Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock 2: Emotional Responses and the Trolley Problem

I sent Alex Rosenberg an email about my July 19, 2015 post ("Morality Cannot be Found Under Rock") .  He did not say I misread him.  He did direct me to "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" (chapters 6 and 7) for a fuller explanation of his views. I've got it on order at the library. In the meantime, what about the idea as stated in Rosenberg's NYT article: that in order to be right, correct, or well justified, moral claims would have to be based on objective grounds for our emotional responses.

Why do people make such claims? Why would anyone ever suggest that our emotions could act as an objective ground for morality, much less that they should?

Our emotional responses play a mere supporting role to our attempts at morality. Psychologists and philosophers have long run studies and conducted thought-experiments that have confirmed that our emotions are a fickle guide to questions of morality. There is a whole set of situations described as "the trolley problem."

The trolley problem illustrates that we have very different emotional responses to different situations that appear morally equivalent. It doesn't mean we abandon the project.

Rosenberg used the example of honor killing in his article. If we don't have a universally consistent emotional response to honor killings, he asks, how can a claim that "honor killing is wrong" be right, correct or well justified? This non-problem leaves me cold.

We have a strong emotional reactions to soldiers lining up a group of women and children in front of a ditch and shooting them in the woods. On the other hand, our blood does not boil at the thought of flyers in the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on women and children. That's a trolley problem. It doesn't mean that (despite our different emotional responses) we can't bring legal, religious, or philosophic reasoning to bear on these different atrocities. Within our legal, religious, philosophic and cultural traditions we can find well justified reasons to say that--despite our different emotional reactions--executing women and children with machine guns in the woods and dropping an atomic bomb on women and children from an airplane are equally wrong. Through moral reasoning we can reflect on how we would want to behave when confronted with similar problems, what behaviors we should tolerate, encourage, or prohibit and punish as a society... and why.

In the trolley problem we are asked to make on the spot hypothetical moral calculations. Neuroscientists can tell us which parts of our brain are stimulated as we make such calculations, and what the probability distributions are. But probability distributions of our emotional reactions to described situations do not answer how we would want to behave when confronted with a given situation, what behaviors we should tolerate, encourage, or prohibit as a society, ... and why.

We should note that an exception for honor killing (Rosenberg's example) is not so shocking or unusual: it's a kind of trolley problem too. There is nothing unique about such blind spots to our opprobrium and anger. For example, we consider killing o.k. if it's done in self-defense; we consider it o.k. if the state does it as capital punishment; some of us consider it o.k. if it's euthanasia; and most of us consider it o.k. in war. And let's not forget about our double standard when it comes to the killing of animals.

Is an honor killing worse than President Truman authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Talk to me.  That's the essence of moral reasoning.

When we reason to determine how we would want to behave in a given circumstance, what behaviors we should tolerate or encourage as a society, and which we should prohibit and punish... and why, we look to our traditions: legal, religious, communal, social, moral. And in our modern world, our ethical judgments will undoubtedly be informed by a combination of these overlapping traditions.

And our traditions and our emotions, of course, speak to each other. In the United States we have a traditional food chain that is built around inhumane treatment and killing of animals. Because that is our tradition, most of us are not affected emotionally by this practice.  But there are people who look to different religious or philosophic traditions to reach the conclusion that the inhumane treatment and killing of animals on an industrial scale is not right, correct, or well justified. A person who has formed that view may start to have an emotional reaction to our inhumane treatment and killing of animals on an industrial scale.

Should same sex partners have the right to marry? That is a moral question. The Supreme Court recently examined this question in light of our two hundred year plus legal tradition. We've been having a public discussion about it. Within that tradition the court found well justified reasons to rule that "Yes, they have that right." That ruling is right and correct in light of the legal tradition in question and the reasons stated therein.

"Right, correct, and well justified," is not the same thing as undisputed and incontestable. Morality is not like that. And emotions are an uncertain guide. But bring on an enlightened legal culture; bring on  thoughtful social policies; bring on education; bring on kind and wise priests, rabbis, pastors, qadhis and imams; bring on non-corrupt politicians; bring on public sector workers dedicated to serving the public; bring on citizens committed to the common welfare. Somewhere in all of that we'll find our morality.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mya Guarnieri: Love Across the Divide

American/Israeli journalist Mya Guarneieri writes about love across the divide between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  It's a captivating read. Take a look: 
The Long Road to Bethlehem (Part 3) 
The New Year comes and passes. It’s January 2014 and I’ve been living in the territories for almost a year. But rather than becoming more comfortable in my new surroundings and feeling like my usual curious and adventurous self—I am the woman, after all, who has traveled some 20 countries, mostly alone—I find myself turning inwards. I prefer to stay in Bethlehem, close to home. 
This is not me. 
The occupation and the checkpoints, particularly the flying checkpoints, have something to do with the change: on my way back to Bethlehem from Ramallah one afternoon, a flying checkpoint pops up near Jabaa’. As the soldiers take the IDs of everyone in the service taxi, I don’t know what to do—do I give them my American passport or my Israeli teudat zehut? 
In theory, I could be headed from Qalandia—which is technically part of East Jerusalem—to Hizme, which is in Area B. I’m legal here, I tell myself. Or am I? I try to picture myself on the map that shows the zones: A, B, C. 
Where is Jabaa’? 
Where am I? 
Who am I supposed to be right now? 
It happens again as I’m driving back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one afternoon. I’m on the little, rolling two-lane road that takes me to Beit Jala. Usually, I glide by the small army base on the edge of Beit Jala and from there, it’s a short drive to Bethlehem and I’m home. But today: when I bank the hill, I see soldiers standing in the middle of the road—a road I’ve never seen them on—checking IDs as Palestinians drive into Beit Jala. But why? If checkpoints are about security, then why would they be scrutinizing Palestinians headed into a Palestinian area? Are they looking for someone? Are they making sure that no Jewish Israelis are headed into Area A? Are they enforcing segregation?
Read on at +972 Magazine

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Danger in Listening Too Much to “Very Serious Persons”

Henry Farrell has an interesting post at Crooked Timber where he worries about the influence that “Very Serious People” or “VSP’s” can have on our public debate. He means people like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Benjamin Netanyahu: people whose opinions are widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong.

Back in September 2002, Netanyahu, and Friedman, and Brooks, and Krauthammer, were VSPs making the case that the U.S. must bring about regime change in Iraq because Saddam Husain was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Egged on by the media and our inflamed sense of justice we took their advice and went to war.

These VSP’s were manifestly wrong about Iraq, as were all the other VSP’s who were clamoring for war in 2002-2003. Today, many of these same people are urging Congress to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached by the P5+1 with Iran. Can a second calamity be avoided?  

We all have biases, says Farrell. Without some ideological biases we might not be able to see the world at all. What’s more, our ability to reason appears to be geared more for making arguments than for truth seeking. Thus, when Netanyahu, and Boehner, and McConnell, and Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi marshal their reasons for this deal—pro and con—just like we, they are mostly looking for reasons to back up their ideological (and political) biases. They (and we) are all subject to confirmation bias. They (and we) are all prone to make up facts to fit the argument. They (and we) are all prone to be blind to inconvenient truths that undercut the argument.

What leaves room for hope, is that as a collective jury we have the ability to evaluate facts and the quality of arguments, as Farrell says: “to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly.”  But there’s a catch. In order for this collective truth seeking process to succeed, it is essential that we not systematically entrench particular biases.

“The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).”

This strikes me as important. The danger in inviting Netanyahu to speak to joint sessions of Congress while ignoring normal protocol, and the danger in having AIPAC spend $30 million to lobby Congress to torpedo this Iran deal, is that we drown out better arguments and create an echo chamber where people only hear arguments that support what they already believe. The risk is that we short circuit the deliberative evaluation of competing arguments; that we’ll end up with distorted beliefs; that we’ll end up acting on crazy premises. 

For an example of crazy, see Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who “on Tuesday told a group of reporters that ‘millions of Americans will be murdered by radical, theocratic zealots (and that) … the deal could eventually mean Iran launches a nuclear weapon from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.”

The good news is that, despite wing nut arguments from Ted Cruz on the Presidential trail, and from many others in Congress, competing arguments are also being heard in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action from VSP’s and ordinary mortals alike. This is not 2003. It’s not an echo chamber.

Let’s see what difference this makes.

Congress Must Stand up for American People's Interest over Netanyahu

As Peter Beinart observed in Haaretz (7/15/15), Israel and the United States (and the other members of the P5+1) have conflicting interests at stake when it comes to the Iran deal. Meanwhile, many in Congress are behaving like they represent Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli interest instead of the American People. When will voters get the message?

The bomb

The P5+1 have negotiated with Iran in order to take an Iranian nuclear bomb off the table indefinitely, and to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. Israel and the Saudis have a different purpose. For Israel and the Saudis the primary goal has been to keep sanctions in place indefinitely in order to cripple Iran as a regional competitor.

The goal established by the P5+1 for these talks (taking an Iranian nuclear bomb off the table indefinitely) seems to have been achieved by the deal that has been negotiated. Iran promises to forego its ability to produce nuclear weapons and to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor as necessary to verify compliance. Some are raising concerns that Iran might attempt to secretly develop nuclear weapons in breach of the agreement.  But this is not a concern that can be solved by any agreement. Ultimately any agreement must presuppose the good faith of the parties and must rely on the professionalism and skill of the IAEA inspectors to detect cheating if it occurs.

So why all the protest from Israel against this deal which pretty effectively takes the nuclear issue off the table for more than a decade? And why do so many in Congress assume that Israel’s protests are serving the interests of the United States? The key to understanding Israel’s opposition is that when Netanyahu brandished his cartoon nuclear bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012, he was not so much concerned with Iran achieving a milestone of enriching enough uranium to be able to build a few nuclear weapons—like North Korea has managed to do. After all, Israel is a nuclear superpower in the Middle East and they are reported to have more than 200 nuclear warheads, which they can launch from hardened land installations, bombers, or submarines. Israel has no realistic fear of an Iran potentially armed with a few nuclear warheads. Netanyahu was more broadly concerned with Iran as a regional rival.

Read the rest at Mondoweiss.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock

Photo from Global Solutions website

Last week (July 13, 2015) Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University asked Can Moral Disputes be Resolved? in the New York Times “Philosopher’s Stone” series.  He strongly, and in my mind ludicrously, suggested the answer is "No."  

Take honor killings, the killing of a family member—typically a woman—who is seen to have brought disgrace on one’s family. We have a strong revulsion to such killings, yet the practice persists and is considered morally acceptable in some cultures around the world. As we know, the practice also has religious grounding. See, e.g. Leviticus 20:9, 21:9; Exodus 21:17.

Rosenberg cavalierly dismisses 2,500 years of western philosophic and religious tradition and concludes that "honor killing is wrong" is not an objective fact we can find out in the world. It simply registers our emotional response: 

If “honor killing is wrong” reports our emotional horror at the practice, and not its objective wrongness, then even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn. Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.

For the time being, Rosenberg continues to look at human biology and evolution for answers. He doesn’t exude confidence that this will lead him to an answer that “honor killing is wrong.” He implies that "even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn." But …, of course, he’s looking in all the wrong places. He's framing the issue all wrong.

Moral reasoning—reasoning that would show our moral convictions as “right, correct, and well justified”—is not something that can be found under a rock or in biology. Morality is not a question of ontology: it’s a matter of tradition and practice!

The fact that there are different traditions, and that different traditions look at moral questions differently, does not mean that moral questions don’t have answers that are “right, correct, and well justified.”  We don’t throw up our hands in despair and say “it’s just cultural prejudice,” or “it’s all relative” as if this were some devaluation of the enterprise. Tradition and cultures matter, and within a given tradition and culture moral questions will have a “right, correct, and well justified” answer. Even if adherents of a given tradition can disagree about what the answer is! Moreover, traditions and cultures can be compared, and there are reasons to prefer one tradition over another when we examine them side-by-side, and there are reasons for traditions to evolve over time.

In the next two posts I will look, first, at the question of how rights evolve within the context of our U.S. constitutional tradition as explained by Lawrence Tribe (a Harvard constitutional law scholar) at a Chataqua memorial lecture in honor of Justice Robert Jackson, and, second, at Yaacov Yadgar’s just published article about “Traditionism” which examines how tradition forms our identity, helps us to make sense of our world, and how, as bearers of tradition, we must engage in a practical dialogue with our tradition in order to carry it forward.

Tradition is the place to look for “right, correct, and well justified” answers to moral questions. Even if biology can help shed light on moral disputes, biology cannot provide the answers. Or another way to put this: the fact that different traditions reflect different answers to questions about honor killing is not a bug of morality that prevents a “right, correct, and well justified” answer, it’s a feature of morality. The same is true about the fact that different practitioners of a tradition may come up with different answers to a moral question; it is not a bug of morality, it's a feature. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Iran Deal: Good for America, not so much for Israel

Peter Beinart has an important observation (Haaretz 7/15) about the Iran deal we should keep in mind:
America has a vital interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon... [a]nd America has a vital interest in avoiding another Middle Eastern war, since the last one cost the U.S. dearly. These aren’t just Barack Obama’s priorities. They would have been Mitt Romney’s too. And this nuclear agreement, while imperfect, achieves them better than any alternative. .... Netanyahu’s proposed alternative to the current deal — increase global economic pressure until Iran capitulates — is utterly detached from reality. 
But ... [the U.S.] does not have a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. Yes, Iran is supporting some nasty organizations and regimes: Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and (along with some Sunni benefactors) Hamas. But none represent a direct threat to the United States. None are likely to commit a terrorist attack on American soil. The people most likely to do that are Sunni Jihadists organized or inspired by groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The groups, in other words, that Iran is fighting against. 
This isn’t to say America wants Iran to dominate the Middle East; it doesn’t. It wants a stable balance of power between Iran and its Sunni (and Jewish) foes. But keeping Iran, and its proxies, weak is not reason enough for America to torpedo a deal that peacefully limits Iran’s path to a bomb. 
Israel’s interests are different. ....  Netanyahu, like most other Jewish Israeli politicians, believes Israel has a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. What scares them about the nuclear deal is that it legitimizes Iran’s regime internationally and ends sanctions, which gives Tehran a lot more cash. If Netanyahu torpedoes the Iran nuclear deal, he may not have a plausible alternative for keeping Iran from the bomb. But at least he denies Iran’s regime the money and legitimacy that enhances its power. 
....When Americans lie awake worrying about terrorism, they think about ISIS and Al Qaeda, which Iran fights. When Israelis lie at night worrying about terrorism, they think about Hezbollah and Hamas, which Iran funds. Netanyahu and his Republican allies can talk all they want about how Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism. But the terrorist groups that will benefit from Iran’s enhanced power — Hezbollah and Hamas — pose a much greater threat to Israel than to the United States.
As Chemi Shalev (Haaretz Washington correspondent) has noted, Obama understands this very well. In yesterday's news conference, Obama characterized the opposition to this deal as "Netanyahu and the Republican leadership." That is a politically smart characterization for Obama to adopt. First, it has the merit of being correct. Second, it allows him to highlight the fact that the U.S. interest is not aligned with the Israeli interest on this issue. If he can make that case to the American people, the "Republican leadership" will all of a sudden find themselves in an awkward position. 

When John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress last March, behind Obama's back--breaching foreign policy protocol in the process--many noted that this introduced Israel as a partisan wedge issue in American politics. This is a new phenomenon. Since 1967 U.S. Israel policy and Israel advocacy in Congress have been remarkably bi-partisan. This bi-partisanship looks to be coming to a crashing halt. If it turns out that the Republican leadership takes sides with Israel to kill this deal... and, a crucial if, if Obama can convince the American people that the deal is in America's interest, well .... then Wow! 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who Wants to Deal with a Bully Longterm? What Comes of Germany Imposing its Will on Greece?

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble

So it looks like Germany has imposed its will on the Greeks. For now. It's a shame. 

The Greek banking crisis and the euro have become divisive for the European project. The euro has become divisive, says Barry Eichengreen, because the different economies of different countries in Europe needed the euro to do different things. Since the start of the financial crisis in 2007, poorer countries like Greece needed a much cheaper euro; creditor countries like Germany did not. Peripheral countries like Greece, but also Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland... needed fiscal stimulus (lots of infrastructure projects, government spending) to get back on their feet, and some inflation to help grow out of debts; Germany did not. 

Germany, the largest economy in the euro zone, imposed austerity on all others (no government stimulus,  decrease in government spending, increase in taxes) and a monetary policy that would not allow for inflation. For the last seven years, Germany has been fine...., Greece's economy has imploded; they have unemployment of 25%.  Germany has thrown its weight around and gotten its way. Germany's needs have been met, those of poorer countries have not.

The EU has no mechanism for transfer payments from rich countries to poor. They have no political mechanism to get this done.  Instead of witnessing leadership that would help build Europe, we've had to listen to moralizing lectures from the German press and the German finance minister. [And this from the country that had 50 percent of its debt forgiven in 1953 after it launched the greatest homicidal disaster in the history of the world] 

In the United States, we have banking union (the Fed manages the money supply and interest rates, and the FDIC rescues banks in individual states when they run into trouble) and we have fiscal union (the Federal government collects taxes from all states, reallocates money between the states). Here is a map of the rough magnitude of transfer payments that occur in the U.S. (numbers are per capita).

Net contributions calculated as taxes paid minus narrow transfers received.
For example, Kentucky receives more than $1,800 in benefits from the federal government (over and above what it pays in taxes to the federal government for) for every person in the state. This is helped along by the fact that poor and less populous states in the U.S. are structurally overrepresented in Congress (the least populous and poor states have two senators, just as many as the most populous and  wealthy states). 

In the Europe of today, the bullies rule. The EU has no political mechanism to transfer payments to Greece. It's like expecting California to make transfer payments to Kentucky without the federal government involved--it wouldn't happen.

Transfer payment of 1,800 per capita from Germany to Greece would be $19 billion/year. 

The EU has open borders and labor mobility, but labor is not nearly as mobile in the Eurozone, with its diverse cultures and languages, as it is in the United States. Moving from Greece to Germany to get a job is not like moving from Kentucky to California.

Wolfgang Muenchau at the Financial Times wonders about the fallout. He sees a Europe where the strong (Germany) push around the weak (Greece) and he ventures that others (Italy, Spain, Ireland, Finland, Portugal?) must be observing the same thing. What's their takeaway?  

He speculates that the takeaway will be: Perhaps this Europe thing is not for us? Maybe not right away, but soon. 

1.  For the past 20 years, the glue holding the EU project together has been the political commitment of its members to build a European entity. This has transcended economic interest: they wanted to be part of an ambitious project of European integration. 

2.  But if the strong bully the weak, what happens to this starry eyed aspiration. Does it give way to disillusionment? How are the Greeks feeling today, whether or not their parliament approves this deal.

3.  If Italy, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. begin to feel that this is a club run by and for the powerful and rich, they will look much more closely at the economic cost/benefits. 

4. Looking at it from a purely economic point of view, says Muenchau, the leadership of Germany does not look so good for the weak. 
"The euro has worked well for Germany. It worked moderately well for The Netherlands and Austria, although it produced quite a degree of financial instability in both. .... But for Italy, it has been an unmitigated economic disaster."  
Similarly, the euro has not worked for Finland, especially as its economy has slumped in wake of Nokia's collapse.  What about Spain, Portugal, Ireland?  Greece is not the only country for whom the euro has not been a blessing.

5.  A few years down the road someone will look at Germany and say.... "You're a bully, we don't want to play this game anymore?" 

"Once you strip the eurozone of any ambitions for a political and economic union, it changes into a utilitarian project in which member states will coldly weigh the benefits and costs, just as Britain is currently assessing the relative advantages or disadvantages of EU membership. In such a system, someone, somewhere, will want to leave sometime. And the strong political commitment to save it will no longer be there either."