WHAT DO REVENGE FANTASIES TELL US ABOUT ETHICS?

I am not going to claim that all of us play host to revenge fantasies, because then I couldn’t deny – which I categorically do – that I certainly do. So everything I say here is prefixed by an I-hear-tell, or an I-have-a-friend-who. When I slip into the first person, plural or singular, or into all-talk rather than some, it’ll be for stylistic purposes only.

I’m with Descartes, who thought that no one ever does something he knows to be wrong. That is, whatever we do, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And if what we do has moral implications, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. So it would be odd if things were different in our fantasy lives. If I’m wondering what it would be like to do something wrong, I’m really just imagining someone doing something I think is wrong but he doesn’t. That’s why I can’t fantasize about rape. And fantasizing about someone else committing rape –I have no trouble doing that! – just isn’t sexy to me.

So when I fantasize about taking revenge – not that I do, remember – it’s always, at least in my mind, justified revenge. Put another way, if in my mind it wouldn’t be justified then I don’t fantasize about it. And so inducing a pattern in what I’m responding to in my revenge fantasies is a window into my particular moral theory, one I might otherwise never be able to articulate. Or if “moral theory” is too pretentious – and it probably is – then how ‘bout, as virtue ethicist would put it, what kind of person I’d like to be? Why the latter over the former? Because “Let your behavior be guided by your theory of the right!” is a two-step process, whereas “Act as the person you’d like to be!” is unmediated, not to mention probably more reliable.

This is not to say that attending to our revenge fantasies can exhaust our moral self-understanding. Revenge is a response to perceived injustice. But there’s nothing unjust about falling to supererogate. Compassion, courage, forbearance … None of these are implicated in revenge.

Nor am I suggesting that all our intuitions about justice are implicated in revenge. I might think – and I do – that justice dictates that polygamy should be decriminalized, but there’s no one I fantasize killing over it. Some things are just inadvertently unjust. And inadvertent injustice does not warrant taking revenge over it.

In fact even what I just said tells me something about what I must think about justice and injustice. It tells me that I think only injustice need be intentional. And now I can think about why I think that. For example, now I have to reconcile this view of injustice with my claim that no one ever does what he believes to be wrong. So it must mean I find it perfectly coherent and acceptable to wreak vengeance on someone who believes he was doing what’s right.

Can I ratify that implication? Yes I can. But someone else might discover that he can’t. He might find that he insists that the miscreant acknowledge his malfeasance, and that if he doesn’t then any attempt at revenge will misfire.

And from this disagreement, his and mine, I think we can abduce something about who’s the Hobbesian here – I am – and who’s the Kantian – he is. So though nothing in this navel-gazing, into mine and into his, tells us who’s right between Hobbes and Kant, it does help us see what hangs on it. The Kantian needs the heretic to confess the error of his ways before being burned at the stake. The Hobbesian is happy just to put a bullet in the back of his head on his way to the exercise yard.

But I can’t entirely maintain this either-or-ness. Even if mine are weaker than his, we all have Kantian intuitions. And that explains why I don’t want the miscreant to acknowledge that what he did was wrong. Because if he does, now the revenge is robbed of its pleasure for me. What I do want, however, is that he knows why I’m taking revenge on him. If he accepts this comeuppance, and yet sticks to his convictions, then he’s a martyr, and once again there’s no pleasure in taking revenge on a martyr. So what I need is that he knows I have my reasons, he knows what’s coming to him, but he doesn’t know he has it coming to him. That is, for him there are no moral dimensions to what’s about to occur, but he is terrified just like his victims were terrified without their attaching any moral dimensions to their terror or suffering. For that’s just the thing about suffering, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to. And if it does, it’s something else. It’s penance. But if it’s penance it’s contrition. And if it’s contrition we’re back to his acknowledging that what he did was wrong.

As I say, this is my dialectic, but I’m sure there are others. My point is only that our revenge fantasies are layered, they’re subtle, and they’re supple. We work them, like a fine piece of copper tooling. We’re never quite satisfied. That’s why we keep kneeding them, always trying to find that whatever-it-is we know is missing, if only we could find it. They’re like those floaters in our peripheral vision we can never look at directly. They are the gargoyles, at the same time hideous and sublime, without which our cathedral looks incomplete.

But they’re something else too. They’re the mark of things are not all right. Sometimes, we go weeks or months without any revenge fantasies And it’s only when we stop and notice this that we realize how things have been pretty all right of late. Can we go too long without them? How would I know? How would anyone?

Some people find the having of them so unpleasant that they seek a religion that promises to rid them of them. I find such people sad, and their religions a tad cowardly. I don’t know why I say this. Maybe my revenge fantasies make me feel ‘in it’. Not in the sense of being alive, but in the sense of being a player. If I’ve never been wronged I’ve never lost. If I’ve never lost I’ve never really played.

Maybe it’s something like that. But just as likely it’s that our revenge fantasies are there to help us monitor our moral maturation. They evolve over a lifetime. And how they evolve, I think, tells us something.

Here, I think, is the ultimate test for one’s moral imagination. What would revenge against God look like? Peter Shaffer made a stab at it in Amadeus. But Salieri essayed his revenge through one beloved of God, not on God Himself. I want to know how to make God Himself suffer for the suffering He’s inflicted. Turning the Christ story on its head to capture this wouldn’t. Jesus is no more the son of God than is that toaster. I know plenty of people – not me, remember – who’d flock to a religion that could turn “Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord,” on its head. “No,” the congregation would answer in unison, “vengeance is ours!”

I think that’s what those gargoyles are doing on the rooves of those cathedrals. I think they’re a promise of a Judgment Day to come, and it’s not after us they’ll be coming.

Of course I don’t believe any of this. I’m just reporting what a friend of mine thinks.

REGARDING HEROISM

Each of us has heroes. And in that, the having is enough. Which is just to say my hero needn’t be someone I aspire to be. I don’t aspire to be Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, because I don’t aspire to be black. Not aspiring to be Irish I don’t aspire to be Bobby Sands. Not aspiring to be Arab I don’t aspire to be one of the nineteen martyrs of 9/11. But for what little I’m sure it would’ve been worth to them, these are the men and women who would’ve had my respect and admiration.

To say I hope I’d have done what they did is incoherent. If I’d been them I wouldn’t have been me, and so it couldn’t have been me doing what they did. But the role this hero-izing does play in my life is this: Whenever I’m faced with something requiring the kind of principled backbone they had, I ask myself, “What would Parks or Mandela or Sands do?”

Note that I do not ask what would Martin Luther King do. That’s because having a backbone is a necessary condition of being a hero but not a sufficient one. I shared with King his aspirations for social justice, but I did not share his convictions about how to achieve it. So I respected him for the strength of his pacifist convictions, notwithstanding in my view those convictions were ill-placed. King wasn’t among my heroes because, put simply, what he would do I wouldn’t. Or more accurately, what I would do he wouldn’t. In my view – I thought this then and I continue to think it now – what turned it around for blacks in America, to the degree it has turned around, wasn’t the march on Washington. It was the return from Vietnam of a half million black soldiers who knew how to use an M16. For me the heroes weren’t the men who marched. They’d done plenty of that in boot camp. For me the heroes were the men who would have used those M16s. And white America knew it!

Ayn Rand was a brilliant writer and a terrible philosopher. But in The Romantic Manifesto, her attempt at a philosophy of literature, the one thing she did get right was the what-would-John-Galt-do account of fiction. It’s not that we put ourselves in the place of the hero in the story. It’s that we import the hero from the story into our place. This is just Aristotle’s virtue ethics said so much better than Aristotle could. The question is not, what should I do? Rather it’s, what kind of person do I want to be? Picture him and then simply do what he would do.

Think of the number of times you tell yourself what you should have said. Almost invariably it’s what you imagine your hero would have said. And it’s when you’ve internalized him, when he’s so in you that he’s there even when you’re not, those are those rare times when you high-five yourself because, dammit, you did say it, with not a split second’s delay and not a quaver in your voice. Those are our finest moments. We get maybe a half dozen in a lifetime. But it takes decades of living with our hero to prepare for those moments.

No, Virginia, fantasizing is not a waste of time. Of everything we do, it yields our highest return on investment.

Not unlike our bookshelves – and for the same reason – our heroes tell us something about ourselves. As I say, not about who we’d like to be, but rather about what kinds of behaviors we take to be heroic. I’m a thinker and a writer and an orator, and I take some not-inconsiderable pride in how well I do what I do. But I find nothing heroic in it. Rather I find my heroism in the man or woman of action, notwithstanding I’m not. I’d much rather just lay on the couch. I find nothing heroic in the soldier, but I do in the assassin. I find nothing heroic in the per se exercise of force, but I do in the precision of its exercise.

I find especially heroic the unsung hero, because the song cheapens him. This is why the mandatory medals scene at the end of every Star Wars movie makes a bad movie even worse. No Star Wars character has ever done anything heroic, so the medal is for just being the one who hit the target. But hitting the target has to do with aim, not character. And so lucky-shot-gets-the-princess is how on-the-cusp-of pubescent boys learn to fantasize.

As he gets older his fantasies mature. But the most mature are not about having superpowers, or saving the planet with only two seconds to spare, or becoming the President. They’re about breaking a dissident out of a Soviet or Israeli prison, and then turning up to work in the cafeteria in the Kremlin or Knesset the next morning. Heroism has to be undetectable. What’s crucial is that a) it could have been anyone but that b) it wasn’t just anyone.

Maimonides understood this.

There is nothing heroic about seeking opportunities for heroism. The true hero is the one who has heroism thrust upon him. This is why the village buffoon, played by Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, was, for me, the paradigmatic heroic character. It’s a story about rising to the occasion. And in keeping with the role of the hero in our lives as described above, it’s mustering the backbone to rise to the occasion we didn’t seek that heroism is all about. It’s about what just so happens to happen on my watch.

No one but me can tell me where my watch begins and ends, though of course everyone else has an opinion on the matter, which they’re more than happy to share. The truth about 9/11 is not on my watch. Neither is anthropogenic global warming. That the former is on the Truthers’ watch, the latter on some of my colleagues’ watch, is what they’ve decided, and I wish each of them God’s speed. It’s enough that we tend our own garden, Voltaire counseled. But there’s no theory of ethics that can dictate how far and in what directions my garden extends. Hence, from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “He works his work, I mine.”

I have, if I’m lucky, twenty years to live. I’ve noticed something about men and women my age, at least those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, and don’t, touch wood, have a loved one requiring extraordinary care. We become a Don Quixote in search of a dragon to slay. And we delude ourselves into thinking our experience makes us better lancers. But at the risk of overgeneralization, no, Virginia, it’s men and women in their prime who change the world. And if that prime has passed us by, but we feel no dragon has yet to quiver at our approach, we have to prove the manhood [sic] we didn’t prove when we should have, even if, having had loved ones to care for at the time, we really couldn’t have.

I find this at the same time both noble and sad. Noble in myself. Sad in others. I’d like to learn to overcome this myopia. I think there might be something heroic in that.

 

 

THE NON-IDENTITY OF INDISCERNIBLES

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

“Mais non, monsieur, zis eez our fly zupe, zee specialite de la maison.”

How do we resolve this issue? By deferring to the intentions of the chef? But he might dissimulate, to save the restaurant from having to offer a reduction from my bill. So the more general question to be grappled with here is how ought we to deal with extensional equivalences? And deal with them we must, because as with my bill at the restaurant, much can hang on how the matter is resolved. Such as? Such as a charge of false advertising, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the defensibility of Creationism, the laudability of being law-abiding. The list goes on and on.

A return flight from here to there is advertised as $59, but when I get to the website’s checkout it’s $319. Is this bait and switch advertising? Certainly not. The difference of $260 is all taxes imposed by the government, or the fee charged by the credit card company, neither of which has anything to do with the airline. Are you going to say the 12% sales tax bringing a $9.99 shirt up to $11.19 is false advertising?

But hang on a minute. Aren’t there all kinds of taxes embedded in the $59 as well? Isn’t the percentage of the company’s contribution to its employees’ government-run mandatory unemployment insurance scheme likewise a government tax having nothing to do with the airline? So isn’t it entirely arbitrary which expenses to the airline are just part of the cost of doing business and which are not?

Arbitrary yes, but $319 sounds like too much to spend, and $13 sounds too good to be true, whereas $59 is what the focus group has decided sounds just right.

Many years ago, while I was putting myself through university, I drove a school bus two hours a day five days a week and lived in government-subsidized single parent housing. I had a friend who worked as a crisis intervention worker, alternating between ten hours a day for four shifts one week and then ten hours a night for four shifts the next. She lived in the identical unit next door, but paid fair market value. So after rent we each came home with identical disposable incomes. Wasn’t a school bus driver making four times as much per hour as a professional social worker? Certainly not. Unlike me, she had the dignity of full time professional work, which she hated, by the way. And she complained bitterly about having virtually no time to spend with her kid.

I’m not even a theist, let alone a Creationist. But I like to ridicule my Creationism-ridiculing colleagues by advancing in its place the Five Minute Hypothesis, according to which the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was fine minutes ago, with all our pseudo-history books on the shelves where we now find them, and all our pseudo-memories in our heads where we now pseudo-remember them. All three hypotheses – my colleagues’ fifteen billion year, the Creationist’s six thousand, and my five minute – are non-falsifiable. Whatever would count as evidence for one would as readily count as evidence for either of the other two. So, I argue, since what’s at issue can’t be the so-called science, it has to be the politics.

Certainly not, says the atheist. Certainly not, echoes the Creationist. My father always said, Do what you’re best at. Well, my signature forte, or so I’m told, is my irritating supercilious grin.

According to Justice Devlin, if what the sovereign commands is egregiously immoral it can’t be a law, and therefore one needn’t obey it. By contrast, according to H.L.A. Hart, if it’s a constituent of a legal system and it has the right pedigree, it’s a law all right, but egregiously immoral laws ought not to be obeyed. So wherein lies the difference? It lies in Devlin wanting never to be a criminal, and Hart, in these circumstances, taking it as a badge of honor.

Differences that can make no difference are no differences at all. But the difference between fly soup and a fly in my soup does make a difference. It makes a difference in the bill. So the question before us is under what conditions should we allow a non-difference to make a difference? Then we can infer backwards to whatever it is that’s making this difference. This should be straightforward enough, shouldn’t it? Well, let’s see.

Okay then, suppose the chef experimented by putting a fly in a soup, tasted it, approved, and that’s how it ended up on my table. In that case I think I should pay. Suppose a fly landed in the soup, the chef tasted it to see if it was still acceptable, and decided it was actually an improvement. Once again I think I should pay. Suppose he saw the fly land and drown, but this time he served it without tasting it. Now I’m beginning to waffle. The intention was still there. But did he intend for me to eat a soup with a fly in it or to eat fly soup?

Suppose I make an atom-for-atom replica of the Mona Lisa and burn one of them but I don’t know which. Suppose further that this has become known. Is the surviving painting worthless, halved in value, or unaffected? Surely this is an empirical question. What sense would it make to say how it should be?

Suppose I might have just made up this story, but the art world doesn’t know whether I did or didn’t. Since there’s a 50% chance I made it up, there’s a 50% chance there’s a 100% chance it’s the original, which means there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. But since there’s a 50% chance I didn’t make up the story, then once again there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. So what difference does it make whether I did or didn’t make up the story? How would the art world deal with these equivalent probabilities?

It might be supposed that what matters here, in both the soup case and in this one, is whether there’s been a possible actus novus interveniens. The mere announcing that I could have duplicated the painting raises a question that wasn’t there before. It’s like my saying there’s no evidence whatsoever that so-and-so is a pedophile. If that were true, why would I be saying it? To say there’s no debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a performative contradiction. And so on.

What’s going on here, I think, is what’s being rendered salient. It’s always been the case that the original Mona Lisa could have been destroyed and replaced by a replica. It’s always been the case that my wife could have been switched with a functionally indiscernible android. What’s always been part of the background has just been made foreground, and now I’m creeped out by it. Could be fly soup. Could have been advertised as $319 in the first place. Could have been we’re all paid the same but some of us put in four times the hours that others do. Could have been only five minutes. Could have been do what’s right rather than what’s lawful unless it’s not right.

All men are mortal, except Jesus. All men are immortal, except everyone other than Jesus. These claims are extensionally equivalent, but do they mean the same thing?

Suppose you concede that there was nothing Jesus said that hadn’t been said a thousand times before. So the entire Christ story hangs not on its social gospel but on the salvific power of the Cross. Then what theological difference would it make at what age Jesus was crucified? So since we can represent Jesus as black as readily as we can white, we should be able to nail a plastic infant to a cross and parade it through the village on Good Friday. But we don’t. And that we don’t should be taken to falsify the claim that the Christ story hangs on the soteriology of the Cross. And what this shows, in turn, is that analyzing non-differences that make a difference is a way, indeed the way, to get at what’s really going on in the back of our heads. What’s going on in the back of our heads – if by ‘our’ I was speaking as a Christian – is that it’s not enough that God was willing to sacrifice what He had begot in order to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. It’s that what He had begot must itself understand its sacrifice as a sacrifice to that end. An infant couldn’t do that. Only a grown man could.

But hang on. In saying that an infant couldn’t have understood that, we’re explicitly denying that the omniscience of God passed directly to what He’d begotten. And this, in turn, puts a lie to the opening passage of John. If at one time the infant knew not, but at another the adult knew, then sometime in the interim he must have learned. For him to have learned it must have been imparted to him. But to have been imparted to can’t just amount to God saying to him, “Just trust me on this.” Presumably he must have explained how the Cross would reconcile humanity to Him. But if God could explain it to Jesus, why can’t He explain it to us? Let it be granted that Jesus was smarter than the average bear. But it’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of conceptual coherence. So if God can’t explain it to us, neither could He have explained it to Jesus, in which case the adult was as much of a mindless dupe as the infant would have been. This does not bode well for kindergarten Christianity, if one thinks about it. Well, I guess some things don’t bear thinking too much about them.

Impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, my point here is not to trash any particular view about any particular subject. My point is simply that analyzing the difference a non-difference might make can do important conceptual work for us. It’s revelatory. It reveals to us what we might not have known we’ve been thinking. In some cases we’ll double-down on what we’ve been thinking, in others we’ll realize our thinking has been idiotic. In the case of pricing and incomes, I’ve learned to go straight to the bottom line. Hence capitalism and socialism are terms of rhetorical flourish, not economics. In the case of the Creationism debate it’s not about cosmology. It’s about the social conservatism that’s sometimes contingently attached to Creationism. In the case of criminality I’ve decided that, the law of the land be damned, an occupied people do have the right of armed struggle. And in the case of my might-be-android wife, I’ve decided she’s fungible, and so I’ve kept a spare in the closet.

That leaves the soup, for which my solution is to ask before ordering. If I’m averse to fly – just as were I allergic to it – I’d order something else. Though more likely my wife Andry – I mean Pam – and I would eat in a less expensive and pretentious restaurant.