Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Foundation of Morality

Uncle Carlos made an interesting attempt to define morality in a previous comment. Folks can judge for themselves how successful it was - I was underwhelmed.

However, rather than simply call out the big UC, I thought I would make it clear what I mean when I use words like "ethics," "morals," etc.

Whenever we want to decide whether we are going to take some action, we have to ask ourselves three questions. We can ask the three questions in any order, if we like, because in order to undertake the action we must decide that the answer to all three questions is "yes." These questions are:

1) Is this action moral?
2) Is this action just?
3) Is this action indicated?

Of these three questions, the first is by far the simplest (that's why I like to ask it first - saves time.) Morality has been hammered into a great many distorted shapes throughout the many phases of history, and never more so than today. But the essential definition of morality has not changed significantly since it was attributed to Jesus in the gospels - Jesus warned his followers against hypocrisy in thought and deed.

Hypocrisy is, quite simply, the adoption of one set of standards for oneself and another for others. Jesus used the Pharisees as the stock hypocrites in a lot of his teachings, but of course there are plenty of modern examples and they are not hard to find.

In Jesus' time, folks sort of had to take it on faith that Jesus knew what he was talking about. In recent decades, however, the importance of this idea has become known to behavioral scientists through the "discovery" and understanding of the peculiar quality of empathy.

Empathy is the way in which human beings identify with one another. When we see a person in pain, we ourselves feel that pain to some degree. This is what creates what we call a "conscience," which is an individual's subjective moral compass.

Unfortunately, it is possible to train a person to have no empathy at all. We call these people "sociopaths," although that term is a controversial one with no well-accepted scientific definition. In the popular usage the term describes a person with no internal conscience, who relies on external pressures to guide his behavior.

Only a small percentage of people are true sociopaths, but most people exhibit some degree of sociopathic thinking at certain times, on certain subjects. In other words there are certain types of actions whose morality a person is incapable of properly evaluating. If this weren't the case, we wouldn't need the concept of "justice," the foundation of ethics.

The foundations of western ethics are to be found in Plato's Republic, in which Socrates gets buck wild and designs a weird fascist dystopian supersociety. Seems like a weird place to get your ideas about what's just and what isn't, but you take what you can get, I suppose.

Socrates, a guy who was so smart they had to make him drink poison to keep him from wrecking the society, spends the book defining justice, which eventually leads him to describe an example of a theoretically just society. The deep-down craziness of the resulting social model has been a source of glee for anti-Socratic bloviators for centuries, but in fact Socrates was demonstrating that even an apparently sound premise, extended far enough, becomes absurd.

But never mind all that. The point is, if you want to know what justice is, first read Plato's Republic. If you're not into the whole reading thing, it boils down mostly to the fact that relative justice is defined by the structure in which you operate, and the degree of justice in a society is basically determined by how closely the structure of the society accords with absolute justice, which of course is unknowable except by means of direct perception.

That's all just a fancy way of saying that the closest unregenerate humans (that's us) can come to real justice is by operating within the agreed-upon behavioral structures in our society. IOW, following the rules. In a democracy, of course, we also get to make the rules to some degree. We do this, it is worth noting, over Socrates' strenuous objection.

In any case, we've now boiled down our first two questions into basic tests we can use to evaluate an action. Let's forget the third question for a second and just take a look at questions 1 and 2, which have now become:

1) Would I accept this behavior if it were someone else acting this way toward me?
2) Does this behavior conform to the rules of the social structure in which I am operating?

Now we are ready to bring all this business back into the practical realm in which we are interested - namely foreign policy. Here we will choose an easy example so that there won't be much room for disagreement about the substance of the situation (so we can focus on the theory and see if we can accept it.)

Let's say some nation, call it Abia, is under attack by another nation, call it Cedia. Cedia has raised and equipped an army which is carrying out massive terrorist attacks in the country, conducting biological warfare, etc. Cedia does not claim this army as its own, however, it is common knowledge where they got their weapons and training, and under whose protection and patronage they are operating.

Now Abia has some choices as to how it can respond to this attack from Cedia. Probably the most natural response would be a counterrattack on Cedia. So we can evaluate that option pretty easily by asking if Adia would accept the idea that if Cedia were attacked by Abia, Cedia could legitimately launch a counterrattack on Abia. We assume the chances are that they probably would (though we return to this assumption below.)

So Abia has the moral right to counterrattack Cedia, since they would accept the same behavior if the situation was reversed. We turn now to the question of justice. Here we will assume that both countries are signatories to the UN Charter and thus bound by its provisions.

This is where we run into a bit of a snag. Abia may have the right to counterattack Cedia, but she must quickly seek Security Council authorization after the start of the counterattack. In this way the international community can pass judgment on the legitimacy of Abia's campaign against Cedia.

I choose this fairly simple example because it has actually happened in recent history - in fact, it's happened twice. The most famous occurence is of course September 11th and the war in Afghanistan, probably the most uncontroversial war in American history. The Taliban were supporting a mujahedeen army that staged a massive attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; the U.S. counterattacked Afghanistan.

Of course the Bush administration did not bother with the niceties of actually gaining SC authorization for the counterattack, but we will generously ignore that fact since if Bush had not specifically wanted to thumb his nose at a sympathetic international community, it would have been a trivial thing to gain the proper authorization under the UN Charter.

The other example, less well known in the US but uncontroversial (it's a matter of public record), is the U.S. attack on Nicaragua in the 1980's, an event that is so embarrassing to proponents of "moral authority" theory that it has been all but erased from the history books. Indeed, if you ask 100 people about the U.S. attack on Nicaragua, 99 will probably ask what you are talking about.

What happened there was that the U.S. was training and sponsoring terrorist killers who would enter Nicaragua and torture, murder and bomb people more or less indiscriminately in an attempt to destabilize and eventually overthrow the leftist government there. It was probably the clearest example of textbook international terrorism in the 20th century.

So Nicaragua was faced with the same options the US had after September 11th (the picture is slightly different in that the U.S. assault on Nicaragua was ongoing). They did not, of course, choose the most natural option, a counterattack, because it failed the third test which up until now we have not talked about. A Nicaraguan counterattack against the United States would have been a pathetic thing to behold, so instead the Nicaraguan government went a different direction, appealing to the World Court for redress and winning a huge settlement against the United States (it was never paid.)

So if we accept the basic factual premise of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan (that the September 11th hijackers were armed, aided and financed by the Taliban) we can probably clear it in terms of morality, as long as we accept that in 1986 the Nicaraguans had the moral right to bomb Washington, even thought they lacked the means.

Also, if we give Bush the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant to get Security Council authorization for the Afghan war but it just slipped his mind (sadly plausible) we can somewhat loosely assert that it was just and ethical.

The only remaining question is the practical one, which (hewing to the Nicaragua example) is the question of whether the counterattack will lead to a cessation of attacks against the U.S. That's a theoretical question and there is room for ample debate on all sides.

Unfortunately, the picture becomes much less rosy when we turn our attention to the Iraq war. I think it is fairly elementary that the U.S. would not accept that a country has the right to bomb Washington because they assert without proof that we are in possession of banned weapons and have the intention to one day attack someone.

Sadly, even if we ignore reality and assume that all of the stated premises for the war had turned out to be true (in case you're just joining us, they all turned out to be false), I think it would be hard to find an American who believes that a foreign nation would have the right to bomb Washington because they had proof that the U.S. had banned weapons and that we had plans to attack them specifically.

Indeed, that was the exact situation Iraq was in in the months leading up to the Iraq war. I would like to see the pundit who could go on American TV and assert that the Iraqis had the right to bomb Washington in February of 2003.

Of course, apologists for U.S. foreign policy are already frothing at the mouth. This comparison is absurd!

But can anyone say why, without descending into generalities and platitudes?


  • "But the essential definition of morality has not changed significantly since it was attributed to Jesus in the gospels."

    An assertion you could not prove and would have a hard time supporting. The essential issue to this discussion is the most telling. "Do unto others" has almost never been embraced nor accepted by any culture. For whole millenia, it was presumed that there were those that were allowed and those that were not. In and of itself right and wrong were based upon any number of factors including race, class, caste, gender, or citizenship. Entire cultures have and still are founded in concepts of "the chosen", or "bringing them civilization". The expression "moral authority" is a much about authority as it is about morality. Having the authority makes it moral. How that authority is achieved, most frequently, has less to do with action than status.

    By Anonymous Uncle Carlos, at March 8, 2005 at 3:02 PM  

  • Telling indeed. You are confusing, as so many do, the concepts of justice with morality. Morality is not a "code" as it is so often described to be, it proceeds directly from empathy, which is essential to the human condition. Those who wish to justify their immoral behavior have an interest in making morality appear to be complex, like ethics. It is not.

    When you say that what is right and wrong are determined by these external factors you are talking about social structures - ethics.

    Frankly, I am tired of people telling me what everyone else thinks. Do YOU reject the principle of universality? Do YOU reject the notion that moral behavior is predicated on the idea that what's good for the goose is good for the gander?

    By Blogger RaulGroom, at March 8, 2005 at 4:21 PM  

  • What is just is not necessarily what is right. I have not addressed justice at all.

    "When you say that what is right and wrong are determined by these external factors you are talking about social structures - ethics."

    Actually, I believe that I claimed right and wrong were created by people. In the absence of people, there is none. There is also no justice, no fairness, no morality, no ethics.

    "Do YOU reject the principle of universality?"

    If you defined it, I missed it. If you merely mean is there an absolute definition of right and wrong.... I used to.
    But there seems to be a real "Schoeder's Cat pheonomenon to it all. It may exist, but it is unknowable, at least in a perfect or an absolute sense.

    "Do YOU reject the notion that moral behavior is predicated on the idea that what's good for the goose is good for the gander?"

    Yes. Right and wrong has little to do with good. What is right for the goose may not be right for the gander.

    Which would then bring us to fairness and justice. We may not know what is right for the gander, but we can strive to agree what is fair, or just. Unfortunately, being fair, or just, becomes a handy replacement for being right.

    What you seem to what to get to is that the golden rule would seem to be a good basis for international relations. Allow of the US only what the US would allow of others. Generally not a bad sentiment, and probably a good defining principal, but should not be confused with a definition of what is "right and wrong".

    By Anonymous uncle carlos, at March 8, 2005 at 5:17 PM  

  • wow what an awesome blog!!!!!!!!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 6, 2005 at 4:47 AM  

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