Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Utilitarianism of Torture Chic

Responding to Matthew Yglesias' snippet on conservative torture fashion, Daniel Koffler at AOTP finds his outrage lacking:

"I say, let’s maximize the total utility of the world by making sure everyone who would “rather be waterboarding” has her preference realized. Indeed, if an appropriate form of utilitarianism is correct, one might have an obligation to
see to it that those who would “rather be waterboarding” get waterboarded."

As they say, read the whole thing (it's not very long).

...While I'm here I may as well throw out yet another plug for Art of the Possible, which is as interesting and unique a blog as they come (without being, you know, bizarre).

Also, John Schwenkler has some typically astute notes on this.

As for me, I agree with John that this view of waterboarding as being a criterion for modern-day conservatism must be fought vociferously by the dissident elements of conservatism. But I would add one thing - although this ideology of the political Right that views support for waterboarding as a litmus test is considered to be "conservative," the reality is that it is really just an example of how coalitions can distort the views of coalition members. Frankly, almost any truly conservative (in the Burkean sense) ideology - whether it be the conservatism of doubt of an Andrew Sullivan, the more traditional conservatism of a William F. Buckley or a Russell Kirk, etc. - would be disturbed by the concept of waterboarding as not only defensible but actually a badge of honor.

Instead, the idealization of waterboarding is merely a symbol of how "conservatism" has become viewed as simply a synonym for "agreeing with the Republican base," much as "liberalism" is viewed as synonymous with "agreeing with the Democratic base." In reality, however, actual conservatives were never more than one element of the Republican coalition, albeit the dominant element in the post-Goldwater era. The problem is that conservatives alone were not enough to win an election, and so the Republican party needed to seek out other groups who had relatively little philosophical connection with Buckley-style conservatism. To accommodate these groups, who took up the moniker of "______ conservatives," the Republican Party had to take up their issues, which were of perhaps lesser importance to the more philosophical conservatives.

Unfortunately, most people today - including most self-styled conservatives - view conservatism as an ideology that simply means "the dominant views of the random mish-mosh of groups supporting the Republican Party." This isn't conservatism - it's just pu-pu platter partisanship masquerading as conservatism. Moreover, it is perhaps exhibit A1 of how partisanship can have more impact on interest groups than interest groups have on the party (my fifth rule).

To be sure, there are a number of young, talented true conservatives (or not really Burkean "_______ conservatives") who are seeking to reclaim their philosophy from the jaws of political coalition pragmatism. But they will first have to develop and create support for those philosophies independent from the confines of either political party, especially the Republican Party. Given the synonymity of "conservative" with "Republican," I also suspect that they will have to come up with a new label for themselves to have much hope of success.