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Friday, August 08, 2014

The violence of moral binaries

""When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong."

- The Relativity of Wrong / Isaac Asimov

Even if one doesn't subscribe to strong moral relativism (that nothing is really right or really wrong), there is a weaker and related form of moral equivalence which holds that moral evaluations brook no comparisons - it doesn't matter how right or how wrong acts might be: all that matters is whether they are right or wrong. Sometimes this is phrased as opposition to the "Oppression Olympics"; a current application of this principle is that ISIS's genocide in Iraq and Israel's Palestinian death toll in Gaza are both equally bad.

In other words, it's just as much of a tragedy when you cut your finger as when you walk into an open sewer and die (with apologies to Mel Brooks).

Of course, this goes against many generally-agreed-upon moral principles - the distinction between sins of omission and commission, between first and second order effects, the importance of intent and the importance of looking at what the real-world consequences are. So this view manages to piss off people in both major schools of thought on ethics (deontology and consequentialism).

There are also practical problems; as Dawkins points out, if this moral stance were true, "judges shouldn’t be allowed to impose harsher sentences for some rapes than for others. Do we really want our courts to impose a single mandatory sentence – a life sentence, perhaps – for all rapes regardless? To all rapes, from getting a woman drunk and taking advantage at one end of the spectrum, to holding a knife to her throat in a dark alley at the other? Do we really want our judges to ignore such distinctions when they pass sentence? I don’t, and I don’t think any reasonable person would if they thought it through. And yet that would seem to be the message of the agonisingly passionate tweets that I have been reading. The message seems to be, no, there is no spectrum, you are wicked, evil, a monster, to even ask whether there might be a spectrum."

Another practical problem is that one doesn't have a good guide to action; if one is forced to choose between two (or more) unpleasant actions (or actions with unpleasant consequences), one will be unable to choose. For example, should one fire the incompetent worker who needs the job to feed his family - or the brilliant one who is independently wealthy?

Related: Philippe Bourgois on The violence of moral binaries:

"[[Binford] misreads my discussion of the continuum of violence in El Salvador as a judgment on the moral worth of the FMLN guerillas. I recognize Binford’s moralistic reading well because at times I share it. My own intellect and emotions are shaped, at least partially, by the same historical and ideological forces that make Binford uncomfortable with reports of bad news about the behavior of the poor, the socially vulnerable, and socialist revolutionaries.

To put it starkly, at the cost of some simplification, I would say that the crypto-puritanical, upwardly mobile, immigrant heritage of the United States imposes an unusually polarized understanding of politics and practice. It invites us to view individuals and actions as either all bad or all good, sinful or virtuous, noble or ignoble...

[My book shows] how, under circumstances of extreme misery in the midst of stupendous wealth, victims turn into victimizers. It also steadfastly argues against binary conceptions of worthiness. It presents the coexistence of ‘good’ with ‘bad’ in the very same person and households as well as in the same sector of practice...

In a withering critique of the analytic limitations and political failings of recent ethnographies of race and poverty in the US metropolis, Loïc Wacquant identifies what he calls ‘the unwritten “code of writing about the poor” in American social science’ that produces moralistic and depoliticized accounts of urban marginality. The ‘five cardinal rules’ include the dictate to ‘spotlight the deeds of the worthy poor, exalt their striving, strength and creativity, and emphasize success stories, even as they are marginal and non- replicable’. The list culminates with the prescription that ‘last but not least, you shall bring good news and leave the reader feeling reassured’ (Wacquant, 2002)...

We cannot write effectively against the unpleasant products of power and inequality if we remain trapped in a US moralism that obses- sively seeks to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy poor at home and between brutal terrorists and humane freedom fighters abroad. Ethnographic methods, sensibilities, and politics oblige us to touch, smell, and even feel the actual existing social suffering that we may not want to admit to ourselves we have witnessed"
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