Archive for August 2008

A Few Political Thoughts

August 31, 2008

Don’t get me wrong, Sarah Palin’s acceptance of McCain’s offer to be his VP candidate does not alter my decision one way or the other:  I am still unsure whether I’m voting for McCain or not.  The VP just does’t have that many powers or responsibilities to counteract McCain. 

Which brings us to a question:  given that the VP doesn’t do too much, why does it matter that Palin doesn’t have a lot of experience?  Why is it that the Democrats that are complaining about her don’t feel queezy about Obama, who is just as inexperienced?  If “inexperienced” is such a bad thing, shouldn’t we be more concerned about Barack Obama, who is running for a much more difficult job?  Politics as usual.

Of course, given how much the president must be able to do, I don’t think there are too many people who could possibly be considered “experienced” enough to be president.  Some may be more knowledgeable about certain debates, procedural issues, and political climate that others, but there is always going to be more things that a person doesn’t know than what one does know for such a multi-faceted job. 

But anyway.  Sarah Palin seems like a very good pick at the moment.  If she shows everyone a thick skin over the next 60 days (and possibly throughout the next 4-8 years), she could make herself a contender for the presidency if she wants to be.

Casting a Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?

August 30, 2008

Pretend that Guiliani was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate this year.  If this occured, then we would have two pro-choice politicians running for president.  But Obama is most certainly the more extreme candidate of the two.  Is it therefore permissible to vote for Guiliani because he is the lesser of two evils?

Four years ago, the then Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, issued a statement to the effect that a vote for an abortion candidate is a grave sin.  At the time, Catholic Democrats ran around calling His Grace an extremist who ought keep his nose out of politics because he was essentially telling voters to vote for Bush.  Catholic Republicans accepted His Grace’s commentary, using it as justification for their own votes and as a condemnation of a vote for John Kerry.  I can’t count the number of times people (including myself) complained that Kerry supporters were putting party loyalty ahead of Church teaching.

Since embryonic stem cell research is very similar to abortion, it seems plausible that his statement on the latter can be extended to the former.  This year, there is heated debate on the Catholic blogosphere concerning whether a Catholic may vote for McCain–who is in favor of embryonic stem cell research, something on par with abortion as a grave evil.  The Catholic blogosphere is very divided on this point, even among Catholic Republicans.  But those Catholic Republicans that agreed with Archbishop Burke during the previous presidential election but support McCain this year seem to be acting inconsistently.  For Archbishop Burke never said that it is permissible to vote for the lesser evil, he said it is a grave sin to vote for a politician in favor of abortion. 

If indeed an inconsistency exists, then McCain-supporting Catholics must do one of two things:  a) cease supporting McCain, or b) agree that Archbishop Burke is wrong.  But there is a further question:  if the McCain supporter opts for b), he had better do an extensive examination of conscience.  Is this person rejecting Archbishop Burke’s teaching this election c) because he truly sees that Burke’s reasoning is wrong, or d) because he puts his political affiliations ahead of Church teaching, and is only now disagreeing with Archbishop Burke because his statements do not conform with his favored candidate?  

So many Catholics deny that they put political party before Church, but exit polls from previous elections show that this is not the case.  Catholics truly are aligned more with their party than the Church.  That’s unacceptable:  If you’re going to be Catholic, be Catholic.  Don’t half-ass it.

Batman as Vigilante

August 29, 2008

If my readers haven’t guessed it yet, I found The Dark Knight to be a fascinating movie.  It asks some excellent philosophical questions without having large neon signs pointing at them whenever they occur.  This post explores one such question:  given the corruption of a particular institution, is it ever permissible to attempt to fix the institution as an agent above the law?  Gotham is clearly corrupt, and like any good superhero Batman tries to clean up the corruption as an agent unaccountable to local authorities.  But is it ever moral to place oneself outside of the law?  Or must one always work within the law to combat corruption?  The amazing thing about The Dark Knight is that while Batman is quite clearly a protagonist and a vigilante (which seems to present tacit support for vigilante justice), there are powerful arguments made against vigilante justice throughout the movie.

Philip Lawler, the author of The Faithful Departed, describes corruption in the following way:  assume that out of every 100 people, 5 are extraordinarily virtuous, 5 are extraordinarily vicious, and 90 are average individuals.  In a well functioning institution, the vicious men are kept from power, or can be evicted if they ever obtain power.  The corrupt society is the exact opposite, where the vicious entrench themselves in an institution’s leadership.  Thus, even corrupt institutions have a few good men, and good institutions have a few corrupt men.  The key to judging the moral health of an institution is whether corrupt are able to maintain power once they obtain it.

At the beginning of the movie, Batman is going after Scarecrow, and a bunch of vigilantes show up.  Batman clearly frowns upon there actions, since he leaves them to be apprehended by the police, sitting right next to the very criminal they were attempting to stop.  The vigilantes were attempting to do good, but they placed themselves outside of the law; Batman treats them as common criminals: it is the criminal that acts as if he’s above the law.  Of course, vigilantes are different than criminals because vigilantes desire to wipe out corruption rather than to cause it.  Nevertheless, there are several problems with vigilante justice.  To name a few, vigilante justice may lapse into subjectivity rather than being impartial (as Aristotle would say, it let’s man rule, not the laws).  Vigilantes seek  justice even though they may not have full knowledge of the facts of a given situation.  And, while vigilantes may have the power to punish criminals, they do not have the authority to punish criminals.  The one vigilante asks Batman, “what makes you different than us?”  To which Batman responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pants.”  The humor of the comment aside, Batman never answers the question:  why is it okay for Batman to act outside of the law, but not okay for these men?  It can’t be merely because Batman possesses more training and better widgets!  Alfred half-approvingly, half-jokingly suggests that Batman should hire these men and take the weekend off, a suggestion that Batman dismisses without a second thought. 

Wayne himself realizes that Batman’s existence can only be temporary.  Thus he begins looking for a White Knight who can take his place, an agent acting within the law.  He finds this man in Harvey Dent, and he throws Dent a fundraiser to ensure his political future.  Interestingly, Wayne lends Dent his support immediately after a conversation about vigilante justice, which included the infamous example of Caesar, who acted above the law and never returned control to the people.  Dent acknowledges the problem proposed by this example, but states in reply, “so one either dies a hero, or lives long enough to see himself become the enemy.”  This line, incidentally, is repeated at the end of the movie in reference both to Dent and to Batman, one a criminal, the other a vigilante, both acting above the law.

But most importantly, there is the scene in which Morgan Freeman’s character comments on the immorality of Batman’s wire tapping scheme.  The scene is teeming with situational irony:  a man acting above the law is being chastized for acting above the law by a friend who supported once his acting above the law! 

Sure, even if Batman is acting only above human laws, he can still be promoting a higher moral code, such as God’s laws.  But most laws e.g. giving police the right to enforce justice and not allowing civilians to take matters into their own hands, are instances of the natural law applied through positive law; since the natural law participates in the eternal law, acting above human laws would in this case be acting against God’s laws.  Batman’s defenders cannot escape the ethical problems that easily!

So why does Freeman’s character object to this vigilante act in particular as wrong? Batman previously and repeatedly acted outside of civil law, and Freeman had no objections.  Now Batman is doing the same thing, but Freeman objects.  What is different about this instance of law-breaking that was different than previous ones?  Freeman answers that this wire-tap grants too much power to one man, which is true; but then again, isn’t it a bit too much power to be above the law except with regards to a personal oath not to kill anyone?  And even then, what’s holding Batman to this oath should he decide to break it?  Once we grant the vigilante his premise that it is okay to act outside of the law in some instances, what prevents the vigilante’s logic from being applied to other instances?   

(There are a couple of other scenes which touch on this issue, such as Rachael commenting in her letter that she is afraid that Bruce Wayne will continue to need Batman even after Gotham no longer needs Batman; but I’ll leave the philosophizing on that one to some one else.) 

All of these things seem to argue against Batman’s very existence being moral.  I wrote yesterday about dirty hands scenarios, asking whether Batman might be considered virtuous even in the midst of his bad actions because he did the best thing in a difficult moral situation.  But can one even call Batman’s situation a dirty hands scenario when he was never a lawful authority elected to make such hard decisions in the first place?  It isn’t ever in a non-appointed citizen’s power to apply the just war criteria or enact solutions to the Social Security fiasco, so why ought he have the authority to decide on behalf of Gotham which truths or falsehoods it is to hear? 

The Dark Knight presents a powerful argument against vigilante justice.  And yet, it is still undoubtable that Batman, a vigilante, is the protagonist of the movie, acting in what appears to be an heroic way.  Even after Batman refuses to call himself a hero at the end of the movie, Gordon does not hesitate to do so.  Furthermore, it seems that the producers of this movie wish to present Batman as a hero, too (they don’t play the hero music when Batman steps in front of the camera for nothing!).  But determining exactly what makes Batman heroic is surprisingly elusive.  Like many of the best philosophical questions, this one rouses up a good bout of aporia.

How Dirty are Batman’s Hands?

August 28, 2008

Batman deceived Gotham City, which is sinful; but I am having a difficult time labelling his actions as unequivocally virtuous or vicious.  Batman is operating in a fallen world, and he is trying his best to do good, even when he fails in some respect.  And no matter how hard I try, I cannot stop thinking about Batman’s “noble lie,” deceiving Gotham for what appears to be the greater good.  The scenario is so messy, mixed with good and evil, that it is ripe for philosophical discussion.  I previously explain both why Batman is not a liar, but why his deception is still a sin against the truth.  In this post, I examine another factor in this moral equation: does Batman have the “dirty hands?”  

Instances of moral rule-breaking which cannot be avoided in this life are called “dirty hands” situations.  As much as I am disgusted with the majority of politicians, it’s difficult to be too hard on them because they must handle very difficult situations where the best solutions are not readily apparent, even in hindsight.  For instance, as a general moral rule, it would be unjust for a person to pay into Social Security his entire life without getting any benefits in return:  he has planned his retirement around that money and needs to support himself.  However, when the Baby Boomers retire in 2020, a very small number of people will be paying the SS benefits for a large number of people.  If we give every Boomer the money which they paid into SS, the working generation will be saddled with an excessive economic burden.  SS reform is one of those terrible situations where someone is going to get the short end of the stick.  Our politicians are going to have to make the decision concerning who must take the burden of the impending disaster for the sake of the common good.  I do not envy them for the decision they must make, for to solve this problem involves dirtying one’s hands.

God never promised that absolute goodness would win in this life, but only in the next.  It is thus possible that evil will triumph insofar as human affairs are concerned.  As David notes, in this life there just aren’t states of affairs or groups of people that are entirely good, fighting against another state of affairs or group which is pure evil.  Thus, even if the war against Hitler was just, it still brought with it evils.  The invasion at D-Day, for instance, was successful only after thousands of US troops first were used as cannon fodder to drain the opposition’s bullets.  The sacrifice of those men was an evil which piggy-backed on a noble objective.  In such situations, there is no way to entirely eliminate every evil, even on the side with a better claim to justice:  all evil will be conquered only at Christ’s second Coming. 

On the one hand, it’s difficult to hold the generals and politicians from the above examples accountable for protecting the common good in such circumstances.  On the other hand, the fact remains that what these men have done is still objectively sinful.  Granted, the circumstances reduce their culpability, perhaps almost entirely; but they still have committed an evil act, and the very participation in such evil leaves a man’s soul a bit blackened.  Even if the man minimizes the evils as much as possible, he is still partner to the crime.

Batman’s moral dilemma appears to be a dirty hands scenario.  The Joker knew that if Gotham found out about Dent’s corruption, they would lose all hope.  Batman knows the Joker is right about this, because he warned Dent that if Gotham found out about his questionable interrogation tactics, all of Dent’s work would be for nothing.  In saving Dent’s reputation as the White Knight, Batman preserved the already fragile campaign to rid Gotham of its corruption.  He did this at the cost of deceiving Gotham and ruining his own reputation. 

So how do we behave when the cost of doing the right thing involves a choice among imperfect means?  I think this is where virtue-ethics has a lot of appeal.  In situations where our moral rules seem to conflict, the virtuous man possesses the wisdom to know which moral rules take precedence (perhaps that formulation is too weak:  the virtuous man determines what the moral norms are for the rest of us!), and the wisdom to determine the best possible solution…even if the best solution in this imperfect world of ours may still require us to go to Confession afterwards.  The virtuous man must trust that there is a best course of action (perhaps knowable only in the eschaton), and act after asking for an extra dosage of the Holy Spirit.

Is Batman a Liar, Part II

August 23, 2008

Being uncomfortable with my reasoning from the previous post, I recruited the help of David from Life’s Private Book.  See the post, as well as my ensuing comment.

It seems that even if Batman is not guilty of a lie per se, he is still guilty of a sin against charity.  Assume that a mother asks her child whether he stole a cookie out of the cookie jar.  It would be wrong for the child to attempt to deceive his mother with an equivocal answer, tricking her with a statement which is true, but does not tell the whole truth.  The mother is a legitmate authority attempting to enforce a just law against someone obviously within her jurisdiction.  The child is being untruthful and uncharitable towards his mother.

The question is, which of my examples seems more akin to the situation in the Batman movie:  the example from my previous post about tricking a goalie in soccer, or the one just given?  It seems obvious that the latter is much more akin to Batman’s deception:  Gothom’s police force seems to be justified in knowing the truth, as they are just authorities enforcing a just law, etc. 

Those, contra my first post it seems Batman is still guilty of a sin, given a Christian worldview.

Is Batman a Liar?

August 22, 2008

At the end of the Dark Knight, Batman tells Gordon, “I killed those people,” referring to the people killed by Two Face in his revenge rampage.  Batman’s purpose was to preserve the reputation of Harvey Dent for the sake of giving the people of Gotham hope.  Batman sacrifices his own reputation for the sake of Gotham City.

That’s all fine and good; but Batman has been accused by many of being a liar.  I would already agree for other reasons i.e. the wire-tapping incident, that Batman does not escape the film entirely unscathed, morally speaking; but is he a liar?  A consequentialist can easily argue that Batman did the right thing, doing something wrong to achieve a greater good.  However, I believe that a case can be made that not only is Batman not a liar, but also he did nothing morally wrong, even assuming the falsity of consequentialism.

Dictionary.com defines a lie as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.”  For our purposes in this article, this definition is sufficient.  Thus, in order to be a lie, something must be 1)  false (or at least believed to be false by the person lying), 2) a statement with 3) the intent to deceive.

Based on these criteria, it is quite clear that Batman is not a liar, for whom did Batman lie to?  What lie did he tell?  The immediate response is that Batman told a lie when he told Gordon that he killed those people; but this is obviously false, as I will presently show. 

Batman was well aware that Gordon knew about Dent’s killing spree.  It was never his intention to deceive Gordon.  Now obviously Batman had the intention of deceiving the city; however, not all acts of deception are lies.  Assume the truth of the following two statements:  “All acts of lying are wrong,” and “all lies are acts of deception.”  To conclude, “all acts of deception are wrong” does not logically follow.  In order to make the argument valid, we must assert the truth of the converse of premise two, asserting:  “all deceptions are lies.”  But there are obvious counterexamples to this assertion: it is common for a soccer player taking a penalty shot to look at one side of the goal and shoot at the other.  His intent is to make the goalie think that he is aiming for one side so that the goalie will dive in that direction.  The player then shoots for the other corner.  This is an instance of deception, but it is not a lie, for it is not a statement, but an act.  Therefore, the conclusion of the original argument does not follow.

As a matter of fact, our counterexample to, “all deceptions are lies” is also a counterexample to the conclusion of the original argument.  I doubt many people would argue that the soccer player acted immorally for deceiving that goalie.    

So if Batman wasn’t intending to deceive Gordon, then what was he doing?  It seems that Batman’s statement is not really a statement at all, but an imperative.  He seems to be issuing a command to Gordon to tell others that he is the murderer, not Dent.  Taken in a different context, “I killed those men” would be a proposition which is either true or fase; however, in this instance, he was giving a command, and no command has a truth value.  Therefore, because Batman was not making a statement but issuing a command, criterion 2) is not met.  And because commands are neither true nor false, criterion 1) is not met, either.

Failing to meet any one of these criteria would be sufficient to demonstrate that Batman did not tell a lie.  Still, two arguments can be advanced to show that Batman still acted immorally, even if he is not a liar.  First, Batman intentionally deceived the city.  Isn’t this act of deception wrong?  

I answer that this act of deception is not wrong.  First, I refer the reader to Alexander Pruss’s excellent article, “Deception and Lying.”  He not only shows that all deceptions are lies, but also that not all deceptions are morally wrong.  Thus, In order to show that Batman acted immorally, one must not only establish that Batman deceived the city (to which all parties would agree), but also provide an argument showing why that particular act of deception is wrong.  Unless such an argument is made, objection 1 fails.  

Secondly, Batman acted immorally because he commissioned Gordon (pun intended) to lie on his behalf.  However, Batman did no such thing.  Even if Batman issued a command to Gordon, that command was ambiguous enough that Batman never specified what means Gordon must take to achieve those ends.  Sure, Batman was clear that he wanted Gordon to deceive the city; but he never tells him how to do it.  Batman says, “I killed those people;” which can be interpreted in a number of ways.  It can be interpreted to mean “Gordon, lie to the city, telling them that I (Batman) killed those people.”  However, it can also be interpreted to mean, “Gordon, deceive the city (but do so without lying to them).”  Some may say this interpretation is not the most likely one, but I don’t think that is necessarily true.  Perhaps Gordon knows Batman so well that he knows he would never ask him to do something immoral; perhaps Batman knew Gordon well enough that he (Gordon) would interpret his (Batman’s) ambiguous command in a way consistent with his (Gordon’s) impeccable moral sensibility.

Gordon could easily deceive the city into thinking Batman is a murderer without ever telling a lie.  First, he can state truthfully that Batman killed Harvey Dent; all he needs to do is fail to mention that Harvey Dent had lost his mind and was holding his family hostage.  Also, Gordon can truthfully say repeat Batman’s words, saying, “Batman said to me (and I quote!):  ‘I killed those men.'”  Again, Gordon is being perfectly honest when he says this:  he is not telling a lie because his statement is true.  Of course, by context we know that Batman was issuing a command, not making a statement; however, by failing to mention the proper context in which the words were uttered, Gordon fails to communicate this fact to Gotham. 

Now I think that Gordon could not only say these things without lying, but would also not deceiving in a way which is immoral, either.  However, that is an argument for a separate post.  At present, I have done what I set out to do:  I first showed that Batman is not a liar, and then I showed that Batman’s deception was not immoral.  Thus, instead of using evil ends to achieve a good end, Batman used good/morally neutral means to achieve a good end.  All that remains is his heroic intention to sacrifice his safey and reputation for the good of Gotham.

Update:  See my subsequent post on this same topic.