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Where do moral paradoxes come from?

In the first post we asked what is a paradox, and in the second how to distinguish moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes (such as curiosities or puzzles). But where do moral paradoxes come from? I will examine this question through a quick survey of a few of the paradoxes in 10 MORAL PARADOXES.

The paradox about justice and severity of punishment presented in my first post needs a background of assumptions, but those are commonsensical and difficult to reject. What makes things paradoxical is a peculiar FACT: that, generally speaking, the same harsh environmental factors that make some of the underprivileged deserving of mitigated sentences also harden them, and hence require that they be threatened with more severe punishment. As a result, we reach the absurd result that, broadly, the more one needs to be punished the less one deserves to be.

Another paradox, Fortunate Misfortune, similarly follows from peculiar situations in the world, but this time it involves more unusual ones (although certainly they are not rare). People suffer misfortune all the time. In the book I focus on the cases of Abigail, who was born with physical disabilities that made it difficult for her to walk and breathe, and of Abraham, who was born into severe poverty and had to leave school at an early age. Typically there is very little good about such misfortunes. But occasionally, the victims of misfortune succeed and end up having a good life. The cases which interest us are those in which success RESULTS from the misfortune: Abigail takes up swimming intensively in order to overcome her disabilities, she succeeds, and becomes an Olympic champion. Abraham is somehow strengthened by the misfortune and becomes a wealthy businessman. We assume that they would not have reached anything like the level of success that they have but for the misfortune, that success has given them a good life, and that they agree that it was “worth it”, namely, they agree that they have reached levels of well-being to which they would most probably not have risen but for the initial misfortune, and it is not the case that they would happily give up the later success for the sake of an easier childhood. Usually misfortunes are simply and clearly bad. Sometimes a seeming misfortune (like breaking a leg) turns out well (one meets the love of one’s life in the hospital), but that is more properly thought of as a blessing in disguise, not a true case of Fortunate Misfortune. But what should we say when there has been a terrible misfortune, but this then makes the purported victim’s life much better? We have, I claim, a paradox. On the one hand, some things seem to be clear misfortunes, whatever happens later. The fact that they have been overcome after great effort and sacrifice just shows how much there was to be overcome, and we cannot deny that they were awful, regrettable, and unfortunate. We would never, for instance, wish such things upon our children, whatever the potential benefits. On the other hand, how can such cases be misfortunes, when they have been the necessary conditions for making the lives of those who experienced them much better than they would otherwise have been? I cannot enter here into a discussion of the complexities and of the way I resolve things in the book; my present point is that we see how the paradox of Fortunate Misfortune directly emerges from an unusual set of circumstances in the world.

The paradox of Beneficial Retirement, by contrast, is born of very different stock; the odd way the notion of INTEGRITY operates in contexts of holding certain positions, under particular circumstances. Think about a medical doctor of below-average ability. Being a doctor has been his dream since childhood, he studied hard for many years in order to become one, and he does his best on the job; nevertheless, he is simply not very good. It is not that he is directly harmful, but that most other doctors are better. Assume, further, that there is a pool of candidates (recent graduates or new immigrants), so that if he left his position someone better would almost certainly replace him. This not uncommon situation brings forth, I claim, a paradox: on the one hand, normally we do not require such sacrifices from people. Our doctor would much prefer giving up 20% of his income to leaving his job, yet few would require people to give up 20% of their (post-tax) income for good causes. On the other hand, it seems that this doctor cannot keep both his job and his integrity. At least it becomes impossible for him (once he is aware of the facts) to say that he is a doctor because he wants people to be healthy: if that is what you want, we shall reply, do us a favor and leave the profession at once. In striking contrast to the way Bernard Williams used the concept of integrity to shelter people from utilitarian demands, here it seems to me that the ideas of one’s life project and integrity present an unusually strong demand for retirement.

[Beyond the paradox itself, there is also an issue of scale. Given that the pool of candidates is large enough, the Paradox of Beneficial Retirement may apply to everyone who is below average or, occasionally, even to the majority of professionals or other workers! Over 50% of e.g. medical doctors should, each, consider leaving his or her job. This enhances the paradoxicality. My paradox was attacked on this issue by James Lenman; his intriguing paper and my reply can be found in the recent issues of RATIO.]

Finally, consider the Paradox of Moral Complaint. This is a bit complicated and I will simplify here more than I did with the other paradoxes. In the book I consider the cases of gossips, violent criminals, and terrorists but let’s take a simple case, that of a car thief. This guy makes his living by stealing other people’s cars, as he has done for most of his life. Recently his own car was stolen (stealing his car was not a means of seeking compensation or punishment, nor was there some other urgent and justified need to take it; it was merely stolen for profit, just as he always does). Can he complain, morally? Of course he can voice his displeasure, but does he have a moral complaint? On the one hand, we feel that there are certain things that must never be done to people, irrespective of what they themselves have done. On the other hand, how can this guy COMPLAIN? After all, he was treated in exactly the way that (Kant would say) he legislated, through his own actions, that people should be treated. It is not only that there is something ridiculous about his complaining, but that through his disrespect for others he seems to have lost his claim on us to morally care about the way in which he has been treated. The complaint assumes a principle that the thief manifestly does not care about; he has no grounding for his complaint. He has no basis for expecting, morally, not to have his own car stolen, and no basis for indignation or resentment. If one indeed comes to see that he or she shares both sets of intuitions (I try to pump both sets up further in the chapter), then we have an antinomy: one both can, and cannot, complain. And since this affects more important matters than our car thief (e.g., can terrorists complain when innocent people they care about are harmed? Or if they themselves are ill-treated?), this paradox threatens much about morality. One possible move is to “separate constraint from complaint”: to say that we are morally forbidden to do certain things to people (steal their cars, torture them), yet (if they themselves regularly and freely engage in such practices) they cannot complain if we do those things to them. But that seems to be quite paradoxical in itself, for typically we also believe that if one is wronged, then morally one can complain. Where does this paradox come from? In my skeptical moments I feel that it follows from a deep contradiction in the logic of morality, but at other times I suspect that there must be a solution and that I have not yet been able to come up with it. So the source of this paradox is unclear (at least to me).

I hope that this quick trot through a few examples has not been too confusing. One clear lesson, it seems to me, is that the sources of moral paradoxicality are varied: just from looking at the examples above, some paradoxes emerge from facts about the world, some from the force of our moral concepts, and with some, the logic of morality itself seems askew (but perhaps it is simply not yet clear to us what is going on).


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 16, 2007 9:22 pm


    Thanks for the great topic and posts.

    The examples you give are great paradoxes. And, I agree that much learning can come from considering and analyzing them. One question, of course, is whether they are very difficult paradoxes in an apparent sense, or whether they are genuine un-resolvable paradoxes that might suggest that reality itself, or morality, is absurd. In my view, they are difficult apparent paradoxes (or, they are genuine paradoxes if the idea of apparent is included within the definition of “paradox”).

    From my standpoint, the “Paradox of Moral Complaint” is the most interesting, although the others are very interesting too. I say this because, in some senses, it sheds light on some of our current moral paradigms and how, in some senses, they might diverge from the true underlying nature of morality itself. You write, “this paradox threatens much about morality” and, later, that in your skeptical moments you “feel that it follows from a deep contradiction in the logic of morality …”. You also wonder whether “the logic of morality itself seems askew.” I think that the paradoxes suggest that our common/conventional/working understanding of morality presents sometimes difficult contradictions and is, in some ways, askew from the nature of morality itself. In other words, it’s our understanding of morality that’s askew (in many cases), not the substance of morality itself.

    I’ll consider the “Paradox of Moral Complaint” and post some thoughts over the next week or so. For now, I’d like to offer just a few reactions and initial thoughts regarding what you’ve called the “Paradox of Beneficial Retirement.”

    Your example involves a doctor who is “not very good.” But, as you mention, “It is not that he is directly harmful, but that most doctors are better.” And, there are other would-be doctors who would almost certainly replace him if he were to retire. A question: Should the doctor retire?

    If my understanding of your post is correct, the paradox arises because of a definition of “integrity”, the view that “normally we do not require such sacrifices from people”, the fact that the Dr. can’t live up to that notion of integrity and remain a doctor (at least not under the conditions described), and all within some constraints that are imposed (or at least present) because of the way the society itself chooses to manage the profession of medicine. Yes, the Dr. himself faces a difficult choice (but life itself is full of genuine difficult choices). But, alas, unfortunately, his options, some of which might otherwise be very reasonable, seem highly constrained because of the practices or norms of the profession. (Many of those practices probably developed in part to protect the portion of doctors who find themselves below the average.)

    What, then, are some of the Dr’s options, theoretically, if they were not limited by the profession itself or by the society?:

    He could narrow his focus to aspects of medicine where he is adequately competent.
    He could be honest with potential patients (i.e., that he is below average), avoid practices where he might actually be dangerous, and charge appropriately low fees.
    He could do these things (mentioned above) and move to an area where many people don’t have access to medical care at all.
    If he is not dangerous (i.e., if he is at least adequate), and if he practices in a society where access to medical help is limited, or the lines are long, etc., and if the problem is on the “supply side”, then he can petition his profession to license more of the would-be doctors, i.e., anyone who can perform certain medical procedures safely (even though they may be average or below average).

    My impression is that such a situation (as it’s described), while it poses an apparent paradox (and certainly an important and difficult choice) for the Dr., and it may also raise questions about the way a society runs its medical profession, does not present a genuine un-resolvable paradox of the sort that should cause us to question the nature of morality itself.

    This said, I agree with you that “the sources of moral paradoxicality are varied.” And, I think the subject is an important one.

    Cheers, JH.

  2. 2. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 21, 2007 1:21 pm


    It is always interesting to read your posts, and I look forward to your comments on the Paradox of Moral Complaint. Here are some reactions to your comments on the Paradox of Beneficial Retirement:

    1. I agree that there would typically be things the doctor could do, and if the profession were more flexible there would be more options. But surely there are situations where the only integrity-preserving move would be to leave (e.g. if the guy is in the bottom 10% and there are plenty of better candidates in his potential specialities).

    2. What is the nature of the paradoxicality in this case? On the one hand he seemingly must retire, but on the other hand to demand this seems disproportionate to anything we normally expect people to do. Both sides seem strong enough that a paradox is generated. I am inclined to think that the idea of integrity has such great force here that we should say that he indeed must retire. So in a way (if one agrees) there is a solution to this paradox. But the paradox seems nevertheless stronger than its solution, at least in the sense that the solution itself does not remove all of the paradoxicality (it is absurd to expect so much from someone so situated, when we do not…).

    3. I don’t think that this paradox indicates that morality collapses (as the Paradox of Moral Complaint, perhaps, and Moral Luck, arguably, do, within certain bounds). Yet in a certain area which affects the lives of many people something quite absurd is going on. We can see this if we try to imagine the response of people who we will tell this story to, and then expect to retire. They can (reasonably?) be expected to resist this, and tell us that we are crazy. But even if we are sympathetic and say that morality cannot demand their retirement, even they can come to see that by remaining they would lose their integrity.

    4. The absurdity of the proposition “your job or your integrity” is multiplied once we see that in certain circumstances everyone who is below average would need to worry about this issue (and as I explain in the book, perhaps even the majority). This means that things are absurd on a very large scale.

  3. 3. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 22, 2007 12:38 am

    Hi Saul. Good morning. And thank you for your post and comments. Here are some responses, using the numbering system you used.

    1. I agree that there are surely some situations where the only integrity-preserving move would be to leave the profession. But when exploring those situations (for discussion) or situations that might approach them, it seems to me that their characteristics would make a difference: For example, if someone is in the bottom 10%, is he/she still competent to perform the type of service he/she performs, safely? Or, does being in the bottom 10% mean that he/she is somewhat incompetent and/or unsafe? Put another way, the situation you described in the original post, and perhaps the paradox itself, becomes a bit murky in situations where considerations of adequate competence and safety begin to get intermixed with, or confused with, relative standing in a restricted group of trained professionals.

    2. I’m not sure that a genuine paradox is generated. Certainly, the doctor faces a difficult choice. But not all difficult choices are paradoxes, of course, especially in the tighter sense of that word. The point that “to demand this seems disproportionate to anything we normally expect people to do” seems problematic to me. Of course, in some instances, our everyday accepted standards for “integrity” are lower than they could be, and they are certainly not precisely consistent among the wide natures of different professions. And, of course, when you/we use the term “demand” here, we aren’t talking about demands of legality: We’re talking about integrity. In other words, we aren’t exploring whether the law should require the doctor to resign. We’re exploring whether he can/should keep his sense of integrity even as he remains in the profession. And, as mentioned, it seems to me that this has a lot to do with whether he is competent and safe, or not, rather than whether he is in the top half or lower half of the profession, as long as he is competent and safe. If being in the bottom half of his profession, or in the bottom 10%, means that he is not competent enough to do a good job, safely, on those services he would continue to perform, then he should of course leave his post. If he doesn’t, he violates integrity. Of course, many people (given human psychology) would find ways to preserve their own internal sense of “integrity” even in such situations.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the paradox seems nevertheless stronger than its solution.” If the professional is significantly incompetent, or poses greater-than-usual risks to his patients, then it wouldn’t be absurd for us to expect (or even require) that he find a new profession. The degrees to which we might do this in other professions or walks of life depend on their nature. If a musician makes a big mistake (in his playing), very little harm is done. If a doctor makes a big mistake, or a person building bridges for the public, much more harm may be done.

    3. I don’t see that something “absurd” is going on based on the theory or logic of the matter. (I don’t doubt that there may be some absurd things going on in the medical profession, as with any profession, among a few people.) If we tell this story to someone in the medical profession who is competent and safe, but who is ranked in the 30th percentile (from the bottom) of his profession, he would probably want to remain in the profession, and perhaps rightly so. If he thinks that the profession is unduly constrained by its own overly-limited admission of qualified would-be doctors, many of whom might be even better than he is, then he should lobby the profession to admit more professionals, even though average fees may decrease (another tradeoff he faces when considering his various choices). But, if he is significantly incompetent or unsafe, then he should accept the story. Whether he does accept the story is another question, of course. Even incompetent unsafe doctors (at least some of them) can be expected to resist the idea. They want their fees and their own sense of integrity. They want their cake, and to eat it too. But, is that “reasonable”?

    4. Again, I think there is a difference between standards of competence and safety, and between someone’s percentile rank in a profession that claims to not admit professionals unless they all meet basic standards. In order to analyze the issue, I think we should keep that difference in mind. As well as, as mentioned, the differences in the nature of the diverse professions and walks of life, with some involving greater risk of harm than others.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful or at least thought-provoking. It’s a great topic, and great examples. I’ll try to comment on the “Paradox of Moral Complaint” later in the week, if I can.


  4. 4. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 22, 2007 6:59 pm


    Thanks for your comments. I agree that risk-and-competence and comparative location on a profesional scale need to be kept apart, but that seems to me to help the paradox. We should really set aside the risk and competence issues, otherwise we make our (philosophical) lives too easy. Let’s assume everyone within the system is competent, and does quite well on the job. The question comes up if there are better people outside who could come in. In principle that could happen almost to anyone, for it depends on the pool. If Derek Parfit were to come and replace us were we to leave our job then arguably the problem would arise for EVERY living moral philosoper, however competent in him or herself. And that, for me, is what makes things paradoxical. On the one hand, integrity seems to speak in very clear words, saying “go!”. On the other hand, it seems crazy that, however good one is, one would need to leave one’s life-dream (for which one studied for so many years and so on) – just because someone who is better is available. And note that in the way I have framed the problem, it does not matter if there are many (say, 50%) who are worse than you, you still need to consider leaving even if those others stay. That sounds unfair, but remember that at stake here is one’s personal integrity, and by staying you prevent a better e.g. doctor from saving more patients. We typically think that if one is good in one’s job and works hard enough then no issue need come up, but that just seems to me an (important) mistake; at the same time, the demand to leave just whenever (…) seems totally unreasonable.

  5. 5. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 22, 2007 11:09 pm

    Hi Saul,

    Thanks for your response.

    If we assume that “everyone within the system is competent, and does quite well on the job”, then the considerations of integrity point in all sorts of directions other than quitting. It is, of course, mathematically impossible for everyone in a group to be above the group’s own average on a particular measure. If I were a competent, safe doctor doing “quite well on the job” but were not quite as proficient as 70% of my colleagues, yet more proficient than 30% of them, then I could keep my sense of integrity without having to resign, even if hundreds of new medical school students were waiting to get into the (let’s assume) restricted profession, all other things being equal. What would I do instead of resigning? I’d try to perform my activities as well as possible. I’d avoid activities that I couldn’t perform well. I’d petition the profession to allow more students into the profession, assuming that demand (for medical services) exceeds supply. In addition, I might consider lowering my fees a bit. I’d be honest with my insurance company (who should have slightly higher rates for professionals rated in the bottom half than for professionals rated in the top half, if the ratings are tied in any way to performance and risk). Or, I might consider going to a town or country where medical services are in very short supply.

    At the extremes (and in the senses) we are contemplating here, it seems to me that the ranking/“competitive” paradigm, when taken this far, is what causes the apparent paradox (that is, relative to the competence-and-safety paradigm). Put another way, if we adopt the notion that #51 (of 100) must always give way to young up-and-comers, at any instant, or else lose his sense of integrity, then many families should probably be led by their 16-year-old adolescent girls or boys rather than their (sometimes less responsible!) parents.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “you prevent a better e.g. doctor from saving more patients”? If I’m competent and safe and doing “quite well on the job”, then there would only be a very slight difference, if any, in terms of how many patients I might “save.” Also, of course, standards should vary by specialty. Competence and safety should be measured more strictly with heart surgeons than, say, with dermatologists. If I’m a heart surgeon, if I meet the (high) absolute standards, then even if I’m only in the 20th percentile (of all those who meet the heart-surgeon standards), I’m still fine. Of course, my insurance rates might be higher than average. And my fees might be lower (because of market forces). So, I might be forced or motivated to leave the profession for reasons of economics. And, if I fall below standards, I should resign or be ejected.

    My overall impression is that, if it is true that the professional in question is competent and “does quite well on the job”, then any standard of integrity that would call for that person to resign (rather than do the other things mentioned above) is a very, very high standard of integrity. If everyone had that standard of integrity, we would certainly have far fewer wars (if any), far fewer rapes, far fewer murders, far less income disparity, and etc. I agree that doctors in some such situations should have choices to consider, and in some cases they may face difficult choices. But the paradox, it seems to me, is created in large part by a paradigm of rankings/competition combined with a very high standard for the concept of “integrity”. Put another way, it might well be a paradox that we create for ourselves (with that particular paradigm, combined with that high standard). Put yet another way, it seems to me that this is a great apparent paradigm, rather than a genuine un-resolvable paradigm of the sort that would cause us to question morality itself.

    When I have a chance to do so, I’ll consider the “Paradox of Moral Complaint”, as that one (also) looks quite interesting.

    Thanks again, and great topic.

    Cheers, JH.

  6. 6. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 23, 2007 7:15 pm


    I think that your strongest challenge here is to the notion of integrity I use. I agree that it is demanding in terms of its implications, and that of course is part of what builds up the paradox (according to my view). But I don’t think that it is too high in the sense that it is some lofty ideal that one may connect to if he or she wants to, but that really goes much beyond what is called for. If one is a perfectly acceptable surgeon but 70% of one’s colleagues are better and, what’s more important, one’s replacement if one leaves is very likely to be significantly better, then I think that the notion of integrity quite naturally calls for one to leave. After all, surgeons (of various sorts) differ in the number of equivalent patients that they lose. So what it means to be significantly worse than someone who could operate instead of you, is to be responsible for the unneccessary death of a certain number of patients every year. And that is manifestly a very serious thing. In other words, I don’t see how we can resist using the term integrity in such contexts in the demanding way that I do.

  7. 7. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 23, 2007 10:51 pm

    Hi Saul,

    Consider, if you look at two rather basic moral ideals, e.g., to tell the truth and to not murder (or contribute to murder), and if you are someone who has a higher-than-warranted interpretation of the first standard (truth), then you might well run into unfortunate situations that seem to present an impossible choice and that seem to represent a paradox. What if a scared, fleeing likely victim (a young lady, say) runs by you on your front lawn, says she is being chased by someone who wants to kill her, and hides in your backyard, and then, seconds later, an angry man, with a knife, runs up to you and asks you whether you’ve seen a young girl, and if so, where did she go? Is this a genuine paradox (of the sort that might cause someone to think of morality itself as absurd)? Or, is it an apparent paradox? My point is this, of course: I think that, in the example we have been considering, the weight or degree of the paradox (or whether there is a paradox, and whether it’s genuine or apparent) is a function of the combination of our definition of integrity, the height of our integrity standard, the paradigm of ranking-and-competition, the narrowed availability of other better options (other than quitting), and the question of the relationship between true competence and basic safety and the basis/methodology of the numerical percentile ranking.

    In any case, we’ve perhaps exhausted our discussion of this example, and I look forward to considering the Complaint example you gave. I’ll try to make a brief post on that one in the next couple days.

    Thanks, Cheers, Jeff

  8. 8. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 24, 2007 11:26 pm

    Hi Saul,

    Once again, thanks for the great topic and thought-provoking examples and questions.

    As promised, here are my thoughts regarding the very interesting “Paradox of Moral Complaint.” I’ll try to keep them reasonably brief.

    In your post, you wonder “Where does this paradox come from?” Good question. I think it has to do with at least four things:

    • Alas, the human mind tends to be inconsistent sometimes. Someone who steals cars might well feel wronged if his own car is stolen. We’ve all witnessed this. I’ve experienced it in a serious matter, in my own life here. There is a lot of writing (in psychology, psychiatry, evolutionary psychology, etc.) on this and related matters. The sometimes inconsistency in the human mind is the result of an imperfect process (i.e., evolution), and is either a working part of a survival strategy that we’ve developed (to differing degrees), or a tangential imperfection associated with other important strengths of our minds, or just a simple flaw, … more likely a combination of these.

    • Humans are also social beings, of course, and have empathy for each other (to differing degrees). On the TV last night, I saw a lady break down and cry. Her own house did not burn down in the recent (and continuing) fires down in Southern California, but many of her neighbors’ homes did burn down. She felt a combination of sadness and (to a degree) guilt because her house was not damaged, while other houses were. When we think in terms of general principles, we do tend to feel sorry for people whose cars have been stolen, and even (though to a lesser degree) when they are themselves car thieves. That feeling, whether large or small, is an aspect of human empathy. It’s worth noting that, in many (perhaps most) cases, that feeling of empathy (or sympathy) for an habitual car thief becomes much less strong, and sometimes dissolves entirely, if that person has stolen your own car, unless (of course) he had a harsh upbringing and so forth. So, while the thief himself might feel wronged (and complain) if his own car is stolen, and while many other humans might understandably have some degree of empathy for him, that doesn’t present a bizarre paradox. It’s part of human nature.

    • Seeing this as a (genuine) paradox doesn’t quite capture or reflect some aspects of our understanding of the dynamics of cooperation. For example, Robert Axelrod wrote a classic book called “The Evolution of Cooperation” that sheds some light on the issue. Cooperation itself, and the societal benefits that it often brings, requires some degree of push-back and consequences for non-cooperators, otherwise the whole dynamic begins to fall to pieces. Is it a “paradox” that maintaining cooperation itself sometimes requires consequences that the violators don’t like and that the friendly cooperative folks would prefer not to have to administer? It’s actually a good thing that we can separate moderate and proportional justice from the two extremes of: overly harsh consequences, and complete acceptance and passivity in the face of harmful behavior.

    • I think the other ingredient involves trying to hold onto two different principles at the same time, without balancing them or seeing which one (in specific circumstances) should take precedence over the other.

    I would agree that the great example given (in your post) points out a situation that sometimes brings out conflicting emotions, to some degree anyhow, and I would agree that it points out choices that are sometimes difficult, and that it represents an apparent paradox, but I don’t think it is a genuine un-resolvable paradox of the sort that would throw into question the notion of morality itself. It can all be explained via science and via a science-informed understanding of morality.

    I hope this is helpful in some way. Great topic. Thanks again.



  9. 9. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 26, 2007 4:49 pm


    I am sure that all the factors you mention matter in human experience, and may have some bearing on our question (roughly, the question of whether people may morally complain about being wronged in broadly the same ways that they themselves wrong others). But I don’t see how these factors can provide a solution (as distinct from an error theory, if one already holds a solution). Perhaps I have less confidence in the role of science in ethics, or perhaps it’s this particular issue, but I just don’t see the force of your argument.

    The place to start would be with our intuitions. If I ask you whether a confirmed torturer who is caught and then tortured may COMPLAIN, morally, then this is a question in normative ethics, not in social psychology. My own answer is that I am deeply conflicted, and not far from being settled in my conflict, hence I tend to see it as a paradox. For, on the one hand, torture is wrong (and let us say that even if it is sometimes justified this is not one of those special cases): since he was wronged, clearly the person can complain, morally. On the other hand, how can he complain, when he is being treated in ways that he has affirmed are morally acceptable? But if one affirms BOTH sides of the antinomy, then for him or her this IS a paradox. Some people might reject one side, but that is not an easy thing to do (and if a person is swayed by a particular example this is not enough, e.g. if she opts for the “can complain” side about torture, I still want to hear what she says about the car thief or of a person who goes back on his promise without justification).

    (I set aside for now the thought that perhaps our torturer may not be tortured, but that even if he is then he nevertheless cannot complain. That “compromise” position is however also very odd.)

    So my question is whether, in any given example, you accept both sides? If you do, you are on the way to accepting the paradox. And if not – which side do you reject, and why?

  10. 10. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 26, 2007 8:01 pm

    Hi Saul,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Viewing things broadly, we (humans) are given life, and then we eventually lose it. And, we all experience many things in-between. If one views this fundamental pattern (birth, then death) as itself paradoxical, then many things in life are certainly paradoxical in similar ways. In one sense, people could complain about everything, or (at least) about having to lose life after being given it. In a different sense, people could/should not complain about anything at all.

    In the quest to understand morality itself, I don’t distinguish much between, or pay attention to, the names or scopes of the different fields or subcategories, e.g., “moral philosophy”, “normative ethics”, “psychology”, “social psychology”, and so forth. These categorizations are helpful, of course, in many senses, and they do have meaning, but their boundaries shouldn’t get in the way of searching for the understanding (in this case, of morality) itself.

    You ask “whether, in any given example, you accept both sides?” You follow with, “If you do, you are on the way to accepting the paradox. And if not — which side do you reject, and why?” Some of my answers (or observations) are:

    • I don’t accept that there are two mutually-exclusive “sides” in the first place, at least not sides that are “always true” and that, in a sense, consist of linear principles.

    • I think that principles must be understood in a broader context and in a more nuanced fashion. For example, they should be understood within the context of the most foundational “effective” function of morality itself. They should be understood in terms of their positive roles in facilitating that function and, if possible, their positive roles to add “icing on the cake”.

    • I think that human emotions, and even human reason, are often conflicted over basic matters of life. That’s one of the reasons that humans aren’t lemmings (referring here to the caricatures of lemmings, though I’m sure that lemmings themselves are probably very able and complex in many ways). For example, a father watches his eighteen-year-old daughter go off to a distant college. He might well have mixed feelings. His role to help protect her, and his own personal appreciation of her company in the family household, seem to conflict (and do conflict, in some senses) with the passage of time and his role to wish her well and set her free.

    You ask “whether a confirmed torturer who is caught and then tortured may COMPLAIN, morally, …” and then define this question as one of normative ethics rather than social psychology. Setting aside the question of fields, I’ll try to give my view on the specific question:

    I’ll try to use terms that have rather common meanings (although the meanings in the U.S. may be slightly different than in the U.K. in some cases, I suppose).

    • The person being tortured (who himself is a torturer) might or might not voice a complaint. He might or might not realize that his grounds for complaining have been significantly diluted by his own previous actions as an habitual torturer. In some senses, his grounds for complaining are diminished or perhaps gone (because of his own personal actions), BUT in other senses they are present, at least somewhat, because he can still point to the general principle. He points to it with much less credibility than if he were not himself a torturer, but he can still point to it.

    • The complaint will probably not draw much empathy from those people doing the torturing (though it might draw some empathy from some of them).

    • If these two sets of participants are both made up of habitual torturers, then their dynamics will probably represent the rough, aggressive, not-very-smart portion of the dynamics described (for example) in Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.” They have already started in ways that are “not nice”, and they may continue to practice an “eye-for-an-eye” sort of reciprocity until they beat each other to a pulp. That’s not productive, of course. (That said, it’s interesting to note that the concept of reciprocity itself, or the cooperative goals it can achieve, do not vanish in any sensible understanding of human morality/ethics. The dynamics are, importantly, exercised in much more positive, healthy, empathetic, proportional, and restrained ways. See Axelrod’s book.)

    • If the person being tortured is also a torturer, and his captors are torturing him, then a third (and hopefully innocent) party who comes upon this entire mess can hold both sides accountable, in different ways, proportionally, for whatever each side has actually done. In other words, we don’t have to conclude that the victim (in this instance) is unaccountable for his earlier tortures, nor do we have to conclude that the current torturers are justified just because they had been tortured before by their current victim. Everyone is accountable for something, perhaps to different degrees. Moral accountability is not, in this sense, a zero-sum game.

    This all leads me to the question, what do you mean by a “solution” (when you mention the word in your first paragraph)?

    Finally, as mentioned before, I don’t disagree that this situation requires tradeoffs, and I’m sure that it would involve mixed feelings. I think these types of situations present tough decisions (based on the particulars of each situation), and often elicit mixed feelings, and sometimes present apparent paradoxes. Maybe they even present paradoxes, without the word “apparent” being specifically attached, depending on the definition of “paradox” itself. My main point is that they don’t seem (to me) to present genuine, real, un-resolvable paradoxes of the sort that would support us (humans) calling reality “absurd” or calling morality “absurd.”

    I hope these comments are helpful. Again, great topic.



  11. 11. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 27, 2007 4:22 pm

    Thanks, Jeff.

    I guess we will just have to remain in disagreement on this one. It is interesting to think of this in Kantian terms: on the one hand clearly there are things that we are forbidden to do to people, and if we do do them then they can complain; but on the other hand how can they complain, if what we do to them just follows their own practical-universal maxim? Kant clearly says that for such a reason the criminal cannot complain of the punishment, but I don’t see why that also does not apply if he is wronged (in similar ways…).

    A “solution” could be any number of things here. For example, a decisive argument for one side of the antinomy or for another (as I have explicated the sides). Or, the “solution” that I very tentatively propose, the separation of constraint from complaint – saying that while people may never be wronged, they can never complain morally even if they ARE wronged (if the way in which they were wronged is broadly like they way in which they freely and consistently wronged others). I don’t see the first type of solution, and I sometimes find the second attractive, but it would, in iteself, be very problematic, and bordering on the paradoxical. Unlike you, I do have two distinct responses which look very much like an antinomy, but I also think that this paradox (unlike some others we have considered) is very much open. Someone might well come up with a solution, perhaps a very different one from the two options I mention. If there is no solution as I understand it (and assuming I am correct in the way I have construed things) then this paradox says something problematic about morality beyond a specific area, but it’s too early to say and in a way I am waiting for a solution.

  12. 12. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 27, 2007 5:45 pm

    Hi Saul,

    Yes, it seems like we will end up with different views on this, but that’s part of the spice of life I suppose.

    I offer three last thoughts from this end that may prove of some interest or help, possibly:

    First, in an important sense, fair and proportional and ethical punishments for wrongs actually committed are deserved. But, as a slight distinction, one can’t really say (in quite the same way) that a torturer deserves to be tortured back, if torture itself is forbidden and immoral. Yes, the torturer probably deserves a fair and moral punishment for his having tortured, which may be a very substantial one, but we wouldn’t really say that he “deserves” to be tortured. Perhaps we might feel that way emotionally, but we wouldn’t really arrive at that conclusion, probably, after considering the morality of the matter.

    Second, I have found myself using the phrases “in one sense” and “in another sense” a lot regarding some of this matter. Thinking in those terms might help one arrive at (what you refer to as) a “solution” somewhat similar to your second solution “in one sense” but different “in another sense.”

    Third, if one’s thinking and analysis approaches a conclusion that morality itself is “absurd” or impossibly problematic, I think that one would need to identify, what “morality.” In other words, which brand of morality, which moral theory, which school of moral thought, is absurd or impossibly problematic? In particular, I don’t think that it would be compelling to conclude that morality itself is absurd or impossibly problematic without exploring in depth the scientific side of our understanding of morality, e.g., a reasonably up-to-date combination of Darwin, W.D. Hamilton (“inclusive fitness”/“kin selection”), Robert Trivers (“reciprocal altruism”), E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Robert Axelrod (cooperation), Cosmides & Tooby, Frans de Waal (primatologist), and etc. That body of evolving knowledge, combined with sound philosophical logic and views, sheds light on the picture (or puzzle) of morality that, I believe, provides an improved context for considering moral matters.

    I think consideration of these types of issues (apparent paradoxes, genuine paradoxes, etc.) is vitally important, and can lead to substantial advancements, and I applaud you for raising and exploring the topic.



  13. 13. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 28, 2007 11:24 am


    Just quick responses to your first two points. On deserving torture – I tend to agree. But that just shows the distinction between what we may do to someone and the question of complaint. Arguably no one deserves to be tortured, and thus if one is then s/he has been wronged. But it is still very much an open question whether s/he may complain, being a torturer. As I see it, there is one line of thought which goes directly from the wrong to the affirmation the legitimacy of complaint as a response to the wrong, and another that rejects complaint irrespective of the wrong.

    Second, the “in one sense”. That direction might be promising. Perhaps one may complain, but less. But to me it seems as though the sources of the two sides of the antinomy are very divergent, and don’t invite the “combined” approach. When the car thief or terrorist complain, I am (on the one hand) inclined to say that they have no standing whatsoever, that they can have no grounds for complaint and that their moral indignation and resentment carry no weight at all – and then there is the other side. So it doesn’t “feel” like two aspects that can be combined in the way that (say) mitigating considerations mitigate punishment but, well, like an antinomy.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion. I’ll try to post the 4th post in the series later on today. In it I will ask “What should we do about moral paradoxes?”, and give some surprising answers.

  14. 14. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 28, 2007 2:37 pm

    Hi Saul,

    A couple thoughts in response to your latest response, which was both interesting and helpful:

    First, when I think of the term “complaint” somewhat broadly, it occurs to me that there are many different roles complaint could/would play in situations such as those we are discussing. For example (not that this is a comprehensive list):

    • Complaint (voiced by a victim to the perpetrators or would-be perpetrators) draws the attention of the perpetrators to the general principle (e.g., against torture). Because there is a general principle, or let’s assume there is, there is nothing about this aspect/role of complaint that isn’t available to the victim, as long as she/he can speak, or can write, or can at least use gestures, AND this role of complaint at least has some chance of having a positive outcome. Of course, the victim’s credibility is low (being a torturer himself), perhaps, but not so much with respect to this particular aspect of complaint, unless the victim is also dishonest and lacking proof in addition to being a past torturer.

    • Complaint (voiced by a victim) also plays the very important role of bringing the attention of innocent third parties or authorities to the torture incident. Thus, as mentioned in an earlier post, these third parties can hold both parties accountable, i.e., the victim who himself has tortured someone, as well as the present torturers. Without the victim’s complaint to third parties, all of these instances of torture might well go undetected and unaddressed.

    • Complaint, of course, also gives voice to feelings. How those feelings are interpreted, and what weight they are given, and how they are acted upon, by third parties, will depend on the situation. The issue is not “black OR white”, of course, and shades of degrees are not only allowed, but also very practical and positive.

    If “complaint” is totally gagged and muted (in situations like this) and given no weight, then it seems to me that this is one big step toward relatively unregulated “tit for tat” responses involving very troublesome and harmful actions. One could argue that the implications of this point are very different for things like torture and car thievery and unjust war and rape and so forth than they are for cheating, etc. But, I think the differences are mainly matters of degree (although large degrees), not matters of kind, at least with respect to the question we are addressing, i.e., that of complaint.

    Anyhow, I’m sure that I’ve probably missed some of the other roles of “complaint” in moral situations, but this may be a helpful way of considering the issue. Each of the roles of complaint is a bit different, and each (or at least most of them) can be played in different degrees, not just binary “1” or “0.” And, each can be accepted by the audience (of the complaint) with differing degrees of credibility (that is, given to the complainer) and weight. This is all consistent with the notions of “in one sense” and “in another sense” and with the notion of balancing.

    Finally, there are also the issues of time and (at least some chance for) redemption. If someone is a car thief, was his most recent thievery yesterday, or a week ago, or last year? And, if his own car is stolen (and especially if he finally feels the problem enough to cause him to complain about it), that might be a first step in his path to reform. I’d certainly educate him regarding his inconsistency, but I wouldn’t put a plug into his mouth (to silence complaint) or simply tell him that he’s not allowed to complain, and I wouldn’t ignore the other important roles of complaint mentioned above.

    Hopefully this is helpful. I look forward to your next post. It sounds great.



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