“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, June 26, 2004


My friend T. wants to know why I keep going on and on about Christopher Hitchens, who he thinks is an unworthy Moby Dick to my Ahab.

Well -- I happen to think that Hitchens is a writer. As opposed to the usual buffoon. That's about it, for a reason. Reason not the obsession -- if the sun itself reached out a hand and struck me on my face, I would strike back -- to answer in the most Ahab-like way.

But also, also ... this isn't heading towards a tit for tat thing about C.H. I'm after an even bigger whale -- how we argue about politics.

Now, to continue. Let me take off the Ahab mask and put on the T.A. mask.

No moral theory can ground itself absolutely on consequences, since there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about a consequence; no moral theory can entirely ignore consequences, since absolutely separating moral categories from actions is like absolutely separating words from meaning.

Kant, who comes closest to the absolute anti-consequentialist position, summed that position up in the phrase, “the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect.” However, in order to make this proposition plausible, Kant trumps consequences with a notion of the universal that encodes a timeless schema of consequences. The famous example of the lie is the place where Kant makes his stand:

“The shortest way, however, and an unerring one, to discover the answer to this question whether a lying promise is consistent with duty, is to ask myself, "Should I be content that my maxim (to extricate myself from difficulty by a false promise) should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as for others? and should I be able to say to myself, "Every one may make a deceitful promise when he finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself?" Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since it would be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this allegation, or if they over hastily did so would pay me back in my own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself. “

The idea that one’s act “should be a universal law” is a long, pious way around consequences, but it amounts to elevating a model taken from a particular realm of consequence – the model developed in law from precedent – and purifying it of the contingent character of consequence to reach its logical core.

In our own view, there are other problems with consequences from a moral view that lie in the nature of social action itself. The problem is: how are we supposed to “count over” consequences, as the analytic philosophers would put it?

This is a technical problem that goes back, historically, to the Stoic protest against Aristotelian logic, and the connection of paradox to ethics (which is rather puzzling to the modern sensibility – that is why Cicero’s Paradoxes is such a weird text to read). At the beginning of the twentieth century, as it became evident that logic could be completely redone and its power extended by using Cantor’s set theory, the stage was set for rediscovering the force of the scattered ethical insights of the Stoics. Deleuze, in the Logique du sens, realized this in the sixties. It is still LI’s favorite among Deleuze’s books.

The technical problem has a superficial aspect and a deep, structural essence. The superficial aspect is: how to count consequences. Here is an example, from Alan Moorehead’s book, Gallipoli. On August 3, 1914, Winston Churchill informed the Turkish government that the two battleships that the Turks had ordered from the British, which were so close to the point of completion that the Turks had already sent crews to England, were being impounded. As Europe teetered on the brink of war, Churchill was afraid of the use the Turks could make of those battleships. However, Turkey was allied neither with the British nor the Germans.

On of the consequences of that act was that the Germans had a chance to move in with two of their own battleships, which they ‘ceded’ – along with the crews – to the Turks. One of the commanders of one of those ships then took it upon himself, unilaterally, to put a blockade across the Bosphorus, thus preventing Russian ships from supplying Russia with grain, armaments, and other stuffs. In consequence, the government of Turkey had to either identify with that act or renege on it. In consequence of being forced to choose, the Turks chose to identify with the act, and so allied themselves, in Allied eyes, and then officially, with the Axis.

How many of these ‘consequences” are really the consequence of Winston Churchill’s act? The superficial problem, here, is that, depending on how one construes the world, it is difficult to disinter all the consequences of any act – as difficult as it is to pick out snowflakes from an avalanche. Nevertheless, we do it all the time – in trials, in domestic life, at work. We use conventions, and we think in terms of short ranges of time, etc. Yet no sane person, looking back over his life, trusts those conventions absolutely. We all feel like there are consequences of certain things we’ve done or had done to us that we didn’t understand at the time. We all think effects are, in reality, very hard to peg to a timeline.

So much for the superficial counting over of consequences. In the next post, I want to approach the deeper problem – which is the problem of complexity itself. But I thought I’d end this post with a translation, from the French, of a couple of grafs from Cicero’s third paradox, Les fautes ont toutes la même valeur, comme les bonnes actions – “Faults all have the same value, just like good actions” – to show that the Stoics were alive to the quantitative problem in ethics. They were interested in what we now call the problem of the continuous and the discrete:

The thing is without gravity, they say. But the culpability (culpa) is great; for the faults (peccata) ought to be evaluated not according to events, but according to the defaults (vitiis) of the persons. What makes for the commission of a fault can be more or less important: however one approaches the problem, the committed fault is one. That a pilot navigates a shipload of gold or straw into a shipwreck makes for a large enough difference between the facts, but none in the incompetence of the pilot. That someone violently mistreats a plebian woman: our emotional response to this is much less than if someone struck a woman from a respectable and noble family, but the agent has not less committed a fault, since to commit a fault reduces, essentially, to going over a limit (transire lineas): when one takes a step across it, the fault is established; it doesn’t matter how far one then advances in the fault, nothing contributes more to aggravate the transgressed interdiction. It isn’t permitted to anyone, certainly, to commit a fault (peccare). Thus, what isn’t permitted holds itself in a single block (in hoc uno), if it is proven that it isn’t permitted. If the interdiction cannot exist in terms of more or less gravity, or greater or lesser – since, if the interdiction has been pronounced, the fault (peccatum) resides in the fact that it is always one and identical – then it is necessary that the faults issuing from that interdiction must be equal (aequalia) to it.”

I’d urge anyone interested to read Cicero’s crazy little treatise, which is pretty short.

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