« Do you believe in miasma? | Main | Tuna and Sun-Dried Tomato Sauce »

February 18, 2004


Rich Puchalsky

I think that the problem with your dirty-hands analysis was that it doesn't really reference how modern societies make moral judgements with a rights-based approach. A rights-based approach is neither based on utilitarian concerns nor on the quest for individual moral brownie points. It instead says that, since both the facts supporting any human decision and the consequences of the decision are to some extent unknown, there are certain things that we're just going to decide not to do under any circumstances.

"Dirty hands" often come about when someone infringes upon one of these rights decisions. Sometimes they do this because of a claimed utilitarian concern, or because they have some individual competing rights decision or moral scheme that hasn't been approved of by society as a whole, but these are often a weak justification covering a drive for personal power.

So the guilt at "dirty hands" isn't really surprising. Unlike in theoretical morality problems, in real life the people who torture suspected terrorists to find out where they've hidden the bomb have no positive assurance that the "terrorist" is guilty or that the bomb will go off, know that their society forbids torture (if it didn't, they'd presumably have fewer moral qualms), and at some level probably know that they're jumping at the chance because they are people who like to torture.

Russell Arben Fox

Not a bad comment Rich. Unforuntately, what you say about a "rights-based" approach to moral judgments being a function of our ignorance of various realities or potentialities is just as subject to John's desperately suppressed nihilism as any of the other schemes he worked through at length yesterday. For example: why, meta-ethically, should ignorance serve as a constraint? There is clearly an intuition which says it should (indeed, to a great extent Hayek's whole worldview, which I suspect is lurking somewhere behind your comment, is built upon an articulation of such intuitions). But can you make philosophical sense of that intuition? Not a very easy chore.

John, just so you know: I played Dungeons & Dragons for years, and also went to church. So those activities aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. A brilliant couple of posts, yesterday's and this one, by the way. Stick with your intuitions, and who cares if someone else calls your attempt to make sense of them "folksy and quaint"? So long as your (I think unfortunate, but certainly understandable) incredulity at theological or ontological arguments about the grounds of ethics persists, they're all you've got.

Rich Puchalsky

Russell, I think that the reasoning that I've outlined is basically nihilistic, in that it denies the existence of definitive knowledge or values. Rights are a social agreement not to do certain things to each other, and are motivated by our desire not to have them mistakenly done to us. I don't think it takes too much philosophical theory to claim that people generally don't like to be tortured.


Europe! You're smack in the middle of the board and must defend 4 borders -- it never works! Why not just buy the Electric Company and be done?

Timothy Burke

I don't often do this, preferring instead to pontificate in other people's comments sections, but...

holy shit, the last two posts here have been amazing reads. Waiter! Give me some of what that guy is drinking.

Andrew T

Aaah! Please, ix-nay on the adagascar-May ategy-stray. It only works when everyone doesn’t know!

Seriously, this was a very interesting essay. The questions you raise seem (to my horribly unsophisticated engineer’s mind) pretty fundamental to the whole problem of how to live well, and I respect your honesty in confronting them.

I rarely post comments on anything I read online, but as I was reading this a parallel occurred to me that was just screaming to be written down. The first half of your post reminded me of the last Risk game I played with my brothers (Thanksgiving, I think that was…). The second half reminded me of a couple chapters from one of the better books by one of the better authors I’ve read. (Flinching before inevitable explosion of scorn.) Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. If you’re more than academically interested in the question, may I be obnoxious enough to recommend it? If nothing else, he’s articulate and has a sense of humor…

Belle Waring

Timothy: it's Tiger beer, brewed right here in Singapore. But since beer is usually the sworn enemy of philosophical reflection, I'm not sure it explains much. My husband really cracks me up when he says things like "Papa needs a brand new ex post facto justification for mass murder" (from yesterday's post.) He actually says this kind of thing all the time. Um, I mean, very humorous things, not things which are both alarming and (possibly) amoral.


baa is absolutely right. The Europe strategy is a loser. But we play the cards we are dealt, alas.

Jacob T. Levy

But the really important question is: given the geographic dispersal, what's the best way to arrange a D&D gaming day for you, Russell, and me?

Dan S

Nihilism has conceptual problems? Not denying it, I've just never thought of any. I gave up on moral philosophy because it seemed like all roads led to nihilism, so there was no point in taking it farther. Maybe metaethics deserves another look.

And I've never played Risk, but I don't see the point when you can play Diplomacy instead. Dice? I guess that's alright for some people.

Russell Arben Fox

Excellent idea Jacob. I haven't played in years (I recently spent a mournful hour or so at a bookstore looking over all the latest D&D releases; the folks behind the game have really gotten their acts together since the 1990s), so I'm up for anything. But who gets to be DM?

Oh, and Andrew: great recommendation. Unfortunately, you're probably correct in thinking that most folks who have really dug--"academically," that is--into meta-ethical issues will probably be disinclined to read Christian apologetics for answers. But you never know.

Belle Waring

I call being DM. You guys can battle it out.


Dostoevski: "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted."

John: yup.

Plato (?): "The unexamined life is not worth living."

John: The examined life turns out not to be worth living.

Timothy Burke

Ah, D&D. I have a whole world moldering in a storage chest which I occasionally mordantly examine, tracing the contours of monster-infested forests colored in pale green on very large sheets of hexagon paper.

I'm also very big on ethical intuition, as an intuition. The problem is exactly as you've outlined, though: if we have it, we have it either because it is a cognitive side-effect of mental modules designed to try and figure out what the other monkey is going to do next by empathetically modeling his consciousness or because some force or being outside of us meant for us to have it or because there is some root principle of utility that makes it an optimal thing to have. None of which explains the miasma thing that my ethical intutition suggests is a very powerful thing indeed.

I do wonder if one reason for that has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with narrative. I recognize the miasma idea as powerful largely in dramatic terms, because it makes for a good story, not necessarily because I regularly am tormented by the dirty-hands problem in my everyday experience. So maybe the miasma problem is not actually an experiential problem, something we really deal with in our actual experience of ethics, but a narrativized way that we explore the possibility space of ethics. Kind of like the Volokhs asking whether vampires would have rights and that kind of thing. Maybe miasma is a kind of gendanken experiment in ethics that we like to write and think about partly because it makes for good dramatic torment in the lives of individual protagonists in fictions.

Rich Puchalsky

Sorry to repeat the point undoubtedly considered over and over by people posting here, but is ethical intuition really a guide to anything? I'm sure that the ethical intuition of people posting here would be a good guide to the ethics of middle-class white Westerners, but so what? I mean, listen to yourselves, you all know Risk and D&D minutae. As a joke, it's funny, but "None of which explains the miasma thing that my ethical intuition suggests is a very powerful thing indeed." as a serious sentence is not so funny.

Let's take the miasma thing as an example. Does anyone here really believe that miasma is a currently operating belief? Or is a cool thing from ancient Greek culture that you're kind of going with because, hey, you all know about it just like those Risk experiences? If we're really treating this as an idea that runs from ancient Greek to modern Western culture, I have to point out that I haven't really heard of anyone recently beliving that those with "dirty hands" give off an aura of pollution that could affect others near them. The idea conceals more than it reveals. I might believe that people universally feel guilt over doing things disapproved of by their culture, but the causes and expression of that guilt will vary in a way that using "miasma" papers over.


Tim, I agree that it's all about narrative. I was actually going to go on and say that but I got tired. Our souls have stories. But if you are just abstractly weighing moral rules, to come to a decision about which act would be better - there's no narrative. Needs work, but this idea seems on the right track.

Rich, the disadvantages of intuitions are as you say. The advantages would seem to be: they are what we've got. And I agree that we are not exactly ancient Greeks. I used miasma rather whimsically, and for the sake of vividness. It's better than 'guilt', which does not so obviously refer to a condition of the soul. (Guilt seems to me to slop around in the space between a broken rule and a subject who has broken the rule.) Guilt feelings is not quite it either, because you can feel guilty without actually being guilty.

As to the desire to steer clear of those who are guilty? Well, don't we? Belle's brother has a wacky friend who recently got a picture of himself taken, shaking hands with O. J. Simpson. (Don't ask me how he ends up doing these things, but he does.) I think lots of folks would strongly not want to have their picture taken with O.J. And not because they think people would wrongly think that they thought O. J. was innocent after all. There is a discomfort in being around people you think are bad. Contrariwise, when you feel guilty, there is a nagging sense that you do not deserve to be in the presence of good people. (Just intuitions, I realize. But, like I said, only a bad craftsman blames the only tools he's got.)I don't think we seriously believe badness is contagious, but we often do behave as though it were, which makes the whole miasma thing less alien - although I do admit that we don't believe in it.

I do agree that the whole thing is massively more complicated than I am rather glibly suggesting.

Oh, and I think your rights-based approach doesn't really get you off the hook crafted in my first post. Rights-based approaches are equivalent to duty-based approaches. (You have a duty not to infringe on rights.)

Not sure how your 'no one wants to be tortured' point fits in. I grant it, obviously. How does it make trouble for my position?


I'm just an amateur and I can't follow all the ins and outs of the analyses offered, but based on introspection I'd say a better analogy is drawing to an inside straight. Wishful thinking takes you a long way down the road to hell.

I think that a lot of the psychological conflict in ethical afterthoughts comes from the collision between the sources of our behavior--habit and reflex--and the moral code we were taught--which seemed so clear in kindergarten.

In addition, there is a generational conflict here that is captured by the old saying "do as I say, not as I do". I muddled through my life, but I want to help the next generation to avoid those problems. In order to teach them, I have to come up with a teachable system which will include assumptions and reasonable arguments. Unfortunately, such systems cannot contain all of life's possibilities and that next generation ends up muddling through in their turn and again hoping to help the following generation, etc. Math can be taught, because you won't be moving beyond the system; every additon problem can be handled just as in elementary school. Ethics, like art, is always negotiating new boundaries and finding new sorts of problems.

Russell Arben Fox

John, Tim, regarding narratives: I think that's the right track to take. You put something very well, John, when you write "our souls have stories." Obviously, moral rules aren't going to be able to adequately capture what happens in self-revealing, self-expressing, exploratory tales.

But here's a thought: what is the origin of these "gedanken experiments," as Tim labels them? Fans of rights or duties or rules would just dismiss that as just more monkey stuff (perhaps socially important, historically embedded monkey stuff, but monkey stuff all the same). But if you're willing to push narratives--to ask, as Rich implies, what their relationship is to actual believed things, if any--then one may find that the expressivity of ethical story-telling can provide an entrance (perhaps especially for the nihilistically tempted) to those "imperatives inscribed in the firmament" which so many find hard to take seriously. It's an old variant of moral realism--the idea that the ground is actually made immanent in and through our own stories--but it's a variant that has a lot more going for it in the meta-ethical literature than one might suspect: check out Charles Taylor, John Milbank, etc.

Rich Puchalsky

I think that rights are different than duties because duties are felt, rights are self-interested. If you don't feel that you have a duty to do something, you don't do it. Rights, on the other hand, are motivated by the understanding that in a society where people have relatively equal power, if you don't grant others certain rights, you don't get them either. Therefore they don't depend on ethical intuition; a rights-based approach could in theory be supported by a nihilist who didn't believe in a duty to do anything.

A bad craftsman blames the only tools he's got, yes, but also, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. It seems odd to believe that one person's ethical intuitions can be generalized into universally applicable philosophical ideas. If you want universality, wouldn't you want to examine many different people's ethical intuitions for common factors? But that becomes a sociological approach, and that leads you inevitably back to nihilism.


Your respect for your rights is certainly self-interested. But MY respect for your rights is rather a burdensome duty, potentially. You may say that we make a deal: you respect me, I'll respect you. But, as my Risk experience shows, this sort of approach is subject to painful breakdown. In short, you don't obviously build more solidly if you build out of rights rather than duties.

Chun the Unavoidable

The etymology of "miasma," mentioned earlier, is "afterbirth."


Hmmm, I didn't know that. I thought it just meant pollution or stain. All words for badness, as Nietzsche and others note, come from words for being dirty - it's a class thing, as I'm sure Chun agrees. Belle? Help us out here. Afterbirth? Surely first it meant stain, then migrated into morality and gynecology.

Rich Puchalsky

jholbo: "Your respect for your rights is certainly self-interested. But MY respect for your rights is rather a burdensome duty, potentially. You may say that we make a deal: you respect me, I'll respect you. But, as my Risk experience shows, this sort of approach is subject to painful breakdown."

Under the conditions of a Risk game, yes. But those aren't the conditions of a modern society. In a modern society, all of the resources are not controlled by four oligarchs with absolute control over their armies and nothing to do but to try to conquer each other. A modern society has power much more equally divided among its members than most other societal forms that are large enough so that kinship bonds and so on don't hold them together.

So, sure, people are always tempted to infringe on other's rights. But they know that they don't have the personal power to carry it off against the self-interested rights enforcement of everyone else. Which is why there is a group of people who are really looking out for the chance to get "dirty hands", it's such a great excuse.

You see, when the cop tortures the handcuffed terrorist suspect, he can claim that he isn't enjoying a sadistic feeling of power, he is just trying to protect society from that bomb that is always about to go off somewhere. What's more, if anyone challenges him, he can claim that he himself is "tortured" by the horrible things that societal necessity forced him to do. A rights-based society, if it is generally functional, dismisses these claims as the BS that they are.

Chun the Unavoidable

If you ever went drinking with Billy Harvey, of Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium fame, you'd know the score. And besides, a short textbook introduction to classical myth gives this etymology, and I know that can't be wrong.

Adam Kotsko


No one has ever been as seriously wrong about such a wide array of thinkers as John Milbank.


Regarding the universality of ethical intuition (Rich P.post,above); The Abolition Of Man by C.S.Lewis explores this a bit and the appendix, 'Illustrations of the Tao', is an interesting compilation of ethics from various periods and civilizations. Of Course the axe he's grinding is a trancendental basis for the intuition.

Russell Arben Fox


That's a pretty broad claim. You realize, of course, that there are many (including some pretty reputable thinkers) who would disagree with you, at least partially. For myself, I won't claim to defend his whole corpus. But the Hegel chapter his book Theology and Social Theory was, I thought, very insightful, and his various writings on other thinkers from that era (Hamman, Herder, Jacobi, etc.) are equally good.

Adam Kotsko


I'm thinking mainly of his analysis of 20th century people. For instance, I don't think he's been anything even approaching fair to Derrida in any of his works, and if you trace his footnote trail, it always seems like he's read two essays by each person he scathingly critiques. He's definitely valuable for tracking down the latest trends in philosophy and bringing them into dialogue (or needless argument) with theology, but, if you'll excuse my language, he's just such a bitch to everyone.

On the medieval and early modern stuff, though, he does really know what he's talking about. I found that his analysis in the early parts of Theology and Social Theory were really insightful -- it's just once he got to the 20th century and started labelling everyone as a nihilist that things fell apart for me.

Apparently in Being Reconciled, he's now questioning why we can't have plural marriages in Christianity -- I haven't read it yet, but that's the report.


And how interestingly did you sketch the scenario. Though I may have dealt it in a different style but still interesting enough to go through it.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Buy Reason and Persuasion!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)