Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Misrepresenting the Opposition

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 24, 1998

Posted to HotWired 04 Jun 98

A tried-and-true tactic of the sloped-forehead set is to misrepresent their opponents. Rather than address the real arguments, they create a set of idiotic straw-man arguments, and set about bashing them down. Bruce Ward's post is a case in point.

He writes:

Our contemporary idiocy teaches the Golden Rule as some sort of wishy-washy, "wouldn't it be nice if" type of guideline (if it is taught at all), and punishment for failure to "be nice" is avoidable or at least, negotiable. This is bunk.
Of course it's bunk. Nobody represents the Golden Rule that way. The Rule, for the record, is:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
This is pretty clear. It is a rule telling people how they should conduct themselves. It says nothing about punishment.

Ward continues,

The Rule is Golden because it is an operational mechanism, and it cuts both ways. The converse is also true. The way you treat others IS the way you can expect to be treated. An 'eye for an eye' is not excluded, it is included.
The converse of the rule, precisely stated, is that some people who kill wish to be killed. This is very different from what Ward is stating. His principle, the 'eye for an eye' principle, is a very different principle. It certainly does not follow from the Golden Rule in any way.

As a general rule, the 'an eye for an eye' rule is a bad rule, and moreover, not a rule we typically follow. For most crimes, the punishment is different from the crime. Some cases in point:

  • We do not punish the arsonist by setting his house on fire
  • We do not punish the rapist by raping him
  • We do not punish the cannibal by killing and eating him
  • We do not punish the speeder by driving fast on his road
It is only in the case of murder that the 'an eye for an eye' rule ever seems to be applied. One wonders why.

Ward continues,

If you are taught the Law of Gravity, and you decide to walk out of the 40th floor window anyway, calling for your lawyer (or therapist, or social worker) as you pass the 2nd floor won't save your life; nor should it.
Nobody I know has sought to repeal the law of gravity, or at least, the fatal implications of it. But they would point to some very significant differences between the law of gravity and human beings, namely:
  • The law of gravity is not a moral agent; it exercises no choice over its actions
  • Human beings are moral agents; they exercise choices over their actions
That is why calling your lawyer would work when dealing with humans, while it would not while dealing with the law of gravity. Human beings respond to reason. They can distinguish, for example, between (a) intentionally stepping out the window, and (b)accidentally stepping out the window. The law of gravity kills indiscriminately; we would expect better of humans.

Ward writes,

Sme of us argue that killing the killer makes us as bad as the killer. Not so. Response to a forbidden act does not equate with initiating a forbidden act. Each action has its reaction and its resultant.
That is not what most people argue. People argue that, just as it was wrong for the killer to kill, so is it also wrong for us to kill the killer. It is the statement that killing, in whatever context, is wrong.

Ward would have the killing of a killer equated with a mindless non-moral "reaction". But human actions are not mere "reactions". Even if a human action occurs as a response to some other action, it is still a moral act, because humans have the choice of doing otherwise. The death of a killer is not an inevitable result of his having killed. It is a conscious decision that we as a society make. And - in my opinion - a morally wrong one.

And Ward is quite aware that other choices are possible. He lists them:

The "act" of responding to forbidden behavior by explaining, analyzing, arguing, negotiating, justifying, legislating, fearmongering, etc., may produce the social "reaction" of creating paychecks for lawyers, politicians, journalists, spin doctors, social commentators, media hacks, moralists, and therapists, but the "resultant" is a confused societal mishmash in which "doing the right thing" is perceived as having less value than "doing whatever I want or can get away with".
By placing both the reasonable and unreasonable responses to criminal actions all in one category, and then tarring them all with the lable of being a "confused societal mishmash", Ward deliberately avoids addressing directly any of the reasonable alternatives to capital punishments which have been proposed. One wonders, for example, what arguments he has against explaining an action. Or why legislation, in this context, is a bad thing.

No need for such fine distinctions. They are all, in his mind, cases where 'doing the right thing' has less value than 'doing what we can get away with'. Well, this is a dubious proposition, and he is right to attack it, but it is unlikely any of the moralists who oppose capital punishment would argue in its favour in any case. Indeed, the moralist argues the exact opposite - that 'doing the right thing' is what matters. And their point - completely ignored by Ward - is that capital punishment is not the right thing.

Ward concludes,

We are all to blame, right from the moment we ask,"Why?" 'Why' is irrelevant. Forbidden is forbidden. Throw some chlorine in the gene pool.
We are all to blame unless we ask the question 'why'. Only the ignorant have no wish to know 'why'. They are the people who act without thinking, oblivious to causes and oblivious to consequences. They squint through their narrow eyes, grunt "d'uh" and pound whatever is in front of them with their shaggy forearm.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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