Saturday, 13 December 2008

Jack Bauer against the Principlists!

This week, quite uncharacteristically, I let Gloria drag me both to a trendy bar (well, as close as Preston comes) rather than my usual old man’s pub and also into a conversation about moral philosophy. (My one short article in JME is all I’ll ever write about moral philosophy.) But the issue was an curious one.

Suppose one holds both to a form of moral principlism and, more specifically, to the principle that torture is always wrong. Suppose, also, that that one’s interlocutor objects by citing what G called a ‘ticking time bomb’ case familiar to fans of Jack Bauer (pictured). The torture of a suspect is putatively justified because of the threat of a ticking time bomb that will kill averagely virtuous people. Suppose, fourthly, that it is at least open to question whether the anti-torture-principlist can contest the account of the case first advanced with further details. Perhaps, for example, torture produces unreliable results. Even in urgent cases there are more trusting alternatives. Training torturers to be able to act in such cases has too many unpleasant other consequences. And so forth.

But what, G wondered (amongst other perhaps more interesting issues we might have got to if I hadn’t been so dim about this one), have the particular details of the case even got to do with the original principle? If principles discipline moral judgement (ie. they determine their truth or correctness, whether or not we actually appeal to them for guidance) then bandying about rival accounts of the details of particular cases seems to be missing the point. A principlist should firmly stand aloof and say that, through whatever act of divination one arrives at underlying principles, once one has arrived at the principles, the particular cases can (as a maths teacher of mine often used to say) take care of themselves. They cannot conflict with the underlying principle that, eg., torture must be wrong.

Over a San Miguel (not at all appropriate brain food it seems to me), my instinct was to think this. There would be something pretty heroic about a principlist who took that – self-consistent – line. But there are two reasons for them to condescend to contest details. Firstly, cases might stand to principles as cases stand to putative empirical laws in a hypothetico deductive account of theory testing. If so, then contesting the details would be part of an alternative account of how one arrives at or justifies principles to replace one of mere divination.

Secondly, even principlists must think that their principles ‘touch the ground’ in real cases. A principlism of principles only would be a kind of abstract moral platonism, useful only in the next life, perhaps. So rival principlists, contesting the status the torture, must aim to make the interplay of favoured principles realised in every case of torture work out their way.

I suspect that, in practice, this tends to stretch cases into attenuated principles. They become the standard cases of moral education (like the ladder of mass m leaning at angle θ against a wall on a ground with a frictional coefficient of μ; or, rather, like a Jehovah’s Witness debating surgery).

In this last feature, principlists accounts of cases seem quite different from particularists for whom the ‘valence’ of any feature might be transformed by the presence of another feature. Ironically, whilst it is particularists who have the greatest reason to stress the importance of particular cases when discussing moral judgements, it is almost impossible to discuss interesting cases with them since in the real conversational situation of pub of trendy bar there is never enough shared knowledge of the details of the real cases they trade in.

PS: (a few weeks later): As reported here, sitting in the Forum, Gloria suggested that we take a 24 style scene to think about principlism. On last week’s gripping episode of 24, the man himself was challenged by a moral principlist who asserted against Bauer-ian actions: “But it’s the rules that make us better.” As a good particularist, Bauer had no intellectual cramp in replying: “Not today”.