29. Tragic Conflict and Intelligence, Part 1

What is Tragic Conflict?

We hear the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’ quite often.  A car accident is said to be tragic and the death of someone is a tragedy.   It seems that in common parlance a tragedy is a terrible state of affairs.   But there are other ways to think about tragedy that derive from the genre of tragic literature and the life experiences these works reflect. One popular way is to think of a tragedy as a situation in which there is a certain type of conflict.  This type of conflict can be tersely defined as follows:

  • An unavoidable conflict of momentous values and/or obligations in which some values and/or obligations are sacrificed causing suffering.

Tragic conflict assumes a vision of morality that can be referred to as pluralistic. Sidney Hook describes this vision: “The “good” which confronts us in any situation, actual or planned, is never single or complete.  Clinging to each possible resolution is a cluster of goods.  Each one of these goods has a legitimate claim.  But they cannot all be realized at the same time and in the same degree” (Hook, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, p. 149). William James gives some examples:

“Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire.  Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?—he cannot do both.  Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?—both cannot be the choice of his heart.  Shall he have the dear old republican party, ora spirit of unsophistication in public affairs?—he cannot have both, etc. So the ethical philosopher’s demand for the right scale of subordination in ideals is the fruit of an altogether practical need.  Some part of the ideal must be butchered, and he needs to know which part.  It is a tragic situation, and no mere speculative conundrum, with which he has to deal.” (McDermott, ed.  The Writings of William James, 622).

Why Should We Care About Tragic Conflict?

(1) If we see moral conflict mediation as one of the most important functions our mind can perform, and many serious moral conflicts are tragic, then tragic conflict should be recognized and addressed.  One might say that it is precisely because tragic conflicts involve necessary sacrifice that we should try to reduce the costs of conflict whenever possible.

(2) A sense of the tragic can help us avoid dogmatism and enter into genuine negotiation.  For if one affirms the reality of tragic conflict then one affirms that all the values involved in a conflict might be valuable and perhaps justified.  And such an affirmation seems to be a necessary condition for honestly negotiating. After all, one does not honestly negotiate and mediate if one assumes in advance that some position is the only correct one.  Rather, one should assume that moral conflicts of goods and rights are not necessarily contradictions and that all the candidates in a morally problematic situation possess some desirable traits.  Of course, many people approach moral conflicts dogmatically, that is, with the belief that certain values are the only real values.  Such people will see many values in a morally problematic situation as apparently good or right. But dogmatism can prevent a fair weighing of the views involved in conflict.  It can prevent one from taking into account options that can lead to more inclusive resolutions.  And it contradicts any experimental approach to tragedy that takes each situation as a unique challenge.

(3) The intelligence limitations dramatically revealed in tragic conflict can help make moral inquiry more sensitive to the complexities of conflict. All too often we think we can quickly fix things and bring about resolutions with the application of some prefixed idea or theory.  This simple problem solving mentality can prevent us from detecting simplifications, misunderstandings, and exclusions that we would ordinarily miss.  If this is the case then we should take the limits revealed in tragic conflict seriously in order to do justice to the possibilities of moral inquiry.

In the following series of posts I will, with the help of American pragmatist philosophers John Dewey, William James, and Sidney Hook, look at how we can intelligently deal with tragic conflict.

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