Be serious and realistic, and learn to love the bomb

Someone is wrong on the Internet, and so I have responded in the only way possible: by resurrecting my blog.

The someone in question is Ian Leslie, who has written an article for the New Statesman blog called “Jeremy Corbyn and the nirvana fallacy“. It probably does not deserve to be singled out for particular attention (beyond a roll of the eyes), but it does serve as an especially pure distillation of various themes and lines of argument that have been parroted ad infinitum by “Labour moderates” throughout the summer (albeit on topics other than nuclear warfare), and hence is rather instructive.

The gist of the piece is that by refusing point blank to agree to push the nuclear button, Jeremy Corbyn is being “unserious” and subscribing to the so-called nirvana fallacy, “the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a problem”. Corbyn, and the Left more generally, favour idealism over realism, and foolishly opt for irrational choices, etc. etc.

So far, so familiar. But what is missing, of course, is any acknowledgement that Leslie’s own idea of what constitutes “seriousness” is itself highly contested, or indeed any acknowledgement that he is bringing a highly specific framework of values and assumptions to bear on the matter: instead, it is taken simply as common sense that a “serious” perspective on moral and political matters consists in a game-theoretic, consequentialist weighing up of the pros and cons of each alternative.

Though such an approach is hard to take seriously from a philosophical perspective (at least in such a crude form), it is nonetheless deeply ingrained in widespread ways of thinking. The motif of the pragmatic realist who takes tough but morally unsavoury choices is commonly found in popular culture, from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones. The refusal to do bad things is presented as an indulgent, foolish squeamishness that will probably result in your being decapitated or eaten by zombies. But this way of thinking is evident too in real-world discussions about practical matters (business, politics) in which ethical or moral concerns are bracketed away as over-earnest embarrassments, in favour of couching things in more neutral, managerial terms. On this view, refusing even to contemplate pressing the button on a nuclear warhead betrays a risible lack of rationality. It is weak, foolish, self-indulgent and, above all, unrealistic.

Against this reactionary fetishisation of the hard-nosed realist who takes the tough choices is a view of seriousness as the understanding that certain wrong, evil things are absolutely ruled out. Raimond Gaita attributes a version of this view to Socrates: “For someone who understands the nature of evil, certain deeds and thoughts are not an option”; meanwhile, Elizabeth Anscombe famously contended that it shows a “corrupt mind” to think in advance that it is open to question whether an evil action (in her example “procuring the judicial execution of the innocent”) should be “quite excluded from consideration”. On this view, the game-theoretic managerialist is an utterly unserious figure; a travesty of someone who attends seriously to matters of good and evil; a person who instead reduces such matters to an instrumental calculation of relative merits on two columns of a spreadsheet, who cannot grasp the incongruity between their language of prudent strategising and the reality of weapons of genocidal destruction (try substituting “genocide bomb” for “nuclear weapon” or “nuclear deterrent” whenever politicians or writers like Leslie use these terms – this redescription will make the incongruity abundantly clear).

For the prized “realism” that Leslie professes by way of contrast with “unrealistic” dreamers and idealists is only dubiously in contact with reality at all. Despite his repeated insistence to be engaging with “the real world” and “the world as it is” (generally construed as a fairly static, largely immutable set of affairs as represented by moderate common sense -itself a distortion of reality), Leslie seems confused about the relation between ideals and reality. He believes that it is “stupid” to take as an ideal something that is “impossible” – a world without nuclear weapons – and asks us to bracket such ideals away. But to someone who does attend seriously to the moral reality of the evil of nuclear weapons – something Leslie would prefer us “to put to one side”, despite its being very much part of “the world as it is” – the thing that would be impossible would be to press the button and unleash that evil upon the world.


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