Why Do We Accept in Ourselves That Which We Condemn in Others?



There was a certain horrifying fascination to observe the speed and enthusiasm with which conservatives embraced the unprecedented growth of government power and size under George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. A Crisis and Leviathan case study in the “ratchet-effect” of “crises”—documented brilliantly throughout by Bob Higgs and reprinted as our Resurgence of the Warfare State, it was nonetheless astounding to watch conservatives (admittedly aided and abetted by plenty of liberals and libertarians) almost trip over themselves in handing the Executive vast new, unchecked powers, fueled with a 60% increase in federal spending and a nearly quintupling of the federal debt—much having nothing to do with national security, such as the record-breaking 2002 Farm Bill.

As a Christian, I was particularly chagrined to watch conservatives calling themselves Christians vociferously backing “pre-emptive” war—a complete disavowal of the traditional “just war” theory, which regardless of what one thinks about it as a justification for war, is at least light-years from the idea that the President can omnisciently know who is a danger and should thus be free to act, unilaterally, preemptively. Even assuming such conservatives accepted a contention that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were somehow justified responses to 9/11, the tactics employed are explicitly heretical to the law of equivalency—”an eye for an eye”—a directive to hold response equivalent to, not escalated from, the offense (i.e., NO MORE THAN an eye for an eye). Any bombing campaign assumes and accepts as “necessary” large amounts of “collateral damage;” utilizing grossly misnamed “precision bombs” in a tightly-packed urban area like Baghdad guarantees even higher civilian deaths, while cluster bombs can only have been designed explicitly to kill and horribly maim innocent children coming across the shiny toy-looking bomblets.

Yet when liberals gained power, what changed? Congress turned over first, and promptly re-upped the pork-laden Farm bill. Pelosi defended the action to liberal critics seeking an end to subsidies of big agribusiness in favor of subsidies to organic and other “sustainable” farming by explaining that her new majority included a great many freshmen from districts benefiting from farm pork, and ensuring their reelection was more important than principle. Obama of course campaigned on a platform of “change,” and the biggest change most liberals (claimed) to want was of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, since taking office, Obama has not made a single significant change to the Bush policies of war, torture, renditioning, indefinite detention, wiretapping, and secrecy—and has in fact in several instances, strengthened and established even greater legitimacy for each. And yet, where are the liberal protests that had grown ever-louder after the first thrill of revenge had subsided and they remembered they were against war and for civil liberties; the voices that surely translated into Obama’s presidential win? Unfortunately now as sorely lacking as those of conservatives protesting Bush’s abrogation of the Constitution and gross expansion of government’s powers.

So why do we, as humans, let actions we view as abhorrent when practiced by others, accept them when we’re the ones doing them? C.S. Lewis, when asked about the ethic to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” insightfully responded by asking in turn, “How do you love yourself? When I look into my own mind, I find that I do not love myself by thinking myself a dear old chap or having affectionate feelings.” Rather, we recognize that we do things that we detest, but we nevertheless allow ourselves a great deal of self-justification. Perhaps it’s because we “know” that we “mean well;” or we tell ourselves, “The lofty ends I am seeking justify the terrible means I am ‘forced’ to employ to achieve them.” In sum, C.S. Lewis says, “You dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself.”

So, when it comes to seeing others doing things that we detest, ought we similarly allow them the benefit of the doubt that their wretched means will be justified by their noble ends? Or ought we, contrariwise, to recognize that every means is itself an end, and hold ourselves, as well as others, to the higher standard?

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