I was struck, watching the BBC’s The Big Questions this morning, by how poor the level of argument was, even between informed, educated, and intelligent individuals. I was particularly struck by Mehdi Hasan’s contribution (Mehdi is political editor at the New Statesman) against military intervention in Syria. Mehdi’s argument was that military intervention implied indiscriminate bombing and so was impermissible. Subsequent discussion over Twitter clarified that argument and drew out another on grounds of the hypocrisy of Western states. Those two arguments are as ubiquitous as they are dubious, but before I discuss them I want to start by saying that none of what I will write should be taken as an indication of my support or for military intervention – in fact I have yet to make my mind up.
It should be immediately obvious that arguing against military intervention on grounds that it involves bombing the hell out of a country is fallacious – nothing in the definition of military intervention necessarily involves the implied kind of bombing. So what we have is really an argument against the wrong kind of intervention rather than an in principle objection against intervention.
In response to this counter, Mehdi cited previous interventions as evidence – Iraq, Libya, Bosnia, Afghanistan – that intervention does necessarily involve indiscriminate bombing. Ooops – another logical fallacy: intervention is wrong because historical interventions have involved indiscriminate bombing therefore future interventions will involve indiscriminate bombing. Far too much weight is being placed upon induction here.
In its simplest form the argument is that military intervention inevitably leads to more human misery than it prevents, therefore we should never intervene. The problem is it’s impossible to prove that military intervention necessarily results in more misery than non-intervention, or to prove the reverse. For example, we can’t prove that more misery was created by the Allied Powers going to war against Germany than would have been if Germany had been left to get on with the Holocaust. Nor can we prove that not intervening in Syria will lead to less misery than intervening.
What we seem to want is intervention under a set of stringent permissibility conditions, but what people seem to end up arguing is that because those conditions have not been met in historical situations, they cannot be met in future ones. A concern that intervention is likely to lead to more misery is certainly a valid one, but it’s very hard to turn that sort of feasibility constraint on intervention into an in-principle objection, which is precisely what Mehdi and so many others seem to want to do. Unfortunately this kind of argument is deployed all over the place; one example that I find particularly grating is in the case of biofuels: producing biofules has had bad environmental consequences in the past and therefore we should not grow biofuels. Another common instance is the old ‘Marxism hasn’t worked, therefore Marxism cannot work’ argument: the conclusion may be true, but it doesn’t follow from the premise.
A second argument employed on the show, and later by Mehdi was that Western countries fail to intervene in other cases of gross rights violations. Whilst perfectly true, it doesn’t at all follow that therefore they should not intervene in this one. What the failure to intervene elsewhere may show are the following:
- Western countries are hypocrites.
- Western countries have no duties (or weaker duties) to intervene in other cases cited.
Unfortunately, neither 1. nor 2. can be used to conclude that intervention is wrong in the Syria case; the argument from hypocrisy is yet another piece of fallacious reasoning.
It’s intensely sad that style of debate that privileges sophistry and rhetorical trickery over reasoned argument has so permeated politics, the British media, and public debate that it’s almost impossible to have an honest discussion or discern people’s genuine reasons. Instead of coming up with the poor kinds of arguments seen on The Big Questions, people should think about the following two questions:
- Are they in-principle opposed to humanitarian military intervention (perhaps on grounds of respect for national sovereignty, non-contingent pacifism, or duties held by states to their own citizens)?
- Are they opposed to military intervention unless certain conditions are met (proportionality, last resort, adherence to international law etc.)?
I suspect that many people engaged in public debate are intuitively against intervention, but also instinctively recognise that an in-principle objection is much harder to defend, and so they end up running the two kinds of objection together as one. The result is that when people point out how the conditions for permissible intervention can be met, the counter-arguments, which are based upon an underlying in-principle objection, become more and more strained and unbelievable.
I should probably stick in a plea for schools to focus more upon critical thinking at this point. End.