Muddling moral claims and causal claims

We have had occasion before to point out a specific confusion of causal claims and moral claims that seems common among conservative commentators. The confusion is at times quite subtle and arises out of deep conceptual connections between some causal claims and moral claims. But there are also many cases of egregious confusions. Cathy Young today provides several in a column comprised of a series of quotations from various sources to show that the liberal “response to terrorism even on the moderate left remains an egregious moral muddle” (Source: BG 7/19/05).

>In a letter to The New York Times published on July 9, one New Yorker proudly described his comments to a Dutch television news crew which interviewed him on the New York subway immediately after the bombings. When asked if he believed New York would be attacked again, he replied in the affirmative. Why? ”Because the US is hated now more than ever. Even some of our allies sort of hate us.” And why is that? ”We invaded Iraq, which has never attacked us or declared war on us.”

>In other words: If we’re attacked again, it will be our fault (just as, presumably, the London bombings are the fault of British Prime Minister Tony Blair for lending his support to the war in Iraq).

The letter writer seems to be quite clearly describing a causal relation, which Young nonetheless interprets as a moral relation. The language of “fault” is probably at fault here, since we can use it to indicate both a causal and a moral relation–nonetheless, it carries in all of its uses a connotation of “wrong” and therefore of justifying the result.

a) It is likely that the U.S. will be attacked because attackers are motivated by hatred and the U.S. is hated more than ever (because of Iraq.

becomes in Young’s translation something close to:

b) It is right that the U.S. will be attacked because attackers are motivated by hatred and the U.S. is hated more than ever.

Of course, this letter writer may be wrong about the causal relationship between future terrorism and the Iraq war, but he is presumably not advancing the claim that Young suggests he is.

But Young has other targets in mind:

>Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a leading left-of-center commentator on the Middle East, argues on his website and in an article at that the London bombings are ”blowback” from the US and its allies’ misguided policies. Cole pooh-poohs the idea that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a product of hatred for the West’s democratic values. In his view, it is a response to specific Western policies that are perceived as a war against Muslims, from Israeli oppression of the Palestinians to the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once again we have a causal claim about the relationship between certain policies and terrorism. But this time Young chooses to address it as a causal claim:

>Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place before the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Cole tries to make the case, citing the 9/11 Commission report, that Sept. 11 was ”punishment on the United States for supporting Ariel Sharon’s iron fist policies toward the Palestinians.” Yet the report makes it clear that planning for the attacks had been underway for about two years before Sharon became prime minister of Israel in March 2001, though Osama bin Laden evidently wanted to move up the operation in response to Sharon’s actions. And the radical Islamic terror network first struck New York City in 1993.

Presumably Cole would argue that the earlier terrorist acts were themselves the response to earlier *particular* policies such as troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, the continual support of Israel’s occupation, etc. Young, however, wants to argue that terrorists are motivated by the hatred of our way of life, rather than particular policies and perceived injustices. This is a difficult question–it is hard to understand what a sufficient cause of suicide bombing is for the terrorists. In addition, there are deep questions here that could be explored about the nature of historical causality–about the identification of necessary and sufficient conditions for historical events–about the relationship between abstractions and the concrete policies that implement these abstractions and make them an affront. But Young wants to cobble together a diatribe against supposed “moral confusions” on the left and not examine the complexities of causal claims. And whatever Cole’s confusions might turn out to be, they do not seem to be “moral” as Young would like.

>Other myopic responses abound. A few commentators insist on a moral equivalence between the deaths of Iraqi civilians in US military operations with the deaths of civilians in the London bombings. Yet the US military and its allies have made every effort to minimize civilian casualties; the deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians is overwhelmingly the work of so-called insurgents who drive explosive-packed cars into crowds of children while American soldiers hand out candy.

Five-hundred, or so, words into her column and Young has finally found a specifically moral claim to adduce as evidence. One wonders, in passing, how widespread this claim is, given that Young vaguely attributes this to a “few commentators” (and all her other cases are specifically attributed). Nonetheless, there seems to be something of a muddle here for those supposed “few commentators.” It seems reasonable to distinguish between first degree murder and second degree murder, and they are not morally equivalent. One might make a case for the claim that there are “moral similarities” between these sorts of deaths, but I suspect Young would be as unhappy about that. But if this is a moral confusion found only within a supposed “few commentators” it seems difficult to find an “egregious moral muddle” that defines the left on its basis.

So without any evidence advanced for her accusation, Young decides she’s finished her job.

>But acknowledging our mistakes and misdeeds should not undercut moral clarity when it comes to terrorism. The jihadists are driven primarily by hatred of Western civilization and its freedom; their primary targets are innocent civilians; and they cannot be defeated except by force.

Having failed to find an egregious moral muddle endemic within the left, Young chooses a simple assertion of her view to close her muddled accusations of moral muddles. Perhaps she is right about these last claims (there is of course no argument to defend them here). Nonetheless, the connection between these claims and the “moral clarity” which she wishes to claim for herself could do with some significant unmuddling.