Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pity the white liberal man

For the record, I hate you because you're wearing that T-shirt
On Tuesday, New York magazine posted an article by Jonathan Chait attacking "political correctness", and Twitter took notice. Since then, loads of responses have been written, running the gamut from supportive to combative to dismissive to outraged. My initial reaction fell nearest to "dismissive". I have a very low opinion of Jonathan Chait, and I have a very low opinion of complaints against "political correctness". An article by Jonathan Chait complaining about political correctness... I was afraid the eye-rolling might never stop.

I knew what the article said before I read it. No, that's not true. I knew Chait's basic thesis before I read it. To his credit, this isn't a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced on auto-pilot. This is a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced with great care and skill. I guess that's a pretty back-handed compliment, and there's no getting around that, but I don't mean it to be. What I'm trying to say is that Chait argues his position about as well as it can be argued. And I'm glad he did, because I think this argument is very much worth having. It's not going away, in any event.

Chait's article provides a number of examples which convey his point very clearly, and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to it. It's easy for me to identify with his perspective. I think it's outrageous that a guy should lose his job at one publication for having written a satirical piece in another. I agree with him on most of the examples he gives. Chait's article attempts to bundle these examples together into a dangerous trend of political correctness run amok, but it's not clear to me what broader issues connects his examples. He calls it "political correctness", and he defines it as a "is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate." But there's a practical problem he doesn't seem to have noticed.

PZ Myers puts his finger on it: What exactly do you want, Jonathan Chait? It seems like a pretty innocuous question, but it is in fact utterly lethal to Chait's entire position, because Chait cannot even begin to answer it. It's not that there is no answer, but that any answer he might honestly give will be discrediting. He wants leftists to stop doing stuff he doesn't like. That's the long and the short of it. The most charitable answer (charitable because it assumes that he's right about everything) is that he wants people to stop being wrong about everything. I want people to stop being wrong about everything too. But the people who I think are wrong about stuff (like Chait) usually think that they're right.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Chait's article that would have any hope of convincing anyone towards Chait's point-of-view. That is to say, if you resemble the villains of political correctness Chait describes in his piece, there is nothing in the piece to explain why that's a bad thing. In all of the examples he uses, he never explains why his view of the controversy is correct. Partly that's because he chooses his examples in order to create the impression that he is correct. Partly it's because he skews his presentation of those examples to reinforce that impression. Mostly, I think, it's because it never occurred to him that he might have anything to learn from anyone to his left.

In every one of Chait's examples of leftists "going too far", the leftists in question disagree that they are going too far, and Chait doesn't even bother to argue the point. You need to do a lot more work to give "going too far" any kind of content as a criticism, and Chait doesn't even bother. To be fair, he can't, because categories like "too far" and "not far enough" are too simplistic to accommodate the wide range of disparate issues Chait is trying to address all at once. There is no one argument that simultaneously explains why that guy shouldn't have been fired and why trigger-warnings are unnecessary, for example. Each of those issues requires its own argument to establish what is the appropriate position. There is no broad principle, not even "political correctness", that ties it all together.

But Chait's piece has struck a chord with aggrieved white liberals, including many of atheism's white liberal "leaders" like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Chait's article doesn't make any mention of atheism, but the "political correctness" he's talking about is precisely what has caused "deep rifts" in the online atheist community. Like Chait, Dawkins has frequently been the target of criticism from his left, and that clearly gets under his skin (for example, see Adam Lee's The Suppression of Richard Dawkins). For Chait, the criticism tends to come from Ta-Nehisi Coates and "black Twitter". For Dawkins, it's what he calls "radical feminists" (it's really mainstream feminists, but he doesn't know that). They are both complaining about being criticized from the left, and they both feel (genuinely, I'm sure) bullied and intimidated by people who don't seem to recognize their inherent goodness. 

They both think they're dealing with a new kind of toxic leftism which has emerged only in the last few years. They each have a sense that social media is somehow driving the problem, but neither one has yet grokked the real story... in a world of social media, they are no longer the gatekeepers of respectable opinion on the left. Before Twitter, leftist opinions were confined to academia because they were excluded by the media. Anything to the left of milky-white liberalism is still mostly excluded by the media, but not social media. The only way this problem will ever go away to the satisfaction of Chait and Dawkins would be if leftists were once again marginalized and denied a voice in the conversation. The honest answer to PZ's question is that Chait wants to go back to a world where opinions to the left of his own were ignored, excluded and suppressed. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Subjective process, objective result

Suppose Xander and Willow are each working on the same math problem. They are not cooperating, but they're both working on the same problem. Each of them relies upon their knowledge of mathematics and their ability to perform arithmetic. They differ from one another in terms of both knowledge and ability. Willow is very good at math, but Xander is not, and they come up with different answers.

Suppose now that it wasn't a math problem. Instead, it was a moral question. Once again, they are not cooperating, but they are both working on the same problem. Each of them relies upon their values and their judgment. They differ from one another in terms of both values and judgment, and they come up with different answers.

In both cases, we're talking about a subjective process. Each of them is trapped in their subjectivity, as are we all. Xander can't use Willow's judgment any more than he can use her ability at arithmetic. He's stuck in his own head, with his own judgment. But does that mean the question itself is subjective? Does that mean that there is really no right or wrong answer, and that it is just a matter of opinion?

In the first case, no. There is a right answer, and at least one of them (probably Xander) has gotten it wrong. But in the second case, lots of people want to say that there is no right answer. I think that's wrong. I think morality is every bit as objective as mathematics, but that's argument is beyond the scope of this post. For now, I'm just trying to dispel one particularly bad argument against the idea of objective morality.

I see atheists making this mistake all the time, and it drives me nuts. The argument is that since morality depends on values and values are subjective, morality therefore must be subjective. Morality is based on values, but in the same way that mathematics is based on arithmetic. Values are the process we use to evaluate moral questions, just as arithmetic is a process we use to solve math problems. Different people have different aptitudes for arithmetic, and this explains why different people will come up with different answers to math problems, but that doesn't make math subjective. Similarly, because values are subjective, different individuals will reach different answers to moral questions, but that alone doesn't make morality subjective. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Resolving hypocrisies

Accusations of hypocrisy are the low-hanging fruit of political debate. It's such an easy charge to make because hypocrisy is ubiquitous. Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, and for politicians, it's basically a job requirement. But these accusations are so common not just because they are so easy to make, but also because they are very satisfying to make. They allow us to enjoy a small moment of moral superiority as we think about how scheming and unprincipled our enemies are.

The problem with accusations of hypocrisy is that they are especially weak arguments when it comes to trying to persuade people who don't already agree with you. Because hypocrisy is so common, we all have a great deal of experience in rationalizing it away when we need to. When someone accuses a politician you like of hypocrisy, it's really easy to make excuses for it. And I don't just mean bullshit, self-serving excuses. Real life is loaded up with genuine complexities, so any straightforward statement of principle is necessarily a simplification. Principles are like moral heuristics. They're extremely useful rules of thumb for guiding behavior, but there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions will always look like hypocrisy when viewed unsympathetically.

There's also an ambiguity at the heart of every accusation of hypocrisy, and one which is rarely acknowledged. The essence of such an accusations is that some behavior is at odds with a previously articulated principle, which is a kind of contradiction. When two ideas are in contradiction, that contradiction can be resolved by abandoning either idea.

I've been thinking about this recently as a result of the attack last week on the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Or rather, as a result of the conversations in the media (including social media) which have been provoked by that attack. Specifically, the conversations about free speech, and the accusations of hypocrisy raised against free speech advocates.

Consider this article, which I take to be a representative example of the genre: As a Muslim, I'm fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists. I disagree with this article on several points (first and foremost, the use of the term "free speech fundamentalists", as if the dogmatic insistence on free expression is as bad as the dogmatic insistence on censorship), but for the purposes of this post, I'm just interested in the accusation of hypocrisy. You might also want to take a look at this video, in which Raza Nadim repeatedly raises the same point:



At about the 11-minute mark, Dan Hodges attempts to take hypocrisy off the table and asks Nadim whether a non-racist "blasphemy" against Islam would be acceptable for publication or not, and Nadim doesn't exactly answer. He sort of dances around a bit and tries to change the subject. Everyone should be allowed to publish whatever they want, he says, as long as the rules are applied to everyone fairly and consistently.

Well, who could disagree with that? Certainly not me, but his answer begs the question. Much more importantly, Nadim doesn't specify what result he's looking for. Hodges's question was designed to evade the ambiguity of hypocrisy and nail Nadim down on a specific position regarding free speech in principle, but Nadim dodged, taking advantage of that ambiguity.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the claims of hypocrisy against Charlie Hebdo are correct, that still leaves the question of which of these two contradictory approaches we should endorse. And that's really the bottom line question underlying the whole debate over free speech. Was it wrong to publish Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam cartoons, or was it wrong to censor earlier anti-Semitic ones? Simply recognizing the hypocrisy doesn't answer that question, and that question is the crux of the matter.

Stepping back from the specifics of Charlie Hebdo, we're really talking about balancing interests.There will always reasonable disagreements over difficult cases. Even the most "fundamentalist" of free speech advocates recognizes certain exceptions, such as defamation and libel, and there are other exceptions which are rather more controversial. However we resolve these disputes, there will be consequences. Speaking for myself, I'd rather have too much free speech than too little. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The NYPD's counter-protest

On December 3, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio held a press conference to address the protests in the wake of the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner. During his remarks, DeBlasio talked about having to "train" his biracial son Dante in how to interact with police. DeBlasio was trying to empathize with the protesters, and to acknowledge that he was aware of the problem, and that it impacted his own family as well. I don't really know much about DeBlasio, but I was impressed with him on that day.

Pat Lynch wasn't impressed. He's the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (it's worth highlighting that it is the association which is benevolent, not the patrolmen), and he held his own press conference on the following day in which he claimed that police were "thrown under the bus" by DeBlasio's remarks. One of the reporters present, Azi Paybarah asked him what he found so upsetting, and whether expressing concern for his son indicates a lack of support for police on the part of DeBlasio.This is Lynch's reply:
“He spoke about, we have to teach our children, that their interaction with the police, and that they should be afraid of New York City police officers. That’s not true. We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter who they look like, to respect New York City police officers. Teach them to comply with police officers, even if they feel it’s unjust. That police officers are protecting them from the criminals on the street. That’s what we do. Our city is safe because of police officers. All our sons and daughters walk the streets in safety because of police officers. They should be afraid of the criminals. That’s what we should be teaching them.”
There's a grim irony in this. DeBlasio said that he taught Dante to "take special care" in interactions with police. What do you imagine DeBlasio meant by that? I have no doubt that he covered exactly those points Lynch mentioned. The key to not getting killed by police is to not give them a reason to kill you (which is harder than it sounds if you happen to be black), and the way you do that is to be polite, respectful, and cooperative. Whenever I've heard any black parent talking about "the talk", they always emphasize that. So what is Lynch really complaining about?

A point which seems to have eluded Lynch is that it doesn't really matter whether or not people are right to fear the police. Fear is the problem, whether it is a rational fear or not, and it's a problem that undermines the effectiveness of the police. I happen to think it is a rational fear, and I don't really see how that can plausibly be denied after all that's happened since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But either way, the police have a responsibility to reassure the communities they supposedly serve, and that starts with holding themselves (and each other) to a high standard of conduct. Instead, Lynch wants to protect them from criticism. That will only exacerbate the fear, increasing the tensions within the community, making the police more afraid of the community, resulting in more innocent black men killed. 

It's only gotten worse since that press conference. The situation was certainly not improved by the tragic and senseless murder of two on-duty officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in broad daylight on December 20. In the wake of this outrage, Pat Lynch further inflamed the situation by declaring "blood on the hands" of the mayor, City Hall, and the protesters. He alleged that this awful murder happened because DeBlasio "tolerated" the protests. I'm not sure what he should have done instead, and I'm also not sure what Lynch makes of the fact that the shooter also shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, before traveling to New York City that day. Were the protesters to blame for that too?

It shouldn't be necessary to debunk Lynch's ridiculous assertion, because it's egregiously stupid on its face. What Lynch is saying is that the protests should not have happened and should not have been allowed to happen because of the risk of inspiring violence against police. But what inspired the protests? Wouldn't it be just as fair to say that police should not be allowed to get away with excessive violence and killing unarmed men? I think that actually makes a lot more sense.

But to be clear, neither DeBlasio, the protesters, the grand jury, nor Officer Pantaleo is responsible for the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu. The shooter is responsible for those deaths. But it's fair to ask whether there's anything we can do to address any contributing factors. We could hold police to a higher standard, so that the next Eric Garner doesn't get killed. Failing that, we could increase accountability so that the next Daniel Pantaleo doesn't get away with it. Or we could stifle protests, so that the NYPD doesn't have to endure such hurtful criticisms when the next Daniel Pantaleo gets away with killing the next Eric Garner.What would a police state do?

Other than Lynch's deranged and fascistic rhetoric, the NYPD counter-protest has largely consisted of turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio to express their displeasure. This is a perfectly acceptable form of protest, but the substance is nearly as troubling as Lynch's remarks. Bill DeBlasio is the democratically elector Mayor of New York City. The NYPD is ostensibly supposed to be working on behalf of the people of New York City. Well, the people of New York City put DeBlasio in charge. In fact, police conduct (specifically the stop-and-frisk program which was overwhelmingly targeted at black men) was an important part of that campaign, and the people picked DeBlasio. The legitimacy of the police comes from democracy. We give police the exclusive legal right to initiate the use of force against citizens because we expect them to do so in furtherance of laws and policies devised by the democratically-elected representatives of the people. Democracy is the only legitimacy the police have.

There's something particularly troubling about using funerals to protest the Mayor. It puts the NYPD on that very short list of organizations that use funerals as an opportunity to make a political point, just below the Westboro Baptist Church. It's shameful.

It seems as if the counter-protest has reached a new level, at least according to the New York Post. I tried to find a more reliable source for this story, but everything else I found just referred back to the Post, so I'm taking this with a grain of salt. It seems the police have instituted a slowdown in which they've stopped ticketing and making arrests for minor infractions, and instead are only making arrests when they absolutely have to. The protesters are having a field day with this, because that's more than they ever could have hoped to achieve. A police force that only makes arrests when necessary is a dream come true. But this slowdown isn't intended to put pressure on the protesters. Perhaps police really do believe that society would fall apart if we stopped giving out traffic tickets or choking guys for selling loosies, but I don't think so. They're trying to put pressure on the elected government of New York City.

The reason why this is likely to be an effective form of protest is because municipalities all over the country rely on tickets, fines and fees to fund their operations. Those tickets, fines and fees are generated by police work. If the police look the other way, the city doesn't get paid. Assuming this slowdown story is true, the police are deliberately leveraging their power against the democratically-elected government of New York City. This is a form of extortion designed to silence criticism of the police. Could there be any clearer indication that the NYPD is out of control? (Of course, the broader issue is that this is a terrible way for cities to raise revenue for lots of reasons. For example, the police concentrate their attention on poor neighborhoods of color, which means this revenue comes largely from the people least able to afford it. It's just one part of a whole host of policies that add up to a de facto poor tax, which is reprehensible.)

But never mind the political philosophy. The thing that I keep coming back to is the mismatch between what the two sides want. The protesters want an end to excessive violence, and they want greater accountability when cops go too far. The police want the government to suppress the protesters because they don't like to be criticized. The protesters want to end the protests by fixing the problem. The police just want to end the protests without addressing the problem at all. It boggles my mind that people like Pat Lynch can be so self-righteous in their support of such a position that is no less than an explicit attack on the principle of free speech. And get away with it.

The unfortunate fact in all of this is that the police have a very high baseline of popular support which is not sensitive to police conduct. In other words, there is a large portion of the public which will continue to support the police whether they are doing their jobs well or not, simply because they are police. That makes it politically difficult to have real accountability for police, and while that may make life more comfortable for cops like Daniel Pantaleo, it doesn't serve the public. If we hold the police to a very low standard of conduct, they will meet it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I don't care what you think

But "Weird Al" Yankovic thinks I'm pitiful. That stings
One of my favorite websites (don't call it a blog) is Why Evolution is True, launched in connection with Prof. Jerry Coyne's 2009 book of the same name. A recent post on that site led me to a story on CNN about the results of a contest to come up with "Ten Non-Commandments". It's a pretty good list, but I want to focus on just the second one.

"Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true."

This seems straightforward enough, but I think it has profound implications if we really take it seriously. And we should. On the surface, it's a simple warning to avoid wishful thinking. However, what it's really doing is subtly shifting the goal of reasoning itself. When asked to consider a given proposition, what most of us usually do is we start with our general sense of whether or not it is true. If we're good skeptics, and we want to protect ourselves against our own cognitive biases, we try to remain open-minded pending a thorough review of relevant evidence, so that our ultimate opinion will be founded on as firm a basis as possible. That's terrific. But whether we're good skeptics or not, we're giving our opinion as to whether the proposition in controversy is true.

Make a special note of that word "opinion". This simple that word that everyone understands is surprisingly tricky.There are two major types of opinion that I want to distinguish because I think the differences may be important. One kind of opinion is exemplified by aesthetic judgments. In these cases, there is simply no fact of the matter, and these opinions therefore can never be considered right or wrong. But we also use the word "opinion" to refer to provisional beliefs about matters of fact in the face of uncertainty. Predictions, for example. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee for President. Unlike aesthetic judgements, that is a factual claim. It is (or will be) either true or false. Also, counter-factuals. In my opinion, they would have won if the quarterback hadn't been injured. It is notoriously difficult to evaluate counter-factuals because they can't be tested, but we can still talk about what would happen if they were. We have opinions about unsolved historical mysteries. I had an opinion about the identity of Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, but it was wrong. We have opinions about whether or not celebrities are gay, or defendants are guilty, and so on. .

As New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is supposed to have said, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts." When "opinion" means "aesthetic judgment" and "fact" means "established fact", it means exactly what it says. But when our opinions are standing in for unknown facts, the situation is quite different. When we apply that principle to those opinions, we conclude that a person is entitled to any opinion which could be true. I've seen this principle invoked in hundreds of arguments between atheists and theists. After an atheist presents a list of very good reasons to think that there is no god, the theist may reply "But that doesn't prove that there is no god. Can you deny the possibility?" Apart from moving the goalposts (the possibility of god is a very different question than the existence of god), this point implies that you are entitled to believe anything which isn't demonstrably impossible.

This may seem reasonable to you (surely it must seem reasonable to lots of people), but there's a serious problem with using certainty to distinguish fact from opinion. First of all, it's ambiguous. Do you mean that it is certain as a matter of fact, or merely that you feel certain about it? Clearly, feeling certain about something is not evidence that it is true, so that's no good. But "certainty as a matter of fact" is also a bit tricky since nothing is entirely certain. All knowledge claims are probabilistic, which means that all claims are uncertain, which means all statements of fact are actually opinions in the face of uncertainty (even if it's very, very little uncertainty). If we apply the Moynihan principle to these opinions, we have to conclude that anyone is entitled to believe anything about anything. While this is true as a matter of political liberty, it is obviously not a valid way of reasoning.

So let's look again at that Non-Commandment. The key phrase is "most likely to be true". That is a game-changer, because opinions about what is more likely to be true are opinions in the face of uncertainty. Even though each of us must reach our own estimate of the probability in question (because our estimates will be based on a whole lot of other considerations about which we will disagree), it is ultimately a matter of fact. It's objective. It may be open to debate, but it is not a matter of opinion. When you approach a question in terms of what you think is the right answer, you give yourself license to believe anything that isn't clearly impossible. But once you consider that not all possible answers are equally likely, it raises the question of whether it is ever reasonable to believe a less likely possibility over a more likely possibility.

So when I titled this post "I don't care what you think", I mean that I'm not interested in what you believe is true. That's the wrong question, and it's "just a matter of opinion". Your opinions can't challenge mine because we're each entitled to our opinions. If we disagree, it doesn't mean that (at least) one of us is wrong. I'm interested in what you think is more likely to be true because that is a matter of fact. If we disagree, and you're right, then I must be wrong.   

 I confess that most of what is attractive to me about this Non-Commandment is that it makes the case for atheism so much easier. It's hard not to conclude that the existence of god is unlikely (especially when you start loading up the concept with claims about virgin births and winged horses and such), therefore belief in god is unreasonable. Objectively unreasonable. That may be as close as we'll ever get to a definitive disproof of god, but I think it's quite close enough. However, I'm under no illusions that this little Non-Commandment is going to end religion. Plenty of people will conclude that god is more likely than not to exist for all manner of reasons, and so the debate will go on. But it will go on in terms that are a lot more favorable to atheism.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Morality and responsibility

There is a tension that I feel in my own thinking about morality, and since that tension will inevitably be reflected on this blog, I want to bring it out into the open. 

DISCLAIMER: This post isn't really about "Star Trek"
On the one hand, I think that morality is extremely important, and I want to encourage people to think about it and talk about it much more, especially in the context of important public policy issues which effect many people's lives. Let me use a conveniently recent example: the CRomnibus appropriations bill. Ezra Klein helpfully provides this highly informative summary of what we need to know to "sound smart" about it. But notice what is missing from that summary. There's nothing in there at all about how the various provisions of this bill will impact the lives of real people for better or worse. I don't mean to single out Klein. I'm just using his piece as an example of the moral blind spot that exists in much of our political discourse. I think that blind spot skews public policy against the public interest, especially in economic policy.

On the other hand, I think the whole concept of "moral responsibility" is untenable. This is a direct consequence of my views concerning free will. Based on everything we know about the process of making decisions at the level of the brain, I think our decisions are determined not (or not only) by our moral character, but by a complex combination of circumstances governing the interactions of our brains with our environments at any given time. Psychology experiments have shown that people often have no idea why they do the things they do, and invent post hoc rationalizations on the assumption that they must have had a good reason. One experiment I recall reading about concluded that whether a person is holding a hot beverage or a cold beverage will influence how they interact with others. How can people be morally responsible for their choices when those choices are ultimately determined by complex physical interactions at the atomic level which we don't understand and cannot control?

I want to convince people to think more (and more clearly) about morality as a means of making better decisions. I want to use the persuasive force of moral language to convince people (politicians, for example) to do what they should do, yet I can't really blame anyone for doing what they shouldn't do. There's an obvious tension there, but is it actually a contradiction? Maybe. I don't think so, but maybe. 

Unfortunately, I've always found these to be rather difficult issues to talk about, mainly because so much of the language we have to use is really fuzzy. If Miles punches Julian, resulting in a broken nose, there is a very straightforward sense in which Miles is responsible for Julian's broken nose. In that sense, it is perfectly appropriate to "blame" Miles for breaking Julian's nose. Who broke Julian's nose? Miles did. Simple. But blaming Miles rests on the tacit assumption that he could have done otherwise. If we have reason to think that the punch was somehow unavoidable, and that Miles could not have prevented it, then it doesn't seem fair to blame him after all. When we look carefully at what really caused Miles to punch Julian, we'll discover that it isn't the sort of thing he could have prevented.  

Suppose Miles was drunk. That seems like an easy one. Alcohol impairs a person's judgment, rendering them less capable of making good decisions. Assuming Miles got drunk knowingly and voluntarily, we can consider him responsible for what he does when drunk (and that's basically how the law would treat it). But when we look carefully at what caused Miles to get drunk, we'll discover the same problem all over again: it was entirely the result of complex physical interactions taking place in Miles's brain.

Blaming people for the things that they do is sometimes very useful, so it's a bit awkward if it seems unjustified. If Miles blames himself and feels guilty about it, this might prevent him from losing his temper next time. And if Miles is arrested and prosecuted for assault, this could cause other people to think twice before punching someone themselves. Fortunately, these purely practical considerations don't require us to blame Miles in the deep sense. It doesn't matter that Miles is not responsible for punching Julian. What matters is that he and others are more likely to make better decisions next time. That consequentialist analysis is all the justification we need for holding Miles legally responsible. If so, do we even need to hold him morally responsible? I don't think we do.

And what difference does it make anyway? Holding someone morally responsible can be a form of social exclusion. It sets that person apart from everyone else by putting them in a special category. It makes that person appear to be different from the rest of us, which provokes in us that comforting sense of superiority. It makes that person a bad person, and we need not (some would say should not) have compassion for bad people. Miles punched Julian because he's a bad guy, and I never would have done that because I'm not! But when we let go of moral responsibility and focus instead on the morally-neutral issue of causal responsibility, it allows us to feel compassion for Miles without minimizing our concern for Julian, and without condoning or defending what Miles did in any way.

What's the downside of holding people morally responsible for their actions? I don't know where to start. We tolerate abominable conditions in our prisons because criminals deserve to suffer. We scrimp on social services because poor people don't deserve our help. We can't have affirmative action because that means favoring people of color over the white people who really deserve those jobs. We can't tackle income inequality because the 1% deserves its wealth. When we realize that no one deserves anything, and that everything ultimately comes down to luck in one way or another, we see that these views are indefensible. There are also personal, psychological, and social costs to negative emotions like guilt and anger, which depend upon some notion of moral responsibility.

I wanted to draw attention to this tension firstly because I think it's very interesting, but secondly because I think it's useful to try to identify the potential weaknesses in my own positions. By focusing on those weaknesses, I hope to either shore up my position or uncover a mistake. But mainly because I just like this stuff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture: principle and practice

In reading about and talking about the torture report yesterday, I've noticed that some progressive atheists have used the report as a springboard to have another go at Sam Harris. This is by no means a widespread problem, but I do think it is a problem. Sam Harris bears absolutely no responsibility for Bush era torture policy. Firstly, this program goes back to 2001, years before Harris's first book was released. Secondly, even after becoming something of a celebrity in atheist circles, Harris still had no power to influence CIA policy. Harris isn't the one who decided not to pursue torture prosecutions. He's not the one who lied to Congress. He's not the one who spied on the oversight committees. 

If you're not familiar with the backstory, Sam Harris is the one who defended the view that torture isn't always wrong, and may in fact be morally obligatory in certain cases. It's a controversial view, although not nearly as controversial as his critics seem to think. It's actually a very common view among academic philosophers. To say that something is always wrong in all circumstances is quite a strong claim, and it doesn't take much to defeat it. All you have to do is imagine any circumstance, however implausible, where torture would be the right thing to do.

Harris imagines a situation where you have a suspect who is a known terrorist, and where you can be certain that he knows the location of a "ticking time-bomb", which will kill millions of people. This scenario piles implausibility on top of implausibility. In real life, there are no "ticking time-bomb" scenarios. In real life, not all suspected terrorists are terrorists. In real life, you don't know whether your suspect has the information you want, or even if the information exists at all. Harris's hypothetical also precludes any other approach, which is also implausible. Your only two choices are to torture a known terrorist, or sit helplessly waiting for millions of people to die.

This argument angered a lot of people. Many people saw this (and continue to see it) as straightforward support for torture, but it's not that. Harris is clear that he thinks torture should be illegal in all cases without exception. This is an important point which is usually misunderstood when it isn't overlooked entirely. In a situation where the consequences of obeying the law are worse than the consequences of disobeying it, disobedience becomes the morally preferred option. This is the basis for all civil disobedience. Obviously, torture has nothing to do with civil disobedience, but it's the same principle.

Other people were angered for another reason. Harris made this argument as a (minor) public figure, and he made it in the context of a very live debate over the very real issue of torture. Real people were being tortured under circumstances which did not come close to Harris's immaculate hypothetical. There's something a bit perverse about walking into an argument about the morality of real torture and declaring "Fantasy torture is okay." What's more, people who supported real torture could latch onto to Harris's argument, in exactly the same way that Islamophobes can latch onto criticisms of Islam. It was a mistake for Harris to wade into the issue the way he did.

But on the day that the Senate releases a torture report detailing the sickening reality of torture in practice, I think it's even more perverse to get hung up on a guy for defending hypothetical torture in principle.

The torture report

Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited torture report, and that's the end of the good news. Websites all over the internet are running their own versions of this article: The Most Horrific Revelations of the CIA Torture Report. There are a few general points I'd like to highlight as well.

It turns out that everything we thought we already knew was actually much worse than we thought. The report reveals that the CIA tortured more people than we thought, were far more brutal than we thought, and intentionally thwarted Congressional oversight even more than we thought. The report confirms that torture is ineffective, but also reveals that the CIA knew this even as it still continues to insist otherwise.

And of course we have to assume that the worst remains undisclosed. I mean, that's just how these things work. I'm grateful that this report was published at all, because there was a big push from inside the intelligence community to sit on it. The release was carefully negotiated between the White House, the CIA, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Those negotiations have produced a partially-redacted 500-page executive summary of a 6,000 page document. There's still a lot we don't know, and it isn't the benign stuff that gets withheld.

The release of the report was met with genuine outrage, and I hope that this will spur Congress and the president into some kind of meaningful reform. But really, anything short of vigorous prosecution of everyone involved at every level is a white-wash. The people responsible for this are still around, and they're not chastened at all. Despite all of the evidence, they just know that torture works. I suspect this is a psychological defense mechanism. All of that means that this isn't over. Without prosecutions, people will know in the future that they can torture and lie about it to Congress without any repercussions. Imagine if you really believed that torture saved lives, and you knew you'd face no consequences, and you were presented with a suspected terrorist in custody. Under those circumstances, why wouldn't you torture him?

The legal framework of the Bush era torture regime is still in place. Obama put a stop to it by executive order, but there has been no legal reform to prevent this from happening again. All it would take is for a subsequent president (or even Obama himself) to rescind that executive order, and torture could resume immediately. This is not the last we've heard of the Bush era torture regime.

Finally, the issue of torture reaches beyond just the Bush era, and it's broader than just the "war on terror". We're still force-feeding prisoners every day down in Gitmo, and our civilian prisons have a disturbing fondness for solitary confinement. This nightmare is not over. There will be a political battle over this that plays out in the media, but beneath all that theater, the United States is an avowedly pro-torture country. President Obama can tell us that this report doesn't reflect the true values of America, and my god I think he might really believe that, but it does. This is who we are.