False Dichotomies (and True Ones)

Bluntness can be more conducive to understanding than subtlety.  But not always.  To be blunt – with irony fully intended – some things are just subtle, not readily put into words or pigeon-holed in the mind.

Plato is underestimated.  He posits an “ideal” world, more real than the visible world, where everything is clear.  Perfect.

Blunt.

But then there is the world of perception.  It is an imperfect and changing reflection of the ideal world.  In the world of perception, everything is the same as in the ideal world, and indeed the perceived world manifests the ideal world, except that it does so imperfectly.  And it never attains perfection.

Both worlds are “real”:  the ideal world is really real; the perceived world is a lesser reality, but still real.  What does it mean to say “real”?

Consider this:

“One of the things that distinguishes people is whether they’re proactive or reactive.  It’s always been my view that we take charge of our lives and circumstances, rather than let circumstances dictate how our lives will be.”

Proactive people “take charge of [their] lives and circumstances” and reactive people “let circumstances dictate how [their] lives will be.”

Reality doesn’t enter into it.  Maybe some people don’t believe in a reality beyond our own will.  What it boils down to is, I control circumstances or circumstances control me.  My will prevails or the wills of others prevail.  There is no third option and nothing in between.

One of the main characters in Scorsese’s award-winning “The Departed” is the gangster Costello, who does a little narrating at the beginning of the film:

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Be careful what you wish for, I might add.

In any case, the idea that neither of these things could possibly be true seems not to occur to Costello.  Or Greenfield.  The “environment” did not produce you, and you did not produce it.  Are the wise so confounded by the simple?

Such a lot of irony some days.  It must have something to do with the winter solstice.

Nietzche is more quotable than Kierkegaard, but I prefer Kierkegaard.  And if I can’t have Kierkegaard, I’ll happily settle for Plato.

“How far does the truth admit of being learned?  With that question let us begin.”  It’s a really short book, but I’ll grant that it’s not worth reading anyway if you rule out the opening question in advance because things like “truth” and “justice” don’t exist.

Exist?  Existentialism has its insights, and Kierkegaard is regarded by some as the first existentialist.  We associate existentialism with atheism or agnosticism, but that’s a 20th century thing.

A lot went wrong in the 20th century.  But let’s be fair:  a lot went right, too.

I’m not making a comment on free will either, Scott.  Not yet.

“Coming to grips with the fact that no one, no matter how proactive you are, can control everything is difficult.  There are some new blogs around demanding extreme measures of lawyers, because the system is so awful that we can no longer take it.”

So maybe reality factors in there somewhere after all, since you have to “come to grips” with your non-omnipotence?  I’ve been unfair then.

Unlike Greenfield, the gangster Costello is incorrigible.  “Non serviam” is also among his lines in the film.

That’s not subtle.

I have no monopoly on unfairness, though.  Is striking an “extreme measure”?  It’s non-violent.  It’s not affirmatively coercive.  It’s a traditional tactic of the relatively powerless directed at the relatively more powerful.

It is the powerful who are more likely to succumb to the temptation of believing they can “dictate” reality.  It requires a special disconnect for the powerless to believe that.  I suppose it’s not impossible for such a disconnect to occur, but at most that’s tomorrow’s problem.

Believing that there’s “no such thing” as justice is an intellectual error; but more than that, for a lawyer and a prosecutor and a judge it is … convenient.

We’re fortunate to have conveniences, as you rightly point out Mr. Greenfield:

“Almost every person reading this has a wonderful life.  There are people whose suffering, whose frustration, whose problems dwarf ours…As the wind blows and snow comes down, I’m sitting in my library where it’s warm.  Not everyone can say that.”

So you’re thankful, which is a mark of high character.  But convenience breeds ease, and ease for some can result in hardship for others if we’re not careful and attentive that things not become altogether too easy; and as Kiergkegaard says elsewhere, when things become altogether too easy there is only one want left:  difficulty.

I’m going to ask you again, Scott:  after some 30 odd years as a lawyer, is the lot of those coming after you easier or harder?  And I’m not referring to whether they can buy a BMW; I’m asking whether they are less or more able to participate in a system that operates as it ought to?  And if it’s less, what exactly is your proposal to bring the scales you’ve been playing with all that time a little more back into balance?

Oh, I forgot.  There’s no need to bring anything back into balance, because there’s “no such thing” as justice.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “False Dichotomies (and True Ones)

  1. Mike

    With apologies to Clarence Darrow, there is justice exists – in and out of court – but not in the way we want it to exist. Justice is a rhetorical concept we use to persuade others to agree with our moral sentiments -the source of our sentiments being evolution, culture, and perhaps idiosyncrasy.

    When the cat consumes the mouse, is that just? Does the question even make sense? By what right is the mouse’s life elevated over the cat’s – which is the logical presupposition in condemning the killing of a mouse.

    When a man goes to prison for killing a neighbor, is that just? Does the question even make sense? By what right is the deceased’s life elevated over the killer’s?

    Not willing to go down that Socratic path? Not many are, as it represents amoralism, which is presumed on epistemic nihilism.

    Justice – or perhaps it makes more sense to speak of INjustice – is a departure from our morality. Which presupposes that morality exists.

    Or not. Can justice be separated from morality? And if they cannot, one must ask for the source of justice and morality. It’s at that First Premise where we really see disagreement.

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    • I don’t think “sentiments” is fair. Sentiments vary with people and situations. By contrast everyone knows that, say, a person convicted of a crime he didn’t in fact do is an injustice.

      The ancients and medievals had an answer for the cat consuming the mouse: neither are moral actors. On the other hand, we consume beef, and recognize a moral obligation not to be cruel to the cow even if we must kill the cow to eat.

      The First Premise was more of a problem in the 19th and 20th centuries than it was in antiquity. Whether it’s still as much of a problem in the 21st remains to be seen.

      The souls of the 20th century were darkened by mass murder, war without limit. Nietzche took hold more than he should have.

      The pagan Greeks arrived at substantially the same conclusions regarding morality and justice as the later Christians. This was not sentimentalism, then. What was it? It may not matter, on the practical level. So while we may see a lot of disagreement regarding the First Premise, maybe we don’t have to deal with that until later, if at all.

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  2. Mike

    Humans, unlike mice, are moral agents. Why? It’s either because God gave us souls or because we have the ability to reason. Yet God and reason conflict, since reason requires premises to be proven; where as God requires that we listen to his authority.

    The First Premise will always animate the discussion. We often just don’t realize it.

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    • Reason requires premises to be proven; but reason also struggles with the idea of its own limits. Certain things may be beyond reason, not necessarily in conflict with it.

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