Does Free Will Exist?
Shadi and Damir's different starting premises fuel their disagreement about freedom. Also, are Americans destined to be moral?
In this special subscribers-only Q&A, Shadi and Damir talk… free will. We really enjoyed this one. We hope you do too.
The Subjectivity of Morality
Shadi mentions that Americans are destined to be moral but moral in what sense? Morality is inherently subjective to cultures and societies. Doesn't claiming that America is a moralizing power fall into the trap of being a missionary moral power (imperialistic)? Isn’t it better to look at America as primus inter pares in terms of the liberal international order? –Christina Grigoraki
Shadi: It’s not so much that Americans themselves are destined to be moral, but rather that they are destined to be more moral than citizens of autocratic nations. It’s not so much that America is special, although I think America is, but rather that the nature of regime type—in this case, the fact that we’re a democracy, however flawed—contains within it this moralizing power. It’s not necessarily inherent to the idea of America itself, though. For example, if Donald Trump staged a coup and it was successful, then none of this would really matter all that much, although presumably the distorting effects of living under autocracy would take some years to register.
As for the risk of the United States becoming a “missionary” or imperialistic power, there’s certainly that risk, which is why I often caution that power without idealism amplifies the negative effects of the former. Our power is a heavy, weighty thing, so my hope would be for that power to be constrained—to the extent possible—by an explicitly moral, and even at times moralistic, foreign policy. To take the Middle East as an example, we’ve had all this power but no real sense of moral purpose and therefore no real sense of moral constraint. This, to me, is a tragedy. In this sense, America is moral not so much for what it has done in the past, but for what it still can do in the future. That possibility is always latent in a democracy, because democracy provides the means for self-correction, if a critical mass of policymakers and citizens come to believe that a self-correction is necessary.
Damir: Unlike Shadi, I’m much less concerned with “imperialism”. I’m not sure exactly how one defines the term. To echo Orwell, it seems like the word “imperialism” has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. I tend to take a much less moral tone and approach than Shadi, and end up concluding that:
America is a big and wealthy country with a big military, and it will do coercive things in the world. There’s nothing more human than to “do” things, and that usually comes at the (perceived) expense of others.
America, like to a similar extent Britain before it, has a particular missionary strand to its self-conception. So that will inform (to a lesser extent than we’d like to think) what it does, but also (more importantly) how it justifies what it does.
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