Sunday, January 17, 2010

Martin Luther King Day Question...

I sat in a jail cell in Canton, Mississippi, in 1966, That's probably me in the lower right)witness to a life changing discussion between advocates of non-violence and the new wave.... Black Power... 

As outrage follows outrage...A purely theoretical question.. but with profound implications…

At what point are those responsible for the deaths of tens and hundreds of thousands exempt from violent retribution?

The point to consider.. the moral and ethical point ( since it’s easy to posit that killing off the killers might unleash a terrible backlash… but that’s merely a practical, not a moral argument) …is in what way is killing the Blackwater, Haliburton Winston Salem etc etc mass murderers… more morally or ethically reprehensible than what they do?

Is it possible to formulate a moral/ethical defense against such action that isn’t at base… merely contingent practical?

I mean this as a serious question.

I’m very close to being a pacifist… but too reality based to make that an absolute.

If we’re serious here… on either side… time to begin defining the terms.  This is a challenge that goes both ways


  1. At some point I plan to publish a comprehensive philosophy that answers all moral questions with absolute certainty and will forever end such sticky ethical quandries. But I'm too busy right now.

    But I think I might call my new philosophy "radical pragmatism" and in a nutshell it is this: that practicality is all that needs to be considered in making choices. The practical upshot of your decisions is all that really matters.

    If , for example, letting a guilty person remain unpunished will result in less overall suffering and harm than punishing him will, there are no cosmic scales of justice out in the ether that will remain unbalanced if he is not punished. The world is not made instantly better if those who cause suffering are made to suffer.

    The illusion that such scales exist is omnipresent , but it is just an illusion. Bloodthirsty calls for "justice," vehement demands for executions of murderers, these are all manifestations of this illusions, but "justice" is just something we humans invented. It's not real.

    The only thing that is real is that our actions have consequences and we should choose the actions that, according to our best most logical and dispassionate analysis, in the best results.

  2. I think Bentham did that 'radical pragmatism' thing for you, so no need to bother. Looks good at a quick pass but doesn't hold up to close analysis. Postponing an answer isn't an answer (which is precisely what pragmatic ethics does).

    Yes, ethical concepts are human inventions. That doesn't make them unreal, or less real than anything else. They are entirely real. As all the products of thought and imagination are real. Real for what they are. Your "the only thing that is real is... x" digs a hole so deep there's no getting out of it.

    One can't say anything meaningful concerning normativity that begins by claiming it doesn't exist, that it's really something else (social code, adaptive behavior, whatever) Nor do you get rid of the problem by describing its genesis. That's an answer to a different question.

    The problem as I see it, is in assuming an intuitive notion of a desired state as something separate from the actions that might be required to realize it. And I'm not talking about the means/ends problem. I mean the assumption that normative ideas are not themselves operative in defining the desired state. I should back up and say what I have in mind involves collective choices, (not about individual morality)-- how we decide what conditions would be 'good.' When you begin to ask this in terms, not of abstractions, but of material conditions and social structures, there is no more a naturally given, intuitively grasped answer than a spooky metaphysical or idealist answer, and normative assumptions are always and already involved in our conceptions of what we desire to create in the world--hence, their reality. They are real because they have real consequences.

    Back to the question about violence. As I listened to that argument in the jail in Canton, Mississippi, I realized--though I wasn't able to work it out at the time... that there was something more involved. The non-violent advocates made their defense on pragmatic grounds, but those pleading the case for violent retribution had gone beyond means and ends arguments--and these were not FBI plants... they had grown up in rural Mississippi and their arguments had to do with that experience--they were asking what kind of actions were capable of including their own experience of the violence they had known, collectively known, and thus be generative of consequences that could 'overcome' it rather than repress it... and hence, be revisited again and again.

    Ideas--normative ideas-- are not abstractions. Not about doing the math. They are rooted in actual experience, in our bodily lives, and there is no understanding them without delving into their psychological manifestations.

  3. I have reread what you said twice and I still have no idea what you are getting at. Seriously: none at all. And I am only half way through beer number two, so I am only half drunk. (Three full pints should do the trick.)

  4. Here's a continuation of those ideas (left on Steven Augustine's Bunker)... this should really get you confused. Beer isn't going to be nearly enough. Recommend a good shiraz.

    Certainly nothing ‘wrong’ with pragmatic action–with anticipating consequences and taking them into consideration. But there’s much that’s wrong and missing in pragmatism as an explanation of normativity.

    Lemme see if I can compress my thoughts in the previous post.

    Think of a desired social or political condition. Ethical action involves, not merely the means to achieve it, but everything that goes into designating that condition as ‘good.’

    Pragmatic reasoning isn’t much use beyond analyzing means and consequences. We project our ideas of the future–the desired condition we wish to achieve–out of the present, out of everything of the past that survives in the present… see the circularity here?

    If we ask : what makes for good actions? And our answer is–actions whose consequences are good… but we’ve not dealt with what makes them good–which is their consistency with some imagined future condition we’ve presumable already judged to be ‘good,’ but which doesn’t exist in the present and will never exist as imagined because we can never anticipate all the consequences of any action… thus, our actions can never be consistent with the realized condition that we’ve used to determine their ‘goodness,’ but only with an impossible to realize imagined state.

    What does that mean outside of the theoretical dog, where it’s too dark to see? I’m not sure! But I’m sure that it matters–that the ‘unrealizability’ factor matters and has to be part of the equation, not because the future is unknowable, but because part of what makes it unknowable exists in us, within us, in the present, in that measure of our motivation and doing that has resisted emergence into conscious thought. One of the causes for things not turning out as we intend… is that our understanding of our intentions is incomplete–and the more ‘reasoned,’ the more practical that reasoning–the more of the unaccounted for remnant will remain… giving us some part of our unaccounted for desire in spite us our best intentions… or because of them… the jouissance that rides in on the back of our reasonable desires. We can’t reason away stuff like Male Honor–any more that we can reason a two year old into behaving as we would wish. Doesn’t man we give up and revert to childish savagery… but we can’t just wish that stuff away with magic reason either.

    We have to learn to think with our whole bodies… insist the pragmatist be an artist as well.