As President Obama drums up support for military intervention in Syria, we should step back and examine if we’ve overcome the strong moral presumption against war. Given how frequently the US decides it’s sensible to risk the lives of our own soldiers and other nations’ civilians, it’s easy to forget the immediate costs of war are horrible for almost everyone.
So unless the long-run benefits of war clearly and significantly outweigh the almost certain death and suffering of thousands of innocent civilians in “collateral damage,” the risk to our troops and allies, the high monetary cost, and the potential long-term negative consequences, war should be avoided. In too many cost/benefit analyses, moral accountants overlook the last category on their ledger. Predicting all the ramifications of intervention is basically impossible as history has demonstrated. Most relevant to Syria, “military interventions in favor of the rebel faction” tend to lead to more civilian deaths not less.
The record of experts to forecast is often worse than chance as Philip Tetlock established from a “20-year program of research” in his book, Expert Political Judgement. In the 1980s our entire intelligence community basically failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequences that followed. What justifies any confidence our experts can anticipate the aftermath in a region and culture we know far less about? Even with over one hundred thousand troops, scores of “experts,” and hundreds of billions of dollars we haven’t been able to predict or guide Iraq or Afghanistan toward an obvious positive outcome. Tipping the military balance in Syria could lead to a power shift even worse than the status quo. Even purposefully maintaining a stalemate could embroil the region in an ethnically complex civil war that could result in more suffering and further risks to our allies and interests. Not insignificantly, prolonging war would likely raise the price of oil and further undermine global economic growth.
I’m not claiming I know exactly what would happen if we go to war in Syria. The point is that no one really knows. Couldn’t not going to war lead to terrible unintended consequences? Sure it could, but since we don’t know either way it seems perverse to directly (regardless of intention) kill civilians and spend billions of dollars for uncertain results.
Aside from predicting the humanitarian consequences, it’s doubtful even accomplishing limited goals such as preventing the use of chemical weapons is probable. Regime change in Iraq didn’t stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria; if that “message” didn’t fully entrench the “international norm” why should we think a relatively more modest campaign in Syria would prevent future use? Furthermore, the reason why civilians tend to die in greater numbers during military interventions on behalf of rebel groups is because government forces often get more brutal to compensate. Is anyone totally confident the Assad regime won’t be similarly motivated to scale up their response? Might the government respond by attacking us or our allies with conventional or unconventional weapons or tactics? Moreover, what if our interference in their civil war is too successful and leads to the Assad regime’s collapse? As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to Congress, “should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
President Obama thought it was politically prudent to ask for Congress’s approval before entering another war of choice in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the administration argues the vote is largely for show and has no binding force despite what the Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and candidate Obama says. It’s as if laws regarding war are mere formalities like rules for a grammar descriptivist. Well, the legal prescriptivists need to assert themselves and check the president’s power. Going to war has undeniably bad effects and highly uncertain benefits at best. This war like almost all others is not for true self-defense. War ought to be averted whenever possible.
(photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.
Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”
We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.
Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science. Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”
If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.
Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives. But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.
Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.
Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.
After Rolling Stone put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, the Boston Strong community has suffered from an alarming lack of fainting couches. But I’m here to calm everyone down enough to unclutch their pearls and to explain a lesson we all should have learned in elementary school.
If you can uncover your eyes for a moment, let’s take a quick look at the infamous cover.
Once you get your CO2 levels regulated by breathing in and out of your paper bag, check out the part of the headline I’ve highlighted. Instead of “glamorizing” the subject of their article, they’ve defined him as “a monster.”
“Glamorize” is also a curious word choice for another reason. This image wasn’t staged; it’s a personal photo of Tsarnaev. It’s one the New York Times used on its front page. In other words, it’s an accurate portrayal of the alleged terrorist we’re interested in learning about.
There is some legitimacy in the criticism that Rolling Stone probably chose this picture to be deliberately provocative to sell more magazines. But unless you’re fundamentally opposed to any capitalist promotion in journalism your selective outrage carries little authority. As long as the image isn’t deceptive, selecting a picture that illustrates the nature of the story isn’t unethical.
So unless you deny the importance of studying the type of person willing to murder innocent civilians, you shouldn’t object to an accurate portrayal. And make no mistake, the article is about him and his transformation into a radical islamist bomber. So all those calls for putting a photo of police officer or a victim miss the point. The article is not about those subjects.
Mandating we only use photos of victims (even when not talking specifically about them) or only using scary images of criminals is a dangerous form a political correctness that prevents us from rationally understanding the threat. Using a “glamorous” photo isn’t unjustified once you recognize that seemingly normal people can become terrorists too. I wonder if the widespread knee-jerk reaction isn’t a subconscious defense mechanism against that frightening reality. When attractive people who look like us can be taken in and radicalized by such an unattractive ideology it scares us. Perception of the true face of the danger is essential to protecting us from the source of that fear.
We all should remember that looking at a cover-photo is only the beginning of how we consume the news. You are expected to judge the photograph, but it’s also understood you will read the content. If we censor ourselves from objectionable images and ignore the context, we’re ostriches blinding ourselves to threats. Everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging stores to not carry what you personally deem offensive forces others to submit to your information blackout. Just because it’s not illegal censorship does not make it benign censorship.
Just remember, don’t judge a book or a magazine by its cover.
(image: fainting couch)
A fairly common retort to why evil and suffering exist if God is omnipotent and all-loving is free will.
Suffering, the existential consciousness of alienation, on which you are so eloquent, is an extension of human freedom. Those of us, like you, who stand in the faith and view the world (both physical and existential) from the perspective of faith, do not have words to understand why God created the world in the way can has, but we do understand that both the principle of entropy and human free will are gifts of the Creator and that God respects the integrity of Creation.
Most religious people assume that no one suffers in heaven. If they’re right, does that imply that we lack free will in heaven? If the formula for the perfect state of happiness contains a total deficiency of free will, why does an omnibenevolent Creator give us free will at all? It cannot be beneficial, by definition, if heaven is perfect and lacks it.
One alternative could be that we have free will, but God punishes any offense with banishment to hell – terrifying everyone into immaculate behavior. Yet that would seem to shatter the notion of a totally merciful Divine Being like stained glass.
Most people seem to have some instinct toward moral utilitarianism - generally speaking, more suffering is worse than less. Well, at least the vast majority’s initial response to the trolley problem suggests that. With that in mind, I wanted to use a similar framework to help clarify the ethics of abortion.
Many of us are familiar with the concept that abortion equals murder. So let’s examine the math that leads anyone to believe that.
If you were faced with preventing the death of either
A) An 8 year old child with a mother that wants to kill him or:
B) You could stop the voluntary abortion of an unborn fetus
Which would you choose?
Or do you accept the standard that all life is morally equal and allow chance to determine from two evenly horrible choices?
If you grudging accept that the 8 year old child is more valuable for some reason, but still want to maintain that the unconscious fetus has significant moral weight than it follows that there must be some number of voluntary abortions that would tip the scale in your calculation forcing you to accept the death of the 8 year old innocent child to prevent the termination of some number of fetuses. What is that number for you? Would 100 abortions be the number that demanded you explain to an emotional and confused child that his or her life could be saved, but 100 fetuses is just too many let expire. Or is it 1000? Would 1 million justify it for you when explaining to the child’s friends and family why you made your choice?
Undoubtably there are some principled religious purists that will flip the coin and answer that the 8 year old child and the unborn fetus truly are morally equivalent and would allow the conscious child to die if that’s what chance dictates. It’s worth knowing who believes that. Who but the most extreme could maintain such a compassionless position? When confronted directly it becomes apparent very quickly that a living person is more valuable than a clump of cells. And once you start accounting for the reasons why those two entities deserve different moral values, the logical path toward consequentialism and the pro-choice view materializes.
I find a living sentient person so much more valuable that no number of voluntary abortions could persuade me allow an 8 year old to die in order to save them. Doesn’t that imply that I place zero moral weight on the unborn of mothers choosing abortions? Actually, yes. And you should value conscious life infinitely more as well.
(Ultrasound image from UPMC)