Doing The Right Thing

There is a fundamental distinction in ethics that I have never seen anyone make  — not even the professional philosophers who study the subject. That is the distinction between what is right and what a person would actually be likely to do in a given situation. Indeed, I have seen professional philosophers quibble with Kant, for example, and dismiss his entire ethical edifice on the grounds that no one could possibly act that way in fact. But, as Kant himself said many times, he was not doing “anthropology,” he was doing philosophy. And the job of philosophers in ethics is to try to determine what is right, not what people would actually do. We can take it as a given that people don’t always do the right thing.

Take the case of capital punishment, which I posted about in a recent blog. If my wife or child were killed and the police caught the killer who was then tried and found guilty I would almost certainly want that person drawn and quartered. That’s what I would want — because I am angry and resentful. But I have never seen an argument yet that persuaded me that capital punishment is the right thing to do — especially, as my friend BTG points out, now that DNA tests are showing how often we find the wrong person guilty. All of the arguments, including Francis Bacon’s pithy statement quoted recently about revenge being a sort of “wild justice,” tend the other way: capital punishment is institutionalized revenge. It is brutal and may make us feel good — “give us closure,,” as we like to say — but it is not right.

Admittedly, the attempt to determine in a given case whether an act is right or wrong is immensely difficult. It is so difficult that many intelligent (and especially unintelligent) people shrug their shoulders in dismay and then abandon the effort. But the attempt to determine right and wrong is like a jury trial: there is a correct answer (the defendant is either guilty or he is not, he can’t be both guilty and innocent) and we simply need to think about it until we can see what the correct answer is. Similarly, a given act is either right or wrong, it cannot be both. We will never reach the plateau of certainty in ethics — as Aristotle famously said it is the mark of an educated person to look for the degree of precision that the subject allows — but we can reach a tentative answer that stands up to criticism. That’s the best we can do, and it is a hellova lot better than shrugging one’s shoulders and giving up, resorting to a sort of mindless relativism where all ethical answers are matters of opinion: you have yours and I have mine.

This sort of relativism, as I have noted in previous blogs, leads us away from the challenge of trying to find the right answer — like raising one’s hand and excusing oneself from a jury trial. If we stay around and weigh the evidence, look at the issue from both sides, and think about possible courses of action, we might reach a level of confidence that seems solid and assured, at least until further examination. From where I sit, capital punishment is wrong — even though I may want to see it done if someone close to me were murdered. What I want and what is right are two entirely different things and the two only coincide perfectly in the case of the Saint. Or, perhaps, Immanuel Kant.

It’s All Relative! Really?

A recent story in HuffPost begins as follows:

A gay Somali teen was allegedly stoned to death on March 15, according to an advocacy group that posted about the incident online.

A Facebook group calling itself Somali Queer Community posted information and photos of the alleged stoning on its social media page Saturday. The post states that Mohamed Ali Baashi, 18, was tried and convicted of sodomy by a rebel judge from the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in the Barawa area of southern Somalia. In front of a crowd of villagers, Baashi was reportedly pelted with rocks until he was dead, the group’s post goes on to claim.

During the many years while I was teaching ethics the prevailing prejudice I continued to run into is that all values are relative. I call it a prejudice because it was seldom a conclusion reached after serious thought. The claim was that in ethics if those values are not relative to the individual, they are at least relative to cultures. We have been told that values are “enculturated” in us and we simply adopt the values of those around us as we grow up. If someone in another culture does something we regard as wrong who are we to say it is wrong? It’s just what they do. We hear the bromide “don’t judge another person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.” In fact, we are constantly admonished not to be “judgmental.” But let’s take the story above as a case in point. It raises serious doubts about the viability of the whole relativism thesis: failure to judge might even be regarded as the height of irresponsibility.  I have never thought that people take relativism seriously, though, they just lean on it because it is easier than thinking.

In my classes I would ask the students if they thought that the Nazis were right to “relocate” the Jews and send millions to their death. Most students would stick by their guns and say, “of course, who’s to say?” Then I would ask them if they would still believe this if they were a Jew living in Germany in the mid-thirties of the last century when the purge began. That would usually give the students pause, though I don’t know if it ever changed a single mind. But the idea was to get them thinking about a complex situation they probably never thought about before. It helps us to see evil more clearly if we imagine ourselves to be the victim.

But the story above tells us about a judicial process in Somalia in which a young gay man is found guilty of sodomy and is summarily stoned to death. The cultural relativist would say, “that’s the way they do things there. Who are we to say it’s wrong?” My response is: anyone with half a brain knows it’s wrong regardless of where or when it happened. The value of human life and the respect all human life is owed transcend cultures and makes it wrong to inflict harm on others; we have duties as moral agents to alleviate human suffering whenever possible. Now, whether or not our culture teaches us this any longer, it is the heart and soul of any viable ethical or religious system known to developed minds. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the process that found the young man guilty was flawed and the “rebel judge” handing down the judgment was blinded by prejudice. We know this happens: we see it happening on a daily basis all around us. In this regard, the Somalis are just like us and they should know better. Certain values transcend cultures.

Many think that this position smacks of “absolutism,” the claim that values are absolute and a few people know them while others do not — those few wearing clerical collars or holding degrees in philosophy no doubt. We are uncomfortable with this view and regard it as the height of intolerance, though we don’t distinguish carefully between tolerance and indifference. But while I make no claim to absolute knowledge about values, since all human knowledge is partial, there are things that are inherently wrong and simply should not be tolerated. Does this mean we should send in drones and invade Somalia with our armed forces to bring the Somali people to their knees and make them accept our way of life? Of course not. What it means is that we should all condemn the action and our hearts should go out to the young man who was stoned to death as the natural expression of sympathy for another human who was wronged apparently by what appear to be extremists — and we should hope that by making the action known through the social media the world community would condemn the action so that this sort of thing does not happen again.