August 6 and 9 mark the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ll be visiting those cities in October, doing research for a book. For months I’ve been reading histories and commentaries about the end of the war in the Pacific, and I’ve been brushing up on my Japanese. More months of research will follow my trip.
My particular focus is the rhetoric of the bombings: How do people talk about and debate them? Most particularly, how do people talk about and debate the morality of the bombings, if they refer to moral issues at all?
For as long as I can remember, as July has merged into August, Americans of all states of life have written about the bombings. Magazines, newspapers, and websites are filled with opinions. Countless words fill comment boxes. Tens of thousands of people express their views—often with considerable emotion—about the rightness or wrongness of using Little Boy and Fat Man.
Each year I have been disappointed at the level of discussion.
I should note that usually I’m disappointed about most discussions about most topics, whether historical, political, or religious. Most people, most of the time, feel free to express opinions without making the least attempt to show the logic of what they hold. They don’t argue “If A, then B.” They don’t lay out underlying principles. They rush immediately to their conclusions. (Can we even call them conclusions if they haven’t arisen from premises?)
The decline of rhetoric
I don’t think this has been getting better as I’ve been getting older. Once upon a time, most high school students were taught the rudiments of logic. Not all of them profited from what they were taught, but at least they seemed to end up with an awareness of the principle of non-contradiction. They learned the different kinds of logical fallacies, however cursorily. Many schools offered classes in rhetoric. Not a few students joined debate teams, where they flexed their rhetorical muscles.
Debate teams still exist, though, from what I can gather, high school debating largely has collapsed into a contest of quantity rather than quality. Participants don’t so much work up syllogisms and facts. Instead, they are scored on how many random factoids they can disgorge in a set time. Debates, then, have become contests in rapid speaking rather than in persuasive speaking.
Persuasion is what rhetoric is about: how do we convince people to adhere to the good, the true, and the beautiful? How do we get past innate prejudices and misconceptions? It takes cold logic, but it takes more than that. Yes, there is an intellectual component in coming to adopt a particular view, but there also is an affective component. We might like to imagine that the only thing necessary is a carefully crafted syllogism. If we were talking to automatons, perhaps that would be enough, but our talk is with people who, since the Fall, have operated with impaired reason.
Think how many times you have made a perfectly sensible and perfectly convincing argument about something, only to have your listener remain unconvinced—not out of a contradictory argument (he made none) but out of pure stubbornness. He willed not to have his mind changed. You needed something beyond mere logic to get through to him. You needed to appeal to him at multiple levels. Only then would he have been open to your step-by-step analysis. What you needed was rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the art of explanation and persuasion. It uses more than just logic in order for logic to do its work. The Greeks and Romans honored their rhetoricians. Aristotle wrote a book about rhetoric and how to become proficient in it. Hundreds of writers in later centuries followed his lead.
A Southerener sides with Lincoln
In our country one of the most effective teachers of rhetoric was Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963). He is best known for the thin bookIdeas Have Consequences (1948). A Southerner much admired by social and political conservatives, Weaver spent most of his adult life in the North, teaching at the University of Chicago.
Of his several writings on rhetoric—they included a high school textbook—no doubt The Ethics of Rhetoric has been the most influential. It has an early chapter on the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In popular mythology, such as given in the 1960 movieInherit the Wind (starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly), Clarence Darrow beat the pants of William Jennings Bryan. But Weaver argues that not only did Bryan’s side win the court case, it also won the rhetorical case.
As surprising as that notion might be to a current-day reader, perhaps more surprising is what follows in Weaver’s book. He looks at two great rhetoricians of the past, Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln. You would expect that Weaver, a highly educated Southerner who wrote in defense of lost aspects of Southern culture—his doctoral dissertation eventually became The Southern Tradition at Bay—would side with Burke over Lincoln, but not so.
Weaver looked at how Burke and Lincoln framed their arguments. Burke used the argument from circumstance while Lincoln used the argument from definition. Burke looked around and asked: given the situation as it exists, what incremental steps should we take, if any? Lincoln said: let’s determine what is right and wrong first and then apply those principles to the present matter.
Burke used an argument that often is misattributed to him: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” (That actually was said by Lucius Cary, the second Viscount Falkland, in the House of Commons in 1641.) Burke’s was a truly conservative position; he insisted on conserving the existing situation unless sufficient reason could be adduced to change it. Lincoln argued from a few ground-level principles and wanted to apply them, even if they overthrew existing arrangements.
Weaver endorsed Lincoln’s mode of argumentation over Burke’s because he saw the argument from definition (or underlying principle) as higher and ultimately more convincing than the argument from circumstance. The latter, he held, was susceptible to lateral movement over time. As circumstances changed, so did the force of an argument based on them.
Argument from consequences
Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, famously claimed (facetiously) that “whatever is, is right.” That works if whatever is at the moment is itself good or true, but it doesn’t work when culture or morals have declined. It then isn’t so easy to argue from the is to the ought. Lincoln, said Weaver, tried to argue from perpetually valid principles and thus could form arguments that had lasting applicability. That didn’t mean that Lincoln’s arguments always were right. It just meant that he used a superior mode of rhetoric.
There is a third common mode that Weaver didn’t even get to in his book. That is the argument from consequences. It says that an act is good if it has good results and bad if it has bad results. At first glance, this might seem to be a good way to argue, until we realize that it is a reformulation of an argument that we all reject, at least notionally. The argument from consequences really is just a rephrasing of the argument that “the ends justify the means.” If the desired result is good, then the means to achieve that result must be good. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually has said he believes that ends justify means, but I’ve met lots of people who argue from consequences.
Let me return to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many books have been written about the atomic bombings. I have lots of those books. I also have a stack of paper, nearing a thousand sheets in all, consisting of printouts from online arguments about the bombings.
What long has surprised me (perhaps dismayed is the better verb) is that most of the arguments about the bombings are not in terms of the argument from definition or even the argument from circumstances. They almost always are in terms of the argument from consequences.
The chief argument in favor of the bombings is that they saved lives, American and Japanese. The bombings are said to have been moral because they were “successful” by a certain measurement. Few commentators make any attempt to look further than that. Almost no commentator even alludes to the Just War Theory. This is true even of Catholic writers.
Wilson D. Miscamble teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. He is a Catholic priest and author of The Most Controversial Decision. A back-cover blurb says that “his chapter on the morality of America’s use of atomic weapons . . . is by far the best discussion of that difficult subject.” Miscamble devotes only a dozen pages to the moral question and never discusses Just War Theory. His argument is purely from consequences: on net, lives were saved, so the bombings were morally good. Little is said about the propriety of targeting civilians, for example.
That is what is found in a book by a Catholic. Books by non-Catholics—whether approving or disapproving of the bombings—are not any better. They argue particular historical points, such as how many casualties may have resulted from an invasion of Japan and whether the Japanese government really was seeking an end to the war, but they don’t discuss questions of morality (if they discuss them at all) at a higher level of rhetoric. They never get past the argument from consequences. They never get around to basic moral principles and how to apply them.
Applying Catholic moral principles
I mention civilians. What should be their status during war? Over the centuries, Catholic theologians have considered the question: Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and many others. In recent times Catholic scholars have fine-tuned the concept of discrimination: distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. The Church teaches that it never is permissible to target non-combatants deliberately. (There is a parallel here with abortion.)
That’s a basic moral principle: civilians (non-combatants) must not be targeted deliberately. So how does that play out in terms of the use of a weapon that is indiscriminate in its application—that is, so powerful that it gathers among its victims both soldiers and civilians (but chiefly the latter)? What is the moral calculus when one proposes to use a weapon that one knows will kill chiefly civilians—and not just a few of them collaterally?
In my introductory criminal law course in law school, our first casebook example was of two young men who, lying on the far side of a field, shot their rifles at a moving passenger train. They were out for a lark. To them it was mere target practice. They didn’t intend to harm anyone, but they killed one of the passengers. Were they guilty of a crime?
The answer was yes. They were guilty because they were so heedless in what they did, so negligent, that they in essence willed the death of the passenger. He wasn’t mere collateral damage during their target practice. At one level, certainly, they didn’t intend to kill him, but at another level they did, since the action they took could have been expected to result in someone’s death.
A similar question could be asked of the use of atomic bombs on cities. Is it possible to envision a scenario in which there would not be massive civilian deaths? If not, then are such deaths positively willed by those who drop the bomb, at least at some level? If so, how does the Catholic moral principle against killing non-combatants apply?
These are the kinds of considerations I haven’t seen much of in the annual fulminations about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I suppose it’s hoping for too much to think that non-Catholic writers, whether professionals or Facebook posters, would try to apply Catholic moral principles. I hope it’s not too much to hope that Catholics, at least, would make a serious attempt to do so. It would be good to see the annual rhetoric reach a higher level.
By Karl Keating