Friday, September 25, 2009

D Davies, two comments responding to Jon Pike
I, in fact, don’t think that there are “tragic dilemmas”, if this is to mean anything other than that there are situations in which one wants to have one’s cake but also (tragedia!) to eat it. There are questions of fact, upon which it is possible to be right and to be wrong, and with the perspective of six years, it is actually pretty easy to see who was right and who was wrong. I must confess that all this talk about “tragic dilemmas” looks an awful lot like relativism to me, and I know how much you hate that.
"However, one mark of crass consequentialism is to ignore the possibility of tragic dilemmas, yes?"
A “tragic dilemma”, as I understand it, is a situation in which consequentialism gives a clear answer about which alternative is better, but the answer in question is unpalatable. I don’t see why, in such a situation, consequentialism should be described as “crass” rather than, say, “jolly sensible”.
[I didn't realize at the time how off he was. I should have been much tougher. A tragic dilemma is the choice between food for your children or cancer medicine for your wife.]

My comments Deleted by admin
D2: “Firstly, I still maintain that “tragic dilemma” is exactly as I describe it, and consequentialism is correct here; psychological feelings of regret don’t actually indicate any important underlying moral reality, and as far as I can see, your argument here consists of the epithet “crass” and nothing else.”
That’s a defense of morally logical sociopathy. A good general should not be cavalier about sending 10,000 men to their deaths even if its the logical thing to do. Measure twice, cut once; remember the stakes. He should know the panic and fear of battle not as idea but as memory. And it would do Brad Delong and Dani Rodrik a world of good to work in a factory for a year, not as supervisors but on the line, doing the same thing, making the same motions like clockwork 50 minutes out of every hour 7 hours out of every day of the working week. Sympathetic understanding has a purpose and experience is a heuristic.

None of this is a defense of the Decents, but there’s no reason to be crass. Sometimes you choose to let people die. Sometimes if your oldest friend the junkie is begging you for help for the 12th time, you walk away and leave them to die, or save himself. Or you tell the population of a country that your people may sympathize but the world being what it is, your county can not intervene. On the extreme of sensibility it makes no sense to mourn the lives of those you never had the chance to save because you became a violinist and not a heart surgeon. Playing sad songs won’t help. The opposite of the crass is not the maudlin. Most people going for sainthood are narcissists or adrenaline junkies, but some of them do important work.
 I’m with Conor in #'s 105 and 110

D2: "A good general should not be cavalier about sending 10,000 men to their deaths even if its the logical thing to do" 
I just don’t agree, stripped of the aesthetic terms like “cavalier”. We judge generals on what they achieve, and at what cost, not on how they felt about it at the time.

(or more comprehensibly, perhaps, you might worry about a general who didn’t emote sufficiently about sending 10,000 people to their deaths, but it would be because you would be worried that he might make a bad decision in another circumstance where it wasn’t the right thing to do[1] . Having an extra moral evaluation of the general based on his subjective feelings being appropriate or not is aesthetics, not ethics).

[1] I think it’s a lot less confusing to say “the right thing to do” when the context is consequentialism – “logical” seems to bring in all sorts of irrelevant implications.
“aesthetics, not ethics.” 
Ethics is the aesthetics of social activity. I posted this next bit in a comment at CT 5 years ago: 
A few years ago I was unlucky enough to get a shard of steel in my eye twice in one year. Both times I went to NY Eye and Ear Hospital to have the splinters removed. The second time the procedure was performed by a resident under the supervision of an attending surgeon. The resident was a young and attractive woman, born in this country. The surgeon was an eastern European immigrant. The young woman was intelligent and professional, but emotionally somewhat blank. She spoke without affect. She did what she needed to and then went to her supervisor to get him to sign off. He asked her if she was sure she’d removed everything. She seemed a little surprised at the question, and he decided to reexamine me himself. “It’s his eye” he reminded her, and then explained that what she assumed to be a rust stain might still contain particles that could cause future damage. He repeated the procedure, and I went home. 
To the attending surgeon I was a person and to the resident I was an idea. When he asked her that question I know he had felt an empathetic shiver for what might happen to me if she had been wrong. How do you measure that shiver? How do you define its worth? How can it be taught?
 That’s not aesthetics.

To Kevin Donoghue,
 [his comment removed as well]
An actual robot instead of someone who acted like one, would not be morally culpable for the mistake. That’s actually why liberals try to invent mechanisms to solve problems. Harry Brighouse and G.A Cohen both search for ideas that serve the function of removing the weight of moral responsibility. "The problem, for Cohen, is that we lack such technology.” 
I think the problem is that such logic leads to (reinforces) the ethics and aesthetics of the human pseudo-machine. The young doctor’s sensibility, her aesthetic, preceded whatever ideas she had about her proper role. Liberals tend to think in terms of rules and laws rather than obligations, since obligations are sloppy and contradictory, but this leads to an atrophying of the actual sense of obligation. “It’s fine that I’m greedy, the rules keep me in check!” It’s binary; a real machine ethic. And in the long run its numbing to both the imagination and the intellect.
 All totally ancillary to the thread but I think at this point that’s David Kane vs pretty much everyone.

Quoting H. Brighouse as linked above
"The problem, for Cohen, is that we lack such technology. We should not pretend that we have such a technology, but nor should we pretend that the search for it is futile, or that the lack of it means that the organizing principles of our own society are more appealing than they, in fact, are."
Before such "technology" there needs to be trust. Laws are non-contradictory hard points in a linguistic and social field of contradictory/non-mutually exclusive obligation. Those obligations, not rules of behavior, are primary. Reading "Legitimate Parental Partiality" was a strange experience, in the same way reading Daniel Davies' responses here were. As I wrote above: "To the attending surgeon I was a person and to the resident I was an idea. When he asked her that question I know he had felt an empathetic shiver for what might happen to me if she had been wrong. How do you measure that shiver? How do you define its worth? How can it be taught?"

How do you measure the full function and complexity of intimacy not as idea but as sense? The word does not even appear in the Brighouse's paper. And the opposition 'freedom vs equality' makes no sense to me since its founded on an individualism I find abhorrent. The terms as I was raised to understand them are 'Freedom vs obligation.' To what degree are we constituted as social beings, as in fact a collective? A community of vibrant, dynamic, stability is the result of multiple overlapping, conflicting social obligations, negotiated verbally, silently, intellectually, physically, by adults. This exists first in action, in performance, not in idea. The experience of bonds is not synonymous with the idea of them. If it were we wouldn't need Tolstoy. The young doctor was incapable of performing engaging or even imagining a "thick description" of her own life or her relation to me, her patient. G.A. Cohen allowed himself social relations in his life of master and servant that I would not accept. And he chose to act in such a way so as not to give his children a more complete understanding of this society but a leg up to success in it on its own terms. He rationalized behavior I was raised never to accept. Cohen's actions are the byproduct of his mode of thought, the young doctor's actions likewise. Mode as sensibility and as primary. 
Laws and ideas are the necessary, practical, vulgarization of the complexities of experience. I do not think I've misunderstood Cohen or Brighouse or anyone else in saying they are focusing on the oversimplification and calling it the root.
Also of course on crassness and generals: as I've said often the military is run on an ethic of authoritarian piety not republican virtue. So in a sense it's a general's duty to be crass. And that's why fraternizing -friendship- is forbidden across ranks. Formalized distant relations are an emotional and therefore a practical requirement. An example of a mechanism based on realism not idealism. A military sensibility is a military requirement but needs to be held in check by civilian control. Either way the check on "partiality" is not reason but another and conflicting partiality, either of someone else in an opposing role -cf. prosecution and defense- or in the same person. A fully functioning mature moral agent is the agent of a divided consciousness and a consciousness manifest as a form of individual experience not "understood" as "idea." You could say that to some degree a person in the military is required to be less than a fully functioning moral agent, but at the same time he is or should be required not only to follow civilian command but to respect it. And respect is understanding.
Notes on notes. sloppy.
2017, a career soldier explains what Oxbridge philosophers cannot. 
So you want to be a career soldier? Good for you. But remember that the longer you stay in uniform, the less you will really understand about the country you protect. Democracy is the antithesis of the military life; it’s chaotic, dishonest, disorganized, and at the same time glorious, exhilarating and free — which you are not.


  1. Is it possible that you're right about the doctors and he's right about the generals?

  2. Eisenhower was famous for his concern for his men. But he was a leader not a tactician, his position was among other things a political one. And he rose to that position because of his concern.

    As I've said dozens of times a military in service to a republic is an authoritarian order in service to a free society. That's a contradiction. In order for it to work there has to not only a willingness to follow a civilian leadership but a respect for it. And respect is understanding of something other than military utilitarianism.

    Daniel likes to be the contrarian but he's not as crass as he pretends. I don't imagine him an officer informing the mother of a dead soldier with the words: "Had to be done. Part of the job. Have a good day!"

    From a late comment on the post
    "it must be noted that the “negative” feeling experienced by anyone who opposed the invasion was not and is not guilt in having tacitly supported the Baathists but instead a sense of of the tragic fact that we cannot right all the world’s wrongs."

    That's quite obvious, but following Daniel's claim [which as I said I don't think he really believes] a sense of tragedy should be superfluous. It's the same with those who construct optimism and economic idealism out of moral and economic realism, rational engineers building utopia out of the crassness and frailty of others. We know that people are short-sighted, self-interested and easily corrupted; so all we need is the "mechanism" to harness that to build utopia. Cohen, Brad DeLong etc. are all morally shallow people, DD I think only plays such a person on the web.


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