Is it ethical to laugh at a train wreck? What can ‘Tiger King’ teach us about the tiger within?

Fresno Bee, April 19, 2020

It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.

Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”

But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.

Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.

But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”

But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.

It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.

But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.

The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.

Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.

Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”

Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.

There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.

When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.

Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.

Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.

Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.

Quarantine Ethics

Fresno Bee, February 9, 2020

Coronavirus quarantines are spreading. Fifty million people have been quarantined in China. Hong Kong has quarantined people from the Chinese mainland. A cruise ship remains quarantined in Japan. The U.S. banned entry for people traveling from China while slapping a 14-day quarantine on Americans returning from China.

The Chinese government has warned of fear-mongering. But a pandemic is a scary thing. Contagion conjures images of the Black Death and the zombie apocalypse. But quarantines are also frightening. Imagine desperate people pounding on the gates that lock them in with the disease.

Quarantines may not seem controversial, when viewed from the standpoint of public health. The goal is to prevent infected people from spreading the disease. To defend the majority, some people’s liberty is limited.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, may not be overly concerned about violating the rights of 50 million. But it would be difficult to imagine this happening in the U.S. If the disease spreads here, would we be willing to restrict the liberty of 50 million Americans?

One concern is people in the quarantine zone who are not yet infected. A quarantine that puts healthy people at risk seems to violate the basic principle of medical ethics that demands that we “do no harm.”

Some may simply bite the utilitarian bullet and say that in the name of the greater good, some healthy people’s rights may be violated. But the healthy person may disagree. Would a healthy person in quarantine be wrong to try to escape? And if they got infected, would they have a right to sue for damages?

Quarantines are not as easy to justify as we might think. Bioethicist George Annas has argued that quarantine is an “arbitrarily draconian” measure and a “relic of the past that has outlived its usefulness.”

The practice has medieval roots. Centuries ago, plague prevention required 40 days of isolation. The name “quarantine” comes from the Italian word for forty. But why 40 days? Well, in the Bible, the number is connected to a mystical process of purification. It rained for 40 days and nights during Noah’s flood. Moses wandered for forty years in the desert. And Jesus fasted for 40 days.

We no longer believe in supernatural numerology. The proposed quarantine for coronavirus is based upon a 14-day incubation period. But scientific and political judgment can be influenced by cultural factors.

Consider the exotic source of recent pandemic threats: Ebola comes from Africa; coronavirus from China. Racial and cultural assumptions may make us think in terms of preventing “them” from infecting “us.” Quarantine can reinforce discrimination and prejudice.

A long-run solution to pandemic threats must work in the opposite direction. We ought to improve the sanitary conditions and general health of people in the developing world — and here at home. If people everywhere had access to adequate health care, the risk of contagion would be minimized. Quarantine is a short-term solution to a problem that is ultimately about global justice in health care.

A related consideration is science education. In the background is the anti-vaccination crowd. An outbreak of measles that killed at least 63 people last year in Samoa was blamed on anti-vax messaging. A prominent anti-vaxxer was arrested. In the U.S., the First Amendment would seem to prevent the arrest of those who dispute the science of public health. Nonetheless, science literacy and education about preventive health care are essential.

Finally, it is worth considering whether we have an obligation to give special care to those who are quarantined. It would be wrong to shut the gates and leave people in quarantine to suffer. In fact, since we are violating their liberty and putting them at risk for our benefit, we may even owe them special compensation.

Critical thinking about all of this is made more difficult by panicked responses. Unfortunately, these are reactionary times. Fear of contagion is exacerbated by zombie movies and rising animosity toward immigrants. Feverish overreaction must be moderated by common sense and careful consideration of medical ethics.

A quarantine is a morally problematic emergency last resort. We should work harder to prevent those emergencies in the first place. We ought to care for the sick. And we must address the long-term challenges of global public health.

Year in ethics 2016

2016 was a year of ups and downs in ethics

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2016

This was a stimulating year for ethical reflection. Incivility marred the election. Scandals emerged. And haters continued to hate.

But good Samaritans took risks to help others. Just this week, two students, Emily Elmerick and Sydney Antles, rescued crash victims from drowning in a canal on Highway 41.

Such courage should be applauded. We should also celebrate the steadfast decency of the majority of people who worked hard and paid their taxes.

Common decency often goes unnoticed. Nor do we notice the steady progress we are making toward alleviating poverty, improving health and advancing literacy around the globe.

Instead we fixate on hot button issues. This year, transgender rights and Black Lives Matter grabbed headlines. Assisted suicide became legal in California. Some states restricted abortion rights. And marijuana legalization was in vogue. Any of those issues will provoke heated conversation.


Major moral problems loom on the horizon. Self-driving cars will require moral algorithms to guide them. Biotechnology is opening a brave, new world of genetic engineering. The sixth mass extinction is being caused by poaching, pollution and human population pressure. Global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are at all-time highs.

Despite these new challenges, some things don’t change. California voters retained the death penalty. War, crime and terrorism continue to afflict us. And men continue to disrespect women.

This year, we heard Donald Trump brag about grabbing women’s genitals. Anthony Wiener sent more lewd photos. New allegations emerged against Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and others.

Meanwhile, the White House’s glass ceiling remains intact. Some blamed misogyny, racism and xenophobia for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid. Others saw conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation, dirty deeds in the DNC and that pesky email scandal.

The sports world was a welcome distraction from politics. The Cubs inspired hope, as did Olympic champions. The moral highlight of the Rio Games occurred when Abbey D’Agostino helped an injured Nikki Hamblin complete the 5,000 meter race.

But the Olympics were marred by Russian cheating scandals and fear of Zika. Social unrest in Brazil haunted the Games just as racial tensions in the U.S. prompted Colin Kaepernick’s flag protests.

Sex scandals emerged in USA Gymnastics and in British soccer clubs. And in Rio, Ryan Lochte got drunk and vandalized a service station. He lied about it and got caught, demonstrating that the cover-up is often worse than the crime.


In addition to liquor and lust, greed also caused moral disaster. Several corporate scandals emerged this year. Wells Fargo opened phony accounts for 2 million customers. The scandal has spread to Prudential insurance. Thousands of employees were fired, and CEO John Stumpf stepped down.

Profiteering was a problem for makers of the EpiPen, whose price rose by hundreds of percent in recent years. The CEO of the company that makes the EpiPen is Heather Bresch. Her father is a U.S. senator. Her mother headed the National Association of State Boards of Education, which urged schools to purchase these devices.

Nepotism and greed are a volatile mix, which is keeping ethics watchdogs on alert as Donald Trump heads to Washington, D.C. Critics warn of potential conflicts of interest. Others, such as Newt Gingrich, argue that a billionaire president should not be bound by customary ethics regulations. Meanwhile, prosecutors have blocked Trump’s attempts to close his charitable foundation, since it is under investigation.

So what have we learned this year? Most scandals involve the same basic causes: sexual desire, drunkenness, overweening pride, a penchant for secrecy and deception, conflicts of interest, and the unbridled pursuit of profit.

The basic lessons of ethics are simple. Keep your ego in check and your pants on. Value sobriety and self-control. Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Don’t cheat. Respect people and treat them fairly. Don’t enrich yourself or your family at the expense of others. And apologize when you do something wrong.

As we enter the new year, let’s resolve to be moderate, humble, honest and kind. Let’s remember that decent people and good Samaritans do exist. Let’s celebrate the progress we have made in improving ourselves and our world. And let’s be slow to blame and quick to forgive, since everyone is tempted by pleasure, profit and pride.

The robots are coming

Is the world ready for sex robots?

Fresno Bee, October 16, 2015

  • Robots cannot replace some genuinely human activities
  • Sex robots and robot soldiers are morally problematic
  • Human life involves humane labor and loving relationships

The robots are coming. Robots can manufacture consumer goods, milk cows, defuse bombs, fight fires, prepare food, and serve it. Soon we’ll see self-driving cars, robot soldiers, and yes, even sex robots.

Some argue for a ban on certain robots. A group of scholars and tech experts – including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Noam Chomsky – has called for a ban on autonomous weapons. More recently, computer scientist Kathleen Richardson started a campaign against sex robots.

The impending robot invasion creates a brave new world of ethical problems. One hyperbolic fear is that robots will turn against us, as in the sci-fi scenarios of “Terminator” or “The Matrix.” Robot defenders argue, however, that there is no need to fear a robot apocalypse. Since robots are basically rule-following machines, they will not turn on us unless programmed to do so.

But there is no perfect system of rules. Conflicting rules force hard ethical choices. Robots programmed to save humans may have to kill some to save others. For example, driverless cars programmed to avoid pedestrians may swerve into traffic, putting other humans at risk. Rule-following is no guarantee of safety in our complex world.

Robot enthusiasts will argue, nonetheless, that robots are more rational than we are. Machines can calculate probabilities and maximize outcomes in a way that human decision-makers cannot. A robot soldier might be better than a stressed-out human soldier at following the rules of engagement. Robot cars may minimize the overall harm of high-speed collisions better than frantic, angry or self-interested human drivers.

But the fact that robots do not feel squeamishness, fear or doubt is a concern for those who value the emotional component of ethical decision-making. Feelings of guilt, remorse, fear, joy and hope are important components of the moral life. A robot who feels no joy in saving a child and no guilt at killing one is a kind of moral monster.

Another worry is that robots make it too easy to do dirty work. Robot soldiers would make war easier. Since robots don’t suffer PTSD or leave behind orphans and widows, it would be easier to send them into battle. But if robots can kill without risk, we might take combat less seriously and thus be more permissive about going to war.

Furthermore, the robot revolution poses problems for human agency and identity. This is the danger of sex robots. Do we really want people having sex with machines? Proponents imagine sexbots as a humane substitute for human prostitution. But critics worry that sexbots may increase the demand for sex objects, thus contributing to sexual violence and putting women and children at risk. What would we think of pedophiles who build childlike sex robots?

Robot enthusiasts argue that robots will decrease risk, increase productivity and improve human happiness. Smart machines can kill, drive and flip burgers with more precision and less danger than sleepy and disinterested human beings. Unlike human beings, robots don’t get tired, depressed, jealous or drunk. Nor do they complain when they are ignored, mistreated or disrespected.

But creating robots to do dangerous and degrading work is only a deflection from deeply human problems. The scourges of war and sex-trafficking will not be solved by robotic soldiers or cyber prostitutes. We need human solutions to these problems grounded in humane values such as love, respect and self-control.

We also need to remember that good work is intrinsically valuable. Happiness is found in a job well done. In our effort to speed up work and create efficiency through mechanization, we forget that work is what we do and who we are. There are pleasures and virtues to be found in cooking, driving and milking cows. We need productive occupations. When the robots take over, what will we do all day besides fondle our phones and poke at our apps?

Some activities that are so important that we ought not have robots do them: killing and sex are obvious examples. A fully human life is more than mechanical tasks and rule-following behavior. Human experience includes emotional, ethical and spiritual depth, as well as concrete embodied relationships. There is no robotic replacement for the labors and loves that make life worth living.

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Space exploration, religion, and ethics

Exploration of outer space prompts philosophical reflection

Fresno Bee, July 24, 2015

  • Pluto’s icy world reminds us of earth’s fragility
  • Search for alien life creates complex problems for religion and ethics
  • Are are we conquerors or compassionate collaborators?

Ethical New Year’s Resolutions

Have a Philosophical New Year

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2014

As the calendar turns, it is natural to take stock of our lives. Reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions is a philosophical activity. The ancient philosophers also made lists and resolutions as part of the effort to live mindfully.

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

The key to a philosophical life is to try to see things as they actually are. We are often deceived by idealism, ideology and emotion. Our hopes lead us astray. Our fears disempower us. And our fantasies confuse us. The solution is to get in touch with reality.

Consider diet — a typical focus of New Year’s resolutions. We fantasize about food and drink, as if a cocktail or a bag of chips has the magic power to produce happiness. A philosophical diet focuses on the reality of eating and drinking. These are merely biological functions, not fantastic cures for spiritual poverty.

Or consider what we learn from typical year-end lists. These lists show us, as they do every year, that human beings are mortal and imperfect. Some people died. Others were born. Heroes inspired us. But violence and war continue to exist.

For every genius, there are a hundred fools — for every murderer, a hundred lovers. Human nature is neither perfectible nor unredeemable. Optimists don’t like to hear the bad news. Pessimists are unable to see the good. But the truth is in the middle.

We live in a changing world. Our characters are not fixed. We make progress and improve. We backslide and degenerate. Life is a project to be lived. That’s why resolutions are useful: they remind us of who we want to be.

It’s a shame that we waste our resolutions on trivial stuff such as losing weight or making money. It would be better to resolve to be more caring, more intelligent, more courageous, more just and more mindful.

Here are a few reminders and resolutions distilled from the teachings of the ancient philosophers. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it. Do nothing inconsiderately. Remember that no evil lasts forever, including pain. Understand that nothing is entirely in your own control, even your own emotions. Acknowledge that everyone, including you, eventually dies. Bear in mind that you have no power over what other people say or do. Understand that human beings share much in common. And see that we all benefit from compassion and justice.

The ancient philosophers emphasized taking active steps to improve life. Those who wait for the world to change may wait forever. The Roman philosopher Seneca once explained that the problem is not that life is too short but that we waste too much of it. Life is long enough and rich enough, if you make a constant effort to live it well.

Of course, not everything works out for the best. Sometimes tragedy occurs. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we cannot give up because of tragedy or fret over our mistakes. Strength, courage, resilience and tenacity are required at all times.

The key is to accept the things we cannot change and focus our effort on the things we can improve. Another Roman philosopher, Epictetus, said that we should stop wishing that things would happen as we want them to happen and learn to accept the world as it does happen. This is a useful strategy, when things don’t go right. But resigning yourself to fate does not mean giving up on the effort to live as well as you can in the life that fate has given you.

The world won’t change until you make it change. And you won’t become better until you put forth the effort. Wisdom, courage, and intelligence are needed to negotiate a world in which every noble and beautiful thing will eventually fade. Enjoy the good things while they last. Grit your teeth through the bad times. And keep yourself open to opportunities for improvement.

The philosophical approach is demanding. There are no quick fixes or super-human saviors here. This is your life, the philosophers teach, your one and only chance to live well. Each new year — each new moment — is a chance to excel. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you

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Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014

A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.



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Rest required for sound moral judgment

Fresno Bee

December 13, 2013

As the dark nights come early and the sun rises late, it’s tempting to feel the urge to hibernate. The natural world goes dormant in the dark months. Perhaps human beings should also indulge our winter lethargy.

Sleep is necessary for mental, physical and moral health. Research shows that sleep deprivation undermines moral judgment. One recent book — Penelope Lewis’s “The Secret World of Sleep” — argues that sleep deprivation distorts our emotions, leaving us “frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, uncaring, and self-absorbed.”

And yet, our tradition is not fond of sleep. We celebrate early-risers for their ambition. Benjamin Franklin maintained that wealth, health and wisdom come from rising early. Moralists like Franklin tend to scold the lazy, indolent and slothful.

Criticism of sleepiness has deep roots. Aristotle held that wakefulness and knowledge were the highest goods. Sleep leaves us senseless and unaware — more vegetable than human. Aristotle seems to view sleep as an inconvenient necessity of the animal body.

Aristotle also suggests that we are only happy when we are awake. It makes no sense, for Aristotle, to say that sleeping people or plants are happy. The Greeks understood happiness as an activity enjoyed while conscious, not something to be experienced passively.

Aristotle even suggests that God does not sleep. The deity is constantly active, engaged in eternal contemplation. Human enlightenment is modeled on this sort of alert and attentive contemplation.

Given this background, it is no wonder that our scientific and technological culture tends in the direction of 24/7 wakefulness fueled by coffee and electricity. Some even want to hack their brains to reduce the need for sleep. We light the night and fill our eyes with glowing screens, craving stimulation, experience and knowledge.

But wisdom may require us to shut our eyes. The natural world has obvious cycles of wakefulness and sleep, including long hibernal periods of dormancy. Nature and health seem to require that we power-down and become unconsciousness.

This may explain so-called seasonal affective disorder. The winter blues might reflect a biological need for sleep in the dark and cold months. Imagine our ancestors dozing through long winter nights in their dark caves. Maybe it’s natural to snooze away the winter.

Furthermore, there are things to be learned from darkness, silence and sleep. There is more to human life than wakeful happiness. We are not gods, after all — we are mortal animals. Life ends in the long sleep we call death, when we finally might rest in peace, as the saying goes. Learning to accept the dark, sleepy and silent parts of life may be part of the process of finding peace and accepting death.

Author Peter Kingsley explains this in the book “In the Dark Places of Wisdom.” Kingsley describes an ancient practice — called incubation — through which people sought mystical dreams and healing by sleeping in dark caves and holy places. Mystical insight supposedly arises in prolonged incubation and experience of sleeping, dreaming and darkness.

The insight that Kingsley thinks we find in the dark is that “all is one.” He thinks that dark silence helps us understand the unity of the world, the illusory nature of consciousness, and the dreamlike quality of the world of appearances.

This is provocative. But it runs counter to the sort of enlightenment we associate with science and morality. Moral judgment appears to require clarity and discernment — shown in the light of reason. While the capacity for moral judgment may be improved by a good night’s sleep — we want our judges to be awake, not dreaming.

Nonetheless, the mystical insight that “all is one” may have moral importance. It points toward the brotherhood of man and goodwill to all. After all, in the dark we are all the same.

As the winter solstice approaches, we might find some wisdom in letting ourselves join the rest of the natural world in sleeping long and sleeping late. If someone like Benjamin Franklin were to criticize you for spending a few extra moments in bed these days, tell them you’re recharging your moral batteries, seeking wisdom and exploring solidarity with all things. You might even ask them to join you under the covers, to incubate a bit before the alarm clock rings again.

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Technology is not to blame for evils of society

Fresno Bee

October 18, 2014

We live in a culture of mass distraction. It is easy to tune out and look the other way. The ability to ignore things is a useful adaptation. We can’t respond to all of the inputs that assail us. We’ve got work to do and our own concerns to attend to. And mostly, we want to be left alone.

But detachment and dissociation can be dangerous.

In San Francisco recently, a student, Justin Valdez, was murdered on a crowded train. Passengers, engrossed in tablets and phones, failed to notice the murderer brandishing his weapon in plain sight. The San Francisco District Attorney said that bystanders were “completely oblivious to their surroundings.” The police chief warned that people absorbed in technology are vulnerable to crime.

The Valdez murder brings to mind Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 while bystanders ignored her calls for help. This case is frequently cited in ethics and psychology textbooks as an example of diffusion of responsibility and the bystander-effect. Individuals in groups assume that others will act; and so no one does. The new problem is distracted bystanders, who don’t even notice threats.

But we should be careful about assigning blame. Technology is not to blame for the Valdez murder, nor are the bystanders — the shooter is. And while we might like people to be more aware of their surroundings, we have a right to tune out. It’s the criminals who are wrong to take advantage of the vulnerability this creates.

Electronic technologies make it a bit easier to ignore our immediate surroundings. But there is nothing new about zoning out. Before cellphones, there were books, magazines and crossword puzzles. And in crowded places, it is polite to ignore others. We avert our eyes in hallways and on elevators, respecting the privacy of others.

Some fret that high tech makes it too easy for us to be “alone together,” as MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle put it in a book with that title. Turkle worries that virtual reality and communication destroy real intimacy and human empathy. I share that concern. But there are lots of things that destroy intimacy and empathy: racism, sexism, alcoholism, etc. Virtual reality has no corner on the market of callousness.

Intimacy and empathy are important. But they are also hard work. We can’t be empathetic and aware all the time. Tuning out is a coping mechanism in a hectic, crowded world. Sometimes we need to retreat to solitude, disconnect, and disengage. We nap. We daydream. We meditate or pray. And sometimes we poke around on our cellphones.

As with most issues, the context matters. It’s rude to check email in the middle of a face-to-face conversation or to surf the web in a business meeting. And texting while driving can kill. But public transportation should be a safe place for tuning out. We ride the bus or take the train, expecting to have the freedom to read, nap or listen to music.

The world might be a better place if we were all constantly engaged with one another, if we all acted as good Samaritans all the time. But a world of good Samaritans could also be oppressive. Imagine a world where everyone is watching everyone else, looking for opportunities to help. Imagine a world of incessant empathy, where everyone is trying to connect — even in elevators, on buses, or in other crowded spaces. That world would be exhausting. And it would lack zones of privacy and places where we can be alone, even when we’re together.

A broader culture of intimacy and empathy may prevent random violence. But there is no easy answer or high-tech solution here. There is no app for foiling murder — or finding love. We tend to blame technology and hope for technological solutions to the perennial problems of being human. Our obsession with technological issues may be the biggest distraction of all. We blame our tools or hope for a better tool, while ignoring the persons who use them.

We can’t blame technology for malice or alienation. Nor can we blame technology for making us clueless and oblivious to our surroundings. Evil and obliviousness are human problems. And they existed long before the iPhone was invented.

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Syria and morality of gas warfare

Syria prompts reflection on morality of war

September 6, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry is right to claim that gas attacks in Syria should shock the conscience of the world. The problem is that much of modern warfare should also shock our consciences. Moral reflection cannot be one-sided; and it must be self-critical.

Reflection on the problem of chemical weapons points toward the general question of the morality of war. Why is it wrong to use weapons of mass destruction but not wrong to use other weapons?

The best place to begin thinking about this is the just war theory, a moral framework with deep roots in the Western philosophical tradition. Many of the ideas of the just war tradition are also found in contemporary international law, including ideas about war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The just war theory views some weapons as wrong in themselves. Rape and torture, for example, are rejected as inherently evil. Just warriors should not rape or torture — even if these things might help to achieve victory. Some will claim that, like rape and torture, weapons of mass destruction are intrinsically immoral.

But why are weapons of mass destruction more immoral than good old-fashioned explosives and projectiles? It doesn’t make much difference to those killed and maimed, whether the damage is caused by chemical agents or by shrapnel. It might be that the evil of WMD is that they cause slow, painful death. But this is not always true. Nuclear explosions instantly kill those at ground zero. Gas can be quick. And it is difficult to see why the slow, painful death caused by mustard gas is qualitatively worse than the slow, painful death caused by bullets, bombs and bayonets.

Another argument against weapons of mass destruction is grounded in the worry that these weapons are indiscriminate killers. They cause “mass destruction,” after all.

But the sheer number of casualties is not the primary concern. Rather, what matters is who is killed. Just warriors are allowed to kill enemy combatants — in large number if needed. But just warriors are not permitted to directly target noncombatants.

From this perspective, if poison gas or nuclear weapons could be used in a limited way on a battlefield — only killing enemy soldiers — then they may be permitted. But any weapon that targets noncombatants is wrong, whether chemical or conventional.

Some worry that it is not easy to control chemical weapons. Wind can blow gas into unintended areas. The primary moral concern here is accidental harm to noncombatants. However, the same criticisms apply to conventional weapons. Even precision weapons that aim to avoid collateral damage can end up killing noncombatants. Predator drones are more precise than other weapons. But drones have still killed the innocent.

Others worry about persistent aftereffects of nuclear or chemical weapons. But conventional weapons also leave behind lingering hazards. Unexploded ordnance is a problem, including land mines and bomblets left over from cluster bombing. And dangers may linger when depleted uranium shells are employed. It is not clear that chemical weapons are qualitatively worse than conventional weapons in terms of unintended consequences and persistent risks.

The good news is that the world is responding to some of these dangers. We have worked to destroy our own stockpiles of chemical weapons. That’s progress. But we haven’t signed on to a treaty banning landmines and cluster bombs. And we still possess thousands of nuclear weapons.

Consistency in the morality of war is difficult. It is tempting to make exceptions for “the good guys” and appeal to double standards. But the same principles that condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria can also be used to condemn American atomic attacks on Japan in 1945. Indeed, these principles can be employed to criticize incendiary weapons, napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium weapons, the use of torture and nuclear strategy.

One hundred years ago, the countries that are now condemning the use of poison gas in Syria employed it on the battlefields of Europe.

The nearly universal moral condemnation of the Syrian gas attacks is a hopeful sign that we have made progress in thinking about the morality of war. But we still have a long way to go. Further progress will result from a consistent and self-critical application of just war principles.

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