Friday, March 04, 2005


There is quite a bit of entertaining churn in the Blogiverse recently regarding positive signs in the Middle East, President Bush's justifications for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, consternation of Democrats, Europeans, etc., about the prospect of Bush's having been 'right' all along, and so on. And, as expected, counterchurn from Republicans, conservatives, hawks, etc., about how they knew all along, and so on. And counter-counter churn from all sides to all sides about how these are only encouraging signs, it's hardly a done deal, one election does not a democracy make, "The end cannot justify the means", human nature never changes, it really is a different world, and on and on and on. Naturally, I can't let everyone else have all the fun - I have to pile in, adding my own noise in the absence of any signal.

Here's the thing - we are all merely human. Every single one of us. None of us can ever really 'know' the right course of action to take in a given circumstance if the only judgment of the 'rightness' of a given course is its outcome. We aren't capable of knowing that outcome in advance, hence we can't use that outcome as a justification for taking the action. However - and here's the rub - the world isn't random, at least not at the human scale. While we can't 'know' an outcome in advance, we can certainly use what knowledge we've gained in the course of study or living or whatever to inform our actions to the extent that certain outcomes are more or less probable than are others in any given situation. Consider 'reasonable person' doctrines in a legal setting, for example. We aren't blind to future events, but we do see them only dimly through the lens of our own knowledge of the world, and what fogs our future vision is the complexity of the world itself, and of all of the other actors on that stage. Still, having poor vision is no excuse for closing your eyes. Accordingly, and here we find the crux of so many modern problems, we should not fool ourselves about the relative keenness of our or anyone else's prognoses. I see only dimly into the future, and so do you, and so does everyone else - we aren't all equal in the regard, but even the best of us aren't very good at it, at least not on a consistent basis - our very best see quite far on occasion, but even they miss much more than they catch.

This is why "The end cannot justify the means" remains a useful, albeit incomplete, guide to moral behavior. Equally useful, however, is "Lack of certainly cannot excuse inaction". We all have a moral obligation to keep both our limitations and our capabilities firmly in mind when we make judgments about the actions we take, because if we do not, no morally sound judgment is possible, however good or bad the end may be. Of course President Bush cannot morally justify invading Iraq by pointing to the success of recent elections there, but neither can opponents of the invasion claim that these happy ends can have had no moral bearing on the decision to invade. Either position is untenable. The truth must lie somewhere in between.

The difficult reality is that no one has ever been or ever will be gifted enough to know, in advance and with demonstrable certainty, whether or not Invasion A will lead to Happy Ending B. We will also never be able to know if Lack of Invasion C will lead to Horrible Catastrophe D. The world will never be that simple or predictable. This is, believe it or not, a Very Good Thing. Not only is the world too complicated and unpredictable to make that kind of perfect certainty possible, but if it was possible, then the end could be used to justify the means, which would reduce all moral judgment to mere arithmetic. So here we are, imperfect beings in a complex world, forced to make decisions about things we know little about, fully aware that our ability to predict the outcome of any action we take or don't take is extremely limited and unreliable - it's quite wonderful, really. I wouldn't have it any other way.


Post a Comment

<< Home