Category Error

If you ask people, how many of you support raping people who rape, you would find it very hard to find anyone that would support that... The reason why we would be hesitant to endorse it is that – what normal person would be paid to do something so compromising as raping a human being? But yet we have this idea that we can kill someone in a way that doesn’t implicate us. If it’s not right to torture someone for torture, abuse someone for abuse, rape someone for rape, then how can we think we can kill someone for killing?
First of all, don't bet you won't get volunteers for the raping-rapists thing. This isn't the country it used to be.

Second, the answer to your question is that rape is always wrong, whereas killing is sometimes right and praiseworthy. I'm good with being "implicated" in something honorable and worthy of praise. The problem isn't killing, it's the structure of executions. What's wrong with the execution is that there's no honor in it, because there's no risk in it. It's like taking out the garbage. Sometimes you have to, but that doesn't make it glorious.


Joel Leggett said...

The lack of risk doesn’t make execution dishonorable. Risk is not a required element for an action to be honorable. For instance, there is precious little risk in firing a 155 MM canon in order to kill a gathering of enemy troops (maybe even while they are sleeping) from a great distance. Nevertheless, doing so may be necessary to gain a tactical advantage in battle in furtherance of one’s duty, the performance of which is honorable. Likewise, executing a criminal may be necessary to protect society through the removal of a specific threat and providing deterrence against future crimes. Again, the performance of such a duty in service to one’s community can be honorable without the presence of risk.

MikeD said...

I don't believe that Grim meant it was "dishonorable", merely that it was not "honorable". There is no honor to be gained in taking out the trash, but that doesn't mean doing so brings dishonor upon you. Merely that it is a job that has to be done.

Grim said...

Mike's right about what I meant.

There is a kind of honor in doing something no one else wants to do, but that everyone wants done. That's true. But six or ten guys arranging the death one one guy in a quasi-medical way is not a source of honor for them. It may need to be done, and it may be that no one wants to do it; but the difference between that and the Marine who kills the same enemy in combat is clear enough, I think.

Texan99 said...

It's funny. I have little problem with "contest" thinking when it comes to competition in the marketplace (though I normally think of economic activity in more cooperative and respectful terms), but it doesn't do anything for me in the context of honor. That is, it doesn't inform much of how I think about right and wrong or honor and dishonor. Execution must be a very difficult job that exacts a terrible toll on the agent. I honor the agent for standing up to the toll and doing his duty. I'm completely uninterested in whether it was a fair fight; it's not a joust, or a trial by combat. For that matter, I have a hard time seeing honor in in a trial by combat.

Cass said...

I have trouble seeing any sense whatsoever in trial by combat, unless one's notion of justice is that might makes right :p

There are plenty of bad men who are physically brave (moral courage is another question entirely, and generally has little to do with the physical kind). I don't honor them for their willingness to risk themselves, nor for their physical bravery if it is used dishonorably.

Similarly, I don't really understand wanting glory. People want to be admired, but doing something to gain the admiration of others doesn't strike me as particularly honorable (conversely, as both Tex and Joel have argued, it may be deeply honorable to do a thing that will cause people to look down upon you because it's the right thing to do).

Honor is an ambiguous word. If we're not using it the same way, it's hard to have a discussion.

Grim said...

I have come to suspect that this is one of those points on which men and women are fundamentally divided. When we talk about these things, it's very ordinarily the case that the women in the Hall say something like 'I don't get this/ it doesn't do anything for me/ it doesn't make any sense.' Whereas Mike grasps what I mean at once, and Joel is disagreeing about specifics but on the same page about the fundamentals what we're discussing.

I'm not sure the bridge can be built.

Still, I'm always willing to waste my time in a noble but futile effort. So let's start with the claim about "wanting glory." There's a distinction between "wanting glory," which we also call vainglory, and wanting to do what is glorious. The one is a vice, and the other is the root of many virtues.

Texan99 said...

Surely it's a matter of individual women happening to have had some life experience that leads them to wonder why this sort of thing would make sense? Otherwise we'd have to posit some kind of generally applicable cause and effect, perhaps from women's experience that honor is something that typically has to be upheld in the absence of an ability to win a physical contest.

Grim said...

Well, when you talk about how you're enamored of market contests but not physical ones, I tend to think we're really just not on the same page at all. Market contests strike me as not at all honorable (which, to repeat Mike's correct distinction, is not the same as dishonorable). The market is great when it allows me to trade something I have too much of for something you have too much of -- win/win. But when it results in me getting rich by making you poor, i.e. when it's a contest, that strikes me as hugely problematic.

So I think it's about the relationship to violence, which is very different in men and women -- conceptually, I think, not just that 'women are smaller.' I take violence to be morally neutral and possibly glorious (also possibly horrifying); you have expressed a sense that any violence at all destroys a system you'd want. I can't live in your world, and I'm not sure you can imagine mine.

Which doesn't change the fact that I both love and respect you. It's just a difficulty. However serious, what matters most is that we try to understand and make room for each other.

MikeD said...

Don't go patting me on the back too hard there, Grim. I understand communications well. I think it may actually be my gift. But just because I understand a perspective does not mean I always agree with it.

On executions, I do. I don't personally care much about the deterring effect of capital punishment versus a life without parole punishment. One prevents the criminal from ever harming anyone else again, and the other doesn't. That suits me as a reasonable justification for capital punishment.

But trial by combat is one where I'm with Cass and Tex. I understand the rational behind it, but I don't agree with it. I do not believe the Lord God will come down and grant the physically weaker, unskilled participant (or their chosen champion) victory over a strong, martially skilled challenger. If I did think the Lord took a personal interest in individual justice, then I think maybe there might be something to it. But it strikes me that this is more than unlikely. His purview tends to be less about worldly justice and more about eternal justice.

Texan99 said...

I'm all for physical violence when it's the only way to do the right thing. I mostly think of it as a way of eliminating someone who can't control himself and behave properly, like taking out the trash even when the trash bag is heavy. For me, there's honor in respecting another person's free will, and there's honor in shooting someone who won't. So I'm very puzzled by the notion of honoring (or finding glory in) combat but being unable to detect the honor and glory in two people declining to use force on each other, and instead either reaching an agreement to their mutual benefit, or going their separate ways in peace. It's not exciting in the same way a fistfight is, but much more thrilling in the way that's important to me. Declining at perhaps great cost to do a wrong thing really rings my bells, and every time two people deal peacefully with each other in a market, that's what I see. If they go out afterwards and engage in some jousting, well, that's more in the line of entertainment in my book.

But when it comes to standing up to a bad guy, I very much respect the person who does it despite the risk and cost. If that's brawny warrior, great. If it's a slight young mother with a shotgun, that's good, too.

Grim said...

Did I argue for trial by combat at some point?

I do think that there's a factor that connects "might" and "right," but I am sure it's not so simple as "might = right." The unifying factor is virtue. Virtue means that the might that exists potentially in you is actualized by effort (painful, extended effort). It also means that you don't wreck your capacity via overeating or such. It shouldn't be surprising that someone who has developed virtues of self-control and moderation will tend to do right more often that someone who does not.

Does that mean that the right guy always wins a fight? No, of course not: as Aristotle points out right at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, we never get certainty in ethics or politics. We only get probabilities. That's all you can hope for, given the instability of human events.

I do think the more-right guy usually wins, thus, but not that he always does. It's not a method I suggest applying to the judiciary. I simply think we can distinguish between why an execution is morally problematic, but a Marine killing a member of Daesh in open combat is honorable and righteous.

Grim said...


This last comment is much more on my page. I think it's great when people come to mutually beneficial arrangements in the market, and when they decline to steal from each other. I also support slight women with firearms to defend their rights and persons -- I've trained a few myself.

Texan99 said...

I was with you until you got to "why an execution is morally problematic, but a Marine killing a member of Daesh in open combat is honorable and righteous." How does that follow from what comes before?

There's something about the "fair fight is glorious" idea that's quite tenacious; it's often come up here before. But I don't really get it (prob'ly cuz I'm a girl!). The execution of a murderer is honorable in my book, while a killing in the service of a rotten army (think Hitler) is not. It doesn't really help to know that the victim of the unrighteous side in a war had a chance at a fair fight, does it? I mean, it's a little less humiliating and depressing, but it doesn't make the killer glorious, no matter how much self-discipline he showed in training--thought that's certainly admirable in its own way.

On the other hand, it's certainly true that I feel a special contempt for someone who takes out his need to overpower others only on the weakest victims he can find, because he doesn't care to expose himself to risk. Still, glory is one thing and absence of a bullying cowardice is another.

It's not about whether slight young women have a right to commit violence in a righteous cause, it's about whether it's any less honorable or glorious when they find the courage to do so than it is when a strong male warrior finds the courage to do the same. I'm assuming they're both in the right. The difference between them is in not in the honor or glory, but in the entertainment value of watching what amounts to a bravura athletic performance, which is less for the gallant kitten than for the massive lion.

Texan99 said...

"Entertainment" wasn't the right word to use. I'm thinking of the sense of glorious that we get at with words like splendor and glamor. It's a brighter spectacle, and admirable for its beauty, but the prowess is a morally neutral tool.

The execution wouldn't be honorable, for instance, if the executioner knew the prisoner to have been unjustly convicted. Then the honor would lie in refusing to go along.

MikeD said...

Did I argue for trial by combat at some point?

No, it was merely mentioned by Cass and Tex. I was just reinforcing that while I understand the concept and the reasons for it does not mean I agree with it.

I was with you until you got to "why an execution is morally problematic, but a Marine killing a member of Daesh in open combat is honorable and righteous." How does that follow from what comes before?

That one I can field, as I understand (and happen to agree with the logic behind it). Execution is a task. But it involves no real risk (save perhaps social) to the executioner. He has nothing on the line, so it is really no more or less noteworthy than fixing a car or being a teacher is. There's nothing wrong with performing a needed job, but it takes no great courage or strenuous application of virtue to perform (nor are any of the jobs I mentioned without virtue for that matter). But taking a role in combat, using might on the side of virtue, putting one's life on the line is a strenuous application of virtue. It is honorable and noble because of the costs and risks borne by the soldier. So too with being a firefighter, or police officer. When you are protecting those who cannot protect themselves at personal risk, that is noble.

Grim may have different arguments in favor of it, but I'm willing to bet he's not going to say I'm completely wrong either.

Grim said...

That's right. The honor lies in doing something good that is also dangerous or difficult.

I still haven't seen American Sniper -- getting time to go to a theater with my wife has proven hard to arrange lately -- but one of the strident complaints about it from the Left has been this:

'The movie portrays him as appropriately conflicted about the horror of killing, but in real life he seems to have enjoyed it.'

People hated General Mattis for the same reason: he pointed out that shooting an enemy that was noteworthy for their abuse of women was "fun." It's glorious, it's joyous, it's striking a blow in the name of what's right in the face of danger.

Executions aren't wrong, but they aren't glorious. They aren't glorious just because there's no danger to it. It's a sorry sort of thing to have to do, and it would be very strange to find someone who enjoyed it (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Bandolero!).

Texan99 said...

Mike, you seem comfortable with the idea that honor and glory are tied up with accepting risk. I associate them with hardship and difficulty, of which risk is only one of many forms. Executing a prisoner is an incredibly difficult job. The purely "risky" aspect of the duty is a bit of a distraction; it's important only because it signals that hardship and difficulty are likely results, which becomes irrelevant if the hardship and difficulty are a lock cinch. Otherwise we're back to the sports-spectacle aspect, which should the least important one.

I'd agree that suffering death or serious injury is a greater hardship than having to deal with the wrenching impact of having to perform executions--or at least many people would think so. But it gets harder to make this comparison when one result is a mere possibility and the other is certain. For me, glory and honor are about doing what's right no matter the cost. What the cost is, and how hard it is to pay, varies for each person; it's fairly meaningless out of context. It's kind of like the parable of the widow's mite.

Grim, the fact that you associate honor and glory with fun and joy makes me think you're talking about something different from me--less the moral component and more the splendor and glamor component. It's like what I said about prowess being a morally neutral tool, though it may be tremendously attractive and aesthetically or professionally admirable. That may be why we have so little agreement about honor and glory. Our vocabulary is off.

MikeD said...

Difficulty in a duty can be a source of honor as well. But there's a world of difference between doing a tough job (say that of a surgeon... one who saves lives) and that of someone who puts something other than their comfort on the line in the furtherance of duty. As a peacetime soldier, I had a difficult and sometimes demanding job to do. But I had nothing on the line in the performance of it. Sure, there is honor in serving quietly and competently. But it is not the same as even a firefighter who puts his life at risk when doing his job. I knew when I drove onto post every morning that the greatest threat I'd face was from the traffic on the way there. That firefighter doesn't know if he's coming home every time he gets on that truck and rolls out.

It's not a "violence" thing. It's a cost and an acceptance of risk thing. And for the record, it's not JUST the risk that gives it more honor. It's the cause as well. A skydiver takes risks and puts it on the line when he jumps out of a plane. But his only goal is his own entertainment. It's not a particularly noble goal, is it? I'd say there's more honor in being a mother than a skydiver. Professional or otherwise. A mother makes sacrifices for her children. There is honor in that. Sure, her likelihood of dying in taking care of her children isn't particularly great, but what she surrenders in order to care for, and provide for her children is. That makes it noble. In fact, I daresay being a good mother is more honorable than my own military service.

Grim said...


Remember that for Aristotle, the end of ethics is happiness -- happiness defined as a kind of robust flourishing, in which you vital and rational powers are aligned in pursuit of the good. But it's still supposed to be happiness! Flourishing should be a joyous exercise.

So, no, this is the moral sense of "glorious." The most morally glorious things ought to contain an element of joy in having been the one to do them: chasing down an idea in philosophy, contesting the bridge with the Balrog, crushing your enemy, seeing him driven before you, etc., etc. It can be hard, it can be scary, but it should also be something you are glad to have done.

Texan99 said...

Mike, I agree.

Grim, I don't doubt for a minute that doing the right thing can result in joy and, all things being equal, it's better if it does. But if fun and joy are the first things that spring to mind, before we even know the morality of the achievement, in my experience the core of the experience is more aesthetic than moral. I'm the more inclined to this view when the difference between two tasks in terms of how they rate on your honor-and-glory scale is not that one is self-evidently more moral and costly than the other, but that one is much flashier, or farther removed from any taint of the material.

Grim said...

I don't think that the first thing that springs to mind when pondering war is joy or pleasure! I'm suggesting that, when it is pursued at the highest level, war can be a kind of eudaimonia, a flourishing of the sort Aristotle was talking about.

Whereas executions, by contrast, do not offer that opportunity. There are many things we have to do that are not expressions of the highest and best of human nature. That kind of killing is simply in a different category.

Texan99 said...

Maybe not the first thing, but its position seems somewhat more prominent than the right or wrong of the conflict in which the glorious deeds are happening.

It could be that part of the problem is conflating honor and glory, just because they go together in a common phrase. "Glory" has something of "brilliant performance" about it, and may even be slightly amoral in general use--as in someone who's "gloriously handsome." "Honor" is associated more with a difficult moral performance, even if it takes the form of unphotogenic, undramatic passive resistance.

In another usage, "honor" means winning active, energetic fame; that's a sense I rarely give it, maybe because of my personal preference for the morality of forbearance. Emergencies requiring active intervention are rare, but forbearance is needed 24/7 in order for life to be worth living.

Grim said...

I think it only seems more prominent because it surprises you, so it's the focus of your attention. If you look at the comment, I put "doing something good" in before I began talking about examples involving joyous flourishing.

There's a kind of Puritan sensibility at the root of a lot of American literature on morality, which suggests that morality is a pretty unpleasant venture. It doesn't have to be that at all. The old Aristotelian ethics encourages a better life -- a more enjoyable one, as well as a morally better one. We don't have to focus on the forbearance, but on the flourishing that is made possible in part by the forbearance and in part in other ways.

There's a lot of forbearance, and plain hard work, involved in flourishing the way Kyle did or Mattis did. You still get all of that. You just get the joy, too. That flourishing joy is the point, for Aristotle: it's why you do all the rest of it.

Texan99 said...

There may be a tradition that morality is supposed to be unpleasant, but it has no place in what I describe. I'm fine with morality's being a deep pleasure--I too subscribe to a religion positing a paradise along those lines!--but if the act is not moral first, its attractions are primarily aesthetic. In the examples we've been discussing, the moral quality is secondary; otherwise, there would not be such a strong preference for moral deeds that didn't happen to be brilliant and dashing, and such an inability to see honor in more modest and private accomplishments.

What's more, the difference between active and forbearing virtue does not consist of the resulting joyfulness. There's no reason for joy to be lacking in forbearance from doing wrong. At most there might be a lack of vigorous excitement, which is not at all the same thing. A life in which people choose not to bully each other, but to honor each other's freedom and integrity instead, is the source of very deep and sustaining joy and happiness, not to mention the foundation of civilization and art. Whether someone finds a forbearing type of virtue as interesting as glamorous exploits is more of an aesthetic than a moral preference.

Grim said... inability to see honor in more modest and private accomplishments.

Well, honor isn't private. Honor is social. It's about relationships: I might honor my country by serving it, or I might honor my father and mother by listening to their advice or showing up on their birthdays.

If I am the kind of person who treats his relationships as important in this way, I am a man of honor. That quality is personal, but it's not private: everyone will know it, because everyone I know will have experienced it.

Of course you can be a man of very great honor while pursuing a flourishing life as, say, a priest. For the right man, it would be a grand life full of joy. Tending to the sick or helping families in grief, leading your congregation at prayer, all of these could be moments of happiness in Aristotle's sense.

I wouldn't say it's an "aesthetic" preference, though, that leads to whether one becomes a priest or a soldier. We would more usually say that it is a calling: one is called to one thing, or the other.

MikeD said...

Honor is a tricky word to define. Mostly because it has been used many different ways in the past. I don't know that I can articulate what it means to me (short of writing a small book, which I am not going to subject you all too). But I do also think there is a form of "quiet honor" where one does the right thing, even when... no, especially when no one else would ever know. Someone who performs a good deed, not for fame or adoration, but because it is the right thing to do. The most honorable act of this type would be to do something requiring personal sacrifice to perform some good that no one else will ever know about.

That is a form of private honor.

Texan99 said...

"Honor isn't private, it's social." That's why I say we talking past each other because we haven't agreed on vocabulary. I think I understand now why you deny honor to things that I hold in such high esteem, along the lines that MikeD suggests. Maybe a more usual word for that kind of unflashy thing is integrity. It involves thrills, even ecstasy, but of a different kind. I see you don't mean to overlook that sort of virtue, but you don't include it in the field that involves renown and heroic songs and so on, which is quite right. That's a genre that calls for a different kind of virtue or deed.

We're not using "aesthetic" in the same sense, either. I don't mean it's something akin to worrying about the color of one's fingernail polish. I was trying it out in a very metaphorical sense, to describe the charismatic attractiveness of something apart from its moral content--not inconsistent with morality at all, but not primarily based in morality, either.

Grim said...

It is hard to get vocabulary worked out in philosophical talk. That's a real problem that Socrates himself worried about a lot.

I think Mike's example really is honor, in the terms we're using now. It's still social, because it's about how people treat each other. It's not important that they know about it, but that you're the kind of person who does right by others in accordance with the nature of your relationship to them.

Almost certainly they will know that you're a man of honor because it's unlikely that you'll go so far in those cases Mike lays out and not also go to the proper lengths when people do know. But it's a social virtue even if you manage to keep it hidden every time.

Now a case where someone does right by himself in some non-flashy way (perhaps by not cheating at Solitaire, or making sure he eats right, or something similar) is still very much a virtue. I think it would classically be put under the heading of "moderation," but we can call it integrity for this purpose (as moderation is much wider than just things you do for yourself, but can also include things like leaving enough of the good chocolate for others to enjoy also).

MikeD said...

What I was attempting to describe isn't so much "not cheating at Solitaire" as it is, something along the lines of rescuing a bird with a broken wing. This is an act which takes of one's time, resources, and care. It is a sacrifice. And unless you go around talking about "this one time I saved a bird" no one will know of it. The only beneficiary of such an act is the bird, and your own soul. I feel this is an honorable act even though it does little (if indeed anything) for society, and even if no one else ever learns of it.

Grim said...

Good. But it is social: it is between you and the bird.