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Bully Pulpit

The term "bully pulpit" stems from President Theodore Roosevelt's reference to the White House as a "bully pulpit," meaning a terrific platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda. Roosevelt often used the word "bully" as an adjective meaning superb/wonderful. The Bully Pulpit features news, reasoned discourse, opinion and some humor.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

RE: From "Reflections On War"

As always, brilliantly reasoned. However...

Here is one of the places that Dr. Eco and I go astray. He approaches the subject from a purely humanist point of view (not surprising since he is one of the foremost humanist thinkers in the world). He also approaches the topic from within the context of what Thomas Sowell calls the "unconstrained vision."

First, the humanist aspect. Dr. Eco reasons that we develop taboos for activities that have produced demonstrably negative results. He posits an evolutionary process, giving incest as an example. The trouble is, incest may sound like a clear enough simile, given that Western culture universally finds it abhorrent. Or does it?

The European aristocracy, from the middle ages onward, was highly incestuous. Early bloodlines showed the inevitable results of rampant inbreeding: mental defectives, physical abnormalities, and a very high rate of insanity. However, moving into the seventeenth century and onward, the royal families of Europe were still highly inbred, but an understanding of how closely held the bloodlines could be had been gained. Fewer monsters were born.

But we have to back up a bit. For Western Civilization, at least, incest taboos came directly from Mosaic Law. As an atheist, Dr. Eco would decline the notion that incest taboos were divinely inspired, but he can offer no reasonable alternative to the sudden necessity for Jewish culture to record what he would term an evolutionary taboo. I'll say more on the topic of the Christian aristocracy of Europe ignoring a fundamental taboo of Judeo-Christian morality later.

So we have Dr. Eco offering incest taboo as an example for why a war taboo could or should be developed. I offer that it is an excellent example of why a war taboo would be a fruitless exercise.

Dr. Eco further offers that a taboo on war cannot simply be manufactured:

Of course, a taboo is not proclaimed: it proclaims itself... It is therefore compatible with intellectual duty and with common sense to announce the necessity for a taboo, although no one has the authority to say that a certain time is required for its coming to maturity...

This is a classic argument from Dr. Sowell's unconstrained vision. Without belaboring an explanation, the unconstrained vision contains no limits on the human intellect and posits a utopian social order through purely intellectual and rational control. All that is needed in this vision to stop wrongdoing is to rationally explain the undesirable nature of the action to the wrongdoer. In this vision, there are no trade-offs and human behavior does not proceed from incentives and disincentives. In this vision, human behavior is always based on reason and intellect alone.

Dr. Eco's argument derives from the classic context of the ruling intelligentsia, where the academy sets the social order. According to this context, all taboos are self-evident and moral authority springs from the intellectuals' simple assertions that the taboo is necessary. The unconstrained vision is purely utopian.

It is self-evident that the moral codes of Western Civilization find their sources in Mosaic Law. As well, for those who doubt the evidence, the long chain of history easily demonstrates this to be true. It is also easily demonstrated that those asserting that moral authority were just as likely to violate or ignore their own morality. It is all well to suggest a taboo on war, but to what end?

As with incest taboos, a taboo on war would just as easily be ignored when those in power found it necessary to do so. The European aristocracy believed that the source of their power was their bloodline. They believed they were beneficent and that the survival of Western Civilization depended on their retention of power. Against that dire necessity, what a small matter was procreation among first cousins, uncles and aunts with nieces and nephews, or even the occasional brother and sister. So with war, what a small matter of morality to send an army against the enemy who seeks to destroy you.

Dr. Eco argues that there is no evidence that wars produced reasonable results. From the context of the unconstrained vision, this makes sense. In that context, the only reasonable result of war is the prevention of other wars. In the years following the "age of reason," wars were fought "to end all wars." Our leaders still assert that we fight wars to attain peace. To that end, many argue we have lost the ability to fight a war effectively, and they are right. No longer are partisans united to end a clearly perceived threat. It is those who seek purpose in war, and finding none, call for its elimination who have applied pressure to the leaders of our civilization and have given the result that war has indeed become an ineffectual tool for maintaining social order.

It can be reasonably argued that the emasculation of war has actually resulted in an increased necessity for armed resolution of conflict. Modern wars are no longer fought to decisive conclusions. While Dr. Eco's assertion that wars do not achieve long-term equilibrium, it is not true that wars never end in a decisive result. As late as the last century, World War II ended the immediate threat of an evil so heinous and pervasive that it remains a nightmare for nearly every Western culture. The fact that it did not "end all wars" is an accusation formed from claims it did not make.

And so my final question to Dr. Eco is this, "If not war, then what?" From the humanist perspective, and especially within the context of the unconstrained vision, evil is not categorical. And that is what sets this context aside from empirical reality in such a blazingly obvious fashion. Suppose, for the moment, a taboo on war was successfully ingrained in our society and culture. Is it Dr. Eco's belief that taboos are never broken? Admitting that they are, then who is it that overwhelmingly is guilty of breaking the taboo? A taboo is a demarcation of moral behavior. Does Dr. Eco believe that no one ever behaves amorally? And given that some will behave amorally and make war upon the rest of us, what are we to do? Do we become martyrs to the humanists' moral code? Do we leave the world to evildoers, somehow believing that there is a reward otherwhere? What a discordant stand for a humanist to take.

One would almost wonder if Dr. Eco is beginning to accede to spirituality.


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