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SCIENCE SALON # 106

Michael Shermer with Daniel Chirot — You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences

Why have so many of the iconic revolutions of modern times ended in bloody tragedies? What lessons can be drawn from these failures today, in a world where political extremism is on the rise and rational reform based on moderation and compromise often seems impossible to achieve? In You Say You Want a Revolution?, Daniel Chirot examines a wide range of right- and left-wing revolutions around the world — from the late eighteenth century to today — to provide important new answers to these critical questions. From the French Revolution of the eighteenth century to the Mexican, Russian, German, Chinese, anticolonial, and Iranian revolutions of the twentieth, Chirot finds that moderate solutions to serious social, economic, and political problems were overwhelmed by radical ideologies that promised simpler, drastic remedies. But not all revolutions had this outcome. The American Revolution didn’t, although its failure to resolve the problem of slavery eventually led to the Civil War, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was relatively peaceful, except in Yugoslavia. Chirot and Shermer also discuss:

  • why violent radicalism, corruption, and the betrayal of ideals won in so many crucial cases, but why it didn’t in some others
  • Did most Germans really believe in Nazi ideology or did they just go along out of social pressure and political convenience?
  • No Hitler, No Holocaust?
  • How do you get people to commit genocide?
  • Anti-semitism in history and today
  • how the logic of utopian radicalism leads to violence
  • the difference in belief and action between Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky
  • the difference between the American and French Revolutions
  • We think of the American revolution as liberal, but its chief English defender, Edmund Burke, is the founder of modern conservatism.
  • lessons to learn from centuries of violent vs. nonviolent revolutions.

Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of many books, most recently, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World (with Scott L. Montgomery) (Princeton), which was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the Year.

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In this excerpt from his book Is A Good God Logically Possible? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Pp.xi, 209.) James P. Sterba provides his answer to the question: “Is there a greater good justification for God’s permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions?”

Is a Good God Logically Possible?

In my new book I defend atheism, but I was not always a nonbeliever. In fact, I was in a religious order for 12 years, leaving only just before I would have had to take the final vows. In fact, I only became an atheist recently after accepting a John Templeton grant to apply the yet untapped resources of ethics and political philosophy to the problem of evil. Work on this Templeton grant ultimately resulted in my developing the argument I will be summarizing here, set out in more detail in my book. Moreover, if anyone is successful in poking a hole in my argument, I am happy to give up being an atheist. My commitment to atheism is only as strong as the soundness and validity of my argument. Undercut my argument and poof, at least in my case, no more atheist.

My argument begins by considering whether there would be a justification for God’s not preventing—hence permitting—the final stage of significant and especially horrendous evil actions of wrongdoers, the stage where the wrongdoers would be imposing their evil consequences on their victims, for example, just before the infliction of torture by a would-be torturer. I assume that there would be a justification, at least in terms of freedom, for God’s not interfering with the imaginings, intending, and even the taking of initial steps by wrongdoers toward bringing about significant and even horrendous evil consequences on their would-be victims. I also assume that there would be a justification, at least in terms of freedom, for God’s not interfering when the consequences of immoral actions are not significantly evil. So here is the question I want to consider: Is there a greater good justification for God’s permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions?

To answer this question it is important to see that goods that could be provided to us are of two types: goods to which we have a right and goods to which we do not have a right.

Goods to Which We Have a Right

Providing us with goods to which we have a right is also a way of preventing evil. More precisely, the provision of such goods by those who could easily do so without violating anyone’s rights is a way of preventing the evil of the violation of people’s rights.1 Thus, if I provide someone with food and lodging to which that person has a right when I alone (other than God) can easily do so, I prevent that person from suffering an evil. Correspondingly, the nonprovision of goods to which we have a right is also a way of doing evil; more precisely, the nonprovision of such goods by those who could easily provide them without violating anyone’s rights would itself be morally evil.2 Thus, if I do not provide someone with the food and lodging to which that person has a right when I alone (other than God) can easily do so, my omission, which is morally equivalent to a doing here, is also morally evil.

In addition, goods to which we are entitled are either first-order goods that do not logically presuppose the existence of some serious wrongdoing (like the freedom from brutal assault) or second-order goods that do logically presuppose the existence of some serious wrongdoing (like providing aid to a victim of brutal assault). For all such first-order goods to which we are entitled, the basic moral requirement that governs their provision is:

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement I: Prevent rather than permit significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions without violating anyone’s rights (a good to which we have a right) when that can easily be done.3 […]

Read the complete excerpt

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