Thursday, August 20, 2009

Robert Novak and Speaking Ill of the Dead

They say never to speak ill of the dead, but I am conflicted, to say the least, on following this rule in the case of Robert Novak. Most notably he was a vicious, partisan hack who used his insider status to enrich himself and to demonize ideological adversaries in a way that no responsible reporter, or human being, would. His famous outing of Valerie Plame illustrates his character here. He, as a veteran insider and reporter on the intelligence community, should have known better than anyone the dangers of such a report, the status of the person outed, and the motives of those providing him the information. He was no reportorial neophyte taken in by the crafty White House veterans using him to pump out harmful secrets and malicious innuendo. If anything, he was a willing participant in the outing. To think anything else of him is to overlook his entire life's work as expert on the intelligence community.

In his private life, he also appeared to be a reprehensible human being. He famously reacted angrily to questions and criticisms from James Carville on CNN back in aught-5 and stormed off. Another time he committed a hit and run of a pedestrian. And he might have gotten away with if a passing bicyclist had not chased him down and stopped him.

So, why not speak the truth? I have thought repeatedly, "Why not wish him dead or be thankful that he's dead? What are people hoping for, that he will show up at the last minute, bite the One Ring off Obama's hand and leap with it into the Pit of Doom thus saving all humanity (or at least health-care reform)?" But perhaps the old saw is right, and it is better to let him go without malice.

This raises the question: Can one harm the dead? If not, what justification is there for this rule? If so, should one have special responsibility of charity to those who have gone over the rainbow bridge?

I think the main harm to be avoided is a harm to ourselves. When people have harmed us, it is tempting to carry a desire for vengeance long after any such desire can helpfully be acted upon. For our own psychological well-being, it is important to let go of anger and hatred sometimes when it is no longer possible or reasonable to act on it. (However, to be clear, I am not advocated always letting go of anger. Sometimes we should be angry and should act on it.) For Novak, once he is dead, it does not appear (careful!) that we can provide the justice that he so richly deserved.

On the other hand, maybe it is possible to harm the dead. At least Aristotle thought so. And thus perhaps we could even now bring some justice by publicly vilifying Novak's memory, making it impossible to speak his name except as a curse, and rendering him execrable in the hearts and minds of all humanity. This might prevent future Novaks if we were successful, but would it harm Novak?

One might think this is impossible. After all, Novak no longer exists, and one can only harm things that exist.

But this is too quick. Can't I harm future generations by destroying the environment? If not, then we have little moral responsibility not to use up all the earth's resources in the current generation.

Moreover, it's not clear why the person must exist. It cannot be a requirement that there be knowledge of the harm or a causal connection to the person harmed in order for a harm to exist. If Joshua secretly videos the boys showering in the men's locker room, we think they have been harmed even if they never discover it and are never causally affected by his invasion of their privacy.

Moreover, some thought experiments suggest we can harm the dead. The simplest example is Thomas Nagel's in Death (reprinted in John Martin Fischer's The Metaphysics of Death.) who considers the case of a man slandered and vilified after his death. Isn't this a harm to him?

At the risk of introducing unnecessary complexity, let's consider a series of further examples (based on, although I cannot find the proper reference, either George Pitcher or Harry Silverstein, I think). I sneak into the home of Beatrice, a great philosopher, and plant child pornography on her computer. In the first case this becomes common knowledge around the world while Beatrice is on vacation in Australia's outback. So, nearly everyone in the world feels revulsion toward Beatrice despite her not deserving anything of the sort. However, suppose that, because she is such a great philosopher, who is on the verge of explaining to all of us the nature of reality, the police remove the incriminating evidence and no one says anything to her. The evidence is deleted and my attempt to harm her is accompanied by no legal sanction or difference in her treatment by others (even though everyone continues to harbor great disgust for her in their hearts). Now, even though the treatment is exactly the same and Beatrice knows nothing of the slander, it seems that Beatrice was harmed by my planting this evidence.

In the second case, she never returns from her vacation. She falls in love with the outback and decides to live out the rest of her life there. It still seems that she has been harmed even though she knows nothing about it and never interacts with anyone who knows anything about the harm.

In the third case, she is killed by a crocodile before she can return from the vacation but after I plant the evidence. So she never learns anything of the planted evidence or universal disdain.

In the fourth case, she is killed by the crocodile before I plant the evidence. If my planting the evidence is a harm when she's still alive, why should it matter if she died right before I plant it rather than right after? An automatic response: it matters in the one case she exists and in the other she does not. But that begs the question: why think that difference matters? What's the intuition behind saying it was a harm if it happened at 12:00 but not a harm at 12:01? I think we have to consider either both of them harmful or both of them not harmful.

If these thought experiments are too equivocal, we can ask: Would I want this to happen to me after I die? Would it be morally acceptable to plant this evidence? If it harms no one, then it's very hard to say what's wrong with planting evidence on someone who will die before it's discovered.

In fact, if one cannot harm someone who does not exist, it's not clear how killing someone is a harm. If I kill A, then A does not exist. Hence, I am not harming A. If I kill A painfully and slowly, then my act of killing can harm them while they exist. But if I kill them quickly and painlessly, then I have not harmed them at all since, once they are dead, they do not exist to be harmed. And before I've killed them, I haven't done anything to them at all and so cannot be harming them. Obviously, this argument is sophistical, but what's sophistical about it may be the claim that I cannot harm someone who does not exist.

Since I am not trying to write a book, I'd better stop here. The main point is, for now, that it appears possible to harm people who do not exist, that one can harm the dead. How such a thing might be possible--what philosophical theory might explain this--is an entirely different question. At any rate, if I can harm the dead, then I should laugh a long, slow, hearty belly-laugh at the death of Robert Novak in the hopes that by laughing so I am harming him just a little. And at any rate, if I cannot harm him by laughing, then no harm is done by it, while my laugh may reflect appreciation of the good done by his non-existence.

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