Against Simplicity: A Complexity Manifesto

In academia there is a general understanding that the sort of rules applied in (certain specific and limited) physical sciences don’t always work in the “human sciences” due to the complexity involved. Among the general public (and plenty of academia too), there is nonetheless a widespread tendency to impose radically over-simplistic rules on the observation of human behavior.

To my mind, once the earth’s temperature has been observed to set a new heat record year after year, and extremely likely causes have been identified, one can predict the trend continuing as long as the causes do. Most of the U.S. public, needless to say, would not agree.

The same simplicity cannot be found useful in predicting Atlanta Falcons scoring or Hillary Clinton polling, because the brains and behavior of homo sapiens are involved, regardless of how relatively ignorant you may hold many of those homo sapiens and their brains to be.

If a child’s first experiences with red-haired people are negative, he or she may form a generalization about such people. It likely will not last long. Such generalizations, imposed by culture, about people of various races, genders, religions, backgrounds, sexualities, etc., are maintained in the face of often overwhelming evidence that such simplicity is mistaken.

People are not simple. Not even simple-minded people are simple. Not even politicians are simple. Is Donald Trump good or bad? Do you approve or disapprove? Are you for or against? Is he promoting the side of darkness or the side of light? The obvious answer to all such questions is no. If you honestly form your own position on every issue, you will never find a politician who agrees or disagrees with all of your positions. Nor will you find one who agrees with those positions that he or she agrees with, for all the same reasons that motivate you. The same applies all the more so to political parties. Yet more so to whole governments. Radically more so to entire national populations. A country’s people is not its government, its government is not its dictator, its dictator is not entirely good or evil, and a domestic or foreign opponent or alternative to that person is not entirely the opposite.

Is Russia morally inferior to the United States? If it doesn’t ask that sort of question, it is in at least that way superior. But I’m sure some Russian somewhere does ask that.

Russia is less militaristic, less imperially aggressive, locks fewer people in prison, does less to destroy the earth’s climate, etc., ad infinitum. Russia may also be less respectful of LGBT rights, have more nuclear weapons, etc., ad infinitum. Concluding overall superiority or inferiority is vastly too complex a question. And yet answering it is declared to be, not a matter of empirical study at all, but a moral imperative.

Yet, declaring things publicly, whether intelligent or idiotic things, itself has significant consequences — even consequences that can alter the truth of what’s been declared. Labeling a foreign nation aggressive or evil can fuel more of the policies that are so perceived. Banning people from entering a country, as a safety measure, can endanger that country by creating anger and hatred within and without. Preemptively blaming a judge for a possible future crime being actively provoked by bombings, raids, sanctions, insults, travel bans, imprisonment, assassinations, and threats of torture, could have all kinds of horrible consequences.

Establishing policies of drone murder or torture, to be used only when “actually needed,” will almost certainly produce (even if you accept the fantasy that circumstances could justify those crimes) numerous instances of use outside of the specified circumstances. Ticking time-bomb thinking, like partisan thinking or patriotic thinking, isn’t really thinking at all. It’s an attempt to squeeze human behavior into a rule on the model of what happens to a baseball if you hit it with a bat. Academics call consideration of the consequences of actions “consequentialism,” caricature it in extreme simplicity, and then conclude that ethics should be based nonsensically on something other than consequences. In reality, consequences are what we base our aversion to something like torture on, and consideration of the complex consequences of creating a torture program leads straight to a strict ban on torture.

Choices not only have complex consequences, but there are many more choices to choose from than commonly supposed. Would you murder the infant Hitler, homicidal ethics professors ask with a bloodthirsty gleam in their eyes. No, and neither would I do nothing. I’d help prepare him to successfully enter art school. Or I’d work to undo the destructive elements of the Treaty of Versailles. Or I’d teach the power of nonviolent action. The choices are infinite. Would you bomb ISIS or not, demands every television news pundit who wants to stay employed. I wouldn’t do either. I would work for disarmament, the rule of law, humanitarian aid, and a halt to all forms of support for violence.

But, wait, aren’t I being simplistic in opposing all war and all torture? What about the complexity of them? What about the good wars and the good tortures? I want to give ALL people a basic income, create UNIVERSAL health coverage with a SINGLE payer. I want to welcome ALL immigrants. I reduce the rich complexity of religious teachings to the single assertion of atheism. I favor radical steps to protect this one planet as if there aren’t lots of other planets to be colonized. Now who is being simplistic?

But policies are not observations. They’re based on observations, but they’re something else. If keeping the institution of war well funded looked beneficial, I’d favor it. If complex bureaucracies to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy worked as well as universal benefits, I’d lobby for them. If illegally blocking entrance to refugees based on irrational discrimination appeared destined to cause the greatest good for the greatest number, I’d back that approach. Policy should be simple or complex depending what appears likely to work best. A “flat tax” sounds simple — and also immoral. “Deregulation” simplifies and frequently destroys. It is in the area of understanding human behavior that simplicity has become a plague.

But doesn’t Occam’s Razor say that the simplest explanation is the best? No, it says that simpler hypotheses are more easily tested. And when they fail that test, you have to abandon them. When someone says “Look at that Super Bowl halftime show. It just proves that everything good in our culture is homosexual,” (yes, people have said this) it doesn’t of course prove any such thing. It simply demonstrates that some popular culture is created by LGBTQ people, and some popular culture celebrates that. Generalizing with words like “all” is not being Occam-razorish, it’s just being dumb.

When someone says “Always believe anyone who claims sexual assault,” they’re not being “progressive.” They’re being childish. If someone else says “Never believe anyone who claims sexual assault,” they’re being equally childish. Trying to determine which of the two is being more childish is being infantile. This doesn’t impact the obvious facts that real victims are often disbelieved and that the falsely accused are often punished. Nor is it a comment on which of those phenomena is more common. The point is that making up rules about human behavior as if humans were rocks gives humans the appearance of more closely resembling rocks, but not in the way that the theorist intends it.

Hey Kids! Try Collateral Damage at Home

One day a couple of weeks ago I was reading Saint Augustine while driving to the local convenience store, and I accidentally drove right through the front glass wall of the store, smashing up some shelves of junk food. After I’d made my purchases, a police officer stopped me and asked if I’d intended to drive into the store. “Oh, not at all,” I replied. “I intended to get here as quickly as possible while also educating myself as quickly as possible. I knew I might crash, of course, but that wasn’t part of my intention.”

“Well,” the cop replied. “Where should we send the check for your car repair?”

“I’ll let you know,” I replied, a bit annoyed by the hassle.

My brother in law repaired my car for not much more than $100,000, and all it still needed was to be repainted. So, I took a giant paint sprayer with me. I parked the car in front of my neighbor’s house, the one with the loud dog. When I’d finished painting the car, there was a rough shape of its profile on the front of my neighbor’s house, surrounded by fresh purple paint. I pinned a note to the door letting him know that my intention had been only to paint the car and not his house.

The new collateral damage laws we’ve been living under for the past year have really been working out great, as far as I’m concerned. We don’t let it get out of hand, though. Only property damage is excusable using bullshit medieval arguments about what we “really intended” and what we “merely knew was going to happen.” Damage or death to people or animals is not included in the law.

I’ve heard tell, though, that there is another world somewhere in which, believe it or not, the exact opposite is true. In that world, if I were to damage someone’s property and pull out a load of horse manure about “just intentions” or “proportional collateral damage,” I’d be punished for the destruction I’d caused and possibly locked up for my delusional state of mind.

But, in stark contrast, if I were to blow up some poor guy who dressed suspiciously with a missile from a drone, even though 8 other guys who dressed acceptably were standing next to him, well that’d be totally cool. Or if I were to bomb an entire city flat because its people were suffering under the rule of a brutal dictator I’d stopped supporting and arming last month, that’d just be good patriotic citizenship.

Now, I’m not going to swear to you that this crazy world exists, but I have reports on it from numerous credible sources. I even have recent reports from several people that an ancient institution in this world — they call it the Catholic Church — is dropping its support for using “collateral damage” to excuse murder, while the rest of the society is just going ahead with mindlessly accepting it anyway, even without the support of its original devious devisers.

Regardless, however, of whether such a place is real, the manner in which its customs shock us should wake us up to the possibility that our own might shock someone else, and that we should never accept traditional customs without thinking them through for ourselves.

The Habit of Thought That Made U.S. #1 in Prisons and Wars

By David Swanson, American Herald Tribune
Remarks prepared for April 12 event in Baltimore.

I’m going to start with a few brief opening remarks about what I think is the habit of thought that has made the United States #1 in the world in prisons and wars. And then I’ll be glad to try to answer as many questions as you think of. These remarks will be published online at American Herald Tribune.

No matter how long I debunk and refute and mock and condemn arguments for wars, I continue over and over again to conclude that I’m still giving advocates for war too much credit. How ever little I take seriously as rational ideas the notions that U.S. wars can be defensive or humanitarian or peace-keeping, it’s always too much. Wars’ supporters, in large part, do not themselves actually hold such beliefs. Rather they have a lust for war that must be examined outside of any question of utilitarian impact.

I’m referring here to the mental processes of both top officials deciding to wage war, and ordinary members of the U.S. public expressing their approval. Of course, the two are not identical. Motives of profit are hushed up, while phony motives such as waging wars in order to “support the troops” are manufactured for public consumption but never ever mentioned in the private emails of war makers. Nonetheless, there is great overlap in the thinking of all members of a culture, including the thinking of cynical politicians in a corrupt regime, and there are points on which virtually all politicians, from best to worst, agree without giving the matter any thought.

One part of the common lust for war is the desire to punish wrongdoers. This motivation overlaps with revenge when depicted as a response to some wrong done to “us.” It overlaps with defensiveness when depicted as punishing some person, force, or group that constitutes a dangerous threat. It overlaps with the drives for power and domination when presented as punishing a challenger to the authority of the U.S. government, or of the U.S. government and the handful of oligarchs who constitute “the international community.” But this drive to punish can be distinguished as an important motivation that often seems to underpin more superficial rationalizations.

Look at a typical “humanitarian” war, such as the war to rescue Libyan civilians from imminent slaughter in 2011 or the war to rescue mountaintop dwellers from ISIS in 2013 which is ongoing and escalating. In both cases, the humanitarian rationale was essentially false. Gadaffi did not threaten to massacre civilians. The U.S. did not try to rescue civilians from ISIS; some were rescued by Kurds, some had no interest in being rescued. In both the case of Libya and that of ISIS, war supporters piled all sorts of other rationales on top of the humanitarian one, many of these related to punishment, including punishment of ISIS for beheading U.S. citizens with knives. Old grievances, some of them based on dubious claims themselves, were dredged up against Qadaffi. TV host Ed Schultz, for example, suddenly developed a passion for punishing Qadaffi for crimes that as far as I know hadn’t disturbed Schultz’s sleep for years prior if ever. Americans who could have all fit on a single and readily available airplane supposedly needed to be saved from the ISIS menace by a bombing campaign that focused on an oil-rich area, not on the threatened mountaintop.

In both cases, also, the humanitarian excuse was quickly abandoned. The rescues were quickly forgotten as the U.S. entered into a war to quickly overthrow the Libyan government and a war to slowly “destroy ISIS.” In both cases, few questions were raised about this switch, and to many it was not perceived as a switch. Once you rescue helpless innocents from an evil menace, punishing the evil menace is just a normal follow through like completing a golf swing over your shoulder. In this way of thinking, the humanitarian argument isn’t seen as a deceitful way to get a war started but as a justification for continuing the war until the wrongdoers are properly punished.

Look at a typical “defensive” war by the United States, like the vicious aggression against Iraq in 2003. Mixed in with all the lies about the supposed threat from Iraq was plenty of talk about punishing Iraq for violating UN resolutions and for that common reason given for bombing the people of a foreign nation: the tyrant of Iraq had “killed his own people” — using, as is common, U.S. weapons. Similarly, the Gulf War had been punishment for the invasion of Kuwait, and the war on Afghanistan has been 15 years and counting of punishment for 9/11 of people who for the most part had never heard of 9/11.

What makes me turn from factually correcting a rational belief that these wars are somehow defensive to lamenting an irrational desire to punish somebody regardless of the consequences is the fact that when the wars are exposed as counterproductive, many of their supporters go right on supporting them and talking about the need to punish those who do evil — even if the punishment itself constitutes a greater evil. Numerous top officials in the U.S. military and so-called intelligence so-called community admit the day after they retire that the drone wars and occupations are counterproductive, that they are generating more enemies than they are killing. This fact is casually referred to as self-evident in editorials by the biggest U.S. newspapers and in reports by U.N. rapporteurs, but never ever as an argument for ending these policies.

The global war on terrorism is predictably and admittedly generating more terrorism, and its supporters just don’t care. The world’s most expensive military, with troops in the most places and engagement in the most wars, creates for itself the most resentment and blowback, and the solution of the true believers is even more militarism.

What is the purpose of a war that brings more war? One answer can be found in listening to ordinary war supporters who ask whether war opponents want to just “let them get away with it,” and in the remarks of President Obama who claims to be murdering with drones only individuals who could not possibly be apprehended and prosecuted. But, in fact, none of his victims has even been indicted, many if not most of them could easily have been apprehended, and most have not even been identified by name. The point of throwing around the word “prosecution” in discussing the new kill policy, as in discussing the old imprison-without-trial-and-torture policy is to convey the idea that what is being done is punishment.

We find, in fact, the drive to punish in arguments for wars going back for centuries. The Mexicans had to be punished for invading the United States, whether they did so or not. The Spanish had to be punished for blowing up the Maine, whether they did so or not. King George had to be punished for his crimes, the South had to be punished for seceding, the Vietnamese had to be punished for Tonkin whether it happened or not, etc. An especially curious thing about the drive to punish, as we see in foreign and domestic policy alike, is that it seems to be largely satisfied entirely regardless of whether the correct person is punished. And if the right person is punished, that person’s background is of little concern.

Was ISIS created by the invasion of Iraq and the arming of fighters in Syria? Who cares? Does the bombing of ISIS kill innocents and boost ISIS recruiting? Who cares? Was a murderer and rapist brutally abused as a child? Who cares? Does DNA prove that he didn’t do it at all? As long as that evidence can be kept from the judge or jury, who really cares? The important thing is to punish somebody.

There are probably more innocent men and women in prison in the United States now than there were people in prison here total — innocent and guilty — 30 years ago, or than there are total people in prison (proportionately or as an absolute number) in most nations on earth.

I don’t mean that people are locked up for actions that shouldn’t be considered crimes, although they are. I don’t mean that people are policed and indicted and prosecuted by a racist system that makes some people far more likely to end up in prison than other people guilty of the same actions, although that is true, just as it’s also true that the justice system works better for the wealthy than for the poor. I am referring rather to men and women who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they simply did not commit. I’m not even counting Guantanamo or Bagram or immigrants’ prisons. I’m talking about the prisons just up the road, full of people from just down the road.

I don’t know whether wrongful convictions have increased as a percentage of convictions. What has indisputably increased is the number of convictions and the lengths of sentences. The prison population has skyrocketed. It’s multiplied several fold. And it’s done so during a political climate that has rewarded legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police for locking people up — and not for preventing the conviction of innocents. This growth does not correlate in any way with an underlying growth in crime. Nor have U.S. wars multiplied as the result of greater lawlessness among dictators who’ve fallen out of favor in Washington.

At the same time, evidence has emerged of a pattern of wrongful convictions. This emerging evidence is largely the result of prosecutions during the 1980s, primarily for rape but also for murder, before DNA testing had come into its own, but when evidence (including semen and blood) was sometimes preserved. Other factors have contributed: messy murderers, rapists who didn’t use condoms, advances in DNA science that helps to convict the guilty as well as to free the innocent, avenues for appeal that were in some ways wider before the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the heroic work of a relative handful of people.

An examination of the plea bargains and trials that put people behind bars ought to make clear to anyone that many of those convicted are innocent. But DNA exonerations have opened a lot of eyes to that fact. The trouble is that most convicts do not have anything that can be tested for DNA to prove their guilt or innocence. There are very likely hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the U.S. prison system. Are they innocent of everything? Are they saints? Of course not. They are innocent of the crimes for which they were punished. In the minds of many that doesn’t matter. After all, they are poor, they are black, they have bad friends, they were in bad places. This is the thinking that supports bombing foreign nations. Did everyone in that foreign nation supposedly blow up an airplane decades ago? Of course not, but they are Muslim, they have dark skin, they hate us for our freedoms. If we’re punishing them for the wrong crime, it all evens out because we’re punishing them for some other crime or for their general criminal evilness.

Peter Enns has just published a book called Incarceration Nation that makes the case that punitiveness in U.S. public attitudes has played a huge role in the growth of mass incarceration. It may also have played a huge role in the growth of the permanent state of war. In absolute numbers and per-capita the United States dwarfs the rest of the world in war making and incarceration, and has seen huge growth in both in recent years. Enns cites studies finding that U.S. mass incarceration may actually increase rather than reduce crime. That finding has impacted U.S. debates on criminal punishment like a massive oak falling in a deserted forest. Nobody cares. What does it matter if mass incarceration increases crime? That’s not the point. The point is to punish. And many are willing to be treated as criminals in airports, in banks, in schools, in their own neighborhoods, if it means that criminals are being severely punished. Many are willing to give the police the benefit of every doubt if racial and religious groups demonized by war propaganda are alleged to be a threat nearby.

Ending the U.S. system of counterproductive criminal punishment is as unthinkable in U.S. politics as ending the counterproductive “destroying of ISIS.”

These ideas have to be unthinkable, because thinking about them could lead to radical change. Militarism and incarceration drain incredible resources from actually beneficial projects, they do horrendous damage to their victims and those victims’ families, but also to prison guards, police, and members of the U.S. military. They increase racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence. They erode civil liberties. They destroy communities. They spread hatred and violence. They ruin lives. Their damage spreads for generations. Why is the United States tops in both of these evils? Are they connected?

Public opinion matters in any society. The United States is very far from democratic, but a cheap and easy way to gain electoral support while simultaneously pleasing ones funders has been to press policies labeled tough on crime and tough on terrorism. That these policies may increase crime and terrorism in comparison with other available and unconsidered options doesn’t change this fact as long as people cry out for punishment at all costs. Careers in Washington, D.C., are not typically advanced by opposing wars. Prosecutors are not typically celebrated or rewarded for refraining from prosecuting the innocent. This problem is so universal as to go almost unnoticed.

I recently noticed a study by U.S. academics in the Journal of Peace Research, a study of whether the loss of lives or dollars increased or decreased U.S. public support for wars. The study only considered the loss of U.S. lives, even though the single biggest result of U.S. wars is the killing of foreigners. The possibility that the loss of non-U.S. lives could have any impact on U.S. support for wars was not deemed worthy even of consideration. The same could be said in many contexts for the prosecution of innocents in U.S. courts.

Scientists at Yale University who run experiments observing babies and toddlers claim that very, very young U.S. citizens exhibit a desire to see wrongdoers punished, even at a cost to themselves or others. These are, however, very young people who have been rapidly inhaling U.S. culture for months or years. And if we accept the unproven and perhaps unprovable claim that babies are somehow born with such desires, we still have to accept that 96% of humanity seems to set them aside in ways that people in the United States, when they grow older, do not.

Still, the author of the book Just Babies is onto something. He cites the phenomenon of internet lynch mobs. A video of a woman putting a cat in a dumpster can result in death threats. The exoneration of a man who witnessed a vicious crime and did not prevent it has led to widespread efforts to ruin his life. People not involved in these incidents in any way, hear about them and organize ways to cause punishment. That inclination to punish, to lynch, to “bring to justice,” is also an inclination that has helped kill millions of people in the Middle East in recent decades and helped ruin millions of lives at the hands of the U.S. police and prison system.

If I’m right about this, then we could help reduce and end wars and reduce and eliminate incarceration by eliminating or radically reducing and reforming the desire to punish wrongdoers for the sake of that punishment, for the Schadenfreude, the punishment for punishment’s sake. And we might be able to advance that cause by developing restorative justice at home and abroad.

I recommend Rebecca Gordon’s new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. But I don’t want to see Bush or Obama or Rumsfeld or Hillary Clinton suffer. I want to see understanding of their crimes developed, repetition of their crimes deterred, restitution for their crimes attempted, remorse and reconciliation advanced. In urging yet another people’s tribunal without the power to punish, Gordon urges the importance of making reparations and accomplishing public acknowledgment. The first such tribunal I testified at regarding Bush-Cheney war crimes was in January 2006, over a decade ago. The trick will clearly be to do one and simultaneously purchase a television network. The important point here, however, is that the desire for truth and reconciliation without punishment is not uncommon. Even in the United States there are many cases of murder victims’ families opposing excessive punishment of those convicted of the murder. And there are families of 9/11 victims who have opposed from the start using 9/11 as an excuse for wars.

One year ago today Baltimore police murdered Freddie Gray, and many believed that because the police had done it, it was punishment — for something. When people protested, police were brought in from all over the area, including police who had been trained in occupying enemy territory in Israel, police with weapons given them by the U.S. military, police trained by the federal government to think of themselves as at war with the public rather than serving the public.

The people of the city of Baltimore gave the federal government in taxes last year $606 million just for the Department of so-called Defense, not counting wars, not counting so-called Homeland Security, not counting nukes in the Department of Energy or Mercenaries in the Department of State or veterans care or debt on past spending. The people of Baltimore handed over further millions to pay for those things, possibly $1 billion in all. And another billion this year, and another the next. It’s not clear what the people of Baltimore get for that beyond chaos, disaster and hatred of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, a militarized police force, the damage to U.S. troops from Baltimore, the erosion of our civil rights, the destruction of our natural environment, and the lack of funding for human needs.

Activist groups seem to be making these connections with events titled things like “From Ferguson to Palestine.” A group in Los Angeles called Fight for the Soul of Our Cities is planning a march and rally on April 22nd against the militarization of police. There’s a huge opportunity available if opponents of war and incarceration recognize that they are up against the same forces, the same mental habits, the same propaganda, the same corruption. If we can build a bigger movement, we can achieve bigger goals. But if we build that movement around the desire to punish the latest warmonger or police chief we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. We may get farther in the long run if we build a movement around a vision of a world without wars, prisons, or poverty — and without the desire to punish people.

The Catholic Church is Now More Advanced Than U.S. Philosophy Departments

It ought to be with considerable embarrassment that I say this, as an atheist who thinks religion does far more harm than good, and that it does so not only through the pretense that death isn’t real but first and foremost through the promotion of blind obedience to supposedly infallible authority. Yet, I don’t feel any sort of group loyalty or opposition to the parties involved here, and I’m actually entirely thrilled to recognize the good news that the Catholic Church has now surged far ahead of U.S. academia in the basic measure of opposition to institutionalized mass murder.

The Catholic Church has a great deal to answer for over the centuries, from the dehumanization of much of humanity to the normalization of “collateral damage.” The idea of a “just war” has been propped up by flimsy arguments for many, many years, leaning on the notion of divine sanction. But the current Pope has had enough of it. He’s just held a conference in Rome on rejecting any further use of “just war” sophism to prop up mass killing. Not long back he told the United States Congress to end the bloody arms trade. He understands the connection between war waging and arms dealing. Once we admit that all war is evil, we can reject as evil the enormous business U.S. corporations do in providing much of the weaponry. As long as we pretend that some wars are good ones, the industrial complex that arms the wars and in large part produces the wars can roll on.

The Pope’s message opening this week’s meeting in Rome stated that “… the ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and of the human community is the abolition of war.” The meeting was announced with a statement from its organizers that the “just war” idea “can no longer claim center stage as the Christian approach to war and peace.”

The announcement was not of a total break unfortunately, but of a process of moving in a better direction. Still, it did call for a total rejection of the phrase “just war”:

“Emphasizing the need to work for a just peace, the Church is moving away from the acceptability of calling war ‘just.’ While clear ethical criteria are necessary for addressing egregious attacks or threats in a violent world, moral theologians and ethicists should no longer refer to such criteria as the ‘just war theory,’ because that language undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacity for nonviolent conflict.” Organizers want a “new articulation of Catholic teaching on war and peace, including explicit rejection of ‘just war’ language.”

This reflects an accurate understanding of the thought habits that need correcting. The idea that a war can be just helps eliminate from consideration numerous nonviolent options, and it does this on an almost weekly basis in the United States. Imagine developing a theory of “just child abuse” or “just cat torture” or “just rape” or “just climate destruction.” It’s not that no ethics professor can devise an imaginary scenario in which those actions could appear desirable. It’s that we have rejected them as a society, or are working on doing so.

Look at the seven countries that President Barack Obama has bragged about having bombed: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Each is disastrously worse because of Obama’s choice of war, and ultimately perhaps the choices of his favorite philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. What if, for example, the idea that bombing Libya could be just had not been acceptable in 2011 U.S. society? Might peaceful methods of accomplishing the same goals, or perhaps even the emergence of less shameful goals have prevailed?

Ah, but what about the right of Iraqis to fight back against occupation? What about the right of the United States to fight back against the imaginary future invasion it fears so deeply and ridiculously? Using those rights to justify the institution of war, understood as including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bombing of the seven nations listed above is sophistry worthy of any seller of indulgences. We can either recognize the strength of nonviolence as a tool against aggression, recognize that the possibility of aggression does not justify the institution of war under the banner of defense, or both. Rome is moving anybody who pays attention to it in those directions. The rest of our culture is not.

Why Do Ethics Classes Fantasize About Murder So Much?

At a post-screening discussion where I questioned the director of Eye in the Sky about the disconnect between his drone-kill movie and reality, he launched into a bunch of thought-experiment stuff of the sort I’ve tried to avoid since finishing my master’s in philosophy. Mostly I’ve avoided hanging out with torture supporters.

If this were a philosophy paper I would now tell you that I am going to show that consequentialism is the most useful ethical framework. Then I would show you that. Then I would tell you I’d just shown you that. And the annoyingness would be only beginning. Luckily, I’m out of school and have told you my central concern in the headline.

Consequentialism, the idea that we should base our actions on the good or bad of the expected consequences, has always been very troubling to philosophy professors, possibly because of some of these reasons:

> It leaves ethics up to humans without any sort of pseudo-divine guidance.

> It means otherwise brilliant people like Immanuel Kant were quite wrong.

> Concluding that consequentialism is the way to go would eliminate the entire academic discipline of debating what is the way to go.

One way to supposedly knock down consequentialism is to propose that if torturing one child could somehow provide pleasure to a million people you would have to do it. But this is simplistic in the extreme. The pain of torture is far greater than the supposed pleasure of watching it. More significantly, this calculation, like all of them, assumes that 2 minutes after the action in question the world will cease to exist. In a world that continues to exist, significant harm can be expected from the act of encouraging a million people to enjoy watching torture — why in the world would we expect them to stop at one instance of it? And what of the fear that would be instilled in billions of children and their loved ones by a power structure that maintained the right to grab children and torture them? These consequences are, together with the one child’s suffering, exactly what make the supposed non-consequentialist object to the horror of the torture, and they are just that: consequences.

A more typical argument against consequentialism is even less persuasive, because it assumes the possession of impossible knowledge, in addition to ignoring medium- and long-term consequences. Such are the ticking time bomb scenario and the trolley problems that obsess legions of academics across and beyond the United States, and which contribute to the acceptance of “collateral damage” by the U.S. military and the people who fund it. Wikipedia notes something critical about the ticking time bomb stories, while dismissing the point as irrelevant:

“As a thought experiment, there is no need that the scenario be plausible; it need only serve to highlight ethical considerations.”

Hmm. How about ethically considering the consequences of filling people’s minds and television dramas with scenarios that are not plausible? Television crime dramas have been shown to shape people’s political views on crime. Shows like “24” pretend that ticking time-bomb scenarios, in which torture will save many lives, are everyday occurrences. In fact, they exist and are only likely to ever exist, in fantasy.

In reality, one never has the knowledge that an individual knows how to stop a bomb, that the bomb will soon go off if not stopped, and that the best way to get the truth out of the individual is torture. Torture usually elicits falsehoods or nothing, and no scenario is more likely to do that than one in which the torture victim need only endure a short amount of time in order to accomplish his or her goal.

In reality, U.S. drone kills do not target people who are about to blow up others in the United States or elsewhere, or people who cannot be arrested, or even for the most part people who have been identified by name. But in movie fantasies and public imagination, that is what is going on. When I objected about this to the director of Eye in the Sky he launched into a number of trolley problems.

Would you pull a switch to send a trolley onto a track to kill one person, to avoid leaving it on a track where it would kill five people? Would you push a fat man onto the track to die, to save five people? Et cetera. In reality you are never going to find yourself in such a situation or its equivalent. How could you know with any certainty what would happen in each case, including that the fat man but not yourself, and not the two of you together, would stop the trolley?

This nonsense seems harmless because we’re not considering actually setting up trolley tracks that we tie people to and push people onto. But the moral dilemma of Eye in the Sky is whether to kill people before they can kill more people, even if another and innocent person might be killed as well. The lesson to be drawn is the moral logic of “collateral damage.” Here’s where that leads: In December 2015, in a CNN presidential debate, one of the moderators asked this: “We’re talking about ruthless things tonight. Carpet bombing, toughness, war, and people wonder, could you do that? Could you order airstrikes that would kill innocent children, not scores but hundreds and thousands. Could you wage war as a commander in chief?”

Do you have the manly resolve to enjoy that thrill of power? If you don’t, you can always become a professor and experience it vicariously, fantasizing about which groups of people you would kill and save based on your “intuitions” versus your “calculations.” I don’t think our professors actually want to rush out and kill people or even order others to do so. But many of them want to vote for politicians who do so. Many of them want to pay taxes for it. Many of them want to tell pollsters that they approve of the President running his finger down a list of men, women, and children on Tuesdays and sagely picking which ones to have murdered.

By the circular reasoning of ethicists, the fact that a culture comes to accept “collateral damage” and, for that matter, non-collateral “damage” means that such acceptance is “true” and must be propped up with some sort of argument.

The Pope is right now holding a meeting on the project of rejecting “just war” theory after centuries of its damage. This puts the Catholic church ahead of the philosophy departments in the matter of the basic morality of refraining from mass murder. This atheist applauds the church.

What should ethics students be doing instead of driving imaginary trollies? Long ago, someone (let’s pretend it was Jefferson) said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Talk Nation Radio: Do Ethics Professors Behave Ethically? Someone Checked.

https://soundcloud.com/davidcnswanson/talknationradio-20150728

Eric Schwitzgebel is Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside.  His most recent book is Perplexities of Consciousness. We discuss his article “Cheeseburger Ethics” on his research into whether ethics professors are any better behaved than anyone else. See http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com

Total run time: 29:00

Host: David Swanson.
Producer: David Swanson.
Music by Duke Ellington.

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War Acceptance 101

Behind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, an American ethics professor would imagine himself or herself choosing a society of wonderful economic and social justice, unheard of equality and liberty, and the “right” to “defend” itself through the counterproductive and self-destructive instrument of military empire and war. Peace isn’t permitted even in utopia, in U.S. academe. Why? Because John Rawls murdered Japanese people “in defense” and occupied their nation as philanthropy.

And why do others support other wars? Principally because of where they happen to have been born and what flavor of fairy tales they have been told as children. Which ancient religious claptrap were you fed? Where were you born? Which political party do you identify with? Answer those questions and nine-and-a-half times out of ten we’ll know which wars you support. We’ll be wrong mostly in the cases of people who have rejected the acceptability of war.

What if, in the moral “original position,” you chose to be born into a society that didn’t accept murder, including government sanctioned mass murder? To reject the killing of non-human animals you’d just have to include them in the list of possible beings you might be born as. You wouldn’t choose a carnivorous society if you might be the carne. You wouldn’t choose an environmentally destructive society if you might be born as someone who cared about their offspring. And you wouldn’t choose a warmaking society any more than you would choose an extreme plutocracy, because your chances of being a war profiteer experiencing short-term and superficial benefits would be miniscule compared to your chances of killing or dying or being injured or being traumatized or losing a loved one or being hated when traveling or paying an economic price or losing your civil liberties or experiencing vicious blowback or bitter shame.

You also wouldn’t choose a warmaking society because you would have no war propaganda behind your veil of ignorance. Despite being defined as an impossibly isolated individual, you would have no reason to choose massive suffering even if the odds were against your being one of the victims.

And, of course, if you imagined yourself ignorant of whether you were an American or an Iranian, it might jolt you into some reluctance to support dropping bombs on Iran.

Extremists who reject all racism do not exist, because such a position is not deemed extreme at all. The same applies to extreme opponents of rape, child abuse, or polygamy, of cannibalism, human sacrifice, or slavery, of the torture of kittens, or of criticism of John McCain. Opposing these things does not involve extremists, only good liberal participants. But oppose all war and you are simply going too far.

But if you are going to support some wars, how do you pick which wars not to support?

Let’s take the proposed U.S. war on Iran. Let’s suppose you don’t oppose it simply because you obey President Obama or because you were not raised a particular sort of Jewish or Christian. Let’s suppose you came to your opposition to a U.S. attack on Iran against all demographic odds and after considerable thought. What thought was that?

I really want to know this. Because a good majority in the United States opposes attacking Iran for the moment. Is this just because Iran elected a new president and the new guy hasn’t yet been properly demonized? Or is it just because there have been no reports on videos of Iranian beheadings? Isn’t it more likely because no emergency outcry has been raised to defend innocent civilians from imminent slaughter by Iranians, requiring that Americans bomb them first? Isn’t it even more likely because the FBI is posing as ISIS members, not Iranians, when it entraps troubled and challenged people in charges of terrorist violence? Or — dare we hope? — is it because, after so many years of holding off a war on Iran, the idea that there’s something urgent about starting one now just doesn’t pass the smell test?

If you could choose what sort of economic and political structure to be born into, wouldn’t you choose one that learned from trial and error, and from trial and success? Wouldn’t you place yourself in a society that couldn’t avoid war through basic diplomacy in one instance and not notice that the same basic tactic could be applied in many other instances? And if you chose a society that rewarded success in the pursuit of the social good, you would be choosing a society that viewed war as on a par with cannibalism. Tragically, if you published such a claim in academia, it would not make you feel any better about your colleagues when they roasted and devoured you.

Peace Work Because of You

A note from David Swanson:

You may have seen this article I wrote recently on ongoing U.S. use of depleted uranium weapons. It’s on dozens of websites, including my own WarIsACrime, but also Al Jazeera, Truthout, Counterpunch, FireDogLake, OpEdNews, Washington’s Blog, Z, and many others.

Guess what I got paid, in total, from all of those outlets? —–>>>

But I can pay the bills and keep working for peace if you help with a donation, even a small one, ideally a recurring one to keep me going and keep me from having to bug you in the future. 

You may have seen this recent television appearance. It informed a great many people about alternatives to war. It paid exactly as much as that article. In fact, I am constantly writing and doing interviews for nothing but peace.

You can find all of my writing at DavidSwanson.org and fund that site here.

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Dozens of radio stations air my program Talk Nation Radio every week (also available online). It provides an educational service found nowhere else. The combined payments I receive for it total exactly the same as for my writing and media appearances. I have to maintain recording equipment, pay the bill for a landline phone, and put in hours of work each week. You can fund this program here.

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I work in collaboration with a lot of peace organizations, and I always try to nudge the activism toward a principled stand against militarism and toward strategic and educational efforts that will move the wider culture in the direction of making war a thing of the past. I’m free to speak my mind, and to take part in nonviolent civil resistance, because I’m not serving any big foundation or 1-percenter. I am, however, relying on you. Please click here and help me keep working.

 

 

The Three Laws of Pentagon Robotics

The three laws of robotics, according to science fiction author Isaac Asimov, are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I would gladly have accepted a $20 million Pentagon contract for the job of pointing out these three laws.

OK, maybe $25 million.

Sadly, the Pentagon has instead hired a bunch of philosophy professors from leading U.S. universities to tell them how to make robots murder people morally and ethically.

Of course, this conflicts with the first law above. A robot designed to kill human beings is designed to violate the first law.

The whole project even more fundamentally violates the second law. The Pentagon is designing robots to obey orders precisely when they violate the first law, and to always obey orders without any exception. That’s the advantage of using a robot. The advantage is not in risking the well-being of a robot instead of a soldier. The Pentagon doesn’t care about that, except in certain situations in which too many deaths of its own humans create political difficulties. And there are just as many situations in which there are political advantages for the Pentagon in losing its own human lives: “The sacrifice of American lives is a crucial step in the ritual of commitment,” wrote William P. Bundy of the CIA, an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A moral being would disobey the orders these robots are being designed to carry-out, and — by being robots — to carry out without any question of refusal. Only a U.S. philosophy professor could imagine applying a varnish of “morality” to this project.

The Third Law should be a warning to us. Having tossed aside Laws one and two, what limitations are left to be applied should Law three be implemented? Assume the Pentagon designs its robots to protect their own existence, except when . . . what? Except when doing so would require disobeying a more important order? But which order is more important? Except when doing so would require killing the wrong kind of person(s)? But which are they? The humans not threatening the robot? That’s rather a failure as a limitation.

Let’s face it, the Pentagon needs brand new laws of robotics. May I suggest the following:

1. A Pentagon robot must kill and injure human beings as ordered.
2. A Pentagon robot must obey all orders, except where such orders result from human weakness and conflict with the mission to kill and injure.
3. A Pentagon robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This set of laws differs from Asimov’s in a number of ways.  For one thing, it completely lacks morality.  It is designed for killing, not protecting.  By prioritizing killing in the First Law, rather than protecting, this set of laws also allows for the possibility of robots sacrificing themselves to kill rather than to protect — as well as the possibility of robots turning on their masters. 

This set of laws differs much less — possibly not at all — from the set of laws currently followed by human members of the U.S. military.  The great distinction that people imagine between autonomous and piloted drones vanishes when you learn a little about the thought habits of human drone pilots.  They, like other members of the U.S. military, follow these laws:

1. A Pentagon human must kill and injure human beings as ordered.
2. A Pentagon human must obey all orders, except where such orders result from human weakness and conflict with the mission to kill and injure.
3. A Pentagon human must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The job of the philosophy professors is to apply these laws to robots while neither changing them nor letting on to have figured out what they are.  In other words, it’s just like teaching a course in the classics to a room full of students.  Thank goodness our academia has produced the men and women for this job.

Atheists Caught on Film

The film, The Unbelievers, now playing in theaters, documents a world tour of speaking events by a pair of scientists opposed to theism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss.  They take the refreshing approach that tolerating nonsensical beliefs establishes damaging habits of thought, and that therefore nonsense like religion should not be continued.  They’re also quite optimistic that it won’t be. 

And when you watch these guys speaking to large crowds and selling millions of books, it’s possible to imagine that they’re right. In their view we are surrounded by closet atheists, including many politicians. So, the advance of atheism could involve coming out as much as coming around.

Belief is a muddled concept.  I believe I’m typing these words. I believe the earth revolves around the sun.  Everyone is, in this sense, primarily a believer.  I also “believe in” my team, my family, humanity, loyalty, honesty.  That is, I place confidence and trust in things, devote myself to principles, wish people well, and am sometimes optimistic about something. 

But then there is the notion of “believing in” the existence of imaginary beings or places or events, in contrast to simply “believing” that something exists, precisely because we don’t believe it, the evidence being all against it.  We see death and “believe in” eternal life.  We see a world with no god and “believe in” a god.  In this sense we should all be unbelievers.  And once we are, then, as the film suggests, atheism will become unnecessary, because theism will be as unthinkable as belief in the ancient gods of Rome.

One person in the film says that Romans used to call Christians atheists for refusing to believe in all the gods, and so an atheist today is someone who just believes in 1 fewer god than a Christian does.  True.  And an atheist can place irrational belief in other things.  But an unbeliever in the sense I’ve described above is someone who strives to reject wishful thinking.  Such an unbeliever can be a good, caring, strong, admirable person.  Or such an unbeliever can be a greedy, arrogant, destructive jerk.  But the effort to be honest in understanding the way things are is itself admirable and important.

The criticism of atheism that this atheist or that atheist is flawed in this way or that way hardly hits home — as if we don’t have religious role models and religious mass-murderers.  Another criticism is that atheism lacks “meaning” or “awe” or “mystery.”  The film counters this line of thinking fairly well.  The protagonists argue that being able to create your own meaning in life is better than having to find it in a religion.  And both of them are in awe of the wonders of the universe, which they consider to be revealing itself as ever more remarkable with each new advance in scientific understanding.

The choice the film presents between religion and science is not beyond questioning, however.  Many of us are not much attracted to science.  While astrophysics and evolution may be particularly relevant to debunking the myths that religions create, a great many people — including myself — don’t want to be scientists.  And of course a great many theists are scientists, so that being scientific most of the time hardly seems to prevent being theistic too.  I don’t think theism/science is the only contrast that should be presented.  What about theism/active-political-engagement-to-improve-the-real-world?  What about theism/care-for-humanity-and-species-and-ecologies-beyond-just-humanity? What about theism/history? Theism/art?

Some of us believe that science, in combination with greed and arrogance, has a lot to answer for, that there is in fact a danger in prioritizing learning more, regardless of the risks.  I would prefer that nuclear energy and weaponry had not been figured out, at least not yet.  I would prefer that the science behind the consumption of fossil fuels had never occurred to anybody.  To its credit, The Unbelievers suggests that global-warming denial is part and parcel of reality denial, of the sloppy sort of wishful thinking that Dawkins and Krauss are opposed to.  Beyond that, the film has disappointingly little to say about the advantages of atheism, beyond its just being right — which, in fact, may not be a higher value for a every member of our species than being sustainable.

When you listen to global warming deniers, they’ll tell you that arrogance is the problem: the arrogance of believing that mere humans can impact the earth.  But reality-based global warming commentators blame the arrogance of believing that humans can expect nothing to go wrong as they plow ahead recklessly disregarding their enormous impacts on ecosystems they’ve barely begun to comprehend.  We’re all against arrogance, and we’re all a bit arrogant, I’m afraid.  So the imperative to base our understanding of things on evidence rather than pleasant fantasies is indeed crucially decisive.  I just wish we wouldn’t get carried away with the notion that knowing ever more is more important than living with more wisdom and kindness.