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Sunday

Anakin's line "you're with me or you're agaisnt me" has grabbed all the headlines as an obvious slam at Bush. But that's not the line that bothered me.

Star Wars III, while overall a pretty good movie, was a philosophical catastrophe. Lucas has some pretty asinine, though common, philosophical views. From a rational perpective, the ideas presented were a hopeless random jumble. Overall, the Sith, while evil in their actions, were pretty much correct in their philosophy; the Jedi, good in their actions, were totally messed up in their philosophy.

But Obi-Wan's reply about thinking in absolutes is the one that I really care about. It's the idea that gets closest to the heart of what philosophy is.

Any ethical question has a context. That context includes not only the immediate situation, but the principles involved. Here's the thing that both the "situational ethics" crowd and the absolutists get wrong: Principles are always absolute, actions and people never are.

A principle is always an absolute. It is not right or wrong, it is a fact in the widest possible context. Full-context facts apply to all situations. If you have what you think is a principle, but it varies depending on the circumstance, then it is not a principle. It may be a good rule of thumb, or a guideline, but it is not a principle. Principles are few in number. If you have a wide range of what you think are principles, then most of them are not actually principles, but guidelines.

On the other hand, every situation is different. You cannot ever create a principle that will by itself demand a specific action for any given circumstance, let alone a single principle that will dictate specific actions in all circumstances. You don't get off that easy - you don't get to dodge the responsibility of thinking and integrating in every situation.

You have to integrate the absolute principle with the specifics of the situation you find yourself in. It takes work, and there is a lot of room for error. But you have to try. Reality provides no automatic knowledge, and even in the light of absolute principles, the knowledge of how to act is always something you will have to work for.

Because this knowledge has to be worked for, and because there is room for honest error, a person - as a whole - can never be judged as absolutely good nor evil. Even a person's actions cannot be judged as absolutely good or evil (though in some cases they are so clear that the possibility for error is little more than theoretical). You cannot know all of the knowledge and context that person holds in his mind that led to his evaluation of the rightness of his act. You do have knowledge of facts, and those facts are never "gray", but you can't know that you know all the facts, or know them all correctly.

But more importantly, a moral judgement of another's act attaches to the person. An action just is once it is done, it is not itself good or evil, good or evil is an attribute only of a person, of one who commits an act. The judging of an act is the judging of the person who commits the act, at the immediate time of the action, and nothing more.

Yet there is an objective standard for judgement. Priniciples, are absolute. The situation in which an action occurs is absolute (it just is, it is not good or evil, it is just reality). All people and their actions must be judged against these principles as they apply to the circumstance. Your knowledge of these facts is necessarily incomplete, but you must judge nonetheless. You have to judge because your actions depend on the situation you find yourself in, and that situation includes both the actions that have come before and the people involved.

Judgement is evaluation, not condemnation. You judge only as a guide to future actions. It is irrational to expect your judgement to have any effect on anyone else - it is for you alone to use. But you don't get out of the work of thinking and integrating anymore than the subject of your judgement does. Your knowledge is as incomplete as everyone else's; you're evaluation is as subject to error as anyone elses. For that reason, your judgement of other people and their actions can never be absolute. Your judgement of these must always carry with it and additional judgement of how complete your knowledge is - what your chance for error is - that tempers the judgement with some level of uncertainty, even if it is infinitesimal.

But all judgements, whether they be nearly absolute or very uncertain, must resolve in an either-or way to guide your immediate actions. Before you can act, you must decide which side of the spectrum your judgement falls on. You may decide to delay action, or take some action that has fewer consequences, in light of an uncertain judgement, but even that is an action guided by an either-or judgement.

To fail to judge because of incomplete information - or worse because of intellectual laziness or a philosophical aversion to it - is irrational. You cannot act without judging whether your action will be right. To judge another's actions or overall moral qualities to an absolute degree is irrational - you cannot possibly know every single relevant fact with absolute perfection. To fail to use absolute principles as the standard of that judgement is irrational - it leaves you with no standard and no possibility of judgement.

Anakin and Obi-Wan were both wrong. "With me or against me" is an absolute juegement where no absolute is possible. Not thinking in absolutes when it comes to principles is just as wrong. However, both of them were right in acting on their judgements when they had to act.


Comments

I'm not sure what to think. Granted I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've heard thngs. Like there are references to the Patriot Act there and also a few others. I doubt Lucas was dilerberatley trying to take shots at Bush during his writing of the movie, but I do know he's a pretty big Lib.

By the way, you have a great blog. Keep it up.

Posted by ThaSIckness at Sunday, May 22, 2005 09:17 PM

Tha,

Yeah, I don't think that Lucas was aiming at anything as specific as what people are making it out to be. I like the movies, and I don't care that much about the politics in them. It's just that the absolute thing is an important philosophical point anyway, the reference in the movie was just a starting point for it.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Posted by kylben at Sunday, May 22, 2005 10:13 PM

Good post--that line (and the entire Jedi attitude toward POV and principles) bothered me as well. Not to mention that they were a case study in how to alienate a young follower.

http://dawnxianamoon.com

Posted by Dawn at Monday, May 23, 2005 07:16 AM

That was serious for a blog, but isn't your point consistent with the quote? That the disfunction of the Sith is that they grasp principles but not context? I haven't seen the movie, so I guess I'm being a Sith at the moment.

Posted by doug at Monday, May 23, 2005 10:29 AM

doug,

You're partly right. Obi-Wan's reply was technically correct as a response to Anakin's statment that "you're either with me or against me". But my purpose was not to call Lucas out for some error.

My purpose was to show that usually neither the absolutist side nor the situational ethics side gets it right. The proper way of evaluating things is to use both in every situation: absolute standards and a non-binary evaluation.

To have situational standards makes any judgement, and therefore morally responsible action, impossible. On the other hand, to come to absolutist, binary conclusions renders any judgment useless or misleading for considering how to act.

Absolutist judgments are usually aimed at condemnation, with the implication that *others* should change their behavior based on our judgements. But this is not the purpose of judgement. They are also a shortcut to avoid having to think a situation through, a technique very common to conservatives. The liberals, the ones who usually complain about this, are right in this sense.

But situational ethics - using changing standards - is usually a way to try and avoid having any limit on actions. It says that others cannot judge what we do. It is an abdication of morality that is very common to liberals, and the right is perfectly correct in complaining about this. It is also a shortcut to avoid thinking a situation through, since having no standards leaves only feeling as a way to evaluate a situation (a staple of Jedi philosophy).

Both positions rely on an incorrect understanding of the nature and purpose of judgement, and both undermine a rational apporach to judgement, one by making it a simple formula requiring no thought, the other by defining it out of existence altogether.

This is another example of the left/right spectrum both getting it dangerously and destructively wrong. Both are half right, and both compensate for the erroneous part of the other by rejecting the part that is correct.

BTW, should blogs not be serious?

Posted by kylben at Monday, May 23, 2005 11:14 AM

I don't think it was aimed at Bush, but it is quite appropriate.

Posted by Joseph (OK Democrat) at Monday, May 23, 2005 04:10 PM

Lucas based the saga on Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" -- one of the best works ever analyzing mythology.

He also looked at the descent of democracies into dictatorships.

"Sith" has a lot of comparisons to the fall of the German Republic and rise of the Nazis.

But it does play heavily on how democratic societies are willing to give up freedoms in exchange for security. And politicians convert that political currency into power.

While you mention principles are either right or wrong but not absolutes -- are balancing those principles are what's important. So thinking in absolutes does cloud your mind to what may be the best choice -- even if it goes against your principles.

For instance, it's a principle that killing is a sin -- except in war, or capital punishment, or as a sacrifice to the volcano god, or whatever.

Every rule has it's exceptions.

Posted by Denny Hix at Tuesday, May 24, 2005 12:25 PM

Denny,

You're completely wrong about principles. I never said they are not absolute, I was very clear that they *are* absolute.

"Balancing" principles is never important, it is always wrong. What measure would you use to find the right balance? It could only be some higher principle, in which case the things you are balancing are not principles.

Principle means first. There is exactly one and only one principle in any given context. It is the first moral consideration, against which all others must be weighed.

If you need to "balance" a principle against some higher principle, then you have poorly chosen the context of your thought. You should have been thinking at the highest level of context that encompasses all the information you need. At the proper level of context, only one principle can apply.

"Killing is wrong" is not a principle. It is a guideline. If you have exceptions, it cannot be a principle. There are no exceptions to principles, because the *first* moral cause cannot have a higher cause to which it must give way.

"Murder is wrong" is a principle at the highest level of context - the context of your entire life. There are no exceptions in any imaginable situation.

Principles are absolutes, they are facts. Thinking in absolutes at the level of principle never clouds your mind - it is the only path to clear thought.

Applying principles to a given situation to reach an absolute conclusion does cloud your mind. Clear thinking means coming to a conclusion that measures your knowledge of the facts of the situation against absolute principles. Your knowledge is never perfect, so your conclusion can never be absolute. But the only way to know this is to have an absolute standard to measure against.

Rules are not principles. Rules are a social construct to try to apply principles a-priori to a variety of situations. Except for games, where the rules *are* the principles (since it is an arbitrarily created environment) absolute rules are a contradiction. Almost every situation is an exception to some degree.

Posted by kylben at Tuesday, May 24, 2005 01:01 PM

Ah, but there is not just ONE principle involved in all cases. That's where the balancing comes in.

It is wrong to kill.
It is right to protect the innocent.

Both are principles. But if someone threatens the innocent, you balance those principles: It's wrong to kill, but killing Nazis to save kids in a concentration camp is more important.

That's the point I was trying to make.

Really, I think we're in agreement on making judgements based on principles, though.

Posted by Denny Hix at Thursday, May 26, 2005 11:54 AM

Denny,

You're still missing my point. There _is_ only one principle in any given context(*). "It's wrong to kill" is not a principle unless you limit the context to one in which nobody is threatening or actively harming other people. "It's wrong to _murder_ is a principle in the context you cite. Killing a Nazi who is threatening kids in a concentration camp is not murder.

Principle means first, and there can't be more than one first of anything. No matter how you try to balance anything, you must use some higher consideration to do so - it is not possible within the context of two competing or equal things. That higher thing is the principle, not the two things you are balancing.

We may agree on the idea of making judgements based on principles, but your implementation of that idea will lead, in some cases, to either irreconcilable dilemmas or wrong decisions.

(*) I said earlier that there is only one principle in any context. But since reality is an integrated whole, with only one actual context (full context) that really means that there is only one principle, period, which everything else must serve. But for ease of communication, it is reasonable to talk of derived guidelines as being principles in limited contexts, so long as it is always remembered that they can possibly conflict (well-chosen ones rarely do), and then it will be necessary to appeal to the one highest principle in full context.

Posted by kylben at Thursday, May 26, 2005 12:48 PM

My 2 c wroth. While I agree with your reasoning explaining why judgment is necessary as a precondition to any action there are some points I would like to comment on.

You write "A principle is always an absolute. It is not right or wrong, it is a fact in the widest possible context. Full-context facts apply to all situations. "

This is an assumption on your part which you can't prove. Principles we discuss here are not like the laws of physics, they are more a part of a social agreement within contemporary or historical human societies. We don't know any other societies of any other intelligent species, so we can't say anything about it. And even within human societies the diversity of principles is quite considerable. It comes from the fact, that you write about later on, that no event has a value of its own.

You write "But more importantly, a moral judgment of another's act attaches to the person. An action just is once it is done, it is not itself good or evil, good or evil is an attribute only of a person, of one who commits an act."

The judgment is an attribute of the one that judges. It's an act that occurs entirely in his mind, the person who committed the act may not even know about it and it may not influence that person at all. Furthermore, other persons may (and in most cases will) judge the same act in a totally different way. This shows clearly that no act has any absolute meaning, absolute value because if it had everyone would experience it the same way. No absolute value means no absolute principles - how can something that is not universal be considered absolute?

Posted by Andy at Friday, May 27, 2005 04:34 AM

Andy,

"[principles] are more a part of a social agreement within contemporary or historical human societies."

That is, frankly, gibberish. If I can't prove the absoluteness of principles, then you can't prove this either. In that case, why argue it, if it is only a matter of preference? Would you argue whether chocolate or vanilla is better? Or is "principles are not absolute" an absolute principle?

But I can prove my principles. It's partly the work of this blog to do so, but it will take a long time and many, many articles. They _are_ analogous to the laws of physics, but applied to human nature, reality, and to reason.

"Poison will kill you" is a principle, in the context of what to have for breakfast, for instance. Would you argue that that is just a social convention, that some societies can eat cyanide for breakfast and thrive on it?

All my principles are of the same nature. "Stealing is wrong", has the same basis in reality, discovered through observation and logic, that the principle of not eating poison has. Some societies have rejected that principle (the USSR and contemporary Nigeria, for instance), and have paid the high price for doing so. Whether these people believed in them or not, absolute principles had the final say.

You are correct that the judgement is an attribute of the one who judges, and that it may not influence the judged in any way. I was very clear on that in my article, and explained that the purpose of judgement is not that of influencing those you judge, but influencing your own actions.

That two people will judge the same act in different ways does not argue against or clearly show the non-absoluteness of principles. It shows that people have different knowledge of both the principles and the facts of the context in which they are judging.

Principles are universal, and absolute. Our knowledge of them, as of all facts, is never perfect. To say that "if it had [absolute meaning] everyone would experience it the same way" rests on the premise of the possibility of automatic and perfect knowledge. There is no such thing as automatic knowledge, and our minds are not infinite, thus perfect knowledge is impossible. All knowledge, including the knowledge of absolute principles, has to be actively reasoned out.

Absolute facts provide the standard for that reasoning - when we reach a contradiction, then we know that the line of reasoning that got us there is faulty. It is absolute facts that are the fundamental basis of reason, without them, all we have is "social agreement", cultural traditions, or feelings. You may wish to rely on these, but when your culture or society or feelings tell you to take poison (of any form), I hope you'll apply absolute principles before its too late.

Posted by kylben at Friday, May 27, 2005 07:28 AM

Cyanide is surely poisonous for humans, but it's not 100% fatal. It's just very close to that. And it might not be poisonous to other organisms, especially those not based on carbon biology we know.

But let's not get too deep in this analogy. Whole difference here is a difference of beliefs. You believe there are absolute principles, but argument at length that it's not possible to know them fully. Doesn't that boil down to the same thing?

Stealing, for example, is a consequence of the concept of possession. Possession is not a universal concept, as I've found out trying to get my cats to learn which bowl is who's. Btw - "stealing" is not universally bad or evil - certainly many thieves think they have right to do so. Also, if we define stealing as taking someone's property without their consent and against their will then taxation is stealing. It's an extortion under threat of force. But we make an exception here, because we think in this case a common good is more important.

Same applies to gray line between murder an killing. There are many cases where killing, which is generally perceived as bad, is perceived as justified. This perception varies greatly with time, culture and society we speak of. So death is also very much relative. And, while for some a given act of killing is repulsive and wrong others rejoice - clear example here are of course wars or deaths of criminals. Some of those executed murderers have families who mourn them and surely don't view their deaths as justified and right. But others do. Who's "right"? Who's "wrong"? Maybe both?

Right and wrong, good and bad are different sides of the same reality, same events. The events or actions are devoid of any value. It's our minds who color them, paint them as good or bad, right or wrong - and while we sometimes agree more and sometimes less this doesn’t change that there is no absolute value, no absolute reference to resolve those differences.

Read this ancient story, my friend:

"One day, a farmer received a beautiful stallion, to give to his son for his birthday. The neighbour saw the stallion and came to congratulate the farmer, telling him how lucky he was to receive such a wonder... But the farmer just answered "I don't know if it's good or bad". A few days later, the son was riding the horse when he fell down and broke one of his legs... Again, the neighbour came to see the farmer and told him "how unfortunate you are, your son has his leg broken", but the farmer repeated "I don't know if it is good or bad". Two weeks later, war broke out and all the young people were sent to fight, except the farmer's son as his leg was broken, and so the neighbour came and told the farmer: "How lucky you are, your son is not going to the war" but again the farmer answered "I don't know if it is good or bad"...

Posted by Andy at Friday, May 27, 2005 10:08 AM

It clearly was a stab at Bush. Lucas and the actor of Darth Vader said so in interviews.

Posted by Daldianus at Saturday, May 28, 2005 09:58 AM

Andy,

"You believe there are absolute principles, but argument at length that it's not possible to know them fully. Doesn't that boil down to the same thing?"

Not at all. A foot (12 inches) is an absolute measure. Yet two carpeneters asked to cut a 1-foot board will produce boards of differing lengths, if only by hundreths or thousandths of an inch. It's possible to measure the difference, not only between each board, but between either board and the ideal 1-foot measurement. This is only possible if there is an absolute standard. Principles are the same way. The ideal is determined by logic, by integrating everything in the universe so that nothing contradicts. But we cannot know the entirety of the facts of all reality any more than the carpenter can know with absolute certainty that a board is one foot long. Tape measures are not infinitely precise - no measuring tool can be - and our minds cannot hold an infinite amount of information.

"Possession is not a universal concept, as I've found out trying to get my cats to learn which bowl is who's. Btw - "stealing" is not universally bad or evil"

Actually, posession is a universal concept, and stealing is universally wrong. That some people don't know this, or choose to ignore it, does not argue against its universality. Mention of cats is completely irrelevant. Moral principles are only relevant in the context of a moral agent. They arise out of _human_ nature. Cat's don't have moral principles any more than rocks or trees do.

"Also, if we define stealing as taking someone's property without their consent and against their will then taxation is stealing. It's an extortion under threat of force. But we make an exception here, because we think in this case a common good is more important."

I don't, and I don't. Taxation _is_ theft, and individual good _is_ more important than the common good. In fact, "common" good is a non-concept. Good can only be discussed rationally in the context of an individual. The concept of common only has any meaning as a relationship between things, they have this or that attribute in common. It describes things that are individual, yet happen to be equal or closely related.

Reason, and therefore morality, have no meaning - no existence - applied to a group. Several individuals may share certain moral attributes, but those attributes are still the attributes of individuals, and are in no way attributes of the group as a whole. There is no common good, there is only individual good.

"Same applies to gray line between murder an killing. There are many cases where killing, which is generally perceived as bad, is perceived as justified. This perception varies greatly with time, culture and society we speak of."

That the perception varies says nothing about what is perceived. A perception has to be a perception _of something_. That something is the absolute standard. Perceptions (in the sense of opinion or mental conclusion, itself a perversion of the term) can be in error. A killing is either justified or it is not. Our perception of it is correct or incorrect as measured against the absolute principle, it does not define the principle itself.

***Had to split this to make it fit, see next comment ***

Posted by kylben at Saturday, May 28, 2005 09:39 PM

***continued from previous comment to Andy***

"So death is also very much relative. And, while for some a given act of killing is repulsive and wrong others rejoice - clear example here are of course wars or deaths of criminals. Some of those executed murderers have families who mourn them and surely don't view their deaths as justified and right. But others do. Who's "right"? Who's "wrong"? Maybe both?"

No, not both. If a murderer was rightly justified, the relatives may mourn the course the murderer's choices brought him to, and that that that course brought his life to its end, and may even mourn the loss of them, but are wrong if they thus conclude that the decision to execute them was not right.

"The events or actions are devoid of any value. It's our minds who color them, paint them as good or bad, right or wrong"

That's correct. Moral judgement is something only done by a mind, it is not an attribute of reality. Reality just is. But reality is an integrated whole, and can not contradict itself. Our minds integrate the concepts we hold of reality, and the extent to which our concepts contradict themsleves or facts of reality, is the extent to which they are _objectively_ wrong. If we color a wrong action right, it is our minds that are at fault. Reality goes on whether we disagree or don't, whether we are right or not. It is only we who are affected by it.

"... and while we sometimes agree more and sometimes less this doesn’t change that there is no absolute value, no absolute reference to resolve those differences."

It does not change it. It is true, whether you choose to believe it or not.

"Read this ancient story, my friend:"

How nice. Pure coincidence as the basis of morality. A broken leg is a bad thing - a disvalue - regardless of what coincidental good it may lead to. Avoiding fighting in a war is a good thing - war is a disvalue. That one disvalue coincidentally caused the avoidance of a greater disvalue does not mean that the orignial was not a disvalue any more than buying something at a discount means that there was no price.

Further, this approach to morality shows a sadly defeatist sense of life. Rather than see values as positive things to be achieved, this approach sees only disvalue to be avoided. Rather than seek growth, this approach seeks nothing - literally zero - as it's highest goal, as zero is better than a negative.

Posted by kylben at Saturday, May 28, 2005 09:41 PM

Like they said there are in deed absolute judgements. A death sentence is always final and from mans perspective absolute.

Posted by Ron at Saturday, June 04, 2005 08:34 PM

Ron,

Even in the case of the death penalty, the judgement is not absolute. Even by the court's terms (in the US, at least), it is only "beyond reasonable doubt". As I said in the article, actions are absolute - they are an either-or choice that must be made even when the judgement itself carries a possibility of error.

Posted by kylben at Saturday, June 04, 2005 08:40 PM

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