A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, "We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is." Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: "You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work."
You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?
In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
This NYT article (h/t Greg Downey on FB; check out his Neuroanthropology blog) lays out research on the effects of social conditions (isolation vs integration) on PTSD. Greg excerpted this quote:
It turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors. Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself.
I thought this one about Nepalese ex-child soldiers provided a good concrete example:
But in villages that readily and happily reintegrated them (usually via rituals or conventions specifically designed to do so), they experienced no more mental distress than did peers who had never gone to war. The lasting harm of being a child soldier, it seemed, arose not from the war but from social isolation and conflict afterward.
"Greece and Judea, furnish the mind and the heart by which the rest of the world is sustained"
Every hour brings us from distant quarters of the Union the expression
of mortification at the late events in Massachusetts, and at the
behavior of Boston. The tameness was indeed shocking. Boston, of whose
fame for spirit and character we have all been so proud ; Boston, whose
citizens, intelligent people in England told me they could always
distinguish by their culture among Americans; the Boston of the American
Revolution, which figures so proudly in John Adams's Diary, which the
whole country has been reading; Boston, spoiled by prosperity, must bow
its ancient honor in the dust, and make us irretrievably ashamed. In
Boston, we have said with such lofty confidence, no fugitive slave can
be arrested, and now, we must transfer our vaunt to the country, and
say, with a little less confidence, no fugitive man can be arrested here
; at least we can brag thus until to-morrow, when the farmers also may
be corrupted.--Emerson, "THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW ADDRESS TO CITIZENS OF CONCORD, 3 MAY, 1851"
The second passage above was at the core of a fantastic lecture, "A Kantian Account of Complicity," delivered by Julia Driver in Ghent yesterday (and tomorrow in Amsterdam), all the more notable because Driver tends toward a more consequentialist moral philosophy. The core of Driver's lecture, was on the relationship between complicity and a certain form of action-guiding self-respect (even integrity). For, in Emerson, the dishonor of Boston creates a collective shame that potentially leaves none untouched.
In the passage, Emerson re-actives what we may call a republican rhetoric, in which commerce, luxurious prosperity, and city-life are associated with cowardice and tameness. By contrast, the independent, self-reliant, rustic farmer all stand for heroic virtue. But Emerson also insists that even beyond the suburbs, the country is no safe haven from the shared complicity in injustice (tomorrow the farmer). As Emerson said in his lecture, "Great is the mischief of a legal crime.
Every person who touches this business is contaminated." So, in his lecture, Emerson's analysis relies on a different strain of argument, one greatly indebted to Adam Smith, who as regular readers may recall, thinks we can even be polluted if we unwillingly contribute to harm of others (and connects shame to pollution).
Together, King, Wallace and Woodfox are known as the Angola 3. Their struggle for justice is not set in a repressive dictatorship on the other side of the world. It is not a horror story from the U.S. War on Terror. It is happening in our own backyard, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola Prison.
Angola Prison is named after the slave plantation upon which it was built, which in turn was named after the Portuguese colony where the first slaves on this land were transported. Even today, the forced labor of black prisoners working in the cotton fields of Angola Prison conjures up images of slavery.
I am an occasional moralist, but no ethicist. So, what follows is product of considerable ignorance (and modest Platonism). Prompted by reading a detailed review of a recent book on (among other things) the ethics of torture, I wonder if it can be healthy for one's mind/soul/brain to spend a considerable amount of time thinking through in extremely fine-grained fashion "examples involving the deliberate infliction of extreme suffering." I imagine that while one can do some of the philosophic work involved by using notational variants of abstract Xs and Ys, probably considerable amount of the work is done by graphically imagining (or writing out) the various aspects of the examples that can reveal differences in intuitions or morally salient reactive attitudes. But I wonder how that could possibly be beneficial to the philosopher. A quick survey on scholar.google revealed that the ethics of torture and ticking bomb cases are thriving niches in our discipline (as well as law, medicine, etc). So, has anybody studied (phenomenologically, scientifically, literary, etc) the psychic or moral effects on philosophic-practitioners of folk working on the ethics of torture (punishment, trolley-cases, etc)?
“Professor Allhoff has written a challenging work that is sure to generate controversy among both the supporters and critics of the United States' war on terror. He applies philosophical, legal, and political approaches to deepen our understanding of modern terrorism, the ticking-time-bomb hypothetical and national security. His methodical arguments and brave conclusions will not please everyone, but it will press them all to become more rigorous in their thinking and more careful in their judgments. Anyone interested in the difficult questions posed by the 9/11 attacks and the US's response will want to read this book.”--John Yoo, University of California, Berkeley
"Challenging work," "difficult questions," "brave conclusions" -- why do these always seem to get appended to books that argue that "while allowing that torture constitutes a moral wrong ... in exceptional cases, it represents the lesser of two evils"?
I’m just back from an extremely enjoyable family vacation in sunny Fuerteventura, which also means that I am swamped by a zillion work-related things that need to be attended to asap. I also want to resume blogging, and have a few posts already lined up in my head (in particular, one on the ‘climate for women’ discussion which has re-emerged), but where do I find time for all this? (One almost regrets going on holiday and forgetting about it all for a while, given the harsh conditions upon return!)
But anyway, today I came across two interesting links, via the New Scientist twitter feed, and thought it might be a good topic to resume blogging. As it turns out, Steven Pinker’s most recent interest is the history of violence, which he takes to be a privileged window for his long-standing interest in human nature (broadly construed). In his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, he claims that there has been a significant decrease in homicides and violent deaths over the centuries: ‘Humans are less violent than ever’. This becomes particularly clear if the death tolls of historical occurrences of horror are estimated on the basis of the human population at the time, and what the proportion would mean in terms of the current human population in the world. This was done by finding the per-capita death rate at the midpoint of the event's range of years, based on population estimates from McEvedy and Jones.
I just came across the CFP of a very interesting conference which will take place in Johannesburg, called 'Living with the past'. A few months ago I had complained about the Netherlands' failure to deal with their colonial past, so it is with concerns of this nature in mind that I am thrilled to see this CFP. It is nowhere near my own professional expertise, but I am delighted to see that philosophy can perhaps contribute to the proper treatment of such absolutely fundamental issues of 'real life'. I've heard Lucy Allais (the sender of the CFP to philos-l) speaking on the South-African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” once, and it was truly inspiring. Definitely a conference to keep track of!
I couldn't find a link to the conference's website, so I'm copying here the CFP as posted on philos-l:
First call for papers: Living with the past
The Philosophy Department of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, is hosting a conference on the topic ‘Living with the Past’.
Date: 3-5 June 2011
Keynote speakers: Howard McGary (Rutgers) Lionel K. McPherson (Tufts)
This morning, the daily digest of the Feminist Philosophers site that I receive every morning had the best news of the week, probably of the month (maybe beyond...): with the support of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program to end female genital mutilation, a campaign to convince people to abandon the practice of female genital mutilation in the Afar region of Ethiopia has been having impressive results. It started in 2000, and by now thousands of girls have been spared of the utterly revolting removal of all of their genitals, as in this region the version of FGM typically practiced is infibulation (which consists in the entire removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and labia majora, followed by sealing of the wound). The campaign was based on the strategy of convincing a core, influential group of people to speak against the practice. In this case, the group in question were religious leaders:
"The campaign was mainly spearheaded by religious leaders, who worked tirelessly to inculcate an understanding among their more conservative counterparts, clan leaders and the community at large that the practice is not supported by Islam. This came as news to many, who had grown up with the idea that it was a religious requirement."
It's also a peculiar feature of dictatorships that they relentlessly accentuate the positive. Ever since Plato tried to get the ear of a tyrant, philosophers have been tempted by the lure of the Enlightenment despot.
Those are mention-quotes in the title, not scare quotes. That is, I'm hoping to draw attention to the rule of law in the context of the word 'terror'. A nice discussion of the way that any legal presumption of innocence has gone out the window appeared today on Huffington Post
I've been following this case in the mainstream press, reading 5 or 6 articles in the Washington Post, a couple in the NY Times, and 5 or 6 scattered other articles. What all have in common is the background assumption - with no argument whatsoever, but as if it is so obvious that no disagreement can be imagined - that Ahmed Ghailani is guilty of masterminding attacks. The primary evidence for this claim seems to be the testimony - extracted under torture by investigators quite obviously trying to elicit just such testimony - of one "witness" (those are scare-quotes). The judge in the civil trial rightly exclude this testimony and this is taken by all to indicate that while we know that he is guilty, this could not be legally demonstrated due to the loopholes of civil law. The "debate" then turns on whether he should be tried by military courts with no scruples about using "evidence" secured by torture, or simply imprisoned permanently under absurd and criminal interpretations of the law of war.
None of this "debate" requires any consideration of the well-understood and empirically confirmed fact that such coerced testimony is epistemologically worthless. None of it requires any reflection on what civil rights could mean in a context in which a court finding of innocence implies merely that one will be jailed under executive order.
None of it requires even the mention of the word 'police state'.
But as Chomsky pointed out long ago, a loud and acrimonious "debate" among two narrowly different positions, each of which presupposes all the views that matter is a far better way to manipulate public thought than a single government view that simply states those views. The latter naturally leads folks to wonder what others think. The former, leads them to pick one side or the other. So, as Greenberg points out in this case, we shout back and forth between the "progressive" view that these obviously guilty people can all be convicted in civilian court, and the "conservative view" that the courts are so tilted toward the rights of the guilty that some of the obviously guilty people would be let off thereby necessitating imprisonment without trial.
And there we are. the question is what anyone is doing about it.
The Chinese government is still upset over this year's Nobel peace prize award to Liu Xiaobo, and is taking it out on Norwegian government. See the unfolding story here. With Norway's oil reserves they can ride out any storm. (Ironically the faster China grows, the wealthier the Norwegians will be.) The Nobel committee redeemed itself this year and chose to go against the current, which increasingly is enticing people to turn mum over the dictatorial nature of Chineese government.
There are a number of consequentialist arguments against interrogational torture. Here is a link to a good article on them (subscription required). The most prominent is that it is a waste of time and resources, as no actionable information is gained. Another one is the institutionalization argument: setting up a torture program requires professionalization, which means recruitment, training, and evaluation. Historical investigation of torture programs (South America in the 1970s and 80s, the French in Algeria, and so on), show that such a torture infrastructure cannot be contained to a small portion of the security apparatus, but spreads throughout the military and into civilian law enforcement. The harm caused by such a torture infrastructure spreads due to the alcoholism, depression, and domestic violence spread by the torturers when they go off-duty. And the suicide of those close to the torture structure, as in the article linked in this post.
Given that deontological arguments against US torture practices don't reach a sizable percentage of the American population (see this exchange of letters for an example), I'd say this creates a demand on those deontologically committed to an anti-torture campaign to engage consequentialist arguments, like the above, since they may be effective on people for whom the deontological arguments are ineffective.
In other words, for a deontological argument to work, the party to whom it's addressed has to share the commitment to respect for the humanity of those subjected to torture. When that respect is lacking, the arguments fall on deaf ears. So if it's your duty to fight torture, then that duty compels you to use arguments that work. And for a portion of the American population, consequentialist arguments based on the harm torture does to Americans hurt by those corrupted by the practice of torture and the spread of that harm attendant to its necessary institutionalization, are more effective than deontological arguments.