Sunday, December 18, 2005

What if there's a cheering squad?

This is an addendum to the previous post.

There is a group that should be the last ones spared if the death penalty is on the books. They are the people who have supporters actively condoning their actions. If these people are spared it should be through the abandonment of the death penalty, not through an act of clemency.

I am thinking of terrorists with supporters claiming their acts were justified and that they should be spared for this reason. If they are spared as a act of clemency then their supporters will interpret this as an admission that the terrorists acts were justified whether those showing clemency had this intention or not. They will take encouragement from this. I am not admitting that the death penalty would act a a greater deterrent than life imprisonment. I don't believe that it would. I think that an act of clemency would become twisted into an act of encouragement by their supporters.

I do not believe that the Australian government is being hypocritical by refusing to seek clemency for the Bali bombers while still seeking clemency for Australians convicted of drug smuggling. Death is an unjustly harsh punishment for drug smuggling. It is not unjustly harsh for terrorist mass murderers. If terrorist murders can be securely imprisoned until they are no longer a threat then I think that this should be done rather than killing them. But they should be seen to receive the harshest punishment that is available. I believe that the death penalty is ineffective as punishment for would be martyrs. I do not like what carrying out the death penalty does to people. But I will not be indignant if the Bali bombers are shot. I just believe that the price is too high. But the price of clemency would be higher. The problem with having the death penalty in the criminal justice system is that counter-intuitively it can play into the terrorists hands. We can be left with an unpalatable choice between giving the terrorists a platform for their martyrdom and giving their supporters encouragement through an act of clemency which they will see as an act of divine support.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Loathsome choices

Every day somewhere in the World a government through its agents kills helpless prisoners. Sometimes it is the arbitrary commands of those in power. Sometimes it is carrying out the commands of its judicial system. Sometimes it is as part of a war. Sometimes it is as part of a conflict which is not exactly war but not exactly law enforcement either.

It is always in at least some respects a loathsome act. But those who order and carry out such acts usually claim that they are justified either to punish a wrong or to prevent a harm. And such claims may be right. Such acts might be necessary and right. But they must always be questioned. There must always be a part of us that is revolted by the necessity if such acts are truly necessary. In some cases the attempt to feel good about killing someone might be worse than the killing itself.

No one except pacifists will deny that sometimes we have to kill someone who is an immediate threat to ourselves or another. But the question here is when if ever we can kill someone who is not an immediate threat. Always a more questionable proposition.

There are four groups of circumstances in which one might be justified in killing a prisoner. They are as punishment for a crime, in wartime, after a conflict as punishment for acts committed on behalf of a state during the conflict and as part of a campaign against terrorists or other similarly dangerous non state organizations.

This essay is primarily an attempt to clarify issues in a disturbing matter. This is and should be distasteful business but it has to be thought about. Of course I will express my positions on them but this is secondary.

Criminal justice

The arguments in favor of capital punishment are the claims that some crimes are so vile that no other penalty is adequate and that it acts as a more effective deterrent and incapacitator than any other punishment. The arguments against capital punishment are claims that either or both of these claims are false or the claim that capital punishment involves paying a price that is too high for any good done or evil prevented.

Capital punishment is killing with aggravating circumstances. Some of these are inevitable. Some, I think, are unnecessary and hence wrong. Premeditation is regarded as an aggravating circumstance. Killings don't get more premeditated than an execution. The criminal is kept prisoner for months or years by people intending to kill them. How many murders are as cruel as that? People in favor of the death penalty usually trivialize this, to their discredit. While the delay may be necessary in order to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person it means that the sentence cannot possibly be free of great suffering. Any pain inflicted during an execution is usually trivial by comparison with the suffering inflicted leading up to it. That is unless you deliberately set out to torture some one. An execution is usually a ritual and hence an element of sadism or its moral equivalent, an expression of the importance of the state and hence its agents creeps in. This is not necessary. And of course it could be argued that it is a cowardly act.

Even so there are crimes so horrific that I could not say that the criminal did not deserve what happened to him. Serial killers come to mind. Proportionality would suggest that capital punishment if used at all should be reserved for crimes involving premeditation and cruelty comparable to that of the execution. It would suggest that those who use it for lesser crimes such as drug smuggling are evil enough to deserve death themselves. It doesn't matter that they think what they are doing is right.

Most criminologists will tell you that the effectiveness of a deterrent has more to do with its perceived likelihood than with its severity. They will generally tell you that the death penalty is no more effective at deterring murder than is life imprisonment or long prison terms. I tend to believe the experts in a field unless I have reason to believe they are biased or the whole field is undermined by dubious assumptions and practices. Thus I do not think that the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. I admit to a bit of a bias. I find it a relief that a horrific act cannot be used to do good.

Even if a criminal deserves to die there are prices for killing them. The first is the sheer cold-blooded horror of the act. The second is the risk of killing an innocent person. The third is the danger of the punishment brutalizing society. The fourth is the suffering and grief inflicted on the family and friends of the criminal. Many, perhaps most of the advocates of capital punishment try to ignore these prices, trivializing them or pretending to themselves that they don't exist.

The strongest argument against capital punishment is the first one, the horror of the act, the premeditation, the cold-bloodedness, the sordid ritual. It is something that we should be very reluctant to do and we should always be prepared to question whether the right thing was done. Even if it is the right thing to do we should never shield ourselves from anything that might cause us to question or actions later. It is dangerous to protect the peace of mind of the public, the prosecutors, the politicians, the judges and the executioners. But this precisely what is usually done. Lethal injection is the epitome of this. Everything is done to make it easy on those ordering it and those doing it. The removal of the appearance of violence. But killing is a violent act even if it looks peaceful. The paralytic agents administered to prevent any convulsions. Having two people pressing the buttons with one of them a dummy. As if this removed any responsibility from the one who pressed the dummy button. This is a joint action. The cowardice and hypocrisy of such a system arouses more disgust and contempt in me than the execution itself. It arouses disgust even if I sympathize with the execution. If you need to tell yourself that what you are doing is humane and peaceful before killing a prisoner then maybe you shouldn't do it at all.

And I do sympathize with the outrage of those close to victims of crime. I shared the gleeful hate that surrounded Ted Bundy's execution. I do find it a nice thought that he died in terror and agony. But looking back I don't think it was worth it.

Families of murder victims want an act of outrage. The Law does not deliver this. It cannot deliver this without being corrupted. In claiming to deliver impartial dispassionate justice it delivers a sordid sadistic ritual. If you try to take vengeance out sadism tends to creep in. In seeking to be dispassionate the Law becomes horrific. I am far more disturbed by cold-blooded duty than I am by hate. I regard assertion of the importance of the state and the law through an execution as the moral equivalent of sadism. The ritualization of the killing and the attempt to prevent someone committing suicide before they can be executed are to me evidence of sadism or its equivalent creeping in. If someone commits suicide before an execution surely the proper reaction is relief at being spared a loathsome responsibility.

Then there is the risk of killing an innocent person. Most of the alleged murderers executed by states are guilty. Especially I think the error rate on serial killers is likely to be quite low. But the error rate for most cases under an adversary legal system is likely to still be unacceptably high. It is too easy to lay charges on weak evidence, The outcome is far too influenced by advocate skill. The appeal system looks far too much at procedure and far too little at substance. The criterion for evaluating a jury verdict is "Could a reasonable jury come to that verdict?" not "Were they right?".

The system in parts of the U. S. of having prosecutors and judges elected encourages excessive zeal and hence increases the risk of a wrongful conviction. And the perceived high pay off of an execution is likely to further encourage excessive zeal.

Executing the wrong person is something far worse than say police shooting an innocent person because they thought they were armed and about to shoot them. It is committing murder of the worst kind in a mistaken attempt to punish murder. It doesn't matter that they believed that they were justified. They took the risk of killing an innocent person. They probably blinded themselves to doubts. Recklessness is probably involved in most cases of wrongful executions.
I think giving a murderer the full punishment that they deserve is not a good enough reason to justify the risk of killing an innocent person. How certain does someone have to be before seeking or carrying out such a sentence? I would suggest certain enough to hazard their own lives on their being right.

The claim is sometimes made that rather than deterring murder capital punishment encourages it though the brutalizing effect on society of the example that it sets. I don't know enough facts to reach any conclusions on this. If capital punishment is seen as an exceptional act and restricted to the truly very worst cases then this might not be the case. If it is widely used as a punishment for crimes other than murder then it could well be true.

But is widespread use of the death penalty a cause of callousness in a society or a reflection of it?
Sometimes the family of a murderer condone and excuse his acts. More often they are in understandable denial. The anguish and grief inflicted on them is a wrong. Sometimes the prosecutors and executioners claim that the criminal is responsible for the harm to their families and friends. This is a lie. Those involved in the execution are. They decided that punishing a criminal properly is more important than sparing families anguish. They might be right but they should pay the price of their actions. They should be prepared to allow the satisfaction of doing their duty to be poisoned.

As you can see my feelings on the matter are very mixed. I believe that there are some criminals who deserve to be killed but the price of killing them through the judicial system is too high. But if you are going to do it at all face up to what you are doing. Make it quick, obviously violent and simple requiring no skill. If skill is involved people can take pride in that skill and this is not a fit matter for pride. The judicial system is not an emergency service like the military or the police. and should not be allowed a similar degree of slack.


Our society like most others regards war as undesirable but unfortunately sometimes inevitable and necessary. Most of the laws of war that remain are those meant to reduce the suffering and death and destruction involved in war but which if adhered to by both sides are unlikely to change the outcome of a conflict. The laws protecting prisoners of war are among the most important of the laws of war. Killing prisoners of war is not only vile it is usually foolish. It increases the danger that one's own combatants find themselves in both by driving enemies to desperation and through the risk of reprisals against any of one's own forces that are taken prisoner.

However there are cases where customary usage does allow forces to give no quarter and to summarily execute prisoners.

The first is when prisoners cannot be brought back to one's own lines and bases in order to be placed in custody. An example would be a small force acting behind enemy lines that cannot allow itself to be burdened with prisoners. I would ask whether there were alternatives. For example it might be possible to disarm the enemy troops and either release them or leave them tied up.

Another case is when one is dealing with forces which themselves have given no quarter in the past or which have attacked after feigning surrender. Those engaging in such behavior may be summarily executed.

Forces which are not wearing uniforms or other identifying insignias identifiable at a distance or are wearing enemy uniforms or are not bearing arms openly are illegal combatants. They endanger all civilians by endangering combatants who try to spare civilians. They can be summarily executed.

There are actions which are allowable but which are regarded as so horrible that troops taking these actions have often been shot out of hand if captured. The example that I am thinking of is the use of flame-throwers. Troops using them were sometimes shot if captured. I don't know what to think about this. It is certainly at least an extenuating circumstance.

Then there are reprisals. The laws of war allowed one to kill prisoners if the enemy is killing those on one's own side which have been taken prisoner. The one example I know of an Allied army doing this in World War 2 was when the French shot some German prisoners in 1944 as a reprisal for the Germans executing French resistance members who had been wearing clear identification symbols and bearing arms openly. One of those cases where I can't think of any good solution.

Finally excessive resistance is regarded as causing one to forfeit one's right to surrender. If you continue fighting when there is no chance of victory then the enemy is not required to accept your surrender. If you say you are going to fight to the last man and last bullet then you risk being taken at your word. You cannot shoot someone in plain view of the enemy then try to immediately surrender to avoid being shot in turn. This is customary usage rather than law. You cannot use an enemies mercy against them.

Then in past the shooting of civilian hostages was allowed as a reprisal for the actions of illegal combatants. I would certainly regard this as wrong. Fortunately this is not allowed nowadays.
Spies were subject to execution if convicted by a military tribunal. This was regarded as the risk that a spy ran - the exchange for them not running the risks of combat but still being involved in the conflict. Perhaps, but why the legal trappings and ritual? Yes a tribunal of some sort is necessary, not to provide a legal justification but to reduce the risk of killing an uninvolved person. Can you meaningfully describe an enemy spy as guilty? Unlike for criminal law cases it is plausible that executing spies in wartime has a greater deterrent effect than other measures. This is because otherwise they could expect to be released at the end of the war unless their side lost. The threat of execution was also used as a means of turning spies.

The whole idea is repugnant but still I don't know what the right answer is. Still there is no more excuse for ritualizing such a killing than there is to do so in the criminal law. The same objections apply.

War crimes trials

War is monstrous enough. Some of the most vile acts possible are committed by some belligerent forces and their leaders -acts that deserve death or worse. But some of the same objections to judicial killing apply as do for the criminal justice system. Once again it is the premeditation and ritualization that disturbs me.

There is however an exception. If a leader is captured in a conflict and his death will probably end the conflict then his killing becomes obligatory. A good example of this is Romania in 1989. Forces trying to hang on to power were committing mass murder. The execution of the Ceausescus removed the focus for supporters of the old regime and ended the conflict.

Terrorism and other conflicts with non state forces

Civil wars are governed by rules similar to those governing international wars. The conflict is between a government and a would be government.

Terrorism is generally undertaken by movements which while they want to influence or take over governments do not have the institutions of a state. They have the mechanisms for taking power, not for exercising it. For many there is little internal control and not much in the way of chains of accountability. They are often the armed wings of political parties. Sometimes they are more of a movement than an organization. They do not have the mystique of legitimacy. But they have the means to threaten a state and a private criminal does not.

The problem is whether to treat them as criminals or as enemies. Since they are not agents of states (though states may be backing them) many want to deal with them through the criminal justice system. But many of them are too dangerous for this approach. Doing so leaves the initiative in the terrorists hands.

The question is whether you can have a state of war or something equivalent when one of the parties in a conflict is not a state. I think you can. I think you must treat terrorists as enemies and as criminals. Their rights are the intersection of the rights of domestic criminals and the rights of enemy combatants. As enemies they may be held for the duration of the conflict. As criminals they can be punished for their actions.

In war there is an attempt to minimize the death, destruction and suffering involved. The most important part of this is the recognition of classes of protected persons. These are groups that one seeks to avoid harming. Civilians, prisoners of war, wounded enemies and so on. Terrorists do not recognize these protections and deliberately target these groups. They treat a whole society of large sections of it as if they were combatants when they are not. Many would call such criticisms of terrorist behavior as hypocritical citing the harm regular combatants cause through collateral damage. The point is that the attempt is made to make distinctions in combat and reduce the harm done. If this is hypocrisy then hypocrisy is necessary. Better partial success and minimizing harm than not making the attempt at all.

Terrorists do not have the immunity from punishment of enemy combatants or their claim to quarter. The U. S government has quite rightly classified them as illegal combatants. They do not have people that they are accountable to. They do not identify themselves as combatants. They do not seek to avoid harming protected persons, in fact they seek the opposite.
As illegal combatants they can be summarily executed if captured on the battlefield. Many of them have committed war crimes and can be punished as war criminals. But is it right to kill them if they have been taken prisoner? Many of the same objections apply as do to domestic criminals.

In addition many of them are death cultists. They want martyrdom. They will die feeling glorified and justified. The ritual of execution gives them a platform. Death is not effective as a punishment. In fact it can play into their hands. They are punished better by letting them rot in isolation.

If the time of the execution of terrorists is announced in advance you give them a focus for hostage taking and other attacks. If you are going to kill them announce it after you have done so.

What will do more damage to terrorist morale, killing their leaders or imprisoning them out of contact with the rest of the world? I suspect the latter but I could be wrong. If killing Bin Laden will do more damage to his cause than imprisonment in durance vile then kill him. Just don't make a production of it. Take him out, shoot him then feed him to the pigs.

Organized crime does have the power to harm the criminal justice system. I do not think however that killing imprisoned criminal leader will do any good that could not be done in other ways.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What does It want?

The It that I am referring to Is God. Many people claim to know what God wants. They say they know what It wants us to do and why It created the Universe and hence either directly or indirectly created life and humanity. Others claim that there is no way we can know God's purposes. And others like me think we don't know but can make some plausible speculations and can rule out some possibilities.

For the sake of this discussion I will assume that there is a God. I regard the existence of God as an open question. It think It exists but I am not sure.

What answers are plausible depends on what attributes one believes that God has. Is It omnipotent? Is It omniscient? Is It benevolent? Is It transcendent? Is It immanent? Is It temporal? Is it a person?

In various SF stories the speculation has been made that a sufficiently advanced civilization might be able to create a universe. Even if this is true it suffers from the same problem as panaspermia - the speculation that life came to Earth from somewhere outside the Solar System. It just transfers the problem elsewhere but does not answer it.

Polytheism and God acting through subordinate entities such as angels simply adds complexity without providing any additional explanatory power over monotheism. Thus I regard a single god as a more useful and productive hypothesis.

The gods of ancient religions are ancient despots writ large. Over time in the Mediterranean and the Middle East there was a tendency to magnify the chief god at the expense of the others. This eventually led to monotheism with the other gods reduced to something intermediate between God and man.

But the god of the Abrahamic religions still shows His origin. He shows some of the traits of a human despot, easily offended, desirous of praise, arbitrary in some sects and religions. Since his worshipers are trying to praise Him there is a strong temptation to see Him as omnipotent and omniscient and to apply as many attributes to God as they can. There is a tendency to see God as having human emotions.

But does this all make sense? Does God have to be someone that we can entreat? Does Its goals have to be ones that require us it interact with It in the here and now? Could they be ones that we fulfill in the ordinary course of our lives? Could they be ones that Humanity will fulfill in some future time when our understanding of It and the Universe is greater.

Like many others I do not believe that God can be omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. At least one of these has to go, maybe all of them. I do not believe it is omnipotent and I wonder whether benevolence may be an inapplicable concept.

As far as we can tell time and space had a beginning. Thus God has to be, at least in part, outside space and time. That is I believe it makes more sense to regard God as transcendent.

Do we have a watchmaker God who created the Universe then left it alone or do we have a God who underpins and maintains the existence of the Universe? The latter feels more likely since it is easier to imagine the possible motives of such a God. This does not necessarily imply an interventionist God. An immanent God does not have to be a puppet master. Thus I believe that the immanence of God is more likely than not. It is certainly hard to see God as omniscient if It is not immanent.

Can we regard God as good and can God be the source of morality? There is a bit of a tension between these two propositions. To see God as good, goodness has to exist independent of God. Some people see morality as being whatever God commands. Like most people I would describe this position as the abandonment of morality. I do not believe that God can make an act right or wrong by an arbitrary edict. If God is the source of morality then I believe it can only be though determining the nature of the universe and through morality being a consequence of this. If God is good then morality has to be binding on It and hence it cannot be simply a result of God's commands. An alternative possibility is that God is neither good nor evil. That good and evil only exist within the universe and are terms that do not apply to God.

If God is outside space and time then any attribute that is the result of a process cannot be applied to God. Life, consciousness and emotions are all processes. Thus I believe that they are terms that cannot be applied to God. Thus one can reasonably claim that humanity has attributes that God does not. If God is transcendent then I do not think It can be described as a person in the sense that you or I are. Perhaps It is the ordering and/or originating thing behind the Universe (Force? Principle? Any word I use is almost certain to be wrong.)

What I can be certain of is that God's purposes do not depend on our believing that God exists. If they did It would have given us unequivocal proof of its existence. It hasn't. Supposed religious revelations are weak evidence indeed. Thus it cannot be a desire for praise.

Does It want company or something to love? This only makes sense if God is a person in the sense that we are.

Its purposes have to be either ones that the Universe, life and humanity accomplish in the normal course of their existence or they are ones that will be fulfilled in the future. Or both. The first seems more likely to me.

If God is not temporal then for some reason it wanted (needed?) something temporal to exist and needed something to experience that creation in time. Why, we don't know but that much seems certain if God exists. I don't think we can say anything more.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Someone's going to do it

We have changed the genomes of domestic plants and animals through selective breeding. We have modified the genomes of bacteria and plants and animals through genetic engineering. Sooner or later someone is going to modify the human genome. In addition there is the possibility of linking the human nervous system to electronic data storage and processing systems. These possibilities have been addressed in many science fiction stories. We need to prepare to address them in real life.

We have to ask the questions, "What can we do? What should we do?".

We do not yet know enough to successfully or safely modify the human genome. In addition we do not know the basis of consciousness so modifications to the brain and hence the mind will not be possible for some decades at least.

A lot of genetic engineering is pretty empirical. "Replace this gene with that one and we get this result. We don't know exactly how the gene acts." Not good enough when humans are the subjects except perhaps when we have diseases caused by single known genes. Genetic engineering on humans is too dangerous for now. But this will not be the case forever. We will eventually be able to predict the full effects of a given genetic modification.

We will be able to safely make modifications to the rest of the body before we can modify the brain. We are rapidly finding which locations in the brain are associated with which functions. This is not the same thing as knowing what is going on in those regions. We are still further from finding which genes are affecting which mental function and how. And of course we need to know what is going on in the brain before we can create anything but crude electronic interfaces for it. But eventually we will be able to create sophisticated electronic interfaces to the brain.

But being able to modify humans does not mean that we should. There is the danger that we could treat people as less than human. There is the danger that we might turn them into something less than human. And in the attempt to turn people into something more than human we might create something that is other than human. Should we do this?

One argument against modifying humans is that it is unnatural. This argument will be made by many, perhaps most religions. I would expect the same environmentalist groups who oppose genetically modified food to oppose genetic modification of humans. The claim is made that what occurs naturally is some sort of normative standard against which things should be judged. People talk of God's plan or of Nature's wisdom.

But can Nature provide normative standards? Species and environments are constantly changing. Why should the current state of a species or an environment be regarded as some sort of ideal standard? Why not what it was several million years ago? Why not what they will evolve into in several million years? Every species that exists does so because other species have become extinct. Yes we should be very careful about the changes that we make but should we try to freeze the world in its present form? We can't. The world changes. And should the changes that would occur without human intervention be preferred to those that are of human origin? After all evolution generally does not come up with optimum solutions. It is restricted by what is available at the time. It comes up with lots and lots of kludges.

The it's unnatural argument has been applied to human reproduction with disastrous results. This is what is behind the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control and in vitro fertilization. I won't mince words. These positions are irresponsible pieces of sophistry. The unnatural argument has also been used against human cloning. Human cloning given the present state of the art would be wrong. There would be a near certainty of harmful abnormalities occurring. But this won't always be the case. A clone is not a doppelganger of the original or some other threat to its identity. It is nothing but a younger identical twin. Big deal!

The other argument against modifying human beings is the danger of restricting their choices in doing so or of treating them as merely a means to an end of the ones doing the modification. This is a good reason for great caution. It is a reason for restricting modifications to those which are primarily for the benefit of the recipient of the modification. Even then one should be cautious. The recipient of a genetic modification could well have a different opinion of it to the one which the giver thinks that they would have. As always well intentioned fools are a great potential danger.

We will be able to make changes to the human body before we can do anything to the mind. Fortunately it will be easier to know what is acceptable and what is not where physical modifications are concerned but there will still be lots of hairy problems.

The first examples of genetic engineering on humans will almost certainly be prevention of genetic diseases. These will generally be the easiest modifications and morally the least problematic. In fact I thank some of these would be morally obligatory when they become safe and affordable. Is it right to allow someone to inherit Huntington's Chorea when you could stop this happening?

Even here there will be problems. What about groups that define themselves in terms of their disabilities and want their offspring to inherit their disabilities? The example that comes to mind is some deaf people wanting their children to be deaf like themselves because they want their sign language subculture to be carried on. There could well be other groups that would see attempts to prevent disabilities as a slight to the disabled. Differently abled and all that. I would regard such behavior as immoral. They would be treating their children as means of saying that they are okay themselves. They would be placing their self images above the interests of their children. I would call that child abuse if they ended up restricting their children's experiences and options in life. But even if genetic modification is the right thing to do would it be right to make it compulsory?

Then there are cosmetic modifications and fitness modifications. Should we try to improve the appearance and physical fitness of our descendants? What if they don't like what we've done? Do we want more physical uniformity among people? What are the consequences for sport and the like? What if genetic modification is used to create champion athletes at the expense of their health? After all East Germany ruined the health of many of its athletes with performance enhancing drugs. Might say China be tempted to use genetic modification for this end? More sinisterly would some totalitarian movements use such modifications for ideological ends?
Nevertheless I suspect that eventually cosmetic and fitness modifications will be made. There will be some gains from the reduction in the harm that disfigurement or just simple ugliness brings to its subjects. There probably will be some reduction in diversity among people. What happens to a society when there are very few ugly or even plain people? What will it do to their values?

If humanity can be modified to improve health and especially to prolong life then this will happen. While increases in longevity will have social costs I think the gains to society will be greater, not to mention the gain to individuals. Our lives are too short for the requirements of a society as complicated as ours. And then there is the possibility of making childbirth less painful and dangerous. Viable birth earlier in pregnancy perhaps? Some of the changes that would reduce health problems could involve significant changes in appearance. Would we go down this route?

Then there is the possibility of altering people to give them capabilities that they do not have now. Perhaps adaptation for life on other worlds and so on. We need to think very carefully about the consequences and the ethics of such actions before doing them.

But advances in medicine may make some of these questions moot. Many of the changes that we might think of making through genetic engineering could be possible through changes made to children or adults.

The problems raised by modifying the human body are small by comparison to those raised by modification of the brain. Our psyche is what makes us a person. I think that human life is more valuable than that of an animal because it supports a human mind. In fact when we talk about human life we are usually talking about the activity of the mind rather than life as such. Modifying the brain runs the risk of tampering with the very things that make a human being a creature of moral significance.

Electronic interfaces are less problematic than genetic modification since presumably they would be inserted in adults, it should be possible to deactivate them if necessary and they are likely to be simply additions to human capabilities rather than a change in anything basic.
Some of the possible changes though electronic implants would not be problematic. Things like access to vast amounts of data and processing power and the ability to control vehicles and other machinery should be benign. Changes which submerge individuality and diminish choice would not be benign.

Genetic modification to increase intelligence, memory capacity and creativity would be desirable. But since so many capabilities are tied together would there be a price for these beneficial changes? Probably not, but we have to check out the risks.

The real danger comes from modifications whose purpose is seen as the benefit of society. Here we run the risk of ideologues trying to make humanity fit their ideologies. Progressives hoped that they could change human nature through better upbringing. They failed and their ideologies failed. One shudders at the thought of an attempt to create the New Soviet Man through genetic engineering.

What if an attempt was made to reduce human aggressiveness. Isn't this likely to create a people that are helpless in the face of danger. Improving peoples ability to understand their own motives should be an improvement. But what if this led to indecisiveness and passivity?
Bringing the desires and needs of the sexes into better harmony sounds like a good idea. But what price would we pay for this. Any attempt to change just one sex to meet the other's needs while leaving the other sex unchanged would be disastrous to both sexes. And anyhow much but not all of the things that each sex complains about in the other are the prices of the qualities that they encourage in the other sex. (Briefly women tend to be brought up to have too little faith in their capabilities. Men tend to be brought up to have too little sense of their own worth, to have to much need for praise and too mach need to prove their manhood. These insecurities interlock and encourage each other.)

Should attempts be made to eliminate homosexuality by genetic engineering? But what is the problem, homosexuality or people's attitudes towards it?

There is the danger of supposedly well intentioned (arguably terminally self righteous) people doing terrible things in the attempt to create a better world. Knee-jerk ill-thought out opposition to any modifications will just make the dangers more likely since they could end up discrediting proper caution. We have to start giving serious thought to this problem now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

We have a problem

Obviously there is more than a little bit of controversy over the greenhouse effect and global warming. Is the World's temperate rising? Is this due to human activity? If it is rising what will be the future consequences? What can we do about them? What should we do about them?

The measures required to deal with global warming are very expensive. They have the potential to do great damage to the economies of countries, possibly creating mass unemployment and poverty. Even if they don't the restrictions on peoples activities involved could be quite irksome. Thus people want to be quite sure that there is a real danger before they make the sacrifices that are necessary.

On the other hand if global warming is real the consequences of not dealing with it are potentially catastrophic. The likely damage from global warming is far greater than the damage from an unnecessary attempt to deal with it. At the worst it could lead to the collapse of nations, to mass starvation, to enormous refugee problems, to wars and to huge damage to civilizations. And that is just the potential effect on human beings. The damage to other life forms could be even worse. We appear to be in a human generated mass extinction event. Global warming would aggravate this.

The trouble is proving that we have global warming and that it is anthropogenic is not straightforward. The phenomena involved are very complex and we do not and I believe cannot have any single easily understood piece of evidence that clearly says to everyone that global warming is real and humans are causing it. As well it is tangled up with other issues. All too many people are taking a position on global warming because that is the position that those with their politics take.

The scientists who first realized that there was a risk of disastrous warming caused by greenhouse gas wanted to get the message across to people who could do something about it - both people in government and the general public. To do so they oversimplified and they under emphasized the uncertainties of their conclusions. In other words they argued like politicians.
This succeeded in getting attention and prodded some people into action. It antagonized some others. They were annoyed at scientists who acted and urged others to act as if they were certain of their conclusions. And they could not reasonably be certain until recently. Some scientists were prematurely certain (Well as certain as scientists get.) Others believed that serious greenhouse gas forcing of global temperatures was far more likely than not and given the likely consequences action had to be taken. They believed (unfortunately correctly) that any show of uncertainty about their conclusions would be seized on by opponents as reasons not to act. But the gaps in their evidence and arguments were spotted and skeptics were able to get the ears of many of the public and many politicians and officials, not to mention industry leaders. Treating significant greenhouse gas forced global warming as a certainty had mixed results. But would frankly saying that we needed to act on incomplete information have led to results that were even as good?

They had under emphasized convincing industry leaders. Part of this was the belief that if they could convince authorities to pass and enforce the appropriate regulations and convince the public to change their habits then industry would have to fall into line. Part of this was pessimism. They believed that industry leaders were likely to indulge in wishful thinking about global warming and that it was a waste of time trying to convince them. Unfortunately there was some truth to this. As people with a lot to loose from the measures required to counteract global warming industrialists tended to look for reasons not to act. Finally but I think less importantly most public sector scientists tend to be slightly left of center and tended to disregard industry owners and management. But this was a mistake. Industrialists were capable of understanding the arguments put up by greenhouse skeptics and of using them to lobby government.

And then there were the greenies. Most of them are opposed to some aspects of modernity. The greenhouse effect became another club to bash industry, urbanization and modernity with. There is a return to the past streak in the green movement. We cannot return to the simpler life that they espouse. There are too many people now for this to be possible. And most people only want part of the changes that the greenies want. They do not want to give up their luxuries and are turned off by the self-righteous asceticism of the greens. The support of the greens for measures to combat global warming got the backs of many people up. The trouble is I think this is an area where they are partially right.

The greenhouse skeptics have done something worse. They have argued like lawyers. Rather than looking for the most likely explanation many have looked for reasons to believe that greenhouse warming is not real. Some of this is quite reasonable antagonism towards the greens. Some of this is understandable and often justified antagonism towards regulators. Some is wishful thinking.

Some skeptics want simple overwhelming arguments that anyone can easily understand. They are uncomfortable with cases that depend on many lines of argument where none of them are individually conclusive but to disbelieve the lot strains credibility. Unfortunately Nature has not cooperated. We have very complex systems and very noisy data. The proof of human generated global warming depends on the convergence of evidence.

To establish that there has been anthropogenic global warming we have to answer three questions. Have greenhouse gas levels increased as a result of human activity? Have global average temperatures risen? Has the increase in greenhouse gas levels caused the temperature increase? As far as I can tell the answers are yes, yes and partially.

Air bubbles trapped in glacial ice cores have been analyzed. These samples go back several hundred thousand years. The current CO2 levels are the highest found in the whole period. There has been roughly a 30% increase in CO2 levels over the past 150 years. The carbon isotope composition shows that three quarters of the increase in CO2 has come from the burning of fossil fuels and the rest from land use changes (mostly deforestation). Carbon from organic sources is depleted in C13 and C14. Carbon from fossil fuels has almost no C14. I cannot see any reason to doubt the claim that human activity has led to major increases in CO2 levels.

Finding trends in global average temperatures is much more difficult. The data is very noisy, there are many local complicating factors such as the effects of nearby urban areas and we have difficulties with some of the upper atmospheric measurements. One has to combine data from measurements across the World and over decades. This is a difficult and very complex procedure. Nevertheless it definitely looks as if average temperatures are increasing.

Terrestrial surface temperatures have shown an increasing trend with time. It has been suggested that this could be due to increasing urbanization leading to an increase in the urban heat island effect on instruments. Analysis of the data has shown the urban heat island effect to be too small to account for the trends.

The strongest piece of evidence is the recently completed work on ocean surface and upper layer temperatures. This showed temperature increases with time. Because of the sheer thermal inertia of the oceans data will be less noisy than terrestrial data and any trends observed are likely to be reflected elsewhere.

There were doubts surrounding tropospheric temperature readings. The expected trend did not show up. The data has recently been reexamined and systematic instrument biases were found. Once these are allowed for the data shows the expected increasing trend.

Stratospheric temperature readings have shown a decreasing trend as would be expected if temperature trends were driven by greenhouse gas forcing. (The CO2 blocks heat that is being re-radiated from Earth.)

The warming trend is showing up in too many forms. I think we can definitely say that the world has warmed over the past century.

Showing that the world has warmed and that greenhouse gases have increased does not prove that the second has been a major contributor to the first. For thousands of years there has been decade to decade and century to century variation in temperatures. The question is whether the current warming is due to the natural causes that have led to previous warmings or whether it is due to anthropogenic effects or whether it is due to both natural and anthropogenic effects.
The difficulty in connecting greenhouse gas increases and global warming is that we cannot do controlled experiments on the climate. We have only one world available to us and we can only observe what is happening. To understand what is going on and to make predictions computer models of climate have been created and experimented with. Of course these models are approximations and simplifications. Nevertheless they are what we have and we have to use and improve them. We have to create models which incorporate enough of the variables driving temperature change in a realistic enough manner. These can allow us to understand what is going on and to make useful predictions. We can treat a model as an adequate approximation to reality when its predictions match up adequately well with observations. We show that greenhouse gases are responsible for at least some of global warming by showing that observations can be explained if significant greenhouse effects are included and we cannot explain the observations if we do not include them. Of course the models are as simple as is compatible with explanatory power.

Increases in global temperatures can be explained in three ways. There can be an increase in the heat input i.e. solar variation. There can be changes in the ability of heat to move through the atmosphere The main causes of variation in this as far as we can tell are gases and aerosols either of human or volcanic origin. The final possibility is changes in heat flux from the Earth. This would be either heat of geothermal origin or heat that had been stored in the ocean and was now being released.

The current models focus on changes in heat input to the Earth and on changes in atmospheric properties. We can rule out a geothermal origin for the additional heat. Geothermal heat would be localized and it would show up in underground temperature readings. Ocean currents do play a big part in moving heat around the world. Cycles in ocean currents and sea surface temperature could be involved in decade to decade variation in hurricane frequency. Storage of heat in the oceans and its release after a delay of decades or centuries would probably require implausibly complicated processes. I have not seen it suggested as an explanation for the current episode of global warming and if any does suggest it they need to come up with suitable model.

The earlier models tried to explain all of the increase in temperature by changes in atmospheric composition. They were too simple and did not give good predictions. Current models include atmosphere composition changes of both human and volcanic origin and they include variations in solar output. They give a good fit to the observations and should be accepted as explanations and used for predictions until better models are created.

Volcanism explains many short term drops in temperature. Solar variation explains a large proportion of the increase in temperatures in the first half of last century. Future model refinements will give us a better idea of just how much. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing also seems to be involved in that period. Solar variation cannot explain the temperature increases of the past three decades. In fact in the absence of greenhouse gas forcing one would have expected declining temperatures. The temperature increases in the past three decades appear to be of human origin.

Also I do not see how solar variation can explain stratospheric cooling while we have increases in surface and lower atmosphere temperatures. Greenhouse gas forcing would have exactly this effect.

It is the consensus of scientists working on climate that the Earth is warming as a result of human actions. There are differences of opinion over just how much temperatures will increase if nothing is done to arrest the increase in greenhouse gases. Most believe that over the next century we will have an increase in temperature greater than that in last century. It is no good attacking ideological biases. While most public sector scientists are a bit left of center I do not think that this has had a significant effect on their opinions on global warming. Science has good error correcting mechanisms. Most scientists are more interested in finding out what is going on than in pursuing an ideological agenda. In fact ideological agendas are usually driven by whatever subject they are interested in. Of course this does not make their proposed solutions to problems right even if their analysis of the problem is.

Thus I believe it is far more likely than not that we are in a period of rapid global warming mostly driven by anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases. The consequences of not acting if greenhouse gas forcing of global temperatures is real are much worse than the consequences of acting if it is not real. The more we delay the harder it becomes to take corrective action. We are already nearly as certain as we are likely to be in the near future. By the time in a few decades time that we are significantly more certain great damage will have been done.

Environmental degradation in all its forms is a less urgent problem than the war against Islamic terrorism. But it is still urgent and in the long term it is more important.

I am appealing to people to look at the facts. Yes, the greens are using it as a stick to bash free enterprise. But even some them are facing reality now and seriously examining nuclear power. Yes, some sacrifices will have to be made to minimize environmental damage. If we continue to indulge in wishful thinking about global warming we will rob all generations to come. If you say you are still skeptical, well what would you see as acceptable proof and is it possible to get it before major damage is done.

I am not going in detail into what I think we should do. I think the problem is manageable. Some of it is technological improvements and some of it is changes in our behavior. We have to accept that we have serious environmental problems and must do something about them. Just as we have to accept that we are in a war against a totalitarian movement and have to win it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Spotting the embarrassing

Political classifications

Some of us see morality as something given to us by some authority. Some try to derive it logically from first principles. Some base it on intuitions and feelings.

Of course all of us believe that we are right and that those who disagree with us are wrong. Of course some of us have to be wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made mistakes but have in good faith tried to find out what is the right thing to do. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made culpable errors that have led to erroneous beliefs about what is right and wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who know what is right and wrong and simply ignore it. And unfortunately some of us believe that anyone who opposes us must be acting in bad faith. People who believe this have usually stopped reflecting on their own beliefs and do not seek to really understand adversaries. In fact the shrillest attacks on opposing viewpoints seem to come from those who have in large part adopted a viewpoint for personal reasons that they have not examined.

What I want to do in this post is to examine what the moral assumptions are that underlie some political positions. Then I want to look at how our moral assumptions can distort our view of our opponents and of the world. I believe that if you cannot see why a reasonable person might disagree with you then your own opinions are on shaky ground. You might still be right but the reasons for your beliefs could be bad ones. If this is so then you can become a liability to your own side and you are likely to make enemies where there would otherwise only be adversaries.

I will classify political viewpoints by their attitude to the authority of large scale organizations that can be seen as the embodiment of their society. I will then cross-classify by the degree of their belief in the possibility of using these organizations to improve their societies. I think this classification is more useful than left or right for clarification of adherents aspirations and motivations. This classification is designed as a description of viewpoints within Western societies. Movements in other societies may not fit as well into this classification.

The first group are the conservatives. They identify strongly with their nation. They tend to see the state as the embodiment of their nation. They often also identify strongly with other society-wide structures such a church. They tend to see respect for authority and the law as a good in itself, not just as an instrument serving other purposes. They regard the state more as a means to prevent harm rather than as a means to do good. They value what social institutions have created so far and are pessimistic about their ability to radically improve things. They believe that what improvements are possible are generally small evolutionary steps initiated by private individuals. Economically they support mixed economies with the private sector dominant.

The second group are the fascists. Identification with nation and state are even stronger than with conservatives. There is often a strong racial aspect to their loyalties. There is a strong emphasis on respect for the authority of leaders but not on respect for the law. They are utopians who believe that they can use the power of the state to radically improve things. Economically they support highly regulated mixed economies with a strong public sector role.

The third group are the pragmatists. Identification with nation and state are relatively weak (but usually still stronger than in many non Western cultures). They identify with a way of life as much as with their nations. Authority and the law are seen as necessary evils. They have little faith in the ability of anyone to radically improve things by using the power of the state. They agree with conservatives in supporting evolutionary bottom-up changes and in believing that attempts at top-down change will generally make things worse. Economically they support mixed economies with the private sector dominant or laissez-faire.

The fourth group are the progressives. Their attitudes to nation, state, law and authority are instrumental like those of the pragmatists. Their see their loyalties as being primarily to humanity as a whole and to the movement that they are part of. They believe that they can successfully use the power of the state to bring about major beneficial social changes. Economically they support highly regulated mixed economies or socialism.

I have tried to use labels that these groups would accept as a reasonable description of themselves. Liberal is a term mostly claimed by progressives nowadays but historically it belonged to what I am calling pragmatists. Pragmatists sometimes call themselves classical liberals. Many call themselves conservatives these days. This reflects the fact that this is a movement that has accomplished most of its political goals. Pragmatist is a term that does under play the degree to which their beliefs are a matter of coherent principles.

What follows is a very broad brush treatment. Not everyone will fit all aspects of these descriptions. Many people will be near the boundaries of my categories. Nevertheless as generalizations I think they are right.

Associated moral attitudes

These viewpoints tend to be associated with different moral approaches. They may differ in the balance between emphasis on one's own well being, the well being of those close to you, the well being of one's society and the well being of the whole of humanity. They may differ in what things they see as morally obligatory and what they see as morally desirable. They may differ in the degree to which the they think morality is a matter of making self-consciously moral choices rather than having moral values a part of ones unconscious actions. They may differ in the relative emphasis on doing good and on combating and avoiding evil. They may differ in whether they see morality as rules or as guidelines. They may differ in the emphasis that they place on equality. They may differ in how they see competition. They may differ in the circumstances under which they would use violence.

They also differ in what they believe should be planned and done by a whole society and what should be planned and done by individuals. Should defense and law enforcement be handled by the state? Everyone except anarchists will say yes. Should the state be involved in education? In health? In the environment? In welfare? In communications and transport infrastructure? Should the state be involved in general production of goods and services? Many will argue that some of these need to be tackled at the level of whole systems not piecemeal. Many will argue that the attempt to plan some of these for a whole society will lead to inefficiency and corruption.

Most people's idea of what the balance between state and individual planning and action should be agrees with what they believe is most efficient. Too well! People often do some wishful thinking here. Some pragmatists and conservatives will often seek a market solution when a society-wide solution is necessary. Progressives and fascists will refuse to see that a market solution is more efficient than their proposed state-run solutions. There are too few people who will grit their teeth and support a solution because it is right if it goes against their inclinations.

Conservatives tend to see morality as a set of rules. Most (not all) ultimately derive their principles from a religious source. They mostly believe in absolute right and wrong. Unfortunately too many (not all) of them think that it is always easy to distinguish right from wrong, that moral rules are simple one sentence statements. On the other hand some have a very good appreciation of gray areas and complexities. They just believe that sometimes over simplified rules are an unfortunate necessity. Believing in human limitation and fallibility they seek solutions that will work reasonably well despite the failings of those carrying them out. Most will see moral choices primarily as a matter of resisting temptation. If a solution has worked tolerably well in the past they are often inclined to keep it and not recognize its flaws.

They see avoiding and combating evil as having a higher priority than doing good. They do not necessarily see combating evil as more important than doing good. They do see it as more urgent. They believe that if evil is not prevented then the harm done will swamp any good that you are trying to do. They believe that doing good can sometimes prevent evil and sometimes it can't. They believe that the main means of preventing evil is by deterring or forcibly stopping it. They have little hesitation in using force to prevent harm. They are often willing to use compulsion to prevent people from harming themselves and are often willing to be the judges of what constitutes self-harm. Some are be very judgmental about others failings.

If acting through a corporate entity such as the state or a company they are likely to deny their personal responsibility for their actions. They shift the responsibility for any harm done to the corporate body thus holding no one responsible.

They make clear distinctions between what one should do in crisis and normal situations. In a crisis they place the well being of the nation higher than that of kith and kin, which in turn they place higher that of themselves. Since their primary loyalties are to their nations it is difficult to persuade them to act on a global scale. There are no international institutions of a type that they feel comfortable acting through. In normal situations they believe in emphasizing their own well being and that of those around them. Even in a crisis most of them do not believe that one's obligations to one's nation completely swamps everything else. They do believe in balance and the reciprocity of obligations. Loyalty to the state depends on the state doing its job or at least trying to.

They do not place a high emphasis on equality other than equality before the law. They accept some people will be lucky and some not, some will be capable and industrious and some not. They tend to believe that a wealthy person has probably either deserved their wealth or been lucky. They believe that either way resentment of another's honestly obtained wealth is wrong. They do not like taking away from one person to benefit another. Since they focus on avoiding harm rather than on doing good they are sensitive to the harm of robbing Peter and get less satisfaction than a progressive would from the good of paying Paul.

They believe that most of the time people can look after themselves. That the state's role is less promoting success than removing obstacles to success. That attempts to look after people can end up doing more harm than good. That if charity is needed then better that it be private than state. In part this is because they see charity as desirable rather than obligatory behavior and believe that those providing the resources deserve acknowledgment. If government welfare is necessary it is regarded as a regrettable necessity rather than as a good thing.

They regard some competition as a necessary and inevitable part of life but most are not obsessive about it. There are some who see competition as a good in itself and life as a competitive game. Most will see economic competition as the most the most important kind. They believe that without such competition most people would be much worse off. There is a tendency to believe that those who do well in economic competition deserve to because they have either been cleverer or more industrious. Most will not place much emphasis on competition between nations.

Some will support class systems. Some will not. Some are racists. These days most are not. Their sex role and sexual morality expectations tend to be more traditional than those of pragmatists or progressives.

Most conservatives value stability and predictability, especially in public life. They like to know where they stand with others. As a rule comfort is preferred to excitement. This leads to a preference for seeing morality as a set of clear rules. This also leads to conservatism being attractive to people such as small business and farmers who already have what they see as too much uncertainty in their lives.

For many conservatives much of their sense of purpose in life comes from religion. The most important other main contributor to sense of purpose is usually family. Things like career, nation and friendships also contribute to a lesser but significant degree.

Fascists have little capacity for self-criticism. Public actions are guided by expediency rather than morality. Advancing the cause and serving the race or the nation are automatically right. They will attribute evil to others rather than look at their own actions. Public behavior towards outsiders is, when you come down to it, sociopathic. Most are not religious but some use religious rationalizations for their beliefs and behavior. Islamism is related to and partially derived from fascism but is not quite the same thing.

Morality in private life seems to combine the conservatives' desire for simplicity and predictability with the progressives' sense of entitlement.

They believe that the everything will be all right if only the right people are put in charge and given the power do whatever is necessary. They do not recognize the effect that unaccountable power has on its possessors. They do not see their leaders as fallible human beings. They try to create what they see as an ideal society. (Everyone else sees their ideal society as anything but ideal.)

The main focus of loyalty is the nation or race. The leader and perhaps the political party are seen as the embodiment of the nation or race. Family matters but less than nation.

They believe that their agenda can lead to greatness for their people. It is an agenda usually adopted in response to a perceived national failure or threat. It is the movement of the self-pitying.

They are inegalitarian. They are usually racists or chauvinists believing in either the superiority of their race or nation and believe in demonstrating this. They seem to be ambivalent about social class. In the name of racial or national solidarity they downplay class differences. However there is a focus on the leaders that potentially could lead to class stratification. However fascist regimes usually fall before power can be transferred to a new generation thus they never develop mechanisms to handle the transference of power and the class stratification does not have a chance to develop. The main reason why they fall is that they are too aggressive, make too many enemies and are bad at actually fighting wars.

They are generally the worst when it comes to rigid and exaggerated sex roles. There is usually a very strong need for the men to prove their masculinity. There is a strong association between violence and masculinity in their minds. It is a romantic movement offering the excitement of a grand cause.

They do not encourage economic competition. They support highly regulated economies. They see this as encouraging national solidarity and the economic security of citizens.

They tend to see relationships between nations in terms of competition, even conflict. They see this as way of asserting national identity.

They don't clearly distinguish between emergency and normal behavior. They use methods really only appropriate for an emergency all the time. They see the military as a model for the whole of society. They have a love of grandiose public projects requiring a marshaling of resources only really appropriate for an emergency.

There is a high emphasis on publicly funded welfare but only for the in-group. (Look at how the Nazis treated retarded people.) People who want to be protected from failure find it attractive. And of course they are really into scapegoating.

Pragmatists vary in the sources of their moral principles. If they support absolute rules they are likely to be complex and subtle ones. If they see morality more as a matter of principles, attitudes and guidelines they are likely to put a high importance on sense of proportion, circumstances and consequences. They tend to take an unselfconscious approach to morality believing that ideally moral values should be second nature. Generally they regard rightful actions as being those where the intent was benign and appropriate consideration was given to potential harm. In other words they will agree that there are actions that are just plain wrong but that there are a lot of times that it is difficult to decide what is the right thing to do. Like conservatives they expect minimax solutions from social institutions. That is they want social institutions that will work reasonably well even when the wrong people are in charge and they want institutions to be able to readily correct their mistakes.

They make strong distinctions between what is morally obligatory and what is morally desirable. They emphasize avoiding doing harm more than doing good. They certainly regard avoiding harming others as morally obligatory. They require quite a bit of convincing to move an altruistic act from the praiseworthy and desirable category to the morally obligatory category. As a result of this they believe that they can only make limited demands on others for aid.

Since they place less emphasis than conservatives on rules they are more likely to pay attention to extenuating circumstances in the case of wrong doing than conservatives. They are usually less judgmental and more sensitive to the provocation and harm done by people enforcing inflexible rules or acting out of expediency on the behalf of the state. Thus they are more concerned about the possibility of force intended to prevent harm backfiring and provoking harm. Still there are limits and they will not hesitate to use force if they think it is necessary to prevent on person harming another. They are reluctant to judge what constitutes self-harm and will seldom use force to prevent it. They believe that they don't have the right to do this.

They often question whether the state should be seen as the embodiment of a society or nation. Some will question whether society or nation should be seen as anything but a collection of individuals. Being skeptical about the mystique of the state and the law they are less likely than others to excuse wrongs committed by and through the state.

Their main loyalties are to themselves, people around them and their values and way of life. Loyalty to the state is contingent on the state representing and defending their values and way of life. They are skeptical about authority and regard state and law primarily as instruments to serve certain purposes.

While they are more willing to act collectively in emergencies they tend to be less willing to make sacrifices for the common good than people of other viewpoints. Being less nationalistic than conservatives they are in principle more willing to act globally. However they are still doubtful about existing international institutions.

They have little faith in the state's ability to create a better world. They believe that attempts to create a better world by using the state usually backfires. They tend to be more optimistic than conservatives about the possibility of improving the world by private actions such as changes in attitudes or by technological improvements.

They don't make a big deal about equality. They support equality before the law but are more concerned with maximizing than with equalizing opportunity. They certainly do not expect equality of outcomes. They do not like wealth redistribution. They want welfare to be a safety net if that.

Like conservatives they see competition as necessary and inevitable. They tend to be uninterested in competition between nations. They support economic competition and are more likely than conservatives to be obsessive about it. Some will almost deify it believing that if something comes about as a result of fair completion then that's the way it should be.

They believe in giving people the chance to look after themselves.

They are opposed to racism but are reluctant to use the state to oppose it. They believe that it is best opposed by changing people's attitudes. Their sex role and sexual morality beliefs are usually more liberal than those of conservatives.

Generally they expect that there will be much privately driven change. They are concerned with removing obstacles to change. There is perhaps too little questioning of whether some market driven changes are undesirable and should be opposed.

Their sense of purpose in life can come from any of a wide variety of sources. It is an outlook that does not provide people with a sense of purpose but rather demands that they find or create their own. While some are religious many, perhaps most are not. This is not a belief set that lends itself to being used as a religion substitute. It also downplays nation as a source of identity and sense of purpose. It can leave people without a sense of any large purpose. They generally get most of their sense of purpose from the values that they uphold, their careers, family and friends. There is a tendency for some not to have a sense of purpose. It is particularly attractive to people with inherently satisfying jobs that can provide some of their sense of purpose and to the wealth obsessed.

Progressives generally see morality more as a matter of intent and consequences than as a set of rules. That is an act is right if it proceeds from what they regard as acceptable motives or it has what they see as desirable consequences. In particular they emphasize empathy as a basis for morality. This is a generalization and there are many who do see it at least partially as a set of rules.

Such an approach should lead to them being less judgmental and to people have an appreciation of the difficulty of some moral decisions. For some it does but many others descend into self-righteousness.

The virtues that progressives usually focus on are tolerance and benevolence, especially the latter. The virtues that conservatives and pragmatists prize most are usually integrity and honesty. They emphasize doing good more than fighting evil. Indeed some seem to regard fighting evil as a distraction from doing good. They believe that one can usually prevent evil by acting justly towards others.

They usually do not distinguish as sharply as others do between acts of commission and acts of omission or between morally desirable and morally obligatory acts. They often see not aiding someone as equivalent to harming them. However there is no obvious limit to how much of ones resources one can devote to helping others and it is not obvious which others one should help first. Few are willing to impoverish themselves but few can explain their criteria for setting priorities and limits.

They tend to believe in human perfectibility. That if you treat people properly and inculcate the right attitudes and beliefs you can eliminate most human vices. They see the state as a means through which they can bring about radical improvements in the world. That what you need is to have people in charge with the right agendas and with the power to do what is necessary.

They see their primary loyalty as being towards the whole of humanity. They see themselves as acting on this loyalty through their loyalty to the progressive movement or to the political party or organization that they belong to. Some disdain national loyalties, other subordinate them to loyalties to cause and whole of humanity. Many downplay the importance of family and the individual, perhaps more in practice than in principle.

They strongly emphasize equality. They are opposed to racism and class systems. They support sexual equality and usually have liberal attitudes towards sex roles and sexual morality. Many support equality of opportunity. Many go further and seek equality of outcomes. In the cause of remedying past injustices many will try to use the power of state to try to bring about equal outcomes. This can be a violation of equality before the law.

They are not into the mystique of authority, nation, state and law. There is however a tendency for them to idealize their leaders even though this would seem inconsistent with their emphasis on equality. This looks like a romantic attempt to see the leader as the personification of a cause.

Most moral systems seek a balance between one's own needs and the needs of others. You will not find pure altruism seriously considered as a moral system in any course on ethics. It does not make sense as it is a system that you violate if you allow it to benefit you. However what many progressives advocate almost amounts to this.

Many progressives expect acting morally to help them feel good about themselves and to bring them recognition from other progressives. This leads to them emphasizing acts done for another's benefit. This in turn can lead to them seeing things in ways that give them the opportunity for altruistic acts. If they can see someone as a victim of oppression then they can play the role of champion of the underdog. I am not suggesting that their concern for others is not real. I am suggesting that there are other reasons involved as well, ones which they will not admit to themselves but which can be obvious to outsiders. This can lead to them taking moral positions which do not make sense except as ego support and status seeking. This tendency is perhaps worst in progressive intellectuals in the humanities, journalists and media personalities. Politicians and the rank and file are less likely to act this way.

If one sees moral behavior as a means of feeling good and gaining status then one can be attracted to asceticism. The more a moral act is seen as being difficult or requiring sacrifice the more virtuous it can be seen as being. Thus morality becomes a conscious foreground issue. Some other progressives along with more conservatives and even more pragmatists think morality should be second nature. That ideally one should be doing the right thing because that is one's inclination. This approach leads to morality becoming an unconscious background issue. If morality is mostly a matter of automatic actions then it is less likely to be used for ego gratification and status seeking.

They are supporters of extensive welfare systems. They see state run welfare as an opportunity to do good and having weaker or even no sense of private property are not disturbed by obtaining the resources required through taxation.

They often see economic competition as something nasty and undesirable. It seems to be a matter of an ideal of harmony and of looking down on self-interest . However they certainly do plenty of competition for status.

They are very variable in the circumstances under which they will use force. Some are pacifists or near-pacifists. Some such as the communists can be extremely callous in furthering the cause. Some get carried away with the excitement of violence. Since they are a Utopian movement they can believe that the violence they use now helps banish or reduce future violence forever. This encourages some to use measures that no one who did not believe that what they did would permanently change the world could justify.

Since many are looking for chances to do good they are likely to try to prevent self-harm.

This is a romantic movement offering excitement and an opportunity to leave a mark on the world. They are too likely to not leave well enough alone because they want to believe that they can improve things. It is an ideology that appeals to people whose job is basically helping others such as teachers and welfare workers. It also appeals to people who feel that the market does not give them the status, influence and relative wealth that they feel entitled to such as some academics and journalists.

Effect of moral approach on perception of others

We're all prone to wishful thinking. Some of us try harder than others to stop it.

Our moral convictions can lead to us taking certain things for granted. We might assume that others are seeking to gain the same things from their actions as we would gain from the same actions. We might put issues in certain terms oblivious to the fact that there are other ways of look at things.

Some of the problems that I will discuss below are inherent in the political viewpoints discussed. Most are not but the predisposition towards and risk of them is. Some are the result of personal motivations that attract people to particular viewpoints rather than being the result of the viewpoints themselves. Some of these problems are violations of the principles professed by the people concerned.

Conservatives tend to value comfort and certainty in their beliefs. They often cannot comprehend how someone can live without something that they gain comfort from or can live in uncertainty.

This is especially so for many religious conservatives. The comfort that they gain from a belief in a God who is looking after them, from the sense of purpose that their religion brings and from the belief in an afterlife is immense.

Some do not accept that people could actually not believe in God. The "There are no atheists in foxholes." slur. They do not understand that some other people might not want to have a God looking out for them, might get their sense of purpose elsewhere and actually might not want an eternal life. They do not understand how someone might want these things but reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no evidence that they are true. They do not comprehend that someone might refuse to seek comfort from their beliefs. In other words they don't understand integrity.

Others will try to describe the beliefs of those who disagree with them as being faith based even when they are not. Creationists are the obvious offenders here. Once again they don't understand that there are people who regard seeking truth and seeking comfort as separate activities that can conflict.

Many religious conservatives believe that morality can be completely encapsulated in a set of rules and that God is the only possible source of a moral code. They fail to see that for others citing God as the source of morality is begging the question. Is a divine command morally right by definition? In fact many, perhaps most people argue in the opposite direction. They judge supposed divine commands by using beliefs about morality that have different origins. If a purported divine command seems, to them, to be immoral they doubt its divine provenance.

They do not see the difference between a religion putting down a moral code and religion being the origin of morality. And they underestimate the proportion of our moral code that come from sources other the Abrahamic religions. Much of it comes from Greek and Roman civil and philosophical traditions, especially Stoicism, and from the civil traditions of the Celtic and Germanic tribes.

Many expect a moral system to be always able to tell you easily and with certainty whether an act is right or wrong. They claim that a system that does not do so is not a moral system at all. They denounce as relativism systems that take context into account and do not offer certainty. They do not see that while other approaches to morality do not offer certainty in many areas there are many things that most will agree there is no doubt are wrong. There is no moral system worth mentioning that would not describe the Holocaust as evil. That you can do the right thing most of the time without being completely certain. And that in seeking certainty that one can suppress mixed feelings about an action. That sometimes there are no good choices and it is bad to try to see the lesser of two evils as a good.

Many conservatives want quick simple solutions to threats, both internal ones from criminals and external ones from other nations or from terrorists. They want to try to solve these problem solely by the use of force and believe they can be solved if only enough force is used. There is an element in this of "Just make the problem go away.". A bigger one is an exaggerated faith in effort. The more effort and resources you throw at a problem the greater the chance of success. This can ignore diminishing returns and the possibility that there might be flaw in your approach.

But the main reason is that doing something other than using force can feel as if one is conceding that the criminal or the enemy might be at least partially justified in what they are doing. That not lashing out is slighting the victims and doubting their righteousness and one's own. This belief confuses extenuating circumstances with justification. It is an evasion of the obligation to ask the questions "Am I in the right?" and "Will this work?".

Trying to solve a problem solely by force and not questioning one's rightness leads to running the risk of loosing one's sense of proportion and doing more harm than can be justified. This includes such things as draconian sentences, recklessness about the risk of punishing the innocent and disproportionate collateral damage in war.

In the current conflict with Islamism most conservatives do not see Islam itself as the enemy. Most see the enemy as a widespread disease within Islam. It is a toxic cocktail of some weaknesses within Islam, some widespread flaws within Arab society, some flaws in the culture of the desert tribes, some bad ideas taken from Western fascist and progressive movements and some original contributions from the Islamists themselves. Most conservatives want to get the rest of the Muslim world to isolate and turn against the Islamists. They realize that this is a difficult project and will take a lot of time. But some conservatives are impatient and want the simplicity of seeing the whole of Islam as the enemy. They demand that moderate Muslims either openly attack the Islamists now or be seen as the enemy. They do not recognize the difficulties and dangers for moderate Muslims in doing this and are unwilling to try to put themselves in their place. They also undervalue the support that we do receive from moderate Muslims. (Where do they think we get most of our intelligence from?) Granted some of this comes from the words of moderate Muslims being under reported.

Over optimism about the efficacy of force is not a problem confined to conservatives nor does it affect anywhere near all conservatives but it is a more serious problem with them than with pragmatists or progressives. And it is a violation of the conservative principle of making allowance for human limitations and fallibility.

A related problem is respect for authority leading to them being unwilling do admit that the police or the courts might be the ones actually in the wrong.

Since they value social cohesion most will support measures designed to prevent the emergence of an underclass with no hope and no stake in the society. The most important of these is the provision of education. They will generally also support a welfare systems designed to protect victims of misfortune. There is a strong preference for helping people to help themselves rather than simply helping them directly.

They frequently have a blind spot in this area. Many will be unwilling to admit the part chance plays in determining peoples well being. There is a tendency to think that one can always create one's own opportunities. There is often an over optimistic view of the importance of ability and the efficacy of effort. People may want to take all the credit for their being well off. This can lead to them being unwilling to see the part that bad luck and circumstances plays in the life of others.

One's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Some religious conservatives don't want to admit this. They see homosexuality as a sin and see acceptance of homosexuals as giving homosexuals an opportunity to recruit. The see homosexuals as recruited rather than born. If they saw homosexuality as an unchosen inclination they would find it harder to justify demanding that homosexuals give up their behavior.

For similar reasons there can be a refusal to admit that many unusual sexual urges are not matters of choice. They don't want to believe that not everyone can be happy with a conventional heterosexual marriage and family life no matter how much they try.

Conservatives want people to have the opportunity to gain wealth and look after themselves. They prize human effort and accomplishment. Thus they are very skeptical about things that put limits on opportunity and deny the ability of effort to solve a problem. Also they prefer solutions that depend on private initiative to government run solutions and especially to international government run solutions.

Some conservatives face up to environmental threats. Some others look for reasons not to believe in them. This can turn into clutching at straws in the hope that they will not have to give up doing anything. Some of this is reaction against doom-saying and tree-hugging. Some of it is not wanting to admit that environmental considerations do put limits on opportunities.

Farmers, fishermen and woodcutters do not like hearing that putting more effort and resources into their work will only bring better returns for a limited period and will eventually reduce or even eliminate their returns. They can be unwilling to accept that limits can be set by nature rather than by their efforts. Nationalists do not like the idea that global warming or the depletion of oceanic fisheries are problems that require international solutions.

Fascists are obsessed with martial strength and try to make society resemble their idea of an army. But they are bad at actually waging wars. (The Nazis were dangerous because of what they took over and inherited, not because of what they created. They took over a large country with a very strong industrial base and military forces with a massive bank of accumulated skills.) They have a romantic idea of war which places an overemphasis on the skill and valor of individual warriors and under emphasizes such things as logistics, resources and the part played by those not doing the actual fighting. This actually undermines military professionalism. Also since they see conflict as a way of asserting their worth they look down on people who try to avoid conflict. This leads to them underestimating the determination and skill of their enemies.

Pragmatists often have similar blind spots to many conservatives when it comes to looking at the role of chance and effort in human lives. They often also have blind spots about the environment.

Often they undervalue social cohesion. Some do not place enough importance on common effort in an emergency. Some, especially libertarians are too likely to stand on what they regard as their rights at an inappropriate time.

Many over emphasize such things as competition and ambition. Combined with an under emphasis on social cohesion this can create opportunities especially in corporations for non-criminal sociopaths. The bosses from hell. While these particular noxious creatures can occur under any system pragmatism does give them more opportunity and rationalizations for their behavior than other systems.

Progressives see themselves as the champions of rationality, benevolence and equality. While these beliefs are genuine the emphasis on doing good makes the movement a standing invitation to the self-righteous, the ones who want to feel good. Much of the obnoxious behavior and most of the failure to understand others comes from this source. Self-righteousness is not an inherent feature of progressive ideologies but it is an inherent risk.

Many see their beliefs as the only ones that a rational person could come to. These people cannot understand how a reasonable person could in good faith oppose them. They often think that their opinions have more scientific justification than they actually have. Thus they believe that anyone who opposes them must be doing so for irrational reasons. These progressives are generally opposed to religion seeing it as an enemy of reason. They often see more religious influence behind opponents positions than is really there. Some of these such as communists can end up with beliefs that are more religion-like than they would like to admit. These people are often trying to gain from a political movement what others might gain from religion.

Many progressives see themselves as anti-authoritarian. They see respect for authority within families or nations as irrational. Some feel that their loyalties to something above nations and to a better future make them superior to those who place high priorities on such petty loyalties.

The problem is that these progressives are not as rational as they think they are. No one has come up with a completely rational basis for morality and hence no one has done so for any political system. What reason can do is to check a political system for consistency. This is not done enough. It can also show where a set of political premises leads. Sometimes logical extrapolation of political premises leads to conclusions that should cause us to recoil and reexamine the premises. Sometimes this step is not taken and something nasty end up being given a rational excuse.

Trying to be benevolent, tolerant and altruistic can degenerate into trying to feel virtuous and be seen by others as virtuous. The people who have given in to self-righteousness try to push others into self-righteous behavior. If one tries to show that one is doing the right thing then one can start demanding that others also show that what they are doing is right. These people cannot understand others being offended by such demands. This moral ostentation is the source of most of the behavior that others deride as politically correct.

Not everyone gains great satisfaction from altruistic behavior. Not everyone is a people person. There is a temptation for those people who do to regard this as making them morally superior to the rest. Some of this is just the normal human tendency to regard what is important to oneself as something which should be of great importance to everyone else. And some of it can be benevolence becoming a matter for self congratulation.

Part of the problem is trying to base ethics solely on empathy. If one does so then altruism can become all of morality and ones vision of oneself as a kind person can become more important than actual kindness.

Supporting equality and championing underdogs can lead to looking for people who can be cast in the role of underdog. Much of the time this really is championing the victims of misfortune and the disadvantaged. Sometimes it can involve blindness to how a group contributes to their own misfortune or how help could backfire. And sometimes it can involve making excuses for atrocious behavior if a group can be characterized as victims of oppression.

Seeking to act altruistically can lead to preferring to do things through the welfare system rather than helping people to get into a position to help themselves. Seeing people as helpless victims of oppression can help the helper feel good but can actually do harm if it gets in the way of helping the welfare recipients to help themselves. The main benefit of help in these cases can become to the ego of the helper.

A good example of this is welfare for Australian aborigines. Here is genuine disadvantage aggravated by some dysfunctional behavior within the Aboriginal community and a welfare system that has expended huge resources and whose recipients have not received anywhere near the benefits that they should have.

As for excusing atrocious behavior look no further than anyone making excuses for terrorists.

Multiculturalism was originally the demand that migrants be not put under pressure to abandon their traditions and values and attachments. The truth was that there was never any pressure to abandon traditions. There was never any demand to completely abandon attachments to their country of origin, only to for an overriding attachment to their new country. There was only a demand that those values incompatible with those of their new country be abandoned. In the name of tolerance and equality some multiculturalists seem determined to allow migrants to not need to make any adjustments to their new country. In fact we have some migrants who seem determined to make their new countrymen change to accommodate them.

Multiculturalism seems to be a case of tolerance being turned into a fetish rather than a reality. In the name of tolerance we have people abandoning the defense of liberty and equality and tolerance. The multiculturalists want so much to be seen as tolerant that they will accept restrictions on free speech demanded by the easily offended rather than telling people "We have robust debate here. Grow a thicker skin.". They will accept sexual inequality in the name of respecting cultural differences. They will shut their eyes to Judeophobia in the name of preventing Islamophobia. (I use the term Judeophobia in preference to anti-Semitism. It's more accurate.) They are unwilling to defend the values of their own culture. It seems to have turned into nothing more than a way of saying "I'm tolerant and kind. See how superior I am."

Opposing racism is good easy way of demonstrating one's virtue. The more things that one can see as racism the more chances there are to show how virtuous one is.

Since progressives want to build a better world they want to believe that they can change human nature for the better. This leads to them being tempted to automatically say nurture whenever there is any nature nurture dispute. Egalitarianism pushes them in the same direction. Some have the integrity to decide such questions on the evidence whatever their inclinations. Some do not.

If someone is determined to do good and sees themselves as good then they run a high risk of not spotting the potentially corrupting effect of power. There is the danger of self-criticism shutting down and of loosing the ability to criticize someone that they see as having good intentions.

Some progressives have become quite obsessed in their conflict with conservatives. So obsessed that they cannot bear to make common cause with conservatives against an external enemy. Some of them are trying to see the Islamists as victims of oppression and blinding themselves to the evil and the danger. It seems as if their egos and sense of identity have gotten involved in the conflict with conservatives and they are unable to put it on the back burner for the duration. That they need to see conservatives as evil rather than just wrong.

The conflict with Islamism has led to a split within the progressive movement. It is now clearer who is part of the progressive movement of principle and who is part of the progressive movement of ego. I don't know if the latter is larger but it certainly is noisier.

I hope that this effort of mine is useful in helping identify and understand the embarrassments on your side whatever that side is. There is no political position that will not attract some people for the wrong reasons. This essay is an attempt to reduce the harm that they do to rational debate.