Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Update to ‘Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Good’

09/03/2014

A commenter on my post “Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Great” has kindly pointed out that Hitch’s 2002 debate against Tariq Ali is missing from this anthology.  I have added it to “The Good” and have this to say of it:

Ali, “US Imperialism or A Just Response To Terror?”, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 17 April 2002 (Audio).  With the rubble of the Twin Towers barely cleared away, Hitchens goes head-to-head with a former comrade on the Left who published a book blaming America for visiting the attacks on itself.  I would like to have placed this one in the top category alongside the all time greats as Hitchens’ opening speech is a rip-snorting broadside against the hypocrisy and double-standards that was soon to lead to his departure from Liberalism in favour of Neo-Conservatism.  But alas, he doesn’t use his time for a rebuttal and the audio cuts out before the first audience question is answered.

Advertisements

International Women’s Day 2014

08/03/2014

International Womens Day Logo

According to Google’s doodle, today is International Women’s Day.

Liberation for women

That’s what I preach

Preacher maaaaaaaaaaaan!

The WORST Love Album In The World… EVER!!!

14/02/2014

BrokenHeart

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of us who are only too aware of the false promises of love and relationships.

Track / Artist / Album

1. The Everlasting / Manic Street Preachers / This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours

2.  Love Will Tear Us Apart / Joy Division / Permanent: Joy Division 1995

3.  She’s A Star / James / Whiplash

4.  History / The Verve / A Northern Soul

5.  America / Razorlight / Razorlight

6.  Nothing Compares 2 U / Sinéad O’ Connor /  I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

7.   I’ll Take The Rain / R.E.M. / Reveal

8.  Life Becoming A Landslide / Manic Street Preachers / Gold Against The Soul

9.  With Or Without You / U2 / The Joshua Tree

10.  Can’t Stand Me Now / The Libertines / The Libertines

11.  Try / Nelly Furtado / Folklore

12.  The Scientist / Coldplay / A Rush Of Blood To The Head

13.  Every Breath You Take / The Police / Synchronicity

14.  Man Of The World / Fleetwood Mac / The Very Best Of

15.  I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself / The White Stripes / Elephant

16.  She Is Suffering / Manic Street Preachers / The Holy Bible

17.  You Oughta Know / Alanis Morissette / Jagged Little Pill

18.  Run / Snow Patrol / Final Straw

19.  Train In Vain / The Clash / London Calling

20.  Under My Thumb / The Rolling Stones / Aftermath

21.  Wish You Were Here / Pink Floyd / Wish You Were Here

22.  The Power Of Goodbye / Madonna / Ray Of Light

23.  How Soon Is Now? / The SmithsHatful Of Hollow

24.  Say Hello Wave Goodbye / David Gray / White Ladder

25.  Last Christmas (performed by James Dean Bradfield live on TFI Friday, 1996) / George Michael/Wham! / Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of

Sam Harris responds to Daniel Dennett’s review of ‘Free Will’

14/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverI recently blogged on New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s lengthy review of fellow “Four Horseman” Sam Harris’ views on “free will” contained in his short book of the same name and additional articles and public speaking, which I reviewed and summarised last year.

Harris has now posted a response to Dennett’s review, which (mercifully) is far shorter than Dennett’s original review.  Rather than correcting Dennett point-by-point, Harris has limited himself to calling Dennett out on his condescending tone and misrepresentations of his work:

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless.  Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind.  This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead.  The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants.  I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering.  I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.

(…)

You do this again and again in your review. And when you are not misreading me, you construct bad analogies—to sunsets, color vision, automobiles—none of which accomplish their intended purpose.  Some are simply faulty (that is, they don’t run through); others make my point for me, demonstrating that you have missed my point (or, somehow, your own).

I’m going for another beer now.

FacePalmStarTrek

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality

03/02/2014

Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

03/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverLast year, I reviewed and summarised the writing and public speaking of Sam Harris in relation to “free will”.  Fellow “Four Horseman” and New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett has written a lengthy review of Harris’ work.  In his short book, Free Will, as well as this article, Harris replied directly to Dennett’s account of “free will” in the latter’s book, Freedom Evolves.  Harris has also promised to respond in detail to Dennett’s latest review.

I have not read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, (it is on my rather-large-and-ever-growing “to read” pile) and to be perfectly honest, I find his review of Harris’ Free Will to be rather dense and far less compelling than its subject matter, which I cannot praise highly enough.  My overall opinion (which I am happy to change once I have obtained a better grasp of Dennett’s work on the matter) is that Dennett has an almost presuppositional commitment to the notion of “free will” and will interpret the evidence any which way he can in order for it confirm to his notion of “free will”.  I also side very much with Harris’ charges in this article that Dennett has redefined what most people think is “free will” and declared it by fiat to be “the only one worth having”.

Daniel Miessler provides a useful executive summary of Dennett’s article at the beginning of his article that is just as long:

It serves as the most elaborate, learned, and desperate hand-waving I’ve ever witnessed. It was such a weak argument that it looked more like an example that a brilliant philosophy professor, like Daniel Dennett, might use to highlight poor arguments to his students.  Sadly it wasn’t a strawman used for instruction—it was his real position.

Here’s what he basically said:

1.  It seems like we make choices, so we do.

2.  It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so moral responsibility is real.

I just saved you ~30 minutes of exasperation.

Nevertheless, the closing paragraph of Dennett’s review dispenses with all the philo-neuro-psycho-babble that has gone before and is all the more persuasive for it:

If you think that the fact that incompatibilist free will is an illusion demonstrates that no punishment can ever be truly deserved, think again.  It may help to consider all these issues in the context of a simpler phenomenon: sports.  In basketball there is the distinction between ordinary fouls and flagrant fouls, and in soccer there is the distinction between yellow cards and red cards, to list just two examples.  Are these distinctions fair?  Justified?  Should Harris be encouraged to argue that there is no real difference between the dirty player and the rest (and besides, the dirty player isn’t responsible for being a dirty player; just look at his upbringing!)?  Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not make allowances for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill.  So it is in society generally: we are all considered equal under the law, presumed to be responsible until and unless we prove to have some definite defect or infirmity that robs us of our free will, as ordinarily understood.

While I accept the bulk of Harris’ account/demolition of “free will”, Dennett has encapsulated the one glimmer of an objection that I have to it.  While the range of human thought and action – from sexuality to psychopathy – may be determined by prior causes over which humans have no control, I still cannot abandon the notion that degrees of human behaviour can be freely controlled.

Dennett uses the example of fair play in sports.  I draw on my own experiences of manners and etiquette (or lack thereof) in a professional (allegedly) office environment.  I have had to deal with rudeness and bullying – both face-to-face and via that accursed medium known as “email” – by men and women who are well-educated, otherwise well-mannered and who clearly know the difference between treating someone well and treating them badly.

Leaving aside the findings of Channel 4’s Psychopath Night that bankers and lawyers are among the top professions populated by psychopaths (!),  I cannot escape my impression that they know full well what they are doing, they are acting in a deliberate, calculating and manipulative fashion, that they are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and that they ought to be held fully accountable for what they are doing.

“They” may well have chosen “A” de facto, but “They” sure as hell ought to have chosen “B” de jure and deep down “They” themselves (whoever “They” are) know this full well.

In this sense, the illusion of “free will” is so powerful that it is virtually indistinguishable from reality.

Further proof (if any were necessary) that it’s all your parents’ fault

30/01/2014

ParentsArguingInFrontOfChild

My post last week presented peer-reviewed evidence that having children adversely affects their parents’ own relationship.  This week, the media has reported that parents can ruin their children’s early development – both mental and physical – if they expose them to their arguments:

Quarrelling parents who fail to resolve their arguments are leaving their children at risk of long-term mental health problems, new research has found.

Exposing children to constant feuding can also cause physical problems in youngsters such as headaches and stomach pains as well as affecting their growth rate, experts have claimed.

The study by relationship charity OnePlusOne examined the differences between “destructive” and “constructive” conflict within the family home and looked at how it affected children.

Destructive conflict, such as sulking, walking away, slamming doors or making children the focus of an argument, puts youngsters at greater risk of a range of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, researchers said.

Children react better when parents can relate to each other more positively during arguments and when conflicts are resolved, they added.

Dr Catherine Houlston, co-author of the book, Parental Conflict: Outcomes And Interventions For Children And Families, said: “We know that conflict is a normal and necessary part of family life.

“It’s not whether you argue but how you argue which matters most to kids.

“Research suggests that over time, the impact of being exposed to arguing between their parents can put children’s physical health at risk.

“Evidence has shown that headaches, abdominal pains and even reduced growth can be brought on by the insecurity a child can feel by seeing their parents at war.

“However not all arguing has a negative outcome.  If a child sees his or her parents in conflict then work things out they understand it’s possible for difficult situations to be resolved and they feel more secure.

“Evidence suggests that working with couples at an early stage in their relationship, or during times of change, we can modify destructive patterns of conflict behaviour.”

University of Sussex Professor Gordon Harold, co-author of the book, said: “Today’s children are tomorrow’s parents.

“The psychological fallout from homes marked by high levels of inter-parental conflict can lead to negative behaviour and long-term mental health problems that repeat across generations.

“Effective intervention can help to break this cycle, improving outcomes in the short and long term.

As Mitch Albom wrote in The Five People You Meet In Heaven, “All parents damage their children.”

Or as Philip Larkin rather more bluntly phrased matters in his poem “This Be The Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Having children ruins your relationships

21/01/2014

FatherBabyUnhappy

Further to my two posts last year examining the unexpected and highly counterintuitive effects that parenthood has on parents’ personal happiness (as well as Bill Hicks’ wonderful take on matters!), my Confirmation Bias is satisfied yet further by a recently published study from the Open University on the effect that having children has on relationships:

Couples without children have happier marriages, according to one of the biggest studies ever of relationships in Britain.

Childless men and women are more satisfied with their relationships and more likely to feel valued by their partner, the research project by the Open University found.

(…)

The study, involving interviews and surveys with more than 5,000 people of all ages, statuses and sexual orientations over a two-year period, will be presented at the British Library this week.

The ellipse in the above paragraph contains one slightly inconvenient truth to my stance:

But researchers also discovered that women without children were the least happy with life overall, whereas mothers were happier than any other group, even if their relationships faltered.

But I’m a bloke; none of that affects me.  So, hey ho!

Further reading over at The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail.

I’ll give the last word to The Onion’s “American Voices”:

“My parents did always tell me I was the source of their unhappiness.”

– Phyllis Ireland, Wax Pourer

Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’

29/12/2013

FORA TV link

I recently placed this debate in “The Good” section of my three-part post of all of Hitchens’ formal television and radio debates, but now after a recent third viewing, I am wondering whether it should have gone in “The Great” section.  The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist, author, public intellectual and polemist, debates British philosopher and author A C Grayling on the latter’s book on the morality of deliberately aiming bombs at civilians during wartime within the context of World War II, Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified? [London: Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2007] at the Goethe Institute, Washington on 20 April 2006.

Grayling’s argument

Tellingly, the title of Grayling’s book is derived from an Allied report at the war’s end regarding a suitable venue to hold the trials of Nazi war criminals.  While acknowledging that the Second World War was a “just war” against a truly evil enemy and the greatest mistake the Allies could possibly have made would have been to lose it, Grayling brushes aside the atrocities of the Axis that have attracted the most attention since the War’s conclusion and focuses on whether the Allies’ area bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities constituted a war crime under the guidelines set out at the post-war Nuremburg Trials.

Grayling even dismisses the argument that the Allies were justified in taking such action as a means of retaliation as it was the Germans who bombed the Allies’ civilians first.  Although he does not use the school yard retort in so many words, it is a rather apt summary of his position: two wrongs don’t make a right.  Just because the Nazis carried out a campaign of sterilisation, eugenics and genocide against peoples who were unfortunate enough not to be in their favour, the Allies would scarcely have been vindicated in taking such action against the Germans at the end of the war.

Grayling concludes that the Allies’ deliberate targeting of civilians on the enemy side by area bombing of Germany and Japan and the dropping of the atomic bombs by America on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a crime against humanity in moral terms, but that it did not even have the desired strategic effect of hindering the enemy war effort by destroying their workforce, supplies, munitions and lines of communication and shattering the moral of their civilian population so as to make their governments sue for peace or surrender  unconditionally.

Hitchens’ response

While Hitchens’ speech is not the kind of soaring and swirling grandstanding that we were used to from his debates on religion; repeated viewings reveal it to be among his very best.  His exposition of the Jewish-born/Protestant-convert Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Third Reich, I Shall Bear Witness, among other obscure tracts, reminds me of revealing the real joys of being a public intellectual, when commenting on the death of Susan Sontag, showing how committed, well-read and intelligent he was with his in-depth knowledge of texts that 99.9% of the population have never even heard of, much less have the time, energy or motivation to read:

Between the word “public” and the word “intellectual” there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow.  The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries.  Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivalled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.

Although Hitchens broadly agrees with Grayling that the actions of the Allies were awful, as were some of their motives – they bombed the German cities firstly, because they could and secondly, to impress Josef Stalin whose Red Army was fast advancing on the Third Reich from the East and who could well have been the Allies’ enemy in a third world war once the second was out of the way – he stops short of calling the bombing campaign an atrocity or a war crime.  The Second World War was a truly exceptional example and Germany’s defeat had to be final, total, utter and annihilating.  There could be no repeat of what happened after 1918 with speculation about what might have happened if Germany had hung on a little longer and the Jews had not conspired against them.

Drawing on Klemperer’s diaries, Hitchens paints an astonishing image of the morning after the night of the bombing of Dresden (which, thanks to unusually favourable climate conditions “worked too well”), when Klemperer and his wife who were about to be shipped off to the death camps that very day, emerged from their shelters, saw that not one brick was piled on top of another, and so tore off the yellow stars from their clothing.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners?

Hitchens begins his speech by applauding Germany’s courage for facing up to its record during World War II and refers to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argued that the Germans were genetically predisposed to carry out the Holocaust, as a “defamation” to the character of the German people.   He reviewed the book in conjunction with reporting on what sounded like an intellectual public raping of Goldhagen by a pair of older and wiser historians of the period shortly after the book’s publication:

Having immersed myself in this volume for a weekend, I am eager to ask one big question that cries to heaven for an answer.  It is this: Who on earth does Goldhagen think he is arguing with?  He comes to tell us there was a good deal of state- and church-sponsored anti-Semitism in German culture.  He adds that the Nazis made great use of Jew hatred in their propaganda.  He goes on to say that many Germans took part in beatings, killings, and roundups not because they were coerced but because they liked the idea.  He announces that not many Germans resisted the persecution of their Jewish countrymen.

Excuse me, but I knew this and so did you.  Moreover, the sarcastic phrase about “obeying orders” is not even a well-known explanation, only a well-known excuse.  All the way through Goldhagen’s presentation, which is one tautology piled on another, I wait to make my point.  And then the two big scholars present come to the podium with their comments, and I realize I have been wasting my time.

Sophomoric, meretricious, unoriginal, unhistorical, a product of media hype by Knopf (the book’s publisher), contradictory, repetitive, callow…  I’m just giving you the gist of what they said about Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It must have been quite an ordeal for Goldhagen, who looks about 12, to sit through this kind of thing from revered seniors.

Ouch.

Interestingly, Grayling too commented on the “questionable character of scholarship” that was Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Among The Dead Cities [p. 166].  He mentions he reviewed the book for the Financial Times when it was first published, although I have been unable to find it online.  However, I have found that of Richard John Neuhaus, which Grayling cites in the endnotes:

After Hitler and because of Hitler, six million fewer Jews remained. In the fifty years since, many Christians and some Jews have come to understand much more deeply the sources of what Rosenzweig terms the enmity and the bond between us.  The Jewish question remains because, thank God, Jews remain. In America, too, there are anti-Semites who propose solutions, if not a “final solution,” to the Jewish question.  They are and, please God, will continue to be a fringe phenomenon.  Much more important, we in America, Jews and Christians, have the singular responsibility and opportunity to work out a way of remaining together in mutual respect and unquestioned security.  For that common task we receive no help whatever from the incoherent, hateful, and dishonest tract that is Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Terrorism by another means?

What really makes Hitchens’ blood boil – to the extent that it “disfigures” the book – is Grayling’s comparison of the Allied bombing and the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda; having spent the preceding four and a half years quarrelling with former friends on the Left that Osama Bin Laden lead a group of people who had a legitimate grievance against the United States for their misadventures abroad.  This is the “offending passage” from Among The Dead Cities in full (Hitchens quoted the first paragraph at the end of his opening speech):

A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption, and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001.  And this latter, prescinding from differences in scale and drama of the target, is no different in turn from terrorist bombings carried out in Madrid by Basque separatists or in London by the IRA.  All these terrorist attacks are atrocities, consisting of deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society in which they belong to.  To say that the principle underlying ‘9/11’, Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgement applies to all three.

No doubt these will be unduly provocative comparisons.  It can be pointed out that the Allied bombings were carried out in time of declared war, in which offensive comparisons are in effect a form of defensive operation, given that the enemy will seek to do the same if given an opportunity; whereas Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were perfidious attacks on unprepared targets, the first military, the second civilian.

This point is a good one, for there is indeed a difference here, though some will attempt to make it a debating point whether those who carry out terrorist attacks believe that they are at war and that their offence is in the same way a form of pre-emptive defence.  Very well: grant the difference; yet focus on the net effect.  In all these cases the centre-piece is an attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror.  This is what these events have in common, whether in the midst of declared war or not, and so far as this core point is concerned, adjustments of fine moral calibration are at best irrelevant.  All such attacks are moral atrocities [pp. 278 – 279].

Grayling gave a lengthy account of his elaborative reply to Hitchens in the postscript to my paperback edition:

The 9/11 point is a different matter.  Those who have most belligerently opposed the comparison, such as Christopher Hitchens, are right to point out that whereas World War II area bombing occurred in the middle of a declared war between states whose military forces were engaged in combat to the death, the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism carried out not by one state against another but an egregiously nasty private organisation with no interest in anything other than the unrestrained furtherance of its agenda.  I grant this, and indeed all other differences, and acknowledge that there is no moral equivalence between Allied military endeavours against the Nazi and Japanese regimes, and the 9/11 attacks, both taken on their own inclusive terms.  Instead I argued that in one crucial respect – one respect only – there is a dismaying similarity between area bombing and terrorist bombings: namely, that they both seek to coerce a people by blowing up as many of them as possible and thereby terrorising and demoralising the rest.  In this single respect, all acts of mass murder are indeed morally equivalent: and their equivalence lies in their being great wrongs.  That was my point; and I adhere to it, because it is surely a profoundly educative one, since it allows one to make a simple but profound emotional connection between one’s horror at the 9/11 attacks in which 3000 people died in a single atrocity, to one’s horror at the deaths of ten and perhaps sometimes twenty times as many in each of the bombings of such places as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This way of grasping the purport of what area bombing meant, really meant, is vital to making a difference to how we behave and what we accept today in the conduct of conflicts.  There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the mass murder in which bombing consists: it is real and terrible, and anything that drives the point home has its place in the debate, for in the end the effect on victims, and the atrocity of the act, are indeed one and the same in all cases – in this one crucial, central respect [pp. 292 – 293].

I find it very difficult to take a side in this argument between Hitchens and Grayling; I can well understand both men’s point of view.  Ultimately, I am more sympathetic to Hitchens’ stance by the breadth of a cigarette paper and I am glad that Grayling ruled out the drawing of moral equivalences.  Yes, it was a truly awful thing that the Allies did to the Axis countries in World War II and I would be loathed to defend it for one moment.  However, we were fighting a truly awful enemy who would have visited the same devastation on us a thousand-fold given the opportunity and – as Hitchens pointed out in the debate – the only thing more awful than an Axis defeat would have been an Axis victory.

“Perfect weapons”

I am reminded of Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and the morality of collateral damage in The End Of Faith.  I have posted an edited version of the relevant passage in my previous post (before this post spirals even more out of control!), but in summary, Harris answers those on the Left like Noam Chomsky who compared the America to its enemies in moral terms with the philosophical device of a “perfect weapon”.  If there existed a “perfect weapon” that killed/impaired/destroyed only its intended military targets and did not cause any “collateral damage” by killing or injuring innocent civilians and destroying their homes, would America make use of such a weapon in waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st Century?  Most certainly, it would.  Would America’s enemies in the Middle East use such a weapon?  Most certainly, they would not.  This is as clear and concise a distinction between moral intentions and sheer “body count” as I have ever found.

As Harris himself said in his 2007 debate against left-leaning journalist, commentator and author, Chris Hedges, when pressed by moderator Robert Scheer as to whether there was a “fundamental moral difference” between Islamist suicide bombing and the Allies’ tactics during World War II, that we could not fight war like we did in World War II.  We have learned the terrible lessons of such actions before “going casually onto the battlefield”.

Most certainly the Allied commanders in World War II (not to mention Nixon and Kissinger in the Vietnam War) would not have made use of “perfect weapons” to wage war against the enemy.  Neither would America’s and Israel Islamic foes in the 21st Century.  However, Bush and Obama most certainly would.

And that is a good thing.

Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’

29/12/2013

EndOfFaithCoverMy next post will be an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and A C Grayling’s 2006 debate on Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified?.  The closing paragraphs of that post cite Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and collateral damage in The End Of Faith.   So that my post on the Hitchens/Grayling debate does not spiral out of control any more than it already has, I have posted an edited version of the passage below.  (H/T: Otto Spijkers and Nick Li on Invisible College Blog for typing out and publishing most of it, so I didn’t have to!)

The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror And The Future Of Reason [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006] pp. 142 – 147:

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology.  To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons – weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property.  What would we do with such technology?  Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us.  I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter – for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism – but most of us are not pacifists.  Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort.  A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.) – in the pages of writers like [Arundhati] Roy and [Noam] Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world.  How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons?  Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs?  Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers?  Whether or not you admire the man’s politics – or the man – there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.  What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons?  What would Hitler have done?  They would have used them rather differently.

It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. . .

Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968 [during the Vietnam War], at My Lai: . . .

(…)

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving.  But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.  The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military.  Even at the time, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades.  One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they did not stop killing villagers.  As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.  We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

(…)

Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims are standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.  There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development – in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own.  This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither.  It is not in the least racist, since it is not at likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.  Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing each other with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics.  Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.  Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.

Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties?  What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields?  (What are the chances we would have used human shields?)  What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers?  What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?  You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.

Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”).  In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy.  But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.  Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow.  The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions.  Makers of automobiles know this as well.  So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child.  There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.”  But you would not know this from reading Chomsky.  For him, intentions do not seem to matter.  Body count is all.

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.  Without perfect weapons, collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable.  Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass.  If we want to draw conclusions about ethics – as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future – we cannot ignore human intentions.  Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.