Virtue Engendered; or, Big States Breed Small Souls

I found two highlights in this issue: a review of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and a review of David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is a major figure in the revival of “virtue ethics,” the school of thought pioneered by Aristotle.   As its name suggests, virtue ethics tends to emphasize the importance of developing particular character traits.  Virtue ethics was out of fashion among academic philosophers for quite a long time, but now it seems to be on an equal footing with the two other leading schools of ethical thought, utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a set of approaches that take their cue from Jeremy Bentham’s definition of the Good as that which brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number of people; deontology first crystallized in the work of Immanuel Kant, defender of the idea that moral duty and rational understanding are inseparable one from another.  So, an advocate of utilitarianism might argue that we should sustain friendships because societies composed of people who like each other tend to have lots of healthy and cheerful citizens, and an advocate of deontological ethics might argue that we should sustain friendships because the universe only makes sense to people who recognize a duty to grow close to each other.  An advocate of virtue ethics, on the other hand, might argue that being a friend means developing traits of character that are valuable in themselves and that can be attained in no other way.     

Sandel, like other virtue ethicists, is associated with a tendency in political theory called “communitarianism.”  Communitarians criticize classical liberalism for its image of the individual human being as a self-contained unit.  As The Nation‘s reviewer puts it:

Nearly thirty years ago, in his massively influential debut in political theory, Sandel argued that communal belonging precedes individual freedom–that, in his language, the self is “encumbered” and therefore not altogether prior to the ends it chooses. An intrepid technical dissection of his colleague [John] Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice (1971), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice made Sandel’s name as a “communitarian.” Sandel demonstrated that for Rawls, the freedom of individual choice alone is the morally relevant starting point for inquiry into justice, an assumption that renders things like family ties, religious belief, group loyalty and historical identity irrelevant, except as a secondary extra. Communitarians like Sandel, Charles Taylor (with whom Sandel studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) and Michael Walzer responded that most people, even in liberal societies, prize those things at least as much as personal autonomy. The most attractive part of Sandel’s criticism was his contention that relationships, rather than being the result of previous choices, are the sphere in which identity is possible at all. (To put it in more technical terms, there is no individual subject not intersubjectively constituted from the first.) Ever since making these claims, even as political theory has substantially evolved, Sandel has continued to argue for the priority of the communal good in an account of justice, even as he recognizes its risks for liberty.

Because a person’s virtues are part of his or her identity, communitarianism and virtue ethics inevitably go hand in hand.    

The same review discusses a book by Amartya Sen that prompts the reviewer to mention that many philosophers were dismayed when political theorist John Rawls declared that the nation-state was “the natural forum for justice.”  Otherwise dedicated Rawlsians rebelled against this pronouncement, arguing that justice requires a worldwide framework.  I value Sandel and the communitarians because their position points to a different response to Rawls.  I haven’t studied Rawls’ work deeply, but what I have read suggests to me that his theory does indeed presuppose the nation-state as the standard of community.  The communitarians, on the other hand, have the intellectual resources to challenge that standard, not by arguing that the nation-state is too small to be just, but that it is too big.  The nation-state, especially in the form of continental behemoths like the USA or the former USSR or China or India or the European Union, is bloated beyond any capacity to nurture healthy relationships.  The only connection citizens of such enormous empires can achieve with each other is the one they feel when they cheer their rulers on and rejoice as their warriors smash the Enemy, whoever that Enemy may be at the moment.  The qualities of character that we develop when we do those things are hardly to be called virtues. 

That big states breed small souls is supported by material cited from David Finkel’s reports from Iraq.  The American public is separated from the perspective of the American soldier by official censorship, and so has a distorted view of what is being done in its name in Iraq.  Senior American commanders, too, have a distorted view, in their case because sycophantic briefing officers tell them what they want to hear rather than what their subordinates on the ground are actually seeing and doing.  The reviewer describes a scene in which Finkel reports on a briefing given to the celebrated General David Petraeus.  Finkel attended the briefing, and had been an eyewitness of the firefights deascribed in the briefing.  He makes it clear that what the general heard had little or no relationship to the events Finkel saw.  Even ground troops themselves see an ever smaller portion of what they are doing; “the Pentagon’s continued dependence on unmanned Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan means that even soldiers aren’t seeing the full contours of the global battlefield,” as the reviewer points out.  Of course, it’s long been an axiom of military history that a researcher should ask a participant in a battle for eyewitness accounts only of events that took place within a meter of that participant’s face, and shouldn’t expect extreme clarity even in those accounts.  But these added degrees of separation certainly don’t improve our ability to take responsibility for what is done in our name.  Finkel apparently pulls out the emotional stops in an attempt to protest against this separation:

The chasm between over here and over there is central to another heartbreaking sequence, when the wife of a severely wounded soldier transferred from Iraq to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, remembers a visit from President Bush. Finkel recounts not only what the soldier’s wife said to the president–“Thank you for coming”–and not only what she wished she had said to him–“He doesn’t know how it feels”–but why she hadn’t said it: “Because I felt it would not have made any difference.” Communication is fruitless, because if Bush can’t see the problem staring at him from that hospital bed, he’s already living on too remote a planet.

One of Finkel’s chief informants appears to have been an army colonel named Ralph Kauzlarich.  Colonel Kauzlarich commanded the army’s 2-16 infantry battalion in Iraq when Finkel was an embedded reporter within that battalion during its sixteen month tour of duty that began in April 2007, when it was part of “the Surge.”  The soldiers began that tour as enthusiastic admirers of their commander and believers in their mission; by the end of it, as the American media filled with reports lauding “the Surge” as a great success and General Petraeus as the greatest strategic thinker of the age, those same soldiers were openly calling him “the Lost Kauz.”  It was Kauzlarich who jollied Petraeus along with the rosy briefing Finkel witnessed.  Nor was that the only low point in Kauzlarich’s career.  The reviewer brings up a story that Finkel left out of his book:

Obedience to authority is a time-tested military credo, and those soldiers who rise to higher rank are the ones who respect the chain of command. Ralph Kauzlarich, the book’s flawed but unequivocal hero, was also, at least at one point, this very type of good soldier.

In Afghanistan, in April 2004, Ranger Pat Tillman was accidentally killed by soldiers in his own platoon. (The Army initially asserted that Tillman was killed in an Afghan militia ambush.) The incident immediately drew media attention because eight months after September 11, Tillman had abandoned a promising professional football career (and a $3.6 million contract) and enlisted in the Army alongside his brother Kevin. The same Kauzlarich of the 2-16 was the Army officer who directed the first official inquiry into Tillman’s death. While he wrote a recommendation for Tillman’s posthumous Silver Star–which helped spur a misleading, Jessica Lynch-style promotion of Tillman’s death for political purposes–he did not push to find out the identity of the shooter. “I don’t think it really matters,” he told ESPN Magazine. Kauzlarich likely had good intentions, seeking to spare his troops any further emotional turmoil.

But in his zeal to protect the military, Kauzlarich wound up disparaging the family of a fallen soldier. In a brazenly tone-deaf statement, he said that the reluctance of Tillman’s parents to accept the results of the military’s investigation was the unfortunate result of their lack of Christian faith. (Kauzlarich is an evangelical Christian. Tillman was not religious.) As Kauzlarich told ESPN: “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more–that is pretty hard to get your head around…. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.” An outraged Representative Henry Waxman called the comments “crass” and “completely inappropriate,” and officially requested that the Pentagon discipline Kauzlarich. To make things even worse, for himself and the armed forces, Kauzlarich acknowledged that Tillman’s Silver Star recommendation was an irregular decision. “I mean, had the story come out that he had been killed by his own guys, then it probably would have been looked at differently,” he said.

That line, “I don’t think it really matters,” amazed me.  A year or so ago, I attended a talk sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War;  the young veteran speaking mentioned that when he was in country, a group of his fellow soldiers wanted to take turns posing for photos with some dead enemy fighters.  They would be trophy pictures.  He said that he refused, not because he had any regard for the dead men, but because when his father taught him to hunt, he ingrained a hunter’s ethic in him.  By that ethic, you don’t pose with a trophy you didn’t kill.  Now a pacifist, the young man had come to think that this was a diseased way of looking at a human being.  A virtue ethicist might agree with that assessment, but could also see some grounds for hope that it would lead to something better.  After all, in all of his incarnations the young hunter-turned-soldier-turned-pacifist had valued truth and shown the virtue of honesty.  What virtues could Kauzlarich claim?  Not honesty, certainly; even when he preaches his religion, the colonel points to its effectiveness as a narcotic.


  1. cymast

     /  December 3, 2009

    I believe people would initially be more satisfied with their governments if, for example, the US states became separate nations and citizens chose their states of residence according to the states’ specific laws. Given the human condition, however, this would be impractical and would ultimately lead to wars.

  2. acilius

     /  December 3, 2009

    Of course, some would say that the states themselves are far too large to be decent units of government. Aristotle famously said that a territory was too big to be a sovereign state if a person couldn’t walk around its perimeter in a day. And Thomas Jefferson came to agree; by 1810, he was arguing for the division of the USA into “ward republics,” districts no larger than six miles square which would exercise virtually all the powers of government. Here’s a video of Alan Pell Crawford, author of the 2008 book Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, explaining the idea of the “ward republics.” And here’s a list of quotes from Jefferson on the topic, courtesy of his creature, the University of Virginia.

  3. cymast

     /  December 4, 2009

    Great ideas in theory, but I’ve a feeling the smaller the ward republic, the quicker its demise. Not everybody will agree on the size and scope of ward republics. Pesky human nature.

  4. acilius

     /  December 4, 2009

    If everybody agreed, they wouldn’t need a political system.

  5. cymast

     /  December 4, 2009

    And here we are back at square 1 again. We need those robots in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

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