Monday, September 06, 2004

Letter from a German Philosopher

Daniel von Wachter, who holds doctorates in both philosophy and theology, writes:

Dear Dr Vallicella,
Joseph Jedwab drew my attention to your blog, which I like. I am interested in your philosophy of religion, but also your more political comments. Find below a comment of your "Cumulative Case".

BTW, I am new to the blog world - do blogs also allow for discussions, or are they just a way of swiftly publishing one's thoughts on the web. Are most interesting blogs at or are there many other sites?

BV: Yes, blogs (weblogs) allow for discussions, and in three ways. One way is by sending the blogger an e-mail message to which he then responds on his blog. A second way is via a Comments Feature which some, but not all, bloggers activate. This allows anyone to post a comment on a particular blog post (entry). My Comments Feature is not activated (i) to avoid unserious and nasty comments given the ease with which comments can be posted; (ii) to avoid spam; (iii) to keep my workload within manageable limits. A third way to conduct a discussion in the blogosphere occurs when two correspondents each have blogs. A responds to B on A's blog; B responds to A on B's blog. I myself employ both the first and third methods. Via a service such as Technorati (see my sidebar) one can determine when and if a given blog is being linked to by other blogs. One can easily see who is talking about whom, and what they are saying.

There are many excellent blogs at, but the latter is only one provider. has the advantage of being free of charge and very easy to use.

I know Joseph because we were both supervees [supervisees] of Richard Swinburne. My later work with him was on God's causal role in the world. So I am interested in your work on sustaining [creation and conservation] etc.

Here in Germany (well, I am in Finland at the moment, but I have a research fellowship in Munich) I keep my mind alive by reading Anglosaxon philosophy of religion, and, more political, "First Things" and the "Salisbury Review". What do you think about these publications?

BV: I have a high opinion of First Things. I am not sure I have read Salisbury Review.
Dr. Dr. Daniel von Wachter
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitt Mnchen, Philosophie-Department.

What you say [about cumulative case arguments, and the cumulative case argument for the Iraq war] is clearly true. Here is a letter from Germany in connexion with what you say. First some terminology. Feel free to help me to tidy it up and make it more efficient. Or skip the next paragraph.

BV: I'll provide some editing in what follows. And thank you for reading my cumulative case post. I'm glad we agree.

Let me mean by R being a good reason, or just a reason, for action A one belief in which makes it more rational to do A. A good reason may be sufficient or insufficient, as explained by Vallicella. By R being a veridical reason for action A I mean one belief in which makes it more rational to do A and where the belief in question is true.

BV: Your use of 'more' is confusing. Why not drop this word?

By M being a motive for action A, I mean whatever moved the agent to do A, which may be e.g. a moral belief or avarice. By person P being justified, or rational, in doing A I mean that on P's beliefs the action was not irrational and not bad. (One could further distinguish here whether A was rational on P's beliefs by the standards P had or by the true standards.) By P being not justified, or irrational, in doing A I mean that on P's beliefs the action was irrational. By R being a bad reason for action A, I mean one belief in which does not make it more rational to do A or does not make it as much more rational as the agent assumes.

BV: Delete 'much more'

By saying that it was right, or justified, to do A at time t, I mean that for the agent in that situation (given the beliefs etc.) it was rational and good to do A. By saying that it was truly right to do A at t, I mean that on all true information it was rational to do A at t. By saying that it was wrong to do A at t, I mean that for the agent in that situation it was not rational and good to do A.

Now on Germany. Whatever one thinks about whether it was right and truly right to go to war with Iraq, there is much reason for thinking that many Germans were irrational in their opposition to the war. (By the way, how about the French?) Gerhard Schrder [Schroeder] said I [he] can only warn [must warn] against such a war! (Vor so einem Krieg kann ich nur warnen!), about which we only need to note that he did not bother to give arguments against the war. If you compare Tony Blair and G.W. Bush with Schroeder you see that there are leaders who argue and leaders who don't, whatever you think of the arguments and of the decision. The only hint of an argument was that the consequences of this war might be bad, suggesting between the lines that the American government was incompetent or negligent in judging these consequences. (I, however, can't see where there is in the German government such great competence...)

BV: Es freut mich sehr, dass es Deutschen geben die mit der amerikanischen Regierung in diesem Hinsicht einverstanden sind.

In the public there were mainly two strands of thinking. First, there was [were]naive pacifisms [pacifists]. Some people were driven to the opposition to the war by their general opposition to war without considering in detail in which cases a war is justified and whether Iraq was such a case.

BV: If pacifism is the doctrine that it is always and everywhere morally wrong to use deadly force against human beings, then I reject pacifism. Some wars are just; some killing in self-defense is morally acceptable; and the same goes (I would argue) for some instances of capital punishment. I would go so far as to argue that pacifism is morally wrong in that it causes an net increase in the amount of moral evil in the world. By failing to oppose murderous individuals, groups, and regimes, pacifists willy-nilly embolden them, thereby contributing to an increase in murderous violence. Pacifists often claim that violence only begets more violence. That is simply false. Some violence puts an end to violence. The violence of the Nazi Verbrecherstaat and that of the Soviet Union have been ended forever, in the one case by the application of actual violence, in the other by the threat of violence.

By the way, I lived in Germany (Freiburg im Breisgau) for one year; I love the country and met many fine Germans. It is awful what the Allies did to Germany in WWII, but mostly necessary. The firebombing of Dresden, however, was unnecessary and wrong as far as I can tell. As I understand the matter, the brutal destruction of Dresden and its noncombatant population was more a British than an American initiative, a thought from which I derive some comfort. The Allied war effort was just as a whole even if not every part of it can be justified.

Second, there was legal positivism.

BV: I take legal positivism to imply that extra-legal questions about the morality or immorality of given laws (laws enacted by legislative bodies) cannot meaningfully arise. Is that right?

Some people seemed to think that whether it is right to go to war depends wholly on whether such a war was in accordance with the UN resolution. It seems obvious to me that this is false: it can be right to go to war when the UN decides against it, and it can be wrong to go to war when the UN decides for it.

BV: I agree. I would argue that the U.N. has at best an advisory role to play. No nation should subordinate its sovereignty to it. This is especially obvious given the rogue states that are members. It's a bit like having an ethics panel with mafiosi on it. Furthermore, U.N. dictates are meaningless unless they can be backed up with force. But the U.N. lacked the will to enforce its own unanimous resolutions against Saddam Hussein.

You get the comment: But who shall decide then?. I can only guess what this comment means, because it is of course always the agent who decides, in this case e.g. the USA, Britain, and Germany. The UN is treated as a God. Well, even that comparison is too weak, because according to most theists what is right and what is wrong depends only partly on divine commands (that is, most theists reject the divine command theory). That understanding of morality, reasons, and action I find quite worrying.

BV: There is an interesting issue here that I am not very clear about. Suppose it is morally obligatory that I do X. Can this obligation hold even if there are no consequences of my not doing X? I have the intuition that OUGHT needs ontological backing. Prescriptions and proscriptions need to be anchored in something actual, something real. Theism can accommodate this intuition without reducing the normative to the natural. But this is a huge topic.

What was missing in the debate was the weighing of reasons. Surely the suffering of the people of Iraq and Saddam's support of Palestinian terrorism counted for the war, and the prospect of a Shiite government after Saddam against it. And so on, there was a host of factors to be weighed. I fear, few of the opponents of the war in Germany were engaged in that activity. That is what I mean when I say that the opposition of many Germans was irrational.

BV: I agree completely. I am always amazed when people say that Saddam had no connection with terrorism. It has been established that he supported Palestinian Arab suicide bombers and their families. He gave them a substantial monetary incentive to engage in their acts. There is also evidence of links to al-Qaeda. (See Stephen F. Hayes, The Connection, Harper Collins, 2004) Whether Saddam can be specifically linked to the events of 9/11 is a matter of indifference. People have to realize that this is a war against Islamic terrorists, not just against Osama bin Laden, or al-Qaeda, or the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.