“I am right, therefore …” or, A Heuristic for Detecting Pitfalls in Ethical Behavior

It is very easy to presuppose—implicitly and subconsciously—that one is right, unknowingly using that assumption to justify later claims.

Oftentimes we therefore fall into a fallacy of ethical reasoning where we assume, because we have the right position, that we are licensed to do actions that someone else—coming from the morally wrong position—is not permitted to do. We can therefore arrive at a heuristic for ethical reasoning: If an action’s moral right- or wrong-ness is determined solely by whether its doer comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ position, then the justification for the rightness of an action is probably faulty.

This seems like a contrived pitfall, but is actually quite common:

In public shaming, we see this often. People find it acceptable to find someone’s personal information, track them, cost them their jobs, reputations, and cause their humiliation, because they feel that they represent the right side. Doxxing and public shaming seem to be morally wrong if associated with shaming Tyler Clementi to death, yet somehow acceptable to shame another private person on twitter for for being racist, homophobic, or sexist, as was the case with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweets. In reality, both are wrong.

In world conflict, this faulty logic is often the justification of unending cycles of violence. Those performing acts of terrorism in the West use the deaths of their countries’ civilians abroad as a justification to target and kill civilians in the west. From the terrorist’s point of view, the only thing differentiating their actions from the imperialist regime they claim to fight is that “We are us and they are them.—Since we are right, it is also right to …”

We see this in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Rightist, Orthodox Israeli political parties believe it is right to expel or subjugate Palestinians, control the entire West Bank, and are okay with the many civilian casualties of the campaigns like the Gaza War. The basis for the Justification is that Hamas believes it is right to expel Israelis so that the entire land that constitutes the state of Israel is part of a Palestinian state, and are okay with civilian casualties as part of rocket or bombing operations. This is largely true; Hamas believes they are right and Jewish Home or United Torah Judiasm are wrong because… they are on the right side of the conflict. The same applies to either side.

Oftentimes indeed, one side of a conflict chooses to justify its actions towards another side solely because it presupposes that it is right. This is never an appropriate justification.

“I am right, therefore, I am right.” How unfortunate, but also, how inherently human.

In the west, thinkers and laypersons are getting over moral relativism. This is sometimes good, but also exposes new challenges. Indignation and self-righteousness are sweeping the internet. We condemn the conservative shaming campaign of Monica Lewinsky, but endorse the shaming campaign of Justine Sacco for her racist tweet. Conservatives shamed Lewinsky for her “lack of family values”, they viewed sexual modesty as a moral good and frowned on her impiety and acts of adultery. They labeled her a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Progressives will argue that these are bad reasons to shame someone. But unlike the conservatives, progressives often believe that casual racism and insensitivity are just cause for public shaming.

If you condemn one side for committing the same action you did, but justify your action with the fact that you decided a priori that you unlike others, actually represent the right side, then you are likely wrong.

What is the lesson here? The lesson is not to be a total relativist and never act against injustices we perceive, but rather, to seek further justifications, in hope that those justifications will inform our behavior and allow us to act with moderation.

Take Justine Succo for example. I argue that we should reject the naive argument that “unlike slut shaming, racism and bad and thus racist shaming is acceptable”. So now, we ask ourselves again: should we act? Sometimes, the answer becomes ‘no’. Sometimes, though, we now see real reasons to act behind the layers of indignation and revenge. If we allow racist speech to propagate, racism propagates, and becomes further embedded in our society, victimizing many. Therefore, we seek more enlightened ways to act: sometimes, we reach out to said person and offer to have a conversation; at other times, we decide to counter negative speech about one group with positive speech, or simply speak out to disagree (without personally shaming an individual), so that the public atmosphere is not polluted by these statements.

In international politics, it means stepping back from an “us versus them” mentality, and realize that our arguments are often 100% equivalent to “we should do X to the other side because they do X to us”—always a bad reason to justify anything. Maybe then we will advocate to more moderate or long-sighted policies, and put aside the very basic intuitive bloodthirsty retribution-seeking impulses.