Philosophers spend a great deal of time crafting plausible exceptions to widely-accepted moral rules. Sure, murder is wrong. But what if you could murder a man on his death-bed to prevent a plane crash? What if you could smother the baby who grows up to be Adolf Hitler? What if you could prevent a bloody riot by executing an innocent man? The hypotheticals never end.
These odd scenarios provide employment for hundreds of philosophers, and entertainment for thousands of consumers of philosophy. But do these exercises actually lead to more ethical behavior? Yes, contemplating exceptions makes us less likely to stubbornly hew to common-sense morality. But in the real world, is dogmatic decency really a serious problem?
This question keeps recurring to me as I re-read Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe. (If you don’t take these books seriously, by the way, the joke’s on you; few works of history are better). The answer is clear: Human beings are way too willing to endorse exceptions to the general rule against murdering, raping, and robbing each other.
For emotional distance, let’s limit ourselves to human history before 1900. Even though almost everyone thinks that murder, rape, and robbery are ordinarily wrong, pre-twentieth century history is virtually a chronicle of exceptions to these rules. Virtually every massive historical crime begins with people saying, “It’s OK to murder those people because [we want their stuff/God says we should kill them/they’re inferior/some of them killed some of us/some of them are going to kill some of us eventually].” Virtually all of these crimes end badly – almost always for the victims, and often for the perpetrators as well. In history as in life, what comes around, goes around.
To illustrate, consider volume four of Gonick’s fourth volume (The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1). He begins by explaining that when King Felipe of Spain took the throne, France and Spain had been at war for sixty years. To mend fences, Felipe marries the daughter of the French King Henri II. Both try to wipe out their Protestants, but Henri dies an accidental death soon after Felipe’s wedding. Before long, Henri’s ten-year-old son Charles IX takes the French throne. Smelling weakness, the persecuted Protestants counter-attack. Mutual reprisals soon spiral into civil war.
Meanwhile, Felipe of Spain sends the Inquisition to the Netherlands. Nobles led by William of Orange resist, and Protestants begin reprisals: “The Calvinists lost patience and started invading churches, stripping off the gold, and murdering priests.” Felipe sends the Duke of Alva to crush the rebels. Alva declares William of Orange an outlaw; William flees and returns with a rebel army. The Netherlands descend into civil war. Things go downhill from there. Think I’m cherry-picking? The best I can do is suggest that you read Gonick for yourself. Finding a ten-page stretch without a senseless bloodbath is a real challenge.
If you comb through the pages of history, you will admittedly find cases where exceptions to common-sense morality would have predictably led to better outcomes. Maybe if the Pope had quietly poisoned Luther, a hundred years of religious warfare could have been avoided. Maybe if the czars had executed Bolsheviks instead of sending them to Siberia, the Russian Revolution and international Leninist plague could have been avoided.
What’s striking, though, is that the exceptions that people actually made throughout history almost never forestalled disaster. Indeed, the exceptions usually are the disasters. In the real world, people bend the rules of common-sense morality to do great evil, not to do great good. If moral philosophers wanted to help us make better choices, they’d take these facts to heart – or at least spend a lot more time reading history to see if I’m right.