On the nature of pacifism

November 11, 2006

I’ve encountered more than one friend opposed in principle to, say, working for government contractors doing defense contracts. The idea being, that by supporting the military-industrial complex in any way means supporting killing people and unjust wars. Not too long ago, GPU, a distributed client for the GNUtella P2P network, put a clause in their modified GPL intended by the founders to specifically prohibit military use. There are various problems with this specifically, which I’ll return to later.

There is certainly an argument to be made that war and human aggression is a self-perpetuating machine. Or that there are powerful entities who stand to gain from war (such as the military-industrial complex in the United States), and by nature, these organizations are interested in revenue and growth rather than the best interests of their country, or the welfare of their fellow man.
The two most often-cited examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest are Gandhi in India’s Independence Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. Given their results and extraordinary methods, I’d say most people agree that they were visionary leaders, and used nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals. However, it is disingenuous to use this as a justification for across-the-board pacifism, since these two movements cover a small fraction of possible political and military situations. In both of these instances, the groups involved were aiming to affect the domestic policy of a government that was unwilling to use lethal force, and to sway public opinion to put further political pressure on those in power. These tactics would not have worked, say, against Nazi Germany.

The other group of people I seem to encounter are of the belief that since they don’t agree with or approve of the things our armed forces and intelligence services are currently being ordered to do by the Bush administration, to work for anything related to the defense industry is to give tacit approval to the shift towards totalitarianism that has been in the neoconservative agenda.

I couldn’t disagree more. The executive branch ordering NSA wiretaps without obtaining warrants is a frightening step in the direction of unchecked government surveillance. However, to say that this proves we don’t need an NSA, or that the NSA does not do worthwhile work is naive. Keeping the politicians honest is not the NSA’s job, or the armed forces’ job, it’s our job as involved citizens. To approve or disapprove of a given war is understandable; to pretend that there never be a justifiable military action in our country’s future is shortsighted at best. Furthermore, if intelligent and concerned Americans don’t go into these fields, how will things ever improve? Richard Clarke called for young, fresh minds to go into government, because otherwise things will stagnate, and the old ways will persist as the world changes, leaving us behind. Don’t we need more people who have the country’s best interests at heart, as well as a sense of how important civil liberties are to maintaining a true democracy? A lot of the objectors I refer to in this post are liberal. I think the best way to make the case that “big government” can work is to roll up your sleeves and make it better yourself. I’m honestly very curious to hear any opposing viewpoints on this matter.

Digression: But back to the software with the “no military use” clause, which is really written in such a way to be a self-righteous political badge rather than an actual guideline for use. The problem with this is that the GPL itself prohibits an author from specifying precise conditions under which the software may be used and distributed, assuming the basic open source requirement of the GPL is met. In this way, the GPL is “pure,” in that it simply ensures self-perpetuation of code for the benefit of the community. It doesn’t matter if you’re a for-profit business, left-wing, right-wing, black or white, what matters is that if you play by the GPL’s rules, you have to share any work you want to distribute as your own, and everyone wins. An increasing number of programmers are losing sight of the community-based, nonpolitical goals of the GPL and trying to apply their own beliefs and biases and prejudices to software, and getting angry when things don’t go their way. You can’t donate a book to the library, and then prescribe conditions regarding who may or may not be allowed to borrow it. Perhaps the analogy is simplistic, but open source software is a public good, all the same.


Back from our Sabbatical?

September 29, 2006

If, like me, you saw President Clinton’s performance on Fox News (1, 2, 3), you may have been surprised by many of things he said. Further, you may have been subsequently befuddled by the focus that his emotional state, in exaggerated and distorted detail, had in the media coverage of the event, rather than refutation or confirmation of the startling facts that he enumerated. If so, you’ll be happy to know that Keith Olbermann has a few things to say about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that, while I don’t watch Countdown or MSNBC at all, the clips I have seen of Keith Olberman have routinely been anti-rightist in nature, whether in the form of incisively dressing down Bill O’Reilly for some idiotic comment, or the even more ludicrous Ann Coulter. I don’t know this is selection bias on the part of people who select the clips, or whether this is his general tone, but in any either case, it hasn’t been my experience that anything he’s said has been false or not corroborated by fact. Quite the opposite, in fact — he seems ready with an army of documented facts to bolster his own position, and I think that this clip in particular channels more of Edward R. Murrow than his signature sign-off. It energized me to see a mainstream journalist going to task on what others seem either too cowed or too much in thrall, as Olbermann meta-quotes, to be frank and open about. I hope you find it refreshing, or at very least thought-provoking.

-Demosthenes


Audience Participation

April 30, 2006

Two somewhat related requests:

  1. Despite my relative certainty about the things I’ve discussed so far—the value and necessity of human reason, above all else—there are quite a few issues about which I don’t have ironclad opinions. In that vein, if there are any topics, specific or general, about which you would like me to post, please feel free to leave a comment here to that effect (or email me). I’ve got no scarcity of things to write about (he says, adding a twelfth post to his queue), but I’m genuinely curious about what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, if you have any particular preference.
  2. Speaking of issues on which I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, I’d like to get a bit of conversation going about the concept of hate crime legislation. The ‘sensible’ position, at least in the circles in which I run, is that such laws would by definition be thought legislation, in that they place an additional criminal burden on anti-[group] thoughts above and beyond already-prohibited violent actions, thus violating the principle of freedom of conscience. The suggestion of this argument is that hate crime legislation would be on principle no different from a legal prohibition against bigoted thoughts—the only difference being that bigotry would be a secondary violation, so to speak. The obvious rebuttal here is that intent and mental state are already considered in the law in quite a few places, most notably in the various distinctions between degrees of murder/manslaughter. This seems to be more a matter of the absence or presence of intent than about the content of that intent, I suppose, but hate crimes could be represented similarly–the absence or presence of anti-[group] intent in the committing of a violent crime.

    My instincts here run in two different directions. On the one hand, I am very receptive to the hesitance to regulate thought in any way, and to the theoretical dangers of encoding a sort of prohibition of certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are idiotic and hateful. I recognize that the burden rests on those doing the regulating, and that rights are assumed to exist unless otherwise specified. On the other hand, the “hate crime legislation -> thought crime” argument seems to me somewhat misleading; I’m not entirely ready to say that enforcing hate crime legislation would be the same in principle as enforcing a prohibition on bigoted thoughts. It should be noted that the desire to kill someone because of their sexual orientation/gender/race/etc. can and should be distinguished from the belief that someone is inferior because of those characteristics, though obviously they are fundamentally linked. The question there, I guess, would be whether there is something to the willingness to commit a hate crime besides the belief in the inferiority of the victim’s group and a willingness to kill in general, and I’m not really sure how to answer that. Society has a definite interest in decreasing the number of violent crimes committed, and this is one of the main functions of the legal prohibition on violent crime: to create a state where the cost of committing a certain crime (imprisonment, etc.) is greater than the perceived benefit of committing that crime (material gain, emotional satisfaction, etc.). Hate crime legislation would seem to act to create such a state of affairs by targeting one of the potential impulses towards violent crime. The other function of law is protection in a more direct sense, i.e. removing dangerously violent people from the general population so that they won’t kill people, and it seems to me that the thought crime argument is more relevant to this dimension of law. As a deterrent, though (see desire utilitarianism), it doesn’t seem to me entirely out of the question.

What say you, dear readers, on either of these counts?

Urizen


Look Back in Anger

April 27, 2006

I’ve been for the most part avoiding link/quote posts, as they’re not really why I started writing here—I prefer essaying to commentary, generally. In this case, however, I must point to Alonzo Fyfe‘s words on the ‘angry atheist’ phenomenon. I hope to get into atheism soon here, as it’s probably the concept about which I am most passionate and with which I am most engaged right now, but for now, I’ll merely nudge you (forcefully) in the direction of Alonzo’s post. You ought to read the whole thing—it’s not especially long, and Alonzo is always very readable—especially if you’ve ever been at all confused as to why many atheists seem to be angry (short answer: we have reason to be), but here’s a tidbit, emphasis mine:

The article [ed: here] also states:
To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.


First, the author says that atheists see a call to “goodness and sacrifice” is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the ‘red flag’ is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source — from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality.

Urizen


The More Things Change . .

April 19, 2006

I’ve generally avoided overtly political commentary, preferring instead to discuss more fundamental philosophical issues, but I want to comment briefly on today’s news that Scott McClellan is resigning and Karl Rove is “[giving] up his portfolio as senior policy coordinator to concentrate more on politics and November’s midterm Congressional elections.” I’m less interested in the latter than I am in the former, given that even when Rove was supervising policy, it was almost exclusively a matter of political strategy (as opposed to a more honest, less self-interested motivation behind policy implementation), so I don’t think much is really changing there. Still, I suppose the point that I want to make probably holds true in both cases.

Point being this: people and ideas are not interchangeable. In a situation like the recent so-called shakeup of White House staff, the suggestion, from a political/PR standpoint, is that by removing a prominent figure, the administration is somehow taking responsibility for and/or remedying the policies and concepts with which that person has been involved. In this case, the figure is pretty much just a mouthpiece, making the contrast between person and principle all the more clear. Taking responsibility for bad leadership or insufficient performance of a given job is one thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with changes in ideology, policy, or principle, especially given how exceedingly rare it seems to be for a policy idea to be conceived of and authored by just one person (and certainly not by press secretaries). The man or woman in a position of governmental authority often comes to symbolize in part the actions and words of the government as a whole, such that people see a “shakeup” in personnel as a real change, by the logic that the person carries with him or her the ideas of the administration, or at least some subset of those ideas. In most cases, though, these shakeups are merely a matter of finding scapegoats, dumping them to the curb, and pretending that more substantive things have changed so as to maintain an illusion of progress where there usually is none. I don’t doubt that there is at least some difference in leadership styles between Andy Card and Josh Bolten, but that transition is being very deliberately made out to be a change in more than personnel. If there are genuine differences in ideology between the old staff and the new, then fine, that’s something, but I have seen no particular evidence to suggest that there is—and there has been a near-constant (and unabashedly manipulative) attempt to trumpet these changes as a real shift in direction.

One of the many noteworthy (if not entirely original) themes tossed around in V for Vendetta is that of the symbolic relationship between man and idea. Vendetta explores the traditional wisdom that the idea is greater than the man, more powerful, far more difficult to extinguish—indeed, expressions of this idea bookend the film. The relationship, both within the film’s reality and in our reality, is more complicated than that, however; the idea is conceived, voiced, expressed, and enacted by the man, or by other men (I assume I need not clarify every use of ‘man’ by saying I’m using it gender-neutrally). I don’t mean to suggest that Scott McClellan or Andy Card are trivial, or that they don’t bear any relation to the ideas behind the administration, but typically our government is organized in such a way that with very few exceptions, the man is a slave to the idea. A very small minority within the administration crafts policy, and outside of this minority, everyone is subordinate to the enacting of the decided-on policy. This situation is not unique to the Bush administration, but they have certainly elevated it to an art form with their increasingly insular decision-making process and their unceasing refusal to listen to fact or opinion not already within the scope of the decided-on policies.

A true change of course would necessitate a change not only in the policies that have been so resolutely decided upon, but also in the decision-making process as a whole. A changed Bush administration would in theory be one that listened to its critics rather than dismissing them out of hand, one that embraced policy debate instead of claiming an unsubstantiated point of view as definitive truth, one that acknowledged the significance of objective reality rather than ignoring it. Until/unless that happens, we ought not accept the assertions that a staff shakeup is interchangeable with (or a satisfactory substitute for) a policy/idea shakeup. The symbology of leadership is not ironclad; we ought not confuse the symbol and the symbolized, the man and the principle. Eliminating the former does not eliminate the latter—rarely are ideas, even bad ones, so easily extinguished.

Urizen

Edit: Alonzo Fyfe expresses a similar point (emphasis mine):

We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.


On the purpose of copyright

April 13, 2006

Discussions of copyright and patent law have been coming into the sights of internet news sites with greater frequency of late. The DRM copy protection schemes supported by the RIAA and MPAA, the changing of copyright terms, and the questionable enforcement of the DMCA affect all of us as consumers and as free citizens.

The first thing I'll ask you to understand is that public domain is the natural state for information and ideas to be in; things are said to 'fall into' the public domain, which certainly does make it sound like a default state. In the interim between an idea's or work's conception and its becoming truly 'free,' legal restrictions can be placed on its distribution and use.

One important thing to note about these restrictions is that they are temporary. There is no such thing as permanent intellectual property. Both copyrights and patents expire after a set span of years. This changed with the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a piece of legislation bought and paid for in campaign donations from Disney. Here's a good article on the subject by Chris Sprigman of Findlaw.

Perhaps the most important thing everyone involved needs to recognize is the purpose of copyright is advancement itself. This point is well made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so I'll borrow her words:

"The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.' To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

499 US 340, 349(1991)

The law ultimately places the public good over the compensation of the individual. A challenge to the CTEA made the argument that the statute infringed on the First Amendment because it "placed a limitation on free speech without advancing any important governmental interest." (Sprigman)

Further reading:

  • A lot of these points draw from Sprigman's article from Findlaw, which is certainly better written than this post.
  • Paul Graham's interesting entry on software patents, a phrase that is synonymous with litigious nonsense to the Slashdot crowd.

Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

April 12, 2006

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

Read the rest of this entry »


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