We Interrupt This Blog for a Moment of Hypermorality…

May 3, 2004

[Or: I don’t care what you’re willing to do to help someone if you think it’ll save you. I want to know what you’re willing to do when you think it’ll damn you.]

As with so much else in the Blogosphere, it began with a bon mot by Glenn Reynolds:

ARE WE GOING TOO SOFT IN IRAQ? Some people think so. It seems that way to me, too, though I’m reluctant to make a judgment at this distance. But in my lifetime, at least, the United States has generally erred by not being violent enough, rather than by being too brutal.

I’m not sure if Professor Reynolds meant this remark seriously, but it elicited a serious reply from Professor Mark Kleiman:

The besetting sin of liberalism is the refusal to learn the Machiavellian lesson that shedding some blood can, in some circumstances, reduce the total amount of blood shed. The besetting sin of conservatism is its deep belief that when brute force fails, you probably aren’t using enough.

At this point, when the pendulum was swinging well toward hypermorality, Matthew Yglesias gave it a nudge back toward rationality, arguing:

I think I know where Glenn is coming from on this. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on the second Gulf War, but since, say, 1990 there have been more instances of interventions the US did not undertake that I think we should have than instances of interventions we did undertake that I think we shouldn’t have. There have, moreover, been several instances (first Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghan War) where I think we rightly intervened, but we should have intervened more.

That said, Glenn is off the mark when he poses this as a question of “too violent vs. not violent enough.” The problem in almost all of these instances was not an aversion to inflicting violence, but an aversion to suffering casualties. … During Israel’s assault on Jenin, the IDF demonstrated a great deal of willingness to expose Israeli soldiers to harm in order to minimize the level of collateral destruction — more willingness to do so than the United States has demonstrated in any operations undertaken during my lifetime. Nevertheless, there was an awful lot of destruction.

To really do urban combat right (from a moral and political point of view) you would need to expose troops to even more potential harm. I used to blithely count myself as “in favor” of exposing American soldiers to greater harm (I think especially of my thoughts during Kosovo and Afghanistan) but lately I see that there’s a real issue here. … A volunteer force can’t regularly undertake operations for which no one would volunteer.

It’s at this point I feel strangely compelled to add my two cents and kick the pendulum back toward hypermorality. In my mind (or, perhaps better said, in my gut), the besetting sin of virtually all who advocate righteous violence—whether they stand on the Right or the Left—is that while they’re more than willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause, they are unwilling to contemplate staying there. They automatically absolve themselves of the sins they commit, whether or not they succeed in achieving the good that is to outweigh those sins. Worse, they consent to crusades only in the thought that they will win and so be saved, and not in the knowledge that they might be sacrificing not only their bodies but also their souls for the collective good. They are never even half the hero that Huck Finn became:

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter–and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.


I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a- floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a- trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

[From Chapter XXXI of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain]

We now return this blog to its regularly scheduled rationality.


One Response to “We Interrupt This Blog for a Moment of Hypermorality…”

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