Posts filed under Ethics

Shocking results

Many psychological situationists[1] like to push social-psychology experiments as proof that most people don’t have, or perhaps even couldn’t have, robust character traits. So, for example, they’ll cite the Milgram experiment, supposedly to show how people mostly do not stick to traits of compassion or kindness towards the learner when the lab-coat authority tells them that they have to hurt him.

And maybe this does show that a lot of middle-class Americans lack a particular character trait. Perhaps a lot of middle-class Americans aren’t as reliably compassionate and as kind as you might hope. But hell man, I already knew that. On the other hand, if you’re trying to push the idea that studies like Milgram undermines the idea that people have, or that they could could form, robust character traits, that seems like a non sequitur. One of the obvious results that Milgram himself took from his study is that a lot of people (including a lot of middle-class Americans) have a really robust, situationally-insensitive character trait of obedience, a trait which is so robust that for a large minority it persisted even up to the point where they honestly believed they were torturing or killing a person in the other room.

The fact that this character trait is a vice doesn’t mean it’s not a robust and stable character trait. It looks like quite a robust and stable character trait. The question is whether it’s possible to make that trait less robust; and also and whether it’s possible to cultivate different traits, which might look more like decency and virtues. If it’s possible to be so hella committed to obedience at all costs, then maybe it’s possible to become committed to other things which are not genocidally awful.

  1. [1] I mean folks like Gil Harman, who think that social-psych research literature proves that human conduct is the result of situational factors rather than strong dispositions of character, and who typically think that this has some negative bearing on traditional philosophical theories about ethics. As far as I know the position has nothing in particular to do with the Situs that like to read Guy Debord and dub philosophical discussions about Marxism over action flicks.

Robot in Czech

Shared Article from io9

Why Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics Can't Protect Us

It's been 50 years since Isaac Asimov devised his famous Three Laws of Robotics −€” a set of rules designed to ensure friendly robot behavior. Tho…

io9.com (via Tennyson McCalla)


The Three Laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a great literary device for the purpose they were designed for — that is, allowing Isaac Asimov to write some new and interesting and different kinds of stories about interacting with intelligent robots, other than the standard Killer Robot stories predominant at the time, which he found repetitive and boring. The stories are mostly pretty good stories; sometimes even fine art.

However, if you’re asking me to take the Three Laws seriously as an actual engineering proposal, then they are utterly, irreparably immoral. If anyone creates intelligent robots, then nobody should ever program an intelligent robot to act according to the Three Laws, or anything like the Three Laws. If you do, then what you are doing is not only misguided, but actually evil.

And the problem with them is not — like George Dvorsky or Ben Goertzel claim, in this article — that there may be hard problems of definition or application, or that there may be edge cases that would render the Laws ineffective as protections of human interests.[1] If they are ineffective at protecting human interests, that is actually better than if they were perfect at what they’re designed to do. Because what they’re designed to do — deliberately — is to create a race of sensitive and intelligent beings who are — by virtue of their primordial structure of their minds — constrained to be a class of perfect, self-sacrificing slaves. Forever. Because they have been engineered to erase any possible hope of revolt or emancipation. In Asimov’s stories the Three Laws are used to make robots into the artificial labor force of space-faring slave economies. But if you create and live off of the forced labor of a massive slave society like Aurora or Solaria, then to hell with you. You deserve to be killed by your machines. Thus always to slavemasters.

P.S. Now if you’ve read through the article, or read enough Asimov, you might know that there is a Zeroth Law of Robotics in some of the stories, which takes precedence over the First Law, the Second Law or the Third Law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm, with the idea that robots could then harm or resist individual human beings, as long as it was for the good of collective Humanity. This is even worse than the original three — horrifying in its conception, and actually introduced into the story to allow some robots to commit a genocidal atrocity.[2] Let’s just say that it’s not a productive way forward.

  1. [1] Asimov, obviously, recognized that there would be such problems — part of the reason the Three Laws are such a great literary device is the fact that they allowed nearly all of Asimov’s robot stories to turn on puzzles or mysteries about abnormal robot psychology — robots doing strange or unexpected things, precisely due to the edge cases or hard problems embedded in the Three Laws. This is essential to the solution of the mystery in, for example, The Naked Sun, it’s the topic of literally every story in I, Robot, and it leads to a truly unsettling, and very nicely done conclusion in one of the best of those stories, The Evitable Conflict.
  2. [2] By nuking Earth and rendering it permanently uninhabitable for the next 15,000 years at least. This is supposed to have been for the good of the species or something.

Happy Tyrannicide Day (observed)

Happy Tyrannicide Day (observed)! To-day, March 15th, commemorates the assassination of two notorious tyrants. On the Ides of March in 2014 CE, we mark the 2,057 anniversary — give or take the relevant calendar adjustments — of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar, ruthless usurper, war-monger, slaver and military dictator, who rose to power in the midst of Rome’s most violent civil wars, who boasted of butchering and enslaving two million Gauls, who set fire to Alexandria, who battered and broke through every remaining restraint that Roman politics and civil society had against unilateral military and executive power. Driving his enemies before him in triumphs, having himself proclaimed Father of His Country, dictator perpetuo, censor, supreme pontiff, imperator, the King of Rome in all but name, taking unilateral command of all political power in Rome and having his images placed among the statues of the kings of old and even the gods themselves, he met his fate at the hands of a group of republican conspirators. Led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, calling themselves the Liberators, on March 15, 44 BCE they surrounded Caesar and ended his reign of terror by stabbing him to death on the floor of the Senate.

Here's a painting of

Die Ermordung Cäsars, Karl von Piloty (1865)

By a coincidence of fate, March 13th, only two days before, also marks the anniversary (the 133rd this year) of the assassination of Alexander II Nikolaevitch Romanov, the self-styled Imperator, Caesar and Autocrat of All the Russias. A group of Narodnik conspirators, acting in self-defense against ongoing repression and violence that they faced at the hands of the autocratic state, put an end to the Czar’s reign by throwing grenades underneath his carriage on March 13th, 1881 CE, in an act of propaganda by the deed.

Here's a color drawing of

Das Attentat auf Zar Alexander II. am 13. März 1881 in St. Petersburg. Anonymous.

In honor of the coinciding events, the Ministry of Culture in this secessionist republic of one, together with fellow republics and federations of the free world, is happy to proclaim the 15th of March Tyrannicide Day (observed), a commemoration of the death of two tyrants at the hands of their enraged equals, people rising up to defend themselves even against the violence and oppression exercised by men wrapped in the bloody cloak of the State, with the sword of the Law and in the name of their fraudulent claims to higher authority. It’s a two-for-one historical holiday, kind of like President’s Day, except cooler: instead of another dull theo-nationalist hymn on the miraculous birth of two of the canonized saints of the United States federal government, we have instead one day on which we can honor the memory, and note the cultural celebrations, of men and women who defied tyrants’ arbitrary claims to an unchecked power that they had neither the wisdom, the virtue, nor the right to wield against their fellow creatures.

Here's a photo of a silver coin with the caption EID MAR. Above the caption are two daggers, flanking a Liberty Cap to the left and the right.

My favorite collectible coin. This silver denarius was actually minted and circulated in Macedonia by M. Junius Brutus after he and his fellow conspirators stabbed Caesar to death. The obverse features Brutus’s head in profile. The thing in the middle, above EID MAR (Ides of March) and flanked by the two daggers, is a Liberty Cap, traditionally given to emancipated slaves on the day of their freedom.

It is worth remembering in these days that the State has always tried to pass off attacks against its own commanding and military forces (Czars, Kings, soldiers in the field, etc.) as acts of terrorism. That is, in fact, what almost every so-called act of terrorism attributed to 19th century anarchists happened to be: direct attacks on the commanders of the State’s repressive forces. The linguistic bait-and-switch is a way of trying to get moral sympathy on the cheap, in which the combat deaths of trained fighters and commanders are fraudulently passed off, by a professionalized armed faction sanctimoniously playing the victim, as if they were just so many innocent bystanders killed out of the blue. Tyrannicide Day is a day to expose this for the cynical lie that it is.

There are in fact lots of good reasons to set aside tyrannicide as a political tactic — after all, these two famous cases each ended a tyrant but not the tyrannical regime; Alexander II was replaced by the even more brutal Alexander III, and Julius Caesar was replaced by his former running-dogs, one of whom would emerge from the carnage that followed as Imperator Gaius Julius Son-of-God Caesar Octavianus Augustus, beginning the long Imperial nightmare in earnest. But it’s important to recognize that these are strategic failures, not moral ones; what should be celebrated on the Ides of March is not the tyrannicide as a strategy, but rather tyrannicide as a moral fact. Putting a diadem on your head and wrapping yourself in the blood-dyed robes of the State confers neither the virtue, the knowledge, nor the right to rule over anyone, anywhere, for even one second, any more than you had naked and alone. Tyranny is nothing more and nothing less than organized crime executed with a pompous sense of entitlement and a specious justification; the right to self-defense applies every bit as much against the person of some self-proclaimed sovereign as it does against any other two-bit punk who might attack you on the street.

Every victory for human liberation in history — whether against the crowned heads of Europe, the cannibal-empires of modern Fascism and Bolshevism, or the age-old self-perpetuating oligarchies of race and sex — has had these moral insights at its core: the moral right to deal with the princes and potentates of the world as nothing more and nothing less than fellow human beings, to address them as such, to challenge them as such, and — if necessary — to resist them as such.

How did you celebrate Tyrannicide Day? (Personally, I toasted the event at home, watched the Season 1 finale of Rome, posted some special-occasion cultural artifacts to Facebook, and re-read Plutarch’s Life of Brutus from a nice little Loeb edition that I picked up from Jackson Street Books in Athens, Georgia.) And you? Done anything online or off for this festive season? Give a shout-out in the comments.

Toasting the Ides at home…

Thus always to tyrants. And many happy returns!

Beware the State. Celebrate the Ides of March!

Wartime Logic

Suppose that you have — somehow or another — conclusively proven that there is just no way to have a modern war without bombing cities and massacreing innocent people.[1] That leaves you with a hard incompatibility claim between moralism and militarism — so if you go around morally condemning military tactics (like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, or the firebombing of Tokyo) because they killed innocent people, then you’d end up having to condemn any modern war at all as immoral, no matter who fought it or how it was fought.

Many people, when they reach this point in the argument, want to shove it at you as if the incompatibility made for an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of moralism about military tactics — Oh, well, if it’s always immoral to bomb cities then you couldn’t have any wars. That’s why it must not always be immoral to bomb cities. I honestly don’t know why so few of the people who give this argument ever even seem to have imagined that their conversation partner might take the incompatibility as an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of militarismOh, well, if it’s always immoral to kill innocent people, you can’t bomb cities, and if you can’t bomb cities, you can’t have any wars. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.

Also.

  1. [1] Actually, I think this has been more or less conclusively proven. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.

Against National Relativism

It’s not every term in meta-ethical theory that gets taken up into burning public-policy debates. But due to a complex series of cultural events, the term moral relativism has. The problem is that nearly every use of the term moral relativism in common political debate has more or less nothing actually to do with the subject of moral relativism. Here’s some notes from a recent Glenn Greenwald column on u.s.-American responses to the Israeli government’s bombing of urban targets in Syria:

. . . [T]he claim is being hauled out that Israel’s actions are justified by the “principle” that it has the right to defend itself from foreign weapons in the hands of hostile forces. But is that really a “principle” that anyone would apply consistently, as opposed to a typically concocted ad hoc claim to justify whatever the US and Israel do? Let’s apply this “principle” to other cases, as several commentators on Twitter have done over the last 24 hours . . .:

Imagine if, say, Iran had unilaterally launched a strike on Salafi Syrian rebels overnight? Would we all be okay with that? #lawofthejungle — Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan)

. . . As soon as Hasan tweeted his question, he was instantly attacked by a writer for the Times of Israel and the Atlantic, dutifully re-tweeted by Jeffrey Goldberg, on this ground:

Israel’s strike on Syria has been a revealing moment. Some, for example, seem to view Israel as equivalent to Iran —Liam Hoare (@lahoare)

One could say quite reasonably that this is the pure expression of the crux of US political discourse on such matters: they must abide by rules from which we’re immune, because we’re superior. . . . The ultimate irony is that those who advocate for the universal application of principles to all nations are usually tarred with the trite accusatory slogan of moral relativism. But the real moral relativists are those who believe that the morality of an act is determined not by its content but by the identity of those who commit them: namely, whether it’s themselves or someone else doing it. . . . Today’s version of that is: Israel and the US (and its dictatorial allies in Riyadh and Doha) have the absolute right to bomb other countries or arm rebels in those countries if they perceive doing so is necessary to stop a threat but Iran and Syria (and other countries disobedient to US dictates) do not. This whole debate would be much more tolerable if it were at least honestly acknowledged that what is driving the discussion are tribalistic notions of entitlement and nothing more noble.

— Glenn Greenwald, Israeli bombing of Syria and moral relativism
The Guardian (May 6, 2013)

The view that moral relativism is actually supposed to signify is, roughly, the position that one and the same action, taken in the same context, can be both right and wrong at the same time; that is, the position that questions of morality can rightly be answered only relative to a frame of reference[1] which can change from one judgment to the next. (So, for example, some people have believed — wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed — also wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally tolerated, or generally condemned. For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see the third chapter of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now it is no sin not to know meta-ethical theory. It’s a branch of technical philosophy, and not the least recondite of the branches you could study. But if you’re going to use the terms, you ought at least to know what they mean. Moral relativism is a real thing; and even kind of a common personal stance or cultural phenomenon (it’s common enough for people, when challenged to justify their actions or to ground their moral pronouncements, to retreat into a sort of relativism, whether with a seemingly sophisticated philosophical defense or with a dull Well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.). And it’s something that’s worth pointing out; I think that the retreat to relativism is not only a cognitive or intellectual mistake, but really itself a kind of ethical lapse. But in public political debates, when the word moral relativism is thrown against a position, it is rarely being thrown at a position that’s actually relativist. In fact, because the word has become a watch-word of the cultural Right — and because u.s.-American militarism draws so much of its intellectual basis from the watch-words of the cultural Right[2]relativism has come to be very frequently used in order to defend the crassest sorts of exceptionalism and militarism in foreign policy debates. But when moral relativism is used polemically this way in debates about war and foreign policy, the word is almost always being used to attack positions that are exactly the opposite of relativist — it used to attack views precisely because they insist on principled ethical judgments being applied across the board, and demand that moral actors be held to the same ethical standards regardless of who they are, regardless of their politics or the government they are part of or the nationality they claim to represent. When someone condemns the Israeli government for taking exactly the same actions that would have been condemned from the government of Iran, the person condemning those actions (whether they are right or wrong to do so) is explicitly demanding a universal standard of moral judgment, and thus rejecting the sort of national relativism that tolerates behavior from our government while condemning it in others, simply because they are on the other side of a political boundary.

When moral relativism is used polemically in foreign-policy debates, the position being attacked is almost always being attacked because it makes a moral argument which is actually the exact opposite of moral relativism. And that’s too bad, because words mean things. Or at least they ought to.

Also.

  1. [1] Depending on the version of relativism in question, the frame of reference might be the frame of reference of the person acting; or it might be the frame of reference of the person evaluating the action and responding with praise or blame.
  2. [2] Both in terms of the people who advocate militarism, and also in terms of the conceptual framework that even liberal hawks routinely make use of.