Archive for the ‘morals’ category

Role Playing or Recreating

February 3, 2009


In a recent Op-Ed (NYT, January 27), David Brooks asks us to address a fundamental dichotomy in how to think about life. His column led to a rash of good letters a few days later. Whatever one thinks of the issues and of how Brooks comes down on them, one cannot but respect a columnist who regularly leaves his political bailiwick to address more general moral and political issues.


Brooks contrasts a recent Harvard report on the purpose of education (evidently with emphasis on general humanistic education) with the thesis of a 2008 book “On Thinking Institutionally” by Hugh Heclo. The Harvard report emphasized the value of shaking up the assumptions of the young so that they might think for themselves and discover their own values. Its fundamental values seemed to be individualism and change. To Heclo, by contrast, we are defined by the institutions that we go through as we develop from a child into an adult, and as we grow through the responsibilities of new adult relationships and careers. We might say that Heclo asks us to accept and work within the roles which society foists upon us and Harvard wants us to redefine those roles or invent new ones.


Brooks notes that the people who he has admired the most have been those who took the institutional road, who asked what they could do for society and did their best to fulfill the request. They were not the people who concentrated their questioning on what society could do for them (which seems to miss the point of the Harvard report).


Yes, of course the person who finds himself a parent should try his best to fulfill that role as society expects. Lawyers should treat their clients in the ways that society and their colleagues judge is proper. Priests should serve the flock more than their inclinations. I would imagine that the wheels of society would not run very smoothly unless this were so for most people most of the time. Yet were this all there was to responsible living then human society would be little different from ant society. Roles evolve and should evolve. Parents do not treat their children today the way they did centuries ago, nor do husbands and wives regard their respective roles as the way they once did. This is change, and mostly “progress”.


We also have to deal with the fact that many institutional roles are defined quite differently by most of their current occupants as contrasted with the larger society around them. Policemen are famous for their unwillingness to testify against one another, even when flagrant crimes have been committed. One suspects that similar in-group role definitions infect many, if not most professions. When we ask what society expects of people in such roles are we talking about average behavior norms or theoretical societal norms?


I conclude that most societies honor the many who fit into their roles relatively smoothly, acting as responsibly as they can in terms of their own lights and the judgments of those around them. They move on through life from role to role to the muted cheers of their fellows. Yet I believe that we also need a creative minority within society that asks responsibly whether what has been done before is what they should do in the future, whether or not there is a societal duty to make some changes as they go along. We need institutional players most of the time. But we also need many to be educated as Harvard would have them, people who can reorient both themselves and the roles they find themselves playing, people who can perhaps create new roles and deinstitutionalize roles that have outlived their usefulness.

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A New Era

January 20, 2009

“a new era of responsibility”

Scientific Self-Control

September 17, 2008

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (September 12), Brian Greene reassured us that the experiments now taking place in the Large Hadron Collider cannot produce a black hole that will swallow the earth. Apparently, Hawking has a theory that any black holes produced by the experiments will disappear almost instantly. We are reassured, that is, until we read the next-to-last paragraph where we are told “the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations.”

We remember that when the first atomic bomb experiments were carried out in New Mexico some scientists feared that they might set off a conflagration that would burn up the world. It did not happen. But the end result, nevertheless, was the creation of a bomb and the subsequent creation of a larger bomb that when duplicated sufficiently could destroy civilizations, if not all life. Then we and the Russians armed ourselves with the capability to make quite possible a general catastrophe. We still have a sufficient capability to achieve this result, but luckily the probability of a massive use of nuclear weapons has faded into the background.

Many believe that the end of civilization will be brought about by too much knowledge instead of too little. Scientists seem quite unable to control their enthusiasm for the new, and governments or private individuals seem more than willing to support their efforts. Ninety percent of our worries about the increase in the numbers and capabilities of robots, or the creation of new pathogens for warfare or to defend against the pathogens others might create, or what will come of pushing back the frontiers of physics and chemistry, or breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and how to enter into its deliberations from the outside (initially for treatment of disease perhaps) and so forth may be foolish imaginings. But I think we have developed faith enough in science to believe that a great deal that we cannot conceive of today will be conceived of in the future — and if conceptualized will eventually be rendered “useful”.

Is it not past time that the scientific community consider conditions under which they would agree to abandon further experiments in the general interest of humanity? These may be physical experiments; they may be biological experiments; they may be robotic experiments. The lead must be taken by prominent scientists involved in research in areas that threaten to move humanity into unknown and dangerous territory. Laymen simply cannot know enough to have anything very useful to say in this regard. They can only point out that there must be territory out there that it is too dangerous for science to invade. It may well be that the Hadron Collider is well within safe boundaries. In order to make this and countless similar decisions in the future, scientists need to develop criteria in physics and other fields that would allow them to decide when a dangerous boundary has been crossed.

What these criteria and limits might be are hard to forsee, and they would probably be different from one scientific field to another. The effort will involve difficult issues in the estimation of risk in relation to danger. It will be a major task, one eventually involving the international community. But it seems reasonable to ask that the effort be undertaken. Science is afire. It will solve so many of our problems. But it is also a tool that must be handled with care, and the more so, the more it progresses.

Making Nuclear Weapon Sense

July 18, 2008

It was heartening to read in the New York Times the appreciation of the recent proposals of Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and associates (Editorial Observer, Robbins “Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons” June 30) to move decisively in the next administration toward a world without nuclear weapons. It has always been a dangerous anomaly that the United States tries to compel other nations to give up their plans to develop nuclear weapons while we have remained unwilling to make decisive steps toward freeing the world of our own nuclear weapons and the policy
alternatives they imply.

For a full version of the Nunn approach read “The Mountaintop: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, a speech he gave in Oslo on February 27 of this year.

Such an initiative would be more convincing if we could at the same time as we talk of reducing weapons also change the way in which we talk about them. We have continued to threaten the absolute destruction of opponents should they use nuclear weapons. This commitment has only been reinforced by the public statements of the political contestants in our upcoming elections when they speak of obliterating Iran should it attempt at some future point to use nuclear weapons. The United States, and perhaps the United States alone, has the capability to take the lead in abandoning this way of speaking about nuclear weapons. In many situations, particularly against countries such as Iran, we could with the conventional forces at our disposal make a decisive and effective response without the use of nuclear weapons.

Only after we renounce the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, will we be able to make a convincing case against their development by others.

Torture and Irresponsibility

April 4, 2008

The end result of the Abu Ghraib scandal was the singling out for punishment a few low level American soldiers at the prison, with little or no punishment for those with command responsibility, and certainly none for the higher ups in the military, the defense department, or the CIA whose actions and inactions clearly laid the groundwork for the mistreatment. In many ways, this shifting of responsibility is the most serious crime in the sordid story; it is this crime which we most urgently need to rectify. It is a particularly ugly reflection that those who claim to honor most highly the sacrifice of our soldiers in Iraq are quickest to dishonor them when it serves their personal and corporate interest.

The March 24 New Yorker had a detailed discussion of the Abu Ghraib scandal from the point of view of those subsequently indicted and now serving time, particularly Sabrina Harman, the young lady who took most of the famous pictures. What emerges is that both for the prisoners and their wardens lived in the midst of a demoralizing horror show for months. The unit assigned to look after the prisoners had no training in their responsibilities and had hardly heard of the Geneva Conventions. During their time at Abu Ghraib they were not enlightened. Indeed, they were told that they need not worry about such things, for these were not prisoners of war. They were repeatedly told by “military intelligence” officers that they were doing a great job, where “job” was defined as making the prisoners as miserable as possible to “soften them up”. Many of those in direct contact with the prisoners did not understand what was happening and worried about the situation, even as they participated. Those above them seemed simply not to care, or if they did care, they were shoved aside.

Sabrina’s pictures have been used against her as evidence of her warped personality. One cannot deny that the pictures revealed unfortunate traits that her situation brought to the fore. But the fact is that long before arriving at Abu Ghraib, Sabrina had become enamored with photography. She simply took pictures of everything. In retrospect, the world owes her a debt of gratitude, for without her pictures, the persistent mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib would have been simply swept under the rug, as it seems to have been at the Bagram facility in Afghanistan, and many smaller facilities with some of the same problems.

In the end, the event was swept as far as possible under the rug by concentrating the investigation and the punishment on the “front line” soldiers which were, of course those associated with the photographs.

One can only hope that the next administration will start the process of walking back from the insane claim that in an emergency a government can do anything to prisoners it wishes, and hold prisoners for long periods of time for no reason at all. It should also mount investigations up to the highest level of who was responsible for the egregious miscarriage of justice the wake of Abu Ghraib, both in regard to the prisoners and their wardens. This is not just a matter of improving our image in the world. It is also a questions of improving the image of those in executive or command positions throughout the American establishment. In the cavalier administrative environment of the current administration, actions are taken without regard to consequences, responsibility, or concern for truth and reality. The “buck” should no longer stop at the bottom of a command structure, but at points progressively higher in the structure as evidence of responsibility becomes clearer.

Sex Discrimination in Another Guise

April 3, 2008

The revealing of Governor Spitzer’s use of the services of prostitutes led to a barrage of reporting, a barrage that fortunately seems to have stopped for the moment. Two things about this barrage were disturbing. First, the unrefuted assumption that it is a moral crime to have sex with women you are not married to — in spite of the evidence that this has been a major activity since the beginning of human history. Second, reporting on prostitutes as though they were necessarily worthless women, not worthy of the respect of the rest of the society. The writing varied from simple abuse, as in the New York Times piece concluding that the Spitzer’s prostitute only claimed to have a beginning career in the arts when in fact she was nothing at all (March 14). This report was under the headline “The Emperor’s Club Oxymoron: High-Class Prostitution.” The evident assumption of the reporter was that prostitution was by definition “lower-class”, an assumption often refuted by history. The Heterae of ancient Greece and the Geishas of Japan were considered better educated and more skilled in the arts than other women of their time.

Fortunately, the Times came out with an op-ed by a prostitute that pointed out that Spitzer had been remarkably foolish to use an escort service. She said it was common knowledge that this was a way to get into trouble. Most of her friends were independents operating out of their dwellings. They relied on recommendations; few of them reported trouble with the police or Johns. Then the Times went another step by printing an investigative report (March 16) on what really went on in New York prostitution. They found that most of it was very low-key, with little violence or danger to those involved. The report estimated that only about a fifth of prostitutes in New York were street prostitutes. These were the ones with the pimps and those regularly arrested. The life of the rest was unremarkable. Many seemed to have quite positive relations with their regulars, often sympathizing with their plight. This is also the picture one gets from Heidi Fleiss in a Newsweek interview about the same time.

This flurry of activities, his own research in many countries, and the abuses of the trafficking of women led Nicholas Kristof to propose in an Op-Ed that the only “solution” to prostitution was to have it banned. He especially liked the system recently established in Sweden that arrests primarily the Johns rather than the prostitutes. He gives a rather narrow view of the many different systems in the world. One of the best systems is that in New Zealand which now has well-regulated legal prostitution.

The mistake commonly made by the opponents of prostitution is that “street-walking” is the most common form. This seems not to be the case anywhere. The New York investigative piece suggested that not more than one-fifth of prostitutes were on the street. These are of course easiest to see and easiest to arrest and legislate about. I was interested to see that my latest Atlantic reports on an academic study of prostitution in Chicago. They concluded that prostitution is actually well-paid, but that it is a dangerous occupation. But again they are actually not studying prostitution in Chicago but street-walkers, an occupation that is no doubt dangerous (although I was surprised how well pimps pay).

If we took a less moralistic and fairer approach to the issue, we would grant that every one has the right to act in any way he or she wishes as long as they do not harm others. We would note that for some young women the best way to make a living, given their life situation, is to offer sex for money. The job of the larger society in this regard is to do as New Zealand does. It should try to control the abuses that often accompany prostitution (just as all societies do the abuses that afflict marriage: the international traffic in wives is quite parallel to that in prostitutes). If abuse occurs, if people are “enslaved”, if children are forced into the trade, then these crimes should be prosecuted. One should note that successful arrests and prosecutions would be much more common if prostitutes were not afraid that they would be arrested simply because of their occupation.

In making these remarks, I am not addressing the assumption of social conservatives that it is simply wrong to pay for sex, or receive money for sex. Sex should be more “sacred” than that. This may be a correct intuition. But the problem with applying it to the modern context is that “payment” for sex occurs in so many forms that restricting the condemnation to cash transactions seems odd. The trophy wife of the rich entrepreneur receives more pay in kind than a prostitute ever would. I take it that the date that is simply a meal ticket is not uncommon among the young. In some ways, cash payment is a less hypocritical approach than these examples. (For an earlier discussion, see my accompanying blog at http://enlit.wordpress.com/ “Sex in an Enlightened Society”.