Friday, January 28, 2011

deus ex machina

Consider a war in which a country goes to war based on good reasons. They have justification for their invasion and attack. But as it turns out, their war was unjust because the information they had which they based their justification on was false. This is called subjective justification. Sometimes people may believe they are justified subjectively when they are not. Consider the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Joseph Lieberman who voted for the invasion has said that he would vote again because the information available to them at the time suggested that the invasion was justified. Thus he was appealing to subjective justification to avoid culpability. Objectively there were no WMD and links to al Qaeda but he claimed that at the time, there was subjective justification. But this is not subjective justification because there was no subjective justification (no solid evidence) even at that time to justify war.

Now imagine that a country does have subjective justification. All the best sources tell them a foreign country is a danger to their existential existence and that they must resort military attack to defend themselves. They try to avoid war as much as possible and try to obtain the best most accurate information but the information still suggests that they are under grave threat. But it later turned out that they were wrong despite their best efforts.

Now are they responsible for the damages and lives lost during the war? My intuition is that they are not blameworthy for the war since they had subjective justification but that they may be responsible for the damages and lost lives. Blameworthiness and responsibility are not the same things though they usually suggests that one implies the other. Take for example a small child who breaks a window by accident. The parents are not blameworthy for the breaking of the window but they certainly are responsible for it. In the example I used, the warring nation may be responsible to try and restore the other country as much as possible to before by offering aid and restitution, etc, but they are not to blame for their actions.

Now consider our own legal institutions. They are ideally designed so that there is maximal epistemic reliability so that the guilty are made to be punished and the innocent set free. However, sometimes, the innocent are punished. No real state even "maximally" insures epistemic accuracy meaning they try their best and have the best institutions in place to insure it, never mind guarantees it. No state will ever guarantee it because it is not possible but some may eventually maximally insure it. Now is the state responsible to the people unfortunately but inevitably "falls through the cracks" despite their best efforts in the same way?

Some US states allows people who have proven that they were sentenced to do time when they had been innocent all along to sue to state and gain compensation for their loss despite the fact that the legal process in which resulted in their incarceration went wholly accordance to the law (no malfeasance and no corruption e.g. on behalf of the justice system). Sometimes the technology wasn't available at the time they were falsely convicted to exonerate them (DNA tech e.g.).

Let's say that this happened to some individual and he is found guilty in a court even when he is really innocent. Let's also say that by some miracle or some force capable of producing miracle's to force the state to the state into restitution. We will call this force "deus ex machina." This force would thereby not violate any of the state's rights. But the state may have subjectively justifiable reasons to seek to defend itself against such forced restitution, perhaps even using deadly force in return if they are not made aware of their error. So it would seem that in this case, there is a kind of irredeemably unhappy situation for all where justice may, in some form or other, lay at the feet of all sides even when they are against each other.

Other ways morality limits itself

In the previous post I noted that in some sense morality limits itself. Living a virtuous life may come at considerable cost to oneself and one's duty to be fair to oneself may have to be taken into consideration and this consideration is a moral consideration itself. There may be other reasons to see certain moral ideals as being limited by morality. Consider the moral ideal some people may have of being completely selfless. Some people may value this and there may even have been a few people in history that were. All of their interests and time and effort were taken to relieve the suffering of other people or to increase their happiness. But I think that this kind of life has something against it. It is not universalizable under the categorical imperative for one.

Consider a "society" of two such completely selfless individuals, A and B. A's interests all lay in furthering B's interests and vice versa. But what are all of B's interests? Well, they are A's interests and so on. This would be a kind of infinite regress of the worst kind. This reasoning would work for a society of any size greater than two as well. So we seem to need some selfish interest that further our end in itself under such a scheme.

Be good but not too good

Many wise people like Kant have known that the good tend to suffer far more than their fair share in life. It often costs considerably in terms of suffering to live a just life in an unjust world. People have gone to prison, suffered social costs, lost all their positions, been tortured, and even lost their lives to further a just cause.

This claim that the good tend to suffer far more than is their fair share is not just a cliche but has some odd moral implications. There seems to be some limits to how far we ought to live a virtuous life if that life will harm us. If as many philosophers have thought, we have a moral duty to ourselves to be good to ourselves there may be limits to how moral we ought to be from morality itself. This would be one way morality limits itself. Many philosophers have given such an argument against suicide. We have duty to ourselves to not only be good to ourselves, to treat ourselves fairly but to maintain our lives. If some people are living lives at terrible costs to themselves because they are trying to be the best people they can be in the face of evil, do they have a moral obligation to not live a life that is so harmful? In other words, how much does their moral obligation towards themselves to be fair factor into consideration when deciding what kind of life they should live? Should they be martyrs? That seems to be asking too much if we are to take their obligations to their own lives seriously. Their obligation to their just cause may have to be balanced against their obligation to themselves.

But how do we respond to those who would use this as an argument that we ought to live a virtuous life that would not cost anymore than it is expected of the average person (or no less). If anymore, it would be "unfair" to us. If less than it would be a life that is in some way a life of "moral freeloading." How are we to become better people if we only ought to seek moral mediocrity?

My suggestion against this is that we ought to change our fundamental value structure so that we derive happiness and pleasure from being virtuous itself and displeasure at not being virtuous as much as possible for us individually. In this way, we change, and the pleasure we derive from doing good for its own sake is balanced out by the negative consequences of being virtuous in a unjust world. The burden on our shoulders is lightened by the mere fact of us reorienting our fundamental values so that the costs are balanced by some benefit to ourselves. Many people when they take up a cause reorient their values so that they come to derive pleasure from contributing to a just cause automatically. But often this does not work as many people, I think, do not further just causes as much as they know they should because they are afraid of the social costs. But if they work on consciously valuing certain ethical values in themselves more than they do, they would change their fundamental outlook. Society can further this as Kant suggests by creating and endorsing certain kinds of moral parables that show and celebrate people who have lived virtuous lives all to no benefit to themselves but at considerable costs (they were not rewarded or even recognized for their actions either in their life times or in the after life and suffered greatly). Too often will tell children lies that being good will be rewarded with some benefit when that is often the opposite of the truth. Instead, they should learn to value doing good for itself.

However, no matter how much we try, I believe there are limits to the "wiggle room" in how much we can change our value structure. We are, for the most parts (except for those rare people capable of being happy martyrs), simply constrained by our nature to not go behind certain limits and be too selfless coming at a cost to ourselves. To each his own, but I have no doubt that most people are capable of far more reevaluation of their fundamental values than is the case.