Stop Beating That Horse - It Isn't Dead Yet, And I Need a Ride!

I could defend my use of the word “feel” in my original post against James’ McIntyrish riposte by saying that my post was largely rhetorical – I didn’t make any substantial arguments, and didn’t claim to be doing so; I was just telling my readers (if any) where I stood at this point on a matter that I had concluded was of some importance. Or I could just say it was Friday afternoon and I was in a hurry to get home.

But I won’t limit myself, because I think the charge of “emotivism” can be too promiscuously deployed.

There is a considerable difference between saying, “this is okay because it feels good” or “that action is wrong because it makes me feel offended” and, in contrast, saying, “I’m not sure why, but that just doesn’t feel right,” or, “until I’ve worked it all out, I’m just going to have to feel my way through.” I can appreciate the suspicion of feeling as a primary source of value (though neither am I convinced that that suspicion amounts to a knock-down argument against); I’m not at all ready to jettison feeling as a guide to judgement. And I don’t think Mr. Emotivism meant to do so either; quite the opposite.

Quite apart from this distinction, however, which I do think is largely sufficient to get me off James’ particular therapeutic hook, the second use of “feel” in the quote James highlights refers to national honor. And I’m quite at a loss to see how honor can be a matter of much besides feeling, since honor is, preeminently, a matter of how others feel about you, and how you feel they feel about you. After all, the opposite of honor is shame, and while we sometimes talk about honor as if it were something that could be possessed in an objective sense (which is not, in fact, the case), shame is quite plainly something felt – indeed, if you don’t feel it after having done something shameful, you are shameless. Unless what James means to say is that he is opposed to the idea of honor as such, I’m not sure how he can banish feelings entirely as a source of value.

Turning to James’ last paragraph: If Mike Huckabee is wrong that we are honor-bound to remain in Iraq, why is he wrong? His argument, as I understand it, is that we owe the Iraqis to fix what we have broken; he is, on some level, ashamed at the mess we’ve made of their country, and feels we are obliged to clean it up. We do not have the luxury of leaving simply because leaving might be in our interests – not, at any rate, if we want to behave honorably, and not shamefully. Which part of this is wrong? Perhaps the notion that we have broken Iraq; I hear there is a great deal of progress being made, what with schools being painted and terrorists being killed. Perhaps the notion that we owe something to them for breaking the country; after all, we went in with the best of intentions, and isn’t that enough? I would be shocked, needless to say, if either of those are what James thinks Huckabee has got wrong.

Rather, I presume James thinks Huckabee is deluding himself in his belief that by remaining we are helping the Iraqis, and thereby in some fashion making up for the mess we have made to date. Now, he may be deluding himself or he may not. But if he is, then the problem is not that he is following his feelings but that he is not being sufficiently critical about how his feelings may have blinded him to the facts. He wants to make things right, and restore our honor, and therefore doesn’t see that there is no way to do this (again, assuming he’s wrong).

The other possibility, of course, is that James thinks Huckabee is a cynic, perfectly aware that we can do no good by staying in Iraq, and that our dogged presence there in no way blots out the shame of the war, but is deploying this sort of language as a way of deflecting popular attention from the facts of the matter. By making the question about honor or dishonor, he short-circuits a rational calculation of what, precisely, staying would accomplish, as against leaving – for the Iraqis as well as for us. And if, after many years, Iraq does stabilize, President Huckabee could say that, whether or not the sacrifice was worth it in retrospect, at least our honor was not besmirched by the adventure, since we stayed the course and saw Iraq safely home to port; and he would never have had to confront the counterfactual: how would things have gone had we not stayed the course, and left. But again, if this is James’ view then the problem is not feelings as such but that Huckabee is manipulating our feelings; and the response is not to say, “only appeals to rational interest will be admitted to the bar” but to say, “our honor is not restored simply by refusing to leave; it must be demonstrated that we are making a sacrifice of blood and treasure with a reasonable likelihood of making a positive difference to the outcome – moreover, if this is now quite simply an affair of honor, then we must conduct ourselves with a scrupulous inattention to our other interests, financial or geopolitical, which we certainly have not done to date.” That is to say: one may reason about one’s feelings without saying that feelings may not be admitted as evidence.

If I could translate Huckabee’s language into my own terms, I would say that he cannot win an argument about Iraq solely by appealing to our sense of national honor, but he can establish certain terms of debate. If it is dishonorable to leave the Iraqis in the lurch, then their interests and welfare matter more than ours (up to a point – honor does not have infinite value) in evaluating whether we should stay or go, and what our posture should be if we do either. Such a frame of reference takes certain arguments for both sides largely off the table; whether our presence in Iraq helps or hinders our effort to contain Iran, for example, becomes secondary if what we’re about is trying to restore our national honor. And Ron Paul’s knock-down response – that when you make a mistake, the right thing to do is to correct it, not persist in it for the sake of saving face – cannot be correct, any more than the proposition that we should at all times care only for honor, and damn the consequences. Britain’s extension of certain guarantees to Belgium may well have been a mistake, and a very plausible case can be made that British involvement in World War I was a disaster. It does not follow that the optimal course of action – much less the honorable course of action – after the Kaiser’s invasion was to admit said mistake, and tear up the guarantees.

So, returning to my argument about torture. No, I haven’t entirely worked the whole matter out, but I really don’t feel right about associating with the pro-torture arguments, and so I’m feeling my way towards a coherent anti-torture position. And, as well, I feel shame at some of the actions of my country. And I don’t feel that being attentive to these feelings means that I am part of the problem, though I freely admit that I am left a considerable distance from being part of the solution.