Foreign policy and the Golden Rule

Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.

In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:

Wright comments:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.

If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).

I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.

In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.

It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.

Friday links

–Augustinian and Pelagian software.

–A John Polkinghorne lecture on science and religion.

–Batman as plutocrat.

–Korn and Limp Bizkit: the soundtrack to nihilism.

–Martha Nussbaum on John Stuart Mill: between Bentham and Aristotle.

–The disconnect between the science and economics of climate change.

–Peter Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative and a theological liberal, has some reflections on same-sex marriage.

–The trailer for the X-Men prequel: “X-Men: First Class.”

–Toward an agenda for the left.

–B. R. Meyers’ moral crusade against foodie-ism.

–Noam Chomsky on how global warming became a “liberal hoax” (and a bunch of other stuff).

ADDED LATER: Sunken ship commanded by real-life ‘Moby Dick’ captain discovered. And here’s a link to the “Power Moby-Dick” website referred to in the article.

WASM 2: Engaging the powers

Having established the moral significance of animal suffering, Linzey goes on in chapter 2 to ask why, if the importance of animal suffering is so clear, has it been so often ignored? After all, as Stephen R. L. Clark has pointed out, it’s hard to identify a more obvious moral truism than “Avoid being the cause of unnecessary suffering.”

What is needed, Linzey says, is to confront “the powers that be,” the patterns of thought and language and the institutionalized practices that make animal suffering virtually invisible. Animals in our society are routinely mis-described (as “dumb brutes,” “beasts,” etc.) and mis-represented (as unthinking organisms that operate entirely by instinct, or that lack any sentience or inner awareness). Our attention is mis-directed, away from animal suffering (often with lofty-sounding pretensions to scientific skepticism), and, perhaps most fundamentally, animals are mis-perceived by us. That is, we see them as parts of a landscape, or as things–commodities that exist solely for human benefit. Actually seeing animals as “subjects of a life” (to use Tom Regan’s term), beings with their own lives and interests, can require a paradigm shift in the way we look at the world (or as Linzey says, a “Eureka!” or “Aha!” experience).

Linzey points out that these obstacles to seeing the moral significance of animal suffering are institutionally reinforced: “where animal abuse differs from most others is that it is socially legitimised and institutionalised” (p. 57). Drawing on the social criticism of Noam Chomsky, particularly his analysis of the “propaganda system” in democratic societies, Linzey highlights some of the ways in which animal abuse is reinforced and what is required to expose it. This falls under the general heading of “cultivating and institutionalizing critical awareness.” Injustices persist in large part because critical voices are excluded from the debate. In liberal democracies this doesn’t happen through the outright suppression of speech, but from the assumptions and implicit premises embedded in the official and quasi-official organs of information.

Linzey suggests that discovering and disseminating the truth about animal abuse requires cultivating the just the kind of critical awareness Chomsky recommends. This entails:

(1) discovering the facts: most, if not all, the information we’re exposed to comes already value-laden or embedded in a particular narrative; disentangling the underlying facts allows us to take a critical stance toward the “official” narrative or interpretation of events.

(2) retaining the focus on the ethical: moral issues are often smuggled off the public stage by focusing on such supposedly value-free terms as “cost,” “need,” “science,” etc. When moral considerations are allowed to intrude, Linzey says, it’s usually in the form of a particularly vulgar or popularized utilitarianism. Advocates of social change should not let the central moral issues recede from view.

(3) recognizing the limitations of the media:
the way that controversial issues are presented in the media already presupposes a great deal of background agreement. Anyone who wants to present a genuinely radical alternative to the status quo is required to challenge a great many assumptions taken for granted. The media, particularly the broadcast media, aren’t well-suited to this kind of critical examination. Anyone promoting an unconventional point of view needs to understand this.

(4) establishing alternative sources of information:
this speaks for itself. The Internet, of course, has made alternative sources of information available on a previously undreamed of scale. Though, there’s no substitute for patient study of more in-depth sources like actual books (you can’t get all your information from blogs and Twitter).

(5) institutionalizing critical awareness:
just as the moral status quo is supported by its institutionalization, any revision to the status quo requires institutional support. Linzey mentions law-making, consumer choice, and education as institutional channels through which a more enlightened understanding of animal suffering can be expressed and reinforced.

I think the discussion here is important. It’s often assumed that if people just “see” intellectually the case for better treatment of animals, changes in behavior will follow automatically. But there are powerful forces that militate against such change, from the assumption–shared by nearly everyone around us–that objectively cruel treatment of animals is normal and even “necessary” to the powerful economic interests that stand to lose from any large-scale shift in attitudes. People’s attitudes and behavior are shaped as much, if not more, by the sort of institutional factors Linzey (and Chomsky) identify as by rational argument. Cultivating and institutionalizing a critical awareness of those factors is a necessary condition for any significant change.

One other thing I wish Linzey had touched on is the importance of alternative communities. This is implicit in some of the other points, but could probably benefit from separate treatment. Reality–or at least our understanding of it–is socially constructed and reinforced. We take our cues on how to behave from our social groups. It’s a rare fish who can swim against the stream her whole life. Thus, any sustainable social change is going to require ways of living together that reinforce values that differ from the mainstream values that are the object of critique.

While I’m wary of some of the more extreme claims made on behalf of the church as a “counterculture” or a “polis” unto itself, I do think churches (along with other intentional communities, religious or not) can be places where people learn a different way of living, one based on values of gentleness, peace, and compassion, which should surely include changes in the way we treat our animal cousins.