Friday, November 06, 2020

8: Morality

I am a pacifist
You say that because you are a coward. (Hidden motive.)

I agree with corporal punishment
You say that because you are a sadist. (Psychological cause.) 

The case of agreeing with pacifism “because you are a coward” and approving of spanking “because you are a sadist” are rather more ticklish. 

Lewis is correct that these are taunts which are thrown at people who hold those particular opinions, and that those taunts are hardly ever fair. But they are not non sequiturs. “You enjoy inflicting pain and therefore claim that inflicting pain is sometimes necessary” is a much better argument than “You lost your mother at an early age and therefore think that an English Counter Reformation would have been a Bad Thing.” 

Lewis concedes (in Miracles) that if the allegation (“you like hitting people”) were true, then the claim (“you sometimes have to hit people for their own good”) would be refuted. 

“Such taunts may be untrue, but the mere fact that they are made by the one side and hotly refuted by the other shows clearly what principle is being used. Neither side doubts that if they were true they would be decisive.” 

But it is a rather gigantic “if”. 

If I say that pacifists are cowards, I am not so much refuting their argument as denying that they are making an argument at all. I am saying “I will not respond to your arguments about turning the other cheek and the sanctity of life, because they are not your real reasons for refusing to join the army.” At best, I think that you chose to believe that all life was sacred because that premise would lead to the conclusion you desired. At worst, I think that pacifism is just a word cowards invented to make their cowardice look less cowardly. Lord Soper and Vera Britten and Ghandi were only ever making meaningless noises. 

About five years before he addressed the Socratic Club on the subject of Bulverism, Lewis explained to a room full of conscientious objectors Why He Was Not a Pacifist. Mr Kirkpatrick would have given him very high marks for this essay. He establishes early on what he means by pacifism (the general proposition that war is wrong under all circumstances). He states under what criteria he would judge pacifism to be true (if it were self-evidently true; if you could deduce it from first principles and empirical facts; or if moral authorities accepted by all parties said it was true.) He proceeds to make a series of propositions and refutations: 

Proposition: Helping people is good; harming people is bad: war involves harming people; therefore war is wrong. 
Refutation: In some cases the only way to help one person is by harming another 

Proposition: War is a great evil: if everyone were a pacifist, there would be no wars 
Refutation: Unless everyone becomes a pacifist immediately, then the nations which permit pacifism would be annihilated by the ones who do not. 

You may or may not agree with his conclusions  I have explained my difficulties with the essay elsewhere -- but I don’t think that there is any question that Lewis is playing fair. He is honestly examining the case for pacifism and honestly showing why he rejects it. If someone showed him the flaw in his reasoning, he would change his mind; and he believes that the same is true of the conscientious objectors he is arguing with.

Lewis does not say that the conscientious objectors only believe in pacifism because they are cowards. He pointedly confesses that he is probably the least brave person in the whole room: a rhetorical flourish, of course, but a good one. But he does suggest that if you have applied reason and logic to a question and come up with an answer that is very different from that of your nation's poets and philosophers and statesmen and religious leaders, you have to entertain the possibility that “some passion has secretly swayed your mind.” 

“There is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.” 

War is so horrible, and staying at home so comparatively desirable, that the pacifists have given too much weight to certain arguments and too little to others, and come to the wrong conclusion. 

Lewis has, in that sense, said that the conscientious objectors believe in pacifism because they don’t want to go to war. But he hasn’t accused them of putting forward a non-argument. He has just said their wish for it to be true has caused them to make an error. 

I should be inclined to call this “weak Bulverism”; and to call the stronger claim—that pacifism is just so much tommy rot that chickens use to distract our attention from the fact that they are yellow—“strong Bulverism”. 

If you say that every time I see a painting of an impressive, finely dressed, regal female I fall on my knees crying “Mummy! I shall worship you for ever and never believe anything bad about you!”, and that is why I admire Queen Elizabeth [The First] then you are a Strong Bulverist. You are trying to place me outside of the realm of rational discourse: insinuating that my historical opinion is a superstition or a faith position or a psychosis. If this is what Lewis means, then I think he is tilting at straw windmills: you hardly ever come up against a Strong Bulverist in real life. 

But what about the person who says that my taste for strong, regal women means I have a tendency to give too much weight to the arguments that Elizabeth [The First] was a successful monarch and too little weight to the arguments that she was a poor one? What about the person who says that my fear of being broke may have caused me to shift a decimal place or mistake a minus sign for a plus, and that it would be a good idea if I went back and checked my figures? Let us call these Weak Bulverists. Weak Bulverism undoubtedly exists: and it is not necessarily a fallacy.

Lewis says that the process of working out if pacifism (or anything else) is true is like—can you guess?—a geometrical proof. 

If you can’t see that if A=B and A=C then B=C then you are an idiot and nothing can be done for you. But if you can’t understand a more complex proof, then you aren’t a moron; you just aren’t very good at geometry. 

“You can give a man new facts You can invent a simpler proof, that is a simpler concatenation of intuitable truths. But when you come to an absolute inability to see any one of the self-evident steps out of which the proof is built, you can do nothing.” 

He starts to talk about how you might teach geometry to a schoolboy: 

“Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they ‘can’t see’ some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either form some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all.” 

--I can’t understand my trig, Sir.

--Can’t, or won’t?

--But it’s too hard: I have no idea what four pie ar cubed over three means.

--No, it’s not too hard. You are too lazy. You don’t want to learn. Come out to the front...

1 comment:

Tom R said...

Good distinction, Andrew. Strong Bulverism creates "facts" ex nihilo. Weak Bulverism takes existing facts and pushes whichever interpretation of them favours the result the speaker likes.
"This has failed no fewer than ten times."
"Well, yes, but eight of those ten times were over 50 years ago, and the ninth was in the middle of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-2023. So really, looking at recent data, there's a 90% chance it won't fail."
Or, put another way, Weak Bulverism is less like "this patently empty glass, so dry that I could put my cellphone inside it without any risk of water damage, is actually full" and more like "Sure, we've got enough petrol in the tank to get there in time. If we stop to buy fuel, we'll miss the start of the movie."
"But the gauge is just hovering over the EMPTY bar."
"Yeah, but when Dad was teaching me to drive, he said manufacturers always leave an extra 15 kilometres worth as a cushion."
"But what if there's heavy traffic on the M1? That'll slow us down and burn more petrol..."
"Chill out. This car usually gets good mileage."
"You're only saying that because you're fixated on getting to the cinema in time to hear the drum-roll and see the screen crawl!"
"Well, this _is_ the last of George Lucas' nine envisaged STAR WARS films. It's a historic occasion... We'll never have this chance again."\
In that case, there _is_ a right answer (which currently known facts do point to) - we just don't know it yet, so we don't always know how much weight to give them.