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Guest Blog: Patriotism's Moral Duty

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Rob used to have his own blog. I liked his stuff, and when he gave it up I offered to let him show up here and Guest Blog on occasion. Recently, he took me up on my offer. It's a nice extension of the Veterans Day / Remembrance Day posts we ran yesterday. The Moral Duty of "Tribal Patriotism" Rob Lyman I had a long conversation about the war on terrorism with an academic expert on Tibetan Buddhism this weekend. Given that I'm a typical gun-totin' conservative, you may guess that we disagreed on more than a few points. As I considered some of his thoughts I started to write a piece about patriotism, then saw that Armed Liberal had modified and re-posted last year's Veteran's Day piece. I agree, heartily, and I have a bit to add as well. Here's a question for U.S. citizens: Does it matter that 3,000 Americans died on Sept. 11, rather than 3,000 Russians, Iraqis, or Bolivians? My response: Yes. It matters an awful lot. I'd like to make the case that this sensitivity to the murder of one's countrymen - I've been trying to think of a word, and all I can come up with is 'tribal patriotism' - isn't just acceptable, or desirable, but rather is morally mandatory.
Consider: Americans enjoy a democratic government which is, to a greater or lesser degree, responsive to our will. We are the authors of our government's actions. If I vote for someone whose platform is opening up the prisons, I am partly to blame for the victimization of innocents which results when all those murderers and rapists get turned loose. If I vote for a politician whose platform is unilateral disarmament, I am partly to blame for whatever military catastrophe results. If Americans are killed by terrorists that my government failed to hunt down and kill, I am partly to blame. Now, the first duty of the government is what? Why are governments created? Dr. Dean? No, I'm sorry, it doesn't have anything to do with dairy subsidies or prescription drugs. Governments are instituted among men to protect the citizens. If a government fails to protect the citizens, then the social contract is broken. The government may, quite legitimately, be voted out of power or, in the extreme, be overthrown by force. That means that the first duty of every citizen, who is, as I have said, the author of the government's actions, is the protection of fellow citizens. Now, South Koreans and Brazilians have no power over the U.S. governments (there are thousands of separate governments in the U.S., remember); they don't vote in our elections, and they can't run for office. They have no power, and thus no responsibility to the citizens of the U.S. We, in turn, have no power over the choices of their governments, and thus no inherent responsibility to worry about their safety. They should avoid recklessly endangering us, and we them, but that's the limit of our mutual obligation unless we voluntarily expand it by treaty and friendship. Therefore, to 'value all lives equally,' i.e. for an American to treat American deaths as no different from Taiwanese deaths, is not to be admirably cosmopolitan. It is a dereliction of the first duty of the citizen in a democracy, namely, the duty to protect fellow citizens from harm. Furthermore, subordinating this first duty of the government to the will of foreign governments - to use a domestic analogy, allowing the neighbors to vote (with veto power!) on the question of whether you should feed your children - is treason. I am not suggesting that death and dismemberment of non-Americans is insignificant and to be ignored. If Toronto or Tokyo were hit by a nuclear bomb, I'd be disappointed if some U.S. submarine commanders didn't get the most frightening orders of their lives. There is noting to stop the United States from voluntarily concluding alliances, or for that matter simply unilaterally intervening to help someone we like or in pursuit of an ideal such as freedom. But such alliances and intervention must be grounded in enlightened self-interest. We must get something from the bargain, and the action must not gratuitously endanger Americans. To go further with the child analogy, it's fine to share food with your hungry neighbours, but if you wind up starving your own children in the process you're a criminally bad parent. Each nation-state, or at least each democracy, is a tribe: we must hang together, or we will surely hang separately. And the democracies themselves form a sort of meta-tribe, which must hang together in the face of barbarism. It's unfortunate that so far we have failed to do so in a number of ways. I should also be clear that I'm not saying that it is unpatriotic, immoral, or treasonous to have opposed overthrowing Saddam's regime. Rather, it is unpatriotic, immoral, and treasonous to subordinate American national security to U.N. demands. Since France, Russia, and China have no obligation to protect Americans - and in fact have a perhaps opposing obligation to protect French, Russian, and Chinese - they don't get a veto over our government's actions. To reiterate: Opposing war because you think it will increase our vulnerability to terrorism = good. Opposing war because Belgium will be mad at us = bad. Now, I can almost hear the sophisticates of the world smugly pointing out that excessive attachment to one's tribe is the flaw of the Islamofacists: they think that people who disagree with their 9th century worldview, and Americans in particular, are subhuman and deserving of death. Am I not suggesting the same thing? Of course not. I say that the citizens of each country have an obligation to protect each other which supersedes any obligations they may owe to those outside of their country. That's a long way from saying that non-Americans are subhuman infidels, is it not? More important still are the standards to which I hold Americans abroad. Remember Daniel Pearl? Suppose we found a video of American soldiers beheading an Iraqi. Would we turn it into an Army recruiting video? Or would we drag them before courts-martial, on capital charges (and thus force the French to consider them for honorary citizenship)? There is no doubt as to the answer, and that answer easily separates us from the vicious murderers who are our enemies. So I agree with A.L. There is much in the American tradition of which we should be proud (and, I should add, there is much in the traditions of many other nations, of which those nations should be proud). But even if you can't get past the stain of slavery, or of Jim Crow, or of the abominable treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americans, you still owe a duty of patriotism to your fellow citizens. You have an obligation to try to protect them. If you fail in that obligation, you deprive our democracy, and indeed, the very idea of democracy, of legitimacy. Nobody wants that. Do they? --- UPDATES --- * Intelligent debate and discussions in the Comments section. As usual. * Judith Weiss has an outstanding complement to this essay, and shows that the issues Rob talks about are very much alive in other contexts as well: bq. "I understand the impulse to universalism and the discomfort with particularism (given some of its uglier manifestations). But universalism can produce the same kind of ugliness when it tries to destroy the particularism of family and religion in favor of an ideal - Stalinism and Pol Pot-ism come to mind here, as well as Wahabism - just ask the Bosnian Muslims. And particularism does not inexorably lead to aggression against those who are different." * Armed Liberal's "Selective Service" shows that he was paying close attention to the comments. One of them, he says, exemplifies the attitude among some liberals today who: "...believe they can have the benefits of modern liberal society without getting their hands dirty. They value moral purity and self-satisfaction above everything else...." Ouch.

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Tracked: November 13, 2003 2:01 PM
Chicken soup from George Junior
Excerpt: Roger Simon, in an evocatively titled post, comments on cartoonist Tom Tomorrow’s recent depiction of warbloggers as chickenhawks, which implied they should either sign-up or shut-up. It's a hot topic; the wide ranging discussion that follows Roger’s p...


So why did you pick the country as the boundary for validating tribalism? Why not the state, or the county or the city, or the neighborhood or the family, or the religion, or the color, or the race or any other simplistic binary?

While I certainly agree that people are more empathetic for those closer to them - members of the tribe - I have trouble accepting that this is a good thing and not some vestigial behavior that evolution has yet to rid us of. To argue that it is not just a good thing but a moral imperative is truly bazaar.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." -- Saul Bellow


I have always thought that the lesson of the Good Samaritan is that he showed kindness to someone who was not of his tribe and that such behaviour is the true mark of humanity, rather than concern for one's tribe. I'm a long time from any association with the church, so perhaps I'm misinterpreting the story.

I need to give this some more thought; however, I think a relevant criterion to answer KevinG is the "degree of control." The country is the boundary for Americans, because Americans, being citizens of a democracy, have direct influence over the government. If Washington screws something up, it's in part our fault as American citizens. If South Korea screws something up, while it may be our fault for not authorizing action that could have fixed it, the screwup isn't our fault the same way.

I would generally agree with the doctrine that you're only responsible for what you can influence; however, two gray areas I need to think about more are

(1) What does this imply about citizens living in less democratic circumstances? What about transnational organizations, if the disenfranchised have the freedom to act through them?

(1b) For that matter, is the freedom necessary, or just suffrage? It looks from the statement like suffrage is all that matters, but a more general doctrine breaks that up more.

(2) If we have the ability to influence an event, but it's not in our immediate sphere, do we share responsibility for the result? This question is more relevant for citizens of a superpower, because the case could be made that any misery we could stop but don't we're partially to blame for.

Nicely written piece. Of course, the citizens need to understand thier duties as well - something that seems to be sorely missing within our nation (and maybe the West as a whole). When the citizens fail in thier responsibility to raise successive generations of citizens (or worse, raise successive citizens to become hyper-critical, self haters in the name of "reasoned, priniciples questioning"). The notion of citizenry does not spring from the ground untended. It is a careful and deliberate education of youth in the culture of their tribe, locality, region, and/or nation. (It is ironic that citizens of other tribes/regions want nothing more than to join our tribe....clearly the appeal is strong - but unseen within our own native born population.)

What to do for the future? We need to return to the basics set forth in our (and world's) greatest documents (Declaration of Independence and Constitution), re-learn them ourselves, teach them to our young, and do all of this without resort to the constantly displayed divisive partisanship of both left and right.



I agree that the state has a strong and preferential obligation to protect, or in some cases avenge, its own citizens or subjects. It is necessary to keep faith with the living and the dead. So a good citizen in a democratic state has a sense of obligation to use his or her democratic influence to support actions to protect his or her fellow citizens. And so, education, in order to nurture good democratic citizens, should encourage children to form appropriate attitudes.

In the terroristic assault on America on 11 September, 2001, the terrorists killed about 3,000 people, of whom something like 2,000 were Americans, the rest being nationals of various other countries. As soon as there was one, I downloaded a map of all the countries that had lost people in that attack, expecting that that would be the coalition of countries that would support America, at least diplomatically, in avenging it. I was especially sure of the responses of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, because they are part of a a close-knit family of nations. I also had very high expectations of certain other countries, such as Germany. And because of my longstanding very high opinion of the morality of Islam, I expected this atrocity to be a great shock to the Muslim world, arousing antagonism to the terrorists and lots of practical actions taken not because the Americans asked for them but because Muslim morality required a stern and sufficient response to something as blatantly evil as this.

Over the next two years, I had to completely re-evaluate countries and even a religion based on their responses to this moral litmus test. This gave me a different pictures of who the world's good guys and bad guys are. I won't dwell on the bitter disappointments and negative re-evaluations. Instead, I want to say that my opinions of some countries have gone way up, because of how they reacted. I thought the British would be great, but they've been even better than that, in harder diplomatic circumstances and with less European support than I ever expected them to have. I already had a high opinion of the Americans, but it has gone way up. They really do care about their fellow citizens and their nation's friends, and they act accordingly.

Americans, compare yourselves to countries that lost lots of their citizens murdered on 11 September, 2001, and then decided, in effect, that it wasn't a big enough deal to do anything practical about. Then be proud.

As I see it, it's not about whether Americans ought to be patriotic. It's that they are.

Continue to remember your dead, Americans, and continue always to hold the lives of your fellow citizens dear. These things become you.

(Belated post for remembrance Day.)

In the closing remarks you restate the premise that each of us
owe a duty of patriotism to your fellow citizens. You have an obligation to try to protect them.

I wonder, does protection include more than military retribution?

If we can reasonably conclude that elements of our foreign policy promote instability, are we obligated to vote against those policies. Are we obligated to vote against the policies of instability even if they are in our financial interest or help promote our national corporate interests.

I think that the answer is yes.


John Elliot's comment is a perfect example of the modern malady. He takes a story about showing kindness to others outside the tribe, and somehow generalizes it to remove the obligation of consideration for and protection of one's fellow citizens.

John, you've badly missed the point of the story. Consider, first, that there may be more than one defining aspect of true humanity. Consider, also, that faithful attendance to obligations may also be part of that. The folks who wrote the Bible certainly did.

The Samaritan's kindness is a voluntary expression of kindness and fellow-feeling, and is praiseworthy on that asccount. Consideration for and protection of one's fellow citizens, in contrast, is an obligation in free societies that one has elected to remain a member of.

To fail in one's obligations in order to do things that are voluntary (like refusing to pay taxes so you can spend it on a new car) isn't smart. Or moral.


I would, in fact, say that citizens of one state, county, or city have obligations to their fellows in that political subdivision tht they do not have to the citizens of other subdivisions.

For instance, if the local schools are terrible and the children of my city get a lousy education, that's morally my problem to worry about. I get to vote for my local school board, and I get to vote on the periodic property-tax levies.

On the other hand, if the children from a different city or school system are getting a lousy education, that's NOT my problem--that's the problem of the people in that particular school district.

Likewise, if my locality has racist cops and judges, high taxes crushing small business, or lots of potholes, I have an obligation to worry about those problems. I don't have any obligation to worry about the potholes anywhere else in the country.

Of course, there are no governments in the U.S. based on race and religion. There is no "black government" or "Jewish government," so that particular tribalism is not invoked by my analysis.

I would never rule out the possibility of acting to help others outside the scope of this moral obligation--I'm not saying you shouldn't worry about the schools and potholes in a different town, just that you must worry about those in your town.

And Michael, I don't have any good answers to your "grey areas," which are important but, I think, much harder to think about.

"If we can reasonably conclude that elements of our foreign policy promote instability, are we obligated to vote against those policies[?] Are we obligated to vote against the policies of instability even if they are in our financial interest or help promote our national corporate interests[?]

I think that the answer is yes."

I would agree. If you believe military attacks will not make us safer, then you have a duty to oppose them.

I should also be clear that I'm not saying that it is unpatriotic, immoral, or treasonous to have opposed overthrowing Saddam's regime. Rather, it is unpatriotic, immoral, and treasonous to subordinate American national security to U.N. demands. Since France, Russia, and China have no obligation to protect Americans - and in fact have a perhaps opposing obligation to protect French, Russian, and Chinese - they don't get a veto over our government's actions.

Your argument juxtaposed with the argument Mortimer Adler presents in How to Think About War and Peace (that the cause of war is anarchy) is the best I've ever heard for the judicious establishment of an alliance of democracies as an alternative to the UN or NATO, and as a step toward a federalist state composed entirely of democratic polities.

I would also like to point out that such a project my well take several lifetimes to complete, and that it may well depend upon a deeper and broader acceptance of Lockean principles, since I would not expect Americans to surrender our universalist founding values for the sake of particularistic "national" values based on tribal and ethnic identities. In that sense your "tribalism" isn't really tribal.

And I also have to confess that I was at least partly responsible for the fact that S.M. Lipset never addressed the issue of national sovereignty implied by Adler's thesis. When I was his R.A. he asked me to research the topic, and when I presented my findings he decided he didn't know enough about it to even begin. However, I think he would agree with the preceding paragraph, that the US is both established on the basis of a universalist set of beliefs and that it would only surrender national sovereignty to a polity that shared those beliefs and was willing to codify and institutionalize the principles.

Well, I said a lot more than I intended to say... so thanks for the spark.

Rob -

This is great.



So, you advocate that we have a moral obligation to draw arbitrary lines around our self interest - school district, county, country, community, gym club - and to work at protecting that self-interest.

We can pursue this without regard for the self-interest circles drawn by other people. Their circles are their problems; as long as we get our potholes fixed our conscience is clear.

Presumably, we need not consider the effects on others of pursuing our unless our ability to defend these interests is inadequate; in which case, we have a moral obligation to increase our ability to defend them.

These self-interest circles you propose - do, they only include governmental associations or do other associations have the same obligations? Which associations would have valid self-interests to pursue and which ones would not?

Clearly people are responsible for themselves. Clearly the state has an obligation to protect it's citizens. The points are obvious but they are not sufficient to provide any moral framework. Michael's second 'grey area' ( actually it is not a grey area since it takes a position opposite to your thesis ) is important. Ones moral obligation does not end at some arbitrary tribe boundary.

The sphere of influence argument gets a little hazy as well. The world is a much more integrated place than it ever has been. You do - or rather your vote does - affect policy in other countries as does mine.

You could not have been more clear in stating what many people in the world feel is wrong with US foreign policy. Presumably that was your intent.


KevinG, all lines of demarcation are arbitrary. You choose to provide for people called your "family" because you have a biological-contractual connection to them. But there's no reason children couldn't be raised 'in common'. The line around "your family" is arbitrary.

It is no less real for all that.

Your moral obligation does not end at that boundary, but it surely begins there. You should always consider the effects of your actions on others. But you are RESPONSIBLE FOR your family. American citizens must consider the effects of their actions on others. But they are RESPONSIBLE FOR the welfare and safety of their fellow citizens, and that has to be the priority when push comes to shove. Sometimes, it does come down to a choice.

As a citizen in a democratic country, the jurisdictional lines you can vote in (arbitrary or not) form a holonic ring of responsibilities. Why? Because you're in charge of these jurisdictions. With a little help from your fellow citizens.

In other words, you automatically accept that RESPONSIBILITY as part of being a citizen. You can use it well, or use it badly, or ignore it, but the obligation and responsibility remains regardless. Just like being a parent. You can walk out on your kid forever - but that doesn't cancel your obligation, just makes you a rotten dad.

By confusing an obligation to consider with actual responsibility (a confusion that must necessarily cut both ways), you could not have been more clear in exemplifying what many people in the world feel is wrong with the efette, eternally deadlocked, 'words not action' U.N./Euro approach to foreign policy. Presumably that was your intent.

Take this paragraph:

Consider: Americans enjoy a democratic government which is, to a greater or lesser degree,
responsive to our will. We are the authors of our government's actions. If I vote for someone whose
platform is opening up the prisons, I am partly to blame for the victimization of innocents which
results when all those murderers and rapists get turned loose. If I vote for a politician whose
platform is unilateral disarmament, I am partly to blame for whatever military catastrophe results. If
Americans are killed by terrorists that my government failed to hunt down and kill, I am partly to

This prompts a question: If I vote against someone who wins, am I blameless?

I voted against Clinton and I voted against Bush, and I think the war in Iraq weakens us with respect to terrorists (more cause for terrorists to attack the US, while wasting our strength disarming the disarmed). This administration seems uninterested in my opinion, or in the opinions of anyone outside of a very small circle, excluding the CIA, state department, hawkish bloggers, and conservative members of the military, legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. If they want me to accept blame or responsibility for their actions, they'll have to sell it a lot harder than as 'patriotism'. Attacking Iraq seems like an act for the sake of action, or a diversion from the retribution against Al Qaida. It isn't enough to be gifting freedom to the unfree while bartering away our bill of rights in the name of homeland security.

If you want me to share blame, you'll have to share the planning and answer criticism. If not, it is your responsibility.


This isn't about apportioning blame, it's about taking responsibility. I was a tad unclear on that, sorry.

I did vote for Bush, but that doesn't mean I want someone to yell at me about steel tariffs. Nor do I want foreigners to corner me and lecture me on Israel policy (which has actually happened, and boy is it annoying). That's "blame," and it's absurd to pin it on any one person (other than Bush, of course, at whose desk the buck must necessarily stop).

Taking responsibility means recognizing that a duty exists and acting to discharge it honorably. That can mean opposition to war in Iraq, for the good reasons you gave. It can also mean supporting the war in Iraq because you hope it will improve our long-term security.

But it CANNOT mean opposing war in Iraq because you want Bush to lose in 2004. It cannot mean supporting war in Iraq because you hate Muslims. Both of those positions are fundamentally irresponsible, regardless of whether you agree with the ultimate outcome.

Martin, this is what I got from your post:

The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens. In a democracy, citizens are the authors of the government's actions. Therefore, the first duty of every citizen is the protection of their fellows. And thus: To 'value all lives equally,' is a dereliction of a citizen’s duty and morally wrong.

(I’m not trying to build a straw man here, so please correct me if, by trying to take your meaning, I've twisted the sense of what you said).

I'm all for protecting American citizens. I think we should do more of it. But I have some questions about your reasoning and conclusions.

In what way can Americans who voted for Al Gore be regarded as "authors" of the present government’s actions?

Are all the duties of the US government also, fully and severally, the duties of each citizen?

I believe that all are created equal and that one life cannot be weighed against another. How do I square that with your idea that, as an American citizen, it is “morally mandatory” for me to value an American life more highly than anyone else’s?


My apologies, my last comment should have been addressed to you, not "Martin".


You and I, Like Rob, take our responsibilities seriously. I think we have that in common.

What concerns me about Rob's essay is the ease with which the concept can be distorted and misused. The distortions come in at least two way.

The first is the distortion of equivalence. If we equate our obligation to pursue a lesser need (eduaction, economic interests, potholes, whatever) with the mere consideration that is required for others' more fundamental needs, then we are in trouble. Is our obligation to provide economic stability greater than our obligation to prevent poverty for others that may result from our economic stability?

This equivalency is at the root of slavery and was the justification for Germany to commence annexing resources as WWII got rolling. [no, I am not drawing any parallels - just choosing two volatile examples]

The second distortion is the us / them distortion. The us / them distinction is a powerful primitive response. It is a precursor to the more dangerous 'devaluing' of others' lives. Rob, IMO, comes perilously close to this by nearly saying some lives are worth more in an objective way. Clearly there are emotional connections that are more important than others - that is different from objectively saying that one life is worth more than another.

The powerful nature of us/them distinctions is why we need to be careful about the circles-of-vested-interest that we draw and the consequences of our actions.

There are some lunatics around the world who are heedless of their obligations to others in the pursuit of their tribes mis-guided vested interests. They are called terrorists. [no parallels inferred here either].

I accept my responsibilities, just as you do. I have an obligation to protect myself and my clan; I have an equivalent obligation to prevent harm to other clans. I draw as few us/them distinctions as possible. I try to draw my circle-of-interest as large as possible - certainly it doesn't stop at my nations boundaries or diminish as it crosses them.


In general, I agreed with the premises you put forth for participation in and accountability for and toward the citizen-government relationship. A well-written piece, and it challenged many of my most cynical attitudes toward America. (Currently re-evaluating...). I did have some questions about how one defines the "citizenry," however--take, for example, those who are not within the main of democratic or capitalist participation (i.e. minority communities). I went into this question in a little more detail on my blog, but I am wondering how you would address the often radically different kinds of "citizenry" within America's boundaries?

Thanks for a well-written, critical, and challenging post. May all those who died not have died in vain.


I can't see how it matters that Gore's supporters didn't prevail. They are not therby excused from their obligation to be pro-American. Bush is not the United States; defeating him must always be subordinate to defeating the enemies of the United States.

Yes, the duties of the government are the duties of each citizen. This is different from saying that everything the government does is the duty of each citizen; I don't think I have the slightest duty to fund obscene "art" or issue block grants to small businesses.

This is also different from saying that the duties of a citizen are the same as those of government; I consider charity a moral duty, but not support for government-run welfare.

I agree with you in the abstract that one life cannot be weighed against another. And I would not, without reason, wish any harm to non-Americans by virtue of their nationality. Joe puts it very well: "Your moral obligation doesn't end at that boundry, but surely it starts there."

That is, you shouldn't think of Mexicans as expendable, but their lives not not, fundamentally, in your hands, and you cannot be asked to provide for their safety any more than you can be asked to provide for every single child in the country. The lives of Americans (like the lives of your own children) ARE in your hands, so you had better place them front-and-center in your priorities.

AC8 and George...

I've replied in a post, above.



I think that the only community in the US which can't participate in the political process is immigrants who haven't got their citizenship yet.

I would argue that they have obligations to their adopted country, grounded in the fact that they are voluntarily here, busily deriving benefits from the US and its laws. But, lacking power, their responsibility is substantially attenuated.

I would argue the same for any other disenfranchised group: some obligation, but not as much as voters. But, to be frank, I don't think that any group of citizens is disenfrancised enough to qualify.


I should have said this, too: professional politicians, op-ed columnists, and other generally powerful people probably have a greater obligation than, say, diesel mechanics. But I'm very hesitant to permit people to be irresponsible based on a lack of power.

I have absolutely no patience for racist politicians; but I don't have much patience for racist homeless people either. The analisys applies to this issue, as well.

I don't think that any group of citizens is disenfranchised enough to qualify

How about convicted felons? According to *this page*, some 3.9 million Americans were disenfranchised in the 1998 election because of convictions.

A large number are permanently disenfranchised due to state law! (Wow, given the American respect for democracy, I was massively suprised how many states are quick to permanently strip someone of voting rights.)

Anyway, if getting a vote means getting responsibility, this would seem counterproductive in the extreme, as the last thing you want to do is even further remove those convicted of a crime from participation in society (at least if you ever intend to integrate them back into society).


Fair point, at least as regards those who commit relatively minor crimes which our overzealous legislators have pumped up to felonies. Don't look to me for sympathy if rapists can't vote.

But that's a marginal problem, not a central one.

Also note that I have argued that a vote makes responsible conduct mandatory; I have not argued that not having a vote makes it optional.


I didn't mean Gore voters specifically. I guess I should have used a more general example.

I was questioning how the idea that authorship implies responsibility could be used to ascribe duties to someone who did not vote for a particular course of action.

In my view, the idea of authorship is unnecessary and raises more problems than it solves. You touched on some of them in your first response to KevinG.

I believe that, as Americans, we have a duty to our country, and responsibilities to our fellow citizens, that far outweigh any concerns we may have for the people of other nations.

In questioning you, I was seeking to understand your reasoning and clarify your conclusions. Judging by your response, I have no hesitation in agreeing with you; its just I get there by a different route.

Thanks Rob,

It does make more sense as responsibility rather than blame. I recognize a duty and a responsibility towards the troops who have volunteered themselves to keep us safe. In the service of those duties, I have a duty to demand accountability of our leaders and be critical of what seem to be misguided policies.

I think they are shirking their duty in not planning responsibly, and actively working towards a closed government.


Thughtful response, thanks. Note that Rob's blog post was very specific in singling out the safety and security of one's fellow citizens as a primary obligation. Which removes the "lesser need" argument, because there's nothing "lesser" about that.

But hold on to those thoughts, and step into your opposition's head for second.

I'd argue that recent events show absolutely incontrovertible examples of equating "the obligation to pursue a lesser need (eduaction, economic interests, potholes, whatever) with the mere consideration that is required for others' more fundamental needs"... how else do you describe nations that defended Saddam Hussein's regime in all ways short of war to further their own business interests, as the French & Russians did? They knew that any future consequences of inaction would probably be borne by Americans, and they not only tolerated that, they welcomed it.

I would also argue that the fundamental need of Iraqis themselves was ignored, deliberately, to fulfil those lesser needs. Neither the French, nor the Russians, nor the Germans was ignorant of the mass graves et. al. in Iraq.

This is EXACTLY the way conservatives see the situation, and why the opinions of Paris or "the international community" (yeah, right, ask the Congolese how helpful that is - or the Rwandans) don't have much (any?) moral standing with us any more.

Faced with that behaviour and events like NATO's minimalist response when America asked for help instead of offering it, I took one belief (we are responsible for the security of our fellow citizens), and combined it with an observation (many regimes, including many supposed allies, are indifferent or even hostile to those concerns), and reached a conclusion:

If other nations cannot or will not help, we'll have to provide for each other, accept whatever sincere and useful help other nations are prepared to offer, and do what we believe must be done. We didn't choose this war, but it has begun and will continue against us whether we fight or no. The price is the price, the burden is the burden.

And yes, we're doing this for our own security. Squishing fascists and oppressive dictators around the world is a nice bonus, though, and we're going to take those kinds of real benefits to others into account at some level - certainly weight it higher than the economic interests of the Europeans, or the jangled nerves of some diplomat.

Will we therefore have to squish every evil dictator, and venture abroad in search of monsters to destroy? No. The lives of our fellow citizens are in our keeping, and must not be sacrificed without good reason. We do not seek the destruction of every monster... but when we do destroy one, we'll be happy we did it and proud of our work.

And when the security of our fellow citizens is seen to be at risk, or when a monster can be crushed swiftly and decisively before thousands more die and regional instability can be averted (Milosevic, for instance, and we'd be happy to see Muagabe get the same, vs. the logistics of The Congo which vex us)... then let's roll, and let's back it all the way.

So, there's a quick tour through the heads of your opponents, using your own construct + Rob's thoughts.

We can argue, fiercely, about what options are most effective, and what the plan should be, and how protection best can be accomplished. Those arguments are part of the reason citizen armies have historically been so deadly. That is patriotic - as long as the underlying sense of obligation, and the responsibility to protect are accepted, and clearly being acted upon.

If, however, those obligations are denied or betrayed by domestic politics that are elevated above the demands of external security (i.e. "we want to beat Bush, and if America loses in Iraq that's just acceptable collateral damage"), or a "cosmopolitanism of non-commitment" whose main attraction is that it asks nothing substantial of those who pledge loyalty to it... then no, that is not patriotism. Not is it moral in any meaningful way.

This essay addresses the exact same issues. No surprise since Judaism is a nationality (with religious components). The essay I link to says that Jews are most deeply hated precisely because we refuse to assimilate and lose our culture. This is patriotism. But it is precisely that loyalty to family and culture that strengthens us to produce so much good in the world.

I understand the impulse to universalism and the discomfort with particularism (given some of its uglier manifestations). But universalism can produce the same kind of ugliness when it tries to destroy the particularism of family and religion in favor of an ideal - Stalinism and Pol Pot-ism come to mind here, as well as Wahabism - just ask the Bosnian Muslims.

The George Soros' and Tony Judts of the world are uncomfortable with ANY preference for one group over another, for any reason. At the same time they decry "globalization": bland global commercialism and the disappearance of languages and local control and customs. But to keep a culture going (especially in the midst of strong pressure to give it up) you have to have a critical mass of people who consistently and repeatedly PREFER it to another.

If they were logical, they would be gathering around the Jewish community asking us how we do it, instead of calling us racist when we do what they admire and promote for other groups.


I don't have time to read your response properly now - it looks interesting.

I will say that we agree that these people:
If, however, those obligations are denied or betrayed by domestic politics that are elevated above the demands of external security (i.e. "we want to beat Bush, and if America loses in Iraq that's just acceptable collateral damage")
are poor citizens.

I don't like Bush - I don't think he is up to the job. But people who are so partisan that they would accept a failure in Iraq - you know, the anyone but Bush people, well the kindest thing you can say is that they are not patriots.



I appreciate your comments, and would like to add the following thought to them;

I fear another effect of drawing circles with an us/them mentality is that secondary effects of defending your interests are generally not sufficiently considered. The focus on the 'us' interests makes it all too easy to underestimate how actions to defend that interest might make the 'them' circles that you impact upon react.

As an example, if my actions to satisfy my need to feel secure make my neighbor feel less secure as a result, then his counter-actions might very easily result in a lessening of my own feeling of security (either relative to my increased security, or perhaps even overall!). By taking these follow-on effects into account it might actually turn out that the best I can do to increase my feeling of security is take meditation classes and leave that gun in the store that sells it.

Jerry - Taking that back to the national stage, you're saying something like this?

Opposing action X because it's not in your nation's interest - good

Opposing action X because nation Y doesn't like it, but they won't do much besides be unhappy - bad

Opposing action X because nations A, B, C, which currently like us, will turn against us and begin acting contrary to our interests - good.

(As an aside, I've thought about my "what about citizens under dictatorships?" side question, and I think in general we do drop their responsibility levels; hence the doctrine of "odious debt" and the like.)


I think that's about right yes... obviously there can be no absolute number of opposers for a given question that might tip the scale, but at some point the benefit of any action might be far overshadowed by the counter-actions of other groups. Note that this could even be a single opposing group or country.

And don't forget that those counter-actions by 'them' might result in other parties than 'us' taking yet further actions against 'them' tipping the scale the other way again.

The central point I suppose is that us/them mentality tends to simplify complex subjects beyond the point where actions taken based on the analysis of the perception has any value related back to the actual situation.

I personally believe it is a more and more prevalent modern misconception that any 'general' recipies excist to deal with situations without the need for critical thought.

Just wanted to give a big hand and a thank you to Rob Lyman for this Guest Blog. Great job, and the quality of the subsequent exchange is another testament to his work in writing this.


Are we obligated to vote against the policies of instability even if they are in our financial interest or help promote our national corporate interests.

Corporate interest is like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it. Except for the terrorists.

Therein lies the affinity that the socialist left has with terrorists. The terrorists co-mingle their anti-infidel rhetoric with anti-capitalist rhetoric. The pavlovian left responds in the same manner as a teenager to a Joe Camel ad.


What you're getting at is usually called "enlightened self-interest." We must make some accomodation to the desires of others at the price of our short-term interests because it is in our long-term interest to do so. That is unquestionably important; no serious discussion of policy can omit it.

The people I'm trying to criticize are doing the opposite--sacrificing our long-term interests (in a stable Iraq, in a secure country) for a short-term interest (beating Bush, feeling superior, whatever). That is the most unenlighted form of self interest I can imagine.

My only criticism is with this:

"Governments are instituted among men to protect the citizens."

I would argue that while that is the purpose of some governments, our American government(s) are more correctly described as being instituted for the purpose of establishing, defending, and extending individual liberty.


I would like to comment on this discussion as I find it fascinating -- both philosophically as well as socially.

However, I'll refrain from any sort of diatribe on social contracts and obligations. What I understand as the take-home message is that America, in general, have failed to instill the significance of civic duties and obligations in its citizenry and that the failure to do so over the last 30 years has come back to roost with a vengeance.

OK, I will add my 2 cents... but real brief. Civic obligation has nothing to do with agreement, it has everything to do with participation and for lack of a better term "good sportsmanship" for the good of the whole nation. Participation can be defined in terms of voicing opinions and voting for and persuing agendas that one believes is most beneficial for the whole nation. The "good sportsmanship" aspect is to support, but not unquestionably, the path taken by the government doing everything in one's power to help it succeed for the good of the people it is responsible for. If the government fails to fulfill it's obligation to the citizenry, then one's participation is required to steer the government back on track. Partisanship all buts fails on both accounts.

I agree with a lot of the statements in this post but I think one of the things that is confusing people is that just because one has a responsibility to protect one's fellow citizens does not mean that is the sole responsibility that a person has.

Rob is basically describing one duty of a duty based moral code and it is obvious that he believes this is one of many duties a person has. In any duty based moral code numerous (sometimes conflicting) duties must constantly be arbitrated to determine the moral course of action. There are duties and situations that can combine to trump the need to defend ones fellow citizens.

It is also important to note that degree of responsibility of a voter is proportional to the amount of influence they can have. Thus we are more responsible for local matters than national matters since we are a greater proportion of the electorate. Similarily, we are 'citizen' of the world and do have a responsibility to it since our nation has a great deal of power and we as voters have ultimate control (thus ultimate responsibility) of how that power is used.


I think you have articulated exactly why I think drawing the line at your border is such a problem. You argue that other countries do the same thing - the French, the Russians, the Germans et. al. - and that this is a bad thing. We agree.

International politics is a dirty game. All of the world's powerful countries have, to one extent or another, engaged in some pretty nasty behavior. When you say the fundamental needs of Iraqis were ignored by the French et. al. I presume you mean their 'human right', liberty, and physical security. You are right, but the list of nations ignoring these rights and complicit is maintaining Saddam's power is too short.

These are very powerful examples you have provided. They show the dangers of the equivalence distortion that I was concerned about. On this point it seems we agree.

We start to diverge as your post continues. It seems to me that you believe that legitimate security interests were served by the invasion of Iraq. I don't. I think it was a serious miscalculation. It seems that you think Iraq posed a serious and credible security threat to the US and allies. I didn't think that prior to the war and I still don't. We could probably argue this point forever without agreement. Lets just take it as read that reasonable people can disagree on the seriousness of the threat and the appropriateness of the response.

Most of the rest of the world was deeply cynical about the motivations for regime change and dubious of the factual justification. Was some of that political resistance based on protecting their own self-interest? I think it had to play a role. Was some of that political resistance based on the view that US foreign policy places 'lesser US interests' above other countries' more 'fundamental interests'? Yes, IMO, that played a large part. This, I think, relates to Jerry's point - has the previous pursuit of lesser interests had the consequence that support for marginal calls is now impossible to rally?

It is for these reasons that I have a problem with Rob's conclusions. The observation that people are still tribal in nature is absolutely correct. The conclusion that this is a good thing let alone a moral imperative is, IMO, wrong. If you must draw us/them distinctions, make the us as inclusive as possible.



I don't see how most of what you've written conflicts with what I wrote. You argue that we should be hesitant to place American economic interests above the lives and liberties of foreigners; that's not crazy, or contrary to my thinking. You argue that we have done so in the past, and this has harmed our credibility in the world; that's probably true (although I don't think it's possible to be the most powerful nation on Earth and be anything but widely hated).

No disagreement here.

Nor would I disagree with the notion that we should consider carefully the impact of US action on others, or that we should not discount their lives merely because they are not Americans. Obviously foreign civilian casualties are a tragedy we must avoid whenever possible.

Nor do I dispute that the pursuit of long-term interests may require short-term sacrifice, and that proper policy will take that into account.

And of course I recognize that reasonable people may differ on a particular course of action.

But, when push comes to shove--and, in a world of terrorism, push comes rather frequently to shove--and I have to choose, I'll choose Americans over any others. Just like I'll choose my wife and kids over all others.

So I guess my question for you is, when faced with the unescapable choice: American lives or foreign lives, who will you choose, and why?


A house must be built on a foundation. Living in Canada and watching the USA so closely offers an interesting comparative lab situation. Here's one of my conclusions: Attachment to higher things is built on attachment to smaller things. You will never attain what you wish unless you have healthy sets of attachments and responsibility beneath (we don't do that so well up here, and it shows in large and small ways).

Unfortunately, the standard liberal approach is to deny national patriotism and other subsidiary forms in order to create a larger set of "obligations" that involves no real responsibility, and no serious secrifice or prospect of same.

I think that's a major mistake.

I also think the example you cite doesn't prove what you think it does.

If your argument is that Iraq was never a threat to America, then frankly the rest of the world's position doesn't much matter, does it? I think the evidence is against you (see, for example, Dan Darling's "A Question of Targets" post today), but at least it's an argument in a legitimate sphere: about the security interests of your fellow citizens, and the threats to it, and the best means of realizing the goal.

This is where I see you go off track:

"Most of the rest of the world was deeply cynical about the motivations for regime change and dubious of the factual justification."

No. You are placing the cart before the horse.

Most of the rest of the world was deeply cynical about pursuing their own lesser interests, and covered for that by refusing to publicly believe ANY evidence presented and attributing bad motives. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Welcome to human nature, amply demonstrated throughout history.

You see the reaction of our "allies" as driven by American actions. I see it as pre-existing, and can back that up by the fact that they behaved the exact same way with Clinton, whose diplomatic approach was very different. Hard as it may be to believe, the variable here was NOT the USA. Agreement was NEVER possible, no matter what.

These nations could do this secure in the knowledge that Americans (and of course Iraqis) would bear the brunt of any bad outcomes which resulted.

If you're stupid enough to fall for that ploy, you deserve what you get.

Which is why A.L.'s quotes from Schaar are so relevant: legacy, community, shared destiny and so shared responsibility (because, as the example above shows, you don't get the responsibility if the sense of shared destiny is missing).

This is why patriotism is ultimately necessary, that citizens with shared destinies as citizens in a polity may see to each other's safety and security. Because when it comes right down to it, no-one else is guaranteed to do so. This important component of carefull-cultivated citizenship IS a guarantee, one that can be relied upon due to the bonds of shared community, shared destiny and shared obligation that is realized and implemented at many levels, on a daily basis.

In a dangerous world, the security guarantee provided by one's fellow citizens is no small thing. Ask the Rwandans. Ask the people of Srebrenica. At least, ask those who are left. Their safety and security were entrusted to others (oddly, to many of the same people the Left wished to entrust Iraq and Iraqis). They were betrayed, or it was inconvenient to do what had to be done. So they died. Or, more accurately, their murder was allowed to happen.

So sad – but not nearly as sad as it would be if it was actually anyone you knew, is it?

To, in effect abandon one's fellow citizens to this fate, as a matter of policy, is neither moral nor patriotic. Americans must be able to stand on their own and do what is necessary for the safety and security of their country. The details of those policies are for Americans to argue and decide, and the positions of other nations are data in those arguments – but no more. If others don't like that, it may create planning obstacles but that's all they are. It does NOT cancel the underlying responsibility.

For safety and security are foremost. They're about ensuring that wahatever your disagreements, there's something still there at the end of the day to disagree over. But the "daily basis" bit is also critical, and goes a long way toward explaining why localized attachments matter and blind cosmopolitanism that denies all levels beneath is certain to fail.

The war that has been declared upon America is simply providing Americans with illustrations of these pre-existing truths, as pleasant promises give way to finding out who will actually follow through and who won't, and so highlight the importance of a guarantee that CAN be relied upon.

For America's great advantage in the world, unremarked but no less unique, is this: so long as Americans keep faith with each other at the fundamental levels of shared obligation in citizenship, and a mutual concern for the security of their fellow citizens as an overarching responsibility, you cannot be beaten.

Well, as far Convicted Felons go. I am sorry, when they crossed the line from being productive citizens to criminals they lost a right to vote.

When I was in the Army, people talked about getting kicked out, one of the more powerful reasons not to was because you would lose your right to vote.

Yes, if you get an Article 15, you lose a right. But did you not give up that right, when you purposely broke your oath to country?

Convicted Felons, granted anyone who can prove their innocence should get that right back in spades. But do you really want Convicts able to set policy? Elect judges who take it easier on Felons? Or politicians who do?

Or do you want the Convicted Felons to vote, because they usually vote for candidates you approve of?

I always laugh at what Sideshow Bob said in a 1991 episode of the 'The Simpsons', "You can't keep me in jail forever, there will be a Democrat in the White House one day."

I still laugh at that line each and every time I hear it.

This is a great piece of reasoning. A couple of things.


The story that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan was not just about the Samaritan who stopped and helped. It was also about the two members of the "tribe" who did not stop to help. This was meant to shame the Jews who refused to fulfill their "tribal" obligations and expose their hypocracy. The context was the command to love your neighbor as yourself. And after being asked, "Who is my neighbor?", Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It also exposed the racists attitudes of the religious leaders of the time.

Note that Jesus, a Jew, was telling other Jews, that by invoking their religious obligations as excuses for neglecting their fellow Jew in need, they were being hypocritical. Jesus never said that the Good Samaritan had an obligation to help the Jew in need; rather he was saying that a foreigner, who had no obligation, was nevertheless making up for the refusal of the two other Jews in the story to fulfill their obligation.

In other words, "Here is a man, a despised Samaritan, acting as a good neighbor, and you, who quibble by asking 'Who is my neighbor?', really already know the answer to that question, but have been unwilling to act responsibly. Rather than fulfill obligations that should be patently obvious, you look for excuses to avoid them. Shame on you."

Nowhere does Jesus ever imply that the Samaritan has a moral obligation to help the Jew on the road. Rather, he castigates the Jewish religious leaders for refusing to fulfill their obligations. This in no way contradicts the premise of this article. Now if we act as "Good Samaritans" then, maybe we deserve praise, but we have an obligation to assist the members of our own "tribe."


The Declaration of Independence clearly states

"...That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of the Ends, it is the Right if the People to alter r abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles, and organizing it Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

So the clear primary purpose of government is the Security of its own people. Other things are acceptable, but they are optional. The security of its own people is government's primary job. So the War in Iraq must be justified on these lines. We have the option of military intervention for numerous reasons, but a threat to the security of US citizens triggers an obligation on the part of the government to act.

A legitimate question that arises is whether the Iraq conflict was predicated on a real security threat to the USA. But Rob is correct when he says that opposing the War on the grounds of offending our allies is not a legitimate criticism in its own right.

There are two legitimate avenues to protest the War in Iraq. 1) Iraq did not pose a real security threat, or 2) Iraq did pose a security threat, but the administration acted inappropiately to that threat and actually increased the threat rather than reduced it. I happen to disagree with both of these points. But they are legitimate avenues of protest. UN blessing, NATO blessing, or political opposition to the domestic policies of the Bush Administration are NOT legitimate avenues of protest.

Neither is the misguided "We are citizens of the World" canard. Of course we are citizens of the world, but we are also citizens of many government jurisdictions. The closer the jurisdiction is to you, the greater the increase of your personal responsibilities. If the citizens of my neighboring county decide to take up arms to overthrow and annex my county, my obligation is more immediate than an attack on my state or my country. Those who argue "We are citizens of the world" are merely trying to escape from their more immediate responsibilities, just the the Jewish religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One other thought about the Good Samaritan story. Remember that the story was told to, and targeted at, the Jews who refused to fulfill their tribal obligations. There is no evidence that Jesus ever told this story to Samaritans so that they would accept personal responsibility for the welfare of the Jews.

So, when invoking Biblical analogies, it is helpful to not only read the story, but to understand the original audience to the story. Here, the clear point of Jesus is to shame his fellow Jews for refusing to accept responsibility. In the same manner, Americans who refuse to accept responsibility for their fellow Americans safety and welfare should also be ashamed.

It seems to me that any permanent solution to the problem of Islamic Terror lies in the nurturing/installation of democracy in the Middle East, and increasing material happiness and liberty.

Anything less is merely more stopgaps and window dressing, and so from that long term perspective, Iraq makes total sense.

We don't want retribution for 9/11, we want another one to just not be in the realm of the possible.

No one currently worries about attacks from German, Japanese, Russian or Italian terrorists. Note that we crushed the Russians into anarcho democratic capitalism with a decades long battle of wills. We WILL see through and face down long term threats to our national safety.

Before 911 there was no flash point to spark the American will to the level needed to engage in such frightening social engineering of that part of the world at the point of the sword.

After it, I believe that any other course would lead to failure and eventual political suicide for those who have a more limited (and hence shortcited) response to this problem.

Thank god the Dems are self-destructing in this fashion while out of office.

The anarcho-capitalist and Green parts of my soul may viscerally hate many things Bush has done, but he's getting this right, and in War, that is all that matters.

We've finally had enough with "terrorist news as usual" from that part of the world.

Regardless of how it happened, Osama succeeded in getting our attention; he won the $100 Billion regional reconstruction prize, not the one I think he wanted.

Good essay. Two sayings come to mind. The first is the environmentalist slogan "think globally, act locally." The wisdom behind that idea is that it's easy for global concern to become abstracted, while local concern is more likely to be put into practice. The ideal result is that one is able to expand the sphere of one's deep concern to encompass more global issues.

The second saying is from the Bible, in 1 Timothy 5:8 -- "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel."

That's obviously not to deny our responsibility to those outside the tribe, but rather to remind us that we start with those close to us, and work outwards. It's a lot easier to sit back and do nothing when you're asking yourself "have I saved the world today?" vs. "have I mowed my aged mother's lawn?"

"Does it matter that 3,000 Americans died on Sept. 11, rather than 3,000 Russians, Iraqis, or Bolivians?"
No, it does not matter. Therefore, the Bush response is totally justified in the context of the nature of the aggressor, the Islamofascist.
Islamofascists are defined by their own dictum that it is justified to, and/or they will, kill all who are not Islamofascists, known as "Infidels". The Infidel is, conveniently, anyone who will not commit suicide to kill Infidels. Thus Isamofacists are an extreme of sadomasochists: homocidal-suicidalists.

Self-defense is practically a universal component of life forms - virtually integral to the definition of life as that force which avoids death as its very nature, though, of course, unicellular organisms do not have "selfs" in a psychological way, etc.. This, IMHO, makes self-defense moral, that is, when one is faced by an obvious aggressor with homicidal intent.

Suicidal-homicidalism is obviously a death force or threat, exercised religiously by Islamofascists as their very nature.

Thus the 9/11 attack on the U.S. was essentially an attack on each individual who is not an Islamofascist - not an Islamic homicidal-suicidalist [sadomasochist], which includes everyone else in the World. If the attack had occurred in any other country, the situation would be the same regarding the nature of the intent of this aggressor. An attack on anyone not an Islamofascist is an attack on all who are not. We would have been morally obligated to form a response.

The Bush Doctrine, apparently not well understood by many of its detractors, is preemptive in the sense that it seeks to dissuade any effective supporters of Islamofascists, who will themselves be considered to be Islamofascists if not dissuaded, and dealt with according to the right of self-defense inherent in the definition of what life is. One may argue that Saddam was not a terrorist or did not support Islamofascists, or was not a threat to supply them with WMD's, but this seems to me to be more a product of wishful thinking, or at least of inconsistent or non-focused thought than it is a product of an analysis of what the nature of the Islamofascist threat is. It is basically a death threat to all.

Therefore it does not matter that the 9/11 victims were Americans.

[ To argue that it is not just a good thing but a moral imperative is truly bazaar.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." -- Saul Bellow when the need for illusion is deep." -- Saul Bellow ]

"Heh heh heh," Butthead. He said, "Bazaar. You know, that thing girls wear."

"A great deal of a limited store of intelligence can be invested in learning to discern the appropriate homonym when the need for education is deep." --

W. dvid Davenport

dvid [or is that David?]

That thing women wear is a brassiere not a bazaar. You would think that if you were going to correct my typing you would have taken the trouble to use a dictionary.



The problem I have with the direct line you draw between long term interests and short-term interests is that it takes into account only one possible motivation. It is quite possible that some of the people 'beating Bush, feeling superior, whatever' do so, not by sacrificing the long-term interest; they may very well truely believe that the war was unjustified to start with. You may or may not believe in that second interpretation, but in your argument you clearly omit it for the sake of simplicity, or maybe because it is a point of view you do not believe in. The former is clearly dangerous, and the latter is not very tolerant towards other's opinions.

There is a direct consequence of this in democratic politics as currently practised; at the top the government are few and they each have only their own personal view of a situation to guide them. To some extent this polarises political discussion into only a subset of the underlying beliefs of the general population. Too often when watching professional politics at work (sounds a bit like sports, doesn't it?) I am overcome with the fear that the mindset of many politicians is 'we are the government, we were elected by the people, therefore our decisions must be the will of the people'. If anything politicians should almost be required to be more inclusive and broadminded than the general population they represent... unless a way can be found to include more people (and more points of view) directly into the process of government.


In a way this also directly relates to your (in my opinion too narrow) reading of the fragment of the constitution that you quote. To me it does not just make a statement about security of the population, but rather of their representation in general. To me it says; if you have a better way of accomplishing democracy to serve the people's combined will more accurately, then feel free to replace the current system.

Neither security, nor any other concrete aspect is the 'primary purpose' of any government. The one and only purpose of (any!) government is to represent the collective needs and desires of the governed, and to take action to support these needs and desires. Every form of government is some (more or less accurate) approximation of this ideal... current democracy just happens to be the best approximation currently available to us.


It's a long thread and I missed your post initially. Apologies of the late reply.

You ask: "when faced with the unescapable choice: American lives or foreign lives, who will you choose, and why?" There is no question. I'm actually Canadian but if push comes to shove I'll be shoving right beside you. I'll be a faithful foxhole partner.

Tribalism is a powerful and primitive motivator. It is one of the most misused levers of power. I am sensitive to it's power and it's misuse so I may have read intentions into your essay that were not there.

None the less, IMO, your essay came close to advocating things I would not personally advocate. After religion, more aggression, intolerance and loss of life is draped in patriotic flags than anything else.

We need to be mindful of the its effects and judicious in it's application.


In response to Jerry.

I know your comments ere directed to Rob and Scott, but I wanted to address them regardless. I suppose its the flak that we all must bear when publicly debating a topic.

I think in regards to the comment directed to Rob that you may be misinterpreting what was initially stated. It is not a question of points of view (POV) but rather a question of loyalties. Inherent to any issue are polarizations due to POV. The question though is whether once a course is set, will the members of a social group act in accord to see it through for the good of the whole or will the members fragment and attempt to push forward their own self agendas? Strip away the issues and that is the question.

The problem, of which this topic has generated much debate, is where the lines for membership are drawn. Rob, I believe is asking the question in regards to the nation-state. But let's strip away the label of "patriotism" for a moment and ask an even simpler question: Do you stand behind your national group OR do you oppose it. With regards to the line of partisanship observed in the US, I believe it is clear that those that oppose (in general) the national agenda are doing so for selfish and not selfless reasons... e.g. the POV that someone sits in the White House for illegitimate reasons. In this particular case, I believe the argument could be made that it is not POV that drives the opposing agenda, but rather a self-serving desire to return to power. A patriot in this case would not be one who stands up and gives an opposing view, but rather one who stands up and gives an opposing view BUT ALSO states that they will do all in their power to gaurantee that those in power are able to fulfill their obligation to the nation they are committed to protect.

An example of a dissenting patriot: I don't like that we went to war and I don't believe that the argument for secret WMD was sufficient to warrant an attack on Iraq. I f I were in power I would have waited for more proof or for X or Y or Z. However, we have committed ourselves to the cause of freeing an oppressed people from a man the whole world can agree was evil and we have done so at the cost of the lives of our own men and women. I can also agree that our intervention in the region may serve our long term interests in the region -- although I am not 100% confident that the current practices or policies of the US will gaurantee a safer future for our children and our nation. However, in light of this, I will support our government, but will constantly remain vigilant, voice my opinion, and will do all in my power to ensure that our agenda is seen through.

Note: this is not towing the line but rather looking out for the interests of the nation as a whole not as a Democrat, Republican or whatever.

Regarding, inclusiveness in government decision making. I'll keep it brief. Everyone is inluding in the decision-making process, it's just one in which the majority opinion is upheld... which means that a minority will be disenfranchised. Everyone has a voice... from the person one selects at the polls to the opportunity to notify one's representatives on any given issue. Just because not everyone exercises those rights or that their opinion falls into a minority view does not mean that our form of government is non-inclusive. This is not to say that those put into positions of power don't sometimes wrest it away from those who gave it to them in the first place. The problem is in thinking that it can not be returned back to the people. No one is elected for life in the U.S. -- appointed maybe... but not elected. If a government representative doesn't fulfill their obligation to its electorate, the PEOPLE need to decide to remove him/her. If they fail to do so through their own apathy or inaction, they have but themselves to blame.

Lastly regarding your comment to Scott and his quoting of the Declaration of Independence (not the Constitution.) Your reading of this document suggests to me that you believe that the people have the right to tear the government down whenever they don't like what its doing. Frankly, that's a bit too Jeffersonian to me -- he believed a revolution by blood would be a good thing every now and then. However, you need to understand the context of this document and the implication it has on the development of our system. It is not merely saying we should redesign the government everytime we don't like it. It IS saying when the government fail to fulfill its contractual obligation to the people it is sworn to protect... THEN change needs to occur.

The writer(s) of the Declaration were very specific about what a government is supposed to do. In that day and age, they make it clear that government had little to do with "representing the collective need" or "the desire of the governed". It's sole purpose was to ensure the safety of its people. The issue at the time was that government overstepped its bounds by actually going into repression mode. It merely looked out for the self interests of the crown and the governed people of Britain proper.

In short, if government can fulfill the safety part of the contract, the needs part can be met.... both though the government and through the charity of the people to one another. Failure to provide safety will only result in needs being unfulfilled -- by either party of the contract.

OK, I've rambled enough. Again Rob, great essay.


I think I may have strayed from where the discussion originated (more than?) a bit... If the question is about loyalty to a course set, then I would wholeheartedly say that once you set out on a given course within a collective you have the obligation to stick with it until the end. I would however like to add that I could foresee circumstances where some 'sufficiently large' part of the collective could decide that the original course was flawed and needs to be amended or reversed. And the exact meaning of 'sufficiently large' is something that cannot be defined out of context.

I do believe you may have misunderstood my reading of the Declaration though... I do not believe government should be overthrown by those that do not agree with it. I would however believe it valid for the majority [not entirely this clear-cut; trying to keep it simple though] to overthrow a government if they believe a better system is available. After all, agreement to abide by current government is a contract that the majority of Americans share with eachother, and as such, the above point about loyalty applies to this as well.

For the sake of simplicity (!!) I'll leave it at that, because although I have the desire to write more, alas I do not have the time available right now... besides, this column is getting pretty long already. ;)


I have nothing against those who oppose the war in Iraq because they consider it unjustified, bad for security, etc.

I have a HUGE PROBLEM with people who oppose it because a Repbulican is in the White House, or because they think we "deserved" Sept. 11, or whatever. That is the distinction I am trying to draw.


You are right to say that much innocent blood has been shed in the name of patriotism. My entire purpose in composing this essay was to argue that patriotism remains both a force for good when properly understood and, indeed, is essential to preventing the shedding of innocent blood, despite its abuses.

I would argue the same for both religion and kitchen knives, despite the blood that both have shed.

Hell of a thread.

Can we say that the value of human life, no matter where it lives, trumps any lesser considerations?

Can we then say that in the event of a tie, it is morally just to favor the life of someone you care about more than someone you don't?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then I see no problem with what Rob, Kevin, and Joe are saying.

But consider a course of action that would kill ten Iraqi civilians in order to prevent terrorists from killing one American life.

What do you do then? How do you decide the proper ratio? There are some who might say that saving one American life is worth an infinite amount of collateral damage.

I don't know the answer, but I find it incredibly difficult to come up with a rule that is completely morally satisfying.


Questions #1 and #2: Yes...with the proviso that we are careful about how we count lives. Killing an Iraqi today to save 10 Iraqis tomorrow is probably justified; spending a billion dollars to save one life anywhere probably isn't, given that we can save a lot more than one with that kind of money.

I don't have the answers to your last questions. I've thought about it, and I don't think I'll ever have answers that make sense in moral terms.

Frankly, I'd be kind of scared of someone who did.

Rob, i think there are some utilitarians out there who could give you an answer...


Interesting post. I confess I have some sympathy with the conclusion you reach, but I'm not sure you get there by legitimate means.

You seem to base a lot (IMO too much) on the premise that democracy creates responsibility. Indeed, you seem to proceed from this premise to the conclusion that democracy is the only thing that creates responsibility. This, to me seems patently absurd, and indeed, is probably inconsistent with what you yourself believe.

It suggests that, absent government, we would have no duties to anyone, or that if the action of democratic governments is not specifically involved, we do have no obligations to our fellow citizens.

It also suggests that a supranational democracy (the UN, or perhaps a reformed UN if you think that the current structure isn't suffiently democratic) would also create responsibility. E.g. on your logic, if we vote for a government which decides to not to support a UN peace effort, we are partly responsible. However, you explicitly disavow this opinion. I'm not sure you can do so consistently.

The better route, IMO, is that suggested in one of the posts above: our action is generally felt more locally than globally. We have a stronger "obligation" to those closer to us, simply because we are better able to fulfil that obligation, and all other things being equal, we will get the best results if everybody looks after their own - it's simplt more effective than trying to care about everybody.

However, this kind of rule consequentialist approach doesn't always work - other things are not always equal, and sometimes others cannot look after their own. If you believe that the primacy of our moral obligation to our own stems (party at least) from expediency, then when it's no longer expedient to let other fend for themselves, because they are incapable of doing so, we have an obligation to wade in.

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