3D Printing Myself – or: Do we have a Free Will?

I intend to read two books on free will soon, Samuel Harris’ ‘Free Will’ (which argues that free will is an illusion) and Julian Baggini’s ‘Freedom Regained’ (which argues free will is possible). Before reading those two (on which I will get back here), I wanted to pen down my own ideas on free will, to see whether reading the books will make me change my own views. The problem of free will has bothered me since I studied philosophy (or possibly before), since it seems to lead to either inconsistencies or world views which I find very implausible.

Free will – the idea that we choose our actions voluntarily, based on our own judgment, and that we could have chosen otherwise if we wanted – presupposes the idea of choice: that what we have done in the past could have been otherwise, and our future is not given by the circumstances, but a least partially decided by our own choices. So the question: do we have a free will is dependent on another question: do we have a choice at all. A thought experiment will help to highlight the essence of the problem.

Imagine a perfect 3D printer, capable of copying dead matter as well as living beings. If I were to copy myself, Marc-the-copy would be a perfect copy of Marc-the-original. Marc-the-copy would contain the same molecules, in the same places, the same strands of DNA, the same RNA, the same blood cells, intestinal lining and brain. The same neurons, intertwined in the same way, with the same amounts of neurotransmitter in the same spots, connected with the same axons to the same nerves. If there is still an idea of an ‘original’ and a ‘copy’, where the copy would not be ‘the same’, since there is only one original, we could assume that the original’s molecules would be split evenly amongst both copies, and that the 3D printer would supply each of both copies with the missing molecules, according to the blueprint – the now-gone original.

Next, assume that the 3D printer would print both Marc-copies to identical rooms, again perfect copies of each other. The same table with some coffee and some sandwiches, the same vase of identical roses underneath the same copy of a Vermeer’s Milkmaid. The same bright lightning, the same anonymous waiting room music on the same radio.

Now, what would both copies do? Would they do the same thing or not? Would both pick the ham sandwich, or might one go for ham and the other for tuna? Is it possible that one would skip the sandwiches and go straight for coffee, while the other would have a sandwich first and a coffee later? Could one tune the radio to Adele’s ‘Someone like you’, while the other copy would prefer Chopin’s Nocturnes? And, if you go for the same choice, would both copies do the same thing always? Again and again and again, as long as the environment is exactly the same? So basically: given the exact same material make-up of both individual and environment, would it be possible to have different outcomes when the individual is faced with a choice, or is the outcome of the choice always determined? This is not about determinism ‘light’, where we are bound by our genes and circumstances to be obese, or smart et cetera. That would still allow both copies to sometimes make different choices. This thought experiment is about a very strong determinism: is different action possible at all for both copies?

Let’s go down the possible scenarios, and see the repercussions of each scenario on the possibility of free will.

They would do the same.

That is, always the same. The world we’ve chosen is completely deterministic, at least where human choices are involved. All choices are contained in the material circumstances, and given those, the outcomes are fixed.

This view has some paradoxical consequences. The things we do often seem to make sense. If I want to drive to Paris, and I don’t know the way by heart, I will follow the road signs (or my navigation system nowadays). So if I’m near Brussels, and I see a sign ‘Paris’ with an arrow to an exit on my right hand, I will most likely take that exit. Now, in a deterministic universe, the road signs wouldn’t matter. I would take the right exit anyway, regardless of what the signs say, since my driving choices are predetermined. So whether the sign would point to the left exit for Paris or the right wouldn’t matter. Nothing said or written would matter at all, it seems. I do like to read a novel in the evening, and if the story is good, it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Now, in a deterministic universe, I could read a random collection of letters, a totally nonsensical whole of arbitrary non-words, and still have the same sense of satisfaction if the material circumstances dictated such.
Of course the two universes – one with the sign Paris to the right, and the other to the left, aren’t exactly the same, since at least the paint on both signs is applied differently. The point is this difference cannot explain my taking the right exit. The connection ‘sign to the right’ – ‘taking the right exit’ does only make sense if we suppose that I see the sign, read it, and make a decision based on that information – a decision which could have been otherwise. But exactly this free decision is impossible in a deterministic universe, since there is no choice. So we cannot say things sense because signs to the right trigger human decisions to go to the right, since humans cannot make such decisions.

So why does it all make sense? What are the possible answers to that in a deterministic universe?

It doesn’t make sense

This idea of sense is all an illusion. The road signs don’t influence where I go, nor does the novel I read induce my sense of happiness. That is all an illusion. In fact, many road signs do point to the left while I go right, and what I read is garbage (not in the sense of literary criticism, but in the sense that I do really read random collections of meaningless signs). In a deterministic universe we don’t need consistency between signs and actions, and there is in fact none.

This world view is maybe consistent in itself, but not very consistent with experience. We do feel we take the right exit because of the sign, and we enjoy the novel because of the content. So this view has some explaining left to do, and is very counterintuitive. And it needs explaining why we have the illusion of consistency.

It cannot not make sense

For some reason, a deterministic universe where road signs to Paris would point to the left, while people heading to Paris go right is not possible.
Of course such an observation is very intuitive. It seems most logical that if road signs point to the right, we would go right. But this only an explanation when we do have some degree of choice. It presumes we go right because we see the road sign, and decide to go right. Without that decision, what could possible cause the coherence between road signs and directions taken? If we do not have choices, the road sign to the right could not be the cause of our choice of taking the right exit.
So our choosing so cannot be the explanation of correspondence between signs and actions in a deterministic universe. Let’s see what could be, and what determines the outcomes of our actions.

Matter decides the outcomes

Matter (on a macroscopic level anyway) decides what happen, or at least our actions. Given a powerful enough computer, all our action could be calculated in advance. (Of course we needn’t assume a Newtonian universe. Matter may behave according to the quantum-mechanical uncertainty principle, but this doesn’t influence human behavior. It was only the choice of the two copies which was deterministic in our thought experiment, not necessarily the entire universe.)

But if it is matter that decides the deterministic outcomes of our choices, it is nearly impossible to see why things make sense. We must assume some law of nature which excludes nonsensical combinations, i.e. road signs to Paris to the left and cars heading for Paris going to the right. And this must be the weirdest kind of law possible, different from all laws of nature that we know.

Something else decides the outcomes

You may believe that it is not matter which decides the outcomes, but something else. An omnipotent god, or a universal non-material principle. This is more consistent. It all makes sense because god, (or the universal principle) has decided that things should make sense.

So in this universe we have no free will. Thus universe does make sense. Something (god, a non-material principle) makes it make sense. And this something also decides everything we do, the outcome of all our apparent choices. This universe is still somewhat counterintuitive since we do feel we make the choice to take the right exit ourselves, but this idea of freedom of choice may be an illusion. There are more known illusions of a similar nature. Assuming a god or principle doesn’t explain much: the question goes from ‘why does it all make sense’ to ‘why does a god make it make sense’ – but the world view is consistent in itself.

They would not do the same.

Now if we assume both copies of Marc would not (always) do the same thing, what could cause the difference in behavior?

Something material

We’ve already assumed the copies are the same, as are the rooms they’re in. So where could a material cause for different choices come from?

Something outside the individual

Maybe one could say that both copies are influenced by the universe at large, and they can’t both occupy the same space in that universe. This is a bit tweaking with the assumptions of the argument, which stated that both copies would have the same environment. And of course one can say that that simply is not possible. Still, if something material outside the copies would decide the difference in outcome, then this would be a deterministic universe. Each of the copies could not make another choice, since the outcomes are determined by something material outside. So saying ‘something outside’ makes the choices differ, still doesn’t really allow choice. We’re back at the deterministic world view, only the room has become larger.

Chance events

Maybe our brains are wired in such a way that they contain ‘quantum-mechanical coins’. In each of the two copies, the coins are flipped and one may land heads up, while the other goes for tails. The differences are pure chance. No influence of the individual.

This is a nondeterministic universe, albeit with only random ‘freedom’. There is no pre-determination, but also no real choice – just chance events. Things could have been otherwise, but only through random events. And randomness still doesn’t explain choice. If we flip a coin which decides whether we go right (heads up) or left (tails) and the coin lands heads up, we can say we’ve chosen to flip a coin, but we would never say we’ve chosen to go right. So the quantum-mechanical coin in our heads could explain variation in behavior, but we couldn’t really call it choice. It might explain why things appear to make sense – it the road signs say ‘Turn right for Paris’, our mental make-up might be so that the coin is much, much more likely to flip so that we do turn right.

Non-chance events

This seems hard to imagine. Both copies are the same, materially spoken. They don’t make the same choices. This difference is caused by something material. And this material cause is not a chance event, no throw of the dice.
It’s hard to imagine how pure matter (since in this universe, nothing but matter decides the difference in choice between Marc A. and Marc B.) could lead to any but random differences. Apparently in this universe, matter has some properties which are nondeterministic, but not chance either. It seems this universe assumes some hitherto undetected properties of matter. This is of course not impossible, but not very plausible too. We simply would assume some ‘choice’ of ‘free will’ property of matter itself, to explain our free will.

Something immaterial

Another assumption, if both copies of Marc do not make the same choice, is that the difference in behavior is caused by something nonmaterial.

Something immaterial in the individual

We can assume we have a (nonmaterial) mind, or a soul, or immaterial ‘spirit’. This spirit can make choices, and this causes the different outcomes for both copies of Marc. But how does this spirit influence the matter? This is basically Descartes’ problem. There is nothing in the material theories we have which allows such an interaction between an immaterial spirit and our material body. Somewhere there would need to be a connection, where the immaterial can trigger the material. This is not logically impossible, but still, given what we know, it’s hard to fathom where and how this would happen.

Something immaterial outside the individual.

If a god, or something else immaterial decides the different outcomes, the individual is apparently not free to choose. So, like the case where ‘outside matter’ decides the different outcomes, in this case there is no real choice either, since it is coming from outside. Once the ‘outside’ has made up its mind, there is no possibility for the individual to choose anything other than that what already had been decided outside. Taking a god as the cause of different actions of the two Marc copies does raise the same question as the spirit: where does this god interact with matter? (Note that a deterministic universe does not have this problem: a god could have created this universe from the start so that all outcomes are decided in advance, and wouldn’t need to interact with it after creation.)

Other solutions

We’re not smart enough

Maybe language, and human thought, is not capable of understanding the very concepts we are researching. Maybe ‘free will’ is simply not a consistent concept, and we cannot reason with it in the same way as we can with concepts such as cars, forces of nature, road signs or sandwiches.

An open question is why there is a universe at all – why isn’t there just nothing? I haven’t read any satisfactory answers to this question. The answers fall in two categories. The first assumes something else, god or a law of nature, which needs explaining as well – why is there a god instead of nothing, why is there a law of nature at all? The second does not assume something else, but doesn’t really move beyond the big bang. I believe it is possible that the concept of ‘nothing’ may just not make sense enough to reason with it. We never perceive ‘nothing’, only the absence of other stuff – no light, no people, no planets. But it is not a given that a combination of absences leads to a ‘nothing’ with which we can reason as if it were something. So maybe ‘nothing’ just isn’t a coherent enough concept, and the question ‘why isn’t here nothing’ just doesn’t make sense like ‘why isn’t there coffee’ because ‘nothing’ is not as coherent a concept as ‘coffee’.

In the same way, ‘free will’ may be a concept that’s not coherent enough to allow the kind of reasoning I’ve done with it in this paper. So instead of getting an answer, we must conclude that the question was wrong all the time. I do like this answer, but I have no proof of it either. There is no ‘grand theory’ explaining which concepts can be reasoned with, and which ones cannot. So saying ‘free will’ is an inconsistent concept does amount to assuming something to make the problem go away.

Yet other solutions

There might simply be more than we know. I’ve contrasted ‘material’ versus ‘immaterial’ stuff and more, but there may be more than we know of. I’ve touched upon the possibility of properties of matter yet unknown, and there may simply be stuff (material or not) constituting the universe that we do not know of yet. So maybe there is a free will, in a sensible way, be we still need to discover how or what makes it possible.

(Not a) conclusion

So far, for me, there is no satisfactory conclusion in the free will debate. A deterministic universe, were a god (or universal principle) has planned everything in advance, a has taken care that the world we live in appears to be a sensible one, is – at least – internally consistent.

So is a universe where we do have choice, but the choices are just random events. That’s not enough to constitute what we would normally call ‘free will’, but maybe that’s just how it is. There needn’t be a free will just because we think it’s nice if there is.

A universe with real choices, either chosen by our nonmaterial spirit, or a god, needs to explain how this nonmaterial thing interacts with matter ‘on the go’ – i.e. not from the start of the universe, but to allow for real choices once the material conditions are given. What we know of physics doesn’t offer any real possibilities here – but our knowledge of physics might be incomplete here.

And the question could be wrong because the concept of ‘free will’ is not consistent – but why would it, and how could we decide which concepts are consistent and which ones not?

Atonement and Remorse

So how does forgiveness come about? Paul van Tongeren mentions the conditions of ‘confession, remorse, atonement’. Which he then dismisses, since forgiveness is not conditional, but unconditional: we do not forgive on the condition of some act or atonement by the other,  and revoke forgiving if the condition is not met: that is bargaining, not forgiving. Paul van Tongeren rightly noted in his talk that just saying: ‘Yes, I did that terrible thing, I don’t understand why, I’m different now’ cannot bring about forgiveness.

Avishai Margalit, whose views I’ve covered in a previous post, quotes Wittgenstein on the Temple Ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), where a goat was sent into the desert to atone for the sins of all. Here atonement is presented as a kind of magic, where our sins are removed by a simple trick. Margalit notes: ‘…the problem is not the actual use of magic, provided the magic … is conceived only as the expression of a wish to be cleansed of sin … but (when the action) is seen as causing purification, it becomes a superstition’ [EM, p. 187]. A codification of sin-cleansing, for the ritual contemplation of sin, is perfectly OK; the same ritual as actual sin-cleansing is not. Forgiveness is not that easily earned. From my own background: saying three Hail Marys and giving a token fee to the church parish cannot, on its own, be considered a true cleansing of sin. Margalit goes on to say ‘remorse offers us a nonmagical way to undo the past’ [EM, p. 199]. Through remorse a sinner does not deny the deed, but shows regret over it, creates a distance between deed and sinner, and this distance makes forgiving possible. Forgiveness is not an entitlement after expressing remorse, but remorse is a precondition for forgiveness, a human precondition, without magic.

I think Margalit misses a point here. Remorse is only a precondition for forgiveness if it is sincere remorse. If I’ve hurt somebody, and just say ‘Yup, I did that, oops, sorry, regret that now, please forgive’, I’m not likely to be forgiven. Remorse must be sincere; to be sincere it must be felt. Remorse must hurt the offender. If I’ve hurt someone, and I realize the pain I’ve done, and feel pain myself because of it, that is sincere remorse. And this reciprocal pain is in fact a form of atonement. Atonement in itself is a reparation of a wrong, maybe a compensation in money for a damage inflicted; or a payment in suffering, as in Ian McEwan’s famous novel, where Briony spends a lifetime trying to atone for a crime committed at thirteen. The second form of atonement, where the perpetrator feels pain, and suffers, is the form of atonement that in inherent in true remorse. So atonement and remorse are no opposites, no ‘magical’ versus ‘nonmagical’ undoing, but atonement is a necessary component of true remorse.

What about the first form of atonement? The payback, the scapegoat. The meaning of forgiveness is overcoming vengeance. And vengeance is certainly one of mankinds curses. Wars, vendetta’s, feuds, relational fights: the ‘I’ll get even’ mechanism can be responsible for perpetual conflict. Atonement as a payback is a codified form of remorse: I’ll pay reparations, I’ll sacrifice a goat: it shows I’m willing to suffer in response to a wrong I’ve done. If the payment is substantial, if it hurts me to give this sum or object, I’m showing that I am willing to suffer in response to the suffering inflicted. This codification of remorse makes it possible to atone, and overcome vengeance, in situations where remorse may not do: the other party is to far removed for remorse to matter. In societies without a well-established penal system, such codifications of remorse are the oil that keeps the machinery of society going, instead of stalling through perpetual reciprocal vengeance.

Immaterial atonement – grief – is a component of remorse, material atonement – sacrifice – is codified remorse. True remorse with emotional atonement is fitting between those close to us: friends, lover, relatives. Atonement as codified remorse is fitting for God, or the villagers on the next hilltop.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002

Margalit on Forgiving

Recently I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘forgiveness’. Avishai Margalit has devoted a chapter to it in his book ‘The Ethics of Memory‘. The chapter is titled ‘Forgiving and Forgetting’. In it, Margalit makes a distinction between forgiving as ‘deleting’ (text, as in a text editor) and forgiving as ‘crossing out’ (which leaves the original text visible). Forgiving as deleting means totally forgetting the original misdeed: it restores the original relationship between offender and victim, as if the misdeed had never happened. Forgiving as crossing out leaves the memory of the deed intact. Forgiving here is the intention of the victim not to act out of vengeance, i.e. the offense will be remembered, but the offended person will act as if it had not been committed.

Margalit notes aptly that forgiving as deleting is contradictory. It means forgetting the misdeed; and forgetting is something we cannot do intentionally. Margalit compares this to voluntary muscles, such as those in legs and arms, which we can exercise at will, and involuntary muscles such as the heart muscle, which we cannot stop and start at will. Like voluntary and involuntary muscles, there are voluntary and involuntary mental acts, and forgetting is not voluntary. We can strive towards it, try not to think of something, and in due time we may indeed forget it, but we cannot decide to forget.  (I skip the remarks Margalit makes on religion and forgiveness, and the special role of God in religious views on forgiveness – for this I heartily recommend his book.) Like Paul van Tongeren, Margalit notes that forgiving actually entails not forgetting: ‘…forgiveness, which is voluntary, should not be tied to forgetting, which is involuntary’ [EM, p. 203].

Margalit further distinguishes between forgiving as a decision, a policy adopted by us not to act out of vengeance, and forgiveness, as the mental state of having overcome resentment and anger: ‘…forgiveness denotes both a process and an achievement, just as the word work denotes both the process of working and the work that is accomplished’ [EM. p. 205]. This conception of forgiveness as a state of non-resentful inner calm and peace is why we forgive on behalf of ourselves as well as the other, as Margalit concludes.

Next, I’ll explore Margalit’s views on atonement and remorse.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002

Is being evil an essential property?

In the previous post on Paul van Tongeren‘s lecture at the ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam I noted that it is prefectly sensible to say that a smart person has done a dumb thing. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. This merits some more research.

First it is important to distinguish between necessary properties (which could not have been otherwise) and non-necessary, or contingent properties (which could have been otherwise). Saul Kripke noted about a wooden lectern (the one he was standing behind) that it does not make sense to say that this lectern could have been made out of ice. Not, at least, if it was in fact made of wood. His argument runs as follows: we could of course discover that the lectern was in fact made of ice, and through some cunning preparation had been made to look as if it was wood. But, if it is in fact made of wood, it makes no sense to say ‘this lectern could have been made of ice’, since it would have been a different lectern. Of course, another – ice – lectern could have stood in place of the current wooden one, but it would not have been this – wooden – lectern. If the lectern is made of wood, it is necessarily made of wood. Being made of wood is an essential property of the lectern. Standing in this room is not essential – of course this lectern could have stood in another room.

Similarly, Kripke holds that Obama (Nixon in his examples) could not have become the 44th President of the United States (which is perfectly intuitive), but that he could not have had different parents – if someone had, that would have been a different person. As in the case of the lectern, we could of course discover that Obama does in fact have different parents from the ones we believe to be his parents – but assuming that the people we believe to be his parents are indeed his parents, it makes no sense to say ‘Obama could have had different parents’ – that ‘Obama’ would have been a different man, not the man we call Obama. Being born of some parents is essential. Becoming the 44th President of the United States is not. [NN, pp. 312-314] The notion of essential properties is not unproblematic in its own right – but it is clear that there are non-essential properties. ‘Standing in this room’ is not essential for a lectern, being ‘the 44th President of the United States’ is not essential for Obama. Since ‘non-essential’ is all I need for my argument, we can disregard the complexities of essential properties. Suffice it to say that some properties at least are clearly non-essential.

Where does that leave us with being evil? It seems clear that being evil is not essential – even in the case of the exemplar of evilness, Adolf Hitler, it makes perfect sense to say ‘Hitler could have died in World War I’ or ‘Hitler could have stayed a smalltime painter in Vienna’. In both cases he would have been an unremarkable man, long forgotten, and maybe not a nice person, but neither a very evil one. So being evil is not essential. And it is not essential because it makes perfect sense to assume an evil person could not have performed the acts which made him evil, and thus would not have been evil. So even the complete collection of all evil acts performed by a true villain, does not make that person necessarily evil.

If we look at lesser examples, it becomes even clearer. If my former boss, or a former love, or a trusted friend, has done me wrong, it does not make them evil. It does not make them evil, because it makes perfect sense to assume they could have avoided this evil deed. And even assuming they did do it, it is one deed amongst many. As I have shown, even if all deeds by a person had been evil, being evil would not have been an essential property of this person – we still could dissociate the person from the evil deeds. Even more so in the case of a person who has just done one, or a few, bad deeds, it is perfectly possible to dissociate the person from the deed(s).

Evil is not an essential property in the worst of cases. It certainly isn’t in the everyday variety. If someone has done me wrong, it is perfectly possible to separate the deed from the person, to know this deed has been done by the other, to still condemn the deed, but to forgive the other.

For Kripke’s views, see: ‘Naming and Necessity’, Saul Kripke, in: Semantics of Natural Language, eds. D. Davidson and G. Harman, 1972, and ‘Identity and Necessity, Saul Kripke, in: Identity and Individuation, ed. Milton K. Munitz, 1971

Is forgiveness possible?

The theme of this year’s ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam was ‘Reconciliation’ (the Dutch word, ‘Verzoening’, doesn’t translate well to English – from it is derived ‘zoen’ which is Dutch for ‘kiss’ for which we also have the more common synonym ‘kus’ – the sweet overtones are unfortunately completely lost in translation). One recurring side-theme was ‘forgiveness’, which notion I am going to explore in some posts.

Paul van Tongeren argued at the ‘Night of Philosophy’ that true forgiveness is not possible. His argument runs thus: Forgiving is not forgetting. On the contrary, forgiving presupposes remembering. So we remember an evil act done against us, but do not consider the actor as evil anymore. Thus seems only possible if the actor radically dissociates himself from the act, without denying doing the act. The actor says: ‘Yes, I did do that, it is completely wrong, I should not have done that, I would never do that anymore now’. But if the actor dissociates himself from the act so completely, forgiving becomes impossible, for the actor is not the person who committed the act anymore – he has become a different person. If this dissociation does not take place, and we still consider the act evil, and remember who did the evil act against us, how can we not still see the actor as evil? In ‘Impossible Forgiveness’, van Tongeren states: ‘… the perpretator is being remembered as linked to his evil act and thus as evil and blameworthy himself’ [IF p. 372].

Two things are wrong with van Tongeren’s exploration. First, the link between an evil act and its evil perpretator is way too strong. There is nothing contradictionary in saying ‘Joe is a smart person, but now he’s done a dumb thing’. Being smart does not preclude one from doing dumb things. Nor does doing something dumb entail being intrinsically dumb. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. In forgiving, this distinction is of the utmost importance: if we see the perpretator as intrinsically evil, forgiving seems impossible indeed. But if we regard the act as evil, but do not regard the perpretator as intrinsically evil, we have the necessary leeway for forgiveness. So we can, sometimes, forgive, because we are able to see the wrongdoer as a more complete person than just the perpretator of this single evil act: the prepretator has other sides, some maybe bad, but some good as well. It is the complete person we forgive, not the one-dimensional perpretrator of the evil act.

The second oversight is the nature of forgiving, and especially the things leading up to forgiveness. Van Tongeren rightly mentions ‘confession, remorse and atonement’ [IF p. 370] as the preconditions of forgiveness. Unfortunately, he does not give the notions much further thought, but dismisses them: since forgiving is not conditional (I cannot forgive only if some conditions are met: I either forgive or I do not), the three acts cannot be the conditions for forgiveness.

But the nature of confession, remorse and atonement is much more profound. If someone has sincere remorse, and is pained and grieved by their wrongdoing, and we perceive the sincere pain and grief they feel, forgiving becomes possible. If someone dear to me has badly hurt me through inconsiderate actions, I will probably feel anger and vengeance. If this person apologizes, and I see a sincere pain, a hurt they feel for doing me pain, and I do not see this person as intrinsically evil, forgiveness may be easy: seeing the other suffer, maybe even as much as I have, makes me feel pity towards the other, the perpretator, and may lead me too think that this pain is not deserved. So true remorse can lead to forgiving, not in a causal way, but as a precondition, leading to my decision whether to forgive or not. Sincere remorse is a precondition: without it, forgiveness seems hardly possible. With it, forgiveness is not an entitlement, but it certainly becomes a possibility. My free act of forgiving becomes possible through the sincere remorse shown by the other.

[IF] ‘Impossible forgiveness’, Paul van Tongeren, in: Ethical Perspectives 15, no. 3, Leuven 2008

Doesn’t the rejection of a compromise presuppose a reasonable alternative?

Friday (April 17, 2009) I attended Avishai Margalit‘s lecture ‘Comprise and Rotten Compromise’ at the Amsterdam ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosphy). Margalit, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most interesting living philosophers, so this lecture was a must-see.

Margalit argues that compromise in politics in general is a good thing – even, in his own words, ‘shabby, sodden compromises’ can be good because they avoid a worse outcome. Yet not all compromises are good – the exemplar of course is the Munich agreement, in which Chamberlain’s Britain, France and Italy allowed Hitler to annex the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, in return for promises for peace. Why, Margalit asks, are some compromises never good – or, rotten. His answer lies in the nature of the other party. Hitler was evil, and therefore any compromise with him would be a rotten compromise. Hitler in 1938 was not the Hitler of 1945, but still, the nature of Hitler’s Third Reich was clear. If the other party’s regime is inhuman, a compromise with the other party will be rotten. Rotten compromises, according to Margalit, should not be agreed to, ‘come what may’.

If we look at the Munich agreement, of course the dictum ‘rotten compromises must be rejected, come what may’ easily holds. If Britain had rejected the Munich agreement, the Second World War would have started earlier, and since the military build-up of the Third Reich had not been completed at the time, the Second World War probably would have ended sooner, with less casualties and suffering. And even if not, the War would have come anyway. But what if we look at the Yalta agreement, where the Allied powers split up Europe in a Western and Eastern sphere of influence? Stalin, the other party in this compromise, was clearly running an inhuman regime – an evil one. So this must have constituted a rotten compromise. But what was the alternative to the Western powers? Should they have rejected the compromise, and marched on to Moscow and Stalingrad in 1945, unleashing another devastating war on already war-torn Eastern Europe? To phrase it differently, doesn’t the rejection of any compromise, rotten or not, presuppose a reasonable alternative?

I posed this question to Margalit after his lecture. Margalit qualified it ‘a very good question’ and noted he took three chapters in his upcoming book to answer this very question. So, he said, he wouldn’t be able to fully answer it in this session, without summarizing his entire book. Yet he did provide ‘a short answer’. There he used the acute metaphor of a cockroach in the soup – if there is one, we do not take it out and say ‘the cockroach was bad, but the soup is still good’. If, on the other hand, there is a fly in the ointment, we can take out the fly and say ‘the ointment is still good’. At Yalta, according to Margalit, there was ‘a very big cockroach in the soup’.

Still, though this may settle Yalta, I’m looking forward to the larger answer in his book to the general question: doesn’t the rejection of any compromise presuppose a reasonable alternative? Generalizing from compromises, this boils down to question whether politics should take a pragmatic or idealistic stance. Margalit’s outright denunciation of rotten compromises is an idealistic component in a pragmatic political framework. I’m curious whether his book will answer whether this is still tenable when a reasonable alternative is not on the horizon.

Update: Margalit’s lecture is online now. My question is at the end of the interview with him.