(urth) Necromancy, and Severian on trial

Chris rasputin_ at hotmail.com
Sun Mar 20 17:13:50 PST 2005

Before getting to the potentially on-topic part of things, a couple points I 
feel need to be made:

>seems more likely to help. I haven't adopted the 'duty' part of the 
>imperative.  I don't like duty systems- not amenable to rational thought, 
>and can lead to results totally diametric to my own desired results 
>("Recruits! It is your solemn patriotic duty to exterminate all life on 
>this god-forsaken globe! Why? Your duty is to follow orders, not ask why! 
>Fall out!" etc.)

This is a mischaracterization of what "duty" means in a duty-based ethical 
system. Kant's system, for example, was all about rational thought. Most 
duty-based systems are characterized simply by a deep respect for some kind 
of "rights" that they (for various reasons) believe an individual to have. 
Which is just to say that while the results-oriented person is usually out 
there looking for ways to positively maximize things according to some 
ideal, the duty-oriented person is usually primarily concerned with the 
things they should *not* do (rules against harming others).

The potential for nastyness you point out is a possibility that arises for 
any moral system that tries to be "objective" (and both utilitarianism and 
duty-based ethics do this); the main difference will just be the rhetoric 
employed. ("Fret not, citizens, sometimes individuals like yourselves must 
be sacrificed for the good of the state.") It's sort of an inherent risk, 
because the claim that morals are objective puts them somehow "out there" in 
the world rather than "in here" with your conscience; it implies that if an 
authority figure sees a particular action as right, and your culture 
approves that judgment, then if you see things differently you must simply 
be mistaken, your dissenting view is not likely to be respected.

>I know of rule utilitarianism, and while I am deeply sympathetic to its 
>aims of formulating a utilitarianism suitable for fallible or even 
>malicious humans, I do not think it has come up with the right mix of 
>rules, methods and heuristics necessary.  But its goal of  developing a 
>utilitarianism that only ractchets upward never downward is nevertheless I 
>feel, possible.

Well from what you've said, the type of rule utilitarianism you would 
approve of really collapses into a sort of act utilitarianism, augmented by 
rules of thumb (for situations where you're uncertain, or where quick 
judgments are required)... so it really loses its intended purpose in that 
context. But this isn't a problem specific to YOUR perspective - this is 
just why it's debated whether such a distinct thing as "rule utilitarianism" 
is even possible.

>That would be in /"Reason and Responsibility: Read­ings in Some Basic 
>Problems of Philosophy"/

Or "Ethical Theory" by Pojman, but really you could probably find it in any 
recent ethics textbook.

Now, to drag this whole deal into something that's slightly more on-topic:

This has been done to death from certain perspectives, but I am interested 
in the reasons *why* we let Severian off as lightly as we generally do. The 
guy is a mass-murderer. In bringing the New Sun, he willfully killed more 
innocent people than Hitler. Yet, even if we're inclined to say that we 
don't "approve" of Severian or his actions in various ways, we generally 
don't talk about him in a way that really takes this very seriously.

Looking at it from a results-oriented perspective (utilitarianism, if you 
like, but any such perspective will do) his actions are not only justified, 
they are unproblematic. A "moral jury" of utilitarians would, in theory, not 
just find Severian "not guilty" of any wrongdoing - they would dismiss the 
case out of hand, Severian need feel no remorse because he did precisely the 
right thing. And yet most of us would intuitively say that to contemplate 
killing an entire world without so much as batting an eyelash is deeply 

Finding some kind of rule or duty that would justify Severian's action is a 
little more difficult, but possible. Such a perspective is a little more 
intuitive... Severian broke an important rule (and should feel bad about 
that), but only to avoid breaking an even more important rule (which thus 
excuses him from punishment/sanction). In such a case the moral court might 
find Severian technically guilty, but pronounce no sentence. And yet, aren't 
we still taking what Severian did a little too lightly?

Severian's defense is that the old world had to be destroyed to make way for 
the new; the rebirth of the planet/race unfortunately requires the death of 
the old. But isn't this precisely the rhetoric used by tyrants and 
demagogues to justify horrific crimes? The old degenerate society, they say, 
needs to die in order to bring about a rebirth, a new order. Their vision of 
a new utopia - perhaps advanced perfectly sincerely - requires a sacrifice, 
a cleansing of the old ways: blood and fire. Thinking of it this way are we 
likely to condone a modern-day Severian who comes to us claiming that we all 
need to die to bring about some future paradise? When we bring it closer to 
home, without the benefit of hindsight (knowing that it will, after all, 
work out for the best in the end), what we see is the case of one man who 
takes the lives of billions in his hands based on his own notion of what 
needs to be done - and this is a person who freely admits that he's not even 
sure if he's sane any more.

So a third perspective here is to find Severian guilty and hold him fully 
accountable; he should be punished for his horrific crimes, and certainly 
not looked on with approval. Note that this doesn't preclude us for having 
some sympathy/understanding for the character: Severian was perhaps acting 
on a deeply felt conviction, a religious or spiritual principle rather than 
an ethical one. If so then perhaps (if his religious impulse was correct) he 
will be vindicated in a Higher Court, but as for this world, we can only 
look upon the man with horror.

I think that variations of these three ways of looking at things probably 
cover most of the ways we would tend to treat a human being who had done 
what Severian did. But I don't think that any of them quite match the actual 
reaction most of us have to Severian's character. I think that we ultimately 
exempt him from deep judgment because, in some way, we don't feel that he 
*could* have done otherwise. And you can only blame someone for doing 
something if they actually have a choice.

We get this impression that Severian has no free will in this particular 
matter, it seems, from the fact that the narrator displays a singular lack 
of doubt about what he's doing (and yet, does not come off as a fanatic 
either). The narrator speaks as if under the assumption that the reader 
could not possibly even doubt the rightness of this action, it simply can't 
be questioned. This much may seem trivially obvious, I don't know, but I am 
leading up to a general question about just how we should take this.

One way to look at it is that Severian, as an author, is deliberately using 
this literary device to attempt to keep us from asking him to justify his 
actions (presumably because he can't). Nobody seems to really want to treat 
the book and the character as if this is all there is to it, though. So what 
is *Wolfe* trying to do? It would seem uncharacteristic of him to be making 
a veiled attack on the notion of free will. At least not as it applies to 
humans. Is the answer just that we intuitively accept that Severian, as the 
Conciliator, *isn't* human? To a certain extent it is easy for us to see him 
as a sort of cog in the celestial machine, a sort of angel (like Tzadkiel) 
with his own destined role to play, and this is prepared for us quite early 
on, in the passages about Talos's play. But it seems to me that this can't 
be all there is to it, because in every other way we *do* accept Severian as 
human. This paints a very strange picture. Are we to think of Severian as a 
man or not? And if we do think of him as a man, what sort of strange view of 
free will are we embracing in doing so?

Apologies for the long-windedness, but to make up for it I will try to sit 
down and be quiet now.
-- Civet

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