Sunday, February 12, 2006

on holding people accountable

What does it mean when we hold people accountable for their actions?

Before we talk about "accountable," let's talk about "responsible."

According to Herbert Fingarette in his little book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, there are two major senses of the word "responsible." In the first sense (1), it merely means being the originator/locus of a given act. In the second sense (2), it means being a moral agent.

Consider a hungry bear that kills a hiker. The bear is responsible for the hiker's death in the first sense of the word, insofar as it is indeed the being who killed the hiker: we can point to the bear and say, "That bear did it." The bear is not responsible, however, in the second sense: the bear isn't a murderer. It killed the hiker because it was hungry and because it is the nature of a bear to kill its prey, human or otherwise.

No one seriously contends that the bear is morally reprehensible because "it could have done otherwise." A family member might harbor enmity against the bear, and the community might desire the bear's death, but it's doubtful that the bitterness would arise from a moral assessment of the bear. The bear isn't adjudged evil.

The same is not true for a perfectly sane but enraged person who kills another person. In this case, the murderer is responsible for the killing in both senses of the word, and is generally thought reprehensible. This is why murderers love the insanity plea: it's a declaration that a person is not responsible in sense (2) of the word. The murder "couldn't be helped."

Let's move into current events, then.

If some person "P" wants to argue that violent/deadly Muslim outrage is the inevitable result of provocation-by-cartoon, they are saying that Muslims are responsible for their behavior in sense (1) of the term, but not sense (2). This attitude, which is meant to be charitable, instead dehumanizes the Muslims in question and treats them as beings without freedom of choice, little different from (and just as inhuman as) the hungry bear.

Suppose P, upon hearing the above, decides to backtrack and say "Well, such Muslims aren't inevitably moved to overreact, but come on-- did you really expect them to do otherwise? You have to admit that their overreaction was a likely outcome." What then?

I hate to take Dr. Vallicella's tone, but the above indicates deep moral confusion. If there is even a slight likelihood that other actions are possible, then a person who chooses to be violent has still made a choice and is still responsible for his action in the second (moral) sense of the word. The person who chooses violence is not exculpated by specious talk of probability and likelihood.

Consider my own case. I'm a fat slob and constantly hungry. Let's pretend that I've publicly declared I'm on a diet now. If you offer me a cookie (especially a Pepperidge Farm chunky chocolate chip one, with a small glass of milk), there's a very high probability I'll break down and grab it, perhaps accidentally taking your hand and forearm as well (no hard feelings).

I've said I'm on a diet. I know I shouldn't take the cookie. Am I acting according to my compulsions and therefore a "victim" of the effects of obesity? Not at all. Choice is still open to me. I am not exculpated, no matter how strong the compulsion that moved me to take the cookie and part of your arm. You would be right to hold me accountable for not having shown any self-discipline.

Moral convictions are useless if inconsistently applied. We are told by the appeasers that we in the West need to be sensitive to the feelings, morals, and mores of other cultures and religions. The appeasers are very quick to say these things, and there's some validity in the admonition, but they seem unwilling or unable to broadcast the same message to the other side-- to the people who, in my opinion, need to hear such a message far more than we do. Why is that? Why the hypocrisy?

Can we hold violent protestors and kidnappers and threat-makers accountable for their actions? Of course we can, if for no other reason than that they are threatening us (though I hope we would do so for nobler reasons than that).

As a side note, I'll observe that the contention that we live in separate cultures, and should therefore suspend judgment of the Other or resign ourselves to our impercipience, is increasingly suspect. Yes, there are distinct cultures, but in an era of globalization, we are discovering not only what makes each culture unique, but what makes them all, in many ways, the same. It is therefore less and less legitimate to argue that standards from one culture cannot apply to actions in another. And as long as the angry Muslims demand respect, it is merely parity that we should do the same. If everyone managed to do this nonviolently (which is, after all, the more civilized route), so much the better.

Conclusion-- the appeaser can take one of two routes:

(1) He can contend that a Muslim protestor's violence is an inevitable reaction. In doing so, the appeaser is denying the protestor's status as a human being, for such a protestor lacks free will and is, morally speaking, no different from an animal following a natural compulsion.

(2) He can contend that a Muslim protestor's violence is not inevitable. In doing so, he commits himself to the (correct) notion that the Muslim is a human being who has freely chosen the path of violence, in the knowledge that other paths are available. It matters nothing whether those other paths are exceedingly difficult, or if the provocation (by a cartoon, say) is unbearably insulting. And in contending the Muslim is a moral agent, the appeaser commits himself to the idea that the Muslim is subject to moral judgement. To be consistent, to be moral, the appeaser must abandon his appeasing stance and act on his conviction that the protestor's violence is wrong.

Bernard Lonergan, my theological bugbear, framed human thought and action this way:

(at the cognitive level)

1. experience
2. understand
3. judge
4. decide

(at the "transcendental imperative" level)

1. be attentive
2. be intelligent
3. be reasonable
4. be responsible

Belief not followed by action is worthless.

FOUND: At the end of an online article at CNN's website, the following:

CNN is not showing the negative caricatures of the likeness of the Prophet Mohammed because the network believes its role is to cover the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons while not unnecessarily adding fuel to the controversy itself.

There are any number of reasons not to show those cartoons, but CNN cites not wanting to "unnecessarily add fuel to the controversy." Based on what I wrote above, what do you suppose CNN's assessment of the angry Muslims is? In CNN's view, are those Muslims free human beings? Is CNN making a paternalistic assumption about the knee-jerk, animalistic nature of Muslim anger? Might CNN be committing the fallacy of contending that Muslims are free, but likely to overreact, and therefore not to be blamed for overreaction (i.e., increased Muslim anger would be CNN's fault)? Discuss!

A general question: Is it ever legitimate to say, "So-and-so makes me angry."? Sure, we say such things all the time. But is the thought justifiable if we seriously believe ourselves free?

And a meta-question (this one will make Sonagi happy): by focusing the discussion on the moral obligations of the provoked, as I have, are we implying that all who provoke are blameless when they do so?

(I already have my own answer to that last question, at least as relates to the cartoon flap, but I'm curious what you all think.)


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