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February 5, 2004

Toward the true knowledge
Posted by Teresa at 10:41 PM *

There are paragraphs you know could only have been written by Ken MacLeod. His political expositions are clear, civilized, and illuminating, but they always make me feel like someday, in the midst of one of them, I’m going to look down and realize that I’ve walked over the edge of a cliff, and am now accelerating toward his entirely logical conclusion at a rate of 32 feet per second per second. I’m sure it’ll be an educational experience on the day. In the meantime:

The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling class there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power. This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their compassion for their enemies’ victims is absolutely genuine. So is their outrage at their enemies’ moral failings and blind spots. In the 1980s I found it very difficult to regard supporters of the Chinese Communists’ consistently anti-Soviet international policies as anything but scoundrels and scabs; but they were merely applying the same criteria as I was, to a different analysis of the world; and their indignation at my callous calculations and selective sympathies was just as real. I had the same sort of arguments with Trotskyists who supported the muj.

‘How can you …?’ ‘How can you …?’

Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a given act is dreadful, but it can’t tell us whether to say, ‘This is dreadful, therefore …’ or ‘This is dreadful, but …’ We still often believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support our allies despite their crimes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Margaret Thatcher was quite sincere in condemning ZAPU as a terrorist organization because it shot down a civilian airliner, and in supporting one of the mujahedin factions, despite the fact that it had deliberately blown up a civilian airliner. Sometimes our moral justifications can blunt our moral sense. Think of the incendiary bombings of Germany and Japan. Suppose they were a military necessity. If so, better to accept that what ‘our side’ is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause.

(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)

Morality is real. Morality is ideology. It is the heat given off by the workings of quite different machinery. In measuring the heat while ignoring the mechanism - in making a moral case for or against a particular war, for example - the moral philosopher reasons ‘consciously indeed, but with a false consciousness’. The screams of those caught in the machinery continue unabated. They cry to heaven. It is only in what Locke called the ‘appeal to heaven’ - the clash of arms - that anyone (apart from, of course, ‘pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools’ as someone said, who indulge in ‘pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life’, as someone else said) sees a hope that some day the machinery can be made to stop, and the screams to cease. That hope itself is the machines’ fuel.
I’m not sure I agree with that, but if I disagree with it, I’m not sure it’s not because I don’t want to have to agree with it.
Comments on Toward the true knowledge:
#1 ::: That Chip Guy ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 09:01 AM:

There's some missing text before the extended quotation. I'm feeling a little lost.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:13 AM:

Sorry about that. My fault. Last night, in a fatigue-related incident, I mistakenly switched that piece from "draft" to "publish" when it was still very much in draft. This morning I went to finish it, then realized partway through that I was working onstage with the curtain up.

I don't know what it looked like from your side of the interface, but the idea that I've been broadcasting my writing process to the global web is so embarrassing that I'm not sure I want to know. I think on paper when I write.

#3 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:46 AM:

Hey, at least now I know why there was a comment on a post I could get the site to show me. Much more reassuring than the various 'my browser is possessed' scenarios which came to mind.

#4 ::: Katherine Farmar ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:48 AM:

That'd be a great argument if it weren't for the fact that MacLeod is stacking the deck in favour of his own position -- it's understandable, we all do it, but it should make us mistrust his conclusions.

Take this bit, for instance:

The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions.

So, he mentions Nietzsche. Now, stop me if I'm wrong here, but didn't the Nazis really love Nietzsche? And the Nazis committed more than "a handful of murders over two centuries". Granted, they were most likely misinterpreting Nietzsche's works, and Nietzsche would undoubtedly have loathed them, if only because he thought anti-Semitism was vile and idiotic; but if you allow that concession for Nietzsche, you must be consistent and allow it for the moralists, who would be equally horrified at the uses to which their ethical systems were put.

Having said which, I would really, really like to know who has committed a single atrocity in the name of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. If you can name one... well, I won't eat my hat because it gets cold here in Edinburgh and I need my hat to keep my head warm. But I shall be very surprised. For Aquinas maybe you can make a case, though that's frankly dubious since anyone following Aquinas's ethics would undoubtedly be following the Church as well, and that makes the whole mess more complicated (religious killing is a different matter).

As for this bit:

Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.

Well, this is just silly. MacLeod talks as if morality and "human passions and sympathies" and "all the bonds of society" were in some sort of opposition, which is absurd. Morality is inspired, aided and informed by human passions and the bonds of society. (See, for example, Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: it's all about social virtues and the passions which lead us to act morally. The idea that morality necessarily opposes passion comes from Kant, but there aren't many people who agree with Kant on this.) And there are a lot of human passions which bloody well need restraining -- the passion for revenge, for dominance, for superiority; even the natural desire to do good for one's children can end in disaster if it is not restrained by a sense of the moral claims of others.

The last paragraph is dreadfully confusing -- and confused. I think what he's saying is that "morality" is just a mask for political ideologies, but after that he seems to contradict himself a couple of times. I'm not sure what he's on about, and his metaphors and embedded quotes make things worse.

Oh, and the beginning is just as bad, because of the conflation of politics and morality. He seems to take for granted that these two realms are identical, which just ain't so. They're related, of course, but the relation is more complex than that.

#5 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 11:00 AM:

I too was wondering what atrocities have been committed in the name of - or as a result of following the philosophy of - J.S. Mill.

One difference between the A-bombing and fire-bombing of Japan, on the one hand, and, say, the attack on Pearl Harbor, on the other, is that one set was committed after a due declaration of war, and the other wasn't. There are other differences, of course (we can argue over whether Tokyo and Hiroshima were "military targets"), but that's one.

It was perhaps hypocritical of the British to insist that the German bombing of their cities would only lead them to greater defiance, while expecting German morale to collapse at Allied bombing of German cities, but it wasn't a moral hypocrisy. I may be mistaken, but I do not recall Churchill expressing moral outrage at the Blitz, only defiance.

#6 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 11:02 AM:

Oh, and I meant to add that Robert McNamara, who helped plan the fire-bombing of Tokyo, says in The Fog of War that General LeMay, for whom he worked, told him that if the US had lost the war, they'd both have been prosecuted as war criminals. McNamara does not say anything to dispute this judgment.

#7 ::: Jon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 11:35 AM:

Interesting (and quite readable) explanation on Mill, Bentham, Kant, and the principles of Utilitarianism (Moral and otherwise), which might explain why MacLeod included those fellows in his remarks.

Basic problem of Utilitarianism in general:

...if good comes of it, what does it matter why you did it? The only thing that matters is the outcome.
This notion that the end justifies the means has led to some deplorable abuses of the principle of utility and the rejection of utilitarianism by many people as a moral theory at all. Murder, torture, and terror all seem justifiable if they bring about a 'greater good for a greater number of people'.

And no, Mill didn't approve of Utilitarianism being used that way (hence his Moral Utilitarianism). But the problem with theories on how people should behave is that you don't have any control over how people are going to interpret these theories at a later time, in a different context with different expectations.

#8 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 11:51 AM:
One difference between the A-bombing and fire-bombing of Japan, on the one hand, and, say, the attack on Pearl Harbor, on the other, is that one set was committed after a due declaration of war, and the other wasn't. There are other differences, of course (we can argue over whether Tokyo and Hiroshima were "military targets"), but that's one.

Does MacLeod say there's no difference? I must have missed that. I thought his point about the bombings was that even if they were — for the sake of argument — necessary and done for good reason, we shouldn't let that blind us to the fact that they were atrocities.

It was perhaps hypocritical of the British to insist that the German bombing of their cities would only lead them to greater defiance, while expecting German morale to collapse at Allied bombing of German cities, but it wasn't a moral hypocrisy.

It wasn't hypocritical; it was just stupid. And very typical of the human race. You can see the same thinking today on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other places.

#9 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 12:23 PM:

Teresa, routinely you post things here that amuse me, or interest me, or even disgust or upset me, and these are all very good things to have happen. But every once in a while, you post something that makes me re-examine what I believe and what I think, and that is a great thing. Thank you for that.

#10 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 12:27 PM:

Katherine Farmar said what I was going to, better than I would have.

#11 ::: aha ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 12:43 PM:

Moral arguments give permission to polarize—to create good and evil in a world of grey—which in turn gives permission to kill. Morality is not the means to any end, but rather the reverse; it is an adaptive fiction—the result of natural selection. Fundamentalists, particularly religious fundamentalists, have survived because they make the best warriors. They follow orders dutifully, kill willingly, believe they will be rewarded in the next life, and stay in line in the off-season. People who think in shades of grey, no matter how correct their reasoning, tend to lose wars. Morality is not ideology; it has everything to do with choosing sides. My god vs. your god. Washington and Al Queda are playing the same blind game.

#12 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 01:01 PM:

Does MacLeod say there's no difference? I must have missed that.

Did I say that MacLeod said there's no difference? I must have missed that.

#13 ::: language hat ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 01:08 PM:

Teresa, what is it that you're not sure you agree with? Most of it is a (fairly unexceptionable) analysis of Marxist-Leninist positions on imperialist wars; the last bit is, as Katherine says, so incoherent it's hard to know what one might agree or disagree with.

#14 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 02:21 PM:

Simon wrote:

Did I say that MacLeod said there's no difference? I must have missed that.
I guess I misread you — you seemed to be responding to an implied argument. If you weren't, I'm not sure what your point was. But maybe I just haven't had enough coffee this morning.

Aha — I agree with your point about moral arguments giving permission to polarize, but I'm not sure about the natural selection angle. Can you give some examples of wars lost by (and on account of) people thinking in shades of grey? The wars I can think of off the top of my head were characterized by black-and-white thinking on both sides, and were lost for other reasons.

#15 ::: Leigh ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 02:44 PM:

This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their compassion for their enemies’ victims is absolutely genuine. So is their outrage at their enemies’ moral failings and blind spots.

While his reasoning on the whole strikes me as skewed, I did get a good chuckle out of this line. How true - of people, not just of Leninists.

#16 ::: SImon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:16 PM:

David, what I'm saying is rather simpler than that. MacLeod seems to me to be decrying situational morality of the "It's OK if good guys do it" sort. (His Thatcher example.) I'm just saying that some instances that appear to be of that sort really do have moral distinctions.

I'm also saying (see the McNamara reference) that such distinctions do not necessarily override other considerations.

#17 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:41 PM:

But is MacLeod saying those cases don't have moral distinctions, or rather that making those moral distinctions is the wrong approach?

#18 ::: aha ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:45 PM:

David M:
There are many examples of highly evolved, balanced societies conquered by religious fanatics who could not sustain the balance but who got to write the history, thus refracting our view of the past. You could start right here, in North and South America.

#19 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:46 PM:

P.S. I didn't mean "Aha" as in "Eureka!" -- I meant "Aha" as in "the poster just above you". :)

#20 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 04:20 PM:

Aha, you'll have to be more specific than that. If it helps, pretend I'm ignorant and stupid.

#21 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 04:43 PM:

I would have thought Ken was saying that morals are a bad tool for making political decisions.

He's right about that.

The human brain model of the world and the world don't always match.

One of the ways the match fails is that people tend to model things by ideals, perfect exemplars, and deal with things on the basis of how near or far the observed world is to the exemplar. Morals are one expression of this; the right way to act is, the rule for this situation is, and so on, all the 'Thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots'.

Since the world we've actually got doesn't work on an exemplary basis, but by complex constraints on patterns of statistical distribution, any moral system is going to have useless places, places where the exemplar just can't be made relevant to what is actually there to deal with.

These will typically be at the edge cases, the places of extreme stress and conflict. Which is fine for everyday -- you don't hit such places often, maybe never, in a usual individual human life, and not having to spend a lot of effort on figuring out what you think of things gives you more resources with which to get on with life -- but terrible in the political process, which exists to handle the edge cases, preferably by means which don't get blood on the walls.

Which is why the utilitarian "makes things worse, don't do it" approach has a lot going for it; it's simple enough to use, and it leads to improvement over time. Not predictable improvement, but who cares? Getting better -- the general increase of access to realizable choice -- is getting better, and perfect is nowhere to be found.

#22 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 04:46 PM:

The thing is, the next question raised by the True Knowledge is "Who is 'us'?"

And yes, I realize I may have just confused 9/10 of the readers of this comment thread.

#23 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 06:55 PM:

"for a ruling class there are no rules"

"'Did they discover some form which had no law but power?'"--Patricia McKillip

From my viewpoint, ethical systems are, to a large extent, responses to the realities of human relations. Denying the existence of the realities which underlie ethics, however poorly we understand them, only leads to deeper misery.

And was not Marx, also, a moral philosopher?

#24 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 07:32 PM:

Randolph -

It works fine if you start from 'no law but power'.

A real concern for power -- as distinct from this mewling, pulling, craven, dust-souled, thanatic, gormless, nithing-hearted, prating, ignominious crying after absolutes -- recognizes that the way to power lies in increasing the ability of groups to co-operate, in the public trust and the consistency of the market place.

The reaction look at all this wealth, let's steal it is the reaction of powerlessness, not of power. [1]

The reaction no one will ever tell me what to do is, well, it's not fit to be mocked for a heap of eels in anyone over five, but it's surely not the reaction of power; of terror, of an habitual lying folly with neither heart nor liver to face facts, and of a spirit fearful of mirrors, surely, all those things, but nothing of the nature of power.

The reaction enough people will believe our lies is antithetical to power, a corrosive and a caustic to the possibility of power, a naked fear of power, power that might come with facts or mirrors and demand an accounting.

So Ken's statement is wrong that for a ruling class there are no rules; there are rules, stern ones. (I am quite sure Ken knows this, and was meaning strictly moral rules.)

Do not fall behind. There's another ruling class or six out there, and they will take what you cannot hold.

Power rests on peace. It's not enough to avoid open rebellion; the sinews of power demand widespread participation and co-operation.

Facts are what you can measure and count. All else betrays your purpose with the shapes of your desires.

[1] Power looks at 'what portion of this production of wealth can be put to the purposes of power' -- which are roads and schools and markets, research laboratories and public commissions and the enforcement of honest banking -- which is not, over-numerous idiots to the contrary, the same thing as theft.

#25 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 07:50 PM:

I am a Capitalist, though not a Free Market Absolutist. Yet I believe that it is almost useless to make a moral argument to a corporation. That's because of the doctrine of mens rea. And can one really disentangle corporate interests (i.e. Halliburton) from current American Government interests?

Excerpting from THE CRIMINAL LAW AND CORPORATIONS (USA vs. Canada vs. England):

"The criminal law insists that the person who commits the physical act (actus reus) must also have mens rea, a guilty mind, before that person can be found guilty of the offence. The criminal law does not, for example, permit the conviction of a person suffering from a mental disorder and incapable of appreciating the nature of the act.... Much of the complexity in the area of corporate criminal liability revolves around the question of who in a corporation must have mens rea so that the corporation itself can be said to have mens rea. The question is not difficult when the corporation is small and the owner is also the manager - clearly, the mind of the owner is the mind of the corporation. However, modern corporations may have structures that often bear only a passing resemblance to the simpler models considered by the courts in developing the common law. It is not easy to decide who is the corporation for the purposes of attributing criminal liability when a corporation has a head office in one city, regional operations around the globe, and various subsidiary corporations with their own subsidiaries and regional operations. The situation is complicated further when a board of directors meets only infrequently and issues only the broadest guidelines for senior management."

#26 ::: Katherine Farmar ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 08:35 PM:

Jon said: ...the problem with theories on how people should behave is that you don't have any control over how people are going to interpret these theories at a later time, in a different context with different expectations.

That applies to just about anything anyone says about anything. I think just about any statement, taken out of its context, misinterpreted, and given a bit of a spin by somebody who either doesn't understand it or understands it and wants to "improve" on it (in a specific direction, of course), can be dangerous, or in any case lead to consequences the original maker of the statement in no way intended.

aha said: Moral arguments give permission to polarize—to create good and evil in a world of grey—which in turn gives permission to kill.

Not if your moral argument leads to the conclusion that killing is never justified under any circumstances.

Morality is not the means to any end, but rather the reverse;

What does that mean? I can't make any sense of that. Do you mean that morality is an end in itself? If so, I agree; but given your other statements, I don't think that is what you mean.

it is an adaptive fiction—the result of natural selection.

Quite possibly. No doubt our ability to reason and weigh up evidence and arguments is the result of natural selection as well. Does that mean that reason is a "fiction"? Or that we should pay no attention to the conclusions reason tells us to draw?

You seem to have a very limited notion of what the word "moral" means. One of my favourite living philosophers, Jonathan Dancy, is a moral particularist -- that is, he denies the existence of general moral principles according to which we can or must regulate our behaviour. As far as Dancy is concerned, the real picture is more complicated than that: every individual situation has many elements which contribute to the rightness or wrongness of any given action. This is about as un-"black and white" a stance as you can get, but it is still a moral position. On this view, there is still right and wrong -- but you can never say in advance what the right action will be (unless you have perfect precognition, in which case it would be nice if you'd share some lottery numbers).

Fundamentalists, particularly religious fundamentalists, have survived because they make the best warriors.

It is not fundamentalists who survive, but fundamentalisms, and they don't so much survive as die out frequently and resurface a generation later in different clothes. Fundamentalisms are attractive, because they make life seem simple, and they are fragile for the very same reason: they often don't survive contact with reality. (See, for example, the rebellion led by Thomas Muntzer in Germany in 1525. Muntzer thought "the godless have no right to live", but he was the one who ended up being beheaded. Thinking you have God on your side isn't nearly as effective as actually having trained and properly-armed soldiers on your side.)

Graydon: your concept of power is strange. Why should power be concerned with "roads and schools and markets, research laboratories and public commissions and the enforcement of honest banking", and not, say, casinos, breweries, brothels and crackhouses? Why, indeed, should power have any determinate purpose at all? I was under the impression that power was a neutral concept. The stick of dynamite doesn't care whether it's used to unblock a mine and save trapped miners or to blow up a building in which children are asleep. What you are describing does not sound like power to me, or at least not power simpliciter. It reminds me of Starhawk's distinction between "power-over" and "power from within", but that's not quite it either.

#27 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 09:09 PM:

if your moral argument leads to the conclusion that killing is never justified under any circumstances

I think this would make you part of the ‘pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools’ as someone said, who indulge in ‘pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life’, as someone else said from the quote from Ken above.

#28 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:08 PM:

The mighty British Empire was brought low by a pacifist. The desire for and pursuit of the fruits of peace ended the Soviet Union. I think there are, oh, a few wee problems with the conclusion.

Graydon, the desire for power without rules, that can be as surely destructive as the experience and fear of weakness.

#29 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:10 PM:

Katherine --

I think you're confusing tool and power.

A stick of dynamite is a tool, and yes, it's neutral, with its meaning determined by use.

It's being able to make dynamite, when you couldn't before, or make six sticks for what it cost you to make one before, that's power.

(And power isn't a neutral concept in the same way tool is a neutral concept, because power isn't a question of individuals.)

The list of things to be concerned with are the things that are important to the creation and maintenance of power -- the ability to move stuff around, gang up on problems, and add to the scope of choice available.

Vice is only a significant form of social power when there's a public morality determined to insist that people could be angels if they just tried hard enough -- another facet of the "refuse to recognize a contrafactual, things get worse" pattern. Vice isn't, in any fundamental sense, important to power; it's important to individuals. (Some of whom are in power and expect to get what they want irrespective of law or custom.)

Power stems from patterns of organization among people, not particular individual people. (Even when innovators introduce new patters of organization, the power that results results from the pattern, all the people, not the innovator.)

It's the pattern that allows for ganging up on problems in better or worse ways, and those patterns of organization compete.

One way to look at the Bush administration is as a manifestation of conscious, long term movement to force the United States into state where it can't support as much power -- restricting patterns of organization to those known to be substantially less capable -- just when the rest of the world has started to figure out most of the Anglo social tricks for minimizing the importance of social class to innovation.

#30 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:15 PM:

Randolph -

Power has rules, built in ones. An insistence on counterfactuals -- power without constraint being an example -- is a messy thing in any circumstance.

Since in the particular case, the desire for power without constraint sure looks like it's coming out of an entirely craven fear of death, I think I'm correctly identifying at least one angle of fault.

An honest desire for power -- to right a wrong, to build a road, to send all the children to school -- isn't a bad thing of itself; it's a desire to make a choice that didn't exist before.

One of the great triumphs of the thanatic faction has been this conceptual conflation of power and abuse.

#31 ::: plover ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 12:05 AM:

Graydon:
Is the phrase thanatic faction a term from some social/philosophical theory or other? Or is it just the wording you came up with for your post to refer to those acting from "an entirely craven fear of death"?

I'm just curious if there's a context I'm missing here...

#32 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 12:40 AM:

plover --

'thanatic faction' doesn't, so far as I know, refer to any particular social or philosophical theory, just the really comprehensive fear of death that looks to be driving about a third of the thugs and theocrats. (whatever the terms is for the folks certain they're going bodily to heave before all the millennial bad stuff happens, heretical certainty of salvation, sin-is-for-other-people social assumptions, all that quite bizarre take on Christianity.)


(A third appear to desire worship, and another third nothing, in the full blown nihilistic sense that comes with being certain, wheresoever they might be found kneeling of a Sunday, that the universe ends when they do. I don't have cool single adjectives for either of those thirds, though. :)

#33 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 02:26 AM:

Thinking it over, the ironic thing about the "appeal to heaven" is that, of course, heaven usually says NO! Heaven, it seems, prefers "bourgeois fools"--sometimes it grants their wishes.

Graydon, I like your observation that the religious extremists are driven by the fear of death. It is deeply embedded in Christianity, of course, but, not being a believer myself, I tend to forget about it.

#34 ::: plover ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 02:52 AM:

Graydon:

Thanks.

A third appear to desire worship, and another third nothing... I don't have cool single adjectives for either of those thirds, though.

Hmm... autotheotic and aponiptic?

The meaning I'm trying to tease from "aponiptic faction" is "those who wash their hands of (the universe)", but my Greek is probably very suspect here.

And, I like your typo... My brain made several very interesting attempts to parse "... they're going bodily to heave ..." before inserting the appropriate missing letter. :)

#35 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 07:32 AM:

plover --

The limits of spell checking to save one from posting to late at night. :)

I like those adjectives; here's hoping they shall stick to my head. Thank you!

Randolph --

The whole original core point of Christianity is that one need no longer be afraid of death, that those who truly believe should have eternal life.

This lot aren't even apostate, not really, they're atheistic; they've lied to themselves so much for so long about so many things that the sinews of faith are all untwisted in them, and the furious desperation of their piety is without dignity, nor any of that awe which greats a god.

#36 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 08:24 AM:

Graydon, you're distinguishing between the people who use their ability to make things happen to do things that you favor (you call that power) and the people who have use their ability to make things happen to do things that you don't favor (you call that not having power and add some insults).

What words do you use to distinguish between the people who steal and kill on a large scale and the people who are stolen from and murdered? Perhaps neither have power, but if so, they don't have power in rather different ways.

Over at Slacktivist, there's a Christian analysis of the Left Behind books from the point of view that they aren't Christian at all, being based in the desire to not die before you go to Heaven. There's also page by page discussion of what's stupid about the books.

I keep meaning to reread the Silmarillion to see how much of the modern US maps onto the Numenorians.

#37 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 10:45 AM:

Nancy -

So far as I can tell, you're looking for a moral distinction; I don't make those, because I don't think they are useful.

Information causes change. (That's how you can tell it's information, and not data. Basic definitional thing in information theory.)

Power is the ability to treat information as information. "I can't do anything about that" is the basic statement of powerlessness; you have what would be information, but you aren't able to change in response.

Any competent power holding class -- a very scarce thing, in the history of the world; it has arguably only happened once, for about fifty years -- wants the scope of power in the system to increase, because that is what makes more power available to them. That's not usually what happens; what usually happens is a desire for a greater share of the existing power, something which results in negative sum outcomes when it flourishes.

Roads and schools increase the number of things about which it can be said "I can do something about that." Encouraging the corruption of the courts and the banking system for personal gain reduces the number of things about which it can be said "I can do something about that."

The folks doing the decreasing have control, and they have (presumably) sufficiently greater relative power that anyone who would stop them is unable to do so, but what they're doing is dissipating existing mechanisms for creating social power, not increasing in power.

Increasing relative power can go along with decreasing absolute power; that result, decreased absolute power, has been Republican policy since about 1950 at the latest, though I'm pretty sure they don't think of it that way.

The folks being killed and robbed have relatively less access to power than the folks doing the killing and robbing; from first principles, neither group is doing a good job as a power-holding class. If the folks being killed and robbed can shift to a social system that addresses in the increase of power in absolute terms, rather than as a question of partitioning existing power in relative terms, they can get to a place where they can make the folks doing the killing and robbing stop.


If you do this instead by giving all the relative power to a small group, so that it's concentrated enough to be useful, well, that's three hundred years of 'the end of the Medieval period and start of the Renaissance period' in a nutshell, really, and it's not a good idea. (It's also the rise of the centralized large corporation, also not a good idea.)

This is also precisely what the Bush administration is arguing for -- give us all your ability to exercise power, and we'll make you safe with it.

A competent power holding class would produce "ok, they're using their helplessness as a weapon; how do we take thier helplessness away?" as a response to the so-called War on Terror, not seek to increase the helplessness of the probable targets with the aim of increasing their own.

#38 ::: Ilona ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 11:48 AM:

The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling class there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power. This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal.

I take issue with Lenin's moral normalcy. Having been forced to study the subject in detail, I believe that Lenin, in fact, was amoral to the extent that the very definition morality did not apply to him. For him, it simply didn't exist as a governing factor in his personal life or in his ideology. Nor did he preach moral outrage, but rather the principle of "might makes right." It's evident in his rhetoric, in the political terms he had used.

He held that the state is a special repressive force. The special repressive force of the bourgeoisie is used to supress the millions of the proletariat, hence, the proletariat must become a special repressive force in term to supress the bourgeoisie. He wrote of the dictatorship of proletariat. The only time he mentions something somewhat resembling morality is when he speaks of the distant future, when the democracy itself will wither away because people will "become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life."

His feelings toward "backward people" are somewhat questionable, too. He viewed them with a mixture of pity and superiority, particular to Russian intellegentsia. (It took root in aristocracy and is present to this day in Russia.) He believed in his duty to educate them, but not too much, because they were too simple and too much education would confuse them. He believed that unwashed masses needed guidance, that they possessed an enormous, almost primeaval power, and yet he held them in contempt. You almost have to be Russian to fully understand this mindset.

The point of all of my rambling is that rather than waste time on moral outrage and compassion, Lenin simply stated that the ruling class did what it did not because its memebers were morally reprehensible, but because they could. Since the proletariat possessed the necessary power, there is no reason why it can't overthrow its opressors and do onto them as they had done onto it. He knew that stepping into the trap of morality meant limiting oneself to the rules it dictated, and he wasn't about to do that.

#39 ::: Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 01:30 PM:
(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)

Tsk. One paragraph, where to begin.

The casually shifted goalposts: de Sade inspires, Aquinas justifies, Mill incites. Whatever.

First palmed card: a false distinction between a great amoralist and a great moral philospher. The null set is still a set.

Second palmed card: Because of their greatness, these moralists have greater responsibility than other, more direct suspects for the inspiring, justifying, or inciting the deaths of handfuls or millions.

From those two false premises, KML somehow *intuits* that morality is dangerous. I am reminded of the Gary Larson cartoon.

True knowledge? This looks just as faith-based to me as waiting for the four Men on Horseback.

Sure sounds purty, though.

C.

#40 ::: meta4 ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 05:23 PM:

'Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.'

There was something liberating in the paradox implicit in this statement. i think if one added the word 'absolute' in front, it would be a good cautionary motto for these times.

Teresa, your description of realising where you were going at 32 fps gave me a wry chuckle. It's like that exactly!

It also seems to me that the 'appeal to heaven' is a euphemism for a gritty, unsentimental (i.e. maybe gun-toting) compassion (for the downtrodden victims of injustice whose plight is not aided by 'peaceniks'), followed by a cheap, buzzword-loaded sneer at people who on principle wouldn't pick up a gun to blow away a babykiller, feeling it is never right to add more violence to a situation, no matter how provocative the scenario.
Personally i believe it is impossible to know in advance how one would act in a moral dilemna of that intensity. I hope whatever impulse took command would be the lightest one to bear on one's conscience, possibly revealing itself as the wisest choice in the consequent safety of hindsight.
I do however believe that the examples of non-violent courage (nuns pouring blood over nuclear weapons, Ghandi in his loincloth) suggest an ideology superior to the idea that brute force can resolve a bad situation, i.e. sending in soldiers to bring democracy and womens' rights to countries who haven't evolved to the point of seeing their own self-interest in doing so themselves: the blowback is too great.
Thankyou Carlos for parsing the text so well, and all of you for such a rich thread.
No-one will ever be able to fire many hearts to passion under a banner of 'Vote for the Relative Morality Party' which is why it will probably win the philosophy race, as a slow turtle, after all the hares have collapsed in frothing exstacy or jihadded themselves into early extinction.
Definition of 'relative morality'?
Mmmm..
To each his own, don't cast the first stone
There's a golden rule, good for wise or fool.

Michael

#41 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 05:36 PM:

A competent power holding class would produce "ok, they're using their helplessness as a weapon; how do we take thier helplessness away?" as a response to the so-called War on Terror, not seek to increase the helplessness of the probable targets with the aim of increasing their own.

I think this is wisest thing I've read since... I don't know when. Or perhaps the best combination of wisdom and compactness. Maybe that combination gives it some chance of percolating up to someone who might be able to implement it.

#42 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 12:18 AM:

NelC --

thank you!

That sentence should have ended 'increasing their own relative power and security.

Someday I'll figure out how to make my brain actually see what I've written without the substantial pause.

#43 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 12:57 PM:

Graydon --

Oh. Yeah. I hadn't noticed the end had dropped off the sentence, but somehow I understood what you meant.

#44 ::: Dee Lacey ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 01:13 PM:

An interesting passage that I was thinking about before I read it here. It took me a long while to make sense of the last bit, too.

To me it ended up that he was making fun of those who made fun of pacifists, because they were the only ones who'd escaped the negative feedback cycle.

MacLeod seemed to be saying that morality was irrelevant except for rationalization purposes, that thinking that killing the baby-killers would stop the baby-killing was instead what kept it going.

#45 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 09:18 PM:

Interesting, though I think his last paragraph sounds wonderful but says essentially nothing.

This is an excellent point: If so, better to accept that what ‘our side’ is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause. ...because accepting a wrong is to regard the act as a deviation from right, normal behavior. To label the act "right" is to shift the entire moral system and justify continuation or repetition of the act.

It's not true that the ruling class has no rules. The rules, though, are that the ruling class rightly holds power, for whatever reason: nobility of birth, might makes right, those non-ruling-class people would be in charge if only they could be bothered, it's for their own good, etc.

#46 ::: tomb ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 09:33 PM:

Dear Teresa,

I understand your concern about following Ken's logic off a cliff. Reading Ken's books, I realized early on that whenever I feel I have Ken pegged, I can be sure that is when I'm totally wrong. However, what I take from Ken's post, and from the follow-on post on his site, is that he is concerned, anguished even, about following morality, and finding himself in free fall. When he says that morality is ideology, I think he has it right. That he doesn't have a better answer, that his rhetoric is better than his logic, I can forgive. They guy's a writer after all; whether or not he has something to say, he's going to say it well. That he's not pushing a solution on us gives me hope. I feel that a person who is searching for virtue is much safer than someone who is sure he has found it. I am glad that Ken seems to be on such a search, and I hope it will be both fulfilling and endless.

By way of explanation, Ken posted this:

One thing I was groping towards, in that post, is that pacifism or anti-militarism needs its Marx. It needs someone to argue for it in a non-moral, cynical, side-of-the-mouth kind of way.

In this, Ken reminds me of some of my closest friends, who were brought up in a strong religious faith that they had to leave, and felt empty thereafter, not able to believe in a universe either with a God or without one. It also reminds me of the Russian attitude that they need a strong leader who can impose democracy. We don't need a consummate ideologist to show us the path away from ideology. We could use the Marx who helped people ask questions about things they had taken for granted, but the historical Marx comes with too many answers and interpretations. Even if he was right, too much of the baggage that has been loaded on him turned out to be terribly wrong. If I were to presume to advise Ken, it would be to not look for a Marx, but for a Darwin. Or see how far we can get with the one we've got. He's not bad.

Regards,

Tom

#47 ::: tomb ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 10:12 PM:

Graydon,

I appreciate your posts, and agree with much of what you are saying, but then you said this:

The reaction look at all this wealth, let's steal it is the reaction of powerlessness, not of power.

It just isn't so. When William took England, or Cortez took Mexico, it was not exactly an expression of powerlessness. No more so than when a modern corporation crushes a union, fixes prices, or squeezes tax breaks out of the government.

I have to think that you are using the term power and meaning something entirely else, such as virtue. In that case, it would make perfect sense, but we still would be left with the task of defining virtue.

Regards,

Tom

#48 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 11:59 PM:

Tomb -

Bastard William was (like Orange William much later) after an increase in his status, running a raid for prestige and a particular position of control, rather than wealth. The Normans did very little looting or despoiling; they were after control, not wealth.

Cortez was not a titled, comfortable, Spanish Grandee; that's why he was adventuring off in the New World.

All power is relative, but the guys off doing the colonization aren't the folks who have the opportunity to run things back home, or they stay home.

Power isn't virtue; virtue is not a question about the future, and power is. (Will this course of action get me greater access to power in the future if I follow it? That's the basic question for power. The basic question for virtue is 'does this diminish me now?')

#49 ::: dave heasman ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 01:17 PM:

Graydon : - "The Normans did very little looting or despoiling; they were after control, not wealth.".

I thought they levelled most of Yorkshire?

#50 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 01:41 PM:

Dave --

Bastard William levelled most of Yorkshire when he'd been King of England for nearly twenty years. It wasn't part of the Conquest qua Conquest, it was done to put down a rebellion and keep control.

It was also very much not the first thing he tried; there had been previous rebellions against his authority, dealt with in less extreme ways. He appears to have lost patience entirely, on the one hand, and feeling age creeping up on him, making him impatient, on the other.

#51 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2004, 12:06 AM:

Having said which, I would really, really like to know who has committed a single atrocity in the name of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. If you can name one... well, I won't eat my hat because it gets cold here in Edinburgh and I need my hat to keep my head warm. But I shall be very surprised. For Aquinas maybe you can make a case, though that's frankly dubious since anyone following Aquinas's ethics would undoubtedly be following the Church as well, and that makes the whole mess more complicated (religious killing is a different matter).

I might argue that they U.S. penal system is an atrocity, committed in the name of Benthamist principles. Certainly the decision by the courts that Alcatraz was a, "cruel and unusual punishment," supports this view.

Terry K

#52 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2004, 12:14 AM:

Mythago said

This is an excellent point: If so, better to accept that what ‘our side’ is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause. ...because accepting a wrong is to regard the act as a deviation from right, normal behavior. To label the act "right" is to shift the entire moral system and justify continuation or repetition of the act.

This reminds me of my comments to those (who prior to recent events) would look askance at me when they discovered I was in the Army.

The attitude seemed to be that I was too intelligent and sensitive a person to belong to a group of thuggish killers.

My argument was, and still is, that I can see circumstances in which I would find killing people acceptable, and that such circumstances allow that I do so for the Government.

Since I like to think of myself as intelligent, and tolerably sensitive, it seemed meet that we have people like me behind the triggers, and better than nothing but thuggish killers (of whom we, I am pleased to say, have fewer than most people think).

Perhaps this is why, despite my being in the Army, and a recent participant in a war, my better half (for the past 4+ years) is, and has been, a Quaker.

Oddly enough I have an ex, who was also a Quaker. She defended (prior to my joining the Army) a claim of pacifism I made, with by telling Gary Louie, that, "Terry is a pacifist, he just isn't non-violent."

Terry K.

(p.s. It happens that this past year she married a soldier... strange world).
TK

#53 ::: Paul Mitchum ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2004, 12:28 PM:

Starting on an easy one, we might say this: The use of atomic weapons in WWII was bad. It's very easy to condem the use of atomic weapons, no matter who did it. This is a purely moralistic stance.

As we move away from a purely moralistic stance, we approach something like this: Dropping atomic bombs on Japan in WWII was bad, but it saved more lives than it took. So maybe there's a spectrum of 'bad'-ness. However, there's no way to know for a fact that more lives were saved than lost, and anyway... Is moral good and bad determined by whether it was 6,000,000 that died, or 5,999,999?

The fact is that the choice was between two bad things. There is nothing good about killing people by dropping atomic bombs, and there is nothing good about killing people to invade Japan. Morality ceases to be a guiding factor, and becomes an ass-covering one instead. If you choose either way, you better have a moralistic story ready to tell about it afterwards, in order to retain both your place in the community of men and your sanity.

If the story favors 'our side,' then it gets that many more bonus points. If the story favors 'demonstrating to the Soviets that we have a big-ass bomb so watch your ass,' then we have fully emerged from the realm of *any* kind of moral framework, so this story about demonstrating military might is never directly stated.

Until 'Shock and awe,' fifty-or-so years later.

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