Moral Reasoning and the Fallacy of False Cause

The weekend Wall Street Journal had a front page story about Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Turkey that, while clearly written from a certain perspective (I soon lost count of such terms as "conservative", "hard-line", "rigid", and the like), shed some light on how delicate a process Vatican diplomacy is in these debauched times. In particular, the story emphasized the difference between Benedict's approach to Islam and that of John Paul the Great. John Paul II was something of a showman, according to this story, going so far as to kiss a copy of the Holy Quran in a show of solidarity with those other sons and daughters of Abraham. Benedict, by contrast, has stressed the incompatibility of Islam with Christianity. While each is right in his own way (we are, indeed, all sons and daughters of Abraham, but the doctrines of Christianity are clearly inconsistent with the teachings of Islam), Benedict seems to think--and if this is true I tend to agree--that there is a limit to how far one should go in the search for commonality.

One aspect of the story that particularly caught my eye was this paragraph:
This past week, a group of right-wing Turkish nationalists stormed a former church in Istanbul as part of a protest against the pope's coming visit. "This attitude, which fuels division and lack of mutual trust, is seriously threatening world peace," Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's religious affairs department, said recently, though he didn't specifically mention the pope.
This is a more moderate version of something that we have heard rather often since 9/11: when people riot in the streets, whether it is because of cartoonish portrayals of the Prophet or because of a speech given by the Pope, we must closely examine ourselves to discover what we may have done to make these people so angry. What does it mean to say that "this attitude", presumably Benedict's towards Islam, "is seriously threatening world peace"?

The English philosopher Bernard Williams once critiqued utilitarianism by telling a story along the following lines. Consider a man who is hiking in the jungles of some Central American military dictatorship when he suddenly finds himself in a clearing where there is a village. The local military commander has rounded up 20 villagers and is preparing to execute them one by one in order to make instill fear and obedience in the others, but when he sees the hiker he says to him: "I will offer you the opportunity to shoot one of these villagers yourself, and then I will let the others go free. If you prefer not to shoot any yourself, I will just go ahead and execute all 20, as I originally planned." Suppose this hiker is a pacifist, to whom violence of any kind is abhorrent. What is he to do? Williams claims that a utilitarian in this situation would argue that it is morally obligatory upon the hiker to shoot somebody himself, since that will spare the lives off 19 others, whereas if he shoots no one, 20 people will die. Williams says that this is problematic, since it has the effect of eliminating the military commander's moral autonomy.

As a critique of utilitarianism it is not bad, but there is some wiggle room for the utilitarian, since he might be able to argue that adherence to a nonviolent principle is one of the hiker's highest values, or something along those lines. But as an example of some pretty bad moral reasoning it's a great illustration of the fallacy of the false cause. We're supposed to believe that if the hiker chooses to shoot no one, then the hiker will somehow be morally responsible for the 20 deaths that follow when the military commander goes ahead with his plans. The first time I read this argument by Williams I thought to myself that it was not going to cut much ice against the utilitarian, because it seemed to me to be something of a straw man: who on earth would seriously maintain that the 20 deaths due to the military commander's orders are the moral responsibility of the hiker who has chosen to shoot no one? Imagine my surprise, then, when I began teaching this text in my ethics classes and found that, year after year, a majority of students consistently maintained that it was the fault of the hiker if 20 people died because of his choice not to shoot anybody. Not only did a majority of students think that, but strong arguments against that idea had no effect on their opinion.

So it comes as no surprise to me any more to find that people are willing to endorse ridiculous claims of moral responsibility such as that on offer from Ali Bardakoglu. If there is rioting in the streets because of something the Pope says in an academic lecture, the only danger to peace is from the rioters, not from the Pope. I suppose the idea is supposed to be something like a comparison between what the Pope has said and shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, but that idea is patently inadequate. The whole point of that particular element of the Pope's address was that there is an essential tension between a religion in which God is accessible to human reason and one in which God is above and beyond reason. This tension in itself illustrates the imcompatibility of Christianity and Islam, but it also demonstrates the importance of reason in human life, not only for dealings amongst ourselves but, from the Christian point of view, in trying to understand God, too. Showing "fire" is not an act of reason, especially if there is no fire around. But even if the theater is on fire, the whole point of shouting "fire" would be precisely to stir the crowd into action. Talking about religious differences is not aimed at that end at all, but at understanding. The proper response to an attempt at understanding is not rioting in the streets. The reaction of the rioters was in itself irrational, ironically proving the Pope's point but also demonstrating that the rioters are not as interested in maintaining peace as they are in saving face. One can only wonder which is the greater value to them. Like the military commander in the argument from Bernard Williams, the option not to riot is always available--it's not as though the Pope's words are able to turn whole throngs of people into unreasoning robots who have to become violent whether they want to or not. Their actions demonstrate that what they really want is death and destruction, not peace and understanding.

Imputing the moral guilt here to Pope is no different from blaming the hiker for the deaths of the 20 villagers if he decides not to shoot any himself. Williams is trying to get us to see that, if the utiliatarian view wants to assign moral culpability to the hiker on the basis of the consequences of a putative choice made by the hiker, this is an instance of the fallacy of false cause, wrongly imputing the cause of a particular event to some agent or action that could not, in fact, have been the true cause of that particular event. The Pope's words had an effect, surely, but it was not necessary that they have the effect of rioting in the streets. That was purely the decision of the rioters, who remain morally autonomous and, hence, fully morally responsible for their own choices and actions. Just as in the case of the military commander, we cannot shift any of the blame for the violence away from the rioters and onto the Pope, since that is not only unfair to the Pope, who was not the true cause of the damage done, but it is also unfair to the rioters, who remain, after all, human beings and not robots, moral agents and not slaves of the Pope's words. We have no right to take from them their moral autonomy, for that is to treat them as less than fully human, and that is a harm against their own human dignity.


Mahsheed said…
Great post! I'm so glad I ran across your blog.

It reminds me of when I read the novel "Silence" by Endo. The priests were told to trample the fumari(?)and apostize or else the villiagers would be tortured to death. It got me to thinking that in such a situation it is best to hold fast and not fall for that trick for the same reasons you give. The interegator gives the priest the illusion of having a choice. Or it's similar to Sophie's choice, the correct decision would have been to refuse to choose, horrible as that is. I think based on how those examples played out in the books, succumbing to the evil brings living death. Death was not the worst fate. What do you think?

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