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Musings on Justificatory Practice

The Syrian Debate


Perhaps the most interesting development relating to the current US-Syrian crisis – at least for me coming from a somewhat academic standpoint – is the way in which this crisis has illumined the importance of “justificatory practice.” I have even thought, perhaps in less guarded moments, something in our democracy might actually be working?

As I consider what Barack Obama and those closely connected with him, have said in defense of their Syrian policy, it’s not so much “what” has been said that intrigues me (and by the way, many recent articles in CounterPunch have shown the policy involves grand degrees of hypocrisy), but more, that “something” was indeed said.

When I discuss the fields of logic and critical thinking with my students, I like to talk to them –apart from of any specific practical political or moral issues – about why it is that humans often engage in justificatory practices, that is, in forms of communication that are explicitly focused on the defense of controversial ideas and actions.

The occurrence of this phenomenon is primarily dependent on the conditions of equality and the distribution of power persisting amongst a population, and the existence of sufficient levels of disagreement amongst the members of the society. In liberal settings, some engage in justificatory practices because they believe that somehow truth or objectivity or progress emerge with greater probability out of conditions of open and informed debate. Others engage in justificatory practices because of its empowering effects. Still others engage in these practices, quite frankly, because they are forced to do so, partly because we all live in a world full of expectations regarding our behavior. Those in positions of greatest power (those already supported by vast economic and coercive resources) are much less likely than others to participate voluntarily in such exercises of rational persuasion in pursuit of something like truth or empowerment.

Obviously there is tension, and indeed inconsistency, between especially believers in and those otherwise forced to engage in justificatory practice. Ultimately, these different groups are probably playing different games. For the believers, justificatory practice makes us truly human. For those more or less forced into justificatory practice the effort expended amounts variously to distraction, annoying and wasteful inconvenience, all the way to the successful construction of bald-faced lies enabling the use and accumulation of even more power. But, sometimes, in a democracy the weight of the commitments and actions of those who believe that discourse can and should be made to be as rational as possible may overwhelm the cynicism of those who offer justifications only reluctantly or in the spirit of lying under pressures of others’ expectations and recognized rules. So it is most important to try to understand what are the conditions under which this sort of result becomes more likely?

What accounts for Barack Obama’s current justificatory engagement with Congress (and the world beyond)? First, there was the perhaps clumsy way in which the President apparently initially painted himself into his red-lined corner, thus impregnating the context with the germs of credibility, followed by the denial that personal credibility was at stake and the extravagant suggestion that rather, it is the credibility of humanity as a moral race that is on the line. Barack Obama – the Nobel Peace Laureate President – surely has sufficient cause to be concerned about his own level of personal integrity here. An interesting question may be, can and should anti-escalators and the wider peace movement find ways to assist the president in enhancing his levels of integrity and credibility?

Second, the internal logic of the sheer folly and danger of raining cruise missiles onto ancient Damascus creates its own pressures to engage in justification of the idea itself. Perhaps for reasons of ego, power, and interests, persons in such positions seem unwilling or unable to simply waive the white flag. Again, can and should the peace movement try to find ways to make a potential reversal of policy look less like presidential indecisiveness, capitulation, and political weakness?

Third, so far, public opinion, both domestic and international, seems significantly opposed to the Obama administration’s game-changer of a policy. And, again so far, a significant portion of mainstream media along with the dogged efforts of the progressive press, have been well focused on publicizing the current disposition of public opinion. Here the way forward is much more clear. Those wishing to promote peace in Syria and the Middle East must reach energetically and respectfully to much less informed, often misinformed, local publics and forums, especially to those who do not usually engage meaningfully or effectively in discussions about political controversies. It is also of utmost important that activists absolutely flood Congress with phone calls and letters urging negotiation rather than more war.

Finally, distant, aging historical and institutional pressures (Congressional purse strings, consultation with and consent of Congress, the War Powers Act) still cast cooling and inviting if fleeting shadows over the scorched earth policies of imperial executives. Again, here the way forward is clear and well underway. We must continue to support especially organized legal actions designed to reinvigorate democratic processes and our Constitutional rights.

I don’t know how quaint or naïve this may sound, but there may be cause for hope here. Can we be energized by the possibilities for what ethicists and philosophers have called “the moral point of view?” In his classic book, Ethics, William Frankena , following David Hume, defends the importance of endeavoring to “be free, impartial, willing to universalize, conceptually clear, and informed about all possible relevant facts.” Likewise, Kurt Baier (in The Moral Point of View) urges us to avoid egoism, act from principle, universalize our own principles, and consider the general welfare. In so far as humans can be rationally persuaded that they have certain obligations to each other, or that they should value certain states of affairs, individuals need to try to recognize and take seriously the importance of what I have described here as justificatory practice in their own lives.

Michael P. Bradley is a professor of philosophy and political science at Blackburn College in Illinois. He can be reached at: mbrad@blackburn.edu