Thursday, January 12, 2017

Darius I: King of Persia

227 days until the start of class.

In the realm of philosophical progress, I posted an updated version of a response to Hume's Is/Ought argument in the Desirism facebook discussion group. I have a five-day weekend coming up, at the end of which I intend to post a first draft of a new medium-length document on improving society called "A Template for Revolution".

Though, for the most part, I have taken a slight digression from working on philosophy to listen to some episodes of the Hardcore History podcast - specifically, the most recent three episodes on The King of Kings. This is a series on the ancient Persian empire - the empire that battled the ancient Greeks. These three episodes are, combined, about 13 hours of material. I am on the last hour.

I think that moral philosophers need to pay more attention to history. Morality is supposed to be used by real people in the real world. Yet, few moral philosophers give a practical thought to the theories that they invent.

In this series, one interesting example concerns Darius I. The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. He left the kingdom to his two sons. Though, as in all things in history, we do not know what happened entirely. However, there is reason to believe that Darius murdered both sons of Cyrus the Great and took the throne of Persia.

A moral outrage . . . right?

Well, Darius reigned for 36 years and proved to be a competent administrator. He was known as "the shopkeeper" because of his meticulous management of the empire. Its method of conquering neighboring countries was more like a "merger and acquisition". He would tend to prefer purchasing a neighboring kingdom - that is, offering them a deal - to conquering them militarily and forcing their submission. Once "conquered", he would leave them to live their lives as they had before - he would not impose religious or political reforms on them. All he required was loyalty to Persia and the payment of tribute. In this, he created a large, tolerant, and prosperous empire.

By the way, Darius also lied. Or, at least, there is reason to believe that he lied. When he killed the younger son of Cyrus the Great, he claimed that it wasn't really the younger son of Cyrus the Great but it was some sorcerer making himself look like the younger son of Cyrus the Great - a magic-using usurper. Lying is immoral. And, it seems, the Persians strongly disapproved of lying - quite different from our own society.

One nice thing about studying history from a philosophical point of view is that we do not actually need to decide what really happened. The stories are enough to provide a context for asking important moral questions. Let us assume that Darius I murdered both sons of Cyrus the Great, that the sorcerer-usurper story was a lie, and became king of Persia - and then ruled the empire competently for the next 36 years, more-or-less peacefully conquering nearby kingdoms and bringing them into the empire.

Now, what does your favorite moral theory say about this?

Many people condemn utilitarian moral theories because they lead to counter-intuitive consequences. A utilitarian theory says that the act is right when it brings about the best consequences. A common form of objection to utilitarianism is to create a situation in which an obviously wrong act (killing an innocent person) leads to good consequences (harvest his organs to save the lives of five other people, or throw him on the train tracks to prevent a trolley from hitting and killing five other people, or 'you kill that innocent person or I will kill these 5 innocent people'). Many take this as proof against utilitarianism.

So, now, instead of these fanciful theories, let us assume that you have the option of murdering two innocent young men and that the consequences of this will be to put a competent and - at least as measured by the standards of the time - relatively benevolent king on the throne of a huge empire for the next 36 years. We might still say that murder and lying are immoral - but the anti-utilitarian argument loses a lot of its certainty. Perhaps it can be permissible to sacrifice an innocent person or two in order to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Desirism, it seems to me, cannot handle these types of situations. Desirism concerns the value of promoting aversions to certain types of actions (through condemnation and punishment) because those actions generally tend to thwart desires. It argues for promoting aversions (through condemnation of punishment) to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder, for example, because people are better off surrounded by others who have such aversions. It explicitly describes morality as a tool invented by people to handle every-day events, and that it is not meant to provide answers to unusual and exotic situations that are outside the norm.

Well, what happens at the top of a political dynasty are rare and exotic situations outside the norm. Desirism says that it is a good idea to promote an overall social aversion to murder and lying - and that this gives us reason to condemn anybody who murders and lies. This would include condemning Darius for his murders and lies. But what should you do when you have the opportunity to put a competent and (relatively - and I do put an emphasis on 'relatively') benevolent person on the throne of a great kingdom? Can the aversion to murder and lying be outweighed?

I am treating these events as relatively rare and exotic and, thus, outside of the scope of desirism. Yet, an argument can be made that they are not, in fact. If we go through the history of the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the ancient Greeks, China, Egypt, we see that the killing and replacing leaders was a common practice - and the people who did so were not often (often not) competent and relatively benevolent leaders. An argument could be made that the people generally had many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to violently replacing incompetent and malevolent dictators given that the violence that occurred regularly at the top of the social pyramid created far more harm than good, even if we are giving up the chance that - once in a while - a competent and relatively benevolent person became king.

There are a lot of moral theories that are nice and neat and pretty as long as you are only looking at them in the laboratory of the mind. They become a lot dirtier when you take them out and set them loose in the real world.

Back in the realm of philosophy, spring classes start on Tuesday and, though I cannot take classes, I have acquired permission from one of the professors to follow along with a course she has been teaching on the relative importance of reason versus emotion in moral knowledge. That should be interesting, and I hope to get a paper or two out of that.

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