Archive for the 'constraints / deontology' Category


Hangman is coming down from the gallows

I’ve decided that when I title my posts in a very informative, uncreative way, less people read them than if I allude to the content of the post without really giving away what the hell I’m talking about. So, henceforth, I’m going to title my posts with song lyrics (if I can think of appropriate lyrics).

But now that you’re into this post a little bit, I can reveal what I’m actually going to talk about, which is the death penalty. I’m reading a book right now called Ultimate Punishment by Scott Turow, a novelist, but also a lawyer who served on an Illinois Commission to exhaustively investigate the use of the death penalty. I really like the book, partly because of Turow’s unpretentious and easy to understand prose, but also because he tries to address all the major arguments for and against the death penalty with succinctness. I’ll mention some of the cool parts of this book, and then, as I am trained to do, I will take issue with some of the arguments and try to move things in a different direction.

The most interesting part of this book is Turow’s emotional honesty. He has, at different times in his life, been in favor and opposed to the death penalty. Thus, he makes for an excellent guide to this charged issue. Also, he has inside experience with some Illinois death penalty cases. He has some UNBELIEVABLE stories (I mean there’s nothing secret here, it’s all in the public domain) about the conduct of some of the US attorneys in the death penalty cases he was a part of. Holy shit it will blow your mind.

You see, as my father is always fond of telling me, the defense and prosecution are different. The defense gets to play dirty; they are supposed to try and win for their client at all costs. The prosecution however, is constrained by the duty to “seek justice.” They are not supposed to do everything they can to get the accused in jail, but rather, to try and find, objectively, who did the crime. If I’m a mob lawyer and I know my client killed ten people, my duty is still to defend him, as the term goes “zealously.” But if I’m the prosecutor and I find new evidence that the person on trial didn’t do it, I must reveal it, and possibly, dismiss the case.

These US attorneys in Chicago did some unbelievable shit. They were supposed to “seek justice” but instead just ended up hiding a bunch of evidence in DEATH ROW cases. Good god, I wanted to see these guys put in jail for prosecutorial misconduct. They were indicted, but never convicted (insane that they weren’t.) The anecdote I remember most clearly from the book was where a prosecutor was leading a forensic expert through questioning and establishing that the shoe prints found outside the home were size 6 and that the defendant’s shoe size was six. Of course, it came out later upon cross examination, that the shoe prints at the scene of the crime were A WOMAN’S size 6 while the accused was a man. I can’t tell you how angry that made me. Seeking justice my ass.

Anyway, Turow moves to a discussion of the issues, and I think he does a great job.

Nonetheless, there is something I disagree with.

He writes,

To me by far the greatest fallacy in justifying capital punishment with the oft-heard mantra that “the victims deserve it” is that it is, in a favored lawyers’ phrase, an argument that “proves too much” — an argument that, when extended, defeats itself. Once we make the well-being of victims our central concern and assume that execution will bring them the greatest solace, we have no principled way to grant one family this relief and deny it to another. From each victim’s perspective, his loss, her anger, and the comfort each victim may draw from seeing the killer die are the same whether her loved one perished at the hands of the Beltway Sniper or died in an impulsive shooting in the course of a liquor-store holdup. The victims-first approach allows us no meaningful basis to distinguish among murders.

Yet in a state like Illinois, 49 times out of 50, a death sentence is not imposed for a first-degree homicide. Are we saying that justice has not been done in 98 percent of cases? Not according to the Supreme Court, which has established constitutional requirements that presuppose that the death penalty will be imposed on a select basis. The Court requires legislatures to create exacting guidelines about the factual circumstances under which capital punishment may even be considered, followed by a scrupulous weighing of the aggravating and mitigating factors that characterize a particular crime and defendant. And in this formulation, no matter how liberal the victim-impact rules, the expressed desires of survivors for the death penalty have no permissible role. Indeed, when we allow victims to “own” the process, we are defying that framework. (54-55)

What I object to in this is not really the end destination — the conclusion is fine — but how he gets there. In argumentative format, the argument is this.

1. What victims want is just.

2. Victims want first degree murderers to be put to death.

3. Most first degree murderers are not put to death

Conclusion: Our criminal justice system is not handling most cases justly.

This is a reductio ad absurdum, because the argument depends on the listener rejecting the conclusion, meaning that one of the premises must be false. Which one? Turow think we should reject 1, but this argument does not force us to do so, because nowhere does he give any statistics about how people think about first degree murder. He gives arguments about the death penalty is popular and how many people are angry every at the murderers of those they love, but nothing specific enough to support the argument. It’s a simple factual question: do most people who have someone murdered wish the death penalty on the perpetrator?

It’s hard to get data on this because people are usually asked about the policy of the death penalty and not about what they in particular would want. Even then that it seems that many prefer life imprisonment.

However, I think Turow is on to the right argument, but how can we tighten the reasoning behind thinking that victims alone don’t determine the justness of the intensity of punishment? Here’s an argument.

1. What victims want is just.

2. A victim might want the murderer of their loved one to be agonizingly tortured for years.

Conclusion: If a victim wanted a murdered to be tortured, it would be just to torture that murderer.

Of course, I’m expecting most people to think that the conclusion is false thus forcing us to find one of the premises to reject. Unlike with Turow’s argument, there is no choice. 2 is a hypothetical posit and so can’t be denied, leaving us with 1.

This is not a surprising result, and Turow agrees with it: society at large has a place at the table in how we punish people.

I’ll leave this here for now, but if people would be interested in a post about the argument that the death penalty is needed for morally proportionate response to horrible crimes, I have some ideas I’ve been kicking around. Leave a comment and I’ll see if that post would garner any interest.


Chinese Mothers and Self-confidence

In this article, a highly successful Chinese mother and yale law school professor argues that raising children with high expectations is the best way to parent, a way she labels as a the “Chinese” way. Though her choice of racial association is likely to draw a lot of criticism (and she does qualify the claim that this is the Chinese way, it’s recognizably Jewish and many other “ways”), I’m not that concerned with it.

But this article does concern me for another reason, which is that it comes very close to espousing something that I think is a deep truth, but it tarnishes that truth with a misunderstood elaboration along with some language that I think is deceptive and sometimes downright crude.

The idea of the article is that parents should feel free to be very demanding and in fact, unrelenting about making their kids achieve. In a sense, I agree with this thesis because I believe that people flourish when they are put under strain and when they face challenges. I also think that aspiring to excellence is one way to respect oneself and others and breeds confidence and happiness. The tricky part about this way of life is that there is always a tension between the state of confidence and competence that characterizes happiness and the difficulty and struggle that is needed to earn that position; in fact, to continually earn it and to sustain it.

In this article though, Amy Chua mistakes hardship and overcoming for arbitrariness and just plain meanness I think. But before getting to a deep philosophical point, I want to just make some ad hominem attacks and point out some passages that rubbed me the wrong way.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

Really? Is this the example you want? I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to challenge her sincerity; maybe she really did not feel abused, but you wonder if maybe this author (now a yale professor) was just hard-nosed in a way that allowed her to profit from that kind of parenting; a type of parenting that I, being a “westerner” in her lexicon, would call abuse.

Then there’s this:

By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

And again, this is amateur psychoanalysis on my part, but I think this paragraph really reveals more about the author than any general trends of parenting. I don’t think many parents with “mediocre” kids really do have regrets about their kids in that way. In other words, most parents are proud of their kids, even when their child is in fact very poorly skilled or very disturbed, or even mean or flawed in a variety of ways. Yet these parents, quite sincerely I think, are proud of what their kids are and do.

For instance, parents of serial killers often proclaim that they still love their kids, and in all of this, maybe that is what’s missing. If you search this post, the word “love” does not appear a SINGLE time, and the above quote makes me think that Ms. Chua is projecting her own interest in her child’s objective success by claiming that western parents obsess about this. Again, things are tricky, because I am sympathetic to the point that parents have to ask for more to get more when it comes to their children, but there are bigger problems.

The main one in my mind is that I think Chua is working with a defective and shallow view of what counts as self-confidence. She gives an example (you really have to read it; it’s eye opening) in which she forces her child to learn a violin (some instrument) piece by threatening all sorts of sanctions. The child eventually gets it and Chua pats herself on the back for having the gumption to keep pushing her child even in the face of resistance. The lesson is that force is met with success, and ultimately — and this is Chua’s big argument — an iron core of self-confidence that can never be taken away. Here are Chua’s words

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

To me this seems to get things exactly wrong. Self confidence and trust in oneself does not come from finding that one can achieve under duress WHEN ANOTHER PERSON forces you to succeed. One only gains confidence if one overcomes hardship BY ONESELF. Having someone push you to succeed merely to have you succeed doesn’t teach confidence or boost self-esteem (except, and this is interesting, indirectly by breaking the child down). What really promotes confidence is when a child encounters a problem and works through it on their own and in the process comes to trust his or her instincts or toughness. Anyone can do extraordinary things when a gun is put to their head, what is much more useful and much more difficult to master is the ability to set a goal and then respond to new situations (setbacks) as they pertain to that goal’s attainment. In Chua’s example, her child was happy to be playing the piece right, but how sustainable is this feeling? What happens when another difficulty comes up? The confident child would replay past successes and think “if I did that, I can do this.” But Chua’s child may have to wonder how to motivate herself or train herself. She will think “I better call my mom to scream at me until I do this.” That’s why sometimes the most “hardcore” type of control is just neglect; forcing the child to rely on his or herself. In my mind, self-confidence is the most exhilarating type of freedom, but on Chua’s analysis it feels very cramped and restricting. It also feels imposed or exported from another person, and freedom that is exported is not freedom.

The trick is, as always, to find the middle ground. Chua seems to think it’s a victory to get a child to play the violin well just to say that the child can play the violin well, and she paints western parents as taking a “do what you want to do attitude” toward everything. Both are wrong. Instead, the trick of parenting is not to hone the child’s skill at any one thing (even school) but rather to hone an attitude or a “way of seeing” — something much more ephemeral and abstract — that lets the human being that the child will become determine her ends for herself and then act on them.

Confidence is autonomy unfolding itself, and I think Chua misunderstands its value by placing it in the hands of an arbitrary parenting strategy. Kids should pursue what they want and the trick is to show them that what they want isn’t necessarily want they want AT THIS MOMENT but rather a process of overcoming or character development. That lesson can’t be learned by giving them a list of accomplishments that they must check off before reaching age 16.


Atomic Bombs and Politeness

The atomic bomb was revolutionary for so many reasons, but one of them was that it dramatized the realization that the most power in the universe was contained in its smallest building blocks.

Before the discovery of this fact, to generate more heat, more energy and more explosive power required more TNT or more oil or more whatever. What Einstein and the Manhattan project taught the world was that a closer attention to the little things — the particles that make up all things — could result in more energy release than was ever thought possible.

I propose thinking about politeness and respect as the atomic bombs of social organization. What I mean is that in my mind, the theory I find most attractive about social organization is that the little things matter most. Of course, other theorists have emphasized macro level determinants of behavior and thought such as social groupings, economic grouping, racial gropings, political groupings, and on and on. Yes, all those things matter. In fact, maybe things like language would be impossible without a certain type of organized grouping of people.

But I think for a flourishing society, the most important thing is not just the individual person, but in fact every motion and utterance that individuals make. In fact, I’m willing to make the somewhat bolder claim that most of things we think of as “evil” are really just the congealed, snowballed effects of sleights, mistakes, pettiness, and miscalculation: a digging insult, an errant kiss to someone who is not one’s partner, a look, a roll of the eyes, a misinterpretation. These are the things that build up into complexes, personality traits, and finally, to cognition, whole theories, and whole value systems.

You see, I also think that all humans are factories of pollution. In our day to day life, each person necessarily exudes a kind of toxic cloud of disrespect and destabilization. The issue isn’t being nice or not, some people are quite nice, and the point of this post isn’t to hate on people. I like people and they do amazing things, but what I am fascinated by is the fact that what is EVIL often comes from the smallest and most trivial of origins.

What are the examples of great evil, Hitler? the Inquisition? Slavery? Yes, all of these. But these are just dramatic and explosive realizations of bullying in the schoolyard, frustrated dreams, missed opportunities, and on and on.

And so back to my toxic cloud metaphor, which is that factories must produce waste to create a product. The waste has to be put somewhere, and we hope its not in our drinking water or whatever. The same is true with people. Each person is trying to build a life: to live it and to accomplish something or seek something. And I’m claiming that MERELY by trying to live a life, one harms and poisons others. Christians call this original sin, but I don’t buy into any of the assumptions or peculiarities of this idea.

Instead, I think the truth is much less about how we’re made and instead is how we have to function, which is to try to achieve our goals. Again, I can’t emphasize this enough: it’s not that we are mean to others or necessarily selfish, we’re clearly not (self-sacrifice is startlingly common). The point is that even those who try to help others or who want the best for the people they meet can contribute to the anger or misfortune of others by being supercilious, inspiring jealousy, rivalry, suspicions of disingenuous, or resentment. And even those who work hard to avoid these consequence often have to a pay a horrible toll in terms of the monitoring they put themselves through and the powerful consequences of holding oneself to such high standards (depression could be just one of them).

By existing, one either harms others or oneself. There is no other way.

So that is why I think politeness or what is sometimes called “common decency” is the atomic bomb of social organization: by trying to respect people at the most basic level, the amount of energy for good can be enormous. To extend the analogy, one can try to influence government, churches, or companies, but in the end, these are just like trying to generate power with more oil or more explosive power with more TNT. The secret weapon is attention to the people one talks to — is there a way to involve that lonely person in the corner in the conversation? — in all forms. A smile, a nod of affirmation, or just a ‘how are you’ when it’s infused with the magical attitude that we only sometimes realize — respect — can all contribute immeasurably to the good of the world.

As is consistent in my writing though, to respect someone is also partially to appreciate that they are capable of doing one harm. This is what we speak of when we say that we respect an OPPONENT. Our opponent, whether he or she be a basketball player, a fencer, a rival company, or a candidate for another party, is capable of harming us, and to recognize this wild, dangerous side to all people is to truly admire them. Again, the point is not about violence, but about the fact that respect involves acknowledging the ability and right of others to cause collateral damage as they pursue their goals.

A fascinating example I think is that of pro choice people. Most people who are pro choice are liberal and therefore don’t think that skilled workers or entrepreneurs don’t have an unbridled right to the money they earn. To allow that would be to allow others to be destitute. But at the same time, many liberals turn around and argue that women should be given the right to do what they want with their bodies. And I agree to a point and of course the debate is nuanced, but notice what’s going on.

The link between capitalism and abortion is that they both involve when an individual is allowed to harm another for the sake of themselves. Economic liberals say that one is not allowed to do “whatever” one wants with one’s own money (taxes have to be paid), and those who favor some restrictions on abortion similarly are saying that one cannot do whatever one wants with one’s own body. But liberal and conservative cuts this debate very crudely. All throughout society, there are debates about when someone can and cannot harm someone (we think its perfectly fine for me to start a business that puts many people out of work, that’s my “right”), and nearly all people of all political persuasions think its ok for someone to harm someone in the pursuit of what they want, they just differ on what areas of life are open to the individual to do harm and which are not.

Again, back to the toxic pollution metaphor. I think it is impossible to live without harming others, and the question is: what was of harming others is compatible with respecting them? Competition gives us the answer. In sports, we harm others without losing our respect for them. So, yes, basically, I’m saying we should make our society like a big competition of sorts.

Social organization is best understood as finding ways that it is ok to harm people. Outlawing harm altogether is not only impossible but undesirable. Without harm there is no life, just as there are no goods without pollution. To focus on the SMALLEST moments of life nets the greatest rewards though. These are like atomic bombs of insight about what to do and what type of person to be.


a case that I think turns out to be easy

There is an issue in bioethics involving people like Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), who refuse blood transfusions. According to believers, accepting blood into their body is the same as cannibalism and so will lead them to be damned. Naturally, they want to avoid that outcome and so will not consent to life saving infusions of blood. However, the JW does not go to hell merely be having foreign blood in his body. The issue is not purity but rather volition. If someone else forces the blood into his body, he won’t go to hell as long as he fought as strongly as possible. One can’t help the deeds of others.

The issue from bioethics is: should we treat Jehovah’s witnesses against their will or must we respect their refusals?

Often, the cases that are offered when considering forced treatment involve (1) mistaken beliefs or (2) unorthodox ends. For example, a patient might not believe that their condition is bad. Here’s a case, a woman is told that her gangrenous leg must be amputated in order for to live. She agrees that her goal is to live, but denies that the condition of leg will kill her. She insists that in the past, vaseline has cured her problems and so refuses to lose her leg (this is a real case); she will not consent. She has a false belief about the situation, viz. that death is imminent without an operation. Can we force such a person to undergo treatment?

Another case. There may be situations where patients don’t doubt that they will die, but deny that a recommended treatment will be effective. This same woman might say “Ok, I know I will die without treatment, and I don’t want to die, but I don’t think cutting my leg off will help and I don’t want to lose my leg for nothing, so I refuse treatment.” Can the doctors go ahead anyway?

Finally, there are cases when people don’t have mistaken beliefs but have unorthodox ends. Take the suicidal man who wants to die. That is his goal. We may not like this goal, but what’s to say that it is a wrong goal to have? Another example is an anorexic whose goal is to be skinny. She (it could be a he, guys have eating disorders too) might even believe that this goal conflicts with her desire to live, but simply rate her goal to be skinny as more important. Is there a rationality to deciding the relative values of different goals? Is the goal of being skinny even rational at all?

A minority of people think that no one should ever be able to refuse treatment, but most think that at least some of these cases I listed above cause trouble, but what I want to note in this post is that the case of the Jehovah’s witness is actually easier than all of these hypotheticals. Let’s return to the JW (at least the paradigm JW): he doesn’t have any false beliefs. He knows he will die without a blood transfusion and believes that having one would save his life. He’s also not suicidal and wishes to live if possible. He just also believes that he must resist the blood transfusion with all his might as part of his moral code. Notice though that forcing a blood transfusion on him would not violate that moral commitment because the commitment only references his own state of mind and actions. He is not allowed to accept or condone blood transfusions, but again, as I mentioned above, if someone forces it on him, then his moral probity remains. His morality concerns his actions and not that of the doctors.

Here’s an analogous case. Pretend that I want to live, and need penicillin to do so. I believe that the latter is necessary for the former. However, I have a strange moral belief. I will only accept penicillin that is put into my body despite my best efforts at resistance; nothing else is legitimate. You’re my doctor. Do you force penicillin into me? Of course you do! In fact, I think you are required to. I have a moral belief that restricts what you can do to me in a very strange way, but it’s easily accommodated. Imagine someone who says that they want penicillin to live, but can only accept penicillin out of a red container. By god, you get a red container for the penicillin and then give it to the person. You can satisfy their ends by using means that are acceptable to them.

The reason the JW case appears to be tricky is that he restricts the acceptable means to helping him to treatments that violate his informed consent (he will only “accept” blood that is forced into him against his will). But we don’t have to be fooled into thinking that we violate his rights by treating him against his will because, quite simply, he wants to be treated against his will (though he can’t say that. To escape damnation, he would always have to say to the doctors that he does NOT want the transfusion. In fact, he would, knowing that doctors have to obtain informed consent, probably tell us all sorts of lies to get us to believe that he doesn’t want the transfusion, but we shouldn’t be taken in by this gambit). We have rules about informed consent because we believe encroaching on the lives of others is to be avoided as much as possible (we can put people in jail if they are harming others of course), but in this case, we are not encroaching, but rather respecting the moral code of the person by forcing him to undergo helpful treatment. Not giving him the blood transfusion causes him to die when he could have been saved without contravening his ends, his beliefs, or the restrictions he must place on treatment.

To put it another way, the JW believes that if new blood is put in his body, he will live, which he wants. The state of affairs known as foreign-blood-being-in-his-body is not only unobjectionable (remember tranfusions per se are not wrong, he just can’t accept any of them), but in fact desirable to him. He just has to try and prevent this state from ever being realized. Once the state obtains though, he has no problem. He doesn’t even have an objection to the doctor’s pinning him down and forcing him into the operation. Sure, he thinks such people are evil, but what’s his judgment to the doctors who don’t share his metaphysical commitments?

A final way to think about the case is this: imagine you come across someone unconscious. As far as you know, they don’t oppose blood transfusions and they aren’t suicidal etc. etc. Still, you can’t get consent from the person because they are unconscious. The natural reaction to the case is that you give them blood so they live, because based on what you know about the person and their interests, they would want to live. The JW case is no different. Pretend you find an unconscious JW witness. You know they want to live, and that they believe a blood transfusion will save them. You also know such a person vigorously resists transfusions and is required by their belief system to resist to the utmost. You say to the unconscious JW “I’m going to transfuse you, but against your will.” When the JW wakes up, what can they complain about? They will now live. Sure they have foreign blood in them, but it was forced on them, and so they are not damned. They are both alive and not-damned and not compromised in their belief system.


a strange case from bioethics

Here’s a case. You’re a doctor and you have to tell a patient about their options about treatment. However, since having hope is one thing that makes people survive potentially lethal diseases, the doctor has an interesting statistic to tell the patient:

If someone has hope, they have a 15% chance of survival, but without hope, they have only a 5% chance of survival.

However, the doctor knows that telling this statistic to the patient will make him lose hope. The reason is that at best, the patient will die with 85% certainty, which is depressing news. Sure, some patients might react to such a statistic by having hope, but this is psychologically difficult and so unlikely given the situation.

So, the doctor thinks, “if I tell the patient that they have a 50% chance of living and that hope will pull them through, they will be hopeful and so have a 15% of living rather than a 5% chance.”

But this is lying to the patient right? You have to give the patient informed consent about the treatment options they have, don’t you?

But in this case, I don’t think telling the patient false statistics is a lie. Think, a lie is something that is said with the intent to lead someone to a false conclusion. So, pretend I’m mistaken about the weather, and so tell you it’s raining when it’s not. You then believe that it’s raining, which is false, but I just made a mistake, I didn’t lie to you.

The same goes for the doctor. If he tells the patient the false statistics, then he is not intending to deceive them. Rather, its better to think of the lie as a treatment. The doctor has two treatments available to him: the truth treatment or the false treatment, and it just so happens that in this case, the false treatment is better for his patient. Isn’t he required, as a doctor who must look after his patient, to give the false statistics to the patient? If he does give the false statistic, he is not lying because his intent is not to give the patient a false belief, his intent is to get the patient to have a certain mental attitude toward recovery. Sure, a false belief in the patient is a side-effect of telling the false statistics, but it is not the doctor’s intention.

But then, you might say, nothing is a lie because don’t all likes aim at getting the person being lied to either do or not do something on the basis of the lie. No one lies, just so the person has a false belief. Well fine then, maybe the doctor does lie: he needs to get the patient to have a false belief so that the patient does something in his own interest. Still though, the lie should be thought of as a treatment, and on what grounds can the doctor forgo the best treatment to the patient? Doctor’s shouldn’t lie, but they shouldn’t pick suboptimal treatments either.

Still, there is the issue of the original treatment. Can the doctor administer chemo or whatever if he can’t truthfully tell the patient its risks/rewards? Again, I think this is just a treatment issue masquerading as a truth telling issue. Why is the doctor required, under the truth telling doctrine, to reduce the effectiveness of what he thinks is the best course of treatment (lie + whatever procedure the lie is supposed to be about)? He has an obligation to do what’s best for the patient.



What is achievement, and why does it have any value for us as humans? This is a question that I think has a long and interesting answer. I think an achievement has something to do with performing an action that others cannot or will not perform in a way that demonstrates specifically human capacities. But it’s  more complicated than that. Some things are achievements in relative terms. When a paraplegic completes a 5 mile race in a wheelchair, that’s an accomplishment. Hell, that’s an accomplishment for a person with two working legs, but the point is that achievement is relative to what one can physically accomplish. Other types of achievements are specific to a certain set of rules. A three point shot at the buzzer to win the championship is only an accomplishment if one takes the shot, in bounds, during the specified time limit, etc. etc. Climbing Everest only counts as an achievement if one does it without the aid of a helicopter, without too many sherpas, etc. etc.

I think morality functions this way for our lives in general. A life well lived is an accomplishment, and part of what makes a life a triumph or a victory is that it was lived in accordance with certain rules. Someone who doesn’t take into account the needs of others or who lies, cheats, etc. invalidates the achievement that is the person’s life, just as the person who sinks a three pointer at the buzzer but pushes his defender out of the way without the refs seeing. Though the shot might fall, it is no achievement, because it was not done in accordance with the rules that govern that achievement. Steroid use is another example.


ethics of transgression

Sometimes we think that moral rules change depending on how other people are responding to them. There may be a set of rules A that applies when most people are obeying them, but another set that applies when people are mostly disregarding these rules. The idea is that if I live in a society of callous sadists, I may have different responsibilities then if I lived in a society full of normal, reasonably moral people.

But there are cases when my action is what will make the difference to whether which of the two rules will apply. Pretend that you and I are the only people in a society. Pretend that the A set of rules is “make others better off” where the B set is much more relaxed and just says “don’t harm others.” Well if the A rules are in effect, then by not helping you when I could have, I’ve done something wrong. However, imagine that I decide not to help you, does my not helping, ie not complying, make it the case that the only the B rules are in effect. By doing something that is wrong under one set of rules, it seems that I’ve moved things over to the more relaxed set of rules, set B, within which my action is not wrong.

Not sure what to make of this other than to say that such situations are more common than we think. Think of Hobbes and the state of nature. We have no moral responsibilities until we make a covenant to leave the state of nature and set up a government. But what if I break the covenant? It’s wrong to break the covenant when I break it, but after the covenant is broken, I’ve returned myself to the state of nature where nothing is wrong. Is it wrong to break the covenant?