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Philosophy for soldiers
David Edmonds at BBC News reports that all West Point cadets are now required to study moral philosophy and “the trolley problem.” He outlines the famous thought experiment nicely:
Imagine there is a runaway tram, known in America as a trolley, heading towards five people tied to the track.
You are a bystander.
If you do nothing, all five will die.
But you could hit a switch and divert it down a side track.
Unfortunately, on that spur is one person and if you turn this tram, this person will die.
What should you do? Turn the tram? Most people think you should.
Now imagine that same tram is again heading towards five people. This time you are watching from a footbridge.
There is a fat man leaning over this footbridge. If you push him over, he will land on the track and die, but his bulk will stop the tram.
So should you push the fat man? Almost no-one thinks you should.
Why might it be acceptable to turn the tram and kill the man on the track but not acceptable to push the fat man?
West Point philosophy professor Jeff McMahan explains to Edmonds the implications of this conundrum to warfare. He argues that it reveals the moral distinction (recognized in international law) between killing civilians intentionally, and knowing civilians will die as a foreseen consequence of military action, “between attacking a munitions factory aware that there will be, to use that euphemism, collateral damage, and aiming at civilians intentionally.”
It might be clearer to say that the trolley problem shows that soldiers should not use the death of civilians as a strategic tool. It’s different when civilians die as a consequence of some other, legitimate strategy. Of course, there are proportionality concerns when one knows that civilians will die (how important is the military action in question vs. how many civilians will die).
As to the more general importance of future military officers studying philosophy, Major Danny Crozier explains that while it leads to the possibility of insubordination, that concern is outweighed by the fact that soldiers must not obey unjust commands. I don’t know the law on this, but it seems dangerous to have soldiers consider the morality of every command, following only the ones they support. Maj. Crozier must mean that soldiers must not obey clearly unjust commands, the illegitimacy of which is not open to serious debate.
Project Syndicate has an ongoing series by Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati on “The Open Economy and its Enemies.” There is more or less a consensus among economists that free trade promotes economic growth; the law of comparative advantage still holds nearly two centuries after it was formulated. But the opinions of both the public and other social scientists are more ambivalent.
Competition is the means by which actors in an open economy are disciplined. But competition generates losers and winners, too –at least in the short run. Non-economic concerns with free trade include growing inequality, the constant displacement of people under conditions of ruthless competition, environmental degradation, the globe-spanning hazards of mutual dependency, and national security.
Critics of free trade may accuse economists of linear thinking for ignoring the messiness of reality. But economists might equally accuse critics of free trade for ignoring the bottom line –that increased wealth will expand the possibilities of what a society can accomplish.
The free trade debate, like many others, asks how willing we are to trade increased levels of wealth for other values, and under what conditions. Not surprisingly, this debate tends to come to the fore in times of economic uncertainty.
Image by Flickr user free range jace used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
My Blackberry is blocked
Most global BlackBerry users are comfortably addicted to their wireless devices, which are email and Internet capable. But for those in the United Arab Emirates, BlackBerrys are about to become obsolete. Not because some better device has come along, but because the government has decided to block online data usage through the devices, which are difficult to monitor.
Civil liberties are a different story in the UAE, but many are concerned that discouraging the use of BlackBerrys could have a negative impact on business. Many commercial BlackBerry users in the UAE seek out the device precisely because it offers a modicum of privacy from government’s prying eyes. A previous attempt to monitor UAE BlackBerry loyalists amusingly failed:
Last year, Etisalat, the U.A.E.’s main state phone company, gave users an upgrade that turned out to allow Etisalat access to all the users’ messages. The upgrade also decreased battery life and made the phone get painfully hot, so people soon stopped taking the upgrade.
While privacy has a different standing in UAE, should global data users worry about sending emails to UAE residents whose smartphones could be monitored? And does the increasingly international flow of information thanks to the Internet impact how its use should be protected? Read more
WikiLeaks and its documents are here. What do we do now?
On Monday, Sam highlighted WikiLeaks’ enormous release of secret documents concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan, and US efforts in and relations with both countries. As he noted, one of the first questions we should ask is whether or not WikiLeaks’ document release is legal.
Obviously, the cat is out of the bag: WikiLeaks and its documents, for good or for bad, are here. The bigger question now is how governments and citizens will respond.
Leaks, even large ones, are not unheard of (think Pentagon Papers). To answer both this question, and the earlier one to which Sam pointed, we need to determine if this leak is unlike any previous ones—and whether deserves a unique response as a result. Read more
For his role in 16,000 deaths during the Khmer Rouge, Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. That he may walk free in 19 years at the age of 86 due to time served has baffled and infuriated Cambodians. The worst tyrants of the last century mostly escaped formal justice (Hitler, Stalin, Mao); others did die in ignominious circumstances and were effectively the victims of mob violence (Mussolini, Ceausescu, arguably Saddam). Duch’s case and surprisingly light sentence brings to mind the perennial question of justice for politically-motivated atrocities.
We seem to know what crimes against humanity are when we see them. But the story is often more complicated in places like the most impoverished parts of the Third World, where politics is a life-or-death affair. Interest groups are divided along ethnic, class, or religious fault lines and power is a means to extract resources for the favored group at the expense of all others. An old Kenyan aphorism holds that to seize the machinery of the state means that “it is our turn to eat.” In these cases murder, rape and torture may become routine tools of political intimidation.
How do we evaluate crimes against humanity and the justice that should follow when the only clear distinction between victim and victimizer is that the latter is stronger than the other, and when it seems likely that the other side would behave just as monstrously if the circumstances permitted?
Photo by Flickr user Sebr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
Espionage and the rule of law
A group of Russians working for a Russian company were charged recently with corporate espionage after they were found hacking into the databases of American companies in New York and Washington, D.C. A few years back a group of Russians working for an American company committed the same crime against Russian businesses in Moscow and St. Petersburg; they were convicted and sent to jail.
Just as preparations for a trial began, the U.S. and Russian governments arranged a deal whereby the group in American would be sent to Russia, and vice versa, and everyone would live freely, away from jail or further prosecution. Sounds fishy, right?
While this scenario never happened, something very close to it did if we take the “corporate” out of “corporate espionage,” replace “hacking” with “going to parties,” and look at the spy swap that occurred after charges were brought against the group of Russia spies.
What are we to make of the fact that regular, official espionage (as opposed to the corporate kind) exists almost entirely apart from domestic and international law? Why is this the case?
The Muslim burqa and equal rights
On The New York Times’ The Stone, its new philosophy commentary series, University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum wrote in response to Spain’s recent, narrow rejection of a ban on public wearing of the Muslim burqa. She gives a quick history of what Western political philosophy has said on the topics of equal rights and free exercise before examining five arguments commonly made in support of this sort of ban.
Her responses to the arguments are certainly convincing. Nussbaum effectively demonstrates the inconsistency or hypocrisy in Western resistance to burqas, and anyone who reads the piece is more likely to dislike the idea of banning burqas.
But her most compelling point is also the most unique: Westerners cannot seem to recognize the inconsistency of their arguments against burqas because they are Westerners, burqa-wearing is not traditionally Western, and burqa-wearers are not viewed as traditionally Western.
Upon witnessing Ghana’s soccer victory against the U.S. on Saturday, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was better that Ghana had won. If history can be trusted, the winners of international athletic contests over a broad range of events tend to be large, rich countries. The predominance of the United States, China, and Russia in the Olympic Games is ample evidence of this. On the other hand, the more specialized World Cup appears to be one contest in which the inherent advantages of larger and richer countries are partly nullified, and where the talent and dedication of humbler countries have the opportunity to shine. Nonetheless, no African country has ever won a World Cup, and Ghana is the only African country in the finals. In light of this, perhaps Ghana’s victory over the U.S. was more meaningful to Ghanaians than the U.S.’s victory would have been for Americans. Should such a utilitarian consideration drive one’s hopes and expectations for athletic contests, or should nationalistic sympathies take precedence? When should we root for the underdogs?
Photo by Flickr user TrumpetFlickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
How much risk should soldiers bear in order to minimize civilian casualties?
According to the New York Times, even before General McChrystal’s firing, American troops abroad were uneasy with his strategy of counterinsurgency. Many soldiers think that the General’s insistence on tightening the rules of engagement in order to minimize civilian casualties has put American troops at risk. When fighting a terrorist enemy unafraid to hide within civilian populations, Americans must withhold their military superiority in order to protect civilians. This means eschewing artillery strikes or air support in favor of risky urban warfare.
While McChrystal’s reasons are surely more strategic than ethical, it is important to ask whether American soldiers have a responsibility to put themselves at risk for the sake of foreign civilians. After all, it is not uncommon for Americans to think “our” troops are more important than “their” civilians.
The combatant/civilian distinction exists in order to restrain the scope of war. War should be a relation between nations (or perhaps sub-national groups), and combatants are the armed emissaries of their nations. Civilians, without the ability to harm, are not directly part of the war effort, and therefore are not liable to be killed. Combatants, on the other hand, not only acquire the ability to harm, but have also implicitly taken on the risks of war. War, brought by combatants, is thrust upon civilians. Thus, combatants should take the brunt of the risk associated with war.
Arguably, the reason terrorism is so objectionable is because it seeks to erode the combatant/civilian distinction. Our moral repugnance toward terrorist attacks in New York is no different than our repugnance toward terrorist attacks in London, and so we should remain consistent when considering terrorist attacks in the Middle East. In all three cases the moral opposition is to the killing of civilians not liable to be killed, the nationality of the victims is morally irrelevant. Thus, when conducting our own wars, the combatant/civilian distinction should remain paramount – when fighting terrorism we should be careful not to imitate it.
The breaking news yesterday about the FBI infiltration and arrest of a Russian spy ring left me wanting. The spies were not sent to obtain U.S. government jobs and access to classified information. They were sent to mingle with elites and think tankers and get juicy gossip and rumors about U.S. politics and foreign policy. Um, hello FBI? Have you met any 30-something policy wonks over happy hour? This rumor mongering is what they live for. Take a gander at Laura Rozen’s Politico blog or “The Cable” on Foreign Policy. There’s a whole media industry of political gossip. Is it really illegal to pass this stuff to foreign governments. Hell, Russia could have saved itself a ton of money and the trouble of, you know, a diplomatic crisis by just reading Wonkette. Could have had a laugh while gaining much more valuable intelligence from them than a “New York-based financier described as a fundraiser for a major political party” is going to get you.
Photo by Flickr user Anonymous9000 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.