Archive for the ‘Tragedies’ Category


So very strange…

March 19, 2011

And kinda inappropriate, but if you’ve have some difficulty explaining Japan’s nuclear crisis to your five year old, here’s this fun video. (I’m only posting videos for the time being.)

Oh, and there’s also this nuclear timeline from Gizmodo.


The Civility Diversion and Justificatory Closure

January 15, 2011

Balloon Juice has a really nice post that, I think, buries its insights a wee too deep in the weeds. Here’s a cut:

The reason that hundreds of angry people came to town hall meetings in my Congressional district in 2009, and the reason that police had to be present where they had never been before, wasn’t because someone was “uncivil”. It was because their media heroes and party leaders told them a pack of lies about death panels, federal funding for abortions, Medicare being taken away and free insurance for illegal immigrants. The questions that my Congressman took at those hate-filled meetings weren’t reasonable queries about limited government, deficits and healthcare outcomes. They were questions about why he wanted to kill grandma, let the government pay to abort babies, and take away Medicare.

Here’s my attempt at translation.

Palin, Beck, and the rest of the banshees have been engaged, for years now really, in a project of deception that implicates politicians in the disintegration of the fabric and soul of America (whatever the hell that is). They have told all manner of untruths to make their point, and in making this point, have either explicitly or implicitly stated that the guilty politicians must be stopped or taken out. They use guns and gun sights and invoke the revolutionary war and the second world war to underscore the extent of their dissatisfaction. They continue to do it. “If those wars were justified,” they imply, “the only natural conclusion is that this current fight, and the side that represents the side of the good, the side we’re on, is also justified.”

A prevailing presupposition, then, is that war and violence and assassination are sometimes justified. Such acts are justified, for instance, in cases like the revolutionary and the second world war. I think many people agree with this. Certainly, many self-respecting Americans agree with this. (Others, perhaps, not so much.)

It is one thing to argue that a position is justified, yet another to imply that violence in the promotion or defense of that position is justified.

Click on the jump for more…

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Motives Don’t Matter

January 11, 2011

The chorus of right wingers defending the actions of the shooter in Tucson as mere insanity is beginning to blow my mind. Repeatedly, politically sympathetic folks seem to be emphasizing Jared Loughner’s mental illness and not the nature of his act; or, at least, divorcing the two: he was sick, and he did a terrible deed as a result of that sickness. Others have taken the opportunity to cry politics, or to claim that we must wait to establish causality.

The left, on the other hand, is taking a somewhat stronger stance. Sandhya Somashekhar at the Washington Post asks whether it stemmed from the state of politics. Vaughan Bell at Salon makes the case that all this talk of mental illness is mostly an easy dodge. Paul Krugman has an eloquent piece arguing that it’s all been building for a long time. Steven Cohen, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has this to say.

Much as they may want to hang on to the idea that this was “merely” the act of a mentally ill person, there is at least one fact that cannot be accounted for by the mental illness of the shooter. That is, Giffords was targeted in political discourse, repeatedly, as someone who ought to be taken out. She was also the target of the shooter.

Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened. That is an undeniable fact about Saturday’s shooting… and you don’t need to know much about mental illness to acknowledge that fact.

Friend and fellow philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Case Western Reserve) put it to me this way:

My partner, Elaine, is a seasoned therapist. We watched Loughner’s YouTube site last night. He’s insane. But Elaine had no doubt that politics *channeled* or *guided* the direction of his insanity. Imagine your head has gone wild with internal anxiety -even voices. You cast about for a direction, an outlet, some way to turn the mess into relief. Now comes a message that for some idiosyncratic reason speaks to you and allows you a modicum of rationality inside your paranoia. And it tells you that you feel so bad because the government and the system –anything that’s not your head- has warped reality & that you must tear it all down. And now there’s a target over this one public officer’s face. And others have shouted -others who say things like you- that she should be shot, or “taken out”. And now you think one day when your head is going nuts — this has been building for you for a while, you may even have been planning it as an apotheosis- this is the chance. Now I will do this. I have been planning to take out the government as the voices advise. I will do it. It follows from my logic, I will start to take down the system. That’s how Palin & co. are responsible. & all of us in this country too — not directly responsible, and not liable, but politically responsible for cultivating an ethos of respect in public debate & in the media. There’s a 9 year old girl who was elected to her student council who is dead because of the way violence in the public sphere glommed onto to some sad, paranoid man’s mind.

I buy this argument, as I think it offers an entirely plausible causality. But it is susceptible to the all-too-frequent objection that the causality is nevertheless unclear. I think there’s a fair bit more to this.

That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence… like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and most of the others. What I mean is that causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is.

A comparison: if I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself, I am being grossly irresponsible. If he does kill himself, there’s certainly a sense in which I can’t be held causally responsible for his decision to do so. He did it himself. Many children would likely hear such a claim and brush it off as nasty talk from a playground meanie. But there’s also a critically important sense in which it is morally wrong of me to say this to the child, not because he does in fact kill himself, nor because I have for certain caused him to kill himself, but because if it were the case that I caused him to kill himself, then I would be responsible. The fact that he did kill himself isn’t doing the heavy lifting.

Similarly, if I wander through the halls of an insane asylum shouting that the doctors are plotting to harvest the organs of the inmates, that they must be stopped by any means necessary, I am committing a wrong. Again, I am committing this wrong whether or not the inmates do kill their doctors. If the inmates do in fact kill the doctors, they may have been plotting so for other reasons–perhaps their craziness was what motivated them–but my hands are dirtied in the killing of the doctors by my act of shouting falsities and inciting crazy people to take action even if the causal link is not made.

Finally, if I screech over the airwaves that some politician is destructive to the fabric of America, and must be targeted and stopped, or that we must not retreat but reload, or that we must begin the revolution, then I open myself to culpability for willing this rule, effectively, into a law; into execution; for having universalized it.

It’s my right to do this, of course, just as it is anybody’s right. It is my right to say awful things to children and my right to tell insane people that they are being persecuted, but it is still grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible. The banshees of the airwaves—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and the many others—as well as their defenders, must acknowledge this.

The forward-looking question that we really should be asking is what reasons we might have for defending vitriol and hate speech? Is it an essential part of our political discourse? Does it serve an important role? Is it vital that we paste targets over our political opponents?

Those who profit off it surely have a reason to defend their hate. That’s how they make money. If the public catches wind that what they’re saying is wrong, or morally suspect, this may damage their bank accounts. Here’s a timeline of such talk since 2008. But the rest of America ought to know better.

We can have a sane discourse about differing public policies in this country without resorting to characterizations of one or the other position in Nazi terms.

If I can find any solace in the shootings, it is this: that these sorts of crimes don’t happen more often. Evidently, Americans aren’t as loony as we may sometimes seem. There are thousands of mentally ill citizens in the United States, some of whom have murderous thoughts. Only a few of these, thank goodness, move to take action on these thoughts. Given the state of the political discussion, with all the targets and vitriol, we can thank our lucky stars that more of our brave political figures aren’t victims.

UPDATE: Protevi has a nice piece on this too.


Syllogistic Thinking

January 10, 2011

Here’s an interview with Jared Loughner’s philosophy professor, worth a full read.

The odd thing about Loughner’s syllogisms is that they’re not far off from examples Slinker might use in class. “When you teach logic, you draw a distinction between truth and inference,” says Slinker. To illustrate that, a teacher might say, “If chickens could fly upside down, then George W. Bush would be president in 2098.” The statement isn’t true. It just serves as a premise from which to draw conclusions. The purpose, says Slinker, is “to show it’s the form of the argument rather than the content that’s the expression of validity.” But that only works when talking in the abstract. In real-world logic, premises matter. “If the premises aren’t true,” says Slinker, “all bets are off.”


Rules of Engagement

April 6, 2010

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the absolutely horrific video leaked by WikiLeaks. If not, I’m posting it below. I think it’s your civic obligation to watch it.

What you should also see, however, is this fine article published in the New Yorker explaining the rules of engagement. I’ll also post some excerpts from that article beneath the video; including, ultimately, my own commentary.

The author of the article, Raffi Khatchadourian, addresses the legal dimension (and I strongly suggest you read his full commentary). If you’ll permit, I’ll try to flesh out the pre-legal or philosophical dimension of his points, offering a few short justifications for the laws. While you’re thinking about these issues, you may consider turning to this considerably more juicy entry on just war theory in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bulleted points in green are Khatchadourian’s:

  • Proportionality. A longstanding feature of the Law of Armed Conflict, which has been incorporated into the Army’s Rules of Engagement, is the concept of proportionality: all military action must be necessary and proportional to a given threat. This means that soldiers cannot legally shoot down a couple of young teenagers who are throwing stones at a tank. It also requires that soldiers judge, sometimes under difficult circumstances, the advantages of an operation against the potential collateral damage. (The advantages must outweigh the estimated loss of civilian life in order to proceed.)

The standard of proportionality is a legal rule stemming from the non-universalizability of disproportionate force. It is related to a problem in the punishment literature; namely, as John Rawls says (roughly), justifications for punishment are not justifications for forms of punishment, or something very close to that (Two Concepts of Rules, 1954).

Simply because someone may be doing something wrong is not reason enough to warrant disproportionate punishment or violence against the wrongdoer. If Joe steals a pack of gum, this does not authorize his hanging. If Mary cavorts with criminals, this does not authorize gunning her down. To imagine that it does is to introduce the prospect that any wrongdoing whatsoever, no matter how minor, authorizes execution. As we all know, wrongdoing comes in many forms and guises, from speeding violations to premeditated murder.

  • Positive identification. All soldiers must “positively identify” a person whom they intend to kill as a legitimate combatant. According to the Rules of Engagement, this means that there must be a “reasonable certainty” that the person is displaying hostile intent, or is behaving in a hostile manner, before soldiers may attack.

The positive identification requirement stems from a concern over arbitrariness. Plainly, one ought not to engage a person on mere suspicion that he is a soldier. One must confirm such things. This has always been the case even in past wars, where battlefields were specified, but it is even more true now.

Back in the day, the rule was intended to ensure that soldiers didn’t kill their own through friendly fire. The rule should be simple enough: don’t shoot people who aren’t the enemy. Battlefields can be foggy, and it serves nobody’s purpose, certainly not your own, to shoot your own people. You lose your army faster that way. It’s bad for that reason.

But it’s also wrong for universalizability reasons, Hobbesian and (roughly) Kantian: from the Hobbesian vantage, you certainly don’t want to be a soldier who charges out on the battlefield only to be shot down by your own forces. That’s a bad, bad contract. From a Kantian vantage, to permit firing without positive identification effectively permits wanton and reckless firing against any and all living entities, including your own forces. It completely unravels the notion of good and bad guys.

In these days of urban warfare, the rule is all the more important. Civilians intermingle with soldiers, innocents intermingle with enemies, just as we see in the video. In this case, completely innocent photographers were on the ground, chatting with several others, seeking information that could potentially help the war effort. And in this case, it’s a bad fuckin’ scene.

  • Command culture. The authority to use lethal force might rest with a person who is not at the scene of the battle, and so communication up and down the chain of command often plays a vital role in determining when soldiers can fire.

The requirement that one must have appropriate authority to mete out force is similarly concerned with arbitariness and vigilantism. The thought, I take it, is related to an important rule of ethics, impartiality. When someone is on the scene of a non-battle — remember, this is prior to the engagement of a battle — it will not suffice to place the decision to engage in the hands of those who have the most to gain from engaging.

For starters, there are perverse incentives associated with engagement. If I have a very big gun, and I get spooked for no good reason, it makes sense that I may make a rash decision to liquidate whatever I perceive that threat to be. Having an outside party give the command releases me from the wrongdoing of making rash decisions.

Also, however, engagement is not a simple matter of one battle and done. A battle is a punctuated event in a war. The war itself is carried out according to strategies, which are, in principle, employed in order to pursue more generalized approaches to winning.  To permit the war to be fought through its battles may invariably undermine the overall war effort.

We can see this relatively clearly with the release of this video. Soldiers with relatively constrained authority took it upon themselves to fire upon innocent civilians, and in doing so will have potentially dealt a crippling blow to the American forces.

  • The wounded.  The Rules of Engagement and the Law of Armed Combat do not permit combatants to shoot at people who are surrendering or who no longer pose a threat because of their injuries.

Finally, we don’t shoot the wounded when they’re down. This ties back into the disporportionate use of force, but also to other considerations related to utility and universalizability.

From a utility standpoint, it doesn’t make sense. It is often said that the captured soldier is worth more to an army alive than dead, and that’s probably true here too. There is utility in potential information that could be gleaned by a post-engagement interrogation. Moreover, there’s probably considerable utility in showing compassion to the enemy, as it may result in future compassion toward our own soldiers when they are wounded.

But also, the objective of engaging an enemy — and let’s presume now that the people on the ground were enemies, even though it is clear from the video that they were not enemies — I say again then that the objective of engaging an enemy is to remove the threat (in order to win the war or simply in order to survive). If the threat no longer exists, as is the case when someone lay wounded on the ground, the only point in firing on that person a second time is to kill the person, not the enemy, as the “enemy” has already been shot out of him. Firing on a non-threatening wounded person is, straightforwardly, murder.

So, if you have any question as to why this video is so disturbing, hopefully my very short introduction to the principles and justifications of Just War Theory will help to alleviate those. Obviously, there is quite a bit more to say on this matter.

UPDATE: Here are some other interesting commentaries: Crooked Timber, Glenn Greenwald at Salon, again GGReddit, Andrew Sullivan, and more coming shortly. Right now, off to class.


The Ends of Property

January 22, 2010

Whether you subscribe to the Hobbesian contractual theory of property, the Rousseauvian finding of property as the root of inequality, the Marxist theory of alienation and surplus value, the Proudhonian conception of property as theft, or even, arguably, the Lockean labor theory of property, there must be some sense in which the plight of every surviving Haitian leaves you with raging question marks dancing over your head.

The attached must-read essay from Professor Guy-Uriel Charles (Duke Law), sums it up nicely. “Stop calling quake victims looters,” he says, pointing out how offensive the journalistic use of the term is in the face of dire circumstances.

I couldn’t agree more, but I’d just want to add one thing, with due attribution to Hobbes.

The charge of looting doesn’t make a damn bit of sense in this state of nature, because the idea of property doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Nobody owns anything now. Nothing. Not a loaf of bread. Not a bar of soap. And most definitely not a high definition television set. There are no institutions to establish these rights; though there are no representatives of institutions to enforce such rights. The absence of enforcers isn’t what crushes the very idea of property (sorry Hobbes), but the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property.

Seriously? Seriously? …Seriously?

Does it really make sense to talk about property ownership in the face of absolute devastation, in the face of starvation, dehydration, and the death of one’s siblings?

Sure, we might grasp at maintaining order by re-asserting these rights, but talking nonchalantly as though they persist through the even the most devastating events. “Damn looters, stop goofing around and put the shoes and shirts back on the shelves.” But Haitians are in a dire state at the moment, a state so dire that it does not make sense.

To the starving, food on a plate is not property. Food in a field is not property. Food in a grocery store is not property. It is food, first and foremost. It is property only once regimes of ownership and jurisdiction once again make sense.

“That was McNulty’s store, but is no longer,” is all the authorization one needs to move into a phase of complete disregard for jurisdictional boundaries. The walls no longer stand, the shelves no longer stand, the contents of the store are just objects.

I appreciate deeply Charles’s argument, but it seems to me to miss this fundamental element. There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.


Gaining Some Distance

January 18, 2010

The Guardian has this interesting story on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that docked in Haiti today… to enjoy a beach barbecue.

Sixty miles from Haiti‘s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.


The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened”.

“I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

“It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving,” said another. “I can’t imagine having to choke down a burger there now.”

I’ll confess, it seems extraordinarily crass for Royal Caribbean to park their luxury liner only 60 miles from the site of such incredible devastation. I might even go so far as to say that it’s wrong.

Much as I feel this way, it’s hard to offer a good reason why.

Indeed, I myself had a few friends over for dinner on Friday. We had a grand old time, boozing it up and noshing on tasty rich-person treats. We scarcely even mentioned Haiti as we gobbled up homemade calamari. Imagine!…

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January 13, 2010

There’s really very little appropriate to say at times like these. The pictures and stories are horrifying. The destruction is unimaginable. The pain and suffering, really, cannot possibly be comprehended. To think of the loss of just one person I care about, not to mention those I haven’t even thought to care about… it boggles the mind. Far easier to bury my nose in my classes and forget that it has happened. Except that in many of my classes, I will be shepherding my students through readings in which the benefits and beauty of nature are extolled.

Haiti is a reminder — as there are many unfortunate reminders — that nature is not quite the pleasant nurturer as it is often made out to be.

When I first began this blog, not so long ago, I figured that I could catalog the horrors of nature and point this out. To do so in the face of this devastation, however, seems somehow sick and wrong. It’s so painfully obvious how terrible this is, it is hard to comprehend how one could need reminding of it. Sure, nature has its moments of beauty, and it offers immense value to humanity that has long gone unappreciated… but it is easy to forget, from the comfort of our living rooms, just how devastating nature can be.

My thoughts and best wishes are with those throughout the country.


Two Images

November 12, 2009

I had occasion this morning to have breakfast with Bron Taylor (Religious Studies, University of Florida), author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. As one might expect, the question about environmentalism as a religion (here and here) came up. I asked specifically whether we can’t distinguish between presumed appeals to the supernatural and actual appeals to the supernatural — in other words, whether it is important to distinguish between those who make explicit (or “perceived”) appeals to supernatural forces, and those who, in claiming to be making naturalistic appeals, nevertheless make supernatural appeals. (I might believe that my dead cousin Charlie is all around me, for instance, and in believing this, believe myself to hold a naturalistic view. Charlie’s spirit is just there, a part of nature. But my holding this naturalistic belief about Charlie isn’t what establishes my appeal as supernatural. My appeal is supernatural even though I believe it to be natural. There ain’t no way to establish using naturalistic methodology whether Charlie is or isn’t all around.) Unfortunately, our eggs came too early and I wasn’t able to get an answer. Maybe I’ll be able to get something out of him tonight over beers.

As breakfast continued, we got on the topic of environmental roadshows, and Bron noted that one common method of inspiring people to take interest in environmental issues is by showing before and after photos. I’m sure you’re familiar with the technique, but you can see instances of it here (or by going to a roadshow). Sometimes they don’t employ a before-and-after format, but just show how scarred the earth can be. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what the earth would be like without the scar. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate desecration.

This technique is a political reality. It’s a very common way of demonstrating the desecration of nature; and it is supposed to get people to recognize, or appreciate, or find value in, untrammeled nature. But I think there’s a lot more going on in these sorts of events than simply identifying the better and worse states of nature. What these before-and-after pictures do is tweak our reactive attitudes, our quasi-natural reactions to incidents that we take to have certain causes. (‘Reactive attitudes’ are generally used differently in philosophy, but I think they play an important role here insofar as they point us to incidents in which a supposedly “free will” has intervened.)

To see this, now look at the following photographs: herehere, and here. Depending on your view about global climate change, your attitude about the desecration of nature may change. That is, you may not feel the kind of disapprobation that you feel when you look at pictures of clearcuts; or you may just see the melting of the glaciers as a natural process.

Consider further that if I show you pictures of this devastation or this devastation, it seems reasonable that you won’t feel the same level of disapprobation. You may feel sadness, or despair, or pity; but these are likely not identical with the attitudes that you might have if these were the results of multiple intermingling wills.

Also interesting is that if I show you an image of a beautiful building — say, the Helix Hotel — you may think very positively about this construction, even though from one perspective it rests on desecrated soil.

What this points to, at least for me, is not so much the view that one natural condition is preferable to another condition of the world, but rather that when we are culpable for bringing about a bad state of affairs, this is where are moral disapprobation gets tweaked.


Tainted Meat

October 3, 2009

A very nice bit of video reporting from the New York Times:

Here’s the accompanying article:

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.