Saturday, July 6, 2019

Mala In Se

     Human beings have this annoying habit of asking “why?” when they hear some pronouncement that displeases or discommodes them. This is particularly observable among the younger set: “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why can’t I play in the mud?” “Why can’t I stay up and watch more cartoons?” Many adults become impatient with such questions, which can lead to a peremptory declaration: “Because I said so!” To be candid, such an issuance is often preferable to the real explanation: “Because it’s the only time I get any peace and quiet,” “Because I’m tired of buying you new clothes,” “Because Nude Supermodel Charades is on next.” But the most annoying “why” is the sort that denies the possibility of moral premises:

     Why is murder wrong?...

     Christians have an answer (“it violates the Fifth Commandment”), and so do legal positivists (“it breaks a clear law promulgated by a legitimate legislator”), but since modern people wouldn’t know the Bible if King James slapped them upside the head with it, and even fewer people know what “legal positivism” means, those answers are no good. I’ve actually asked undergrads about this, and the answers are… interesting, by which I mean horrifying:

     Lots of them want to get hypothetical. They want to know just why Person X murdered Person Y. This, they think, will let them off the hook for making a moral judgment (moral judgments are of course always and everywhere wrong on campus). If I say “Because X wanted Y’s new pair of Air Jordans,” for instance, the students come back with “Then it’s wrong because a human life isn’t worth a pair of sneakers.” If I say, “Because X is a psychopath who thinks Y is Hitler,” then they come back with NGRI — it’s wrong because Y isn’t Hitler. But neither of those is a satisfactory answer, I point out. In the case of the sneakers, by saying “they’re not worth a human life,” we’re implying that

  • human life has a value; and
  • we all know exactly what that value is; and
  • there’s some threshold above which “murder” IS worth it.

     Let’s be as clear as the English language allows: Murder is the deliberate killing of an innocent. It’s an intentional act committed in full knowledge of its gravity. Moreover, the victim has done nothing that would justify killing him. These characteristics distinguish murder from other varieties of homicide.

     (WARNING: Quibblers beware: I shan’t allow you to muddy the waters with “whatabout” questions about “human shields” or “collateral damage” in wartime. You know perfectly well that those are lifeboat-ethics contexts, so don’t think to fluster me by posing them in the comments. End of warning.)

     I wonder if “Severian,” the writer cited above, knows how to respond to his own question. (Note that word: respond. It’s not a synonym for “answer.” There’s your first clue.) Most people would fail that test. Then again, most people are pretty dim when it comes to organized reasoning and the foundation of moral thought. (Note that word: foundation. Of what is such a foundation constructed? There’s your second clue.)

     The proper response to “Why is murder wrong?” is “Sit down and shut up, you moral imbecile. You don’t ask ‘why?’ about a moral premise.”

     Premises are the foundation of reasoning. They cannot be reasoned to; they can only be reasoned from. Moral reasoning differs in no way from the other sorts in this regard.

     Douglas Hofstadter, in his marvelous book Godel, Escher, Bach, tells of an incident in which a student asked the Buddhist monk Joshu “Does a dog have a Buddha nature?” Joshu replied “Mu.” That’s a response, not an answer. It’s neither a yes nor a no. It’s a declaration that the question itself is illegitimate. This is also the correct response to “Why is murder wrong?” You cannot demand the reasoning beneath a premise; premises are the foundation for reasoning, not one of reasoning’s products.

     To question a premise is to demand to go outside the system of reasoning founded on it. In the abstract, it can lead to fascinating alternative realms whose properties differ from the ones we know well. Such realms are properly the province of specialists who dwell in ivory towers. If you don’t believe me, ask Nikolai Lobachevsky.

     To question a moral premise is to imply that if we disapprove the answer, we are free to discard the premise itself. The end of that road is strife, bloodshed, and social chaos. Why was it wrong for Cain to murder Abel? It was. End of discussion.

     He who is interested in the processes by which we recognize and acknowledge moral premises must delve deeply into matters such as the immutabilities of human nature, social flourishing, the codification of moral premises in law, the history of variant polities, and so on. He’ll find much there to think about. However, that need not concern us here. What matters far more is the nature of a moral premise – and here I must quote Ayn Rand:

     “I could say to you that I have done more good for my fellow men than you can ever hope to accomplish—but I will not say it, because I do not seek the good of others as a sanction for my right to exist, nor do I recognize the good of others as a justification for their seizure of my property or their destruction of my life. I will not say that the good of others was the purpose of my work—my own good was my purpose, and I despise the man who surrenders his. I could say to you that you do not serve the public good—that nobody’s good can be achieved at the price of human sacrifices—that when you violate the rights of one man, you have violated the rights of all, and a public of rightless creatures is doomed to destruction. I could say to you that you will and can achieve nothing but universal devastation—as any looter must, when he runs out of victims. I could say it, but I won’t. It is not your particular policy that I challenge, but your moral premise. If it were true that men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse. I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight in the full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living being’s right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public, that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!”

     Murder is wrong. There is no “because.” End of discussion.


Pascal said...

I suspect that this is part of a larger work in progress and perhaps an oblique response to my recent email. I pray it is so.

Nobody I know today seems able to get down close and reveal the essence in words as you do. That helps me, as I presume it does for all your fans, expand my own thoughts as never before. According to Orwell, that is precisely the result that our ever more tyrannical enemies have been actively trying to prevent. Sadly they've been widely successful.

I'm having difficulty finishing this comment. Here are some bullet points.

Imposing a moral paradigm shift on an unwary society: abandon live and let live; So that some may live, encourage lifestyles that lead to sterilization and early deaths; as the last resort it is okay to murder all deemed of no further use.

Selectively enforce both old laws and the new ones -- laws written with their violation being the goal.

Identify and expose the core belief of postmodern death cultists. They have been trying, and at best made to seem that they're succeeding, to promulgate it in the young. Ultimately they are working to built up a large segment of society that believes they are performing a common good in committing mass murder. Kill mankind to save it from itself. Not for something the individual victims did wrong, but because their very existence endangers the survival of the whole planet. Where belief in "Sustainability" is intended to lead in a nutshell.

Identify and expose it as a religion firmly founded in Hell.

Sam L. said...

If you think murder is not wrong, then why should I NOT kill you? Just askin'...

jabrwok said...

Murder, as defined in this post, damages social trust and cohesion within a community (much as theft, assault, deceit, et cetera do). As humans are social animals, we require rules of what constitutes acceptable behavior and what does not for our communities (bands, tribes, nations, etc) to maintain themselves as cohesive wholes.

As few individuals actively *want* to die, and as unjustified (by the mores of the community) killing of others puts *all* members of the community at risk (at least until the unjustified killer is identified and neutralized), murder must be considered wrong lest it becomes ubiquitous and the community devolve into a war of all against all. Communities which permit gratuitous killing tend not to survive long.