Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shootings, Nuclear Warfare, and Ethics

Alright, so, I'm going to talk about some pretty depressing stuff. If you don't want to be depressed, you should probably skip this one, but I feel like I need to get it down on paper (digital bits, what-have-you...).

First, the tragic shooting that happened at Northern Illinois University a few days ago. There is a fair amount of strangeness or irony to this kid doing it, but I guess it also is a reminder that medications, especially mood affecting ones, are very powerful things. If you need them, take them, and keep taking them. Coming off them, when your body has built up a B-response (here I'm referencing Richard Solomon's Opponent-Process Theory, which has a very good explanation here).

I heard about this when I was at work, basically in a bunker under the library. I'm in Chicago, so this isn't that far away. It's another violation of the sanctity of the university; the sphere of freedom and safety that is supposed to go along with the educational environment. I feel incredibly sorry for the kids who had to go through this, and I'm starting to wonder why things like this (in university settings) seem to be on the rise? Is it just noise in the statistical system (being so rare, any minor increase in occurrence seems huge)? What's driving this behavior? And seriously, don't waste your time on "they've abandoned God/It's just God pouring out his wrath on liberals." It's cheap and dirty, for one; doesn't explain anything, for two; and is just plain sick and wrong, for three.

More below the fold...

Russia and China are really stepping up their rhetoric and military action recently. Russia is threatening to target missiles at the Ukraine if it joins NATO, and is putting a lot of pressure on former Soviet satellite states to keep them from joining any treaty with Western powers.

Now, Gaijin, I said before I don't have a great, solid, sum-it-all definition for "rational" at the moment. I'm still sticking by that, but let me add this to it. In my opinion, no rational person would ever consider nuclear warfare.

Now, before you start telling me all about the Cold War and how our atomic weapon supply was the only real deterrent we had against the Red Army...I know. I agree. NATO did not have the man/machine power to hold off a full scale invasion of Europe. Nuclear weapons were the stop-gap and bargaining chip that probably held the peace for quite a while. I'm very glad to be living in a non-Communist country at the moment, because, honestly, economically, it so rarely works out. I kind of like going to a university and having freedom of speech. So, thanks be to nuclear armament for that.

That being said...has anyone ever seriously considered nuclear warfare? Mutually Assured Destruction doesn't really even begin to describe it. We have enough weaponry at this point to kill everyone on the planet. Not immediately, no...but within a few hundred years of a nuclear war, we'd be dead just from the spread of radiation. There is no "winning" a nuclear war. Everyone loses. Maybe not immediately, but if it becomes a full-scale trading of shots, everyone dies eventually.

Now, true, maybe a few isolated pockets of humanity will survive somewhere. Maybe they'll crawl out of the wreckage and re-establish something. But let me put it this way, it would be the end of civilization within a relatively narrow time-frame.

And that's terrifying. Absolutely, shit-your-pants terrifying.

The other thing that worries me is that there are people out there who would be quite happy to see such an event take place. It would be a revelation of their deity, or their principles, or whatever, for nuclear war to happen. Jesus is coming back sooner, we're getting closer to the final judgment, communism/capitalism has its final say...whatever. There are plenty of crazy ass people who would be perfectly satisfied by blowing up everything and killing every human being who walks this earth. Or maybe just certain people:

What do the other human persons here think ?
No doubt someone will object, saying something obviously ridiculous like, but atheists are persons.
But clearly this is mistaken because anybody without a well developed belief in God is obviously not a full human person.
What could be more obvious than that ?
How many full human persons do you know without a well developed belief in God. Obviously none, because if they were full human person they would have a well developed belief in God.
Now some people might object to killing atheists for there (and obviously it is there and not thier as they are not whos but whats ) organs but think of all the full human persons that would benifit from the organs and the medical research that could be done on these non-persons.
How could anybody object, they are not human persons and if you think we should not kill them then that is just because of out dated ideas and because they must really just want people to suffer. For shame on you !
So what do people think ?
Should we kill these atheist human non-persons for the benifit of fully human persons ?
Jason, TheologyWeb

(Taken from this website, which is full of other gems, like:

[in a discussion on whether the speed of light is constant (fundies like to say it isn't)]

Constants seldom are ... pi changes depending upon the strength of the gravitational field involved.

MHGinTN, Free Republic


I'm not one of these people. This may be an extreme statement to make, but I'll say it: I would almost rather see a nation surrender than result to nuclear warfare. If you want to start a conventional war and blow yourselves to smithereens with guns and tanks and bombs...okay. Not particularly happy about that either, but okay. Want to use nuclear weapons? No. Not okay. I repeat: NOT OKAY.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, as I've already said, it would pretty much exterminate the human race. I'm of the opinion "Guys, could you just hold off killing everyone until we establish a few self-sufficient colonies elsewhere in the solar system/galaxy. Honestly? Then, blow up the earth for all I care. We'll have our societies committed to surviving." Then again, I don't like putting all my eggs in one basket...maybe that explains my attitude.

For another, and here is where I briefly descend into the dreaded ethics, nuclear warfare has much greater collateral damage. Civilians die in wars...this is true, and should be minimized as much as possible. Nuclear warfare does just affect just a platoon of soldiers, or a single city, or a single nation-state. It affects the entire world, and a lot of people who don't ask for it.

So, why is this an ethical question?

Most of us, most of the time, have no need to consider ethics. We go about our days, bumbling around the way we do, and we get by. We may even do a little good for other people. Net effect, somewhat positive, at worst neutral. That's normal, every day life. Ethics don't come into it much. For me, most ethical questions revolve around questions of punishment and forgiveness. Is this a little different from our evolved predispositions? Probably. But there's absolutely no reason that we have to or should follow what our genes tell us to do in every situation. We're probably the first species to be able to accomplish that feat, and I think it's a positive thing most of the time.

So, what is the ultimate ethical question? Here I'm going to say it is the question of murder. To encounter the face of an Other and ask "Should I kill this person, or by my action/inaction allow them to be killed?" Fortunately, this question does not even occur to us the vast majority of the time ( you ever walk around wondering whether or not you should kill someone?) But, the question comes, sometimes silently, in some very important moments. Why is murder such a horrible crime? Well, to me, there are two reasons:

1) As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. This one is the only one we have, and to forcibly remove a person's time in this life is the greatest offense you can possibly commit. Why do I value this so much as an atheist? Aren't I really sneaking in an absolutist moral that can only be based on God? No, not really. I just value human life, and my "in-group" net is flung far enough to encompass most of the masses of people I will never meet face-to-face. I think we have a pretty strong evolved moral set that, while certainly not perfect, does prevent most of us from murdering most of the time. So, I probably have a strong evolved predisposition against murder. It's just wrong, and self-evidently so.

2) It is the only crime that cannot be forgiven by the victim. Every other thing you could possibly do carries with it at least the possibility that the victim can forgive the offense. Murder is different in this regard. The family and friends of the victim might be able to forgive the offender, but this is not the same thing. Every person that you meet already makes a claim upon you, an ethical claim, and to murder is to absolutely disregard this in a way that cannot be "made up." You can serve your time for the state, beg the forgiveness of the relatives, but ultimately, the face of the other is gone and unreachable. This is part of why this is the ultimate ethical question.

What does this have to do with everything else I've been blathering about? Well, it has to do with the effects of nuclear war. To truly engage in full nuclear warfare is to commit murder against every human being now and in the future. Do we have a commitment towards unborn future generations? I would argue yes, but I'm going to be very careful here because this could very easily come into contradiction with my stance on abortion (I'm pro-choice, go figure). I'm going to bracket the issue of abortion for now, because it's quite thorny, and honestly I don't feel like engaging in that discussion and how it works into the semi-coherent ethics that I think about. Also note, I'm not an ethicist.

For one, we have a biological drive to continue to exist. We have children, and with our current society and resources, most of us stick around to make sure the kids grow up okay (or at least expend resources in the form of child support) and are able to have their own children. This has certainly caused a lot of population problems, so unrestrained reproduction is really not a good strategy for a wide variety of reasons that I may cover later, but...on a first basis, and the weakest, we have the evolved disposition to reproduce and care for our young.

Secondly, equally kind of weak, we are just so terribly, disgustingly lucky to be alive right now. I can't think of any better way to sum it up than what Dawkins has already said:

We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they're never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place, but who will, in fact, never see the light of day, outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. ...In the face of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. Here's another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time, the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, the present century. The present moves from the past to the future like a tiny spotlight inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere on the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

All those future generations of mankind, all the possible joys and wonders that they may experience, the progress and the tragedies, the tears that they will cry and the suffering that they will see, the full spectrum of life that could be theirs, puts a claim on us to at least hold out, inching by, surviving, just long enough for them to have their chance.

We stand at a peculiar moment in human history. We have the capability of utterly annihilating ourselves, and many have the will to do just that. We also have the capability of surprising generosity and progress, and many have the will for that. Most of us eek by, day by day, without thinking or worrying about it much; for the most part this works out. It is my fear, however, that there may come a day when there are not enough rational, good people to stand up and say "No, we will not take this step. We will not annihilate our species from this planet."

For me, the wonders of science and nature, what we uncover every day, the kinds of things that we are becoming capable of, sustain me and my sometimes wavering faith in humanity. I want to be proud of us as a species. I want to survey the world, for all its tragedies as much as its beauty, and say "yes, this too is a part of me." Would I do all I could to ease those tragedies? Certainly. This is one area where we have seriously failed. We're caught up in coalitional psychology, and "they" are just too different, too "out-there," for us to really care about.

Last bit, this has gone on far too long. We get our emotional heart-strings pulled whenever we see those commercials of poor children starving to death. It always focuses on a single child, or maybe a small group. While it's good that people are doing outreach for these children, it doesn't come close to representing the scope of the problem. For that, you have to go to statistics, and people just can't get excited about statistics. It's an emotional turn-off, and people have a hard time imagining the suffering of that many people.

Well, most people do. This is an area where maybe we need more geek philanthropists. Why? They're used to dealing with numbers and can get an accurate sense of scope. Maybe it's not as emotionally drawing as other charity outreach programs, but I guarantee it would probably do more good in the long run. So, thanks for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Okay, seriously far too long and meandering. I may delete this one later. We'll see. Goodnight, guys.

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