Thursday, February 22, 2007

On the practical application of tautologies

Wunderkind dove-come-lately blogger Matthew Yglesias makes an amusing point about the discourse surrounding just war theory and pacifism:
"Contrary to popular belief, international relations scholars are not doves," according to a new survey of IR scholars (Foreign Policy article here; full results here; hat-tip Daniel Drezner), "most believe that military force is warranted under the right conditions."

What do the others believe? That it's warranted under the wrong conditions? Unwarranted even when the conditions are right?
Much though this might seem like nothing more than a silly choice of words on the part of the survey authors, I've actually run across this particular pattern of reasoning many times.

The pattern seems to go something like this: First, assume that opposition to the current war, or to most wars, amounts to opposition to all war as such. (The presumption of pacifism; an unfortunately common error.) Then, and this is the step that Matt points out, assume that what it means to oppose war as such is to oppose war even when the war is in fact warranted and just.

Saying that war is warranted under the right conditions is a tautology; it amounts to exactly the same thing, for example, as saying that war is warranted whenever war is warranted. It tells you literally nothing about when and whether those conditions ever apply, or what it means for war to be warranted. Yet somehow this tautology seems meaningful enough to people that it manages to sneak into prestigious political science journals.

This sort of misreading of the logic of opposition to war is problematic because it turns an argument about the morality of a particular war into an argument about pacifism and just war theory in the abstract, but also because it distorts the playing field of the abstract argument. It makes the pacifist position seem far stronger than it needs to be, by making it seem as though the pacifist must believe that war is never warranted by definition: that "the right conditions" is somehow a nonsensical concept.

To the extent that I am a pacifist--which depends a lot on the strictness of one's definition of the term--I am what's called a "pragmatic pacifist": I don't disagree that war is warranted under the right conditions, or think that those conditions are without content, I simply believe that those conditions never occur, or occur so rarely that they might as well never occur. I'm not opposed to war in all imaginable situations, in the sense that I wouldn't oppose waging war on the armies of Sauron if we lived in Middle Earth, but I'm opposed to war in pretty much every circumstance that has any realistic chance of coming up in the real world.

(For me, the distinction between war and military action short of war--"police" action of various kinds--is crucial. I don't oppose all military action. I just oppose military action aimed at the conquering and subjugating of entire nations.)

I don't intend to defend this position right now, but only to point out that the line of reasoning displayed in the Foreign Policy article doesn't allow any space for it. If I were given the tautological survey question, I'd be tempted to answer "No", simply due to annoyance at being asked to confirm a tautology as if it were something meaningful, but this would be a distortion of what I actually think. I suspect that a goodly portion of the survey's actual respondents had similar reactions, and thus that we can learn absolutely nothing from it.


More generally, I'm always amused when people frame questions in tautological terms.

An acquaintance of mine once asked me if I'd marry and settle down if I found "the right" girl. Well, what is the right girl? Isn't it the girl with whom it would be right to get married and settle down?

Surely the point of the question was to ask if I was ready, at this point in my life, to seriously consider doing this--which, by the way, I'm certainly not--but this isn't even remotely the right way to go about asking that question. I may not be psychologically disposed to get married right now, but what it would mean for me to find the right girl would be for me to find a girl with whom it would be right regardless of my doubts.

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