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Can evildoers think well?

#40: Nov. - Dec. 2007 (Non-Fiction)
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MadArchitect
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Bear with me. In this post I intend to present you with a central problem (see title), several quotations from the essay "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy" (don't worry if you haven't yet read it), a paraphrase of Arendt's paraphrase of Plato's interpretation of Socrates (less complicated than it sounds), and a some related questions.

To begin,
Plato, interpreting Socrates, wrote:I call it a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering. And I'll explain it to you though I am not too sure about it myself. It looks to me as though this is nothing else but dialegesthai, talking something through, only that the mind asks itself questions and answers them, saying yes or no to itself. Then it arrives at the limit where things must be decided, when the two say the same and are no longer uncertain, which we then set down as the mind's opinion. Making up one's mind and forming an opinion I thus call discourse, and the opinion itself I call a spoken statement, pronounced not to someone else and aloud but silently to oneself. [quoted by Arendt on pp. 91-92, from the Gorgias of Plato.]
I don't anticipate any major opposition to this point -- that we each think topics through as though we were discussing it with another person. So far so good. Now to take it another step.
Hannah Arendt wrote:From what we know of the historical Socrates it seems likely that he who spent his days in the marketplace -- the same marketplace which Plato's philosopher shuns explicitly (Theaetetus) -- must have believed that all men do not have an innate voice of conscience, but feel the need to talk matters through; that all men talk to themselves. Or, to put it more technically, that all men are two-in-one, not only in the sense of consciousness and self-consciousness (that whatever I do I am at the same time somehow aware of doing it), but in the very specific and active sense of this silent dialogue, of having constant intercourse, of being on speaking terms with themselves. If they only knew what they were doing, so Socrates must have thought, they would understand how important it was for them to do nothing that could spoil it. [p. 92; emphasis added]
Now we're coming to the crux of the question I asked in the title of this post. One of the potentially controversial implications of the reading Arendt offers of Gorgias is the notion that you can "spoil" you ability to think. More to the point, that behaving immorally is one way that men routinely spoil their ability to think clearly. Maybe how isn't entirely clear from the two quotations above, so allow me to paraphrase a bit.

In discussing the Gorgias, Arendt means to contrast two ways of thinking about moral problems. One, the Platonic, says that we know what it good by the faculty of conscience, which, in whatever way, allows us to "see" truth directly. So, for instance, the medieval Christian scheme envisioned the conscience as a faculty that put us in direct contact with God's will, such that we could not make the excuse that we did not know the difference between right and wrong. Western culture has largely broken with the Christian notion of conscience, but there remains some confusion as to what conscience would mean in a totally secular context (more on this in another thread).

The other way of thinking about moral problems is Socratic, namely that we have to think them through by having an internal dialogue with ourselves. Saying so does not, in itself resolve all of the problems -- Plato's additions to, and departures from, the Socratic model were likely motivated by a desire to address the problems left by Socrates -- but we can leave some of the thornier issues aside for the moment. Even if we grant that, rather than know moral truth directly, we think moral problems through dialogically, we're still left with the problem of ensuring that we think clearly.

And this, I think, is where the problem Arendt wants to address arises. Throughout the book she has entertained the assertion that "it is better to suffer than to do wrong," and the reason she gives here is that doing wrong makes it impossible to trust yourself.

To see why this is so, it is important to think about the metaphor of thought as a kind of dialogue. Imagine a real dialogue, you and another person considering all the possible answers to a particular moral question. If you know that person to be a murderer, or a thief, or to have some vested interest in returning the wrong answer to a moral question, then you find yourself in a dilemma: How can you tell whether their contributions to the discussion are valid or whether they're specious?

If your answer to that question ends up being that you can't tell, you might be inclined to call an end to the discussion, since at best it will end in doubt, and at worst it might misguide you. Doing wrong yourself means that you will have to hold that sort of conversation every time you think. If you murder someone, your thought process will be like talking to a murderer. If you steal, it will be like talking to a thief. Only, in reality, the stakes are higher, since you'll be incapable of not talking to a murderer or a thief -- all of your thoughts will be the result of a discussion with an untrustworthy self. You will have "spoiled" your ability to think clearly -- at least about certain topics.

This, incidentally, seems like a curious inversion of what we are regularly taught is the gist of Platonic moral philosophy. Rather than say that no man knowingly does wrong, Arendt is saying that no man who does wrong has any hope of knowing.

I mention all of this to raise it to you as a consideration, a line of inquiry. Granting for the moment that Arendt's interpretation of Gorgias is substantially correct, does it make sense to you? Does it seem like an accurate and reasonable description of how thought can go wrong? And if yes on both counts, would you therefore say that evildoers do, in fact, spoil their ability to think clearly?
If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed. -- Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus"
irishrose
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Mad wrote:How can you tell whether their contributions to the discussion are valid or whether they're specious?
Interesting questions, Mad. Quick question before I answer. For the purposes of this discussion are we to assume that you can't tell? Because I'm not sure it's really a safe assumption to make. The metaphor is revealing and useful. But we should remember it's a metaphor and not necessarily an equal comparison. I think having a dialogue with myself, even though I know myself to be a criminal, would be different than having a dialogue with a second party whom I know to be a criminal.
MadArchitect
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irishrose wrote:
Mad wrote:For the purposes of this discussion are we to assume that you can't tell? Because I'm not sure it's really a safe assumption to make.
I would say that, when talking to a criminal, if you get the sense that they're twisting the discussion to serve their own ends, you're probably right. You can't have that same expectation the other way around. It's unfortunate, but I'm not sure what to do about that. If you get the sense that the criminal is genuinely interested in getting at the truth, well, it's in their interest to have you think that way in either scenario, isn't it?
The metaphor is revealing and useful. But we should remember it's a metaphor and not necessarily an equal comparison. I think having a dialogue with myself, even though I know myself to be a criminal, would be different than having a dialogue with a second party whom I know to be a criminal.
That's certainly good advice, but it's important to identify how the two differ. I'm open to suggestions.
If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed. -- Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus"
irishrose
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Wow, poorly outlined inquiry on my part. Let me try again.

When you asked that question: "How can you tell whether their contributions to the discussion are valid or whether they're specious?" I had read it in regard to both parts of the metaphor. So I had read, and I think you're asking the same: How does a criminal, with regard to her internal dialogue, determine the validity of her own thought? And, I assume, to progress this discussion you have to accept that the criminal won't be able to tell. But I don't necessarily accept that an individual, criminal or no, can't tell whether her thoughts are "valid" or "specious" in the same way that she can't tell with regard to a second party. How well can we possibly deceive ourselves? And that's genuinely an inquiry. I really don't know.

But I'd need more convincing to think the metaphor holds up all the way to the conclusion that an individual who commits an immoral act has impaired her ability to determine the validity of her own thought. And without accepting that we are subject to deceit within our internal dialogue, in the same way we are subject to another's deceit, I'm not sure how to move on. But if you want us to accept it, for the purpose of discussion, I'd be willing to do so for a bit.

I might be more likely to accept this type of discussion if it centered on judgment and not thought. I don't necessarily assume that our thought can be impaired by immoral activity
MadArchitect
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irishrose wrote:But if you want us to accept it, for the purpose of discussion, I'd be willing to do so for a bit.
By no means. I want to consider the possibility that Arendt presents, consider how it might be true, and decide whether or not it's something worth accepting, discussion or no. To that end, I think we should be asking precisely the sort of questions you're asking, giving the best defense of Arendt's position we know how, and see how it holds up. Which is exactly the sort of dialogue Socrates would recommend.
irishrose
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Well, I certainly didn't mean to derail this line of inquiry, not that I think you have any intention of letting it lie. But, beating you to the punch, is it possible to turn the question on judgment, rather than thought, as I had suggested? I haven't read "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy" and had meant to skip it at least until I've discussed most the rest of the book, but it seems, in what I've read thus far, Arendt speaks quite a deal about judgment.

Going back to the Plato you quoted from Arendt:
...the mind asks itself questions and answers them, saying yes or no to itself. Then it arrives at the limit where things must be decided, when the two say the same and are no longer uncertain, which we then set down as the mind's opinion.
This is all rough for me, but the issue I'm having is that I'm perceiving Arendt to find this "yes or no" discourse to be impaired by immoral activity. As I said, it would take some convincing for me to accept that within internal discourse, when I ask a question, I can, essentially intentionally, deceive myself. But I could probably accept that immoral activity impairs the individual's ability to "set down" "the mind's opinion" in the sense of making a judgment. And I think that's because immoral activity inserts a distorted sense of living with one's self, which would then inform any judging process.
Mad wrote:Rather than say that no man knowingly does wrong, Arendt is saying that no man who does wrong has any hope of knowing.
So it would be: rather than say that no man knowingly does wrong, no man who does wrong has any hope of knowing, in the sense of judging properly.
MadArchitect
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irishrose wrote:But, beating you to the punch, is it possible to turn the question on judgment, rather than thought, as I had suggested?
Let's start with judgment, since I think that'll be easier to deal with. I think there's an element of judgment in all thought, but since we're dealing with specifically moral questions, judgment is probably a great deal ore crucial than it would be in something more strictly technical. And we can return to the issue of thought per se later in the discussion.
I haven't read "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy" and had meant to skip it at least until I've discussed most the rest of the book...
Not to foist more reading on you, but I'm finding it to be the most valuable and interesting essay in the book thus far.
As I said, it would take some convincing for me to accept that within internal discourse, when I ask a question, I can, essentially intentionally, deceive myself.
This is an obstacle, because it seems to me almost intuitively certain that it does happen, on a quite regular basis, and I'm not sure of any way to argue that it does. I could perhaps point you to the evidence of psychology. Or I could give you anecdotal evidence. But I'm not sure either one would really be compelling. All I can say is that it seems to me that we often accept an argument not because it is the best (meaning most truthful) argument that occurs to us, but because it satisfies some intention of which we may only be half aware. And it isn't until we've already taken action and reflect back that we realize how underhanded we've been.

As I read it, part of what Socrates and Arendt are arguing is that such an awareness makes it difficult for a person to trust their own judgment at a later remove, particularly if we can say that, from the first, we ought to have known that we were doing wrong. In fact, I have a friend who has recently started a new relationship, and is agonizing over past behavior because he no longer trusts his motives. So maybe personal events have inclined me to give Arendt's argument the benefit of the doubt.
So it would be: rather than say that no man knowingly does wrong, no man who does wrong has any hope of knowing, in the sense of judging properly.
Actually, I'm not entirely satisfied with my own wording on that. The bit about "has any hope" seems to severe; nothing in either Socrates or Arendt would indicate that there's no chance for reform. But if we're trying to locate exactly where the thought of an immoral person goes wrong, then I think it's probably safe to interpret Arendt as locating that error in judgment, yes. I'm not so sure that Socrates would locate the error in the same place. I'll have to look over Gorgias some day soon and see.
If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed. -- Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus"
irishrosem
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I was looking over this thread and the other on "Personal Responsibility" and noted that, though my arguments aren't necessarily opposed in these two discussions, they aren't altogether compatible either. In "Personal Responsibility" I was arguing that I don't think people who participate in totalitarian governments are always likely to be conscious of the fact that, by submitting to the government, they are offering their consent. Whereas, in this thread I wasn't convinced that one can deceive one's self within an internal dialogue. But, I guess if one wasn't conscious of the deception, which I think Mad was suggesting here, it would be similar to the argument I was making in "Personal Responsibility."

I'm just saying, Arendt has a way of making my head spin in circles.

Perhaps I'll take a swing at "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy" so I can better address what's been raised here, though I wouldn't be surprised if I end up looking like Casey.
MadArchitect
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I hear Mudville is a much happier place these days. Economic revival, or some such.

My copy of Arendt is still at my parents' house after the holidays, but they're supposed to be sending it my way soon. So go ahead and take a look at "Some Questions" if you feel up to it, and I'll respond as best I can, but it'll be away before I can double check my memory on what I read, so bear with me if I start talking some jive what don't make sense.
irishrosem
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I read about half this essay last night, and I learned that I need to read me some Kant.
irishrosem
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I've only gotten through part of this still. But is Arendt suggesting that the only way to avoid atrocities like Nazi Germany is to develop a moral philosophy that is separate from the dictated laws, and subsequent obedience, of both government and religion? Otherwise, people will be capable of trading dictated moral codes, which are really just mores, as easily as a group can be persuaded to change their table manners
MadArchitect
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Arendt seems to distrust moral systemization. I'd say that's at root in what she's suggesting here. To fix moral as something external, something that can be referenced like a book in a library, gives rise to too many problems. One is that ease with which populations and individuals can trade one for another. A second -- one that Arendt deals with less -- is that such systems tend to be inflexible, making misapplication endemic.

What she's suggesting as an alternative, it seems to me, is related to the idea of a moral sense or faculty. Or rather, the re-envisioning of morality as an approach to problems of conduct, rather than proscriptions for conduct.
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