January 02, 2006
Inconsequential considerations . . .
Do ideas have consequences?
For many years, I have wanted to know, but I've been unable to find a simple answer to this stubborn question.
It has always seemed to me that ideas, like mathematical formulas, are neither good nor bad in themselves because they are intellectual products. Whether they are right or wrong does not become a moral question unless and until they are implemented by human beings in one form or another. People often speak about the horrors of such things as Communism or Nazism, and, because these things were "ideas," there's a rush to blame the idea itself as opposed to the implementation of it. My objection to this is that if, say, Mao killed 73 million people implementing Communism, blaming the idea not only tends to let him off the hook, it also lessens the personal responsibility of the millions who carried out the killings. Same thing with Hitler. Anti-Semitism is a very old idea, but it took Hitler and modern technology to implement it in a modern, murderous scale.
Was Auschwitz necessarily a "consequence" of the "idea" of anti-Semitism?
Slavery is something nearly everyone today considers morally wrong in the extreme. But for reasons which escape me, the "idea" of slavery is not blamed for the horrible things which occurred. Yet it wasn't that long ago that abolition of slavery was considered to be a terrible idea -- an idea so bad that people who merely advocated it were censored, imprisoned, even killed. Is the spread of that idea (that slavery was morally wrong) responsible for the Civil War?
Suppose I were to maintain the following:
1. There is no moral duty nor legal obligation to pay income taxes;People are free to believe the above statements, or not believe them. But if they believe them, and then implement them in their personal lives, are the ideas themselves responsible? If so, why doesn't that make me responsible for unpaid taxes, ruined lives, and deaths?
I'm inclined towards the view that ideas of Person A are not themselves responsible for the conduct of Person B.
But if that view is right, does that necessarily mean that the ideas have no consequences? Further, how can there be any moral difference between an inconsequential idea and an idea with consequences? Suppose Hitler's and Marx's ideas had been ridiculed and never implemented? Would the fact that they'd be obscure tomes sitting on dusty shelves make them any more or less immoral? I don't see how.
Which means that even if we grant that "ideas have consequences" in some circumstances, it's also quite clear that other ideas (or the same ideas in different circumstances) have no consequences.
So what's the consequence of the idea that ideas have consequences?
I may never know.
posted by Eric on 01.02.06 at 09:41 AM
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