Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

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Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Ethics Schmethics!

Not long after the Republicans in the dark of night, prior to the opening of the new session, eliminated the independent Office of Congressional Ethics they knuckled under to immense pressure to rescind the move. It would have placed the responsibility for determining ethical and non-ethical practices in the hands of the Congress itself. But despite the reversal this attempt sends a clear message to the world: ethics simply don’t matter; they just get in the way of what we want to do. It isn’t so much that the independent group was doing its “due diligence” and watching the hen-house like a fox (who eats only naughty hens) and that now the fox will be dismissed. It’s the principle of the thing, and “taking it back,” or “having your fingers crossed” does not alter the fact that this is what the group wants to do! The horse is out of the barn and we now know exactly what it look like!

As a nervous electorate waits to see what sorts of mayhem the new president will bring with him and worries that his choices for Cabinet members begin to look more and more like a F.B.I. “Most Wanted” list, now we hear that the Republican Congress would prefer to not have anyone hold its feet to the fire and make sure that they play by the rules. None of us is quite certain what those rules are, of course, but it is reassuring that there are some (somewhere) and that someone every now and again will still be ready to raise a red flag when a Congressman or a Congresswoman commit an egregious act of some sort.

We live in an age of ethical relativism. The standard question when ethical questions are raised is “who’s to say?” This applies not only to the Congress, but to the country at large. The notion that there are things that are simply right or simply wrong has pretty much disappeared behind the smokescreen of doubt and self-assertion. Thus, it makes no sense to wonder what sorts of principles are applied to those who sit in Congress and waste the taxpayers’ money. But the notion that there are still some restraints on their otherwise unbridled graft and greed, vague though the restraints may be, is somehow reassuring.

I have always argued that there are ethical principles that cut across cultures and apply to all individuals as well. Most people agree without realizing what this implies. When an atrocious act is committed — like date rape or domestic violence — we don’t simply say “that’s not the way we do things here in Sacramento.” We say, “Dammit! That’s wrong and someone should be punished.” Despite our rejection of abstract ethical principles, most feel that somewhere a line must be drawn. I fully agree, though I think there’s more to it than that.

The ethical principles of which I speak have to do with such things as respect for persons — all persons — and fairness. These are principles that form the warp and woof of every religion in the world and they form the background for the ethics of such thinkers as Immanuel Kant as well. They may not be openly accepted by everyone, but they provide a base on which to construct a dialogue with other people here in this country and elsewhere in the world. We can always ask “Why? and wonder if a particular act in faraway India (such as Sati), or in the darkest parts of Africa (such as clitoridectomies) are wrong —  even if those who practice such things are convinced that they are not. Dialogue is possible at the very least.

But we now have the governing body in this country saying, loud and clear, ethics be damned — though they would have us believe they had their fingers crossed. They don’t want anyone, fox or otherwise, watching the henhouse. They would prefer to keep an eye on it themselves. On the contrary, I would argue that effective or not, there must be a body assigned to the specific duty of watching what the hell the hens are up to. Keeping an eye on it themselves pretty much guarantees that they will be up to no good and no one will hear about it until it is too late. It’s good to know that enough people were so outraged by this vote that it was rescinded almost immediately. Let’s hope those same folks aren’t too busy texting their friends or checking Facebook to cry out when the next outrage issues forth from Washington.

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?

Wrongs That Are Right

A recent blog I posted elicited a most interesting comment from my blogging buddy “BTG” (“Big Tall Guy”). I argued for the objectivity of moral judgments, when well-reasoned, and he raised the following issues:

Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

I made a brief, but altogether unsatisfactory response — as one does with comments on a blog post — and then realized that the issues BTG raised deserve extended response. So here goes. Let’s begin with one of his examples. Let’s take the case of Mrs Jones who has been repeatedly battered by her husband, several times seriously enough to require trips to the hospital. After a series of such events, including one beating in a hotel elevator that was caught on CCTV and  “went viral” arousing the ire of millions of people around the globe, she reaches out during one such beating, grabs a bronze statue on the bedside table and kills her husband. Assuming that the case ever goes to trial, there is little doubt that a jury would consider this a case of “justifiable homicide.” It is wrong to kill, but under the circumstances one would almost assuredly regard the killing as “the right thing to do” — or if we hesitate to use the word “right,” at least we must admit it was expedient and therefore justified in the circumstances. That’s my point: killing is wrong, but in this case, within the context of this event, it is justified because there is a reasonable case to be made that if Mrs. Jones had not killed her husband he would eventually have killed her. It was self-defense.

My point is that we can reason about such events. We need not just rely on “gut feelings” or “intuition.” It’s not just a question of personal opinion. We can try to distance ourselves from the event and examine it as objectively as possible, separate out its grisly elements and render a  judgment. It’s what would be done in a court of law, and it is what we can do on a daily basis if we choose to venture beyond the realm of grunts and hunches. Ethics need not be reduced to the level of personal feelings, simply.

But there are cases which are even more troublesome. Take the case of Henry Smith who has joined the U.S. Army and is now in Afghanistan where he is called upon to kill people regarded by his country as enemies. He has no bone to pick with these people, and in the case of the war in Afghanistan it is not clear that the folks who fall before his automatic weapon are in fact enemies in any real sense of that term. And even less clear is the case of the airman who sits in a room somewhere in Nebraska and directs drones half-way around the world to “take out” presumed enemies of Freedom.

St. Augustine argued that the only justification for killing in war is in the case of defense of home and hearth, a defensive war. It’s not clear that the so-called terrorists Smith is killing pose any direct threat to Smith or his home and hearth. In other words, it is not clear that this is a “just war,” in Augustine’s sense of that term. He is simply ordered to kill and in many cases because of his situation, the men he kills are trying to kill him. Unless he is guiding a drone, his act is one of self-defense. But this act is complicated by the fact that Smith might well have chosen to take a job at Walmart rather than to enlist in a war that might be over nothing more vital than the country’s supply of oil — or poppies. He made a choice, presumably. It’s not as clear-cut as the former case — though we might revisit the former case and ask why Mrs. Jones didn’t simply leave her husband before putting herself in a position to have to kill him rather than be killed herself.

The point of this extended discussion is that we can pick out the various elements of each and every situation and examine them in the air of dispassionate scrutiny and render a judgment that stands up to criticism. To the extent that it can withstand criticism we can claim it is true — so far as we can tell at present: we have no absolute knowledge. We can say that Mrs Jones, for example, was trying to work through the domestic violence because deep down she loved her husband and leaving him was never a real option — she genuinely believed that things would work themselves out. But Smith is more culpable, despite the fact that our country keeps telling us that these young men and women are heroes, they have all made a decision to engage in a war that is of doubtful legitimacy: it is not clear just how those “enemies” in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to Henry Smith or anyone else in the U.S. of A. If he had been drafted the situation would be entirely different, but as it is his killing raises a number of problems regarding the rightness of his actions.

But in the end, the point I want to make is that we can discuss it: we can draw out the particulars and try to determine whether his action is right or wrong. I would simply note, again, it cannot be both. It’s either right or it is wrong. The problem we have, if we decide to think about such things rather than dismiss them with a grunt, is deciding which it is.

Morally Impaired

I recently wrote a blog focusing on a comment made by an anonymous blogger who characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year..” The blog drew a very incisive comment from MFB (My Favorite Blogger) newsofthetimes who said “I don’t understand how people can be so sure that they are not going to be the next person in line asking for help. . .” I was going to jot a quick response to MFB, but decided it warranted a longer response. So here goes.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked sympathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment, “Auth” by name, simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Who’s To Say?

In yesterday’s blog concerning the Penn State scandal I quoted Hannah Arendt who insisted on absolutes in morality. Her position is based on her deep reflections about the atrocities Hitler heaped on humankind. These days in the spirit of what we like to call tolerance — and which may, in fact, be indifference — we eschew absolutes in morality and frequently hear the cry “who’s to say what is right or wrong?” In fact, I heard it so many times during my tenure as a teacher of ethics it became tiresome. Why? Because it suggests no-mindedness, a lack of reflection and serious thought about a very serious issue.

In the end I would argue that there is a core of principles that are universally recognized in both religion and ethics; even the nay-sayers embrace those principles, whether they know it or not. Those principles focus on respect for persons, fairness, and justice. If, for example, we see on our TV that a man and his wife on the other side of the world was abducted in the dark of night and whisked off to prison without any warning or any charges bring brought against either of them we immediately know it is wrong, even if such conduct is common in that culture. As I said yesterday, we all know Mother Teresa was a good person and we all know Hitler was evil. The reason we know these things is because Mother Teresa was motivated by love for her fellow humans and Hitler was motivated by hatred for an entire race. Hatred, of course, is an extreme form of disrespect for persons as love is the highest form of respect for persons. These principles form a core around which there are numerous lesser values and principles that may change from day to day and from culture to culture. But the core remains the same — in one form or another.

Those who mouth the platitude “who’s to say?” simply have not thought about what it is they are asking. They focus on the undeniable fact that we humans don’t always know clearly what principles are involved in a particular situation, or we cannot figure out how to reconcile conflict between principles. The principles are clear, our grasp of them is always partial.  But if we insist that morality in itself is simply a matter of opinion, there can be no resolution of moral conflicts: you have your opinion, I have mine. We go our separate ways, or we pick up clubs and start hitting one another about the head and ears. Only by admitting that there are moral precepts can we agree that there is a point in discussing the issue and seeing if there is a way to reconcile differences. In a word, the notion that morality is a matter of personal opinion leads to a dead end; insistence that there are principles leads us into the arena of dialogue and possible resolution.

Am I saying, then, that we should be “judgmental” — another taboo in today’s age of indifference? Yes, I am. In fact, it was precisely Joe Paterno’s unwillingness to be judgmental that lead to his downfall. Being judgmental doesn’t mean shoving our values down someone else’s throat; it means questioning and wondering and eventually, perhaps, it leads to an informed decision. Without judgment we must rely on gut feeling, which is pure whimsey.