Afghanistan’s War Without End

The sixteen-year war in Afghanistan vexes American foreign policymakers. Is the United States-led coalition winning? Should force levels increase? Complicating Afghanistan’s answers are its many strategic players: a fractious governing coalition, Taliban insurgents, the Islamic State, Pakistan, India, and Iran.

Iran’s growing role in today’s conflict resembles the American strategy in 1980s Afghanistan. The CIA supported the Afghan mujahideen against a Soviet-backed government just as Iran, likely through its powerful Revolutionary Guards, now supports the Taliban against an American-backed government. American interest is to avoid another episode of costly intervention. To do so requires understanding the contours of the Afghan conflict and calibrating strategy accordingly.

American influence in Afghanistan threatens Iran, which fears a neighboring state allied with one of its rivals. Iran looks to sponsor the Taliban in Afghanistan just as it sponsors loyal governments and armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Because it shares a long border with Afghanistan, Iran is also uniquely positioned to provide sanctuary to the Taliban. International rivalry, such as that between Iran and the United States is a primary determinant of third-party intervention in civil conflict. Unless the two states reach an unlikely detente, such intervention will persist and further draw out an already protracted conflict.

The second challenge of Iranian support for the Afghan Taliban derives from management, rather than geopolitics. When third parties intervene through sponsoring a non-state actor, principal-agent problems result. Iran cannot guarantee that the Afghan Taliban will represent Iranian interests, as Taliban fighters could use Iranian support to settle personal scores or engage in banditry instead of fighting Iranian targets.  Furthermore, Iran’s support of a fragmented Taliban will further delay the resolution of the conflict.

Even without active intervention by Iran or Pakistan, the Afghan conflict would prove knotty. State control is incomplete, infrastructure tenuous, and terrain impassable in many parts of the country. Underdevelopment and high poverty leads farmers to illicit poppy cultivation, supplying revenue for the Taliban. In turn, a revenue-rich Taliban  increases its recruitment. Criminal profiteering allows the Taliban to grow its capacity, assert control over territory, and develop a more stable hierarchical organization resistant to counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan, particularly efforts to curtail poppy cultivation, have been notoriously ineffective. Winning the hearts and minds of the local population matters in addition to undercutting insurgent finances. Yet hearts and minds efforts fall short so long as coalition forces continue to inflict civilian casualties. Increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan correspond with a rise in future insurgent attacks, most likely due to vengeful civilians withholding intelligence or passing intelligence directly to insurgents.

The Taliban is not the only armed insurgency in Afghanistan. The Islamic State and the Haqqani Network carry out deadly terrorist attacks on civilian and government targets. Such attacks serve to provoke and weaken the Afghan government while making the peace process even more remote.

Neither peace at the negotiating table nor victory through arms appear possible in the multilayered Afghan conflict. The United States should account for these severe strategic handicaps, as well as domestic aversion to soldiers dying in foreign wars, before entertaining any escalation of force.


Climate Change and Global Security Risks

Most public alarm over climate change stems from the specter of environmental damage. Warming temperatures, melting ice, and rising sea levels are the most frequently cited risks of global warming. Increasing severity of natural disasters and increasing frequency of severe weather also receive extensive coverage.

However, in the coming decades these effects of climate change will be mostly an abstraction to affluent Westerners. How can policymakers and analysts motivate Westerners, particularly Americans, to raise the salience of the climate change issue? New York Magazine tried the shock-and-awe approach recently, and came under fire from those who acknowledge the risks of human-caused climate change.

Social science, like climate science, does better when it makes empirically verifiable claims and lays out the theoretical story behind such claims. Climate change skeptics may be more persuaded by arguments which appeal to their moral sensibilities rather than in the language and principles of the already-converted. With that in mind, I revisit some well-established connections between climate change and global security.

Volatile weather patterns, especially the lack of or excess rainfall, are generators of unorganized social conflict. Competition over resources, economic deprivation from famine or flooding, and domestic migration pose risks to state authority. Individuals who have diminished potential income are more likely to accept the risks of participation in criminal activity. As Theda Skocpol’s classic States and Social Revolutions observes, the Communist Revolution in China had its roots in disorganized rural banditry.

Low-grade social conflict can quickly trigger inter-group tensions. As the loss of economic capacity saps revenue flows to the state, institutions weaken. State institutions provide credible commitments across social divides, whether economic classes or ethnic groups. As states weaken and economic crises escalate, conflicts between groups become more likely. At the extremes, states fail and devastating civil war results. South Sudan’s short, troubled history illustrates a worst-case outcome.

The positive relationship between extreme weather and social conflict reveals the security risks within states most affected by climate change. However, deprivation and social conflict also create refugee and migrant crises, spurring thousands to leave their home countries and seek security and wages in developed economies. “Push” and “pull” factors shape migration, but so do political conditions. Strict citizenship laws and nativist political parties in destination countries deters migration.

Yet in the increasing migrant flows from Africa to Europe migrants often do not choose their destination. Rather, they arrive at the first place where they can seek protection under international law. The Greek Isles offered a natural experiment in the effects of migrant landings, revealing increased support for nativist parties in islands with more landings. Changes in political preferences are only one side of the coin. Radicalization and terrorist sympathies are more likely in areas with greater nativist activity, suggesting a spiral of conflict between nativism and terrorism.

Climate change poses grave long-term threats to the global environment through rising sea levels and natural disasters. Yet the risks are greater in the short-to-medium-term. Increased conflict in weak states, North-South migration flows, and political violence in the West all intensify with a changing climate.

National security, a broadly bipartisan concern, depends on the ability of states to address climate change.

The Precarious Maduro Regime

Earlier this week, a helicopter attack against the Venezuelan government drew the world’s attention to the fragile Nicolas Maduro regime, as well as the economic plight of Venezuelan people. Large, occasionally violent, protests have continued for months against the regime. Given the newest development of the helicopter attack, observers must ask themselves: how vulnerable is Maduro to being overthrown in a coup or through pressure from mass dissent?

President Maduro quickly labeled the attack by rogue policeman Oscar Perez a coup attempt, though such an isolated action with a small number of conspirators did not pose a serious threat to the regime. However, the ability of Perez to drop grenades on a government building, escape, and release a video poses future threat. If members of the security forces want to stage a coup, they must solve the collective action problem, coordination problem, and identify potential co-conspirators. Perez, still on the run, conveyed his opposition to the regime and could provide a focal point for like-minded dissenters.

Perez’s action closely follows Maduro’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters. This is no coincidence. Authoritarian regimes face a moral hazard problem with using security forces for repression. Security forces granted powers in states of emergency have enough autonomy to defect from the regime, or to refuse to participate in future repression. Security forces are more likely to defect if they are asked to repress nonviolent protesters. This combination of mass dissent and military coup occurred most notably in Egypt in 2011.

However, the Maduro regime will refuse to go quietly, having its own tools to prevent defections and counter mass dissent. Inserting known loyalists into security forces, or developing military units reporting directly to the regime prevent coup-minded collective action from developing. Effective civilian control of the military may not prevent all coup attempts, but limits the potency of those that occur. For example, last year’s coup attempt in Turkey failed to coordinate across military branches, and regime loyalists put down the attempt within a day.

Additionally, using the selectorate model as a framework, Maduro can sustain the regime with the support of the chavistas, poor Venezuelans benefiting from oil-revenue-funded distributions during the Hugo Chavez years, and the military. However, as oil prices remain low and shortages mount, the regime will not be able to pay off the coalition it needs to stay in power. With its meager base of support eroding, the regime has increasingly relied on brutal paramilitaries to repress dissent.

What’s next for Venezuela? The lack of coordination among the opposition could spell a long period of low-grade conflict and acute human suffering as ordinary people starve and lose access to social services. Deprivation fuels grievance and unorganized social conflict.  Two alternative paths could spell a quicker demise for Maduro:

(1) Brokerage between opposition groups, especially the middle classes and student movement. A more united opposition poses a greater mass threat to the regime, but appears unlikely now.

(2) Coordination among security forces to stage a coup. Oscar Perez may have initiated this path, which will require more defections to gain traction.


Why the Attacks on Mexico’s Human Rights Defenders?

Mexico stole headlines this week with revelations aggressive spyware technology belonging to the government targeted the country’s human rights and anti-corruption activists. The methods are new, but the targets are not. Journalists critical of Mexico’s nexus of official corruption and rampant organized crime have been killed in increasing numbers.

How complicit is the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto in these human rights violations? Human rights and civil society activists in Mexico are in part responsible for the 2000 demise of one-party rule, protesting government excesses against the Zapatista movement. Attacking these activists threatens Mexican democracy.

Why would Mexican state actors harass, intimidate, and physically attack activists? The state logic of targeting anti-corruption activists differs from the logic of autocratic regime survival. In Mexico, state actors and their hirelings retaliate against activists to ensure continued flow of benefits from their corrupt behavior.

First, corruption pays. Political offices offer benefits to corrupt occupants, including allocation of resources for cronies and selective use of the legal system to punish opponents and protect friends. An increase in available rents in an administrative unit increases corruption in that unit.

Second, corruption can be a vehicle for organized crime. Criminal groups capture local governments for their enrichment, turning the focus of the state away from serving constituents and toward the groups’ front operations and illegal activities. Mexican authorities have a long history of cooperation with or capture by drug cartels and criminal groups.

Fortunately for citizens, and unfortunately for corrupt officials, this gravy train can run out of track. While a corrupt government may hold on to power through vote-buying, the more information citizens gain about their corrupt incumbent politicians, the more willing they are to punish through voting for the opposition. Transparency ought to be an antidote to the abuse of office for personal gain.

However, the link between information about corruption and threats to incumbents is not simple. While voters may punish corrupt incumbents, an alternative in which political participation and civic engagement decline is also possible. Information alone may not suffice to vote out corrupt incumbents. Importantly, information about corruption must come from credible sources to motivate citizens to punish incumbents at the ballot box.

Corruption benefits incumbents, while credible anti-corruption sources represent the biggest threat to the gravy train. As a result, corrupt officials and their beneficiaries best protect themselves by eliminating credible sources: hence the escalating series of attacks on anti-corruption activists, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Yet how do state actors attack Mexican civil society without international backlash? Human rights organizations deplore these attacks, but are unable to directly implicate state actors. In carrying out physical attacks and cyberattacks, it appears that Mexican state actors delegate their dirty work. Hired agents of state violence are harder to control and may be careless, as happened in the harassment of anti-corruption activists. However, the state avoids accountability in a way akin to hiring paramilitaries.

The latest revelations about attacks on human rights defenders will isolate an already unpopular President Peña Nieto and perhaps drive his party, PRI, out of power in the 2018 elections.

Will Arresting Navalny Backfire on Putin?

During Monday’s Russia Day protests, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested in Moscow while attempting to attend a rally he organized. Navalny publicly questions the legitimacy of the current regime, and has said he will stand against President Vladimir Putin in 2018 elections .

What effect will Navalny’s arrest have on the security of the regime? Repressing dissent through state actions such as strictly regulating protest and selectively targeting opposition leaders like Navalny may or may not secure Putin’s position. On one hand, repressing protests mitigates threats to regime survival in the short term. On the other hand, repression may backfire and increase the threat to regime survival either through international condemnation, defections of regime loyalists, or increased protest activity in the medium term to long term.

Putin’s regime is secure enough to repress political opposition without triggering adverse effects. Through the United Russia party organization, the Putin regime has secured the loyalty of political and economic elites who are the most important members of the selectorate. Dissenting elites were exiled or imprisoned early in Putin’s tenure, further preventing regime defections in the event of mass nonviolent protest.

However, because Russia maintains t he window dressings of democracy, it cannot indiscriminately repress nonviolent protesters à la the Communist Party of China in Tiananmen Square. While the state engages in preventive repression – making potential protesters “self-censor” and decide not to participate – Russia’s imperfect social control means observed dissent will occur more frequently. The state then reacts with moderate but not severe repression to maximize its chance of survival (with the exception of warlord-led regions like Chechnya).

With its high level of political control and medium levels of social control, the Putin can repress protests through clamping down on civil society and targeting opposition leaders without suffering domestic backfire. International condemnation, however, is a threat which has only increased since Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. The regime has responded to the threat of sanctions by encouraging – licitly and illicitly – pro-Russian opinion, policy, and politicians in the West. Russia won’t be more condemned by the West than it already was after invading Ukraine, so deploying this information campaign carries relatively little risk for the regime’s survival.

The most severe threat to Putin’s survival, however, is the long-term effect of selectively repressing opposition leaders. Rather than deter future protest activity, arresting and jailing key opposition figures may increase their and their networks’ future participation in protest. Further, jailed opposition leaders have the opportunity to learn from their experience with the regime. Upon their release, they enhance the resilience of opposition movements in what one political scientist dubs the “phoenix effect” of state repression.

In this way, Putin may turn Alexei Navalny into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment increased his calls for Putin’s removal in the Western media. Ever-swelling ranks of battle-tested, resilient opposition leaders that have withstood Russian repression may sustain a protest movement capable of taking down the regime.

In the short run, however, don’t expect anything more than rhetorical backlash against Navalny’s arrest from domestic opposition and Western media. Putin will again successfully tighten the screws on dissent in his increasingly authoritarian regime.

The Problem of Control in Mindanao

The restive Philippine island of Mindanao was thrust back into the spotlight last week when President Rodrigo Duterte declared a period of martial law. The city of Marawi fell to the militants of the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group, an insurgency connected with the longer-running Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. While President Duterte’s motivations for declaring martial law lie as much in consolidating power at the expense of democratic institutions, the violence in Mindanao goes beyond such a pretext for his law and order regime.

The battle for Marawi is far from the first episode of religious separatist violence in Mindanao. Why have separatist groups persisted in the large southern island for decades, defying government efforts to quell violence in the region? The answer lies with the microfoundations of violence: control and civilian cooperation in civil conflict.

The Philippine military faces a daunting task in retaking urban areas in which insurgent fighters are embedded, such as Marawi. To a much greater extent than conventional warfare, urban counterinsurgency must be conducted with surgical precision to avoid negative side effects. To target insurgent fighters with precision, the military requires high-quality intelligence. Intelligence, in turn, comes from either military infiltrators or civilian informers. However, when the military struggles to assert control over a restive region such as Mindanao, it cannot guarantee protection of civilian informers from insurgents, making intelligence flows unreliable.

With the resulting imperfect information, the military makes mistakes. Faulty intelligence on the ground can doom operations before they start. Civilians suffer the most from these strategic breakdowns, often getting caught in the crossfire or targeted in airstrikes with inaccurate coordinates. The Philippine military has already inadvertently killed civilians in the Mindanao campaign. Civilian casualties, besides being human rights violations, may undermine the military by provoking retaliatory violence. A civil conflict spiral results.

If the Philippine military fails to control Marawi swiftly, then further civilian casualties and a resulting long, gruesome siege appears likely. In the uncertain, fragmented civil conflict environment, the alternative of a negotiated settlement is highly unlikely. Basic humanitarian cease fires in Marawi have already fallen apart over the weekend. Meanwhile, Mindanao insurgencies will continue to undermine the government through sabotaging development projects.

What options are available to the Philippine government? The government can choose from a mixture of “hard” military solutions and “soft” heart-and-minds solutions. President Duterte’s declaration of martial law and threat to extend it across the entire country draws exclusively from “hard” solutions straight from the Marcos dictatorship playbook. Meanwhile, state security forces operate with impunity, egged on by the President Duterte himself. Even if the military asserts control in Mindanao and drives out this iteration of Islamist insurgency, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

Any short-term “hard” military gain without a concomitant “soft” conflict resolution effort will destroy relationships with civilians, undermine government control, and let local grievances fester. Mindanao, being a remote region composed of a religious minority, is particularly vulnerable to these grievances being converted into collective challenges to government authority. Insurgencies such as the Maute Group have recurred on and off for decades in Mindanao, and the latest round of military action shows no signs of laying the foundations for a lasting peace.

Duterte could win this battle, but he set himself up to lose the war.


Good News and Bad News After Manchester

After Britain raised its terror threat level to critical in the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Manchester, understandable anxiety resulted. The suspect, Salman Abedi, acted as a “mule” for the terrorist network responsible for the attack. In other words, multiple individuals planned and coordinated the attack in advance, including at least one person besides Abedi who homemade the suicide bomb.

How worrisome is the revelation that Abedi operated as part of a network? On this front there is both good news and bad news. Terrorist networks are not, as a rule, ruthless and efficient violent machines. They have bugs, so to speak, which counter-terrorism efforts quickly exploit to disrupt the network and arrest their key participants. On the other hand, the ability of Abedi’s network to move from generating lone wolf terrorism to organized attacks should sound alarms in the counter-terrorism community.

First, the bad news. We know that collective action is difficult. Many people have anger and grievances which make them want to commit violence. Lone wolf attacks offer the easiest channel for an individual to use violence against the target of their grievance. Identifying and organizing like-minded individuals to carry out violence is far harder. Even two individuals working together to plan an attack crosses a dangerous Rubicon for governments: the individuals overcame barriers to collective action, having sufficient incentive to trust each other and sustain long-run cooperation.

Religious terrorism is particularly able to induce this cooperation, because of the commitment mechanisms required to join. Members sink costs into their participation, and defect far less often. Religious terrorism in Afghanistan, for example, would be more likely than religious terrorism in a developed state, because prospective terrorists have fewer outside options for education and careers. When Western-born, university-educated individuals, like Salman Abedi, are willing to give up everything to strap on and detonate a bomb, this suggests the “pull” factors into the terrorist group are particularly strong (not to mention the “push” factors of a hostile political environment).

Next, the good news. Collective action, at least in the early stages in which it appears to be with the Abedi network, is very fragile. The British government moved quickly to arrest additional suspects and raised the costs of coordinating another attack by deploying troops to strategic sites around the country. By tightening these screws, the government compromises the security of the terrorist network and reduces its operational effectiveness. As the network goes increasingly underground, trust and reciprocity between network members becomes harder, and eventually the group will no longer surmount the barriers to collective action. They will end up with idle grievances or, at worst, become lone wolf attackers.

The British government should worry that a terrorist network solved the collective action problem long enough to carry out this attack without being disrupted. On the other hand, its immediate counter-terrorism actions should disrupt the network quickly enough to prevent another attack occurring at the hands of the same group.

One final puzzle remains: how did the authorities know of Abedi’s terrorist leanings as early as 2011, yet still he traveled overseas and gained the skills necessary to carry out the attack? Recent political science research indicates that democracies are much more likely to respond to violent events than to prevent them, because of the penalty a democratic government would pay for violating civil liberties through preventive repression.

More democratic states are therefore locked into playing a game of whack-a-mole against terrorism: responding only when sufficient proof of a planned attack emerges or an attack is carried out. Rather than give up civil liberties to address this problem, there are two general policy approaches democratic states should take:

(1) Address underlying collective grievances which produce terrorism, and

(2) Make sure individuals at risk of radicalization have good outside options

Values as Inoculation Against Despair

The data are clear: Americans are cynical about the country’s direction by huge margins.

Politically, cynicism has structural causes. Socially, increased inequality, segregation, and isolation fragment our communities and assail our trust in others and in our public institutions. Economically, an illusion of prosperity masks crippling inequality. Longitudinal surveys indicate a growing number of young Americans primarily motivated to their careers by wealth over a desire to better the social condition.

Who wouldn’t respond with self-preservation when confronted with the apparent bleakness of future decades? Who wouldn’t respond with me-first when urbanization and labor market changes cast force young people’s social networks away from local community and kinship ties? Who wouldn’t delay marriage, delay childrearing, delay building assets and become a permanent renter when all economic incentives argue against making long-term commitments in favor of maintaining short-term stability (and paying off debt)?

I would argue that the ethical choices of millennials are a product of material circumstances and rational responses more than a moral deficiency. In other words, socioeconomic conditions drive changes in attitudes rather than the reverse. A corollary to this argument is that new generational attitudes are a response to social structures. If increasing numbers of young people are “dropping out” of society (or being forced out through the criminal justice system), a moral crisis is soon to follow.

C.S. Lewis arguably predicted these painful ailments of 21st-century society in his collection of lectures entitled The Abolition of Man. Lewis took a stand against modernism in this work. He predicted a postwar technocratic order, finding evidence of its emergence in contemporaneous textbooks introducing ethics derived from Fact rather than Value:

“The old [value system] dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds…in a word, the old was a kind of propagation…the new is merely propaganda.” -p. 33

Lewis did not argue that modernism harmed society on its merits. Rather, he believed modernism attempted to disassemble the timeworn values with which the mass of people were familiar: respect for others, respect for society, duties to elders, duties to children, fairness, good faith, generosity and mercy.

He warned of the “Conditioners,” capable of controlling the disassembly of these traditional values:

“At the moment of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners.” –p. 80

“If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, then raw material he will be.” –p. 84

Lewis’ warning paints a broad brush, and warrants connection to empirical observation than pages from a literature textbook with which he takes issue. Who are the “Conditioners” today? The 2015 movie Ex Machina demonstrates the absolute power and absolute depravity of which a Conditioner is capable, particularly in the context of artificial intelligence. Inventors and researchers make brilliant contributions to scientific knowledge, no doubt. Yet wielding unchecked power to alter norms of human behavior can tilt just as easily toward destructive self-gratification as toward beneficence.

The Curative Power of Traditional Values

A society governed by and emulating Conditioners has lost traditional values as a justification for protecting life and liberty. People speak past each other in the name of self-preservation and the barren minimalism of tolerance. In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis asserted the West needed a “dogmatic belief in objective value.” The same could be said today.

Yet promoting traditional values is anathema to those who value tolerance. Traditional values appear mutually exclusive with feminism, LGBT equality, and understanding the concept of privilege. Aren’t traditional values a name for social backwardness, a vehicle for reactionary oppression of the vulnerable? A false dichotomy between objective morality and social justice results from such narrow thinking. The better path is a synthesis: how can objective morality in all its richness itself achieve social justice?

Think about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Remember William Jennings Bryan? In liberal orthodoxy, Bryan would be a science-denier who argued against the teaching of evolution in schools. Puzzlingly, Bryan is one of the great progressive heroes of American history. How could he have been reactionary and progressive at the same time?

Bryan and his ilk were not science-deniers like climate-deniers are today. They were philosophy-deniers, opponents of the Social Darwinism that justified colonialism and Gilded-Age inequality in the vocabulary of the Conditioners of the day. The Conditioner-deniers answered cynicism with personalism: a belief in the inviolability and sacredness of human life individual and collective.

Cynicism and self-preservation goes hand in hand with the loss of traditional values and virtues. Traditional values alone will not fix cynicism on the whole, but they inoculate the individual against despair and cultivate a desire to work for the greater good. I contend we should think more about how to restore a progressive society based around the timeless values advanced in The Abolition of Man. 

Values, Action and the Self: A Critical Reflection

David Cappella writes the first in a series on the intersection of “traditional values” and the variegated ethical contexts of today’s society.

“Metaphysics—in the sense of a search for theories which will get at real essence—tries to make sense of the claim that human beings are something more than centerless webs of beliefs and desires. The reason many people think such a claim essential to liberalism is that if men and women were, indeed, nothing more than sentential attitudes—nothing more than the presence or absence of dispositions toward the use of sentences phrased in some historically conditioned vocabulary—then not only human nature, but human solidarity, would begin to seem an eccentric and dubious idea.”

–Richard Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989)

In the above excerpt, the philosopher Richard Rorty places in stark terms the essential dilemma of ethical action in contemporary society—what is, or what could be, the basis for ethical decision making? And if there is no such basis, how can we justify even the most universalistic values such as human solidarity and dignity? Is it all mere language?

These weighty questions were taken up by the literary critic and popular writer, C. S. Lewis, in his perspicuous book, The Abolition of Man. In it, Lewis contrasts the ideal of humanity (or the human soul) conforming to reality to that of nature conforming to humanity’s desires. His argument is that, in the former case, the realization of objective values inherent to reality leads to the fulfillment of virtue, self-discipline, and knowledge (what he referred to in the Confucian sense as the Tao). Accordingly, in the latter case, if nature conforms to humanity’s desires then ultimately, because those desires originate in nature, this leads to a reversal wherein humanity conforms to nature (i.e., human nature).

In other words, Lewis argues that the solution to Rorty’s dilemma lies in finding an absolute, objective morality, as recognized and expounded in a variety of religious traditions.

As my co-blogger, Pearce Edwards, has aptly pointed out, this argument cuts to the heart of the “modernist” project, which came to a head in post-war optimism, such as Daniel Bell’s (The End of Ideology, 1960) claim that social knowledge and scientific objectivity meant the end of ideology and the passion of the ideologue—a view more recently reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s (1992), The End of History and The Last Man. Herbert Simon (Administrative Behavior, 1945), is heralded as leading the apotheosis of facts over values, or adapting appropriate means to established ends.

Historical experience has shown modernity’s grandiose promises to be untenable and misleading, and even susceptible to abuse by the corrupt and powerful. Much of the problem lies in the fallacy of attempting to derive an “ought” (ethical principle) from an “is” (descriptive observation). But this is only part of the more significant conundrum of justifying action in the context of freedom, a topic I’ve written on previously.

There are two factors that complicate human action in contemporary society because they are uncertain: unconscious desire and unintended consequences (See Anthony Giddens’ remarks on this in The Constitution of Society). As prominent psychologists have shown, including seminal writers such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, much of human behavior can be explained in terms of unconscious motivation, the inklings of which we can only hypothesize from our dreams and instinctual behavior. It is these unconscious impulses that Lewis fears will dominate as humanity continues to strive solely toward complete control over nature—indeed the rampant promotion of self-gratification and sexuality inherent to contemporary media is evidence of this.

Unintended consequences also limit conscious action: we mean to do good, but our actions lead to the opposite of what we intended. The ubiquitous nature of risk in contemporary society is characteristic of what Ulrich Beck has termed “second” modernity: this encompasses the simultaneous trends of globalization, individualization, the gender revolution, underemployment, as well as global risks (World Risk Society, 1999).

It is therefore within the complex and malleable bounds of unconscious desire and unintended consequences that we attempt to influence the world through willful and purposive conscious action. But the questions remains, upon what basis ought we to act? What values should order our priorities? Here I must take issue with Lewis. As much as I believe he has clearly articulated the problem of contemporary society, I do not believe he has found the solution. Lewis is far too quick to abandon the reasonable practice of vetting ideas and testing values through scientific criteria; in other words, testing the consequences of action and using such to inform future judgments.

As philosopher John Dewey notes: “Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences and to obtain ever-increasing organization of facts and ideas may in the end merely strengthen the tendency toward a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism” (Experience and Education, 1938). Accordingly, Dewey claims these experiential consequences are evaluated qualitatively (what William James termed the “pragmatic test”), in other words, was the action useful? But, again, one can imagine Lewis’ reply: what is deemed “useful” is ultimately susceptible to human desire, which is in term tainted by nature (i.e., unconscious desire).

In my own reflections and pondering on this question, I frequently find that a framework of human needs, or exigencies, seems to be the best fit. That is, our actions are justified in terms of meeting intrinsic human needs appropriate to the situation. The psychologist Abraham Maslow has written on this topic (e.g., Toward a Psychology of Being, 1962), where he expounds on a needs hierarchy of physical needs, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization and how individuals move from being motivated by deficiency toward being motivated by growth. This view—which places more emphasis on personality, individual purpose, and creativity—moves ethical action from being justified solely on consequentialist grounds towards the more nebulous area of virtue ethics (i.e., Aristotle).

In other words, defining “the good” in terms of fostering virtues or character conducive to human needs. I find this solution to the ethical conundrum satisfying on two grounds. First, it allows for difference; everyone has their own perspective and way of making sense of the world, this is what makes interacting with others so fascinating. Second, it allows for the development of a more fully integrated person, self-aware, and at peace with her or himself. Lewis would characterize this as the appropriate integration of the “cerebral” over the “visceral” man through the “chest” or the “seat of magnanimity.” I would more simply characterize it as the appropriate recognition of the intimate connection between the physical (empirically observed) world, the physical body, the mind (brain and feelings), intellect, and soul. This more complete self-understanding is an antecedent of love for others and ultimately love of God (if one believes in such a being).

Though we have now traversed back to metaphysics, perhaps I have at least indicated how questions of ethical action inevitably are traced back to these contentious areas of thought. As long as we remain critical of action—and aware of explicit and implicit justifications—this sort of conversation can be beneficial and, indeed, essential.

Does America’s Civil Religion Need a Revival?

Religion in the United States is dry kindling ready to burst into flame when lightning strikes. For the “Religious Right,” Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and abortion are lightning strikes igniting a revivalist fire of political action. In the minds of the “secular left,” each of these lightning strikes burns up a little more fuel that supplies atavistic values voters.

Young people who perceive religion and politics through this lens are not wrong. They are justifiably discouraged by such mutual hostility.

Young people should blame their cynicism on how political elites and religious leaders on both sides have exploited religious divisions while ignoring religion’s influence on American social life that transcends politics.

In the book, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, Robert Putnam points out the period of great American civil religion during the post-WWII era. Church attendance reached all-time highs and huge majorities of Americans trusted in religion to answer important moral questions. Patriotism, citizenship and religiosity formed the great triumvirate of Main Street, USA.

Then the Sexual Revolution shook the foundations American religion. The revolution inspired a conservative backlash against rapidly changing family life and gender roles. Yet Putnam finds that even with the conservative backlash, non-religious and religious Americans viewed women’s rights, racial equality and gay marriage with increasing favorability over time. Social change is a stronger influence on public opinion than religious orthodoxy. Religion adapts and evolves.

Don’t get trapped in the dichotomy of Religious Right and secular left created by the sexual revolution and conservative backlash. There’s a new synthesis to be made: religious liberals left their mark on the pages of American history. Meanwhile, nonreligious conservatives are a growing segment of the population.

The religious left sparked social movements such as abolition, created new social institutions during the Progressive Era and put powerful moral frames on issues like monetary policy and workers’ rights. Social gospel churches, synagogues and temples have been hotbeds of organizing and activism. Yet the religious left receives little attention and wields less influence than it did even a half-century ago.

Meanwhile, the identification of religion with political conservatism has eaten away at the ranks of moderate churchgoers. Mainline Protestants, white Catholics and some evangelicals are dropping out of active religious life, a trend accelerating with each new generation. These “nones” have religious beliefs, but have ceased to participate in religious congregations. Nones are more likely to be male, white and working class, a core conservative constituency, than highly-educated and affluent.

Why does religion, liberal, moderate and conservative alike, matter? More accurately, why does religiosity matter? Putnam finds unequivocal benefits from churchgoing behavior through his research: civic engagement, political participation, happiness, friendships and more. The benefits of churchgoing are consistent across the theological spectrum. Churchgoers generally accept social change and coexist happily with other faith traditions, despite the visible intolerance of a minority of “The True Believers.”

It’s past time for an affirmation of religion undivided by party and unashamed of diversity. The postmodern, fissiparous, globalized American society needs a new generation of participators seeking communal identity, fellowship and right living.

America needs a civil religion for the 21st century.