Friday, February 01, 2008

Walzer’s Use of Moral Dilemmas in "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands"

Walzer attempts to prove that moral dilemmas cannot be dissolved by either intuitionist or utilitarian models of moral judgment. The intuitionist would like to show that in a dilemma one can just tell the right thing to do; it is simply and clearly overriding in weight when compared to alternative courses of action. But this view is inconsistent with the fact that one must be able to explain and justify one’s determination of what is right. The utilitarian must take the moral rules, which dilemmas require that we violate, as either mere rules of thumb or hard-and-fast dispositions which we must cling to as more reliable than our faculties of judgment. But rules of thumb are mere heuristics with no intrinsic moral weight and are therefore quite unlike the regrettably foregone horns of the dilemmas we decide. And if the rules are strong dispositions, then utilitarianism, if true, is a truth that may not be divulged, lest it destroy the disposition needed to follow it - a prospect which is absurd.

So, Walzer argues that there really are moral dilemmas. These are more than tough cases to judge. Call them “hard dilemmas:” cases in which neither of the alternative courses of action is permissible, and you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Politicians who face them and make momentous decisions therefore necessarily commit crimes and should be punished for them. Only if by the course they have chosen they have succeeded in “eliminating social classes” or “deny[ing] power and glory to the greatest liars” may they be excused and escape punishment.

Or so Walzer argues. His subject is political action such as conduction war. He means to argue that the politicians who must face the war’s terrible dilemmas and decide who is to die should be punished for whichever decision they take, except in certain cases, as listed above.

It’s interesting that Walzer has arranged it so that all politicians should be punished except those who succeed in achieving Walzer’s preferred egalitarian goals. In any event, the argument for moral dilemmas is lacking. It is obvious that people who have decided moral dilemmas have been able to give reasons for their decisions, reasons which do not bear any mark of a commitment to utilitarianism. They show that one horn of the dilemma was the right one because of the case’s similarities to other, less controversial or even non-controversial cases. Common sense moral reasoning works. For Walzer to overlook what it has to offer and imply that only two arcane academic theories are on the table is fatal to his argument. So, intuitionism and utilitarianism cannot dissolve moral dilemmas. This doesn’t mean that common-sense moral reasoning cannot.

Of course, there are cases in which neither alternative course of action can be shown to be on balance morally better than the other. But Walzer offers no argument that even these are hard dilemmas. In fact, the concept of a hard dilemma is incoherent. For the notion that both alternative courses are both right and wrong is incoherent. Instead, there are soft dilemmas, in which it is strictly permissible to take either one course or the other, and not also impermissible. For example, in the case in which the lifeguard can save only one of two drowning swimmers, we have no reason to think that either course of action is wrong, as well as right; instead, either is simply right. Walzer, as the champion of hard dilemmas, bears the burden of showing that they are not incoherent. Merely challenging other theories to show that they are reducible to soft dilemmas is no argument at all but rather a confusion.

Yet, I owe Walzer my own explanation of the tragedy of some moral dilemmas, so as to provide an error theory for his confusion. Some moral dilemmas – call these “grave moral dilemmas” - require an indecent act, but not, contrary to Walzer’s view, a crime. Indecent acts, so commonplace in war, are the kind of acts that, while not morally wrong, are not enjoyable to undertake by a man of virtuous character. These acts require doing great harm and a virtuous character therefore undertakes them with melancholy. This is why moral dilemmas can seem to Walzer to require a crime; they merely require an act that, unlike other right acts, cannot be rightly enjoyed by the agent. The agent doesn’t have the guilt of a crime on his shoulders. He does have a duty to do what is repugnant to his virtuous character. The difference between grave moral dilemmas and run-of-the-mill trade-offs and compromises countenanced in moral reasoning is that the grave dilemmas are cases in which great evil must be done. This explains the special momentousness of these dilemmas. They entail that the agent must do what is almost always considered a great crime. The human character, when virtuous, is by nature repulsed by them. Usually for such a character to act rightly is enjoyable. But not in these cases.

Politicians who send soldiers and civilians to their deaths when confronted by grave moral dilemmas are not by that fact criminals. The fact that Walzer used a shoddy argument to portray them as criminals only to excuse the few whose courses of action promoted his favorite political ends strikes me as sophistical.