Right And Wrong

Duly Noted

Pussy Riot confirmed what the Kremlin wants Russians to think of its critics.

Last week’s “Duly Noted” dealt with a protest. The action against Putin came from a punk band, self-branded –and not thusly libeled- as “Pussy Riot”. Your columnist reported how the three women of the gang entered in Moscow the “Christ the Savior” cathedral to put on a show they called a protest. 

By Duly Noted’s judgment, that protest, sold, as a “Punk Prayer” had been an exercise in lewdness. That tastelessness, was rated by the perpetrators as “art”. The term seems to be an excuse for anything. Whatever the real purpose the performance, the women bared everything –except much of a political purpose. Accordingly, the problem did not come from asking the “Virgin Mary” –an insufficiently emancipated Godess- to intercede “further up” to remove Putin. CXlaiming that no support for “Putinism” is intended, the commentary targeted the band. In “The Punk Test of Liberty’s Limits”, a point was made. The piece argued that the previously ignored group gave legitimacy of what Putin does with his presidential power. The focus of the posting had been the improper form of Pussy Riot’s (hereafter “PR”) self-serving action. 

PR’s “critique” alienated your otherwise anticlerical correspondent. The case can be summarized. If you have a valid argument, you do not need to shout. A convincing case does without theatrical embellishments. Only the lack of facts demands noisy “padding”. The form of a protest can impair its point. Bad taste and the injury of values and folkways will not augment the impact of a presentation. PR claimed to act in behalf of hindered liberty but it did so in a way that violated the sensitivities and, even worse, the rights of others. Claiming to do "good" is no justification of what are, by any standard, bad deeds. PR intended to shock, and any cause would have served its purpose to call attention to itself. That pursued goal is located less in the realm of public affairs and more in that of publicity. Displaying a lot of skin and having little to say in an unsuited place, even if accompanied by amplified music, does not win arguments. This remains the case even if those legitimately present at the venue are put in a state of shock by the disrespectful violation of the place’ privacy and the demeanor expected there. This puts PR’s anti-Putin performance in the category of self-serving publicity.

A letter reacting to the article prompts the return to the subject. Its translated gist is that “No matter how tasteless and lacking in depth” PR can only be expected to express itself  “in its own way”. The message that Putin shall go to hell is “in itself, praiseworthy”. Praise is due for “the courage exhibited” by the punks. “Had it not expressed itself in that way then it would not have been a Pussy Riot action and it would have remained the protest of a small group of youths. Proceeding in a less tasteless manner, they would have received less attention. This counts. It matters that the average Westerner is made aware of Putin’s tyrannical abuse of authority. In that light it is immaterial that even the name, PR, is a lewd regardless of whether used in a church or on the fish-market.”

Let us affirm that, protest against repression is legitimate. “Slavery” and unfreedom, even if legally mandated, is illegitimate. Asserting elementary human rights against the laws of a dictatorship violates regulations but is morally legitimate. This principle supports resistance and, if need be, the right to revolution. Even so, we need to be careful about how we apply the principle of lawful disobedience.

Not every action against a tyranny is made legitimate by intending to topple a dictatorship. In the past National Socialist and Communists, and in the present Islamists, have opposed suppressive regimes. However, doing so does not make these democratic. Accordingly, the power they assumed has not createt systems of liberty. Dictatorships can oppose each other without becoming, through that, democratic and freedom loving. Therefore, the opposition to a dictatorship does not amount to a democratic movement. In the realm of practical politics, dictatorships are likely to produce, besides a democratic opposition, also authoritarian alternatives. This is no accident. Authoritarian movements will be more effective under the restrictions of dictatorship than will be the advocates of an open society. Nazi rule strengthened in occupied Europe their Communist opposition and not the democrats. Similarly, given the chaos of the time, in 1933 the real choice of the Germans was not between Hitler or a democrat but Hitler or the Communist Thälman. Batista in Cuba did not retire in favor of a local George Washington but was followed by Castro and Guevara. 

PR opposes Putin. That made them feel authorized to proceed by violating the rights of others. With that, they applied Lenin’s definition of right and wrong. To him the question was “who whom”. Thus the issue was not the decency of a deed but who did “it” to whom, who abused whose rights. Some regard this principle to be the thought with which the derailment of lived Communism began. Conclusion: opposing a dictatorship is not necessarily opposition to dictatorship per se or a certificate of the intent to liberate.

In the light of PR’s needlessly lewd performance in a cathedral, the question inspired by Lenin arises. It is a test to be applied to all movements that claim to pursue “liberation”. Ask yourself what the deeds in opposition betray about their post-victory policies.  What does that comportment reveal about the use power once it is attained? In this case, ignore Putinism. Ponder whether you would want to live in a system run by PR?

What, besides fame, has PR achieved? If the goal has been, as claimed, the reform, possibly the removal of Putinism, then the result negates the intention. The disorderly conduct that, even in democratic countries would have legal and social consequences, has agitated many Russians. A claim that authoritarians like to make, has gained credibility. Putin’s contention that “order” depends upon his leadership, received confirmation. So has the claim that “your choice is between me and chaos”. Between rule by “Putin” and that of the “punks”, the average person will choose the former.

As we conclude, the consequences of PR’s protest should be considered. Pussy Riot shocked needlessly and without any political benefit. While advertising itself, PR created support for authoritarian rule and compromised the genuinely democratic opposition. Legislation with sanctions against desecration and for the protection of religious sentiments is in the making in Russia. Applied, such laws will help to suppress dissent and cement the alliance between the regime and its subjects. 

child in time

'Morality' changes with the times. Mammal leaders often kill their brothers and rivals to secure their position. Human kings, generals and dictators do the same. It results as propaganda of 'religious moral duty' (over the times) to kill witches, gays, foreigners, insane people and minorities. As morality can be only a subjective attitude, humanity needs a code of ethics in order to guide 'good' and 'bad' attitudes. But no one bothers if, let's say the Catholic Church, invents a new 'moral code', the Taliban did the same.

Good and Evil

I also disapprove of Pussy Riot's action, but object to your assumption that there are such things as legitimate good and evil.  For example, you make statements such as,

Let us affirm that, protest against repression is legitimate.  "Slavery" and unfreedom, even if legally mandated, is illegitimate.  Asserting elementary human rights against the laws of a dictatorship violates regulations but is morally legitimate.

When you claim that something is morally legitimate, the implication is that you are claiming objective legitimacy.  In other words, you are claiming this legitimacy exists regardless of your personal opinion on the matter, and is independent of your existence or the existence of any other individual.  In fact, there is no basis for such a claim.  Good and Evil have no objective existence as things in themselves.

@ Helian If "Good and Evil

@ Helian

If "Good and Evil have no objective existence" that would mean that they do not exist.  In other words, you are saying that nothing is intrinsically good nor evil. In a positive(factual) sense you expound an A-Moral viewpoint, and in a normative (moral) sense you express a terrible version of moral relativism.  In your mind, whether something (say, a particular human action)  is good, or evil, depends on who is saying it.  That makes moral judgment completely arbitrary and, in fact, without real meaning.  That is a terrible worldview, and in fact makes us all bereft of any moral claim. 

In my opinion, you are confusing morality with (always imperfect) PERCEPTIONS of morality by different people.   The fact that you and I do not perfectly understand something, does not mean, nor prove, that that something does not exist. 

--  If you believe that moral judgment is necessary to be 'human', then you cannot deny that morality cannot be arbitray, i.e that something is not good or bad BECAUSE you or I say so, but because it IS so or MUST BE so. 

-- And if you do NOT believe that moral judgment is necessary to be human, well what more is there to be said then?   

When we make judgments about 'something', we can - and do - make mistakes. It does not follow that that 'something' does not exist.



The subject was about "moral legitimacy" as affirmed by Mr Handlery or, if you will, about the distinction between Good and Evil.  Presumably - at least we must hope so - readers would like to know your views on that subject, and not your opinion about me.  It is a very important subject, whether human morality is more than a mere subjective feeling or perception.  I, for one, agree with Handlery, and not with postmodernists like Kappert and Helian.  

For your information, a pedant is (A) one who parades his learning, and/or (B) who is unimaginative or unduly emphasizes minutiae in his presentation.  Your opinion about me parading is irrelevant to the subject, and is nothing but a 'cheap shot' or a gratuitous 'Ad Hominem'.  However, I do plead guilty to a relative shortage of imagination, but compared with whom (Helian? Kappert?...)?  As to the possible abundant use of minutiae, that was clearly not the case here in my presentation on this subject.   I tried to ask the big (rhetorical) questions, to get at the heart of the matter, and couldn't care less about details.     

"moral legitimacy"

amai now u are going to start becoming all moralistic about the legitimacy of morals... that would be a more truly accurate definition of what i meant by pedantic... in english, unlike so many, even closely related tonguws, the meaning is unique to the utterer!  To me a pedant is one who has an almost OCDish "eye" for attention to detail, so in a way it was a backhanded compliment.  Jeesh!

Good and Evil


By no means do I expound an amoral viewpoint.  Human beings are hardly intelligent enough to dispense with morality in regulating their day-to-day interactions.  I did not question the need for morality, but rather its nature.

By no means do I express or support any version, whether "terrible" or not, of moral relativism.  I consider the ultimate source of morality to be innate predispositions that are part of the human behavioral repertoire, as did Darwin and many other evolutionists since his time.  Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" is a modern version of this hypothesis.  Mother Nature was much too practical to foist any version of "moral relativism" on us.  We, and I along with the rest, experience moral intuitions as absolutes because that's how they happen to best promote our survival.

I do not claim that moral judgment is "arbitrary and without meaning."  I simply agree with Hume that it is subjective.  One implication of this conclusion is that no moral judgment can have objective validity independent of the minds of those making the judgment.  You have certainly not attempted to suggest a basis for the claim that Good and Evil have an objective existence.  Rather, you have limited yourself to claiming that my point of view is terrible, and would have bad consequences.  If a truth has bad consequences, or unpleasant implications, it does not become any less true.

Moral judgments are the expression of behavioral traits common to our species.  So are arms and legs, but they are not "necessary" to be human.  Morality is not arbitrary for the reasons noted above.  That does not mean that it exists objectively, as a thing in itself. 

My point of view was long considered, and still is considered by many leftist "progressives" to belong to a "fascist, conservative, reactionary" world view.  Are you familiar with that accusation?  I rather think that it might also have been directed at you.  I assure you, emotionally I am just as conservative as anyone on this blog.  I simply prefer to recognize things for what they really are.  If nothing else, it has the advantage of rendering the ostentatious striking of pious poses by those same leftist "progressives" completely absurd.  Such posing requires the existence of objects that are, in reality, nothing but subjective fantasies.

Morality will not suddenly become "relativist" merely by virtue of our recognizing its true nature.  Within broad constraints, different versions of it, sometimes constradicting each other in details, can be shaped by culture, but each version will always be experienced as absolute in whatever mind it happens to dwell.  I would prefer adopting an "absolute" that is simple, effective at regulating human affairs, and in harmony with our nature as human beings.


@ Helian

Mr Handlery claimed that there can be "moral legitimacy", in the context of making a distinction between legality (of a dictatorship) and morality.   You objected by claiming that there can be no "objective legitimacy", i.e. "regardless of personal opinion".  In your words..."Good and Evil have no objective existence".   

It is self-evident that moral judgments are always subjective. Only subjects can make judgments and physical things cannot make judgments (moral or otherwise).  The same applies for any type of ideas (held by subjects).  But these ideas are REAL, they exist, regardless of whether I, or you, or anyone else, knows that they are held by particular subjects.  They exist, not as "things" but as IDEAS. In that sense, morality or moral judgments can - but not always - have "objective legitimacy", i.e. the existence of these ideas/judgments does not require mine - nor yours - subjective knowledge or approval/agreement.   

You make at least 2 very 'dangerous' mistakes.

- First, you claim that people ..."experience moral intuitions as absolutes"...That erases the distinction between (A) fundamentalists (who hold beliefs with absolute certainty) and (B) more sensible and modest people (who have gained some knowledge about their own limitations) and who, therefore, can tolerate doubt about their own opinions and beliefs.         

- Second, you claim that..."Moral judgments are the expression of behavioral traits common to our species"...It cannot have escaped your notice that there are massive differences between these judgments, both among individuals and also among different groups of people.  Therefore, they cannot all be right, but it is quite possible that they are all wrong. In fact, I suspect the latter, in the sense that they are all incomplete, imperfect, or deviate in different degrees from the complete 'truth' (about Good and Evil).  

When you state that... "no moral judgment can have objective validity independent of the minds of those making the judgment"..., you have essentially thrown morality 'out of the window'.   You are saying that there is no objective difference between Good and Evil, and there are only subjective opinions about  such concepts.   If that were the case, why do we even bother??.  If Saddam's opinion about Good and Evil is as valid as mine or yours, what is the point of making a distinction between Good and Evil?  The moment you accept that all opinions (about 'something', including about the distinction between Good and Evil) are NOT equally 'valid' or 'legitimate', you have implicitly conceded that there is an objective truth beyond subjective opinions, regardless of whether we are capable of fully understanding that 'truth' or not.     

Objective truth does not require for that truth to exist as a physical thing or object.  It simply means that its validity is independent of any particular subject or opinion.   And objective truth does not require that it can be fully/completely understood by any subject or even all subjects/persons.  For example, certain propositions from Einstein's Relativity Theory MAY be close to (or approximations of) an objective truth about the physical 'world', but they are certainly independent from your and mine understanding and judgment.         

Good and Evil

There is no reason that, just because ideas exist, they therefore can or must have objective legitimacy.

When I say moral intuitions are absolute, I merely mean that they not experienced as a set of morally relative choices that the brain then has the task of weighing and judging to determine the right one.  That does not at all imply that we cannot tolerate rational doubt.  In any case, this "dangerous mistake" does not bear on the issue of whether good or evil can acquire objective legitimacy or not.  You claim that such legitimacy, which must be independent of the judgment of any particular individual, is possible.  You have still not answered the question; what basis is there for that claim?

Your second "dangerous mistake" is also irrelevant to the question of how moral claims can acquire legitimacy.  However, there is no contradiction whatsoever between morality being an evolved trait of our species and the existence of differences in moral judgments between individuals.  We are no programmed with rigid instincts like so many ants.  Many books on evolved morality have been rolling off the presses lately, and none of them makes such an absurd claim.  I suggest you read one or two of them to see what the evolutionary psychologists are talking about.  Again, the question remains; what basis is there for the claim that moral judgments can acquire objective legitimacy, that is, how can anything acquire the quality of being truly good or truly evil, independently of the mere opinions of a particular group of individuals? 

You claim that I “throw morality out the window” when I say that no moral judgment can have objective validity independent of the minds of those making the judgment.  I’m sorry you feel that way, and also that you see no reason for us to “even bother” if my statement happens to be true.  However, it is a statement of “is”, not “ought”.  It may be that we are also throwing morality out the window and no longer have any reason to bother if the sun comes up in the east instead of the west, but it will remain true that the sun rises in the east regardless of whether we happen to hold that opinion or not.  We distinguish between good and evil because that is our nature, not because there is some “point” to it.  I do not contend that various distinctions between good and evil “are” equally valid and legitimate or “are not” equally valid and legitimate because, as I have pointed out, there is no objective basis for making such distinctions.  If you beg to differ with me and believe such a basis exists, by all means, let me know what that basis is.  I dismiss a priori the claim that an objective basis must exist because you would find it unpleasant and deplorable if it didn’t.

There are many good experimental demonstrations that appear to confirm Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Is there something equivalent to, say, the Michelson-Morley Experiment that confirms the objective legitimacy of morality?  If so, it is a well-kept secret.  I have no intention of proving a negative.  If you feel it’s reasonable to believe in the objective legitimacy of morality because I can’t positively prove that no such basis exists, then by all means, I invite you to believe in fairies and unicorns as well.  I can’t disprove their existence either.  However, it seems to me the burden of proof is on you, not me.  If there is a basis for the legitimacy of moral judgments, what is it?  Good luck finding such a beast.  It has evaded the best efforts of philosophers for the last 5000 years.

I see no reason at all why life should become "pointless" by virtue of the fact that we have pulled the intellectual rug out from under the feet of the pious pecksniffs who poison human existence by spending their time savoring their virtuous indignation and striking ostentatious poses as noble defenders of the just and good.  At best they are an inconvenience.  At worst they become mass murderers.  I imply no absolute moral judgment of mass murderers.  It is merely a personal whim of mine to prefer life in a world that is free of them.  I hope others will agree with me.


Clarification # 2

1) Indeed, there is "no reason" to believe that ideas always MUST have objective legitimacy.  But, surely, many ideas CAN or MAY have objective legitimacy, i.e. a legitimacy that is independent of a particular subject's ability to fully comprehend that particular idea.  To believe otherwise would make 'truth' dependent on comprehension by people with manifestly-limited abilities.  I repeat, the moment you accept that not all different ideas (about something) can be equally valid or legitimate, you implicitly have conceded that there is an objective truth (about this 'something') beyond any particular subject's ability of comprehension. 

2)  Your (commendable) ability to "tolerate rational doubt" remains in flat contradiction with your assertion that "moral intuitions are absolute".  In answer to your question, the basis for the claim of (potential) moral legitimacy is that it can make human life meaningful, it can give meaning to life.  Human morality is about what makes human life meaningful, or about what it is to be human.   Needless to say, speculation about the ultimate meaning of life is endless, but this does not preclude that there MUST be an objective truth about human life's meaning.   The alternative is to believe that life has no meaning, in which case the distinction between Good and Evil, as a motivator for (moral) behavior, becomes meaningless.  

3)  There may be "many books on evolved morality", but the notion that morality itself - as opposed to perceptions of morality - "evolves", is very dangerous.  For example, do you think that honesty, as a moral virtue, has 'evolved' between 1300 and 2000?  The fact that people can easlly rationalise away their moral obligation to be honest, in no way diminishes their moral obligation to remain honest.  The alternative, again....is to believe that life is meaningless, which makes the distinction between Good and Evil meaningless.   I, for one, born at a time when the holocaust was in full swing in the heart of Europe, do not believe for a second that...morality has evolved since the dawn of time.  

4)  Morality is exactly about what "ought to be", and that may not necessarily correspond with what "is" (in terms of actual behavior).  It is therefore about speculation about what gives life meaning, and that involves an 'objective truth' which must be independent of your, or mine, or anyone else's ability to fully comprehend.   If we could fully comprehend, then morality would become superfluous, unnecessary, or easy.   But, we do not fully comprehend human life, and that is precisely why morality is difficult.    Any 'evolving morality' is likely designed (by people) to be the opposite, i.e. to make it easy for themselves. 

5) Your comment about the sun rises in the east is besides the point.  Apart from the fact that designating directions as east, west, etc....is purely arbitrary, that observation is about the physical world, not about spiritual meaning.  Morality is ultimately about MEANING, which is nonphysical or, if you will, metaphysical.   

6)  It is easy to share your dislike for..."pious pecksniffs", but that comment of yours is a strawman.  If you think that morality is about that, then you are mistaken.  It is even easier to agree with your desire to live in a world without "mass murderers".  But, the notion that mass murderers concern themselves with moral questions, i.e. with the distinction between Good and Evil, is at best....naive, if not ridiculous.      

Cut to the chase.

This is all a very fine word salad, but you seem to have overlooked something.  You still haven't provided us with any basis for the legitimacy of any morality, whether yours or anyone elses.  As you may recall, that was the point of this thread.  Tell us, what is that basis?

Chase is over

Read the second sentence in the second paragraph.  But, read the rest as well, preferably slowly. Thanks.

Since you do not seem to believe in any (objective) "basis for morality", I must repeat my previous question: if that were the case, why would we even bother with morality? 

Note, I do NOT claim to FULLY understand the ultimate meaning of human life, and therefore, also of morality. which makes me a NONfundamentalist.  But, I do claim/ believe that life must have a meaning/purpose, which means that there must be an objective basis for morality, i.e one that is independent of yours, or mine, or Saddam's, etc...understanding.  So, the best we can hope for is to behave in ways that correspond as best as possible with that ultimate meaning/purpose of human life (as we try to fathom it). 

An alternative way of putting this:  IF (a big if!!) a particular human action is good (or bad), it can NOT be good (or bad) because you, or I, or Saddam, etc...declare it to be so, but because it IS so or MUST be so.

In short, I do not accept your premise that there can be a morality for you, another one for me, and still another one for Saddam, etc.... There can only be ONE and the same human morality.  There can of course be many different PERCEPTIONS of human morality (i.e. subjective opinions about morality), but none of these will be fully correct or perfect, and many of these will not even be 'serious'.             

The second sentence of the second paragraph

I did read the second sentence of the second paragraph again, very slowly this time.  I'm embarrassed for my species if that's the best we can come up with as a basis for the legitimacy of morality.

Better basis than Kappert's

@ Helian

Why would you be "embarrassed" about the limitations of humankind which are so manifest?  These limitations should give us an incentive to exercise humility (or NONfundamentalism, if you will) as opposed to the arrogance of confusing one's own subjective PERCEPTIONS of morality with human morality itself. 

In any case, Kappert agrees with you (cf. above).  To be in such company, that really should give you pause to reflect on your disastrous adherence to 'evolving morality'.   He too, cannot make the distinction between morality itself and subjective opinions about morality.  He talks about the actual behavior of "mammal leaders" and of others, which means that he cannot distinguish between the 'what is' and the 'what ought to be'.  He too thinks that "morality can only be a subjective attitude".   Think about it, in his and your worldview, something is good or bad, BECAUSE a particular subject (Kappert, Hitler, the pope, Taliban Mullah Omar, etc....) says it is good or bad.  And you think that would be a better basis for human morality?!!!  Mon Dieu, Mein GOTT, how silly can humans get?    


Thanks for this follow-up. 

Thanks for this follow-up.  Vandalism of churches has a historical precedent in the Protestant Reformation.  Perhaps English vandals increased the Royalist contigent in the English Civil War. 

As you know, we Americans cherish the destruction of private property as a political demonstration, as in the submersion of tea chests in Boston Harbor and the toppling of the equestrian statute of George III in New York City.  That may have hardened some Royalists in their views, at the same time as inspiring some rebels.

Is Pussy Riot accusing the Orthodox Church of supporting Putin's authoritarianism?  If not, outraging the church is counterproductive.  If they represent anticlericalism in combination with antiauthoritarianism, the cost of offending some may be a reasonable cost of inspiring others.

As you indicated in your first article, these are matters for Russions themselves to determine.  In U.S. law we have the concept of "ordered liberty," which accommodates liberty to order and vice versa.  Only a people itself can develop a manner of doing that, not foreigners with their own, foreign ideas of liberty and order.