Friday, July 5, 2013

A Right Good Beating

Earlier today I rode my bicycle up to a four-way stop, let a car cross, and then started to pedal again. But then the truck behind that car roared through the intersection and cut me off. It stopped in front of me, and the guy inside leered at me, like, "What are you going to do about it, bike man?"

Now, I'm not a very aggressive guy. Far below average, I'd say. But I'm a guy for all that, and prone to guy-like thinking. So I did a Walter Mitty as he drove away, mentally dragging him out of that truck and whuppin' his butt (I'm from Arkansas, so that's how I talk when I get mad. Even in my head).

Actually, maybe such fantasies are just human nature, and aren't limited to guys. Humans seem to have an innate sense of justice that says there are few things sweeter than seeing a bullying fool get their comeuppance. No less a philosopher than Immanuel Kant approved of this instinct. In his Critique of Practical Reason--not exactly a chest-thumping sort of book--he says:
When someone who delights in annoying and vexing peace-loving folk receives
at last a right good beating, it is certainly an ill, but everyone approves of it and
considers it as good in itself, even if nothing further results from it. 
Kant brought this up to emphasize his belief that justice requires punishing wrongdoers. He was arguing against the purely utilitarian idea that punishing those who hurt people just adds one evil on top of another, and is therefore a bad thing. Utilitarians might think punishment is still a necessary evil, but only for discouraging criminal acts, or removing criminals from society. They don't see retribution as a good reason for punishment. Kant was no utilitarian. He was all for retribution, and was a firm believer in the death penalty. But his reasoning was a little counter-intuitive. One of his fundamental maxims was that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means, because they are rational beings who can make ethical choices. When somebody wrongs another person, then, we should treat him as a rational person and conclude that he's made his choice about how people in general should be treated. Then we should treat him accordingly--just the way he treated the people he wronged. In other words, by punishing people for doing wrong, we are actually respecting them as rational, autonomous beings, and treating them according to the ethical maxims they've followed themselves.

Which is all very interesting (well, to some people), but the ethics of punishment isn't exactly what I want to think about here. What I'm more interested is the ethics of self-help justice--of whether someone who is in the right is justified in using force against someone who isn't. If some bully has been making everyone's life miserable, and some normally-nice person finally thrashes him, has justice been served? Is this what should have happened? Seeing it happen fills most people's hearts with gladness, so it's clear our instincts say it's right. But are our instincts correct in this case, or is this more like our instinct to eat bacon and donuts every morning--powerful, but not a good general rule?

Whatever Kant may have thought about the justice of bully-beating, one thing is clear: he wasn't going to be administering those beatings himself. Immanual Kant was barely five feet tall. He was almost the Platonic form of a 98-pound weakling. Unless he was a trained ninja, if he had tried to beat up that bully, he would have gotten pounded within an inch of his brainy little life.

And that's one reason I'm leery of the instinct that says giving bullies a "right good beating" is the right thing to do. There's no guarantee that the person in the right is the one who will win the fight (poetic, no?). In fact, most bullies spend a lot of time thinking about fighting, if not actually practicing it. Less aggressive people usually don't. Knowledge and practice lead to skill, whether that skill is good or bad. I learned that lesson once at a party, when I got into a playful fencing match with foam swords. My opponent was a woman who had done some fencing in college, and, well...she trounced me. If by some strange twist of fate I ever get in a real sword fight with her, I hope she uses her left hand.

The point is that if the bully's been in more fights, or if he's just bigger, stronger, faster, or tougher, he's probably going to win the fight. That doesn't match our sense of cosmic justice, but when has that sense ever been realistic? I like to imagine I could have beat up the guy in the truck, but there's no guarantee. I'm pretty strong for my size, but I don't know the first thing about fighting. He may be a boxing champ for all I know. In fact, if I had tried to start something with him, he might have just pulled out a gun and shot me. I live in trigger-happy state in a trigger-happy country, so that's not a bit far-fetched.

Of course, all this establishes is that it's a bad idea for people to attack bullies unless they absolutely have to. That doesn't tell us whether it would be a good thing in principle. If you knew that you would win, would you be justified in beating up someone who had hurt many other innocent people? My gut tells me yes, but I think my head tells me no. Might just doesn't make right. There's no necessary correlation between who's right and who's more powerful. I like to think about it this way: Imagine a huge man walking up to you and saying, "Two plus two is five, and if you say different, I'm gonna stomp you". You primly tell him that two plus two is actually four, and then spend the next few days in the hospital. It may not be much consolation, but here's the thing: he didn't prove his point by beating you up. Two plus two isn't five, no matter whose butt you kick to prove otherwise.

Even if he was right and you were wrong, and he beat you up to show he was right, that still wouldn't prove anything. What it comes down to is that there's absolutely no connection between who can win a fight and what is actually right or true. These are completely independent things. It's strange that this isn't obvious to us, but we evolved in a world where conflicts were often settled by force, so in this case, our instincts don't match logic.

If might and right are unconnected, then do we want to say that those in the right can legitimately prove it by a show of force? I don't think so. While I want to think I would have been justified in smacking that guy in the truck around a little, I don't think it's true. For one thing, of course, it would be a disproportionate response--he was being a phenomenal jerk, but he didn't hit me. But the deeper reason is that might doesn't make right, even when you're in the right. Force may be justified if you're defending yourself or someone else--it's certainly justified to stop a bully from hurting someone, by force if that's what it takes. But the force itself has nothing to do with what's right. Force is at best a necessary evil, one that's just as available to bad people as good people--more available, in fact, because they don't feel the need to restrain themselves. Force may be necessary to prevent wrongs, but it can never show who's right. It can only show who's stronger, and that's not the same thing at all.