They Know Better

Moral reasoning is hard.  It’s so hard, in fact, that most people do little moral reasoning.  Instead, as Daniel Kahneman would expect, they perform a mental substitution.  Rather than wonder, “What’s morally right?,” they ask, “What’s socially acceptable?”

In decent societies, this seems fairly harmless.  When your society is even selectively evil, however, the substitution is disastrous.  Strictly following standard social norms in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China is murder.

Which brings us to a pressing question: How do you know whether your society is evil?  Or to make matters even starker: How hard was it for the average adult in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China to know that their societies were evil?  If people can’t readily figure that out on their own, what moral questions can they answer?

My claim: Figuring out that Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China are evil is an easy task for almost anyone – including lifelong members of those societies.  How so?  By applying two principles that a child can understand.

Principle #1: Turnaround. When a child mistreats each other, adults routinely ask the offender something like, “Would it be all right if someone did that to you?”  When you’re faced with complex moral hypotheticals, this question won’t get you far.  But when you’re wondering, “Is it all right to murder some peaceful but unpopular people?,” you really can fast forward to the right answer just by asking, “If you were a Jew/kulak/money-lender, would it be all right to murder you?”

Principle #2: Bad laws are made to be broken. Virtually everyone in every society regularly breaks the law – and they usually do so with a clean conscience.  This is clearly true when the law inflicts great suffering for no good reason.  Yet people also routinely break laws simply because the laws are obviously stupid.  A few people may claim to “Always follow the law,” but even these stubborn folk spend little time actually studying the laws to ensure they don’t accidentally break one.  Neither do they feel guilty about their lackadaisical effort to master the body of laws they’re nominally determined to strictly obey.  And since people already break the law to cut a few minutes off their commute, the idea that they should disobey laws ordering the murder of Jews/kulaks/money-lenders is only an intellectual baby step.

None of this means that ordinary people in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China were morally obliged to die as martyrs.  However, it does mean ordinary people in these societies could easily figure out that their societies were deeply evil – and they should at least covertly strive to avoid complicity.  If they failed to figure that out, it is because they culpably failed to apply moral principles they understood since childhood.

The moral standards for people who actually formed and carried out these policies were, of course, much higher.  I’ve quoted Spiderman before and I’ll quote him again: With great power comes great responsibility.  Ordinary people have no obligation to devote their lives to the study of moral philosophy and social science.  But anyone who wields political power over thousands of human beings – much less millions – absolutely does.

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Bad Choices and Shifting the Blame

I don’t blame manufacturers or retailers for the misuse of their (non-faulty) products. Not even with products known to be really dangerous if used according to their purpose.

When someone buys something dangerous and makes the choice to misuse it, that’s where the blame lies.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking guns, opioids, cars, or anything else.

If you misuse something it’s YOUR fault if you die from it and YOUR fault if you harm others. You are not the victim. I hold YOU accountable. And, if the shoe is on the other foot, as it has been a few times, I accept my responsibility.

Yes, I get it. Where drugs are concerned, people foolishly abuse drugs manufactured by people who just want to make money from addicts. It’s easy to say someone shouldn’t make something that people can get addicted to. Even though people can apparently get addicted to anything. They don’t force anyone to use their products (unlike government). They are simply meeting a want, even though we might dislike that want.

So, being addicted doesn’t change anything. To have become addicted, you still had to make the choice to use something known to be dangerously addictive at least once. Unless you are one of the vanishingly rare cases where someone drugged you without your knowledge and you became addicted, you chose the path. I feel bad for addicts, but that’s no reason to attack the manufacturers, treat them as criminals, and ignore the voluntary choice the future addict made.

Nor is there any legitimate reason to treat addicts as criminals instead of as people who may need medical help. Prohibition is still evil.

The choice to misuse a product is still a choice, and it’s not helpful to coddle those making these choices or to shift the blame to someone else.

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Bullying’s Cure is Fighting Back

It’s as predictable as the equinox: school starts in the fall and bullying catches society’s attention anew.

It’s not as though bullying stops over the summer break, but then it is usually left-over momentum from the previous school year.

“Back to school” recharges it.

Schools decry bullying, often getting the community involved. It’s a halfhearted effort at best. Schools can’t eliminate bullying without undermining their own system since it’s based on authoritarianism — socially accepted bullying.

The dictionary says a bully is anyone who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate someone weaker, usually to force them to do what the bully wants.

Who, other than an insecure person with little self-worth, would behave this way? Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the authoritarian teacher or principal, the politician or the politicians’ badged “muscle,” if you choose to push others around — literally or figuratively — to force them to do what you want, you can’t think very highly of yourself.

I pity bullies, even as I hope their victims fight back hard enough to make the bullies reconsider their poor life choices.

Fighting back is the only cure for bullying. The victims must fight back, and shouldn’t be penalized for doing so. Yet this is the solution no one in an official capacity, who claims to oppose bullying, is willing to accept.

Forcing victims to rely on someone else to solve the problem for them is also bullying. It doesn’t teach responsibility and won’t build confident character for facing life’s other struggles. Encourage the victim to stand firm. Back them up if you’re concerned about their safety, but don’t tolerate anyone who treats fighting back against a bully the same as bullying.

Some bullied kids have gone on to strike out in tragic, angry ways at those who didn’t bully them — themselves or other innocents. I suspect this is because healthy ways of fighting back were forbidden.

The frustration must build to intolerable levels, finally snapping in the worst possible way.

The victim, because of his lack of competence in dealing with bullies, becomes a bully. Or a mass-murderer.

It’s no excuse, but it is predictable.

You can create a monster by being monstrous to someone. Forbidding self-defense or turning a blind eye to officially sanctioned forms of bullying is monstrous. Society ends up paying the price for official cowardice.

Bullying is a problem. It won’t be solved by ignoring the solution or by making the social environment worse for its victims.

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Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Trump Didn’t Start the War in Afghanistan, But He Owns It

National Security Advisor John Bolton became the latest American casualty of Washington’s 18-year war in Afghanistan on September 10, fired by US president Donald Trump shortly after Trump announced that he had planned, but was canceling, a meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David to ink a “peace deal.”

Firing Bolton is a good start. Nobody sane wants a guy who looks like Captain Kangaroo but talks like Dr. Strangelove whispering foreign policy advice in a president’s ear. The main effect of his departure from the White House is to shift perceived responsibility for America’s ongoing fiasco in Afghanistan back where it belongs: Squarely on the shoulders of Donald J. Trump.

Before Trump became a presidential candidate, his views on the war made sense. “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives,” he tweeted on March 1, 2013. In November of that same year, he urged Americans to “not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024.”

Unfortunately his position on the war became “nuanced” (read: pandering and weaselly) as he became first a presidential candidate and then president.

As president, he increased US troop levels in Afghanistan and dragged out the war he once said he wanted to end. In fact, the notional Camp David “peace deal” would merely have reduced those troop levels back to about where they were as of his inauguration. Some “peace deal!”

Throughout Trump’s presidency, his non-interventionist supporters have continuously made excuses for his failure to end US military adventures in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.

It’s always John Bolton’s fault, or Mike Pompeo’s. It’s always this general, or that bureaucrat, or the “fake news media,” or the “deep state” undermining poor, powerless little Donny Trump, thwarting his sincere desire to do the right thing and bring the troops home.

Oddly, those same supporters would have us believe that Trump is a bold and commanding genius, scattering his opponents before him as he  maneuvers 5D chess pieces around their tiddlywinks with his abnormally small hands, Making America Great Again.

It can’t be both. Nor is it necessarily either of those things. Whatever it is, this is necessarily part of it:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States …” — Article II, Section 2, US Constitution

Trump can pick up his phone any time, call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and order the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. If his order is disobeyed, he can relieve the generals who fail to follow it and replace them with others who’ll do their jobs.

John Bolton didn’t stop him from doing that. Mike Pompeo can’t stop him from doing that. The “fake news media” and the “deep state” don’t get to countermand presidential orders to the armed forces.

Donald Trump owns this war. If he doesn’t end it, that’s on him and no one else.

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The 9/11 Attacks: Understanding Al-Qaeda and the Domestic Fall-Out from America’s Secret War

With American military personnel now entering service who were not even alive on 9/11, this seems an appropriate time to reexamine the events of September 11, 2001 – the opaque motives for the attacks, the equally opaque motives for the counter-offensive by the United States and its allies known as the Global War on Terror, and the domestic fall-out for Americans concerned about the erosion of their civil liberties on the homefront.

Before venturing further, it’s worth noting that our appraisal is not among the most common explanations. Osama bin Laden, his lieutenants at Al-Qaeda, and the men who carried out the attack against the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon are not “crazy,” unhinged psychopaths launching an attack against the United States without what they consider to be good reason.

Nor do we consider then-President George W. Bush to be either a simpleton, a willing conspirator, an oil profiteer, or a Machivellian puppet whose cabinet were all too happy to take advantage of a crisis.

The American press tends to portray its leaders as fools and knaves, and America’s enemies as psychopathic. Because the propaganda machine hammered away so heavily on the simple “cowardly men who hate our freedom” line, there was not much in the way of careful consideration of the actual political motives of the hijackers, the Petro-Islam that funded them, the ancient, antagonistic split between Sunni and Shi’a, the fall-out from the 1979 Iranian revolution or the 1970s energy crisis, the historical context of covert American involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, nor the perceived “imperialist humanitarianism” of American military adventures of the 1990s in Muslim nations like BosniaIraqSomalia and Kosovo. Alone, none of these factors were deadly. Combined, they provided a lethal combination.

It is our considered opinion that the events of 9/11 and those that followed in direct response to the attacks – including the invasion of Iraq – were carried out by good faith rational actors who believed they were acting in the best interests of their religion or their nation. There are no conspiracy theories here; sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

This opinion does not in any way absolve the principals from moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It does, however, provide what we believe to be a more accurate and nuanced depiction of events than is generally forthcoming from any sector of the media – because we see these principals as excellent chess players who, in the broad sweep of events, engaged in actions which are explicable.

Continue reading The 9/11 Attacks: Understanding Al-Qaeda and the Domestic Fall-Out from America’s Secret War at Ammo.com.

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