Sunday, May 19, 2013

Does Philosophy Matter?

DISCLAIMER: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT WHETHER AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY IS RIGHT OR WRONG

Apparently one of the Boston bombers, the Dzhokhar one, wrote a note in (on?) the boat he was hiding in before he was caught. In the note, he wrote that the victims of the bombing(s) were "collateral damage" in the same way Muslims are "collateral damage" from American wars. What did he mean, really? And if thousands of innocent Muslims die as a result of American foreign policy, does he have a point at all?

In law school, I took a class on the law of war. It was an enjoyable class, and the teacher, a military guy, was great. Funnily enough, a significant portion of the philosophy behind the law of war is based in Thomism and general Catholic just war theory. For example, concepts of proportionality, self-defense, and most importantly, double effect are all over the law of war. If I might say something way outside of my range of expertise, I would say that the most traditional of all law is the law of war, at least at its core. A lot of it has been "liberalized" (or whatever) since WW2, but the underlying principles are very traditional.

For example, it is always forbidden (and probably a war crime, depending on the circumstances) to target a non-combatant. no matter your intended goal. Now, what counts as a non-combatant is sort of the popular debate today, but imagining you could separate the categories, you can never target a non-combatant (a civilian). But you can target combatants, where your actions result in the death of non-combatants. For example, if you target a military base, knowing that civilians will die in the process of blowing it up, you have committed no crime. A lot of people absolutely refuse to see the difference in these two things; the civilian is just as dead regardless of why you were doing what you were doing. But that's the law.

This is the same principle that underlies the argument that you do not commit an abortion and likewise commit no wrong if you receive chemotherapy while pregnant, knowing that the drugs will result in the death of the child. In both cases the innocent thing is not targeted; they are merely incidental to the action. And in both cases, the opposite result (the life of the innocents and the life of the child) would be preferred to what really happened. This is what Dzhokhar was referring to when he wrote "collateral damage." Now, his analysis is wrong, but this is what he meant. Why was it wrong? It was wrong, of course, because he was targeting innocent civilians because they were innocent civilians. He was using their deaths as a means to his end. He was, according to the laws of war (and just normal criminal law), committing the crime of murder. And it doesn't really matter if he thought he was murdering for a higher cause. It was still murder. So while it's true more innocent Muslims may have died from American foreign wars, so long as they were not targeted, they were "collateral damage" and, all things being equal, such actions would not count as murder.

As I said, a lot of people think this is sophistry at worst and utilitarianism at best. In fact, having discussions with the majority of people I come across in school, there is a refusal to believe that the difference is meaningful at all. Most will reluctantly accept the difference, even if they don't accept the any consequences from such a difference. I personally find the difference one of the most important concepts in moral theory, and I am always discouraged that I have trouble finding the answers to many of my questions. The most pressing question, of course, is when does a foreseeable result count as an intended result? And further, when does an intentional act count as an intended result? You can always frame things differently to describe the same event. Philippa Foot discusses this, and does not come to a conclusion that is really convincing to me, in "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect," available here. I don't remember, but I don't think any of her famous Trolley Problem stuff (which appears, at least at first, to be solved by the principles of double effect) makes it in there. It's a great piece (as almost everything she did is) anyway.

But putting all that aside, what's really interesting to me (or at least relevant to this post) is that the underlying principles are all but forgotten in the actual law itself. That is, when we were learning the law, we weren't really talking about the reason one way of killing is morally okay and another not morally okay. We just took it for granted. We weren't really talking about how there are two (or more) morally distinct types of intention: intentionally committing an action, and committing an action for a different intended result. What's most interesting to me, though, is that even though most people reject the distinction or reject its meaning, we still follow the consequences of the distinction.

In answer to the question, then, it seems like philosophy both doesn't matter and does matter, equally as intense either way. What do I mean? I mean, to the individual generals who tell soldiers to kill or to the individual soldiers themselves who do kill or to the "bloodsucking" lawyers who defend them both, the philosophy means nothing. It's completely irrelevant. But the fact that we follow the principles at all is testament to how important the philosophy is. On a smaller scale, Dzhokhar acted, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of the principle in question. He got the calculation wrong. Now, he may have been making the larger point that the distinction is irrelevant, and, was, in a way, mocking the distinction. We'll probably never know. But this doesn't really run counter to the major point being made here. If this weren't a guiding principle, what he wrote wouldn't make any sense, and he wouldn't have even been justified in mocking the principle.

These sort of principles and misunderstandings are everywhere. I would say that the majority of debate between people is over philosophical misunderstanding. Even at the highest levels of debate. And this matters. Because people act on reasons. People decide to start using contraception, or people decide to lie, or people decide to cheat on tests based on a rejection of a distinction. "What's the difference?" is the gateway to much sin. And this is all based on a misunderstanding of the underlying principles. And it's a tough situation. Double effect is difficult to understand, even when someone is taught all its ins and outs.

I think a lot of people, myself included, despite our best efforts, sort of tip toe through life, hoping that we won't be faced with the decision to pull some lever that saves five and kills (results in the death of?) one. This is why I get a bit frustrated when people say that it's all just "mental masturbation" or that it's a waste of time for people in ivory towers. It's not. It's everything we do that matters. When you tell someone to accept the difference between something like NFP and contraception, for example, without much of any real philosophy behind it, you do him a great disservice. Inevitably, despite his best efforts, he's going to ask "what's the difference?"

And this, I suppose, is the real problem. Even recognizing that it does matter, and it obviously does, what are we supposed to do with this information? Most people are too busy or not smart enough to really understand the consequences of truth. And in a modern world, where you have to constantly make significant moral decisions, it's overwhelming. And advice like, "just try to be a good person" or "you know what's right" or "just love others!" is really not helpful. Perhaps I'm calling for a more robust applied ethics, or perhaps I'm calling for more significant leadership. I'm not sure. Maybe it always was and always will be the majority of people not being quite sure why they believe what they believe (while calling for others to believe the same), but it just doesn't seem quite right.

8 comments:

  1. In defense of some of the people who discount philosophy, my impression is that the worst kinds of post-modernist sophistry is often what gets presented as examples of it initially.

    I think what's worse is that philosophers themselves often don't seem to care very much about philosophy, at least not as philosophy. Instead, at least in my experience, a lot come across as chasing agendas - and philosophy just happens to be yet another battleground for that kind of thing.

    Still, I agree with what you mean, of course. I think it's odd that people will encourage their children to work hard to do all manner of things (be a good athlete, be wealthy, be successful, be educated, etc) -- but to be a good person? That's supposed to be easy, right? Surely the answer would be obvious to Forrest Gump.

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  2. I was wondering if you could do a post on complementarianism. I was reading the comments of the article below and a commenter named Franklin made a good point.

    He said that complementarianism is always expressed in generalities (men are protectors, women are nurturers, etc.) but no on ever actually gives specifics for what behaviors are always good for men but never for women, always good for women but never for men, etc.

    In short, that people talk a lot about the "natures" of men vs. women, but no one ever actually lists specific behaviors that are unique to those natures.

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/05/20/excesses-of-complementarian-culture/

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  3. Do you honestly believe that Dzokhar thought ANYTHING through, other than his loyalty to his older brother?

    What would be his level of guilty if his brother LIED to him about the motives or purposes of their actions? What if his brother told him that they were actually part of a "government projection"--say, a CIA plot to "heighten terrorism awareness"--and that the bombs weren't powerful enough to kill anyone?

    What if Craft International (suspected to be a Mossad property, since the mysterious murder of its founder) were using them as uninformed decoy? How "guilty" would Dzokhar be, then, if his real moral failing were just callousness regarding the possibility of loss of life? (Similar to the callousness of those who commit "collateral damage"...)

    Have you not seen ANY of the public's suspicions of a "False Flag" operation, in the shape of the Boston bombings?--the photo-shopped backpack, the video of a living Tamerlan being marched naked into a police van and then being found dead a few hours later? The shouts of "We didn't do it! We didn't do it!" as the brothers are being shot at? The claims of witnesses that they saw a POLICE van run over Tamerlan's body--not the vehicle driven by Dzokahr? The initial, and ridiculous claim that Dzokhar's neck wound was the result of a botched suicide plan? What about the Craft International insignia caught in a photo of one of the shredded backpacks that supposedly housed a pressure-cooker bomb? What about the loudspeaker announcement, after one of the detonations, that "this is just a drill"? Does NONE of that look suspicious to you?

    Finally, in terms of your analysis of non-purposeful commitment of "collateral damage," what if the targets that are the object of the attacks simply aren't significant enough to warrant the sacrifice of innocent civilian life?

    Did you know that the son of Anwar al-Aflaki (sp.?) was actually in his GRANDPARENTS' house when he was killed?--that, in fact, to respond to the FBI agent's statement that he "shouldn't have had that kind of father" (!?), "that kind of father" actually HAD removed him from the presence of "terrorists" or "terrorist actions" for the express purpose of ensuring that his 16-year-old son WOULD NOT become involved in what he, the father, was doing?

    Look, I live in South Asia, where the resentment against these kinds of rationalizations that you are advancing here is growing ENORMOUSLY. There are going to be MORE episodes of "blow-back" in America. You cannot ask that the Muslim peoples of the part of the world where I live continue to look at the kinds of photos of piled-up corpses that we see here--and that your brainwashing "main-stream-media" won't allow you to see there--and expect these people to refrain from retaliating with the only means of force that are available to them, which are, unfortunately, necessarily cheap and random, and, consequentially, civilian-targeting. They are not going to wait until too many 16-year-old boys and their grandparents die, while you in the United States quibble over what is or is not an "intentional killing."

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  4. Do you honestly believe that Dzokhar thought ANYTHING through, other than his loyalty to his older brother?

    What would be his level of guilty if his brother LIED to him about the motives or purposes of their actions? What if his brother told him that they were actually part of a "government projection"--say, a CIA plot to "heighten terrorism awareness"--and that the bombs weren't powerful enough to kill anyone?

    What if Craft International (suspected to be a Mossad property, since the mysterious murder of its founder) were using them as uninformed decoy? How "guilty" would Dzokhar be, then, if his real moral failing were just callousness regarding the possibility of loss of life? (Similar to the callousness of those who commit "collateral damage"...)


    Well, in many of those cases, his culpability would be lessened because he would lack the requisite intent. I would still not call him a moral person, most likely, depending on the circumstance. But, I do reject the claim that he was so loyal he couldn't make moral decisions. Loyalty is no excuse for murder, unless the brainwashing is so complete that the person does not know he is intentionally killing other human beings. Which was clearly not the case here. Even if he were lied to the whole way through, so long as he knows he is purposefully killing innocent human beings (which it clearly looks like he did know), he is rightly called a murderer.

    The conspiracy-ish stuff in the middle is off-topic and not worth responding to. I mean, I don't even understand how you can say "He was just being loyal to his brother" while also saying "It probably wasn't even them!" in the same post. I mean, I don't even...

    ...expect these people to refrain from retaliating with the only means of force that are available to them, which are, unfortunately, necessarily cheap and random, and, consequentially, civilian-targeting.

    Even if it were true that the only thing these people could do is guerrilla-attack, it wouldn't necessarily follow that they have to do so to innocent civilians, who probably have no interest, at all, in the death of innocent Muslims. The ends aren't even connected to the means in such a case.

    And it's not "quibbling." It's determining whether something is moral or immoral. If American soldiers simply decided to intentionally attack and kill civilians whenever they felt like it because "they might become terrorists someday," you would obviously say this is much more wrong than their attempting to attack violent targets and unintentionally killing civilians in the process. But why would you say this unless there was something important there?

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  5. I mean, I don't even understand how you can say "He was just being loyal to his brother" while also saying "It probably wasn't even them!" in the same post.

    My strongest suspicion is that they WERE involved--recruited as stupid, unknowing "patsys," required to take the fall for the real conspirators, in the same way that--I strongly suspect--Oswald was required to take the fall for the true murderers of Kennedy, on the grassy knoll. This is the time-immemorial practice of the governments that use "projections" into the ranks of plotters. It was what the Walsingham secret police of the Elizabethan era did, in order to demonize Catholics and force the monarchy to make disastrous concession to Puritan republicanism. It is the more complete explanation of the Rosenberg spy ring. You can call my allegations "conspiracy theories" as much as you like, but video footage and close technical analysis of photo-shopping, and eye-witness accounts are telling too radically different a story, from what the Feds are telling.

    Prediction: Dzokhar will not live to testify in court, OR his plea-bargain will involve a hasty non-trial, in which records will be "sealed," for the sake of "national security," and he will be bustled off to some comfortable dungeon for the rest of his life. And meanwhile, the drumbeat for war against Syria will grow ever-louder, as Russia accepts, in return, American cooperation for her repressions in the Caucuses.

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  6. Hey Joe I have a quick philosophy question is it wrong to lie about being Catholic and claim I’m an atheist if only for the sake of subverting atheism and it’s philosophical positions? It’s just every time I try to make a moral argument from a conservative point of view I’m immediately as a Bible thumping conservative.

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    1. Sorry, I didn't see this question. But yes, it is always wrong to lie, even if your intention is good in doing so. I'm writing up a post on NFP that touches on lying a bit; check that out!

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  7. *labeled as (sorry it's late).

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