Archives for category: Philosophy

You know how murder is wrong, and how every single religion declares that it is wrong, and how every moral philosophy uses it as their go-to for extreme thought experiments to showcase how their theories would hold up under the most dire circumstances (would it be okay to lie to prevent a murder, for example)? Of course you do. “Murder is wrong” is quite possibly the least controversial statement. Well, it turns out that people have been killing each other en masse for thousands of years in the form of war, and everyone generally seems to be okay with that, despite how uncontroversial being against killing is.

Why do people go to war? Well, people start wars almost exclusively to attain a greater degree of power, but since they can’t use that as an excuse, they need to justify it in other ways. People who start wars don’t typically fight them, so they need to convince those who do that killing and dying to enrich the already powerful is the right thing to do. Enter the Just War theory, to relieve people from the hypocrisy of condemning killing but supporting a war.

Just War theory was developed during the Roman Empire, and then revitalized during the Crusades. Christians were beginning to suspect that massacring Muslims might go against God’s very specific decree to not kill, and so the thinkers of the day had to come up with ways to justify how an ideology based almost entirely on love and forgiveness could slaughter people by the hundreds of thousands.

What makes a war just? Regaining what was stolen or repelling an attack from the enemy are typically perceived as the conditions for a just war, though there are some stipulations on top of these. For example, if someone steals your watch, you are not justified in murdering that person, since to be just there requires a degree of proportionality. It should also be the last resort, since there can often be other means to regain stolen property or repel an attack.

Beyond the intention of the war, there needs to be the right kind of authority at the head of it. A private individual cannot exact vigilante justice, for example, whereas the leader of a nation can. It is assumed that a private individual can go to a higher authority to arbitrate justice, whereas there is no higher authority than a King. War becomes the negotiating tactic of rulers to settle their differences. Peasants are under moral obligation to their lords, and so are obligated in turn to kill for them. They become morally excused due to that hierarchy, and the legitimacy of murder comes from the rank of the King.

Of course, during the Crusades, there was a higher authority than the King, and that authority was God. The Pope, being the representative of God on Earth, dutifully fulfilled that authoritative role and decided to use that authority to, as was already discussed, slaughter a bunch of Jews and Muslims. These apostate religions constituted an attack on the Christian faith by their very existence, and so war against them was inherently justified. Hm, non-Christian religions that by their very existence are a threat to the properly civilized, thus legitimizing violence against those religions as a moral duty, hmmmmmm. I’m struggling to find a modern parallel.

Anyway, Thomas Aquinas decided that there were three foundations of a Just War: proper authority, as already discussed, proper reasoning, as the common good must be at its foundation, and proper intention. Aquinas’s theory of intention created the Doctrine of Double Effect. This doctrine allows that if our intentions are noble, then the consequences of that action cannot be tied to it. For example, if during a war a munitions factory is bombed and civilians die in the blast, the death of those civilians is acceptable since the intention was not for them to die. Eggs and omelettes metaphors apply.

This brings up criticisms of proportionality, for if our intention is noble but the consequences are catastrophic, then is it truly a just act of violence? Can we bomb an entire city to kill one terrorist? This begets a debate between deontological ethics and consequentalism, but we can try to understand Aquinas from his contemporary predicament: actions had inherent moral value during the Middle Ages, so finding a way to justify murder was his goal, consequences of that justification be damned.

Understanding Just War theory is imperative. During the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, instigating a war of aggression was seen to be the greatest offense. To quote the tribunal, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” All the bad things that happen in war are the result of there being a war in the first place, so starting a war for the heck of it is appropriately labeled as being “The Worst.” So if someone says that the war in Iraq was a war of aggression, that means that all the consequences from that war, like say the rise of ISIS, are at the feet of those who started it.

Critics even say that soldiers participating in an unjust war are culpable, denying the previous justification to celebrate soldiers of every stripe, regardless of how many atrocities they commit. An example is given of a burglar entering someone’s home, and the homeowner getting into a fight with them. If the homeowner kills the burglar, it is self-defense, but if the burglar kills the homeowner, it is murder. If the burglar was ordered to enter the home, does that mitigate or multiply the responsibility for the actions they commit while inside of it? If someone asks you to do something and threatens you if you don’t do it, violence committed against a third party while following through with that order is still burdened on you. Being bullied does not justify murdering someone uninvolved in that bullying.

Wars are no longer fought at the behest of God… generally. However, they are still sold to the public under the guise of defending civilization so as to demonize the enemy who is using the same justification for their own aggression. The greatest military in the history of the world with the wealthiest populace is apparently under huge threat from militarily insignificant countries like Vietnam, Panama, El Salvador, and of course Afghanistan and Iraq. This laughable narrative is crucial since a threat must exist for self-defense to be feasible, as we all must avoid being labeled “The Worst.”

Is the West engaging in a Just War in the Middle East? Of course not. It invalidates every principle. There are higher authorities, the United Nations and the International Criminal Courts, which could be used to arbitrate justice between nations which were ignored. The Middle East does not possess property of the West that the West is entitled to use violence to reacquire. I suppose if you believe the Crusading myth about existential threats against civilization itself from small groups of individuals with hand-me-down guns and MacGyvered explosives, then sure, but then you’re also a fucking moron. Looks like we got to my thinly-veiled modern parallel after all!

The more intriguing question would be, are terrorists engaging in a Just War with the West? The higher authorities have been shown to be ineffective in keeping back the aggressors. Land and resources are being stolen out from under them. Violence and threats are being instigated against them pretty much at random, so self-defense could also be argued.

Here is where I believe Just War theory falls apart. In order for terrorism to be justified based on its qualifications which do by all accounts fall under the purview of Just War, the West would need to be a unity that could be attacked, but it’s not. The West is not The West, it is a collection of diverse people, opinions, and actions. #NotAllWesterners. Blowing up an Ariana Grande concert is not an attack on “The West,” it is an attack on children dancing to their favourite singer. Terrorism cannot be justified because it is not an attack on those who are responsible for their tragic situation, because those people commit their deeds with the bravery of being out of range.

Were German soldiers representative of a Nazi unity during World War 2? Possibly. It is often said that soldiers have more in common with each other than they do with those who are giving them the order to kill one another. Arguably the resistance in France could be justified, but what about the firebombing of Dresden? Or the atomic drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? When both sides act viciously and amorally against one another, can we call it a Just War? The complexity of even “The Best” of wars are such that making a justification for the whole is impossible.

Being that no war can truly and completely fall under the definition Just, there cannot truly and completely be a Just War. War becomes just as reprehensible as murder. Murder, as established, is wrong. Maybe let’s not do it so much.

Post-script: A lot of my non-referenced information came from here:

There is a fairly cynical worldview out there called Psychological Egoism. What this means is that every human action, regardless of how altruistic, can only be motivated by some kind of personal gain. A common example is the story of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, saving a pig stuck in some mud, and then explaining afterward that he would have been bothered all day had he left the pig stuck in its predicament. It’s probably not a factual depiction of history, but it gets the point across.

Some go further than the uncomfortable feeling one might possess if they had not rescued a pig in distress. Complete self-sacrifice, such as throwing oneself onto a grenade in order to save one’s peers, has been argued to be selfishly oriented as well. The story goes that the person is of such a disposition that the life they would have led had they not sacrificed themselves would be less agreeable than death. It is a selfish act because they choose for themselves the less painful of the two options. The introspection and regret would have been too much, and so to avoid that personal suffering, they selfishly kill themselves, saving everyone else.

Charming, right? Such a lovely mentality.

I want to take a different approach. Since those who argue for humanity’s inherent selfishness look to the altruistic paragons in order to tear them down, I’m going to look at the most selfish behaviour, and see if I can’t argue that it is inherently selfless. Since I want to look at the worst of the worst, I will of course be examining the Trump family.

The Eric Trump Foundation’s charity golf tournament, which raises money for children with cancer, falsely tells its donors that 100% of their donations go to charity. Eric Trump alleges that his father Donald allows them use of his golf course for free, when in reality, the Trump organization charges them for everything, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars “donated” by unsuspecting philanthropists. Surely this must be a selfish act!

Eric Trump connives and takes advantage of cancerous children for the sake of his family. He has no interest in himself, but spreads the wealth that he steals from charity to the people he cares about most. He would risk his name being dragged through the mud, vilified for his deeds, in order to bring in extra money for the only people that matter to him.

Now you might think, the Trump family already has enough. As president, Donald is seeking to eliminate the only taxes that he appears to have to pay! Surely they do not need the extra cash. Yet I expect that the Trump family believes that they would make better use of any funds given to them, bettering the world by making sure that those who best know how to utilize money are the ones given the opportunity to do so.

Those who routinely decry taxation as theft, who would rather spend less on the property tax on their vacation home, do so because they believe that they know how to spend their money better than some government. They believe firmly that the world would be better off if they had the choice on whether the money they earned sends poor children to school or buys a second vacation home, rather than have that decision made for them.

The natural human lifespan necessarily requires altruism. Leaving a legacy, preparing a dynasty, we as individuals always leave this mortal coil, which means that a portion of our life is inherently dedicated to who and what we leave behind, but let’s say that Donald Trump was not going to bequeath his vast wealth to his children when he dies. Let’s say, after he has stolen so much from so many, he burns it all, rather than dispersing it to anyone, loved ones or otherwise. This would obviously be because he believed that the world would be improved without this money in it. Why else would he burn it if he didn’t believe the world would be better off?

Every act we take is based on helping the ones we love (even if it negatively impacts others), and improving the world based on the personal standards that we hold it to. Even if others might disagree on those standards, we cannot help but abide by our own.

Perhaps you might think my examples far-fetched. The Trump family is a difficult sell as decent human beings of any sort. Yet my story is just as plausible as the soldier jumping on a grenade for selfish reasons. We can come up with speculation to justify or betray any behaviour.

In all honesty, there are certainly selfish behaviours, just as there are selfless ones. Trying to confine the complexity of humanity into one is just as absurd as confining it to the other. How we judge and perceive the actions of others is more determined by what story we are willing to tell. If someone perceives every action as selfish, I believe that speaks greater volumes about the accuser than it does about our human nature.

What does it mean for something to be true? You might be inclined to suggest that it is a factual representation of the world, so sure. Let’s go with that. How do we know that something is a factual representation of the world? Well, we’d have to figure out what it means to know something. The general consensus is that to know something is to hold a justified, true, belief. Let’s examine some controversy.

The Gettier Problem is a criticism of the justified, true belief model of knowledge. It is best explained using an example. A shepherd is tending his flock, and he checks in to see if all are present. He counts all but one, and then sees his last sheep on a hill in the distance, and thus knows that all his sheep have been accounted for. However, what he thought he saw was actually a dog, though his sheep was just on the other side of the hill, out of sight. The shepherd was justified in his belief since he did see something, and his belief was true since the sheep was indeed on the hill, but we would never claim that he knew his sheep was on the hill since he was mistaken in his observation.

Sheep dog

No one suspects the slightest!


I want to examine the ‘truth’ statement of the Gettier Problem, rather than its epistemological connotations. The sheep is only ‘truly’ on the hill because I placed it there as the author of this thought experiment, but in any real life situation completely removed from the abstract, how would we know that it is true? In order for it to be true, we would have to know it to have that property, and in order for us to know about that property, it would have to be true. Truth and knowledge become a chicken and egg infinite regress when we take the lessons of the Gettier Problem and infuse them into real life situations.

There are further problems with truth. Consider counterfactuals. Counterfactuals represent statements that are true, but do not offer a factual representation of the world. For example, if I say, “The cup is red,” and we can all see that the cup is red, it is a true statement because the cup in the world is red, and my statement is a factual representation of that. However, if I say, “If America focused on the popular vote rather than the electoral college, Hilary Clinton would be president,” it is still a true statement, but it is not a representation of anything in this world. Philosopher David Lewis postulated that if we wish to maintain truth as a factual representation of the world, counterfactuals must rely on alternate universes to which these statements must refer. So we either accept that infinite alternate universes exist, or we accept that truth as a representation of the world is an unfounded premise.

Lastly, let’s look at the Liar’s Paradox. “This sentence is false.” If the sentence is true, then it is false, and if it is false, then it becomes true. If something must be true or false (and how could it be both? Or worse yet, neither?), then the Liar’s Paradox frustrates the notion of truth further. However, let’s look at “This sentence is false” in the context of language rather than of truth, and compare it to, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Both sentences are grammatically accurate, and seem to point to things in the world, but both are equally nonsense. Something green cannot be colourless, nor can an idea possess either of those characteristics, nor can an idea sleep, nor can the process of sleep or ideas be angry.

Statements of any kind do not point to things in the world, but to mental imagery. For example, the Nile river is still the Nile river if it floods, if it becomes diverted or dammed, or becomes polluted to the point where there are more arsenic molecules than H20. “The Nile river” refers to our idea of “The Nile river,” regardless of its properties in the real world. “The cup is red” refers to our ideas of cups, redness, what it means to be, and the specificity of “the”. It’s not pointing to the cup in the world at all. This makes the problem of counterfactuals much less relevant, since language, no matter its use, can only ever point to mental imagery. It also negates the Liar’s Paradox, since mental imagery does not have to be coherent to the same degree as real world objects. We are not observing any objective falseness, nor analyzing a sentence in the world; both exist only in our minds.

The truth, then, is not a factual representation of things in the world, since that premise is riddled with problems and ultimately unknowable. Thus the truth is our mental understanding of what a thing means to be true.