Hey Kids! Try Collateral Damage at Home

Tag: Peace and War, Philosophy, Political Ideas

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

Tag: Peace and War, Philosophy

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

Tag: Peace and War, Philosophy, Political Ideas

By David Swanson, American Herald TribuneRemarks 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.


Why Do Ethics Classes Fantasize About Murder So Much?

Tag: Philosophy

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.


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

Tag: Philosophy, Talk Nation Radio

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

Total run time: 29:00

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

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War Acceptance 101

Tag: Peace and War, Philosophy

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.


The Three Laws of Pentagon Robotics

Tag: Peace and War, Philosophy

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

Tag: Philosophy

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.


God Made Me an Atheist, Who Are You to Judge?

Tag: Philosophy

Peter Boghossian's A Manual for Creating Atheists is a curious and ultimately very valuable book. 

It's curious because it doesn't make much of a case -- or at least not the sort of case I would have liked -- for why we should create atheists. 

It's valuable because, if you believe we'd be better off with more atheists, this is a remarkable tool for accomplishing that goal. 

I don't view sloppy thinking as a great evil in itself.  It doesn't offend me the way hunger and lack of medicine and Hellfire missiles offend me.  So, I look for the argument -- which I think can be made -- that sloppy thinking has serious results, or that belief in a god leads to a lack of responsibility, or that belief in eternal life diminishes efforts to improve real lives.  This book does not focus on those arguments.

Boghossian points to abstinence-only sex-ed, bans on same-sex marriage, teaching Creationism, corporal punishment in schools, and other offenses in the United States, as well as pointing to various more-severe abuses by the Taliban, as the undesirable results of theism.  But, with the possible exception of Creationism, these things could continue without theism or be ended while maintaining theism.  Perhaps they would be less likely to continue in a theism-free society in which good arguments against those practices had been introduced.  I'm inclined to think that atheistic openness to questioning assumptions leads toward swifter and more radical political change, whether for better or for worse, and that because we need positive radical change so desperately we need the ability to take that risk. 

In arguing against the assumption that we must always have war, or poverty, or private health insurance companies, or corporate television networks, or oil drilling, or billionaires, one could do much worse than to appropriate some of the arguments that Boghossian uses to argue against the assumption of theism.  This is the great value in this book. The author provides a guide and numerous examples of how to gently nudge someone away from what Boghossian calls "faith," as distinct from "religion." 

I think the shift toward the word "faith" has largely been driven by people's desire to unload the baggage of specific religious beliefs while maintaining a vague conviction in the existence of some vague something that one has no evidence for the existence of.  Boghossian chooses to tackle people's "faith," meaning their practice of believing something with no justification, in order not to challenge their social attachment to church attendance, ceremonies, and support structures of religions.  However, I've had people tell me they were theists because they are not omniscient and they appreciate profound mysteries, even though they reject such notions as "god" and "heaven" (as if atheists must claim to be omniscient just because they don't celebrate their ignorance).  So those wanting to cling to religion as they lose faith may themselves describe it as their faith evolving.

Boghossian's approach to talking people out of faith is a subtle jiu-jitsu -- part therapy, part community organizing, part Socrates.  He cites evidence that people can be talked out of faith, as well as that the process often takes far longer than does conversion to faith.  Seeking to encourage those using his manual, the author explains how reactions that seem to reject arguments against faith can actually be signs of making progress. 

Boghossian advises targeting people's habits of faith, not the beliefs they hold.  He advocates a non-combative, helpful, and questioning Socratic approach.  Richard Dawkins comments in a blurb on the back cover: "Peter Boghossian's techniques of friendly persuasion are not mine, and maybe I'd be more effective if they were.  They are undoubtedly very persuasive -- and very much needed."  I think that's right, but I also think that for a certain type of person, reading this book would be a way to cure them of their god virus. 

Still, Boghossian does little of what I think he could have done to persuade us of the desirability of working as evangelical atheists.  When, in the course of a conversation, Boghossian wants to provide examples of very moral people who are atheists, he picks Bill Gates (who hoards tens of billions of dollars while thousands of children starve and suffer for lack of it; something one doesn't question if faith in trickle-down economics dominates your thought) and Pat Tillman because he chose to "give his life for his country" (Tillman joined in the senseless slaughter of the people of Afghanistan, came to regret his decision, was killed either accidentally or intentionally by U.S. troops when no Afghans were anywhere nearby, and has been blatantly lied about by the U.S. military and media -- a case where skepticism and freethinking would seem to have been badly needed, but where our brilliant producer of atheists seems to have followed his faith in nationalism in choosing this example.)

Of course, most atheists don't practice cut-throat computer software monopolism, hoard vast wealth, or join in wars.  In fact, atheists tend to be more generous and more antiwar than theists.  But among those who truly behave morally, including by working and sacrificing for peace and social and economic justice, civil liberties, and the natural environment, are many who say they're motivated by religion.  Boghossian, in advocating steering conversations away from abortion or school prayer, says to aim for the root: "Undermine faith, and all faith-based conclusions are simultaneously undermined." One has to hope that doesn't include the good conclusions along with the bad. 

Oddly, Boghossian's approach, in which he strives to understand and sympathize with the person whose faith he is attempting to remove, gives very little mention to such motivators of religious belief as the desire not to die.  Boghossian uses Socratic questioning to get people to see the error of their ways.  He doesn't try to open them up by addressing their unstated fears of death or a world without an authority figure.  When death finally gets mentioned, far into the book, the author refers to the atheist's position as "the unknowable" and "not knowing."  Not knowing what, exactly?  That everything goes blank and ceases?  We do know that.

Maybe Boghossian is right that there's nothing to be said on that subject, and a society in which people are not taught religion will be a society with much less religion in it, even while death remains horrifying.  Toward the end of the book, the author claims that sound reasoning will give someone a feeling of control that is superior to the feeling of comfort in imagining that their loved one is still alive in a magical place.  But this depends, I think, on recognizing that belief in "heaven" is weak and unsatisfying because at odds with most of one's other beliefs.  (See In Bad Faith by Andrew Levine.)  Surely actually believing that nobody dies and that one prioritizes rational belief formation would be the most preferable combination.  But we don't have that choice.

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