On December 9, The Hill published “Will America fail the Peter Singer test in Ukraine?” by Alexander J. Motyl, which began:
“Are the MAGA Republicans who want to cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine acting ethically? To put the matter bluntly, are they supporting the war crimes Russia is committing in Ukraine or not?”
Presumably those of us who dislike fascistic buffoons AND pointless endless murderous wars that risk nuclear apocalypse while slaughtering people, devastating the environment, impeding global cooperation on non-optional crises, eroding the rule of law, concentrating and wasting desperately needed wealth, brutalizing our society, and limiting U.S. political options to MAGA or the MICIMATT, and who want to cut off weapons to Ukraine even if weapons are called “aid,” but who would love to dramatically increase actual humanitarian and environmental aid to Ukraine and the rest of the world, must likewise stand accused of behaving unethically and supporting Russian warmaking along with the MAGA Republicans whose position overlaps with ours and whose existence gets noted in newspapers.
“The questions are disturbing, even incendiary, especially as they force us — and the MAGA Republicans — to ask whether we are as guilty as the Russians in supporting a leader, Vladimir Putin, and a war that is intentionally destroying a nation.”
This is not a tease. Motyl is not trying to trick you into thinking he has doubts about arming Israel or vetoing the will of the world at the United Nations for peace in Palestine. The idea has, I am certain, not even entered his mind. He’s simply pretending that the sort of rhetoric accompanying the war on Gaza is accompanying the war on Ukraine. Of course, I believe Russia’s war on Ukraine is damn near as awful as it would be if it were accompanied by worse rhetoric, just as I think much smaller crimes are damn near as bad before as after they acquire the status of “hate crime.” But Motyl is wondering whether he can get away with claiming that a distant government that helped stir up trouble in Ukraine and that prevented peaceful resolution of the war in its early days, while dumping a fortune into weaponry for the war — a fortune that Peter Singer knows damn well could have transformed the lives of billions for the better had it been spent elsewhere — whether that distant government in Washington is just as guilty of Russia’s warmaking as Russia, and not for having so blatantly provoked “The Unprovoked War” but for failing to fork over yet more weaponry to keep it going, even as both sides are admitting to a hopeless stalemate and scratching their heads in wonderment as to what they might possibly do other than fail the Pete Seeger Test, and say to push on while waist-deep in the Big Muddy.
“The philosopher Peter Singer has suggested an intriguing way of addressing this kind of question in his “drowning child” thought experiment. Here’s the way Singer put it: ‘To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class. I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child.’ Back in February 2022, when Putin’s Russia launched its all-out war, Ukraine was arguably the drowning child and we were the passersby. Providing billions of dollars’ worth of military aid isn’t quite the same as muddying your clothes, but for a society as rich as America neither was it an exorbitant expense, especially as the vast majority, some 90 percent, of the money spent on Ukraine actually stayed in the United States, contributing to the American economy, providing jobs and stimulating investment.”
The word “arguably” is the only honest one in that entire paragraph. Let’s treat it as such and argue with this steaming manure of an metaphor. Billions of dollars could end starvation on Earth or accomplish numerous other wonders that simply do NOT compare to or equate with getting one’s clothes muddy and being late for class. Dumping money into weapons dealers is an economic drain, not an economic benefit. And beyond these fundamental lies, one will notice that the basic idea that arming a war to keep it going and prevent a negotiated compromise is simply assumed to be a beneficial thing, never argued for in the slightest. If it were to be argued for, it would be better done without metaphors. Of course, many of us have made the case against that idea many thousands of times for years.
“Helping Ukraine was thus both self-interested and ethically right.”
The self-interested bit is based on lies, and the ethically right bit has, again, simply been assumed, never argued for with a single sentence.
“That Russia had violated a raft of international laws in launching its war made assisting Ukraine easier, inasmuch as it provided the U.S. with a large number of partners equally desirous of saving the drowning child.”
Equally? Not in equal dollars for free weapons, that’s for sure, not absolute or per capita or per GDP. And motivated by violations of international laws? Really? Seriously? The United States is given a good challenge by Russia, as by Israel, as by many of the brutal dictatorships the U.S. government arms and supports, but there’s not really any contest as to which government is the top abuser of the UNSC veto, the top holdout on basic human rights and disarmament treaties, the top violator of treaties on war and weapons, the top weapons dealer to the world, the top weapons dealer to what it itself deems the most oppressive governments, the top opponent of and saboteur of the ICC and ICJ, punishing nations that support international law, sanctioning court staff to obstruct international law. Applying Ethics 101 Death Fantasy Thought Experiments to myths that invert reality doesn’t change the reality.
“Here’s Singer: ‘Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.’ Unlike the other people walking past the pond, much of the international community joined in the effort to save Ukraine.”
Actually the effort to arm the war has been opposed by most of the world and most of the world’s governments, which — Singer is correct — does not change one’s own ethical responsibilities, but does raise a red flag about one’s own lack of humility, lack of ability to consider others’ arguments, and grotesque hypocrisy every time the word “democracy” or the words “Rules Based Order” or “International Community” pass one’s lips.
“Fast forward to December 2023 and the distinct possibility that the Republican threat to cut aid to Ukraine could become reality. The situation today would be akin to the following scenario. Like the good passerby, the United States saved the child in 2022. Almost two years later, America is holding the child that it saved and is walking past the pond. Should it continue carrying the child? After all, the child has put on some weight, it cries, it distracts us from our work. Or should it ease the burden by placing the child back into the pond, perhaps face up, in the hope that it won’t turn over and drown?”
These things are akin in the sense that a rat is akin to a human. Maybe that’s how Singer has explained it to Motyl; I don’t know. But keeping the war going will kill actual honest-to-god children, whereas not keeping it going will be “akin to” drowning a child only in the sense that a professor is permitted to type any words he feels like as long as they don’t acknowledge the value of Palestinians, which would of course be good cause to end his career.
“MAGA Republicans, like their mentor Donald Trump, are saying that, yes, sorry, Ukraine, you’ve become too much of a burden and, like it or not, we need to get rid of you. Two years ago, we saved you. But we can’t keep you alive forever. We won’t kill you, but, like the ancient Greeks, we’ll leave you where we found you and let the gods decide whether you’ll live or die. Indifference to the fate of the child would have been unethical two years ago. Today it’s infinitely more criminal, as it involves the conscious choice to abandon a healthy child.”
I’m not going to ponder long what it is that’s supposed to be healthy in this scenario, or why the U.S. government was unconscious two years ago.
“There’s no way to avoid the sad conclusion that MAGA Republicans are effectively, perhaps even consciously and willfully, supporting Ukraine’s destruction for the sake of ridding themselves of a minor inconvenience. And since Putin’s agenda in Ukraine is genocide and since the U.S. has been the key obstacle to his being able to achieve that goal, the GOP position is effectively, and tragically, supportive of genocide. Alas, that makes MAGA Republicans as guilty of and responsible for Putin’s crimes as the overwhelmingly large number of Russians who consciously choose Ukraine’s destruction over Ukraine’s survival.”
Motyl thereby concludes with both pretending to oppose genocide during the Second Nakba, and equating the Russian population with the evils of the Russian government, which is precisely the sort of sloppy nonsense that can lead to genocide.
Why are universities given such hell when their presidents appear as idiots before Congress, and not when their professors publish these sorts of articles, effectively turning matters of life and death into silly games?