Monday, August 21, 2006
Criticizing sloppy moral thinking
I knew that if I was blogging and willing to surf links, I'd see some truly disturbing shit. What I didn't know was that I'd find disturbing shit that was masquerading as moral philosophy that was so plainly incompetent.
Folks who know me well are probably looking at me, wondering if I've gone kinda-darkside here. I haven't. But god damn. Check this bullshit out. For maximum shock value, read the comments.
I've been digging in my brain, working on a series of posts on morality, and moral reasoning. I wish I'd written them already, because then I could reference them here, but I haven't, so I can't, and that's life.
I'm going to ignore some of the fallacies that build a false picture of reality (yes, many children died in the war in Iraq; no, it wasn't because they were being used as human shields), and instead work simply with the main, over-riding fallacy in moral reasoning.
There's a very common principle of western moral philosophy, that it's okay to cause something bad to happen, if it's the only reasonable way to prevent something worse to happen. It's okay to knock someone to the ground (possibly causing injury) to prevent that person from being run over by a car. It's also okay to beat up an assaillant who wants to beat you up, and to use deadly force to protect your life. This assumes, of course, that no gentler action will succeed. It also assumes that the risk of the preventative action balances properly against the consequences of inaction. Before I tackle someone to prevent their being hit by a car, I'd better be sure that the chance they'll be hit by the car is sufficiently high to make sure that it justifies the risk of injury from being tackled.
Since the above link refers to the deaths of children, let's run with that. The certainty that children would die was no reason to refuse to fight against Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II. Not fighting back against armies of conquest would lead to worse things than the deaths of innocent children. The certainty that bad things would have happened if we didn't fight back was absolute; the amount of harm done to innocent people by fighting back could be reasonably balanced against the harm of not fighting back.
So, what's wrong with the essay I've referred to? Well, there is no mention of the cost. There is no mention of the certainty of harm; there's no mention about the reasonable balancing of harm done with harm prevented.
There's simply a naked assertion that it's okay to kill children, because those horrible evil people are using them as human shields. The sooner they learn that those tactics won't work, the sooner they'll stop using children as human shields.
Like I said, I'll ignore the denial of reality; there's a lot of paranoia among people these days (and I mean that in the semi-clinical sense, where it refers to delusions). It completely misses the entire moral principle.
It would only be moral to harm innocent people (children or adults) if the risk of inaction (or of less harmful action) was greater than the harm of the action. You don't get to say "we're fighting evil people, so it's okay to kill children." You need to be able to point to a real threat, and a real and imminent danger if you don't act.
I imagine the author of that essay would insist that we're the good guys, which means we care about the lives of the innocent, and that's completely backwards. We are only the good guys insofar as we care about the lives of the innocent. The moment we stop, the moment we decide that it's okay to kill the innocent for our own benefit, we're the bad guys.
Those who ignore the need to balance the risks would cheerfully make us the bad guys, killing the innocent without regard to the moral, much less the pragmatic, costs. And that's not just amoral, it's stupid.
Yes. That. Exactly.