Great Principles

I think The Howler has done an admirable job of disassembling the straight-talk meme that surrounds John McCain, so I’ll just direct you there (look at the archives). But now the straight talk express has a new passenger–George Will. At issue is what to do about the horrible mess that is Iraq. About this, Will says:

>At long last, rigor. McCain applies two principles of moral reasoning. There can be no moral duty to attempt what cannot be done. And: If you will an end, you must will the means to that end.

While the first doesn’t strike me as problematic, it doesn’t strike me as obvious. I’m bothered by the “cannot be done,” especially with reference to Iraq. What we initially attempted probably could not have been done, at least with the means we were willing to employ, but you go to war with the army you have, as someone once said. So baring a sense of “cannot” as logical impossibility, or extreme unlikelihood, I can’t say the first is obvious.

The second principle, however, seems vacuous. You cannot will things that you do not will to take place. In order for things to take place, actions–the means–must be employed to bring them about. So while you must will some means, you do not necessarily will any specific means (such as, in the case under discussion, increasing the number of troops in Iraq). This means that if you seek the end of violence in Iraq, you do not will the solutions offered by John McCain–i.e., more troops.

So while you must will some means to bring about your end, it doesn’t follow from that principle that you will the only means being offered. And so the two principles of moral reasoning leave us where we began.

One thought on “Great Principles”

  1. If we take Will to be expressing the principles behind the conditions under which McCain would call the troops home:

    McCain: “I will if at the point [sic] I think that we have exhausted every option and that we are doomed to failure.”

    perhaps a better principle capturing McCain’s reasoning would be this: We have no obligation to continue striving for a goal if all means to attain that goal have failed.

    This contains the idea that we have no moral obligation to do something that can’t be done, but is equivalent to saying we will pull out when we have failed.

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