The Atrocity of Hope

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Congratulations, Pakistani children!  You too can sacrificeOne reason power corrupts is that it puts people in a position to choose options with which they would ordinarily never be faced. Our new President has just passed a significant milestone on the road to hell, one that he would be unlikely to have passed in ordinary life: he is now a murderer. (Conical hat tip to Manuel Lora and Lew Rockwell.)

I recall a line from that terrific late-80s tv series Wiseguy: “What good is a man who loves his own children but murders someone else’s?”

And while I’m on the subject of great lines from Wiseguy here’s another, from when Sonny (the mobster) finds out that Vinnie (his erstwhile right-hand man) is a federal agent:

Sonny: What do you get out of this, Vinnie, huh? I want to know. What do you get out of this – another pin on your lapel? an upgrade on your pension? Why are you trying to destroy me, man?

Vinnie: It comes with your territory, Sonny. You want a recitation? How about drugs killing kids, and fraud destroying pensions?

Sonny: Oh my god, oh my god. Who do you think you’re working for, man? You want to talk drugs? Let’s talk Agent Orange. Let’s talk LSD. Those are just two of the progressive efforts made on behalf of your friendly employer, Uncle Sam. Want to talk fraud? Let’s talk fraud. Why don’t you try explaining to a farmer why the federal guarantee loans are being recalled? Yeah, you’re the mob – you’re the mob in this room, Vinnie. I’m just your average entrepreneur.

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15 Responses to The Atrocity of Hope

  1. Joel Schlosberg January 25, 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    Speaking of choices made by presidents, I was reminded of an obscure Twilight Zone episode “I Dream of Genie” … it’s a pretty weak episode overall (and is from that lame period where the episodes were an hour long rather than half an hour) but has one quite memorable moment: the protagonist imagines that he’s just become president (via a wish from an old-fashioned genie in a lamp, as the title suggests), but suddenly a group of alien spaceships starts approaching, and as commander in chief he has to decide whether or not to fire on them, without having any way of telling whether they’re friendly or hostile!

  2. Black Bloke January 25, 2009 at 6:02 pm #

    Can the POTUS be legitimately labeled a murderer? This presents a philosophical conclusion but is there a coherent argument for it? Sure, I personally consider the givers of orders to kill to be accomplices to the killing, but I’d like to hear the reasoning that allows me to put the stronger label on.

    • Roderick January 25, 2009 at 9:34 pm #

      Well, the question is: why should a killing using another human being as the means be considered less responsible than a killing using any other kind of means? Whether I point a gun at you and pull the trigger, or instead order my henchman Zeke to do it, I either case I’m deliberately setting in motion a chain of events intended to eventuate in your death. Thus it seems to me that the presumption is in favour of treating the two cases alike until we’re given a good case for treating them differently.

      So why is there an objection to treating them alike? Is it because the means in the giving-orders case has free will? If so, what feature of free will is it that constitutes the basis for the objection?

      Is it because a means with free will can’t be guaranteed to carry out the order? Well, suppose I plant under your bed a probabilistic bomb (a device whose trigger involves some radioactive material and a Geiger counter) whose chance of exploding is 90%. The odds prevail and it explodes, killing you. Surely in that case I’m responsible for your death. So mere indeterminism in the means doesn’t seem to be a problem for responsibility.

      Is it because a means with free will has moral responsibility for the result, and there isn’t enough moral responsibility to go around for both the person giving orders and the person taking them? That makes it sound as though responsibility is some sort of material substance in a fixed quantity that can be spread around. When I order Zeke to shoot you and he does, I’m responsible because I willingly set in motion a chain of events aiming at your death, and Zeke is responsible because he willingly set in motion a chain of events aiming at your death. His chain is a subset of mine, but so what? If bullets had free will they’d be on the hook too.

      • scineram January 26, 2009 at 9:06 am #

        If I tell you to kill Horwitz next time you meet and you do should I be punished?

      • Black Bloke January 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

        [W]hy should a killing using another human being as the means be considered less responsible than a killing using any other kind of means?

        There seems to be some confusion here regarding the verb “use”. In the most literal sense I could imagine that one very physically strong person could “use” another smaller person as a blunt object with which to bludgeon a third person to death. In that sense your resulting discussion makes the most sense. But the use of “use” as we use it when referring to it here seems to make things different. In a less pressing example I suppose I could say that I “used” the guy running the copy machine in the other building to make a few dozen copies of something. Perhaps in that sense the analysis may make sense, but I honestly haven’t thought this through beyond my weird feeling.

        My great concern with the claim of “murderer” here and the reasoning you’ve used to support it is that it seems like a chain of causation could go on forever. Is William Kristol (for example) a murderer because Obama may have considered what he argued when making his decision to tell his subordinates to carry out this attack? Is Irving Kristol a murderer because he raised his son in such a way that William’s head is full of such ideas that he would later argue ideas influentially enough that they would stick in the future president’s head when he made the call the let loose with the missiles? Where can such a chain end? Where do we draw the limits of responsibility?

        The people who make the claim that the subordinates are free actors and should be held responsible for their crimes make a delimiting claim that gives us a clear line we can use for demarcation of responsibility. No, “Just following orders” excuses will cut it. This seems to be a point in favor of such a position. The problem that many might see with this position is that it seem to let the leaders who were responsible for giving the orders off the hook. I seem to remember a libertarian arguing that in a libertarian world Goebbels wouldn’t have justly suffered any retribution for his actions. Or something like that. That just seems to strike me as odd, if not just disconcerting.

        • Roderick January 26, 2009 at 7:08 pm #

          Well, responsibility seems to diminish with increasingly uncertain and attenuated causal chains whether or not there are further agents in the chain. Compare a) my tying a hard-to-see wire at the top of your stairway, intending that you trip over it, and b) my scattering some rocks about in the desert, hoping you will happen by and trip over them. If the fuzziness of the line between (a) and (b) isn’t an objection to our assigning responsibility in (a) but not in (b), why should the fuzziness of the line between c) a President’s direct orders and d) a pundit’s general advice be an objection?

          As for “use” — well, I can use Yahoo as a blog provider (though I don’t recommend it), I can use the sun to power my solar battery, I can use medieval Iceland as an example. Are these metaphorical uses? They seem to me to be standard, non-metaphorical uses, even if they are not the paradigm case.

  3. Gary Chartier January 25, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    Well, BB, doesn’t that depend on how you define murder? Per a standard legal definition, I’m a murderer if I purposefully kill—if killing is my objective when I act, or if it’s chosen as a means to some other objective. But I’m also a murderer if I cause death in a way that exhibits “extreme reckless indifference.” (One textbook example: playing Russian roulette.)

    It seems to me that, in practical terms, what this means is that it’s not enough to say that a given death was a by-product of, or collateral damage resulting from, a legitimately defensive use of force. That’s because (it seems to me) there can be reasonable and unreasonable choices to create the risk that someone will be a victim of foreseen but unintended harm. The basic test here, I think, is whether I would be willing that I, or my loved ones, be subjected to the same risk of collateral harm I’m imposing on others. Sometimes, no doubt, I would be. But, if I wouldn’t, then, even if I don’t cause (for instance) death on purpose, I’m still acting unreasonably, and, given the gravity of the harm, what I’m doing is morally very serious.

    Even if Obama didn’t intend to cause the noncombatant casualties resulting from his decision to bomb, then, he can still be morally culpable if he acted while imposing on others a risk he wouldn’t have been willing to have imposed on, say, his own family. I can’t be sure that he did. But there’s certainly a strong argument that a decision-maker has acted recklessly whenever she or he engages in an aerial bombing campaign.

    • Roderick January 26, 2009 at 7:12 pm #

      Right — but I think BB’s worry is less about the distinction between intentional killing and collateral damage, and more about the distinction between killing that does and killing that doesn’t go through someone else’s free agency. On the collateral damage issue, though, I’ve bloviated some here.

  4. Nick Manley January 25, 2009 at 9:48 pm #


    Don’t you remember? Obama told us we have to get through this together and pull our weight! These Pakistani children are just being compelled to do their duty…

    Really dark humor for dark times.

  5. Rorshak (1313) January 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm #

    Not even a week into his rule.

    Welcome to the Presidency, you thug.

  6. Soviet Onion January 26, 2009 at 2:03 am #

    I want to come together and do my part, too. Maybe I could take out that Pakistani guy who owns the 7-11 down the street?

  7. Michael January 26, 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Professor Long,

    A broader question concerning Obama: do you share David Friedman’s optimism about Obama to turn out to be a “libertarian” anti-Bush?

    • Roderick January 26, 2009 at 7:15 pm #

      I think I’m agnostic. I recognise the evidence that Friedman talks about, but I also hear a lot of New-Deal-style crisis-response from Obama. I reckon we’ll get some of each.

  8. Black Bloke January 26, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    OT: In case you haven’t heard yet, Geoffrey Allan Plauché’s dissertation has been finalized, defended, and approved. He’s put it up online for everyone to read. Great stuff so far (I’m in the 1st chapter).


  1. Attack the System » Blog Archive » Updated News Digest February 1, 2009 - February 14, 2009

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