In this post, I want to explain the importance of using harsh language, at times, in making a moral point. It is not only a tactical mistake, it is dishonest, to respond to evil with the dispassionate voice of reason, “Ergo, I conclude that your actions stand in violation of this moral principle.” Instead, it is not even possible to honestly give a moral evaluation without using a tone that actually communicates that value. “People who do these things are as contemptible as those who would kill a child for his lunch money.”
Clarke defended the use of harsh criticism of those who can be described as evil.
My point: it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can’t afford medicine. It is not civil to speak in even, chuckling sardonicism as one beleaguered wild place after another is paved for profit. It is not civil to calmly raise logical arguments against torture, against kidnapping, against using nuclear weapons on civilians to show our resolve.
Levy asserted the permissibility of reasoned discourse.
I'm even more tired of people who decide that because I can field an argument more complicated than "right-wingers are evil, evil, evil!" I'm somehow complicit in conservative stupidity. Bickering about civility is about as useful as bickering about Oxford commas…
Clarke was right . . . in principle.
(Note: Clarke was wrong in practice. In his posting, he defended a set of liberal bloggers who belittled a conservative over the fact that he was taking medication for anxiety. Clarke defended the indefensible. The principles that he used were sound. However, he did a very poor job of applying those principles.)
A Defense of Condemnation
Assume that Peter has a box of bicycle parts, some tools, and an instruction booklet.
Peter sits down and reads the instruction booklet out loud. He reads each step, careful to get the correct interpretation, from beginning to end. He starts up his computer and he takes notes on the instructions – effectively rewriting them into his computer. From there, he tells all of his friends about what the instructions said.
When he is done, he will discover that he still has an unassembled pile of bicycle parts.
To actually build the bicycle, Peter will have to get his hands dirty. He has to pick up the tools and use them on the parts according to the instructions.
What does this have to do with morality?
The unimpassioned statement of moral principles is like reading the instructions for putting together a bicycle. When it comes to building a moral society, these acts have no effect. Sooner or later, somebody has to get their hands dirty, pick up the tools of morality, and start applying them.
The tools of morality are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
If we are not using these tools, then we are not working towards a better society. We are only talking about moving towards a better society – talking, without action. It has no more effect than talking about building a bicycle.
The Tools of Morality
Desires determine the ends (objectives, goals) of intentional action.
Reason is only concerned with means.
Reason can help to determine the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. However, reason has nothing to say about choosing Point B as the end (objective, destination). Desires, not reason, pick our destinations for us.
Reason cannot cause a person to hate chocolate or like pain. Reason can tell a person who likes chocolate how he can get more, or a person who hates pain how to avoid it, but it has nothing to say about liking chocolate or hating pain.
With one exception.
There is no such thing as a 'pure' end. Every end (goal, destination, objective) is also at the same time a means to some other end. A person eats because he is hungry. However, his hunger also keeps him alive. Hunger determines a particular set of ends or goals (eating). Yet, it is also a means for some other end (survival). Survival itself may be a goal. However, it is also, at the same time, a means to some other end (e.g., experiencing space travel).
Reason does not give us any way to evaluate desires as ends of human action. However, reason does allow us to have the ability to evaluate our desires as means – as tools for fulfilling or thwarting other desires.
Morality is concerned with the evaluation of desires (ends, objectives) according to their usefulness as means for the fulfillment of other desires. A "good desire" (or 'virtue') is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A "bad desire" (or 'vice') is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.
For example, reason can tell us that a universal love of truth would be a very useful tool, overall. There certainly will be individual instances where lying may be useful. However, it would be hard to defend a universal love of lying and deceit as useful.
Once reason identifies a particular end as useful (an aversion to lies and deceit), the next step is to actually promote that end – to get as many people as possible to adopt it as one of their own. In other words, we are going to try to affect people’s desires.
However, desires cannot be molded by reason. Desires are molded through the efficient use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. To promote a love of truth and an aversion to deception and deceit, we praise and reward those who are honest, while condemning and punishing those who are not.
Demands for Civility
One of these tools on this list is ‘condemnation’.
People who say that others should be ‘civil’ in their moral judgments are saying that others should not condemn or punish. If the people they are talking to believe this, then evil gets a free pass. It is from this that we get the phrase, "The only thing we need for evil to win is for good people to do nothing." The demand for ‘civil’ discourse is a demand to do nothing – a demand to let evil win.
However, in using this tool of condemnation, it is essential to target the actual evil itself and not some other characteristic. I mentioned above that Clarke was defending people who denigrated a man for taking medication for anxiety. Taking medication for anxiety is not a legitimate target of condemnation. It is not an ‘evil’ to be fought.
Condemning a person who is taking medication for anxiety is just as bad as condemning a person because of the color of his skin (or hair color, or eyes) or the shape of the scars on his back. These are not morally relevant targets. These are not things that good people would make the target of condemnation.
Indeed, it is quite fitting to condemn those who would select the fact that a person takes medicine as their target for ridicule.
We can make no moral progress so long as we resolve to be ‘civil.’ Being ‘civil’ means that we are not actually going to build that bicycle (that moral society). We are only going to talk about building it.
People who remain civil in their moral discourse are merely reading the rules. They are not doing any work. The work gets done, in the realm of morality, when we actually act so as to promote good desires and diminish bad desires. The work gets done when we pick up the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment and start using them, rather than just talking about them.
It is past time for some harsh words. However, those harsh words must be focused only on those traits that deserve condemnation. They must be allowed to spill over and target traits that are not worthy of contempt.