Right and wrong are moral terms. Just and unjust are political. But whether we want to know what’s right or what’s just, in either case form follows function. And so the first question to ask is what do we want morality or politics to do for us? In both cases the answer is we want them to keep the peace. Why? Because in a state of war “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

This is not to say peace is always preferable to war. It wouldn’t be if one’s loved ones are sure to starve to death if he doesn’t take his chances on the battlefield. Under such conditions “the notions of right and wrong, [or of] justice and injustice, have there no place.” But fortunately these conditions are few and far between in the modern world.

But even when it’s warranted, keeping the peace is no small order. It requires our willingness – not always but often enough – to let others have their way, especially when doing so would be less skin off our ass than not doing so would be off the ass of others. In other words, peace requires accommodation.

But just how accommodating should we be? Some people think we should accommodate up to the point where there’s no choice but war. This is foolish, because by then it’s too late. Rather the smart money goes to adopting a this-much-but-no-further  pre-commitment strategy, and then bargaining our way from there. When our two demands exceed the dividends available negotiations have failed. When we both underplay our hands we leave dividends unclaimed on the table. And so what we see, whether between spouses or nations, is push trying not to come to shove.

If only one kid in a million were allergic, mothers wouldn’t be asked not to send peanut butter sandwiches to school. But there are enough kids with peanut allergies that the inconvenience to the kids who aren’t is thought to be not unreasonable. It’s likewise with adult women foregoing heavy perfumes in the waiting room. But it’s judged unreasonable to ask her not to wear perfume when at a fancy restaurant for dinner. If one’s allergic to perfume it falls to her to avoid places where its presence can be expected.

Unlike some allergens, phobias aren’t life-threatening but they can be effectively paralyzing. Fear of heights can be. But so can fear of clowns. If fear of clowns were common enough, should mothers be asked not to dress their kids as clowns for Halloween? Of course. And we’ve recently replaced fear with offence? Mothers are now being asked not to dress their kids as Indians or Arabs.

These accommodations are generally considered not unreasonable because they’re little if any skin off the accommodater’s ass, compared to the skin off the ass of those being accommodated. But suppose the two abrasions approach par? For example, Mary’s been brutally raped by a black man, as a result of which the very presence of a black man, save at a ‘safe’ distance, utterly terrifies her. Does the onus fall on her to avoid black men, or on black men to accommodate her phobia by keeping a ‘respectful’ distance? The answer would seem to be self-evident. But suppose she can’t avoid black men. Are there not circumstances under which, as hurtful as it may be, the right thing is for them to do is retreat to the shadows?

Now let’s weaken her phobia to mere distaste, but multiply it across an entire population. What we’d end up with is what we did end up with. It’s called Apartheid.

In South Africa defenders of Apartheid argued that services can be separate provided they’re equal. They weren’t, but suppose they had been. Or suppose the quality of life in Gaza was in every respect on par with that in Tel Aviv. What skin off anyone’s ass would we insist nonetheless remains? 

I pose this not as a rhetorical question but one in dire need of an answer. My gut tells me there is an answer. I just need a little help in articulating it.   

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. You asked: “And so the first question to ask is what do we want morality or politics to do for us?”

    Apart from not getting us killed in wars, the answer depends on which “we” is answering the question. In a theoretical, totally homogeneous society where everyone is the same age and has the same income, etc., the “we” would give a common answer. But in the real world, with age, income and political differences in a heterogenous society of disparate political tribes there are as many answers to your question as there are people answering it. And that’s why we need accommodation, also known as compromise, or pouring some water into your wine.


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