The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Ethics Page 1 of 8

Understanding Morality

I have a simple morality:

  1. I like feeling good.
  2. I don’t like feeling bad. (Suffering)
  3. I want other people to feel good.
  4. I don’t want other people to feel bad (to suffer.)


Most people have some of this as part of their morality.

How much is a matter of moral transitivity. How many people are part of three and four?

Let’s outline some variations:

The psychopath. Only my suffering and happiness matters.

The Patriarch/Matriarch. Only the suffering and happiness of me and my relatives matter.

The Back Slapper. The suffering and happeiness of me, my relatives, and my friends matters.

The Noble. The suffering and happiness of me, my relatives, my friends and my dependents matters. (Modern version is the good boss.)

The Aristocrat or Oligarch: Only the suffering or happiness of my class matters.

The Neoliberal Politician: Only the suffering of my family, friends and donors matters.

The Patriot. The suffering of my fellow citizens matters.

The Bigot. The suffering and happiness of people like me (my culture, skin color, religion or whatever) matters. I want people who are of inferior or enemy races to suffer and not be happy (reversal of 3 and 4.)

The Zionist: The suffering and happiness of Israeli Jews matters to me. I want Palestinians to be unhappy and suffer (and die.)

The Saint: the suffering and happiness of all humans matters to me.

The Boddhisattva: the suffering and happiness of all creatures capable of suffering or being happy matters to me.

It should be obvious that there are two variables here:

  1. How far your concern emanates.
  2. Who you reverse concern on. Who do you want to see suffer? (A lot of people who think they are good people want to see “criminals” suffer and feel virtuous for doing so.)

A third variable is degree. For most people concern vitiates with “distance.” They care most about themselves, then their family, then their friends, then people they know personally, then people like them (however they define that) and so on. For animals, mammals get a lot of concern, especially good looking ones, and non mammals get less with insects and so on falling into the exterminate them category.

What is your morality? Who does it apply to, and how much?


Some Acts Are Always Evil

This is a post a lot of readers will misunderstand or refuse to understand, because our society requires us to do evil regularly and we want to pretend it isn’t evil.

Some acts are always evil.

To understand this you need to make the correct division between an act and the consequences of that act.

The act and the consequences are two different things.

Let’s take something which is, I hope, universally agreed among my readers. Rape is always evil. It is always an evil act. Even if someone comes up with a convoluted scenario under which some good came as a consequence rape is always an evil act.

We start here to show something simple: that some acts are evil.

This is necessary because our society has gone too far in cultural determinism. “Evil and good are completely social constructs.”

No. They are human, but they are not constructs. We understand that slavery is an evil act. We understand that murder is an evil act. We understand that torture is an evil act.

It may be that on some occasions the results of an evil act are good, but that does not make the act itself good. I don’t believe in torture for getting information, but even if it did work, torturing someone to get information which saves people is still an evil act. The act is evil, even if the consequences are good.

In debt-slavery, common in the ancient world, you would sell yourself into slavery to settle your debts and get money. Let us say you did so and it saved your family from starvation because master now feeds you and your family.

The slavery is still evil, even if some of the consequences of it are not.

This is at the heart of just war theory. All wars are evil. There are no exceptions. Sometimes the consequences of war are better than not fighting the war. That does not, however, make the war itself not evil. (I can think of very few wars which were worth the evil of the war itself. WWII is the only recent major example.)

Some years ago I wrote an article on what the Tao teaches those who want a better world.

I’m going to quote it at length here:

In the Tao Te Ching there is a famous passage, as follows:

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

What is appropriate isn’t always what is good, but what is good makes up the vast majority of what is appropriate.

When one no longer knows what is appropriate, one devolves to the good and is still doing most of what should be done.

Kindness makes up most of what is good, so when one loses what is good, one devolves to kindness and retains most of what is good.

Losing kindness, one retreats to justice. The loss here is steep. Justice is maybe half of what is kind, because justice without kindness is about balance and tends to not restore people, but punish them: “an eye for an eye” and all that.

And then there is ritual, and ritual, in this context, is without any of the higher virtues, and thus leads to injustice, cruelty and evil, because it has lost almost all of appropriateness: it simply accepts that action A should lead to action B, and that will often be the wrong action, unguided by appropriateness, goodness, kindness or even justice.

I would add that when even ritual is lost; when people no longer obey the rules and are guided by no sense of ethics, that all chances of a good society and good results are lost.

The problem with “ends justify means” is that means are most of what we do. If you do evil acts all day, all week, all year, all life because they are part of how your society runs, then the amount of evil you do usually overwhelms all the “consequences”. This is why only someone who “has the Tao” should ever do evil, and since 99.9999% of us don’t have the Tao and don’t have the judgment to know when evil is justified, we should avoid evil actions like the plague. Certainly our leaders, who are the worst of us, shouldn’t be allowed to do evil.

But that’s consequence talk. You don’t not do evil acts because of the consequences, you don’t do them because they are evil. If you start engaging too much in consequence talk, then pretty soon you’re justifying all sorts of evil action.

Don’t rape. It’s always evil, no matter who does it or why. Don’t mistake whether an act is evil and with the questions “are the consequences of this act evil or good.”

And tamp down your social constructivism and moral relativism. Some things are always wrong.

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Most Zero Sum Games Are Negative Sum & So Are Most Positive-Sum Games

In economics there’s the idea of how much a “game” nets, where a game is any economic activity. The ideal is to have positive sum games, where more good comes from the game than bad, and ideally all players of the game win. A classic zero-sum game is if you and I bet $10 on a coin flip: any win is precisely mirrored by loss. And a negative sum game is where people come out worse: a lot of wars are like this, no matter how much plunder, both sides are worse off at the end.

Just because a game is negative sum doesn’t mean it can’t be positive sum for a few people. War, again, is often like this. Masses of people may be killed, huge amounts of wealth destroyed and certain war profiteers may come out much richer and some politicians or generals much more powerful. Some soldiers may loot enough that war was better for them than peace.

The fundamental environmental critique of capitalism and industrialization is that it only looks like a positive sum game: that the damage we are doing to the environment (which includes climate change, but not just that) and to our health, makes it a negative sum game if one uses the proper time horizon (aka. if you won’t die before the bill becomes due) or if you include everyone (aka. being conquered by Britain was not good for Indians; being conquered mostly Europeans was not good for native North Americans, almost all of whom died) and capitalism has not been a marvel for most of the third world. Which is why, by the way, there are all those “best time to be alive ever” books which try to use dubious extreme poverty statistics to claim this is the closest we’ve ever gotten to utopia: they want to argue that capitalism and industrialization are positive sum games, at least for now.

These folks have no real argument against climate change and environmental collapse and tend to hand wave it with “technology will fix it” as if technology can un-extinct half the world’s species.

So in the big picture we’ve been playing a negative sum game for a long time. The destruction of the native civilizations of North America was a negative sum game. The impoverishment of India under the British East India company was a negative sum game (India started out with more industry than England, by a fairly wide margin.) Africa’s exploitation, from the slave trade to colonization was a negative sum game, which is not to deny they didn’t get some railroads and whatnot out of it. (The Belgians were the worst, but the French who are still making African nations pay them for having been conquered are mighty bad. England’s evils are well known.)

But we’re in a lot of local negative sum games. Wall Street types like to brag they “eat what they kill” and it’s accurate in all sorts of way. The entire run-up to 2008 was negative-sum: that’s why it took trillions to bail them out. All their profits came from creating much larger losses than their profits, then having other people pay them off and suffer a long light depression. And Central banks didn’t then go on to print trillions more because value was being produced after 2008, they had to print to keep covering the fact that real economic value was being destroyed.

Your average Wall Street executive is a sort of super-optimized human locust, getting fat by destroying real value. Private Equity as a whole is so clearly massively negative sum that if you try to deny it you live so far in a fantasy world there’s no point in talking. The entire neoliberal movement, with its poster-child policy of austerity was and is about damaging the real economy to make a small number of people richer.

A lot like those war profiteers we discussed earlier: they cause widespread misery, illness and death but they get very rich doing so.

(The military industrial complex is obviously negative sum, which, again, doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit some people.)

The job of governments is to create positive sum games and to stop negative sum games. In some ways that’s almost their only legitimate function. (Any crime system with high recidivism, or large numbers incarcerated is negative sum, by the way, but boy, a lot of people get rich locking other people up.)

A society with a lot of negative sum games running can be compared to an animal with a lot of ticks attached, a tapeworm, and some nasty diseases. It’s supporting a lot of parasites, but one day it falls over dead after a great deal of suffering, and then the parasite have to try to find a new host. If they can’t, because they’ve infected the entire herd (or destroyed the grazing land), well, then they too die.

Welcome to the fin de siecle of capitalist society.


You Don’t Have To Be Upset

Terrible things are happening all time. Right now, as you read it, people are suffering in monstrous, awful ways. Many, many people.

That’s how it is. That’s how it has always been, and as long as there is life of the type there is on Earth, that’s the way it will be. Human and many animal bodies are built for pain and suffering, and not only are we often astoundingly cruel to each other, but accident, disease and the infirmities of old age will scourge us till we, perhaps, become homo-deus.

One of the wisest things I ever read was a 90+ year old who met their spouse to be at the gym, when they were both in their 90s, who said, “neither my (spouse) nor I spend one second worrying about anything we can’t control.”

And, if you can control something, there’s no reason to worry about that.

Bad things are happening all the time. But if you get upset about them, you aren’t helping: your being upset doesn’t make the situation better.

What it does do is make you suffer. All you’re doing is making the world worse, for yourself.

This is one of the most important things I’ve ever written, so re-read the above two paragraphs and think about them.

Much of our sympathetic suffering is because we think that we should be upset, or angry, or worried. Having the emotion either feels like something a good person would do (and we want to be good people) or it feels like, in itself, it is taking action.

Or both. Read that last paragraph again.

There are absolutely situations where feeling bad is wise: they are almost all where you are with someone else who is feeling bad, and your sympathetic misery lets them know you care.

But even in such situations, staying miserable is rarely helpful to the other person. Getting in sync with them, then helping lift them out sometimes works and sometimes what they need is just your misery with them.

But when you leave their presence, being miserable doesn’t help them, and it hurts you.

You also don’t need to feel bad to take action. You can do something to help people who are suffering without having to suffer yourself.

The best states to help from are usually compassion or love. Those states are good for you and good for the people  you’re helping.

But first don’t make the world worse by suffering when your suffering doesn’t help.

This is a real disease in our society and it is made worse by 24/7 global coverage of bad shit. There’s always something terrible happening and you can always find something to feel terrible about. Our sympathetic mirroring of others emotions arose when we lived in small bands, it is not adapted to an internet world where we identify with people we’ve never met and never will.

But to break this habit, to stop hurting yourself, you have to internalize the logic that not feeling bad when bad things happen, especially bad things when you’re not there, does not mean you’re a bad person and you need to split the idea of “feeling” from taking action to help. (And, after all, most of the time you aren’t going to do anything, and often you effectively can’t do anything: there’s just too much evil.)

To do this, to break these connection is the ethical and moral action, because hurting yourself is not required in most cases to help others, so all you’re doing is increasing the world’s suffering. As the Buddha supposedly said, “your compassion is not complete if it does not include yourself.”

Please stop hurting yourself needlessly.


The Law of Equal Treatment

Last Friday, I wrote an article on the idea that if a society has a rule or duty, it must apply that to everyone in the applicable situation, no matter who they are, even if it’s someone you love. It was interesting to me that most of the commenters disagreed. Perhaps this is my fault, as I chose to use the famous example of a German general executing his own son for abandoning his sentry duty to fight and win a small skirmish, though I think this speaks partially to people not understanding how important sentry duty is — a group of soldiers ambushed in an encampment because sentries fail tends to get wiped out.

But whether the rule was reasonable or fair was NOT THE POINT. The point was that, if you have a rule, it must be enforced for everyone in the same situation. This can be a punishment, as in the example, or it could be a reward.

And that everyone isn’t just about people you love, it’s about you.

Ask yourself this: For what crimes, if you committed them, would you turn yourself over to the police? Those are the laws you actually support. You don’t support any other criminal laws, no matter what you say. This exercise may be a little hard, because most people support laws because they lack the imagination to conceive they would break them or be caught if they did, but give it a shot.

The law that everyone in the same situation should be treated the same is almost the most foundational law of a good society. Finland often ranked as having the world’s best education system. A researcher asked someone involved in designing and setting it up about how they did it, and they replied that hadn’t been the intention; they were trying to make sure that everyone was treated equally.

Again, though they didn’t say it, “in the same situation,” that clause is very important. If your kid is disabled in way X, they get treated the same as a rich or powerful person’s kid who is disabled in the same way. You can use power or money or connections to get better treatment, and not having money, power or connections doesn’t mean you will be treated badly.

There is a famous quote from Anatole France:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

These are bad laws, because they don’t acknowledge context. A better law about sleeping outside on another’s property might be that only those who have nowhere else to sleep can do this — with exceptions for camping and whatnot. Or, perhaps we would assume that if someone is sleeping outside they have a good reason, and when we see someone doing so in an odd place (a.k.a. not camping) we ask what the reason is, then get them some decent shelter if it’s because they have nowhere else. (As opposed to sending them to a homeless shelter, where theft and assault are common.)

If someone steals basic food, well, again, probably they need help because they’re hungry, and sending them to prison probably isn’t the best answer to the issue. In this case, the law might be that those who steal food and are found to not have the ability to otherwise feed themselves are sent to a social worker, not prison, and the state reimburses the business. Or perhaps a decent system of social support makes this sort of thing virtually not a problem. People who are old enough will remember that food banks were almost unheard of before the 80s recession because most countries had decent welfare system, and the chronic street people (of whom there were far fewer) were helped by soup kitchens run by a few large private organizations.

All of this is important. This is so basic that if it isn’t grasped, having a decent society is essentially impossible. Everyone must be treated the same in the same circumstances. Everyone. The poor and unconnected must be treated well when the rules say so, and the rich and powerful and connected must be treated badly when the rules say so. (Doing so is the best way to fix evil rules, by the way. Enforce them against the powerful.)

There’s a step beyond this, a prescriptive step. We’ll touch on that in a later article.


Simple Ethics For Groups And Individuals

The simplest thing we require in the social world, after food, water and shelter, is safety. Without safety, everything else is precarious and to live in constant fear destroys people’s psyches and health.

The basic rules required for a safe group are as follows.

First: each individual must not prey on others. Under no circumstances must they hurt another person or take from them just because they are weak and they can.

Second: anyone who does prey on others must be removed from the group. This may mean ostracism; it may mean confinement; or it may mean death.

Anyone who will prey on someone else who is weak, just because they are weak is a threat to you. One day you will be weaker than them, and if you have something they want they will take it. That could mean theft, violence or rape.

Whenever you encounter a predator or abuser, they are someone you cannot and should not trust. They have already said what they are, the only question is who they will do it to.

There are some complexities to this, mostly to do with “property” and “accumulation.” In a good society, the only time anyone would go hungry or without shelter is if there wasn’t enough, and only in cases where there was not enough would those who can “work” be prioritized. (Working means creating that which people need. Wall street jobs are almost all predator jobs.) In a vast surplus world like our current world, there is no reason for everyone not to fed, have a home and medical care.

People who have way more than they need while others don’t have enough are predators: abusers who prey on the weak. We have built up entire ideologies about why this OK, the most recent of which is modern capitalism.

Basically, you can’t, ever, tolerate predators or predation. Predation includes every job which preys on other people: health insurance in the US; most pharma jobs (except creating the drugs, and even many of those, since they create palliatives rather than cures in most cases), most financial jobs, almost all lobbying, the vast majority of the military-industrial complex and almost all “intellegence” agency jobs.

It is less important that everyone work, than that jobs be positive sum: creating more than they destroy, which includes not destroying the environment. It is better that a million people are supported, doing nothing, than that Jamie Dimon has a job.

The worst predators in most societies are the very rich and politicians. They kill and impoverish the most people with their actions and inactions, and they work for other predators.


First: each individual must not prey on others. Under no circumstances must they hurt another person or take from them just because they are weak and they can.

Second: anyone who does prey on others must be removed from the group. This may mean ostracism; it may mean confinement; or it may mean death.

These rules and guidelines may seem to be about ethics, but they are also the only way to create good prosperous societies and groups which last, which aren’t “suckers” (no violence ever) and which last. Any society or group which tolerates predators is eventually taken over by them, and any “prosperity” built in such ways is built on blood, bones and misery, and will eventually be lost.

Anyone who preys on others, will prey on you if they decide they can get away with it and your misery or death will benefit them.


Ukraine Through the Lens of an Honor or Mafia Society

There’s a good thread here, on how Russian prisons work. Go read it, and come back.

Now, I’ve never in been in prison, but I grew up in boarding school and I was near the bottom of the hierarchy most of the time I was there. I’ve also spent time in poverty in rough neighbourhoods and jobs, in which I was not near the bottom of the hierarchy, because I learned my lesson.

One of the best memories of my life is the day someone tried to push me around (reasonably, if you live in this ethos, I had been a coward and was known as one), and I realized I didn’t care how much I got hurt, but I was going to hurt him. My life got a lot better after that day.

At its simplest, the rules are as follows:

1) You must be willing to fight rather than be pushed around, even if you know you’ll lose.

2) Your word must be good: If you say you’ll do something, you always do it.

3) You protect your allies and friends. Again, even in fights you’ll lose, because if you don’t, you won’t have any allies or friends.

4) If you one of yours gets hurt or taken out, you do the same to one of theirs, and often, more than one of theirs.

The movie the Untouchables had Sean Connery state this ethos simply. It’s 15 second, watch it.

This is why I have said that, even though I think the Baltic states, for example, should never have been let into NATO, if Russia attacks them I support war, and if it goes nuclear, so be it.

It is at the emotional core of much of the disagreement over how far the West should go to help Ukraine. Ukraine was not in NATO. It was not in the EU. But for many Europeans and whites, Ukraine parses emotionally as “one of us.” And you don’t let one of us swing.

We didn’t give our word to protect Ukraine and I’m not willing to risk nuclear war over it. Others, feeling more of an emotive tie, are. This is also one reason why, during NATO expansion, so many people said something like, “Are Americans/Europeans/We really willing to die for the Baltic Republics or Poland (or Ukraine)?” What they were trying to say is that expanding an alliance to people we really weren’t willing to die for weakens the alliance, because what makes a defensive alliance work is that there’s no question that fucking with one of you means all of you jump in.

If you make that promise for someone for whom you’re not really willing to get the shit kicked out of you (or to die), and then you don’t keep the promise, even former members of your group, who were solid before, start becoming unreliable. “If they didn’t step up for Lithuania, will they die for me?” thinks Germany.

Next thing you know, your alliance is broken. This is why Russian requests to kick members out of NATO were a non-starter*: Once they’re in, kicking them out means threats can break our alliance. To others, the implication that Russia would get a veto over Ukraine was too far, for the same emotional logic. (Emotional logic is real logic, humans run on emotion, not reason.)

Note, however, that the code of honor also includes “keep your word.” NATO expanded, though it promised the Russians it wouldn’t. We broke our given word. When they asked us to remove most of the new NATO members, they too were acting on the code of honor: You said you’d do X, and you didn’t. Make it good, or else. When someone breaks their word to you, they must either make it good or be punished.

This puts us in a bind. We did break our word, but having accepted new members into NATO, we can’t kick any out without risking the entire alliance. This is one reason why we should never have expanded NATO.

We gave our word, and we broke it. There were bound to be consequences.

This is one reason why smart people have always opposed the US and its allies breaking the international laws they enforce on other people. The law is supposed to apply to everyone. Once people realize your word is bad, that it doesn’t apply to you, they not only despise you, they will certainly come to see no reason to keep your rules, because those rules are just a form of force. You’ve said, “We can do it, because we’re powerful and you can’t.”

And they say, “No, fuck you.”

So, when the West created the new country of Kosovo, despite the notion that borders are supposed to be inviolate, Russians were angered. So they started doing the same thing, over and over again. North and South Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine. Because to not do it when the powerful do, is to show weakness.

This is also why Russia did not, and will not, give into sanctions. Even if sanctions hurt them more than the West, they still hurt the West. To give in is to submit to inferior status, to say, “You can do what you want to me and I’ll just take it.”

And, this is why Ukrainians are fighting hard. “Okay, fine, but we’re going to make you pay.”

The problem with all of this is that “honor societies,” let alone mafia societies (which is what Russia is, internally), suck to live in. They are horrid places. Russian prisons (and American prisons have a similar dynamic) are some of the worst places in the world. Even if you’re at the top, you’re never free of threat or fear.

Most of the good part of civilization is getting rid of this logic. It is why weregild was introduced, where, if you kill someone, you pay a fee to their relatives, in order to avoid the murder devolving into a blood feud, into the “Chicago Way.” Because if they put one of yours in the hospital, and you then put one in the morgue, well, they then have to put two in the morgue. You scare people with torture and rape and you kill their women and children, if the society gets sick enough.

Societies that live like this have a very hard time advancing, because they’re armed camps. They can only advance when a great tyrant or group arises who can say, “You all belong to me, and only I get to kill people” — and they have to make that stick. This is, sadly, most of what civilization has been. “I get to hurt people, and no one else does.”

To live in a good society, where the weak aren’t treated terribly (and the weak are often, y’know, the scientists and artists and all the people who make the world worth living in), and where even the strong are not in fear all the time, means getting out of this trap.

To do so, you start by treating everyone equally, and by keeping your own laws. If you say someone else can’t do it, you can’t do it either. This makes people trust you, and in time, trust each other. If you move from the rule of a tyrant to the rule of a group that enforces fair and equal rules, then you move into a place of trust. Fear goes down and down, and the society or civilization becomes a better and better place to live.

But unless there is only one society or group, there are always outgroups and the fear of what they do. Things like international law were attempts to make only group, one set of rules, and so on. In practice, the problem has been twofold. First, international law has been obeyed only by the weak — except when the strong have made a law it’s not in in their short term interest to break. The second is that some groups, for example the Chinese, weren’t allowed to meaningfully participate in making the rules. (Heck, in some ways, even Europe wasn’t. The US controlled half the world’s industry, and they made the rules.)

To create a good society, the powerful have to look to the long-term interest; they have to obey rules that are not in their short-term interest. If they are known to obey their own rules and to make fair rules, they are trusted by others and therefore, much safer.

The tweeter in the thread at the beginning of this post said that asking China to intervene with Russia was crazy, because we think they’re our enemies. But, while there are wrongs on both sides, we’re the ones who sanctioned them in order to cripple their largest tech company. We did that in part (this is the DC view) because they were breaking the rules of the international order, but they don’t regard those rules as fair or see that we are bound by those rules.

And so on.

The last important point is that this stuff is at the heart of the pathology of choosing really evil leaders. We often judge how a leader will protect us from outsiders based on how he treats insiders: Is he a mean bastard? One problem is that a mean bastard will spend most of his time ruling you, not fighting outsiders. The next problem is that if the leader has insiders, they aren’t you. Biden is a lovely father and a great boss, by all accounts. But you aren’t his son, his friend, or his employee. You’re an outsider, and to you he will be a bastard.

All of this emotion comprises the trap in which we find ourselves, as a species. We have to pick good leaders, who are kind and fair to people who aren’t in their group, and yet, are able to defend our group. Corbyn, for example, was not this. He was kind and fair and lovely and would not even attack people who were his enemies.

FDR, on the other hand, was more or less this — if you were white (he was a racist). He cared about all white Americans, but not really about blacks, and he hated the Japanese (the one ethnic group he did like was Chinese).

To live in a good society, we must make rules that are fair to everyone, and everyone must respect them. Rules that are ignored by both the leaders and the powerful destroy civilizations and lead to eras of internal and external war. Society must work for everyone, or it will eventually work for no one, and this includes global society.

We have chosen not to respect our own principles and laws and to create laws and principles that are not good for everyone who tries to operate in good faith. As a result, our societies are rotting from the inside, and on the outside, we are slouching towards multiple possible armageddons.

Be fair, be just, be tough, and be kind, or soon, there may be no humans left to be any of these things.

Correction: Commenter Dorian notes and is right: Point of order – it was never a Russian demand that NATO literally kick any countries out of NATO. Rather, it was that all NATO members pre-1997 expansion remove their forces from post-1997 expansion countries. The post-1997 expansion countries would still have the benefit of NATO membership and security guarantees, they just couldn’t be used as a base for foreign military infrastructure and troops.





Three Principles for Ukraine & for Great Power Politics

  1. Ukraine is not morally worse than Iraq, Yemen, or many other wars.
  2. Russia is not more evil in its foreign affairs than the US.
  3. Neither fact is whataboutism.

The general cases of these also apply. Most countries that seem good are not good. They are weak, and if they were powerful, they would not continue to act good. (The personal application of that principle will be the subject of another post.)

The point here is that there is NO ethical case for treating the US and Russia differently in terms of sanctions and response. Iraq was just as bad a war crime as Ukraine. So what is happening is not about ethics, it’s about other things. For many Europeans, it’s about fear (that’s another post), but for the US and its allies, this mostly about power: The actual “principle” is “our wars and annexations are good,” and “you can’t do to white, blonde Europeans who we consider part of Western civilization what you do to brown people who aren’t part of Western civilization.”

This is NOT an argument that what Russia has done is not an evil war crime. But countries who are not Western allies, like India, China, and most of the global south, even if they will condemn the actions, do not see this as anything worse than many actions taken by the US and its allies and see no reason to cooperate with sanctions unless those sanctions also benefit them, as they know that this is not about justice, but about power.

Justice applies equally to all. It commands respect. When the ICC declares it is opening a war crimes investigation against Russia, but didn’t against the US, everyone who isn’t a Westerner (and many of us, too) laugh bitterly. Why didn’t the ICC try Cheney and Bush and so on? Because the US threatened to invade if they did. (No, I am not kidding. Look it up.)

Next: Deals made when a nation is weak, do not hold if they are not actually in the country’s self-interest. This is at the heart of the China/US conflict, by the way. The “rules-based” world order was created when China was weak, by the people who put the boots to China for over a century. The Chinese don’t see why they should respect it. They will do so for as long as it is in their interest, and not one second further.

“Don’t keep deals that are bad for you,” is also why Russia is likely to break all Western IP. The only reason why they wouldn’t is that oil and wheat exports are still not subject to sanctions. Do that, and the IP goes. Then China helps Russia reverse engineer and manufacture Western goods, while smiling and denying, since they too hate Western IP. (In WWI, the US broke German patents. The core of the American chemical industry is based on this fact. After the war was over, they did not say, “Okay, we’ll go back to respecting them.”)

I remember the run up to and first period of the Iraq war. Then, as now, pointing out inconvenient truths was regarded as traitorous, and people said, “But Iraq is an evil dictatorship and Saddam, Saddam, Saddam.” Saddamn was an evil dictator, but Iraq was still a war crime (as is Ukraine).

Those same truths, by the way, were acknowledged by almost everyone as true ten years later when it didn’t matter, and many of those people are making the same mistakes now.

This is Great Power politics. The decisions on both sides are not being made for reasons of justice or ethics. That does not mean there isn’t an ethical case, but you can’t say, “We get to have wars, and everyone who isn’t our ally doesn’t.” That’s just the argument of a bully who says, “Only I get to beat people up!” and everyone who is ethical and not ruled by the emotions of the moment knows it.

A world at peace will happen (if it ever does) when powerful nations hold themselves to the same rules they hold the weak to, and not before.


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