A Philosopher's Blog

Drones to Your Door

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 4, 2013
MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a clever move to grab media attention on Cyber-Monday, Amazon announced its plans to develop drone delivery. The United States has, of course, been leading the world in delivery via drone, although we have mostly been delivering missiles Amazon proposes to make drones a much more welcome site—they will be bringers of what you want, rather than bringers of death.

On the face of it, drone delivery is certainly possible. After all, the basic technology already exists and Amazon has deep pockets and political influence. However, the drone delivery system does face some challenges.

One obvious practical challenge is getting the drones to safely and reliably travel from their launch sites to the delivery site and then back. Doing this will require that the drones avoid hitting things like towers, trees, power lines, other aircraft, birds and people. While the drones are probably going to be relatively small and slow moving (compared to the military drones made famous in Afghanistan and Pakistan), a drone could damage property and injure animals and people. However, there seem to be no compelling reason to believe that a drone could not operate as safely as a delivery truck, which is a reasonable standard for drone operations. This will probably require special drone routes that are well clear of conventional airspace and perhaps specialized landing spots for drone deliveries. After all, having a drone just plop down at someone’s front door could be very problematic.

Another obvious practical challenge is the fact that people will interfere with the drones. In some cases, people (mostly kids) will try to catch or knock down the drones for the malicious fun of it. In most cases people will be trying to hijack the drones in order to steal their cargoes. This interference might be done by technological means such as trying to jam the drone or even take control of the drone. Naturally, people will also resort to lower tech methods, such as hitting them with thrown (or shot) objects.

Because of the threats presented by people, Amazon will need to ensure that their drones are protected from jamming and hacking. They will also need to find ways to deter people from attacking the drones. While people are usually reluctant to attack a human delivery driver, the threshold for willingness to go after a drone is certainly lower. One obvious option is to equip the drones with cameras that record the area around the drone, thus enabling videos of thefts and attacks to be sent to the police. This option does, of course, raise moral concerns about drones flying about cities recording from on high. After all, the drones will have a vantage point that will allow them to see into fenced yards and in other areas where people normally expect privacy. Amazon could handle this by erasing the recordings of the drones if no incident takes place or by limiting access to the drone recordings to the police. Of course, it seems likely that police and security organizations might very much want access to the drone recordings—it might turn out that the NSA will use the Amazon drones like they now use our phones—just another tool for the police state.

In addition to the moral concern about spying, there is also a minor moral concern about the fact that drones provide such rapid delivery. In some cases, this could be an important service—a person could, for example, get a critical part needed for their business or car (perhaps delivered right to the car). In other cases, this could simply be yet another way for people to fail in the virtue of patience.

As to the question of whether or not I will use it, the answer is probably “yes”—if only once and only to see that drone touching down in my driveway, chopping up wayward squirrels into chunks with its whirling blades.

 

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$360 Million

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

Have you seen this lost money?

I recently heard that the US military lost about $360 million in Afghanistan. My first thought was, of course, “at least it wasn’t billions, like in Iraq.” The money was not misplaced or left in a bathroom like a wayward umbrella. Rather it seems that it ended up being funneled through whatever passes as legitimate businesses in Afghanistan into the criminal world. Some of the money seems to have ended up in the coffers of our enemies, thus continuing our long standing tradition of funding folks who are trying to harm us (yes, I am looking at you Pakistan).

Having become cynical about such matters, I was not at all surprised by this. As noted above, I actually thought that it would be more than a mere $360 million. I do try not to think about what this wasted money could do in the United States. For example, I try not to imagine that even a modest chunk of it could have helped FAMU and FSU with their budget woes. I am accustomed to the folks “in charge” throwing away money. I resent it and use my limited capabilities to rail against it, but in the end the government folks seem incapable of preventing this sort of thing.

To be fair, perhaps this is just how things work. In the United States we have modest corruption, mainly because of our laws and traditions. Some other countries lack such laws or, if they have them, they still lack a tradition of integrity. In some cases, bribery, corruption and other criminal activities are the tradition. I would like to think better of Afghanistan, but perhaps it is essentially a criminal culture-or at least the people that we have unwisely elected to do business with are part of a criminal culture. I suspect the latter over the former.

The United States has an unfortunate history of supporting the wrong people (like the Shah of Iran) and of failing to properly control the millions and billions that we dump in other countries. While this money is tiny compared to our massive debt, these tiny drops do add to that ocean of debt. Apparently we are also bad at learning from past mistakes and seen incapable of avoiding being duped by financial criminals-our own and those in other countries. It is, to say the least, embarrassing to read about our financial idiocy.

 

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Pakistan & China

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2011
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...

Image via Wikipedia

While the killing of Bin Laden was considered a great success, one of out stealth helicopters was left behind. While it was blown up, some parts remained. There is currently some reason to think that our fine friends in Pakistan showed the parts to the Chinese.

While this has not been confirmed, it is certainly consistent with Pakistan’s track record. Assuming it is true, there seem to be various points that can be drawn from it.

First, if this is true, then we have one more reason to believe the obvious: we are (at best) a friend of convenience for Pakistan. They are happy to accept our money and support, while also dealing with our enemies and acting in ways clearing inconsistent with our interests.

Second, if this is true, then we have one more sign that our influence in Pakistan (and perhaps the world) is not as great as we might hope.

Third, if this is true, then it is another (admittedly small) sign of China’s growing influence in the world. Pakistan has recently claimed that China is its “best friend”, which does not bode well for us. Or perhaps it does-given what a great “friend” Pakistan has been for us, perhaps it would be a good thing for us if Pakistan became China’s “friend.”

 

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Pakistan & The Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2011
Flag of the Pakistan Army

Image via Wikipedia

Pakistan has long played a dangerous game with terrorists. On the one hand, they have supported terrorist groups, mainly in the hopes of using them against India. On the other hand, they have also been attacked by some of these groups and have taken action against them.

Recently the Pakistani Taliban (not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban) claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on a military training center. They claim that these were retaliation attacks for the death of Bin Laden. They also claimed that they will launch more attacks on the US and Pakistan because the US killed Bin Laden and they claim that the Pakistani military told the United States were to find him.

If these attacks were motivated by revenge, they would be rather ironic. After all, influential Pakistanis clearly had to be involved in protecting Bin Laden. He lived among active and retired military personnel near the Pakistani version of West Point, thus suggesting a somewhat cozy relationship between Bin Laden and certain elements in the Pakistani military. Currently, it seems that Bin Laden’s location was not provided by the Pakistani military and, in fact, the United States was prepared to engage these forces if they had tried to intercept the raiding party. Naturally, it can be claimed that all the hostility between the United States and Pakistan on this matter is just a cover for Pakistan, but that seems unlikely. As such, when the Taliban attacks Pakistan in retaliation for Bin Laden’s death, they would seem to be attacking his defender. Of course, terrorists are not known for their rationality.

There is evidence that these attacks are not actually related to Bin Laden’s death, however. It has also been claimed that the attacks were made by a splinter group that has been fighting with the Army.  However, the fact remains that terrorists are active in Pakistan in part due to Pakistan’s own decisions to make use of terrorists.

Pakistan should be learning the lesson that we learned: do not expect gratitude from terrorists, even when you fund them. We, however, had somewhat better sense and never allowed our terrorists to set up significant bases of operation in our country.

Pakistan should also be learning that terrorists have a tendency to regard an ever expanding circle as their enemies and they obviously have little or no moral limitations. They are, after all, terrorists.

Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a strategic location, it is a matter of considerable worry as to whether or not the state will be able to sustain itself against the seeds of destruction that the state itself helped plant.

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The Post Bin Laden World

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 8, 2011
osama bin laden t-shirt (1)

Image by Paul Keller via Flickr

Now that Bin Laden is dead it is natural to wonder what impact this will have on the world.

The pundits have, of course, speculated on what effect this will have on Obama’s chances in 2012. Obviously, this will have some positive influence on his chances. Equally obviously, the election is still a long way off and much can happen between now and then. At the very least, memory of this event will fade away (although it will be brought up again in 2012) and its influence on the American psyche will diminish with each passing day. As such, the obvious conclusion is that this will help Obama a bit, but will not be a major factor in 2012.

It is, of course, interesting to do a bit of counter-factual history. While killing Bin Laden won’t be a huge plus for Obama, if the mission had failed, then it could very well have been a major loss for him. While a failed mission would not have been as bad as the failure of Carter’s mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, it would certainly have made America look bad and would have given Bin Laden a nice piece of propaganda. Obama probably could have recovered from such a disaster, but it would have been a significant problem.

Another point of concern is what impact this death will have on terror. On the face of it, the impact would seem to be fairly minimal. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not particularly active or impressive in recent years. After all Al Qaeda’s most famous attack in recent years (at least in America) was the underwear bomber. While Bin Laden no doubt served to inspire others, his influence and the influence of Al Qaeda seemed to have already been waning. As such, while killing Bin Laden was clearly important, the impact seems to be primarily symbolic rather than one that will radically change the world.

To engage in some more counter-factual history, if Bin Laden had been killed shortly after 9/11, then that would have most likely had a major impact. It could even be argued that his timely death might have resulted in the United States not going to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Returning to the actual world, his death might serve to remove some of the justification for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all one of the reasons given for our presence in Afghanistan was to fight Al Qaeda and find Bin Laden. Since Bin Laden is dead, there is no reason to keep looking for him. Since the remains of Al Qaeda seem to be in Pakistan, there seems to be little compelling reason to stay in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda. Of course, we seem to be stuck in Afghanistan which is a fate that history should have warned us against. After all, we actually used Afghanistan to grind the Soviets and hence we should have known better.

A third impact is that his death has enabled people to jump  on the Bin Laden funeral wagon and make a buck. Some of this is honest buck making: people are already pushing books and movie deals are in the works. Cyber criminal have also been busy exploiting his death by trying to sucker people into exposing themselves to malware by promises of photos of the dead Bin Laden.

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Pakistan

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2011
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...

Image via Wikipedia

The fact that Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan has been taken to indicate that either Pakistan’s intelligence service is incompetent or that Pakistan has been complicit in hiding him from the United States.

I must admit that it is logically possible that they did not know that Obama was living in a mansion among retired military officers and near their top military academy. However, that seems to be incredibly unlikely and it seems most reasonable to believe that they did, in fact, know he was there.

Of course, there is the possibility that those who knew he was there took pains to conceal this from certain Pakistani officials and hence these officials were ably to honestly tell the US that they had no idea where Bin Laden was actually located. However, even this scenario indicates that the Pakistanis were keeping critical information from the US. However, given that the US was able to carry out the raid effectively in Pakistan and leave safely indicates that there was cooperation from the Pakistanis.

At this point, some conspiracy theorists might claim that US officials were aware of Bin Laden’s location and elected not to act on this information. The least radical of these theories would be that Bin Laden was left alone so as to avoid straining relations with Pakistan. Perhaps he was finally killed because he had lost his value to Pakistan. However, the most plausible explanation is that the US did not know exactly where Bin Laden was located, most likely because influential people in Pakistan were protecting him.

Pakistan has, of course, been an active supporter of terrorist groups. This is because certain elements have regarded these groups as useful, primarily in their competition with the main rival, India. Pakistan has also assisted the United States and has fought against terrorists groups. All this suggests the obvious: Pakistan is divided in this matter. On one hand, they find these groups useful and hence support them. On the other hand, the United States is willing to hand them billions and these groups sometimes decide to bite the hand that conceals them. As such, they will work with the United States, at least some of the time.

On its side, the United States is divided between supporting a country that is only our “friend” because of our money and their desire to keep us from working more closely with India and losing our limited influence in that region.

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Murder?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2011
United States Naval Special Warfare Developmen...

Image via Wikipedia

I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.

One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located.  It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.

However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.

If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate.  Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.

It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.

I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies,  if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:

Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”

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Targeted Killing

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2011
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

Image via Wikipedia

The big news this week is that US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, this killing raises various matters that are philosophically interesting.

One obvious issue is whether or not a targeted killing of this sort is morally acceptable. The easy and obvious answer is that since Bin Laden was a very bad man, it was morally correct to put a bullet into his eye. While this is true, it is worth considering the matter in more general terms. After all, what feels justified in a specific case might not stand up to calm assessment when considered as a general principle.

On the face of it, the general principle that it is morally acceptable to target and kill bad people seems to be morally and practically problematic This sort of principle would seem to take us back to the state of nature (to be philosophical about it) or to the mythical Wild West (to be dramatic about it) and does not seem to be one that should be adopted within the context of civilization. After all, one key distinction between civilization and the state of nature is that civilization has a system of law rather than mere vigilantism.

One obvious reply is that Bin Laden was operating outside of civilization and had, in Lockean terms, placed himself into a state of war with the United States and other countries. On this view, Bin Laden can be regarded as an enemy combatant (and hence a legitimate target under the ethics of war).

The enemy combatant approach does have considerable appeal. After all, Bin Laden certainly seemed to regard himself as engaged in a war with the United States and the United States certainly seemed to accept this state of war as well. If killing in war is morally acceptable, then it would seem to follow that the killing of Bin Laden was morally acceptable. Killing him would be on par with killing any other soldier on the field of battle.

It might, however, be contended that Bin Laden was not killed while on the field of battle. Rather, his home was invaded and he was shot to death within its walls. If this is morally justified as an act of war, then presumably it would be morally acceptable for  Qaddafi to order hit squads to kill NATO soldiers and leaders in their homes in America, France, the UK, and so on. However, the general principle that it is acceptable to send hit teams to kill soldiers at home seems to morally questionable, at least. After all, it would seem to erase the distinction between the soldier acting in the role of a soldier in war (which would make him/her a legitimate target) and the soldier as a person living his/her life outside of the domain of war.

In reply, it might be argued that the sort of war being waged by and against Bin Laden admits of no such distinction. Combatants are always combatants, even when at home, and hence legitimate targets. The idea that everyone is a legitimate target is, of course, a common tenet of the terrorist and there seems to be a certain justice in applying their own principle to them. Of course, the terrorists are supposed to be evil largely because they do not make such distinctions and hence accepting this principle as justifying the killing of Bin Laden comes with a moral risk.

This risk can be offset by arguing that there is no need to accept the terrorist’s lack of distinction. Rather, it can be argued that the terrorist’s failure to accept the distinction means that they themselves are in a constant state of being combatants. As such, they are always legitimate targets because they are always on the field of battle. Combatants that do make such distinctions (and follow them) are entitled to also be treated with such distinctions and, as such, targeted killings of such soldiers at home would be murder rather than acts of war. As such, killing Bin Laden at home would be justified.

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Bin Laden

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 2, 2011
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

Image via Wikipedia

Almost a decade after 9/11, Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals.  While conspiracy theorists are already hard at work, it seems reasonable to believe that Bin Laden is dead and buried at sea.

There was considerable celebration in America and the general consensus seems to be that justice has been done. While this can be debated, Bin Laden certainly had earned a violent death.

One matter of considerable concern is what impact this death will have on the world.  On one hand, this event might be assessed as far less significant than it appears. After all, Al Qaeda’s significance had been steadily declining and it seemed to have been reduced to largely ineffective attacks (such as the underwear bomber). As such, Bin Laden’s death might actually have little impact since Al Qaeda was already in severe decline. In fact, it might be suspected that his declining significance led to his death-perhaps he was no longer worthy of Pakistan’s effort to protect him (assuming they had been protecting him).

On the other hand, the event can be regarded as very significant. First, it does seem important that the United States finally got him, even though it seems almost absurd that it took us a decade and vast expenditures of money to get him. As long as Bin Laden remained on the loose he showed that America could be attacked and that he could avoid our retaliation. This also helped create a myth of invulnerability about him-that God was watching out for him. His death certainly lays that myth to rest.

Second, there is the fact that his death can help bring some closure to 9/11. Of course, no matter how many people we kill, the dead will never return to life.

Third, his death should help Obama politically. While people have, oddly enough, been thanking Bush, the credit would seem to belong to Obama. America’s greatest perceived enemy was taken down at Obama’s order, which should help boost his approval ratings, at least for a while. It should also help reduce, if only slightly, the perception among some that Obama is a secret Muslim, weak, and unwilling to be tough on terror. Whether this will help Obama with the 2012 election or not remains to be seen-but it certainly will not hurt his chances.

Fourth, there is the obvious concern that Al Qaeda and others friendly to what is left of that organization will seek revenge. Of course, they have presumably been trying to kill us all along, so this impact might not be as great as it appears. Bin Laden had been rather effective at alienating many Muslims by being willing to kill other Muslims, so the number of people seeking vengeance for his death might not be as large as some might suspect.

Fifth, the fact that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan living in a mansion seems to indicate that he either enjoyed a generally positive relationship with influential people in Pakistan or that Pakistani intelligence is hopelessly inept (or perhaps just very unlucky). Of course, Pakistan is at best a dubious ally and has routinely worked with terrorist groups in the hopes of using them to counter India.

Sixth, his death will most likely serve to weaken or even destroy Al Qaeda (at least what is left of it). While it will no doubt inspire some people to seek vengeance, it will probably have a greater impact against terrorism. It is my hope that future historians will mark his death as the beginning of a major decline in terrorism. However, to hope and to receive are two very different things.

As a final point, I do wonder what sort of reception he received in the afterlife (if any).

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Leaks, Pakistan and the Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2010
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...
Image via Wikipedia

WikiLeaks recently published (formerly) secret information about the war in Afghanistan.  As is to be expected, this leak has been attacked as being a threat to “national security.” Of course, that line is used so often  that its edge has been blunted.

The leaked information seems to support the obvious-Pakistan has probably been providing support for the Taliban. As the experts have long pointed out, Pakistan’s main concern is with its traditional rival, India and it makes sense that they would cultivate groups that they believed could be used to counter India. In this regard, they were taking a page out of our play book-we have been willing to bolster comparable groups to use against our enemies. In fact, we did so in Afghanistan itself, back when the Soviets were the occupying force.

As happened to us, the Pakistanis found that the groups they supported were not eternally grateful. After all, Pakistan has found itself in danger from some of the people it had previously supported.

While the revelations of the alleged connection between Pakistan and the Taliban will create some political trouble (after all, we have been pouring vast sums of money into Pakistan and it seems likely that some of this has been funneled to the very Taliban that has been killing Americans), I suspect that the United States will continue to work with Pakistan. In fact, some experts have argued that we should be willing to work with the Taliban, provided that they agree to not attack us and agree to not work with groups that might attack the United States. Since we already seem to have been funding the Taliban, perhaps we already have the basis for a working relationship.

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