The Right Thing

On NPR some days ago, I heard a speaker say that there were a lot of reasons for closing the US prison at Guantanamo, but that "the most important of them is that it’s the right thing to do."  He said it twice.

(I was already amused by the idea of closing Guantanamo because people there carried out policies decided on in Washington DC.  The logic could be that guilt adhered to the place itself; or that guilt could be made to adhere to it and then be done away with, as with a scape-goat.  If it worked with Jesus, why not with Guantanamo?)

But the idea that "being the right thing to do" is a reason rather than a conclusion is more intriguing.  Is this just circular logic?  I don’t think so.

Recall the Pope’s statements about reason vs. faith.  In this view, morality is associated with faith, which is contrasted with reason.  That’s the worldview America grew up with.

Take away the faith.  (This is NPR, after all.)  What happens?  After thousands of years of being attached to faith, does morality attach itself, in the minds of the public, to reason?  Or does it just become detached?  I think that the latter model explains the speaker’s statements: "The right thing" is something you just know – a support, not a conclusion.

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  • http://www.allancrossman.com/ Allan Crossman

    Hmm. While I didn’t hear the broadcast you heard, it sounds like the speaker wanted to draw a distinction between moral reasons for doing something, as opposed to some other types of reason.

    (The most obvious other type of reason would be self interest.)

    So the speaker was implicitly saying that moral reasons are not decisive, but he felt they ought to be. Or something.

  • http://bluej100.blogspot.com Braden

    I would, in accordance with Allan, interpret his statement as meaning that not only practical concerns but also morality make closing Guantanamo the optimal decision. His statement doesn’t necessarily imply that his moral argument is based on a gut feeling, only that he doesn’t feel it necessary to defend it in detail.

  • Ben

    Morality becomes detached at heart, as it always was. If we accept that morality is a kind of social instinct then it’s quite believable that it can just exist as a black box within most people’s minds that tells them what is or isn’t right.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    So morality is impractical?

    Is it possible for something to be the practical thing to do, but not the moral thing to do?

  • http://www.allancrossman.com/ Allan Crossman

    I was already amused by the idea of closing Guantanamo because people there carried out policies decided on in Washington DC.

    By the way, I don’t think this is the argument. The main problem with Guantanimo is not abuse occuring inside it, but rather the indefinite detention of people without trial.

    (But this is politics and perhaps not the interesting point here.)

  • http://bluej100.blogspot.com Braden

    I don’t think morality is meaningful unless it sometimes requires sacrifices. Although I’m pretty comfortable with the argument that morality is just a set of evolved instincts for group preservation, I certainly don’t find the belief that some things are valuable outside of eventual personal advantage laughable. (Is there nothing you’d die for?)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    I think the use of moral language here is intended to awaken the empathic circuits and a followup elaboration would likely include rather personal and emotional language. As seperate from the colder calculus of national policy or international law. It seems worth keeping in mind that we probably have specialized circuits for behavior in small groups and face-to-face interactions, and have to rely on more abstract\rational circuits co-opted for thinking of morality in other contexts.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    “The main problem with Guantanimo is not abuse occuring inside it, but rather the indefinite detention of people without trial.”

    Which is a policy that was decided on in Washington DC.

  • http://www.daegmorgan.net Raven Daegmorgan

    Another view would be that “the right thing” is simply convenient shorthand describing a variety of rationally-supported arguments tied to human rights and positive social choices that have been hashed out time-and-again historically and in the media, and therefore don’t need to be repeated yet again in full for a brief radio segment because “what it means” is instinctually understood by those immersed in and knowledgeable of the discussion, culture, and the basic human interpersonal behaviors.

    Which leads me to question the observation Philip expresses: it seems to me to be based on confusion of logical “right” (factual and rational correctness), with the above sort of “right” (interpersonal and social interaction), and the suggestion (at least to me) of a perception that the latter sort of right is somehow a less valuable or even laughable/primitive form, rather than an entirely separate category of thing.

    I wonder if either might not be due the use of the same word for both concepts in English, leading to a subconscious taxonomic confusion of their relationship, and an internal attempt by the mind to thus view both as the same.

    But I feel I am gazing deeply into my navel at this point, well past the lint.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Another view would be that “the right thing” is simply convenient shorthand describing a variety of rationally-supported arguments tied to human rights and positive social choices that have been hashed out time-and-again historically and in the media, and therefore don’t need to be repeated yet again in full for a brief radio segment

    Or it could be that, yeah.

    I think that each of these two explanations applies to a lot of people. One person’s shorthand is another person’s literal belief.

  • Caio Camargo

    I think the speaker was saying something rather different (although I can’t know without having listened to the segment): That there are many pragmatic reasons for closing down Guantanamo, like public image, the fact that it doesn’t produce good intelligence or even that it’s against international law, but that the moral reason to shut it down should be sufficient, and in fact the primary, reason to do it. He doesn’t have to articulate the moral reason, because it already has been elsewhere (so, “shorthand”), and it would take up airtime to do it.

    The reason this is nontrivial has to do with the whole “decided in Washington” thing. If they close down Guantanamo because it’s a PR nightmare at home and abroad, then nothing stops them from detaining people indefinitely elsewhere and more secretly. But if Washington takes a sincere moral position, i.e., does it because it is the right thing to do, then the President or Congress won’t just authorize some other similar detention facility because that would be against the moral principle that motivated closing down Guantanamo in the first place. So “doing it because it’s right” says something about Washington and not only Guantanamo.

  • Alan Gunn

    Mammy Yokum put it well: “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01053686432e970c/ Gwern Branwen

    “If they close down Guantanamo because it’s a PR nightmare at home and abroad, then nothing stops them from detaining people indefinitely elsewhere and more secretly.”

    You make it sound like closing down Guantanamo is useless. It isn’t; it’s an unforgeable commitment in that if they close it, they now have to pay the extra price, if they wish to continue their detaining ways, of either creating an entirely new prison (expensive, nontrivial), or coming up with more capacity in their other prisons. Can they do either of the latter? Sure, but neither is free.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1227585392s27146/ Philip Goetz

    AFAIK, they don’t plan to release the prisoners when they close Guantanamo.

  • Caio Camargo

    Gwern, the point is, if it’s done for the right reason, they won’t set up a similar prison, even if they can.

    And Philip, I think the whole idea is to end indefinite detainment, which means not releasing the prisoners outright, but bringing in some legal apparatus to determine whether they’re being lawfully held and/or giving them a fair trial. Closing Guantanamo is admittedly a somewhat (but not entirely) symbolic gesture, but if it’s done for sincere moral reasons, it will be accompanied by some legal provisions for the prisoners, as well as, hopefully, a better detainment policy. That’s why it’s important to do it for moral, rather than practical, reasons.

  • Ben Jones

    AFAIK, they don’t plan to release the prisoners when they close Guantanamo.

    So…they’re just going to leave them all there? Harsh.