~*~ Rose-Colored Glosses ~*~

hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
 
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
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  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
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"The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it."
-Mahatma Gandhi
Segal's Law:
A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Sunday, December 25, 2005 ~

Pick One.
What's more important, doing the right thing or making the world better?

You'd like to never have to choose between the two, wouldn't you? But has the path to world-improvement ever complied with The Rules? Half the time the rules are wrong, and so they get in the way of doing what needs to be done for the Good of All Humanity. Think of unions fighting for laborers' rights, or Rosa Parks, or laws condoning slavery. Or heck, think of the Maccabees fighting the Seleucids (thank you, Eric). Assuming the Maccabees were right, you know.

But the other half of the time, the would-be-reformers think they have a really hot idea and it isn't until much later that their grandchildren realize how wrong they were, and that maybe they should have listened to the law all along instead of contorting it to fit their purposes. Think of the Salem Witch Trials, or of Our Friend Dubya, or think of the eugenics movement, which is the topic of the paper I'm taking a break from writing just now.* The eugenics movement, for those of you who haven't heard, started around 1890 with people here in the U.S. trying to keep survival-of-the-fittest-style evolution alive by mating the best people with each other. Later, they moved onto sterilising the worst people, but the movement found its ultimate expression in Nazi Germany with the Elimination of the Undesirables through mass murder.

The third half of the time, the law is right, AND breaking the law is the only way to help things get better, and that's the case that pulls the hardest. The first example I can find is that of using animals to do medical research so that maybe someday people won't die of terrible diseases. It's not illegal to give cancer to a rat, but it's still morally bad...or at least morally undesirable? The situation gets a lot sharper if you have to do all your testing on human subjects, so if you hate animals and want them to die anyway, just imagine the rats as sweet adorable little 6-year-old children with blonde hair and big blue eyes (thank you, Mr. Bobonich), and then maybe you too will feel the agony of the situation. Or another example might come from war. Nothing but being totally sacked by our military will stop that country's evil dictator from committing daily atrocities, so if we want to make the world better, we have to go to war against him, but come on, is it ever really Right to send our people to kill their people? Or how about this one, from Jarah: it's always wrong to torture someone, right? But what do you do if there's someone who knows where a bomb is hidden, and the only way to get them to talk in time enough to save the hundreds of people who will otherwise be killed when the bomb goes off is to torture this person into telling us the information? You have to imagine, I guess, that it's not due to a lack of creativity on our parts that we can't think of anything else to do other than test it on a human/declare war/torture the potential informant, but rather that this morally bad thing is the Only Hope to get out of this really terrible situation. And let's also say that you don't even know for sure whether doing this morally bad thing will fix the problem. Which would you rather do? The right thing, or the thing that could make the world better?

Professor Panache, who taught my British Moral Philosophy class, once sighed deeply and said that there are basically two kinds of people, the ones who say our main directive in life is to do the right thing and the ones who say our life's purpose is to make the world better. When he said that, I was surprised to find how instantly I knew that I'm a member of the first camp...I usually spend years wavering back and forth on questions like this before I can decide, but not in this case. Intuitively, I consider it to always be more important to do what's right. Anything else feels...selfish. Who am I to put aside the moral law of human interaction for the sake of my own dreams of how good things could be if only I could temporarily shove this pesky rule out of the way? Just because I want something doesn't mean I get to trample you to get it...even if what I want is something that will benefit many others. If the only way to get the guy to talk is to torture him, I'd let the bomb go off and let the people die. Or maybe I'm just morally squeamish that way.

So where do you stand, dear reader? Is it more important to do the right thing or to make the world better? I would love to have a response from every single person who reads this post. It can be your Hannukah present to me. :)

Speaking of Hannukah, I'm having my own little mini-Hannukah miracle here...as I type this, the two candles that I lit tonight are still flickering two hours past their 3-hour life expectancy. Most of the wax has melted away, and they've been in that just-about-to-go-out state (nothing left but tiny pieces of wick and small blue glows) for the past hour or so.

*Actually, the paper's about the Human Genome Project, and whether or not it's just another expression of the eugenicist agenda, but the work I've been doing for this paper has been inspiring me to think about broader topics.

~ prattled by Miriam at 10:32 p.m. [+]

* * *
Comments:
Thank goodness it's not me taking that class!! Why, by the way, is it specifically British Moral Philosophy instead of just Moral Philosophy? Are the Brits that different?
Your inclinaton, to follow the rule of law rather than to right what you believe to be wrongs of the world, seems to me a direct, albeit elongated, path towards becoming a judge.
I, unfortunately, would probably be someone you throw into the brink ("Mercy, Your honor!") because anarchist that I am, I would have to do what I believe to be right.
Miriam, you surprised me. Whatever happened to Tikkum Olam? Did it die when you left Rabbinical School?
Groucho
So I don't see this as really an either-or question. If I had to pick one, I would say "do the right thing," but in the tricky cases, I would be using "make the world better" as a way to determine what the right thing is. In the torture vs. mass bombing example, neither alternative is really desirable. But the overall effect on the world will be better (or at least less bad) if we torture one person rather than killing dozens/hundreds/thousands. I wouldn't be happy about it, that's for sure, but it's the best I can do in the situation.

Anyway, that's my response. Happy Hanukah. :-)
As a belated Hannukah present, I edit this post to have the Maccabees fighting the Seleucids. True, the Seleucids were in possession of what used to be Assyria, but Antiochus IV was about as Assyrian as Cleopatra was Egyptian.

As my other belated Hannukah present, I'm with you in general but I think I resonate with what Graham said. In the case of bombing vs. torture it's not actually clear to me that torture is wrong, given the context. But I suppose that's really because I haven't thought enough about torture to put it on my list of Things That Are Always Wrong and Damn the Consequences. If you substitute something else that I have thought of a lot - for instance, rape this person or let the bomb go off - my answer becomes instantly "let the bomb go off." Like Graham, I wouldn't be happy about that - but I'd still be sure that I'd done the right thing.

Also, I don't know what Tikkum Olam means, but didn't you once describe the point of Judaism to me as making the world a better place? How does this square with that, or am I misremembering?
Thank you all for responding! This is making it so much more interesting. :)

Anarchist M:
First, it's British Moral Philosophy because there were a whole bunch of guys who lived in Britain and wrote stuff between the 1600s and 1900s, more or less defining the field of moral philosophy and making it what it is now. Whether or not they were that different from non-Brits I don't know, but they were that wildly influential.
Secondly, I wasn't asking whether you'd choose to do what you believe is right or what the law tells you to do; I was asking whether you'd choose to do something you believe is right or something you believe is not right, but is nevertheless in the best interests of others. Torture the guy or let the bomb go off and kill a thousand people? Kill your non-communicative, pain-racked grandmother with your own hands or let her suffer? Sterilise the woman against her will or allow her children to be born with Tay-Sachs disease? Do you choose what's right or what's beneficial?

Charles:
Defining Tikkun Olam as "healing the world" is an innovation of the Reform movement. In the Orthodox practice, Tikkun Olam means something more like "establish the universe". While healing the world connotes planting trees and lobbying for world peace, establishing the universe taps into a kabbalistic idea that the world is fundamentally broken, and it's up to us to fix it with our own right actions. In Orthodox ideology, right action means keeping all the mitzvot all the time. It's kind of comparable to throwing lots of good karma out into the world to negate the bad karma that's already there. Whether it's God or your friend or your whole community who receives your good act, you're still fixing the world one good act at a time. So keeping Shabbat would be just as important as giving tzedakah, even though the first won't immediately benefit society the way the second will, because in the grand scheme, you're adhering to the mitzvot and thus increasing the total amount of good order in the universe.

Graham:
Last night when I tried to build the case that torturing is even worse than *active* killing (much less *passive* letting-die, such as letting the bomb explode) you pointed out that I should look at the consequences of the act and not just at the act itself, and that if you were choosing between receiving torture and receiving death, you might well choose torture just so you'd have a shot at life afterward. However, I don't know that the victim's preference determines the action's morality. Deception might be morally worse than perturbation, but a terminally ill woman might prefer "you'll be up and about in no time" over "you have three months". We don't always want people to treat us in the most moral way possible. Sometimes we can derive more benefit from the morally worse of two options...which I guess is what this whole post is about. To torture you is to deny your autonomy and your worth as a human, to deliberately seek out what brings you the greatest pain and anguish possible, and to do just that to you in order to break your will. It seems like torturing brings more active cruelty into existence than killing would, even if the victim finds it preferable.

Eric:
Thanks for the note about the Seleucids.

Now, it fascinates me that you've ruled out rape but not torture. It seems to me that rape would fall under the Abuse category, but Torture would be its own category, several steps further on the evilness spectrum. Have you realized something about rape that I haven't?

I would still say that Judaism's aim is to improve the world, but as I said above, different Jews have different ideas about the best way to make the world better. Some want to do what they believe will help the most, and damn the script; others find more all-encompassing wisdom in the script, trusting it over their own, often flawed, faculties of judgement.
Not necessarily, but I've thought about rape a lot more than I've thought about torture so I feel more sure of myself in calling that categorically evil. But there is something that perturbs me more about rape than about torture. Generally speaking I don't believe in evil as a stand-alone entity; I think that one of the characteristics of evil is that it's pursuing something good in either an improper way or to an improper extent. Now in the context of torture that's fairly easy to see - generally one tortures another in the pursuit of something good, such as life-saving information (in your example). Occasionally one tortures in the pursuit of pleasure or validation (also good, by itself), but that wasn't the example we were given and I think those are two different kinds of torture (one for somebody else's sake, one for your own sake). It is difficult for me to see rape as pursuing anything that is not self-oriented - perhaps the pursuit of validation, perhaps the pursuit of sex (although I have a hard time believing that one based on the reading I've done). I have no trouble saying that it is always wrong to torture somebody because you're a sadist, and I have no trouble saying that it is always wrong to rape somebody, because the two are essentially selfish, faithless acts of evil. Torture for the sake of other people I am not so sure about. I find it repugnant, to be sure, but I'm not sure if that's because it's inherently evil or because I can be squeamish by things that are not inherently evil.

If Judaism's aim is still to improve the world, does that mean that you're viewing this as essentially the choice between who to trust on the subject of what will improve the world: Either trust God (i.e., do the right thing) or trust yourself (i.e., do what you think will help the world)?
Alright Miriam, you implied that I need AA, I think that I actually need MA... :/ oh well, I'm REALLY REALLY off to get ready for work now...
Okay, it's about 2 hours later than I normally go to bed, but I figured I'd at least get to THIS and put off your email even longer...

When it comes to right and wrong there is NO POSSIBLE WAY you can know what is right and what is wrong. Every single little thing you do could be the difference between you dying today and you living today. You could drink some water (which is a good thing) and then walk outside and get hit by a car (which is a bad thing). Had you not had the water, you would have crossed the street and lived. So really you can't know if you're doing the right thing. If I were to see someone getting his ass beat by someone else, I figure that he probably deserves it, I won't get involved. If I do, there's a good chance that I'll get my ass beat. Sometimes, though, you can't stop yourself from doing something for someone. For example, if I were to see Miriam, or someone else I know, getting her ass beat, I'd be on the guy in a second... so I guess that all of this leads to me being a selfish little bastard that only wants certain people to be happy.

So, if we're trying to decide if I'm trying to do the right thing or trying to make the world better, I would have to say neither one. I'm trying to do the right thing for myself and make myself better. I'll let you decide which of the two that I am, since I really don't care. :)

It's always fun to read your stuff, though. So yay. Now I'm off to bed and after that, I'll be going to work, after that, I'll be going to the WHS to see the puppies, and after that I'll be checking into MA. Hopefully I'll find a good chiropractor, or a lead on a better job. ;)

hqsmrfec
Wait a minute, Stephen. If you really mean that there's no way to know what is right and what is wrong, twothings in that post don't make sense to me:

1. What is the sense in trying to do the right thing for yourself, since there's no way to know what is right? Do you mean that you can be pretty darn sure what's right, and there's simply no way to get that last little bit of certainty that would constitute "knowing?"

2. How can you say that drinking water is a good thing and being hit by a car are bad things? Are you drawing a distinction between right and good, wrong and bad, so that even if it is impossible to know what is right it is possible to know what is good?
Or maybe I was too tired to explain it right.
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