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.

Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part I)

For the majority of my life as someone capable of understanding violence, I failed to see the point of pacifism in its most serious, ambitious sense. Granted, most of us would prefer not to have to resort to bloodshed, and if it did prove necessary we would be better off not taking pleasure in it, yet World War II always seemed a strong counterexample to following John Lennon’s suggestion. I would tell myself I had no objections in principle to society utilizing force to achieve what was truly a greater good. Those who scoffed at “the ends justify the means” only did so because they disapproved of certain ends caused by the means, thereby unwittingly proving that point.

I suspect at least a significant number of readers who affirm the above stance do so, reasonably enough, because pacifism’s spokespeople have not tended to maintain a respectable track record of practicality. The stock pacifist justification for refusing to fight even in self-defense is that of Harry Potter, for whose unwavering nonviolence to the point of risking more lives Lupin scolds him. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “Why show people killing is unacceptable in society by killing them?”, and other such appeals to moral outrage derail the conversation before it can make any meaningful progress.

Meanwhile, the prominent voice for defensive violence fares no better in critical thinking. It has its own soundbites: “Don’t tread on me,” “Think of the children,” and all species of “They deserve it” rationales. If the error of strict pacifism is that it elevates a maxim (don’t kill no matter what) above victims’ lives, the sin of its opposite is a cruel disregard of the nuances of human psychology. A part of the pacifist thesis worth considering is that showing society’s aggressors the strength of our commitment to peace may, far from revealing exploitable weakness, give them reason to respect and even trust us. The skeptics have mostly ignored this.

Our goal, then, ought to be the transcending of these tunnel-vision biases. The most responsible replacement of dogmatic bumper-sticker policies is rational deliberation on the facts relevant to that which we value. Should it seem as if abandoning our hollow rationalizations for positions on this issue makes the task dauntingly complicated, we know we are doing something right, because if what we aim to optimize are real consequences for people’s well-being, we should afford care to thought that is proportional to the uncertainty of those consequences.

This should be common sense, but particularly in the domain of the ethics of violence, we have the all-too-human tendency to forget that what appears to be “cold logic” is the very instrument of justice Alan Turing used to assist the Allies’ victory over the Axis. Neither purely emotional nor exclusively rational means comprise the whole of ethical judgment, as Spock must have some value-based purpose to think for, and McCoy must have a system of discerning better ways to achieve what he values than others.

None of which settles the peace debate proper, you surely protest. We’ll come to that in time, although if we do this responsibly, the conclusion we reach will never be unduly certain, especially when history has never been in short supply of wrong answers. For today, I hope I have stressed the importance of method, lest the garbage put in become garbage out. Naturally, what I present here can never be totally free from its blind spots, yet we should — as people who, remember, desire a common vision in the most significant sense — find little controversial about the notion that identifying and interpreting the facts is better than talking past each other.

In Part II, we’ll consider what history can tell us about what best deters violence, in both the short- and long-term.