Monday, August 14, 2017

Can You Fight For an Ideal?

I spend a fair amount of time wondering whether "ideas" count as real things, as I have written about elsewhere in this blog (Things and Ideas, Degrees of Being, et al.).  So it was a matter of considerable interest to me to read about the following exchange between Margaret Thatcher and British politician Enoch Powell:

On one occasion, just before the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher spoke about the Christian concept of the just war and Western values. "We do not fight for values," said Powell. "I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government."
"Nonsense, Enoch," snapped Maggie. "If I send British troops abroad, it will be to defend our values."
Powell stuck to his guns. "No, Prime Minister, values exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed."

(From SteynOnline).  Now, Thatcher is known for having once said, "There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families," so this conversation, if it occurred, runs contrary to some of her opinions.  Nevertheless, it does not seem completely impossible, nor do I expect anyone, including public figures, to be 100% consistent.

In one sense, Powell is certainly correct:  to the extent that values exist, they are ideas and therefore do not exist, like material things, in space and time.  On the other hand, the importance of ideas is that we see their images in the real world and have real-world implications.  How interesting would a triangle be if there were no triangular-shaped objects in the material world, and if we could not draw all kinds of interesting conclusions (such as calculating the height of a tree from its shadow) based on things we have learned from triangles in the abstract?

Similarly, political and moral ideals are important because we associate them with the kind of society we want to live in.  They are, however, rather harder to translate into practical terms than triangles.  I mean, we support our society partly because we like our values, and we oppose other societies because their values are contrary to ours, but when it comes to fighting, how important are those values compared to, say, not getting shot in a battle?

This also calls to mind my recent post about the Civil War, in which I argued that Southerners were, by and large, fighting for their homeland rather than fighting for slavery.  As one Union officer put it, "We are fighting for the Union...a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders."  "Independence" is a value, too, but one with more immediate implications than some of the other values.  In fact, I would argue that it is difficult to see the potential loss from separation of a part of the Union; it is abstract to a very high degree.  Perhaps that is why, over the course of the war, so many in the North saw their motivations shifting toward emancipation.  It is hard to kill people in the name of keeping them in the Union, much easier if you are fighting to free the slaves.

Getting back to Powell, what I find interesting about his statement in particular is the fact that he talks about fighting for "this country."  A country is also an abstraction.  It consists of individuals, of course, which are not abstractions, but which individuals belong to the country is a matter open to debate.  If Scotland declared independence and went to war with England, which "country" would he fight for?  What if the Midlands went to war with the South?  What if there was a coup and France invaded to support the overthrown government?  You see, this could go on indefinitely.  "Democracy" is more abstract that "country," but only in degree, not in kind.
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html