I Demand Satisfaction (Part II)

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

So, where were we? Ah yes, Jack has been baited by Seedy Gang Member #1 …few better ways to ruffle a feller’s feathers, to by God chap his ass raw, than to insult both his girl AND his manhood simultaneously. Too true. And, reasonable guy that Jack is, somewhere in the back of his mind is the recognition of the truth of the principle proposed last time: “Uncontrolled violence is seldom the answer.” What courses of action are, in fact, open to Jack? Let’s peruse a few of them.

Perhaps (a) he reasons that there are times wherein (again proverbially) discretion is the better part of valor (how many goons are there about? Could he take them all? Would he need to do so? Is it worth it?), and thus he acquiesces to Gracie’s urgings and saunters casually towards the exit. Call this Rational Discretion.

Or, perhaps (b) he sees clearly that the thug/punk is drunker than Cooter Brown, and is obviously trying to bait him into a violent encounter; inasmuch as the entire performance is little more than a pathetic attempt to raise his ire, Jack theatrically rolls his eyes and turns with Gracie toward the door, expecting his reaction to irk Seedy Gang Member #1 as much (or more) than if he had let loose with the People’s Elbow. Call this Rational Dismissal.

Or, finally, perhaps (c) Jack realizes that (again) while violence is rarely an appropriate response to being hassled by a weasel attempting to pass as a human being, this is hardly one of those times. Mayhap he’s encountered this jackass before on numerous occasions, occasions wherein he has responded by way of Rational Discretion or Rational Dismissal. No long-term problems, apparently, have been resolved by such short-term maneuvers. And so, Jack reasons, it’s not gonna’ happen this time. Son-of-a-bitch must pay. Call this Rational Violence.

Now, (a)-(c) are obviously possibilities. The most interesting for our purposes, of course, is (c), Rational Violence. In the previous post, we saw Jack reflecting on the many ways in which he might go about acquiring some much-needed money, and we paid no small amount of attention to the fact that, during the course of his deliberations, he did not – nor would most persons – consider committing murder or thieving in order to acquire it. Why were these “options” absent? Well, because they are not in a relevant sense “options” at all, we saw. The law – some might even say morality itself – forbids considering these options as options when determining a course of action befitting a rational agent. And yet, interestingly, this is not so in the current circumstance. (Or so I say.) Rational Violence is a genuine option, and it is in certain circumstances a most appropriate response.

Suppose Jack acquiesces to the urgings of his conscience, and proceeds to act in accord with option (c). In the present day, what we have here then is the beginnings of a good ol’ fashioned barroom brawl, one (albeit preceded by an atypically fine case of practical reasoning) complete with broken pool cues flying, beer bottles crushing a few skulls, elbows twisted into inverted pretzels krav maga-style…Such are the ways of the world as we know it. But the question I’d like to address presently is this: need “the world” be this way? If the world has not, after a fashion, always been this way, why think it should be so now?

Let me be clear about what I’m suggesting here. Undoubtedly, barroom brawls, street fights, Royal Rumbles, and the like have been a part of human (predominantly male) interaction since the first Hebrew met the first Philistine, since the first Crip met the first Blood, since the first redneck met the first hippie, since the first drunk Irishman met…well, anybody. So I am not denying that such events have always occurred.

What I am suggesting, however, is that many such events in the past were avoided by a particular social practice – the practice of demanding satisfaction by rational violence.* This is The Duel. Such a practice, of course, involves both (a) the recognition that violence will (and in some sense must) inevitably occur in light of the nature of human beings, and (b) the recognition that violence can in many circumstances be constrained, controlled, and – all things considered – for the greater good.

  • First, there is the need to ensure that violence on the part of the participants in the dispute doesn’t bleed over into the nearby populace. This is Constraint. Jack has been insulted by Seedy Gang Member #1. Rational Violence by Duel suggests that Jack’s animosity ought to be directed exclusively at the villain. Why involve bystanders unnecessarily? And why engage in an activity that may, likely will, destroy the very establishment in which it takes place? Escalation may be of the nature of war, but it need not be of the nature of Rational Violence at the private level.
  • Second, there is the need to ensure that the violence on the part of the participants in the dispute is measured in certain respects. This is Control. After all, we’re talking about an insult here, not attempted murder or child molestation. Even if the insult has been perpetuated over time, even if it’s an insult casting aspersion not only at a lovely lady but at the very character and manhood of one Jack Burton…it’s still, for all of that, no more (and, importantly no less) than a personal affront or offense. Insults may require a reasonably violent response, but that’s just it – the response should be measured. No need for the nuclear option (e.g., a pool cue through the eye-socket, a jagged beer bottle severing a windpipe, or such shenanigans). Seedy Gang Member #1 deserves – retributive-style – an ass-whoopin’… no more and no less.
  • Finally, Rational Violence by Duel may secure at least two aims, both of which are to the public benefit. The first aim is an assurance that even acts of violence must be procedurally circumscribed in order to count as a sanctioned social practice. This is just to say that not just any sort of retaliation meets the requirements of Rational Violence by Duel. No, like other acceptable social practices, Rational Violence by Duel is and must be a rule-governed activity. Secondly, there is the aim of teaching Seedy Gang Member #1 a lesson (don’t drink so much that you lose control of your senses; don’t publicly or privately abuse strangers by verbal insult; don’t piss off someone meaner than you are). Put simply: if Jack whoops some ass, it’s likely Seedy Gang Member #1 will hesitate before provoking others. Call these aims part & parcel of The Greater Good.

Why might this sort of practice be one endorsed by rational agents? While I have alluded to a variety of reasons in the above, I should like to be more precise. Such precision, I hope, will be on display in the post to follow.

(*) Actually, the demand was normally for a formal, public apology. But should satisfaction not be achieved in that way, so it would be achieved in a violent way. More on this later.

Jack Burton

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there. When not doing historical philosophy, he’s fighting the forces of evil (i.e., Lo Pan, his minions, and leftists). To those who fear university bureaucrats, “social justice” activists, and anyone with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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  1. Jack Burton, it seems you’re concerned with a few things:

    1. Extra-judicial, non-state-sanctioned, violence in the name of honor.

    2. The ethics of dueling in particular as a type of (1).

    3. More broadly, the role of honor in a (small “l”, even) liberal society.

    And you take a basically honor-typical stance to all three, namely, that honor sometimes demands (of men at least) personal violence in response to insult, that dueling may have served society by (among other things) limiting and cordoning off honor-based violence, and that somehow liberalism is incompatible with honor-based violence. Is that right?

    I’m pretty sympathetic, as is obvious from what I write. I think, unfortunately, and through hard experience, that there’s no way to be honorable in a society of people who aren’t also committed to basic principles of honor. It’s like trying to be just in a state of nature—it may not be unjust to be cutthroat with people who are cutthroat with you, but you don’t get to exercise the virtues of justice in a state of nature, and you cannot be sure whether you even can be just anymore, should the opportunity arise. When it comes to honor, those of us who have strong honor-intuitions feel like we’re in a state of nature, and live in a continual state of moral despair. That’s a little hyperbolic maybe, but you get the point: with regard to this quite important slice of morality, our societies are hopelessly barbaric. (Of course, they’re great in other ways, and better than any societies previously—ditches and the problem of growing in all directions and all that.)

    Your barroom case is a perfect example of what I mean. Here’s what would happen in an honorable society, one that I find compatible with advanced technology, high levels of trust, and peaceful streets (i.e., not an East African herder society, as critics of honor might maintain).

    First, the biker’s comment would result in stunned silence in the bar. All eyes would turn on Jack. The men in the bar would not interfere at this point, since the insult is clearly a challenge to Jack and he has the prerogative to address it. If the biker is viewed as too far below Jack’s status to deserve a response from Jack, Jack’s friends should beat him without ceremony, and onlookers should keep the biker’s friends from assisting. If for some reason (we’re being democratic!) the biker is judged to have the right to a response from Jack himself, friends and onlookers should allow Jack to extract an apology, and if no apology is forthcoming, Jack should fight him there, and friends and onlookers should make sure Jack comes out okay if it looks like Jack’s about to lose the fight. Upon intervening, the biker should be roughed up by the clients and tossed into the street and Jack should be bought a beer.

    Now that probably wouldn’t happen in any urban or urbane liberal enclave in the West today. The other men at the bar are either afraid to fight, or just so thoroughly brainwashed by their elementary school teachers not to be violent that the thought of interfering wouldn’t even occur to them. Some tough guys, even MMA fighters, in the bar wouldn’t do anything, because they could go to jail for doing the right thing, or maybe lose their jobs or get sued by the biker or the bar. Jack will probably be travelling alone (men in honor cultures usually travel in groups—this little fact is hugely interesting if you think about it a bit); and even if he has “friends,” they are just as corrupted as everyone else and won’t have his back.

    Jack, faced with overwhelming costs to his person (expensive dental work), legal consequences, and social sanction (he may get fired), combined with very little social praise for being honorable, very plausibly should just walk out with his girlfriend. Of course, on the biological level, he feels like less of a man (if he’s one of the men left who still have any thumos). Of course, his girlfriend on a biological level probably feels him a bit less sexy. If they are high-functioning cognitively, they can dig out of this, but it’s still a hole they must climb out of. Ironically, in some ways, liberalism has made insults even more damaging, since there is no way of redressing them.

    • Excellent analysis, Dan. Let me address (1)-(3), as you have construed them.

      As I have written so far, I am interested in “extra-judicial, non-state sanctioned” violence. However, what I hope to explore in further posts is whether the “non-state sanctioned” part is (morally/politically) necessary. What I hope to provide is something like a “just so story” whereby Rational Violence by Duel is, in fact, state-sanctioned. This will be quite difficult, for a number of reasons, many of which you point toward, particularly the social stigma associated with honor in our society today. It will be made doubly more difficult in light of the fact that, for many centuries, the practice itself has been illegal. Even during those times when it was practiced most, the laws of the (Western) state has been opposed to it. Typically, the participants in the duel would flout the law, knowing that (a) most prosecutors would not bring charges, and (b) even if they did, no jury would convict (in light of the honor code).

      You do bring out an interesting question that deserves explicit attention. This is the question as to whether liberalism itself is inconsistent with honor-based violence. To be honest, I’m not sure. I suppose it would depend upon what sort of “liberalism” we have in mind. If by that term we mean “leftism generally,” then I think that this is correct. If, however, we mean instead “classical liberalism” (with it’s associated individualism), then the question becomes much more difficult. Adam Smith, for instance, seemed to take considerable interest in honor as a part of a well-formed character. And so, the extent to which classical liberalism and honor are consistent is rather murky. I would like to say that they are, but this would (admittedly) require further argument. I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this topic.

      Your account of “what would happen” in Jack’s situation – both in an honor-based society contrasted with our own – is to my mind quite likely to be true. As a decision of prudence, Jack may very well take the course of action you suggest. What I hope to show is twofold: that the prudential question is perhaps a bit stickier than this, and furthermore, as a matter of strict morality it is unclear that he ought to take this course of action. We shall see.

      Finally, quite an astute observation: “Ironically, in some ways, liberalism has made insults even more damaging, since there is no way of redressing them.” Again, the truth here would depend upon how we’re understanding “liberalism”; however, as it is typically understood today, I admit that I could not agree more.

  2. Jack, your post got me to thinking about another case of rational violence–spanking one’s children. I received many a hide tanning as a lad, even a broken board over my behind, and I’m grateful for it.

    In fact, honor is relevant here, and I see that more than I ever did as a boy. “Honor your father and your mother.” And let me tell you, though there is a part of me that doesn’t enjoy meting out punishment, there is another part of me that doggone demands some satisfaction! When I give out a reasonable command for the umpteenth time, and it’s met with a scream and a firm “NO!” I see it as an act of disrespect. Words are not doing the trick. A little physical reminder seems to awaken a child to reality and back put him back in his place.

    • Absolutely right, says I. Oof, I recall many a belt across my bottom as a young’un. And the dreaded march outside to “find a switch”. Wow, the memories. 🙂 But like you, I look back on it with gratefulness. I learned respect and obedience, and Lord knows (as I’ve said elsewhere), pain is one helluva’ motivator (a fact which most leftards seem reluctant to grasp). Indeed, this should be a post all its own! “The Importance of Corporal Punishment and the (Consequential?) Further Decline of the West” (!!!)

    • A great read on this topic (child-rearing and discipline) is “Shepherding A Child’s Heart” by Tedd Tripp.

      A few years ago (maybe 2008?) New Zealand outlawed spanking. Not sure if this is still the case or if the crazies got voted out and sanity was restored (NZ is a representative democracy), or not.

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