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I'm just not seeing the injustice, either in Euripides or the dp case. If you believe that Clytemnestra has it coming, then you are rooting for Orestes to give to her. If you believe in the dp, then you don't have a problem with hangmen. Where is the injustice in what Orestes did? Were his motives morally off? Did he do it for personal gain, not out of a sense of justice? There is nothing in the story to suggest a hidden agenda. So what did he do wrong? What should he atone for, killing his mother? Is it the relation he bore to her that, along with his action, entailed the injustice. But why should that make a moral difference? One might even argue that by killing his father she forfeited the right to that title, or then held it only in a biological sense. ('What kind of mother would do something like that?') I can't see how someone could will the end here without willing the means. The same principle also seems applicable to the dp. If I've decided that a murderer no longer deserves to live, then discussing the moral appropriateness of his execution, seems otiose, nay, incoherent. Should I hesitate to carry out that sentence, it seems that I must be having 2nd thoughts about my earlier judgment concerning his desert. Of course this assessment of things is consistent with the claim that the dp is unjust. But, then, those who hold that view don't believe in sentencing criminals to death either. Nor do they think that some acts are so beyond the pale that their perpetrators deserve to die.

Thank you for the great post and for bringing us back to Euripides!
I have just a few remarks:

1) It seems to me that the very rationale of the Greek tragedy is that they present an insolvable dilemma, one where both sides are right but cannot take place at the same time. The potency of the Greek tragedy exactly derives from the fact that, e.g., it is right that a city's (Thebe) ennemies' corpses should not be honoured BUT ALSO that a sister (Antigone) has family duties entailing the fact of taking care of her brothers' corpses. And so on with all other tragedies. Long story short, Greek tragedies, unlike Disney movies do not have a happy end, because no single ending which makes all happy is possible.

2) In the case or Orestes and Electra, the main problem lies in the fact that they killed their mother. Yes, their mother was guilty, but still by killing her they violated the norm about the inviolability of one's family (especially of one's mother).

3) Greek authors do not try to construe a consistent system of morality, one where A is always right and it cannot be that by doing something right (like A) you violate another norm. You cannot be, in the Aquinas' terminology, perplexus simpliciter, uncertain between two forbidden alternatives. It is, by contrast, possibly the case that A and its opposite are both one's duties, according to two different systems of values, which are not reconcilable (e.g., commitment to one's family and to one's homecountry or commitment to one's father and to one's mother).

Without having read it, I won't speculate about the right interpretation of the tragedy, but here are two suggestions with respect to the broader philosophical question.

1. If we understand the claim that Clytemnestra got her just-deserts as the claim that she can't complain that she was treated unfairly, then it seems like that's consistent with the claim that Orestes nevertheless ought not to have killed her, perhaps because Orestes ought to have shown mercy instead.

2. In more general terms, this sort of situation sounds similar to the more mundane cases where we find ourselves making a snide remark to a friend in response to some minor bit of hypocrisy on their part, and they say, "I guess I deserved that," but nevertheless we feel inclined to say, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that." Perhaps in these cases the friend feels that the rebuke is justified, even if it's also true that a more virtuous person would have been able to resist the temptation to lash out.

I wonder if there isn't a parallel issues that arises in Aeschylus' _Agamemnon_. There the Chorus is critical of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia, even though they recognize that not only was it fated, it was the only rational course of action open to Agamemnon.

Given that they recognize the killing of Iphigenia was the thing that Agamemnon should/was fated to do, you might think that the Chorus was just confused in their criticism. Martha Nussbaum offers, what is to my mind, a compelling response to this when she argues that it was something about the way in which he carried out the necessary action. In particular, she argues that they hold him responsible for killing his daughter in a way that fails to recognize her humanity--"Her prayers, her youth, her cries of 'Father'," etc., counted as nothing once Agamemnon makes his choice. That is, in making his choice, even though it was the right choice, his will wasn't properly sensitive to Iphigenia's value, since had he been sensitive to her value, he would not have killed her as an animal or felt justified rather than regretful and perhaps, guilty for failing as a father.

Maybe something similar is happening in the case you're referencing. The injustice isn't *what* Orestes did but, in some way, how he did. Now, I don't mean the injustice had to do with the method that Orestes used to kill his mother. Instead, it had something to do with his will, which is precisely what the Chorus criticizes Agamemnon for: a will improperly attuned to significant values that are flouted by choosing one course of action rather than the other.

Thanks everyone,

Robert, yeah that's the puzzle. As for the mother relationship, you could argue that she forfeited any reciprocal sense of obligation when she agreed to have Orestes killed as a baby! Moreover, Orestes was pretty reluctant to follow through with the act but felt he had to because he didn't want to disobey Apollo. And he still had to be talked into it by Electra. At the same time, I can see the force of the "no matter what, you don't kill your mother" prohibition. Even Eminem has apologized to his mom apparently on his last album.

Elisa, thanks. I think that might be absolutely right. Greek tragedy is full of insoluble dilemmas and this is one of them. There's no way out, no right answer from Orestes perspective. (And Castor does say that he'll eventually be acquitted for his crime by an even vote of the Gods in Athens. But he still has to sacrifice the kingdom that's rightfully his.) And I agree that there's no pretense to a consistent morality in the Greek myths. A further question is whether that's true of our view of responsibility and justice, and we just can't admit it like they do.

Neal, I like the analogy but I wonder if it goes deeper than just the issue of mercy or virtue. In other words, maybe it leaks into the blame judgments themselves. (The person deserves the snide remark from his pespective but not from yours.) I may do a short follow-up on this.

Justin, I thought of that but the Nussbaum solution wouldn't work for this story, at least in Euripedes' version. Orestes was extremely reluctant to go through with the act. At no point did he gloat or feel good about killing her. He makes it repeatedly clear that he's only doing it because of Apollo (and Electra's goading). If there's a virtuous way to kill your mother, he probably found it.

I'll add a possibility to the growing list. Might it not be that one can deserve something while it would be wrong for another to give it to her? In this case, it could be that Clytemnestra deserves to die and yet it would be wrong for anyone to kill her.

It is familiar to find it most fitting for a villain to be 'hoist by his own petard', and often this keeps the heroes hands (somewhat) clean. In this case, we don't really have any heroes, but the basic line may be similar.

Tamler, Greeks were polytheist in the sense that they did not try to unify different "goods" under a single "best". Apollon is right in asking Orestes to kill his mother, but so are the Furies right in pretending that the guilt of having killed one's mother does not leave him. As for us, I wonder whether one could evoke Rorty's name here (i.e., the idea of the pluralism of literature as being morally superior to the single-mindedness of philosophy).

What about the notion of moral remainder? Even if killing Clytemnestra was all things considered the right thing to do, the prima facie obligation not to kill one’s mother might still ground the call for some kind of moral resolution. This resolution can come in many forms, an obvious one being the feeling of regret or guilt that follows the performance of the action. And, indeed, the stronger the outweighed prima facie duties are, the more moral remainder there is and more intense these feelings should be. So, from a certain perspective, it might be unjust (bad, less than ideal, etc.) should Orestes and Electra fail to have these emotions or otherwise fail to respect the significance of the fact that they just killed their damn mother. Indeed, given that the genre is tragedy, anything short of feeling suicidal levels of despair might be insufficient to resolve the moral remainder. Yes, Orestes felt extremely reluctant to go through with it. But, that falls well short of the kind of soul-crushing, life-destroying regret that perhaps he should have felt after having done it.

Perhaps the story of Jesus and the adultress is pertinent. Jesus does not deny that the woman deserves to be stoned (tho' he doesn't affirm it, either); instead he casts doubt on the propriety of anyone there doing it. Assuming (contrary to our firmly held beliefs) that she /did/ deserve to be stoned, it might still be true that it would have been unjust for anyone there to stone her (for they were as "sinful" as she was).

I'm not sure that it fits the Orestes case perfectly -- I can't see why his act would be considered *unjust* (rather than simply wrong) by his moral peers -- but it does suggest the possibility that a just desert may be delivered unjustly.

This seems in the neighborhood of the problem of agent regret (that kissing cousin of the problem of moral luck). If I've had the misfortune of being the driver of the car when a family dog darts out underneath my wheels, it's almost as if I can't help feeling particularly bad, even granting that there really was nothing I could reasonably have been expected to do to avoid the outcome. As my friend (let's grant, for the sake of argument, that I have friends and that you are one of them), you would console me by—honestly—insisting that it really wasn't my fault. The weird part, I think, is that it would be very odd, even morally suspicious, if I took your encouragement and straightaway popped out of my hangdog mood (I beg your pardon), declaring, "you're absolutely right! What was I on about?! Let's go to Chili's". It's not clear at all what is going on here, but I have a vague recollection of Harry Frankfurt stumping for a view of this according to which it is the simple fact that I was in the direct causal position with respect to the bad outcome that forces me into this form of agent regret, on pain of some moral side-glances. So, maybe the idea can be extended here to say that if Clytemnestra really did deserve to die, and if Orestes really was the only one who could do the killing, then Orestes will have to deal with agent regret. Given the way agent regret feels from the first person point of view, maybe we shouldn't fault Castor for describing Orestes as having performed an unjust act... even if, strictly speaking, this isn't quite right.

Philip & Dan,

Does not the performance of a higher duty nullify the blameworthiness that would otherwise mark an agent who failed to meet a lower pf obligation? And, if blame can indeed not be attributed to him, then why should he walk away from his situation with anything but a clear conscience? Nietzsche says that the 'bite of conscience is stupid, like a dog biting a stone.' Like most of his hard deterministic philosophy, this admonition is surely false. But it does ring true when applied to agents like Orestes who have correctly resolved a quandary and done the right thing. 'Why did it have to come to this?' would be an appropriate lament. But personal regret seems out of place once it is conceded that he had done his duty. (What of the brother of the Ted Kaczynski, the so-called unibomber? Should it bother his conscience that he turned in his brother to the authorities? It should be further noted that Clytemnestra may have even forfeited by her conduct the right to be called his mother.) A trip to Chili's would obviously be out of the question in Dan's e.g., but only because of his awareness of and proximity to a tragedy, not because he is somehow morally responsible. In that respect he is no different, however, from his other neighbors who should temporarily temper their enthusiasm for leisure time activities out of respect for the victims of a tragedy.

Elisa, thanks, I think one could definitely evoke Rorty here and that he might well be right.

Phil, yeah, I like the idea of a moral remainder but it seems not to apply so well in this case. I don't know how much worse Orestes could have felt. Maybe he could have blinded himself like Oedipus but short of that... Remember too that this woman tried to kill him when he was a baby. She didn't exactly win the 960 B.C. Mom-of-the-Year award. Also his punishment is pretty serious even if he'll eventually be acquitted. So I'm not sure..

Mark, that's an interesting analogy--it does seem to map on fairly well. I imagine this kind of case was more common than we'd expect.

Dan, see the next post.

Robert, I hope my awareness of a tragedy won't necessitate my not going to Chili's, since (unless I bury my head in the sand) I'm almost always going to be aware of some tragedy or other. So, I'd never go to chili's—God forbid!. Also, it is hard to see what being "close" to a tragedy amounts to... and why it should matter. That's what's so puzzling about the problem of agent regret. I think I shouldn't go to chili's if I've killed the dog (ramp it up to a more serious death, for those of you dog-haters). But I don't think the passersby who see the terrible event have anything like the same requirement to feel bad and forgo chili's that I have. And this seems to me to be true even though I concede that I have done nothing morally objectionable in being the unfortunate conduit through which the universe landed heavily upon the poor dog.

Robert, I wasn't suggesting that Orestes was blameworthy for killing his mom. Rather I was suggesting that it was wrong (bad or whatever other negatively valenced evaluative claim you want to make here) for him not to feel a certain way about the fact that he had to perform an action that went contrary to certain strong moral considerations (which maybe were not so strong after all, given what a terrible mom she was). What seems right about the moral remainder idea is that the moral considerations that fail to win the day still have weight, and that one way of showing that you appreciate this is to feel bad to some degree, even though what you did was right.

Tamler, although Clytemnestra may have been a terrible mother, the mere fact that Orestes had to kill his own flesh and blood is significant enough to establish a fair deal of moral remainder. To connect this with the punishment stuff, there may be reason to think that meting out severe punishments incurs similar moral remainder precisely because of what makes the punishment severe. It may be unjust to give people their just deserts without feeling bad about it to some degree.


It's awareness of AND proximity to the tragedy that renders appropriate a certain amount of somberness and mourning= the grieving are, after all, your neighbors. But I have to tell you, I spent all this summer undergoing treatment for throat cancer, which necessitated interacting with very sick people on a daily basis, being in a world I had always strenuously avoided, and I'm not quite sure I'll ever be able to watch an NFL game again without feeling somewhat guilty for my frivolousness. Sartre at one point questioned the morality of even philosophy given all the suffering in the world.


In the wake of the killing, yeah, I can imagine Orestes feeling bad, which would only be natural, the woman was, after all, his mother and it was a shame events conspired to make them into mortal enemies. But the realization that he did indeed carry out his duty should temper his regret. I don't think it is morally required of him to continue 'beating himself up' over his actions in the way I would expect someone who had actually engaged in wrongdoing to rue what he had done for a good long while. He is to be contrasted in this respect with, say, Raskolnikov, for whom repentance was the sine qua non of moral rehabilitation.

I'm no expert on Greek morality, but it sounds like a karmic fate vs free will thing to me.

The claim seems to be that fate would have dealt with retribution without the need of a free agent to dish it out.

The issues raised here strike me as being somewhat similar to issues that are raised in some cases of ratting or snitching. For instance, I remember one example you raised in your podcast, where someone you know attacks you and beats you up. In that case the assailant has broken the law, and it seems plausible to say that he deserves some sort of legal punishment. Certainly if a policeman happened to witness the assault by chance and arrest your assailant, we wouldn't think that he'd suffered any injustice. But nonetheless, I think many of us (or at least I, and you, if I remember what you said in the podcast correctly) have the intuition that you've done something wrong if you act as a snitch and get the police involved yourself.

Of course there are some dissimilarities. Part of the reason we judge that you acted wrongly is probably because we think you should have handled the assailant yourself in some way, whereas in the case you describe, there was no alternative way for Clytemnestra to get what she deserves. But maybe we could describe a case that removes this dissimilarity (maybe we can build in some reason why getting back at your assailant on your own isn't a feasible option for you). In any case, it still seems interesting that with snitching, as with the example you describe, many of us have the intuition that you can act wrongly in ensuring that someone gets what they deserve.

Ryan, this is interesting because in the snitching case, the wrongness and blameworthiness(if it's there) seems to come from the failure to handle your own business. But in this case, Orestes reluctantly handled his own business and did what had to be done (literally, Apollo said so). You can definitely modify your case so that it's impossible to get back at your assailant. That's probably how it is in most cases of assault by strangers. But the wrongness will still seems to derive from a certain queasiness about letting other people fight your battles for you. And again, that's the last thing you could say about Orestes and Electra.

That said, it's a great example of someone getting their just-deserts through an unjust or maybe less just act..

Tamler & Ryan,

It's simply ludicrous to suggest that a citizen who reports an assault to the police has done ANYTHING wrong. You guys seemed to have watched too many mob movies. We live in a civilized society, which means amongst other things that one is not supposed to take the law into his own hands. A chief function of the criminal justice system is to prevent the sort of vigilante 'justice' you gentlemen are advocating. You tell your children 'fight your own battles'- but that admonition applies only to the sort of petty verbal disputes or, in the case of boys, schoolyard scraps to which children are disposed. The rules change when we become adults. Sure the police might tell you to work out your differences with a neighbor playing his music a bit too loud. But if someone puts their hands on you, you are not only within your rights to turn him in, it is your obligation. Snitching is when you go to the authorities so as to avoid punishment or improve your standing in their eyes.


It's not my intention here to advocate vigilante justice or taking the law into your own hands. In most cases I would agree, there are plenty of obvious reasons why we shouldn't do that. Still, I think there can be at least cases in which going to the police seems like sort of slimy, snitchy behavior (for the sort of reason Tamler identifies) - including some cases in which you've been physically attacked.

Let me try modifying and adding some more details to the example. Suppose the assault is a single punch, and suppose it doesn't cause you any serious physical harm, and suppose it's from someone with whom you're acquainted. And we can also suppose he's punching you for some stupid trivial reason - say he mistakenly judges that you're hitting on his wife (I add these details to differentiate the case from a violent mugging from a stranger, in which case reporting the attack seems much more appropriate).

My intuition here is that getting the police involved wouldn't be the right way to handle the situation. Instead you should handle the situation yourself (and I say that without taking any stance about whether you should "take the law into your own hands" and hit him back; maybe the right way to handle it is to "be the bigger person" and walk away). And getting the police involved seems wrong to me even though this guy *did* assault you, and even though it does seem that he deserves punishment (again, if a police officer randomly witnessed the attack and arrested him, I think we'd say he got what he deserved). Is your intuitive judgment different?

If I had a nickel for everyone who told me I've seen too many mob movies....

And what Ryan says. A random violent assault from a stranger is probably not a good example but there are clearly some cases where going to the police or some sort of higher authority rather than dealing with the problem yourself would be wrong. (I imagine you can think of some cases too Robert, right?) And doing that would be wrong even though the person might deserve whatever punishment that higher authority would mete out. Would it be "unjust"? Not sure, but maybe that's a problematic distinction in this case...

T & R,

If the matter is serious enough to warrant an arrest should it be witnessed by a police officer, then I fail to see why I should be criticized for reporting it to the authorities. On the other hand, were my sense that sympathy from the police would not be forthcoming should I try to make an issue of it, then I would conclude that I was dealing with something they would let go were they on the scene and, thus, seek a (peaceful) resolution on my own, as in my loud music example. Punching me for ANY 'reason' does not fall into the latter category. If I manage to escape harm it is only by the grace of God, plus it would hurt. (Accusing me of adultery is not a 'trivial' matter either.) The police would certainly see it that way and move to have the assailant dealt with by the law: why should my reaction be any different? So, yes, there are plenty of harms to which running to the authorities would be an inappropriate response. But I've yet to see a case presented here that distinguishes how the law would handle things from what a private citizen should do on his own.

The question of when it is proper to get the authorities involved is dealt with in an interesting way in the Oresteia. Orestes appeals to Athena for aid against the Furies, and in response she convenes what is supposed to be the first trial by jury, putting the question of Orestes' guilt to a selection of Athenian citizens. They decide in his favour, with Athena casting the deciding vote (she is, after all, Apollo's sister, and in any event she didn't have a mother). To appease the Furies, Athena offers them a new role as Eumenides ("well-disposed/kindly ones"), who will guard and bring prosperity to Athens.

What is accomplished at the end of the Oresteia is a shift away from the old model of justice as a cycle of vengeance and toward a model in which justice is to be meted out by the institutions of the polis. I think this new model requires a more univocal approach to justice, which we moderns have pretty thoroughly adopted. Of course, the play still has an emotional resonance for many, but I think this might go some way to explaining why, as Tamler says, this view of justice is hard to square with (contemporary) theories.

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