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Who's Responsible For The Backlash?

I've seen an interesting philosophical point come up twice recently with respect to two very different issues. The basic problem is this: if you do something that leads someone else to have a foreseeable reaction, and that reaction leaves you worse off with respect to your original goal, was your original action the wrong choice? Those who say "no" I'll refer to as "purists." They argue that one should be true to one's ideals. To calculate the likely success of an action is to compromise one's ideals. And if there's a backlash, it's entirely the fault of the backlasher, and thus has no bearing on the rightness of the original choice*. Those who answer "yes" are "consequentialists." They say that the only thing that matters in choosing a course of action is what the outcomes will be. If there's a backlash, you should have known better. Note that this does not absolve the backlashers of responsibility -- blame is not a zero-sum game. And indeed, because their choice was closer to the bad outcome, they would be more responsible than the backlash-provokers.

Case study 1: the war in Iraq. It's becoming increasingly clear that the war has made the Iraqi people worse off as well as compromising American security. Norman Geras argues that despite this, hawks were still correct to push for the war, because they were aiming at the right goals. The responsibility for the deteriorating situation lies with the insurgents who refused to cooperate with the American project. John Quiggin responds -- rightly, I believe -- with the consequentialist view. We should choose the course of action that leads to the greatest actual improvement in Iraqi and American well-being.

Case study 2: same-sex marriage. Marriage advocates did not do well on election day, losing all 11 fights against anti-marriage ballot measures. Many frustrated marriage supporters (e.g. Waddling Thunder) have blamed Gavin Newsom and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (really, we should blame the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case for filng their suit in order to win marriage rights, not the court for correctly interpreting the law). By pursuing same-sex marriage too quickly and too un-democratically, the argument goes, they provoked a backlash that left same-sex couples worse off than they were before. By this consequentialist reasoning, they should have bided their time until the country was ready for same-sex marriage. This argument has drawn responses (e.g. from Chris Geidner) in the purist mode -- Newsom and the SJC were aiming at the right goals** and should not be asked to wait for justice just because some homophobes will undo their work.

Consistent with my opinion in the war case and my general affinity for consequentialism, I have to side with Waddling Thunder's as the more valid argument in this scenario. If an advocate of any cause does something that leaves the cause worse off, then that action was the wrong choice, no matter how righteous the action was when considered on its own. That said, I believe that the same-sex marriage situation we experienced this past year does not match the empirical premises of the dilemma in question (it seems Geidner agrees with me here). The election-day backlash was a step back, but not as far back as we often think. Meanwhile, the actions of Newsom and the SJC were significant steps forward. Same-sex marriage has made a net advance in the last two years. Had Newsom or the SJC done their thing in, say, 1950, Waddling Thunder's reasoning probably would have applied. I'm sadly forced to conclude that it would apply if the US Supreme Court were to rule in favor of same-sex marriage today. There are times when small, cautious steps are pragmatically the best we can do. But I think the bold steps that provoked the election-day backlash were still, on balance, justifiable on consequentialist grounds.

The war case does, in my opinion, fit the structure of the dilemma in question. But hawks are on stronger ground when they claim that the empirical situation does not match the premises (i.e., that Iraqis are better off now) than when they claim that Iraqi welfare is irrelevant as long as we were trying to do the right thing.

*I'm not confident enough to put this observation outside of a footnote, but the purist rationale strikes me as somewhat Kantian. Purists are acting in a way that would be beneficial if everyone were trying to do the right thing.


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