What do you think of this essay? I’m curious of your opinion.
My correspondent included a link to an old essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” written by British philosopher Mary Midgley.
Midgley is a philosopher known for criticizing scientific reductionism and encouraging the use of moral philosophy to define ethical purposes, rather than merely to justify ethical means. She believes that religious sentiment is intrinsic to humanity. She has promoted and rationalized the Gaia Hypothesis.
This version of her essay is from a textbook edited by Christina Hoff Sommers, which coincidentally I read in an ethics class I took in 1987. The electronic file linked to was hosted on the site of Iranian transhumanist and human rights activist Sam Ghandchi, linked from a list of human rights articles written by others. Midgley first published the essay in her book, “Heart and Mind” (1981).
The essay criticizes the “moral isolationist” who refuses to exercise moral judgment against others. This is a reference to the isolationist stance before WWII, which was official US policy up until 1941. Isolationism as foreign policy was associated with conservative Republicans and southern Democrats in the US, based on a tradition of non-interventionism in foreign conflicts.
Midgley described her critique in more detail in the introduction to “Heart and Mind” and in the 1987 essay, “The Flight from Blame.” She attacked analytical philosophers for promoting a cowardly approach to ethics that led to a kind of post-modern refusal to judge anything as “wrong,” that is, moral relativism.
Midgley’s example (the inspiration for the title) is taken from an obscure and perhaps apocryphal Japanese custom of justifying the random street killing of a commoner by a samurai, by claiming that the samurai was merely testing his new sword. The Japanese term is tsujigiri, which literally means “crossroads killing” and may denote merely a street assault or a person committing such an attack. The practice was said to have been banned under the Edo regime in 1602. In practice, although the samurai had a formal right to kill a member of the common (or “non-human”) class of people for any discourteous conduct, most officials would probably have discouraged it. Even if the samurai was punished, the punishment depended upon the relative social standing of the attacker and the victim, although a victim was technically allowed to defend himself.
Most new samurai swords were actually tested on the corpses of executed criminals. So, really, my mysterious correspondent wanted me to comment on an ethical speculation about a foreign culture, where the main question is whether we have a right to judge the mythical practices of that culture.
It seems to me that the more interesting question is whether we have the right to moralize about other people based on mythology, speculation, and ignorant generalizations about them. I say, of course we do, since our ignorant opinion about them is also meaningless if we do not actually hold any power over them. We are free to pointlessly moralize about other countries and cultures, just as we are free to pointlessly moralize about national politics, sports, magical crystals, and the cosmic interrelatedness of ravioli and dung beetles. And everyone who doesn’t want to join us in our outrage has the right to ignore our ignorant generalizations.
So, on that issue, I suggest that we are free to moralize about anything at all, as long as there is no consequence. If an issue is consequential, that is, if our opinion will lead to an action that will affect others, then we are obligated to moralize about it.
Another interesting question is whether it is better to justify killing someone because they are lower status and personally offensive (a social reason), or because the weapon’s effectiveness needs to be proven (a pragmatic reason).
The obvious answer for a sociopath, such as a serial killer, is that the pragmatic justification of testing weapons or methods is preferable. Quality assurance, efficiency, and practical effectiveness are the hallmarks of the sociopath. Anyone with experience in the military, retail, industrial, or corporate world can verify this.
Normal, well-socialized people prefer to justify killing based on the low social status of the victim, along with pointing out any of their behaviors that might have provoked an attack. My research suggests that this was true most of the time in traditional Japanese society, as well as in traditional European society, and is still true today everywhere, including in the US.
Anecdotally, I’ve been physically attacked only by higher status males who thought they were enforcing some perverse social order, but not by any lower status people. (No, I’m not counting my brother and sisters.)
In conclusion, I suspect that samurai felt free to punish any commoner for any reason so as to maintain social order, even if it included killing them. Among themselves, they probably snickered about how they were just testing their swords. I don’t have any problem denouncing both practices.
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