The Parable of the Unjust West Virginian

Question Eight: Regarding your statement ”it is wrong to punish the innocent.”–
“Wrong” in this case is shorthand for “not useful if you want a working civilization.” Governments that rise above a certain level of innocent-punishment fail. Or at least, I think they do. I would have to have data to be sure about that.

Suppose I am an officer stationed in West Virginia on the eve of the Civil War. Suppose I know beyond any reasonable doubt that the West Virginian counties are going to break away from the Virginian government, so that I know the government will fail no matter what I do or fail to do.

I see a Jewish peddler on the road, a man I know has neither friends nor family nor anyone to avenge any wrong done him. Swaggering up to him, I accuse him falsely of trespassing, and demand a fine, namely, any spare cash or other valuables he has on his person. He argues the point with me, so I beat him with a club as a punishment for resisting my authority. I then take a banknote worth fifty dollar I find hidden in his boot toe.

As an additional punishment for being a member of  a despised race whom I blame for killing Christ, I kick him savagely in the stomach and groin before departing to the nearest tavern to spend part of my new found wealth.

Now, according to your formulation, it is an open question, an unknown, perhaps even a matter beyond human comprehension, whether or not I have wronged this man, because no one can know before it happens or not whether my act increased or decreased the tendency of the government to fail. (And in this hypothetical, the government will fail in any case, due to the coming Civil War, which will break the West Virginian counties away from the Virginian government.)  

When I get to the tavern, and tell my fellow West Virginians what I have done, I buy them all drinks. There are many toasts, and much expression of solidarity and good well, and many men there who were wondering about whether or not to be loyal to the newly-formed West Virginian government, now perceive the filthy Jews as a mutual threat, and they are delighted that they will have the opportunity to prey on the Jews and get free money from them.

A man in the tavern named Israel Cohen, who had been debating in his mind whether or not to follow the faith of his fathers, hearing the lusty singing of the men and fearing their strength, decides on the instant to become a loyal Christian, he salutes the newly-made flag of West Virginia, and, for good measure, just to prove his loyalty to nearby witnesses, he goes out into the street to beat the peddler.

Now he sees it is his cousin, Moshe. But Israel does not want the new government to fail, so he accuses the Moshe of vagrancy, and punishes him by throwing a rock at his face, giving Moshe a concussion and blinding him in one eye. Moshe lies in the gutter, moaning and weeping.

The tavern crowd sees this, and cheers, and Mr. Cohen now has a reputation in town as a truly hardcore badass and an exemplar of loyalty. He is afterward treated with so much respect that the governor of West Virginia makes him an officer too. He and I as fellow officers become fast friends, and our friendship makes both of us work with greater diligence and courage for the benefit of the new government than otherwise we would have.

So the new government not only does NOT fail, it is actually strengthened and made more solid by my action, and by the actions of my drinking buddies in the tavern.

So while the act of Jew-robbing in the abstract may lead to the failure of the government, in this particular case, among these particular people, because I selected a weak victim that my tribe fears and despises, my tribe has grown in strength and solidarity.

Now, you claim not to know whether or not any of these acts are wrong, because you lack the data to be sure.

I do not make the accusation lightly, but you are saying something you know to be untrue. You are not a sociopath, even if it amuses you for the sake of argument to pretend you are.

You are not a man without a conscience.

So if you saw Israel Cohen maiming his cousin Moshe under the conditions described above, you would know it was wrong. You would know.

Any doubt you might wish to concoct in your mind for philosophical reasons, because of your loyalty to a false and absurd doctrine of radical empiricism, would be false, and would be known to you to be false. Your conscience would tell you even if your reason was numb.

I trust you see the point being made. Your comment is utter nonsense. Utter nonsense.

What you have done here is substitute a clear word referring to positive law, namely the word “wrong” and claimed it to be equivalent to an unclear word referring to procedure, namely “useful.”

Moral right and wrong refer to whether something ought to be done or ought not be done. Usefulness refers to how efficient a given means are at securing a given end, and if the end is not stated, it does not tell me whether it ought or ought not be done. They are two separate bits of information, and are not equivalent.

If the end is evil rather than good, the usefulness is evil as well. I would rather face a comedy relief Nazi like Colonel Klink from HOGAN’S HEROES than a strong, smart and brave Nazi like Colonel Rommel, even though strength and smarts and bravery are very useful to him. So telling me something is useful when you do not tell me useful for what is not the same as telling me something is morally right or morally wrong.

You have substituted something no one is capable of doubting, that it is morally wrong to punish the innocent, for something no one is capable of knowing, which is how much injustice or to whom can be tolerated before civilization fails.

You then refer the concept to collective action, that is, what a government does, instead of to individual action, what you do. This is a typical mistake of modern and pagan thought, which seeks to blame and praise only collective action, not individual action. It is not the way a civilized Christian talks.

The collective and pragmatic approach cannot work to do what it sets out to do, namely, to tell you right from wrong. The calculation based on collective utility yields the wrong answer in most cases, perhaps all. You have left unanswered the question whether if I, as a father, punish the innocent in my family too often, will my family fail? If my family does not fail, by your definition, punishing my son for something my daughter did is simply not wrong.

You have left unanswered the question why anyone, whether a king or a president or a police officer or a judge, should give a Tinker’s damn about whether or not the government “fails” so long as it does not happen in his lifetime, or during his administration, or even if it does.

You make a statement that governments who punish too many of the innocent “fail” but you have left unanswered the question of how to define “failure” to make it something that can be measured. It is not a measurable quantity. If you do not know now whether or not robbing a stranger and betraying a cousin is wrong, you will never know. There are no data about civilizational failure rates which has the tiniest bearing on that question.

In case my parable above is unclear, your formula of equating wrongness with disutility to civil continuity only can be used by someone in a civilization that is on the brink of failure, so that his act personally is the one that sends everything over the edge and summons Attila. If the civilization is strong, your act of shoplifting a candybar from the Stop’n’Go will not shatter its foundations. If the civilization is weak, it is doomed to fall no matter what you do.