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Hobbes believed we have a right to defend ourselves by any means against even innocent threats. The most fundamental natural right is to preserve one’s life against the threat of violent death. Naturalistically considered, one's rights extend as far as one's power; the power to preserve our autonomy and agency, even preemptively. But I can get no purchase on the notion of retribution/revenge before the fact. Deflection is not revenge, and thwarting one’s likely demise is not retributive. The intention behind potentially calamitous acts, I hold, is not the decisive criterion for whether they, qua life-threatening, are to be considered evil. It is quite possible to do evil inadvertently, and in spite of the best intentions. (As some wisenheimer once observed: the opposite of ‘good’ is ‘good intention.’) Evil is suffered as a consequence of actions regardless of intent. Someone who wants to save me may wind up killing me; in which case I suffer the ultimate evil that can befall an organism. You’re thinking is resolutely Kantian on this score. The unwitting catalyst of my demise is still culpable, both from the community/tribe’s perspective, and, assuming he has a conscience, from his own. How he is to expiate [be punished for] his guilt is a matter of specific convention/consensus, but that he deserves some punishment seems self-evident. The law enshrines the right of preemptive self-defense against intrusion on private property; one is legally permitted to kill intruders. But you don’t take up the distinction between positive-legal right and natural right. You’re left talking about permissibility while invoking we-know-not-what kind of higher authority that would give permission. Assuming laws reflect a consensus of the community, are you suggesting individual conscience is the alternative source of our notions of justice/decency? If only the laws of different tribes decide what is permissible, we have merely ducked the question of its source. For every specific culture appeals to the standard of justice per se, not the standard unique to it. In this fact is grounded the necessity of something like natural right. I’m not sold on your “prudence is not morality” assertion. You certainly haven’t argued for it. I say prudence, qua calculation of what is expedient in the context of the permissible, is very much a part of the deliberative evaluations that constitute moral discourse. Prudence is morality in action, so to speak. Excellence of character is the datum of the moral, and we ascertain the moral tenor of a person by the choices he makes, as reflections of the decisions he reaches through a deliberative process that is in part calculative-instrumental. In the case of the expectant rape-victim your query about moral permissibility [of self-defense] strikes me as a topic taken up post facto by a third party, by an on-looker rather than the victim-to-be. In the exigence of the moment and no foreknowledge of her actual fate Sally must calculate the course of action with the best odds of eventuating in her survival, not with whether or not her preemptive assault will be considered foolish, desperate, misguided, “impermissible” or what have you. Her preeminent and primary concern is prudential; it is with efficacity, not goodness, legality, or justice as determined by some transcendent criterion/source of authority. To imagine Sally lies there disinterestedly deliberating about what is permissible, let alone about which considerations of an ethical nature ought to inform her course of action, is absurd: self-defense is the most primitive, pre-reflective, instinctual behavioral mechanism that animates organisms: that of fight-or-flight. Surely you don’t mean to suggest that moral evaluations--the process whereby we theoretical types make our conclusions about what is/ought to be allowable--disregard that reality? Or perhaps that is what moral philosophers in fact do, painting their shades of grey on grey: they don’t give guidelines to embodied existences, but make assessments impartially, after the fact. In this sense they pursue ends that serve no one’s interests but their own desire to entertain ideas indefinitely. I would defend their right to be thus useless to the death, but we ought to at least acknowledge the distinction between theoretical vs. practical [applicable] uses of reason. In other words, questions of justice are not obviously pragmatic. The multitudes get by just fine obeying certain divinely sanctioned commandments backed up by the force of law. We don’t need them to start debating about what is just. Where would that lead? “Morality” is a narrative [as well as an evaluative discourse], and what pertains to courses of action [motives] in cases of emergency and what to judgments rendered retrospectively, are discontinuous magnitudes. Its the difference between a theoretical and practical deliberative process. God knows its easy to be impartial about ‘moral permissibility’ in the first instance. In any case, your conclusions in Sally’s case are anything but controversial. Whether the falling man is villainous or innocent also cannot be known by his imminent victim. His natural right is to preserve his existence against the threat of the falling body. The cases you cite are instances of self-defense; preemptive self-defense against perceived threats. It’s absurd to conclude that it is better for Sally not to inflict hurt on her assailant because there will then be one less injured individual. There’s nothing new about the right of preemptive self-defense. In fact, it’s as old as the hills. And I’m not convinced any such defense can logically be characterized as retaliatory, given that acts must first be completed before vengeance can be sought. And what is punishment, as justice enacted, if not vengeance? You toss around the notion of ‘right’ without examining it closer. What is a “right of compensation?” for instance. What made it possible for something like a right--a concept that emerged at a specific time in history--to become the common currency of moral discourse, displacing the notion of duty that had reigned supreme since the dawn of communal living? What would change if instead of casting the moral dilemma in terms of permissibility and rights [for what is a right if not a permission?], one conceived of self-defense in terms of duty? Surely we each have a duty to ourselves to preserve our existence and obviate bodily harm. This doesn’t, of course, change the fact that our evaluation of moral character as reflected in choices must weigh one duty/right against another. But it does seem that questions about the ultimate source of a duty to self-preservation are less spontaneously posed than queries about the source of the corresponding right. At least not in the naturalistic perspective that does not lose sight of the fact that human beings are organisms first and last, not aspiring angels. Conspicuously absent in your discussion of retribution and the pedagogic function of punishment is a notion that must be considered the very essence of the latter, namely expiation [of guilt]. A crime creates an imbalance between the individual and the ethical community, from which the criminal excludes himself by his trespass. He must pay a penalty; if the laws of the land are to have any force they must be enforced. Justice exacts some measure of suffering, but not as an end in itself. The offender expiates his guilt only if he accedes to his punishment as just. There is no other way for him to rejoin the community, morally speaking, than to accept its disapproval as his own self-disapproval. What would a non-arbitrary calculation of sufficient punishment be? Is arbitrariness the same as randomness? How can a choice of means be random? Certainly those who set sentencing guidelines are guided by some notion of proportionality and not drawing lots. That process too is prudential-reasonable, if not infallible. We can’t really ask for more than that. How, you ask, is being annihilated to suffer a harm? How about by virtue of the fact that one’s life has been taken, a future annulled? Not sure what the mystery is here. Obviously, to suffer a harm continuously one must exist, but it does not follow that by no longer existing because one has been murdered that one has not been wronged. [You’re not very clear about individual vs. collective perspectives in general.] To the notion of a person belongs his loved ones, property and obligations [as in to repay loans]: his estate in the broadest sense. I won’t get into revenge insurance, only to note that those who subscribe to the notion of a last judgment invest in something comparable: the impossibility of escaping, if not punishment, a day of reckoning. What does “the value of retaliation to any of us will depend upon our sentiments” mean? How about another [shorter] article analyzing it for us? It suggest an emotivist theory of value that has been soundly refuted. Your conclusions here are, as expected, a mixture of a moral/cultural relativism and emotivism. How are we to be comforted by a conclusion that is, at best, problematic [viz., that justice is founded in revenge as upon a bedrock of human psycho-logy]? That conclusion that has not been demonstrated, merely stipulated. If it sounds disillusioning, the reasoning seems to be, it must be the unvarnished, painful truth of the matter. Thus when it is appropriate to be impartial, you show yourself incapable, or unprepared, for it’s demands. You do justice and injustice. Justice cannot be explained by reference to deeply rooted emotions--revenge, mercy, compassion. It is not vengeance, or revenge, but balance: a ratio which we, as reason-able citizens, aspire to gauge and adjust, guided by our ideals of truth and the good. So instead of founding justice on our motivations, I would enjoin you to envision the ends we seek to actualize in pursuit of just proportions. Or at least to ponder the difference, which presupposes the all-decisive divide between early modern [Hobbes, Spinoza] naturalist vs. classical-functional/teleological conceptualizations of the Nature we call 'human.' A more general comment: you have a prodigal ability to articulate ideas, and I am a great admirer of that too rare capacity, but you might want to limit yourself to one problem at a time and explore it in-depth, rather than free-associating at such length. Variety may be the spice of life, but it is not the virtue [art] of philosophical discourse. That would be concision. Also, as stimulating this article was, it takes too much for granted to be radical.
Toggle Commented Jul 19, 2012 on A Few Short Steps to the Gallows at
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Jul 18, 2012