Fair and Unfair Logic

St. Thomas discusses cases in which one should not follow the law:

As stated above (Article 4), every law is directed to the common weal of men, and derives the force and nature of law accordingly. Hence the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.]: “By no reason of law, or favor of equity, is it allowable for us to interpret harshly, and render burdensome, those useful measures which have been enacted for the welfare of man.” Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.

He calls the attitude that leads one to set aside the law in such cases “epikeia,” or “equity,” which in this context means something like fairness or moderation:

As stated above (I-II:96:6), when we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view. Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious—for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country. On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of “epikeia” which we call equity. Therefore it is evident that “epikeia” is a virtue.

“Fairness” is probably a good translation here, since someone who rigidly demands the application of the law in such a situation would often be called unfair in relation to the people involved.

Someone might object that much of the benefit of having a law directly depends on following it consistently, without making exceptions based on minute analysis of particular situations, as we saw in the last post. This is correct as far as it goes, but St. Thomas is not talking about analyzing each situation in detail and making an exception whenever there appears to be a benefit, but rather talking about situations which are extremely different from the situations considered by the law. Thus he says in the reply to the second objection:

He who follows the intention of the lawgiver, does not interpret the law simply; but in a case in which it is evident, by reason of the manifest harm, that the lawgiver intended otherwise. For if it be a matter of doubt, he must either act according to the letter of the law, or consult those in power.

To the degree that “laws of logic” can be analogously interpreted as rules for sensible thought and speech, telling one to behave in some ways and not in others, similar principles will apply. Thus, for example, an atheist confronted with the argument of Alexander Pruss for the existence of God based on the indeterminacy of language might not only be inclined to call it sophistical, but to add that it is an unfair way to argue. And indeed it is, precisely in the sense that it applies the rule “either say that A is B or say that A is not B” to situations for which it was not intended, namely situations where B is simply too vague to say. The rule is intended to make people think and speak sensibly, but Pruss is abusing the rule with the opposite result: that he does not speak and think sensibly.

Someone might agree that this is reasonable insofar as we are considering these laws as rules of behavior, but another issue comes up. Human laws are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible. And likewise, rules of logic are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible, e.g. making arguments like:

A: You always say I am wrong.

B: I said you were right about X.

A: See, you just said I was wrong again. You always say I am wrong!

I know from experience that this behavior is possible, and it does violate the laws of logic considered as rules of behavior. But someone might add that the laws of logic are also based on the nature of reality itself, and for this very reason we said that they are not conventions, but could not have been otherwise. So it seems to follow that it should be possible to expound the laws of logic in a form in which they are truly exceptionless, by expressing reality as it truly is.

There is some truth here, but there is also a problem analogous to a similar objection about human law. Consider the third objection and reply in the above article from St. Thomas:

Objection 3. Further, every wise man knows how to explain his intention by words. But those who framed the laws should be reckoned wise: for Wisdom says (Proverbs 8:15): “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Therefore we should not judge of the intention of the lawgiver otherwise than by the words of the law.

Reply to Objection 3. No man is so wise as to be able to take account of every single case; wherefore he is not able sufficiently to express in words all those things that are suitable for the end he has in view. And even if a lawgiver were able to take all the cases into consideration, he ought not to mention them all, in order to avoid confusion: but should frame the law according to that which is of most common occurrence.

The objection here is similar. If there are cases where it wouldn’t be good to apply the law, the lawgiver ought to have enumerated those cases. St. Thomas replies that in reality you will not foresee every case, and that even if you could, enumerating them would simply cause confusion.

A similar thing applies if we consider the laws of logic. You can say, “If you say that A is B in an infinitely precise sense, and that B is C in an infinitely precise sense, you should also say that A is C,” and your claim might be exceptionless. The problem is that your claim has no cases: no one ever says anything in an infinitely precise sense.

And on the other hand, if you try to make your claim include some actual cases, you will not be able to avoid the possibility of exceptions, just as the human lawgiver does not foresee all cases. And as in the case of human law, if you attempt to enumerate all cases, you will simply cause confusion. Thus, for example, someone might say that the problem in the case of Queen Elizabeth is that we simply don’t have a precise enough definition for “old,” and they might then attempt to give a precise definition. But this would have several results:

1. First, the new word “old” would not have the same meaning as the original word, because the very fact that the original word is vague is part of what the word is. It is not accidental; it is not meant to have a precise cut-off.

2. Someone might attempt to remedy the above flaw by enumerating various circumstances, rather than giving a precise cut-off. “If you are less then 10 years old and you say that someone is ‘old,’ it signifies someone who is at least 15.” “If you are in your 30s and you say that someone is ‘old’, it signifies that they are at least 67.” And so on. But attempting to fix the first problem, you have simply compounded it. The new word still does not have the same meaning as the original word, because the original word was meant to be flexible; even your new rules have too much rigidity.

You could attempt to remedy the above problems by listing all the situations where people in fact use the word “old,” but that is not a definition: it is just an indefinitely long list. What St. Thomas said about human law, that it “ought not to mention them all,” is equally true about this situation. The point of defining “old” is to provide an explanation which is both general and flexible. Someone might argue that we should provide a list of all possible circumstances and what should be done in those circumstances, in order to avoid the flexibility of “epikeia,” but such an attempt would be absurd, and harmful to a good life. And it is equally absurd when we attempt to apply the same process to logic or to definitions, and harmful to sensible thought and speech.

What about reality itself? Isn’t it an exceptionless reality that a thing is what it is? Indeed. But this is neither a rule of behavior nor of speech. Nor is it a rule making something be some way; reality does not need something else to make sure that it turns out to be reality rather than something else. There is simply nothing else to be. Parmenides was right at least to this degree.

C.S. Lewis on Punishment

C.S. Lewis discusses a certain theory of punishment:

In England we have lately had a controversy about Capital Punishment. … My subject is not Capital Punishment in particular, but that theory of punishment in general which the controversy showed to be almost universal among my fellow-countrymen. It may be called the Humanitarian theory. Those who hold it think that it is mild and merciful. In this I believe that they are seriously mistaken. I believe that the “Humanity” which it claims is a dangerous illusion and disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end. I urge a return to the traditional or Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily, in the interests of society, but in the interests of the criminal.

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable? One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments. If a tendency to steal can be cured by psychotherapy, the thief will no doubt be forced to undergo treatment. Otherwise, society cannot continue.

My contention is that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question “Is it deserved?” is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a “just deterrent” or a “just cure”. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case”.

Later in the essay, he gives some examples of how the Humanitarian theory will make things worse, as in the following case:

The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts–and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature–who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

This post will make three points:

(1) The “Humanitarian” theory is basically correct about the purpose of punishment.

(2) C.S. Lewis is right that there are good reasons to talk about justice and about what someone deserves or does not deserve. Such considerations are, as he supposes, essential to a system of justice. Lewis is also right to suppose that many supporters of the Humanitarian theory, despite being factually correct about the purpose of punishment, are mistaken in opposing such talk as cruel and immoral.

(3) Once the Humanitarian theory is corrected in such a way as to incorporate the notion of “just deserts”, Lewis’s objections fail.

Consider the first point, the purpose of punishment. There was already some discussion of this in a previous post. In a sense, everyone already knows that Humanitarians are right about the basic purpose of punishment, including C.S. Lewis. Lewis points out the obvious fact himself: whatever you call them and however you explain them, punishments for crime are compulsory in a society because “otherwise, society cannot continue.” But why cannot society continue without punishment? What supposedly would happen if you did not have any punishments? What would actually happen if a government credibly declared that it would never again punish anything?

What would actually happen, of course, is that this amount to a declaration that the government was dissolving itself, and someone else would take over and establish new crimes and new punishments, either at that same level of generality as the original government, or at more local levels (e.g. perhaps each town would become a city-state.) In any case each of the new governments would still have punishments, so you would not have succeeded in abolishing punishment.

What happens in the imaginary situation where you do succeed, where no one else takes over? This presumably would be a Hobbesian “state of nature,” which is not a society at all. In other words, the situation simply does not count as a society at all, unless certain rules are followed pretty consistently. And those rules will not be followed consistently without punishments. So it is easy to see why punishment exists: to make sure that those rules are followed, generally speaking. Since rules are meant to make some things happen and prevent other things, punishment is simply to make sure that the rules actually function as rules. But this is exactly what the Humanitarian theory says is the purpose of punishment: to make others less likely to break the rules, and to make the one who has already broken the rules less likely to break them in the future.

Thus C.S. Lewis himself is implicitly recognizing that the Humanitarians are basically right about the purpose of punishment, in acknowledging that punishment is necessary for the very existence of society.

Let’s go on to the second point, the idea of just deserts. C.S. Lewis is right that many proponents of Humanitarian view either believe that the idea is absurd, or that if there is such a thing as deserving something, no one can deserve something bad, or that if people can deserve things, this is not really a relevant consideration for a justice system. For example, it appears that Kelsey Piper blogging at The Unit of Caring believes something along these lines; here she has a pretty reasonable post responding to some criticisms analogous to those of C.S. Lewis to the theory.

I will approach this by saying a few things about what a law is in general. St. Thomas defines law: “It is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” But let’s drop the careful formulation and the conditions, as necessary as they may be. St. Thomas’s definition is simply a more detailed account of what everyone knows: a law is a rule that people invent for the benefit of a community.

Is there such a thing as an unjust law? In St. Thomas’s account, in a sense yes, and in a sense no. “For the common good” means that the law is beneficial. In that sense, if the law is “unjust,” it is harmful, and thus it is not for the common good. And in that sense it does not satisfy the definition of a law, and so is not a law at all. But obviously ordinary people will call it a law anyway, and in that way it is an unjust law, because it is unsuited to the purpose of a law.

Now here’s the thing. An apparent rule is not really a rule at all unless it tends to make something happen. In the case that we are talking about, namely human law, that generally means that laws require penalties for being broken in order to be laws at all. It is true that in a society with an extremely strong respect for law, it might occasionally be possible to make a law without establishing any specific penalty, and still have that law followed. The community would still need to leave itself the option of establishing a penalty; otherwise it would just be advice rather than a law.

This causes a slight problem. The purpose of a law is to make sure that certain things are done and others avoided, and the reason for penalties is to back up this purpose. But when someone breaks the law, the law has already failed. The very thing the law was meant to prevent has already happened. And what now? Should the person be punished? Why? To prevent the law from being broken? It has already been broken. So we cannot prevent it from being broken. And the thing is, punishment is something bad. So to inflict the punishment now, after the crime has already been committed, seems like just stacking one bad thing on top of another.

At this point the “Retributive” theory of justice will chime in. “We should still inflict the punishment because it is just, and the criminal deserves it.”

This is the appeal of the Humanitarian’s condemnation of the retributive theory. The Retributive theory, the Humanitarian will say, is just asserting that something bad, namely the punishment, in this situation, is something good, by bringing in the idea of “justice.” But this is a contradiction: something bad is bad by definition, and cannot be good.

The reader is perhaps beginning to understand the placement of the previous post. A law is established, with a penalty for being broken, in order to make certain things happen. This is like intending to drink the toxin. But if someone breaks the law, what is the point of inflicting the punishment? And the next morning, what is the point of drinking the toxin in the afternoon, when the money is already received or not? There is a difference of course, because in this case the dilemma only comes up because the law has been broken. We could make the cases more analogous, however, by stipulating in the case of Kavka’s toxin that the rich billionaire offers this deal: “The million will be found in your account, with a probability of 99.99%, if and only if you intend to drink the toxin only if the million is not found in your account (which will happen only in the unlucky 0.01% of cases), and you do not need to drink or intend to drink in the situation where the million is found in your account.” In this situation, the person might well reason thus:

If the morning comes and the million is not in my account, why on earth would I drink the toxin? This deal is super unfair.

Nonetheless, as in the original deal, there is one and only one way to get the million: namely, by planning to drink the toxin in that situation, and by planning not to reconsider, no matter what. As in the case of law, the probability factor that I added means that it is possible not to get the million, although you probably will. But the person who formed this intention will go through with it and drink the toxin, unless they reconsider; and they had the definite intention of not reconsidering.

The situations are now more analogous, but there is still an additional difference, one that makes it even easier to decide to follow the law than to drink the toxin. The only reason to commit to drinking the toxin was to get the million, which, in our current situation, has already failed. But in the case of the law, one purpose was to prevent the criminal from performing a certain action, and that purpose has already failed. But it also has the purpose of preventing them from doing it in the future, and preventing others from doing it. So there additional motivations for carrying out the law.

We can leave the additional difference to the side for now, however. The point would be essentially valid even if you made a law to prevent one particular act, and that act ended up being done. The retributionist would say, “Ok, so applying the punishment at this point will not prevent the thing it was meant to prevent. But it is just, and the criminal deserves it, and we should still inflict it.” And they are right: the whole idea of establishing the the rule included the idea that the punishment would actually be carried out, in this situation. There was a rule against reconsidering the rule, just as the fellow in the situation with the toxin planned not to reconsider their plan.

What is meant when it is said that a punishment is “just,” and that the criminal “deserves it,” then is simply that it is what is required by the rules we have established, and that those rules are reasonable ones.

Someone will object here. It seems that this cannot be true, because some punishments are wicked and unjust even though there were rules establishing them. And it seems that this is because people simply do not deserve those things: so there must be such a thing as “what they deserve,” in itself and independent of any rules. But this is where we must return to the point made above about just and unjust laws. One hears, for example, of cases in which people were sentenced to death for petty theft. We can agree that this is unjust in itself: but this is precisely because the rule, “someone who steals food should be killed,” is not a reasonable rule which will benefit the community. You might have something good in mind for it, namely to prevent stealing, but if you carry out the penalty on even one occasion, you have done more harm than all the stealing put together. The Humanitarians are right that the thing inflicted in a punishment is bad, and remains bad. It does not become something good in that situation. And this is precisely why it needs some real proportion to the crime.

We can analyze the situation in two ways, from the point of view of the State, considered as though a kind of person, and from the point of the view of the person who carries out the law. The State makes a kind of promise to inflict a punishment for some crimes, in such a way as to minimize the total harm of both the crimes and their punishment. Additionally, to some extent it promises not to reconsider this in situation where a crime is actually committed. “To some extent” here is of course essential: such rules are not and should not be absolutely rigid. If the crime is actually committed, the State is in a situation like our person who finds himself without the million and having committed to drink the toxin in that situation: the normal result of the situation will be that the State inflicts the punishment, and the person drinks the toxin, without any additional consideration of motivations or reasons.

From the point of view of the individual, he carries out the sentence “because it is just,” i.e. because it is required by reasonable rules which we have established for the good of the community. And that, i.e. carrying out reasonable laws, is a good thing, even though the material content includes something bad. The moral object of the executioner is the fulfillment of justice, not the killing of a person.

We have perhaps already pointed the way to the last point, namely that with the incorporation of the idea of justice, C.S. Lewis’s criticisms fail. Lewis argues that if the purpose of punishment is medicinal, then it is in principle unlimited: but this is not true even of medicine. No one would take medicine which would cause more harm than the disease, nor would it be acceptable to compel someone else to take such medicine.

More importantly, Lewis’s criticism play off the problems that are caused by believing that one needs to consider at every point, “will the consequences of this particular punishment or action be good or not?” This is not necessary because this is not the way law works, despite the fact that the general purpose is the one supposed. Law only works because to some extent it promises not to reconsider, like our fellow in the case of Kavka’s toxin. Just as you are wrong to focus on whether “drinking the toxin right now will harm me and not benefit me”, so the State would be wrong to focus too much on the particular consequences of carrying out the law right now, as opposed to the general consequences of the general law.

Thus for example Lewis supposes rulers considering the matter in an entirely utilitarian way:

But that is not the worst. If the justification of exemplary punishment is not to be based on desert but solely on its efficacy as a deterrent, it is not absolutely necessary that the man we punish should even have committed the crime. The deterrent effect demands that the public should draw the moral, “If we do such an act we shall suffer like that man.” The punishment of a man actually guilty whom the public think innocent will not have the desired effect; the punishment of a man actually innocent will, provided the public think him guilty. But every modern State has powers which make it easy to fake a trial. When a victim is urgently needed for exemplary purposes and a guilty victim cannot be found, all the purposes of deterrence will be equally served by the punishment (call it “cure” if you prefer) of an innocent victim, provided that the public can be cheated into thinking him guilty. It is no use to ask me why I assume that our rulers will be so wicked.

As said, this is not the way law works. The question will be about which laws are reasonable and beneficial in general, not about whether such and such particular actions are beneficial in particular cases. Consider a proposed law formulated with such an idea in mind:

When the ruling officials believe that it is urgently necessary to deter people from committing a crime, and no one can be found who has actually committed it, the rulers are authorized to deceive the public into believing that an innocent man has committed the crime, and to punish that innocent man.

It should not be necessary to make a long argument that as a general rule, this does not serve the good of a community, regardless of might happen in particular cases. In this way it is quite right to say that this is unjust in itself. This does not, however, establish that “what someone deserves” has any concrete content which is not established by law.

As a sort of footnote to this post, we might note that “deserts” are sometimes extended to natural consequences in much the way “law” is extended to laws of nature, mathematics, or logic. For example, Bryan Caplan distinguishes “deserving” and “undeserving” poor:

I propose to use the same standard to identify the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.  The deserving poor are those who can’t take – and couldn’t have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty. The undeserving poor are those who can take – or could have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty.  Reasonable steps like: Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn’t fun; spend your money on food and shelter before you get cigarettes or cable t.v.; use contraception if you can’t afford a child.  A simple test of “reasonableness”: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.

This is rather different from the sense discussed in this post, but you could view it as an extension of it. It is a rule (of mathematics, really) that “if you spend all of your money you will not have any left,” and we probably do not need to spend much effort trying to change this situation, considered in general, even if we might want to change it for an individual.

Neither to the Right nor to the Left

Consider this passage from 1st Maccabees, previously discussed here and here:

The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

As I said earlier, the main thing here is not to say that “our religious beliefs are true,” but fidelity to “the covenant of our ancestors.” We can note also the mention of “the law and the ordinances,” which is not mainly about what is true, but about what should be done.

This idea of fidelity to the ancestors appears to have been a fairly typical attitude of the Jewish people throughout history, perhaps explaining why they managed to remain a fairly coherent people even while deprived of a country for many centuries. This is unusual but not unique.

Maimonides explains the situations in which one should be willing to sacrifice one’s life rather than violate the law:

The entire house of Israel are commanded regarding the sanctification of [God’s] great name, as [Leviticus 22:32] states: “And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.” Also, they are warned against desecrating [His holy name], as [the above verse] states: “And they shall not desecrate My holy name.”

What is implied? Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah‘s commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because [Leviticus 18:5] states concerning the mitzvot: “which a man will perform and live by them.” [They were given so that] one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.

When does the above apply? With regard to other mitzvot, with the exception of the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. However, with regard to these three sins, if one is ordered: “Transgress one of them or be killed,” one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress.

When does the above apply? When the gentile desires his own personal benefit – for example, he forces a person to build a house or cook food for him on the Sabbath, he rapes a woman, or the like. However, if his intention is solely to have him violate the mitzvot, [the following rules apply:] If he is alone and there are not ten other Jews present, he should transgress and not sacrifice his life. However, if he forces him [to transgress] with the intention that he violate [a mitzvah] in the presence of ten Jews, he should sacrifice his life and not transgress. [This applies] even if [the gentile] intended merely that he violate only one of the [Torah’s] mitzvot.

All the above [distinctions] apply [only in times] other than times of a decree. However, in times of a decree – i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot – one should sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot, whether one is compelled [to transgress] amidst ten [Jews] or one is compelled [to transgress merely] amidst gentiles.

The basic idea is that ordinary situations and in unimportant matters, it is better to violate the law than to be killed, but one must be willing to be killed in order to avoid violating the law in important ways, which Maimonides specifies as “the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder.”

But in two situations, he says, you must be willing to die for any law or custom whatsoever, no matter how small: when a gentile is trying to make you violate the law before other Jews simply for the sake of scandal, or when an oppressor attempts to suppress the Jewish faith, laws or customs.

This would not be understood only to refer to violations of things commanded in Scripture, but to any Jewish custom whatsoever. For example, the Talmud says:

When R. Dimi came, he said: This was taught only if there is no royal decree, but if there is a royal decree, one must incur martyrdom rather than transgress even a minor precept. When Rabin came, he said in R. Johanan’s name: Even without a royal decree, it was only permitted in private; but in public one must be martyred even for a minor precept rather than violate it. What is meant by a ‘minor precept’? — Raba son of R. Isaac said in Rab’s name: Even to change one’s shoe strap.

The example of a “minor precept” is that if the Jews of a certain time and place wear sandals or shoes that differ from those of the gentiles, one must be prepared to suffer martyrdom rather than change even the details of one’s shoes, at least in the two situations discussed above.

Technology and Culture

The last two posts have effectively answered the question raised about Scott Alexander’s account of cultural decline. What could be meant by calling some aspects of culture “less compatible with modern society?” Society tends to change over time, and some of those changes are humanly irreversible. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, for some of those irreversible changes to stand in tension with various elements of culture. This will necessarily tend to cause cultural decay at least with respect to those elements, and often with respect to other elements of culture as well, since the various aspects of culture are related.

This happens in a particular way with changes in technology, although technology is not the only driver of such irreversible change.

It would be extremely difficult for individuals to opt out of the use of of various technologies. For example, it would be quite difficult for Americans to give up the use of plumbing and heating, and a serious attempt to do so might lead to illness or death in many cases. And it would be still more difficult to give up the use of clothes, money, and language. Attempting to do so, assuming that one managed to preserve one’s physical life, would likely lead to imprisonment or other forms of institutionalization (which would make it that much more difficult to abandon the use of clothes.)

Someone might well respond here, “Wait, why are you bringing up clothes, money, and language as examples of technology?” Clothes and money seem more like cultural institutions than technology in the first place; and language seems to be natural to humans.

I have already spoken of language as a kind of technology. And with regard to clothes and money, it is even more evident that in the concrete forms in which they exist in our world today they are tightly intertwined with various technologies. The cash used in the United States depends on mints and printing presses, actual mechanical technologies. And if one wishes to buy something without cash, this usually depends on still more complex technology. Similar things are true of the clothes that we wear.

I concede, of course, that the use of these things is different from the use of the machines that make them, or as in the case of credit cards, support their use, although there is less distinction in the latter case. But I deliberately brought up things which look like purely cultural institutions in order to note their relationship with technology, because we are discussing the manner in which technological change can result in cultural change. Technology and culture are tightly intertwined, and can never be wholly separated.

Sarah Perry discusses this (the whole post is worth reading):

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”

Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.

The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.

Now someone, arguing much in Chesterton’s vein, might say that this does not have to happen. If a technology is damaging in this way, then just don’t use it. The problem is that often one does not have a realistic choice not to use it, as in my examples above. And much more can one fail to have a choice not to interact with people who use the new technology, and interacting with those people will itself change the way that life works. And as Robin Hanson noted, there is not some human global power that decides whether or not a technology gets to be introduced into human society or not. This happens rather by the uncoordinated and unplanned decisions of individuals.

And this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards cultural decline. The constant progress of technology results, and results of necessity, in constant cultural decline. And thus we fools understand why the former days were better than these.

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.

Turning Back the Clock

Let’s look again at the center of Chesterton’s argument about turning back the clock:

There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

Of course, one can physically turn a clock back. But as Chesterton notes, the idea that “you can’t put the clock back,” is a metaphor, not a literal statement. The metaphor is based off the idea that you can’t time travel to the past, and this is literally true, fortunately or unfortunately. The one who uses the metaphor intends to assert something stronger, however, and it is this stronger thing that Chesterton wishes to refute when he says, “Society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”

Yes, the human finger can turn back the clock. But what corresponds to “the human finger” in the case of society? Who or what has the power to reconstruct society upon any plan that has ever existed?

As soon as we ask the question, the answer is clear. Society has never been constructed upon any plan whatsoever; so neither can it be reconstructed upon any plan whatsoever. As Robin Hanson puts it, “no one rules the world,” so there is no way to construct society according to a plan in the first place. In particular, Hanson remarks regarding technology:

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

Chesterton is free, as he says, to propose anything he likes, including bringing back the stage coaches. But we are also free to propose that the world would be better off if horses walked on their hind legs. The plans will meet with approximately equal success: getting the world to abandon automobiles and adopt stage coaches will not be much easier than getting horses to follow our suggestions.

Indeed, it is not impossible to bring back the stage coaches in the way that “bringing back last Friday” is impossible. But neither is it impossible for horses to walk on their hind legs in this way. Nonetheless both are impossible in the sense that physically turning back a clock is possible. Namely, no human being can either bring back the stage coaches or convince horses to walk on their hind legs, even though one can turn back a clock. One might have occasional success with either plan, but not overall success.

 

Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Regress

Someone might respond to what I have said about progress in the following way:

So how come you talk about progress in technology and progress in truth, but do not talk about the progress of culture? Is it not because as soon as one considers the idea, it constitutes the refutation of your arguments? Consider 4’33”, or much of modern art in general. Or again, consider the liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council. Nor are these issues limited to artistic matters, since we could mention many matters of morality, or various cultural institutions. It is not even necessary to mention examples, so obvious all of this is, once one even considers the idea of the progress or regress of culture.

There is some truth to this, and it is worthy of serious consideration.