Monday, June 21, 2010

Must We Always Stand By Our Convictions?

Here is a draft of a paper excerpted from my larger summer project on conviction and integrity.
Comments appreciated!

NOTE: Revised version posted 6/29/10.


  1. Good paper! I have three small thoughts about it.

    1. Is reference to "terrorists and fanatics" all that helpful? I think Cora Diamond has somewhere discussed the (true) story of a German officer in WWII who preferred to die rather than receive a blood transfusion that might have included blood from Jewish people. I don't know whether this was a kind of deadly posturing or fanaticism (perhaps it was both), but someone like this is different from someone who joins the Nazis just for the unprincipled fun of killing people. One way to mark this difference would be to say he had integrity, although, of course, we might not want to say this. The difference is still worth marking, it seems to me, however we do it. The same would go for the 9/11 bombers, most of whom reportedly did not know that they were going to die, and would quite possibly have refused to participate if they had known. These people are different from the true believers. The expression "terrorists and fanatics" glosses over these differences in a way that seems unhelpful to anyone who wants to get clear about integrity. (Actually I'm not sure that this is really what I want to say, but I am sure that I have misgivings about the phrase "terrorists and fanatics." It seems remote from "the realistic spirit".)

    2. Anscombe (and Hursthouse, writing about Anscombe) argues that it is possible to believe that God would never put us in a position where it was really necessary to do evil. If it seems as though we must sometimes do the lesser of two evils, this is only because we lack the wisdom to see how we could resolve the situation without resorting to sin. Perhaps the Amish elder would have agreed with this and regretted his lack of wisdom (and his sin of violence) more than anything explicitly about integrity. Anscombe believes that one should do the lesser of two evils if one cannot think of anything better, by the way.

    3. I'm not sure about talking of a decision to put aside the demands of integrity. It is the demands of morality (or of God) that are relevant, surely. And does one decide to set these aside, necessarily, or does one just act? I think it's hard to say what would have gone through the elder's mind as he hurled the pitchfork, but I imagine his thoughts were all of the necessity of preventing the girl's murder, not of his own integrity or moral principles or the regretability of the need for compromise, or anything of that sort.

  2. Hi DR. As always, thanks for your comments. These are all good points. I'm not sure what to do about "terrorists and fanatics"--I might take some of your points about terrorists who didn't know what they were getting into and somehow fit that into the problems with unreflective conviction (and similarly, culpable ignorance about what one is getting into--or maybe it's not entirely culpable, but the result of a kind of manipulation/deception--I suppose in that case we wouldn't say that the lack of integrity is culpable, but maybe we still wouldn't want to say that such a person shows integrity, even though he or she didn't know the full extent of what he or she was getting into. There's a touch of moral bad luck here....) I see the worry though--one worry is that the phrase encourages an "us vs. them" kind of thinking. I'll work on it.

    (Diamond discusses that case in an encyclopedia entry on Integrity. I happen to have a copy of the entry if you're interested.)

    Good point about lesser evils; certainly, Nagel's suggestion at the end of "War and Massacre" that the world is an evil place (since we can be forced into moral blind alleys) might be incompatible with this. There are a lot of subtleties about remorse and tragedy that I can't really get into and stay under a 3000 word limit (but this is something I'd expand--first, by bringing Berlin into the main text--in the larger paper).

    Good questions about what sort of decision is in play with the elder. I always think here of Williams' line (paraphrasing) that sometimes we just act as a possibly confused result of our situation, and that that, in his view, is often "an exceedingly good thing." I sympathize very much with that, and perhaps one could say that it is more likely to be an exceedingly good thing when the person in the situation is of sound and virtuous dispositions (and so has integrity in the broader sense of the term that gets close to saying something about the unity of the virtues).

    I'm glad you thought well of the paper overall! Thanks again.

  3. If you're working with a 3000-word limit then you can't hope to make every distinction one might want. It's the "us vs. them" thing that troubles me most, although I don't mean that terrorists, Nazis, etc. aren't that bad really. Nor do I mean that the true believers are necessarily worse than others. Some are immoral and some are amoral, perhaps we can say, and it's hard to judge which is worse. Martha Nussbaum reports (as I recall) that most "gay-bashers" are just looking for an excuse to beat somebody up. They are bullies first and homophobes a very distant second. I'm sure the same would go for many Nazis. Is that good news or bad news? I'm not sure.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the paper and I'm looking forward to reading your related posts.