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  • Why Not Kill a Mandarin?:An Exchange
  • Amihud Gilead

In a powerful and well-written thought experiment, Iddo Landau attempts to persuade us that "people cannot be trusted . . . people . . . such as ourselves need to be well supervised . . . there are important advantages in fearing others, in hesitating to be real individuals, and in constantly apprehending what 'they' will say."1

Following Balzac, Landau's thought experiment echoes, to some extent, Plato's myth of Gyges's ring in the Republic (359d ff. and 612b). One of the lessons the reader may draw from this myth is that not only fear but shame also plays a crucial role in human morality. With no shame, without the fear of being caught in a shameful act or deed, people would behave much less morally than they actually do. Like Plato's Socrates, mentioning the gods, the supreme judges in Hades,2 Landau relates his idea also to the belief in God (p. 93). Note also that Socrates's view of morality is compatible with the view that each human being is nothing but smikron, a trifle (Symposium 210b8). Plato's Socrates entertains no false ideas about the alleged "human individuality."

A similar logic leads Landau to conclude about the moral requirement "in hesitating to be real individuals," or, better, really autonomous individuals. Thus this conclusion also hints critically against Kantian autonomous morality. As if, contrary to Kant, Landau suggests that in order to behave morally, respecting the moral law or value is certainly less than enough. Instead, he argues, we have to fear what others will say about our behavior and preferences and, while behaving immorally, we [End Page 153] should be ashamed of ourselves in the eyes of other people; otherwise we would not be moral beings at all. All other motives, however sublime, are not sufficient to make us moral beings. Landau regards self-deception or simply wistful thinking of any attempt at thinking otherwise (p. 94), namely, that other motives (such as the respect for the moral law) are sufficient to behave morally. Landau's view is prudent, realistic, and powerful, but, nonetheless, annoying. I have a strong feeling that he is wrong, and this feeling of mine, I believe, does not rest upon self-deception or wishful thinking about humanity; it relies instead upon insight that is backed by sound argument.

Why a fairly ordinary person, one of us, would not like to kill a Mandarin, who has done no harm to any of us and who is a completely remote stranger, a lonely person whose death would not change any one else's life but instead would benefit that ordinary person a lot? Suppose, like Landau's thought experiment, that no one, absolutely no one, not even omniscient God, if He exists at all, would know even a little bit about the intention, let alone the deed, of any such potential murderer who can be any human being. What could be his or her reason, as sufficient motive, not to kill the Mandarin after all, even if such a murder would change the life of the potential murderer enormously for the better?

We have to explicate Balzac-Landau's thought experiment slightly in order to realize its failure. I call this explication "the mutual effect presupposition" (or, if you like, "the reflexive effect presupposition"). Actually, the thought experiment presupposes it for, if the wish or consent of the potential ("wishful") murderer can cause the Mandarin's death which, in turn, benefits the potential murderer immensely, they are both under the mutual effect presupposition. The problem is that Landau and others appear to be unaware of the moral significance or implication of this presupposition. According to it, given that if I can wish for the Mandarin's death and cause it by means of this wish, then someone, sharing the same world with me, may wish for my own death and may bring it about by means of such a wish alone, provided that absolutely no one knew about such a wish. Would I accept that? Would the potential murderer accept a possible situation in which he would be the Mandarin whom somebody else would like to murder for the...


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pp. 153-158
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