Monday, August 18, 2008

No "General System Of Mendacity"?

For various reasons I've been thinking about what happens when people act, or judge, in ways that fail to fit a coherent or systematic pattern. It's tempting to say that there's something funny, or wrong, when someone who always acts or judges in accordance with a policy or system then acts or judges against that policy.

If someone goes around denouncing various behaviors, and gets all high and mighty about it, and then engages in the very same behavior herself, or approves of it in her friends, well, it's really annoying.

Sometimes such a person is judging, or acting, in a way that is hypocritical, or morally creepy. To judge according to one set of standards for person A and another for person B just because you like B better violates the demands of fairness. So there can be a moral condemnation.

But some people have the intuition that it's more than "unfair" to do this -- that it is somehow a violation of reason. It's "irrational" not to judge like cases alike. To which one always wants to say, "what on earth makes one case like another"?

I don't buy this irrationality move, myself. But in thinking about why it's wrong, I was struck by how hard it is to even say what is going on when someone judges in a way that seems "arbitrary," or non-systematic.

Because there are actually several things that can produce the effect, and they're all different.

Of course, a person may just be judging non-systematically and letting their emotions run away with them. That's the ordinary case.

But it could also be that a person has a kind of fucked-up policy in the first place. If someone's policy or system is to judge their friends according to one standard and strangers according to another policy, then they haven't violated their policy when they judge their friends differently. They just have an odd sense of priorities in the first place.

Then, too, a person might be in the process of changing his mind. If I have a policy of judging that something is bad, but then my friend gets involved, I may decide that I was dumb to judge so harshly in the first place, and I might change my policy.

The kicker with the last thing is that not only can I change my policy, I can change it back. How much of this can go on before you start to think the person doesn't really have a policy at all?

In the second and third case, what's irrational?

Imagine R is very harsh in judging drug use: he thinks it is immoral and that the people who use drugs are evil. Then R's nephew gets addicted to drugs and R becomes compassionate and says his nephew is a good kid.

On my three readings, R might be simply allowing his love to get in the way of his judgment, or he may have a set of priorities under which love for family members generally trumps judging them harshly, or he may find that interaction with his nephew changes his mind about drug use.

It's tempting to think we can distinguish the cases by looking at someone's future behavior, but it's not so clear. After all, if R judges a stranger harshly next time, we still don't know whether it's part of a policy or he's just changed his mind back.

While I've been pondering this, I've been rereading Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Proust describes Odette as someone who acts and judges in a way that fails to be systematic: Odette lies, to her lover Swann, when she finds it useful to do so.

Swann appeals to her sense of coquettry: "can't you see how much of your attraction you throw away when you stoop to lying?"

But it doesn't work, because Odette has no policy of lying:

"In vain, however, did Swann expound to her thus all the reasons that she had for not lying; they might have succeeded in overthrowing a general system of mendacity, but Odette had no such system; she was simply content whenever she wished Swann to remain in ignorance of anything she had done, not to tell him of it. So that lying for her was an expedient of a specific order, and the only thing that could make her decide whether she should avail herself of it or confess the truth was a reason that was also of a specific or contingent order, namely the chance of Swann's discovering that she had not told him the truth."

Even with all these details, I'm not totally sure. Is Odette someone with a policy of not lying, who gets carried away by self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of telling the truth, except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of self-interest only: she only tells the truth when it's in her own interest to do so?

I'm inclined to think it's the second one myself: she has a policy of telling the truth except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest. In that case, Odette's lying isn't really an exception, at all. It's just part of the program.

We can say that there's something morally fishy about such a life program. But irrational? Not so much.

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