Thursday, August 11, 2011


What if I take a stand, and fail? What if nothing changes, or I only end up looking like a fool? What if I am wrong? (There's an interesting discussion about this latter question in connection with some comments Parfit makes about how he has wasted his life if his view of ethics is wrong.)

Duncan Richter raises worries about failure in connection with taking a morally courageous stand (here and here). For example:
Now, someone might think that it is enough to try your hardest, but I'm not so sure about this. Wouldn't a saint or a genius (think of someone like Socrates) somehow know or see how to express the right way to view the situation, and hence to make the injustice manifest to everyone? At the very least such a person might become a martyr. What if your efforts are simply laughed off, or brushed aside? Isn't that a kind of moral failure on your part? Maybe not, but I think it might weigh on your conscience.
I think it would weigh on me. Would it weigh on my conscience? Perhaps to the extent that I thought I had gone about things wrongly, e.g. taken the wrong route. But the difference between being a martyr and a laughing-stock may just be perspectival. (I have students who seem to think Socrates was a fool.) In my paper on moral courage, I talk about how the notion of a "lost cause" is vague, and that in some cases, the cause may be primarily internal. This might be connected with what Duncan says about being honest. Did Anscombe think that she could halt Oxford's awarding of the honorary degree to Truman? Perhaps she had to think that there was at least a chance. I'm not sure. The point of speaking out might just be to speak out, not to be a silent dissenting minority (though in part because one often doesn't know in advance what kinds of heart-stirrings speaking out might effect).

I was reading last night about Bob Taft (the President's son) (in JFK's Profiles in Courage). In 1946, with himself in position for a Presidential run in 1948, Taft made a speech at Kenyon College called "Equal Justice Under Law," in which he said the following about the war crimes trials in Europe, ten days before the convicted war criminals were to be hung:
I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret.

In these trials we have accepted the Russian idea of the purpose of trials--government policy and not justice--with little relation to Anglo-Saxon heritage. By clothing policy in the forms of legal procedure, we may discredit the whole idea of justice in Europe for years to come.
The constitutional basis for Taft's position was simple, that the war crimes trials "violate the fundamental principle of American law that a man cannot be tried under an ex post facto statute (viz., in this case, a crime against humanity). Whatever one makes of Taft's position (though I think he makes an important point), the timing of it was prudentially ludicrous (given his political aspirations), and there was no chance saying these things would halt the hangings. Why do it? Wasn't Taft destined to fail?

The [correction: Austrian-born] writer Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Nazis (and who chose the path of resentment over that of forgiveness), once said, "I'd rather be a witness than be convincing." I don't think he's saying that being convincing doesn't matter. Rather, the primary point is that of being a witness. I think we can only understand what Taft is doing (unless we think he was just some kind of raving egomaniac) in those terms. I think we could see politicians who vote their conscience, against all unpopularity and knowing in advance that they are on the losing side, in this way. (Some of them, at least.)

Still, what if I fail? It takes moral courage to stand up, but the "being heard" part is only partly something one controls. One cannot force others to hear. And so there will always be a chance of failure. When I first read Duncan's comments, I was inclined to say that too much concern about practical failure might reflect an excess of pride in the sense that the person who fears failure too much is perhaps not just afraid of failure, but too proud to risk looking like a fool. Or perhaps too self-conscious. But bearing witness isn't about oneself. It is, in some ways, about the world as a whole. And perhaps in some ways about taking the chance that one's witnessing will penetrate the public consciousness, perhaps only to be better understood by later generations. (So, then, one might bear witness for the sake of posterity.)

Per Bauhn, in The Value of Courage, talks about the "courage of creativity" as a form of optimism, bolstered by the acquisition of practical and creative skills, which allows one to overcome the fear of failure. So I think that Duncan is right to suggest that a wise person might have a greater chance of success in being heard than someone lacking in the wisdom of creativity. This is something important we might keep in mind as teachers, that we need to teach our students how to express themselves, how to have a voice which they can apply to their own projects and battles, so that they can come to know how to speak for themselves. I might then counter Duncan's worries by suggesting that if I have honestly and fully spoken for myself (and acted accordingly), then that is all I can do. The rest, as the Epictetus would say, is not up to me.


  1. Thanks, Matt. But how can you know whether you have honestly and fully spoken for yourself and acted accordingly? So, if you fail how can these things not weigh on you (and/or your conscience--I'm happy with either expression)?

    Maybe it's that danger that makes (a particular kind of) courage a requirement for taking a moral stand. But maybe it's not that. After all, it's a bit weird to think of a moral hero/ine thinking much about whether s/he does, or will, feel like a moral hero/ine or not. Maybe what it is is the making an issue of something. Taking a moral stand is performing a certain kind of act, one that seemingly would lose its power if it were done too often. It is making a big deal out of something. Perhaps (part of) the danger comes from the high stakes and the risk of choosing the wrong time/place/way to make a stand.

    I'll have to think more about this.

  2. Taking a moral stand is performing a certain kind of act, one that seemingly would lose its power if it were done too often. It is making a big deal out of something. Perhaps (part of) the danger comes from the high stakes and the risk of choosing the wrong time/place/way to make a stand.

    I agree with this, about choosing the wrong time/place/way. Judging this in actual cases could, of course, be hard. Think of Taft here. Some would say he chose the wrong time. But he could say that it was the right time, since the convicted would be hanging shortly thereafter, and there is a point in bearing witness before they hang. He's clearly judged that making this statement is more important than how it affects his presidential chances. (Oh, geez, and then we could think about The Adjustment Bureau, which of course optimistically suggests that taking a stand against all odds just is the path to success and change, etc.)

    I'm not sure how to answer your first question. It's kind of like asking how we tell the difference between the knight of faith and the madman, except now the question is turned inward. We could talk about a feeling of practical/moral necessity, though Sartre wouldn't much care for that. (Perhaps it doesn't matter that he wouldn't care for it? I'm somewhat sympathetic with his point that appealing to the idea that "feelings are what count" doesn't really settle anything.)

    I wonder if this approaches one of those "limits" where things unfortunately become more or less ineffable. Not because there is something that could be said which we can't articulate, but just because there is nothing left to say, in which what we must pass over in silence is not some kind of ineffable justification, but simply the lacuna between judgment and action. We can talk about what it means to be honest with oneself, and give examples where it seems like either the right or wrong time/place/way was chosen. But how those apply to our situation now is always going to be problematic, especially when we're really going it alone. (Could think of Capt. Vere, and Winch on Vere, versus what Melville's narrator suggests, which is that Vere has gone (temporarily) mad...)

    If what we want is guidance of the form that tells me what to do specifically, then I sort of agree with Sartre that we can't have it in the cases where we would most like not to have to make the choice ourselves...

  3. (I just seem to have lost a comment, so if I appear to be saying much the same thing twice, that will be why.)

    Anyway, what I tried to say was that I agree with pretty much all of this. My "how would you know?" question was meant rhetorically.

    All my stuff about risking your humanity in some sense I now think just boils down to risking losing face in the normal sense of the expression.

  4. Sorry I didn't pick up on the rhetorical tone. (Perfect example of what is lost online.)

    But it is tricky. And I suppose you might say that, well, taking a stand (and all the questions you've raised) should weigh on you, and if they don't, then that might show you aren't being serious (or not facing your responsibility fully, at which point the anguish of the situation would smack you in the face). But of course, one might say they feel (or felt) the weight, but that they have decided to go ahead. And how to tell whether they're proceeding on the basis of an "existential flight" or as a "knight of faith" (as it were) is where things are tricky (from a third person perspective). In part, that's because the person might "lose face" with us, but that needn't be a reason for the person to stop. (He or she could feel sorry that we don't understand, or that that they hope that one day we will come to understand, etc. And of course, such things can be said in ways that are both authentic and inauthentic, in ways that are self-deceived and in ways that are not. And so on. But I agree that it would weigh on a person if she could not make others understand why she is going ahead. And we might feel that the person who says that nothing else weighs on her but her values--or something like that--might be exhibiting a kind of narrow-mindedness. It would depend, I guess, what "values" (or, conscience) meant for that person, i.e. what is being included and excluded. For if the effects of one's actions on one's loved one's doesn't weigh on one's conscience, that seems strange in nearly, if not all, cases.)

  5. I was inclined to say that too much concern about practical failure might reflect an excess of pride in the sense that the person who fears failure too much is perhaps not just afraid of failure, but too proud to risk looking like a fool.

    It might, completely well, but then again it might not. If you said to Parfit "You just cannot bring yourself to risk looking like a fool", might he not conceivably respond: "That I could in fact live with, but only if it didn't involve having done a disservice by wasting my life like this"?

    There have been episodes in my own life where I have felt consuming moral guilt at not having had enough concern about practical failure - and yet others where I have felt the exact same kind of guilt at having had too much. Which considerations trump which seems to vary case by case.

    Why do it? Wasn't Taft destined to fail?

    Because he felt psychologically unable not to do it? This kind of case is grist for the mill of my dislike for the contrast often drawn in moral philosophy between considerations that are "genuinely moral" and "merely psychological" (such as Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy", which thus I prove myself unable not to drag into this discussion as well). In fact it appears to me that the merely psychological can be deeply impressive humanly.

    What is the difference between someone making a point that will contingently end up ruining him even though he'd very much prefer not to be ruined, like Taft, and someone whose making a point consists in ruining himself? I was thinking of a case like Spinoza, who first sued his stepsister to the ends of the earth to get his share of their father's inheritance, and then immediately gave it back to the stepsister. Is one of these cases more admirable than the other, and if so, which? (This is not a rhetorical question intended to lead you to the answer I personally prefer. I'm asking it because I'm unsure as to what answer I should prefer.)

    (The "French writer Jean Améry", by the way, was an Austrian writer, born Hans Mayer. He Gallicised his name after the war to reflect the extent of his unforgiveness and visceral repudiation of everything having anything to do with Germany. Towards the end of his life he wrote a couple of essays on Wittgenstein, which are not at all well known but are quite good.)

  6. Tommi-- I didn't know that story about Spinoza. (I'd love to hear more.) I see your point about different ways failure can figure in. I have no idea what the answer is--perhaps there is not a general answer.

    Right you are about Améry--I knew this long ago, but had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. "Perhaps there is not a general answer" is almost worthy of itself being elevated to the status of a general answer. (To most questions anyway.)

    A bit more about the Spinoza anecdote here.