And this is where Aristotle makes an entrance. In a famous passage of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that one can behave in certain ways that make any course of action morally opprobrious. Most of us do not choose to act in an unjust way. But we can live our lives in such a way that no good course of action is open to us. “The unjust and profligate,” Aristotle says, “might at the outset have avoided becoming so… although when they have become unjust and profligate it is no longer open to them not to be so.” Once you cast the stone, you cannot bring it back, but you are responsible for having taken up and flinging the stone in the first place.
Or voting “Present.” Some of my friends believe the grounds for military action against Syria are patent. I suspect it is too late for such clarity. There was a time, in the early days of the Obama regime, when we might have taken effective action in the Middle East, when leadership might have made a difference in Egypt, in Libya, in Iran. In those days — how distant they seem! — the United States still exerted enormous if widely resented moral influence in the region. Obama’s habit of “leading from behind” (i.e., relinquishing leadership) has not-so-gradually eroded that authority. Now what? Obama, along with his Goneril and Regan, Samantha Power and Valerie Jarrett, would be sadly comic if the game they were playing were not so serious. Obama’s blundering has already cost thousands of lives in the Muslim world, many American lives as well as the lives of indigenes. In Syria, the stakes have been raised yet again. Intervene or leave it alone? There are those who believe that the horror of the gas attacks in Syria require that action, some action, any action, as a necessary cathartic for us moral paragons in the West. But what if it unleashes something far worse? Are we confident that this President and his band of not-so-merry pranksters have the skill to deploy force at the right time, in the right place, for the right ends, and in the right proportion? Pondering that I think of Aristotle’s observation that “only a blockhead fails to recognize that our character is the result of our conduct.” I am not uplifted by the reflection.