Never Say Never

Irrelevant to the Bin Laden context I reckon, but a worthwhile piece from Baggini on the idea of torture being an absolute no-no as some matter of principle. Of course like all rules, it’s the exceptions we need to be talking about – the old adage that “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the enslavement of fools.” That and making the distinction between thought experiments and their value in a real world situation, where the decision-maker must live with the consequences.

The paradox that yes, even absolute rules have exceptions.

The truth in “never say never” is that there are no exceptionless rules. But that does not mean there are no rules. Rules matter and to be rules they need to be universal in form: always do this, never do that. But it is foolish to rule out in advance the possibility that an occasion might arise when normal rules just don’t apply. Rules are not there to be broken, but sometimes break them we must.

Foolish = for fools – right?
Breaking rules = something wise people must do.
The more absolute the rule the greater the wisdom needed.

Some good stuff in Baggini’s piece – like even the excluded middle between a binary choice is not just another single third choice, they come in many potential varieties.

These responses ” yes, no and it’s a bad question so I won’t answer ” seem to exhaust the options. But I think there is a fourth option: yes and no, a contradiction that makes as much sense as “never say never”.

(PS – I recall that Harvard Law public lecture series on escalating otherwise very simple moral dilemmas …. must dig up the link.)

3 thoughts on “Never Say Never”

  1. “Yes & no” answers are not contradictory.
    If I’m asked if the weather will be good tomorrow, I might answer:
    “Yes & no. Yes the weather will be clear, but no it will not be warm.”
    There is nothing contradictory about a clear, cold day.
    Similarly, there is nothing paradoxical (or hypocritical) about advocating a
    categorical/absolute position that you will not always follow.
    We say “never torture” because we want that to be the default position,
    one that we take without having to think of the myriad of cases & whether
    one of them might be an exception. If the bomb/clock is ticking, then we will have to consider if there is an exception.

  2. Which is exactly what the post and article said, right ?

    Your answer on MD was subtly different, about not wanting to give “people” the opportunity to rationalize alternatives to the rule. Of course under the pressure of the ticking clock, that is exactly what we want to (allow to) happen, we just don’t want to waste time on hypothetical cases in advance.

    I have a longer answer to “tomorrow’s weather” – it’s a case of granularity (apart form the subjective nature of “good” weather). This part / aspect of the day will have quality x and this part / aspect will have quality y. So x and y are both true in a coarse sense. The problem is with extending that approach “objectively” to ever finer (reductionist) breakdowns and expecting a definitive case that will leave no exceptions. That’s where I see most argumentation (on MD).

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