I ended my lecture this morning — on Richard Rorty and the power of literature to help us imagine new identities for ourselves, especially when it comes to moral decision-making — by asking students about “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
Specifically, I asked them whether they identified with one of the main characters over the others. By “main character,” I had in mind Luke, Leia, and Han. I suppose a case could be made, also, that Darth Vader is a main character … but I wasn’t thinking that anyone would consider him as an exemplar of moral decision-making.
One student said he always identified with Luke Skywalker. Another chose Obi-Wan Kenobi (somewhat unusually, I think, since he appears for only a few minutes and we learn almost nothing about him).
The other twenty-two students stared at me as though I’d just asked them to pick their favorite character from “My Dinner With Andre.”
What are we teaching our children?
… manage to tie Black Friday shopping madness into a lecture on Nietzsche, morality, value-creation, and the death of God at the hands of man?
Oh, you betcha I did.
I wish I could teach Nietzsche in every class all the time.
With only one episode of “Breaking Bad” left, I’ve been reflecting a lot on this stunning half-season. For the longest time, I told people that I didn’t know how the show would end because I didn’t know anything about the morality of Vince Gilligan’s universe. But I have the sense that we know now.
First of all, “Breaking Bad” is phenomenal television. I can’t remember ever watching tv and feeling the way I’ve felt for the past few weeks. My pulse is racing; my mouth is hanging open; I’m feeling anxious; I stand up and walk around, clenching and unclenching my hands; I can’t go to sleep afterward.
These final episodes are very difficult to watch. I very much doubt I’ll ever watch them again. I’m horrified by the way the story has unfolded, by the brokenness of the characters’ world and the unfairness of the violence.
And, as I said to one of my students this morning, I feel like we deserve it.
For all the times, early on, that we rooted for Walt and Jesse; for all the times we didn’t root for Hank or we bad-mouthed Skyler; for the people who made or bought Heisenberg t-shirts because they appreciated Walt’s swagger when he adopted that persona … now we’re being shown the consequences of the choices we made. We never really saw the human costs of Heisenberg’s criminal enterprise, beyond its effect on drug dealers. There aren’t extended scenes of kids smoking meth or anything like that. But now the chickens have all come home to roost in a way that’s just unrelenting, culminating — for me — in the perfectly callous murder of an absolutely innocent person.
You ought never to root for the guy who breaks bad; if you do, the past three episodes show you what you’ve really been rooting for.
Here it is, ladies and gentlemen.
This is the winner, hands down, of the most bizarre, head-scratching thing someone I’ve never met and doesn’t know anything about me has said to me on Facebook. The discussion — on the Facebook page of J___, who I know through other friends — was about intervention in Syria. I don’t know anyone else involved in the discussion.
The best part: If you look closely, you’ll note that the guy who wrote this impossibly weird screed edited it after he posted it … because, apparently, it wasn’t quite right.
So, way to go, Mick Wenlock, you fabulous wingnut; you win the Golden Cuckoo!
My friend Scott Allison, who has co-authored a couple of books and regularly blogs on the topic of heroism, recently replied to a critical post of mine from a little over a year ago.
In my original post, I took Allison to task for the way in which his studies merely report what other people say about their heroes, rather than pushing the conversation forward by challenging some of these (to my mind, at least) not-very-heroic heroes. More than that, I argued that Allison’s most serious problem is his willingness to conclude that heroism is like a good meal, that it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Allison’s response is that it’s the job of a good social scientist to be impartial:
There isn’t as much consensus about what defines a hero as one would think. Most people agree that heroes perform great actions, but one observer’s idea of a great action may be very different from that of another observer. Just as evil-doers dismiss the idea that they are evil-doers, heroes themselves often dismiss the idea that they are heroes. As such, my co-author George Goethals and I have adopted a view of heroism that is identical to that of Baumeister’s definition of evil: It’s in the eye of the beholder.
This definition is very unsatisfying to people who claim to know the objective definition of heroism. Goethals and I have asked hundreds of people to list their heroes and our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as “wrong”. If tennis players report that tennis great Roger Federer is their hero, we are not going to tell them they are mistaken. If aspiring actresses list Meryl Streep as their hero, we will report it without condemning their judgment. Our goal is to try to understand their reasoning behind their choices.
Now I want to see see if I can push on Allison’s central claim a bit more, in the hopes of clarifying the argument against relativism that I’ve been making.
I teach and write about human rights, a topic that can be quite divisive. Given Allison’s comparison with studying good and evil, I think a comparison to studying human rights and human rights abuses is apt. One of the central critiques of human rights is that they are Western in origin and thus that non-Western cultures will adhere to a different set than Western cultures do (or they won’t think of rights in the way Westerns do at all).
To study human rights as a social scientist, then, Allison would argue that I ought to impartially report that some people view human rights as a stopgap against governmental abuse while others view it as nothing more than a useless construct that hamstrings governments from making decisions they might need (or want) to make. On my reading, one of these views is incorrect and often results in acceptance of the worst sorts of abuses people can perpetrate against other people. And, having studied human rights for years, I have a great many reasons to support this conclusion of mine (that they exist and that “culture” isn’t much of a reason to condone abuses). I might, in that case, report people’s critique of human rights and then make an argument that attempts to refute it and thereby buttress the contemporary human rights regime (or at least continue the debate).
But Allison’s suggestion seems to be that an impartial social scientist ought simply to report on people’s thoughts about human rights without weighing in. As he says, “our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as ‘wrong.’” Human rights, then, would simply be in the eye of the beholder. Some people would claim they exist, some people would claim that they don’t … and the good social scientist would simply say, “Here are some interesting claims people make about human rights, which leads to the conclusion that they’re in the eye of the beholder.”
But the conclusion that human rights are in the eye of the beholder — existing for some but not for others — is actually supportive of the conclusion that they don’t really exist. Why? Because it accepts (certainly implicitly but maybe explicitly as well) the claim of those who reject human rights (and thus might embrace human rights abuse).
That’s why, I want to argue, any claim of simply reporting — of saying, “we heard a lot of different opinions and there’s just no way to make a claim that some are right and others are not” — always endorses the lowest bar or least powerful claim about the topic under scutiny. If someone claims that Stalin is a hero or a cactus is a hero and a researcher says, “well, heroism is in the eye of the beholder,” then the researcher’s implicit argument is that absolutely anyone or anything is a hero because there’s no way to judge one person’s claim from another person’s without taking sides, being partial.
On my way of thinking, these researchers are simply wrong when they claim that evil or human rights or heroism is in the eye of the beholder. It’s one thing to report on what they’ve said and then to explain why someone whose hero is Stalin or a cactus is thinking wrongly about heroism. It’s quite another to say, “Here’s what these people said about the heroism of Stalin and cacti … and maybe they’re just as right as someone who named Holocaust rescuers as heroes because, after all, heroism is in the eye of the beholder.” Allison’s research might suggest that people have a lot of different ideas about heroism, but it might also suggest that people simply aren’t thinking very critically or carefully about heroism.
The same is true of evil; evil-doers might certainly claim that their actions aren’t evil … but that doesn’t mean that evil is in the eye of the beholder; it might simply mean that people don’t want to think of themselves as doing something evil. As a reseacher, I might say, “Person X, who participated in a genocide, claimed that his behavior wasn’t evil. This demonstrates not that he’s right or that genocide is right for some people and wrong for others, but simply that people are quick to look past their own shortcomings, to find ways to justify their own behavior, or to avoid making harsh judgments about their own decisions or preferences.”
There’s no reason reporting that a human rights abuser doesn’t believe in human rights yields the conclusion that he might be just as right about his belief as someone who works to defend human rights. Good social science doesn’t need to embrace relativism.
And Allison seems to recognize this at the end of his reply, even as he still pulls back from embracing the notion that social science can report on the results of a survey while still making a broader point about the topic at hand:
Goethals and I have found that as people get older, they become more discriminating in their choice of heroes. People tend to outgrow celebrity and sports heroes who only show signs of competence but not much morality …. As a social scientist who should remain objective about my reporting of heroes, I shouldn’t express my opinion about the natural maturation process leading people to place greater weight on morality than on competence when choosing heroes. But I can’t resist saying I’m glad to hear it.
Allison’s mistake — which seems to inform his reply and his work more generally — is he’s convinced that anything he might write about the shift from LeBron James to Martin Luther King, Jr. would simply be his opinion. But what Allison calls a “natural maturation process” is absolutely begging to be studied by social scientists!
Why do people turn to moral heroes as they get older, rejecting the celebrities they idolized in their youth? What makes this a maturation — a word that implies something positive is taking place — rather than simply a change? Are there ways for people to make more mature decisions about their heroes earlier in life? And if, as he says, he’s glad about this natural maturation process, why is Allison so unwilling to make an argument about why it’s a sign of immaturity about heroism to idolize LeBron?
As I’ve argued — on this blog and in my forthcoming book — we can learn a lot about ourselves by carefully considering our choice of heroes. But this careful consideration requires more than simply listing them and then saying, “Everyone has a different hero and so there’s no way to say one person is a hero and another person isn’t.” If King is the choice of someone whose thinking about heroism has matured, a great place to start our careful consideration is to reject the notion that LeBron and King are somehow equivalent and to consider what makes King a more worthy hero than LeBron.
I bet we could come up with a lot of interesting reasons that could then be debated and tested using good social science methods.
About a week ago, as people were writing about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I read a blog post in which the author argued against American intervention and in favor, more broadly, of a moral responsibility not to intervene when others are suffering:
Let us suppose that I see a person being physically assaulted on the sidewalk. The aggressor appears to be using their fists, but no weapons are visible. If I see that person being assaulted, and I fail to intervene, am I morally at fault?
This was a question faced early on by common law judges, and the answer they gave was almost universally no. At common law, there was no duty to rescue, and there are good reasons for this. First consider that in most cases, I will be ignorant as to the motivation for the assault I’m witnessing. The person being assaulted may actually be the more “culpable” of the two based on some prior bad act, and I’m simply witnessing some sort of aggression in-kind. But I have no way of knowing in the moment of initial apprehension. Second, Intervening may require me to place myself or someone I love in harm’s way, as the aggressor may see fit to visit retribution upon me or my loved ones at a later date for becoming involved in his or her dispute. It is selfish and reckless of me to place an uninvolved third party potentially at risk based on my desire to rescue the person in front of me from the apparent violent predations of another. While we can agree that I may place myself at risk to rescue another, I have no moral claim on placing others at risk through my actions. these considerations mitigate any moral responsibility to intervene I might otherwise have.
But let us suppose that I do intervene to try to save the person being assaulted, but in the process, I only make matters worse. Perhaps the aggressor, realizing he or she is outnumbered, draws a weapon that he was not using before. Now, what began as a fistfight has been escalated into a more lethal situation for both the victim and myself. An aggressor who may have merely seen fit to “beat up” the victim is now rearing to kill them. Am I morally responsible for that escalation? Absolutely.
It is certainly possible that my intervention will only be helpful to the victim. But the difference between our example and official state military intervention is that, as you add more human beings and political interests to the example, the potential for unintended consequences increases. Furthermore, imagine that the last four or five times I intervened in a sidewalk assault, I ended up doing as much and more harm as I prevented. That would certainly make non-intervention seem to be a more morally responsible action, even if there’s still a chance that I’m watching a genuinely innocent person get assaulted without just cause.
In other words, because it’s possible that intervention won’t help and might even cause harm, we ought to feel either a) unconcerned or b) good about not attempting to assist those who are suffering.
This is an elaborate defense of being a bystander.
It’s the sort of argument one constructs in order to excuse the sort of non-action that, in other circumstances, most people wouldn’t want to admit. You see someone being assaulted but you don’t want to get involved … so you tell yourself that, if you did get involved, things would probably just end up worse than if you’d left well enough alone. “If I try to stop a simple assault, the victim — who would just be badly beaten — will probably end up being shot. And, hey, maybe the victim in this situation isn’t really even a victim; maybe she’s done something to deserve the assault. I shouldn’t get involved.”
Of course, the author of the blog post wants to suggest that it’s a very different equation because we’re dealing with the American military and we have knowledge that previous interventions were carried out badly. This should, apparently, change the moral calculus … just as it did for the U.S. when extremist Hutus were massacring Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. We’d intervened badly in Somalia, of course, so we decided that we ought not to intervene in Rwanda. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I’m not so sure the Rwandans are grateful that President Clinton recognized the possibility of unintended consequences and decided we weren’t morally required to provide any assistance.
Now I’m equating Rwanda with Syria in this post and I’m not writing some sort of full-throated call for intervention either. I’m just trying to make clear two things:
1. Past actions don’t actually give us any indication of what will happen in the future. It’s quite possible to do something badly nine times and then to do it perfectly the tenth time;
2. We need to stop giving ourselves so many excuses for our desire to turn our backs on people in need. We have a hard enough time pushing ourselves to act on behalf of others as it is.
And, indeed, the blogger knows this. Here’s how he attempts to mitigate what he’s said:
Note that this is not an argument for never intervening to stop a perceived injustice. This is an argument for not intervening in a perceived injustice when you have prior knowledge and experience which suggests that your intervention will cause at least as much damage as it alleviates. This is why, say,Oskar Schindler’s interventions on behalf of Jewish victims of the Third Reich, for example, are different than U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The moral calculus of humanitarian intervention changes when you have prior knowledge which suggests that your intervention will cause affirmative injuries elsewhere or in the future, even if it appears to alleviate the suffering that is in front of one’s face.
On what basis should Schindler have believed that he would succeed in saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust? Indeed, on what basis should any of the Righteous Among the Nations have taken action? They didn’t really have any reason to believe that they would succeed in their efforts to rescue Jews and they had every reason to believe that they would be killed if they were discovered. I suppose the blogger’s argument would be that they couldn’t possibly make things worse for the Jews by attempting to rescue them, since they were almost certainly going to be killed by the Nazis one way or the other. This puts the threshold for intervention at cases where things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the victim … which means, happily for us, that we will almost never have to take any risk or exert ourselves in any way for others since we can almost always say to ourselves, “I could conceivably make things worse so, for everyone’s sake (and especially for my own sake), I’d better just stay put.”
Plain and simple, this is nothing more than an excuse to remain a safe, secure, happy, and healthy bystander while others are suffering. It’s not some sort of moral high ground.
A growing band of governors is defying public sentiment on capital punishment, even though polls show almost two-thirds of Americans back the death penalty for murder.
The political costs for refusing to sign execution warrants seem to be lessening, at least in some states.
My sense is that the majority of Americans will continue to support the death penalty — even though the number drops significantly when people are presented with the alternative of life imprisonment without parole.
The real question, though, is whether more politicians will finally begin to take the lead on this issue, explaining their moral qualms to their constituents … especially where decreasing political fallout more easily allows them to do so.
[Zero Dark Thirty] creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.
CIA chief Michael Morell • From a statement released today, regarding Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial new film, Zero Dark Thirty, about the lead-up to the raid that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden. The film contains depictions of torture being used in service of the bin Laden manhunt, and suggests those methods were effective — Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin also sent a letter to the head of Sony Pictures, condemning that notion. We admit to not having seen the film yet, so any editorializing on our part would be critically ill-informed, but some who have seen it had incredibly strong reactions — this morning, MSNBC host Chris Hayes lambasted it as “objectively pro-torture,” and further suggested it “colludes with evil.” source (via shortformblog)
I’ll tell ya, everyone’s a movie critic these days …
But, seriously, torture didn’t get Osama Bin Laden.
And even if torture was the sort of fool-proof tool to get the bad guy every time that “24” led us all to believe, it’s still a massive violation of international law and absolutely morally reprehensible.
Apparently, Fox News aired a car chase earlier today and did not cut away for its conclusion, in which the suspect shot himself in the head.
As with all car chases, a lot of people followed along as it developed, both on television and online. And then, when it came to its conclusion, many of these same people were outraged with Fox for its failure to cut away.
Shepard Smith, who was anchoring the excitement, had this to say when the program returned after cutting to commercial after the shooting:
“We really messed up, and we are all really sorry. That didn’t belong on TV. I personally apologize to you that that happened …. That will not happen again on my watch, and I am sorry.”
But why is Smith sorry? And why are people outraged?
First of all, the network aired the car chase because they knew people would watch it. It’s a ratings boost on a Friday afternoon when people wouldn’t normally tune in. And why do people watch? Because the driver will most likely crash his car. He will be hurt, possibly dead, at the end of it all.
But when this particular driver exited his vehicle and shot himself — when the people who almost certainly had been secretly rooting for him to crash his car became witnesses to his suicide — then everyone quickly became a strict and stern moralist about what is and is not appropriate for a television audience to witness.
What Smith and so many of the people who commented about this incident online seem to be tacitly arguing is that watching a car chase and rooting for the inevitable end of the driver is appropriate, but watching the end is unseemly.
"You should have cut away; we shouldn’t have been forced to witness something like that," they claim.
But this is simply something we’re lucky to be able to say in the aftermath; if we really felt that it was unseemly, we would never choose to watch the car chase in the first place and therefore Fox would learn not to air it. When the viewers tuned in, what did they imagine would happen? They imagined, without doubt, that things would not end well for the driver; therein lies the excitement. But when it ends so publicly, when our attention is called to the fact that we’ve been watching and secretly rooting for something like this to happen, then we are aghast. At whom?
Well, not at ourselves, of course. At Fox News.
But I would venture to guess that if we looked deep inside, at that part of ourselves we don’t let others see, we would recognize a secret thankfulness. We, the audience, have been given an opportunity to feign shock and outrage at witnessing the death of the driver (the possibility of which had us glued to the broadcast in the first place) and thereby place the blame for our own bloodlust on Fox.
I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago, responding to Brian Earp and Andrew Sullivan on the question of religious freedom in the wake of the anti-circumcision ruling handed down by a judge in Germany.
Earp read my post and kindly got in touch to inquire about the prospect of recording a debate about religious freedom, ethics, and rights.
This fifty minute video discussion is the result.
We covered a wide range of topics beyond the ones mentioned above, including how religious believers can make changes to religious practice over time and, importantly, the role played by Islamophobia in the circumcision debate.
Here is Earp’s wrap-up of our discussion:
We cover male and female genital cutting; Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; we talk about multiculturalism and religious belief; we share some personal stories; and we find some common ground. I think we figured out the places where we really do disagree, and were even surprised to find that our general views are not so different as they had seemed before.
I whole-heartedly agree; it was a very enjoyable experiment in video blogging.
As a long-time fan of Bloggingheads, which really pioneered this way of debating political and philosophical concepts online, I hope to find opportunities to do more of these sorts of diavlogs in the future on a wide range of topics.
I hope you’ll let me know what you think.
This week on the Hero Report podcast, we’re talking with George Brymer about the world of business and banking, where heroism generally seems to be in short supply. We’ll also talk about whistle-blowers, of course, and when to call their actions heroic.
And, as always, you can watch the live broadcast here … days before the episode is officially released on iTunes.
Since we’re live from approximately 2:30-3:30pm Eastern, you can comment here or head over to Google+ and comment on the live feed there; we try, as much as possible, to answer questions and integrate comments in real time. If you’re seeing this after we’ve finished broadcasting, you can still comment and ask questions, of course, and we’ll be do our best to respond or to bring them into next week’s show.
And, if you don’t like watching your podcasts, you can always subscribe via iTunes (audio-only).
Joe Paterno appears to have played a greater role than previously known in Penn State’s handling of a 2001 report that Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in a university shower, according to a person with knowledge of aspects of an independent investigation of the Sandusky scandal.
E-mail correspondence among senior Penn State officials suggests that Paterno influenced the university’s decision not to formally report the accusation against Sandusky to child welfare authorities, the person said. The university’s failure to alert the police or child welfare authorities in 2001 has been an issue at the center of the explosive scandal — having led to criminal charges against two senior administrators and the firing of Paterno last fall.
Here’s some of what I wrote about Paterno’s moral culpability back in November:
Because he’s famous, because we know a lot about him, Paterno gives us someone upon whom we can focus our anger. In no small part, this because he seems to have done the morally wrong thing in this case by not coming forward himself (and thereby enabling the abuser). But that wrong undoubtedly pales in comparison to the moral and legal wrongs committed by university officials and, most of all, by Sandusky. No one’s going to hold a rally or overturn cars on behalf of the ousted university administrators or former assistant coach because those people are unknown to us, because they seem like replaceable parts, and because — of course — they seem to have committed a series of terrible acts. People will rally and protest for Paterno because they want to contrast him with Sandusky, to be sure, but also because he’s the living incarnation of their beloved football program.
But this isn’t really a football or sports story; it’s a story about rape, abuse, cover-up, and criminal justice. Strangely, with the firing of Paterno, it’s become a sports story that — somewhat predictably — now also includes college students behaving very badly as a result of their love of college sports. But Paterno and football aren’t really at the heart of this story; that seems to me to be more a narrative of convenience. This story is really about those who prey on children and those who fail to recognize the responsibility they have to take action when faced with allegations of rape and abuse; as I think [my friend Steve] Finamore rightly points out, we ignore that central part of the narrative at our moral peril.
A lot of people pushed back about what I thought was a post that actually took it really easy on Paterno; they argued that Paterno shouldn’t be held responsible at all because he had done something by making some sort of report. As we learn more about the cover-up from these email messages and from other sources, those who pushed back against the idea that Paterno was morally responsible for his failure to take a clear stand against rape and abuse will have to come to terms with their defense of the sports icon.
(Source: The New York Times)