The final two chapters of 10 Moral Paradoxes are celebratory. We are told it’s good to think about moral paradoxes because they are fun, they can help us see the good in bad, they can help us make decisions, they can get us accustomed to uncertainty, deepen our understanding of morality, etc. etc. etc. But here’s my question. If paradoxes are so good for us, why do they make people so mad?

You may have noticed in the comments here that there was an occasional outburst of impatience. I noticed this up close, in the philosophy lab known as my dinner table. Interestingly, the paradoxes didn’t all get the same reaction. Blackmail and retirement were fun to discuss, as were the paradoxes about punishment. I was surprised by the very negative reaction to paradox #6—my own favorite.

I put it to my husband and children this way: say you are an African American happy to exist, and happy to live here in the US. You regularly rail against slavery and consider it abhorrent. Yet, without it your ancestors wouldn’t have met here, and you wouldn’t have existed, and you certainly wouldn’t have lived in the US. Are you sure you’re sorry that Africans were enslaved?

I was surprised this wonderfully interesting question was met with much philosophy-bashing. After recovering from the rejection and scorn, I got to thinking. As I believe I mentioned at the dinner table, part of paradoxophobia is a dislike of uncertainty and puzzlement, which is simply not good.

Then again, perhaps there really is something particularly annoying about paradox #6. Instead of hurling invectives at philosophy, we might say this to comfort ourselves: In the naïve state we really are sorry about some things and glad about others. These “pre-integrated” attitudes do reveal much about “who we are.” In fact, there’s maybe even something weird about focusing on these links between past and present, arbitrary and fortuitous as they are. We get particularly strong “skewing” when the later good event is our own existence—or the existence of someone we imagine as ourselves. It’s highly unappealing to imagine a world without ourselves.

Bottom line: the attitudes revealed by the paradox aren’t particularly the attitudes of my “true self” or my “best self” or my most rational self. With that realization, maybe we can just live with the paradox instead of trying to overcome it.  I’m not sure, but the same strategy might help us live with some of the other paradoxes as well.

Well, all good things have to come to an end. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing about 10 Moral Paradoxes. My thanks to Saul Smilanksy for joining the discussion here.

Previous posts on 10 Moral Paradoxes: Paradox 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Hi,
    Nothing to do with the post, sorry, but I can’t find a contact form anywhere, so I’m going to have to settle with the comments. I was just reading about psychological experiments that point towards humans being deterministic based upon direct enviroment, such as having a cup of cold or hot coffee being place in their hands, or having washed their hands or not. So I was wondering what the implications of deteriminism on the human being would be. Thanks

  2. That’s a great question. I just got involved at a website called askphilosophers–

    Why don’t you ask the question there? There are philosophers on the panel with expertise on free will and I think it would be interesting to see what they say.

  3. The thing about paradoxes, as you as, are that they cause confusion and misunderstanding. While some (the philosophers) relish the opportunity to question themselves and the common perception of things, most people find it offensive. I imagine that it is tantamount to just calling people out on their ignorance like you know something they don’t. It makes people realize that things are not as simply as they were taught, which means that to truly understand, some changes in deep set beliefs must be changed. It has been my personal experience that people generally do not like those kinds of changes.

    Paradox 6 is a really fun and great one to think about. It obviously does touch the heart of a very dirty past that people want to regret because they think that it is the propper thing to do. When we as a society change “for the better”, I find that we become embarresed about the past evils like skeletons in the closet. They skeletons are dead, of course, but people treat them they are still living.

    I love that paradoxes question who I think I am. Questioning paradoxes can lead to surprising answers that, although you got there logically, you would never say otherwise. It makes you question if indeed I am a moral person. Maybe I am, maybe I am not. Maybe my definition of morality is just wrong. I think people are afraid to find out that they are nice as nice as they thought.

    Maybe people just don’t like tricky questions, that make them feel as though they have been set up. Maybe that’s why philosophers are rare.

  4. Jean wrote:

    I put it to my husband and children this way: say you are an African American happy to exist, and happy to live here in the US. You regularly rail against slavery and consider it abhorrent. Yet, without it your ancestors wouldn’t have met here, and you wouldn’t have existed, and you certainly wouldn’t have lived in the US. Are you sure you’re sorry that Africans were enslaved?

    This is an example of the ironies of history rather than a paradox. There is nothing intrinsic (or apparently intrinsic) that forbids such a sequence. It’s utterly commonplace and un-puzzling.

  5. Miles makes a lot of sense!

    Michael–if it’s “utterly commonplace and un-puzzling” why did my own closest relatives squirm and get mad and try to change the subject? I I had to force this subject on them over two different meals because they were so uncooperative! The fact is, they didn’t know what to say–that they were sorry or not sorry. At least to them, the whole thing was apparently quite puzzling.

  6. Thanks for the series Jean – been very interesting!

  7. Hello Jean. I am African American and I don’t think there is any paradox in loving being alive and hating slavery. Most African Americans have very complex feelings regarding living here in the U.S. that I would not describe as “happy”. Perhaps your family was responding negatively to your question because they simply can’t or don’t want to imagine what it’s like to be African American. Look at African American literature (Cornell West, Bell Hooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, etc…) for your answers.

  8. First of all, are we in fact dealing with paradoxoi here? They might as well be construed as quirks of history, quirks of fate or ironies of history that lead to mixed feelings. Those mixed feelings with a demand for resolution may arise from a lack of what John Keats called negative capability.

    “I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

    There is also at work the notion that the past is the cause of the present in a mechanistic sense and that therefore the present ought to be tainted by the evil of the past. This is all the more striking in the case of Shoah, Naqba, Famine, Slavery in which whole peoples are devastated by catastrophe. But we make history as well as being made by it . We transmute events.

  9. jean:

    i think the crux of this is how saying “i wish slavery hadn’t happened” differs from saying “i hope slavery won’t happen again”. the subjunctive mood directed at the past creates an illusion that history could have been otherwise. if we go along with this there is a contradiction for the people you describe?

    language being the product of an evolutionary process, the effect of what we say can trump whether what we have in mind when speaking is coherent.

  10. Silly bears.

    You’re assuming that black people wouldn’t have made it to North America without slavery. That scenario is beyond flawed.

    It’s nothing but a childish riddle.

  11. Jason, good point! We Europeans made it here just fine, right? 😉

    However I will say, while I believe slavery is a horrible thing (in all of history, not just here in America), this country wouldn’t be what it is today without it.

    What I mean by that is this – anytime a society has a large supply of cheap/free labor, it grows quickly and accomplishes much (look at the pyramids built by Hebrew slaves). It is a terrible way to grow and a shameful thing to do, but the entire course of history may have been different otherwise. America would quite likely still be owned by either England or someone else.

  12. Just to clarify, I’m not saying that I’m glad anyone was ever enslaved – I’m merely pondering the possible failure of our country otherwise.

  13. “Michael–if it’s “utterly commonplace and un-puzzling” ”

    Well, I don’t know about “un-puzzling”, but I think it is commonplace in the sense I mentioned elsewhere. It is easy to focus on certain examples: holocaust, slavery etc. But the fact is, everyone alive today is here in part because of morally bad things that have happened. The people who were slaves may not have existed themselves if some other prior morally dodgy events had not occured. It’s a weird to think about.

  14. Jason, it doesn’t really matter whether or not black people would have made it to America.

    The point is that certainly there are some African Americans who exist today – who are alive today – who would not be if there had not been slavery. That is, their parents met under those circumstances, and would not have otherwise, or for whatever reason their particular existence is contingent on the past slavery. Are those people sorry that slavery happened?

    My answer is that everyone has this contingency; we all exist due to innumerable past occurances, an innumerable subset of which are morally bad.

    (There’s also a virturtually infinate set of possible good things that could come from past moral badness – eg people who exist because of a rape may one day invent a cure to a pandemic that would otherwise wipe out the world.)

    I think it’s the wrong approach to try to apply a moral question in such a liner way to (essentailly) arbitrary scenarios. Why be sorry (in the limited sense that Jean and Saul have meant it here) about any ONE bad prior event, when no one can exist without that fact of bad events having happened?

    (I wish I could explain this better. I know what I mean in my head, but it’s difficult to expound.)

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>