“I am right, therefore …” or, A Heuristic for Detecting Pitfalls in Ethical Behavior

It is very easy to presuppose—implicitly and subconsciously—that one is right, unknowingly using that assumption to justify later claims.

Oftentimes we therefore fall into a fallacy of ethical reasoning where we assume, because we have the right position, that we are licensed to do actions that someone else—coming from the morally wrong position—is not permitted to do. We can therefore arrive at a heuristic for ethical reasoning: If an action’s moral right- or wrong-ness is determined solely by whether its doer comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ position, then the justification for the rightness of an action is probably faulty.

This seems like a contrived pitfall, but is actually quite common:

In public shaming, we see this often. People find it acceptable to find someone’s personal information, track them, cost them their jobs, reputations, and cause their humiliation, because they feel that they represent the right side. Doxxing and public shaming seem to be morally wrong if associated with shaming Tyler Clementi to death, yet somehow acceptable to shame another private person on twitter for for being racist, homophobic, or sexist, as was the case with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweets. In reality, both are wrong.

In world conflict, this faulty logic is often the justification of unending cycles of violence. Those performing acts of terrorism in the West use the deaths of their countries’ civilians abroad as a justification to target and kill civilians in the west. From the terrorist’s point of view, the only thing differentiating their actions from the imperialist regime they claim to fight is that “We are us and they are them.—Since we are right, it is also right to …”

We see this in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Rightist, Orthodox Israeli political parties believe it is right to expel or subjugate Palestinians, control the entire West Bank, and are okay with the many civilian casualties of the campaigns like the Gaza War. The basis for the Justification is that Hamas believes it is right to expel Israelis so that the entire land that constitutes the state of Israel is part of a Palestinian state, and are okay with civilian casualties as part of rocket or bombing operations. This is largely true; Hamas believes they are right and Jewish Home or United Torah Judiasm are wrong because… they are on the right side of the conflict. The same applies to either side.

Oftentimes indeed, one side of a conflict chooses to justify its actions towards another side solely because it presupposes that it is right. This is never an appropriate justification.

“I am right, therefore, I am right.” How unfortunate, but also, how inherently human.

In the west, thinkers and laypersons are getting over moral relativism. This is sometimes good, but also exposes new challenges. Indignation and self-righteousness are sweeping the internet. We condemn the conservative shaming campaign of Monica Lewinsky, but endorse the shaming campaign of Justine Sacco for her racist tweet. Conservatives shamed Lewinsky for her “lack of family values”, they viewed sexual modesty as a moral good and frowned on her impiety and acts of adultery. They labeled her a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Progressives will argue that these are bad reasons to shame someone. But unlike the conservatives, progressives often believe that casual racism and insensitivity are just cause for public shaming.

If you condemn one side for committing the same action you did, but justify your action with the fact that you decided a priori that you unlike others, actually represent the right side, then you are likely wrong.

What is the lesson here? The lesson is not to be a total relativist and never act against injustices we perceive, but rather, to seek further justifications, in hope that those justifications will inform our behavior and allow us to act with moderation.

Take Justine Succo for example. I argue that we should reject the naive argument that “unlike slut shaming, racism and bad and thus racist shaming is acceptable”. So now, we ask ourselves again: should we act? Sometimes, the answer becomes ‘no’. Sometimes, though, we now see real reasons to act behind the layers of indignation and revenge. If we allow racist speech to propagate, racism propagates, and becomes further embedded in our society, victimizing many. Therefore, we seek more enlightened ways to act: sometimes, we reach out to said person and offer to have a conversation; at other times, we decide to counter negative speech about one group with positive speech, or simply speak out to disagree (without personally shaming an individual), so that the public atmosphere is not polluted by these statements.

In international politics, it means stepping back from an “us versus them” mentality, and realize that our arguments are often 100% equivalent to “we should do X to the other side because they do X to us”—always a bad reason to justify anything. Maybe then we will advocate to more moderate or long-sighted policies, and put aside the very basic intuitive bloodthirsty retribution-seeking impulses.

In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism

Consequentialist theories are often exciting and tempting as they give us a real chance at having a universalizable theory of morality and justice. As a moral theory, one can look at the different flavors of consequentialism and evaluate them against a range of features of plausible moral theories, noting if each of those features are accounted for by each theory.

In this paper, I propose a number of features that we expect to exist in plausible moral theories. I discussing these features in general, mostly appealing to intuition to justify why we expect these features. The features, roughly, are: the existence of permissible morally good acts that go beyond what is morally required; reasonable level of blameworthiness of moral agents; and finally, the moral impermissibility to compel others to do the right thing on certain occasions.

In particular, I will spend some time examining objective act consequentialism, and expected value (subjective) act consequentialism, and discuss a number of remedies, including scalar utilitarianism, satisficing consequentialism and progressive consequentialism, in an effort to address some of these worries. Different moral theories will be appropriate in addressing these different worries.

The moral ought: permissibility and requirements

First, we expect a moral theory to have a distinction between one ought to do and what one may do. We expect a range of possible actions to be morally required, while others are morally good and have moral value beyond that of what is required. Giving money to a particular charity, for instance, is seen as morally good but not morally required. Certain personal sacrifices, such as undergoing pain (say, taking a bullet) on behalf of someone else, is also seen as morally good but not necessarily morally required.

In hopes that (some version of) consequentialism is a plausible moral system, we would like to observe that (some version of) consequentialism allows us to view both of these acts as morally good, but not be the only permissible (thus, required) actions out of the available set.

Plausible moral systems still include impermissible actions, so an interpretation of consequentialism (see scalar utilitarianism, discussed later) where all actions are permissible but good in varying degrees, fails to capture our moral intuitions. Inflicting harm on others is impermissible; failing to save a nearby drowning child is reprehensible; stopping to give a hungry homeless family a gold star sticker (which will make the child infinitesimally happier) might be seen as wrong if you could have given them food or money without expending more effort.

We often also expect a corresponding feature for morally bad and morally impermissible actions; given a range of possible actions, some might be morally impermissible, while others could be not morally ideal yet still permissible. For the purposes of our explorations, I will not concern myself with this feature as I am more interested in virtue than dis-virtue. It does not seem unreasonable for someone to extend the consequentialist theories that address morally good and virtuous, yet not required, to also address the opposite problem.

Act consequentialism, as commonly stated, says that an act is permissible if and only if no other available act has a better [expected] value, according to a certain axiology. Act consequentialism restrains and compels an agent making the decision into taking the action that maximizes moral goodness. A moral agent is not permitted to take an action that produces suboptimal [expected] value of moral goodness. This raises the common demandingness objection that concerns the opponents of utilitarianism.

One defense of act consequentialism as stated is to say that our intuition about morally good versus morally required actions only applies when we have epistemic concerns with following act consequentialism. For instance, one could say that plain act consequentialism makes a lot of sense when dealing with omniscient agents in cases of perfect-information; how could it possibly be morally permissible to condemn the world to be worse off than it can be?

Yet, our intuition about giving to charity is that it is not required, even though we can be very sure (at least, for some charities) that we condemn the world to be worse off by not contributing.

Looking back at the intuitive moral feature we are investigating, it is important to come up with a nuanced explanation of where and how plain act consequentialism falls short. For instance, act consequentialism is still expected to yield a set of permissible actions, not a single permissible action, in cases where available actions yield equal or incomparable results. Thus, it is incorrect to state that act consequentialism is deficient by only permitting a single action for a given situation.

Rather, our criticism can be put forward in one of two (equivalent) ways. Either that we worry that act and rule consequentialism overlook sufficiently good actions, accounting them as impermissible, only because better actions exist. Alternatively, our worry is that we expect to see, for each action in the set of permissible available actions in a given situation, a spectrum in the moral goodness of its consequences; yet, consequentialism suggests that, if such range were to be observed then only the actions with the maximal value would have been permissible. Rule consequentialism similarly fails to account for such range or spectrum of moral goodness of consequences of rules (e.g. the rule of giving to charity).

Both of these objections are very closely related to a common objection to act consequentialism: the demandingness objection.

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How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy

It is difficult to overcome the shock generated by the brutal assassination of Lt. Moath Kasasbeh. Indeed in many ways, I—and many like me—have yet to do so. Throughout the ordeal which was brought some closure by the awful news Tuesday, Jordanians, Arabs, and Muslims alike were of many minds. From anger towards ISIS to self-questioning of the country’s role in in the anti-ISIS coalition; from a proportionally cruel response to a calculated power-play, or a pragmatic non-response; from an impulse to double-down on the offense to withdrawing from intervention; we have felt it all, thought it all, and wanted it all.

The need to bring retribution onto those who are too cruel to even respect the last moment of another human is eating at all of us. How could one possibly bring appropriate retribution onto inhumane organizations without descending to proportional inhumanity? How do we resist blood thirsty revenge while still asserting that we—the honorable, peace-loving people of the world—exit, that we have might, that we have true red-lines that cannot be crossed? How does one assert anything when up against a force that it itself uses violence and terror?

Reclaiming Culture and Religion as a Duty

Certainly, the answer our response cannot be nothing. Nothing is not on the table. Our religions, culture, and region are too close to our heart to let them by hijacked by thought that promotes violence and barbarism. We must do something; something to reclaim our religions of peace, to reclaim our culture who—not too long ago—was known as a culture of hospitality and generosity.

The continued existence of the so-called “Islamic State” puts those things we hold near and dear in jeopardy. ISIS is not merely transforming the borders, bureaucracies, and institutions of neighboring countries; it is transforming the Arab culture I love and cherish, it is projecting a new radicalized Islam that is tipping scales, shifting spectra, and redefining what it means to moderate.

By participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, we are not intervening in an external matter, we are simply taking charge of our destiny. A continued, strong participation in the efforts against ISIS (both militarily and intellectually) is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination; we must reclaim our culture and religion from extremist radical thought.

Resisting Revenge

Yet, as we respond—militarily and otherwise—it remains imperative not to become the enemy. As the impulse for proportional retribution eats at each and every one of us, some have felt inclined to call for mass-bombings, burning, even gassing and chemical attacks as appropriate responses in moments of anger. Those should likely be off the table, when it comes to the list of appropriate responses. But what is left on?

A shorthand is to realize that actions with no utility cannot be on the table. Refining this shorthand further, we can say that destructive action whose only utility is to gratify our need for revenge and retribution is not permissible.

Indeed, framing a response in terms of its utility, the positive outcomes it generates, is a powerful first step in the healing process after having faced injustice. A proportional response should be of some benefit. This benefit can lie on many axes and is important to consider such axes individually.

In the international sphere and global balance of power, establishing steadfastness is disproportionately effective. Steadfastness is equally important in the global PR battle for the minds of young Muslims to prevent their radicalization. Steadfastness taking a public stance on ISIS and the radicalization of Islam, and taking action—some action—against those in our custody who directly support and promote such radicalization.

It is also important to realize the existence of a radicalization problem and to own it. The society that birthed these individuals who commit actions I find unfathomable is my own—it is our own. Every mom and pop can own this as a problem from within, not some external plot we have no control over, and take charge of deradicalizing the people around them.

Internationally, we must continue to promote reason and moderation, and must do so while avoiding hypocrisy (tempting as it may be).

A Reasonable, Escalated Military Intervention

If left untouched, ISIS is not going anywhere. It is a state-like organization that is armed, militarily entrenched, and active. Though unrecognized and condemned internationally, ISIS continues to create facts on the ground locally, creating bureaucracies and institutions that further reaffirms their presence and reality, leaving as many marks as it can on society. While it exists, ISIS will continue to brainwash youth locally and internationally. After its eventual demise, ISIS’s impact of society will proportional to the duration it remained active and embedded.

Continue reading “How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy”

“We Come in Peace” – War, Fear, and How You Can Help

Imagine you are among the first settler colonial humans to discover extraterrestrial life. You have landed somewhere in a distant planet, disembarked, and were going about your daily tasks as you encounter the first signs. Some seemingly sentient, intelligent creature approaches you. It looks different, nothing like you or anyone you’ve seen, not even like a reptile or sea creature. It approaches.

You might be afraid–you have no means of communicating with this creature. Your first thought is to reassure it: “I come in peace,” you could proclaim… not that it would understand.

When encountered with an unknown being, one that potentially has the ability to take your life, how do you behave?

I wager that most humans will translate their fear to violence.

Better be safe and kill the thing, right?

I often wonder why humans even bother to say they come in peace as the explore the cosmos. It often feels like we are setting ourselves up for an impossible feat, virtually guaranteeing that Time will judge us as hypocrites if the day comes when we meet extraterrestrials with whom we cannot communicate. Our fear of the unknown “other” often seems insurmountable.

Back on earth, our fear of the unknown other continues to harm us, robbing our humanity day by day. While we have the mans of communicating with other humans, our view of the “other” in military, political, and ideological conflict, is not too different from our view of an alien creature. Our ability to empathize with other humans diminishes as we convince ourselves of their otherness.

This is a problem that plagues every part of our human civilization, and is the root of racism, fanaticism, terrorism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, partisanship, and many, many political conflicts. One of these problems is particularly close to my heart: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the fear of extraterrestrials though, this is a problem with a solution.

Seeds of Peace

The solution is simple: engage in dialogue to achieve coexistence.

In regions plagued with conflict, the sides often mystify each other and refuse to interact. A 2007 study by the Center for Research on Peace Education at Haifa University reinforces this idea: less that 50% of Jewish high school students surveyed were willing to meet Arab students. The percentage of Arab students willing to meet Jewish students is about 75% according to the survey, also a low percentage (the increased percentage on the side of the Palestinian Arabs could be attributed to the fact that Palestinians do interact with Israelis more regularly, through the IDF’s presence in checkpoints, etc.).

Other questions still reveal a disconnect: 75% of Jewish high school students thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized, unclean, and violent. On the Palestinian side, 27% believe Jewish people are uneducated, 40% believe they are uncivilized, 57% believe they are unclean, and 64% believe they are violent.

In this part of the world, Jews and Arabs view each other as strange and exotic. With this strangeness comes fear, then hatred.

Many organizations try to solve this problem by bringing together teenagers from opposite sides of conflict-torn regions and getting them to engage in dialog. Prime among these initiatives is Seeds of Peace. Dialog and argumentation rarely changes anyone’s minds when it comes to the facts. Instead, through dialog and living in close quarters, we get a more valuable outcome: camaraderie.

I will continue to hope that the politicians of today miraculously put an end to the Middle East conflict, but I will not count on it, sitting and doing nothing. What I am counting on, however, is that 20 more years down the line, the leaders of the next generation will be empowered with a new perspective, an insight on the humanity of the Other.

You can get involved or donate to Seeds of Peace if you are also not willing to count on the politicians of today to solve one of the most contentious conflicts of our time.

More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance

Like many, I feel uncomfortable with much of the information revealed about the NSA’s surveillance program. The reach and scale of the program are alarming at best, and for many of us, it demonstrates an unjustified attack on the right to privacy. Yet, as I read the arguments leveled against the NSA and other spy agencies for their surveillance programs, I find it hard to identify with or feel represented by any of these arguments: they seem somewhat lacking at best, and likely, fallacious. I am writing this post to demonstrate the flaws with most popular arguments against spying, surveillance, and the NSA. The goal—I hope—is clear: a call for more nuanced arguments that more clearly define why and to what extent is the NSA surveillance program ‘wrong’.

The most common arguments against the NSA are variations of the following:

  • The NSA serves no real national security benefits, only usurping the right of the citizens to privacy, or
  • The gains of the NSA surveillance program do not by any means outweigh the harms of becoming a surveillance state, or
  • Surveillance is only justifiable against enemies or in a state of war.

The problem with the first two arguments is that they ignore the clear historical benefits of spying and decipherment, from the Zimmermann telegram in 1917 [1, p. 107], to the cracking of the ENIGMA in World War II [2, pp. 16-17].

To claim that there must be no benefits to spying in recent times because we haven’t seen them is false; the ENIGMA project was secret until 1974, 29 years after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom also exposed the telegram under a false cover (that they obtained a leaked clear-text message from the embassy in Mexico), instead of exposing the cryptanalysis effort to allow the spying effort to continue.

To say the benefits do not outweigh the harms of being a surveillance state is not a good argument: it sounds like an inherently utilitarian claim that involves a cost-benefit analysis. Yet the argument is thrown around saying the harms always outweigh the benefits. What if we were dealing with Hitler, as we were in the 30s?

The argument, therefore, is either a practical one: “there does not seem to be a reason in today’s world to spy”, or an absolutist one: “it is never ok to spy on others”. I have not been able to see an absolutist argument why no benefit ever (i.e. preventing nuclear arms in terrorists’ hands) would outweigh surveillance.

Yet the argument also cannot be a practical one: in today’s world, we do in fact have plenty of reasons. Most political scientists agree that among the greatest geopolitical threats to global stability is nuclear proliferation among non-state actors (namely terrorist organizations) [3] [4] [5]. A world where nuclear weapons have proliferated to non-state actors is a world where deterrence does not work—where second-strike capabilities mean nothing [6]. This is clearly a big deal, and clearly requires spying, not on foreign enemies, but or non-state actors who can be citizens of any country, and reside anywhere.

What we need is a pragmatic argument against the expansive NSA surveillance program. One that says that spying is has benefits which sometimes should be utilized, but that certain kinds and extents of spying do not provide sufficient returns.

A blanket argument: “spying does not work” is clearly incorrect—spying has worked in the past and certainly has the potential to work now. Short of becoming an actual military and surveillance state, with full CCTV coverage, regular checkpoints, and strict closed borders, signals intelligence is our best bet. Arguments that are opposed to any form of spying are not going to fly; we need arguments against certain extents of spying.

Continue reading “More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance”

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