Drones and the Fugitive Conscience

The tortured logic used by President Obama to justify drone assassinations of Americans, even 16-year-old Americans, has been met by surprise and consternation.

For example, McClatchy reported that the Administration "jumbles international and U.S. law," and National Review described the Administration's white paper as "dangerously misguided... guilty of exactly the error the Left accused President Bush of... an executive imperialism...."

Even the New York Times said, "It was disturbing to see the twisted logic of the administration's lawyers laid out in black and white. It had the air of a legal justification written after the fact for a policy decision that had already been made...."

For a long time I have accepted the argument that subjective moralists can somehow discern right and wrong even though they deny the existence of right and wrong. But this is obviously not the case. Subjective moralists, relativists by another name, have consciously decided not to carry a compass and therefore frequently get lost. The president is a subjective moralist and frequently lost.

Once the premise of no knowable right or wrong is recognized as the subjective moralist's underpinning, this drone stuff shouldn't come as a surprise. In fact, it's an improvement. With a threatening or obnoxious teenager there's always cause. This is never the case with a defenseless child in the womb, who the president already advocates killing.

So my prior naiveté and these reactions in the press lack gravity and are a sad affirmation of a wise man's observation that "the world is suffering from a lack of thought." The Times and other mainstream media clearly don't understand the implications of the philosophy they so regularly espouse. Because the subjective moralist rejects the existence of rock, he must build his house on sand.

So let's drop the pretense that such a person can know the difference between right and wrong; that without objective standards his decisions are anything but the imposition of his will; and that he is principled due to his stated good intention. These courtesies have been extended for too long and make no sense because one cannot reach good decisions based on a slippery and purely self-centered view of the world.

Subjective moralists, both Democrat and Republican, are deprived of a healthy and normal recourse to conscience because conscience cannot be purely personal. It must make "reference to that which is outside itself, to the objective moral law," to what is wrong and what is right.

To have a conscience is to detect this law and to hold oneself accountable to it. It is not "to create values or to evade the law," whether by clever or not so clever arguments. It is to be humbly and prudently "guided by objective norms." Prudence requires an orientation to the good, without which only tactics remain. John Yoo explains,

Rather than capture terrorists -- which produces the most valuable intelligence on al Qaeda -- Mr. Obama has relied almost exclusively on drone attacks, and he has thereby been able to dodge difficult questions over detention. But those deaths from the sky violate personal liberty far more than the waterboarding....

Prudent decisions of a moral character require correspondence with objective truth, whereas a dialog with oneself is just a monologue. A corollary is that sycophants only make for echoes, and these echo chamber monologues sound pretty silly when exposed to the light of day. This brings us back to the President's drone gobbledygook. The New York Times wasn't done: "The white paper 'is a confusing blend of self-defense and law of war concepts .... Its due process analysis is especially weak." And from Bloomberg:

The most troubling question the administration's strategy against terrorism raises is whether its reliance on drones is eroding the principle that collateral damage to innocents be minimized.... it hasn't disputed a New York Times report that it simply presumes that 'all military-age males in a strike zone' are combatants. Liberals, moderates and conservatives should all raise their voices against this practice.

When the individual person is the source of his own moral understanding, anyone, for any reason, can become a drone target, even on American soil. But the point is bigger. It is that subjective moralists will frequently make bad decisions because the necessary connections just don't get made:

• Justice Sandra Day O'Connor observed that, "Roe. . . is clearly on a collision course with itself.... [It has] no justification in law or logic." Whereas, Justice Harry Blackmun "argued that the right to terminate a pregnancy is in the penumbra of privacy rights" of the Fourteenth Amendment. A little polysyllabic nonsense and "pro-choice" has become the "linguistic switch [by which] real human beings can be consigned to fiction."

• Today cheap and free contraception is plentiful and readily available, yet subjective moralists have justified forcing Catholics and other Christians to violate deeply held religious beliefs so that "millions of American women" may not be "denied" their contraception. This despite the positive correlation between the increased availability of contraception and unintended pregnancies.

• Philadelphia Boy Scouts "retain the commonsense notion that it is not wise to bring boys into close contact with men who are sexually attracted to boys... that if ... such men were scoutmasters, the boys would check out." However, for this commonsense notion, the Philadelphia city council insists on forcing the Boy Scouts from their headquarters.

• A Houston woman, who recently aborted and left her child in a garbage can, will be forever scarred and her soul seared by the reality of that last look before she closed the lid. Hillary Clinton calls abortion "the most basic of human rights."

• Afghans know too well the sight of charred human remains. President Obama assures us of his diligent read of St. Augustine, consideration of just war doctrine and concern over "collateral damage." Although just war logic certainly may be applied to drone tactics, the incoherence of the white paper indicates no real attempt to do so. And Hillary Clinton would hasten to ask, "What difference does it make?"

It's not that we don't all make mistakes and even grave errors in judgment; it's that subjective moralists maximize the chance of error because they are driving blind. Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald goes further, describing them as "vapid, unprincipled hacks willing to justify anything and everything...."

Given Greenwald's characterization, a reader may rightly wonder why or how a subjective moralist does anything right, or conversely, what constrains him. The answer, the barest of legalistic minimalism: After a period of pseudo-discernment, the subjective moralist will do whatever he can get away with -- more if enabled by the press, less if not. The Obama white paper crossed the line for the mainstream press. (In other late-breaking news, the press was actually found to have a line to cross.)

Droning through the penumbras is like a holiday in the Hamptons for the brain, available only to the privileged few who are removed from the realities of everyday life and the consequences of their views. We should expect this nonsense and be unsurprised at its frequency. But we ignore and vote for it at our peril, because subjective calculus can be used to justify anything. Without an objective basis, the powerful inevitably infringe on the out of favor and the weak. In no time, some out of vogue group will be abused less like the fictional redheaded stepchild and more like the actual unborn child, observant Catholic, Boy Scout, or obnoxious teenager.

The tortured logic used by President Obama to justify drone assassinations of Americans, even 16-year-old Americans, has been met by surprise and consternation.

For example, McClatchy reported that the Administration "jumbles international and U.S. law," and National Review described the Administration's white paper as "dangerously misguided... guilty of exactly the error the Left accused President Bush of... an executive imperialism...."

Even the New York Times said, "It was disturbing to see the twisted logic of the administration's lawyers laid out in black and white. It had the air of a legal justification written after the fact for a policy decision that had already been made...."

For a long time I have accepted the argument that subjective moralists can somehow discern right and wrong even though they deny the existence of right and wrong. But this is obviously not the case. Subjective moralists, relativists by another name, have consciously decided not to carry a compass and therefore frequently get lost. The president is a subjective moralist and frequently lost.

Once the premise of no knowable right or wrong is recognized as the subjective moralist's underpinning, this drone stuff shouldn't come as a surprise. In fact, it's an improvement. With a threatening or obnoxious teenager there's always cause. This is never the case with a defenseless child in the womb, who the president already advocates killing.

So my prior naiveté and these reactions in the press lack gravity and are a sad affirmation of a wise man's observation that "the world is suffering from a lack of thought." The Times and other mainstream media clearly don't understand the implications of the philosophy they so regularly espouse. Because the subjective moralist rejects the existence of rock, he must build his house on sand.

So let's drop the pretense that such a person can know the difference between right and wrong; that without objective standards his decisions are anything but the imposition of his will; and that he is principled due to his stated good intention. These courtesies have been extended for too long and make no sense because one cannot reach good decisions based on a slippery and purely self-centered view of the world.

Subjective moralists, both Democrat and Republican, are deprived of a healthy and normal recourse to conscience because conscience cannot be purely personal. It must make "reference to that which is outside itself, to the objective moral law," to what is wrong and what is right.

To have a conscience is to detect this law and to hold oneself accountable to it. It is not "to create values or to evade the law," whether by clever or not so clever arguments. It is to be humbly and prudently "guided by objective norms." Prudence requires an orientation to the good, without which only tactics remain. John Yoo explains,

Rather than capture terrorists -- which produces the most valuable intelligence on al Qaeda -- Mr. Obama has relied almost exclusively on drone attacks, and he has thereby been able to dodge difficult questions over detention. But those deaths from the sky violate personal liberty far more than the waterboarding....

Prudent decisions of a moral character require correspondence with objective truth, whereas a dialog with oneself is just a monologue. A corollary is that sycophants only make for echoes, and these echo chamber monologues sound pretty silly when exposed to the light of day. This brings us back to the President's drone gobbledygook. The New York Times wasn't done: "The white paper 'is a confusing blend of self-defense and law of war concepts .... Its due process analysis is especially weak." And from Bloomberg:

The most troubling question the administration's strategy against terrorism raises is whether its reliance on drones is eroding the principle that collateral damage to innocents be minimized.... it hasn't disputed a New York Times report that it simply presumes that 'all military-age males in a strike zone' are combatants. Liberals, moderates and conservatives should all raise their voices against this practice.

When the individual person is the source of his own moral understanding, anyone, for any reason, can become a drone target, even on American soil. But the point is bigger. It is that subjective moralists will frequently make bad decisions because the necessary connections just don't get made:

• Justice Sandra Day O'Connor observed that, "Roe. . . is clearly on a collision course with itself.... [It has] no justification in law or logic." Whereas, Justice Harry Blackmun "argued that the right to terminate a pregnancy is in the penumbra of privacy rights" of the Fourteenth Amendment. A little polysyllabic nonsense and "pro-choice" has become the "linguistic switch [by which] real human beings can be consigned to fiction."

• Today cheap and free contraception is plentiful and readily available, yet subjective moralists have justified forcing Catholics and other Christians to violate deeply held religious beliefs so that "millions of American women" may not be "denied" their contraception. This despite the positive correlation between the increased availability of contraception and unintended pregnancies.

• Philadelphia Boy Scouts "retain the commonsense notion that it is not wise to bring boys into close contact with men who are sexually attracted to boys... that if ... such men were scoutmasters, the boys would check out." However, for this commonsense notion, the Philadelphia city council insists on forcing the Boy Scouts from their headquarters.

• A Houston woman, who recently aborted and left her child in a garbage can, will be forever scarred and her soul seared by the reality of that last look before she closed the lid. Hillary Clinton calls abortion "the most basic of human rights."

• Afghans know too well the sight of charred human remains. President Obama assures us of his diligent read of St. Augustine, consideration of just war doctrine and concern over "collateral damage." Although just war logic certainly may be applied to drone tactics, the incoherence of the white paper indicates no real attempt to do so. And Hillary Clinton would hasten to ask, "What difference does it make?"

It's not that we don't all make mistakes and even grave errors in judgment; it's that subjective moralists maximize the chance of error because they are driving blind. Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald goes further, describing them as "vapid, unprincipled hacks willing to justify anything and everything...."

Given Greenwald's characterization, a reader may rightly wonder why or how a subjective moralist does anything right, or conversely, what constrains him. The answer, the barest of legalistic minimalism: After a period of pseudo-discernment, the subjective moralist will do whatever he can get away with -- more if enabled by the press, less if not. The Obama white paper crossed the line for the mainstream press. (In other late-breaking news, the press was actually found to have a line to cross.)

Droning through the penumbras is like a holiday in the Hamptons for the brain, available only to the privileged few who are removed from the realities of everyday life and the consequences of their views. We should expect this nonsense and be unsurprised at its frequency. But we ignore and vote for it at our peril, because subjective calculus can be used to justify anything. Without an objective basis, the powerful inevitably infringe on the out of favor and the weak. In no time, some out of vogue group will be abused less like the fictional redheaded stepchild and more like the actual unborn child, observant Catholic, Boy Scout, or obnoxious teenager.