Justice?

Albert Camus, the novelist and member of the French Underground during the occupation of France by the Germans, died at the young age of 46 in an automobile accident. Throughout his life he was opposed to capital punishment. He sensed that his opposition would be ineffectual, but he thought it worthwhile none the less. Indeed, he championed the view that despite the absurd nature of human existence one ought always to fight against what one thought was evil. Once one stops fighting he simply takes up space. He thought capital punishment was evil.

A clue to the depth of that feeling is found in his autobiographical novel The First Man, which was published after his death by his daughter, working from notes scribbled in the margins of the hand-written manuscript. In that novel he tells of an experience his father had early in the child’s life when he went to a public hanging of a man who was reputed to have killed his employers and three children. There was widespread hatred directed toward the killer and the trial was quick and public hanging was the verdict. Speaking of himself in the third person, as “Jacques,” Camus describes the scene afterwards:

“. . . Jacques’s father was livid when he came home; he went to bed, then got up several times to vomit, and went back to bed. He never wanted to talk about what he had seen. And on the night he heard the story, Jacques himself, when he was lying huddled on the side of the bed . . . choked back his nausea and his horror as he relived the details he had heard and those he imagined. And throughout his life those images had followed him even into his sleep . . .”

I have written about capital punishment before though it is a topic that seems to be only of mild interest to people for the most part — perhaps because we don’t have public executions — yet. There has been discussion of such a possibility, but even in this blood-lusting culture so far it has remained only a dream in the hearts and minds of those who think justice is all about revenge. Because, in a word, that is was capital punishment is: revenge. It is assuredly not justice, especially in an age when we discover growing numbers of cases of false identity and miscarriages of the legal procedures that incarcerate (and execute) men, mostly black men, only to discover that they were innocent. Indeed, it is precisely the likelihood (and I stress that term) of human error that undermines any possible argument for taking the life of one human being because he presumably took another or other lives. If humans were infallible, which we assuredly are not, there might be a case for capital punishment. But because we are not and because we tend to let our passions and raw emotions dwarf our judgment, there can be no possible argument for taking a human life to avenge another life.

I have often thought about this on a deeply personal level: how would I react if my wife or my sons were killed and the killer was caught and brought to trial? Would I want that person executed in order to right a wrong? It’s hard to say, but I expect I wouldn’t be thinking clearly and would simply want someone punished and punished soundly for what they did. But that would be my emotions taking control. In my mind, when it is clear, I know that it would be wrong. Taking a human life under any circumstances is wrong and cannot be justified. It can be rationalized, we can find bad reasons for doing what we want to do on a visceral level, but it cannot be justified.

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Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?

Who Cares?

I have blogged about the drone kills before, though the posts have not been overly popular. I don’t think people like to think about these anti-terrorist tactics that may strike some as in themselves terroristic. This is especially so since mistakes have been made in the past and a number of innocent lives, estimated at the end of last year to be around 145, have been lost in those attacks. And it has been revealed recently that even the targeting of American citizens anywhere in the world (except the United States) has been approved — if they are suspected of terrorist tendencies. At what point do we balk?

A poll recently revealed that 77% of the Democrats polled approve of the drone kills. That number astounded me, and it makes me wonder if that many Democrats would approve of the flights if they were ordered by a Republican president. It doesn’t seem to me that any citizen should simply approve of what his or her President does simply because they happen to be of the same political party. If something is wrong, it is wrong no matter who orders it.

But, speaking of wrong, in a recent speech  in his home state of South Carolina covered by Yahoo News, Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be bragging as he had the following interesting remark to make about these drone attacks:

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

Graham’s dismissive aside about the innocent lives that have been taken is extremely offensive. And I hesitate to point out the fact that the same intelligence community that is providing information about who are and who are not “very senior members of Al-Qaeda” failed to provide adequate information to this government about the attacks on the Twin Towers or the more recent terrorist attacks on the American Embassy in Benghazi. So we don’t really know how many innocent lives have been lost in these strikes.

But what is especially disturbing about Graham’s remarks is his claim that we are at war. We are not at war, though we have coined the phrase “war on terror” to hide our shame. Indeed, we are the best protected nation in the world with 300,000 troops stationed overseas and oceans on either side of this continent. But even if we were in a war declared as such by this Congress, we should hesitate to approve of tactics that are known to have “residual effects,” as they say, in taking the lives of innocent people.

How would we feel about this if these drone attacks were ordered by, say, Iran, and they targeted the Secretary of Defense (or Senator Graham for that matter) and they happened to “take out” several dozen innocent American lives at the same time? I dare say there would be outrage and cries for retaliation — as well there should be. What we would not want done to ourselves we should not want done to others.There is simply no way these attacks can be defended on ethical grounds.

But if you are keeping score, “they” killed 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; we have now apparently killed 4,700 of them. We’re ahead. How sickening.

Making Distinctions

One of the ways philosophers attempt to clarify issues and get a handle on how to work their way out of confusion is to make key distinctions. For example, I have made a number of them in recent blogs and they do help to clarify the problem at issue. In this day when we tend to gloss over distinctions and use words carelessly it makes sense to pause and try to “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle'” as Wittgenstein said some years back.

For example, we need to distinguish between what a person would do in a moral crisis and what he or she should do. Kant focused exclusively on the latter problem and has been often criticized for being too “formalistic.” But we need to be clear in a particular case what is the moral principle involved and often when we focus on that issue alone, it is fairly easy to see what should be done. Kant thought we should focus on the motive behind our actions, and act in accordance with duty. Others have argued that we should focus attention on the consequences of our actions. Whichever it is, we need to attend to the question of what ought to be done . Once that has been determined, then we need to ask the entirely different question: now, what would I do in  this situation?  I stressed this distinction recently in a blog examining Israel’s decision not to induct Khaled Abdul Wahab into the Yad Vashem commemorating the “righteous” who saved Jews during the Hitler regime. I wondered then whether I would do what Wahad did, knowing that what he did was the right thing. He did what he should do, based on clear ethical principles, but I wonder whether I would do what I should in the circumstances, whether I would have the courage to do the right thing. The questions must be kept separate, though even philosophers often seem to confound them.

Another distinction is that between “explanation,” “justification,” and “rationalization.” These are often confounded, as when we ask how to “rationalize” a moral decision. The process of rationalization is simply giving reasons, usually for a conclusion we have already reached. Period. Justification, which is often confused with rationalization, means the giving of sound moral principles and pertinent facts to support moral conclusions. Explanation, finally, means the giving of reasons  that help us to understand what happened — whether or not we can justify it morally. We might be able to explain why so many people capitulated to the Nazi regime, but we cannot justify it.

A third distinction that needs to be made is that between “need” and “want.” We often run these terms together as we claim we need to maintain our current standard of living, for example, when we really mean we simply want to maintain it. College faculty make this mistake often as they consistently refuse to admit that students don’t know what they need to study in order to become well educated persons, they simply know what they want. The faculty are in a much better position to know what the students need, though they are reluctant to take that responsibility.

Along those lines, we should distinguish carefully between education and information. We often hear it said that Jones should be “educated” about how to use tools. We need to educate Jones about sex or brushing his teeth. We mean Jones should be informed.  An educated person is well informed, but the reverse is not the case. Education means knowing what to do with information, being able to assimilate and bring it to bear on problems that require solutions. That is, it means thinking, not just knowing. As Robert Hutchins said some time ago, education is what is left after we have forgotten everything we learned in school.

In the end, making distinctions helps us to achieve conceptual clarity and work our way out of moral and intellectual confusion — often, but not always. But it is a good place to start, as Socrates knew so well. Critics will say it is getting “picky” over words, but the words we use are central in expressing our thoughts. And the more fragile our grasp is on the words we use, the more likely we are to run aground.