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Bromwich vs. Filkins on Syria

Map of Syria, showing its adjacent location we...

Map of Syria, showing its adjacent location west of Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll return later this week to my narrative on Israel/Palestine, but before I do, a quick update/digression on Syria. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post against involvement in Syria, citing David Bromwich‘s  “Stay Out of Syria” in The New York Review of Books. Among the authors Bromwich had criticized was Dexter Filkins, who’s been writing an implicitly (or quasi-implicitly) pro-intervention column in The New Yorker. Filkins has responded to Bromwich in the most recent issue of NYRB, and Bromwich rejoins. Here is the exchange:

To the Editors:

In his review of my piece on the Obama administration’s choices in Syria [“Stay Out of Syria!,” NYR, June 20], David Bromwich accuses me of “looking” for reasons to intervene in Syria and of being “drawn to the idea” of a military solution to the conflict. In fact, not a single word in the article offers anything remotely approaching a policy prescription. The essay examines the pros and cons of a possible American intervention in Syria, and in the course of doing so considers a number of points of view and possible scenarios. This is known as balanced journalism. Only the most willful sort of ideologue, for whom the prospect of 80,000 dead Syrians matters less than having the right political line, could read the piece and conclude anything any other than that American options in Syria are deeply sobering. If Mr. Bromwich is going to continue to stray from literary criticism and into the realm of foreign affairs, he might consider doing some reporting of his own.

Dexter Filkins
The New Yorker
New York City

David Bromwich replies:

Dexter Filkins has been a courageous and resourceful combat journalist. But his article on Syria was an attempt at political analysis: a different kind of writing. The article asked a question—should the US back rebel forces in Syria?—yet it never paused to wonder: Why are we asking this question? It offered no account of the prehistory or the aftereffects of American engagements in the Balkans and Iraq, and gave only a minimal sketch of the rival forces in Syria. It relied very heavily on conventional experts, whom it did not characterize adequately. Thus James Rubin, a partisan of intervention in Syria, is introduced as “a Clinton-era official at the State Department,” but Rubin was also an influential advocate of the Iraq war: a piece of history that matters. “Last year,” Filkins recalls, in a conspicuous first-person aside, “…I stood near the Syrian border and watched one of Assad’s gunships strafe a group of rebels.” Political analysis, too, has a use for evidence that comes from watching and testifying. But first-person narratives are not always enough; and it is not forbidden to think.

Bromwich wins this argument, hands down. In fact, he’s understated his case.

Bromwich had, correctly, accused Filkins of “looking” for reasons to intervene in Syria. (Here’s a link to the Filkins article under discussion. There are more at The New Yorker’s website.) Filkins responds–both irrelevantly, and to my mind disingenuously– that “not a single word in the article offers anything remotely approaching a policy prescription.” This claim does nothing to rebut Bromwich’s criticisms. An author can look for reasons for intervention, present the case for intervention while claiming merely to report on them, fail to present the case against intervention (while making pro forma reference to it), offer no explicit policy prescriptions (in his own voice), and then pretend that the result is even-handed or objective political analysis. That, in fact, is exactly what Filkins does. In the pagination I’m using, the relevant Filkins essay is about fourteen pages long. Less than half of one page of the article discusses reasons against intervention. The remainder presents reasons for intervention, many of them of the “If we wait any longer, it will be too late!” variety.

What we have here is really just a journalistic-military bastardization of Peter Singer‘s tired old “toddler drowning in the pool” pseudo-argument, first offered in his famous “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (and recycled in trivially different form, decade after decade thereafter). The argument in its original form is: surely if a child is drowning before your eyes, and “nothing of comparable moral concern is at stake,” it is self-evident that you should save the child. In its bastardized military form, the argument is: surely if mass murder will take place, and some relatively low-cost intervention will stop or mitigate it, it is nearly self-evident that you should intervene. (A friend of mine once aptly dubbed this “the argument-by-‘surely’-operator.”) Missing from both arguments is any articulated standard of costs and benefits. What counts as “nothing of comparable moral concern”? Could the appeal to emotions involved in the argument not itself involve a moral cost? Suppose that evil may not be done that good may come. Here’s a corollary: fallacies may not be committed so that true conclusions be reached. If the “argument” is fallacious, that fact by itself could justify its rejection even if the conclusion (in the drowning child case) were correct.

To be more explicit: Even if we should save the drowning child (as per Singer’s thought experiment), even if it indicates a serious defect of character not to save the child, the argument/thought-experiment does nothing but appeal to the emotions, and an appeal to the emotions is a fallacy, not an argument. Such an appeal offers, at best, an incentive to reflect on one’s emotional reaction to the hypothetical situation, to understand the judgments behind them, and then to produce an argument for saving the child–an argument, with identifiable premises leading validly to a conclusion. A sheer description of a terrible situation (followed by a loaded question) is not itself an argument, and should not be regarded as one.

I’ve seen many horrible things in my day, but I wouldn’t dream of emotionally blackmailing anyone into agreement with my verdict on those things simply by painting a horrible picture of them and then inducing a guilt-trip about the proper conclusion to reach. Unfortunately, this approach to “argument”–describe something terrible, then intimidate your interlocutor into your preferred conclusion about it by suggesting that he’s immoral if he doesn’t reach the conclusion on his own–has by now become commonplace, with little push-back by philosophers, whether the subject is assistance to others in need, abortion, animal rights, or “humanitarian intervention.” Filkins is cashing in on it, as are some of the pro-intervention people quoted in his article. (One ingenious philosopher who has pushed back is William Sin, of the Hong Kong Insititute of Education, who gave a paper on the subject at the Felician Ethics Conference this past April. I’ll try to blog his argument when I get a chance, but I don’t even think William has gotten at the essential problem.)

Filkins has, as Bromwich says, been a courageous and resourceful combat journalist. But he lacks even a rudimentary grasp of the requirements of objectivity in political argumentation. His “reporting” on Syria in The New Yorker is, in my view, little more than courtier  journalism, emotionalism, and outright propaganda. No one should be fooled by it into intervention in Syria. The interventionists will have to do better than this. But I strongly suspect they won’t–because I strongly suspect they can’t.

Irfan

P.S. Apologies for the delay in putting up Kirsti Minsaas’s Romantic Manifesto bibliography as promised–we have to settle a few technical issues before we do, but it’ll definitely go up this week.

P.P.S., July 16, 2013: Over the weekend, James P. Rubin, who’s mentioned in the Bromwich quote above, emailed IOS privately to take issue with the characterization of his views in the Bromwich quote. I should perhaps take a moment to clarify: I don’t know anything about Rubin’s views, whether about Iraq or Syria, and in quoting Bromwich, hadn’t intended to be commenting on Rubin. I was siding with Bromwich against Filkins on the more general point Bromwich was making about Filkins’s New Yorker essay–that the Filkins essay made little or not attempt to lay out the case against intervention. I cut and pasted the whole of Bromwich’s response to Filkins in the interests of completeness, not because I necessarily agreed with every sentence in it. But Rubin’s worry is a legitimate one–a reader could easily take my excerpting the whole passage to indicate agreement with the whole passage, especially since I agree so vehemently with Bromwich against Filkins. Hence the need for clarification. I should probably make the reverse clarification as well: since I don’t know anything about Rubin’s views, readers shouldn’t assume that I would necessarily disagree with Bromwich’s characterization, either. I’m simply agnostic one way or the other.

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4 Comments

  1. I think Singer’s argument is mistaken, but I don’t think the basic style of argument is mistaken. It’s an Aristotelean style: start with a plausible particular judgment – an endoxon, one of the phainomena to be saved if possible, revised or rejected if necessary. Reason inductively from there to a general principle — an arkhē — that offers the best explanation for the truth of the particular judgment. Then reason deductively from the principle to its application in other areas.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    I have both a short and a very long answer to this, but for now I’ll stick with the short answer, and maybe save the long one for a post of its own. Not that this answer is all that short.

    My initial response is that I think your ascription to Singer of an Aristotelian style of argument is over charitable. I don’t think, for Aristotle, that p will count as endoxon if S believes p on the basis of a fallacious appeal to pity. But almost all of Singer’s candidate endoxa involve appeals to pity. Singer takes no care to distinguish between appeal to “a plausible particular judgment” and “a judgment that you’ve been guilt-tripped into affirming, and which you consequently regard as plausible on pain of looking and feeling like Scrooge.” Even if I accepted Aristotelian dialectic as the right method of moral inquiry, I would insist that Singer’s methods are anti-Aristotelian. I also don’t think that there is any counterpart in Singer to “reason inductively from there to a general principle.” Apart from very hand-waving gestures at the principle of utility, there are no archai in Singer, and no inductive arguments to them. There are just: particular judgments extorted from the reader by appeals to pity, followed by quasi-deductive applications elsewhere.

    But my deeper response is that it’s worth remembering that for Aristotle, dialectic isn’t truth-conducive. Dialectic is a preliminary exercise on the road to archai. And the reason why is clear from your formulation. You say: “start with a plausible particular judgment–an endoxon, one of the phainomena to be saved if possible, revised or rejected if necessary.” Endoxa are authoritative beliefs. Are endoxa then phainomena qua belief? I think Aristotle’s answer to that question is very equivocal. But suppose ex hypothesi that the answer is “yes.” In that case, the methodological principle “save the phainomena if possible” presupposes a subtle (and I think objectionable) form of epistemic conservatism. It grants prima facie positive epistemic status to a class of beliefs simply they are believed (by the right combination of people). It treats the sheer having of a belief, qua belief (of the right combination of people), as self-certifying. But I think that violates the Objectivist conception of the primacy of existence. No belief, not even axiomatic claims, are literally self-certifying in the sense I’ve just described. Beliefs are certified by the evidence for them, where the evidence is mind-independent (not a function of who happens to hold them). The problem with the Greek terms “phainomena” and “endoxa” (and with Aristotelian dialectic generally) is that they’re equivocal (Aristotle is equivocal) on the primacy of existence. If a phainomenon were a fact, we wouldn’t merely be obliged to save it “if possible.” We’d be obliged to save it. But if an endoxon-as-phainomenon is a belief, we’re not obliged to save it “if possible” simply because it is a belief. We’re not really obliged to save it at all.

    I think Singer’s quasi-endoxa fall into this latter category. He hasn’t really done the work required to oblige a theorist to save the supposed phainomena that arise by reacting to the “drowning child”-type cases. (He hasn’t even considered the range of possible reactions.) It is true that when confronted with drowning child cases–and focusing on nothing but the fact of a drowning child in one’s vicinity, ignoring all other considerations–most of us feel an immediate impulse to save the child. But all that shows is that most of us are constituted to react a certain way to a certain kind of situation. That’s a fact about our psychological dispositions, not about the truth-value of the proposition “We have duties to rescue others.” The Singerian argument-style doesn’t show us anything about the obligatory character of duties to others (even if we have some) independently of our contingent dispositions. But then, I would say, it doesn’t show us what it intends to show–that we have duties to others full stop, regardless of our contingent dispositions to feel as though we do.

    At a bare minimum, those who employ the Singerian argument-style would have to be clearer about the preceding than they typically are. But they typically aren’t, at least not in my experience.

    Irfan

  3. I don’t think, for Aristotle, that p will count as endoxon if S believes p on the basis of a fallacious appeal to pity.

    Well, sure, if you build “fallacious” into it. But for Aristotle emotions are tools of cognition, a portion of the rational part; the ability to grasp the kalon, for example, is an emotional, not a merely intellectual capacity. (Remember the two different ways of being a natural slave.) So from an Aristotelean standpoint there is nothing fallacious about an appeal to pity.

    Anyway, I think Singer’s perfectly right that you have an obligation to rescue the drowning child. It’s not his premise I object to.

    I also don’t think that there is any counterpart in Singer to “reason inductively from there to a general principle.”

    It’s the centerpiece of his argument: He offers “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” as the general principle that explains and grounds the particular judgment that we should rescue the drowning child.

    it’s worth remembering that for Aristotle, dialectic isn’t truth-conducive. Dialectic is a preliminary exercise on the road to archai.

    Dialectic is not truth-guaranteeing, but he certainly takes it to be truth-conducive. That’s why it’s “the route to first principles.” It’s not a “preliminary exercise” like stretching before you run. It is the running itself, that which gets you to your destination.

    the methodological principle “save the phainomena if possible” presupposes a subtle (and I think objectionable) form of epistemic conservatism

    I don’t think it’s conservative. It’s just recognising that we start where we start and not somewhere else. Anything in principle can be thrown out. (Are crossword puzzles conservative?)

    And he gives reasons for why the beliefs of the many and the wise are worth taking seriously — the many, because of the potluck principle, and the wise, because they’ve spent more time thinking about it. Given that the beliefs of the many and those of the wise often turn out to conflict, taking them as endoxa is hardly a rigid deference.

    It treats the sheer having of a belief, qua belief (of the right combination of people), as self-certifying. But I think that violates the Objectivist conception of the primacy of existence. No belief, not even axiomatic claims, are literally self-certifying in the sense I’ve just described. Beliefs are certified by the evidence for them, where the evidence is mind-independent

    I’m not sure what you mean by “certifying.” Making a belief justified? Showing that a belief is justified? Making a belief true? Showing that a belief is true? Something else? I also don’t see how the primacy of existence is implicated here or how Aristotle equivocates on it. He seems consistently and unwaveringly pro-primacy-of-existence to me.

    He hasn’t really done the work required to oblige a theorist to save the supposed phainomena that arise by reacting to the “drowning child”-type cases

    I’m not sure what work he’s required to do. Singer can say what Socrates says to his interlocutors: “I’m not the one saying this, you are. I ask whether you think you’re obliged to save the child. You say yes. Okay, let’s see what principle that implies and whether your other beliefs are consistent with it.”

  4. Michael Young says:

    If it seems appropriate to me that I feel guilty about not helping someone that I could help at little cost to myself, then my intuition that I owe it to the person in distress to help out passes initial muster. I should not chuck that one out just yet (though it may need to be modified under scrutiny). By contrast we all know what it is like to be morally bullied – we feel guilty even though we suspect that we do not have sufficient reason to. It seems to me that Singer is just appealing to our moral intuitions not implicitly being a moral bully. The challenge here is that, when we imagine the tragedies concretely we are overwhelmed and take the result of the “weighting” of reasons (and the content of the obligation) to be obvious. I don’t think our implicit weight of reasons intuitions in many of these cases can be vindicated because, upon cool consideration, we take it that some substantial measure of joy in our own lives is important enough that it is not appropriate to feel guilty because you help only the first ten destitute folks you come across. Your obligation is really an obligation to do enough – and the way you do that in a particular situation is by helping the guy out unless he is the eleventh (or fifth or eightieth or whatever). I think that those of means who donate a portion of their income to effectively aid the poor are taking sound lessons from Singer (and more people are doing this now because of Singer’s work). But I digress. Why think Singer is simply guilt-tripping us into accepting normative propositions that he thinks we should accept?

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