recruitment for extremists - which in this context clearly means terrorists. To go on to describe that claim as being capable of being

elided with the notion that we have "caused" such recruitment or made terrorism worse

is to deny that you bear any responsibility for that situation by distinguishing the fact that there is a causal relationship between a particular decision and an advantage for terrorists from the idea that those who took that decision are to any degree responsible for that advantage. If the two are different to the degree that they can be elided, the causal connection does not imply the moral one. That is, allowing that the causal connection is predictable, a denial of the principle that 'you, barring insanity, incapability or serious coercion, are morally responsible to some degree for outcomes which are predictable consequences of your actions'.

Maybe that is reasonable, though. Maybe that advantage was not a predictable consequence of the decision. No, really, stop laughing at the back. Maybe an invasion of a Muslim country by the great Zionist-supporting infidel Satan would make Muslims already prepared to murder thousands of people by flying airplanes into tall buildings less likely to be ill-disposed to those who share some cultural heritage with it. Really, I'm being serious. Especially when that superpower is ruled by a coterie of barely competent corporatist hacks who claim they don't do nation-building. No, you misunderstand me, I'm not taking the piss!

Obviously, as I've already said, that's not the only consideration that bears on the decision to go to war in Iraq, but it is one. Tony Blair denies it, and with it, the principle that you bear some of the responsibility for the predictable consequences of your actions. Fine. Presumably he wouldn't mind if I sold a gun to a latter-day John Bellingham. After all, he of all people could hardly hold me responsible for the consequences. As for Brian, well, I can only assume that when he called me incorrigible, he presumably meant in the sense where he finds me impossible to correct because I'm always right.


Milan said...

Knife obsession seems to be what is happening in Britain, given the general absence of handguns. I agree about the guns, but I really miss my knives back in Canada. A really excellent folding knife (like a Benchmade) is a good day-to-day companion. I am often confronted with circumstances where I wish I had one of mine.

Rob Jubb said...

Exactly what kind of circumstances?