On incidental harm in the process of compromise

Principal author:
John L. Clark

My recent article, The moral vote, prompted an interesting conversation, as I had hoped. A very prominent response to the question of how to vote (and which does, in fact, infuse our decision-making in general) is to choose the best of the available options, even if that choice involves a moral compromise (thus this is also viewed from the opposite angle as the lesser evil choice). It is just this approach that we debated, but this discussion took place in a separate venue, so I wanted to highlight it here.

Evan (2012-09-10T02:03:37-04:00)

In large democratic states, meaningful change is not possible without significant compromise. You wrote of “[failing] to confront the system as it actually exists.” In democratic systems this is what is feasible: to find change that makes the place slightly better and fight for that. Oddly enough, this limitation is a good thing. Governments where larger changes are possible are far more likely to commit far worse atrocities.

Me (2012-09-10T12:00:07-04:00)

The problem is that in the process of compromise, what you ignore “tacitly contributes to the destructiveness that results from empowering the compromise”. As a result, the “meaningful change” is an illusion, as it is subverted by the harm done with the power that you abdicated to achieve the compromise.

To use the current US presidential election as an example, if you support Obama because of a certain small set of causes, such as his accomplishments on equal rights, you also empower him with respect to his demonstrated militarism and civil rights damage. See, e.g., Obama's justice department grants final immunity to Bush's CIA torturers, among many other sources; Greenwald has done a consistently good job of documenting all sorts of problems with Obama's presidency, such as his support for and increasing use of drones; indefinite detention and torture; prosecution of whistleblowers; and of course continuing use of the military in general. And then there's his environmental policy; “all of the above” is the opposite of progress, here (although not to standard Capitalist interests, which is of course the point). That picture at the head of that article just says so much!

If you support Romney, on the other hand, because of a certain small set of causes, such as his or his party's general stance on so-called right to life issues, you also empower him with respect to his party's demonstrated militarism and even more flagrant disregard for environmental damage. I don't think I need to footnote any of that stuff, as it's so easy to find.

What's fascinating, of course, is that the invisible compromise zone looks so similar between the two main political party offerings in the United States. And yet it is so insidiously destructive, which makes the whole affair that much more terrifying. This analysis leads to the more general observation that these two parties are really wings of a unified party that supports broad-scale militarism, fascism, and imperial exploitation. I've seen them collectively called the Capitalist Party, and I don't think that's too far from the mark.

Evan (2012-09-10T16:47:11-04:00)

Perhaps you could provide a counter-example of at least one individual who was able to enact meaningful positive change without significant moral compromise in a large, multifaceted country? I'll point to a lot of examples of meaningful good compromised change and to examples of leaders having that kind of power using it for ill purposes, but I'm not sure the ideal you're espousing is possible. If there aren't examples in history, is there something in modern times that makes them different?

To touch on other points, Obama's "all of the above" environmental policy is certainly not ideal, but to call it the opposite of progress ignores the research put into renewable sources. It's not enough—not nearly—but it still matters. Most policies that he has enacted are similar: not nearly enough, but worth the effort—sometimes immensely so.

AMA gives way too much to insurance companies, but it means that if we don't have insurance while we're out of the country, US insurance companies will still let my wife have health care again. Dodd-Frank didn't go near far enough, but given a bit more chance to stand on its own legs will protect many people from predatory lending. Both these bills are likely to be neutered if the next administration is Republican.

Obama certainly should get us out of Afganistan, but he is far less likely than Romney to get us into a shooting war with Iran. And that rather brings me to the crux of my issue. If more people who had voted for Nader in Florida 12 years ago thought there was enough difference between Bush & Gore to be worth voting for Gore, then we wouldn't have gone to Iraq. We wouldn't have led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians there. That matters to me. That matters a lot. I feel responsible that I didn't do more to get Gore elected and stop the continual, repeating tragedies of the Bush years.

Me (2012-09-11T10:52:30-04:00)

It is indeed possible to look at certain things that a government has done, judge them to be good, and then assert that the good is worth all the bad. It seems like almost everyone in our society is doing this almost continuously. I simply cannot allow my support to go to the bad along with the good. Focusing on a limited good may ameliorate a portion of the bad, but the remaining bad is still wrong and thus must be rejected as vigorously as that which most vividly captures our attention. Indeed, restricting our vision in this way allows the remaining bad to corrupt any limited good that we support. In seeking our own salvation through compromise and limited incremental progress, we actually find our backs pressed to the wall, overwhelmed by forces we ignored as we compromised our way to impotent victories.

The election of 2000 is indeed a good example. We've seen largely continuous policies of militarism from both mainstream United States parties, and Gore's platform continued that trend (as has, as I mentioned, Obama's). I posit that the response to the attacks eleven years ago today would have been quite similar under a hypothetical Gore presidency as under the actual Bush presidency. After all, Gore would still have had a near-plurality of voters standing behind strong conservative policies, and combined with nearly unanimous support for general militarism from even the Democratic party, he would have experienced enormous pressure to charge into combat.

Maybe the government under his presidency wouldn't have gone after Saddam (although many wanted blood and had rightly scorned his autocratic rule (which the former US government had itself once wrongly supported in order to facilitate economic interests in the Middle East)), but I find it highly unlikely that Gore would not have retaliated in some way. And the person that I am now would have been no less disgusted at that policy of wrathful vengeance than I am at what actually transpired, and which continues to grip our entire polity. Further, regardless of what might have been different in the details of the two implementations, the spiral of violence and hatred across the world would have continued.

As to energy policy (in which we can even more clearly see the echoes from the Gore campaign, as well as reminders of some of the reasons for the military history sketched above), we can once again see how only looking at a limited good can lead us to blindness on larger problems. In this case, an "all of the above" energy policy clearly supports unlimited economic growth, tightly facilitated and tracked by energy consumption. This policy casts about for any and all ways to slake our enormous, and exponentially increasing, thirst. Embracing the partial benefits provided by renewable sources ignores the unrelenting pressure for fossilized energy sources that crashes along remorselessly right beside the growth in renewable production.

What happens to our society when all that consumption growth can no longer continue? What happens to it as global warming continues to intensify, and even accelerate? And, thinking back to US adventures in the Middle East (and elsewhere), what other injustices take place to support all of this? Renewable sources, indeed, are not exempt from an accounting. No small amount of materials and manufacturing goes into the infrastructure for the much-vaunted renewable revolution.

You ask me to point to examples of people who have tried to take a strong moral stance. I would of course first point to Jesus; while it seems trite, I believe his example also to be a true one, in fact the fundamentally true one. But more recently? Martin Luther King, Jr. was trying to take a strong and integrated moral stance. Of course he is best known for his successes at fighting for civil rights for Blacks under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but he grew in awareness of how racism was tied into both militarism and economic exploitation, and so started strongly advocating against war and for the poor. And then he was assassinated. His work required community cohesion and a strong moral framework. And it still does.

Evan (2012-09-11T13:18:47-04:00)

I didn't ask for examples of people who tried to take moral stances. I asked for a single example of someone who created sweeping positive meaningful change without compromising. (Or, alternatively, let me know how someone would accomplish it now when no one could throughout history.) Even Jesus affected very little change during his own lifetime and to view him by his followers presents a very compromised authority. (Which is not to diss Jesus; neither earthly nor political issues were really his primary concern.) Ghandi and Mandela both made some terrible sacrifices that still scar their countries today. MLK might have had relatively clean hands, but he didn't change any non-local policies himself. For that, he helped spur LBJ to action, knowing full well that LBJ would make a bunch of morally impure compromises to get civil rights legislation through.

There's just no easy way out. The civil rights laws LBJ pushed through did some bad things, but a whole lot more good. Yes, that means you have to look at the nitty-gritty. You find paths to victories that aren't entirely impotent and figure out the details of what the compromises actually cost. Every single action we take has the opportunity cost of something we didn't do instead: everything we do is some moral compromise. Politics doesn't get to be different because it's more complex.

In regards to Gore's likely 9/11 retaliation? I agree that he very well may have invaded Afghanistan on the behest of warmongering, vengeful Americans/politicians/business interests. (Though he might not have.) But he wouldn't have made up some silly case to go to Iraq. The only reason that happened at all was the particular combination of people around W in 2001-2003.

A lot of your arguments rest, in part, on the theory that all economic growth is bad. I see where you're coming from on it, but it's just not a strong enough point to use to justify so much else. It sounds to me a lot like "All X is bad because someday X will be too much." Economic growth is just not fully causal with population growth or energy growth. Those factors are directly problematic, but they can be dealt with while ignoring economic growth. When societies reach a certain level of economic security, they tend to stop exponential population growth. At a certain energy usage level--at least according to data from the last two decades--individuals' own energy footprint plateaus. So forget economic growth: that's a big fight that's not worth the effort. Stop population growth and energy per person growth. These are much smaller, more persuasive, and more winnable fights.

Me (2012-09-11T17:53:00-04:00)

As I wrote in the article, the real point is that our vote should be a symbol of underlying “community cohesion”, and that “it is precisely in this cohesion that the fertile soil for a truly just community lies”. Note that this is not about politics being “different”: I tried to emphasize that “[a]ll of our moral decisions matter”, and that it is important to talk about voting specifically as it happens to be “very visible” in our society. I was not arguing that we should try to find (or be) that one person who will wield the independent power to create “sweeping positive meaningful change without compromising”. Indeed, such a one would be independently obliterated by the world.

Thus did Jesus call disciples and build a church in order to propagate the work of salvation. To consider him without “his followers” is to miss the core of his message. His was, and is, a program of radical societal exodus as a community. And the early church was doing it, up until the insidious compromise with Constantine in 312. (There's that word again.) I completely disagree with the claim that "neither earthly nor political issues were really his primary concern"; his auditors at the time clearly heard his message as ramifying squarely in the social and political domains. (See e.g. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder (1994).)

Dr. King, likewise, called and depended on his own segment of nominal Christians to obtain leverage against the state. That his program was compromised by the government highlights the fact that that government was not morally unified with his cause. It hardly seems to me that he was satisfied with the changes encoded into law by Johnson, given that he continued to see the problem of racism lurking in the society beyond the law, including in economics and militarism.

I recognize that you, and many others, recoil at criticism of economic growth, but I certainly did not rest my argument solely on that fiscal abstraction. It is very easy to also observe the concomitant and associated exponential growth in inputs to and outputs from the economic beast. Our energy consumption (from "all of the above" sources) does continue to grow, as does our consumption of essentially any other resource you can imagine, as do our many streams of pollution, notably including greenhouse gases. To continue to vote for people who willfully ignore those paired factors is gravely dangerous, and just as immoral.

Our bad decisions have destructive consequences: that is why they are bad in the first place. Some of those clearly cause suffering now, and some of them lay the groundwork for suffering in the future. Yes, if what we are doing now will "someday" be too much, then it is wrong—now. Indeed, greed is corrosive, and should rightly be rejected. But even beyond that, in all of these cases what we are doing now ramifies its injustice immediately, as we continue to see around us.

This page was first published on 2012-09-18 17:44:00-04:00.

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