Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the retributivist instinct?

the following paragraphs conclude jared diamond's recent essay, "vengeance is ours: what can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?".  in it he implicitly and explicitly compares two stories-- the first of daniel, member of the handa clan in the new guinea highlands, who avenged the death of a beloved uncle at the cost of 'three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs"-- the second of jozef, diamond's father-in-law, who lived a long life of ambivalent regret after giving up the chance to shoot the holocaust-era murderer of his mother and sister (who the polish state later set free).  

"we regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions.  it ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly.  modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance.  we grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and transcend.

there is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual's right to exact personal vengeance would miake it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state.  wotherise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing  in non-state societies like those of the new guinea highlnads.  in that sense, jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother's killer to the polish state, and it was tragic that the polish state failed him so shamefully.  yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that daniel enjoyed.

my conversations with daniel made me understand what we give up by leaving justice to the state.  in order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad.  but, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discourages, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged.  to a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful.  many state governments to attempt to grant the relatives  of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one's murderer.

daniel concluded his story in the happy, satisfied, staightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it.  'now, when we visit an ombal village to play basketball, and isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, i feel sorry for him,' he said.  'occasionally, i go over to isum, shake his hand, and tell him, 'i feel sorry for you.'  but people see isum.  they know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed soll.  people remember that isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader.  but so was my uncle soll.  by getting isum paralyzed, i gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.'"

gripped as i am by the philosophical issues surrounding agency and retributivism, and admiring as i am of jared diamond's work, you might imagine the excitement i felt when this caught my eye as i skimmed the index page of this week's new yorker. i read it through once and felt terribly disappointed. i read it again and just felt discomfited-- although not, i think, in precisely the way that diamond surely intended this essay it discomfit us all.  but i might be giving myself too much credit here, so i've decided to sit with this one a little longer, to meditate and stew a little on the essay and my reaction to it.

anyway, it's a little unfair to just have you read the end, given that most of the rest of the essay does the important work of telling the full story of daniel, so that the western reader can't comfortably demonize or distance herself from him-- but i urge you to either take this for granted or, if you can't, to go read for yourself.  my discomfort does not arise from a sense that vengeance or it's taking is monstrous or primitive.

the problem of identity.

david lewis says that there is no problem of identity, and he has a point.  there is no conceptual problem of identity.  identity is a relation-- the most basic relation:  everything is identical to itself and nothing is identical to anything that is not itself.  what is identical will have all of the same properties, and what is not identical will differ in properties.  some properties are intrinsic (the property of being red), and some are relational (the property of being a sister, or of having one foot out the door).  some properties are accidental, like having brown hair (you could change them and still be recognizably yourself) and some properties are essential, like a triangle having three sides, or you not being a fungus (the object in question wouldn't be itself minus the property in question).  identity is the perfect sameness of all properties-- intrinsic and extrinsic, essential and accidental.  

like most of david lewis' wonderfully clarifying explanations of thorny philosophical issues, his analysis of identity solves no lived problems.  he reminds us that there is no problem about what identity is-- a thing is identical to whatever it is and nothing it's not.  but what are you?  the problem of what your identity is still sits there, knotty as ever, and probably unanswerable.  the philosophical problem is solved-- we have clearly articulated standards for what it means to be identical.  but we have no more clue than we ever did about what we're identical to, or of how to recognize the answer should we ever stumble upon it.  for this,  lewis sends us back to inspect the actual world.  it's fair, admirably honest even, but that's what we were doing before.  am i doing any better job of it for having taken time off from my inspections to read this analysis of what it is i'm trying to do?  unclear.

Monday, April 21, 2008

laundry list.

there is always a little moment of surprise when i pull my laundry out of the washer and find underneath it the small pile of items that i left in my pockets or the cuffs of my jeans. last time it was an almond and three packets of green tea (my t-shirts smelled so nice!). today i found a nickel, a limp bit of clear plastic, and a grape.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

the passive voice. (or, how not to say yr sorry.)

active voice: 'i have eaten the plums that were in the ice box'.
passive voice: 'the plums that were in the ice box were eaten'.

using the passive voice is generally considered bad form. it's obfuscatory-- sometimes lazily imprecise, sometimes downright equivocal. it often indicates a lack of confidence-- not just uncertainty about who the actor is, but a lack of confidence in one's own authority to say so. students notoriously write this way: "it might be argued that...", "it is often said...", so that whatever claim is being made, having issued from nowhere in particular, seems to issue from everywhere, from the vast universe itself. but when we use the passive voice we often fail to communicate all of the relevant information, or to acknowledge the weakness of our own claims (is it often said? who says it? is it credible?), and even when we've just moved all of the information around ('the plums that were in the ice box were eaten by me'), we've shifted the meaning all around, made the object the subject and the subject an afterthought.

the passive voice leaves us with an actor-less act, a mover-less move, a claimant-less claim. no one is particular seems to be responsible for the act, the move, the claim. when we want to know or say more about it, where should we look? who can we ask? inspect? praise? blame? the plums that were in the icebox have been eaten, and you were probably saving them for breakfast! now you can no more have them for breakfast if i ate them than you could if the man in the moon ate them, and that's a fact. if what you're concerned about is your relationship to the plums, then the passive construction might give you all the information worth having. but if you're concerned with our relationship (you and me-- friend and friend, guest and host, narrator and reader), you might care very much whether it was me or the man and the moon, and where i acknowledge i ate them, you might rightly discern some difference in meaning between my saying so in a way that highlights my involvement as opposed to downplaying my involvement.

i'm reading a book right now (which i quote from in my last post) by a philosopher named nick smith, and it's about apologies. as it turns out, the passive voice has a sordid history in the realm of apology. it's the difference between "i'm sorry i hurt you" and "i'm sorry you were hurt" (coming from the injurer in question). i'm sorry i. i'm sorry you. as you might guess, smith argues that apologies in the passive voice are bad apologies. passive apologies may amount, smith explains, to thin and self-serving expressions of sympathy, meant to do the relationship-repairing work of an admission of wrong doing without the wrong-doer actually having to admit any such thing. these apologies have the same general problem that all passive constructions have-- they aren't specific enough, and according to smith one of the keys to apologies is being very clear about just who is apologizing and what that person or entity is apologizing for. and in the case of apologies the passive voice has the particularly devastating effect of failing to assign or emphasize responsibility in a case where the whole point of the phrase is to so assign and emphasize. this all makes good sense-- everyone has felt the maddening insult of the passive apology-- the feeling of wanting her to be sorry she did it, sorry because it was wrong of her, when all she's sorry for is that you were somehow hurt, sorry that you feel that way.

yes. totally. i more than agree. but, listen, i decided a long time ago that praise and blame and Moral Responsibility are a shady business in this vast world of causes. and this is the part where i'm suppose to explain and talk about metaphysical commitments. meh. the idea, roughly, is that to keep the idea of a clearly delineated individuals buck-stops-here-responsible for clearly delineated acts, you're going to have to commit yourself to the existence of entities like Souls and external Values and Unmoved Movers-- all manner of simultaneously powerful and unverifiable stuff that does the explaining-- and even that probably won't get you what you want. if you don't want to have to argue for the existence of stuff like that, then what you're likely to have instead is a hard time thinking of people or acts as discrete units and moral responsibility as so easy to define and assign. blah, blah, you've heard it all before, dear readers. anyway, by metaphysical commitments (ontological commitments, more specifically), i just mean the foundational commitments that we are or aren't willing to make about what kinds of things exist (we've almost come full circle, see, we're almost there). it's important when i make a claim about the world that i'm not half-consciously helping myself to belief in some entity that, if i thought about it, i wouldn't actually say i believe in.

ok, i haven't finished. i just inched a little further. someday soon i'm going to bring it all home, tie it all together. i do have some idea how. just not all idea how, or time.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

april fools.

contested facts often lie at the heart of moral injuries. from the outset, apologies stand a better chance of bearing significant meaning if the offender and the offended share an understanding of the facts relevant to the transgression at issue. although our interpretations of events may evolve over our lifetimes, much of our understanding of our selves and our world results from piecing together ambiguous fragments of information into a moral narrative. not only do we want to understand what happened after a confusing or traumatic event, but we also want the offender to share our understanding.

nick smith
[i was wrong: the meaning of moral apologies]

a lot of traumatic events are two-way traumatic. she feels hurt, and so does she. you feel wronged, and so do i. we stay busy telling ourselves the story of what happened, rehearsing our own monologues. i wish we tended to rehearse each other's, instead. wouldn't it be a miracle? you could tell yourself her story instead-- her story from her perspective, and then (fairly, unguardedly) from yours-- and she could tell herself your story, too, like you might tell it, and then like she (this new, better version) herself might. and you could both feel just what you've inflicted as if you had inflicted it immediately on your own self. if i could tell your story, instead, and you could tell mine, it might be energy better spent. defensiveness is the worst sort of laziness this side of passive-aggression-- don't do it, and don't stand for it, and don't wait on someone else to give in first. don't get trapped in the moment. take a deep breath and do a perfect handspring right out of yourself, right in to yourself.