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February 17, 2004

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» Metaethics Roundup from Matthew Yglesias
John Holbo has a big, interesting discussion of the "dirty hands" phenomenon in ethics. I think, though, that he's overly dismissive of the possibility of giving a purely pyschological explanation of dirty hands thinking. I also think that he, like... [Read More]

» John Holbo makes me feel dirty from Unfogged
...but I like it. The argument of his post on dirty hands seems to go like this:... [Read More]

» I Do Believe in Miasma, I Do, I Do! from Blogosophy
OK, possibly to find the headline funny you have to have seen Peter Pan as recently as I have. Do you believe in miasma? Excellent post by John Holbo about the apparent contradiction in holding both utilitarian or deontological ethical... [Read More]

Comments

Chun the Unavoidable

The etymology of this word may tell us something about the literary Greek classes.

Cosma

Couldn't the dirty hands phenomenon arise, under some kind of emotivist or moral sense theory, if our feelings of moral approval and disapproval are not strictly contrary, just as, e.g., pain and pleasure are in fact supported by separate neural systems? So one part of us (let's say the amygdala, just to be really reductionist) thinks of the blood and filth and retches; while another (say the hippocampus) says "I like where this leads", and the rest of us has to decide between them; not a happy condition. I'm going to stop now, before I manage to make masochism a consequence of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem.

Jacob T. Levy

Very impressive wheel re-invention indeed! You've reproduced a lot of what goes on in the Williams & Berlin-influenced literature on these questions, and in Williams' own writing on it. Value pluralism and at-least-partial incommensurability are important parts of making sense of dirty hands as a moral phenomenon.

cf "Politics as a Vocation," which as I recall neither Berlin nor Walzer cites...

tristero

"nothing ever goes away or gets subtracted or divided through by anything else. Everything sticks and stays and just piles up over time. (At most, it fades a bit with repeated washing.) There is no double-entry bookkeeping in the ledger of your soul."

Yup.

And what this implies is that maybe it's time to build ethics anew sans Plato.

Zizka

I read this historically, as marking the boundary between ethics, and politics in the most ambitious sense of the word -- founding or revolutionizing states and empires, or solving political disputes between states militarily. So within an order there is ethics, but on its border or outside the order there is no ethics. (Of course, the state is not the only order; states live within a tenuous international order). This puts me with Macchiavelli.

If you look at the founders of states and empires, they're almost all murderers, often of their own kin. Often treacherous ones. If the starting point is disorder, then they begin as immoral and then, immorally create an order within which there is a morality. This sounds like a paradox -- moral orders are created by immoral men -- but really it's a functional prerequisite of founding a moral order in an immoral world. In the same way the man who drains the swamp would first be a swampdweller, etc.

Revolutionaries, usurpers, etc., are ambivalent because they start within a moral order and then immorally transform it into a different moral order. If they fail they are simply immoral failures and become villains and objects of eternal hatred. If they succeed there's always the question of whether the new order is better or worse than the old.

The utilitarian justification of dirty hands is not illegitimate, BUT people using it alwayshave an excessive assurance that the results will be good, and I think its fair to surmise that in most cases they are hiding or unaware of their darker motives -- simple cruelty, arrogance, ambition, pride, need for excitement, etc.

But even in non-foundational situations, the command level of politics has a necessary cruelty to it -- commanding the police and the army leads to dirty hands even within a stable legitimate state. American history since about 1948 can be read as a series of rather unsuccessful attempts by civilian politicians to control the military.

So I agree with Macchiavelli that immorality is functionally necessary in politics. I don't agree with him in his enormous admiration for great evil leaders, or what I think is his belief that foundational politics is really great and wonderful and we should have a lot of it. The fewer founders the better, in my opinion. (I did feel differently in 1968 or so).

My reading is that Aeschylus' trilogy represents the transation from one kind of society (ruled by clan feud) to another (the Republic).

And in this reading, Macbeth's problem wasn't that he was evil, but a.) that he lost his nerve and b.) he was defeated. His wife's problem wasn't that she was evil or that she lost her nerve but that as a woman she had to rely on Macbeth, who was weak.

When you look at Oedipus, the politics gets stranger yet. The curse in Oedipus is because the murderer and the avenger were the same person; avengable murders did not bring curses, but human vengeance. But the same kind of crime (parricide or fratricide) stands at the foundation of many or even most states. The ruler establishes his uniqueness by killing the competitions AND defying the curse of the Gods. (Plutarch mentioned this of Romulus and Theseus, the founders of Rome and Athens).

Wince and Nod

Miasma is a function of memory. An equation such as 4 - 3 is reducible to 1. Memory is irreducible. If I save four at the expense of three I have failed thrice even if through no fault of my own. I will always remember this.

Yours,
Wince

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