Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rorschach Contra Manhattan!

Normally I keep my commenting light on deeper, more philosophical issues - there's a reason for that which I hope to blog about one day - but Edward Feser's recent posts on natural law got me thinking.

See, Ed Feser reminds me of Rorschach on this topic. And I don't consider that an insult. In fact, Ed is doing a marvelous job of convincing me that his is the correct position to hold - and he's making consequentialism seem much harder to justify. So much so that I feel like offering up my own perspective on an aspect of the subject.

But I don't feel like I have the abundance of philosophical resources and the linguistic finesse to come at this question like Codgitator or Bill Valicella or the other more heavy duty philosophical thinkers. And certainly not of the philosophical caliber of Ed himself. So, I have to work within my limits.

That's right. I'm going to conduct an imaginary dialogue between Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan in the aftermath of Veidt's scheme. And I'm going to do it in philosophical imaginary dialogue style!

Introduction: For those of you who don't know, the scene is set this way. Adrian Veidt, self-made billionaire and super-genius, sees that the cold-war era world he inhabits is on the course for an inevitable nuclear war between superpowers. In order to avert this, he's unleashed mass death upon a major population, killing millions of innocents, and laying the blame on an extraterrestrial threat. He reasons - correctly - that this threat will shock the world into getting past their differences to work together, and in the process avert an even worse nuclear war. This already happened (35 minutes ago!), and while the heroes who discover Veidt's plan are horrified, they realize it's too late to stop his plan - and if they reveal it now, they'll have millions dead AND they'll undo the world unity, putting the world back on track for the nuclear war. All but one hero - Rorschach - agrees to take this secret to their grave.

Rorschach's moral code - "never compromise even in the face of armageddon" - compels him to leave and tell the world of Veidt's crime. Doctor Manhattan is sent after Rorschach to kill him, lest the millions died in vain.

And so we begin.

Manhattan: Rorschach, I can't let you do this.
Rorschach: Veidt murdered millions, Manhattan. He's a criminal, and he needs to be exposed.
Manhattan: Yes, Rorschach - murderED. He's a monster, but those millions are already dead. This won't bring them back.
Rorschach: Turning in a murderer has never brought back a victim.
Manhattan: This is different! If we keep this secret...
Rorschach: If we cover up Veidt's crime.
Manhattan: Fine, call it what you want. But if we do that, we save billions of lives! If you expose Veidt, you're dooming them!
Rorschach: And if we don't expose Veidt, we're covering up for a murderer.
Manhattan: One murderer we would have stopped if we could! But YOU will be murdering billions if you expose him!
Rorschach: I won't be causing any nuclear wars.
Manhattan: Others will!
Rorschach: That's their crime. Not mine. The only crime I can commit here is covering up for a mass-murderer.
Manhattan: Your crimes will be theirs if you expose Veidt! You KNOW what the consequences will be!
Rorschach: ...Assume that I do, Manhattan. I'm not as smart as you or Veidt, but assume that I do. That changes nothing. I would stop the coming war if I could...
Manhattan: Then don't DO this!
Rorschach: ...Without committing an evil. But covering up for Veidt is an evil.
Manhattan: Sentencing billions to die is an evil!
Rorschach: It sure is. I'm not a fan of our idiot leaders either.
Manhattan: You really don't think you'd hold any blame for their deaths?
Rorschach: I know I wouldn't. I'd do everything I could to save them, short of anything immoral.
Manhattan: What if you're wrong? What if doing what you're doing is as immoral as Veidt's actions? Worse?
Rorschach: I could ask the same of you, Manhattan.
Manhattan: Argh, this is getting us nowhere.
Rorschach: ...You're right. Why are you trying to stop me, Manhattan?
Manhattan: Because what you're going to do will lead to the deaths of billions!
Rorschach: What I'm going to do will lead to a mass-murderer being exposed.
Manhattan: And the result of that will be billions dead.
Rorschach: And what will the result of you covering up for Veidt be?
Manhattan: What..? I'll save those billions!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: ...And then what?
Rorschach: Exactly. What happens after they're saved?
Manhattan: They live!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: They work together!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: (frustrated) They live happily ever after Rorschach. I don't know what you want!
Rorschach: Happily ever after. Do you really believe that?
Manhattan: I know too much about human nature to do so. But I don't get what you're aiming at.
Rorschach: Aiming at? I'm aiming at nothing, Manhattan. I don't even know for sure that the war you and Veidt claim will happen, really will.
Manhattan: It will, Rorschach.
Rorschach: So you say. But you don't know what will happen after some period of peace. You're many things, but omniscient isn't one - even you know that.
Manhattan: So what?
Rorschach: So, you don't know what the ultimate consequences of your actions will be.
Manhattan: Ultimate, no. But I know some of their consequences.
Rorschach: But for all you know, those consequences will be even worse in time.
Manhattan: For all I know, they won't be. And I know that in the short-term, some of the consequences are better with one choice than another.
Rorschach: But you don't know about the long-term consequences.
Manhattan: So?
Rorschach: If you did know, would they matter?
Manhattan: I suppose they would.
Rorschach: And for all you know, any choice you make actually has worse consequences than the choice you forsake.
Manhattan: In an ultimate or very long-term sense, sure.
Rorschach: So, the consequences are all that matter, yet you never know the consequences of your acts.
Manhattan: Totally untrue. I know some of the consequences.
Rorschach: But *some* of the consequences don't matter. What matters is *all* of the consequences. Even you have to admit that my exposing Veidt would have at least some good consequences.
Manhattan: Not enough.
Rorschach: But you don't know that, remember? Your ability to deduce the future has a limit. For all you know, the ultimate consequences of letting me expose Veidt are better in total than the consequences of you hiding his crime.
Manhattan: There are limits. If you wipe out all of humanity with your act, how could good consequences accrue afterwards?
Rorschach: By avoiding excessive bad consequences that could potentially come from humanity's continued existence, for one. Maybe Veidt's future will yield many in unending torment. For another, even assuming humanity couldn't recover from a nuclear holocaust, how do you know some species would not fill our void?
Manhattan: Or maybe they won't. Or maybe the consequences will be even worse in your scenario.
Rorschach: Maybe indeed. But you can't know. By your own admission, the totality of consequences is what matters. But you never know the totality. You only know a tiny sliver of the consequences from a vastly - perhaps infinitely - greater list. You may as well know none of the consequences at all. You're deciding blindly.
Manhattan: Let's say I accept that for the sake of argument. Then how should I decide what to do?
Rorschach: Exactly the way I do, Manhattan. There is good and there is evil. Do only what is good. Even in the face of armageddon, do not compromise in this.

...And there we have it for now. Naturally, I can imagine some additional replies Manhattan could give, some replies Rorschach can give to those, and more points Rorschach could raise. (In fact, the setup itself is a bit tricky since it takes place after Veidt's act, not before.) But the issue I want to stress here is that consequentialism is, of course, focused on the consequences of acts... but the entirety of consequences is never known to anyone but God. If "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", but I can't be sure if I'm siding with the many or the few, I'm in trouble. How can I live according to the 'rules' of consequentialism if I never fully grok the consequences?


Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

The clsing lines you wrote get at the heart of the matter. The two key differences between consequentialism and an ultimate theodicy are 1) that consequentialists will to commit evil that good may result, whereas God does not commit evil (He simply brings good out of evil committed by others), and 2) omniscience is the only basis for a coherent consequentialist forecast. Once you put pressure on that joint, consequentialism quickly folds into utilitarianism––what we do now, and its consequences, matter only to "we the majority" since future people don't exist and the past is settled. A strange irony, of course, is that consequentialists will even admit they are committing evil, yet go ahead with it. So it's not really about proving some act A is immoral and then deciding what to do; rather, it's simply a matter of throwing one's sack over the shoulder, sniffing right at the moral option, and plunging ahead on "moral" grounds.

Crude said...

You know, I wonder if that rendition of utilitarianism - "future people don't exist and the past is settled" - runs into problems on eternalism.

More seems wrong here, but the problem with even identifying consequences is what I wanted to focus on. (Actually in the comic/movie, Manhattan hints at a similar conclusion. He goes ahead with killing Rorschach and decides to leave the galaxy - and when Veidt asks him if he did the right thing in the end, Manhattan's reply is "nothing ever ends".)

James Jones said...

Excellent post, Crude. Don't be so hard on your ability to philosophize.