A Philosopher's Blog

Ralph Peters and Killing Journalists II

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2009

A recent essay by Ralph Peters’ in the The Journal of International Security Affairs argues in favor of attacking journalists within combat zones. In my previous post, I took a critical look at his view. I now turn to assessing the moral principle he uses to justify his view.

Peters claims “The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.” Let us break this down.

His first point is that only winning matters and “nothing else matters.” While he might be engaged in hyperbole for dramatic purposes, I’ll take his words at face value. So, his principle is that it is acceptable to do anything that contributes to winning.

This principle would, of course, seem to apply to the enemy as well. So, if blowing up school children, crashing planes into buildings or detonating a dirty bomb in New York city would help Al Qaedi win, then they should do it.

Peters does not, of course, want to accept that view. After all, he thinks that the terrorists are evil and that we are good. But, if we to do anything at all to win, without limits, then how do we differ from terrorists?

His second point is his justification. His view is that when we win, this furthers the interest of humanity. In contrast, when we lose, this will help feed the monsters.

But, one might say, isn’t a monster someone who accepts no moral limits on  his actions? As such, would not following Peters’ principle lead to the creation of monsters? Suppose that we accepted this principle and acted accordingly. This would involve getting rid of all moral and legal restrictions within war. We would, of course, have to change how we train our soldiers-they would need to be trained to recognize no limits of any kind, should the situation so warrant. Soldiers with  consciences would, of course, be a military liability-they would be unable to do whatever it took to win. To act on Peters principle, we would need a military devoid of such people-or at least we would need enough people without moral qualms or limits to do what he thinks must be done. In short, we would need monsters for our wars. It is not clear how accepting and acting on a principle that there are no moral limits to our actions would lead to a better world.

It might be countered that in most wars we would not need to go to the monster stage in order to win. We can win within the limits of the (presumably false and mistaken) limits set by law and morality. As such, we will not have to worry about nourishing our own monsters.

In reply, if we accept the principle that there are no limits and all that matters is winning, then this will increase the chances that we will resort to evil methods even when they are not necessary. To use an analogy, imagine a game with one set of rules that limits the players. Then imagine that the players are told that these rules are not really rules-players can do whatever to win and it is just fine. Sure, it would be nice if they stuck to the rules, but winning is what counts. I suspect that players would be rather quick to abandon the rules.

Another concern is this: folks who believe that they can do whatever they must because their cause is righteous have generally caused far more harm than good. A person might begin with a righteous cause. But, by accepting that they can do anything for their cause leads them away from morality. It would be odd indeed if they could remain righteous in their cause while being wicked in their deeds.

As such, if we wish to be righteous and achieve good ends, then we cannot accept that we can act without limits. That is the thinking of a monster.

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Ralph Peters & Killing Journalists I

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2009

A recent essay by Ralph Peters’ in the The Journal of International Security Affairs argues in favor of attacking journalists within combat zones. Naturally, he does not advocate killing any journalists-just those in the “partisan media.”

In making his case, he begins with the straw man of the liberal American media: “we can acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that, to most media practitioners, our troops are always guilty (even if proven innocent), while our barbaric enemies are innocent (even if proven guilty).”

This claim seems to be factually incorrect, unless Peters has access to TV channels, magazines and newspapers that I do not. While there are individuals who have this sort of view, the majority of media practitioners have not exhibited this tendency. However, this is an empirical question. We just need to conduct a suitable random survey across the entire media establishment. This would involve assessing what they have said or written. It should also include surveys of their attitudes. While I do not have the funding for this, given the endless claims of liberal media bias made by folks on the right, they should commission a fair and unbiased survey of this sort to settle the matter. As it stands, this perception seems to be unfounded on an adequate survey. If there is such an unbiased, scientifically rigorous survey conducted by a neutral third party, I would like very much to see it.

Peters goes on to make another common assertion from the far right, that the media folks subscribe to an odd religious view: “rejecting the god of their fathers, the neo-pagans who dominate the media serve as lackeys at the terrorists’ bloody altar.” Once again, perhaps my cable service does not get those channels, but I have not seen evidence that most media folks are neo-pagans. No doubt there are some-just like there are Satanists in the military. Again, this is an empirical matter and can be settled empirically. Peters sees the media this way, I don’t see the evidence for that. But, this can be settled easily enough using the method above. As always, I am open to objective and adequate proof.

Peters is right that the media shapes conflict. Information and how it is presented shapes how we see the world. This, as he argues, does make the media a potentially powerful force in any conflict. Naturally, he thinks that the majority of the folks in the media take sides and that this side is not that of America. Because of this, he goes on to say “although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media.”

None of this is new, of course. Even in the United States, the media has been censored in times of war and there have been news blackouts. Other countries military forces have killed journalists-as have terrorists. However, having an actual policy of American forces killing unarmed journalists would be something new (I hope). It also seems a bit odd to call for this, given how the media behaved during the first and second Gulf Wars. They accepted censorship and were generally very positive-especially those embedded with the troops.

Of course, Peters does not advocate harming all journalists and he does acknowledge the freedom of the press. However, he says that “freedom of the press stops when its abuse kills our soldiers and strengthens our enemies. Such a view arouses disdain today, but a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom.”

Peters view has a certain plausibility. What sort of information is presented by the media and how it is presented does shape how people see the world. If a journalist acts in such a way that American soldiers are harmed and the enemy is aided, then the journalist can be seen as giving support to the enemy. A clear cut example would be revealing troop locations, attack plans, and so on. Of course, I have never seen CNN or even MSNBC doing that sort of thing. It is hard to imagine a professional American journalist doing that, though not impossible. In any case, doing that sort of thing is already covered by existing policies and procedures.

Perhaps Peters has something broader in mind in regards to abusing the troops and strengthening the enemy. Now, if his view is that malicious lies and deceit that are intended to attack our troops and aid our enemies should be dealt with, then I agree with him. Of course, this is already be covered by existing laws and professional practices. If CNN broadcast a made up story about US soldiers strangling kittens and another one that the Taliban existed solely to protect kittens from the evil troops, then that would be libel and slander.

However, I am not sure if he has something much broader in mind here. That is, I am not sure of the standards he is using as to what would count (in his mind) as abuse that kills soldiers and strengthens the enemy.

In my next post I’ll take a look at his moral justification for his view.

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Resurrection in the Flesh

Posted in Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2009
Raymond Kurzweil, an American academicand author.
Image via Wikipedia

When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s, I thought he was a science fiction writer. It turned out that he isn’t-while he writes about science fiction style stuff, he professes to be predicting the future rather than writing fiction.

So, what sort of future does he see? Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and the chicks will totally dig you (your actual results might differ).

While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll just look at his view of resurrection.

While we can “jump start” some people back from the dead, Kuzweil envisions something radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.

True resurrection (in addition to being a D&D spell) has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a bi-sexual squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored.

Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe, that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act. As such, this is one aspect of his envisioned future that we should most certainly resist.

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Does North Korea Want the US to Invade?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 28, 2009
Map of North Korea
Image via Wikipedia

As I watched the news about North Korea making various threats, I wondered about the motivation of their leaders. While some regard their great leader as a goofball, it would be unwise to let that contempt lead us to mistakes in judgment. While they might be acting in a crazy way, their might be a method to their madness.

The stock answer is that North Korea wants attention and intends to use its bad behavior to gain concessions and aid. That is a reasonable possibility. After all, there is a established pattern of bribing countries to behave better.

One possibility that struck me was that North Korea actually wants us to invade. While this seems like madness, a little consideration shows that this could be a possibility.

One reason to think this is that the great leader might wish to go out in a blaze of glory. A battle with the world could do this. Of course, this assumes a level of madness that seems unlikely. So, let us reject this.

A second reason to think this is that North Korea might gain from a limited engagement with the United States and South Korea. They could very well make some incursions into South Korean territory, do some damage and then claim a victory of sorts. They might even decide to take and hold land. After all, they know that the United States is bogged down in two wars already and that we have very few troops in the area. They also probably believe that we will not use nuclear weapons. While this is less crazy than the first option, this also seems unlikely.

A third reason is the fact that being invaded by the US can be a financial gold mine. When we liberate or defeat a country, we do the opposite of the classic conquerors. Rather than subjugate the people and strip the country of wealth, we pour in billions to rebuild the nation, help its people, and strengthen its economy. Weirdly enough, being invaded and defeated by the United States would be a huge boost for North Korea. Well, for the folks we didn’t kill. While this seems crazy, it is something to think about.

Of course, the most plausible explanation of North Korea’s behavior is that they are engaged in political posturing to gain attention, to deal with domestic issues, and to try to get some concessions from other nations in return for backing away from their belligerent behavior.

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Sotomayor & Reverse Racism

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2009

Rush Limbaugh has accused Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor of being a reverse racist. He bases his claim primarily on a quote from speech she gave in 2001 at Berkeley. She said that a “wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

While I generally consider Rush to be a reliable indicator of the false, he does raise a legitimate concern here. After all, imagine if a white male nominated by Bush had said “a wise white man with the richness of his experience would more often that not reach a better conclusion than a Latina women who hasn’t lived that life.” That would have certainly created something of a frenzy on the left-just as Sotomayor’s remark is stirring up the more right wing folks.

Of course, I do take issue with Rush’s use of the term “reverse racism.” The reversal of racism would be, of course, its opposite. What people like Rush seem to mean by the term is racism by non-whites against whites. However, that is not reverse racism, but simply racism. Interestingly, the term “reverse racism” seems to be most often used by folks on the right, almost as if racism is something that is supposed to go from white to non-white rather than from non-white to white. So, I’ll just use the terms “racism” and “racist” without the term “reverse.”

While the quote needs to taken in its proper context, it is still well worth examining on its own. I have no dispute or worry about two aspects of her claim. First, she puts an emphasis on being wise. Second, she makes a point of the richness of life experience. It is reasonable to accept that a wise person with rich experience would tend to make better conclusions that someone lacking those traits.

However, she brings in both gender and race. Now, I’d grant that a wise Latina women with rich experience would tend to reach better conclusions than an unwise, inexperienced white man. But this is not because of the race or gender differences. Rather, it is because of (as noted above) the differences in wisdom and experience.

It is in the reference to gender and race that the racism and sexism seem to come into play. After all, she can be seen as indicating that a Latina woman would reach better conclusions than a white man because she is a a Latina and a woman. She does, of course, say “a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” But does she mean a white male who lacks experience or a white male who has not lived the live of a Latina woman? if she means the former, then this would not seem to be a racist remark but a simple truism: more experienced people tend to reach better conclusions. If she means the latter,then that might be taken as racist.

Perhaps Sotomayor’s remark is intended to reply to the racist view that a white man would reach better conclusions than even a wise and experienced Latina woman simply because he is a white man. If so, then her remark need not be racist.

In any case, she will need to defuse this remark. Given that the Democrats control Congress, she should have no problems.

Continuing the discussion, I did see a piece on CNN in which Roland Martin went after Rush’s remarks. While I agree with his general view of Rush, Martin’s main attacks were just fallacies, specifically ad hominems. He attacked Rush for his own racist remarks and also took a shot at Rush’s past drug abuse. While these claims are true, they are not relevant to the truth of Rush’s claim. Of course, being logical is not really an effective approach for a political pundit/commentator either on the left or the right.

Finally, Rush also accused Obama of being a racist. While that seems untrue, it is reasonable to consider Rush’s claim that Sotomayor is the nominee because she is a Latina woman. To select someone because of race and gender would certainly seem to be a racist and sexist action. Of course, racism and sexism are normally taken to occur when it is a white male being selected based on race and gender. But, it is using race and gender as deciding factors that make it racism-not the specific race or gender.

I think Rush is right in his claim that she is the nominee in part because she is a Latina woman. Of course, Obama’s actual motivation need not be what might be considered standard racism  and sexism. Standard racism and sexism is seeing a race or gender as superior or inferior based on how one thinks or feels about that race and gender.

Obama has also been accused of  picking her so as to pander to voters and also to pay them back. To be specific, Hispanics helped him get elected and some have argued that this means he owes them something. Nominating Sotomayor could thus be a classic case of political pay back and a move calculated to keep and bolster Hispanic and female support for the administration. If Obama picked her for this reason, he need not be racist and sexist at all-he just needs to be a politician. The folks who think that as Hispanics and women they are owed something, well they would seem to be thinking in race and gender terms.

A final thought on the nomination, race and gender. Some folks on the left like to say how they want to get rid of racism and sexism. However, to do so they place a great deal of emphasis on race and gender. For example, some folks push hard to get a person elected or nominated because she is a woman or a minority. But, of course, the more that someone focuses on race and gender, the less likely it is that race and gender will not matter. This might be seen as something of a paradox: to make racism and sexism go away, people have to behave in ways that seem racist and sexist. For example, to make race and sex not matter on the Supreme court, people of diverse races and both sexes have to serve on the bench until it seems perfectly normal for that to happen. Of course, to make this happen, nominees have to be picked, in part, because they are a certain race or gender. This would, of course, seem to be racism and sexism justified by trying to get rid of racism and sexism.

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Abortion & Torture

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2009

I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate on torture and abortion over at TPM blog and thought I’d post here to point people there. I do a blog there about once a week.

One comment on my blog led me to an article by Ralph Peters in the New York Post. In an amazing coincidence, this article fit right into the path of the debate at TPM. The discussion I started was based on the view that an argument commonly given for torture is also, at the core, the same sort of argument that is given for abortion. The original is in the post, but here is a variant based on Peters’ discussion of executing terrorists.

Case for torture (and killing): it is acceptable to torture (and kill) terrorists because they lack a moral status that would justly protect them from torture (and execution) and applying torture (and killing) will result in saving the lives of thousands. People might mistake terrorists for people, but they are actually “sub-human creatures.”

Case for abortion: it is acceptable to kill a fetus because it lacks moral status that would justly protect them from death and allowing abortion will result in better lives for women. People might mistake a fetus for a person or a pre-person, but it actually is not.

Common principle: it is morally acceptable to harm another being provided that 1) the being lacks a “protective” moral status and 2) the benefits of doing so would outweigh the harms.

My point here is not to argue for (or against) torture, killing, or abortion. Rather, my intent is the same as in my original post: to present what seems to be a common, underlying principle used by defenders of torture and defenders of abortion.

The obvious reply that some folks will give is that terrorists are obviously people. But, they are only obviously people to some people. To folks like Ralph Peters and folks I have argued with, terrorists are not people in a moral sense. The usual argument is that their misdeeds have (in a way Locke argued for) made them the moral equivalent of man-killing animals and thus subject to death. As such, they may be tortured and killed justly. This is not to say that Locke would endorse torture or agree with Peters, of course.

The obvious reply that some other folks will give is that the fetus is obviously a person or pre-person and hence it is wrong to harm it. But, they are only obviously people (or pre-people) to some people. To some folks who are pro-choice, the fetus will be seen as lacking the qualities needed to make it a person. As such, a woman may justly have an abortion.

Obviously, people differ quite a bit in what is obvious to them.

Both types of folks do seem to accept the same basic principle that harming non-people is acceptable based on the consequences. In the case of terrorists, some folks argue that the terrorists have robbed themselves of their moral status as people by their actions. In the case of the fetus, some folks argue that it lacks the developed qualities to be a person. But the key to each moral argument is that the target is lacking in the needed moral status and hence it not morally protected. Thus, harming it is acceptable.

This seems philosophically interesting but also psychologically and politically interesting. After all, the “left” is stereotyped as pro-choice and anti-torture. The “right” is stereotyped as pro-torture and pro-life. However, they seem to often be operating on similar principles and use similar arguments. Their difference (which can be seen as critical) seems to lie more in the details. That is, they both agree we can hurt/kill others (or, more accurately, other things) but disagree over who (or what) we can hurt/kill.

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Why Be Good? IV

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2009
Guido Reni's archangel Michael (Capuchin churc...
Image via Wikipedia

In Part III of Why Be Good?, I presented a stock argument for being evil. The gist of the argument is that being evil while seeming good provides an amazing flexibility that can lead effectively to material success. But, it would be unwise to leave a case for evil unopposed. So, I now turn further consideration as to why one should be good.

As noted in my first post on this matter, the stock answer to the question is that being good enables one to receive rewards and to avoid punishments. Naturally, if a person is motivated to be good by gain and fear of loss, then she would chose evil if she thought it would give her more gain at an acceptable level of risk. This is why, obviously enough, people worried about the behavior of others work at trying to keep the gain of being evil down and the risks high.

Of course, if someone is good only because they lack the ability to get away being evil, then they are not really good-just pragmatic.

So, suppose that I could get away with being evil and that I could seem to gain more from that moral approach. Would I have a rational motivation to remain good?

Socrates argues that I would, mainly because of the internal effects of being good or evil. Roughly put, an evil person will be like a diseased person. Her soul will be rotten and corrupt. According to Socrates, such a person might think they were happy, but they would be mistaken. Rather, they would be miserable. This misery would come from the inside and would be a direct result of their evil.

In contrast, the good person would have a healthy soul and would, like a person having a healthy body, be better off. Thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius argued that being virtuous would make a person happy. This would not be because of external factors, but because being virtuous would put  a person into a state of happiness. In short, to be virtuous is to be happy.

On the face of it, it might be wondered why people are bad if virtue is so great. After all if being virtuous makes a person happy and everyone agrees that happiness is great, then one would expect that everyone would be working at being virtuous.

The easy answer to this can be found in an analogy to health: everyone (well, almost everyone) gets that being fit and healthy is objectively better than being unfit and unhealthy. Obviously, most people do not exercise nor do they eat properly. In some cases this might be due to serious obstacles (like being very poor), but many cases seem to be a matter of choice. After all, an American could swap out some TV or internet time for exercise and could swap a salad for a Whopper. But, of course, exercise and proper diet strikes most people as being hard and unpleasant-just as the virtuous life strikes most people as hard and unpleasant.

It has long struck me as odd that we are so constituted that most of us find doing what it takes to be healthy and doing what it takes to be good as hard and unpleasant. This does suggest that there might be a connection between virtue and health. This seems reasonable-bodily health and mental health would certainly seem likely to be connected. In any case, virtue theorists love to compare the two.

But, let us get back to my concern over why I should be good. I’ve never done anything truly evil, although I have done some bad things (nothing I could do jail time for, though-not even speeding). I have also never done anything that would qualify me for being a moral saint. But, I have done good things. Comparing the two, I have found that I much prefer what doing good does to me. Getting back to the analogy of health, doing good works like healthy food and exercise-it makes me feel better across the board. I also feel better about myself and I feel happier.

In contrast, doing bad things feels much like eating tempting but unhealthy foods and like not exercising: I feel bad, I feel worse about myself, and I feel less happy. I find this unpleasant and repulsive, so I am motivated to be good.

A clever person might point out that I seem to be choosing good over evil based on gain and loss: being good is a gain and being evil is a loss. It might also be added that my motivation seems selfish: it is not based on choosing goodness for the sake of goodness. Rather, this motivation is based on choosing goodness because of what it does to me. How, one might ask, am I any different from someone who is good because they fear being tossed into Hell or being whipped like a donkey for straying off the path? How am I any different from someone who acts good because they hope to rewarded by others with success or Heaven?

This is a fair challenge and requires a response.

The best reply is that to have the positive effects of being good, one must chose goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. If I consciously chose to do good actions only  because I hoped that I would feel a certain way, then I would (ironically) rob myself of that feeling. For example, suppose I find someone’s wallet and say to myself: “I shall return this wallet and doing so will make me feel good. So, that is why I will do it.” If that was the only reason I returned the wallet, I would not have that feeling. I would be returning the wallet to get the feeling, but would not get that feeling because I would not be doing the right thing, but acting out of selfishness. However, if I return the wallet because it is right, then I would feel good about it.

To use a more specific example, consider a particular virtue: generosity. If I give to others to be happy, then I am not generous. Rather, I am acting out of self-interest.

At this point, it might be wondered how my motivation to be good fits in here. After all, if I am motivated to be good because it makes me happy, but I can only be happy if I act out of the sake of goodness, then I would seem to be in a bit of a problem: my motivation would prevent me from ever achieving my goal. Realizing this, I would certainly no longer be motivated by my former motivation.

Fortunately, there is a way around this. I want to be good because I have seen the correlation between my happiness and doing good things. That motivates me to be good so as to be happy. As such, I will do good things. However, as long as I am doing these deeds just to be happy, I won’t be happy. Fortunately, as I do good out of that motivation, I will become habituated into doing good and avoiding evil. Eventually, with some luck, I will do goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. Doing this will make me happy.

A clever person might point out that I would seem to be choosing goodness because of the gain of doing so and the punishment of being bad. True, the rewards and punishments do not come from the outside, but my motivation certainly seems to be based on what goodness can do for me. Am I not, one might argue, just like the person who acts good to avoid being whipped like a straying donkey?

One obvious difference is that my motivation is internal, rather than external. It is not fear of external punishments and hope of external rewards that motivates me. Rather, it is the direct effects of doing good and doing bad that motivate me.

Ah, the clever person might say, that is a difference. But it is not enough of a difference. Consider, if you will, the nature of generosity. If you give to others because doing so makes you happy, you are not really generous. Rather, you are merely buying happiness. We would not call someone who gave to the poor because he wanted a tax break a generous person. While you want something different from a tax break, you are still giving to get and that is no more generosity than is giving someone money in exchange for an ice cream sundae. So, you clever philosophy, you are not good-you are just self serving. True, you are not as crude in your motivations as some…but a refined self serving approach to life is still self-serving.

I seem, then, to be trapped in a problem: if I am good because it makes me happy, then I’m just giving the same old answer to the question. But, if being good does nothing for me, then I would seem to have no motivation to be good.

One option is to try a Zen like thing: my desire to be happy will lead me to take good actions. However, doing good things to be happy would not be doing good. If being good is what would make me truly happy, then my desire to be happy by doing good would prevent me from being happy. So, like a Buddhist getting rid of all desires (even the desire to achieve Nirvana) to achieve Nirvana, I would somehow have to shed the desire to be happy and simply do good for its own sake. In doing that, I would then achieve happiness.

Another option would be to argue that goodness itself can be a motivator-that one would be drawn to chose it for its own sake even if it did nothing for you. Kant seems to have a view something like this-he argues that being good involves acting in accord with the moral law because it is the moral law. Being motivated by a desire for happiness does not cut it. Of course, this does raise the question of why this should motivate someone to be good. Kant, of course, thinks he has an answer to this.

Yet another option is to accept that this is the best that can be expected. It is better than the stock motivation (fear of external punishment) for the following reason: a person who is motivated by the threat of external punishment and hope for external reward would just as willingly be evil if they believed they could gain more at less risk. There are, in fact, many opportunities for people to do just that. In contrast, if being good makes someone happy and being bad makes people unhappy, then there would seem to be no viable alternative. After all, if doing good is what makes  a person happy, then they cannot do evil to become happy. So, there would be an excellent motivation to be good and no motivation to be evil (except for those who wish to be unhappy).

Which then is right? More thought is needed…

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Memorial Day

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 25, 2009

Words are a small thing compared to what you sacrificed, but thanks to all those who have given their lives for our country.

It is up to us, the living, to make sure that their sacrifices have not been in vain. This is done by remembering them and doing our part to make our country worthy of what they did.

When I was in college, I remember seeing a plaque commemorating alumni who had died in war. The following line was on the plaque and it has always stuck with me:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

North Korea Nuclear Test

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 25, 2009

As a follow up to their 2006 test, North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb. Of course, a bomb is much more useful with a delivery system, so North Korea has been testing both long and short range missiles. Not surprisingly, North Korea’s test has not been well received by most other countries. Even North Korea’s closest ally, China, has expressed its disapproval.

One obvious question is why North Korea is doing this. Laying aside that their leader has often been accused of being mentally unbalanced, there are other reasons for this. One obvious reason is that testing a bomb is an effective way of proving that they have a working nuclear arsenal. Since nuclear weapons are still regarded as providing political clout, it is no wonder that North Korea wants to flex its atomic muscle.  A second obvious reason is that North Korea has learned that it can use its bad behavior as a way to get what it wants. The folks in charge in North Korea no doubt think that other countries will give them money and other things in order to persuade them to stop developing and testing nuclear weapons. In sum, they can be seen as blackmailing the rest of the world or using a tactic favored by bad children: appease us or we will do bad things.

So, what should the United States do? Attacking North Korea is not an option. Although we attacked Iraq because they were supposed to have WMDs, we know that North Korea actually has such weapons. As such, an attack would be rather costly and could escalate into a nuclear exchange. If we invaded, they would probably use the nuclear weapons and we would probably have to respond in kind. It is also easy to imagine North Korea’s leader ordering a missile launch against South Korea if he believed he was going to lose the war. North Korea might even have the means of firing a missile at the United States, although their long range missile test did not seem to work that well.

Even if North Korea decided not to go nuclear in the face of a US invasion, it is unlikely that China would simply stand by for that. After all, they fought us before during the Korean War.

Of course, given how bogged down we are in the Middle East, attacking North Korea might not even be possible.

Since invasion is not a viable option (and presumably simply nuking them is out), then diplomatic option is the one that remains.

Ironically, North Korea is helping us out here. By antagonizing and scaring the other powers, they serve to voluntarily isolate themselves. Without the backing of allies, their influence will be limited to what they themselves can do (or threaten to do). In contrast, we can gain the advantage of having numerous other nations on our side (or, at the very least, against North Korea). Unless their great leader is completely mad, North Korea should be swayed by a strong and general opposition to what they are doing. So, a diplomatic approach seems to be the viable and most effective option.

This raises the obvious question of what sort of diplomatic approach we should take. If we condemn their actions and then bribe them with aid and concessions, then we risk encouraging them to simply stay committed to their current path. After all, if testing nukes and missiles gets them what they want, then they have every reason to keep on that path. As such, it is tempting to take a negative approach and inflict some sort of punishment.

On the plus side, inflicting punishment will clearly not provide the encouragement that a bribe would provide. If they are convinced that their current path will yield no rewards, then they would (if they are rational) be motivated to leave that path. Of course, North Korea’s leadership is not well known for being rational nor for being terriblyt concerned about the well being of the general population. As such, punishments might simply push them to continue on the same path anyway.

This path could, of course, lead many ways. One possibility is that North Korea’s isolation could lead its leaders to even greater extremes and they might become a truly rogue state. For example, they might decide to sell nuclear material to terrorists-perhaps for the income and perhaps out of a desire for retaliation. Another possibility that this isolation and punishment could finally break North Korea as a country, leading to its collapse as a viable nation. How this would play out would be anyone’s guess. Perhaps it would be a quiet fall. Perhaps it would be a very loud fall, complete with nuclear missiles being launched.

In light of this, the challenge is much like that of dealing with a bad child. We cannot reward bad behavior, because we will just encourage it. We cannot just punish, because doing so will probably not improve things-and might make things worse. So, we have to find that right balance: punishments to send the right message, but also incentives to behave better.

The matter is also complicated by the fact that North Korea’s “great leader” is getting rather old and will be dead fairly soon. His succession plans are not clear and it is not clear what will happen after he is gone. Will North Korea get another “great leader” or something better for the people and the world?

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Why Be Good? III

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2009
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As mentioned in a previous post, philosophers seem to assume that an answer is needed to the question of why one should be good. This seems to be based on the assumption that people need to be motivated to be good and hence default to evil or at least to being non-good. As a change of pace, I thought I’d turn this question around and ask “why be evil?”

So, how about a case for being evil…

First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods. If it can, then that provides a rational motivation to be evil.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost laptop at a technology expo. This laptop of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the laptop to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.
In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight-provided that Bill is smart and knows how to buy all the right people.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only a top software company but also often regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of evil is the preferable life. That is probably why evil is a growth industry and is always hiring.

No doubt,  many people would read this and say: “Hey, that is not being evil! That is just doing what it takes to be a success!” Or, if you happen to be a Cheney fan : “Hey, that is not evil! That is just doing what it takes to stay safe!” But, consider this:  the most seductive evil of all is the evil that people think is not evil at all.

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