Friday, January 02, 2009

The Tyrannicide Problem

Audiences are flocking to Valkyrie, a pretty good movie about one of the true heroes of the twentieth century, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. The critics on the other hand seem to be suffering from some kind of irrational reaction to the fact that Tom Cruise plays the hero. He really seems to throw them into a tizzy. Personally, I almost never either like or dislike a movie because some mime appears in it, and so I regard this one as worth seeing. Actors are sock-puppets, and (now that Pauline Kael is gone) critics should be ignored. Except for me, of course.

Anyway, when Bryan Caplan saw this movie recently he was moved to comment on an interesting problem posed by the practice of tyrannicide. No, it isn't how could it be justified? He rightly takes that to be obvious (how could you not kill Hitler if given the chance?) but why isn't there a lot more of it? People seem to have a deep-seated aversion to killing evil authority figures. (Notice that Dante puts Brutus on the same level of Hell as Judas -- the lowest.) Why?

His rather disturbing answer (other than that people are afraid of the consequences): there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as conventionally understood) and obedience to authority. Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys. This of course is exactly what Nietzsche would have said.

If Caplan and Nietzsche are right, it probably means that the ways of thinking and acting that most ethical theories recommend are actually very rare. Most are, after all, instances of what you might call epistemological individualism. Whether your favorite theory is utilitarianism, Kantian rationalism, or Randian individualism, they tell you that the way to act is to apply principles, ideals and algorithms to the problems of life, using the powers of your own mind. If there is a high correlation between morality and obedience to authority, the most likely explanation for that would be that people's obedience authority is the source of their "morality." In that case, the theory that actually describes the way such people act is relativism, which tells you to follow the lead of ... whoever or whatever makes the rules that actually govern society.

And that, to me, is very disturbing, for a number of reasons. One is that it means that if the person making the rules is Hitler, you may be stuck with him. The only people with the guts to take him out will tend to be the ones who don't care. In fact, they may be working the system for all its worth, and making out like bandits. Is that what actually happens, I wonder?
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