i dream of being possible

it was not i, it was the weapon

it was not i, it was the weapon: In Mencius 1A3, he says the following:

狗彘食人食而不知檢,塗有餓莩而不知發;人死,則曰:『非我也,歲也。』是何異於刺人而殺之,曰:『非我也,兵也。』王無罪歲,斯天下之民至焉。」Mencius 1A3

My translation:

“Dogs and pigs are eating the ppl food and you do nothing to stop it, you have grain in your silos but don’t distribute it [to the people]. When people die, you say, “it wasn’t me/my fault, its the season”. This is like someone murdering a man and saying, “it wasn’t me, it was the weapon”. Your majesty, stop blaming the season and everyone will come to you.”

Given today’s discussion, the interpretation I’m going with of this passage is about moral accountability. We, at the end of it, responsible for what we do.

I’m struck, at the moment, at the similarity between this and the usual argument agaisnt gun control (ie, ‘guns don’t kill ppl, ppl kill ppl’). However, there are a few key differences here. The ‘guns don’t kill ppl’ argument and how it is used, is actually a way to dodge personal accountability.

Notice how general it is ‘ppl kill ppl’ as if this is just a thing that happens and all cases of ‘ppl killing ppl’ are equivalent. That a person intentionally killing someone with a gun (what we usually define as ‘murder’) vs an accidental death because of careless storage or easy access should be considered the same thing is absurd. And this argument works on this equivocation.

Because, yes, if a person is intent on killing another person, it really doesn’t matter what tools are available to them. They’ll do it regardless if they use a gun, knife, or their own hands. No amount of gun control or regulations is going to prevent this situation. However… in cases where accidental deaths result from carelessness and lax rules about who can and cannot buy/own a gun?

We regulate driving and operating vehicles precisely because we wish to minimize accidents. We know that they won’t stop all accidents from happening, but regulations can prevent them or reduce the harm caused by them (ie, the regulation that seatbelts must be present and worn inside vehicles). These regulations, obviously, do not prevent anyone from intentionally killing someone with their vehicle. But the regulations aren’t about that.

(I realize this seems like a digression, but I figured that not addressing the similarity between this and the gun control argument isn’t a viable option.)

But… what if that person has a point? What of ability? How does this factor into the idea of moral accountability.

Fortunately, Mencius actually has something to say about this too:


曰:「挾太山以超北海,語人曰『我不能』,是誠不能也。Mencius 1A7

My translation:

The king asked, “How can we tell the difference between ‘not doing something’ and ‘not being able to do something’?”

Mencius replied, “[if asked] to take Mount Tai under your arm and jump over the north sea, if you say ‘I am not able to do this’, then this is truly not being able to do a thing.”

Mencius purposefully picks an example here that is simply impossible for any human to do do: carrying a mountain under your arm and jumping over a sea. If we bring this down to a human scale, we can understand this as saying: you are not morally obligated to meet imposssible calls to action. You cannot be held morally accountable for not doing things that are impossible for you to do.

One of the ways that this plays out in the current Discourse, is when notions of ‘slactivism’ or whatever bubble to the surface. The idea that the only Real Activism™ is marching in the streets and directly confronting oppression. For some people, this is an impossible demand. As such, when they don’t do this, they aren’t morally accountable for not marching in the streets. In other words, if it is literally impossible for you to march in streets (for whatever reason), you are not a bad person for not marching in streets.

And, yes, the expectation that everyone should march in streets, otherwise they aren’t Real Activists™ and, thus, bad hypocrites that aren’t truly committed to the Movement, is ableist (amongst other things). Expecting the impossible and then punishing poeple for failing to live up to that, is itself an unethical demand.

Some might say (as some do) that ‘impossible’ is too high a threshold for delineating between ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’. Which okay, I might be convinced of this, but I’d need to see a more principled delineation other than “I’m conveniently drawing the line at the point where I, personally, no longer have any ethical obligations”.

And, as far as I’m concerned, the threshold for (if such exists) being able to ethically state “it is impossible for me to stop oppressing people” should be high. I am readily willing to admit that, for example, babies that cannot move or speak belong to this class. Regardless of being inextricably born into systems of power and oppression, I don’t think they are at all morally responsible for structural violence nor do they, at that time of their life, have any obligation to stop participating in structural oppression. Its literally and actually impossible for them do anything about it.

However, if I see that you have the wherewithal to write up a post making an ethical demand that people make no ethical demands of you, it is highly unlikely that I’ll consider you part of this group. If you have enough ability to make ethical demands (on your own behalf), I’m inclined to believe that you have some ability to meet some obligations yourself.

Think again of pre-verbal babies: just as they cannot meet any and all ethical obligations, they also can’t make any demands for themselves. It is similarly impossible. We, however, still have ethical responsibilities to them. But babies are beyond the notion of repricocity.

Sure, there are other examples I can think of… but I figure that babies are likely to be the least controversial one. Since, you know, they’re fucking babies.