Espionage ethics

Your anonymous reviewer of Cécile Fabre’s Spying Through a Glass Darkly (May 13) tells us that Kant objects to espionage because it contravenes “the principle of treating our fellow humans as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to an end”, and notes that this “poses problems to many other areas of human activity – to any salesperson, for example”. Luckily, both for Kant and for philosophers who have to make a living of such distinctions, his principle prohibits not treating people as means, but treating people simple as means. A subtle distinction, no doubt, but perhaps one that is compatible with in-person shopping. More interesting is that Kant objects to spying not only on behalf of those who are spied on, but because of its effects on the spies themselves. It makes them “unfit to be citizens”. There is no bar, then, to using foreigners as spies. MI6 take note!

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford

The ethics counsellor for the SIS/MI6 might have been a little more sensitive and circumspect on three issues in the course of their review. Firstly, the anonymous reviewer claims that many areas of human activity offend against Kant’s principle that fellow humans should be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to an end, and cites salespeople as an example. This is, of course, true in the social system in which we live, which, for want of a better word, I will call capitalism. But this doesn’t mean this is how people would like things to be. I have met many salespeople who would be much happier giving an honest account to customers of the qualities of items they are selling and leaving it to the customers to decide, but salespeople are under constant pressure from management to manipulate customers into making purchases they might not otherwise want in order to maximize profits for the company.

Secondly, the reviewer quotes approvingly a comparison Fabre makes between Oleg Gordievsky and Kim Philby, to the latter’s detriment. Philby, Fabre claims, had no evidence that the Soviet authorities would make morally justified use of the information he provided. But this is absurd. Philby became a Soviet spy because he thought the Soviet Union was based on morally superior principles to those of the West. He was wrong about this, but it unnecessarily denigrates him to suggest he was not acting out of moral considerations, albeit flawed ones.

Thirdly, the reviewer invokes a concept of “the national interest” to claim that this is a Fabre blind spot. The reviewer claims that national interest should trump moral values ​​at times, invoking the Cold War, knowing which side “we” are on and what “we” are prepared to fight for. But what exactly is this national interest, other than what those in power claim it to be?

I fear the SIS/MI6 “ethics counsellor” has a rather limited and philosophically question-begging perspective on what justifies what spies do, but that is, perhaps, hardly surprising.

Rob Hoveman
Central European University, Vienna

‘The Dying Citizen’

Anne Nelson’s review of The Dying Citizen by Victor Davis Hanson (May 6) was fair in taking him to task for his “lapses” in historical accuracy. But perhaps attention could have been drawn to a more problematic methodology that he has used in the book and throughout his career: that the “West” is the inheritor of an intellectual lineage stretching back to ancient Greece. Interpreting the success of the modern West through an Aegean civilization over two millennia old is not only methodologically fanciful, but ignorant of the forging of modern western power: the development of global capital markets and systems and intellectual traditions that broke free from the shackles of antiquity . One is reminded of Gandhi’s quip that western civilization would be “a good idea”: not as a riposte to European imperialism, but in its suggestion that modern western power was tethered to very recently forged mechanisms, even if its resident proconsuls had classical educations.

Hayden Bellenoit
US Naval Academy, Annapolis MD

Lord Fairfax’s reputation

Thomas Lord Fairfax is grievously misrepresented in Robert Selby’s poem “On the Lord General Fairfax’s Coat at Leeds Castle, Maidstone” (May 13). An “impervious” conscience is attributed to the man who, of all the principles in the wars of the three kingdoms, most conspicuously took a conscientious decision to his own disadvantage when he resigned his commission rather than lead an invading army into Presbyterian Scotland . The ground of the charge appears to be his conduct at the siege of Colchester in 1648, when the defeated army officers were executed, but the right to mercy had been surrendered by their taking up arms again after the first civil war and continuing resistance in a hopeless defense. What “infamy in arms” is here, or reason to ironize Milton’s words in celebration of Fairfax’s brilliant military career and renown, which provide the poem’s epigraph? If Selby thinks a few buttons and a little lace on a plain buff coat signify vanity and a “swanky” dandy rather than simply a gentleman, he should take a look at the wardrobes of royalist commanders. As to the “few sand grains” of Fairfax’s “transience”, in 300 years we shall all be “dust”; which of us then will, like Fairfax, have a name that yet survives?

NH Keeble
Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty is in many ways an easy target, and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey takes a clear aim in her review of the populist economist’s two most recent books, Time for Socialism and A Brief History of Equality (May 6).

When she takes aim at Piketty’s blueprint for progress towards a more equitable share of the pie, however, several of her arrows miss the target – at least in these United States. For example: “Or consider higher education in the US, which is largely financed directly by tuition payments from the beneficiaries and their parents, and not by taxes on the generality”. Has McCloskey missed the continuing debate in Washington about partial or total forgiveness of tuition debt (given that this burden has passed credit-card indebtedness?). Likewise, she speaks of pensions as a retirement nest egg: other than for an ever narrower slice of America, these are now things of the past. And as for the “three-generation family living under one roof”, in today’s mobile or would-be mobile society, this anachronistic arrangement harks back to the days when extended families lived on the same block of the same town. It is now more one of economic necessity than of choice.

Finally, McCloskey invokes Adam Smith, who scorned the “man of the system … enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government”. My revered fellow Scot is often subject to originalist interpretation, not least by the institute that bears his name, but I would submit that Smith, first and foremost a moral philosopher, and 250 years on from The Theory of Moral Sentimentswould have shared Piketty’s alarm at the global stain of hyper-inequality.

David C. Speedie
Charlottesville VA

In defense of ‘Heaven’s Gate’

Melville’s Moby-Dick was not read until the twentieth century; Dickinson was edited and altered. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was pulled in the week when it opened in New York on November 18, 1980, and disliked by everyone. This was the date, Graham Daseler writes in his review of Charles Elton’s book on Cimino, when the Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s ended.

Cimino’s films had style over substance, Daseler writes, but there are few films with as much substance as Heaven’s Gate. It may be, as the film historian Christopher Sharrett notes, “the most politically radical Western made in the United States”. We must look to Visconti’s The DamnedLeone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Bertolucci’s 1900 for films comparable to Cimino’s. The Criterion Blu-ray (2012) was the first time we saw Heaven’s Gate as Cimino made it.

Bob Buckeye
Middlebury VT

Classical musical politics

The flashpoints in Hollywood and Israel (April 22) had a parallel in classical music when, in the mid-1980s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra “fired” Vanessa Redgrave for her support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, anathema to Jews on the governing board, and – as it proved at trial – scary to performers in an age when protesters of all sorts stormed stages to push their views. The BSO’s production of Oedipus Rex was international in scope. The score of the opera-oratorio was by Igor Stravinsky. The text, originally in French by Jean Cocteau, was set in a Latin translation, but the composer specified a narrator in the language of the audience, hence Redgrave, in her prime. The semi-staging was by the wunderkind Peter Sellars, who, at Harvard, had produced a student production of Wagner’s Ring cycle with puppets.

Some BSO trustees complained about Redgrave as a lively backer of the PLO. Rather than fire her for her views, protected by the US constitution, they caused the production itself to be cancelled. She sue in federal court. I reported on the trial for the Boston Globe. The judge instructed the jury that the BSO had a real safety issue should compromise the performance. This was certainly the era of such demonstrations. I was in the Boston audience when, screaming “Brits out”, local Irish Republican Army members rushed to the stage apron as the Royal Ballet’s Jennifer Penney was perched on pointe greeting suitors in Sleeping Beauty; and again when opponents of Castro confronted Alicia Alonso, the partially sighted prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet, as she made her entrance as Giselle. Boston Symphony players, especially the strings who sit nearest the audience, were understandably afraid for harm to their instruments. The orchestra’s music director, Seiji Ozawa, had to be hushed by the judge when he asked the jury itself why Redgrave thought she was more important than the music. On safety issues, the federal jury found for the BSO in November 1987. Redgrave later filed a civil suit for breach of contract, and received her fee of $30,000.

Margo Miller
Boston MA

‘Brightness falls’

In his Afterthoughts centerd on Thomas Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the ayre” (May 20), Craig brightness Raine dismisses lightning as a possible candidate for the falling because it is “an imperfect fit” for the context – a lament for passing beauty. But is it? Shelley, for one, appears to suggest otherwise.

The flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow dies;
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.

Neil Cooper
Ruskington, Lincolnshire

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