Chomsky on Rawls

CHOMSKY: Rawls’s “difference principle” is reasonable, but hardly a theory. Other moral principles are reasonable too: e.g., the principle of universality that underlies all of “just war theory”: if something is right (or wrong) for us, it’s right (or wrong) for others. It follows that if it’s wrong for Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and a long list of others to bomb Washington and New York, then it’s wrong for Rumsfeld to bomb Afghanistan (on much flimsier pretexts), and he should be brought before war crimes trials. Again, the principle of universality is not a “theory.” Just moral truism.

What’s the source of such moral truisms? We don’t know much more than David Hume did 250 years ago when he pointed out that our moral judgments are so rich and complex, and apply so readily to new cases, that they must derive from some fixed principles, and since we cannot acquire these from experience, they must be part of our nature (14). Rather like language. Or any other structure or capacity of an organism. To find out what these principles are, however, is a very hard task, and there has been very little progress, beyond rather elementary observations. That’s why I don’t cite moral theory. It is so lacking in depth or confirmation or argument that it doesn’t help very much, except in simple cases like the one I mentioned about bringing Rumsfeld to war crimes trials — unless he and the deep thinkers he brought to Washington really do think that the countries I mentioned, and many others, ought to be bombing Washington and New York.
If we want to pursue the matter further, we have to consider the fact that even if the fundamental principles of human moral nature that Hume sought were known, there would still appear to be another question: are they right, in some other sense? That’s a hard question; arises elsewhere too, e.g., in epistemology. Worth thinking about, but we should bear in mind that all of this is utterly remote from any application to human affairs. For that, elementary truisms carry us rather far, which is why they are almost always ignored, as in the single case I mentioned.As to the function of the debate on “just war,” I think you have the answer right before you. Can you find anything in the literature on this topic, now quite rich, that suggests that we should adhere to the most elementary principle of just war theory — universality — and apply it in the real world? I can’t think of an example. If so, we conclude that it is all some kind of apologetics for atrocities. That seems to follow rather clearly, unless the issue is engaged — and I think you’ll find that it isn’t.

From a 2004 interview “On Terrorism”

This echoes most of my complaints about 20th century ethics – its arbitrary. Ethics ends with Hegel, I think. Hegel’s ethics passes the “it matters even if the rich don’t respect what’s right” test – because rights exist independently of their recognition. Furthermore, it follows from the nature of the human being – someone can be deemed incorrect if they are unjust. I’m sure Chomsky isn’t a Hegelian, but I think his overall point is that Ethics can’t seriously be divided from the question of the human.


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