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When Intellectual Disaster Strikes


Andrew Sullivan is criticizing Jonah. Two features of Sullivan’s attack are by now expected, but still represent a sad fall from, say, the Sullivan of three or four years ago. First, he attributes Jonah’s views about certainty to his alleged desire to serve the interests of the Republican party. He provides no evidence for this attribution; nobody can disagree with Sullivan honorably, after all! It’s a key tenet of the “conservatism of doubt.” Second, he praises a post that “takes down” Jonah mainly by repeatedly making the chickenhawk “argument” against him. There was a time when that would have been beneath him.

Then there is the intellectual confusion, which admittedly doesn’t represent a fall. The post to which Sullivan links accuses Jonah of conflating the issue of factual certainty with that of moral certainty, but Jonah was clearly defending the proposition that some moral truths can be known for certain. Sullivan seems to think that accepting that proposition amounts to denying that there are limits on what we can know. But that’s just a logical error. Sullivan also takes this proposition to be in tension with conservatives’ wise recognition that acts and policies can have ”unintended consequences”–but here he’s the one who’s conflating factual and moral issues. The conservative arguments to which the phrase “unintended consequences” refers have had to do with the limits of our empirical knowledge; they haven’t aimed at showing that we shouldn’t really believe our moral beliefs.


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