Is the Government Routinely Guilty of Murder?

A quick question. We typically make a distinction between killing someone (which is murder, outside of certain defined cases, like self-defense), and acting in a way, a consequence of which is that they die.

Part of that distinction is intent, and part of it knowledge (it’s not murder to do something which causes death, if it was accidental, or if the result couldn’t have been foreseen). But those are obviously not the whole difference – I can knowingly, and deliberately, say, engage an ambulance driver in conversation, so that they are delayed in responding to my rival’s injury, which I did not cause but know about. And that is a very wrong thing to do, but not quite murder, it seems. Certainly at least, it is not ‘violent murder’.

(note that intent is not the same as motive. I can commit murder for noble motives – I may even be right to do so – as long as I am doing so deliberately. I can also regret that they must die, while still intending to kill them)

A big part of the remaining distinction, though, is about types of action, about the means used. Part of why the person above is not a murderer (if we think they’re not) is that the only action they performed – striking up a conversation – is a generally acceptable and benign sort of action. Stabbing, poisoning, or sabotaging equipment, so that someone (predictably) dies, would count as murder because those sorts of actions have some kind of directly ‘violating’ nature.

This reflects the sort of things a non-consequentialist ethical theory might say: even if the consequences (death) are the same, it’s still important that certain sorts of actions are different from others. Let’s grant this for now then. There are rules of action (do not poison people, do not physically attack people, etc.) that must be obeyed, and they are to some extent independent of consequences.

Now here’s my thought. If someone, with knowledge and deliberation, takes a violent action, or threatens violent action, and by so doing, brings about a certain person’s death, is that sufficient to count as either murder, or as something ‘morally equivalent’ to murder? Even if the ‘direct’ cause of death is something other than said action, or even if the person who dies is not themselves the victim of violence?

I wonder this because it seems that at some level, all state decisions are carried out with at least the threat of violence; the reality of violence is also fairly common. And it’s also the case that many state decisions lead to many deaths that might have been avoided, even if none of this violence is directly lethal. For example, on day 1 the police forcibly arrest and imprison someone for stealing food from a shop: a second person sees this and comes to fear the law. They are, however, financially destitute and this fear of the law prevents them from stealing food from that shop, or from forging health insurance or immigration documents, or some such things. As a result, they or one of their family dies, say from a childhood infection made dangerous by malnutrition.

Now, this seems to be a situation in which the state or some agent of it has carried out violent actions, which led to someone’s death – which death is predictable, if not individually then as part of a statistical average. (I’m here abstracting away from questions of who exactly in that great apparatus of decision-making and -enforcing is responsible – let’s just speak of ‘the state’)

Does this make said state guilty of murder, or of something morally equivalent to murder? If so, that seems to be quite serious – though of course it need not imply condemnation of the state. One might say that this sort of murder is justified by the particular circumstances that attend being a state.

But I do find my pedantic mind wondering about this. If it’s not murder, why not – what makes the difference? If it is something like ‘directness’ of causal link, then 1) what exactly is directness – how is the causal chain to be ‘segmented’ into distinct chunks? 2) why is directness – when distinguished from, say, reliability of connection – morally important? Is this just like the squeamishness of being more willing to support something unpleasant if you don’t have to see pictures of it?

Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds

In my last post I tried to lay out the ground for my approach to meta-ethics, that is to investigating what is involved in moral claims being true or false. Today I’m going to try to put flesh on those bones by developing an account of how it is that we think about other people and their experiences, on which empathy is rationally required, and people who behave like psychopaths are rationally defective – victims, so to speak, of a delusion, just as much as any other psychotic.

So I should with some setting-up. Firstly, I want to say what I think the intuitive assumption is, the picture that I want to argue against (or at least provide an alternative to). The view can be summed up I think in two theses:

1) Thoughts about other people’s experiences have separate cognitive, affective, and motivational components, and;

2) People with different affective and motivational components can still share the same cognitive components.

That is, if malicious person A and compassionate person B both observe person C in distress, they can share the exact same cognition – namely, awareness of the fact ‘that person C is in distress’. They differ simply in that A adds to this a layer of enjoyment and a motivation to keep watching that distress, while B adds a different affective component (they are distressed themselves) and a different motivation (to relieve C’s distress).

What this picture implies is that at the level of cognition, there is no difference between A and B – and so neither can be called right or wrong. They differ only in the further steps they take after becoming aware of this fact. What I want to argue is that for these affective and motivational components to differ as they do, A and B must also have different cognitions, i.e. they believe different facts.

How does this work? My essential claim is this: that A is thinking of a certain object, which they understand and predict by running through a series of thoughts, treated as fantasy-thoughts, while B is thinking of a viewpoint embedded in a body, from which the world appears a certain way.

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What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?)

Last post I mentioned being away for the period around the weekend – I was at a philosophy conference and got back yesterday. The paper I was presenting was on meta-ethics, and in particular the topic of how moral claims might be objectively valid.

I won’t paste the whole thing up here, and I may not even put a whole summary up here (though if not I’ll try to complete it in other posts). But since it’s a topic I find abidingly interesting, and that has on occasion come up in discussions, I did want to open up some sense of what I’m about.

My starting assumption is that the content of any correct moral system is, boiled down, caring for others in the same way we naturally (though not inevitably) care for ourselves. The basic idea is to look out for the intersts of others as we do for our own, and in particular to refrain from harming them, just as we would try to avoid harm to ourselves.

I certainly don’t think all moral systems ever have fitted this pattern – many have substantial alien parts (purity, obedience, and group loyalty are three prominent values that seem opposed) – though it’s rare to see one that doesn’t incorporate this element among others. But that’s fine – they’re just wrong!

Now, what’s striking is that this sort of care-for-another isn’t restricted to what we would call ‘morality’ – it’s also something that often occurs spontaneously, when we simply learn about or consider other people, and of course something that occurs much more reliably in many sorts of inter-personal relationships.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know that someone is being hurt by our actions, and just don’t care. Sometimes, moreover, we perform that action because it hurts someone, because we are motivated to see them unhappy.

How do these phenomena differ from the moral? One difference is that they usually have more of a ‘feel’ to them – we empathise in a way that makes us cry or smile and which generally seems ’emotional’. But this isn’t actually always the case. Often in relationships, we act to care for someone but don’t ‘feel like it’. We can act as though we empathised, but without actually going through the experience of empathy – not necessarily out of ‘duty’ (in the sense of something ‘moral’) but becaue we value the relationship – we value it, and this motivates us in a constant way, regardless of the temporary variations in our emotions.

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Does Moral Philosophy Make a Difference?

Missives from Marx has a series of posts up in which he suggests, in essence, that

“There’s something really stupid about the meta-ethical arguments about whether or not legitimations for ethics are absolute or not, and, if not, whether people can still be ethical…most people just don’t give a shit about meta-ethics.”

This is of interest to me, among other things, because I’ve recently been doing a certain amount of work on meta-ethics (i.e. what is ethics? what do words like ‘good’ mean?) and will, with luck, be presenting to a conference in mid-November, arguing that the foundations of ethics (in at least one sense) are absolute (in at least one sense) in what I think is a fairly novel way. If that goes well I will probably post on it. So I don’t think the whole issue is ‘stupid’.

Of course Missives has a point, which is that people are not waiting with bated breath for some philosophers to finally announce whether truth is beauty, or whether, in fact, beauty is truth. Most of the actions that we call ‘moral’ (in at least one sense) are motivated by something other than metaphysics – they’re some psychological impulse or other, whether empathy, disgust, fear, etc.

But I think this point can be over-stated. The question to ask, I think, is not so much ‘does philosophy affect people’s behaviour?’, but rather the two questions ‘does philosophy affect ideology?’ and ‘does ideology affect people’s behaviour?’

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Are Christian Ethics something worth preserving? Pride and the Deadly Sins

This is what pride means to us now, according to Google image search

This is what 'pride' means to us now, according to Google image search

A common claim I’ve come across is that, all-in-all, the major religions, and the major non-religious bodies of thought, preach the same ethical message.

That if you push beyond the superficialities, and focus on ethics rather than on metaphysics, we get a very similar message coming from all of them (and, it is suggested, that message is quite a good one that ‘we’ the modern sceptical observers should accept).

In certain senses this is true (i.e., if you select the right sources to make them agree) but in certain senses I often think it’s the opposite of the truth. I want to supply one of the supporting documents for this latter case.

Most people are familiar with ‘the Seven Deadly Sins’, a list of character traits that would lead to damnation, which circulated in various forms for much of Christian history.

A notable feature of this meme is the relative importance it accords to the sins. In almost every version Pride is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise (this parallels the association of pride with Lucifer, from whose actions other sins came).

This isn’t a particular unfortunate action that can be hand-waved away. This is a cultural item that was developed and preserved over centuries and remains widely recognised. It can probably claim more widespread assent than most other non-obvious Christian ethical claims.

That seems to be partly a psychological claim (that when people act wrongly, it usually stems ultimately from an over-high opinion of themselves), and partly an ethical claim (that this is what is most objectionable in a human being).

Note, this is not just the (perfectly reasonable, and obviously correct) awareness that sometimes, and in certain senses, pride is a major failing, a vice, and a source for other vices. It is explicitly an over-all claim: that, all-in-all, esteeming oneself too highly is the single biggest cause of vice, and the single most serious vice.

Is the psychological claim true? I don’t think so; I happen to think it’s the opposite of the truth. Of course there are more than one meanings that one can give to ‘thinking highly of oneself’, but all-in-all I think that wrong acts and personal failings more often stem from a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness. All-in-all I think that people who feel better about themselves are more likely to act rightly, to have strength of will, to make sacrifices for others. I also think that this is the belief of many of the most influential figures in the history of psychology.

Perhaps I’m wrong. But there is at least a substantial difference here.

What about the directly ethical claim: that pride is more objectionable than other vices? Again, I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I see nothing obviously worse about pride than, say, habitual violent anger, cruelty, apathy, wilful ignorance, or other vices.

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The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Know Your Rights

Another post about matters of phrasing and expression.

People sometimes say that someone has ‘the right to life’, and mean by this that you shouldn’t kill them (because it would violate that right), and similarly say that they have other such rights, whose import is that we should not to certain things to people.

For example, the 3rd article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (one of the few articles that relates more to ‘ethics’ than to ‘politics’) says that every human being has the ‘rights’ to life, liberty, and security of person, which as I understand it is principally to say that we should not murder, kidnap, imprison, assault, rape, or injure them.

Now, this is a little puzzling. When I take off someone’s hand, there’s not just them and me (and the weapon), there’s a third thing, their ‘right’? And they have several of these things? How many? If they have, in fact, 4, or perhaps 7, or 12, should we establish that number as an important number and regard it as an important fact about humans that they have that many?

A related worry is this: the practical content of these ‘rights’ seems to be an entirely negative thing – don’t murder and mutilate people with them. But the tone in which this is said makes it sound very positive: there’s something inspiring and thrilling in that sort of declaration. But if there is such an inspiring positive value in having those ‘rights’, what is it?

Actually, it doesn’t take too much thought to realise that what is being talked about here isn’t a plural noun called ‘rights’. What’s being said, it seems to me, is that persons are valuable, human beings are persons, and that the condemned acts – murder, assault, rape, imprisonment, injury, etc. – are violations of a person.

That is, when someone kills me, they don’t violate my right to life, they violate me. When they cut off my arm or lock me in a cage, they don’t violate a different right, they violate me in a different way. So there’s no such question as ‘how many rights do people have?’, just ‘how many ways of violating a person are there?’

This also removes the tension between positive and negative: the practical content, prohibiting certain acts, is negative, but the prohibitions flow from, and make reference to, a positive thing: personhood, that mysterious condition that differentiates us from tables and pieces of cheese.

Now, hopefully this is all intuitive and almost obvious.

But isn’t it odd to take a way of speaking that’s used for specific legal entitlements separate from their bearer, to talk about this quite different idea?

It might have made a bit of sense to take the legal notion of rights and use it to express things like ‘the right to a standard of living sufficient for health’ or ‘the right to education’, because these are really claims – things (I suppose, specifically, services) that this person can demand from (unspecified?) others, and which are themselves valuable separate from the rights-holder.

Whereas things like ‘the right to freedom of speech’ are more complicated – they are denying the applicability of certain sorts of exceptions to the prohibitions that follow from personhood. That is, while it’s affirmed that locking people in cages is a bad thing, because a violation of them ‘as people’, it’s then also said that this can be done in some cases, most notably by the state in enforcing the law. Then people are given ‘rights’ that serve to qualify the state’s right to violate people, such as the right to a fair trial, and the right to free speech. (After all, you need no right to free speech against me, because if I locked you up for expressing an opinion, I would simply be a kidnapper).

So these ‘rights’ are actually portions of the ‘remainder’ of the original ‘rights’ of life, liberty, and security of person – which in their turn are not really rights.

People sometimes try to distinguish things like ‘positive rights’ and ‘negative rights’ to clarify this, but it doesn’t seem like the right response to me. If a set of things aren’t the same type of thing, it’s not much good saying that they’re just two varieties of…the same type of thing.

In conclusion? The language of ‘rights’ tends to mystify matters somewhat, by expressing very different things in the same grammar. This probably doesn’t matter too much in practice but it’s a reason to not expect a useful account of ethics and political justice to talk much of ‘rights’.