Bryan Caplan  

Evil Exceptions

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Philosophers spend a great deal of time crafting plausible exceptions to widely-accepted moral rules.  Sure, murder is wrong.  But what if you could murder a man on his death-bed to prevent a plane crash?  What if you could smother the baby who grows up to be Adolf Hitler?  What if you could prevent a bloody riot by executing an innocent man?  The hypotheticals never end.

These odd scenarios provide employment for hundreds of philosophers, and entertainment for thousands of consumers of philosophy.  But do these exercises actually lead to more ethical behavior?  Yes, contemplating exceptions makes us less likely to stubbornly hew to common-sense morality.  But in the real world, is dogmatic decency really a serious problem?

This question keeps recurring to me as I re-read Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe.  (If you don't take these books seriously, by the way, the joke's on you; few works of history are better).  The answer is clear: Human beings are way too willing to endorse exceptions to the general rule against murdering, raping, and robbing each other. 

For emotional distance, let's limit ourselves to human history before 1900.  Even though almost everyone thinks that murder, rape, and robbery are ordinarily wrong, pre-twentieth century history is virtually a chronicle of exceptions to these rules.  Virtually every massive historical crime begins with people saying, "It's OK to murder those people because [we want their stuff/God says we should kill them/they're inferior/some of them killed some of us/some of them are going to kill some of us eventually]."  Virtually all of these crimes end badly - almost always for the victims, and often for the perpetrators as well.  In history as in life, what comes around, goes around. 

To illustrate, consider volume four of Gonick's fourth volume (The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1).  He begins by explaining that when King Felipe of Spain took the throne, France and Spain had been at war for sixty years.  To mend fences, Felipe marries the daughter of the French King Henri II.  Both try to wipe out their Protestants, but Henri dies an accidental death soon after Felipe's wedding.  Before long, Henri's ten-year-old son Charles IX takes the French throne.  Smelling weakness, the persecuted Protestants counter-attack.  Mutual reprisals soon spiral into civil war. 

Meanwhile, Felipe of Spain sends the Inquisition to the Netherlands.  Nobles led by William of Orange resist, and Protestants begin reprisals: "The Calvinists lost patience and started invading churches, stripping off the gold, and murdering priests."  Felipe sends the Duke of Alva to crush the rebels.  Alva declares William of Orange an outlaw; William flees and returns with a rebel army.  The Netherlands descend into civil war.  Things go downhill from there.  Think I'm cherry-picking?  The best I can do is suggest that you read Gonick for yourself.  Finding a ten-page stretch without a senseless bloodbath is a real challenge.
If you comb through the pages of history, you will admittedly find cases where exceptions to common-sense morality would have predictably led to better outcomes.  Maybe if the Pope had quietly poisoned Luther, a hundred years of religious warfare could have been avoided.  Maybe if the czars had executed Bolsheviks instead of sending them to Siberia, the Russian Revolution and international Leninist plague could have been avoided. 

What's striking, though, is that the exceptions that people actually made throughout history almost never forestalled disaster.  Indeed, the exceptions usually are the disasters.  In the real world, people bend the rules of common-sense morality to do great evil, not to do great good.  If moral philosophers wanted to help us make better choices, they'd take these facts to heart - or at least spend a lot more time reading history to see if I'm right.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Thomas writes:

Well, certainly some of the exceptions are disasters. But certainly these aren't the only exceptions--most of the exceptions are surely forgotten to history. Perhaps those are forgotten precisely because no disaster resulted.

Daniel writes:

There are a lot of utilitarians who think that the world would not be a better place if people accepted the right moral theory (i.e., utilitarianism, according to them), precisely for the sorts of reasons you're bringing up; the best moral theory might be such that people putatively attempting to follow it will consistently fail to do so, due to self-serving biases of various sorts.

There's a difference between thinking that a certain example/argument is a helpful way of figuring out the moral truth, and thinking that a certain example/argument would be such that if more people were aware of it and considered it in their practical decisions, the world would be a better place. This distinction dates back at least as far as Sidgwick, who talks about what he calls "esoteric" morality.

If you're interested, ctrl+f "esoteric" here.

And I think at least some philosophers are sensitive to this distinction in their writing. For instance, when Peter Singer writes stuff aimed at the general public, he doesn't advocate the conclusions he actually believes. He advocates only weaker conclusions than the ones that he advocates in other contexts, precisely because (I take it) he thinks that these conclusions are more likely to be accepted and acted upon than more extreme ones (e.g, in popular work he suggests that morality requires you to give a substantial amount of your income to charity, but not a huge amount, while in work aimed at a more scholarly audience, he advocates the more extreme conclusion that it requires giving basically up until the point at which the potential recipients of your money would benefit from getting it less than you would benefit from keeping it).

murray writes:

I think you have a sampling problem, How often are potentially violent revolts crushed with barely a memory ? Who knows?Sort of how the real moral heroes of the Gandhi tale are the British. If India was occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets we would have never heard of Gahndi, and maybe all that hindu muslem violence could have been avoided(potsponed). Name the guy who stood in front of the tank in Tianneman square? Ruthless, smart governments probably do (did) it all the time. Maybe had we not taken out Mullah Omar, Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, The world would cunreently be in flames. Now I am just goading you, but maybe true

Tracy W writes:

I also fear sampling bias. The Catholic Church successsfully persecuted a number of heresies, eg Catharism. William the Conqueror's Harrowing of the North stopped any more insurgencies.
The value may not have been worth the prices paid, but then we don't hear about the tragedies that didn't happen.

Anomaly UK writes:

Probably true, but the major problem I have with these thought experiments is that they all assume certainty about the facts on the part of the decision-maker, a certainty that is quite implausible.

The same flaw underlies most examples of "irrationality" in behavioural experiments. What they amount to, more often than not, is that the experimental subjects are making judgements as if the premises of the experiment are not certainly true, even when they are told by the experimenter to assume that they are. Decision-making under conditions of absolute certainty is something our intuitions -- economic or moral -- are not equipped for.

TJIC writes:

The one place where I think that what were arguable moral shortcuts resulted in a much better outcome was the Argentinian "Dirty War", where - I suggest - aggressive response to communist insurgency spared a society a period of communist dictatorship.

Matt C writes:

> For emotional distance, let's limit ourselves to human history before 1900. Even though almost everyone thinks that murder, rape, and robbery are ordinarily wrong,

Note that murder, rape, and robbery are terms that really only apply to people within the tribe.

Murder, rape, and robbery are fine as long as they're practiced on foreigners. There is never a shortage of men willing to sign up to fight in a war where they expect to be able to sack and loot.

This is a little less true at the moment, in the developed world, but even when I was in college during the first Gulf War, it wasn't rare to hear guys talking smack about going over and killing "sand niggers". I don't think our current the-world-is-my-tribe attitudes run very deep.

libfree writes:

I've never really bought into the exception argument. Hitler was riding the wave of society. Would killing him have prevented the tragedies of the Holocaust and WWII. I think it's rather unlikely. They may have taken a different form but would still have happened. I don't think individuals matter that much.

Philo writes:

Philosophers’ outre’ examples have no immediately practical point. They are simply an attempt to find the truly fundamental considerations that determine when an action is right or wrong. A crude rule that works 99% of the time is probably fine for practical purposes, but philosophers have relatively little interest in such rules (and 99%, or any such figure, would depend on the kinds of cases that the agent would encounter—i.e., the practical validity of the rule would depend on agents’ environments). The philosophers’ Holy Grail is a rule that must work 100% of the time, in any environment. They are theorists, more than practical guides.

John Thacker writes:

On Twitter, someone responded (agreeing with the basic post) asking the logic be applied to abortion and euthanasia. Bryan responded by saying, "Doesn't common-sense morality say voluntary euthanasia is OK? When the hopeless ask, movie heroes put them out of their misery."

I have to say that's a weak argument that undermines the post. Movie heroes kill lots of people on the basis of the "some of them killed some of us/some of them are going to kill some of us eventually" arguments all the time.

Ken B writes:
What's striking, though, is that the exceptions that people actually made throughout history almost never forestalled disaster.

I'm curious how one can know this? Had Luther been quietly poisoned he might not now be famous enough to make it into the Cartoon History of the 16th Century. There's a line about mute inglorious Miltons ...

Nathan Smith writes:

No need for me to comment really, everyone nailed it already. If your evil act averts disaster, you wouldn't know that it did. I'm sympathetic to Bryan's deontology, but this attempt to defend it empirically doesn't work.

Ken B writes:

More history. WARNING: Cartoon! Please don't riot.

Kurt writes:

This post illustrates the basic and obvious flaw that some are unwilling to see: common sense morality itself saw these exceptions as obvious facts at the time. "Common sense" morality is to blame.

ajb writes:

Kurt wins. Bryan seems so sure his personal view of common sense morality is always correct.

Jonathan writes:

This strikes me as an obscenely naive view of what philosophers do and how normative problems are dealt with in the philosophical literature.

As Daniel and Philo note above, Bryan seems to be confusing moral theorists with life coaches. Discerning what's true is simply a different task from "help[ing] us make better choices", and moral philosophy -- like philosophy generally -- is primarily concerned with the former.

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