Sliding Goalposts

Posted: July 9, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Today I came across Joan Baez’s “funny defense” against the “What would you do if…?” critique of pacifism. It’s a fantastic short read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s ever been pinned in a corner by hypothetical arguments about the necessity of violence in some situations (although Baez is wrong about Jesus’s teachings counseling passivity in the face of evil). It got me thinking of a caffeine-fueled evening on the Internet back in December when I engaged in a debate with Pete Kilner (who blogs at Thoughts of a Soldier-Ethicist). The discussion centered around Pete’s controversial thought experiment that attempted to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a way to think about the proper place (or lack thereof) of violence in a Christian’s life. Pete’s thought experiment goes like this:

What would the Good Samaritan–an exemplar given to us by Christ of a person who loves his neighbor–do if he had arrived at the scene earlier, while the robbers were assaulting the man?

1. Would the Good Samaritan walk on by?
2. Would the Good Samaritan stop and wait, allowing the beating to continue, and hope that the victim survived?
3. Would the Good Samaritan rush to find someone else to stop the beating?
4. Or, would the Good Samaritan risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary?

When we look at it this way, I think it’s pretty clear that the loving, decent, honorable, courageous, and Christian thing to do is to stop the attack.

After all, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that if I were ever being beaten mercilessly, I would fight back, and I would want any passerby to join in my defense. So, I will do the same for others.

I welcome and invite any feedback that focuses on the merits of the argument.

This thought experiment is really only concerned with one ethical question: should a Christian use violence if he comes upon an assault in progress?

To start, let’s grant one of the (false) premises of the setup: that the hypothetical has provided all the available options. Having done so, the logic of Kilner’s argument can be rendered as follows:

  1. The Samaritan is a legitimate “Christian” authority on loving your neighbor.
  2. The Samaritan would use violence in this situation because he loves his neighbor.
  3. Therefore, Christians who love their neighbor should use violence to defend others.

This is argument is a logical fallacy: Appeal to Authority.  Pete is using the Samaritan as an authority on a subject which Jesus did not address in the story of the Good Samaritan: violence and/or non-violence. In other words, it’s not self-evident that the Good Samaritan is a legitimate authority on the topic in question.  Rather, the story told by Christ is an example of social boundary-crossing, and he’s indicting the moral boundaries drawn around the Jewish nation in some first-century Jewish ideologies that leave others on the outside, defining neighbors only as those in the “in” group, which restricts the Jewish imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  It has nothing to do whatsoever with the question of violence, yet the thought experiment utilizes the trappings of one of Christ’s moral teachings to imbue Kilner’s preferred answer to the question with the moral gravitas of the Samaritan.

However, as stated, getting this far in the argument requires one to accept a hidden false premise: that the thought experiment contains the full range of options.

So, let’s make the implicit premises explicit:

  1. The Samaritan is a legitimate “Christian” authority on loving your neighbor.
  2. The Samaritan, as a person who loves their neighbor, must not be passive while their neighbor suffers.
  3. In this situation, you can only be passive or violent in response to your neighbor’s suffering:
    1. Walk on (passive).
    2. Stop and wait, allow the beating to continue, and hope that the victim survived (passive).
    3. Find someone else to stop the beating (“clean hands” passivity).
    4. Risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary (active).
  4. Because 2 and 3 are true, the Good Samaritan would use violence to attempt to stop the attack by using violence.
  5. Because 1 and 4 are true, Christians should use violence to defend their neighbor.

This line of argument also contains a logical fallacy: the False Dilemma. It is not true that one must be violent or passive (#3). There is a third option: nonviolent resistance to injustice/evil.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

“A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

“A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

“A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’

“A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

“A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship …”

Beyond the problems with Pete’s specific thought experiments, however, is the broader issue of trying to do ethics in this manner.  In the discussion in Pete’s comment section, I made a remark that I did not explain well:

this isn’t a legitimate way to do ethics

Pete’s response, though, is a perfect illustration of what I meant:

Can you say more about why this isn’t a “legitimate way to do ethics”?

If you’re going to say, “I’d put myself between the victim and the attackers,” then please provide a description of how that would likely play out. For example, would you really expect that the murderous rapists would see you coming to hug the victim and say, “Oh my gosh, someone is passively putting herself next to our victim! Let’s flee!”?

By “this,” I meant to engage people in recurring rounds of “What would you do if…?” where one person plays God in the scenario, limiting the information given in the scenario and adjusting the reality of the hypothetical as the argument progresses to to trap their debate opponent in an un-winnable situation. The violent “god” making the argument gets to referree based on their biases and experiences, deciding what would work and what would fail, adding new constraints as the debate progresses until any and all nonviolent solutions have been closed off. This form of argument is referred to as “moving the goalposts” or “raising the bar” and is an informal logical fallacy.

The mistake I made in that discussion was going any further than critiquing the logic of Pete’s argument, entering into the “what would you do if…?” debate. Anyone engaging in a debate with these ground rules automatically loses–you can’t win an argument with God, even a hypothetical God.

  1. Pete Kilner says:

    As someone who teaches logic, I admire your appeals to terms of logic. But I find them to be “red herrings.”

    My point about the legitimacy of ethics is that actual moral decisionmaking occurs in the real world–it requires decision and action. In difficult ethical situations like war, the right moral choice may actually be the least evil choice among constrained choices.

    That is why I kept asking you, “What would you do?”

    That’s not cheating. That’s getting ethics out of the astract clouds of a classroom and into the concrete reality of a fallen world. As TR put it so eloguently, admiration belongs to the person who is struggling to do right “in the arena,” not to the person on the sidelines who criticizes.

    I will give you credit for finally answering the question. You said:

    “But let’s play the game your way and take this all the way. I am a Christian. I see a man attacking another person. No not-violent action will sway this person (I reject this premise, but whatever). I must put myself in the way of the attacks and let myself be murdered in order to give the other person a chance to escape. It’s really not complicated. And when you die, you die for both your neighbor and this enemy. And that’s called being a Christian.”

    Congratulations, dcrowe. You’re dead. perhaps you have left behind a widow and fatherless children. The initial victim whom you could have saved is dead. And perhaps there will be more victims of these violent attackers. But, hey, YOUR hands are clean. You take no responsibility.

    Somehow, I don’t think that the God who designed Darwinism would be pleased by “survival of the evilest.” God gave you strength and courage (moral and physical). Use it for good.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hey Pete:

      Thanks for stopping by–I know this must have seemed a random return to a conversation from 6 months ago. 🙂

      I don’t see how I’m utilizing red herrings here. You made a specific argument, and I critiqued its logic. You even asked readers to do so. So I’m not sure I understand how my post above is a “red herring.” Critiques of a logic’s argument are not irrelevant when evaluating your conclusion.

      If, however, what you mean by “red herring” is that I spent time picking apart the argument rather than getting at your ethical question, I’d say that is a true statement that does not bear on the topic of the post–but isn’t that a red herring? (Tee hee) I don’t see you really responding to any of the critiques above. Would you care to?

      I can see how you are not satisfied with the answer I gave to the question. However, I’d argue that the problem is not with the answer, but with the setup. I (possibly unfairly, you tell me) anticipated where the back and forth would go with this kind of discussion and just skipped over the shifting goal posts and just jumped right to the most extreme case I thought you could give and gave the response I felt was most consistent with Christ’s teachings and example. The point I was making with that answer is that when you get to the Kobayashi Maru situation at the end of the line, “winning” is not more important that fidelity to Christ’s teachings.

      Your response to my question once we get to the no-win situation, though, shows one of the problems with your experiment: you, as “god” in the scenario, hold all the cards. You just assert that victim doesn’t get away, that my intervention and sacrifice did not reach the attacker, etc. etc. There’s no way to talk about what “works” in this scenario from a nonviolent perspective because the laws of the hypothetical universe you’ve constructed say “nonviolent solutions fail.”

      In this universe, the real one, however, nonviolent solutions are at least as effective as violent solutions, if not more so. If you need examples, see here, here and especially here. Or you could just read this book or any of these books. For general guidelines on how to respond to violence in one-on-one situations, see here.

      Did you ever listen to that MP3 link I pasted into the comment section? The basic problem the speaker in that link identifies with thought experiments like this is that they limit the information very, very severely–information that a person who’s worked hard to develop a keen eye for nonviolent options could use. But I’ve said all that already.

      The God who invented evolution saw fit that we should evolve into social creatures, who’s ability to think and cooperate made us fit for survival. Evolution is not all about killing each other and seeing who’s toughest. The most important evolutionary innovation in history was the formation of the eukaryotic cell from two independent cells–a fundamentally nonviolent innovation. But “survival of the evilest” is a weird thing to contemplate, given the Second Coming, etc.

      One final thing: given the teachings of Christ and his example, the burden of proof is *not* on the nonviolent. You have a massive current against which to swim in the Gospels if you want to assert that a Christian can use violence during conflict and still be living according to the teachings of Jesus.

      ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

      Okay so–this person would, according to you, pick up a pistol and blow out the brains of the attacker in order to save the guy on the road?

      The burden of proof is on you.

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