Matthew Yglesias doesn’t approve of Christian libertarian virtue ethics.
I heard one guy briefly discuss his "Christian libertarian" outlook in response to Amy Sullivan's Christian liberalism. Basically, he said, all this stuff liberals (and particularly religious liberals) say about the moral imperative to aid the poor, etc. is all quite true. That's why he thinks he has a duty to live his life virtuously by giving time, money, etc. to helping others. When he does this, he does a good deed personally, and provides help to a second person. If, however, he were to try and force me to give my money to help someone else, that would not be a virtuous act on his part or on mine. Christian compassion is all well and good, but using the state as a surrogate Robin Hood is not.
Matt finds this “roughly the reverse of correct”:
Cultivating personal virtue, whether in myself or in others, is irrelevant. The key is to help those in need by hook or by crook and, indeed, in the ideal set-up everyone would just act selfishly and the mechanisms of the state would ensure that our selfish behavior winds up serving the general interest.
This causes my brain to think a thought related to my old paper on moral dilemmas, which I happened to link two nights ago, so it's been on my mind. Let’s approach by vaulting from the pole of ethical heroism to its antipode, naughtiness. This will be a wonky, philosophy-type post, such as I usually do not write. Click ‘continue reading’ at own peril.
The Greeks have a word for it: miasma! Ethical cooties. The sticky goo of immorality that gets on you when you’ve done something bad – like, say, murdered someone. (Cf. “Euthyphro” and, if in the mood for murk, Aeschylus, The Oresteia.) You need heavy-duty theological cleansers to get stubborn miasma stains out! (It’s at least mildly contagious as well.)
We moderns know one highly specific form of this awkward, unhygienic condition as the ‘problem of dirty hands’. It’s related to the puzzler posed for political and moral theory by Machiavelli, when he instructs the Prince to learn ‘not to be good’. It takes its name from the Sartre play, Dirty Hands, in which a character named Hoerderer – a communist leader – exclaims: “I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?” (Hoerderer is trying to be moral whereas the Prince may not be. Depends how you read Machiavelli.)
Michael Walzer has an old paper, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”, from which I cribbed the Sartre quote. I don’t really know the literature, mind you, so I’m probably about to reinvent the wheel – and it’ll probably be a handsome square design by the time I'm done. That’s why God invented blogging, I assume.
The ‘dirty hands’ problem isn’t the Macbeth problem. It isn’t the problem of what to do when you’ve already done something bad and can’t undo it (let alone “trammel up the consequence, and catch, with the poor bastard’s surcease, success.”) It’s the problem of what to do when, in order to ‘do the right thing’, you have to ‘do the wrong thing’. Torture the prisoner to learn the location of the bomb. Allow a thoroughly unsavory political group to be part of your governing coalition because otherwise you can’t retain power.
Expand list at leisure. It seems intuitive, in a general way, what we are on about here. Socrates cracks wise in “Apology” about how you can’t be a good man and live, in Athenian politics. Whitehead has a good footnote to that crack somewhere – something about degree of civilization being a function of the length of time that you can behave decently without being killed. We get the joke, so – on the assumption that we are not wholly unworldly but indeed quite averse to being killed - we apprehend the reality of the problem of dirty hands.
Most philosophical discussions of the problem – or so my limited literature search would seem to indicate – are practical in focus. They don’t spiral off into the metaethical ether, never to be heard from again. So let’s spiral off into the metaethical ether. I think what we will see is that it’s a little unclear how it is possible to account for the possibility of the phenomenon of ‘dirty hands’. Given its apparent actuality, this is awkward.
On the one hand, take your basic, off-the-shelf consequentialist point of view – utilitarianism of some stripe or flavor. It’s hard to see that a utilitarian can believe in dirty hands. Or rather, there is a crucial ambiguity here that is well brought out by the Sartre quote. It is quite easy – possibly too easy – for a utilitarian to convince himself that it might be his business to be hip-deep in blood, in the unhappy event that the only alternative is to be neck-deep in blood. But it does not seem that the utilitarian should really grant that it follows that it is impossible to govern ‘innocently’. Because, after all, if utilitarianism is true, then the ruler who kills people only because more would end up dead the other way is not guilty. Probably the ruler feels bad, but that’s not the same as actually being guilty.
I think some existentialists – Camus, was it? Maybe Merleau-Ponty? – tried to spin it that somehow the anxiety suffered in the Hoerderer-type case is really a function of utilitarianism plus big-ticket decisions under uncertainty. The agent who gambles that killing a hundred thousand will bring about a worker’s paradise is just like any high-stakes gambler: nervous as hell and sick to his stomach and breathing on the dice. (‘Come on, come on – papa needs a brand new post facto justification for mass murder!’) I find this psychologically and morally implausible. I could spell this out at great length, with awe-inspiring precision and Kierkegaard quotes. Anyway, it isn’t quite ‘dirty hands’. (Either you are bad or you are good –spin the wheel - which isn’t the same as being both bad and good, and slightly more the latter than the former.)
A utilitarian seeking to save his intuitions about ‘dirty hands’ being possible might suggest, alternatively, that ‘innocent’ – as in: ‘impossible to rule innocently’ - is shorthand for conventional moral notions of innocence. It is certainly not possible to govern well by following conventional moral notions, the utilitarian may think. To which the decisive response runs: these conventional notions are wrong, according to utilitarianism. There isn’t any sense in which, for the utilitarian, it is actually true that I am guilty if I am pursuing the absolutely correct, utilitarian course of action. And that correct course of action may be bloody.
You see where this is going, and I think it can get there: there is no such thing as ‘dirty hands’, according to utilitarianism. There’s doing the right thing, i.e. maximizing the good, and not doing the right thing, i.e. not maximizing the good. There isn’t any weird doing-the-right-thing-by-doing-the-wrong-thing thing. How could there be?
Over to Kant; or, more generally: deontological-type theories of all shapes and sizes. Instead of maximizing the good, we do our duty – or, most likely, duties. Now, either these duties never conflict – oh, happy world! In which case, no dirty hands. Or: sometimes absolutely categorical duties clash. Genuine moral dilemmas arise. But this isn’t quite going to be a dirty hands case, because in a dirty hands case there is a right answer – namely, torture the prisoner to find the bomb. (If that isn’t the right answer, it’s not a dirty hands case. It’s you screwing up and torturing someone you shouldn’t have tortured. Or else it’s you facing a genuine moral dilemma in which there just plain is no right answer to the question of what you should do.)
On the most plausible deontological view, I should think, there is a hierarchy of duties, some of which trump others. If you sacrifice a lower duty for the sake of a higher, you are doing the right thing. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is OK. It also doesn’t dirty your hands, so far as I can see. How could it be that, by correctly sacrificing a lower duty for the sake of a higher one, you get your hands dirty? You are doing the right thing.
You see what’s going on, I take it. There’s something screwy about the idea that you absolutely should do something that, at the same time, you absolutely shouldn’t do. (And somehow the former absolute is slightly more absolute than the latter. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object. And the object moves.) Utilitarianism and deontological theories get this seeming contradiction stuck in their respective craws. But if you can’t believe in this seeming contradiction you can’t believe in the reality of miasma – a.k.a. ‘dirty hands’.
But don’t we at least think that Machiavelli’s proposition is intelligible? (I mean: we may disagree with it, but he isn’t just saying ‘the Prince must learn that (P & -P).)
How have we gotten into this tangle (so that we can start backing out)? Well: either you conceive of the ethical life as a game whose goal is maximization of your personal virtue; or you conceive of personal virtue as irrelevant to the main equation; the independent end of the good/right thing getting done is the thing.
In fact, I think we all habitually think about ethics both ways. We think we should give money to the poor because it would be good or right for the poor to get it. We are also substantially motivated by the thought that good, righteous people give money to the poor. We want to be good, righteous people, so we give money to the poor as a means to that end. I do not think either attitude is fully intelligible in isolation from the other. I do not think either attitude can even be understood as prior to the other, in any explanatory way. (But that’s a story for another day.) And both attitudes together can generate the seeming contradiction we are seeing: the problem of dirty hands. (That will be the story for today.)
How so? At the risk of all this appearing preposterously oversimple, let me say something preposterously oversimple.
Let’s just talk about obligations – like I said, for simplicity’s sake. And I’ll forego fancy formalism, deontic logic, yadda yadda.
Consider a hypothetical set of obligations (where A, B & C are circumstances, and X, Y & Z are acts):
A -> X
B -> Y
C -> Z
Possible duties of this form: if you see a hungry child, feed it. If you see a misbehaving child, scold it. If you see a bored child, amuse it. (Yes, this is crude and inadequate. Don’t worry about it.)
Here’s what you do in case of trouble.
X trumps Y
Y trumps Z
(Y & Z) trumps X
So if A & B obtain, and you can’t do both X & Y, do X. Likewise, if B & C obtain, and you can’t do both Y & Z, do Y. The third clause is supposed to say: if A, B & C obtain, you should not sacrifice both Y & Z to X. (I’m not going to worry about all these dummy details. I’m just trying to indicate, in a generic sort of way, that ethical life can be complex. Yes, yes, a rich tapestry of factors, as the lady said.)
We could understand the above framework in utilitarian terms or in deontological terms. (You fill in the details.) But we could also motivate the same results, i.e. the same imperatives in the same circumstances, along alternative lines.
The statements below explain what situations and actions result in the awarding of moral merit and demerit points. These statements express truths about how you get and lose personal virtue. (It’s just a game – life - you see: the one who dies with the most points wins!) These truths about how you get merit and suffer demerit prudentially entail the obligations and trumps enumerated above. (Think about it.)
If A & X -> +4
If B & Y -> +3
If C & Z -> +2
If A & -X -> -4
If B & -Y -> -3
If C & -Z -> -2
So, for example, if none of A, B or C obtain, your score is 0. You are automatically morally undistinguished. If A, B & C obtain and you perform all of X, Y & Z, you rack up a princely score of 9. You are a hero! Alternatively, if you fail on all three counts, you suffer a princely –9. You are a bad man! Intermediate scores are possible, hence the thrill of being alive and striving to be good!
Now if you are Matthew Yglesias you will assert that the obligation statements are of primary status and significance. All these truths about how to rack up personal virtue points are, at best, just a highly roundabout way of arriving at, say, the truth of utilitarianism. All the pluses and minuses had better just be statements about the utils or hedons generated by the actions in question. (And you can give everyone a gold star for every hedon generated, fine fine. If gold stars motivated people in grade school, they will probably do for life in general. There can be a big chart on the wall. And when we die, we get to see it.)
So, anyhow, how do we get a contradiction? (So far all we have are two rather different ways of conceiving of reasons for acting.) Well, one way would be to rig the numbers. Suppose we flatten the pay scale by awarding +1 moral merit point for every good deed done, -1 for every failure. This would push the schemes apart. From a personal virtue point of view there would now be no reason to let X trump Y, or Y trump Z, as stipulated. More severe conflicts could be produced by rigging the numbers so that fulfilling all one’s obligations, as per instructions, produced fewer points than you would get by not fulfilling them.
In fact, there are already relevant differences even without any rigging: namely, the agent who yearns to rack up moral merit will be anxious about A, B & C in ways that the abstract duty-doer will not. These virtue-grubbers have reasons for bringing about A, B & C. Think about it: it’s like that issue of “The Tick” in which the superheroes are hiring bad guys – e.g. The Red Menace! - to menace the city so that they can have someone to get credit for fighting. Come to think of it, this is what bugs Matt about his Christian Libertarian friend. “Oh goody, a poor person! Now I will be good!”
Neither a Kantian or a Utilitarian would ever think, ‘Oh goody, a poor person.’ They would find other weird stuff to think - if they were consistent. But seekers after personal virtue are rationally committed to wanting to be needed to perform virtuous acts. A Kantian or utilitarian would be just as happy sipping lemonade, if the whole wretched world would just take adequate care of itself for an afternoon. (Isn’t that right?)
But now: does it make sense to suppose that a set of obligations (and trumps) could entail inconsistencies relative to some attendant scheme for distributing moral merit and demerit? Could one game be won without the other being won? Is this really conceivable?
I dunno. I’m not sure it’s inconceivable.
You can want the team to win the game AND you can want to be voted Most Valuable Player. This might produce conflict if it leads you to showboat. Might something of the sort happen regarding ethics? You can want the world to be a place in which all good and right is realized. And you can want to be the one to do it. Of course, showboating in order to be declared MVP – Most Virtuous Person – might itself be unvirtuous, so it’s a fine line. But showboating and sacrificing your team’s chances in sports is just the same. You are likely to offend the judges with your selfish antics. (Probably best to pray for moral luck: it just HAS to be you, doing ALL the good stuff. And, as the Underground Man adds, Lake Como can be moved to Rome for the occasion. Cf. Notes From Underground.)
Well, let’s set that possibility aside as puzzling. I think a more likely source of conflict might be schematized as follows. Here’s how you get moral merit and demerit, it turns out:
If A & X -> @@@@
If B & Y -> @@@
If C & Z -> @@
If A & -X -> ####
If B & -Y -> ###
If C & -Z -> ##
If A & X -> @
If B & Y -> *
If C & Z -> %
If A & -X -> #
If B & -Y -> $
If C & -Z -> !
What the @#$#!&@ is all this @*^#$%% supposed to mean? you may reasonably inquire.
Well, @ is a good thing to have on your soul, and # is bad. Likewise, * and % are good to have on your soul; and $ and ! are bad.
In my crude way – seldom imitated, never duplicated – I am attempting to indicate that virtue merit and demerit points are likely to have a certain obdurate resistance to easy applications of mathematical-style commensuration and additivity. To wit, you don’t just substract sins from good deeds to get the bottom-line: how virtuous? In the realm of moral merit and demerit, everything is what it is and not another thing with a vengeance.
To explain: when you are calculating the rightness and wrongness of deeds, if you are deontologically-inclined – or the goodness and badness of the results of deeds, if you are utilitarian – you have to be able to cancel stuff cleanly, and subtract cleanly. If duty X trumps duty Y, and if X and Y are in fact mutually unsatisfiable – bye, bye Y. It’s gone. You can steal the bread, because you are feeding your starving family. If you can save four people by killing three, that’s equal to saving one person, because 4 – 3 = 1 (yes, yes, this is crude; but never mind. This is how utilitarian thinking works, broadly. And deontologists, likewise, have to be able to cancel overruled duties, otherwise the software is going to crash – it will all be dilemmas.)
But in the realm of moral merit and demerit, 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. Killing three people to save four is not equivalent to just plain saving one. And if you kill two people to save two people the latter deed does not simply erase the first, neatly restoring your soul to the pristine mint condition it enjoyed before things took an exciting hairpin turn through better and worse. A person who has killed two people to save two people is a person who has killed two people to save two people. People who do this sort of thing on a regular basis – killing people to save people, say – end up complicated. Ditto for the sorts of crimes that we regard as reparable – property crimes as opposed to crimes against life and limb. If I steal a million dollars, spend it, then manage to earn it all back with interest, and pay it back, I am not therefore indistinguishable in point of moral virtue from someone who has never stolen a cent. I am not clearly better or worse. I am certainly quite a different sort of character, though.
This isn’t to say that we don’t regard good and bad deed as balancing each other out, when we judge a life. It’s just to say that we don’t regard good and bad deeds as canceling each other out – erasing each other - making it as though each other never happened, like subtracted numbers.
So the short answer to the question of what makes it possible to have ‘dirty hands’ is that we all think in terms of two schemes: we want our team – Good and/or right! Fight, Fight Fight! – to win. We also want to be voted MVP. There is no obvious reason why these cannot conflict, in the weak sense that an obvious right result – a clear win for the team – might entail some virtuous mess. In the process of doing your duty – or maximizing the good – you may find you are dragged through the slime of moral demerit that doesn’t come out in the moral mathematical wash. Presumably you will also be covered with the glossy slime of moral élan, or whatever the good stuff is, which is soulfast as well. Anyway, you will be a @#$$#%$# mess of good and bad on judgment day. Even if, from a different perspective, the bookkeeping of your moral life is really quite neat and simple. Good – bad = degree of correctness.
And this lesson has been covertly taught by the ancient writers, who relate how Achilles and many others of these old Princes were given over to be brought up and trained by Chiron the Centaur; since the only meaning of their having for instructor one who was half man and half beast is, that it is necessary for a Prince to know how to use both natures, and that the one without the other has no stability.
The other meaning might be: you’ll look like teacher when you have really learned your @#$#*&@ing lesson. Won’t you be an interesting monster?
This discussion has been preposterous! All this nonsense about moral merit points – gold stars for the soul! As if!
Yes, I quite agree. I am sorry to have offended with my egregious scholastic noodling.
Do you believe in miasma? If not, what do you believe in when you believe it is possible for folks to have ‘dirty hands’, ethically speaking? I suppose it’s like asking whether you believe in the number three when you do mathematics. That is, it’s a silly question. Ah, well. Still, I think this highly artificial, somewhat distastefully fanciful thought-experiment has gotten hold of something psychologically real.
I do think belief in ‘dirty hands’ is a result of dissonance between judgments of the rightness of acts and judgments about cleanliness of souls. The source of the dissonance is the ability to cancel and erase in one case, not the other. Do you think we think this way?