How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

Admit it. Some time in your life, you’ve probably taken a Harry Potter sorting quiz, typically from the Internet, as I just did yesterday. Supposedly, I’m a Hufflepuff, but one of the hypotheticals this quiz used to make that determination stood out to me:

“You have saved up for months to buy a new bike. As you’re getting ready to buy it, a child runs by and steals your money. You chase him down and find that his mother is deathly ill and the child stole the money to buy her medicine.”
The Almighty Guru

Granted, this dilemma is not particularly deep, and it’s at least as old as Les Miserables, but even my cynical self can acknowledge the value of asking the simple questions. This scenario frames the matter in a different light than that book, as the thief is a child, whose mother’s sickness is directly emphasized.

None of which makes the problem any easier. The compassionate thing to do obviously seems to be to let the kid keep the money, considering America’s health care system does not — as far as I know — guarantee a safety net of basic life-saving care for someone who cannot pay for it. How, after all, does the value of a bicycle compare to that of a person’s life, especially when that person is loved dearly by a child?

Put that way, it looks simple. Any other course of action would be callous by comparison. Yet how can we say this consistently when our priorities, in so many ways we like to pretend don’t exist, claim otherwise?

Our society allows grotesque numbers of preventable deaths — in this country alone — because people don’t have the money that we spend on extravagant dinners and extra TVs. We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.

We unquestioningly make automobile transportation the social norm, and many of us criticize capital punishment for being a cruel institution of denial of life’s value. This is despite, as the speaker in the video below notes (skip to about 4:35), the damage several orders of magnitude greater inflicted by car accidents compared to the death penalty.

The uploader’s numbers vary somewhat from the source above (even considering the video was made in 2011), but his point stands independent of the particular ethical question he addresses here — which I may return to in future posts, particularly referencing the central argument of this video. I encourage the reader to watch it in full regardless, since if nothing else it’s a case study in the subtle complexities of moral arguments that appear straightforward, one way or the other.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that the above attitudes are necessarily unacceptable (or, if they are, they may be brute facts of apathetic human nature we have to accept), as I am of course oversimplifying things. (Or am I? Is this what every generation that permits appalling social evils tells itself, just as we said centuries ago that slavery was too integral to the South’s economy to abolish?) It could be that the true error lies in our moral hypocrisy, or that the value outweighing the proverbial mother’s life is a fundamental liberty, although I like to think the obvious answer to this dilemma really is the right one. It wouldn’t be easy to live up to, but it would leave us less demoralized and more confident in our consciences.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I just think some perspective on issues like this couldn’t hurt, and if the idea I imply here does turn out faulty upon further inspection, so much the stronger does the truth stand after this test. Undoubtedly, this consideration will help us as we continue looking at John Locke’s work.

Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

(Part X of this series)

With Chapter 5, Locke seeks to establish a basic theory of property. In this update I’ll address his first major contention, namely that the resources of nature are the common property for all people’s utility, yet by investing his/her labor in acquiring a given resource, an individual may claim rightful ownership of that resource as his/her own property (provided this does not seize away the necessities of the community). He writes:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. … Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. … [For] this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. … He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. … And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common?”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine)

The essential points are bolded, serving as the premises of the summary above. Locke reasons that, provided we can agree that the best feasible societal foundation is something like the constitutional democracy he suggests, there must be some coherent way citizens of this society can manage the resources at their disposal fairly. Though he doesn’t deny that there are some limits to pursuit of property, when this precludes others from their rightful property, it’s clear that Locke’s ideal excludes socialism from the outset. Property is afforded on the basis of merit/work rather than need, at least as far as the law is concerned (that is, Locke would not likely have objections in principle to charity).

While this seems an intuitive philosophy, we’ll have to see how he hashes out the details. After all, where on this basis is there room for, say, taxation and public property? For today, I leave the reader to consider both that question and the further hints of anthropocentrism in Locke’s view.

Notice that in the first emphasized part of this quote, he deems all of the entities of Earth’s ecosystem the rightful property of humans. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an affront to environmental responsibility, as the preservation of non-sentient wildlife and natural resources is not only a worthy goal for its own sake, but also as far as this proves prudent for humanity’s own wishes in the long run. Basically, one saves the trees as much for the trees’ inherent value, as for the worth they have as one’s oxygen source. More troubling is the flippancy with which Locke denies any agency or value-as-an-end to conscious nonhuman creatures. Perhaps he took Descartes’s view of nonhumans as universally unconscious and machine-like, which is at least somewhat sympathetic when the state of seventeenth-century neurology was so undeveloped, but the familiarity of this perspective should give us pause. Who else, again, were denied fundamental liberties and protections because the powers that be saw them as property?

See the title of the preceding chapter for the answer.

War and Slavery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3a)

(Part VII of this series)

Locke introduces Chapter 3 with a new concept to consider, that of the “state of war.” This is less likely to refer to an actual “state” in a political sense, but in any case the idea is that one person (or group) enters the state of war against another when he/she acts to attempt destruction of the second party. Fair enough; in some sense even a singular murderer wages a microcosm of war, because despite the lack of a genuine war’s complexity and size, there is the same transgression against a social contract (Hobbes’s concept, but Locke would actually seem to agree with him on this) that makes force necessary — so the conventional wisdom goes — to reduce further damage.

Here Locke reiterates the justice of killing a murderer just as one would kill a hazardous beast. This is where we must recall the utility of psychological knowledge to aid us in optimal legal policy, because whether Locke’s analogy stands depends on the extent to which violent criminals are, as he puts it, “not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, [and] have no other rule, but that of force and violence.” Less tied to science in this area is the degree of our value, as a society, of the well-being of people who harm others. After all, given two options with equal use for the protection of citizens from crime, we ought choose the one less cruel to the transgressor, but of course matters multiply in uncertainty when the more humane option is empirically less efficient. I don’t have the definitive answers, naturally, but half the battle is knowing what the right questions to ask are, and that of striking the balance between mercy and preventing further suffering to innocents seems like one of those questions to me. Inconsistent and flippant though Locke’s reasoning may be in this region, he does raise a point at least worth considering.

Interestingly, his next contention is that one of the most sinister and indirect ways one enters the state of war is by claiming absolute power. Noting that absolute power by definition precludes withholding consent from one who would use a person for his/her own ends, Locke states that such authority is tantamount to enslaving all one’s subjects. He adds that since freedom is the foundation of a person’s self-preservation, the denial of freedom (slavery) is therefore declaration of “war” against the person whose freedom is being denied.

If Locke evidently considers this form of war a violation of that which he believes people ought to have, we should suppose he was a critic of institutionalized slavery. That would depend on who exactly Locke regards as a person in this thesis, and although we’ll discover Locke’s views on slavery in the next chapter, we can consider at the moment how, in this context, the definition of a person is so important. I’ll probably give it a few more updates to get to the bottom of Locke’s perspective, but expect an interlude post exploring that question very thoroughly someday.

Crime and Punishment — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2d)

(Part V of this series)

To minimize repetition of the same criticism, I’ll make the sincerest effort to give any chapters hence in the Second Treatise the most charitable interpretation I can, granting Locke, for example, his deontological terms as shorthand for a consequentialist argument. Where he undergirds his argument in the “law of nature,” we may think of this as the recognition that for those who value a flourishing society for themselves and for others, adherence to the ethics he describes is imperative.

That said, picking up where we left off in Chapter 2, Locke contends that the law should be enforced equally upon all individuals who transgress it, and it ought be the people who collectively execute that law — as opposed to a monarch or aristocracy imposing laws to restrict the commoners. To his credit, as much as I have picked apart Locke’s arguments so far, this proposal and the ones that follow it are agreeable. He acknowledges that the primary role of justice, far from sheer vengeance, is the rehabilitation of criminals and the deterrence of further crime. This constitutes a reasonable exception to the rule of no harm that a Locke had earlier endorsed, as in practice we find that the force employed by the justice system is usually (but not always) more productive and justified than criminal force.

Locke also makes the overlooked but important point that besides the administration of justice to the criminal, the justice system carries the other responsibility of ensuring the restoration of the victim’s well-being (as much as is feasible). As citizens comply with the laws and taxes binding on all in the community, it stands to reason from the utilitarian perspective that any who sustain significant suffering in this community through no fault of their own (but that of others) should be able to have these damages repaired. The system by which any society does this is bound to be imperfect, but it’s a crucial fundamental of societal structure that deserves the attention Locke gives it.

As a parenthetical note, I should mention that if, again, most of this seems obvious, it probably is — but Locke’s (and our) purpose here is to build up, from our most honest philosophical starting points, the necessary conclusions in the study of societal protection of rights. If these conclusions happen to closely match what we already believe, provided we have critically thought these matters through and not succumbed to bias, this should tell us that conventional wisdom does indeed have some basis in reality. Where it does not, naturally, is the interesting part, and that’s where Locke’s ideas get revolutionary. This isn’t to say all answers are to be expected from serious sociological thought (rendering the endeavor as futile as the unfalsifiable theories of, say, Freud), but rather to admit that the reasonable answers do not discriminate based on what is popular.

Though it is not central to his treatise, Locke takes his endorsement of (at least as far as we can infer, unless he is — improbably so from his words — attempting a description of the origins of ideas about justice, not a prescription of them) justice against criminals to something of an extreme:

“[A]nd thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a [tiger], one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

From the bolded phrase, it’s clear that Locke sees the death penalty as, at least partly, the logical consequence of murder’s being a specially irreparable crime. Such a topic warrants multiple posts of its own someday, but for now it’s sufficient to note a fact that stands independent of whether the reader defends capital punishment in any circumstances. His hypocrisy is glaring; if murder’s due justice is proportional to its inability to rectify for the murdered person him/herself, surely we ought to be especially cautious when considering the ethics of delivering a punishment that itself can’t be reversed. The miscarriage of justice is just as bad as any comparable crime inflicted upon the innocent, so even if killing murderers as Locke recommends is just, few moral duties could weigh more heavily on our justice system’s shoulders than that of ensuring that those killed by the state are in fact guilty.

More Than “Just Because” — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2c)

(Part IV of this series)

Fair warning — this’ll be a rather philosophy-heavy update. If it seems like I’m getting away from the actual treatise we’re following, I hope you’ll see how these points actually relate to it. This abstract stuff will pay off in the long run.

Returning to normativity, I want to stress that any pretensions to know what ought to be done, in a given complex ethical situation, must rely on an argument from facts about the ways a valued or desired circumstance may be achieved.

Philosophically, this is known as consequentialism, although I’m not entirely happy with that label because of its connotations. People tend to take “consequentialism” to mean the notorious principle of “the ends justify the means” (as if the inherent undesirability of the means aren’t an end themselves). In my “Giving Peace a Chance” series, I briefly touched on this matter, but we have to consider it more thoroughly here before going any further with Locke’s treatise. Why? Because we can’t evaluate his argument properly without breaking down its logical structure, and if we want to understand how the conclusion he rightly defends follows from a stronger foundation than his, we need to know how normative arguments like his work.

This form of consequentialism is more broad than the stereotype suggests, so much so that it can scarcely be a controversial axiom for our purposes. This isn’t merely my bias speaking here: imagine any moral distinction you can think of, and ask yourself why you recognize that distinction. Murder? That has enormous consequences for the potential of the victim to carry out his/her wishes, and for the well-being of the victim’s loved ones. Slavery? Fewer consequences are more harmful than the elimination of autonomy. Deceit? Even “white lies” build the habit of dishonesty that causes more harm than it’s worth, and they carry risks of negative effects more substantial than the violation of some hollow maxim.

All of which is a thorough way of saying that, if you want to suggest that an action is unwise to undertake without explaining how that action actually causes anything detrimental to a worthy purpose, you frankly do not know what you’re talking about. Forgive me if it sounds condescending to say this should be obvious, but I raise this idea to underscore the gap in Locke’s argument. Notice that he never explains why, precisely, the equal creation of humans implies the normativity of equal rights. Intuitively, this seems appealing, and indeed in common discourse we argue this way to great success. Yet without elaborating the premises in question, Locke’s argument is on shaky ground. It amounts to a “just because” assertion riding on rhetorical aesthetics, with no attempt to convince the opposition with the tried and true method of identifying something they value, and arguing that the acquisition of this value depends on the application of what one is proposing.

The reason most of us nonetheless find reasoning like Locke’s persuasive is that we carry assumptions into the ethical arena — decent assumptions, to be sure, but assumptions still. Perhaps Locke is engaging his readers on a level where the value of the well-being of persons is a given (one of the aforementioned assumptions), and that’s fair for the purposes of legislation, so long as he identifies what constitutes a person in this context. That he does so implicitly, and based strictly on species rather than the relevant features of the species (which may apply to others), leaves his thesis currently unconvincing to the contemporary reader, who tends to use the well-being of creatures capable of happiness and suffering as his/her moral thermometer.

This is where a connection to the animal rights debate, with which in mind we started this reading journey, emerges, but we’ll get to that later. I’d like to more directly address the text of Locke’s book in the next post. As it stands, we’ve considered some contextual philosophical concerns that cannot be overstated: while that which one ought to do is more than just a matter of arbitrary whim — rather, it is objective given facts about subjective beings — truths about such obligations, typically considered moral imperatives, cannot come from reason alone either.

Rather, provided some fundamental values (disputes over which may get particularly messy), moral truth upon which legal arguments like Locke’s are made have to concern the achievement of these values. This abstraction of natural law, as Locke sees it, has negligible normative force. So we can’t take his word for it that rights work the way he thinks they do, without some critical argument in favor of that view.

Great Ideas, Questionable Defenses — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2b)

(Part III of this series)

As Locke continues along his argumentative thread, the crux of his premises unfolds more clearly. He contends:

“[T]hough man in that state have an [uncontrollable] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. [R]eason … teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for [ours]. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station [willfully], so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (changes made strictly to modernize archaic spellings, or to adjust sentence structure without compromising any crucial context)

Basically, Locke begins with the assumption that all people (charitably interpreting the term “men”) are the equal creations of God, made to carry out this deity’s will. He supposes as well that humans alone retain this birthright, and that the “inferior ranks of creatures” were created for the purpose of serving human goals. From the former basis Locke concludes that we ought not thwart the life, liberty, and property of other humans, nor should we take places of domination over each other, provided such an action is not the necessary means to protect the well-being of innocents.

While I concur with this conclusion as a general rule and suspect the average reader does too, the logic from which Locke derives it is far from indubitable, regardless of the subject’s religious persuasion. Just because an idea is correct, that does not mean all of the ways one might arrive at that idea are accurate.

Consider the proposition, “The earth revolves around the sun.” This is true, but if someone were to say to you, “The earth revolves around the sun because Carl Sagan said so,” would you accept this as valid reasoning? Would you also accept the claim, “If you don’t believe that everything Carl Sagan says is true, you must not believe the earth revolves around the sun”? Of course not. The same fallacy is at work in the strikingly common meme that those who don’t accept Locke’s religious premises, much less that such premises have some logical connection to the conclusions he draws, are incapable of believing in the normativity of persons’ rights.

When I refer to “normativity,” this is a fancy term for the more awkwardly written “ought-ness.” A key principle I adhere to in this analysis that may need some explaining (and criticism, which is what the comments are for) is this: Given a desired state of affairs from the perspective of one or more subjects, and the facts relevant to the possible actualization of that state, there is an objective fact of the matter — however difficult to ascertain, as most objective truths are — as to what the subject(s) ought to do.

Why, exactly, am I belaboring this point, when I could simply say “people ought to have rights” and leave it at that? Well, as you may have deduced, I’m not comfortable smuggling truths in through doors of bad reasoning, nor would I recommend anyone else make a habit of this. I’ll unpack what I mean by that next update, but for now feel free to mull over this idea. It has numerous implications for the concept of rights that we’ll be exploring.

The State of Nature — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2a)

(Part II of this series)

Contra Hobbes, Locke’s starting analysis of the state of nature — that is, the behavior and conditions of humanity in a hypothetical pre-government state of anarchy — is rather optimistic. He writes:

“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

Taken as a declaration of an ideal derived from reason, rather than a description of the way sociology actually works, this makes sense. When people are alike in all respects relevant to civil rights, the most just and empathic course of action for a government is to protect those rights equally, barring reasonable exceptions such as the withholding of liberties from those who commit serious crimes.

But is it anthropologically accurate to say humanity started out egalitarian? Suffice it to say, the inferences we can make are at best educated guesses, based on indirect clues since Paleolithic humanity did not keep written records. The answer either way is mostly irrelevant to the success of Locke’s point, as even if we assume prehistoric society had equality (not necessarily a lack of leadership, as leaders of small Paleolithic bands may have balanced their power with responsibility for the protection of the band), what does this prove? That adopting the hunter-gatherer way of life would restore this idyllic golden age? Locke never proposed as much, as the very purpose of this treatise was to argue for a legal structure quite different from that of the Stone Age — distinct from absolutist monarchies, yes, but that is neither here nor there.

That Locke proceeds with the following quote seems to show that the latter interpretation would be an exercise in futility:

“The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?”
— Richard Hooker quoted by John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

This basically amounts to the golden rule, which, though it is a noble appeal to the conscience provided the reader has altruistic interests, the cynic in me must admit would do little to persuade the very sorts of tyrants Locke wanted to challenge. Provided the kings and queens who ruled with the proverbial iron fist were already seduced by the promise of power and wealth, enough to override the compassion that would have motivated them to institute fairer legislatures, what would Locke’s line of thought here do to restore that compassion? Either Locke believed tyrants truly did want the greatest good of the people, and they simply thought (in error) that their “divine right” gave them the means to best sustain their societies, or he supposed his argument carried some undeniable logical force.

If it’s the latter, Locke would have done well to survive up to David Hume’s famous utterance, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” No rational sentiment, however intuitive it may seem to us in the context of our desires as an ideally equal society, can be expected to change the mind of the absolute ruler without appealing to some value that ruler would like to pursue. If, for instance, Locke argued that betraying the equal treatment of persons before the law would cultivate unstable rebellion or damage to moral integrity for the monarch, he would have a convincing case, but the argument he advances here is little more than a way to invigorate action among those subject to the monarch. By this same reasoning, the former possibility in the preceding paragraph has its own flaws: it’s doubtful every (or even the common) absolute ruler had only faulty exegetical motives for such rule. History is not so kind to the Rousseau-esque assumption that all people across all epochs are fundamentally altruistic, for money talks to slave-owners. Monarchs are no exception.

Locke continues along the same thread, asserting that reason tells all people that the equality of humans in the state of nature implies a normative obligation to afford all the right to property. Here Locke is, again, either making a non sequitir argument from some vague pre-Humean conception of reason, or he is assuming (understandably) that his readers will take as a premise the value of all people as ends unto themselves. In which case, his presentation of this idea as if it is obvious is dubious, not only because politics is fraught with incentives to flout our consciences, but also as Locke was hardly the model equal rights advocate — for reasons of sheer social inertia, societies of his time discriminated unapologetically against women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and other common targets. Locke may not have supported all such prejudices, but he did not publicly challenge them as far as I can ascertain.

As you can see, this is taking longer than I’d anticipated. This isn’t a disadvantage; if anything, it’s allowed us a more thorough look into such a crucial subject. Expect me to inject digressions into other topics when appropriate, rather than keep this series going uninterrupted. With hope, I can make more progress on the “Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time” thread.