USS Clueless - Negotiating with threats

Stardate 20030103.1506

(Captain's log): I posted an article about when it was that I thought we should engage in war, and why I considered such traditional approaches as "Just War" theory to be obsolete in the modern era. In response to reader mail, I then posted a more general discussion about the way in which force or the threat of it is involved in the process of negotiations. Both posts inspired much thoughtful email, and I will respond to some of that in this post.

In all quotes which follow, I color code my words and their words. Robert wrote:

Your use of the term evil makes me think you and I do not agree on the term's definition, or we agree on the definition but disagree on you perspective:

"Sticks are evil. Sticks are cruel. Sticks mean being a son-of-a-bitch." Are all sticks evil in every instance?

"Is it evil to nuke a city? Of course it is." Were the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki evil or acts (amoral?) taken to lessen horrendous casualties on both sides and end a devastating conflict quickly?

Given that the terms good, evil, right and wrong are defined by the ethical system to which one subscribes, it is futile to try to create a consensus as to what they mean. For some, for instance, "evil" has religious connotations and implies an alliance with the forces of Darkness or Hell, while "good" implies at least a moral alignment with the forces of Light or Heaven. Obviously as an atheist I don't credit such notions, but the words themselves are useful even for an atheist.

I don't consider good and right to be synonyms, nor do I consider evil and wrong to be synonyms. There isn't necessarily any correlation between them.

As a generalization, what I tend to think is that things which make people happy are good and things which make them unhappy, or make it impossible for them to be happy, are evil. This is essentially an absolute judgment based on the consequences of that particular act in the situation in which it took place. (Though I am not a strict consequentialist.)

Right and wrong refer to the calculation involved in evaluating potential actions in a given situation; with (again, as a generalization) the presumption that the right act is the one which maximizes happiness or minimizes pain, and that acts which are seriously suboptimal in achieving that goal are wrong.

Which means that an act can be absolutely good while being wrong if there was an alternative which was substantially more good which was not chosen. Equally, an act can be terribly evil and still be right because all the other choices available were even more evil. It's more or less the same as pointing out that something can be "worst" while being "good", and something can be "best" while being "bad". The right act is the best one; the wrong act is any which is substantially worse than the best one. But if it happens to be the case that the best act is good and all the wrong acts are evil then that's more luck than anything. Life is rarely that straightforward.

In a sense, to me, saying "Sticks are evil. Sticks are cruel." is redundant, because cruelty is inherently evil. But that doesn't mean it's wrong.

(I might say, just in passing, that based on my study of the war I consider the nuclear attacks on Japan to have been correct, fully justified, and right. But a detailed explanation of that will have to wait for another time.)

However, when I emphasized that sticks are inherently evil and cruel, I was trying to set up the answer to what Russell wrote:

"If your goal is important enough, you do what you must in order to accomplish it, including using violence. If you're not willing to, you don't deserve to prevail."

Sounds like you think the ends justify the means. Torture, rape, mutilation, mass murder: all are acceptable to you. Undesirable perhaps but acceptable.

I guess I would put it this way: the ends justify the means, but not all ends are themselves justified. I was discussing the practical mechanisms of diplomacy so as to show how it was that violent war fit into it, because many see war as an isolated phenomenon and don't take the diplomatic context into account. War is a tool of diplomacy, but diplomacy can be used for either good or evil ends. And if the goal of diplomacy is evil, then the use of war to achieve those ends is also evil.

To some extent, the theoreticians who attempted to codify the principles of "Just War" 400 years ago dimly saw this, because part of what they were trying to do was to talk about what kinds of cases the diplomatic ends was justified. I don't object to that principle; but I do object to the specific conclusions they came to because they ignore several cases where I think the diplomatic end actually is good but which would violate their rules. (Actually

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