William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Ought Wrongs To Be Righted? Not Always

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. And bang.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. And bang.

Following up on the Bad Arguments to the Death Penalty post, we have the question Ought Wrongs To Be Righted?

No: not all of them. Here is the great late philosopher David Stove’s answer. From On Enlightenment (Transactions Publishers, New York, p. 174; link is not to same edition I have):

It does not follow, from something’s being morally wrong, that it ought to be removed. It does not follow that it would be morally preferable if that thing did not exist. It does not even follow that we have any moral obligations to try to remove it. X might be wrong, yet every alternative to X be as wrong as X is, or more wrong. It might be that even any attempt to remove X is as wrong as X is, or more so. It might be that every alternative to X, and any attempt to remove X, though not itself wrong, inevitably has effects which are as wrong as X, or worse. The inference fails yet again if (as most philosophers believe) “ought” implies “can.” For in that case there are at least some evils, namely the necessary evils, which no one can have any obligation to remove.

Necessary evil? Difficulty is that evil is equivocal, thus there are different ways to think of necessary evils. Guy is running down the street toward you and your daughter. He’s got a copy of the New York Times in his back pocket, a Koran in his left hand, and a machete in his right, well bloodied, which he’s used to hack up half a dozen pedestrians farther up the road. You have in your left hand your daughter’s right, and in your right hand there’s a well-oiled, fully loaded Smith & Wesson 460XVR, .460 Magnum five-round revolver (the rounds are too big for the weapon to hold six). Killing this maniac is an evil, a wrong, but a necessary one.

Those hours you put in to make it to Carnegie Hall were sure painful, and pain is an evil, but a necessary one to bring about this greater good.

Could the death penalty, in some cases and circumstances (but not all), be a necessary evil? Surely our imaginations are fecund enough to show that it can.

Stove continues:

[The above] are purely logical truths. But they are also truths which, at most periods of history, common experience of life has brought home to everyone of even moderate intelligence. That almost every decision is a choice among evils; that the best is the inveterate enemy of the good; that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; such proverbial dicta are among the most certain, as well as the most widely known, lessons of experience. But somehow or other, complete immunity to them is at once conferred upon anyone who attends a modern university.

The only possible response to this is amen. And more proof universities ought to be nuked from orbit. Though perhaps we ought to add media organizations to the Consigned-to-Rubble list. Something happens to people once the align themselves with sizable media organizations that causes them, over time, to not only surrender to political correctness, but to promulgate it. That, however, is a contingent and not philosophical statement, and you are free to disagree with or disparage it.

Back to the topic. Nearly all mutations are dysgenic, most Change We Can Believe In is harmful, the bulk of “innovation” corrodes and weakens. Tinkering with complex systems produces unforeseen events. These truths are why the Church advocates subsidiarity, the keep-it-small, keep-it-simple principle which acknowledges that humble is easier to control and predict than the hideously complex. I suppose socialism is the opposite of subsidiarity, and is the political system advocated by universities, media, pretty much everybody who look to the State to cure their ills.

Let’s keep on track! The Doctrine of Unintended Consequences is one of the few hard won, adamantine, indisputable moral truths known to us. Yet we eagerly cast it aside in the pursuit of Beautiful Theories which hold that if only we pass enough laws or implement enough regulation human perfection, or something rather like it, will be ours at last.

The very purpose of modern Western education is thus to seek an end around Stove’s logical truths, an impossible goal. It’s no wonder literature departments don’t want students reading poetry.

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

For promised joy.

Update

I should have known better to put the business about necessary evils into this. Mea culpa. We are forgetting Stove’s more important, and simple, words:

It does not follow, from something’s being morally wrong, that it ought to be removed. It does not follow that it would be morally preferable if that thing did not exist. It does not even follow that we have any moral obligations to try to remove it. X might be wrong, yet every alternative to X be as wrong as X is, or more wrong. It might be that even any attempt to remove X is as wrong as X is, or more so. It might be that every alternative to X, and any attempt to remove X, though not itself wrong, inevitably has effects which are as wrong as X, or worse…

But comments have inspired this new joke revealed to us today.

Utopianist and a realist fall off a cliff. Realist says, “Been nice to know you.” Utopianist says, “Not acceptable! It’s up to you to find a solution to our predicament!”

Splat.

24 Comments

  1. It’s not about wrongs being righted. It’s about the fear of making a mistake in this case (but being fine with stealing 3/4 of a person’s life on a mistake) or the fear of actually having to take action. The common thread in anti-death penalty rhetoric is “we can’t be responsible if we don’t make a permanent decision”. Actually, of course, you can and are. Most of this rests on never doing anything of substance and letting God or Fate or whatever handle the tough stuff. It’s what all of the current nonsense is based on—punishing white people because of their skin color, punishing Christians because of their beliefs, etc by destroying their lives in “defense of others” but letting murderers run free because we might make a mistake. It’s sooo much easier to self-righteous and brave by making a Christain woman lose her cake baking business that actually confronting the Taliban. It’s all about talk. The “righting the wrong” is nothing but words and fluff.

  2. and pain is an evil, but a necessary one to bring about this greater good.
    No. Inflicting pain unnecessarily is the evil. Pain is merely a biological reaction to a stimulus.

    The lesser of two evils is evil nonetheless. Wrongness is both discrete and continuous, but the standards of measurement are different. You break one commandment, you break them all. Yet the punishments for various traffic violations are commensurate with the offense — speeding merits a fine, reckless driving death resulting merits incarceration.

    Wrongs really can’t be righted, only ameliorated, or compensated, or balanced in some way.

  3. Stove’s argument is, at best, puerile – it amounts to “if we can’t, we’re under no obligation to try.” Nonsense, something may b e be the lessor of two evils, but recognizing that it is, nonetheless, evil creates an obligation to find a third, less evil, alternative.

  4. It’s a cynical, convenient, lazy, useless way of looking at things.

    With the Death Penalty, in particular though, it is really dissonant to the rest of conservative thought. If you don’t trust the government to deal with complex problems, and crime is often awfully complex, then why the hell would you give it the power over life?

    JMJ

  5. The argument is right out of …
    Matt 13:24-30
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+13%3A24-30&version=NKJV

    The Wheat and the Tares

    We are neither the Master nor the servants in this parable.

    We are either the wheat or the tares. Most times we are both. “To not act” can be as evil as “to act”. “To be” or “not to be” as someone else once famously said.

    Then there is the question of “when to act”. The Master and his servants can wait until the Harvest.

    What evil can we, as the wheat, stop? What evil can we, as the tare, postpone? All are good questions.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    March 12, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    If not all wrongs ought to be righted, why is this one in particular one of those?

    You have three evils, the murder, the unjust life sentence and the unjust execution. Neither the unjust life sentence nor the unjust execution will undo the murder. But releasing the innocent prisoner and compensating him generously is clearly less of an evil than letting him rot in prison after you found out he’s innocent.

    And reviving the innocent executed is clearly less of an evil than letting him rot in his grave, if reviving a dead person was possible.

    So Stoke’s argument doesn’t work in this particular case. There is a clear hierarchy of evils, and it points to life sentencing, not Capital Punishment.

  7. Gary–The lesser of two evils is still wrong. However, the world doesn’t really care about that and often makes us make those choices, or just walk away and pretend it’s not our fault, blame God, blame fate. I agree that wrongs cannot be righted.

    JMJ: Straw man argument and the usual drivel. We would have to remove ALL law enforcement, ALL government health care, ALL federal courts, etc to keep the government from having power over life. You really need to stop reading that leftist book there and THINK.

    John B(): Agreed.

  8. An analogy.

    It does not follow, from Abortion being morally wrong, that it ought to be removed. It does not follow that it would be morally preferable if Abortion did not exist. It does not even follow that we have any moral obligations to try to remove Abortion. Abortion might be wrong, yet every alternative to Abortion be as wrong as Abortion is, or more wrong.

    It might be that even any attempt to remove Abortion is as wrong as Abortion is, or more so. (the “violation of a woman’s right to self-determination” argument)

    It might be that every alternative to Abortion, and any attempt to remove Abortion, though not itself wrong, inevitably has effects which are as wrong as Abortion, or worse. (the “back alley coat-hanger” argument)

  9. Nate: The same argument applies to the death penalty and abortion: Don’t commit the act that results in the need for the penalty. Don’t murder, don’t have promiscuous sex. Wrongly convicted and rape are excluded. These can be dealt with separately—it is not an all or nothing.

    Everyone is overlooking that there is often decades between conviction and execution, allowing for many appeals and reducing the probably of a mistake. We don’t pronounce the death penalty and then execute these people on the spot.
    If we want to eliminate ALL chances of mistake, we have to have unarmed police, get rid of medications, get rid of doctors, etc. Everyone one of these activities can result in wrongful death. It’s not a valid argument to avoid an activity because it can result in wrongful death. You may be able to argue another activity has less risk, but again, taking 40 years of someone’s life still has to be wrong and unfixable, yet everyone here seems gleefully in favor of the idea.

    The mass murderer in Norway got 21 years. Is that more in line with your thinking? He can rehabilitated and released? That way we don’t screw up and take his whole life in prison or kill him if he was innocent. Seems to be more to what is being advocated here.

  10. And if there is something morally wrong deserving of removal — who is to make that judgement and take that action?

    Matthew 7:5 “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

    John 8:&: “When they persisted in questioning him, he straightened up and told them, “Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.””

  11. Ken:

    Two different things are going on in both of those cases

    Especially in the episode with John where they wanted to stone the woman without taking account of the man (if she were, in fact, “caught in the act”, they would’ve had the man to stone as well

    Try again, Ken

    Failing to do can be a HUGE sin

    “…in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…”

    From the “Act of Contrition”

  12. “…pain is an evil…”

    Not so, at least not when it’s freely chosen as part of the price of acquisition of something you value. The argument deteriorates seriously at this point.

  13. Briggs

    March 12, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    So in other words, Francis, the “price” of pain you pay to acquire a skill is necessary to attain that skill. Now somebody else can, in some other purpose, cause you the same physical/mental pain but not directed towards the same goal. Same pain, two goals. A necessary and an unnecessary pain/evil.

    Anyway, skip everything I said about necessary evil and everything Stove says holds.

  14. The Vatican has published its position on punishment (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm); consider:

    2265 THE DEFENSE OF THE COMMON GOOD REQUIRES THAT AN UNJUST AGGRESSOR BE RENDERED UNABLE TO CAUSE HARM.

    2266 “… PUNISHMENT then, IN ADDITION TO DEFENDING PUBLIC ORDER AND PROTECTING PEOPLE’S SAFETY, has a medicinal purpose: AS FAR AS POSSIBLE, it MUST CONTRIBUTE TO THE CORRECTION OF THE GUILTY PARTY.”

    Key elements include 1) render an aggressor unable to cause harm, and 2) contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

    Seems simple enough — philosophically.

    How about in actual practice; some references via the link below, pointing to other references, where the U.N. thought the response taken violated the two criteria noted above for misbehavior the vast majority of people, in all cultures, find reprehensible. Study that & see if you agree (noted to illustrate another example where philosophy falls short when put to practice in reality):

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/may/6/vatican-reveals-punishments-pedophile-priests-firs/?page=all

    John B() is right — Failing to do can be a HUGE sin

  15. “That almost every decision is a choice among evils…”

    A little dramatic, is it not? Can’t recall harming anyone recently. What is the definition of evil being used here? Recently, I’ve helped clients resolve technical problems, paid my bills, went to the bank, did some promotional work, sorted out some landscaping issues, assembled a shed, went to the supermarket multiple times, have been trying to convince my mother to undertake a non invasive medical procedure, caught up with some relatives, did some gardening, watched some movies, cleaned my water tank filters, did some engineering work…

    Sorry, can’t think of any ‘evil’ I’ve been doing lately. ..

  16. RE: “…pain is an evil…”
    As F W P commented: “Not so, at least…[one of nearly infinite examples given]”
    vs. Briggs’ next comment

    What we observe here (“…pain is an evil…”) is a Sweeping Generalization…a type of logical fallacy from oversimplifying.

    Does: Pain = Evil ?

    While one is not ‘sposed to judge, the ole saying (derived from Gospel) has merit — ‘judge a tree by its fruit’ (more contemporary variations hit the same theme/concept: “Actions speak louder than words”…).

    Physical pain may be a warning something is wrong and induces saving actions .

    Emotional pain, such as a “guilty conscience,” may induce contrition.

    Those pains, which operate at the most fundamental levels of the creature, induce good in response to harms & evils and as such can hardly be considered “evil” themselves.

    Thus, with even just one contradicting example, the postulated “pain =’s evil” is disproven.

  17. Stove: “…almost every decision is a choice among evils; that the best is the inveterate enemy of the good; that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; such proverbial dicta are among the most certain, as well as the most widely known, lessons of experience.”

    Mark Twain: “Now let us see what the philosophers say. Note that venerable proverb: Children and fools always speak the truth. The deduction is plain —adults and wise persons never speak it.”

    Same philosophical logic applied in both of the above…with one key difference: Twain concocted that [and much more] in an essay intended to win a context whereas Stove actually believes that kind of thinking.

    Reference: Mark Twain’s, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying” (avail. at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2572).

  18. Obviously joggers don’t view pain as evil. Merely something uncomfortable one has to put up with to achieve a goal.

  19. Briggs

    March 12, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    All,

    I guess it did no good whatsoever to write evil is equivocal. It means the lack of the good. It does not only mean Ferguson style idiocy, or worse.

  20. I’m certain Terry Pratchett had some pithy things to say on the subject

    http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-31858156

  21. The very purpose of modern Western education is thus to seek an end around Stove’s logical truths, an impossible goal. It’s no wonder literature departments don’t want students reading poetry.

    Really?

  22. “John B()
    MARCH 12, 2015 AT 8:03 PM
    I’m certain Terry Pratchett had some pithy things to say on the subject”

    He did indeed, John:

    “I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.”

    — Death addresses his new apprentice (Terry Pratchett, Mort)

  23. “modern Western education is thus to seek an end around Stove’s logical truths”

    OK, Stove’s was anti-post modernist. But I don’t follow the connection with poetry appreciation; what has it do with critical thinking?

  24. Michael hart: Leave Judith out of this!

    I wish that I could put my finger on the passages but there are several passages in DT and Leviticus that deal with justice as applied to the rich and the poor (the following are all paraphrases):

    1 Do NOT be ready to condemn a man because he is poor.
    2 Do NOT automatically exonerate a man because of his wealth

    (I am told that in those days a man’s wealth or poverty was God’s favor or curse for righteousness or sin)

    But it also says:

    3 Do not take the side of the poor man without considering the evidence (bleeding hearts and artists)
    4 Do not automatically assume a wealthy is a scoundrel.

    The point about the consequences of not acting is what the “Origin of Spider Man” was all about.

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