Thursday, June 20, 2019

Ugly Calculations

     If a thing is wrong, it is wrong – and vox populi can’t change it. – Robert A. Heinlein

     A friend once told me of a contretemps that erupted during a philosophy class he attended. The subject matter was morality and whether it has an objective nature. The professor kicked it off with a simple question: “Why was it wrong for Cain to murder Abel?”

     The class erupted in contending theories. Voices started soft but soon began to rise. When the exchanges edged toward acrimony, the professor halted the crossfire and provided the answer to his question: “Because it was.”

     Herbert Spencer put it another way:

     I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

     Murder is not wrong because there’s a law against it; there’s a law against it because it is absolutely wrong a priori. The wrongness of murder is built into our natures as thinking beings with individual values and souls.

     Regard, if you will, the legal distinction between murder and other forms of homicide. A murder is deliberate: it’s the consequence of actions that were intended to take a human life. A murder is also unjustified: the perpetrator cannot claim to have been innocently defending his life, the life of some other innocent, or any other morally defensible item. So accidental killings and killings in defense of some overriding priority are not murders.

     Natural law shows its reality most dramatically when the subject is murder. Yet some persons commit murders. They cannot claim to be unaware that murder is morally wrong; that information is built into our consciences. Neither can they claim not to know that it’s against the law. So why do they do it?

     The answer is simple, really: they’ve discarded the moral constraint against murder as irrelevant to their agendas. They’ve performed a calculation whose result is I’ll be better off for having murdered this person. Yes, that applies to “crimes of passion” too, even if the “better off” part seems insusceptible to quantitative reasoning.

     When moral constraints are omitted from human decision-making, such calculations are all that remains.

     I have two citations in mind this morning that are relevant to the above material. First is this report from Canada of an injustice inadequately redressed:

     TORONTO, June 14, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Jordan Hunt, the Toronto hair stylist caught roundhouse kicking a pro-life woman in a viral video last fall, received a conditional discharge and eight months’ probation Thursday on two charges of assault and one of mischief under $5,000....

     Hunt’s charges stemmed from two separate incidents.

     One occurred at a Toronto location of the September 30, 2018 Life Chain, where Marie-Claire Bissonnette of Campaign Life Coalition began video-recording Hunt on her cellphone after he showed up and started scribbling on participants’ jackets with markers....

     By then, Hunt had been identified as the individual caught on video knocking over a sign during a demonstration by the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform in Toronto in August 2018.

     The court heard that on that occasion, Hunt tried to wrest a sign from CCBR’s Samuel Sey, and when unsuccessful, tried to do the same to Sarah Dakin, causing her to fall against a pole and cut her right middle finger.

     Please read the whole article.

     Malicious vandalism, assault and battery, and the infliction of injury...punished by probation and a modest fine? Does that strike you as proportionate to the offenses, Gentle Reader? More to the point, does Jordan Hunt strike you as genuinely remorseful for deeds he had to know were morally wrong from the very first?

     The notion is absurd. Hunt said what his attorney directed him to say, that he might get away with so light a sentence. While Hunt’s calculation that he could exercise his malice at no cost didn’t yield the exact result he reaped from his actions, but from the penalty meted out to him, he didn’t suffer much. Certainly not enough to deter others of similar inclinations.

     This is what we get when the concept of absolute moral constraints is dismissed with prejudice.

     The second citation involves an event two years in the past:

     The year was 2017, and John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, made the mistake of not being properly deferential to the NFL’s kneeling thugs who make millions of dollars chasing a ball in the mud. So the press decided, “We gotta get this guy because he’s a Nazi racist.”...

     The media wanted Schnatter’s head on a platter. The neckbeard Einsatzkommandos at the Daily Stormer wanted publicity. And the result wasn’t so much a deal with the devil as a deal between two devils.

     The Nazi trolls posted the images they knew the media wanted, most notably a Papa John’s pizza with the pepperonis arranged to form a swastika. Newsweek could not have produced such an image itself, as the Nazi pizza is clearly defamatory. But it could cover, in the name of “news,” the fact that Nazis produced the image. Because that’s not creating the story, it’s only reporting it (even though yes, it’s totally creating the story).

     Newsweek’s piece about how “Nazis love Papa John’s,” with the “Nazi pizza” image at the top of the page and in the social media thumbnail, went super-viral.

     There’s multilayered artistry going on here. The neo-Nazis knew that if they posted the Nazi pizza image themselves, it would be swiftly removed from social media. So they gave it to Newsweek, a Twitter- and Facebook-approved site. And now that Newsweek was using it, it could be posted on social media! The Nazis got to post their swastika image without fear of drawing a ban, and Newsweek got a viral story that allowed them to exploit the swastika image while being seen as condemning it. Everyone got what they wanted—the Stormer trolls got attention, and Newsweek got hits.

     The calculations that led to the actions above are comparable to those of Jordan Hunt in the earlier citation. Note the complete absence of any moral constraint, particularly Thou shalt not bear false witness. The miscreants all got what they wanted at no cost to themselves, while a decent man’s reputation was ruined and he was forced out of the business he’d created.

     There are some who would look at the incidents described above and shrug. Some would even applaud. Harry Reid certainly would. While their numbers might fall short of a majority, there are enough of them to constitute a formidable force. Most decent men would do no more than cluck at them – and that is a substantial part of the problem.

     When the amoral run calculations such as the ones described here and are gratified by the results, the society that hosts them is in deep trouble. Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about nature’s methods of compensation:

     If the government is cruel, the governor's life is not safe. If you tax too high, the revenue will yield nothing. If you make the criminal code sanguinary, juries will fail to convict. If the law is too mild, private vengeance comes in.

     The calculability of profit from evil methods arises entirely from the abandonment of moral constraints. In the absence of those constraints, revenues, costs, and villains’ projections thereof are all that remain. Decent men must raise the costs as high as possible. No available alternative is acceptable.


Tracy Coyle said...

I will note two things. First: Nowhere in the United States canon of law, is there a proscription on murder or theft (or much else), only criteria for punishing such acts already taken. There are no 'thou shall not murder' rules. They are all "IF" you are involved in an act of killing and it meets 'these' criteria, these are the penalties. You have an absolute unfettered ability to act, if you are willing to accept the consequences (or think you can get away with it).

Second: Why is it morally wrong to kill? Because it IS, isn't a moral foundation. It is wrong because it deprives someone of a right (to life) that we all inherently (given by the Creator if you will) were born with. Morality has a foundation - Christians can point to the Commandments as 'moral law from God', but there IS a secular foundation within 'rights'.

The explosion from the Left of 'rights' does nothing to help; it dilutes to the point of almost uselessness any concept of inherent rights.

Glenda T Goode said...

When a population departs from a morally based society to one of grievance and self interest they leave the realm of higher man and start descending into a state of near anarchy with the loudest voices commanding the rest of the crowd.

Just because a voice is raised it does not mean that any real wrong has occurred. It just means someone is demanding attention to a personally envisioned slight. People gravitate to grievance purely to prove they can force others to do as they wish.

We either will elect to be greater than the petty differences in our society or we will suffer and fail due to the acrimony that perceived wrongs create. The grievance movement is reversing societal development at a remarkable rate.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Tracy: I'm afraid you've stepped into a logical trap. There is no difference between the statement "Smith has a right to life" and "To murder Smith would be morally wrong." Each statement paraphrases the other, and both express the same moral constraint. From a set-theoretical perspective, right and wrong are complements. The only way to define either is through the use of the other. That's the way moral absolutes work.

So the professor's answer "Because it was [wrong]" is logically equivalent to your preferred phrasing about the right to life.