Consequentialist arguments for deontological claims

by John Quiggin on December 30, 2014

Thinking about various interchanges on the Internetz, a great many have the frustrating property that, while they appear to be couched in consequentialist terms, some or all of the participants are defending claims that they actually hold for deontological reasons[^1]. For example, a follower of Pythagoras (who, apocryphally, forbade the eating of beans) might appear in a discussion about beans and claim that we shouldn’t eat beans because

  • they cause flatulence
  • bean production is environmentally destructive
  • the bean industry is dominated by exploitative multinationals
    The problem for someone seeking to counter these arguments is that, even if they are all refuted, the Pythagorean will not agree that it is OK to eat beans.

I don’t think the position of the deontologist in a debate of this kind is necessarily dishonest. It seems perfectly OK to say “I believe rule p because Pythagoras said it, but I also believe that the consequences of acting on the basis of p are good, and therefore you should do so even if you disregard Pythagoras. Conversely, you may be able to convince me that acting on the basis of rule p, while morally obligatory for me, has bad consequences.”

But, in my experience, such clarity is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, the deontologist will keep on coming up with new consequentialist arguments as the old ones are knocked down. Worse still is the case when the deontological commitment is not acknowledged at all. So, the entire argument is undertaken on shifting ground.

Admittedly, the problem is not confined to deontological beliefs. I support social democracy because I think social democratic policies in general produce the best and most socially just outcomes. But in any particular case, that may or may not be correct. Nevertheless, I will naturally be inclined to favor the social democratic side of the debate.

Any thoughts appreciated.

[^1]: Apologies for the (mis)use of fancy philosophical terminology. I originally had “faith-based”, but that seems unfairly dismissive.

{ 451 comments }

1

heckblazer 12.30.14 at 6:51 am

“For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle.”
Moby Dick, Chap. 1

2

David 12.30.14 at 7:04 am

Political debate is vastly overrated, if not altogether useless. When people switch views, it is either because of some emotional adjustment, or because the other side has come in to the power ascendant. (How else to explain all the Far Lefters that become Far Righters and vice versa? Many people are just attracted to extremes.)

People’s views are based on emotional commitments to logically indefensible moral principles. People defend those commitments because they view them and their validity as a reflection of their self worth. It is really not much more complex than that.

3

Chris Bertram 12.30.14 at 7:50 am

One complication, John, is that many claims of right include provisos with a consequentialist form (though not a maximizing one). So Nozick, for example, defends a strongly deontological form of libertarianism, but rights to property have to discharge the test that private ownership doesn’t make people worse off (compared to some baseline). Hence his concern also to argue for the benefits of private ownership.

4

bad Jim 12.30.14 at 8:27 am

Saw this on a poster in an airport, possibly in Seattle: “Beans, beans, good for your heart”. The rest was left as an exercise for the reader.

A minimum of deontology is certainly required; however obvious being kind may seem, it’s still a choice. Few, I hope, would entirely exclude consequential considerations, although thousands die every year from the ruthless application of principle.

What I’ve found frustrating in arguments with a couple of nephews are economic issues. They’re resentful, claim America is broke and we can’t afford to fix anything. Trying to figure out their philosophical priors strikes me as a waste of time (and they’re stronger than I am, so physically beating some sense into their heads is likewise unpromising). In many respects they’re good liberals, though, so I describe what other countries are doing and ask “Why can’t we do that?”

One of them still has an issue with gay marriage. This is California, where such an attitude has long since ceased to be respectable, but he retains it nevertheless. His sisters can’t explain it. The best argument he offered was the precautionary principle: bad things might result. The root of his unease is probably never exposed in argument and can only be surmised.

5

Metatone 12.30.14 at 9:24 am

I find more and more that when I dig during discussions, the real separation between myself and the other party is deontological. At which point things often peter out, as shifting deontologies is most often filled with all the problems David @2 points to.

I do find the refusal to acknowledge a deontology very aggravating. It seems to me to be a denial of reality. I think this is one of the root difficulties in economists talking to (for example) sociologists or anthropologists. Economics has some deontologies, but many economists don’t want to talk about it – but in the end, just as logic rests on the premises, deontologies matter.

6

Tony Lynch 12.30.14 at 11:07 am

I know I should, but I’ve never been able to understand why the principle “only consequences matter” isn’t a deontological one.

7

Brett Bellmore 12.30.14 at 11:20 am

“I do find the refusal to acknowledge a deontology very aggravating.”

Perhaps even more aggravating is the occasional determination to deny that anybody IS a deontologist. A lack of self-awareness can be understandable, sometimes one’s own premises are so ‘self-evident’ one doesn’t even notice them. Less forgivable is a refusal to admit anybody else could reason differently.

” I’ve never been able to understand why the principle “only consequences matter” isn’t a deontological one.”

It is, of course.

8

bob mcmanus 12.30.14 at 1:33 pm

Viewed individualistically, behind deontology lies intuition or authority, and behind these lies a drive. The disguises we put on drives create a culture.

9

P O'Neill 12.30.14 at 1:44 pm

Given the current state of the Eurozone, one question that springs to mind is whether Ordoliberalism is consequentialist or deontological?

10

Plume 12.30.14 at 1:48 pm

On the Internet, where you can marshal facts and figures in print, one of the best ways someone can stick to their “principles” is to completely ignore those facts and figures.

I find this the constant state when discussing inequality with conservatives — and quite a few liberals, too. This, to me, is incredible. The obscene levels of inequality of wealth, income, access and opportunity, in slam dunk, numeric form, and this changes virtually no minds. They keep right on peddling that our economic system is just awesome for everyone. That everyone “wins” under our system.

11

Plume 12.30.14 at 1:49 pm

Test for bang your head emoticon:

12

J Thomas 12.30.14 at 2:13 pm

#6 Tony Lynch

I know I should, but I’ve never been able to understand why the principle “only consequences matter” isn’t a deontological one.

It is. Just as atheism is a religious belief.

13

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 2:25 pm

There was a great post on Balloon Juice a while back (by mistermix I believe) that argued that people’s politics where just a reflect of what their individual psychology. No one cares about facts or logical arguments. I have found this to be sadly accurate.

People with a lot of empathy tend to be on the left and people who lack empathy tend to be on the right. Since you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into people rarely change their points of view.

14

Plume 12.30.14 at 2:29 pm

J Thomas,

Not in its modern form. Atheism now is the absence of religious belief.

In the first few centuries AD, at least until Constantine, for instance, Romans would sometimes call Christians “atheists” for not believing in their gods and goddesses. But atheists today? They believe in no god or deity. And since the issue of “faith” is for those who believe in things without evidence — and there is no evidence of a god or goddess ever having existed, anywhere . . . . a modern day atheist does not fall into that category.

15

Patrick 12.30.14 at 2:31 pm

When I was younger, I read a lot of theology. Yeah, yeah. I know I wasted my youth.

Anyway it became a game for me- every time I read a catholic philosopher defending a deontologically held belief by reference to its consequences, I’d have an imaginary drink. I’d end up imaginarily hammered every time.

I should have had real drinks. Would have been a better use of my time.

16

Plume 12.30.14 at 2:34 pm

MPA @13,

This is very true. Science has done a lot of work on the subject of the left/right split regarding politics. Conservatives also tend to dig in more the more they’re confronted with expert opinion. Liberals do this as well, but not nearly to the same extent.

Conservatives also tend to see threats where they don’t exist, and scare more easily. Which explains a ton about how recent political landscape.

My main criticism of that kind of research and the way we discuss politics in general: It almost always leaves out those of us to the left of liberal. To me, this unnecessarily limits and narrows the discussion. There are millions of different perspectives beyond just “liberal vs. conservative.”

17

J. Parnell Thomas 12.30.14 at 2:36 pm

The only beans that really make me fart are “ranch beans.” But they taste good, and they’re often real cheap, and, of course, my own farts smell OK to me, so I don’t let that hold me back.

18

J. Parnell Thomas 12.30.14 at 2:40 pm

Sorry, “Ranch Style Beans,” apparently.

19

J Thomas 12.30.14 at 2:41 pm

#14 Plume

Atheism now is the absence of religious belief.

No, atheism is a religious belief just as consequentialism is a deontological belief.

If you have a set of rules and you judge ethics by how well it fits the rules, you are being deontological.

If you have a set of rules that starts with:

Rule #1: Judge ethical decisions according to how good their consequences will be.

then you are being deontological. OK? Because you have a list.

But atheists today? They believe in no god or deity. And since the issue of “faith” is for those who believe in things without evidence — and there is no evidence of a god or goddess ever having existed, anywhere . . . . a modern day atheist does not fall into that category.

An agnostic who has no opinion about any gods does not fall into that category. An atheist who believes there is no god is expressing a religious belief. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If you believe there is no god because you have never found any acceptable evidence that there is, you are believing there is no god without actual evidence there is no god. On faith.

20

Sherman Dorn 12.30.14 at 2:47 pm

Will no one speak up for the undergraduate wag? We obviously have the duty to act based on the anticipated consequences of our choices. Or, to be even worse: It is the highest end of humanity to choose the duty to act based on the anticipated consequences of our choices.

But, to your question: we have modern rhetorical strategies that push us to voice concerns in different ways. When we urge friends to make a particular choice, it’s commonly based on consequentialism, because our experience is that consequentialist arguments are more likely to receive a hearing. When we express outrage, it’s often based on assumptions about virtue, because it’s OFFENSIVE that someone claiming to be a teacher would do THAT. So deontology is left in the dust (or the nether regions of cognition).

21

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 2:48 pm

“If you believe there is no god because you have never found any acceptable evidence that there is, you are believing there is no god without actual evidence there is no god. On faith.”

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

22

Plume 12.30.14 at 2:52 pm

J Thomas @19,

That is a load of nonsense. Please describe the “religion” of atheism. What are its rites and practices? What are its sacred texts? Who are its prophets? Its divine incarnations? Its divine incarnations as texts? Its prophecies, fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled? Its origin myths?

Come on. That’s just silly table turning.

23

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 2:56 pm

“Come on. That’s just silly table turning.”

When arguing with J it has to be remembered that he will take literally any position and then defend it to the death with thousands of words. In the Sandy thread he was arguing with me that having a gun pointed at me would be a good thing. The guy is just a very, very long winded troll.

24

Rich Puchalsky 12.30.14 at 2:57 pm

It’s a form of arrogance to not realize how difficult it is to really hold to consequentialism in a complex, contemporary society. I think that many people would like to be consequentialists but hold to a form of deontology because they realize how difficult it is to gather trustworthy evidence, evaluate evidence, draw connections between policies and outcomes, account for unintended outcomes, etc.

For instance, the torture debate in the U.S. I hold to a basic commitment that torture is wrong and should not be done. This could be a “rule” if you insist on looking at anything but consequentialism as deontology. But of course I also believe that blowing up groups of people is also wrong and should not be done. When people were insisting that we needed to torture people to avoid the worse consequence of terrorists blowing up groups of people, there was no way I could evaluate this claim consequentially. Not only did I not have access to the supposed evidence that torture worked in this way, or the supposed evidence of past incidents in which it had worked, I also didn’t have the expertise to evaluate the chance of unintended outcomes, i.e., that torturing people would create more terrorist attacks than it prevented.

So I fell back on the “rule” of opposing torture no matter what, and I turned out to be correct to do so consequentially. But during the time when this was a more “live” topic of argument, people might well have scorned a deontological claim under the false impression that they were consequentialists. I think that nearly all economic expertise functions in arguments in this same way: people with such expertise believe that they know about consequences to a much greater degree than they actually do, and that therefore when someone brings up a general moral rule about fairness this can be ignored.

25

Patrick 12.30.14 at 3:00 pm

Rich- uncertainty about consequences doesn’t mean you can’t be a consequentialist.

If anyone is a consequentialist, it’s insurance companies. They have nothing BUT uncertainty.

You just do the best you can.

26

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 3:01 pm

Great comment Rich.

27

Plume 12.30.14 at 3:01 pm

Also, it’s not that agnostics have no opinion on the matter. Their opinion is to wait and see and that any kind of ultimate reality is unknown and likely unknowable. That is an opinion too.

a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

They would change their mind upon further evidence. As would an atheist. Atheists don’t believe in gods and goddesses — because there is no evidence for them. If, however, Thor appeared before them, impossibly huge, with his hammer, speaking Old Norse, and then smites the ground causing a new Grand Canyon to form — right in front of that atheist — they’re going to “believe in” Thor.

28

mdc 12.30.14 at 3:06 pm

“most socially just outcomes”

Careful you don’t smuggle in hidden deontological commitments there. Or, maybe embrace your inner deontologist.

Chait used to make a big deal about this sort of opportunistic consequentialism/ crypto-deontology on the right, but argued (mistakenly, I think), that one didn’t find this on the left.

29

Rich Puchalsky 12.30.14 at 3:10 pm

Patrick: “If anyone is a consequentialist, it’s insurance companies. They have nothing BUT uncertainty.”

Insurance companies have to have an opinion on one of the easiest questions involving uncertainty that I can think of. For instance, for life insurance, “when is someone with the following characteristics likely to die”, with all of the evidence from death certificates available to them to create statistically well-populated curves of all kinds and with the expertise to analyze them. I can’t think of any question that people typically argue about that has such good evidence available.

30

Harald K 12.30.14 at 3:13 pm

It’s not really strange that people make arguments of the form “Even if you don’t think this is inherently wrong, it obviously has bad consequences, so please stop doing it!”. I bet every respectable contributor to Crooked Timber did that one time or another on the issue of torture. Or a number of other issues.

For that matter, there’s not always such a clean divide. The longer the time horizon, the more consequentialist arguments start to look actually principled. You may say that even if torture produced short term gains, in the long run adopting the policy would be detrimental.

And you would probably be perfectly right about that too. Probably few principled people would chastise you for having merely a long-term perspective, as opposed to a principled perspective, if the conclusion was right.

(Substitute “deontological” for principled throughout if you prefer. I think it’s a better word.)

31

mattski 12.30.14 at 3:27 pm

Who knew that flatulence could produce such an interesting discussion!

I think that nearly all economic expertise functions in arguments in this same way: people with such expertise believe that they know about consequences to a much greater degree than they actually do, and that therefore when someone brings up a general moral rule about fairness this can be ignored.

Couple things to bear in mind. Moral rules are often discounted for reasons having little to do with ontological hubris. And also, people who spend time and effort studying the world (OK, specific aspects of the world) often do have greater insight into cause and effect than people who do not invest such effort. But, yes, your comment was a good one.

The longer the time horizon, the more consequentialist arguments start to look actually principled.

Yes.

Also, J Thomas, you would do well to distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ atheism.

32

mattski 12.30.14 at 3:31 pm

You just do the best you can.

Yes. It’s pretty fucking hard to get through this world without rules of thumb.

33

Joey J 12.30.14 at 3:39 pm

I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about the value of political debate as some of the commenters here. Debate is fruitful among people who do not hold to their positions with dogmatic certainty and respect each other’s reasomableness. It has most chance to change minds when the discussers already share the same broad commitments.

34

Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 3:42 pm

This goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been saying for awhile about ideology. People aren’t ideological. The don’t have deontologist beliefs.

But elites think deontologist beliefs are the only kind worth having. Pragmatic voices like John Dewey are quickly forgotten.

The problem comes when elites try to get votes. It turns out no one actually cares if medical care is the proper province of the Federal Government. So even true believer Tea Baggers must be told that it will be a disaster. The claim “it’s socialism” is always linked to the claim (implicit or, frequently, explicit): “socialism always works out like it did in the Soviet Union”.

The elite love affair with ideology is a major disconnect that drives any number of societal ills.

35

Shatterface 12.30.14 at 3:46 pm

An agnostic who has no opinion about any gods does not fall into that category. An atheist who believes there is no god is expressing a religious belief. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If you believe there is no god because you have never found any acceptable evidence that there is, you are believing there is no god without actual evidence there is no god. On faith.

I was tired of this wanked-out argument by the time I was eight years old.

Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair colour.

Not collecting stamps is not a hobby.

36

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 3:47 pm

“Not collecting stamps is not a hobby.”

Ha!

37

CJColucci 12.30.14 at 3:48 pm

Somebody has to repeat it: atheism is a religion in the sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby. I would have thought that the difference between a belief about religion and a religious belief is fairly clear.

38

Shatterface 12.30.14 at 3:50 pm

They would change their mind upon further evidence. As would an atheist. Atheists don’t believe in gods and goddesses — because there is no evidence for them. If, however, Thor appeared before them, impossibly huge, with his hammer, speaking Old Norse, and then smites the ground causing a new Grand Canyon to form — right in front of that atheist — they’re going to “believe in” Thor.

I’d be more likely to believe I’d read too many comics and someone had spiked my drink.

39

J Thomas 12.30.14 at 3:51 pm

#23 MPAV

In the Sandy thread he was arguing with me that having a gun pointed at me would be a good thing.

You completely misunderstood and I gave up talking about it.

But I’ll try one more time since you brought it up again. You mostly don’t get to choose whether somebody else points a gun at you. In a way it doesn’t really matter whether you think it’s a good thing because it’s out of your hands.

But if it happens, you can shut down or you can wake up. When you’re shut down things happen to you and it’s still pretty much out of your hands, but you probably won’t get shot for resisting. You might get shot when you’re no longer of value.

If you wake up you are likely to have a fantastic experience. You might think that you have no negotiating power because somebody is pointing a gun at you and they can kill you. But in fact you do, unless saving your miserable life is the only thing that matters. They have not shot you yet, so they probably would prefer not to shoot you. If there are others they want to impress they might shoot you just to show the others that they’re serious, and they might choose somebody at random or might wait for somebody to do something they don’t like. And they might have other reasons to avoid shooting you.

Maybe they just want money. It may be easiest to just give them money. But maybe they want something you aren’t willing to give.

If somebody is pointing a gun at you and they haven’t shot you yet, almost every time they want you to pay attention to them. If you look like you’re willing to listen to them, IME they are almost certain to talk. And they will tell you the truth. All the lies people tell because they’re afraid of what other people will think of them, go away because they think they have all the control.

It feels like some big victory when they point the gun somewhere else, but it isn’t — they’ll point it at you again. The big victory is when it’s over and you’re still alive.

I’m not saying it’s a good thing when this happens. But you might as well get whatever you can from it. It might be the last minutes or hours of your life, and do you want to spend that time shut down?

40

Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 3:53 pm

@Plume and MPAVicterus
Two things:
A. Those studies are bullshit. People are called “conservative” if they call themselves “conservative” and vote Republican. But that doesn’t describe an actual set of ideological beliefs, so the results are pretty meaningless.
B. The empathy thing isn’t so much a lack of empathy but the question of who is in the category of people that one can be empathetic for. My father is capable of great empathy. He just imagines that many “poor people” have made choices that he would not have made under the circumstances. But he volunteers with the homeless and has enormous empathy for every poor person he actually encounters.

41

CJColucci 12.30.14 at 3:56 pm

Looks as if Shatterface and I crossed comments.

42

Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 4:01 pm

I should say: people in the US aren’t ideological about government.

But I think the debate between “deontology” and “consequentialism” misses the point. Mattski is right: rules of thumb are critical. Are rules of thumb principles? No? Are they empirical claims about consequences? That’s much closer to the truth.

43

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 4:02 pm

“If you wake up you are likely to have a fantastic experience.”

You see? He will literally take any position. He is a troll.

44

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 4:04 pm

” people in the US aren’t ideological about government.”

Umm people in the US are EXTREMELY ideological about government. Think of Tea Party types who think that the government cannot ever do anything right.

45

TM 12.30.14 at 4:05 pm

“Less forgivable is a refusal to admit anybody else could reason differently.”

This doesn’t make sense. Suppose you believe a priori that beans must not be eaten and I believe that based on the best available research, beans are a healthy food and preferable on environmental grounds to eating a lot of meat, then we aren’t “reasoning” differently. We start from different premises or if you prefer values but we should still be able to employ the same rules of reasoning and with good will on both sides we should be able to agree that each of us employs a valid chain of reasoning (in your case the chain is short but it’s nevertheless valid). There is only a problem if you don’t want to admit you are starting from an a priori and instead make up a chain of reasoning claiming that bean production is environmentally destructive etc. If I can show that your claims are factually wrong but you still stick with your premise, then again you are not reasoning any differently, it’s just that you are dishonest about your premise.

46

J Thomas 12.30.14 at 4:06 pm

#27 Plume

Also, it’s not that agnostics have no opinion on the matter. Their opinion is to wait and see and that any kind of ultimate reality is unknown and likely unknowable. That is an opinion too.

Thinking that in the absence of evidence it makes sense to wait and see is not so much a religious belief.

Thinking that the truth is likely unknowable, is a mild religious belief. We don’t have evidence whether it is unknowable, all we have is evidence that our current methods of finding out are clearly inadequate.

#31 Mattski

Also, J Thomas, you would do well to distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ atheism.

OK. Soft atheists who do not claim they know there are no gods, do not express religious beliefs.

#34 Shatterface

I was tired of this wanked-out argument by the time I was eight years old.

Then pass it by. No need to participate in arguments you’ve been tired of for more than 10 years.

Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair colour.

Yes, and there cannot ever be an all-powerful god because he would have no choice but to create a rock so heavy he couldn’t lift it. Are we bored yet?

47

Anon. 12.30.14 at 4:25 pm

As my good old buddy Billy Shakes used to say,

“there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”

48

Luke 12.30.14 at 4:26 pm

@9
Consequentialist all the way, though the consequences desired might not be the obvious ones (which is to say: when ordoliberals say ‘growth’, perhaps it is already a form of doublethink).

Cf. Chris Bertram’s #3. Nozick (and other libertarians) seem to me to be mostly consequentialists, using a mythologised notion of private property as the antidote to some Hobbesian state of nature.

49

Anarcissie 12.30.14 at 4:29 pm

Consequential arguments are a way in which the differently deontologically committed can still discuss things and maybe avoid contests of force. So hiding one’s real principles may have a good purpose, consequentially speaking.

Besides religious belief, agnosticism, and hard and soft atheism, there is the contention that such questions as ‘Is there a God?’ are meaningless, since the thing referred to is undefined.

50

Plume 12.30.14 at 4:41 pm

@39,

Naww. The studies help create a Venn diagram of constants/commonalities. And there are more than enough of them to show patterns of thought — different patterns of thought.

People on the left and right really do think in different ways. We have a different view of the world, and a different view of “the Other.” One could argue about chicken and egg sequencing, but we’re way past the point where it’s even debatable that there are differences, and many appear to be hard-wired.

51

Jim Harrison 12.30.14 at 4:42 pm

I guess it’s a matter of where you’re coming from, but I find it odd to treat “deontology” as if it implied that the alternative to consequentialism were adherence to arbitrary rules. I’m Kantian enough to believe that the fundamental imperative is not a matter of whim or prejudice but is bound up with what makes us what we are, i.e., rational beings. Unlike Kant, I don’t expect the fundamental imperative to provide answers to all ethical questions; but I don’t think it is empty either because it implies an obligation to respect not only principles but people, to whom I owe an explanation that goes beyond a personal whim. “I hate beans, damn it!” doesn’t count.

52

Lisa Schweitzer 12.30.14 at 4:47 pm

Isn’t what you are referring to basically rule-utilitarianism? We go through an exercise in my class where I try to get students to develop a strictly deontological social contract, and it inevitably leads to students pulling their hair out and wailing “how am I supposed to propose and evaluate rules without thinking about the consequences of those rules?” The exercise is meant to help students understand that what might help us think through concepts in the abstract are often very difficult to actually practice.

That said, I’m still more of deontologist in the Kantian stripe than most, and your argument is why: in general, some rules of conduct tend to be better then others when it comes to the outcomes, and since we don’t know the future, it’s probably best to live by principle and virtue to the degree one can. All matters of “probably” and “in general” with the nod that those aren’t going to cover every situation.

53

Plume 12.30.14 at 4:50 pm

J Thomas,

We all have “beliefs.” But it’s a huge leap to go from “belief” to “religion.” I believe we landed on the moon in 1969. I think there is more than enough evidence to support that belief. But I’m not a member of a religion because I hold that belief. As far as I know, there is no religion of the Moon Walk, except perhaps for rabid fans of Michael Jackson.

Religions are, among other things, containers of a particular set of beliefs. It’s a system of beliefs, organized around certain key things. One of the keys is that this “religion” was “revealed” to us by a messenger, a prophet, and includes a set of signs to also be discovered. It also involves a journey of sorts and a process of further discovery. There are also avenues toward esoteric knowledge that most layman adherents to that religion never encounter. And all religions have supernatural aspects to them. If they don’t, as in some forms of Buddhism, then they are better classified as philosophies, rather than religions.

Atheism is not in any way, shape or form, a “religion.”

54

E. A. Henriksen 12.30.14 at 4:54 pm

I find it terribly odd that most commenters here seem to have uncritically swallowed the idea that deontological approaches to normative ethical questions have somehow fallen into a state of general philosophical disrepute. Chalmers’ survey of academic philosophers finds that among those willing to pick between deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethical positions, deontologists have a slight edge over consequentialists, who have a slight edge over those taking a virtue ethical approach. The survey also finds deontological approaches enjoy an even greater advantage among those who specialise in moral philosophy. Interestingly, consequentialism is generally more popular in Australia, while deontology is more popular in America.

My own view is that all consequentialist approaches necessarily depend, either implicitly or explicitly, upon a deontological/normative core that serves to recruit facts into the general moral order and on the basis of which we confer normative status (e.g., it is good to reduce suffering). This is true because brute facts are, in and of themselves, morally neutral, except on pain of taking on a non-naturalistic and terribly dodgy metaphysics.

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J Thomas 12.30.14 at 4:57 pm

#48 Anarcissie

Besides religious belief, agnosticism, and hard and soft atheism, there is the contention that such questions as ‘Is there a God?’ are meaningless, since the thing referred to is undefined.

I like that but I don’t know the name for it. We surely can’t decide whether or not there are gods until we get it defined just what a god would be, and how it would be observed.

I agree with Shatterface, a 50-foot-tall Thor with a great big hammer appearing in the world would not impress me all that much more than a brontosaurus. It ought to take more than just being a great big guy with a great big hammer to make you a god, though if the great big guy wants to be called a god it might be prudent to lie to him about that.

If we are going to judge by consequences, will we have a list of consequences we think are good, and a list we think are bad? Or do we just play it by ear?

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J Thomas 12.30.14 at 5:05 pm

#52 Plame

Atheism is not in any way, shape or form, a “religion.”

I’m getting bored with this, like Shatterface. Atheism requires a religious belief, without evidence for that belief. It seems to me like a particularly spare, minimal religion. If you want to define it as not a religion at all because you have a stringent set of rules that real religions must meet and it doesn’t meet them, I don’t want to argue with you about the only right way to define religion.

If you want to argue that a belief without evidence that there are no gods anywhere is not a religious belief, because it would only be a religious belief if it was a belief about gods that exist and not a belief about gods that don’t exist, I think that’s not really logical but it isn’t a big deal. Let’s live and let live, you talk your way and I’ll talk mine, it needn’t get in our way much.

Happy new year!

57

Anon. 12.30.14 at 5:06 pm

@53

>I like that but I don’t know the name for it.

Non-cognitivism.

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E. A. Henriksen 12.30.14 at 5:11 pm

J Thomas,

Am I reading you correctly in assuming that by labeling atheism as variety of religious belief, you primarily intend to characterize its essential epistemological status, namely that is dependent upon a “faith” of some sort?

If so, then I want ask if you would similarly regard the epistemological status of a rejection of the brains-in-a-vat scenario? As with the question of the existence of an inherently unfalsifiable deity, no possible set of facts about this world could ever definitively discount the brains-in-a-vat scenario. Am I an a-vatist solely on faith?

59

Bruce Wilder 12.30.14 at 5:12 pm

As Rich Puchalsky says in his excellent comment, the foundational problem is uncertainty: we just don’t know and the costs of processing information are high. We’re all guessing, and then rationalizing about our guesses. Particularly with regard to political and economic arguments, what is in dispute is some policy rule and its supposed consequences, and much of the necessary information is outside of our own immediate experience. Even the nature of the problem — formulating a rule for others to follow — is somewhat outside of our immediate experience, and sufficient information about even claimed consequences is not local, that is within the ambit of personal experience.

Given uncertainty and information processing constraints, deontological and consequentialist argument just designate polar opposite styles, and each inevitably proceeds from the initial guess (and that’s what the original asserted proposition is) in the direction of the other pole. Starting with a rule, one looks to rationalize the rule by adducing consequences. Starting with consequences, one looks to rationalize why a functional relation (a rule) can be said to relate y to x.

It is certainly possible to be an annoyingly adamant consequentialist on the internetz, insisting that it is simply a fact that I’m right, or that some statistical correlation ought to substitute for an asserting principle.

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Bruce Wilder 12.30.14 at 5:12 pm

The OP seems to want to get at something else, which is curiosity and openness to evidence. Some dogmas seem to follow a logic particularly immune to evidence.

One line of examples that I have tried to think about from time to time involves debates between evolutionists and creationists. One can certainly find evolutionists arguing in a dogmatic enough style, and creationists constructing elaborate arguments from standards of pseudo-reasonableness about evidence. But, an actual working biologist, say, or, maybe, an epidemiologist, uses the basic rule of Darwinian evolution to be curious. That’s the great power of Darwin’s insight: it helps to understand and process so much information, to make detailed sense of what can be observed. Following that one orientating guideline, if that’s what one can call it, allows one grasp how what we can see relates to elaborate mechanisms governing the world we live in.

For creationists — at least for those who are not charlatans and hucksters, which I am convinced many “professional” creationists basically are — the ontology they cling to satisfies other needs, spiritual or moral. I, personally, do not have a problem with that. People have lots of beliefs that serve psychological needs and I see no point in disabusing people of those. If a friend has an accident, I will tell that person about how lucky she is, that it wasn’t worse, because I know she needs the hypnotic suggestion that she’s lucky, to repair her basic narcissism. I am not going to be a dick, who points out that the accident was proof that she’s a loser. If someone needs to be reminded that she is a child of God, a creature of the divine with as much right to exist as the stars and the moon, well, I will remind away.

Thomas Aquinas, the great Scholastic and interpreter of Aristotle, in the 13th century, devised some simple dispositives, to separate what can be productively argued and investigated from the “revealed truths” that can not be known except as a result of divine revelation. One of those dispositives is a conception of dual causality, that allows God to cause everything without disturbing the power of reason to investigate natural causes. I’m not sure why some people refuse to use such philosophical dodges to separate their “faith” from scientific challenges; certainly some evolutionists take the tact that nothing about biology answers “ultimate” questions, in order, I presume, to create such an out.

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Barry 12.30.14 at 5:14 pm

MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 4:04 pm

“Umm people in the US are EXTREMELY ideological about government. Think of Tea Party types who think that the government cannot ever do anything right.”

And who abandon that belief the second that they’re getting goodies from the government, or the government is kicking the sh*t out of somebody they hate.

62

Brett Bellmore 12.30.14 at 5:21 pm

“Somebody has to repeat it: atheism is a religion in the sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

No, that would be agnostics, who generally just ignore the topic. Atheism is more like somebody who thinks you shouldn’t collect stamps, goes around trying to persuade people to stop collecting stamps, tries to get the post office to stop printing stamps… An atheist can be more obsessed about religion than most believers.

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CJColucci 12.30.14 at 5:27 pm

Brett, you obviously don’t know enough atheists.

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Plume 12.30.14 at 5:34 pm

J Thomas,

You can’t prove a negative. So, if we follow the logic trail you’ve forged, if we say there is no such thing as a unicorn, or a griffin, or Medusa, then we hold a religious belief. We can’t prove there aren’t any unicorns, etc. etc. , even though we correctly assert that there is no (positive) evidence that they exist.

If we go by your definition, then pretty much everything we believe is a “religious” belief. We all must then be members of countless different religions.

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Plume 12.30.14 at 5:37 pm

Yes, Brett, sure.

Atheists aren’t the folks who seem so insecure in their beliefs that they need them constantly reaffirmed, at least on a weekly basis, and often several times each week. That would be, in America at least, Christians.

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mattski 12.30.14 at 5:46 pm

I like that but I don’t know the name for it.

Naming is at the root of the problem. Like, who was the marketing genius who came up with “God”?

67

mattski 12.30.14 at 5:51 pm

JT 54

Atheism requires a religious belief, without evidence for that belief.

Here lies the human condition. At 45 JT accepts the soft/hard atheist distinction and by 54 he has forgotten it.

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TM 12.30.14 at 5:57 pm

BB 59: An atheist *can* be obsessed with religion but obsession with religion is not implicit in the definition of what it means to be an atheist. It’s another example that you are not employing some “different” kind of reasoning, you are just being dishonest.

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Anarcissie 12.30.14 at 6:01 pm

Plume 12.30.14 at 5:37 pm @ 62 — I can see you did not take part in Usenet’s alt.atheism back in the day. Many participants had to reaffirm their faith several times a day, if not several times an hour.

There also people used to argue about whether atheism was a religion, which of course depends on the definition of the word religion. Some were able to agree that it was a ‘religious position’.

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Bruce Wilder 12.30.14 at 6:13 pm

I wonder if any lurkers or commenters have studied at a seminary or bible college, where the activity is centered on building up a body of knowledge and analytic skills within a frame that accepts or encourages a “faith” in some particular doctrine, even while examining the underpinnings of the doctrine. What does knowing every detail of biblical scripture and its history do to a faith in its divine truth?

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Plume 12.30.14 at 6:15 pm

Anarcissie,

People who choose to go onto usenet obviously wanted to discuss the issue, and likely in a sustained manner . . . and as can be seen here, even on the much slower moving CT, there is constant back and forth on particular topics. I think you’re drawing a false conclusion from that context.

And: there is no legit definition of religion that could possibly include an atheist as a member thereof.

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Plume 12.30.14 at 6:17 pm

Bruce @67,

See Bart Ehrman as a very good example/answer.

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LFC 12.30.14 at 6:17 pm

Chris Bertram @3

One complication … is that many claims of right include provisos with a consequentialist form (though not a maximizing one). So Nozick, for example, defends a strongly deontological form of libertarianism, but rights to property have to discharge the test that private ownership doesn’t make people worse off (compared to some baseline). Hence his concern also to argue for the benefits of private ownership.

As Rawls once remarked (I’ve added the words in brackets for clarification): “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging [the] rightness [of institutions and actions]. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.” (A Theory of Justice, orig. ed., 1971, p.30)

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Teachable Mo' 12.30.14 at 6:41 pm

“The disguises we put on drives create a culture.”

When my slice off the tee became so bad I gave up golf. No way to disguise that.

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mattski 12.30.14 at 6:50 pm

71

WORD.

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Jim Buck 12.30.14 at 7:20 pm

Like, who was the marketing genius who came up with “God”?

Dogs exist and are man’s best friend. In his own way, Fido is quite deontological about his exquisitely human master. Many of us would love to be barking up a similar totem: A god; a wiser alien, maybe. And even militant atheists often just crap in the gap and bark to keep their totems free from the piss of any master but the one of their own choosing: Darwin, maybe; Ayn Rand, maybe; etc.

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Mike Schilling 12.30.14 at 7:22 pm

If you don’t brush, you’ll get cavities.

78

CJColucci 12.30.14 at 7:32 pm

Plume, Bruce:

Ehrman himself has said that it was not his scholarly research into the details of Christianity that led to his loss of faith — though it may have gradually led him to more liberal versions of Christianity when he was still a believer. What did it for him was finally giving up on the various rationalizations for the problem of evil.

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Patrick 12.30.14 at 7:38 pm

Ehrman says that, but the process of being pushed by your research into more liberal forms of Christianity is not cleanly distinguishable from the process of deconversion.

A logician might say that Biblical study provided him with no rebutting defeaters- but it quite apparently provided him with undercutting defeaters.

80

Anthony 12.30.14 at 7:42 pm

John, this post and the last paragraph in particular remind me of The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism by Knight & Johnson, which is an extremely thorough attempt to defend democracy on pragmatic/consequentialist grounds. They make the argument (and I may be dumbing this down somewhat) that even though democracy may not produce the best results in every instance, it’s still preferable to other decision methods because it doesn’t elide conflicts and is more open to self-correction.

More generally, some seemingly deontological commitments that seem indefensible in utilitarian terms might actually be more defensible if viewed in rule utilitarian terms. Or maybe the utility of some deontological commitments is a function of how many other people have accepted the commitment, and one can rationally argue for the deontological principal based on the idea that you could eventually bring around enough people to give it utility. Even if you’re unpersuaded by deontological principles, there’s some chance these more subtle forms of utilitarianism are in play.

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geo 12.30.14 at 7:43 pm

Lisa Schweitzer @51: students pulling their hair out and wailing “how am I supposed to propose and evaluate rules without thinking about the consequences of those rules?”

I’m with your students (and Rawls @70, and the OP). I don’t understand why you call the following a deontological argument: “some rules of conduct tend to be better then others when it comes to the outcomes, and since we don’t know the future, it’s probably best to live by principle and virtue to the degree one can.” Sounds like grade-A, blue-ribbon consequentialism to me.

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Plume 12.30.14 at 8:10 pm

I stopped being a Christian (at age 9) because I read world mythology, and suddenly realized at a very young age that Christianity was just another mythology. Then I studied world mythology and comparative religion and gave up on religion altogether.

The more I studied Christian texts, the less I could understand how anyone could believe in them. My deduction, over time, was that the only way to remain a Christian was to ignore most of the texts — or selectively designate this one “symbolic,” and that one “allegorical,” and this one “metaphor.” If a person studied the books of the bible, how they were chosen, how they were altered, edited, miscopied over and over and over again, mistranslated over and over again . . . if a person studied the history of the bible itself . . . I couldn’t see how someone could remain a faithful Christian — or a believer in any of the Levantine religions.

Still later in life, I saw how the belief itself could benefit the body and the mind, make one healthier, even happier. I could see the end result of that belief as positive for those who held them. Not positive for everyone, of course. But I could see how someone would gain from strong beliefs in divinities and divine intervention. But I can’t make myself believe to gain those benefits. I can’t get past the facts on the ground. It’s not for me.

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Brad 12.30.14 at 8:40 pm

I think consequentialist reasons for deontological claims are usually used to convince others using reasons you don’t believe yourself but that you think they should accept. As an example, I have Catholic friends who talk about the dangerous side effects of the contraceptive pill as reasons against contraception – but (assuming their premise is true, which is doubtful) if a 100% safe contraceptive came out on the market tomorrow they’d still say you shouldn’t use contraception.

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J Thomas 12.30.14 at 8:57 pm

#55 Anon.

Non-cognitivism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-cognitivism

If wikipedia describes this right, it’s something else.

Moral claims are obviously in a different domain from descriptions of the world.

If a pit bull eats a human baby, we can describe what happens.

If I say that pit bulls should not be allowed to eat human babies, I’m making a moral claim. We should do things to prevent pit bulls from eating babies. There’s nothing in descriptions of the world that require that conclusion. But we get to decide what kind of world we *want*to create. Or if it seems like we are constructed in ways that make us want things, still that’s what we want and not what exists, except to the extent we can make it that way.

But that’s a different distinction from saying that some concepts are so unclear that they don’t mean much of anything as they stand, and the meanings would need to get firmed up before we can talk with much meaning about them.

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Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 8:58 pm

@MPAVictoria
To beat the Tea Party we need to get past this area of confusion. Ideology is a terrible word for understanding voters.

Tea Party voters believe an empirical claim about the abilities of government. This belief is not arrived at through reflection or deduction. They think it has been proven by the “failure” of the Great Society.

That’s why Krugman and others are on the right path when they ditch the word “ideology” and focus on empirical wrongness. Not because Krugman will change Tea Party minds, but because he influences the elites in the media. For the media, ideology isn’t false, can’t be false. He said, she said is the best way to cover it. But convince the media that there is an objective fact of the matter and, eventually, they stop reporting both sides of the debate as equally true.

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J Thomas 12.30.14 at 9:04 pm

#61 Plume

You can’t prove a negative. So, if we follow the logic trail you’ve forged, if we say there is no such thing as a unicorn, or a griffin, or Medusa, then we hold a religious belief. We can’t prove there aren’t any unicorns, etc. etc. , even though we correctly assert that there is no (positive) evidence that they exist.

The way I think of it, if you say that a unicorn is an animal that’s kind of like a zebra that doesn’t exist, you are expressing a cryptozoological belief. Not a religious belief unless unicorns have some sort of religious significance for you.

But that’s just me. If in your mind any belief asserting an unprovable negative must be religious, or no belief asserting an unprovable negative can ever be a religious belief, then go ahead. I doubt it will particularly get in our way in our discussions about the world.

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MPAVictoria 12.30.14 at 9:08 pm

Thorton an excellent response and I concede your point.

88

Dr. Hilarius 12.30.14 at 9:32 pm

Trained as an evolutionary biologist, I’ve wasted uncounted hours debating creationists. Eventually,I learned initially to ask, “what evidence would cause you to accept evolution?” Often the answer was that nothing could ever change their mind. But they still wanted to debate the issue to try and prove me wrong. Sigh.

Jim Buck@73: I know many evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields. Only one or two would qualify as “militant atheists” and none of them stand on street corners proclaiming their lack of belief. Nor have I ever met anyone who uses Charles Darwin to fill any gaps or considers him as their master. Your statement is a rather silly attempt at a false equivalency.

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TheSophist 12.30.14 at 9:43 pm

A number of points, which don’t claim to be any kind of coherent whole, but merely additions to certain areas of the discussion:

1. I loved Russell on Pythagoreanism: (This isn’t verbatim, but pretty close) “…a religion based on the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans.”

2. I think the whole “Is atheism a religion” subthread is just epistemological hair-splitting, and not very productive. Don’t I just get to say “look, I believe that p(God(s)) is so low that it’s functionally indistinguishable from 0, and I live my life that way”? I don’t think that makes me an agnostic rather than an atheist.

3. I just got done teaching an intro course on this stuff (we used Sandel + Gorgias, Utilitarianism, and GMM for those that are interested.) One of the things that my students had a tough time wrapping their heads around was that consequentialism even was a moral system at all (as opposed, I suppose, to some kind of value-neutral default). I’d frequently hear comments in the vein of “well, I can see how consequentialism might justify (eg) Omelas, but that doesn’t mean it’s morally right.”

4. In the vein of Whitehead’s claim that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, isn’t much of this discussion an extension of the questions raised in the Euthyphro? Is x just because it is beloved by the God(s) (ie. deontological), or is it beloved by the God(s) because it’s just (where “just” = consequentially “good”, whatever that means)? I suppose that those upthread who are arguing for conservatives and liberals actually thinking differently would respond that that’s why Whitehead isn’t right – that Plato (and everybody else pre-postmodernism) assume a rationalism that just ain’t so.

5. Like others, I thought Rich P had an excellent comment above about deontology and torture.

6. Plume @78: I’d describe my journey as similar to yours, maybe complicated by the fact that I spent much of my childhood (literally) living in a seminary (where my father was teaching.) It’s difficult for me to square the incredulity you describe (and that I also feel) with the lives of people like my father (an Oxford-educated minister, who studied under, inter alia, both Lewis and Tolkien), my current girlfriend (a loyal Catholic who left her comfortable upper-class retirement to go and work as a researcher for a defense attorney after serving on a jury and being horrified by the inequities of the system, but yet doesn’t believe in evolution), or, for that matter, Pope Francis. I’d be interested if you have thoughts on this disconnect.

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Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 9:44 pm

@John Quiggin
Perhaps the single biggest disconnect is between semi-tribal/semi-consequentialist voters and economists who are staggeringly blind about the deontology smuggled into “economic truth” by way of assumption.

It is sooooooo annoying watching everyone pile on Cochrane for “ideological economics” when the critics can’t even see that concepts like “efficency” and cost/benefit analysis are full of normative claims that when held by individuals constitute anti-social personality disorder.

The consequence, is that Tea Baggers can honestly believe that government hurts innovation. Because all you economists explicitly agree when, eg, imagining you can calculate the “cost” of confronting climate change.

91

TheSophist 12.30.14 at 9:57 pm

One more thing: Conceding for a moment that it can sometimes be useful (for empirical reasons) to compare the non-religious to religious groups, I think it’s noteworthy that the non-religious are the only group to have a majority oppose torture. (http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/12/22/americans-learn-to-stop-worrying-and-love-torture/)

I suppose this indicates what happens when deontological imperatives collide with (perceived) consequentialist need.

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CJColucci 12.30.14 at 10:10 pm

The way I think of it, if you say that a unicorn is an animal that’s kind of like a zebra that doesn’t exist, you are expressing a cryptozoological belief. Not a religious belief unless unicorns have some sort of religious significance for you.

Whether that is, in fact, the way you think of it is a matter about which you have privileged information, and it would be churlish, not to mention futile, to express any skepticism about that. In general discourse, however, the “atheism is a religious belief” is a well-recognized trope with a well-recognized meaning and purpose, and that ain’t it. Using your analogy, there’s no real difference between beliefs about cryptozoological claims and beliefs of cryptozoologists themselves — we’re all cryptozoologists under the skin; we just have different beliefs about whether unicorns or sasquatches or the Loch Ness monster exist, and we believe what we believe in the same way.

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Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 10:14 pm

@Thesophist
Does your Catholic girlfriend know Pope Francis believes in evolution?

94

Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 10:18 pm

@Anthony
Yay pragmatism! Good luck getting an economist devoted to axiomatic-deductive reasoning to pay attention.

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TheSophist 12.30.14 at 10:28 pm

Thornton – Yes, she does. Let’s just say that discussion of the issue between us is..complicated.

96

Matt 12.30.14 at 11:12 pm

I was reasoned out of a position I didn’t reason myself into. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian family. I loved Jesus and feared Hell before I could read. Until my mid-20s I believed in Young Earth Creationism, the Apostle’s Creed, and the basic goodness of the American government. The study of science and history were my undoing. I understood enough chemistry to see why uranium-lead zircon dating was a slam-dunk case for an ancient Earth, when I examined the evidence in detail instead of relying on the Discovery Institute’s deceitful paraphrasing of the argument.

That was the thread that unraveled the rest. If my parents and teachers had been lying or easily deceived about evidence for a young Earth, what else could I trust them about? Everything needed to be re-checked. Most of it didn’t stand up to critical examination. Even my non-Biblical faiths, like the goodness of the American government abroad and the American capitalist system at home, bleached under the harsh light of history. Of course I don’t see much to recommend actual historical anti-capitalist or pre-capitalist systems either; no large organizations look particularly good in light of history.

I pretend to be a liberal Christian around my family, and I feel shame about my lack of honesty. I think it would break my mother’s heart if I were honest about my complete lack of belief. I don’t think I can reason her out of her beliefs and I don’t especially want to. Even according to my revised moral code she is a pretty good person. About the worst thing she does is try to restrict access to abortion, but she lives in Washington state so it will come to nothing. When loved ones die, or when family members have medical problems that doctors can’t easily fix or even confidently diagnose, she falls back on faith for strength and I don’t have anything to replace that for her.

At my 15 year reunion of students from the private Christian high school I attended I thought that I would encounter many lapsed believers. The evidence against what we had been taught as teenagers was so abundant and striking once you leave the antiseptic bubble. I didn’t meet anyone who had seemed to undergo an experience like mine. Maybe we were all really good at sticking to our cover stories to protect our mothers. But from their Facebook feeds I think most of them really still believe. You don’t have to actively post in support of conservative Christian causes just to soothe your family. I don’t know why my mind was changed when so many others weren’t. My last prayers as a Christian were constantly “please renew my faith,” but I couldn’t believe myself into a position I had been reasoned out of.

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Thornton Hall 12.30.14 at 11:44 pm

@Matt
Good comment. I think the thing I’m driving at is that elites imagine you are the average voter, but the numbers at your reunion tell the real story, in my opinion.

So many people reason that their inner experience is “normal”.

98

Hogan 12.31.14 at 12:05 am

The “evangelical atheist” phenomenon seems to be based on the notion that religious belief is actively harmful, both individually and socially, and that’s why atheism needs to be affirmed all the damn time. It’s not only possible but extremely common to be an atheist and not agree with that.

99

Nine 12.31.14 at 12:29 am

Dr. Hilarius@88- “Often the answer was that nothing could ever change their mind.But they still wanted to debate the issue to try and prove me wrong. Sigh.”

Isn’t this why Dawkins and others refuse to debate creationists and other liars ? Just sharing a stage with them concedes too much and gives them an unearned platform & prestige.

100

Matt 12.31.14 at 12:35 am

I recognize that my experience is atypical among the people I grew up with. When I gave up many beliefs that I held without evidence, one of the beliefs I gave up was that I could universalize the human experience from my own life. Nope. I have to observe how other people speak and act. I try to keep what I hope for separate from what I observe; I’m not doing myself any favors by thinking that people agree with me more than they actually do.

I still hold some beliefs without evidence and I freely admit that they are axiomatic if asked. I will defend those beliefs on consequentialist grounds as well just as JQ describes.

Many arguments could probably be reduced to “we hold incompatible premises and no debate can ever bring us into agreement.” Logically, nothing can change premises. Yet there have been big shifts in the last decade in e.g. attitudes toward gay marriage. The arguments in favor of gay marriage are the same now as they were a decade ago. Why did so many fewer Americans accept them a decade ago when the arguments were just as sound then? The most logical explanation seems to me that logic didn’t have much to do with it. Persuading people is about using images, aspirations, emotional connections, and stories much more than logic and quantitative evidence. That’s how you get more people to adopt new premises and their attendant arguments.

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Jay 12.31.14 at 1:39 am

Pragmatism and consequentialism presume de-ontological (or, if you prefer, non-cognitive) beliefs. If a consequentialist argues that X course of action causes cancer in children, he’s implicitly assuming that you care about cancer in children, and are generally against it.

He’s probably right, in that evolution has left us with a number of pre-programmed biases that can be appealed to. One major non-cognitive belief that people usually have, individually and collectively, is “I am a good person, and people who resemble me are good”.

102

Plume 12.31.14 at 1:40 am

TheSophist,

I’m just guessing that people who do that are very good at compartmentalizing. Though it is generally true that the more one is educated, the less one is inclined to be a believer in any organized religion, you do sometimes see truly brilliant, highly educated men and women who are steadfast in their devotion. Most don’t see a conflict, it would appear. At least from the outside looking in, they don’t. Perhaps they struggle with it daily, as Kierkegaard and Unamuno did and wrote about so beautifully.

Others here have mentioned the science end of things, and that just added to it for me. But I didn’t really need the acceptance of evolution — which also came early for me — to see that Christianity was myth. All it really took was the knowledge that humans have been promoting their umpteen gods and goddesses for tens of thousands of years prior to the rise of Christianity, and it was pretty obvious that it was just one more example of that. Mythological elements are all over the story of Jesus, for instance, from the dead and resurrected god, to the various trials by fire, to the “virgin birth.” The flood story has its cognates in several world mythologies. Moses in the basket echoes Greek myth, etc. etc. and most world religions had the primordial couple.

And why would the one true god wait? Why would the one true god allow humans to believe in false gods for tens of thousands of years before finally making his case?

And, of course, the problem of evil in the world, which the longer I live, renders the idea of divine intervention more and more ludicrous. And, honestly, even if Yahweh were “the one true god,” I’d have to completely reject him on the grounds of his record of endless genocide, sadism and seemingly random acts of cruelty, which his rare moments of tenderness can not erase. Even his supposed son — who was initially thought of as “adopted” not divine — is in on the mother of all genocides, if one takes the NT literally. The Second Coming means the slaughter and eternal torment of at least 5 billion people living now. Why would anyone who actually believes the words of the bible want to worship, or follow or give his or her devotion to mass murderers?

Bottom line for me: I understand the need to believe. I understand the struggle against the dying of the light. We don’t want to accept our end. We want to believe we can live forever. And there is something to be gained from the fellowship of like-minded seekers on top of all of that. But I do find it tragic that the religion we seem to be stuck with in the 21st century is one with a foundation of domination, exclusion, genocide and ultimate, personal escape and transcendence, when a religion of immanence, solidarity, selflessness and communal healing would do us far more good.

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Dr. Hilarius 12.31.14 at 1:48 am

Nine @ 99: I once had the privilege of taking Niles Eldredge (paleontologist, then at the American Museum of Natural History) out to lunch. He had taken a sabbatical to debate creationists and work against their increasing influence in education.

He told me about running into uber-creationist Duane Gish in South Africa. Eldredge challenged Gish’s usual claim that no transitional fossils exist to support evolution. Eldredge took Gish to a museum collection (could have been trilobites, I don’t recall) and showed him an extensive series of transitional forms. Gish agreed it looked like a pretty complete series. The next week Gish was speaking and made the same claim for the non-existence of transitional forms.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 1:59 am

Dr. Hilarious,

I’ve seen that as well. When cornered, they admit that they were mistaken. But then conveniently forget all of that for their next propaganda session.

They would also have to ignore recent discoveries like this one, of rod and cone cells for eyes.

http://www.livescience.com/49238-fossil-eye-cells-color-vision.html

How on earth can people still (successfully) peddle a 6000 year-old planet?

105

Bill Sundstrom 12.31.14 at 2:35 am

A technical term for what you describe, John, is “reflective equilibrium.”

106

Rich Puchalsky 12.31.14 at 2:57 am

TheSophist: “I think it’s noteworthy that the non-religious are the only group to have a majority oppose torture. […] I suppose this indicates what happens when deontological imperatives collide with (perceived) consequentialist need.”

I don’t think so — the non-religious presumably can have the same kind of collision between deontology and (perceived) consequentialism. What I think is going on with this is that it’s about the “authoritarian followers” that Bruce Wilder often writes about. If you read about them, they are fearful and want to punish those they’re afraid of, but their religion makes them more likely to act violently rather than less. Basically, they are reassured that they are good people, acting with the approval of God, and this makes them more willing to promote violence and act violently on average than people who can only look to themselves for assurance.

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Ronan(rf) 12.31.14 at 3:18 am

“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons … after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism…Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.”

http://www.amazon.com/review/R3QP38C30BVXNV/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

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Plume 12.31.14 at 3:38 am

Rich #106,

And the setting is authoritarian in most organized religions, none more so than the three Levantine incarnations. There is no father-god who commits more genocides than Yahweh. No other organized religions focus so much on morality as obedience to a vengeful, genocidal god like the Levantine religions.

To me, the morality to immorality gamut runs from kindness, compassion, empathy and generosity to indifference, cruelty and sadism. The books of the bible — with exceptions — teach unquestioning obedience to the god of that anthology as morality . . . and disobedience as immoral.

This pervades our society, above and below ground, and any society still in the thrall of organized religion, most especially the Levantine.

IMO, we will all be better off once we cast off the ultimate dictator. “God.” Not to replace him with others. But to do away with the idea of rulers of any kind, period.

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mattski 12.31.14 at 3:46 am

I think it’s noteworthy that the non-religious are the only group to have a majority oppose torture.

That’s a good point.

Still, I blame Allen Dulles.

110

mattski 12.31.14 at 3:49 am

[That’s kind of OT and I’m sorry for that but nobody is going to waste their time looking at it, imo.]

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JimV 12.31.14 at 3:55 am

I call myself an atheist and mean I lack theism, just as something that is asymmetrical lacks symmetry. There happens to be no theistic god that makes any sense to me – not Ra, not Brahma, not Odin, not Jehovah (who as I understand it was once the war god of a pantheon, whom the Hebrews decided to focus on), et cetera. Agnosticism is a separate category – one could be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist. Richard Dawkins, for example, is an agnostic atheist – although something like 6.9 on a scale in which 7.0 would be a gnostic atheist.

I think the vast majority of atheists are like myself and Richard Dawkins, but could be wrong.

The semantic issue is not important per se, but I get annoyed when somebody else tries to tell me what it means when I call myself an atheist. I have had more than one creationist do so. They also like to say that science itself depends on faith and is a religion. They are added by those philosophers who say “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and that the principle of induction is not valid. In real life, e.g. murder trials and engineering design, we make critical decisions using the opposite assumptions. Consequentialism – it’s what works!

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JimV 12.31.14 at 3:57 am

“aided by” not “added by”, sorry. I never see all the typos until I click Submit.

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UserGoogol 12.31.14 at 5:14 am

Deontology isn’t the belief that certain things are inherently good or inherently bad. It is, very specifically, the belief that certain kinds of actions are mandatory or forbidden. Consequentialism doesn’t do this. It merely says that actions which lead to better consequences are better, without making any claims about duty. Some consequentialists max a bit of deontology in, in that they think that people have a moral obligation to maximize utility, or at least maintain some baseline level of “adequate” consequences. But other consequentialists think (and I’m inclined to think) that all you can ultimately say is that some things are better and some things are worse.

And in specific reference to Jay@101, deontology isn’t de-ontology, it’s deont-ology, where deont- comes from the Greek word for duty.

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John Quiggin 12.31.14 at 5:23 am

A couple of observations about Australia

1. As Erik Henriksen @54 suggests, most Australians (not just philosophers) regard consequentialism as obvious common sense, and regard any kind of deontological reasoning as suspect. While recognising that “common sense” is not a reliable guide to anything, I share that view.

2. Aggressive atheism is almost entirely non-existent in Australia, essentially because agnosticism is the background assumption.

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js. 12.31.14 at 5:38 am

I haven’t read all the comments but two quick points.

1. The following is a travesty as a characterization of “deontology”, or rather, of a deontological commitment:

I believe rule p because Pythagoras said it

Whatever a deontological commitment is (and as it happens, deontology is mostly a bit of nonsense based on a misreading of Kant), it is certainly not a facile deference to authority.

2. I fervently hope for the day when the standard contrast with consequentialism (which, as it happens, is a morally corrupt doctrine—see Rawls, several papers by Bernard Williams, or Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” if you have any doubts) ceases to be some nonsense about deontology. I sadly realize that at least in the English speaking world, this hope is utterly futile.

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js. 12.31.14 at 5:43 am

That said, I do agree that people should be clear about the fact that their non-consequentialist commitments are indeed non-consequentialist commitments, and that people often fail to do this. (It’s really just the chokehold that empiricism has on the popular and philosophical imagination in the English speaking world. Most people find it impossible to shake it loose.)

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bad Jim 12.31.14 at 6:09 am

Pursuant to the point Rich Puchalsky raised: torture is generally rejected on deontological grounds, as is usually the question of whether it is is effective. If torture is impermissible, the question of its effectiveness is moot. As we’ve seen in American policy, as well as in popular fiction, some rules are more important than others, and the rule against torture seems to rank so low in the hierarchy that it’s generally expected that it will be ignored.

In this case the evidence-based consequentialist argument, that torture is useless or counter-productive, supports and perhaps replaces the deontological argument.

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bad Jim 12.31.14 at 6:13 am

Concerning the poll associating religious belief with acceptance of torture: it’s simply a tribal sorting. Nearly all conservatives are religious, nearly all the non-religious are liberal.

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Val 12.31.14 at 6:26 am

js @115 and 116
If you have time I would like you to explain these points more. I did find the OP very confusing, partly because (as your first comment has made me realise) there seemed to be a confusion between ‘following authority’ and following rules’, which are completely different things.

As others have suggested (I think), we use rules of conduct because we can’t always predict outcomes, but also because of values or empathy (eg ‘do unto others’). Is that deontology or not (if it’s not deontology, which you say is a misreading of Kant, then what is it)?

The other question that isn’t being looked at (I think – I’ve skipped over the comments about religion, atheism, etc, because I just don’t find any value in those debates) is that people are talking about consequentialism as being a judgement about what’s “better”. You say consequentialism is “morally corrupt”, which I find very interesting and would like to hear more about, but the other point is, how are people deciding what is “better”? They must be using some kind of rules or values to determine this, but these seem to be ignored in the interests of presenting themselves as (‘hard-headed’, ‘sensible’?) consequentialists or pragmatists.

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Val 12.31.14 at 6:28 am

Probably obvious but I left out an inverted comma in previous comment – should be: … confusion between ‘following authority’ and ‘following rules’ …

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Thornton Hall 12.31.14 at 6:35 am

what seems to be ignored is the possibility that morality is never coherent as it adapts to a changing world that presents changing moral questions.

So many moral arguments seem to assume a First Mover of morality. Either the rules or the good or the better or the veil of ignorance or whatever that is somehow self-justifying.

Why can’t “the better” be subject to change even as we use our present conception to design rules of thumb that make the world better?

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dbk 12.31.14 at 9:25 am

Thornton Hall@121

Yes. “The better”, hopefully, evolves over time through our learning from real-world experience (“consequences”).

For example, in the statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, the working (“normative”) definition of “all men” may have been “all men like ourselves” – white, Christian, male. Over the past 240 or so years, the original definition has evolved to include, at least in theory, all persons regardless of race, creed, or sex. A substantial amount of U.S. jurisprudence has been devoted to this evolving concept of the meaning of “men” and “equal”.

I see little point in arguing with those whose religious and/or political beliefs are diametrically opposed to my own – there being no common ground for discussion, it is a foregone conclusion that neither will be persuaded by their opponent’s arguments.

I think many people’s deepest beliefs are actually in conflict with their avowed beliefs; in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, they may resort either to consequentialist arguments which, while appearing to justify their avowed beliefs, in fact justify their deepest beliefs, or they may resort to normative beliefs which serve to mask other, even more deeply-held normative beliefs.

To cite two extreme examples:
Torture can really only be justified by consequentialist arguments, because how can a human being admit to himself – or others – that “torture is good”?
Right-to-life advocates resort to the normative stance that “all life is sacred”, but underlying this stance are other beliefs about gender equality, class, and a not-inconsiderable dose of schadenfreude, none of which can be easily acknowledged either to oneself or publicly – how can one say, for example, “I rejoice in the suffering of poor women”?

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Peter T 12.31.14 at 9:59 am

“Torture can really only be justified by consequentialist arguments, because how can a human being admit to himself – or others – that “torture is good”?”

Well, some north American Indian groups thought torture was an essential test of virtue, and ritual torture was a key part of many Maya and Aztec rituals (including public self-torture by royalty: offering pain and blood to the gods).

For the goodness of suffering see Job, Book of…

124

Eric L 12.31.14 at 10:00 am

“Tea Party voters believe an empirical claim about the abilities of government. This belief is not arrived at through reflection or deduction. They think it has been proven by the “failure” of the Great Society.”

No, the tea party is not primarily any set of beliefs – it is not defined by values, or ideology, or crank beliefs about empirical matters. It is primarily an expression of social allegiances. It is about knowing who you’re with and who you’re against, who you look up to and down on, before knowing the what. The expressed beliefs are ways of affirming those allegiances.

This really crystallized for me when Donald Trump rocketed to the front of the presidential race by going full birther. To understand why tea partiers “believed” this and why it meant so much to them that a presidential contender went along with it, don’t pay any attention to the empirical claims that were supposed to demonstrate this and instead just learn about signaling theory. Signals must be costly. Endorsing beliefs that the mainstream media won’t take seriously and risking being called crazy demonstrates that you really must be on our side in a way saying some more ordinary less risky thing couldn’t demonstrate as well.

Just as climate change denial is a way of affirming you are not on Al Gore’s side, the distrust in government is largely an expression of distrust in Obama; calls to kick those bums off welfare lose their urgency when one of their own is in power.

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Eric L 12.31.14 at 11:08 am

People are conflating consequentialism as a basis for ethics with the use of consequential arguments to justify what ethics ought to be.

To comment on dbk@122:

Torture can really only be justified by consequentialist arguments, because how can a human being admit to himself – or others – that “torture is good”?

You sure sound like you are setting up a consequentialist argument for choosing deontological ethics — if we adopt consequentialism that may lead to us becoming a society of torturers! And if you did mean to imply that, well I don’t think you’re the first in this thread to imply that deontological ethical systems have better consequences. But to get back to my point above, unless your deontological ethical system was handed to you on stone tablets from an infallible deity, the best justifications for any rigid principles you might choose to put in your deontological system are going to be consequential arguments, but that doesn’t make your system consequentialist if it ultimately consists of a set of rules to be followed rather than examining consequences on a case by case basis.

To answer the question of how torture would fit in a deontological system, it would be the same way war does. A consequentialist views war as a terrible thing but not always worse than the alternative. A deontologist might be a pacifist, or they might have a just war principle whereby if certain conditions are met then war is a righteous cause. While I don’t think it would be a good principle to adopt one could certainly invent a principle of just torture in a deontological system where under certain conditions it is good to do so.

While I’m not firmly in one camp or the other, I actually think the real world debate over torture highlights the strengths of a consequentialist ethics. Consider the ticking time bomb argument. While this might seem like an expression of a consequentialism, I think it is better understood as a consequentialist argument that is directed at deontologists. How would a consequentialist react to this argument? Well gee, I suppose in the unlikely scenario that we know such a terrorist attack is underway and don’t know enough to stop it but know we will know if we torture this terrorist, yeah maybe in that case it would be okay. But in a consequentialist worldview this has no further implications — the judgement is based on the severity of the consequences and so this does not imply torture is reasonable in any less pressing scenario. It certainly is not relevant to the question of the morality of the more routine use of torture that CIA engaged in. How does a deontologist react to this argument if they take it seriously? There are two possibilities: I would let a city be vaporized rather than cross this line, or alternately, draw up a new set of principles that accommodate torture. And I would argue that the latter is what happened for many people and was precisely the point of the argument: not to argue that torture was just in the unlikely ticking time bomb scenario that the argument describes, but to argue that torture could be just. And it strikes me that in the post torture-report debate, the argument from the pro-torture side remains grounded in hypotheticals while the anti-torture side refers to the facts in the report. Because in consequentialism, the real world consequences matter and should be conclusive and the hypothetical situations that weren’t involved are irrelevant to judging the real world program that existed, but in deontological ethics the hypothetical arguments could still be relevant for establishing what our principles ought to be and therefore are relevant to determining the principles the program should be judged by.

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Eric L 12.31.14 at 11:29 am

Virtue ethics remain underdiscussed as philosophers don’t find them very compelling, but I’d say they are a big part of the way much of the public views ethics, and this is an unfortunate influence on the torture debate. Specifically the viewpoint that instead of looking forward to what consequences our actions could have, we should look backward to what motivated us to take these actions. Under this view, torture is wrong if a sadist does it because they enjoy seeing people suffer, but if someone does so acting on a sincerely held (misguided or not) belief that doing so is essential to protecting the safety of millions of people then it’s okay. I believe this sort of reasoning is the main driver behind public acceptance of torture. This could also have something to do with the fact noted by Andrew Sullivan that torture is widely accepted among American Christians and not among the non-religious; while it would be a stretch to say the religion endorses torture in particular, the religion is largely based on virtue-based ethics. So while I can understand why philosophers find virtue-based ethics uninteresting, they ignore it at society’s peril.

127

Brett Bellmore 12.31.14 at 11:39 am

“Endorsing beliefs that the mainstream media won’t take seriously and risking being called crazy demonstrates that you really must be on our side in a way saying some more ordinary less risky thing couldn’t demonstrate as well.”

Certainly true. Every in-group needs a way of outing the uncommitted, and being willing to say something the out-group will mock serves this purpose pretty well. Since the MSM are definitely representative of the 0ut-group if you’re on the right, being willing to raise their ire does signal group loyalty.

The left, too, have their idiocies that one must mouth, though for obvious reasons being mocked by the MSM wouldn’t serve the same purpose on your side, as they’re “in-group” relative to you. You could probably identify them yourselves, if doing so wouldn’t risk getting you booted from the club. (Taking Marxism seriously, for instance.) You are human, after all, and this is just another primate behavior, not something confined to your out-group.

Back on topic, the general problem with consequentialism, in it’s pure form, (As opposed to something like rule utilitarianism.) is that people mostly won’t have the data or reasoning capacity to genuinely engage in it most of the time. Acting on the fly you’ve got to be a deontologist, even if you think you should be consequentialist, because you really don’t have the time or the information to reliably work out the consequences.

Ironically, the main consequence of consequentialism is giving somebody the wiggle room to rationalize doing bad things, by just imagining the right set of consequences.

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Rich Puchalsky 12.31.14 at 1:48 pm

JQ: “As Erik Henriksen @54 suggests, most Australians (not just philosophers) regard consequentialism as obvious common sense, and regard any kind of deontological reasoning as suspect. While recognising that “common sense” is not a reliable guide to anything, I share that view.”

Yet you want want deontologists to be forthcoming about the basis for their argument for the sake of clarity — why should they, when this means that you’ll immediately regard their reasoning as suspect? Their reasoning is far less suspect than a consequentialist’s, after all. You may not like their premises or their conclusion, but the reasoning involved in “Torture is wrong and we should not do it” is far less suspect than “Torture is wrong because I have the evidence to show that it produces bad consequences, including both direct and unintended consequences”.

Deontological arguments also tend to be coherent in a way that consequentialist ones are not, and this can be used as an argumentative strategy in regards to them. Basically, does the rule cover similar cases? If there any way the case could be changed slightly so that it would no longer fall under the rule? What happens when the rule conflicts with another equally important or more important rule? Consequentialists, on the other hand, may have a conclusion for one case have any necessary implications for what the conclusion will be in a similar case that is different enough so that the consequences need to be re-assessed. And consequentialism is highly vulnerable to both manipulation of the evidence available and to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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Rich Puchalsky 12.31.14 at 1:49 pm

Oops. Should have been: “Consequentialists, on the other hand, may *not* have a conclusion for one case have any necessary implications for what […]”

130

J Thomas 12.31.14 at 2:04 pm

#125 Eric L

But to get back to my point above, unless your deontological ethical system was handed to you on stone tablets from an infallible deity, the best justifications for any rigid principles you might choose to put in your deontological system are going to be consequential arguments, but that doesn’t make your system consequentialist if it ultimately consists of a set of rules to be followed rather than examining consequences on a case by case basis.

Interesting! I had assumed that consequentialist arguments were about how to pick the rules, which made them a variety of deontological arguments. Since after all they involved rules about how to pick the rules.

But your consequentialism is far more radical.

So just to get it completely plain, some people say that murder is bad. But a radical consequentialist view would say that in every individual circumstance, before we say that a particular murder is bad, we should decide whether the world is a better place after the murder.

So if Wilson shot Brown in cold blood, in violation of all rules, the question is not whether he broke the rules and murdered somebody when murder is bad. The question is whether we are better off with Brown dead. If so, he did the right thing.

Similarly if Wilson had not shot Brown and Brown instead murdered Wilson with his bare hands, the question would not be whether Brown broke the rules. The question would be whether we are better off with Wilson dead.

It might easily turn out that in many murders, it doesn’t matter which kills the other but in either case the world is a better place. Society would be better if various undesirables are herded together and encouraged to kill each other. (Sounds like my old high school.) No need to punish them for it, they’re doing good.

But if in some individual case you kill somebody that society thinks is valuable, then of course you should expect consequences.

If you commit fraud and take somebody’s money, the question in that individual case would be whether the world is better off with you having that money or them.

But maybe I’m going too far with this. I’m setting up rules about how to do consequentialism. Maybe radical consequentialism works better with no rules at all.

131

Plume 12.31.14 at 2:09 pm

Brett@127 (OT),

Not taking Marxism seriously is a sign of a hopelessly narrow perspective on the world, especially regarding capitalism. Even if it’s just to be “well rounded” in your overall education, it needs to be a part of that. Dismissing it also means dismissing dozens (if not hundreds) of the most brilliant thinkers ever to have put their thoughts to paper, and this covers many fields of inquiry . . . from literary theory, to psychology, critical theory, geography, sociology, history (with dozens of subsets), economics, etc. etc.

132

Plume 12.31.14 at 2:10 pm

Given the OP, I need to add philosophy and ethics as well.

133

William Timberman 12.31.14 at 2:16 pm

Whether we’re discussing acts generally considered to be good, or generally considered to be evil, it’s often difficult, or at least it seems so to me, to distinguish deontological and consequentialist justifications. There are people all over the world who’ve effectively been forced to listen to Dick Cheney claim that thousands of lives were saved by torturing someone they knew and loved. As this is often the kind of consequentialism being hawked by the powerful to the powerless, no one should be surprised that they aren’t buying it. We may doubt the content of Cheney’s rationality, but its form is more or less impeccable.

134

Brett Bellmore 12.31.14 at 2:19 pm

Plume:

Oh, I have a copy of Das Kapital, packed away in the same box as Mein Kampf. Perhaps I should have said, “Taking Marxism seriously as anything other than a hideous mistake.”

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Plume 12.31.14 at 2:26 pm

Brett @134,

That you would try to equate one of the truly indispensable and seminal studies of capitalism with Hitler’s hate-filled, racist, bigoted id going amok . . . proves just how stupid and ignorant you really are.

136

Plume 12.31.14 at 2:29 pm

And as was demonstrated in the other thread, if you want to tally up the numbers for the various “isms,” nothing compares with capitalism for its death and destruction. Its dead dwarf all other “isms” combined.

But this is the wrong thread for that debate.

137

William Timberman 12.31.14 at 2:33 pm

To clarify a bit, in 11th century Christendom, or among the Taliban today, Cheney might have said Deus vult! and been considered a proper deontologist. Today, on CNN, he apparently feels the need to be considered a proper consequentialist. Is this progress? (That’s a trick question — as we all know — but in the present context, it’s trickiness seems unavoidable.)

138

jake the antisoshul soshulist 12.31.14 at 2:37 pm

Has anyone had their metaphysical orgasm yet? Hopefully you had some metaphysical Kleenex. ;-}

I’ve had this argument about whether atheism is a religion before. Very unsatisfactory.
Personally I call myself a strong agnostic. ie., the existence of a God, Deity, or Creator is unknown and unknowable. However, as a society we are better off operating as if there were none. I might accept that religion could be a personal good, but, as it is usually constituted, not a public good.

139

Plume 12.31.14 at 2:39 pm

William @137,

It seems that all too many Americans are willing to go along with Cheney’s view, tragically. When given the old ticking time bomb scenario, a majority says torture the guy. And, as mentioned already, a majority of Christians say torture the guy.

Would have to double check, but I think the percentage goes way down when the wording does not include “24” like conditions. And, as far as we know, there were no ticking time bomb scenarios in any of the torture cases.

140

William Timberman 12.31.14 at 2:57 pm

Plume @ 139

I’m trying to get at something a little different. Before we can agree on the most effective rules for governing our behavior in the interest of a presumed common good, we have to know something about why we behave the way we do, in fact, behave. That’s why I often prefer Kant to Rawls. If it’s clarity we’re after, about ethics or anything else, I just don’t believe that denaturing the subject of our inquiry should be our first step.

141

Plume 12.31.14 at 3:02 pm

@140,

Do you mean using the categorical imperative? In a way, Rawls does, but he tries to add the virtually impossible restriction of stepping back and away from any semblance of personal interest in the process. If I understand the two things correctly, and I may not. Have not read either of them in a long time. Not since the 1990s.

142

MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 3:18 pm

“Under this view, torture is wrong if a sadist does it because they enjoy seeing people suffer, but if someone does so acting on a sincerely held (misguided or not) belief that doing so is essential to protecting the safety of millions of people then it’s okay. I believe this sort of reasoning is the main driver behind public acceptance of torture.”

Wow. This is really a great comment. This also is how most people talk about ethics in their personal lives as well, How often have you heard someone say “he meant well” or “she didn’t mean any harm.” We take motives into account, or at least we try to, in our individual interactions.

Thank you Eric.

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MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 3:20 pm

” I might accept that religion could be a personal good, but, as it is usually constituted, not a public good.”

This seems right to me. Individual people might get a great deal of comfort and satisfaction from their religion. My mother does for instance. On a societal level it has turned into an oppressive monster that must be slayed if we are to have a truly equal and free society.

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Brett Bellmore 12.31.14 at 3:31 pm

Except that every society that makes a serious effort to slay it ends up being even more oppressive and monsterous. Which is, I think, only to be expected when people in a position of power decide they’re entitled to dictate what other people believe.

145

Brett Bellmore 12.31.14 at 3:35 pm

I’d add that, in practice, governments don’t set out to slay religion to make their people enlightened. They set out to slay religion because they want to take it’s place.

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Lynne 12.31.14 at 3:36 pm

@MPAV # 143

I don’t know. It is true that especially in the States there isn’t the necessary separation of church and state, so some people are legislating their conservative morals, and this is obviously wrong. But churches do a lot of social good. For example, for many years in my city churches have rotated providing overnight shelter for the homeless during the winter. There are lots of things like that that churches do for society that I think qualifies as public good.

While I have your attention, Happy New Year!

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William Timberman 12.31.14 at 3:37 pm

Plume @ 141

I was thinking more of the level of abstraction in Rawls. I don’t have any disagreement in principle with his conclusions about what would be best, but he does seem to press all the juice out his ethical argument, i.e. rarely offers more than passing references to the complexity of human motivations. As with the arguments of well-meaning Keynesians in the op-ed pages of recent times, I constantly found myself scratching my head and saying, okay, but what about….

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MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 3:46 pm

“There are lots of things like that that churches do for society that I think qualifies as public good.”
Good point! And there are important social bonding aspects of belonging to a church. I guess I am just frustrated by all the places in the world where I see people using being oppressed in the name of religion.

“While I have your attention, Happy New Year!”

Right back at you Lynne! May the New Year be kind to you and those you care about.

And as it is New Year’s I want to tell you that your comments often have a humanity to them that I really appreciate so I am always happy to see you on the comment threads.
Take care!

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MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 3:46 pm

“Which is, I think, only to be expected when people in a position of power decide they’re entitled to dictate what other people believe.”

The cognitive dissonance is amazing…..

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William Timberman 12.31.14 at 3:50 pm

Another thought: In one of the recent threads, Bruce Wilder said something like If you do something right for the wrong reasons, you’ve done something right. (And vice versa, I presume.) This is something of a bumper-sticker, not the whole of BW’s argument, but to me it seems emblematic, i.e. deeply informed about the nature of clarity and deception in ethical arguments, and how entangled they are at the root. The OP focuses on one form of this entanglement, but there are many others, not all of them as flattering to the consequentialist position as the OP is.

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Brett Bellmore 12.31.14 at 3:57 pm

“The cognitive dissonance is amazing…..”

Amazing enough for you to elucidate?

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Plume 12.31.14 at 4:08 pm

Brett @144 abd 145,

Except that every society that makes a serious effort to slay it ends up being even more oppressive and monsterous. Which is, I think, only to be expected when people in a position of power decide they’re entitled to dictate what other people believe.

Classic right-wing nonsense. To right-wingers, the only people “in power” are in government. They can never confront reality long enough to see that in our system, true power is economic and private, and that the real powers that be our outside of government pulling its strings — or inside making sure those interests are always at the top of the list.

And, no, in our system, government does not seek broader control — with the exception of the surveillance and incarceration complex. It seeks to extend the power and reach of its masters: business interests in the private sector (which includes private interests that benefit from that surveillance and incarceration complex. If government actually sought greater control overall, it never would have privatized public goods and services to the extent it has, especially since 1973, and it never would have gone on its deregulation binge starting at that time as well.

Btw, we have one million fewer Federal employees today than we did in 1962, despite population growth of 150 million.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 4:10 pm

MPA @149,

Cognitive dissonance and irony, too. The religious powers that be have always wanted to “dictate what other people believe.”

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MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 4:16 pm

“Amazing enough for you to elucidate?”

Nah. Plume said it well enough that I don’t have to. Besides it is not like I am going to convince you anyway.

155

stevenjohnson 12.31.14 at 4:42 pm

Consequentialist arguments are only distinct from deontological arguments if the consequentialist denies any validity to the notions of intrinsically moral goods and evils, which would therefore be bad consequences in themselves. Torture is not an evil if they find the ticking time bomb or torture is evil if they don’t, versus torture is wrong. Yet, consequentialism seems to imply that rule breaking in itself must be regarded as a wrong. Torture is wrong because it’s illegal.

Forgive me but this seems to be a case where philosophy is screwing up everything, talking about “consequentialism” as if it’s actually a thing. There’s the notion that some things are wrong because some authority said so, and there’s the notion that actions are good or bad for people (which people and how much good are the details where the devil is.)

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Lynne 12.31.14 at 4:44 pm

Thanks, MPAV. I look for your comments, too.

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CJColucci 12.31.14 at 4:59 pm

Not to mention that nobody here seems to be in favor of “society” attempting to “slay” religion, or “dictat[ing] what other people believe.”

158

bianca steele 12.31.14 at 5:16 pm

A complication is that the online Pythagorean may (implicitly) say something like this: I don’t eat beans because I believe Pythagoras. You shouldn’t eat beans because they’re bad for you. But every time you attack bean-eating on consequentialist grounds, I’ll know you’re lesser than me.

Incidentally, this seems to cause problems in the second generation, who had to be taught, not to avoid beans, but to avoid people who avoid beans for the wrong reasons. So where the first generation avoided conflict by semi-including non-Pythagoreans, the second generation’s understanding of Pythagoreanism is inseparable from conflict with outsiders.

(Something similar, generationally, seems to have happened w/r, also, t ideas like social democracy, where you find all sorts of odd and prejudicial beliefs accreting onto the central idea, originally consequentalist but believed to be deontological, or the reverse, or simply idiosyncratic and, really, neither. But defended often–though not always–on deontological grounds. Because how can you argue against deontological grounds, except with consequentialism?)

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bianca steele 12.31.14 at 5:25 pm

On atheism: There’s a sense in which “there is no God” is a theological belief. But obviously “I don’t even know what the word ‘God’ means” means something different from “The holy book most respected these days is a fictional narrative, like Homer’s Odyssey.” It seems entirely possible to believe in angels but not in God, even.

Where on the other hand agnostics tend to say “to say ‘the Bible is true’ has some kind of meaning, but it’s not that God exist in the naive way children believe it, and it’s not that the Odyssey is false, and for all I know it may be justified to say ‘God exists’ even on the basis of all these basically agnostic beliefs, and so I’ll keep on with the shell of some religion or other, for the consequentalism.”

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bianca steele 12.31.14 at 5:47 pm

I have some sympathy for “evangelical atheism,” at least in theory, just because the agnosticism I’ve encountered (and once accepted as a matter of course, as completely compatible with belief) has been entirely lacking in critical thought. It’s also often been lacking in curiosity about other people’s traditions, which is a fault it shares with actually existing “evangelical atheism,” curiously enough.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 6:09 pm

Bianca,

As mentioned before, I’m one atheist who has always been fascinated by religious belief, religions, myths, etc. etc. I devoured Campbell and Graves at an early age, and moved on to their intellectual peers and descendents, and have read a great deal about the roots of Christianity (and other religious traditions) with a special interest in mystics from all religions.

I see those mystics as the Olympians of the spiritual, as they moved beyond names, labels, doctrine, dogma to reach places where few people go, where all the colors blend into one, to borrow a little from U2. And it is in that place that destructive differences are gone, that there is no more contest for religious supremacy, and the center is everywhere and nowhere.

To me, it’s preferable to have no contest for supremacy, either because we’re absent organized religions, period, or people have managed to transcend them all via Olympian feats of spiritual grandeur. Failing to open those doors is our real problem, IMO.

I oftentimes wish I could take the mystic journey, because I think it would show that “faith” is not necessary in the end. But it is to begin that journey.

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Bruce Wilder 12.31.14 at 6:15 pm

J Thomas @ 130

For a thorough-going consequentialist, punishment for crime is seriously problematic. Whether Brown killed Wilson or Wilson killed Brown, if we subsequently punish the survivor, we’ve compounded the harm done. The punishment, itself, is the only sure consequence of our policy of punishing the survivor, and the punishment is a costly bad thing. The death of either is regrettable, but it is done and irretrievable.

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mattski 12.31.14 at 6:16 pm

If we study cases and their consequences it is for the purpose of creating rules. We can’t make use of a single case if we make no reference to general cases.

And as Val mentioned, even to apply the judgement ‘good’ to the outcome of a particular case is to generalize it! Now it belongs to the general category of ‘good outcomes’ which by definition are desirable.

It seems like–not sure here–it isn’t possible to even think about ethics, or a good society, without employing both empirical reference to consequences AND rule-making, which due to having a generalizing nature is subject to being interpreted as deontological even though it might be better understood as statistical.

Please tell me if this makes sense.

And Peter T @ 123 makes an important point which emphasizes the importance of culture, or habit. Torture, which helps us grapple with this abstract problem because it is extreme, can be integrated into a culture as something important. That is worth a moments contemplation.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 6:18 pm

Bruce 162,

But a consequentialist would also consider what might happened if a killer were let go. This can keep spinning out. Consequences don’t just suddenly stop, etc. etc.

Btw, what is your own view on the subject?

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mattski 12.31.14 at 6:22 pm

[Is looking at moral rules as ‘working hypotheses’ the least problematic of the alternatives?]

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mattski 12.31.14 at 6:35 pm

We can’t function without rules of thumb. But how we regard our rules of thumb is up to each of us. Do we impute to them some metaphysical status? Do we seek the comfort of associating them with some prominent philosopher/religious leader? Do we rely on a more immediate calibration like, “would I want X to happen to me, and what after all is so different between me and everyone else?”

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LFC 12.31.14 at 6:39 pm

Wm. Timberman @140

Before we can agree on the most effective rules for governing our behavior in the interest of a presumed common good, we have to know something about why we behave the way we do, in fact, behave.

I’d suggest respectfully that there are some misunderstandings here.

First, Rawls is not, I think, primarily interested in propounding rules to govern individual behavior. The principles of justice that he argues would be chosen in the original position govern the basic structure of society, and while he argues that people living in a just society will develop a desire to act in ways that support that society’s institutions and their continuation, the principles of justice apply directly to the society’s institutions and not to individual behavior (this is one of the points on which G.A. Cohen criticized Rawls).

Secondly, there is in fact a fair amount of discussion of human motivation in TJ. Rawls makes some basic assumptions about human motives to set up the hypothetical choice situation (the original position). Then there is a fuller discussion of moral psychology in Pt 3. Part of his aim (again, as I read it) is to argue that there is no conflict between being ‘rational’ and acting justly (or morally): it’s rational to want to live in a just society (i.e. one based on the two principles) and in such a society it’s rational to act justly, i.e. in ways that support or strengthen its basic character, partly because such a society gives, on balance, everyone the best chance at a (psychologically) satisfying life, i.e., the kind of life in which people feel they are doing something worthwhile and exercising (at least to some extent) whatever particular abilities they happen to have. This is an oversimplification of what he says, of course, but seems to be at least a significant part of what he’s driving at. You don’t have to find it all persuasive (I’m not sure I do) and it is somewhat abstract, but the discussion is there. I’m not sure Rawls’s arguments were always well-served by his prose style, but that’s a separate matter.

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bianca steele 12.31.14 at 6:58 pm

Plume,

The thing is–from what it sounds like from this comment, which might not be complete–for you, atheism/agnosticism means no one thing is supreme over others. To me, that sounds like religion or you means one religion is supreme over others. Other people’s atheism might be focused on different former beliefs. I had more than one Catholic friend, growing up, who told me she was an atheist and in the same breath lamented that she was going to Hell and could not admit that this made no sense to me. Some ex-Jewish atheists accept what they believe is a secular version of the Gospel, and some ex-Christian atheists find they’re terribly offended by that belief. Many atheists and especially agnostics from Jewish or Christian backgrounds assume the only true morality is derived from the Bible. There’s certainly some religious belief mixed in with most people’s atheism, and sometimes there are nearly theological beliefs mixed in too. And a lot of “humanism” is a very specific mixture of (specific parts of) Christianity with (specific parts of) Greek and Norse myths with (specific parts of) Western literature–if these are the right parts to choose, it isn’t necessarily because they’re non-religious and all the other parts are religious.

And some religious people call some forms of religion “atheism.” But that doesn’t mean that atheism itself is a form of religion.

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bianca steele 12.31.14 at 6:59 pm

“religion for you”

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js. 12.31.14 at 7:31 pm

Val,

I’m not sure I can address everything here, but a couple of quick-ish points. First, ‘rule-based conduct’ is an inadequate characterization of deontology (and I’m not even going to attempt an adequate characterization). Because, for one thing, you can have something like ‘rule-utilitarianism’, where rather than evaluating individual actions for whether or not they promote maximally beneficial consequences (where ‘benefit’ is defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain, as in classical utilitarianism, or it’s defined in terms of desire-satisfaction or preference-satisfaction, as in most modern versions, or something else). Anyway, rather than evaluating individual actions, you evaluate rules, and you prescribe those rules strict adherence to which will over time produce maximally beneficial outcomes. So rule-utilitarianism gives you a system of rule-based conduct that is not deontological, because the criterion of evaluation is still (an aggregate of) desire-satisfaction, or whatever. Similar points apply to UserGoogol’s characterization of deontology as the view that “certain kinds of actions are mandatory or forbidden”. So if deontology is to be some distinctive thing, more needs to be said to characterize it distinctively. (Sorry of this is horribly quick/obscure.)

On to the consequentialism is a morally corrupt doctrine bit. Rawls, in his “Justice and Fairness” (1958) argues that consequentialism fails to respect the “distinctness or persons”. (Anscombe makes a similar argument towards the end of “Modern Moral Philosophy”, but she doesn’t use this terminology.) Using slavery as an example, Rawls argues that consequentialism may well come down against a system of slavery, but only because whatever satisfactions slavers derive from enslaving others would be outweighed by the suffering and hardship endured by those enslaved—so, in aggregate, the outcomes in a system including slavery would be less beneficial than in a system that doesn’t include slavery.

But Rawls points out that this reasoning seems quite wrong: whatever benefits or satisfactions slavers derive from enslaving others shouldn’t count at all in a moral accounting of harms and benefits. And there’s something morally repulsive about weighing those benefits against the harms suffered by the enslaved to figure out which are greater in the aggregate.

Well, this is already very long, so I’ll stop here. But the basic problem with consequentialism, it seems to me, is that it necessarily relies on principles of aggregation, and this leads to pernicious sorts of moral reasoning and prescriptions. On which, see this Taurek paper, which most people think is some weird kind of nonsense, but which I think is really great.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 7:36 pm

Bianca @167,

If that’s how you took it, I failed to communicate my thoughts.

I’m an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in gods, goddesses, theologies, or in any kind of supreme being. I haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility of previously unknown forces in the universe that we might, at least initially, consider “supernatural.” But it’s my belief that over time they would become “natural” to us with more study. This counters some definitions of agnosticism which say these things are unknowable. I don’t go that far. We keep changing the unknown to known, and while that often produces still more unknowns, I think, some day, if we avoid destroying ourselves, we may just knock out enough unknowns to know at least what we don’t know, etc.

But I have ruled out some other things, at least for myself. No religion, sacred text or myth comes within thousands of light years from depicting those great unknowns accurately, and perhaps the biggest obstacle in their way is the insistence upon anthropomorphizing the unseen. To me, there is no way the Cosmic Other could be anything like us. That said, and perhaps because they’ve done that, I don’t really think the authors in question intended to depict any of those things accurately, literally, in the first place. I think they knew that poetry, symbol, allegory and metaphor were the best ways to confront those mysteries. They knew they’d never solve them. But they might just get closer to some larger “truth” indirectly.

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LFC 12.31.14 at 7:41 pm

(I have one in moderation)

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Rich Puchalsky 12.31.14 at 7:47 pm

In terms of actual decisions and arguments, hardly anyone holds to some single philosophy or method. Most people judge by a mixture of intentions, rules, and outcomes (more or less virtue-based ethics, deontology, and consequentialism) together with heuristics that are hard to classify (“I think that anything that my political tribe stands for is right and anything the other tribe favors is wrong” isn’t really a rule, but it’s generally the most important principle).

I’ve already written about the problems with consequentialism in public policy: uncertainty and uneven access to information and evaluative power. Judging by virtue-based ethics / intentions is even worse: a large majority of people think that their intentions are good, and the worst people are likely to be soothed by having an external prop supporting their view of their own intentions, whether this is religion or some political ideology.

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Hogan 12.31.14 at 8:14 pm

I had more than one Catholic friend, growing up, who told me she was an atheist and in the same breath lamented that she was going to Hell and could not admit that this made no sense to me. Some ex-Jewish atheists accept what they believe is a secular version of the Gospel, and some ex-Christian atheists find they’re terribly offended by that belief.

Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. “You’d better not talk that way about Him, honey,” she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. “He might punish you.”

“Isn’t He punishing me enough?” Yossarian snorted resentfully. “You know, we certainly mustn’t let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn’t let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He’s caused us. Someday I’m going to make him pay. I know when. On the Judgement Day. Yes, that’s the day I’ll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and –“

“Stop it! Stop it!” Leiutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. “Stop it!”

Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed.

“What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

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Charles R 12.31.14 at 8:18 pm

Plume, I completely agreed with your own narration and moral conclusions when you said

This pervades our society, above and below ground, and any society still in the thrall of organized religion, most especially the Levantine.

IMO, we will all be better off once we cast off the ultimate dictator. “God.” Not to replace him with others. But to do away with the idea of rulers of any kind, period.

I found this sentiment you were writing about whose narration ended here is true for my own journey. I am one of those people Bruce Wilder asked about. After converting to Christianity in my teens, I gave it everything I thought I could give (excepting what I later learned was something I cannot ever give away), and married and changed life plans to go to Bible college, and did it. Even in the declining conservative environment of the school, I was still learning things through my unpaid apologetics research that rocked my shit in the tectonic world. I still kept the faith; you know the story. I planned on and worked on a dissertation on Pascal. It got to be too close to home, and then it was home. I am far from Christianity these days, and even far from the leftist vogue saturating and squenching academic philosophy in its urban form that helped inoculate me from the pragmatic centrist vogue saturating and squenching academic philosophy in its suburban form. I found the exact same apologetics games were playing out in places like this, in the academic blogs, where communities of philosophers get together and shoot the shit to fellow words-on-screens, but only once I got myself completely out of fighting any particular such game as it related to an ever-fading heartfulness in the Jesus story.

I’m saying all this, because it’s just surprising to me that someone who wrote what I quoted will later go on to say such things as

Not taking Marxism seriously is a sign of a hopelessly narrow perspective on the world, especially regarding capitalism. Even if it’s just to be “well rounded” in your overall education, it needs to be a part of that. Dismissing it also means dismissing dozens (if not hundreds) of the most brilliant thinkers ever to have put their thoughts to paper, and this covers many fields of inquiry . . . from literary theory, to psychology, critical theory, geography, sociology, history (with dozens of subsets), economics, etc. etc.

There are brilliant racists, brilliant bigots, brilliant sycophants, brilliant Very Horrible People. We all read Kant. I read Bernasconi’s takedown of how race came conceptually to be the other day. He puts it in Kant, largely. I think he’s on to something there, and I’d like to see some Blumenbergian philosophical tradition of unearthing how nonconcepts become real similar what Bernasconi does. We just have to look at Kant the way we, those usual us, now look at our former apologetics days—especially to see we’re always still in them.

So if there’s anything brilliant in Kant, and enough for people to specialize in the guy, then let’s admit he’s a brilliant racist—and at least of the sort of racism or sexism or classism or elitism we diagnose in one another, in the way several of us go after J Thomas or whoever delurks for a moment to rant. If the very little evidence of a comment on a blog is enough to accuse someone for sinning the sin of being Not Worth Our Time Due To Being A Waste of Cognitive Resources, then certainly Kant—and a huge hell of a lot of philosophers we are forced by the rest of academic standards to teach as standard package to our clients the consumers—fit these standards. But he’s still brilliant, right?

Then being brilliant isn’t enough to give a shit. We’ll need more, won’t we? What is that? Is it really just what side a person dances for?

Or are there one set of rules or principles for blogs and another for The Academy? (But this just gets back to the question why moral consistency is what we crave for others, and rarely for ourselves, and if it’s really even consistency, a universal response to any variability, that we need morally….)

I was going to quote you also on calling Brett’s position “rightwing nonsense.” I’m teaching Russell Kirk alongside Emma Goldman this semester, so it’s not like I have chosen sides necessarily, but I want to point out that you called it “classic” as though it’s part of the nonsense (your word) I might find in some paleoconservative writing, something a lot more classic than what passes for conservatism today, now that cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses are no longer the fashion concurrently of both dominant sets of the white and black supremacists—part of when we really did believe ideas have consequences, including especially our own ideas and not just those of others.

But I’m hoping you’re here enough to realize you’re still undergoing the process that resulted in you concluding what you said and what it was that moved me, this idea that you couldn’t accept a God because you more strongly cannot accept rulers at all, and how that idea was part of the lessons you picked up from your own process of deconversion becoming the evacuation of, what I call, godneed and godrule, an idea that’s also part of the larger narrative you want to argue for, … at least for it here, right?

Your religious views are grounded in an on-going anarchic spirit, so you said. But then there’s what you also say. It’s always the also-saids we find fascinating in one another.

But the thing I see pointed out by someone like J Thomas (whom I took with the pointed gun thing to be riffing off that famous scene with Raymond K Hessel, itself riffing the eternally turning hourglass Nietzsche’s demon speaks of, itself riffing off Pascal’s wagering challenge to consider the worth of one’s life now [and not many years from now, not years from now, not months from now, not ten minutes from now, but] when compared against the life you will have once you endeavor to train for as one’s eternal habit [what you called the initial step of faith], itself riffing off all the sales techniques philosophy has perfected for us by getting us to better use our imaginations under penalty of eternal death [and what’s more eternally dead for the philosopher than being conceptually ignored? At least being misquoted or misunderstood is to still be relevant and not be left behind, worth changing one’s mind about, since as Descartes secured immortality for himself by getting us to agree: to even be deceived is to be something being, since passivity in the one case is activity in the other, and only what moves, is —after the early modern period, that is]) or William Timberman in his responses (who doesn’t seem to get the gun pointed back at him the way J Thomas solicits; so maybe there’s something to it) is something like this:

Who rules you without you knowing it, because for you it just seems the way things really are?

I mean, take how Timberman talks about Rawls. I guess others have asked this before, but I’ll ask and be corrected on it: if when veiled I were ignorant about who I will be when again no longer veiled and so concluding the patterns of justice go thus as the story we know goes, why the background assumption the only things I could be are humans? I might be the trees, the rocks, the governments, or the chickens, the pigs, the cows. I might even be a planet or a galaxy cluster. It’s a big universe of possible things I am—philosophy helped me use my imagination to see the other sides of things, the same seeing that led me out of a particular Jesus narrative. Wouldn’t our sense of justice as to its theoretical operations informing our practices also include some sense of how justice means for all those other things I might be (and, from a very thorough-going materialist position, understand myself to actually be)? Crazy idea, right? But to step further back this far, you at the very least have to step far back away from the things you think are right about political claims, moral claims, philosophical claims, all claiming we do on blog comments included.

It takes a very open mind to think unthinkable sorts of things. Maybe even a brilliant sort of mind. But when we start saying people are deficient, when we mock them, when we use words and phrases and patterns of symbolic interaction that humiliate, aren’t we setting up for us, maybe where we don’t think too much about it, a new set of rulers who dominate over the inferiors? Aren’t we saying we not only know better, but this knowing what the other hasn’t yet learned grants us license to dehumanize them through ridicule and mockery? And laughing while we do so?

But maybe if I weren’t so afraid of dehumanization or objectification—for all I know by contemporary sciences and our understanding of how consciousness forms, I am neither human nor not an object but all of the above, meaning we need different words (words needed differently), not simply new ones, not simply etymologically reconstructed old words—maybe if I thought of a larger justice including the things I exclude from justice routinely (rocks, clouds, beans, dogs, &c) as unwittingly as slave masters excluding their own unthinkably human pieces of talking property, maybe if I really opened up to doing away with godrules and godneeds, so did away with monarchs by doing away with the archos, then maybe I’d be open to the weirdest thoughts, all the weird insanities of the nonsensical and the absurd, and I wouldn’t be so afraid of being inhuman that I’d need to feel secure in mocking it, humiliating it, so that it won’t keep doing word things at me, even if I can just more easily scroll past it, if it really is just the way people troll us by using more words than what we deem, collectively, is normal and not yet prohibited. We’ve already crossed out all the other options, so this is the right one, we feel.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just writing nonsense to distract from having to fix this toilet. I apologize for dragging the rest of you into these distractions from your other pressing concerns.

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jumpingjehoshaphat 12.31.14 at 8:27 pm

@47

Not a verse line, therefore no need for a line break.

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Plume 12.31.14 at 8:50 pm

Charles R,

I don’t have the negative view you have regarding Marx and Marxists. I see his work as emancipatory, and the people I’m talking about hold real democracy and human emancipation above all else. I’m not talking about Lenin and Stalin, both of whom I condemn and despise. I’m talking primarily about Marxists in the humanities and economics. Scholars, philosophers, economists, sociologists, etc. I’m talking about the Marxist-Humanist tradition.

A current organization along those lines.

http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/

And for me, adding the Green Left to the deal is imperative. I have left-anarchist leanings, and I know Marx had his major falling out with them. But Marx also talked about the ultimate destination being a classless, stateless society. That’s my dream as well. No gods, no masters. It wasn’t his motto, but it could have been. And I don’t hold him accountable for the later perversion of his writings or actions taken in his name. Jesus doesn’t get the blame for the Inquisition, etc. etc.

No gods, no masters also includes Marx. Which is why I said he should at least be a part of any well-rounded education. Dismissing him strikes me as needlessly narrowing one’s perspective. And because he’s been so radically marginalized here, in America — but not so much in Canada and Europe — it’s all the more valuable to stretch one’s horizons and include him — and Marxist writers in general.

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J Thomas 12.31.14 at 9:11 pm

#174 Charles R

But maybe if I weren’t so afraid of dehumanization or objectification—for all I know by contemporary sciences and our understanding of how consciousness forms, I am neither human nor not an object but all of the above, meaning we need different words (words needed differently), not simply new ones, not simply etymologically reconstructed old words—maybe if I thought of a larger justice including the things I exclude from justice routinely (rocks, clouds, beans, dogs, &c) as unwittingly as slave masters excluding their own unthinkably human pieces of talking property, maybe if I really opened up to doing away with godrules and godneeds, so did away with monarchs by doing away with the archos, ….

“If a man can resist the influences of his townsfollk, if he can cut free from the tyranny of neighbourhood gossip, the world has no terrors for him; there is no second inquisition” — John Jay Chapman, by way of Joanna Russ

Other people can only objectify you or dehumanize you in their own minds, unless you agree to become what they want inside your own head.

If you don’t accept it, it becomes just more of the general disunderstanding, the ground state of humanity. You do not owe it to humans to become what they tell you to be.

179

mattski 12.31.14 at 9:30 pm

RP @ 128

You may not like their premises or their conclusion, but the reasoning involved in “Torture is wrong and we should not do it” is far less suspect than “Torture is wrong because I have the evidence to show that it produces bad consequences, including both direct and unintended consequences”.

I confess I don’t understand this. To me it sounds like you’re imputing a process of reasoning to an assertion of fiat. Like there was a hidden Tough Guy in there laying down The Law.

180

William Timberman 12.31.14 at 9:50 pm

Charles R @ 174

…or William Timberman in his responses (who doesn’t seem to get the gun pointed back at him the way J Thomas solicits; so maybe there’s something to it)…

You may take it as gospel that I’ve never considered what’s important about a gun to be who it’s pointed at at any given instant, nor have I ever assumed that it can’t at some instant be pointed at me.

181

LFC 12.31.14 at 10:26 pm

Charles R
I guess others have asked this before, but I’ll ask and be corrected on it: if when veiled I were ignorant about who I will be when again no longer veiled and so concluding the patterns of justice go thus as the story we know goes, why the background assumption the only things I could be are humans? I might be the trees, the rocks, the governments, or the chickens, the pigs, the cows. I might even be a planet or a galaxy cluster.

The comment of mine currently in moderation addresses W Timberman’s remarks on Rawls, but in the meantime I must say that this passage from Charles R is one of the more bizarre, weird things about Rawls I’ve ever read — possibly the most bizarre. The idea of the veil of ignorance is not that the hypothetical people behind it don’t know anything — they do know some things, and they certainly know they are humans not galaxy clusters. I’m turning off my computer for the day. The amount of sheer, unadulterated nonsense (not necessarily mainly here at CT, but in general) is getting to be too much.

182

LFC 12.31.14 at 10:29 pm

To answer Charles R’s question more directly: the “background assumption” is that they are human b/c Rawls’s theory is about justice in human societies; it’s not about principles of justice for societies of galaxy clusters, or societies of hamsters, spiders, rocks, whatever.

183

mattski 12.31.14 at 10:31 pm

Don’t go away, LFC!!

:^)

184

js. 12.31.14 at 10:41 pm

Sometimes, you’ve just got to ignore sheer idiotic blather (@LFC).

185

Matt 12.31.14 at 11:06 pm

I really enjoyed that bit from Charles R, actually. Expanding notions of justice to include treatment of non-human animals is a logical extension and philosophers such as Peter Singer have written convincingly about that inclusion. Including inanimate parts of the natural world is a more difficult stretch, conceptually, but it’s not ridiculous. It could be one way to reason about the preservation of glaciers, mountaintops, and other inanimate features of the natural world.

As I have written in a long Singer thread in the past, the most intractable problem with notions of justice that expand beyond humans seems to be mutually incompatible needs. If all animals should be treated well, what does that mean for obligate carnivores and their herbivore prey? If you are inclined to technical hedonism, as I am, it may be that the proper minimax strategy is universal extinction. This is a counter-intuitive result, to be sure! But without radical re-engineering of the neurological basis of our experiences, the depths of suffering are much deeper than the heights of pleasure are high.

A year of delights cannot compensate for a day of grim horrors. The expectation value for hedonic utility of each new life lived is below zero. I have sometimes wondered if that’s an answer to the Fermi Paradox. Most species that could undertake interstellar travel first realize that the only winning move in the game of life is not to play, and voluntarily refrain from reproduction until they go extinct.

186

MPAVictoria 12.31.14 at 11:07 pm

“…or William Timberman in his responses (who doesn’t seem to get the gun pointed back at him the way J Thomas solicits; so maybe there’s something to it)…”

Hardly fair as J has repeatedly written about how fantastic it is to have a gun pointed at you.

187

js. 12.31.14 at 11:07 pm

I wanted to make one other quick point in my 169 that I left out because the comment was already too long, but here it is.

Val @119 mentions “values or empathy” as sources of rules of conduct that we use to regulate our behavior. I think this gestures at an important point that I would put this way: there are motivational structures that are absolutely essential to our intuitions and beliefs about moral conduct, but which consequentialism can’t ultimately make room for.

This is not to make the mistake of saying that consequentialism is a theory about motivational structures; of course it isn’t. Nevertheless, insofar as consequentialism insists on prescribing actions that maximize some sort of aggregate of some sort of utility function, it will—under certain circumstances—run up against deeply important motivational structures, ones that are characterized by or grounded in non-consequentialist commitments to certain values or to treating persons, or certain persons, in certain ways, etc. At best, this means that taken seriously, consequentialism isn’t really workable prescriptive theory for moral conduct (which, generally, it wants to be).

188

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 12:02 am

#184 js.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to ignore sheer idiotic blather (@LFC).

LFC’s stand is not sheer idiotic blather. If you look at it just right, it makes a kind of sense.

It’s a good thing to try to understand his point of view, because there’s a certain sort of limited meaning to it that’s worth paying attention to, particularly if there’s a chance you don’t already understand it.

189

PatrickinIowa 01.01.15 at 12:14 am

After the Apollo spacecraft landed on the moon, I read an interview with a tribeswoman from a rural area in, I believe, Malayasia. When asked if she believed that human beings had walked on the moon, she said, no, the mood was a goddess, and she would never permit herself to be sullied in that way.

So, I suppose, the statement, “Human beings have walked on the moon,” is now a religious statement, yes?

190

js. 01.01.15 at 12:15 am

Oh, my. Well, I imagine LFC understands my comment, and I’m happy to leave J Thomas in the dark.

191

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 12:31 am

js, I was happy to give you the benefit of the doubt. It would have been OK for you to accept that benefit.

192

William Timberman 01.01.15 at 12:47 am

LF @ 167

No, I don’t think there’s really a misunderstanding at work in my comment, at least not a misunderstanding of Rawls. I believe I have a good handle on what he was up to, and as I tried to say, I don’t exactly disapprove of the project; I just don’t think that it does for us what he thinks it does.

Justice as fairness is all well and good, but Rawls arrives at fairness by what I consider a far too antiseptic a means. If we all agreed to do what he says, perhaps everything would work out for the best, but the reasons why we aren’t likely to agree are critical, and I don’t think he does them anything like justice. Again, it’s like the models of macroeconomists…they aren’t exactly useless, but they aren’t of as much use as macroeconomists would like us to believe.

Finally, If I am misunderstanding Rawls, it’s not out of any antipathy toward his efforts. I’m critical of his work, but by no means do I think it deserves condemnation.

193

js. 01.01.15 at 12:49 am

This is actually hilarious. So, how exactly were you giving me “the benefit of the doubt”?

194

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 12:50 am

Did LFC @181 really gets that annoyed at Charles R., or was that some kind of ironic performance? Charles R.’s comment was great. One of the core works of of SF, Olaf Stapledon’s _Star Maker_ (unless I’m remembering _First and Last Men_), has scenes of exactly this kind — a human intelligence gets to experience the thought of sentient nebulae, galactic clusters, etc., as part of a group telepathic attempt by intelligences of many different kinds, places, and times to work against a coming catastrophe. If really would be strange if philosophers could adopt ideas like this that are well-known in mystical thought but people got huffy if the association went the other way.

195

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 1:03 am

I understood!

196

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 1:25 am

So, how exactly were you giving me “the benefit of the doubt”?

You appeared to be condescending to someone without giving any indication of your reasoning, as if you were merely declaring that your own status was so high that you could bully others based on who you were. A large handful of people do that here, MPAV often does it. There’s plenty of precedent.

I responded as if you were ridiculing LFC’s comment which at first sight looks mundane and useless, as if it is not an ironical parody of the blinkered position he appears to take.

HTH.

197

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 1:29 am

How exactly did I appear to be condescending?

198

js. 01.01.15 at 1:56 am

Why does LFC’s comment seem to you “at first sight … mundane and useless”? And while we’re at it, have you ever read any Rawls?

199

mattski 01.01.15 at 2:03 am

JT,

LFC’s stand is not sheer idiotic blather.

Nor did js. suggest that it was.

godoggo/J. Parnell Thomas,

You’re hammered already aren’t you? Happy New Year!

200

mattski 01.01.15 at 2:12 am

Matt,

If you are inclined to technical hedonism, as I am, it may be that the proper minimax strategy is universal extinction.

Fwiw, the purpose of enlightenment in Buddhist teachings is the end of suffering which entails cessation of the cycle of birth and death. I saw an interesting video (Yay, Youtube!) of the Dalai Lama in conference with scientists from various backgrounds, though probably mainly physicists, where the DL referenced an idea from Buddhist philosophy about the implications of full realization. Paraphrasing, he said that upon enlightenment the external world recedes or evaporates, almost in a mode of ’embarrassment’ that its illusory nature has been exposed.

So there’s that.

201

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 2:26 am

Not hammered, but I did just have some beans.

202

elspi 01.01.15 at 2:26 am

Why is it that the acts of Stalin discredit Marx but the acts of Pinochet don’t discredit Friedman?

How can one possibly argue that Marx was more to blame for Stalin than Friedman was for Pinochet?

Based on his writings, Marx disowned Stalin in advance, whereas Friedman was an active backer of Pinochet.

203

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 2:27 am

Beats me about the other guy.

204

MPAVictoria 01.01.15 at 3:05 am

Happy New Years everyone!
/Even you J! Keep on shining you crazy diamond.

205

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 3:13 am

Thank you! I will!

206

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 3:13 am

Maybe I should say we.

207

MPAVictoria 01.01.15 at 3:16 am

We. Definitely we. ;-)

208

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 3:40 am

#197 J. Parnell Thomas

How exactly did I appear to be condescending?

Well, of course it was only my interpretation of your statements, and you may have meant something entirely different.

#184 Sometimes, you’ve just got to ignore sheer idiotic blather (@LFC).

I interpreted this to mean that you regarded somebody’s statement as sheer idiotic blather, but you were not going to tell them why their claims were mere blather. That seemed condescending to me.

The most charitable interpretation I saw was that you took LFC’s statement literally and you responded to it as it would deserve in that case.

#190 Oh, my. Well, I imagine LFC understands my comment, and I’m happy to leave J Thomas in the dark.

Here you appear to imply that you think that your view of things was better than mine, and you would not explain but leave me an outsider to condescend to. I would be happy to find I misunderstood your intention.

Why does LFC’s comment seem to you “at first sight … mundane and useless”?

Because one of the fundamental mostly-unanswered questions that needs to be answered so we can think about ethics, is about where do I leave off and you begin? Where should my in-group leave off and yours begin? My nation? My species? Who deserves to have a point of view? Who actually does have a point of view? Who deserves ethical treatment?

It isn’t so long ago that slaves were considered to have no rights and animals to have no souls. Anyone who thinks this stuff is all settled fair-and-square today, is deluded. Unless they are very wise and have not thrown their pearls before pigs like me.

As I understood it, LFC’s response was that Rawls knows the right way to deal with this, and it is to say that we know what humans are, and we know who’s human and who isn’t, so the whole thing is settled. There is no reason for anyone to consider any obligations to anybody except societies of humans, to do more than that is silly.

And my thought is, why should anyone announce ex cathedra, without justification, that we must do things the way Rawls did, and stop where he stopped, and never consider any question beyond questions he considered? If we’re going to do philosophy, why would we not continue our approach until we reach limits that it cannot cross? We won’t know where those limits are until they stop us. Then we can look for ways to transcend them.

Does genus Homo have the right to breed other animals (like sheep) to be stupid and unable to exercise moral authority? If there is any justice, Homo owes Canis tremendous reparations for creating the cocker spaniel.

Perhaps God told us we had dominion over all the other animals. But what if we misunderstood? If someday God shows up and asks humanity “What have you done to your little brothers?” what could we possibly say?

So I supposed that LFC was saying what he said, in the way he said it, to show how stupid it would be to believe such a thing. An argument by contradiction.

209

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 3:42 am

Oops, Not J. Parnell Thomas. Sorry about that, I copy-and-pasted without reading carefully enough.

210

John Quiggin 01.01.15 at 3:42 am

211

mattski 01.01.15 at 4:28 am

@ 202

Marx & Friedman are philosophers. They talk a lot and do little. They get used as ‘court painters’ by the Doers. The struggle that matters is the struggle between the people who do things. In a manner of speaking, the struggle between Team Gandhi and Team Capone.

Here is a good illustration of what I’m talking about.

212

Ormond Otvos 01.01.15 at 7:59 am

There’s nothing dismissive about “faith-based.” Are you afraid to offend the faithers?

213

bad Jim 01.01.15 at 8:11 am

Matt: A year of delights cannot compensate for a day of grim horrors.

Days of grim horrors, unfortunately, have the habit of occurring now and then; over a lifetime they pile up. The only way to escape the deaths of others is to predecease them, or never to have made their acquaintance, either of which is arguably worse than the alternative.

A happy new year to all.

214

js. 01.01.15 at 8:25 am

To repeat, have you ever read any Rawls?

215

LFC 01.01.15 at 11:27 am

js. 190
I imagine LFC understands my comment

Yes, I did understand your comment. It was perfectly clear, to me at least.

216

LFC 01.01.15 at 11:49 am

Matt 185
I’m not necessarily opposed to expanding notions of justice to include non-human animals. But Charles R’s remark was made w/r/t Rawls specifically, and I was reacting to that.

Wm Timberman 192
Ok. Fair enough, I guess, at least in that I think there are quite a lot of people who would share your criticisms of R. (or something roughly like them).

217

Val 01.01.15 at 11:54 am

Dear js, thank you for your further explanation, that was very interesting. Perhaps you could explain further sometime what you consider deontology to be, if it is a thing – or concept – worth considering.

This thread did descend into weirdness, no doubt. Perhaps someone could, charitably, suggest that J Thomas go back and read the comments, understanding that he has made a fundamental mistake of fact or logic (I’m not quite sure how to classify it, though I see the mistake quite clearly), which has led him astray for quite a long time now. There must be a name for this – just not recognizing when you have made a mistake and gone down a false trail, even though other people are trying – sort of, maybe half heartedly – to tell you. Painful.
New Year’s Eve is well over here, but maybe is the explanation for gibberish there. Happy new year to all.

218

LFC 01.01.15 at 12:25 pm

J Thomas 208
You’ve misunderstood me; I wasn’t saying anything about humans’ obligations to non-human animals.

If Charles R @175 wanted to make a point about expanding the range of moral philosophy to cover non-human animals and inanimate things, he probably should not have introduced the point with a reference to the veil of ignorance. Because in doing that it looks like he’s making a point about Rawls. Re-reading his paragraph, I have a sense now that he’s trying to make a general point that really has nothing to do w Rawls, but by introducing it w a reference to Rawls he induces confusion.

Rawls was working in a particular tradition of political and moral philosophy, as he makes clear right upfront in the preface to TJ. His work has to be read in that general context, and in that context I think it makes no more sense to ask why the original position does not include, say, igneous rock formations or trees than it does to ask, for example, why Rousseau and Kant did not write about Martians.

It’s quite possible that somewhere in his writings R. does talk about environmental issues; I’m not sure because I have not by a long shot read every word that R. ever wrote. In any case I was definitely not saying that we should “never consider any question beyond questions [Rawls] considered.” That’s certainly not my view.

219

Plume 01.01.15 at 1:17 pm

Mattski (slightly OT),

You mentioned the Dalai Lama earlier. If my memory is correct, you’re into Buddhism as well. As mentioned, I studied and then practiced Zen for a bit and intend to go back to it this year.

The Dalai Lama has self-identified as a Marxist.

Here’s a short list of famous anti-capitalists, socialists, Marxists, communists — leftists in general.

Shelley, William Blake, William Morris, George Orwell, Einstein, Picasso, Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, Steinbeck, Helen Keller, Camus, Sartre, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Gramsci, MLK, Kafka, Dorothy Day, the Dalai Lama, Naomi Klein, David Harvey, Richard D. Wolff, Gar Alperovitz, John Bellamy Foster . . . and Gandhi.

I’m in excellent company.

;>)

Here’s Einstein’s “Why Socialism,” from the original Monthly Review Article.

220

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 2:22 pm

#217 LFC

You’ve misunderstood me; I wasn’t saying anything about humans’ obligations to non-human animals.

Sure. I brought that particular specific question up out of nowhere. As an example.

Re-reading his paragraph, I have a sense now that he’s trying to make a general point that really has nothing to do w Rawls, but by introducing it w a reference to Rawls he induces confusion.

Oh, OK. It looked to me like he was asking why we should stop where Rawls stopped. Not so much claiming that Rawls should not have stopped there.

And you answered definitively that this was indeed where Rawls stopped and you seemed to me to be saying that Charles R’s idea was nonsense.

I have no idea how to relate to a galactic cluster. At first thought I’d think of them as collections of pieces that do nothing but interact with each other according to the deterministic Newtonian laws of gravity, and there can’t possibly be anything there that thinks, and how can we have any ethical interaction with something which does not think?

Of course, that limitation might rule out ethical interactions with plants and most Republicans and women who have taken roofies.

And maybe my understanding of galactic clusters is limited. Newton’s rules give us situations that appear chaotic, it isn’t certain we could avoid that even if we could calculate to infinite precision and we could compute every particle in the universe. And of course quantum, the little ball of tar that physicists roll into any argument where people allow it. If galactice clusters aren’t deterministic could there be consciousness there? I see no reason to think they are, but I don’t know. Do I have any ethical obligation to them? As far as I know they don’t care in the slightest what I do, and if they did care they wouldn’t do anything about it until long after humanity is already extinct. Pragmatically we need to pay attention to the opinions of entities who will retaliate if they feel aggrieved….

Maybe there’s more to all this, and maybe there’s something there that’s worth noticing. It isn’t necessarily only about human beings who speak a common language and who each agree the other is not crazy.

221

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 2:31 pm

#216 Val

Perhaps someone could, charitably, suggest that J Thomas go back and read the comments, understanding that he has made a fundamental mistake of fact or logic (I’m not quite sure how to classify it, though I see the mistake quite clearly), which has led him astray for quite a long time now. There must be a name for this – just not recognizing when you have made a mistake and gone down a false trail, even though other people are trying – sort of, maybe half heartedly – to tell you. Painful.

No problem, Val. I’ve been wrong before, and I handle it by continuing to be wrong with my current approaches until I find new better ways. It isn’t painful for me. It’s what I’ve found that works.

I could listen to people who tell me I’m wrong and who tell me what I should do instead, and obey them. But usually as I learn more I find that they are if anything wronger still. Often I learn interesting things from them, though.

But you haven’t done that. You’ve merely explained “You’re doing it wrong, dude”. Thank you for sharing, merry christmas and happy new year.

222

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 4:15 pm

Charles R. wrote a better and more insightful comment than all the people who condescended to him and told him that he got it wrong. You’re demonstrating your own limitations as readers, not his as a writer.

1. “IMO, we will all be better off once we cast off the ultimate dictator. “God.” Not to replace him with others. But to do away with the idea of rulers of any kind, period.”

He then writes about how academics replace this ultimate dictator, who they often congratulate themselves that they do not believe in, with lesser ones in form of textual authorities who they demand be taken seriously, and play the “the exact same apologetics games” with regard to them.

2. I’ll leave out his middle bit about how some people say that they write in an anarchic spirit, yet there is “what they say” as a marked contrast. And about how the brilliance of famous dead men is available to just about any position you want to hold. Plume should read this. Maybe he’ll be ready to in a few years.

3. “if when veiled I were ignorant about who I will be when again no longer veiled and so concluding the patterns of justice go thus as the story we know goes, why the background assumption the only things I could be are humans? I might be the trees, the rocks, the governments, or the chickens, the pigs, the cows. I might even be a planet or a galaxy cluster. It’s a big universe of possible things I am […]]”

LFC responds with:

“possibly the most bizarre. The idea of the veil of ignorance is not that the hypothetical people behind it don’t know anything — they do know some things, and they certainly know they are humans not galaxy clusters. I’m turning off my computer for the day. The amount of sheer, unadulterated nonsense (not necessarily mainly here at CT, but in general) is getting to be too much.”

and

“Rawls was working in a particular tradition of political and moral philosophy, as he makes clear right upfront in the preface to TJ. His work has to be read in that general context, and in that context I think it makes no more sense to ask why the original position does not include, say, igneous rock formations or trees than it does to ask, for example, why Rousseau and Kant did not write about Martians.”

I didn’t understand whether LFC was being ironic or not, because he was comically proving true everything that Charles R. wrote in (1.) above.

223

bianca steele 01.01.15 at 4:37 pm

J. Thomas (too many Thomases, it took me a minute to figure out which Friedman JQ was referencing above):

You ask why you should worry about what Rawls says, and whether you understand what he says in the correct way. Perhaps it’s because you seem to be someone who wants to be “academic,” in a lay sort of way. And because this means understanding what is written in books, and how really smart people have decided is the correct way to understand what’s written in books. So you should be very concerned about what’s written in scholarship about Rawls. True, there’s some value in thinking things through for yourself, but it’s easy to get disconnected from tradition if you do this. And over time you might get pushed in directions you don’t want to go (though maybe you do, I don’t know you). So, if that’s an argument that persuades you, you should be concerned that people who know a lot about Rawls keep saying you’re wrong and shouldn’t say what you do about him.

224

Anarcissie 01.01.15 at 5:01 pm

“IMO, we will all be better off once we cast off the ultimate dictator. “God.” Not to replace him with others. But to do away with the idea of rulers of any kind, period.”

That’s going to be hard to do, considering the grammar.

225

Ze Kraggash 01.01.15 at 5:12 pm

I read somewhere that if have the wonderful lamp, or a special ring, some of those things could actually be your slaves.

226

mattski 01.01.15 at 5:17 pm

Plume,

Yes, I consider myself a Buddhist though my practice is lapsed at this time which I regret to say.

The Dalai Lama has self-identified as a Marxist.

It would be better if you gave a citation or a direct quote because to say what you said is limited and biased in the direction you want it to be biased.

I did enjoy your links regarding Gandhi and Einstein. Thank you. I thought the Einstein piece quite excellent. But I think both are more supportive of my positions than yours. Basically, you and I have a similar vision of where we think humanity should end up. But from my perspective you have an erroneous idea that we can simply go from where we are today to the ultimate goal in one giant step, merely by willing it, as it were. Whereas I believe we need to calculate our next step based on the terrain we are standing on/living in, AND the ‘length and agility’ of our stride. That’s a metaphor, but it pretty much captures our differences from my perspective.

227

bianca steele 01.01.15 at 5:33 pm

From what little I’ve read of Rawls, the veil of ignorance seems intended to combine the idea of a social contract with Kant–it’s a tool that imaginatively transforms the people in the social contract theory’s original position into Kantian reasoners. So Charles R’s comment about Kant and racism seems relatively consistent with the concern that Rawls doesn’t have a good way to incorporate concern for other species (who would never have been Kantian reasoners in the first place).

I personally see nothing wrong with trying to extend individual innovative ideas that can be found in Rawls, though this will mean sometimes ignoring some statements in the book where they prevent moving in that direction, and obviously will conflict with the goal of trying to become a Rawls expert.

228

Val 01.01.15 at 5:36 pm

J Thomas @ 220
It’s not really my job, or anyone else’s job, to point out your mistakes. But the mistake I am talking about is not a serious or intellectual one. It is a simple confusion. js @ 184 told LFC that he/she (LFC) should sometimes just “ignore sheer idiotic blather”. You @ 188, wrongly thought js was accusing LFC of talking “sheer idiotic blather”, and you persisted in that error for quite some time. Various people tried to point it out to you, but for some reason you didn’t take their comments on board.

It’s kind of boring to scroll through the comments and explain all this to you. You should have done it yourself and there is some kind of lesson in there somewhere about paying attention to what other people are actually saying, rather than what you think they are saying, and responding to what they are saying, rather than going off on flights of fancy – if you want to have conversations, rather than monologues, that is.

229

Plume 01.01.15 at 5:37 pm

Mattski @225,

I have never even remotely suggested we could leap into a truly socialist, egalitarian, truly democratic future. I have repeatedly said it’s not going to happen any time soon, if ever, and that I won’t live to see it happen. It will be a long, hard slog. But I have said that the liberal idea of endlessly postponing action is wrong, and that their constant excuses regarding “not having the votes” don’t account for their not even trying to discuss changes. It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy. They won’t ever have the votes unless they push for these changes — win, lose or draw. That’s how you change minds and move the Overton Window. Not through silence, etc.

So, in short, yeah, I know it’s a process. Do I want to speed it up as much as possible? Certainly. But I know we can’t leap into that world tomorrow. And I also know we never will if we don’t even take the first step. Neither of the two main parties has or seemingly will.

Here’s a cite for the Dalai Lama’s Marxist:

http://www.tricycle.com/web-exclusive/occupy-buddhism

And another one from the Guardian:

Dalai Lama and Marxism

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

He was at it again the other day, telling Chinese students that he considers himself a Marxist. This wasn’t just playing to the crowd – although it was reported with surprise (at least in the US), the ideological alignment is longstanding. In 1993, he said: “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair.”

230

Plume 01.01.15 at 5:40 pm

Here’s another cite from within the Guardian article, from usatoday:

Dalai Lama declares he’s a Marxist

231

Ronan(rf) 01.01.15 at 5:49 pm

My impression is that J Thomas was purposely misreading js. Being sarcastic/ironic. (just addding this b/c JT doesnt seem to want to clarify that point, for whatever reason)

232

Mdc 01.01.15 at 5:56 pm

The easy route for Rawls to justify ‘concern for other species’ is the standard Kantian one: we have indirect duties to non-rational beings, because we have a direct duty to foster a character in ourselves inclined away from cruelty and brutality. I guess ‘animal cruelty’ laws on the books are probably motivated this way. No need to think of animals as parties to the social contract.

233

Val 01.01.15 at 5:56 pm

More seriously J Thomas, you did a similar thing to MPAVictoria in the ‘having a gun pointed at you’ stuff. She was trying to say something to you about that, but you kept not getting it and going on with your own train of thought – ostensibly as a response to MPAV but in fact not.

It’s kind of frustrating to observe, because there is an opportunity for dialogue and learning in cases like that – I mean you could have learnt something from MPAV, and possibly you could have explained to her what you were trying to say if you had understood what she was saying (though I’m not sure about that) – but it was missed. It can be kind of funny but it’s also frustrating and I think it lowers the standard of discussion.

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Val 01.01.15 at 6:00 pm

Ronan (rf) @ 230 – I wrote my second comment before I saw yours. That’s a charitable explanation, but having re-read the sequence of comments, I don’t think it’s right!

235

mattski 01.01.15 at 6:04 pm

Plume,

I have never even remotely suggested we could leap into a truly socialist, egalitarian, truly democratic future.

That’s funny, then why is one of your most oft-repeated phrases, “It’s not rocket science”? Your characterizations of capitalism and socialism are cartoonish in the extreme, Plume. There is nothing, and I mean nothing in your writing that approaches the subtlety of what Einstein wrote in the link you provided. What do you think Albert’s response to your crude polemics would be? Dismay, that’s what I think.

But I have said that the liberal idea of endlessly postponing action is wrong, and that their constant excuses regarding “not having the votes” don’t account for their not even trying to discuss changes.

More crude, inaccurate generalizations that paper over reality.

236

mattski 01.01.15 at 6:06 pm

Whoops, sorry, Plume! Thank you for the cites on DL & Marxism. Point taken.

237

js. 01.01.15 at 6:13 pm

Well, I for one think that science fiction is just some bullshit because even though I’ve read almost none of it, I’ve read a couple of sentences in @194, and if you ask me, a ‘sentient nebula’ is fucking nonsense.

Kill your idols indeed.

238

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 6:16 pm

Val: “It’s kind of boring to scroll through the comments and explain all this to you. You should have done it yourself and there is some kind of lesson in there somewhere about paying attention to what other people are actually saying, rather than what you think they are saying, and responding to what they are saying, rather than going off on flights of fancy – if you want to have conversations, rather than monologues, that is.”

Actually, Val, you are the one who got it wrong. J Thomas was being sarcastic when he pretended to reply to js. as if js. was criticizing LFC. J Thomas later on clarifies that he was doing just that, for the people who didn’t get it:

“I responded as if you were ridiculing LFC’s comment which at first sight looks mundane and useless, as if it is not an ironical parody of the blinkered position he appears to take.”

I’ll recap it: Charles R. complained about people being condescending and dismissive, based on them playing standard apologetics games on behalf of their dead authorities. LFC then was condescending and dismissive in exactly the way that Charles R. had written about. js. was then *even more* condescending and dismissive, supporting LFC. J Thomas then slyly pretended to misunderstand js. as a way of pointing out how js. was writing — but in a way that was pretty clear to anyone actually reading the thread. I suppose that you could get on J Thomas’ case for being condescending in turn, but given that the targets of his condescension didn’t understand, is it really condescension?

You write: “There must be a name for this – just not recognizing when you have made a mistake and gone down a false trail, even though other people are trying – sort of, maybe half heartedly – to tell you. Painful.”

It’s not that painful! People often don’t get irony through the Internet.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 6:16 pm

Rich P. @221

There’s a difference between being “ruled” by a textual authority and suggesting that someone might want to pay a smidgen of attention to the reasons that a particular writer wrote what he/she did.

Rawls’s theory is about human societies (as were those of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant that he says in preface to TJ he’s building on and carrying to a higher level of abstraction, or words to that effect). Given the fact that R’s theory is about human society, it seems a little unfair to tax him with not doing something he didn’t set out to do.

It’s as if Rich Puchalsky set out to write a book about his vision of anarchism and I came along and said “Hey Rich, neat book, but why have you ignored the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in multiethnic states?” Rich would be completely justified in replying: “Um, because that’s not what my book is about.”

It’s not a question of kowtowing to a particular writer, treating him/her as an infallible authorty, etc. It’s a question of being minimally sensitive to what a particular writer sets out to do and the context he/she’s working in. So I don’t think what I wrote had anything to do w Charles R’s point about (in your words) “replac[ing] this ultimate dictator … with lesser ones in form of textual authorities who they demand be taken seriously….” I was not “demanding” that Rawls “be taken seriously”; rather, I was just reacting almost viscerally to what struck me as a somewhat absurd suggestion. Maybe I misread Charles R’s intention, but I think a fair reading of what he wrote suggests he was expressing puzzlement about why R. focuses on humans. And I was simply saying he focuses on humans b.c that’s what Rawls, and the other writers he’s in conversation with, focus on. A fairly simple, basic point, ISTM.

Now, is the treatment and status of non-human animals an important issue? Sure. Is the relation of humans to their environment (animal and inanimate) important? Definitely. But if you want to charge Rawls with species-ism because he focuses on humans, you’re going to have to charge a lot of others with that too, probably including your favored Bakunin and Kropotkin. Offhand it doesn’t seem like an especially productive line of criticism to me, though I cd be wrong.

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js. 01.01.15 at 6:18 pm

Ronan’s right (@130), I’m pretty sure. This is what counts for J Thomas as ‘giving someone the benefit of the doubt’. It’s not too much of a wonder that most everyone else is totally confused.

Anyway, Val, glad I could be of some help.

Happy new year to all.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 6:18 pm

Rich P
Charles R. complained about people being condescending and dismissive, based on them playing standard apologetics games on behalf of their dead authorities. LFC then was condescending and dismissive in exactly the way that Charles R. had written about. js. was then *even more* condescending and dismissive

This is just bullsh*t, for reasons I detailed above.

242

engels 01.01.15 at 6:18 pm

‘you have an erroneous idea that we can simply go from where we are today to the ultimate goal in one giant step, merely by willing it’

That does sound pretty foolish to me too.

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J Thomas 01.01.15 at 6:19 pm

#222 Bianca Steele

And because this means understanding what is written in books, and how really smart people have decided is the correct way to understand what’s written in books. So you should be very concerned about what’s written in scholarship about Rawls.

The main reason I would be very concerned about what people write about Rawls, is if they wind up accepting ideas that look wrong. Then I want to find out where the problem is. Maybe there’s something wrong with what they believe, or something wrong with my assumptions or logic. Either way I want to know. I’m no more concerned with what Rawls actually said than I am about Lieh-Tzu, or Teresa of Avila, or Wittgenstein or Darwin. But some of the things that have been attributed to them look interesting.

True, there’s some value in thinking things through for yourself, but it’s easy to get disconnected from tradition if you do this. And over time you might get pushed in directions you don’t want to go (though maybe you do, I don’t know you).

I’d expect that getting too connected to tradition would be more likely to push people in bad directions. If you think “Here are some people who have left their footprints in the sand, I’ll follow them some and see where they lead” that’s OK. If you think “Those people in the past must have known where they were going and where they went must have been the right place” then you are likely to be disappointed.

It’s usually more efficient to listen to live scholars than dead scholars, because they can answer questions. If they see they have something wrong they can rethink it.

On the other hand there’s the analogy with software. The earliest versions may have serious bugs but they will clearly express their intentions. Later versions that have lots of patches to fix discovered bugs are likely to be much harder to follow. What can work better is to follow the original enough to get the ideas, and then track the known bugs enough to see where the original thinking was misplaced. Then you might get something cleaner. But it’s a big effort and hard to get permissions.

So, if that’s an argument that persuades you, you should be concerned that people who know a lot about Rawls keep saying you’re wrong and shouldn’t say what you do about him.

I’m not talking about Rawls. I’m talking about the arguments people make here, some of which they attribute to Rawls.

You may be suffering from insufficient arrogance. There are exercises you can do to increase your self-assurance, if you want to do that. When you try to understand things, you must depend on yourself because your only alternative is to appoint an authority to tell you what to think. If you believe you are not smart enough to follow other people’s ideas and you should accept them without understanding, why try to understand?

If you believe that Rawls is better than you and so you mustn’t judge for yourself, if some prophet of Rawls says that you aren’t competent to judge, why try to understand? Just find the bottom line where he tells you what to do and do it. It is disrespectful to try to follow his arguments when you know already that you aren’t qualified to do it.

If you aren’t willing to suppose that maybe everybody else is wrong and you are right, and later suppose that maybe you were wrong before but you now see that something different is right, then you have no business getting involved except as part of some sort of authority-appreciation club.

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bianca steele 01.01.15 at 6:20 pm

Rich @ 237

So everyone’s being ironic–meaning, regardless of what they say, they agree with Rich–except Val, who’s just wrong. How predictable.

245

bianca steele 01.01.15 at 6:21 pm

J @ 242

Okay, then.

246

LFC 01.01.15 at 6:21 pm

Mdc 231 — comment noted (w interest).

247

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 6:25 pm

js.: “Well, I for one think that science fiction is just some bullshit because even though I’ve read almost none of it, I’ve read a couple of sentences in @194, and if you ask me, a ‘sentient nebula’ is fucking nonsense.

Kill your idols indeed.”

But I’m an ardent Stapledonist! How dare you insult my guru. I think that I’ll post 5 or 6 comments listing everyone admirable in history who ever believed something similar to Stapledon, and explain how you just can’t think seriously about these issues if you don’t study Stapledon’s works.

(More seriously, Stapledon prefigures Žižek little bit, in that he wrote: ” I am not a Marxist, but I have learned much from Marxists, and I am not anti-Marxist… Marxism and Christianity spring from the same emotional experience, but each in its way misinterprets, falsifies.”)

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Plume 01.01.15 at 6:27 pm

Mattski @234,

As mentioned, I supplied umpteen links to articles supporting my views. And, no, they’re not cartoonish. Not in the slightest. Your defense of capitalism was cartoonish. Not as ridiculous as Brett D’s. But still quite tone deaf and childish.

Einstein would agree with most of what I’ve written. I go in some different directions that he never trod. But I think he would be fine with pretty much all of it. And, unlike you, he’d spend time using critical thinking skills, debate this or that point with me, make a case, make a real argument for why this or that was problematic.

You? Your habit has generally been to immediately dismiss and mock, without any attempt to understand. Which is why your sentence regarding generalizations and papering over reality strikes me as so funny. I’ve actually put in the legwork to make my case, supplied the cites for it to back up what I said. You’ve chosen to take unfounded pot shots.

In short, I see nothing but generalizations coming from you, and you always leap before you look.

Regardless, Happy New Year.

249

engels 01.01.15 at 6:28 pm

Awesome thread btw. Happy NY, Timberteers.

250

LFC 01.01.15 at 6:32 pm

Rich P
But I’m an ardent Stapledonist! How dare you insult my guru. I think that I’ll post 5 or 6 comments listing everyone admirable in history who ever believed something similar to Stapledon, and explain how you just can’t think seriously about these issues if you don’t study Stapledon’s works.

Since no one here has taken this approach w/r/t Rawls, this comment is completely inapt.

251

Plume 01.01.15 at 6:40 pm

Rich @246,

You definitely can’t think seriously about Stapledon if you haven’t read him. You can’t write a good book or movie review if you haven’t read or seen the material.

Remember, you were the person who made the sweeping statement that Marxists were apparently everywhere and always wrecking Green initiatives. You’ve clearly stereotyped them to a very silly degree, and have shown no ability to accurately portray Marx’s views or those who call themselves Marxists or Marxians. Or, those who are just interested in expanding their perspectives to include them.

Marx and Marxists have been seriously marginalized in America, but not in Canada or Europe. I see you and others like you as just accepting national cultural and intellectual stereotypes, and taking the easy way out. I’m used to that coming from my fellow Americans. But the truly odd part is the anger. As if Marx and Marxists are some threat to the Establishment. As if the few people who say they’re Marxists are enough to shake the capitalist foundation, and the foundational capitalist brainwashing in place. As if it’s such a horrible thing for a tiny, tiny minority to dissent.

Open minds are all too rare these days.

252

Val 01.01.15 at 6:41 pm

Rich Puchalsky @ 237
You quote J Thomas as saying
“I responded as if you were ridiculing LFC’s comment which at first sight looks mundane and useless, as if it is not an ironical parody of the blinkered position he appears to take.”

Can I just point out that that doesn’t make sense? Who in heavens name is making, or not making, an ironical parody of what? Especially when what js was responding to was LFC saying was that he was going to turn off his computer because of all the nonsense about. Where is the blinking ironical parody in that, for crying out loud?

253

J Thomas 01.01.15 at 6:54 pm

#227 Val

js @ 184 told LFC that he/she (LFC) should sometimes just “ignore sheer idiotic blather”. You @ 188, wrongly thought js was accusing LFC of talking “sheer idiotic blather”, and you persisted in that error for quite some time. Various people tried to point it out to you, but for some reason you didn’t take their comments on board.

This is a lesson for me in how easy it is to say things that will be misunderstood.

From my point of view, my interpretation of LFC’s comment and also my interpretation of js’s comment were the kindest I could find. Of course I knew I could be wrong about what they meant, but then I’m often wrong about what other people mean. I didn’t want to assume that they were intentionally saying things that made them look bad.

I didn’t keep that interpretation of js’s meaning for a single minute after I saw that js told me he intended the meaning that made him look bad. And I didn’t keep my interpretation of LFC’s comment for a single minute after I saw his denial, either.

But you believed that later discussion was about me not understanding what they claimed for themselves that they said. My understanding of it lined up very well with Rich Pukalsky #221. At first sight LFC appeared to be making exactly the mistakes that Charles R pointed out, almost as if he was following Charles R’s instructions. It was easier for me to see that as caricature than as sincere. And js appeared to be agreeing with him, though the wording was unclear enough that he could have been pointing at him. More charitable to think that he was objecting to LFC’s claim as if he did not realize it was parody.

I would still prefer to believe those interpretations but the authors said they were wrong. So I don’t.

254

MPAVictoria 01.01.15 at 6:57 pm

At least we can all agree the Crooked Timber commentariat is full of characters.

255

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 7:00 pm

LFC: “Since no one here has taken this approach w/r/t Rawls, this comment is completely inapt.”

I was joshing Plume w/r/t Marx., in response to js. twitting me over anti-Marxism.

LFC @ 238: “It’s not a question of kowtowing to a particular writer, treating him/her as an infallible authorty, etc. It’s a question of being minimally sensitive to what a particular writer sets out to do and the context he/she’s working in. So I don’t think what I wrote had anything to do w Charles R’s point about (in your words) “replac[ing] this ultimate dictator … with lesser ones in form of textual authorities who they demand be taken seriously….” I was not “demanding” that Rawls “be taken seriously”; rather, I was just reacting almost viscerally to what struck me as a somewhat absurd suggestion.”

Charles R. wrote about people doing the same apologetics games. How often does a non-fundamentalist Christian draw on the Bible as an infallible authority? They don’t. Instead they demand that you take it seriously on their terms. If you question whether we should be taking same ancient tribal legends as a guide towards anything, they’ll say that you aren’t seriously taking the context into account, that the writings were made under certain assumptions of that day and have to be evaluated taking those assumptions into account, and react viscerally to the absurd suggestion that maybe maybe what they’re doing is apologetics when what we’re talking about is the current day.

To answer your example, if I’d written a book about anarchism and someone many decades later said “Why does this book ignore the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in multiethnic states, something that many anarchists are concerned with these days?” it doesn’t help if someone then writes “But Puchalsky’s whole project was baed on writing about anarchism ignoring the the issue of religious and ethnic minorities! You can’t take it seriously without knowing that. I’m going to leave this ridiculous discussion” etc. etc.

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Val 01.01.15 at 7:11 pm

MPAVictoria @ 253
I reckon! This has kept me entertained (in a way) since I woke up at 3 in the morning due to having too much to drink last night, so it’s done me a big favour I suppose. But I wish somebody – JT, RP, anybody! – could explain to me why saying ‘I’m going to turn off my computer because there’s too much nonsense about’ is any more particularly “mundane and useless” than a million other comments here or elsewhere on the internet, and why it is “not” an ironical parody (of what? And whoever suggested it was an ironical parody in the first place? And an “ironical parody” would by definition be something that someone consciously did, otherwise it would be an “unconscious parody”, so who was LFC – if he was the actor in this case – trying to parodise – if that’s a word?). Or is JT suggesting that he – JT – is, or alternatively is not, making an ironical parody?

I would give a prize to anybody who can make sense of that comment, but unfortunately I don’t think J Thomas will, going on current form.

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Plume 01.01.15 at 7:21 pm

Rich,

If it’s joshing, I apologize for my own tone. Communication is roughly 90% (or more) non-verbal. Can’t always see humor and irony on the page.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 7:25 pm

No problem, Plume. I tried to telegraph it with “More seriously” in the paragraph under that, but yes, this kind of thing notoriously transmits badly through text.

259

js. 01.01.15 at 8:22 pm

I certainly wasn’t “twitting you over anti-Marxism”. For one thing, I imagine you’ve read your Marx.

260

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 8:32 pm

Val: “But I wish somebody – JT, RP, anybody! – could explain to me”

I’ll split the difference and say that maybe you were half right, Val. J Thomas says that he was writing with extreme interpretive charity rather than irony, but he still substantially knows what’s going on. Explanation follows:

1. LFC @ 181 responds to Charles R. I and others suspect that LFC is writing ironically, since he appears to be doing exactly what Charles R. criticized, but he says he’s sincere.

2. js. @ 184 supports LFC against Charles R. This also is sincere rather than ironic, based on #190.

3. J Thomas @ 188 pretends to think that js. is criticizing LFC rather than Charles R. Although J Thomas claims to be doing this out of interpretive charity rather than out of irony, he knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by @196 and many following comments.

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J Thomas 01.01.15 at 8:52 pm

#238 LFC

Rawls’s theory is about human societies (as were those of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant that he says in preface to TJ he’s building on and carrying to a higher level of abstraction, or words to that effect). Given the fact that R’s theory is about human society, it seems a little unfair to tax him with not doing something he didn’t set out to do.

Agreed, that would be unfair to Rawls.

It’s not a question of kowtowing to a particular writer, treating him/her as an infallible authorty, etc. It’s a question of being minimally sensitive to what a particular writer sets out to do and the context he/she’s working in. So I don’t think what I wrote had anything to do w Charles R’s point about (in your words) “replac[ing] this ultimate dictator … with lesser ones in form of textual authorities who they demand be taken seriously….”

At the time Charles R was talking to Plame about Marx. I’m thinking that if you’re talking to Americans and you want to talk about an idea that was inspired by Marx, you really ought to file off the serial numbers and present it as something else. Otherwise somebody will say “This is Marxist and therefore it must be wrong” and somebody else will likely say “No, everything Marx ever said was right” and your idea, whatever it is, will get ignored. Regardless whether Marx was a genius who got everything right, his name has beome a dogwhistle that will attract hounds from all over who will have a howling context. Why start that? (Anyway, at that point it wasn’t about Rawls.)

I was not “demanding” that Rawls “be taken seriously”; rather, I was just reacting almost viscerally to what struck me as a somewhat absurd suggestion.

I get those visceral reactions too. I try to lie down until they go away.

Maybe I misread Charles R’s intention, but I think a fair reading of what he wrote suggests he was expressing puzzlement about why R. focuses on humans.

Charles R talked about Marx, and Kant, and Hessel, with mention of Descartes etc, and then he brought in Timberman on Rawls:

I mean, take how Timberman talks about Rawls. I guess others have asked this before, but I’ll ask and be corrected on it: if when veiled I were ignorant about who I will be when again no longer veiled and so concluding the patterns of justice go thus as the story we know goes, why the background assumption the only things I could be are humans? ….

It takes a very open mind to think unthinkable sorts of things. Maybe even a brilliant sort of mind. But when we start saying people are deficient, when we mock them, when we use words and phrases and patterns of symbolic interaction that humiliate, aren’t we setting up for us, maybe where we don’t think too much about it, a new set of rulers who dominate over the inferiors? Aren’t we saying we not only know better, but this knowing what the other hasn’t yet learned grants us license to dehumanize them through ridicule and mockery?

I interpret this not so much about why Rawls restricts his thinking to humans, but more to ask why Timberman should. And he is not blaming Timberman for not already taking the path he suggests. He says it’s hard to do, but worth doing.

He started out gently suggesting that Plume might be setting Marx up as an idol to replace god, he did not mention the idea that you would do that with Rawls. Is it more important to get clear what Rawls thought, or instead what might be useful for us to think? No one mentioned Rawls in this thread until you did. Rawls looks to me like a likely valuable resource, worth bringing up. But if it’s vitally important to get it clear what some dead white guy thought, maybe Pythagoras would be a better choice. (Except that he ran a secret society and tried to keep outsiders from getting it clear….)

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 9:03 pm

js. @ 258: “I certainly wasn’t “twitting you over anti-Marxism”. For one thing, I imagine you’ve read your Marx.”

So you were seriously saying @ 236 that SF is bullshit even though you’ve read almost none of it, and that based on reading a couple of sentences about Stapledon’s writing, an idea from it is nonsense? I guess that I also extended you undue interpretive charity by assuming that you were joking.

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bianca steele 01.01.15 at 9:08 pm

I’ve certainly read a fair amount of SF, and I see js.’s point in calling it bullshit or “nonsense,” in the sense that there aren’t obviously the kind of limitations on what a writer can imagine that there are in other kinds of writing, so it might be worse than counterproductive to assume every example of SF should be taken seriously. It seems to be stuff taken out of the writer’s head based only on imagination and logical extrapolation with no connection to reality. Of course, since so many people have taken Stapledon seriously, that in itself is an argument for taking it seriously. And when one group of philosophers takes SF seriously and another group aggressively calls it bullshit, it might take some time to figure out what’s going on.

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Plume 01.01.15 at 9:11 pm

J Thomas @260,

Otherwise somebody will say “This is Marxist and therefore it must be wrong” and somebody else will likely say “No, everything Marx ever said was right” and your idea, whatever it is, will get ignored

There are, of course, many other options in that scenario. As in, “Marx is worth reading. I think we can learn a lot from him and subsequent Marxists, or Marxians, or Marxist-humanists, etc. etc.” No where in there is the extreme you set up. In a sense, you’ve repeated the first part twice. “This is Marxist and therefore it must be wrong,” and “No one can actually have a ‘balanced’ view of Marx and still want to read him.”

And back to the OP. “Consequentially” speaking. The reasons many object to even his name is that they instantly see the USSR and Maoist China as on Marx and Marxists. There is little recognition that one can read Marx critically, appreciate his perspective, appreciate the perspective of Marxians, etc. etc. . . . and not also somehow love Stalin. One can, in fact, despise Stalin and all authoritarians and despots — as I do — and appreciate Marx, etc. I’ve bumped into that more times than I can count. And, again, I first encountered Marx via literary criticism and the humanities in general. I never went the Marxist-Leninist route.

In short, people need to relax. It’s 2015. Marx shouldn’t be this kind of lightning rod at this point in time.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 9:16 pm

We were talking about Rawls, and Rawls “veil of ignorance” — like so many philosophical thought experiments — seems to me to be highly related to SF as a genre. As such, I think that the idea of rejecting SF as bullshit and simultaneously taking Rawls seriously is comical, a mere bias in favor of high-culture texts over low-culture ones. I should break out and polish up my series of romantic comedy adventure short stories based on philosophic thought experiments and erotic novels (originally written in comments here).

266

js. 01.01.15 at 9:26 pm

So you were seriously saying @ 236

No.

267

J. Parnell Thomas 01.01.15 at 9:27 pm

This is the best Rawlsian text.

268

Jay 01.01.15 at 9:28 pm

IMO, we will all be better off once we cast off the ultimate dictator. “God.” Not to replace him with others. But to do away with the idea of rulers of any kind, period.

As an atheist, I’ve found that the real trick, once you’ve dethroned God, is figuring out what to do without him. Our society is based on a lot of assumptions made by 18th century philosophers whose premises haven’t aged well. Western civilization is studiously ignoring the realization that its Enlightenment-era ideals like liberty, equality, and human rights are just another social construct, not binding on anyone who doesn’t choose to be bound.

Don’t misunderstand me: other people are real, and coercion from other people is real. Nobody wants to be ruled themselves, but we’d each sleep a bit better if the other 7 billion of us were under some sort of control.

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J Thomas 01.01.15 at 9:28 pm

#263 Plume

“Otherwise somebody will say “This is Marxist and therefore it must be wrong” and somebody else will likely say “No, everything Marx ever said was right” and your idea, whatever it is, will get ignored.”

In short, people need to relax. It’s 2015. Marx shouldn’t be this kind of lightning rod at this point in time.

And yet, your own example has repeatedly shown that Marx has been this kind of lightning rod in recent days and weeks, here on CT. You bring up Marx and people hear the dogwhistle and come running to say “Marx! Marx! Marx bad!”. You start explaining that Marx is good, they start talking about Stalin, and it’s another dozen times around the same old merry-go-round once again.

I don’t want to tell you not to do that, if it’s what you want to do. It might even do some good. Maybe if you repeat the same thing over again enough times, your opponents will get too tired to respond vigorously.

I saw that happen once in a salt-water aquarium. I’d leave the lab around 3 AM each morning, and the aquarium was in the hall and I”d stop and watch it a little. There was a hermit crab who had some sort of interest in an anemone. It would drag its shell over to the big anemone and tap against the side of the thing. The anemone would bend over and brush its tentacles around, and the crab would huddle inside its shell until the anemone straightened back up. Then it would tap again and the anemone would bend over again. About the third day things had changed. My interpretation is that the anemone got tired and started bending slower and slower, until the crab had time to cut its way inside and start literally eating the anemone’s lunch. The anemone had a piece of shrimp in its stomach and the third day the crab was eating that while the anemone was slit open.

But if you actually have an idea you want to discuss, it might be better to talk about the idea without ever blowing the dogwhistle. Possibly if you talk about the idea without using the word “Marx” maybe the merry-go-round won’t start. More likely the conditioned reflexes have been established to the point that people will start talking about Marx when they see *your* name, but maybe not.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 9:37 pm

js.: “‘So you were seriously saying @ 236’

No.”

Ah, then you were joking about something, but I don’t know what.

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SusanC 01.01.15 at 9:46 pm

This paper may be of relevance:

Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). “Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes”. Psychological Review 84: 231–259.

It’s possible that attempts at introspection can result in confabulation: I believe X (for reasons not accessible to consciousness); when I am pressed on why I believe X, the brain concocts a plausible justification for believing X that may be entirely unrelated to the (unconscious) reason for believing it.

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Plume 01.01.15 at 9:52 pm

J Thomas,

It’s not blowing a dog whistle. I’m not writing in code. I’m not trying to hide anything. Just trying to present a different perspective. And, while you might be correct that the expected reaction renders it futile to bring up the name, I would have thought a blog like this might be different. It is, after all, academic in nature, at least center-left, the bloggers themselves have brought him up, and one would think it would be generally open to the topic. It’s not as if this is Red State or Townhall or Fox.

In America, pretty much the only place one bumps into actual Marxists is in university settings. I just don’t get how someone can read or watch a David Harvey or a Richard Wolff and get angry. They’re like kindly grandpas to me.

Regardless, Happy New Year to all, and I hope everyone’s 2015 is awesome, as the young kids used to say.

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J Thomas 01.01.15 at 9:52 pm

#269 Rich Puchalsky

Ah, then you were joking about something, but I don’t know what.

I thought he was parodying his concept of some other commenter’s position.

Like for example, somebody who disagreed with Rawls who had not in fact read Rawls. But who ludicrously believed any ideas they found in a science fiction context.

Such a person would deserve to have his own idols mocked, more than someone would deserve to be mocked for paying attention to an eminently respectable philosopher.

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J Thomas 01.01.15 at 10:03 pm

#273 Plume

And, while you might be correct that the expected reaction renders it futile to bring up the name, I would have thought a blog like this might be different. It is, after all, academic in nature, at least center-left, the bloggers themselves have brought him up, and one would think it would be generally open to the topic.

You have seen what has happened with come consistency.

While it is a blog with academic first posters and a generally thoughtful group, still they only ban a very few people and allow a number of intense anti-marxists to comment. So regardless of your intentions, whenever you say the word “Marx” they show up to repeat about mountains of skulls and Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, labor theory of value, etc.

If you want to discuss something other than Stalin, mountain-of-skulls, etc then it might help if you ignore the red herrings and the other bait and instead talk about what you want to. Other people might respond to you on your chosen ideas, and if you don’t reply then the Stalin/mountain-of-skulls guys might post less. This has happened some, sometimes. You occasionally do get interesting discussions going that aren’t drowned out by the same-old/same-old. So whether or not you mention Marx you might try doing more of the things that have worked so far.

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Bruce Baugh 01.01.15 at 10:12 pm

Two comments.

#1. Rich Puchalsky is right about Olaf Stapledon. The first three pages alone of Star Maker say more true and important things about what successful though imperfect social life is like than many millions of words by others about that, and it’s important to look sometimes at ultimate cosmic vistas in the company of a guide who can say those true and important things about a handful of lives too.

#2. This could be just me, but I get the feeling that a lot of people genuinely don’t know – and can’t easily find out – how consequentialist or deontological they’re being until sufficiently test in ways that don’t conveniently present themselves all the time.

My personal case in point is libertarianism and health care. There was a time when I said, and believed, that the benefits in general liberty were worth the costs in personal well-being the US paid in not having a national health care system, along with the gains I thought there were in not having the budgetary costs of such a thing. The more I learned, though, the more I found that we’d actually been paying more and getting less all at the same time, and that people with reliable national health care systems simply didn’t suffer impairments in their practical powers of choice or quality of life that a lot of Americans (including a bunch of my friends and colleagues) did. So the breaking point approached: how dedicated was I to a particular notion of liberty such that it had to be clung to no matter what the real costs in human suffering (and wasted money and all the rest)?

Gradually I realized that the answer for me was “Not that much, actually.”, and that I’m more dedicated to concepts of liberty insofar as they contribute to real betterment of real people’s lives. I simply couldn’t be deontological in that particular way and feel that I was in tune with all the rest of my values, so I eventually stopped trying and acknowledged the change in self-conception. I wasn’t actually engaging in a different kind of moral reasoning, but it felt different thanks to changed information and conclusions changed on the basis of that.

Conversely, there are times when I find myself going “yeah, no, even if it were to be all that and a bag of chips, I still wouldn’t want it” about other things. It also often comes as something of a surprise.

And I think this is true for most people about many of their principles.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 10:22 pm

Here’s a passage from Charles R @175

But the thing I see pointed out by someone like J Thomas (whom I took with the pointed gun thing to be riffing off that famous scene with Raymond K Hessel, itself riffing the eternally turning hourglass Nietzsche’s demon speaks of, itself riffing off Pascal’s wagering challenge to consider the worth of one’s life now [and not many years from now, not years from now, not months from now, not ten minutes from now, but] when compared against the life you will have once you endeavor to train for as one’s eternal habit [what you called the initial step of faith], itself riffing off all the sales techniques philosophy has perfected for us by getting us to better use our imaginations under penalty of eternal death [and what’s more eternally dead for the philosopher than being conceptually ignored? At least being misquoted or misunderstood is to still be relevant and not be left behind, worth changing one’s mind about, since as Descartes secured immortality for himself by getting us to agree: to even be deceived is to be something being, since passivity in the one case is activity in the other, and only what moves, is —after the early modern period, that is]) or William Timberman in his responses (who doesn’t seem to get the gun pointed back at him the way J Thomas solicits; so maybe there’s something to it) is something like this: Who rules you without you knowing it, because for you it just seems the way things really are?

Whatever most of this passage means — and to determine what (if anything) it means I’d probably have to print it out and study it for half an hour, which I have no intention of doing — it’s striking that someone who apparently wants to break the enslaving chains of dead authorities is not shy about referring to dead philosophers himself: Nietzsche, Pascal, Descartes.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 10:32 pm

p.s. I do sort of like the question “Who rules you without you knowing it, because for you it just seems the way things really are?” Charitably interpreted, it’s a call to examine one’s assumptions, I guess, and I can’t object to that.

But the phrasing “who rules you?” conjures up the specter of a Malevolent Dead White Male Hand, almost perhaps like something out of an SF movie. Personally one of my own regrets about my education is that didn’t read enough Dead White Males, not that I read too many. (I’m for reading other people of course as well: non-whites, females, non-dead, etc.) But the lurking implication seems to be if you read the Bible or Marx or Rawls or *whatever* with any degree of attempted sympathy or even understanding, you are subjecting yourself to evil influences or something. Which I think is rubbish.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 10:47 pm

More from Charles R. @175

It takes a very open mind to think unthinkable sorts of things. Maybe even a brilliant sort of mind. But when we start saying people are deficient, when we mock them, when we use words and phrases and patterns of symbolic interaction that humiliate, aren’t we setting up for us, maybe where we don’t think too much about it, a new set of rulers who dominate over the inferiors? Aren’t we saying we not only know better, but this knowing what the other hasn’t yet learned grants us license to dehumanize them through ridicule and mockery? And laughing while we do so?

I am opposed to mockery and humiliation. Unfortunately the unpleasant fact is that people on blog comment threads, even here, are not infrequently telling people they are “deficient” or otherwise bad. In a recent thread I was called a “lying liberal.” I asked someone for a citation and was told to stop “stalking and trolling.” I actually don’t give a sh*t most of the time b/c this is a blog and I expect it.

When you write, on a blog, a long, rather complicated, rather stream-of-consciousness comment, and when you include in that comment a passing reference to galaxy clusters in the same passage as a ref to the veil of ignorance, you are prob. going to have to expect — notwithstanding Rich P’s contention that the veil of ignorance, as a thought experiment, has affinities to SF — that someone quickly reading the comment will see this and react. And others will react to the reaction, and a bit of a mess will ensue.

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LFC 01.01.15 at 11:01 pm

from Charles R @175:

But maybe if I weren’t so afraid of dehumanization or objectification—for all I know by contemporary sciences and our understanding of how consciousness forms, I am neither human nor not an object but all of the above, meaning we need different words (words needed differently), not simply new ones, not simply etymologically reconstructed old words—maybe if I thought of a larger justice including the things I exclude from justice routinely (rocks, clouds, beans, dogs, &c) as unwittingly as slave masters excluding their own unthinkably human pieces of talking property, maybe if I really opened up to doing away with godrules and godneeds, so did away with monarchs by doing away with the archos, then maybe I’d be and I wouldn’t be so afraid of being inhuman that I’d need to feel secure in mocking it, humiliating it, so that it won’t keep doing word things at me, even if I can just more easily scroll past it, if it really is just the way people troll us by using more words than what we deem, collectively, is normal and not yet prohibited. We’ve already crossed out all the other options, so this is the right one, we feel.

If you want to be “open to the weirdest thoughts, all the weird insanities of the nonsensical and the absurd,” why can’t you just be open to them? Why go through all this preliminary rigmarole about “doing away with monarchs by doing away with
the archos” etc. etc.?

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Val 01.01.15 at 11:18 pm

Haven’t read all the comments to here (although they look interesting – I’m reading on mobile which is a drag) but just want to say J Thomas, Rich P et al, ok I was wrong (thanks for earlier support Bianca but looks like I was).

J Thomas didn’t actually misunderstand, he faux misunderstood – although it was clear that js and LFC were suggesting Charles was talking nonsense about the Veil of Ignorance, he chose to respond as if they weren’t, to as he put it, give them the benefit of the doubt. All a bit elaborate for me. I still think there are some serious syntactical problems with the explanatory comment about ironical parody, but enough said.

I’m inclined to think Charles coming back as a galaxy is nonsensical in context of Veil of Ignorance, while not knowing much about it. It does seem to ignore Rawl’s purpose in the metaphor, as LFC said, also the “I” that is imagined is clearly a human “I”. Presumably what Charles is talking about is more like reincarnation, or an ecological consciousness (an idea I’m really interested in) but you have to think outside the boundaries of the individual human “I” to talk about that.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 11:19 pm

LFC: “Whatever most of this passage means […] it’s striking that someone who apparently wants to break the enslaving chains of dead authorities is not shy about referring to dead philosophers himself: Nietzsche, Pascal, Descartes.”

In Charles R.’s comment he pretty strongly implies that he teaches college-level philosophy: “If the very little evidence of a comment on a blog is enough to accuse someone for sinning the sin of being Not Worth Our Time Due To Being A Waste of Cognitive Resources, then certainly Kant—and a huge hell of a lot of philosophers we are forced by the rest of academic standards to teach as standard package to our clients the consumers—fit these standards. But he’s still brilliant, right?”

Italics added above.

LFC: “When you write, on a blog, a long, rather complicated, rather stream-of-consciousness comment, and when you include in that comment a passing reference to galaxy clusters in the same passage […]”

This is why I’m opposed to complaints about civility. In my experience it is always the people who complain about civility who are the least capable of understanding how their own writing is uncivil to others. LFC complains that someone called him a “lying liberal”, and understands that this is uncivil because calling someone a liar is uncivil, but is unable to understand that skimming someone’s comment and then saying that it’s bizarre, weird, and sheer unadulterated nonsense, based on something that LFC didn’t understand, is itself highly uncivil. When it’s joined to “I am opposed to mockery and humiliation” it’s just sad.

LFC: “Why go through all this preliminary rigmarole about “doing away with monarchs by doing away withthe archos” etc. etc.?”

It was a necessary part of his point.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.01.15 at 11:38 pm

Val: “I’m inclined to think Charles coming back as a galaxy is nonsensical in context of Veil of Ignorance, while not knowing much about it. It does seem to ignore Rawl’s purpose in the metaphor, as LFC said, also the “I” that is imagined is clearly a human “I”. Presumably what Charles is talking about is more like reincarnation, or an ecological consciousness (an idea I’m really interested in) but you have to think outside the boundaries of the individual human “I” to talk about that.”

It doesn’t have to be a mystical idea, although I don’t think that anything’s wrong with it being a kind of pantheism. But let’s imagine a forest for a moment, or an endangered species. Clearly we have no trouble with people saying that this has existence value to us, as humans. People often say that they would devote very significant social resources to making sure that a forest wasn’t cut down, or that an endangered species didn’t die out, even if this had no direct negative aspects on human welfare strictly understood (i.e. the forest dying out did not directly cause human harm in the form of topsoil being washed away, or something like that.)

So how would we put this human desire to divert social resources in this direction within Rawls’ veil of ignorance? One answer is to say that not all human concerns are handled within the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance, and that we should just ignore this as nonsensical. But another answer might be to say that, all right, imagine that when you’re beyond the veil of ignorance, you know that you might turn out to be that forest, or that endangered species. Does this change how you would divert social resources to them in a way that more closely mirrors liberal diversions of social resources?

I’ve purposefully chosen the least outre-sounding interpretation: we can work up to the other ones if people are interested.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 1:09 am

I’ve always thought of deontological claims as the useful bookends that keep consequentialist reasoning from falling over. As others have noted, consequentialism cannot be taken all the way without disappearing into speculation or falling into endless regress, so underneath it is almost always some absolute claim: “torture is bad”. Those with children are familiar with this story in daily life: you give reasons, they query the reasons, you explain the reasons, they query the explanation and you end up saying “do it just because it’s the right thing to do” .

Sometimes – indeed quite often – the question is not “why do you believe that?” but “which side are you on?”. A question that can only be answered deontologically. Cheney is on the side of the torturers, and reasons his consequential way there. The only way to avoid being reasoned into evil is to refuse to go there.

Come the revolution, Rich and Bruce will join the Reds, Andrew F will join the Whites, Brett will discover too late that hunting rifles and a copy of the 2nd Amendment are not a defense against an airstrike and Plume will be shot for being a nuisance all round. But much of the CT will end up waiting tables in exile, telling passing journalists that if only people had reasoned correctly this tragedy could have been avoided.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 1:11 am

Okay, “always thought” is an overstatement. I was much more confident of my reasoning powers and sense of right when I was young.

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LFC 01.02.15 at 1:22 am

R. Puchalsky 280

This is why I’m opposed to complaints about civility. In my experience it is always the people who complain about civility who are the least capable of understanding how their own writing is uncivil to others. LFC complains that someone called him a “lying liberal”, and understands that this is uncivil because calling someone a liar is uncivil, but is unable to understand that skimming someone’s comment and then saying that it’s bizarre, weird, and sheer unadulterated nonsense, based on something that LFC didn’t understand, is itself highly uncivil.

In fact, upthread I did not say his comment was bizarre, weird, etc., as you are perfectly well aware. I said the specific part of the comment referring to the veil of ignorance was bizarre. I’m not even sure Charles R. or you should regard this as uncivil, however, since Charles R. himself, in the passage I quoted (I truncated it accidentally) at 278 says, at least as I read it, that he wants “to be open to the weirdest thoughts, all the weird insanities of the nonsensical and the absurd”.

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J Thomas 01.02.15 at 1:23 am

#279 Val
… just want to say J Thomas, Rich P et al, ok I was wrong (thanks for earlier support Bianca but looks like I was).

Thank you! No harm done. It’s noble of you to say so when you notice you’ve been wrong.

I’m inclined to think Charles coming back as a galaxy is nonsensical in context of Veil of Ignorance, while not knowing much about it. It does seem to ignore Rawl’s purpose in the metaphor, as LFC said, also the “I” that is imagined is clearly a human “I”.

I may have misunderstood, but it makes sense to me like this:

Look at the childhood ritual of cutting the cake. This gets taught to all the children I know of. One person cuts the cake into two slices, and the other one picks which slice he wants.

When you cut the cake you are behind the Veil and don’t know which you’ll get, so you try to make them equal.

It’s nice and simple when the two of you are nearly the same. You get responsibility for making the cut, if you make a mistake you get the smaller piece of cake and you get no payment for that work and risk. But it’s kind of equal.

When you’re different then it’s harder. If you don’t know what the other guy is like, you can prepare two slices that you consider equal, and if he strongly prefers one of them then you don’t lose by it. But if you know what he wants then you can scheme. Like, say you only care about the icing, while he prefers a piece that’s about 20% icing. You can make one choice be all icing, and the other is all of the cake and 5% of the icing. He doesn’t really want 5% icing but it’s better than 100% icing, so you get what you want.

And when it’s lives you slice instead of cakes? If I give you a choice between being a concentration camp inmate or being a concentration camp guard, and I get the other role, which do you take? I would not be surprised if you chose to be the inmate. I think for a lot of people, having to be the guard would be worse than being the victim. The victims found themselves stealing food from people who would die without it, so the others starved faster and they starved slower. Agreeing with, going along with many casual cruelties each day, that’s awful. I think given the choice I’d want to be the inmate too. I wouldn’t want to give anybody that choice — but there are people who would.

We are so variable, how can we choose for others? Given a choice between being a sheep or a shepherd who both protects and preys on sheep, which is worse?

Given the dilemmas you might likely face as a living being, is it ethically acceptable to choose to be a rock?

Maybe none of this fits what Rawls was thinking. But to me it is not nonsensical.

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LFC 01.02.15 at 1:37 am

This thread has reinforced what I have recently decided is one of my New Year’s resolutions, which is to spend much less time reading CT and, especially, commenting at CT.

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bob mcmanus 01.02.15 at 1:41 am

After this thread, it should be fairly obvious who the rude problem commenter is.

And remember LFC claimed a my cut-and-paste from a Berube article was a fabrication (which was untrue, with malicious intent, and I will not forgive) , in other words called, in so many supposed civil terms, me worse than a liar.

LFC has a habit of saying vicious things, then coming back to pass the blame on those who are offended. “I was misunderstood! I’m a real good guy!”

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Charles Peterson 01.02.15 at 1:45 am

I can see why the Beans example was chosen. It may not be easy to find clear distinction between deontological vs consequentialist. Most things have negative environmental consequences of one kind or another, even if to a minimal degree. But whenever there are any negative consequences, a deontologist may propose those as the justification for not getting their hands dirty in replacing bad with better.

There is a very easy example to see in the USA. We have a political system which essentially makes third parties impossible. We have mostly winner-take-all races in geographically gerrymandered districts. No proportional representation. And then additional things piled on top of that due to the principles of power.

Braving this impossible situation, deontologicals refuse to vote for a lesser-evil candidate, even though the candidacy of the pure hearted but almost-certain-to-lose-candidates may lead to the consequence of the greater-evil being elected. There are only very few counterexamples in the history of the USA where third party candidate led to a more progressive outcome (though one could argue that those counterexamples were worth all the rot ever since).

I see third party voting and all the hand wringing over it in the USA as a good example of the deontological vs consequentialist arguments. It would be nice to change the system, but I don’t directly see that coming out of futile campaigns–except through the avenue of intermediate worse outcomes which are unlikely to have future benefit.

I think Chomsky has the right outlook on this. He advises voting for the lesser-evil because of the consequences of small changes to large concentrations of power. But he also advises not wasting a lot of time about it. Get on to other things that can actually have a more substantial effect on society. Participating in the rigged elections are only a tiny part of a person’s social responsibilities.

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LFC 01.02.15 at 2:06 am

mcmanus:
And remember LFC claimed my cut-and-paste from a Berube article was a fabrication (which was untrue, with malicious intent, and I will not forgive) , in other words called, in so many supposed civil terms, me worse than a liar.

Anyone can go back to that thread and make their own judgments about whether that is an accurate characterization. I said I was “pretty sure” it wasn’t there b/c I hadn’t remembered it. That was a mistake, poorly worded, and I immediately acknowledged it as such. I did not use the word “fabrication.”

Also, Puchalsky should look up the word “condescend” in a dictionary. To say that one thinks a particular piece of a particular comment is weird or nonsensical is not “condescension.”

Also, mcmanus is the person who, when he referred to something he had been reading in a comment and I asked for the title of the book, accused me of “stalking and trolling.”

Anyway, my present intent is not to comment here again. We’ll see if I keep that resolution.

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Bruce Baugh 01.02.15 at 3:07 am

Peter T, your #282 was a thing of beauty forever.

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mattski 01.02.15 at 3:12 am

LFC,

You have convinced me to follow your lead. I’ve enjoyed your contributions here, but I agree with you, it’s a dicey proposition. And there are better ways to spend ones limited time.

Rich P,

In my experience it is always the people who complain about civility who are the least capable of understanding how their own writing is uncivil to others.In my experience it is always the people who complain about civility who are the least capable of understanding how their own writing is uncivil to others.

Since you seem to know something about incivility, would you kindly acknowledge that on a previous thread you baselessly, egregiously implied that I was a supporter of torture? And you ignored my request that you support the accusation?

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Plume 01.02.15 at 4:17 am

Peter T @282,

and Plume will be shot for being a nuisance all round.

I don’t remember ever having a conservation with you before, Peter T. So, let me introduce myself:

My name is Plume. Fuck you.

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Plume 01.02.15 at 4:26 am

LFC,

Anyway, my present intent is not to comment here again. We’ll see if I keep that resolution.

I think that may be a very good idea. There are far too many self-absorbed, smug little assholes posting here, who barely comment, other than to take lame little pot shots at others without cause or provocation. They delude themselves into thinking they’re clever, or witty, or smart, or that what they have to say, with their childish little one liners, or their long-winded essays, is a fraction as interesting as they believe it is.

The bloggers at CT are generally pretty good. The commenters? With a few exceptions, not so much.

295

J. Parnell Thomas 01.02.15 at 4:51 am

People who accuse people who accuse people of being uncivil of being uncivil are the uncivilest people of all.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.02.15 at 5:01 am

Me: “I should break out and polish up my series of romantic comedy adventure short stories based on philosophic thought experiments and erotic novels”

And here they are — slightly corrected for typos and grammar — the Lew and Pru romantic comedy adventure stories featuring philosophical thought experiments, written here in comments. Rawls’ veil of ignorance is #3.

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Tony Lynch 01.02.15 at 5:36 am

Tricky things, consequences.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 5:58 am

Plume

I had in mind the death of Socrates. See also Tony Lynch @296

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Adam 01.02.15 at 6:01 am

Wouldn’t any deontological claim based on an arbitrary appeal to authority be fallacious anyway? I don’t think that “because X said so” is a legitimate rule-based ethic.

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js. 01.02.15 at 6:48 am

Those with children are familiar with this story in daily life: you give reasons, they query the reasons, you explain the reasons, they query the explanation and you end up saying “do it just because it’s the right thing to do” .

This is a good, short demonstration of why I think “deontology” is among the worst things to have happened since, oh I don’t know, the raid of Mahmud Ghazni. (Peter T, please don’t take this personally; I almost always find your comments to be very helpful.)

And: if anyone’s actually interested.

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js. 01.02.15 at 7:00 am

deontologicals refuse to vote for a lesser-evil candidate,

Oh, wait—this is so much better! Have any of you people bothered to look into what “deontology” is, beyond glancing at a wiki page? Or some third-hand popularizing text?

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js. 01.02.15 at 7:05 am

OK. The last paragraph of 282 is the best thing I’ve read on a CT thread in some months. Thanks! And a happy new year.

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bad Jim 01.02.15 at 7:05 am

Rich Puchalsky, hopeless romantic. “The tips were optimal”, said no mohel ever.

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J. Parnell Thomas 01.02.15 at 7:14 am

You know, the OT included not only an explanation for using that word, but an actual apology for it. I mean, as much as I hate to further embiggen the whineorama or whatever, that last bit of snootiness just doesn’t strike me as being in the spirit that it was written in.

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Charles Peterson 01.02.15 at 7:18 am

Sad to see the flaming here. I think the comments section here is the best, and commenters like Plume and Bruce Wilder and Sandwichman are among the best bloggers anywhere. Can I say I most often get far more out of the comments section than the OP? It’s certainly far longer, and a wide spectrum and reaction and interaction, often covering more interesting related principles.

Actually, I don’t see any nuisance writers. Some people would have to be invented if they didn’t exist, just to give representative counterpoint. And they’re doing that well! Just in my own tiny viewing of the massive archive.

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J Thomas 01.02.15 at 8:49 am

#289 LFC

Anyway, my present intent is not to comment here again. We’ll see if I keep that resolution.

I hope you don’t. You have made many useful contributions here. Often what you say is not what someone wants to hear. (Sometimes I don’t like what you say, even when I’m better off for hearing it.) Of course when you say things people don’t like they might attack you for it. They may attack your character, call you ignorant or rude, condescend, etc. It just goes with the territory and unless you mostly agree with everybody you have to learn not to take them too seriously.

Sometimes I’ve thought you were wrong or misguided, but then sometimes the discussion is advanced most by a wrong idea. If comments were worthless unless they were completely right, how little worth we would have!

Your comments have been of considerable value to me. If they cost you more than they’re worth, or if the opportunity cost is too high, then I can’t ask you to sacrifice to keep doing it. But I hope you don’t quit for good just because this time around it was your turn in the barrel.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 8:58 am

js @298.

Worst thing since Mahmud of Ghazni? Tell me how you would explain to an articulate child that they should not sit in their baby brother, without resort to any rule, principle or axiom of behaviour? Consequential threats not allowed. I really want to know – it will be in almost daily use around here.

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Ze Kraggash 01.02.15 at 9:34 am

Peter T is right, of course. Rules (both secular-humanistic and religious) are just a way (in fact the only way) to implement empirical consequentialism. It’s a technique.

It doesn’t make sense to calculate, every five minutes, why this or that is a good idea or bad idea: hey why don’t I steal this thing, since there are no cops around? Well, but this could lead to …. No, once it’s been determined that stealing stuff often leads to bad consequences, it makes sense to indoctrinate people with something like “thou shalt not steal”. In this sense, secular-humanistic beliefs and religious beliefs really are the same thing. Just a slightly different method of indoctrination. Not that different, really.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 10:03 am

Ze

True, but it’s not just the calculation issue. You can’t begin to evaluate consequences without first having some values to evaluate against. It’s all very well to say “that hurts people”, but for many people in history that’s not a bad thing. See my Mayan example. Or the many who have thought war a good thing. Or honour. Or chastity. JQ presumably thinks social democracy is a good thing because it fosters the virtues he cares about. I agree with him, but I wouldn’t know how to sell the idea to Eric Blood-Axe, Jade Jaguar or Henry V.

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Ze Kraggash 01.02.15 at 10:31 am

“You can’t begin to evaluate consequences without first having some values to evaluate against.”

I think, typically, the value, from consequentialist perspective, is always the same: the well-being of the tribe. ‘Virtues’ are also evaluated against the same value. The scope what constitutes “the tribe”, is a matter of definition, which is also subject to indoctrination. Plants and animals could be included, why not.

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Peter T 01.02.15 at 10:48 am

“Well-being of the tribe”? Or the individual? What constitutes “well-being”? Now or in the hereafter? And so on.

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Ze Kraggash 01.02.15 at 10:57 am

“Or the individual?”

That’s the whole point: rules and consequentialist arguments are needed to check selfish impulses of individuals, for the benefit of the tribe.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.02.15 at 1:36 pm

I think we’re pretty much forced to use “deontology” in this thread because JQ used it in the original post. As he wrote, it’s probably not the right word, but we sort of get what he means by context. So what’s a better word to describe what he means?

I would guess that simple statements of value are necessary for any morality and do not equate to deontology. “Torture is wrong” is a different kind of statement than “Don’t eat beans because Pythagoras said so.” But “torture is wrong” does not necessarily imply that someone will decide on a rule against torture. They could, as many people do, hold that torture is wrong but that it still has to be done because not torturing is even worse (because of worse consequences, or even, in the U.S., because many people feel that torture is a form of punishment that is wrong but not as wrong as letting people go unpunished.) There’s a lot of moral reasoning, implicit or explicit, that goes between “torture is wrong” and “and we should not do it.”

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JimV 01.02.15 at 2:07 pm

Two words: mirror neurons. Okay, a few more: pack instincts (alpha, beta, gamma). And probably some more besides those, but once you realize we are just the naturally-occurring products of the properties of this universe with nothing supernatural about it, it must get down to things like that, and the fact that their development and use vary among individuals.

Disclaimer: quick thoughts briefly summarized in an Internet comment may not completely define a person; and feelings perceived with your mirror neurons may be bigger or smaller than they appear.

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Brett Bellmore 01.02.15 at 2:47 pm

Fundamentally, there’s no getting around the is/ought distinction; Logic and empirical knowledge can inform you on how to achieve goals, they cannot give you goals. In that sense, some degree of deontology, if you want to call it that, is unavoidable in all moral systems.

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MPAVictoria 01.02.15 at 3:20 pm

Plume, I for one think you bring something important to the conversation. You as well mattski and LFC. I hope you all continue to post here.

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Ze Kraggash 01.02.15 at 5:10 pm

What’s this thing with torture? Everybody knows that torture is wrong, there is no controversy. Similarly, everyone knows that cannibalism is wrong, yet they also realize that should they ever find themselves stranded in the Andes they’ll probably end up eating human flesh. So what, where’s the issue.

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bianca steele 01.02.15 at 5:13 pm

Thinking about Rich@311, I came up with a deontology puzzle that however cuts the other way. It’s common for physicians to use the phrases “bad habits” and “healthy eating” in a common-sense kind of way. But: If you read up about acid-reflux syndrome, you find that one way of keeping it away is to change your diet. There are a bunch of things to avoid: coffee, tea, alcohol are obvious ones. But there are some others: tomatoes and tomato sauce, and raw vegetables, are a couple of them. But doctors, at least as they’re quoted in the big newspapers, like to continue to use “deontological” words like “bad habits” and “healthy eating” when they refer to the diet that can keep this particular disease away, even though it’s only “consequentially” that raw tomatoes are “unhealthy” for anyone. I think this is because we feel, unconsciously, not only that consequentialist talking isn’t really morality (and that we should naturally and easily think that we can be healthy if we’re moral), but that even if it is, it doesn’t persuade people to change their habits as much as “you should want to eat healthy” does.

These kinds of specific issues seem more interesting to me than “torture is wrong,” which everyone knows, and which isn’t going to affect anyone who comments on CT directly.

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bianca steele 01.02.15 at 5:27 pm

Though I suppose “torture is wrong” shifts the reasons for or against voting for a candidate away from issues where there’s a split in the population, whether economically or politically motivated, and where one group might be tempted to oppose the status quo. It allows cooperation between people who have nothing in common, except their mutual commitment to imposing a deontological principle.

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The Fool 01.02.15 at 6:33 pm

“Most of the time, the deontologist will keep on coming up with new consequentialist arguments as the old ones are knocked down.”

That’s because deontologists have no other choice. Having stated their rule, there is no other way to support it than to point to consequences, so if you want to actually make an argument — rather than a proclamation — then barring divine revelation all there is consequences.

Those of you who imagine that consequentialists are really deontologists because they say things that sound “rule-y” — actually those are just rule consequentialists. They use rules (because they can be useful!) but their position is not based on rules.

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J Thomas 01.02.15 at 6:58 pm

#318 The Fool

“Most of the time, the deontologist will keep on coming up with new consequentialist arguments as the old ones are knocked down.”

That’s because deontologists have no other choice. Having stated their rule, there is no other way to support it than to point to consequences, so if you want to actually make an argument — rather than a proclamation — then barring divine revelation all there is consequences.

Sure. If you say “Because God doesn’t want us to,” it’s just a proclamation. If you say “Because God will punish us for it”, then it’s consequences.

<i.Those of you who imagine that consequentialists are really deontologists because they say things that sound “rule-y” — actually those are just rule consequentialists. They use rules (because they can be useful!) but their position is not based on rules.

I dunno. Once you decide to base things on consequences, how do you decide which consequences are good? Do you have a set of rules about what’s good or do you just play it entirely by ear?

If you don’t have any rules then how is consequentialism different from “I just want what I want when I want it”?

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MPAVictoria 01.02.15 at 7:50 pm

I think a number of people here might get a kick out of the webcomic linked to below. It tries to summarize philosophical thought in amusing comic form.

Check it out.

http://existentialcomics.com/

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MPAVictoria 01.02.15 at 7:51 pm

And funnily enough this one kind of relate to the topic at hand:

http://existentialcomics.com/comic/60

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Bruce Wilder 01.02.15 at 8:15 pm

JQ, in the OP, did not seem altogether sure what the proper definition or label was, for the phenomenon he was pointing to, and then with the fanciful example of Py and bean-eating, he took away the denotative anchor as well. “Deontology” and “consequentialism” were left as flotsam; his boat having sunk before reaching its destination. Whatever that intended destination might have been, we can scarcely even speculate.

If we are talking about behavioral rules, as in an ethic or public policy, deontological reasoning and consequentialism will form polar opposite styles for argumentation, but they are not independent alternatives, as long as we are talking about rules (and implicitly roles). They are polar opposites on the same axis. If an advocate starts at one pole — say, with a consequentialist proposition, then any movement will be in the direction of the other pole. And, if an advocate starts with a deontological proposition, then the natural tendency is for any argument in support of the proposition to involve movement in the direction of consequentialist argument. Which is what JQ observed to be the case, in the OP: consequentialist arguments in favor of a proposition that did not rest in the mind of the advocate on consequentialist (cost-benefit?) grounds.

What holds the two styles together on a single axis is the reason we have rules (and roles) to begin with. Pure consequentialism, detached from rules, as several commenters have pointed out, is unsustainable. We simply do not, and cannot, know the consequences of any action well enough to proceed without rules. Sufficient information is not available locally in the situation, given the state of our understanding of how things are and how things work, to make a case-by-case determination without rules. Even if we were just 3-toed sloths hanging from the canopy and moving more slowly than anything around us, we’d adopt rules ad hoc as learning devices, doing things in a regular way in order both apply what we learned and to learn more about consequences in a noisy environment.

Pure deontology is possible, but only if you believe you have chosen an “ont . . .” that you can and do know thoroughly. That is, you can derive your rules from the nature (which is not the same thing as the authority, as in the case of Py and beans) of the thing-in-being, which orients all functional and value relationships. If God and God’s Love is the architect and architecture, respectively, of all that exists, then it is enough to know his Will to know the right thing to do. That particular deontology has not worked for the vast majority of Westerners at least since the Enlightenment swept thru Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When JQ observes that most Australians seem to intuitively adopt “consequentialism” as common sense, I think he’s probably confounding the economist’s naïve faith in the broad applicability of cost-benefit analyses with the general adoption in Western cultures of secular humanism as a lingua franca of values. The legitimate “good” of public policy and common ethics is the mundane good of actual human beings, generally or in common.

I daresay that many of us can forget that anyone has ever grounded their ideas of the Good in anything but the health and welfare of actual human beings, individually and collectively. I’m not saying that people agree narrowly on what “health” and “welfare” mean. Certainly, most people don’t necessarily buy into utilitarianism, the defects of which are simply an instance of the general problem with pure consequentialism — the impossibility of observing, calculating and discounting consequences in all their ramifications and in infinite regress. I am saying that most people accept, as a convention of democratic discussion at least, that what matters is the good of human beings, not the good of an abstraction or a deity. (And, though few us imagine ourselves as self-conscious galaxy clusters, I imagine more than a few are willing to consider the Good of larger, but still concretely observable entities, like Life on earth.)

This comment is getting kind of long and I feel like I should be coming to a conclusion by now, but I have not erected enough scaffolding to even suggest the structure I have in mind. That’s kind of a problem for any meta-level discussion we have about how we categorize arguments about ethics or policy on the internetz. We have these bumper-sticker arguments — you think blog comments are bad, subscribe to some fool’s Twitter feed — and after a while we are just a bitstream of lost impulse control complaining that someone has disrespected Rawls’ scholarship. (I hope LFC continues to comment; mattski, too — you’re are both really valuable.) We need a lot of superstructure to create a relationship between giant conceptual bins, like deontology or consequentialism (or virtue ethics), in order to say anything sensible, and have any chance of being understood.

Critical and central to the necessary superstructure is a recognition that we do not know. mattski, I think, tried to make that point earlier, as did some other commenters more obliquely. Uncertainty rules. And, without doing a survey, I am inclined to think that most people handle their ethical and policy thinking gingerly and tentatively. Even outside of the academic diffidence of CT, people are treating moral principles and imperatives as heuristics, as ways of guessing. They’ll use utilitarianism, for example, as a rough heuristic without committing to it (because no one, even an economist would commit to it, because it has such limitations and defects) and may use it to work out support for eating beans or not-eating beans, and if pressed they will give up the heuristic, without necessarily yielding on the proposition.

Another aspect of the problem that several earlier commenters touched upon, with what seemed to me more than a little reluctance, is that rules are for other people. When we are talking about ethics or public policy, we are generally talking about making rules that will constrain the behavior of other people (and we might be other people). This isn’t incidental. This is the context of rule-making and being bound by rules. We want to constrain other people’s behavior. We want other people to behave predictably and not violate our interests. We want other people to follow rules, and not just act on their own desires in the face of local and personal knowledge.

A vast number of things we might think we could negotiate individually actually seem to require conventional agreement on a large-scale, politically. Like which side of the road to drive on. And, how many weeks of paid vacation do employees get a year. Whether we can get affordable health care. This is a perennial problem for libertarian reasoning and for economic reasoning premised on a market economy. But, I digress.

We know that people are going to act out of mixed motives, strategically, pursuing their own individual or familial or tribal (or species?) interests as they see them, and try to get around the rules or subvert the rules, and so on and so forth.

And, that brings in the problem of authority to police the rules and to revise the rules. The structures of law do this in a formal way, but it is always at least implicit in talk of rules. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, this can be a problem for pure consequentialism. When Mom and Dad warn that there will be consequences, they usually mean that they are going to invent some artificial consequences apart from the actual consequences of the prohibited behavior. It can also be a problem for a religious deontology, which may require a heaven/hell or a judgment day to sweep up the cheaters, who get away. Also, it seemed to me that JQ in the OP might have been concerned with some people advocating rules that can never be revised in the light of experience.

So, we’re stuck with reasoning in a shared framework of competing heuristics, which is a hybrid of deontology and consequentialism. That’s the context for all discussion of ethics and public policy. And, we are talking about using authority to police the rules, inevitably. And, authority is unpleasant, especially when you are on the receiving end of enforcement, and costly in itself.

So, it is a really complicated friggin’ context, where we don’t know enough. So, it isn’t really surprising that we have difficulty even getting enough clarity to agree to disagree.

OK, I’ve run out of steam. A last note on economics, for Thornton Hall: mainstream economics has a false ontology in the assertion of a “market” economy, and what it gets from that, the deontology, is “free to choose” virtue ethics and process justifications (“competitive” markets give optimal results even if we mortals can not possibly know enough to question the efficiency of the results delivered by the market god) at best, and cargo cult (mechanism-free) reasoning at worst (austerity –> prosperity).

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ZM 01.02.15 at 8:46 pm

Sorry for such a lengthy comment – this is a very interesting topic

Rich Puchalsky,

“How often does a non-fundamentalist Christian draw on the Bible as an infallible authority? They don’t. Instead they demand that you take it seriously on their terms. If you question whether we should be taking same ancient tribal legends as a guide towards anything, they’ll say that you aren’t seriously taking the context into account,”

That might be the case in America, I don’t know, but it isn’t so much the case in Australia – numbers of Christian churches here are active in the reconciliation movement, especially since the churches had a big role in the indigenous assimilationist policies and stolen generations.

The role of the churches in assimilation meant that numbers of indigenous people became Christian, but Christian beliefs can fuse with their own spiritual understandings and practices.

As an example there is a Catholic reconciliation site with clips of indigenous people talking about their spiritual beliefs

http://www.yarrahealing.catholic.edu.au

I would say the problems you encounter with exploring Jewish and Christian texts like this are threefold – problems inherent in reading texts ; problems of understanding other times and cultures; and problems of the difficulty of rendering metaphysical experience into words and conveying it believably.

I find the idea we have in Australia about indigenous people here helpful in this regard – for non Australians this is the idea that one – normally indigenous people – can inhabit two worlds simultaneously.

The most prominent history and anthropology arguments about this issue that I know of are the ones about Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii – the three main notable interpretations I think are by Sahlins who is Marxist and materialist and theoretical but focuses on differences generated by culture ; by Dening who was an Australian ethno-historian and Catholic ; and Obeysekere who was pacific and found Sahlins’ interpretation offensive to islanders (Dening says Sahlins’ was more true to the existing sources).

Pacific history happens to be a good area for looking at deontology because Pacific Islanders kept many deontological beliefs and obligations such as cosmologies, spirits, seasons, rituals, taboos etc – but European societies discarded many for a long time now.

I find the support for consequentialism over deontology here surprising since it is quite obvious the consequences we can see in play in the world now do not bear up this idea that giving up deontological obligations is an improvement and leads to good outcomes – therefore logically a consequential appraisal of the consequences of giving up deontological obligations could only find deontological obligations worked better than the assortment of ethics they’ve been replaced by.

It is unfortunately too lengthy to summarise with proper respect for detail – but Greg Dening’s interpretation is not so famous but very interesting since he was a Jesuit priest for some time and continued to be Catholic – so he would have believed the transformation in the Eucharist rites as well the as other sacraments, and also late in his career wrote a history I haven’t got around to reading about some Catholic Churches in Australia in the second half of the 20th C described as “an ethnographic history of the prophetic imagination among ordinary believers in times of great religious change” With the prologue starting with the Holy Spirit among the disciples at the first Pentecost and then the Holy Spirit in the works of Vatican II and the Australian parishioners.

What I would like to draw to attention in Dening’s interpretation are the episodes he recounts where two worlds coincide in the one event – worldly for the English and other worldly for the islanders – and the allusions Dening draws to parallels between the events of the death of Cook/Lono and Christianity.

On the island there were once two seasons – the season of the Chiefs (this is archy as it means Chiefs, I thought I would say since the term was brought up earlier) and the strangers which went for 8 months and the other season, not of Chiefs but of Lono and the natives and the land and fruitfulness which went for 4 months.

The Chiefs were considered strangers because their ancestors had come from over the sea to rule the people of the land who believed in Lono.

Lono’s season – makahiki – began before the winter solstice and seems to have been a bit like Saturnalia – the Chiefs were sent to withdraw to their private residences while the commoners and the priests had the run of things and there was much festivity.

These seasons and the obligations to fulfil their rituals would be deontological.

The islanders’ sign for makahiki was the cross. One year Captain Cook’s ship arrived in the season of makahiki and it came in bearing flags with crosses.

Once upon the land Cook was called Lono by the islanders until his men also came to call him Lono and Cook himself participated as Lono in the rituals.

That year the high chief took his time and didn’t arrive until the 25th of December and came with great ceremony and majesty beyond the normal amount and gave Cook a feathered cloak and sailed a great canoe around the Resolution.

Cook asked to set up a tent by Lono’s temple from where he could watch the stars – the priests were agreeable and unsurprised for they too were watching the stars to find when the season would end at the setting of the Pleiades.

The day of the end of the season of makahiki and Lono’s rule ended that year on the 4th of February – and it just so happened that this was the very day Cook and his men would leave the island.

Before going they asked for some wood from Lono’s temple for firewood and the priests agreed (except for one statue of Ku) as it just so happened that on the last day of the season Lono’s temple was always ritually destroyed – and so it came to be that the Englishmen fulfilled the ritual of the destruction of the temple.

Makahiki always concluded with a ritual sacrifice – and it just so happened that one of the Englishmen died – and thus he was to become at once the year’s ritual sacrifice and also the first to have a Christian burial on the island.

They said their farewells and promised to return in a year after searching for the North West Passage.

But something went wrong with their ship and instead they returned after 7 days. This was out of season for Lono’s return – and the islanders were not hospitable so the English then began to use force on them. It so came that Cook fired at an islander but their matted vest protected them and then the islanders fell upon Cook/Lono and killed him – thereby carrying out the ritual death of Lono in the season of the Chiefs.

Cook/Lono’s body was taken up a hill to a temple of Ku – and the flesh of his body was shared out and was eaten.

The Englishmen savagely retaliated by not only killing many island men but capturing others and then stringing the dead island men’s heads around the captives necks.

The islanders asked the Englishmen when Lono would return again , and every year for forty or so years Lono returned in the season of makahiki.

Dening says it is Sahlins’ conclusion that this makes god an Englishman.

A couple of the sailors noted in their reflections about the events that the islanders seemingly saw things incomprehensible to themselves – and Dening himself , former Jesuit, happens to make some curious digressions :

One being – “There were two strange scenes in those confused days after the killings. One, in the side of the mountain on the temple of Ku, Cook lying there dismembered but resurrected in those who possessed him. The other, in the great cabin of the Resolution, the gentleman of the two ships observing the proprieties of the navy in dividing up the clothes and possessions of their late commodore and buying them in a small auction”

Another being about the strangeness of others’ gods and sacraments – of course the islanders did not call Cook a god but akua – and Dening says “The islanders I know about, the kanaka, maohi, and enata, had no difficulty in calling beings akua or atua in ways that offends my Euro-centric rationality.” But this would seem an odd comment from a former Jesuit priest who poor and lonely presided over intimate Eucharists with friends at Harvard, thus in every day rooms ritually transforming the everyday objects of bread and wine into forms of akua himself.

And the other is in his views about the Christian missionaries who came to the island, who, says Dening (to the likely amusement of Marshall Sahlins), adopted proto-Marxist strategies to convert the natives – “The natives would not be converted they argued until they were first civilised. They would not be civilised until they wanted the material goods of civilization so desperately that they would change their means and relations of production to create the surplus to buy them” .

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Anarcissie 01.03.15 at 12:26 am

Ze Kraggash 01.02.15 at 5:10 pm @ 315:
‘What’s this thing with torture? Everybody knows that torture is wrong, there is no controversy. Similarly, everyone knows that cannibalism is wrong, …’

But everyone doesn’t know that.

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Andrew F. 01.03.15 at 1:57 am

I was shocked and disappointed to discover not a single mention of trolley problems in 324 comments.

Granted, I didn’t read them (on consequentialist, not deontological, grounds), but my browser’s search function has never misled me.

A few thoughts:

(1) We are creatures of both deontological and consequentialist reasoning. Given the limits of bounded rationality and the nature of human reasoning and habit, societies filled with thorough consequentialists would be unlikely to survive, as would societies filled with thorough deontologists.

(2) The causal explanation for the fact that we employ both forms of reasoning does not undermine either of them. Yes, our sense of morality is contingent, but so what? Here we are, here are our values and beliefs, and that they are contingent does not make us or them less worthy of fighting for (or, less dramatically, of acknowledging their relevant and operational role in our inescapable practical reasoning).

(3) Cheney has a very different view of the probability and nature of certain threats in the world than many of you do. Is his view of torture driven by a different sense of morality, or simply a different sense of reality? Only half tongue in cheek (which is actually quite difficult, if you try it).

(4) LFC, I’ve always enjoyed your comments, even though we frequently disagree, and it would diminish the quality of these comment threads were you to leave. Granted, sometimes interactions within these threads are somewhat below the standards of friendly conversation or discussion, but I often don’t respond at all when I read an interesting comment or post (for various reasons – one may be considering what was said, not have the time to add anything, not have anything to add, etc.)., and I’m sure that applies to others as well. Also, from a consequentialist vantage, if we allow immoderate comments to drive out more moderate commenters, then the conversation becomes dominated by the extremes, and everyone loses. And from a deontological vantage, well, pick your principle, there are lots to use here.

(5) On torture again: as a policy, there are strong arguments against it. Certainly on a visceral level there are strong cases against it. But we generally accept ethically a lot of pretty horrible things for the sake of desired consequences. The principle of proportionality in war is a good example. So it’s difficult for me to square the notion that the effectiveness of torture under all circumstances is morally irrelevant with the notion that the effectiveness of putting a missile into a building in which there are both children and combatants is morally relevant. If we’re willing, and view as ethically acceptable, to kill children for the sake of eliminating an enemy position in a war (imagine the cause to be as just as you like – the war to end wars, poverty, disease, death, twitter, and English cuisine), why should we be any less willing to torture that same enemy if torture were to have the same degree of effectiveness in achieving the same ends (it doesn’t, but that’s not really the point)?

Even the deontological principles I know that I would not break under any circumstances could, were the consequences of not doing so sufficiently severe, appear to me be unethical to follow in those cases of sufficiently severe consequences – and although I would nonetheless honor the principles. I’d simply be forced to conclude that I ought act unethically in such circumstances, which would be tragic for both me and also for any hopes I have of logical consistency in moral philosophy.

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Consumatopia 01.03.15 at 4:39 am

The issue with torture isn’t just uncertainty but rationalization. Human beings and institutions are simply too prone to invent righteous narratives in which inflicting suffering on a helpless enemy is justifiable. People don’t just want their enemies to suffer, they want to believe that making their enemies suffer works. We want–psychologically, institutionally–to believe the confessions that come from tortured enemies, because they vindicate both our hatred and our torture. A world in which in we inflict pain on bad people and that makes them stop lying is one the world that human beings at war want to live in. Judging by polls and my Facebook feed, it’s the world a lot of us civilians want to live in as well.

Ze made a comparison to cannibalism. Torture would be comparable to cannibalism if human beings constantly rationalized the eating of human flesh the same way we have repeatedly, throughout history in the civilized world, rationalized torture. You know the cartoons where two people are on a life raft or island and start hallucinating each other as food? That’s what 24 is–a mass hallucination of justifiable, effective torture.

There are a great many circumstances in which people are tempted to rationalize the torture of their enemies, but few, if any, circumstances in which torture is even an act-utilitarian good. If you think that you are in a situation in which torture looks like a good idea, you should no longer trust your own judgment.

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MPAVictoria 01.03.15 at 4:47 am

“If you think that you are in a situation in which torture looks like a good idea, you should no longer trust your own judgment.”

When we finally dismantle the CIA the above will make a fine motto for whatever organization eventually springs up to replace them.

/I know I know. Keep dreaming.

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bad Jim 01.03.15 at 6:11 am

I want to quibble, inconsequentially, with one of Bruce Wilder’s points: that we make rules for other people. During my working career as an engineer, I made rules for the machines I animated with my programs: if this, do that. I find that I also make rules for myself, mostly as intellectual shortcuts, to avoid uninteresting choices, but also to prevent mistakes or to mechanize complicated tasks.

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Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 8:22 am

“Torture would be comparable to cannibalism if human beings constantly rationalized the eating of human flesh the same way we have repeatedly, throughout history in the civilized world, rationalized torture.”

In our ordinary life, which is, to say, typically in all 100% of our lives, I don’t think anyone ever brings up torture as an acceptable solution to our ordinary problems. We have enemies, we have people we hate (a nasty neighbor, colleague, whatever), but it never occurs to us to torture them – as far as know. Personally, I once had a strong desire to slash my horrible boss’ tires – but torture? Never entered my mind.

It always involves some hypothetical terrible extraordinary circumstances. The thing is, we don’t know how we might behave in terrible extraordinary circumstances. All our consequentialist and deontological ideas would, most likely, fly out of the window. And we know that. So, that’s the context here, as I see it. That’s why, I think, too much is being made of those polls. Government abuses are, of course, a different matter.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.15 at 10:07 am

Ze @ 8:22 am

That’s pretty much your deontology right there: – the apotheosis of torture, “extraordinary circumstances” ideas flying out the window. We don’t know how we might behave. Blah blah blah

Every schoolyard bully who has made a weaker kid cry out, helpless and humiliated, knows torture”works” . The rhetorical trick is to raise it from a coward’s grubby perversion to the ultimate effort of the hero. Just the thing for a greedy draft dodging pissant to elevate as a signature national policy.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.15 at 10:22 am

Programming machines can be a metaphor for making rules for people. If the machine has to be rewarded, penalized for cheating or starts to program you, it becomes a more interesting metaphor.

One of the interesting aspects of incentive construction is its artificiality compared to the realized value of actual consequences. The boss does not feel your pain. Self-discipline seems to require disassociation.

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Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 11:45 am

“That’s pretty much your deontology right there”

Nah. Deontology is what generates anxiety and righteous indignation. I rarely have that. Just trying to analyze the public sentiment, and make some sense of it.

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J Thomas 01.03.15 at 12:04 pm

#332 Bruce wilder

Every schoolyard bully who has made a weaker kid cry out, helpless and humiliated, knows torture”works” . The rhetorical trick is to raise it from a coward’s grubby perversion to the ultimate effort of the hero. Just the thing for a greedy draft dodging pissant to elevate as a signature national policy.

Well, but consider the Iliad, Book 10. Odysseus and Diomedes are sneaking around at night, and they catch a trojan who’s sneaking. They don’t actually torture him, they just get him real real scared that they’ll kill him. Then Odysseus promises he won’t be killed and he tells them everything they want to know. Then they kill him.

I read that in WWII the standard procedure for the Germans and the Russians to get battlefield info was to collect some POWs and line them up. Ask the first one some questions and if he didn’t answer fast enough, shoot him. Then do the same with the second one. They reliably got results by number four.

But the Americans were the good guys, so our approach was to line up the POWs and ask the first one some questions, and if he didn’t answer fast enough take him behind a truck and let the others hear a shot. Ditto the second. They claimed it worked just as well. The fact that the POWs couldn’t tell for sure whether the others were being killed didn’t make them any less scared. If anything it made them more scared because they didn’t know.

In general it is not necessary or particularly useful to apply pain to make people talk. Fear is the point, and fear of death is likely to be better than fear of torture. They will most strongly believe you might actually kill them if they see you kill somebody else. The one killed doesn’t actually have to know anything important, since his role is to die to prove that you kill people for not telling you what you want to hear.

It’s pointless to torture people who know you won’t let them go. I think that was the point of the torture the Iraqi police did to criminal gang members. They were making deals with the criminals, and the criminals they released wanted to have whip marks and burns etc to show their friends how macho they were. It would look bad if the police released them with no marks on them.

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Brett Bellmore 01.03.15 at 12:57 pm

“Fear is the point, and fear of death is likely to be better than fear of torture.”

It’s traditionally said that the problem with torture, is that at some point the victim stops fearing death, and starts longing for it, and then it becomes a race between the torturer and his victim to see if he can get anything before the victim dies. That’s why modern torturers concentrate on methods that don’t physically damage the victim so much, to deny the victim the hope they will die.

The fear of death is only effective early in the process.

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William Timberman 01.03.15 at 1:19 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 333

One of the interesting aspects of incentive construction is its artificiality compared to the realized value of actual consequences. The boss does not feel your pain. Self-discipline seems to require disassociation.

A very Zen thought, this, although you don’t appear to have intended it that way. In order to be free, the individual has to deconstruct himself, to recognize what besides himself has been responsible for making him what he is, to disentangle the forces impinging on him, and if not to master them, to recognize them for what they are — something, it seems to me, which is quite alien to the experience of most libertarians, and therefore what, in the end, makes their individualism seem so shallow.

When I was very young, and very much estranged, I ran across this: La République du Silence. It appealed to me because of its heroic posturing, I suppose — I was young after all — but there’s a core truth in it very much like the core truth of Buddhism: to know who you are, you have to be able to see what you’re part of, and how you’re part of it. In Sartre’s case, once he managed this, the Nazi occupiers became irrelevant, even though they retained the power of life and death over him and his friends.

Not ethics pre se, this, nor politics, nor economics, nor philosophy either, for that matter, but relevant nevertheless in pretty much the way you’re suggesting.

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Randy Yale 01.03.15 at 1:27 pm

I haven’t read all 336 comments, so someone may have already made this point. There are significant parallels with some of the concepts in Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Faith/beliefs are really just our biases. Moving beyond them to determine if the consequences of our biases are problematic is difficult for all of us. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it is similar to the problem people have with maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Quick fixes such as taking pills are so much easier than making long-term changes to the way we eat, exercise, live. For every person who is able to overcome empty calories and a sedentary lifestyle, there are surely 5-10 who try pre-packaged diets or exercise gimmicks. Thus it is with mental/philosophical fitness. It is much easier to accept the party line or agree with the blowhard pundit than to think individual issues through and try to maintain intellectual consistency.

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William Timberman 01.03.15 at 1:35 pm

I should probably add that to my mind, Sartre’s position, and that of the Zen master are almost polar opposites of Rawls’s veil of ignorance, yet sees far more effective as a means to judge what is fair, and what is not.

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William Timberman 01.03.15 at 1:37 pm

seem, not sees.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.15 at 2:22 pm

It figures that Andrew F. would argue that we might as well torture because sometimes we shoot missiles into buildings with kids in them. On another occasion he’ll say that we might as well use missiles on buildings with kids in them because after all, we torture. But he’s perfectly civil.

Bruce Wilder: “Every schoolyard bully who has made a weaker kid cry out, helpless and humiliated, knows torture”works” .”

Yes. Not to try to dispel the fog of “This is so remote from everyday life, no one does this”, but of course one of the lead torturers in Abu Ghraib was trained as a U.S. prison guard. America locks up a greater percentage of its population than any other country on Earth (except, perhaps, North Korea) and our prisons are places where people go to work and use torture as a means of control every day. As of 2012, we had nearly half a million prison guard jobs in the U.S., and it’s a high-turnover job.

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Consumatopia 01.03.15 at 3:04 pm

That’s why modern torturers concentrate on methods that don’t physically damage the victim so much, to deny the victim the hope they will die.

Any process that puts the mind under great stress risks making the detainee useless for intelligence gathering–dead or crazy. (This means that talk about using torture for a “ticking” bomb is absurd–in so far as torture works as an interrogation method at all, it cannot work quickly, as there is a limit to how much suffering you can “safely” impose on someone without permanently losing all of their information.) Darius Rejali summed up all these kinds of problems with torture’s use in interrogations pretty well here: http://www.salon.com/2004/06/18/torture_1/ One of the main arguments of his book Torture and Democracy is that when torturers avoid leaving physical marks on the body, that’s usually because they don’t want to leave evidence of torture, not because they’ve discovered some kind of rationally effective or scientifically rigorous system of torture.

If you want to give people incentives to tell you the truth, those incentives have to be built on fear or hope of future consequences. “We’ll kill you if you don’t tell us the truth” works, because, as a nation with a well-established, formal tradition of capital punishment, we can credibly promise that. “We’ll torture you for the rest of your life if we find out this is a lie” doesn’t work, because torture is not formalized under our legal system so we can’t credibly commit to it. “We’ll deport you to another country that will torture you for the rest of your life if we find out this is a lie” could work, though.

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Anarcissie 01.03.15 at 3:15 pm

Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 8:22 am
‘In our ordinary life, which is, to say, typically in all 100% of our lives, I don’t think anyone ever brings up torture as an acceptable solution to our ordinary problems.

Many people beat and terrify their children. The goodness of doing it has been enshrined in popular culture, in law, and in scripture.

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Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 3:45 pm

“Many people beat and terrify their children.”

Sure. Bullying, corporal punishment, and other unpleasantries do happen in everyday life.

But I thought we were talking about the methods used by the CIA, Gestapo, the French in Algeria (as shown in The Battle of Algiers, where it in fact does work), and so on. I don’t think it’s common to hold someone’s head underwater until they almost drown. I bet it happens less often, in everyday life, than, say, straight homicide. And (roughly) no one condones homicide. But they know that under some, definitely highly unusual and highly dramatic circumstances, they may have to kill somebody.

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Consumatopia 01.03.15 at 4:18 pm

(as shown in The Battle of Algiers, where it in fact does work)

Probably not, actually. http://www.salon.com/2004/06/21/torture_algiers/ The is very, very little evidence that torture is more effective or faster than other methods and a lot of evidence to the contrary. Despite this, people are very determined to believe in torture’s effectiveness.

But I thought we were talking about the methods used by the CIA, Gestapo, the French in Algeria

The methods employed are determined by the specific situations–torture at Guantanamo doesn’t work the same way as torture in a CIA black site, which doesn’t work the same as way as torture by parents, police, guards, gangs, or bullies. But in all of these situations, torture is never something we have to do, it is always something we want to do. In some situations, that means we want to have to do it.

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Anarcissie 01.03.15 at 4:59 pm

Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 3:45 pm
‘… But I thought we were talking about the methods used by the CIA, Gestapo, the French in Algeria (as shown in The Battle of Algiers, where it in fact does work), and so on….’

The others. But I think there’s a spectrum, although the pain and terror inflicted on many children would certainly be called ‘torture’ if it were applied to an adult.

Likewise, there is a spectrum of ‘imprison, torture, kill and eat sentient beings’ which has cannibalism at one end. Proceeding towards the middle we exclude some kinds of animals, and then others; but for all we know, a pig suffers just as much from being deprived of life and turned into a meal as a human would — maybe more.

We draw a line across these spectrums somewhere — but they are continuous anyway.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.15 at 5:13 pm

Ze: And (roughly) no one condones homicide. But they know that under some, definitely highly unusual and highly dramatic circumstances, they may have to kill somebody.

Ah, yes. “highly dramatic” — Hollywood scriptwriters assume American moral magisterium.

If you do, in fact, kill someone, it is likely (statistically) to be very much not something you have to do, but something senseless, callous, cruel or negligent. You got drunk, too drunk to understand or care that you should not be driving a car. Or, you had to have a phone conversation, when you were driving. Or, that safety meeting with your employees was boring, and those guys surely have the common sense not to . . . and surely they knew the risks when they took the job. Or, the quarterly profit numbers were not coming in, and really the contaminants are not that dangerous when dispersed in a large body of air or water; people need your products, your employees need their jobs. The training of U.S. Marines has one aim: to save lives! Your wife should not have called you that name, or shamed you about losing your job. Really, you just wanted the money in the till; why didn’t they just do what you told them to?

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.15 at 5:15 pm

Torturing the innocent works, too, apparently. In highly dramatic circumstances.

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Ze Kraggash 01.03.15 at 7:38 pm

“Hollywood scriptwriters assume American moral magisterium.”

True that. And not just American, and not just Hollywood, but whoever controls the tv. Is this a groundbreaking discovery?

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J Thomas 01.03.15 at 8:25 pm

#345 Consumatopia

Any process that puts the mind under great stress risks making the detainee useless for intelligence gathering–dead or crazy.

That makes sense to me. But I don’t actually have any first-hand experience. And I wouldn’t admit it if I did. Probably none of us are in real good shape to make consequential arguments because we are reasoning from what other people say about their experience, plus common sense, etc. We don’t really know what works.

… when torturers avoid leaving physical marks on the body, that’s usually because they don’t want to leave evidence of torture, not because they’ve discovered some kind of rationally effective or scientifically rigorous system of torture.

That fits my reading too. When it’s OK to leave marks, then if you have enough detainees available that you don’t have time to see one immediately you can break one of his fingers and he’ll have something to help him anticipate. Then when you have time for him, maybe painfully remove one eye, and then slowly and painfully mangle and then remove one testicle, with drugs to keep him from going into shock. Then a quick dose of painkillers and he gets more while he says things you find interesting. Of course you can’t ever let him free to testify what happened, and whatever he says you won’t keep him long.

When there are lots of detainees thn it isn’t a question of torturing them until they all talk, it’s just get the ones that talk first. The value of the information decays quickly, and most of them will all know about the same things so the value of extra confirmation goes down quickly too. The ones who’re slow to talk can just die, plenty more where they came from.

Kind of like the hiring process — if you need 3 employees and you have 1000 resumes, it doesn’t matter what method you use to eliminate 980 candidates provided you have 3 good ones left.

When there are only a few detainees and various departments are arguing about who should have access to them, there will be all sorts of wild claims about who’s an expert and what works. The results will be secret anyway, and what gets released to the public will be heavily massaged to make various people look good.

We just plain don’t know what works and what doesn’t, except from our own prejudice and rational judgement.

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Andrew F. 01.03.15 at 8:58 pm

Rich @341: It figures that Andrew F. would argue that we might as well torture because sometimes we shoot missiles into buildings with kids in them. On another occasion he’ll say that we might as well use missiles on buildings with kids in them because after all, we torture. But he’s perfectly civil.

It’s remarkable how much of the world you can fit into your caricatures Rich. Does this make life easier or harder, I wonder. In any case, with apologies to your sense of figuring, actually I noted the tension, if not contradiction, between our moral acceptance of some acts and our moral condemnation of other acts. The acceptance of collateral damage in the course of war is difficult to fit coherently into a framework that includes the absolute rejection of torture (or other acts). I think most of us believe (consciously or not) in some moral absolutes, but I also think that the existence of at least some of those beliefs is far more contingent on circumstance than we like to believe.

My personal view on ethics inclines towards pragmatism (in a philosophical, not sociopathic, sense). I don’t expect or need my ethical framework to be fully articulated or without any contradiction, and I don’t expect all ethical disagreements to be subject to rational resolution (even if we were all perfectly rational creatures). Ethical beliefs are a tool to enable us to live lives which we think and feel are just, harmonious, fulfilling, good, etc. They’re the only somewhat haphazard product of evolution and history, which includes arguments and reasons but not exclusively so; and they’re an essential part of life for most of us.

So, as I said, I imagine that in some circumstances I would probably choose to follow a moral absolute I happen to believe in, even while according to other ethical beliefs I might also believe that I was acting unethically in doing so.

As to torture, the value of the ends at stake, whether the means in question are the only way of achieving those ends at acceptable cost, and who is to be on the less pleasant side of the means in question, are all factors that would and should enter into anyone’s actual decision process (and there would be more if the question were one of policy). I think the third factor is more likely to trigger deontological principles than the second or first, though all could. But I doubt the self-awareness of anyone who claims that she needn’t consider any of those things to answer the question.

Abu Ghraib was senselessly sadistic, and is easy for most of us to determine to be ethically outrageous.

The waterboarding of KSM? I think the context of the decision, what was known at the time, what was unknown, what was uncertain, what was at stake, who he is, all make that a much more difficult question ethically, unless you believe that waterboarding was certainly less effective than other, less objectionable methods, in which case there is no ethical quandary at all.

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J Thomas 01.03.15 at 9:32 pm

#351 Andrew F

The acceptance of collateral damage in the course of war is difficult to fit coherently into a framework that includes the absolute rejection of torture (or other acts).

I like the idea that we should attempt for a victory that is decisive, quick, and mild. If we do not intend genocide then we will have to get along with the losers later, and next time around they might be in the winning coalition and we could be on the losing side.

So define our goals, and do what it takes to achieve them. If we can end a war early by negotiating about less-important issues, do it. The result might be that we have it all to do over again later, but that could be true even if we win an unconditional surrender now. If you go through hell to get it over with and you haven’t gotten it over with, that’s a false economy.

On the other hand, General Sherman of march-to-the-sea fame argued that war is hell. He said there is no point in creating rules to make war less hellish because the result is only to make it last longer and do more damage, more deaths, more hell. So do absolutely anything that will help you win quicker and get back to being civilized — after you’re not at war.

I want to think that I’m right and Sherman is wrong. The more we can get both sides to reduce the violence and think in terms of negotiated solutions, the better off we are.

But I could in fact be wrong. Maybe once a war starts it means that all the civilized rules are gone, and we need to become torturing, cluster-bombing, DU-spreading, poison-gas-spewing genocidal cannibals until we get our unconditional surrender — and then we can start cleaning up and be completely nice guys. Maybe that’s what works best.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.15 at 9:50 pm

Andrew F.: “In any case, with apologies to your sense of figuring, actually I noted the tension, if not contradiction, between our moral acceptance of some acts and our moral condemnation of other acts.”

Let’s make that the tension between *your* moral acceptance of some acts and *your* moral condemnation of other acts. Other people find that they can condemn both torture and firing missiles into buildings with children in them during war. Other people, indeed, find that they can condemn all war that isn’t convincingly done only for defensive purposes, as none of America’s wars within my lifetime have been.

Other people, in fact, don’t try to drag public policy down to the lowest common denominator by everything morally consistent with the worst things that we do rather than the best.

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MPAVictoria 01.03.15 at 10:03 pm

Worth pointing out that much of the popular impression of General Sherman is actually neo-confederate propoganda.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/rethinking-shermans-march/?_r=0

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Andrew F. 01.03.15 at 10:07 pm

Rich, I’m asking more about ethical conduct within war rather than about ethical justification for entering into a war. So let’s presume a war the cause of which, for one side, is as just as you can imagine. In such a war, would you say that it would be unethical to undertake any action that will foreseeably cause the injury or death of non-combatants? Would this rule continue to hold if the enemy were using non-combatants as human shields?

J Thomas, but those aren’t the only two options on the spectrum, are they?

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Harold 01.03.15 at 10:32 pm

@354 By the way, I have been told that the British also burned towns in Connecticut during the Revolutionary War.

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Matt 01.03.15 at 10:52 pm

So let’s presume a war the cause of which, for one side, is as just as you can imagine. In such a war, would you say that it would be unethical to undertake any action that will foreseeably cause the injury or death of non-combatants?

If there is a war that starts out with one side essentially blameless, that distinction becomes much less stark if the “just” side kills innocents in order to expedite winning the war. A just war requires just means, not just good aspirations regarding the end state. The historical record so far as I can see is that humans have yet to wage a just war. I would welcome counterexamples.

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Peter T 01.03.15 at 10:56 pm

J Thomas (and many others) keep trying, somewhat relentlessly, to fit torture into a “rational” framework. Does it work? What ends can we reach by these means? Fair enough. CT is populated by people who are dedicated to making sense of the world. Another way to look at it is that people become what they do, and do what they become. They go to work to fix pipes because they are plumbers. They wave spears from chariots or hang on street corners with hats on backwards because they are TEH WARRIORS! They argue endlessly about rationality because they are academics. The consequential cost-benefit calculation starts not from the blank slate but the given of formed identity [okay, some people re-make themselves, and everyone goes through a formless period up to about 25, but if you are a plumber at 30, chances are you will die a plumber].

And what you are has to have value (otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, right?). If a society permits or institutionalises torture, or plumbing, it will end up with well-articulated reasons why torture/plumbing is good, noble, essential to the continued functioning of the universe…And a group of torturers, with pay-scales and uniforms. Who will defend the rights and honour of torturers everywhere (by torturing their opponents – how else?). So before one starts to argue the cost-benefits of torture, one should consider whether one really wants such a group in the neighbourhood.

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J Thomas 01.03.15 at 11:01 pm

#355 Andrew F.

J Thomas, but those aren’t the only two options on the spectrum, are they?

Andrew F, my suggestion is that we start from wherever we are in the spectrum and try to head toward peace. That is, toward a negotiated solution where we get what we need.

Sherman’s stated position is that heading that way is counterproductive and useless. (I don’t say that he in fact did what he argued should be done.)

It looks to me like he has claimed a place on the spectrum, and I offer a direction to try to move on the spectrum. He describes a method, and I describe a purpose. He says that my intentions have bad consequences. I say those intentions could cover a variety of methods, and I can’t predict what methods would get good results since after all the enemy gets a vote too.

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Harold 01.04.15 at 12:25 am

Two comments to NYT article about Sherman mentioned above:
A recent historical study tracing the formation of Southern memories of the Civil War finds that shortly after the war, the “tragedy” that Georgians mentioned most when reviling Sherman was his freeing of their slaves—not lost crops or homes. With Sherman came “Emancipation on the ground,” and the overturning of the slavery-based social order that the leading fashioners of Southern Civil War Lost Cause memory like Gen. Jubal Early (the burner of Chambersburg, PA) had fought to sustain (see C. Janney, “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation”). Throughout the South at this time, even an approach within 50 miles by a Union army triggered widespread slave escapes, mass panic by insurrection-fearing slaveholders, and frantic calls to state governors for Confederate Army protection (S. McCurry, “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South”). In the last year of the war, Jefferson Davis tried to rally waning support for the cause by giving stump speeches throughout the South. His final urgent rallying cry: “If we lose this war, we will become the slaves of our slaves!” (J. McPherson, “Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief”). I’m surprised that white fears of “Kingdom Coming” and practical emancipation went unmentioned in this otherwise excellent article on the March to the Sea.

Reply 28Recommend
David Gustafson Minneapolis 18 November 2014
In traditional recountings of Sherman’s march to the sea, there’s usually a dollar figure attached to the damage his troops did: $100 million, $250 million, what have you. Aside from the natural suspicion raised by such even round numbers, I’ve always wondered how much of that “loss” sustained by the south was in the price affixed to the slaves who fled under the protection of Sherman’s forces. Much of southern wealth was in land and slaves, and the land was intact (save for that year’s crop), so I suspect that the real financial loss to the south was a huge part of their slave workforce.

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Peter T 01.04.15 at 12:27 am

Or, to sum my 259, sociology precedes economics.

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Charles R 01.04.15 at 2:40 am

I’m happy for the conversation to move on. I just have two major points with tons of little points clearly too obscure for anyone to get but me, and for those I apologize.

1. Okay, so I hoped people were close readers with memories observant enough to catch my mistake when I was quoting Plume. I put the close quote for the blockquote in the wrong place, and so what Plume wrote ends up looking like words what I wrote. And so it ends up sounding like I’m the one who’s anarchic, when it was really Plume who’s claiming to throw off all rulers. (So, who’s Anarcissie making fun of up there by quoting those words: me or Plume? I’m happy for it to be me, but isn’t that weird? How does that work? Should what might have been a gentle ribbing between clear compatriots [all the subtle putdowns and gentle slaps to friendly egos our inside jokes comprise {notice all the examples in these comments; here generally}], should that suddenly become something more like a pout across the schoolyard’s ballcourt just because I’m not part of the inside crowd —if those words are directed at me? Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily what happens. But I do think it’s curious how that works. It seems somewhat relevant to this back and forth all prompted by the ambiguity of @ these days… [you kind of have to be in-the-know to know how the ampersand means, and only the idiots don’t understand so obvious a thing, right?])

But Plume reiterated Plume’s own anarchic spirit in the response to me, and I like that. I admire anarchy. On my better days, I even think I am anarchic, but I know on my worst days I’m just my usual coward self, me and me alone. But I really enjoy reading Emma Goldman, and in her own way Ayn Rand, but most especially I am listening always to Le Guin. I think Matt is right to point out the science fiction connection, since Le Guin (in addition to winning Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri with the transcendence victory [and I’ll still play it again and still keep choosing Lady Gaia for the Planet score; I’m just not clever enough to play the Morganites]) is one source of inspiration for thinking of how it’s like to not be human (especially to not be this mongrel race human living in purely divided lands). Check out Le Guin’s short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” as well as the poem she’s alluding to, for some sense of scale.

Or, I dunno, read poetry? To think the perspective of a rock doesn’t seem too unlike what philosophers are claiming us to do when we begin to really think the Other. Because, if it is not like that at all, then I’m curious where I’m going wrong with that. (What’s an Other that’s not that other, when it just seems so patently absurd and nonsensical—at least so far as some of the people commenting on a portion of my comment—to, I dunno, think about what’s considered, by us today, as the unthinkable?)

But poetry has really helped me to see outside from myself. Words are fascinating for how they focus the mind, it’s what gets blurred I tend to miss. Still, let me also point out some other ways of looking at how it might be like to not be human but still be there (maybe I was one of the few undergrads who got really into Heidegger and really wanted to strive hard to think of Dasein as something other than human, and wonder what she must be like when so, or maybe I shouldn’t go past Heidegger the way I shouldn’t go past Rawls?) the way reading American Indian narratives and philosophers lately has helped me to realize more deeply just how evolution works within the context of ideas as material systems reveal. Here, maybe this will blow y’all’s minds the way it did mine (though I admit my mind is easily blown {shiny things and all that, you know?}). It’s not poetry, but it makes me think as though it were.

The short of it is, I misplaced a blockquote. It led to some slight misunderstandings, and even though Plume could have corrected that, I see it wasn’t really worth doing so.

2. The process of deconversion from something you once really, really believed in can sometimes make you want to go way overboard. So I apologize for my exuberance in wondering what sort of philosophical tools are available for us to actually go all that way of doing without the need for rulers.

I took a particular line of Timberman responding to Plume about Rawls, and took that even further: “Before we can agree on the most effective rules for governing our behavior in the interest of a presumed common good, we have to know something about why we behave the way we do, in fact, behave.” —”…but he tries to add the virtually impossible restriction of stepping back and away from any semblance of personal interest in the process.” —”I was thinking more of the level of abstraction in Rawls. I don’t have any disagreement in principle with his conclusions about what would be best, but he does seem to press all the juice out his ethical argument, i.e. rarely offers more than passing references to the complexity of human motivations. … I constantly found myself scratching my head and saying, okay, but what about….”

I’m saying, I find myself scratching my head about that, too. As I said, I’m happily corrected that I’m extending Rawls well beyond where he himself says he situates this investigation, and it’s okay with me that it’s bizarre or nonsense or weird or whatever term we should use to not only indicate “error” or “inaccurate” but also “let’s place this over on the side of the irrationally obtuse so that we keep it from our pure discourse”. I get that there have to be standards for all this. But my point was just that if Timberman is wanting us to think even more considerately about the underpinnings of our motivations especially in the context of what’s common, then if we take those underpinnings as rooted in the material reality comprising us and the universe around us—and if it’s strictly consequences we’re talking about as our guide, then there’s nothing else out there available for publicly shared communication about what’s common to any individual—then why section off one system within the universe who thinks it’s somehow isolated in terms of its dependency relations, and then use that system solely as the site within which the rational process of deliberating towards justice will occur?

Ever spend time herding animals? I have to herd goats every now and then. I was horrible at it at first, because everything I ever knew about goats came from folklore, bible sermons, movies, television shows, Reading Rainbow (especially that one episode where they order, literally, junk food), books and even more books. But standing there and willing them to pay attention and get in the gate just doesn’t work. Surprise, right? But after a long time doing it, and watching them, and even better listening to them, I started to feel things differently. Standing there, I heard them. (Or maybe, they herd me.) They laugh when they escape. They get very frustrated. They hunger. They laze. They investigate. They want their freedom. They want their food. It struck me just how emotionally full of life they are. Like the way it strikes me every time the little ones run towards the play section of the library. But other people, most people, in society around me tell me the latter are people, the former are tasty. (Nobody but the antinatalists I read are willing to just admit that either meat is meat, or there’s a hierarchy among the meat, but I admit I’m not well read.)

It’s weird, and maybe it’s one more bizarre thing, and maybe there’s only six of you reading this far down, but it occurs to me after reading how people wrote about the American Indians not much more than a century ago (especially the editorials and letters concerning the Ghost Dance —then check the comments on your local newspapers), how people wrote about their black slaves even later than that (they’re like penny stocks for some, cows for others, and quite often much worse things [as much attention as we need to have towards Ferguson or New York and everywhere the young black male is disposed, before there was a black/white problem, wasn’t there a red/white problem? and when the pugnacious arm of the entrenched state beats down any one today, how much worse must things be when it gifts handkerchiefs carrying smallpox? or are there applied versions of the Tuskegee experiments today we don’t know about?]), and then how people wrote (or were transcribed as having said) about what it was like to be American Indian or a slave when those other people were so open and so common with their willingness to say what is and isn’t human and then act upon those words with easy and casual genocide and enslavement, it occurs to me that sometimes my mind can easily slip into thinking I’m very sure what’s a bearer of dignity, and thus what demands some kind of respect or acknowledgment or deference from me and others of us who already take it for granted we have been due respect or acknowledgment or deference.

When my mind seems very sure I can disregard a thing, I tend to talk about it the way folks used to talk about American Indians or people with darker skins. Even the words they used can make us shudder today, because we think it is insulting to recall a time when we weren’t like we are today and be challenged by those times to really, really be sure when we start to talk about other objects as though they were beneath us, beneath our acknowledgment of dignity, beneath even just asking if maybe we shouldn’t do that to them without even bothering to ask if it’s alright—without even thinking the asking is something more than a hippie fantasy or pseudo-Taoist bullshit or naive idealism. Only the frat boys are guilty of doing without soliciting consent; because the only victims we know of are the ones we listen to. It can’t be us, we’re all ears.

And that’s what I mean in several ways: if a particular philosophical tradition is important for us because it ended up in people we like to read, but somewhere in its construction is a particular narrative of sureness about who we aren’t, then I’m always going to have to work even harder to overcome my own fashionable limitations, if I’m even aware of them at all. Because I will feel, in my ownmost honesty, that I’m doing the best I can. I will feel, in my even deeper truths, that I have done the best I must. But it is hardest to feel, where I am not even sure I’m in there inside, that maybe I’m not in the right perspective to ask whether or not this or that is “worth my time.” There’s a hitch it’s hard to really grasp, where it’s not even about asking actually, but maybe striving to wait to hear in the language a something speaks. And once I am very sure I know who speaks to me, then that’s when I learn I’m very wrong often. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found philosophical practice to be not only very liberating, but disturbingly humiliating. I must be doing it wrong.

At any rate, perhaps it’s a bit too strong of a rhetorical strategy. Obviously blog commentators are not rocks. They aren’t even mold. But it just occurs to me that there are some of us out there who look at history and come away with the awareness of how often we ignore how little we know about the important things we believe are guiding us towards greater knowledge, and whose awareness carries with it one of those stories of coming to terms with putting away the feeling of the lie and choosing to be much more curious about all the other ways we might be mistaken in what’s absolutely inflexible in our concepts —and maybe this is where the mystical conversation should challenge the political one, when believing in anything called a community, much more in this thing we call “economy”, must invoke a belief in realities metaphysically immaterial and forever incapable of being grasped— and some of us find that deeply disturbing, to the point where jockeying for social positions by using conversational habits cemented by middle school seems the least concern a person should have.

Incidentally, I did fix the toilet.

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Consumatopia 01.04.15 at 3:46 am

@AndrewF
The waterboarding of KSM? I think the context of the decision, what was known at the time, what was unknown, what was uncertain, what was at stake, who he is, all make that a much more difficult question ethically, unless you believe that waterboarding was certainly less effective than other, less objectionable methods, in which case there is no ethical quandary at all.

The burden of proof is surely in the other direction–only if you have evidence that torture would increase the odds of acquiring useful intelligence can you make a consequentialist case for employing it. Torture can “poison the well” for other interrogation methods. Whether we would know more or less if we hadn’t tortured is pretty much unknowable, and not just for us in the general public–“It is unknowable whether, without enhanced interrogation techniques, CIA or non-CIA interrogators could have acquired the same information from those detainees”. Left unsaid is the very real possibility that we would have acquired more or better information. The word “unknowable” doesn’t sit well with consequentialism.

Given that KSM was already talking before torture, and that he wasn’t in CIA custody for very long before the CIA decided to torture him (“Let’s roll with the new guy”), KSM was not a good candidate for torture. The CIA was dissatisfied with the information he was giving out–either lies or stuff he thought the CIA already knew. They still complained about him doing this after he was tortured. They now claim that his lies were actually useful to them. Taking that as given, we still have no reason to think that his lies were more useful because of torture than they would have been without torture.

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Anarcissie 01.04.15 at 4:20 am

Charles R 01.04.15 at 2:40 am @ 362:
‘… So, who’s Anarcissie making fun of up there by quoting those words: me or Plume? I’m happy for it to be me, but isn’t that weird? …’

I wasn’t making fun of anyone. I was taking on the thing said, not who said it. God is in the grammar and pervades our language and thought — God, the ultimate dictator. Even if we set our little dictated minds to it very earnestly, could we invent a language without domination, hierarchy, chains of command, subjugation and surveillance, subject and object, nominative and accusative and instrumental, indicative and subjunctive? (One imperiously points, the other hangs on below.)

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Ze Kraggash 01.04.15 at 10:10 am

“The burden of proof is surely in the other direction–only if you have evidence that torture would increase the odds of acquiring useful intelligence can you make a consequentialist case for employing it.”

I think when you frame it this way, you set yourself up for losing. The issue is not the lack of effectiveness, it’s barbarity. This one, I think, is a pure deontological case, not consequentialist. Civilized people don’t torture, period. Of course once we shed our veneer of civilization, all bets are off.

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reason 01.04.15 at 11:03 am

“would increase the odds of acquiring useful intelligence can you make a consequentialist case for employing it.”
This is not sufficient by the way. You have to count the cost not just the benefit. You are trying (if you remember) to protect innocent people from potential damage, by damaging innocent people certainly. (This seems to parallel Paul Krugman’s comment about trying to protect people from possible future cuts in social security by cutting it now.)

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Bruce Wilder 01.04.15 at 1:13 pm

The ethical case against torture, like the legal case, is fatally undermined by the deficit of power and political will among the ethically concerned. Those who tortured did it because they could. It was an exercise of power. Those who want to claim that torture is unethical or illegal have to be willing and able to punish the torturers. We cannot and will not. And, as long as that political fact remains the case, our speculations are idle. Our pragmatism is sociopathic, despite (or because of) Andrew F’s denial.

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bob mcmanus 01.04.15 at 1:35 pm

367: I think the opposition to torture is a form of kitsch, a sentimentalization of politics, the pleasure of watching ourselves taking a stance or pose about torture in revealed preference to doing something about torture.

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Ronan(rf) 01.04.15 at 2:26 pm

The burden of proof is certainly on those who think the torture of KSM was ‘effective’. Look at it this way. What kind of information were they looking for by the time they began to waterboard KSM? There was no plausible ‘ticking bomb’ situation (KSM had been inactive for too long, any hypothetical attack he might have known about would have (1) either happened or (2) been changed after his capture) So they were looking for more detailed background intelligence; Al Q membership, organisational structure, where specific people were based, etc. Whatever about using torture to get information about an attack in a hurry, does anyone *really* think that torture is better than conventional interregotation to get that sort of information?

” The waterboarding of KSM? I think the context of the decision, what was known at the time, what was unknown, what was uncertain, what was at stake, who he is, all make that a much more difficult question ethically, unless you believe that waterboarding was certainly less effective than other, less objectionable methods, in which case there is no ethical quandary at all.”

Is this just saying that we should look at how the decision to torture was made in its proper historical context? If so then I agree – but it still doesnt say it was the correct decision, either morally and practically.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.04.15 at 2:30 pm

“I think the opposition to torture is a form of kitsch, a sentimentalization of politics, the pleasure of watching ourselves taking a stance or pose about torture in revealed preference to doing something about torture.”

Glass houses, throwing stones.

Activism against torture is not futile, and has brought us whatever pushback we do have against it. It’s true that as Bruce Wilder says @367, we have no direct power to stop or punish the torturers. But people not in the upper reaches of the 1% have no power to do anything in contemporary America, so you might as well say that all political discussion is idle, all pragmatism sociopathic, etc.

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J Thomas 01.04.15 at 2:32 pm

#363 Consumatopia

Torture can “poison the well” for other interrogation methods.

It can. A person who was ready to talk to a sympathetic ear can decide not to because he has been tortured.

And it can go the other way round too. I now this sounds ridiculous, but I swear it sometimes works — a victim who has been tortured can choose to reveal things to the sympathetic guy who doesn’t do it, to help him get ahead. He can actually get involved in the office politics of his interrogators.

#363 Ze Kraggash

“The burden of proof is surely in the other direction–only if you have evidence that torture would increase the odds of acquiring useful intelligence can you make a consequentialist case for employing it.”

I think when you frame it this way, you set yourself up for losing. The issue is not the lack of effectiveness, it’s barbarity. This one, I think, is a pure deontological case, not consequentialist. Civilized people don’t torture, period. Of course once we shed our veneer of civilization, all bets are off.

Yes. So it’s easy to argue that civilized people should not torture other civilized people. But people who are at war do things they wouldn’t otherwise. And people tend to respond to the enemy, too. At the beginning of a war between, say, Germany and Austria, or the northern and southern USA, I predict there would be no torture because it’s people who start out feeling civilized who somehow are fighting people they kind of like. The rules of civilized behavior would likely break down over time, as they realized that they were in fact in the process of mercilessly killing each other, and the dropping little niceties could give then an advantage at doing that.

Perhaps one of the things that made a difference in public opinion this last time was the videos of people getting their heads cut off. There’s nothing particularly worse for the victim about having his head cut off compared to just getting his throat cut, as far as I know. (Supposedly with a vigorous throat-cutting you lose consciousness immediately.) If it comes mostly by surprise it’s probably kinder than getting stood in front of a wall and given a last cigarette etc. But it horrified a lot of Americans and persuaded them that the enemy was barbaric and awful and didn’t deserve any inalienable rights.

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Ze Kraggash 01.04.15 at 3:05 pm

“The burden of proof is certainly on those who think the torture of KSM was ‘effective’.”

From the purely rationalist perspective: why should anyone prove anything to you? Did they have to prove to you the benefits of, for example, the ABM treaty, or the withdrawal from the ABM treaty? No, they are the experts, and you’re a mere citizen. Experts argue among themselves, you listen, but you’re not qualified to meddle, for the obvious reasons. You are free to vote for politicians who share your opinion, and that’s the all there is to it.

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Ronan(rf) 01.04.15 at 3:11 pm

I’m talking in the context of a blog comments section where people are shooting the breeze. I don’t really expect the national security council to be debating my latest comment.

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Ze Kraggash 01.04.15 at 3:35 pm

Right, but “burden of proof” has come up here a few times. If deontology is out, and we want to be cool and rational about it, maybe we should torture more, to obtain a better sample.

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Bruce Wilder 01.04.15 at 3:36 pm

RP @ 370:people not in the upper reaches of the 1% have no power to do anything in contemporary America, so you might as well say that all political discussion is idle, all pragmatism sociopathic, etc.

Not all. The point of the criticism is to highlight how political discussion becomes idle by failing to acknowledge the reality of power.

Academic discussion of ethical issues is notoriously prone to attempts to find ethical dilemmas in the form of analytic puzzles, while in the real world ethical dilemmas are rarely puzzles, and more likely motivated by threats and bribes than ambiguity. This hiding from power – more an American vice than an academic one, I think — is more about avoiding the discomforts of insignificance and powerlessness.

My comment was prompted by reason’s remark referencing Krugman. Krugman’s politics is significantly shaped by such considerations. He hides the ugliness of our politics, and where it cannot be hidden, says soothing things. He will write earnestly about “soaring inequality” and wring his tiny, soft, well-paid hands over, say, Euro policy or the niceties of QE. He will apologize for Obama.

What Krugman is reluctant to do is to acknowledge the full sociopathic intent of policy and the futility of good intentions in the existing environment. Policymakers in Krugman stories are inexplicably dense and wrong-headed, but rarely greedy and vicious. Republicans can be vicious, but then must also be figures of comic delusion, a la Tea Party. Mr Lesser Evil is well-intentioned albeit fumbling, and does a lot of insufficiently acknowledged good things.

It is an idle, feel good about yourself politics that suppresses or diverts any anger, despair or action. But, the argument that it is wankery is not an argument that it is the only possible politics or all politics.

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Consumatopia 01.04.15 at 4:11 pm

“And it can go the other way round too. I now this sounds ridiculous, but I swear it sometimes works — a victim who has been tortured can choose to reveal things to the sympathetic guy who doesn’t do it, to help him get ahead. He can actually get involved in the office politics of his interrogators.”

“sometimes works” doesn’t mean anything. For torture to be useful as an interrogation tool, you need evidence, before it is applied, that it is more likely to leave you better rather than worse informed. It’s not clear that any such evidence, before the fact, ever exists. The way that the CIA itself talks about the answer being “unknowable” suggests that it doesn’t, or at least that they aren’t qualified to discover it.

I can’t tell what you’re trying to argue here or at @350. If we can’t really know whether or not torture is useful, then there is no rational way to argue for torture. (366 is correct, of course, that this isn’t sufficient. But it is necessary.)

Torture isn’t merely barbaric. It’s a hallucinogenic drug. The institutions that employ it aren’t “experts”, they’re addicts. As soon as you leave any circumstances under which you would support torture, you’ll find people trying to convince you–and even themselves–that those circumstances exist. The torture debate is never really about consequences vs. principles. It’s always about temptation. The only rational torture policy is to tie yourself to the mast so that we don’t torture even when we really want to–because we know in advance that we will really want to.

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Bruce Wilder 01.04.15 at 4:19 pm

The only rational torture policy is to tie yourself to the mast so that we don’t torture even when we really want to–because we know in advance that we will really want to.

That, or like any crime, we have to actually punish it after the fact.

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Consumatopia 01.04.15 at 4:43 pm

I don’t even think that would be enough, but that we aren’t even willing to do that is a great testament to our collective madness.

As far as the opposition to torture goes, there’s a huge difference between people like Feinstein, McCain or Andrew Sullivan –people who think that our spies and military are essentially good but for the aberration of torture that they somehow believe is at odds with American values, despite the fact that political and even popular culture seems to rally around it–and those of us who realize that the system is essentially bad and use torture as just one more example of the insanity associated with imperialism.

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William Timberman 01.04.15 at 4:50 pm

One may be forced — a peasant press-ganged into serving on the gun deck of HMS Victory will have little hope of stopping the Battle of Trafalgar — but one can avoid being seduced, i.e. England expects can kiss my ass. This little shifting of individual conscience won’t impress Nate Silver, at least not initially, but it can have consequences — must have them, despite the incessant din of Panglossian analysis coming at us from every media outlet in the neighborhood.

You might say, accurately enough, that there’s a war going on, and every thought, every action, takes place in a defined theater of operations. The comments threads at CT are one such theater — a minor one, but not insignificant, I think. For those with a true taste for battle, there are others, lots of ’em. And not to worry. Whether you go looking for them or not, they’ll find you.

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J Thomas 01.04.15 at 5:09 pm

#376 Consumatopia

“sometimes works” doesn’t mean anything.\

Yes, it does. It cancels the argument that it sometimes “poisons the well” for other interrogation methods. That doesn’t make torture OK, but it makes that particular consequentialist argument against it void, unless we get evidence how often it goes which way.

#374 Ze Kraggash

If deontology is out, and we want to be cool and rational about it, maybe we should torture more, to obtain a better sample.

There is a statistical method that might apply here. If we have a clear idea what “successful interrogation” is versus “failed interrogation”, and we have N different interrogation methods in mind, then first try method 1. Continue using method 1 on detainees until you get a failure. Then switch to method 2 for newer detainees, and use that until you get a failure. The result is that eventually you get enough statistics to say which method works best, and the failing methods get no more victims than required to prove that they are less good. The sample sizes are automatically and continually adjusted for that.

But maybe we don’t care only abut success. There are other consequences that won’t show up in our success/failure metric. One is that some of us just plain don’t want us to be torturers. Another is that if we want to try our victims as criminals, it hurts us when the evidence comes from torture. (If we just secretly kill them when they appear to be no longer useful, that consequence isn’t important.) If we don’t torture them, there’s a chance we can persuade the other side (and third parties that we later get into wars with) not to torture our guys who get captured. A lot of other stuff to balance. So it might make sense to bias the numbers to account for that. Use the torture methods less than the system calls for, knowing that you will be slower to find out how well it really works, because the outside considerations are worth that delay. The more often the other methods work, the less often the question of torture even comes up. If nothing else works at all then you’ll try torture more often because the alternatives are so bad. If even one of them works very well, then you don’t need a lot of tries to decide whether torture would be even better.

And if there are powerful reasons to believe that torture has bad consequences that your controlled trials won’t measure, then it might make sense to bias its percentage of trials down to zero. If “I have become a torturer” is an unacceptable consequence in itself, then don’t do it.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.04.15 at 5:30 pm

Bruce Wilder: “The point of the criticism is to highlight how political discussion becomes idle by failing to acknowledge the reality of power.”

This reminds me: I should make my usual inquiry to Andrew F. about whether he still purportedly believes that the head of the NSA would not flatly lie to Congress, and to the people in an officially released position document, about surveillance. Also, whether NSA surveillance would not be used to catch ordinary criminals (and then by extension find dirt on anyone who’d angered a political boss somewhere). Both of these things without the part in parentheses have provably happened within half a year of Andrew assuring us that they wouldn’t happen.

But yes, “reason”‘s post @ 366 is exactly why people often assert a moral basic like “torture is wrong” without turning it into a rule like “we should not torture”. I referenced this all the way back up at #24: the arguments for torture in the U.S. were always consequential, and always sought to pit one moral basic against another (the other one, in this case, being “blowing up groups of people is wrong”). If you want to do this through formal logic, the arguments for turning “torture is wrong” into a rule often have to do with privileging actuality over potentiality (if we decide to torture, it’s actually true that we’re doing something wrong, and only potentially true that something bad will happen if we don’t) or sins of commission over sins of omission (it’s worse to commit a crime than to fail to prevent someone else from committing one). The second of these is highly related to Blackstone’s formulation: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. Interestingly, if you look up Blackstone’s formulation on wiki, you’ll see the usual suspects in opposition to it: Bismarck, Pol Pot, Andrew Volokh, and Dick Cheney.

But yes, I take the point about the reality of power being far different from this kind of formal ethical talk. It’s why I gave up on liberalism.

382

Bruce Wilder 01.04.15 at 6:14 pm

J Thomas @ 380

One might also suspect the character of those suggesting torture as a technique and consider the implications for general performance in role. Rather than use the conventions of pseudo-scientific research to narrow the scope of administrative thinking and observation to the search for arbitrary correlations, which will probably prove spurious in any case, a better practice might be to take a “deontological” perspective and broaden the scope of thinking, to look at the character of those, who would advocate torture. Are they also habitual liars? (Apparently.) Bullies? (Apparently.) Cowards? (Yes, of course.) And, what it does do to the character of an organization to mire it in ill-considered moral expedience. Are the organizations run on such principles incompetent? Corrupt? Untrustworthy? (CIA? Duh.) Does the policy involve a costly loss of reputation and moral authority? Is there significant and consequential blowback?

I will repeat my earlier assertion that there are no good philosophical or definitional grounds for regarding “deontological” frames and “consequential” frames as alternatives, rather than simply styles at opposite poles of the same rule-making or rule-choosing problem. Pure deontological arguments seem like empty assertions and pure consequential arguments seem like stupid correlation shopping — so there’s good grounds for leaving the poles. But, we hardly need dust bowl empiricism to confirm that torture is a lousy way to get reliable and useful information that one does not already know.

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Bruce Wilder 01.04.15 at 6:17 pm

Rich Puchalsky: It’s why I gave up on liberalism.

I confess I cling to liberalism, still. But, I have largely given up on (my fellow) liberals.

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bianca steele 01.04.15 at 7:58 pm

This is an interesting argument against consequentialism.

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bianca steele 01.04.15 at 8:16 pm

@370

Focusing the lion’s share of your activism (and commenting about torture at in a thread like this isn’t activism, but an opportunity to display attitude) is certainly futile because regardless of torture’s wrongness, no state has ever not tortured. Some states have tortured less than others. But focusing on torture as a means toward anarchism is pretty close to futile. Focusing on torture as a means toward reducing elite power, on the theory that a government not led by an elite 1%, at the same time, won’t torture, and will also be better in all other sorts of ways, is absolutely futile.

And at the same time, we’re not talking about anything that might affect a decision anyone reading this might someday make–except Bruce Wilder, above, who lists a bunch of topics public relations experts have identified as things ordinary people should pay attention to. Maybe there’s a theory about how talking about torture will affect the public relations experts, or how it will help us make day-to-day decisions. If so, I’m sure we’d like to hear it.

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Consumatopia 01.04.15 at 8:31 pm

Yes, it does. It cancels the argument that it sometimes “poisons the well” for other interrogation methods. That doesn’t make torture OK, but it makes that particular consequentialist argument against it void, unless we get evidence how often it goes which way.

You have it backwards. If it “poisons the well” sometimes, that cancels out the argument that it works sometimes, unless we get evidence how often it goes which way. I was attacking a consequentialist argument for torture, not making a consequentualist argument against it.

re: gathering more evidence to determine torture’s effectiveness, it’s worth noting that Western history contains plenty of data points on torture’s use in interrogations. If you look, you’ll find a lot more evidence for what Bruce was talking about @382 then you will for the idea that torture is a useful interrogation tool.

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J Thomas 01.04.15 at 11:47 pm

#382 Bruce Wilder

Pure deontological arguments seem like empty assertions and pure consequential arguments seem like stupid correlation shopping — so there’s good grounds for leaving the poles. But, we hardly need dust bowl empiricism to confirm that torture is a lousy way to get reliable and useful information that one does not already know.

Yes, exactly. If you try to use scientific method, you can find out about some things but not others. As one particular example, it’s hard to study consequences that unfold over a longer time frame than your experiments. As another, it’s hard to study consequences that happen on a larger scale than you can study. When the consequences expand over the whole world, your control group is weak.

So if you want to collect data and find out the truth about the world, you *can* limit your arguments to the things you can collect data about. But things you lack evidence about are not less important just because you don’t know.

You can weight the things you know higher than the things you don’t know, but that’s pretty risky too.

In the end, people wind up using their fantasies about what they think is going on, because they have to decide on some basis. It’s easier to go with what you actually believe than with things that kind of make sense and have some partial evidence but that you don’t believe.

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J Thomas 01.05.15 at 12:03 am

#386 Consumatopia

“It cancels the argument that it sometimes “poisons the well” for other interrogation methods. That doesn’t make torture OK, but it makes that particular consequentialist argument against it void, unless we get evidence how often it goes which way.”

You have it backwards. If it “poisons the well” sometimes, that cancels out the argument that it works sometimes, unless we get evidence how often it goes which way. I was attacking a consequentialist argument for torture, not making a consequentualist argument against it.

Both cancel each other, unless we get evidence.

re: gathering more evidence to determine torture’s effectiveness, it’s worth noting that Western history contains plenty of data points on torture’s use in interrogations. If you look, you’ll find a lot more evidence for what Bruce was talking about @382 then you will for the idea that torture is a useful interrogation tool.

Uncontrolled, anecdotal evidence.

Also, through the ages a lot of the decisions that people wanted to find out about, were decided at the last possible minute by astrologers. When there isn’t one clear best choice, getting an astrologer to randomize the choice for you at the last minute makes it harder for spies to find it.

Of course, if the astrologers were not in fact making random choices then what one astrologer decides another might be able to predict, given certain data that ought to stay secret like birthdays and birth hours.

And as I hinted earlier, if a detainee makes a deal and cooperates, he might want the word spread that he was broken by torture to improve his reputation. While if he actually was tortured and died or was killed, it makes sense to announce that he turned. You want to blacken his reputation, and everything you can make the enemy change because he might have known it, will disrupt their operations.

So public information about how well torture works should be disregarded. There is no particular reason to tell the truth about it.

If we wanted to find out how well different methods of interrogation work, it would make sense to actually collect statistics. And it would make sense to not include torture among the tested methods unless there was reason to suspect it worked enough better to overcome its known disadvantages.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 1:00 am

“Both cancel each other, unless we get evidence.”

If they cancel each other out, I win. I was attacking a consequentialist argument from Andrew, not making one. If we don’t know whether torture works, then the deontological case against it wins. This is not hard.

“Uncontrolled, anecdotal evidence.”

I didn’t say you would find evidence that torture doesn’t work. I said you wouldn’t find much evidence that it does. It could very well be that torture is just so associated with thuggery that it’s impossible to find and maintain a disciplined, competent team of interrogators who rely on torture.

The ethical and practical problems with establishing a systematic torture regime just for the sake of determining whether torture works are so innumerably vast that I’m not even bothering to list them. It makes no more sense at all than proposing to increase GDP by giving employers the right to punch employees in the face.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 1:15 am

@385, If some states torture less than others, that seems like reason enough to focus on torture. Not for everyone to focus on torture, but there is a division of labor in activism as everywhere else.

People are presumably discussing torture in this thread because it’s more relevant to the question of deontological/consequentialist ethics than those other issues that all of those anarchist PR experts (?) would suggest we talk about.

I guess if you think that everything in life is meaningless unless it moves the needle on popular opinion or state policy, then commenting on a thread must be a matter of “display” (as if I give a damn what you think of my throwaway pseudonym). Understanding of our lives is intrinsically valuable to me, regardless of what action it may lead to on an individual or collective level. And I think torture, though not the worst thing the state does, is particularly good at revealing the absurd and horrible nature of the state, patriotism and the rationalizations we offer for violence. I don’t have any short term solution to our collective madness other than for individuals to be careful out there, because we’re all living among people who believe and do terrible things for insane reasons. And what long term solutions I have are too speculative to be worth discussing now.

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Andrew F. 01.05.15 at 1:44 am

Peter T @358: If a society permits or institutionalises torture, or plumbing, it will end up with well-articulated reasons why torture/plumbing is good, noble, essential to the continued functioning of the universe…And a group of torturers, with pay-scales and uniforms. Who will defend the rights and honour of torturers everywhere (by torturing their opponents – how else?). So before one starts to argue the cost-benefits of torture, one should consider whether one really wants such a group in the neighbourhood.

I think there’s something to the logic of this argument (normalizing activity X results in higher probability of activity X expanding or of the development of an interest-group supporting the existence of activity X), though I wonder a little about the details here.

Suppose the question is not whether we want any plumbers at all, but whether we’re going to allow plumbers to use a particular sort of pipe. The logic of the argument may still apply, but not quite as clearly. For instance, we developed nuclear weapons, and in an extreme circumstance we used them. But we haven’t used them since, and we haven’t been especially eager to do so. They’ve remained a tool that we will use only in very exceptional circumstances.

Consum @363: The burden of proof is surely in the other direction–only if you have evidence that torture would increase the odds of acquiring useful intelligence can you make a consequentialist case for employing it. Torture can “poison the well” for other interrogation methods. Whether we would know more or less if we hadn’t tortured is pretty much unknowable, and not just for us in the general public–“It is unknowable whether, without enhanced interrogation techniques, CIA or non-CIA interrogators could have acquired the same information from those detainees”. Left unsaid is the very real possibility that we would have acquired more or better information. The word “unknowable” doesn’t sit well with consequentialism.

Some interesting logic to this argument too. If I could restate it to be sure I understand it, it’s: Given that we don’t know whether torture is effective, and that there are even reasons to think it could reduce the intelligence value of a captured terrorist, then from a consequentialist vantage the argument in favor of using it is weak.

The next step might be, “since there are no compelling consequentialist reasons, and there is a strong deontological reason, or norm, or standard, against doing so, it would be more consistent with our ethics to not torture.”

As to KSM… I think it’s an open question, at least based on what I remember reading in the SSCI Report and in the Minority Response and the CIA Response, as to whether the techniques used were effective. I agree with you as far as that question is concerned. As to the merits of the arguments for and against using various techniques proposed… I really don’t know. It’s possible that the wrong answer had the better argument at the time.

But, separately, the belief that KSM possessed important intelligence is very well grounded and I don’t think it was a mistake to designate him a high value target.

Consum @378: … people who think that our spies and military are essentially good but for the aberration of torture that they somehow believe is at odds with American values, despite the fact that political and even popular culture seems to rally around it–and those of us who realize that the system is essentially bad and use torture as just one more example of the insanity associated with imperialism.

Values at the edges of the circumstances in which they normally apply are contested things, whether we’re talking about circumstances in which we would use of nuclear weapons or the circumstances in which some would propose use of torture. The program at issue here – a CIA program, not a military program (the military took a fair amount of flak for things that, it turns out, they weren’t the ones doing) – was controversial within the USG, even among those you might not think it wouldn’t be. One of the most surprising facts in the SSCI Report, actually, concerned an exchange between the DoD and CIA regarding Red Cross access to detainees at Guantanamo who were “graduates” (shall we say) of CIA’s RDI program. CIA wanted DoD to invoke an exception and deny access, given what the detainees who had been to black sites would say. The person speaking on behalf of the DoD, according to internal CIA traffic, refused, stating that he was tired of the DoD being criticized for what the CIA was doing, that DoD had no legal ground on which to deny access, and that he frankly did not think that the US should be in the business of disappearing people at all.

That DoD official was Paul Wolfowitz.

Regardless of your view of the merits, or magnitude of the deficiency, of the program in question, it seems to me that it was in fact an aberration from normal American practice.

Rich @381: I should make my usual inquiry to Andrew F. about whether he still purportedly believes that the head of the NSA would not flatly lie to Congress, and to the people in an officially released position document, about surveillance.

An amusingly false memory on your part, Rich (amusing as an example of how selective our memory – including my own! – can be). The reporting of Snowden’s leaks began with the telephone metadata program – Clapper’s (who was not and is not the head of the NSA) false statement to Congress preceded, and was widely reported in conjunction with the reporting on the telephone metadata program, prior to any discussions we had about the NSA. Quite obviously I did not make the claim you remember me making.

The discussion you’re actually recalling was about a later report on PRISM. In our discussion you held that PRISM involved the search of the content of every American’s email. I disagreed, and cited numerous disclosures from the USG on the program. You claimed that none of these disclosures could be trusted – that they were essentially all lies.

So here’s what I actually said. Highlights: …as I’ve said repeatedly, government abuse can occur and does occur. The question is whether there are adequate procedures and oversight in place to minimize that occurrence. … In the case of PRISM, not only are there three branches of government involved, including one whose members have lifetime tenure and are not beholden to anyone, but there are also opposing political parties involved. … I can see reasonable arguments for making the process of review more robust – perhaps by adding a devil’s advocate to the proceedings, or perhaps by expanding the amount of legal interpretation that may be released to the public. But it strikes me as almost paranoid to choose to believe that every statement by government officials on this subject is a lie, regardless of the circumstances.

To return to this thread, you never answered my question about a hypothetically just war, and whether ethically acceptable conduct in such a war could include actions that would be known before the fact to cause the deaths or injuries of non-combatants.

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bianca steele 01.05.15 at 2:31 am

@390

Torture isn’t a good example for thinking about deontology/consequentialism. Most people are talking about torture in this thread because they’re already convinced that you can only be safe against the temptation to torture if you reject consequentialism. See the previous discussion, in this thread and earlier on CT, about how many instances of torture make it morally mandatory for a good person to vote against Obama. If torture were good for thinking about d/c, maybe you’d be arguing against someone who disagrees with you on d/c, instead of with J Thomas (and picking a fight with me for no obvious reason). If there were any interest in discussing d/c, there’d be some interest in looking for other examples, examples where the people involved in the discussion could actually imagine themselves having to choose. Instead we have yet another discussion inviting people to take sides “for” and “against” the most horrific thing anyone can think of. Since most of the people in the discussion presumably are not anarchists, it seems counterproductive.

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Charles R 01.05.15 at 2:42 am

Anarcissie, I apologize. I misread your comment horribly wrong, and that is completely my mistake I see in hindsight. I confess that my weirdness tends to make me think curt responses are usually dismissive ones, because usually, as anyone can see, they are couched this way, but it’s a prejudice I’m going to have to work on. Thicker but more receptive, sensitive to the subtlety beyond expectation, skin.

I also like what your talking about, which is why I want to point back to something like poetry. If we understand grammar as strictly the obedience to the legal construction of sentences, then your point I completely agree with. Correcting grammar, policing language, has to rank very highly in any ideology to maintain “clear communication.” Sometimes people even think it ought to be efficient.

But poetry offers some skill at working against the grain of grammar and device, occasionally, as well as training one’s thinking when form and grammar demand particular restraints. This is why I can’t get completely behind anarchism, even in words, even in concepts concerning the god. There is value not only in restraint (on governments, power, our selves, &c), but there is a way of overcoming the usual dialectical oppositions between “right” and “wrong” precisely through isolating one’s self to the grammatical assertion that two opposites are the same thing. To fix the terms at that level is to then try and work hard, to work backwards to the conceptual background within which words take on meaning—does this sound right? And to then question how the background works to lend those meanings is to trace the conceptual background’s evolution from the nonconceptual realities in which human language users live and share, out and about, experiences, towards the alternative frameworks available to use, to share, to resettle within.

I’m probably making no sense, and I’m sorry for that.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 3:20 am

Most people are talking about torture in this thread because they’re already convinced that you can only be safe against the temptation to torture if you reject consequentialism.

Who exactly is taking that position? I do think that ethical conduct is much more about resisting the temptation to rationalize than a matter of sincere logical error or choosing the wrong ethical foundations. I don’t know what that implies for d/c–logically speaking, consequentialism is perfectly capable of taking into account that our own reasoning process may be corrupted, by psychologically speaking, I don’t know which framework is more likely to leave people vulnerable to the temptation of seeking vengeance against the powerless.

See the previous discussion, in this thread and earlier on CT, about how many instances of torture make it morally mandatory for a good person to vote against Obama.

Okay, now I see where the resentment that lead you to make that dismissive post @385 is coming from. I voted for Obama. I find, though, that I have to check myself against thinking of myself as on his “team” when he gets attacked by people I disagree with even more than I disagree with him. I’ve made the decision to side with the lesser evil, but in seeing what that has done to me I understand why others choose not to.

If there were any interest in discussing d/c, there’d be some interest in looking for other examples, examples where the people involved in the discussion could actually imagine themselves having to choose.

The OP was not about d/c generally, but “Consequentialist Arguments for Deontological Claims”. Not choosing between the two systems, but when one person’s consequentialist arguments line up with their deontological arguments. Torture is a natural thing to bring up because it’s an example of people “coming up with new consequentialist arguments as the old ones are knocked down” for what are essentially anti-deontological reasons.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 4:02 am

If I could restate it to be sure I understand it, it’s: Given that we don’t know whether torture is effective, and that there are even reasons to think it could reduce the intelligence value of a captured terrorist, then from a consequentialist vantage the argument in favor of using it is weak.

The next step might be, “since there are no compelling consequentialist reasons, and there is a strong deontological reason, or norm, or standard, against doing so, it would be more consistent with our ethics to not torture.”

Yes, that matches what I said, but what I said was incomplete. The consequentialist case for torture requires some kind of evidence that torture will tend to increase rather than reduce the intelligence value. But that’s not symmetric: there are plenty of consequentialist reasons against torture that don’t depend on an assumption of negative intelligence value. You also have to take into account larger issues like the damage that torture does to our institutional, political, and cultural norms; or the propaganda/recruitment value to your enemy. There is more than one major terrorist who was radicalized by an abusive experience in prison. (Disentangling these larger consequentialist arguments from deontological arguments can get kind of vague and arbitrary, as expressed by BW @382.)

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.15 at 5:17 am

Consumatopia: “If some states torture less than others, that seems like reason enough to focus on torture.”

I’ve also given up on environmental activism because all states damage the environment. And I think that all law enforcement officers everywhere just quit their jobs yesterday because crime still exists.

Andrew F: “Quite obviously I did not make the claim you remember me making.”

You claimed that officials would be unlikely to lie to Congress because they would get in trouble if found out. But Gen. Keith Alexander (the former head of the NSA’s) lie to Congress and to the public about the 54 plots supposedly thwarted by surveillance was exposed in October, and he didn’t get in trouble for lying. He retired later that month, started a security company, and got in the news in the middle of last year for saying that he’d charge companies a million dollars a month to protect their cyber-secrets. You also pooh-poohed the idea of the NSA collecting data that would be used for ordinary criminal investigation, starting in on your line about how this was paranoid. But you were wrong there too. I’m using “wrong” to give you the opportunity to claim that you were wrong instead of being purposefully deceptive.

And no, I don’t think that your question “What if we were in a defensive war against an attacker who used children as human shields?” is worth an answer. If you like hypotheticals, I invite you to consider this post about the torture/ ticking bomb scenario by Jim Henley.

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J Thomas 01.05.15 at 6:23 am

#389 Consumatopia

“Both cancel each other, unless we get evidence.”

If they cancel each other out, I win. I was attacking a consequentialist argument from Andrew, not making one. If we don’t know whether torture works, then the deontological case against it wins. This is not hard.

I apologize, I was not tracking your responses well. If what you were doing was to cancel a consequentialist argument by someone else by making your own opposing consequentialist argument, then yes, they do cancel.

But the deontological case only wins among people who accept the deontological case. That includes nobody who has already rejected it and who believes that torture is acceptable when it gets good results.

I didn’t say you would find evidence that torture doesn’t work. I said you wouldn’t find much evidence that it does.

That leaves the question open.

The ethical and practical problems with establishing a systematic torture regime just for the sake of determining whether torture works are so innumerably vast that I’m not even bothering to list them.

Your argument has horrible problems also. You say that we don’t know what works and we must not find out. But your opponents say that they do in fact know what works, and that they are the experts. They can’t tell you the details that would prove them right because national security, so you have no choice but to take their word for it. They say the survival of the nation is at stake and you have no right to put your ignorance and superstitious beliefs in the way of that survival. Shut up and let them do the job they know how to do, or else.

If you believe that the fight is won, that the US government has officially decided to stop doing torture and all secret US government organizations in fact have quit doing it, then it would be stupid for you to agree to start it up again to test how well it works.

But at some point when there is already a lot of disorganized torture already going on, it would not be stupid at all to do controlled studies. A whole lot of Americans believe without actual evidence — based on common sense — that torture works no better than other methods. If they are right, a properly-done study would show they are right. That would help a lot. Also, if the US government announced that result, it would help a lot worldwide.

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Robespierre 01.05.15 at 11:23 am

I assure you, one can be a consequentialist and still think that giving the secret police the power / impunity to spy on people, disappear them and torture them is a bad idea. Why do most discussions of consequentialism assume that the one proposing it is the one with power?

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.15 at 12:52 pm

Robespierre: “I assure you, one can be a consequentialist and still think that giving the secret police the power / impunity to spy on people, disappear them and torture them is a bad idea.”

There are virtue-based and deontological arguments for torture in an American context too: roughly, argument-via-_24_ “torturers are tough guys doing what wimps won’t do” and “we have a duty to do whatever might protect America, whether it’s likely to work or not”. They just don’t sound as credible to the audience on this blog. In general, I think, intellectuals prefer consequentialism because it’s a kind of activity — rationalization — that they’re good at. So we’ve focussed on consequentialist justifications, which were actually the more or less official justifications for a while. Only now that his consequentialist argument are gone and it’s proven that he had innocent people tortured did Cheney go to some mixture of the two others I’ve listed above.

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Ze Kraggash 01.05.15 at 1:23 pm

“In general, I think, intellectuals prefer consequentialism because it’s a kind of activity — rationalization — that they’re good at.”

I think there’s more to it. You have conservatives/traditionalists who rely heavily on deontology, and liberals/progressives who challenge them on rationalist/consequentialist grounds. For a liberal, to admit their strong preference to a deontological argument is a blow to their whole worldview. If they concede, they would have to deal (in a more serious manner than usual) with some typical conservative arguments, like opposition to gay marriage, for example. It’s a big deal, I think, to admit that something could be absolutely forbidden without any convincing rational explanation, just based, essentially, on the “yuck factor”.

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Robespierre 01.05.15 at 1:26 pm

While I’m at it, there are more bad consequences for torture, apart from the harm to the victim. One is that government that tortures is terrifying and disgusting. Citizens of a democracy are not supposed to be terrified and disgusted of their government.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.15 at 2:59 pm

Torture is wrong because it harms people in a very serious way, not because anything that anyone is squicked out by is wrong. Homosexuality does not harm people. “At least it’s an ethos” is a joke, not a statement about how deontologists think about each other.

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Andrew F. 01.05.15 at 3:17 pm

Consum @395: You also have to take into account larger issues like the damage that torture does to our institutional, political, and cultural norms; or the propaganda/recruitment value to your enemy. There is more than one major terrorist who was radicalized by an abusive experience in prison. (Disentangling these larger consequentialist arguments from deontological arguments can get kind of vague and arbitrary, as expressed by BW @382.)

All fair points and important considerations.

Rich @396: You claimed that officials would be unlikely to lie to Congress because they would get in trouble if found out. But Gen. Keith Alexander (the former head of the NSA’s) lie to Congress and to the public about the 54 plots supposedly thwarted by surveillance was exposed in October, and he didn’t get in trouble for lying.

I said precisely what I quoted in my comment above, which certainly allows for the rather obvious fact that sometimes officials lie. You were arguing that there was a massive institutional conspiracy to deceive Congress and the courts by producing huge volumes of deliberately falsified information. I said that this was unlikely, and that there are self-interested reasons for bureaucrats not to want anything to do with something like that. Everything we’ve learned about the NSA’s programs since then, by the way, supports that view.

As to Alexander: Alexander didn’t lie at all (Clapper, arguably, did). Here’s what I said in January on the subject, beginning with Alexander’s actual statement in June 2013:

[transcript of Gen. Alexander’s speech; June 2013] Here are some statistics of those 54 events. Of the 54, 42 involved disruptive plots — disrupted plots. Twelve involved cases of material support to terrorism. Fifty of the 54 cases led to arrests or detentions. Our allies benefited, too. Twenty-five of these events occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia and five in Africa. Thirteen events had a homeland nexus. In 12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and help to the FBI — twelve of the 13.

Then I quoted the exchange between Leahy and Alexander in October, which was reported badly and misleadingly as Leahy somehow exposing a lie. Here is Senator Leahy questioning Gen. Alexander months later:

SEN. LEAHY: Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and out of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S. Would you agree with that, yes or no?

DIR. ALEXANDER: Yes.

As you can see, Alexander didn’t lie at all. Leahy’s question merely confirmed the facts Alexander gave in his June speech – though it was reported as though Leahy had forced Alexander to divulge some new fact. In fact Leahy was using Alexander to rebut the sloppiness, or deliberate spin, of other politicians in their descriptions of Alexander’s original statistics.

Interestingly, this is another example of selective memory. We remember things that reinforce a favored narrative, and we forget or discount things that don’t. I include myself in this as well, of course.

The speed with which information is communicated these days makes it all the worse. We’re naturally drawn to sources of information that agree with our existing views, we have little time or energy to fact-check those sources, and we remember what those sources tell us more strongly than we remember anything else.

Rich @396: And no, I don’t think that your question “What if we were in a defensive war against an attacker who used children as human shields?” is worth an answer. If you like hypotheticals, I invite you to consider this post about the torture/ ticking bomb scenario by Jim Henley.

:) And here I thought it was only politicians who declined to answer hypotheticals. The principle of proportionality is a real thing, and will remain part of warfare, so I don’t think questions about it – even and perhaps especially in the context of a just war – are idle. Neither, quite obviously, is torture merely a hypothetical – or for that matter coercive techniques that walk to the very edge of the category.

But boy, what a great way to avoid thinking about hard questions: sorry, I don’t consider hypotheticals. You could resolve most of moral philosophy in an afternoon.

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Ze Kraggash 01.05.15 at 3:34 pm

“Torture is wrong because it harms people in a very serious way”

This is not consequentialism, it sounds more like some pop-buddhism. Who said it’s wrong to harms people in a very serious way, if it’s done for the greater good?

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 4:12 pm

Jim Henley’s post was very good, though the existence of “The National Anthem” episode from the excellent Black Mirror series is worth noting. (Obviously it didn’t exist at the time he made the post.)

The problem with hypotheticals that Henley described–“The ticking bomb scenario is presented as “What would YOU do?” but it’s not, in truth, got anything to do with you. The proper question is, “What should we prudently allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity?””, basically what Robespierre said @398, is very real.

But there’s an even deeper problem. What if thinking about the hypothetical, especially seriously considering it in a public way, affects the probability that the hypothetical will come true? “What should we do if an invading army uses human shields?” is exactly that kind of question. Both answers have a cost. If you say you won’t fire upon them, you’re basically inviting an invader to do that. If you say that you will, you’re weakening your own norms against killing of innocents, and you risk that other nations will see you as warlike and cooperate with you less. Better to keep your mouth shut. A politician who refuses to answer similar hypotheticals isn’t being cagey, they’re being responsible.

Roughly the same calculus applies to torture, of course. If I thought anybody who mattered was paying attention, I wouldn’t be talking about it the way I do.

Hypotheticals are never free. Answering can very well make the world a sadder place than if you had left it unanswered. Observing a system always changes its state.

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bianca steele 01.05.15 at 4:27 pm

Consumatopia, 385 is not directed at you. If your conclusion from “no state has ever not tortured” is “we should all be anarchists,” then maybe focusing attention on torture make sense for you, if it persuades people to be anarchists. (If your focus is on persuading people, with some idea in mind of how they could influence some real change, or in understanding things better, it’s not just “display.”)

If, instead, it persuades people that “torture is wrong” actually isn’t true, or isn’t always true, that is what I mean by counterproductive.

If it persuades people that they believe states are necessary evils, and no state is ever going to give up the ability to choose occasionally to torture, but this means they have to switch from thinking of themselves as on the left to being on the right, or they have to give up politics or debate entirely, or they’re just not going to support you anymore, or their thinking is inconsistent and they have to leave all thought of “necessary evils” and similar things to the right-wing or to the elite or to whoever, to me that also seems counterproductive.

If the focus, instead, is on winning over non-anarchists with something like “a socialist state won’t torture, somebody is going to get disillusioned someday, somehow.

If it means you have a movement composed only of people who get through the gauntlet of the previous four paragraphs, maybe that’s what you want. But then it seems like they’re going to be required to engage in some “display” in order to prove they’re on the right side.

And on the other side, torture is a perfect issue for people who aren’t really opposed to anything and aren’t interested in politics at all: apolitical moralists, right wingers, liberals looking for a feel-good issue that won’t challenge anyone as much as health care reform or income redistribution will.

From your comments it sounds like you think opposing torture, done by people as unlike us, in places as far from us as possible, will help people be better people in general, which I don’t agree with.

The OP was not about d/c generally, but “Consequentialist Arguments for Deontological Claims”. Not choosing between the two systems, but when one person’s consequentialist arguments line up with their deontological arguments.

I thought the OP was about the way people who seem to meet that description cut very close to dishonesty. Funny how people interpret things differently.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.15 at 4:28 pm

Oh dear, Andrew F. failed to quote the part of Leahy’s question-and-answer that comes right after that. Let’s try that again:

SEN. LEAHY: Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and out of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S. Would you agree with that, yes or no?

DIR. ALEXANDER: Yes.

SEN. LEAHY: OK. In our last hearing, Deputy Director Inglis’ testimony stated that there’s only really one example of a case where, but for the use of Section 215, bulk phone records collection, terrorist activity was stopped. Is Mr. Inglis right?

DIR. ALEXANDER: He’s right. I believe he said two, Chairman; I may have that wrong, but I think he said two, and I would like to point out that it could only have applied in 13 cases because of the 54 terrorist plots or events, only 13 occurred in the U.S. Business Record FISA was only used in (12 of them ?).

So only one or two out of the original 54, or the original 13 if you prefer. Come on, Andrew F., you need to do better in your tireless defense of evil. You should work that selective memory thing a little harder.

And yes, given that I can’t remember a single event in all of history where an attacking nation used children as human shields, I don’t see any great need to answer that hypothetical.

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bianca steele 01.05.15 at 4:29 pm

Rich @ 399,

I’ve heard people attribute vast powers of evil to “rationalization.” I just don’t believe it. Mostly, I don’t believe deontological thinking is less prone to rationalization than consequentialist thinking is. Most of the time, when I hear people rationalizing, they’re slinging around absolute statements without any empirical content. I can only guess that when people equate consequentialism with “rationalization,” it’s just name-calling.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 5:16 pm

@bianca, “no state has ever not tortured” could lead to anarchism, it could lead to attempts to create new kinds of states (I personally think the nature of the state will change radically with the rise of intelligent machines and algorithms, either radically worse or radically better), it could mean that we need to work to make the state torture less (which does not mean admitting that the state is ever correct in torturing), it could mean that even thinking about state power and coercion is inherent corrupting and we would be better people if we gave up on ordinary politics. I think all of those are live possibilities, so talking about torture is productive to me. But there is no “gauntlet” to get through, even if all four of those possible implications are wrong, it wouldn’t mean that torture is not wrong.

And on the other side, torture is a perfect issue for people who aren’t really opposed to anything and aren’t interested in politics at all: apolitical moralists, right wingers, liberals looking for a feel-good issue that won’t challenge anyone as much as health care reform or income redistribution will.

A) this is just ‘display’ on your part.
B) you’ll see above that many of us are arguing that torture is part of a continuum including corporal punishment, police brutality, prison abuse, imperialism or even the state itself more broadly. We’re seeking a broader explanation for the popularity of torture.

I thought the OP was about the way people who seem to meet that description cut very close to dishonesty.

Yes, which is why it was so important to bring up a counterpoint of people doing the opposite thing being just as dishonest. I know you resent people talking about torture but it’s really obviously relevant to the topic whether you like it or not.

Mostly, I don’t believe deontological thinking is less prone to rationalization than consequentialist thinking is.

I agree with you about this, BTW. For example, propertarian deontological thinking, what I’m guessing JQ had in mind when he made the post, is just rationalization. But if you think the consequentialist case for torture isn’t dominated by either ignorance or rationalization, you haven’t been paying attention.

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Consumatopia 01.05.15 at 5:33 pm

liberals looking for a feel-good issue that won’t challenge anyone as much as health care reform or income redistribution will.

I mean, come the hell on. Challenging the CIA which even Obama seems to fear (forget prosecutions, try promotions) is supposed to be feel-good compared to supporting health care reform that insurance companies also support? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-ACA, but if that’s your best example of a policy that would “challenge” someone, you need to think harder.

And, wait a second, you’re simultaneously arguing that torture is so hard to give up that people and states will move to the right to keep it, but that opposing torture is a “feel-good” issue for liberals who don’t want to challenge anyone. Okay, I admit it, you’ve convinced me that responding to you is not productive. (Though, to be fair, J Thomas used up all my patience first.)

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bianca steele 01.05.15 at 6:01 pm

A) this is just ‘display’ on your part.

Unfair and untrue. Who would I be “displaying” for? The non-existent multitudes who supposedly support me in comments? What can I gain by “displaying” my opinions here?

B) you’ll see above that many of us are arguing that torture is part of a continuum including corporal punishment, police brutality, prison abuse, imperialism or even the state itself more broadly. We’re seeking a broader explanation for the popularity of torture.

These are all issues that can be embraced by people who are 98% authoritarian, the same way charity and free non-profit hospitals can be embraced by people who oppose interference with the free market and with oligarchy.

You say you’re trying to focus on bigger questions, which will persuade people not to be authoritarian anymore. I’ll believe that when I see it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to worry that you’re alienating people (like me, I admit) who feel like your arguments appeal primarily to authoritarians.

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J Thomas 01.05.15 at 6:17 pm

#405 Consumatopia

“The ticking bomb scenario is presented as “What would YOU do?” but it’s not, in truth, got anything to do with you. The proper question is, “What should we prudently allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity?””, basically what Robespierre said @398, is very real.

Yes. If someone argues that special unusual extreme circumstances may come up that requires them to do things we would usually consider too evil to allow, then I say when they believe those circumstances have come up then they should do whatever they think needs to be done, and then turn themselves in for trial. We don’t need to change the laws to give the immunity in case that happens.

If they are afraid to do what the nation needs because they might suffer personal punishment afterward, then they have the wrong job.

Afterward at trial they can argue that it was necessary. Maybe the police will decline to arrest them. Maybe the DA will choose not to prosecute. Maybe a grand jury will not pass it on. Maybe a jury will refuse to convict. If all else fails, maybe they will get a pardon.

But that’s for later. It’s wrong to give them a blank check ahead of time. The rules are there for a reason, and if they have to break them then they get to say why.

If it isn’t a one-off special case, that’s a different story entirely. The ticking-bomb special case is not an argument for changing the rules. If they want to change the rules they need some other story.

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J Thomas 01.05.15 at 6:25 pm

#406 Bianca Steele

If your conclusion from “no state has ever not tortured” is “we should all be anarchists,” then maybe focusing attention on torture make sense for you, if it persuades people to be anarchists. (If your focus is on persuading people, with some idea in mind of how they could influence some real change, or in understanding things better, it’s not just “display.”)

If, instead, it persuades people that “torture is wrong” actually isn’t true, or isn’t always true, that is what I mean by counterproductive.

If it persuades people that they believe states are necessary evils, and no state is ever going to give up the ability to choose occasionally to torture, but this means they have to switch from thinking of themselves as on the left to being on the right, or they have to give up politics or debate entirely, or they’re just not going to support you anymore, or their thinking is inconsistent and they have to leave all thought of “necessary evils” and similar things to the right-wing or to the elite or to whoever, to me that also seems counterproductive.

It looks to me like it’s gone meta. You’re talking about how to use rhetoric to manipulate people into the result you want, because you already know what’s right and so all that remains is to figure out which key is best to turn in the locks of other people’s brains to make them vote your way.

Is there any possibility that we could look for ways to find out the truth, and then believe in it? Of course we’re surrounded by liars who’re trying to hide whatever truth there is so they can manipulate people better. But if we join their ranks, then hasn’t the enemy already won? (Not the enemy that wants us to torture people, but the enemy that wants us to ignore the truth and pick the side that can better manipulate us, and then use our skills to manipulate more still.)

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Robespierre 01.06.15 at 1:38 am

@412: that is sort of my position too – if you think you absolutely must break a law (and inflict horrific harm!) for the greater good, then do it and be punished – but I’m not sure this is tenable.
It seems like on the one hand, we’re hoping that people will do what’s necessary, and on the other we hope that the threat of punishment will prevent them from doing it. It sounds hypocritical (not a criticism of you, since I sometimes also hold this position). Maybe punishment is supposed to discourage abuse, but a brave man will see an emergency for one. But not only does this ring of inconsistency, it buys into the mental framework of ticking-bomb torture apologists, which I think is ass-backwards. People (some sort of people) WANT to torture. If there’s no ticking bomb, they’ll torture the prisoner until he confesses there is one. There is literally no limit to the savagery and depravity of men having total power over a helpless victim.
Not to mention, you yourself mentioned a number of things the State coyld do to not punish its torturers, even if the law says it should, and you seem to say this may be reasonable in true emergencies, whereas I think even bona-fide lawbreakery, at this level, must be punished, especially if it entails the abuse of government power.

Ultimately, even consequentialists live in an organised society, and if they don’t want power to be despotic, they have to set deontological rules for government and punish those who break them, if only because the point of organisation is to make sure people can rely on knowing what other people will do. One can justify setting rules because doing so has good consequences, but there is no inconsistency in this, unless you happen to be all-knowing and all-powerful, and even then others ought not to trust you. Of course one can imagine a particular scenario where breaking a rule, any rule, is better than following it; the point of public rules of behaviour is that we don’t trust others to make that judgement and not abuse it.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 1:46 am

It’s funny how Bianca puts ‘display’ in scare quotes despite the fact that she threw the accusation first. But, yeah, I guess I would have to agree with her that anti-authoritarianism can be embraced by authoritarians.

You say you’re trying to focus on bigger questions, which will persuade people not to be authoritarian anymore.

No. I don’t know how to persuade people not to be authoritarians. You clearly don’t either, otherwise you would have done it, right? But I think the first steps to figuring out what to do is to understand the scope of the problem. By all means, keep fighting for whatever electoral bandaids we can get to stauch the bleeding for a bit while we’re looking for something better. But we can’t confine our analysis of the problem to what pollsters say is acceptable to the median voter, because what the median voter finds acceptable is precisely the problem. Actual progress is going to require solutions that nobody has imagined yet. You can’t argue people out of being authoritarians, but maybe we could demonstrate that a different way of life is possible–as soon as we figure out what that different way of life is.

@J

Is there any possibility that we could look for ways to find out the truth, and then believe in it? Of course we’re surrounded by liars who’re trying to hide whatever truth there is so they can manipulate people better. But if we join their ranks, then hasn’t the enemy already won? (Not the enemy that wants us to torture people, but the enemy that wants us to ignore the truth and pick the side that can better manipulate us, and then use our skills to manipulate more still.)

I hope there is such a possibility. Advocacy has it’s place in the search for truth, though. I don’t know if you saw Farrell and Shaliza’s stuff on Cognitive Democracy. crookedtimber.org/2012/05/23/cognitive-democracy/

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Andrew F. 01.06.15 at 3:14 am

Rich @407: There’s nothing contradictory in the statements you’re quoting. I started to requote everything again, but then realize a simple explanation should suffice.

Here’s the relevant part of Gen. Alexander’s statement:

In 12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and help to the FBI

12 cases -> increased overall understand and was of some help to the FBI

That’s the extent of Alexander’s claim. It’s actually a pretty mild claim – he’s not saying that, if we hadn’t had Section 215, there’d have been 12 more terrorist attacks. He saying that of the 13 cases where it could have played a role, it played a useful role in 12. How useful is the key question here, of course.

Now Sen. Leahy says, In our last hearing, Deputy Director Inglis’ testimony stated that there’s only really one example of a case where, but for the use of Section 215, bulk phone records collection, terrorist activity was stopped. Is Mr. Inglis right?

Alexander agrees that Inglis said one or two cases had a but for connection.

Then Rich you conclude: So only one or two out of the original 54, or the original 13 if you prefer.

Rich, Alexander hadn’t said anything at all about whether Section 215 BR data was so essential that but for its presence the attack would have happened. Instead Alexander gave a much more cautious analysis, which is that the 12 cases contributed to overall understanding.

So nothing changed over the course of Alexander’s testimony. You simply didn’t notice that Alexander and Inglis were addressing two different questions.

No worries, frankly it’s probably a good sign that you had more important things to attend to. :)

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Rich Puchalsky 01.06.15 at 3:44 am

I was waiting for this inevitable next step. The problem is that the NSA has not always been so careful to weasel-word its claims so that they sound impressive but, on careful examination of syntax, are not quite lies. Here’s one source.

Two weeks after Edward Snowden’s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”

That’s Obama, though, who has a politician’s license to lie. The NSA played a more careful game, only occasionally doing things like having Alexander give a public speech with a slide with “54 attacks thwarted” on it. And at a Congressional hearing, Alexander said ” “The information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.”

“Critical leads” does not equate to “increased overall understanding and was of some help”. Could Alexander be convicted of lying in Congressional testimony, if such a thing ever happened in these cases? Probably not. Was his “critical leads” official statement deceptive, given that politicians were going full steam ahead with the 54 cases claim and the NSA wasn’t correcting them? Yes. You write that “it’s probably a good sign that you had more important things to attend to. :)”, but what you’re smiley-ing about is an inability for a member of the public to trust any NSA statement without expert analysis of syntax and possible evasions, many of which members of the public simply don’t have the background knowledge to anticipate. It’s the disempowerment of democracy, the purposeful creation of ambiguity that no one can be expected to cut through so that no meaningful public engagement is possible.

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Bruce Wilder 01.06.15 at 3:55 am

Ze Kraggash @ 400:

You have conservatives/traditionalists who rely heavily on deontology, and liberals/progressives who challenge them on rationalist/consequentialist grounds. For a liberal, to admit their strong preference to a deontological argument is a blow to their whole worldview. If they concede, they would have to deal (in a more serious manner than usual) with some typical conservative arguments, like opposition to gay marriage, for example. It’s a big deal, I think, to admit that something could be absolutely forbidden without any convincing rational explanation, just based, essentially, on the “yuck factor”.

In terms of political philosophy, I am a liberal, and my worldview is holding up just fine, thank you very much. My views might be classed as the ethical pragmatism of an institutionalist. That’s a respectable liberal tradition, I would think. It is a position, which, it would be fair to say, can be more sympathetic to deontological ethics than to the strong consequentialist view.

An ethical pragmatist sees all ethics as social, and, of course, an institutionalist, would emphasize ethics as embedded specifically in institutions and institutionalized contexts. People have institutional roles and therefore a duty to follow rules. The ethic follows from the nature and existence of the social institution. On some higher level of abstraction, derived from the nature of humanity or society, one might criticize the moral quality of particular institutions.

Where a liberal, post-Enlightenment, might disagree with some traditionalist conservatives, regarding the “Yuck” factor, is in the uses that are made of various kinds of moral intuitions and archetypal narratives.

Human beings, as story-telling social animals, have both a strong affinity for dramatic narratives in classing or identifying moral behaviors and, at an arguably deeper level of our psychologies, some built-in propensities for moral intuition: our emotions support social, moral behavior. We feel outrage, disgust, jealousy, anger, betrayal, sympathy, love, guilt, affection, loyalty, patriotism, shame and so on, in ways that motivate us to act, and to act righteously in our individual capacities and politically as well. Politically, our collective actions affect the evolution of institutions.

With regard to moral intuitions, liberals, it seems to me, have been associated with two tendencies. One is to try to move some social choice out of the “moral” category altogether, and reclassified into an amoral “technical” category. Technical choices are made by experts and the value choices are largely dictated by professional ethics within some broad compass. The other is to try to make all moral intuitions align with and reinforce a primary concern for benefit or harm experienced by individuals, the autonomy and freedom of the individual to choose within a private or intimate realm, and a basic egalitarianism of reciprocal fairness. So, liberals want disgust to reinforce norms that promote public health, not denigrate some races or castes. Liberals want sexual taboos to reinforce norms against rape and child molestation. Liberals want patriotic or religious identifications and loyalties to reinforce ethical pro-social behavior. And, liberals want people to regard a downturn in the business cycles as something that requires a government program of relief and restructuring, not the belt-tightening followed by human or animal sacrifice which might once have followed a harvest failure.

(This account of moral intuition is consistent with the work of the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, though Haidt, a reactionary and soi disant former liberal, does not recognize that liberals want moral intuitions to align in the way I suggest.)

Sexual liberation in general and gay marriage in particular are easy cases for the liberal ethical pragmatist. And, particularly easy cases in which to reach an eventual detente with the traditional conservative deontologist.

The sexual revolution happened, and we’ve been coping with the fallout ever since, with revised and reformed ideas about the bounds of a woman’s life, about what marriage is, about censorship and sexual taboos. There are some very, very sharp disagreements with traditional conservatives about issues like abortion and birth control, but the parameters of those disagreements are pretty clear, imho.

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Andrew F. 01.06.15 at 3:59 am

Consum @405: The problem with hypotheticals that Henley described–“The ticking bomb scenario is presented as “What would YOU do?” but it’s not, in truth, got anything to do with you. The proper question is, “What should we prudently allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity?””, basically what Robespierre said @398, is very real.

Philosophical hypotheticals can be used in all kinds of ways. We might looking for answers about our own morality, and those answers may inform how we choose to answer certain policy questions.

But there’s an even deeper problem. What if thinking about the hypothetical, especially seriously considering it in a public way, affects the probability that the hypothetical will come true? “What should we do if an invading army uses human shields?” is exactly that kind of question. Both answers have a cost. If you say you won’t fire upon them, you’re basically inviting an invader to do that. If you say that you will, you’re weakening your own norms against killing of innocents, and you risk that other nations will see you as warlike and cooperate with you less. Better to keep your mouth shut. A politician who refuses to answer similar hypotheticals isn’t being cagey, they’re being responsible.

There’s a place for deliberate ambiguity, see e.g. Taiwan, but this hypothetical has long since been answered as a matter of policy: military forces will fire upon military targets even if those targets are using human shields.

But that doesn’t stop us from considering it philosophically, for ourselves, or perhaps as a policy-critique.

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Andrew F. 01.06.15 at 4:46 am

Rich @407: And at a Congressional hearing, Alexander said ” “The information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.”

Alexander is talking about multiple programs in his testimony there – he’s discussing intelligence gathered under FAA 702 as well as the Section 215 collection.

Let me provide the full quote for you: In recent years the information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world. FAA 702 contributed in over 90 percent of the cases. At least 10 of these events included homeland-based threats. In the vast majority, business records, FISA reporting, contributed as well.

702 gave them critical leads – something confirmed by the President’s PCLOB by the way. Section 215, in the vast majority of the 10 cases with a homeland nexus, as Alexander says here yet again, “contributed.”

Seriously, at this point the cumulative testimony that Section 215 maybe helped on the edges, but wasn’t really crucial (outside of apparently one or two cases), should be pounded into your head. Alexander has been hitting the same point quite consistently.

“Critical leads” does not equate to “increased overall understanding and was of some help”

Only because you’re not understanding him. 702 gave them critical leads, as he discusses. In the majority of the 10 that had a homeland-nexus, business records (i.e. Section 215) “contributed” as well.

There aren’t any contradictions Rich. As I said, we all sometimes misread things, and selective memory can be a powerful thing.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.06.15 at 5:26 am

Yes, you’re hitting the selective memory thing just as I predicted you would. But the problem is that the claim that the 702 program led to critical leads is also collapsing. For instance, here’s one study:

NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined

But more to the point, you’re simply repeating the NSA defenses. Alexander was criticized for doing exactly what you describe — combining the FAA 702 and Section 215 programs to make Section 215 look more effective. This is one of the ways in which not-quite-lies are used, using deniable ambiguity, in order to keep the public from knowing what’s going on. And at every stage of the process, people like you can say “oh, you have selective memory” unless they interpret the NSA statements exactly as you say they should be interpreted — an interpretation that was discouraged by design of the original statements themselves.

Now that you’ve detailed exactly what someone would have had to know in order to know what parts of any NSA statement are deceptive and can’t be detected as such without a whole lot of expert background, I repeat my original statement: we, as members of the public, might as well assume all NSA statements and documents are lies. They are functionally equal to lies, in that they don’t say what they seem to say, and no one can determine what they really do say until information from other sources comes to light. There is nothing paranoid about this: it is a rational response to the exact apologetics that you’ve used in this thread.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 5:38 am

There’s a place for deliberate ambiguity, see e.g. Taiwan, but this hypothetical has long since been answered as a matter of policy: military forces will fire upon military targets even if those targets are using human shields.

Well, of course they will–that’s the policy Rich P is attacking. But you aren’t asking the government about the policy on collateral damage, you’re asking Rich. Rich says we shouldn’t fire missiles into buildings with kids in them. Nothing about that critique requires him to take a position on what one should do if an invading army is marching kids in front of them, and expressing an opinion on the matter may be ill-advised. Logically it’s a bad idea because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to base the general rule on what we would do in extraordinary cases. But more than that, as a matter of narrative, it’s a bad idea–both for us as individuals and for our culture collectively–to spend too much time considering extreme, uncommon situations in which we’re faced with a dilemma between ordering the military to do something terrible (as if we’re the ones issuing orders) and allowing something terrible to happen. It’s a narrative that you want to focus on, so you want to focus on a hypothetical based on it. That doesn’t mean anyone else should focus on it.

Refusing to answer a hypothetical is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.06.15 at 5:50 am

Consumatopia: “Nothing about that critique requires him to take a position on what one should do if an invading army is marching kids in front of them”

Once again: this has *never happened*. No attacking country that I know of, ever, has used children as human shields to defend military installations, because it’s a desperation tactic and attacking countries are not desperate. On the other hand, what Andrew says is a matter of official U.S. military policy has sometimes happened because the U.S. has been the attacking country, not the defending one, in all wars in my lifetime. We kill children with bombs and missiles quite often, not merely hypothetically.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.06.15 at 5:59 am

Let me sum up part of this thread. I’ve purposefully encouraged the surveillance dispute with Andrew F. because it’s a living example of what I referred to up at comment #24. We’re told, as a consequentialist argument, that surveillance is good because it saves lives by stopping terrorist plots. But look at the expertise that one has to develop in order to even begin to evaluate these consequentialist claims against people in authority who are determined to falsify and mislead. Choosing consequentialism means effectively writing 99+% of people out of any decision-making process.

That is an inherent feature of the turn towards greater emphasis on consequentialist moral argument. It’s one half of what Bruce Wilder @ 418 refers to as a kind of basic toolkit of liberalism: “One is to try to move some social choice out of the “moral” category altogether, and reclassified into an amoral “technical” category. Technical choices are made by experts and the value choices are largely dictated by professional ethics within some broad compass.” This is the half of liberalism that has not worn very well.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 6:34 am

Switching gears here back to OP.

In domestic policy, we’re motivated to believe that our ethical system will lead to prosperity–we want to believe our ideals will be vindicated by history. Some people think about international policy the same way, e.g. candidate Obama’s “false choice” between liberty and security (so long ago).

But not everyone wants to see things that way. Some people want to believe that we pay a cost for our moral ideals, that we’re fighting with one hand behind our back, and if we really wanted to we could “take the gloves off” and easily triumph over our foes. This, perhaps even more so than a desire to torture, is part of the reason why belief in torture’s efficacy is so widespread.

More interesting is the case of narratives in which torture is effective that are nonetheless anti-torture, like Battle of Algiers. One of that movie’s themes was that French war crimes were a consequence of French war aims. “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” It’s actually back in the first category of historical vindication–the badness and inevitability of torture is proof that the French should not have tried to stay. If torture didn’t actually work, that narrative would be complicated.

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Ze Kraggash 01.06.15 at 8:00 am

Hi Bruce, thanks for the reply.
In a polemical environment like this here, people tend to simplify. Yeah, I tend to slide into Dostoevsky’s paradigm; major influence in my formidable years.

Right, most of the ‘demons’ are not what they used to be, back in the 19c (although still, there are some, many). Nihilistic consequentialism doesn’t work well, so you want social institutions to promote moral intuitions. The right kind, chosen by you, those that are good for the society, as you see it. You’re right, I stand corrected. It does change the story somewhat, but I think it leaves its essence intact. You still have to be able to explain why one intuition is worth preserving and promoting, and another eradicated.

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Asteele 01.06.15 at 8:16 am

In defense of Rich I have always assumed official statements about the NSA surveillance programs should be disregarded completely and have never been steered wrong even once in understanding what is going on. I also note that the distinction between making false statements, and purposefully making misleading statements in order to mislead people about material facts, is not an important one.

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J Thomas 01.06.15 at 12:22 pm

#414 Robespierre

@412: that is sort of my position too – if you think you absolutely must break a law (and inflict horrific harm!) for the greater good, then do it and be punished – but I’m not sure this is tenable.
It seems like on the one hand, we’re hoping that people will do what’s necessary, and on the other we hope that the threat of punishment will prevent them from doing it. It sounds hypocritical (not a criticism of you, since I sometimes also hold this position). Maybe punishment is supposed to discourage abuse, but a brave man will see an emergency for one. But not only does this ring of inconsistency, it buys into the mental framework of ticking-bomb torture apologists, which I think is ass-backwards. People (some sort of people) WANT to torture. If there’s no ticking bomb, they’ll torture the prisoner until he confesses there is one. There is literally no limit to the savagery and depravity of men having total power over a helpless victim.

People are good at inventing trolley problems. Like, imagine there’s a kingdom where the people are loyal to their king and if there was no king then there would be social disorder and foreign countries would invade and start a world war. The current king has survived 30 assassination attempts but one will surely get him eventually, and there is no royal heir. The only acceptable candidate to mother a prince absolutely refuses. So — to prevent a world war and tens of millions of casualties — it is necessary that he rape her and force her to carry children to term until there are enough princes to have a reasonable chance that one of them will survive the assassination attempts….

There are very few personal crimes with consequences worse than a world war. Any peccadillo you think of, somebody can imagine a circumstance where worse consequences could justify it consequentially.

So we must either make a deontological argument that you can’t justify sins by worse sins, or else accept that there can be occasional exceptions.

Not to mention, you yourself mentioned a number of things the State coyld do to not punish its torturers, even if the law says it should, and you seem to say this may be reasonable in true emergencies, whereas I think even bona-fide lawbreakery, at this level, must be punished, especially if it entails the abuse of government power.

I could see that either way. If you honestly think that you have to torture somebody to prevent a hidden nuke from destroying NYC, and you do it, and they find the bomb in time, and then say you wind up serving 5 years in prison because of it, then you have sacrificed yourself for NYC. That isn’t too much to ask. If a grateful nation pardons you for it, that might be a good thing and you have no right to expect it.

If you honestly or fraudulently claim to believe it, and in the process of torturing your suspect you remove four of his fingers, and then there was in fact no bomb? You deserve the moral benefit of the doubt — maybe you thought you were doing the right thing. And you should be punished, and you owe whatever reparations you can afford to your victim and his family.

You don’t deserve a pardon just because you made up a trolley problem and pretended it was real. And you don’t get a license to torture just because you made up a trolley problem that could come true someday. To get a possibility of a pardon, you need to convince the court that you were in fact correct.

On the other hand if you do nothing and NYC is destroyed, nobody had the right to expect you would sacrifice yourself. It’s a real honest-to-god moral choice.

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J Thomas 01.06.15 at 1:06 pm

#415 Consumatopia

Advocacy has it’s place in the search for truth, though.

Maybe. The way I see it, there’s a split between how you find out the truth and then what you do about it.

If you find something that’s true that people don’t want to believe, then it might be important to find out why they don’t want to believe it. Probably they already believe something else that they think contradicts it. It can be important to find out why those don’t really contradict, or why the other idea is wrong, or whatever. Looking at that can lead to valuable new truths.

But if you instead notice that your truth implies that you will get bad results unless other people change their behavior, and you notice that telling the truth will not get them to change their behavior, and you look for whatever lies or half-truths will get them to change their behavior without understanding, that does not seem to me to have a place in the search for truth.

But I could be wrong. This could be one of those cases where I think I see a contradiction between my truth and somebody else’s, and later I find out they don’t really disagree.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 2:28 pm

“So we must either make a deontological argument that you can’t justify sins by worse sins, or else accept that there can be occasional exceptions.”

No, there is something you’re forgetting.. Do you trust the person who’s going to decide when to make those exception? This is especially true as the hypotheticals become more unusual and contrived–the Type II error rate, the chance that you think you’re in that situation when you really aren’t, overwhelms the Type I error rate to the extent that you shouldn’t even trust yourself. For a situation as absurd as the one you described, if you ever find yourself thinking that you are actually in that situation, you should assume that you need mental help.

More prosaically, there is a huge risk that by saying you would violate a deontological rule in one situation, other people will say “well, if it’s okay to violate the rule in that situation, it’s okay to violate it in this situation”. It it’s okay to do something unspeakable to prevent a world war, why not a local war? Or to prevent a drop in GDP? If it’s okay to torture to defuse a ticking bomb (though that’s stupid because there’s no evidence torture is the fastest interrogation method) how about a high value terrorist who might possibly be planning some attack you don’t know about (even stupider, because if that they hadn’t actually succeeded in putting such plans in motion, repeatedly demanding that they tell you such plans does nothing but demonstrate your own ignorance to the detainee, making it harder for you to obtain other useful information from them.)

A consequentialist who will not reason about institutional trust and trustworthiness, or reason about their own reasoning capability, is a bad consequentialist. As a consequentialist, you should not ask what you would do in every hypothetical. You should ask what the consequences are of holding beliefs about hypotheticals. And if you repeatedly make mistakes like you have in this thread, then maybe you should ask yourself whether it’s even safe for you to judge consequences at all.

“Maybe. The way I see it, there’s a split between how you find out the truth and then what you do about it.”

I’m just gonna say again that you should read the entirety of that post on Cognitive Democracy, you will probably think differently about some of what you’re saying if you do so.

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bianca steele 01.06.15 at 3:58 pm

But look at the expertise that one has to develop in order to even begin to evaluate these consequentialist claims against people in authority who are determined to falsify and mislead. Choosing consequentialism means effectively writing 99+% of people out of any decision-making process.

Oh FFS, we don’t live in the Middle Ages, and even to claim peasants and medieval artisans had no sort of expertise is stupid and condescending. I’d argue that choosing deontology means decisions get made in armchairs instead of out in the world.

Bruce refers to “professional ethics.” Do you really think the professions are the 1%? Do you have no knowledge of the history of the liberal professions and their historical opposition to the economic 1%?

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bianca steele 01.06.15 at 4:00 pm

Obviously, you can ignore my second paragraph if you think the words “base and superstructure” makes history irrelevant, or if you think French sociologists have proved the global, absolute persistence of the ancien regime and the entirely illusory nature of the liberal revolution.

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J Thomas 01.06.15 at 4:05 pm

#430 Cosmotopia

“So we must either make a deontological argument that you can’t justify sins by worse sins, or else accept that there can be occasional exceptions.”

No, there is something you’re forgetting.. Do you trust the person who’s going to decide when to make those exception?

If there can be exceptions, then somebody has to draw the line about which exceptions are OK and which aren’t. Maybe there’s a fuzzy border area where it’s kind of a tossup.

If you are deciding then you have to decide for yourself. If you are judging somebody else’s choice, then you have to decide based on the best evidence you can get, or else on some sort of rules that don’t need much evidence.

Some people say that you have no right to judge them. You’re being a Monday-morning quarterback, deciding what they should have done when you weren’t on the spot making the choices. You have to decide for yourself whether you have the right to judge them.

Did Jesus say you shouldn’t judge *anybody*? Not even Stalin or Nixon? Or is it OK to judge anybody you want, knowing you’ll have to take your turn in the barrel? Or are there gray areas where maybe it’s OK to judge and maybe it isn’t?

If it’s okay to torture to defuse a ticking bomb (though that’s stupid because there’s no evidence torture is the fastest interrogation method) how about a high value terrorist who might possibly be planning some attack you don’t know about ….

My own view is that when it’s you on the spot, making the choice, you have to do the best you can. If you believe that torture is the only way that’s likely to work, then choose whether to do that. (If you don’t believe that, then this particular choice is easy.) People on blogs have the luxury of doubting everything, but when you have to choose, then you make your choice informed by whatever knowledge and false knowledge you happen to have.

My stand is that if you do something that’s wrong, then you have responsibilities. If you do it on the job, first you must tell your boss what happened. He may decide that you were too incompetent and he may choose to fire you. Or he may decide it was immoral and fire you for tarnishing the honor of the organization.

Second, you must tell the judicial authorities. They should have a trial and decide what consequences are appropriate.

Every single time you do something that is morally wrong.

There’s a crisis. You do something that’s maybe incompetent and maybe immoral. Afterward you get judged for it. There’s some question whether you should be judged more harshly if you actually got bad results, but it’s predictable you will be. So if you do this stuff and there was in fact no bomb, people will have a lot more contempt for you than if there was. Even if there was no way for you to tell the difference.

And if the bomb blows up, and you survive, they will look hard for things you did wrong. For example if you had vital information that could have gone out to people who needed it, and instead you wasted your time trying to torture more info out of somebody that you reasonably could not expect to get it from in time, and could not disseminate it quickly enough if you did get it, they will be on you like flies on shit.

There are reasons that our institutions aren’t built that way. I’m not clear what to do about that.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 4:53 pm

If there can be exceptions, then somebody has to draw the line about which exceptions are OK and which aren’t.

Consequentialism doesn’t require you to make exceptions at all. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_utilitarianism

If you are deciding then you have to decide for yourself

No, before you make the decision you can ask yourself if you’re actually competent to make it–if, averaged across all possible worlds of making decisions like that, you would be more likely to make things worse or better. Consequentialism requires you to do this before making an extraordinary choice, because otherwise you can’t really say that the action you take will lead to the best consequences.

In other news, apparently militaries and intelligence agencies are liberal professions with a history of opposition to the economic 1%. This is why authoritarians campaign against the security state, because it distracts from the things that really challenge their power, like the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts on income below $400K.

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bianca steele 01.06.15 at 5:20 pm

Consumatopia,

I usually like your comments, and I’m disappointed you’ve chosen this thread to try to take me out, but you’re losing it. Maybe you should stop while you’re ahead. I mean, I really love the way you throw new little catch-phrases into your comments, that you never use again, like “possible worlds” and “average,” it makes you look so sophisticated! But here’s a hint: don’t drink and read.

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J Thomas 01.06.15 at 5:41 pm

#434 Consumatopia

“If there can be exceptions, then somebody has to draw the line about which exceptions are OK and which aren’t.”

Consequentialism doesn’t require you to make exceptions at all.

Agreed. But if there are going to be exceptions somebody has to decide which exceptions are OK.

This is unavoidable. If you have a rule that has exceptions, and nobody gets to decide which exceptions to make, how do you decide when to follow the rule?

“If you are deciding then you have to decide for yourself”

No, before you make the decision you can ask yourself if you’re actually competent to make it

If you are Johnny-on-the-spot then you must choose. If you decide that you are incompetent to make the choice and you delegate it to a friend or a subordinate or some guy who happens to wander by, then that’s your choice. If you decide that you are incompetent to choose what to do so you will do nothing, then that is your choice. If you don’t know what to do so you pray to God that God will make things right, then that’s your choice. If you have gotten some sort of training from somebody and you feel incompetent to choose so you follow your training — whatever it is — then that’s what you choose.

If you were conscripted into the Waffen-SS and your assigned sergeant gives you an order, and he will shoot you on the spot if you disobey, and you choose to obey rather than die or shoot him first and then die or whatever, that is also your choice.

All you can do is choose as best you can. And whatever you do, people may later criticize you for it and maybe punish you or perhaps even kill you.

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J Thomas 01.06.15 at 6:07 pm

#435 Bianca Steele

I usually like your comments, and I’m disappointed you’ve chosen this thread to try to take me out, but you’re losing it.

Somewhere above you said something that reminded me of a stand I dislike, and I responded far more harshly than your own post deserved. I should tell you that I was not trying to “take you out” but was responding mainly to what you reminded me of.

It’s possible sometimes that happens when other people respond in ways that seem disproportionate.

Consumatopia
Battle of Algiers. One of that movie’s themes was that French war crimes were a consequence of French war aims. “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” It’s actually back in the first category of historical vindication–the badness and inevitability of torture is proof that the French should not have tried to stay. If torture didn’t actually work, that narrative would be complicated.

If torture didn’t work, and attempted genocide didn’t work, then the argument could be made that the French should not try to stay in Algeria because they did not in fact know how to stay in Algeria. If you take off the gloves and do everything you can and it still fails, then you really really need to give up.

#407 Rich Puchalsky

And yes, given that I can’t remember a single event in all of history where an attacking nation used children as human shields, I don’t see any great need to answer that hypothetical.

Israel in Gaza. They took Palestinian children and basicly used them to clear minefields. The Palestinians, knowing they would be invaded, would install IEDs under their welcome mats and behind front doors and sometimes arrange for whole houses to fall down on invaders. Children who knew where the mines were would refuse to step on them. IEDs that were controlled by nearby agents would give the agent the choice whether to blow up the children, or perhaps wait and try to blow up the children with the soldiers. And from the Israeli point of view if the children did get blown up by IEDs it was a gain for the next generation.

I vaguely remember the Israeli Supreme Court said they couldn’t do it, and then they did it again anyway. But possibly this is all propaganda. I wasn’t there. The only reliable witnesses were Israeli soldiers who might be reporting it because they want the Israeli army to look bad. Anybody else who reports such things might be doing it for propaganda against Israel.

And of course, it wasn’t exactly an invading army. If the land morally belongs to Israel then they have the right not to take casualties while pacifying it, don’t they? Shouldn’t they be able to kill as many terrorists as possible while taking no casualties themselves?

It’s impossible to describe the situation without using loaded words, and I don’t know how to use them without seeming to favor somebody or other.

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Consumatopia 01.06.15 at 6:39 pm

Bianca, I regret my tone (though I don’t think it was any less respectful than yours was), but though I appreciate that your intentions are good, you are nonetheless saying things that are incorrect as if anyone who doubts them is crazy (e.g. “FFS”). I bear you no ill will, but frankly, I have no interest in your opinion of my posts.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to balk all that much to “average” when we’re talking about consequentialism or “possible world” when we’re talking about hypothetical situations. (It’s odd being told that I never use “possible world”, since I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about modal realism, but maybe it never works its way into my blog comments. Count yourself lucky!) I am just saying that when we consider what should be done in a hypothetical situation, we aren’t just determining what we should do in one situation, but what principle a class of decision makers (which may or may not include us, and in fact usually doesn’t include us) should act under in a class of situations.

Basically, reasoning under consequentialism requires you to reason about reasoning and institutions. I know that you’re more than capable of understanding that.

I admit that sometimes when I’m hurrying I have an unfortunate habit of expressing simple ideas in obscure language (sometimes even obscure language used imprecisely, a terrible combination!), but I’m sadly certain that it’s a persistent pattern across all of my posts on CT and the Internet, and not really what you’re upset about right now.

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Andrew F. 01.07.15 at 1:03 am

Rich @417: The problem is that the NSA has not always been so careful to weasel-word its claims so that they sound impressive but, on careful examination of syntax, are not quite lies.

There is a huge damn distinction between intelligence that “contributes” to an understanding, and intelligence but for which an attack would have occurred. It was that distinction which Senator Leahy – not the NSA – rightly pushed to the front in discussing these intelligence programs. It’s easy to claim that the Section 215 program had some value. Leahy’s criticism was – is – that the program is non-essential; hence his emphasis on the distinction.

That you then bizarrely introduce Alexander’s accurate responses to Leahy’s questions, which make Leahy’s point, as an instance of perjury or deception merely compounds the deviations of your internal narrative from reality.

Rich @421: But the problem is that the claim that the 702 program led to critical leads is also collapsing. For instance, here’s one study: … [stating that] NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined

Rich, the effectiveness of the Section 702 surveillance has been proven beyond question. No one, not even the most ardent critics of the NSA in Congress, have questioned that. And the PCLOB, which found the Section 215 program to be both useless and likely mistakenly authorized by the FISC, concluded without any doubt that the Section 702 programs produced vital intelligence and were extremely important. Here’s the PCLOB Report on the subject – not the report of some organization that had zero access to the actual program.

Alexander was criticized for doing exactly what you describe — combining the FAA 702 and Section 215 programs to make Section 215 look more effective.

Seriously, are you kidding? Go re-read Alexander’s June statement which I quoted above – he very explicitly and quite clearly separates the two programs, and he continued to do so throughout. Hell in every statement you and I have quoted he has separated the two programs – as did Senator Leahy, as did the PCLOB, as did every major participant in the public discussion. Both programs were at issue because both were the subject of the initial press reports in June 2013.

I don’t expect anyone to remember events perfectly, but at least admit your mistakes when you’re confronted with the facts Rich.

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Andrew F. 01.07.15 at 1:41 am

Consum @422: Before I respond directly to what you wrote, I want to note that your argument reminds me greatly of the debate between Patrick Devlin and HLA Hart concerning the degree to which the law ought intrude upon what some might consider private moral decisions. Devlin thought that society was so fragile that to allow the freedom proposed in the private sphere would result in the loss of social cohesion, as individuals began to differ in their moral beliefs. You seem to be arguing along analogical lines (not w/r/t to social cohesion obviously), except with respect to even discussing things like trolley problems or ticking bombs or lifeboats with inadequate supplies of food and water for everyone aboard – that somehow if we begin to discuss them as a means of examining what some of us think to be moral absolutes, the consequences could be quite bad for us.

Well, of course they will–that’s the policy Rich P is attacking.

Actually Rich dodged the question rather openly simply by refusing to consider the notion of what ethical means of fighting would be in a just war. It’s very easy to condemn military actions when the cause is unjust.

But you aren’t asking the government about the policy on collateral damage, you’re asking Rich.

No, I’m asking Rich about what ethical conduct would be in a just war. I’m not simply asking Rich what he personally would do. And there’s more reality than imagination to this question – the principle of proportionality is actual thing, not a hypothetical.

Rich says we shouldn’t fire missiles into buildings with kids in them. Nothing about that critique requires him to take a position on what one should do if an invading army is marching kids in front of them, and expressing an opinion on the matter may be ill-advised.

There’s not a damn bit of difference between “marching kids in front of them” and choosing to place targets of military value close to, or among, civilians – something which has often been done in conflicts over the last 100 odd years. And I very much doubt – as you do as well I’d think – that future wars will allow any escape from these choices.

Logically it’s a bad idea because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to base the general rule on what we would do in extraordinary cases.

Logically it forces one to confront whether one is actually supporting a moral absolute, or whether there are consequences the value of which overwhelms the principle. This leads to clarity about our ethics, about why we might believe X to be wrong, and to consider carefully what to do about intuitions that vary from that initial belief. It can lead us to place appropriate limits on when we might act in a way that causes civilian deaths.

Your argument here almost seems to amount to “careful not to consider cases where our intuitions might conflict with our beliefs, since we might then derive a bad rule.” But the world can be a violent place, and these questions will continue to be real questions. We can either confront them before the fact, or less usefully after the fact.

But more than that, as a matter of narrative, it’s a bad idea–both for us as individuals and for our culture collectively–to spend too much time considering extreme, uncommon situations in which we’re faced with a dilemma between ordering the military to do something terrible (as if we’re the ones issuing orders) and allowing something terrible to happen.

What?? The US has launched over 1300 air strikes on ISIS positions since August, and it would defy all belief to think that in no cases were civilians known to be present. The US has continued air strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and has mounted ground operations that in at least some cases would entail the likelihood of civilian casualties.

And while I suppose Rich might even oppose air strikes in opposition to ISIS, that’s not the view of most on the subject. So considering our ethical beliefs on the subject, and squaring them with ethical views on torture (which, by the way, hasn’t exactly been a taboo subject of discussion over the last several weeks either), seems extraordinarily unlikely to suddenly weaken any social norms you or I happen to believe are good. And as citizens, I do think that we have responsibilities to both contribute to discussion about what the government ought to do and to contribute (not necessarily in monetary terms) to placing whatever policy we believe to be best into actual effect.

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J Thomas 01.07.15 at 3:30 am

#439 Andrew F

Rich, the effectiveness of the Section 702 surveillance has been proven beyond question. No one, not even the most ardent critics of the NSA in Congress, have questioned that. And the PCLOB, which found the Section 215 program to be both useless and likely mistakenly authorized by the FISC, concluded without any doubt that the Section 702 programs produced vital intelligence and were extremely important.

I question that, very much so. The report you quote says:

Presently, over a quarter of the NSA’s reports concerning international terrorism include information based in whole or in part on Section 702 collection, and this percentage has increased every year since the statute was enacted. Monitoring terrorist networks under Section 702 has enabled the government to learn how they operate, and to understand their priorities, strategies, and tactics. In addition, the program has led the government to identify previously unknown individuals who are involved in international terrorism, and it has played a key role in discovering and disrupting specific terrorist plots aimed at the United States and other countries.

This is absurd. No serious anti-US secret force will use point-to-point internet communications for anything. In the example they give, somebody who volunteers to join AQ contacts them over the internet. He is clueless and asks them how to make explosives. They send him some information and he travels toward New York intending to make explosives for the first time, from written instructions, and blow them up. When he finds out the FBI is watching him he goes home. Some of the other incompetents are found in NYC with supplies they have bought intending to make explosives. Some cooperate with the FBI, one gets a life sentence. The FBI did them a kindness by stopping them before they blew themselves up.

More and more of NSA’s findings are about groups that are utterly incompetent, and they argue that they are using this to find terrorist organization strategies, tactics, and priorities.

This is like looking for your keys under the streetlight. It’s looking for shadowy spies under the streetlight.

How many billions of dollars did this stuff cost? And they use it to find terrorists who want to make explosives but don’t know how? Pathetic.

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Consumatopia 01.07.15 at 4:19 am

Okay, it’s a long thread, and I’m not sure I understand the question you were asking Rich, sorry if I got that wrong. (And also sorry to Rich for getting involved.) Don’t get smug, you’ve misstated my our conversations in the past.

When I said “uncommon, extreme situations”, I was referring to the scenario of marching children with your army.

“There’s not a damn bit of difference between “marching kids in front of them” and choosing to place targets of military value close to, or among, civilians – something which has often been done in conflicts over the last 100 odd years”

Of course there’s a difference, they’re two different actions. It would be a logically consistent and defensible rule to say that you can’t attack static buildings with innocents in them, but you can attack forces moving towards you, on your territory, even if they have innocent hostages with them. It’s not a rule I’m proposing, but it’s not inherently absurd. (I’m sure you’ll going to go on at length as to why it’s absurd, but it’s not my main point so I don’t care.)

You seem to be arguing along analogical lines (not w/r/t to social cohesion obviously), except with respect to even discussing things like trolley problems or ticking bombs or lifeboats with inadequate supplies of food and water for everyone aboard – that somehow if we begin to discuss them as a means of examining what some of us think to be moral absolutes, the consequences could be quite bad for us.

I’m arguing against taking them seriously, and recognizing how they can mislead our intuition, as well as how people (ourselves and others) will be tempted to misapply them. Not censoring them.

“Your argument here almost seems to amount to “careful not to consider cases where our intuitions might conflict with our beliefs, since we might then derive a bad rule.”

No, it doesn’t seem like that at all. Look, I can put part of this in rule-utilitarianism terms. You choose a rule which, applied to every relevant situation in our world, maximizes utility. Now, in some situations one rule will yield the most utility, while in others another rule does better–there is no rule that dominates the utility gain of all the other rules in every situation. (The rule saying “follow act-utilitarianism”, which might seem to be such a rule, is in practice computationally intractable to apply.) We have to pick the rule with the highest expected utility across all situations–but that depends on how probable the situations are. Hypotheticals, however, erase probabilities–we just take one particular situation as having probability 100%. So, by themselves, a hypothetical is useless for a rule-utiltiarian.

Now, I think the problems with hypotheticals extend beyond the fact that they’re completely unworkable for rule-utiltiarianism. But that alone is enough for me to object to them.

Take the question of what behavior is acceptable in war. You ask what rule we should follow when our cause is just. But whatever rule we choose, we will also end up following that rule when our cause is unjust. (You can’t use one rule for just wars and another for unjust wars, because the people initiating the wars wrongly believe that all the wars are just.)

By the way, since we’re continuing a conversation, I would note that I never denied KSM was a high-value detainee. But there’s a huge difference between torturing to discover information about a known, imminent plot and torturing to discover unknown, possibly imminent plots. Unknown, possibly imminent plots are possibly everywhere.

But even putting all that aside, we should find it troubling how quickly they started torturing him after he arrived. It suggests they had a very exaggerated view of torture’s effectiveness. Which in turn suggests that they were receiving very wrongheaded advice.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.07.15 at 4:21 am

Andrew F.: “That you then bizarrely introduce Alexander’s accurate responses to Leahy’s questions, which make Leahy’s point, as an instance of perjury or deception merely compounds the deviations of your internal narrative from reality.”

Alexander made a false claim which he was later forced to retract when enough evidence had emerged to impeach it.

“Here’s the PCLOB Report on the subject – not the report of some organization that had zero access to the actual program.”

Yes, let’s trust the people appointed by the Executive to investigate the executive branch. After all, they have access.

“Hell in every statement you and I have quoted he has separated the two programs – as did Senator Leahy, as did the PCLOB, as did every major participant in the public discussion.”

Sen. Leahy, July 31,, 2013:

It also has been far too difficult to get a straight answer about the effectiveness of the Section 215 phone records program. Whether this program is a critical national security tool is a key question for Congress as we consider possible changes to the law. Some supporters of this program have repeatedly conflated the efficacy of the Section 215 bulk metadata collection program with that of Section 702 of FISA. I do not think this is a coincidence, and it needs to stop. The patience and trust of the American people is starting to wear thin.

I asked General Alexander about the effectiveness of the Section 215 phone records program at an Appropriations Committee hearing last month, and he agreed to provide a classified list of terrorist events that Section 215 helped to prevent. I have reviewed that list. Although I agree that it speaks to the value of the overseas content collection implemented under Section 702, it does not do the same with Section 215. The list simply does not reflect dozens or even several terrorist plots that Section 215 helped thwart or prevent — let alone 54 [blocked plots], as some have suggested.

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J Thomas 01.07.15 at 12:44 pm

#440 Andrew F

“Logically it’s a bad idea because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to base the general rule on what we would do in extraordinary cases.”

Logically it forces one to confront whether one is actually supporting a moral absolute, or whether there are consequences the value of which overwhelms the principle.

Logically it reveals that most people do not have any moral absolutes.

Start with any supposed moral absolute. “Thou shalt not kill.” Or rape, or abort, or anything. “Thou shalt not X.” Then frame the particular extraordinary case. “In this particular case, unless you do X once then X will be done to every single person in the world that it’s possible to do X to, and also afterward everybody in the whole world will be horribly killed and all life everywhere in the universe will cease to exist.”

A very few people will honestly believe that it’s better for them to not do X and then be horribly killed after they have caused many millions of X to happen. They personally aren’t responsible for those millions or billions of X, and since they personally are blameless they will then go to Heaven, the best possible outcome.

But a whole lot of people will do X when threatened with a horrible death.

Well OK. So what?

This leads to clarity about our ethics, about why we might believe X to be wrong, and to consider carefully what to do about intuitions that vary from that initial belief. It can lead us to place appropriate limits on when we might act in a way that causes civilian deaths.

I’m not sure it leads to any of that. Once we determine that most people are not completely fanatical moral absolutists, that they are willing to do immoral things under sufficient threat (cf Milgram experiments etc), well — so what?

Here’s a possible rule-of-thumb about how many civilian casualties should be acceptable to kill a terrorist. The 19 9/11 terrorists killed about 3000 people. They had backup from maybe 200 others. The OK city bomber killed 163 people with backup from maybe 2 others. So for the moment, let’s say the worst case is about 160 deaths per terrorist.

If we are certain that if a particular terrorist is not killed now then he will cause another incident like 9/11 or OK city, then it’s OK to kill up to 160 people to get him now. But if there’s a chance that his terrorist incident will kill many fewer people, or if it looks like it’s only 10% likely, then maybe cut that down to only 16 innocents dying with him. And if there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll be stopped some other way, then cut it down more to say 3.

And if the terrorist is outside the USA at the moment and there’s a strong chance that he’ll never make it into the USA to commit his terrorist act against Americans, then probably better to cut it down to zero probable innocents dying with him.

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Consumatopia 01.07.15 at 1:29 pm

“Logically it reveals that most people do not have any moral absolutes.”

Logically speaking, under rule utilitarianism, we choose our moral absolutes according to how we expect them to be followed under probable situations. Thus, improbable hypotheticals are of little use in judging moral absolutes.

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J Thomas 01.07.15 at 1:54 pm

#445 Consumatopia

“Logically it reveals that most people do not have any moral absolutes.”

Logically speaking, under rule utilitarianism, we choose our moral absolutes according to how we expect them to be followed under probable situations. Thus, improbable hypotheticals are of little use in judging moral absolutes.

In practical terms, I agree with you completely. I have pedantic objections to the way you use your words, but it’s probably not worth arguing about them right now.

You might remind me I said this, the next time I start arguing pedanticly about little quibbles in definitions etc.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.07.15 at 3:07 pm

Consumatopia: “Okay, it’s a long thread, and I’m not sure I understand the question you were asking Rich, sorry if I got that wrong. (And also sorry to Rich for getting involved.) “

There are a good number of foolish and incoherent people who it’s better to ignore in comment threads like this.

But the point of Andrew F.’s hypothetical and associated argument is simple. As I wrote before, if you want consistent morality, you can either decide to be consistent with the worst things you support or the best. Under a very wide range of moralities, people agree that killing children with missiles is as bad as or worse than torturing people. Andrew F. points out, accurately, that our government kills children with missiles all the time. So why shouldn’t we also torture? He wants you to be a consistent supporter of both child murder and torture.

He’s right that “And while I suppose Rich might even oppose air strikes in opposition to ISIS, that’s not the view of most on the subject.” I do oppose air strikes in opposition to ISIS. It was earlier military intervention that created ISIS in the first place: that’s history, not “consequentialism”. I’m not really sure whether I’m supposed to be arguing deontologically or consequentially in this case: there are so many alternates — but it’s true that I would oppose all other air strikes that have occurred since WW II (a case of credible defensive war) as well. Andrew F. can bring up hypotheticals all he likes while defending horrible and immoral actualities, but this serves no purpose in illuminating his morality or anyone else’s. It’s already clear.

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Andrew F. 01.07.15 at 5:23 pm

Rich: Alexander made a false claim which he was later forced to retract when enough evidence had emerged to impeach it.

Alexander did not retract any claim. That you continue to assert this is just weird.

Yes, let’s trust the people [AF – the PCLOB] appointed by the Executive to investigate the executive branch. After all, they have access.

The PCLOB who in their report on the Section 215 program called it likely in violation of the law (i.e. that it should not have been legally authorized) and ineffective. Their report on Section 702 lines up with what critics of the NSA, such as Senator Leahy, have said about programs authorized under Section 702.

The PCLOB have shown themselves to be objective, careful, and thorough in their reports, which you clearly have not read.

This continued insistence on a knee-jerk reaction, even after being shown facts, is a really annoying problem in politics. Even when you do the right thing (use your power to appoint a genuinely good investigative body which produces genuinely good, and unarguably independent, reports), some will continue to claim it’s all a whitewash. And people wonder why politicians are consumed with “optics.”

You then quote Senator Leahy, who states that Section 702 programs have been effective, but that the data provided to him by General Alexander does not indicate that Section 215 thwarted dozens or several terrorist plots. None of that conflicts with what General Alexander stated on the matter, whether at the speech in Baltimore in June 2013 or when testifying before the Judiciary Committee.

Finally in another comment you write:

But the point of Andrew F.’s hypothetical and associated argument is simple. As I wrote before, if you want consistent morality, you can either decide to be consistent with the worst things you support or the best. Under a very wide range of moralities, people agree that killing children with missiles is as bad as or worse than torturing people. Andrew F. points out, accurately, that our government kills children with missiles all the time. So why shouldn’t we also torture? He wants you to be a consistent supporter of both child murder and torture.

No Rich, that’s not the point.

The point isn’t that if we agree on a principle of proportionality in war, then we should also agree on torture. The point is that there is a tension between the consequentialist reasoning we use to justify measures we take in war, and the deontological reason often given for opposing torture.

I went on to note that even under such extreme circumstances that violating a deontological norm might be something I would agree to be the ethical thing to do, there are deontological norms that I would not – even in such circumstances – choose to violate. That I would essentially be in a position where I believed that I ought to do that which is unethical (NB where “that which is unethical” refers to following the deontological norm).

To me, that’s something interesting about ethics in general – and as I said, I have a pragmatist’s view on metaethical questions.

So it’s not an argument for a particular policy. We can use other circumstances to bring out the same tension in reasoning, but torture was already being discussed in the thread.

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engels 01.07.15 at 7:36 pm

Late to this and I haven’t read the thread. I agree that using the terms ‘deontology’ and ‘consequentialism’ tends to confuse things – would ‘principled’ and ‘pragmatic’ have been better perhaps?

I think it’s human nature to seek coherence in one’s belief (so people who belief ‘X is wrong in principle’ are more likely to be persuaded that ‘X has bad consequences,’ and vice-versa) and to be slow to abandon core beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence. I also think it’s often unclear to us why we hold the beliefs we do. So I think that to some extent the kind of behaviour you’re talking about is human nature, although I’m sure it can be pathological if taken to extremes (and I’m sure it is on the internetz).

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js. 01.07.15 at 7:44 pm

Peter T @307:

Sorry about that — I was feeling unusually cranky when I wrote that comment. Always enjoy reading your comments.

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J Thomas 01.07.15 at 10:38 pm

#448 Andrew F

The point isn’t that if we agree on a principle of proportionality in war, then we should also agree on torture. The point is that there is a tension between the consequentialist reasoning we use to justify measures we take in war, and the deontological reason often given for opposing torture.

Here’s the strong point to justify unethical measures in war:

“The technology of war has changed to the point that the enemy will win unless we do X. Maybe they will win by doing X, or by some other way, but they will slaughter our armies, and win, and it is bad for the whole world for them to win but especially bad for us. So we must do X even though it is something that good people like us would usually never do, because the alternative is so bad.”

Here is the weak point to justify the same things:

“The outcome is not in doubt, but by doing X we can save the lives of US soldiers and end the war quicker. So X is the right thing to do.”

So for example while the US military was invading Iraq, there was some question whether Saddam’s forces might use chemical warfare. It would not have won the war for them, but it would have given us extra casualties and slowed the tempo, and very likely we would be less merciful. So to prevent that, we publicly announced to the whole world that if the Iraqis used poison gas on us, we would use nukes on them. Most nuclear power have promised that they won’t nuke a nonnuclear nation, but the USA has never made that promise. Anyway we claimed Iraq secretly had nukes. Most nuclear powers have promised they won’t nuke another nuclear power unless the other power nukes them first, but the USA has never made that promise. I think we have made treaties with Russia that say we won’t nuke them if they keep the treaties, but we’ve never promised that to any other nation. So we wouldn’t break any promises by nuking Iraq.

Still it seems like a damfool thing to do, to prevent some US casualties and end the war quicker. But I think if I was fighting there I’d welcome an announcement that we were doing things to help keep me from getting killed, that might kill a bunch of Iraqis instead.

I went on to note that even under such extreme circumstances that violating a deontological norm might be something I would agree to be the ethical thing to do, there are deontological norms that I would not – even in such circumstances – choose to violate.

Interesting. Like what? You are in what you believe is a just war. Your whole nation will be genocided unless you do X. But for deontological reasons you believe that X is wrong. So you instead agree that your whole nation will be genocided and the bad guys will win.

What norm is worth that in your heart?

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