Saturday, June 03, 2006

Stephen Brust: The Lord of Castle Black (and an aside on morality)

I just finished Stephen Brust's The Lord of Castle Black. It doesn't end at all conclusively, and the general comments I made about The Paths of the Dead apply here, too. It's just as long-winded and tiresome. Luckily, 400 pages is enough to get through the significant middle part of this story. But I'm going to leave a review until I find and finish the final volume: Sethra Lavode. For now, I'm going to go off on a tangent about morality, ends, and means. The context is a series of conversations Brust has his characters act out as they are all preparing to enter battle (on various sides). In the first conversation of the sequence, Grita (amoral schemer) and Lieutenant Tsenaali (high-born) discuss their mutual enmity, and what they each might do about it. The Lieutenant is worried that she might have him stabbed during the battle, though they fight for the same side.

Grita chuckled. "Am I to be insulted by this?"

"There is no need to waste time with such pretense."

"You, however would never do such a thing to an enemy—dispatching him with guile?"

"I would never achieve a victory at the cost of my honor; that is the difference between us."

"Is that it? Do you think, perhaps, that there is also this difference: I am determined?"

"And I am not?"

"You carry out your duties as well as you can, being certain that you are never required to do anything on a certain list, a list of things a nobleman wouldn't do. Whereas I intend to accomplish what I have set out to accomplish, and I do not let obstacles deter me—whether the obstacle is imposed from without, or is only in the mind."

This sets the stage for a longer, more explicit conversation about ends and means. The protagonists are preparing to enter battle, and Roanna wonders whether it is moral to use sorcery, since they have access to a special magic (recently reactivated) that their opponents can't use. Several of the party are consulted (in the long-winded fashion of this book, so I won't recite all the details.) Aerich says it's moral, because they're working to restore the empire.
"The defense of the Empire is a gentleman's first duty, at all times. To attack the Empire, as those people are doing, is to commit a grave moral crime, which goes beyond a matter of statute. Any aristocrat can declare this or that thing illegal—but to commit a crime is to do something wrong, and to oppose the Empire is to commit a crime."

"And so the method by which this is accomplished is not important?" said the young Dzurlord, looking rather dubious.

"Important?" said Aerich. "Very! Is is of supreme importance. It is through the means that the goal is accomplished. If the goal is important, how can the means not be?"

Roanna isn't sure she understands, and Piro steps in to continue the questioning:
"Are you actually saying that, if the goal to be achieved is noble, we are permitted to use ignoble means to accomplish it?"

"Not the least in the world," said Aerich. "Those who say the ends justify the means, and those who say the ends do not justify the means, are both wrong."

Aerich then has to explain that the question is wrong, and that,
There is a relationship between means and ends, but it is neither one of justifying, or of failing to justify. It is one of prescribing and proscribing."
His example (which direction do you travel along a road to reach a known destination?) shows that all he means here is that you choose the ends that will achieve your goals. He claims that it's a matter of efficacy rather than justifying. Piro sums up with
"If one finds oneself using dishonorable methods to achieve a goal, it would follow that the goal, itself, is dishonorable? Or if not dishonorable, in some other way flawed?"
All the characters seem to find this a satisfying conclusion to the argument, but it seemed completely wrong to me.

A good friend of mine often says "There are no ends, there are only means." I think she's trying to make a similar point, which I've always interpreted as saying that ends don't have moral status. You will be judged (if you believe in judgment) not on what goals you pursue, but on whether the actions you take (in pursuit of whatever goals you chose) are acceptable. Immoral actions don't reflect badly on your goals, they reflect badly on you.

Grita has no morals: she serves her own ends, and doesn't care about other people.

Tsenaali elevates honor above all. If the code he follows is consistent with morality, he will act morally. But we don't know enough about what the code says about a large number of issues to judge for certain.

Aerich comes very close; he's correct that good ends don't justify the use of ignoble means and that important ends ought to be pursued when feasible. (Aerich has already said that he believes defense of the empire is a moral duty.) But Piro's summary leaves out a crucial point. Ends and means are not absolutely moral or immoral, standing on their own. Their moral status is justified within a framework of values.

Each of us has to construct this framework of values on our own. In it, some values serve others. If you think you must use methods that seem wrong in order to pursue a goal you value, it's time to reexamine your values more generally. Your goals fit into your overall sense of value. Their pursuit is justified within the framework of your values. Your framework of values is also what gives you the sense that some means may be unacceptable.

To compare the moral status of desired goals and questionable means, you have to find where they each sit in the overall framework, and decide whether your values are better served by recharacterizing the means as justified or the ends as valuable but out of reach.

The possible outcome which many people fail to consider is that sometimes valuable goals are out of reach. Achieving that goal using those means would be an overall detriment to your sense of value. In those cases, ends don't justify means.

Unobjectionable means don't require good ends for justification. It takes extraordinary ends (ones worthy of reordering your priorities) to justify ignoble means. If you reorder your priorities at that level very often as an adult, people will judge you either flighty or amoral. If you never compare the moral status of ends and means, you will seem as stiff as Tsenaali.

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