Angela Keaton vs. Ian Morris Debate: War, What Is It Good For?

Listen to the debate.

At this summer’s Freedom Fest, our Director of Operations, Angela Keaton, debated historian and archaeologist Ian Morris on his recent book War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

Morris’ general thesis is that over human history war has created larger more organized governments which made for a more peaceful society. Keaton disagrees. columnist Dan Sanchez weighs in with pre-debate commentary at No, War is not the Health of Peace and Prosperity.

Listen to the debate.

13 thoughts on “Angela Keaton vs. Ian Morris Debate: War, What Is It Good For?”

  1. Angela hit it out of the park in Q&A on WWII. Also, I didn’t like Ian Morris’s passive aggressive way of accusing Angela of just using anecdotes. She did use anecdotes, but she used so much more.

  2. Angela Keaton, in her wonderful way, did a fine job of dismantling the thesis of Ian Morris. My comment here is merely an arm-chair observation, but her only mistake was in conceding Ian’s unjustified assumption that the “empirical facts of history” were somehow on HIS side of the argument. His thesis is false for several reasons.

    First, when I hear someone say “history says X,” as Ian did, I know that I am about to hear an argument based on the informal fallacy of card-stacking. Ian Morris himself admits his predilection for cherry-picking by embracing pre-selected facts about WW2 to bolster his argument. An equally convincing set of empirical facts—such as those referred to by Angela when she cited those marshalled in Robert Higgs’ masterful book, Crisis and Leviathan—provides an effective counterargument. Another source is the compilation of R.J. Rummel in his book, Death by Government. There, Rummel documents the vast murder-machine that is government, turning on its head Ian’s statement that governments somehow promote social organization.

    Second, Ian Morris’ academic training may itself be the source of his undoing. Because of his training in the classics, Morris adopts the historical myopathy of that discipline. Those who have studied medieval civilization and adopt the French Annales School of historiography as a remedy for classical myopia understand this. The Annales School of historiography requires mastery of virtually every facet of social study and human action to analyze empirical facts. These include philosophy, theology, liturgy, vernacular literature, geography, agriculture, social history, canon and local law, art and music history, pertinent language skills, history of science and technology, etc. just for starters. Consequently, no medievalist would have chosen Genghis Khan as an example of an anti-state, trade-destroying marauder. Through a different lens (selecting different facts), one can assert with even more justification that Genghis Khan made possible the East-West spice trade that linked China and India with Europe by means of the overland trade routes of the era—contributing to the building of the comparatively free Mediterranean civilization of the Venetians, the freest people in Europe in the 11th through 14th centuries. Genghis Khan stimulated trade and social organization. Likewise as a classicist, Ian Morris probably accepts what he learned at university—that the Greek and Roman social structures are identical with civilization. In contrast, the Middle Ages are a study in violence and chaos. Fortunately, modern historiography is proving this untrue. The “bad press” that the Roman and Greek writers gave to “barbarians” is being dismantled daily by history writing and archaeological discoveries that demonstrate the widespread nature and depth and wealth of “barbarian” trade. As a starting point, I recommend the revisionist essay published by FEE many years ago: The Ancient Suicide of the West, by Nicholas Davidson (December 01, 1987). This is the beginning of a re-assessment of classical civilization. Once you understand this perception, you can re-examine the depredations of Renaissance politics and understand why many historians consider the Renaissance a retrograde era of politics—in contradistinction to its contributions in the fields of art and architecture. The best remedy to the bias of classicism is the wonderful recounting of the encounter between Alexander the Great and the captured pirate in Book 4, Chapter 4 of Augustine’s magnum opus, City of God, where the pirate cuts to the heart of the nature of the state. When Alexander had the captured pirate dragged before him for questioning and sentencing, Alexander challenged the pirate by posing the question, “How dare you molest the seas.” The pirate answered with some sauce: “How dare you molest the whole world? But because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. But you, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.”

    Returning to Ian’s biased training as a classicist, of course, I can undercut my own argument about Genghis Khan by citing him as the creator of yet another proto-state, which would then seem to support the contention of Ian Morris. I do this to reveal a deeper point, one that arose because of the statement of a questioner, who offered the false alternative of “chaos vs. tyranny” during the question period at the end of the debate To me, that misunderstanding formed the basis of Ian Morris’ error. He rests his thesis on a false alternative. The war for civilization is not between chaos and tyranny. Rather, it is between state-and-brigand-based tyranny and the beneficial alternative of social organization. Social organization is impeded by the state and its small-scale imitators in crime. The true alternative is tyranny vs. freedom, and the state is the manifestation of the former. The state is the disrupter of civilization.

  3. Without comment the specific "ideas" put forward my Mr. Morris, or anyone else, or the so-called "Freedom Fest" in general for that matter…I'd just like to note that it's clear by now the great Randy Paul said it best, and said it all, when he explained (and I quote):


    "I think it is clear by now: Israel has shown remarkable restraint. It possesses a military with clear superiority over that of its Palestinian neighbors, yet it does not respond to threat after threat, provocation after provocation, with the type of force that would decisively end their conflict.

    But sometimes restraint can work against you. Sometimes you just have to say, enough is enough."

    –Randy Paul, July 1st, 2014

  4. Good job Angela! David Swanson was not as kind or gentle as you in pointing out some of Morris' hypocrisy in promoting war as the means to peace: . I was curious, however, as to where Morris got his "empirical" data showing violent deaths are down by 90% from caveman days. __I also think this rationale of "peace through strength" (i.e. peace comes from war) is, along with the "humanitarian R2P-justified war" to end genocide and/or bring human rights and democracy, the most prevalent forms of ends justify the means utilitarian type justifications (and ego defenses) that people in the U.S. now use to promote war.

  5. Maybe Prof. Morris took his thesis more from Sigmund Freud than Hobbs. The following is an excerpt from a comment by Tom Welsh that I just saw on Consortiumnews ( :

    "In his book 'Civilization and its Discontents', written in 1930, Sigmund Freud stated that human beings can be made to cooperate in a civil society and even (mostly) treat one another decently; but only when they are given an external, alien enemy on whom to vent their aggression. This conclusion could have come straight out of “Mein Kampf”; unfortunately it appears to be completely true.

    Applying Freud’s insight to the societies of the USA and the UK, it turns out that if the governments of those countries want to keep their social pressure cookers from exploding they need a safety valve in the form of a hateful, insidious, foreign threat. Step forward, Vladimir Putin!"

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