Thursday, November 15, 2007

Paul Tibbets and consequentialism.

A while back, I was planning a post on the topic of consequentialism; essentially, the belief that the ethical measure of an action or inaction is its consequences, at least as reasonably foreseen by the actor. My take on this was that we are all consequentialists in the last analysis. Those who claim to be deontologists; that is, those who believe that the ethical nature of an action depends upon whether it is in accordance with a duty incumbent upon the actor, whether that duty is believed to be ordained by divine command or, as with Kant, arising from our status as free and rational beings, are really saying that we are too shortsighted to evaluate fully the consequences of actions, and that, therefore, we must yield our judgment to hard and fast rules. In other words, deontology could be said to be consequentialism with a strong gloss of epistemological modesty.

For example, while a consequentialist may argue that destroying human embryos to harvest stem cells is ethically OK because it provides the means to alleviate great human suffering, while causing no pain to the pre-conscious embryos (this is a utilitarian argument, utilitarianism being perhaps the best-known form of consequentialism), a deontologist might argue that such an action violates an overarching duty to respect human life from the moment of conception. If pressed to give a reason for such a rule, however, the deontologist might invoke a "slippery slope" argument, that is, if we allow this, we are taking the first step on a downhill path that may lead to the cloning of malformed embryos with minimal brain function, to be raised in vitro simply to grow organs to be harvested for transplant, and, beyond that, to the use of viable humans with substandard mental function for the same purpose. Or, she might give a more far-reaching, "Burkean" answer: by calling into question a time-honored notion of what's good and proper, we are disturbing a complex system of societal mores, and this may have consequences well beyond what we have anticipated. Note, however, that both of these arguments appeal to consequences, and therefore are consequentialist. (I now know that John Stuart Mill anticipated this argument in his preface to Utilitarianism almost a century and a half ago.)

What inspired me to write this was the death of Paul Tibbets, and, in particular, this piece by Bob Greene about him. What struck me was the sheer consequentialism that sustained him after that fateful day over Hiroshima. His bio shows him to be a consummate warrior. Warriors seem to be archetypal deontologists. (I need only recall my last year of college, when my roommate and I had a deal: every time I made him suffer through a Dylan album, he could make me sit through his recording of the greatest speeches of General Douglas MacArthur. I can still hear in my mind the peroration of his farewell address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point: "Duty, honor, country, and the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.") Yet Greene's piece quotes Tibbets as explaining why he never lost sleep over the bombing as being, not "It was my duty", but
because "we stopped the killing." He was at peace, he said, because "I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did."
Here, indeed, is Jeremy Bentham's felicitous calculus at its most stark. Dostoyevsky challenged this kind of reasoning by asking something to the effect: If a world of eternal happiness could be purchased by the suffering and death of one innocent child, would you buy the ticket?

Perhaps the thing about war is, it makes us all buy the ticket.

Paul Tibbets photo - U.S. Air Force, public domain.

11/18 update: Dawn Coyote posted this comment on WikiFray, where I cross-posted the text above:
I don't know if war makes us buy the ticket, or if it just makes us starkly aware that we've bought the ticket. In the increasingly connected world, it takes a determined averting of the gaze to remain unaware of how many of the surpluses we enjoy come to us as a result of deficits elsewhere. Maybe we're all Paul Tibbets these days—if we're lucky, or powerfully motivated to quell our cognitive dissonance.
I'll confess to feeling a bit sheepish about my last sentence. When I wrote it, it was past midnight, I'd had my second snifter of Cognac (a third would have been disastrous, as I've learned through hard experience), and I was just looking for a way to wrap the thing up. It was almost as bad as following the advice Michael O'Donoghue gave to aspiring novelists in "How to Write Good", which was published in National Lampoon sometime in the 1970s. If your plot gets too complicated and you can't figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, he wrote, simply type the words: "Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck."

Anyway, I had great plans to extend the argument to include the contemporary debate over the use of torture. At least I can direct you to a lively discussion here, with thanks to friend and neighbor "ts" of Instaputz for the link.

While I'm giving thanks (we're getting into that week), a great big hat tip to John McG for my first-ever (at least that I know of) "digg." John, I'm trying to figure out the Episcopalian analogue to making a Novena.

All for now, as I am suddenly run over by a truck.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Brooklyn Bridge from northern entrance to Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.

Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Lower Manhattan from northern end of Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Maple tree behind house on Columbia Heights, as seen from Promenade.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Today, I'm proud to be a lawyer.

I don't blog much about law. It's not that I find my profession uninteresting (far from it); it's just that I need a forum to express my half-baked opinions on other subjects. Every once in a while, though, something makes me want to get up on a soapbox and yell, "I'm a lawyer and, by God, I'm proud of it!" I had that feeling last week when I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times showing a roomful of Pakistani lawyers who had gathered to organize a protest against the government's suspension of constitutional rights and protections and the summary sacking of the Supreme Court. Almost all were men, dressed more conservatively than most male New York lawyers, i.e. in dark suits, white shirts and conservative ties. Two were women, in dark skirts, white blouses and with aqua colored shawls draped from their heads. I later learned that these lawyers, along with many judges, had been summarily jailed with no recourse to any authority capable of, or willing to, enforce any notion of due process.

On Thursday I received an e-mail from Barry Kamins, President of the New York City Bar Association, notifying me and all other members that today, Tuesday the 13th, there would be a rally in front of the Supreme Court, New York County courthouse, to show solidarity with Pakistani lawyers. Today I took the subway to lower Manhattan, dressed, as Mr. Kamins urged, in my most conservative duds, to join the protest. Walking the corridor toward the subway exit, I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned, and was delighted to see two colleagues from the firm with which I have an affiliation, also headed to the rally. As we emerged from the station onto Foley Square, I was delighted to see a very large crowd on the courthouse steps (see photo above).

The highlight of the event was a brief talk by Ali Ahsan (see photo above), a Pakistan-born New York lawyer, whose father is president of the Pakistani Supreme Court Bar and has been imprisoned, and whose mother is subject to an arrest warrant. He said he was grateful that his parents' prominence would assure international attention to their cases, and expressed dismay that many others were not so fortunate. He said the turnout for the rally made him proud to be part of the New York legal community, and read an e-mail message from the University of Lahore Law School faculty and students expressing their gratitude for our support. Finally, he noted that the actions of the Pakistani government should not be countenanced as necessary to combat terrorism; indeed, they were more likely to foment it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Blogitus interruptus.

It's been over a week since I've posted anything, and I can sense my vast fan base getting restless. For a few days, I was busy with other projects, including Brooklyn Heights Blog. Then my modem/router died. Verizon has promised me a new one in a few days; until then, I must either poach on the bandwidth of neighbors who haven't password-protected their wireless, or post from my office, which is where I am now on a Sunday evening.

Please be patient, folks. Good stuff is coming, including my philosophical musings prompted by the New York City Board of Education's attempt to "grade" public schools, and more paintings by Mark Crawford.

Until then, keep the faith.