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Why Does It Matter? Because Some Calculations Must Be Literally Unthinkable


I despise Henry Kissinger. He is an evil man. I am currently reading his On China (2011), and I was reminded of just how evil he is when I read his apology for Zhou Enlai (pp. 241-43). For those who do not remember, as premier of the PPR during the tumultuous 60s and 70s, Zhou was Mao’s chief henchman. The world will never know how many people Mao killed. Estimates range from 40 to 80 million, and Zhou was at his side implementing his policies every step of the way. Of this henchman to a genocidal maniac Kissinger writes:

Surely Zhou’s methods of political survival involved lending his administrative skill to the execution of policies that he may well have found personally distasteful . . .

This makes me want to puke. What kind of sociopath uses the word “distasteful” to describe someone’s response to participation in genocide? It will come as no surprise that Kissinger reveres Machiavelli above all other theorists, and nowhere is this more plain than when he continues[in this passage Zhou is the advisor and Mao is the prince in view ]:

The advisor to the prince occasionally faces the dilemma of balancing the benefits of the ability to alter events against the possibility of exclusion, should he bring his objections to any one policy to a head. How does the ability to modify the prince’s prevailing conduct weigh against the moral onus of participation in his policies? How does one measure the element of nuance over time against the claims of absolutes in the immediate? What is the balance between the cumulative impact of moderating trends against that of a grand (and probably doomed) gesture?

How Kissinger answers these questions and his ultimate assessment of Zhou is not in doubt; he called Zhou “one of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met.” God help us. How could we have let a man who could write these things into the very highest echelons of our leadership for a period spanning over five decades?

Kissinger implies that Zhou was a reluctant participant and a moderating influence to Mao’s reign of terror. This view is hotly disputed. In his Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, for example, Angang Hu argues that Zhou’s support, far from moderating the Cultural Revolution, kept it going, and that Zhou was Mao’s enabler, not his moderator.

But let us set that argument aside, because ultimately it is morally irrelevant. Assume for the sake of argument that there is some support for the proposition that Hermann Göring was a moderating influence to the most terrible excesses of the Third Reich. If Hitler had conquered Europe, would it have been appropriate for an American statesman to later praise Hermann Göring and even sympathize with him for the terrible burden of “weighing nuance against absolutes” that he had to bear. I admit the analogy is not quite apt, because Mao killed tens of millions more people than Hitler did. Still, the very idea is absurd.

The “dilemma” Kissinger poses is a false dilemma. The kinds of calculations Kissinger has in mind are morally repugnant. Indeed, they should be unthinkable. Moreover, the measuring to which Kissinger alludes is not only morally loathsome; it is also self-referentially incoherent. It is in the very nature of “absolutes” that they cannot be “measured” or “balanced” against anything else (and most especially against “nuance,” whatever that means).

Absolutes admit no calculation. When faced with the choice of whether to engage in formal cooperation with evil of unspeakable proportions, the only moral choice is to refuse to cooperate. Let us say for the sake of argument that Zhou was in fact given the choice of being Mao’s henchman, in which case “only” 60 million people would die, and refusing to be his henchman, in which case 65 million people would die. Still, the only moral choice was for him to refuse to cooperate with Mao’s evil even if more people (including Zhou himself) would die.

This is not a “train switch” scenario. Moral philosopher’s love to talk about the hapless schmo standing at a train switch. An unstoppable runaway train is coming down the track. If the schmo lets it stay on its present track, 100 people will get run over and die. If he pulls the switch and shunts the train to another track, only 50 people will die. The obvious answer to this dilemma is to pull the switch. If death is inevitable due to uncontrollable forces of nature (in this case the forces of gravity and inertia), the only moral choice is the one that leads to the fewest deaths.

How is this different from Zhou’s non-dilemma? The answer is that the Cultural Revolution was not inevitable. It resulted from the conscious choices of moral agents. If all moral agents had refused to participate, not a single person would have died, because the CR would never have happened.

Some of my readers might remember the movie Sophie’s Choice (or the novel of the same name). The eponymous choice of the movie occurred upon Sophie’s arrival at Auschwitz. A guard forced her to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. If she refused to choose, both children would be killed. What was Sophie to do? Is it not the moral choice to choose one of the children to die so that at least one may live? Sophie chooses her son to live and her daughter to die. Sophie’s choice was profoundly immoral. The only moral choice is to refuse to choose even if this means both children must die. By choosing, Sophie entered into formal cooperation with the guard’s evil. And it is always evil to engage in formal cooperation with evil. Some calculations must be unthinkable. One must never engage in profound evil even if one could somehow attempt to justify it with Kissinger’s balancing act. Fiat justitia ruat caelum (“Let justice be done though the heavens fall”)

What does this have to do with Zhou? Just this. Zhou’s choice was Sophie’s choice writ large.

Why does this all matter? I was prompted to write this post by an exchange with Mark Frank.

I wrote:

You know for a certain fact that torturing an infant for personal pleasure is evil at all places, at all times, for all people.

Mark replied:

I disagree. I don’t believe you know moral judgments as “facts” so I would say that as it stands it is false.

Mark added:

I stressed that it was because I don’t regard moral judgments as facts . . . I think they are opinions not facts.

Finally, Mark said:

I don’t know the innermost psyche of the Incas who performed child sacrifices but it seems quite possible they did it for personal pleasure and thought it was morally OK.

No Mark. You are wrong. Hugely, monstrously, horribly wrong.

It absolutely must be an objective fact that torturing an infant for personal pleasure is evil at all places, at all times, for all people or it is not a fact at all. It is a binary question. Yes/No. The only way the proposition can ever be true is if it is indeed an objective fact. The very act of suggesting that the issue is a matter of opinion as opposed to objective fact is immoral because it renders the proposition false. In other words, to even say that it is not unthinkable for the proposition to be untrue is profoundly immoral, because it is equivalent to saying the proposition is false.

Therefore, even assuming for the sake of argument that some Inca thought it was OK to torture infants for pleasure, it does not follow that his opinion on the subject is entitled to any weight whatsoever. Would we credit our hapless Inca’s views if his opinion were that 1+1=3? Of course, not. When the Inca is wrong about objective fact, we must not hesitate to reject his views categorically even if someone might accuse us of being “intolerant.” Error has no rights. The only moral position is to say that it is literally unthinkable for the proposition to ever be false.

As Zhoe’s non-dilemma was not a matter of calculation but of simple courage to do the only right thing, so too this proposition can never be a matter that could possibly vary due to circumstance, calculation or opinion. It is always true or it is never true.

It is immoral to say that the proposition “torturing an infant for personal pleasure is evil at all places, at all times, for all people” is up for grabs. Why is it evil? Because someone might believe you of course! By saying this you have undermined the “unthinkable-ness” of the converse of the proposition. And when you do that, you have opened a door that must always remain shut.