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A Larger Problem and an Old Problem

  1. Jul 21, 2005 #1


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    A "Larger" Problem...and an Old Problem

    Recent discussions have made me aware that the problem of terrorism is larger than I realized. And I don't mean support for terrorism itself, I mean the attitudes that enable it. I'm seeing these attitudes even from people I know don't support terrorism - and it also may be the reason I have a hard time accepting it when other people claim they don't, while seemingly arguing in favor of it.

    The problem is the "larger goals" theory. People (and perhaps this is part of human nature) have a tendancy to accept a small wrong to enable a larger right. At its most extreme, some would argue that any action is justifiable if it is in defense of your life or some other "larger goal". Most people accept a more subtle version of it, but it still doesn't jive with modern western morality: the ends do not justify the means.

    One example brought up recently was a perfect one: the Tuskegee syphilis study. The theory under which that study was undertaken was that it was worth the lives of ~400 poor black men in Alabama to save thousands of others infected with syphilis. The ends justify the means, right? Not in this world, they don't.

    The US is one of the first places that this attitude started to die. The reason is our insistence on the sanctity of individual rights. People bash the US for the continued existence of the KKK, yet fail to realize that destroying the KKK requires tearing up the Bill of Rights. Someone in another thread said "you've already lost the war" if you refuse to consider any means of defense. What s/he doesn't see is that by accepting tactics that are immoral in defense of a "larger goal", you are, in fact, surrendering right off the bat.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2005 #2


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    The Old Problem

    The old problem is partially nationalism, but mostly its just that people refuse to let go of the past and move on. Every country/culture/religion has skeletons in the closet and the insistence on keeping those issues alive - not just for remembering so they are not repeated, but actually reliving them - keeps the hate alive.

    WWI and WWI were the great nationalistic wars. One of the prime causes of WWII was the fact that Germany was so punished after WWI that it enabled the nationalistic rhetoric to continue and enabled the rise of Hitler. WWII happened because people were still fighiting WWI in their minds.

    After WWII, the Marshall Plan, instead of punishing Germany, called for its rebuilding. This idea originated with Wilson's 14 Points, but was not implimented after WWI. The world was not ready to accept it. Had we not accepted the idea that countries can change (and in fact, enabled that change instead of preventing it), WWIII likely would have followed shortly after WWII.

    Today, Germany is a full and active member of the world community. They are at peace with their neighbors. How is such a thing possible only 60 years after the end of WWII when others in the Middle East are still fighting the Crusades? Simple: the French and Polish and Belgians and even the Americans recognize that the Germany of today is not the same Germany that fought WWII. It has changed. Evolved (and revolved).

    The idea that we should focus on past wrongs instead of looking at who we are now and going forward has died for the West. It still controls much of the international politics elsewhere.
  4. Jul 21, 2005 #3


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    Yes but the new terrorism we are experiencing is closely associated with religion and perverted ideologies. For extremists to say that they conduct such actions and their souls culminate in "heaven with 72 wives" is an ideology that will take years to understand and uproot from our "normal system".
  5. Jul 21, 2005 #4
    i must admit that i philosophically do not agree with this. how can the ends not justify the means?

    how can intelligent, informed decisions not be made without weighing the consequences versus the benefits? much ado is made over the alleged dilemna of "is 1 life worth 1,000,000 lives"? to me the answer is a clear no, and i fail to see reasoning otherwise.

    i also fail to see what this has to do with terrorism. it has nothing to do with their ends or their means, but rather that:

    terrorism spells the end of civilization, and is symptomatic of global decay into chaos. it represents the element of instability introduced by the lack of polarity in a post-Cold War world. sooner or later, all civilized countries will acknowledge this. in this light, the "end/means" becomes irrelevant to those who are exasperated, and the concern is merely how to stamp it out.

    while i cannot comment on this particular incident, i will say this: there are still deaths due to vaccinations. for example, the case for polio vaccinations in the US has come under fire again since currently more people die from the vaccine than the disease. there are always vaccine deaths, regardless of the vaccine - is it worth it? the question is definately worth asking, as opposed to taking some naive moral stand and allowing a population to die of disease.

    logic dictates that the ends do justify the means.
  6. Jul 21, 2005 #5
    True Russ.

    It's a close parallel to lifeboat ethics. Should a society violate it's principles to
    protect itself? My answer is yes, it if absolutely must. Founding principles and
    documents should not be a suicide pact.

    A society is organized for the betterment of its members. Dying for the right of
    free speech by defending it is one thing. Dying on account of free speech because
    it was used to incite violence against you is a perversion of that right. (I refer to the incessant
    hate speech which pours from the mouths of leaders of certian movements
    and results in people strapping explosives to their bodies or hanging other people from trees.)

    Further, you have to make sure that the methods you employ to protect your society
    are appropriate to the threat at hand.

    If I see an Islamic suicide bomber strapping on a pouch of TNT, I'll attempt
    to kill him before he kills me. That should not require any further explanation.
    But it would be wrong to harm a Muslim for his beliefs alone, even if those
    beliefs include the idea that its ok to desecrate the Koran by murdering in
    it's name.

    If I see that Christian evangelization is a death sentence in Saudi Arabia
    but Muslim evangelization in Europe is funded and encouraged by Saudi
    Arabia, then I may want to reclassify what is and is not a permitted
    religion in Europe- even while I belive in religious tolerance. This is not
    an inconsistency. Because a religion that is intolerant of other religions
    doesn't itself deserve to be tolerated at my expense.

    How can I tell if it's right to take such harsh measures? It's right when
    the members of the group don't police themselves. Then society must
    act, sometimes even in violation of it's usual priciples.

    This applies to any faith or movement which professes violence against
    non-members. The KKK should not be tolerated by moral white Protestants.
    Global Jihad should not be tolerated by moral Muslims. The IRA should not
    be tolerated by moral Irish Catholics. Slavery should not be tolerated
    by moral Southerners cira 1860.

    When a group can't or won't police it's own radicals, the whole group isn't
    guilty of the crime, but the whole group IS responsible for it. The rest
    of us are fully justified in taking whatever measured actions are needed to
    protect ourselves inside or outside our borders.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2005
  7. Jul 21, 2005 #6


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    I don't think it makes sense to say that the ends don't justify the means. In the examples of the Tuskegee experiment, those ends don't justify those means, but this can't be true in general. If there are a very few means to a given end, and each of those means involves some bad results, but if doing none of them (and thereby not accomplishing the end) is even worse, then how can you argue that the worse outcome is better than the not-so-bad outcome? Assuming that the intentions are good and pure, then doesn't the moral judgement of the action (or inaction) depend on the consequences? In the Tuskegee experiments, the experimenters lied to the patients and knowingly put the patients families at risk. They were not facing an immediate danger that called for those types of actions (it's not as though an instant cure for syphillis was required or else everyone would die), and it's certainly arguable that there were other, justifiable means of accomplishing the same ends.

    So I disagree that the "larger goals" theory is a problem. That the ends justify the means is not a problem, but what is wrong is a combination of the terrorists' beliefs that their desired ends themselves are tolerable, and that the means they employ are justified by the ends they seek. Simply put, they want too much, and go too far to get what they want.

    Also, I don't see your point about the KKK. Encarta calls the KKK a secret terrorist organization (Source). Not a single sane person would care if it were a violation of the Bill of Rights if America attempted to remove all Al Qaeda cells from their country. To be honest, I can't imagine a sane person who would care if America attempted to remove the KKK. If you can't see clearly enough to distinguish between citizens with unorthodox ideas, and people with ideas like the KKK's, then you'll have problems. There's a difference between being tolerant, and tolerating both immorality and intolerance itself. It may be difficult to know exactly where to draw the line, but to avoid the sticky problem of dealing with grey areas by giving up altogether seems silly. You will be able to say that you are consistent, which is nice, but if you're consistently making bad decisions, then there's not much to be proud of.
  8. Jul 21, 2005 #7
    AKG, you hit it.

    Moral ends don't justify immoral means.

    Extreme situations justify extreme measures.
  9. Jul 21, 2005 #8


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    :approve: Hey hey. Well said.
  10. Jul 21, 2005 #9


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    Well I think one has to look at the possibilities or alternative means.

    Take for example a situation where one life must be forfeited for the good of a larger number - 100, 1000, 10000.

    How is this one life chosen? Is one person picked 'fairly' or 'arbitrarily'?

    Would you volunteer to forfeit your life for the good of the many?

    If you were in a lottery, would you prefer a fair and impartial selection process?

    What if the means are selected because the selectors couldn't be bothered with a more expensive means or one requiring more effort?

    What if you are picked, because someone doesn't like you?

    I think the means need to be 'reasonable' or as reasonable and fair as possible. And the means should be moral - good points by Antiphon and AKG!
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2005
  11. Jul 21, 2005 #10
    In the words of basil fawlty "don't mention the war!"
  12. Jul 21, 2005 #11


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    That was a GREAT great TV show !
  13. Jul 22, 2005 #12


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    Whoa, a lot here. For starters, I need to be more specific about the moral issue here...
    This is why:
    But to be more specific, both the Utilitarian Principle (the good/needs of the many outweigh the good/needs of the few) and the individual rights principle (I'm not sure if it has a real name) are absolute moral principles, meaning they can't be partially true and still be internally consistent. Ie, if the Utilitarian principle is true, then killing 1,000 people in order to save 1,001 is just as morally correct as killing 1 to save 1,000,000. If the individual rights principle is true then it is just as morally wrong to kill 1 to save 2 as it is to kill 1 to save 1,000,000.

    The reason, like Astronuc said, is that to decide somewhere in the middle requires a moral calculus that is completely subjective. No two people will necessarily agree on the net value of a situation and there is no rule that can be applied to make the decision clear.

    Now, that said, its important to understand that a moral absolute doesn't necessarily apply in all situations just as gravity and electricity are two different scientific principles that apply in different cases. They can only be used when the conflict between rights is even and clear. Fortunatly, most of what we are discussing is clear situations: one life vs another.

    For those who haven't read it, The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas is a short, fictional essay illustrating the morality of causing just one person to suffer so that others can prosper.

    Examples of the utilitarian principle in action abound and are used by dictators - benevolent or otherwise - to justify horrific atrocities. The best example is Stalin: if Stalin was truly doing the things he did in the name of Communism, then by the Utilitarian principle, he wasn't merely correct to kill tens of millions of people, he was required to do so by the moral code.

    Regarding a few specific examples:

    Vaccines - though it is often used, the utilitarian principle does not apply to vaccines: While it is true that vaccines kill people, not taking a vaccine kills more people (even when the risk is taken on an individual basis). Thus, the choice for an individual is a simple matter of weighing one risk of death against another - and the vaccine wins.

    Re: the KKK
    You misread: Encarta calls the originial KKK a terrorist organization. And it was: it actively fought against the government during the reconstruction in the late 1800s. In heading III, it says the current KKK (different organization, same name) was founded in 1915.

    The Supreme Court in the 20th century has been very consistent in dealing with the KKK: if freedom of speech can exist at all, then the KKK has the right to exist so long as it isn't actively threatening anyone.

    More to come...
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2005
  14. Jul 22, 2005 #13


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    Not only does the second sentence contradict the first, but the second sentence can be used as a justification for terrorism!
  15. Jul 22, 2005 #14


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    Yes precisely. And this is the reason given by the US admin for their attack on Iraq so what does that suggest?
  16. Jul 22, 2005 #15
    You did not grasp the difference between a principle and a situation.
    Let me clarify.

    Moral ends do not justify immoral means.

    This is statement of principle. The purpose of adhering to it is to serve
    the higher end of life preservation. From this principle I could deduce
    that killing someone to harvest their organs in order to save 5 other lives
    is wrong.

    Extreme situations justify extreme measures.

    This is a statement of the fact that when you are in a lifeboat with
    one too many people on, it is necessary for someone to get off. The
    extreme measure is to draw straws and the loser gets thrown off.

    It would be wrong according to the first principle to throw off the
    least-liked or the ugliest person. It is not wrong according to the
    first principle to throw someone off after lots are drawn.

    The two statements are reconciled in this manner and taken together
    allow for moral action in extreme cases.
  17. Jul 22, 2005 #16


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    But the way you get out of having to deal with the moral principle is to change the situation to one where it no longer applies. In the situation with the lifeboat, it only works if everyone agrees to drawing straws - otherwise, you're right back where you started and you still have to deal with that moral principle.

    When you say "Extreme situations justify extreme measures," that implies to me that you think there would be a scenario where you would make the choice for someone that they must die, in direct contradiction to that moral principle. Ie, if one person on the lifeboat refused to draw a straw, someone drew for him, and the others on the boat threw him overboard when he drew the shortest straw, that's murder.
  18. Jul 22, 2005 #17


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    No, it wasn't.
  19. Jul 22, 2005 #18


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    Another example: the military. There are two classic movie scenarios where a soldier is ordered to take a hill in a mission known to have a very high likelihood of death and the sealing-off-the-compartment-in-the-sinking-ship scenario. But the fact that the miltary is a utilitarian organization cannot be construed as murder of the soldier taking the hill or the sailor sealed in the flooded compartment because part of joining the military is the understanding that you may have to give your life. In essence, those guys volunteered ahead of time to forfeit their lives.

    Naturally, that makes a draft a sticky situation, and that's one of the reasons we no longer have it. I'm not sure if anyone ever challenged the draft on that reasoning, though.
  20. Jul 22, 2005 #19


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    There are examples when the ends justify the means, and examples where they don't. The idea that we need to have some broad, objective rule is terribly flawed. For one, the idea of having objective rules is itself strange. If we are to adopt any rules, then they should serve a purpose (they shouldn't be followed just for the sake of it, or, rather, I can't see why any reasonable person would do so). But is purpose objective? Clearly, utilitarianism is a general rule that leads to a certain type of end, and the no-life-is-worth-sacrificing rule is one that leads to other ends. The only sensible question here is whether you like the ends that utilitarianism achieves, or whether you like the ends achieved by the other rule. Otherwise, it makes no sense to say that one of these rules is the rule we ought to follow regardless of whether it serves our purposes or not.

    It is also flawed because it seems to be a generally bad approach. I can't see what these rules are good for. I don't make a rule against killing and then decide I won't kill. I already don't want to kill, so it's pointless for me to make this rule. We can make rules in order to control others, but in that case getting people to follow those rules is a matter of enforcing them. If you actually want to convince someone the merit of these rules, then saying that the rule against killing is good because it prevents killing will not sway someone who is partial to killing. On the other hand, if he already doesn't like killing, he has no need to follow your rule.

    Not only do such rules seem to serve no purpose, if we did try to use them, they would be disastrous. In the Tuskegee experiments, we see that the means were not justified by the ends. However, if a man shoplifts a candy bar, we see that there's no justification for shooting him in the head, whereas if he is about to rape and torture a family, we see that it is justified. How can one ignore the ends/consequences of a moral action and say that they've come close to a proper moral assessment? Consequences aren't the only factor, but they are a factor. If we did try to have these broad general rules, we'd have a countless number of caveats to the rule unless we decided to make terrible decisions in the interest of maintaing a clean, simple, moral position. However, since moral dilemmas are rarely clean or simple, why would we do this? Why have a general rule with all these provisos? What are we going to do with this rule anyways?

    I think when it comes to morality, empiricism is the best approach. Morality can cover many things. For some people, it is about determining good and bad actions. Or it can be about determining good and bad consequences, or good and bad attitudes. We might want to ask not whether something is good, but rather what should we call good in the first place? If I currently have certain values, are these values thesmelves good? Can we even evaluate values themselves? I believe we can. If we have a set of values that is impossible to achieve, or is contradictory, or is not likely to give us the fulfilment or happiness or pleasure that we think it will, we can say that these values should be scrapped for other ones. And this can be done empirically. If we have certain values, we can actually check which actions promote these values. If we think that a certain value is a good value to have, we can actually check and see if other people who have lived up to this value were able to achieve it, or were satisfied when they achieved it.... This was a bit of a rant that's coming off the top of my head, I might have missed something.
  21. Jul 22, 2005 #20
    Sure is and you have.

    All this is from the perspective of YOU making the decisions.

    You'll be really surprised when it is decided by someone else that YOU are the one to lose your life just how much things change.

    At that point, you don't give a rats keester about 'philosophy'. :biggrin:
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