Knowing Right from Wrong

Two items I heard on the radio yesterday struck me as worthy of comment.

First was the news of Sunday night’s tragedy in Las Vegas.  Questions of motive apparently loom large. President Trump first called the shooter  “pure evil.” Now he’s saying the shooter was “very, very sick.”

I also heard yesterday that the Supreme Court would soon be deciding a case involving a woman sent back to jail because she tested positive on a drug test, which positive result violated the terms of her parole.  Her lawyer is apparently arguing that the action amounts to re-incarceration due to a “disease” (addiction), and is therefore unconstitutional.  My own reaction is that the woman wasn’t incarcerated for having an illness (her addiction) but for something she did (use drugs, and test positive on a drug test).  But the fact that the woman’s conduct arguably sprang from her illness/addiction leads me to compare her to the Vegas shooter.  Ultimately, the question becomes whether an offense that results from “sickness” is excusable, and whether it can be distinguished from an offense that results from something else, something that is not some sort of sickness –“evil”perhaps.  If so, then all we have to do is figure out the difference between evil and sickness.

While I’m at it, allow me to throw in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, just to round out the analytical field.  By the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I mean both the killing he ordered and the killing that finally brought him down.  Premeditated.  Innocent lives lost in the process.  Evil?  Justifiable?  Sickness?  Other?

There’s nothing particularly new about such questions.  They take us back to the legal requirements for justifiable homicide.  To the religious doctrine of the just war.  To the philosophical question of whether an end ever justifies a means.  To the debate over determinism and free will.  All these issues have defied resolution for centuries.  I have my opinions, but instead of advancing them here, I’d like to use them as the background for raising two other matters that have been on my mind.

The first, I’ll call the question of knowledge.  When I studied Latin in school, I learned the distinction between two Latin verbs, cognoscere and scire.   When I studied French, I encountered  the same difference between two French verbs, connaitre and savoir., which evolved from the Latin.  All four verbs are translated into English as “to know.”  But in both Latin and French, a distinction is observed between knowing in the sense of being somewhat familiar with something, and knowing in the sense of being aware of a fact or a field of knowledge, authoritatively, or with certainty.  In Latin and French, if you want to say you “know” your neighbor, you use the word cognoscere or connaitre, because you really only mean to say you’re somewhat familiar with her.   But if you want to say that you know your own name, or where you live, or the words of the Gettysburg address, you use scire or savoir, to assert that you have essentially complete and authoritative knowledge of the subject.

These two types of knowledge seem rather different from each other.  For many years, I thought it a shame that the English word “to know” gets used to cover both types.  I thought it important to distinguish between those situations in which we really know something and those in which we simply have a passing familiarity, and I found English lacking due to its failure to make that distinction.   But now, I think differently.  Now, I question whether we really know anything with certainty.   If we can’t see all four sides of a barn simultaneously, how can we say we “know” the barn, as opposed to being familiar with just one aspect of it?  Is the most we can ever say about anything  that we are somewhat familiar with it?  If there really is just the one sort of knowledge, then maybe we’re right to have just one word for it.  Maybe the Romans and French were wrong to think both types of knowledge possible.

Meanwhile, what do we mean by right and wrong?  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about politics in this regard, not drug use or homicide.  I’ve been wondering whether terms like right and wrong should be abandoned altogether when it comes to politics.  I mean, every political issue I can think of seems to me to be more easily analyzed in terms of what (if any) group benefits, versus what (if any) group gets hurt.   Is it more accurate to say that a policy or practice is “right” when viewed from one group’s perspective, and “wrong” when viewed from another?

Take, for example, immigration reform.  You might argue that tightening controls favors those who already live in a country, and disfavors those who want to enter it.  Assuming that’s true, would that make the tightening right, or wrong?  Doesn’t it depend on whose perspective you’re adopting?

Arguably, capital punishment hurts convicted murderers while benefiting taxpayers who would otherwise bear the costs associated with long prison terms.  We can argue about deterrence, and whether capital punishment deters future criminals and therefore benefits potential future victims.  But what does it mean to argue that capital punishment is “right” or “wrong”?  The simplistic precept “It is wrong to kill” either condemns all killing, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden,  or it provides no answer at all because the real question is when it is right to kill and when it isn’t.  I have the same question about higher taxes, about the Affordable Health Care Act, about environmental regulations, and about every other political issue I can think of.  “Right” and “wrong” seem too absolute to be helpful in understanding complex tradeoffs which may well benefit some groups while hurting others.

I can follow a discussion pretty well when it’s phrased as a discussion of what groups will arguably benefit by some policy or proposal, and what groups (if any) will be hurt.   But I have difficulty when the same debate is phrased in terms of what’s “wise” or what’s “sound policy,” because it seems to me always to come back to “wise for whom?”  Immigration reform might be good for the American economy, but is it good for the rest of the world?  Obamacare may benefit those with preexisting conditions and are poor and unhealthy, but not those who are healthy or wealthy.  Is a Pennsylvania  law “wise” if it helps Pennsylanians but hurts New Yorkers?   Is an American policy “wise” because it helps Americans, even if it hurts Russians, Filipinos, or Cubans?

It may help us express how disturbed we are by the shooting in Las Vegas, if we call it “pure evil,” but I don’t see it that way.  (Frankly, I don’t know what “pure evil” means. ) Rather, it seems to me we all have personal points of view, which is to say, minds that tell us stories.  In those stories, we ourselves are often the unappreciated heroes.  In some other stories, we may be the victims.   But in how many stories are we purveyors of unadulterated wrong?  I believe that the Vegas shooter told himself a story in which he was a hero, or a victim, or both.   And if we do things because they make sense to us, in the context of the people, values, religion or nation with which we identify, and in the context of the stories we see ourselves acting in,  then do we have anything more than a subjective point of view, a limited perspective incapable of assessing a more objective or universal wisdom about right and wrong?  I think we all suffer from genuine mental impairments – if not anything as egregious as sociopathic aggression or drug addiction, then more common ailments like self-interest, self-delusion, arrogance, bad habit, confirmation bias or simply poor judgment resulting from our fallibility.  At best, we have a passing familiarity with right and wrong, not authoritative knowledge of it.  At worst, we are all sick, and so occupy ground not entirely unlike that of the Las Vegas shooter or the drug addict.

Maybe it’s time to stop the litmus test of good versus evil.  To recognize instead that what benefits one person may hurt another.  That when our government incarcerates an addict, storms a deranged mass shooter’s hotel room, or takes the life of a militant dictator, we are not making God-like moral judgements that one person is “good” and another “pure evil,” but simply making practical tradeoffs to protect certain interests at the expense of others.  And maybe, in the next political discussion we have, it’ll prove helpful to stop talking about who and what are wrong, but who will likely benefit and who be hurt.

My hunch is that the Vegas shooter saw something as pure evil – and that whatever it was, it wasn’t himself.  His idea of evil was likely different from ours.  Indeed, he may have considered us as examples of pure evil. We’re wired to think we’re somehow different from him;  that, unlike him, we know the difference between right and wrong.  At times like these, in the face of senseless atrocity, it’s easy to feel that way, to see a fundamental difference between him and us:  After all, we say smugly, we would never indiscriminately kill scores of people.

But we killed over six hundred thousand in our civil war.  We killed a hundred thousand at Hiroshima. We’ve killed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In a few weeks, when the Vegas shootings are no longer front page news, we’ll be calling each other stupid, or evil, or just plain wrong, as if we have nothing in common with the Vegas shooter.  As if we have the unerring ability to identify what’s right and wrong, and to do so with the full understanding the Romans and French called scire and savoir.

Different as we may be in other respects, I say we all suffer from that disease.

Families of victims in Vegas, you’re in our thoughts and prayers.

– Joe

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4 thoughts on “Knowing Right from Wrong”

    1. Sorry your head hurts! My own opinion: All things being equal, killing is worse than coveting, because killing involves action, and coveting is just a thought, and I’m of the view we have little or no control over our thoughts, while (possibly? I’m not sure) we have more control over our actions. So viewed on the scale of harm done, all things being equal, I think its usually probably better to covet John’s innocent wife than to kill John’s innocent wife. BUT: (1) is it better to kill Adolf Hitler or covet Adolf Hitler? (Maybe in some cases killing a thing is better than coveting it.) (2) Is it better to kill a chicken for dinner, or swat a mosquito, than to covet every seven year old girl you see? (Maybe what we’re killing or coveting matters.) (3) Is any of this evil? As a practical matter, I think society has to treat some offensive acts more harshly than others, punishing killing of innocent people while not punishing the killing of convicted psychopaths, chickens or mosquitoes, and while not punishing the coveting of John’s wife or even the coveting of young girls when absolutely no action is taken in furtherance of the impulse. But while I see civilized society as properly dependent on such pragmatic distinctions and punishments of certain things rather than others, this is a far cry, for me, from labeling some of it evil and not other things. I have no idea what the basis is for saying that the killing of Osama Bid Laden, or a mosquito, is or is not evil And is the killing of a cow “evil” in India but not in Texas? I really don’t know what “evil” means.

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