« The Rule of Law - All in Favor, say "Aye" | Main | Gen Y and The Changing Leadership in Philanthropy, Reflections on a Conversation with Sharna Goldseker »

November 24, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Thank you for the reminder, Phil.

It is sometimes difficult to discuss things one feels strongly about without becoming inflamed, but to the extent that one believes in the efficacy of the talking cure, it is a valuable ability to cultivate.

Arguing is not a form of persuasion. You can't change somebody's mind by telling them that they are a jerk.

I will confess, however, to sometimes having difficulty with the notion of loving the sinner, particularly in the case of sins of cruelty. I recognize intellectually that cruelty often (always?) arises out of a mixture of fear and anger, with a dash of ignorance, all of which I can understand and even accept as constituent components; but somehow I find the amalgam that manifests itself as, say, torture, infinitely more repugnant. I am not sure that I could ever hate torture, but love the torturer. In fact (and I recognize that this may be a moral deficiency on my part) I don't even want to. At the same time, to the extent that I feel that way, I try to avoid pointless street skirmishes with torture apologists and euphemists.

(This is an area of ethical work in progress for me right now. All opinions expressed are hypothetical.)



Thank you. Ever since Yale, which is maybe your reference point too, ever since deconstruction began to challenge my own certainties, I have felt privately that the or one fundamental question, in all the slippping and sliding of the signifier, is: "For what beliefs or principles will you die or kill?" At what point, will you to the final step? For what? Will you suffer torment to end torment? Will you kill to prevent killing? Will you fight a war to end war?

If we hate the hater, kill the killer, we have one system. If we love the hater and embrace the killer we have another. Jesus, Gandhi, MLK seem to point us towards the extremes of love, from the bottom up, from the weak to the powerful. Love as a weapon of the weak. As for justice, we have sheep and goats, and the Jesus of Revelations, I guess.

Where I come out on cruelty is satire. The good doctor will probe deep, and in Rome that probing was done without anesthetic, and is still done that way in authentic satire, not to hurt, but to cure. Or, if the analogy holds good with the public hangman (Dryden speaks of our Noble Trade, meaning that of Jack Ketch) then the goal is not merely to execute the malefactor, but as in the old days, to torture him first in public as a moral lesson, not only to the condemned man, but to the awed crowd.

Satire is not the same as flaming. For one thing satire opens the possibility of entering into the skin of the victim himself and impersonating him until he becomes "visibly" laughable. We can laugh a fool out of his Folly. Second satire allows us to flog a Type, like Buffo, or Harpax, rather than a real instance by name. Finally, when satire is directed against a real person, a person in high station, from someone who is weaker in worldly terms, you have an unfair fight. The stronger can have the weaker put in the pillory and have his ears cropped for real. Today it might be a CIA prison, or homeland security or a no fly list or whatever. So satire is not randmon cruelty in the heat of conversation. It is the cold blooded re-enactment of ancient rituals and cures. The goal is any case is to cure the body politic, even if the satirist himself becomes the goat we call "scapegoat," a risk any satirist knows he must take, else it is not satire but just flaming.


Your distinction between satire and flaming is helpful to me.

I hadn't consciously been thinking of cruelty in the context of argument, but that is an interesting connection - and I realize in retrospect that my own disillusion with flat-out argument stems from a sense of guilt I felt after having 'won' a flame war without convincing my opponent. I realized afterwards that I had destroyed the village without saving it.

With respect to your first point, I find it helpful to apply the methods of just-in-time inventory control to my ethical inventory. I don't feel that I actually need to decide in advance what principles I would risk my skin for. (Or even which ones I 'believe' in.) After all, when the opportunity arises, it is not always a 'principle' that one is confronted with, so much as a situation. I trust that I will know those situations when I encounter them. Speaking for myself, I think my own time is better spent developing my ethical reflexes then elaborating a taxonomy of my presumed beliefs. (Zen ethics, if you will.)


I find myself wondering just what the ontological constituents of a situation are. There are the principles, then there is their application. Which ones apply and which have precedence? What is the risk in both taking the stand and letting it go? What part is personal and what part is collective?



Right moral practice, habit formation, character. Aristotle stresses that in his Ethics. And that make the moral teacher a coach or trainer, or maybe a physician. In any case what is sought is a way of living. Zen, indeed, but Christ taught the same. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf. I take that to mean he opened eyes and ears and left his "students" radically changed.



OODA loops? Observe, orient, decide, act, where our traditions, principles, habits, acculturation determine much of what we see, how we orient, and how we decide and act? Consciously articulating principles is very different from following them as speaking English differs from doing linquistics.


Good point Gerry,

I suppose that a situation is not an ontological primitive. I was being a bit careless.

As a sociologist, the phrase that pops into my mind is W.I. Thomas' expression 'the definition of the situation': the implicit agreement between the participants about what is supposedly happening and what the roles of the participants are; the context that determines the possibilities of the situation. In a sense it is a collaborative social fiction, but as Thomas famously remarked: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

So my claim to "know situations when I encounter them" indeed does conveniently ignore the complexity of the manner in which situations are constructed. Certainly, a lot depends upon our preconceptions (conscious or otherwise.) And a lot also hangs on the outcome of the inescapable implicit negotiation between the participants, which in turn depends upon their preconceptions, but also on the power relations inherent in the physical or social context, not to mention on our handling of the negotiation. A very complex soup.

I guess what I am saying is that, for me at any rate, having a collection of pre-formulated verbal 'principles' or 'beliefs' doesn't add much to my ability to react ethically to situations. My experience is that ethical situations often unfold quickly and unexpectedly - or they sneak up on you so you hardly notice they are approaching. In either case, humility, a well developed ethical intuition, and a good dose of moral courage are perhaps more useful than any ethical principle.

But I am pretty skeptical of the value of beliefs and opinions generally, so you mileage may differ.


I wasn't disagreeing, and I agree more as you expand on it. Your comment started me thinking about how a situation shapes decisions. I'm sure you are right that moral courage is more important than any principle as it is easy enough to rationalize acting or not acting as necessary to calm our conscience.

Phil, what I find fascinating about something like OODA is not the rigid application in highly competitive (and lethal) situations, but as a more general model of active feedback loops. A lot of action/logic models are never really tested against reality, and mapping onto reality in the DA part of the loop is the critical part.

On the other hand, they don't really bring out the role of generation and selection in these loops. It's the implied selection by survival.

In the first decades of the 20th century Johan Huizinga formulated the notion of "Homo ludens," the playing Man in contrast to "Homosapience," the knowing Man and "Homo faber," the making Man. Long before him, Indic thinkers came up with the idea of "Deus ludens," the playing God, to explain the emergence of the world.
From Indic Visions in an Age of Science, II: Origins and Ends by V.V. Raman

Let us play (It would be more impressive if I could have translated to Latin).


Yes, indeed. Read Home Ludens long ago and it had an influence on me. "Serio Ludere" is a noble genre. The Trickster is a book by Lewis Hyde, as is The Gift. These themes of play, tricksters, trangression, humor, fools, and the world turned upside down all cross and recross in the mythic history of many traditions.


The Fool, the Trickster, The Rogue, all of these figures work at the crossroads, the boundary markers, the doorways, their god might be Hermes, sacred to pickpockets, thieves, and prostitutes, though he is the messenger of the gods. We play to upset commonsense, and established "ethics," and let something more vital enter the ossified consensus. (John Gay wrote the Beggars Opera celebrating Beggars, Thieves, Fencers of Stolen Goods, Doxies, and their political counterparts in high places. Earlier he had written Trivia, which comes from the Latin for "where three roads meet." Hence from the place where Hermes is sacred and intervenes and where beggars, thieves, merchants, doxies congregatee. Down at the crossroads is where Robert Johnson got his gift from the devil in return for his soul.)

The comments to this entry are closed.


Wealth Bondage Premium Content

  • Castle by the Sea
    Provided as a professional courtesy at no extra charge to those with net worth of $25 million or more and/or family income of $500,000 a year or more, and to their Serving Professionals of all genders.