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;

2. Taking LSD is not only perfectly safe, but will lead to direct communion with God, as well as great personal enlightenment;

3. All disagreements should be settled by duelling contests; and

4. Suicide is the only morally correct option when faced with personal bankruptcy.

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


In a film about Jacque Derrida, someone asked the great professor why, given his views about morality, didn't he steal his students' wallets. He was quite offended.

In this context, he chose not to implement his deconstructionist ethics. Many of his students, however -- or more accurately, students of students who capture deconstructionist ideas not from advanced philosophers but from the air -- don't just think about the idea that ethics are divorced from tradition, but implement it with knives and baseball bats.

Thus with anti-Semitism. If it's just a few dusty intellectuals thinking Jews are a menace, well, it harms them more than anyone else. But when the rowdies get a hold of it, it's Kristallnacht.

So if what the rowdies do with an idea is one measure of its consequence, what happens when the rowdies get a hold of the idea that ideas have consequences? Vote Republican?

Jan Bear   ·  January 2, 2006 11:48 AM

Not "ideas", but propositions. A propositions written on a piece of paper, locked in a coffin at the bottom of the Pacific, unknown to anyone, won't have any consequences.

Actually, ideas dissociated from action are a philosophical fancy and nothing more. The meaning of a word or phrase is its use in our language games (and generally, in our behavior), as Wittgenstein would have put it.

We think as we think and we live as we live and nothing here is accidental, in a sense.

It's not true that I could genuinely believe P or not believe P and everything else could stay the same. The process by one which believes is intimately connected to all other aspects of existence.

To separate mental representations and then worry about their external implications is a case in which you set up your own problem. The answer lies in the first part (the separation).

Thinking and acting--in real life, not in the dualistic philosophies of people too smart for their own good--are different sides of the same coin.
For the human individual, acting without thinking is impossible and thinking without acting is meaningless (in the strong sense).

Gabriel Mihalache   ·  January 2, 2006 12:01 PM

Acting on ideas is what has consequences, keeping in mind that deciding an idea is a good one and passing it around is also 'acting on an idea' (the idea that the original idea is a good idea).

But I think Gabriel is right that the idea/act are two sides of the same coin.

Kathy K   ·  January 2, 2006 3:20 PM

Quite correct- 2 sides of the coin. Acting on ideas can of course have consequences, but ideas may be good or bad in and of themselves. This is the cornerstone of the moral and spiritual. Desiring to rape or murder someone and exploring scenarios that make the idea feasible, is still bad, even though one may never act on the desire or the scenarios. Of course, if the doctrine of the Christians is to believed, people are still accountable for such ideas, even if they are not acted upon. The saved must still answer for their ideas and conduct at the Judgement Seat of Christ, ( a sort of deeply testing life review in which the unsuitable will be noted and winnowed out, understanding and learnings reflected on, and rewards, if any, will be distributed) although they do not come under eternal judgement. The lost likewise who reject Christ as Saviour must still give account on the Last Day for both thought and deed, although their case is much more serious, since, without a Saviour, their judgement is for eternity. Just as there are gradations of judgement (the ax murderer is not dealt with the same as the petty shoplifter), there are gradations of ideas, for good or ill. Other religions handle it differently. Nevertheless the concept of accountability is still one to consider even if ideas are not implemented.

Shirley   ·  January 2, 2006 3:53 PM

If we take life extension as an example, is pursuing life extension research an implementation of the idea? Or would living longer be the implementation? Are people who propose living longer responsible if, as Ian Schwartz speculates

that causes billions of people to riot?

Suppose Marx truly believed that Communism would result in a wonderful, peaceful world. Is he to blame for the fact that his ideas proved wildly unworkable?

My problem is in blaming thinkers for actions taken by people other than them. Some people can handle certain thoughts and subjects, while others cannot, just as some people are more emotionally stable than others, and some people are able to handle alcohol more easily than others. What one man might find entertaining might ruin another man's life. (I have seen numerous examples in my life, and I think it's an unresolved disagreement at the core of the libertarian/communitarian split.)

If there a duty to protect people from that which they cannot handle? It seems condescending, because in a free society there is no way to control ideas. Especially in the online world.

Eric Scheie   ·  January 2, 2006 4:06 PM

It really is a good question, but while it's not possible to go back and lynch Karl Marx for what turned out to be a dismally unsuccessful political and economic system, it can be useful to argue that Lenin and Stalin represent a pattern in downstream Marxists.

So when early 21st-century theorists start waxing nostalgic about Karl Marx and his followers, it's incumbent on the rest of us to point out what we have learned from history -- which seems to be humanity's trial-and-error laboratory for idea-testing.

By the way, I appreciate what a thought-provoking post Eric put up here. One of the most enjoyable I've seen in a long time.

Jan Bear   ·  January 2, 2006 5:51 PM

An idea, in isolation, does not have consequences. It is when an idea is promulgated, and actions result, that there are consequences. That is what consequences are.

Should I suspect that the speed of light limitation can be breached, I doubt anyone would listen; and I am incapale of doing more. No consequences.

But should Stephen Hawking state such a suspicion, capable people would listen, and act. Thus, consequences.

Not that there is linearity between the idea and any consequences. Einstein came up with quantum theory, but was bitterly opposed to the quantum mechanics others extrapolated from his ideas. Alfred Nobel was appalled at the use of his dynamite for purposes other than mining. The Kellog who came up with corn flakes fought with his brother against turning it from a health food to be eaten dry into a breakfast food with milk/cream and sugar.

John Anderson   ·  January 2, 2006 10:04 PM

Ideas have consequences, the primary consequence being to the one who thinks the ideas - you and me. [Consequences to others still depend on them thinking - in a way - the ideas, too, even if they only "adopt" the ideas. But if you only adopt an idea, you have not thought it, in my way of thinking. Sorry for the definitions, but I think they also express the reality.]

What I am saying is that we really do have the capacity to think or generate ideas ourselves. That's our problem and our freedom - and our responsibility, if we want to avoid the consequence, which is not having a mind, to say nothing of having other people adopt our alleged ideas, then doing whatever they want based upon their "needs" or ability to be prompted like billiard balls, with the usual random, often destructive consequences.

But the capacity to form ideas is the real wonder to begin with, the capacity which says I want to know, or I want to perform ethically, or I want to understand the thing or process which created me. Nothing else matters in the sense that all consequences flow from this capacity, whose main consequence is to itself.

Therefore, I agree with Gabriel and must also note that Marx's sin was that he did not reflect upon his own ideas, which are manifestly false/destructive as presented. In my schema, Marx should have seen this. The consequence was to him as he "thought" his ideas, which he agressively and proudly presented as the epitome of his thought [indeed as the epitome of all thought!] and to the others who have adopted his thought - as well as to the 100 million dead others who couldn't have cared less about Marx's thought. How is Marx going to explain this to God when he couldn't explain it to himself?

Joe Peden   ·  January 3, 2006 10:52 PM

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