Friday, May 22, 2009

Calm, Reasoned Insults

A member of the studio audience paid me what I think was a compliment today. I even think that the author intended it to be a compliment. I’m not entirely sure.

Emu Sam wrote:

It causes a lot of mental turmoil for me to read your calm and reasoned insults, but unmistakably very strong insults. I wince in embarrassment and breathe a sigh of relief and feel guilty for not doing as much all at once. I can’t recall a time when someone could accuse you of ad hominem, when taking all your writings together, because you make it so clear what the insult means and that you intend it exactly as you say it. It makes me want to learn how to be less polite. Maybe sometimes not so calm.

This accurately describes at least what I aspire to in those blog postings that have to do with moral claims.

Moral claims are insults – at least an important class of moral claims are insults. You are accusing somebody of doing something immoral. There is no neutral way to accuse somebody of a moral crime. If you say that he performed a moral crime then you are saying he has a bad person – he has a character flaw – he deserves to be ridiculed, condemned, laughed at, or even intentionally harmed.

There is no nice way to say that somebody is immoral.

The statement, "What you did was wrong but you are still a really great guy – a saint, in fact, who nobody can say anything against," is a flat-out contradiction. If a person is guilty is doing something wrong, this necessarily implies that statements as to his virtue need at least some qualification.

The model that I use is that of a court of law. If I am accusing somebody of wrongdoing then I take the role of prosecuting attorney. First, I identify the charge. The individual is a bigot, a liar, a hypocrite, a sophist, a self-serving demagogue, is intellectually reckless, arrogant, condescending, a bully, or guilty of any of the other moral crimes I may charge him with.

This is no different than saying that the accused is a murderer, a rapist, an embezzler, a thief, or a drunk driver. These are insults. But in a court of law, and in an ethics blog, leveling accusations is the name of the game.

As the prosecuting attorney, my next job is to specify the criteria that somebody for the specific moral crime. A liar is a person who makes knowingly false statements as a means of manipulating the behavior of others into serving his interests rather than those of the agent. A bigot is somebody who makes invalid inferences from the character flaws of a member of a group (real or imagined) to members of the whole group, or who simply asserts without any evidence that the whole group has such a flaw.

This is no different than telling a jury what is required for the prosecutor to prove that the accused is guilty of breaking the law.

In order for something to qualify as a moral crime it must be the case that people generally have reason to condemn, criticize, ridicule, laugh at, or even punish people who have that trait. I could accuse somebody of being two meters tall. However, this accusation has no weight unless there is a sense that the accused could have prevented being six inches tall, and people have good reason to promote (using condemnation) the desire to be two meters tall.

We can have unjust law (laws that good people cannot support), but we cannot have unjust morality. If a policy is unjust, it is immoral by definition.

The next task is to muster the evidence that shows that the accused meet the criteria specified in the moral accusation. "The accused said X. The accused believed X to be false. Let me present some evidence that shows that accused believed X to be false. The accused asserted X because he sought to obtain Y. We have evidence that the accused valued Y, and nothing better explains and predicts the accused’s behavior other than this desire for Y. The accused had no right to Y and could only acquire Y through from the victim’s consent. He used these knowingly false statements to engineer that consent. For these reasons we may conclude that the accused is, in fact, a liar."

Then I rest my case, asserting that I have demonstrated that I have given the readers proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the moral charges.

The accused has a right to a presumption of innocence. It is the duty of the accuser to prove his case. However, what the accuser is trying to prove in such a case in that a particular insult is legitimate – that the accused is deserving of condemnation, ridicule, and perhaps even punishment.

If the accused is shown to be a bigot then it is time to treat him as bigots should be treated. Otherwise you are allowing bigotry to go unchallenged – and that is not fair to the bigot’s victims. This is true in the same way that if he is a rapist then it is time to treat him as rapists should be treated. Otherwise you are allowing rape to go unchallenged.

If you decide to be polite to those who have been proved guilty of a moral crime, then you have decided to turn your back on those that people like the accused make worse off.


Emu Sam said...

lol, I did intend it as a compliment. Thank you for this clear explanation - I foresee it being a very useful post. The logical follow-up would be to detail why there is a need for this sort of behavior. I suspect that will involve the use of condemnation (as in praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) as a moral tool.

anton said...


Your post puts most of it in perspective. I would like to add one of Ruiz's Agreements that says we "shouldn't presume innocence or guilt". We get so hung up on the "innocent until proven guilty" concept that it has committed our Western World into a game of "catch as catch can!".

I wonder if Christians comprehend that while they champion the "prove it happened" approach, they don't accept it when it comes to the existence of their god in which case they avoid "proving it happened" and want us to "prove it didn't happen"