Thursday, June 16, 2016

Understanding Evil.

A while ago I wrote a series of posts in which I explored the Problem of Evil (or Eeee-vil if you like). This is a classic philosophical problem that atheists sometimes like to throw at theists. If God is all powerful and all good then how can there be evil?

My take on this problem was rather different. For one thing I consider the Problem of Evil to be one that does not merely belong to theists to grapple with. The Problem of Evil challenges all views of the universe in which right and wrong have some objective basis –whether that basis is theistic opinion, or reason or mental health. If right, for any reason, is able to be objectively distinguished from wrong, then we all have to wonder why we continue to do wrong at all. There must be some other drive or creative force to explain why even a million or so years of humanity has done little to shift the perennial problem of evil. This experience that evil persists ultimately obliges us to doubt the sovereignty of reason or the normality of empathy as much as the theist must doubt the sovereignty of a loving God.

I’d like to revisit the question of evil in this post but with a different focus. I’d like to ask the pragmatic question of how we can understand what produces evil. In doing so I will present two different views that try and understand wrongdoing. I’m going to avoid the tricky theodicy of evil mentioned above – anyone interested in that aspect can revisit those earlier posts – and focus on ways of understanding evil’s causation that throw up possible interventions.

Learning theory and developmental models.

When an infant cries in the night, waking us up, we do not consider this bad or wrong. We want our child to alert us if they are distressed. Likewise it is good if they are hungry that they demand food. We are not offended if they demand food while we are preparing it – how are they to know we are preparing the food for them? We are not, after a slow breath, offended even when our child spits out the food we have prepared, calling it yucky. We do want them not to swallow what tastes bad to them. It’s a useful self-preservation skill for someone who is still tasting the dog.

If our teenage child demands food while we are preparing it we might be frustrated and point out what they should have observed. If they spit it out, calling it yucky, then we might be righteously frustrated by their lack of tact but still we would not judge this incident in the same way as if a grown and fully able person was expected us to hurry up with dinner and then griping that it wasn’t to their taste. What is appropriate, even desireable, for a person at one age and stage is not appropriate in another situation.

This attitude to wrongdoing is really helpful when parenting. Is your kid pushing boundaries or testing limits? So they should be. You in return should respond in a way that is loving but also acknowledges realities that your child needs to understand ie. a banging pot in their parents ear is bloody annoying or your sisters artwork is not improved in her eyes by your scribbling on it. At an early enough age a kid pulls our hair or pokes our eye, not to sadistically enjoy causing pain, but in the same way that they might ring a bell. Through our reactions we teach children whether this is a good game or not. We advise them that there is a real person like themselves in this body holding them. We also show them what this means by compassionately responding to their own pain. The specific stage at which children develop empathy is hard to pinpoint but it is usually observable before age two (and arguably not perfected in this life). It’s development is the slow result of authentic and congruent interactions with others.

It can be difficult to apply a development model to older children’s behaviour. We may want to ascribe maliciousness to their actions when they disrespect us, they have more adult sized heads after all, but it makes sense to think of their actions developmentally. You are the unelected ruler of your child’s castle. Is it appropriate to lie to such a ruler? You might even be a little concerned about your child’s intelligence if they automatically took the rulers word that it was wrong and never had a go.

Younger children can’t lie but it’s a skill that we actually want all children to develop – we applaud it in actors for example who can pretend to be entirely different people. We simply want them to know when to use the skill and when not to. Developing that knowledge is usually going to happen by them trying lying out and us responding genuinely ie. by trusting them less. This is how they learn about concepts like trust and reputation and the consequences of lying. As children get older they can learn more and more hypothetically. They can imagine what it would feel like to be lied to for example, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they resort to testing their theories of right and wrong. Only through relationships with others are the nuances of ethical human behaviour worked out.

It would be wrong to characterize this idea of the development of moral character as simply being taught right from wrong. The emerging adult develops an understanding of the concepts that underpin right and wrong. This means the awareness that other people have feelings and that those feeling include such complex ones as feeling put down or put upon. Perhaps more importantly they experience being on the recieving end of genuine love. These understandings are put together so that the emerging adult can to some extent, draw their own conclusions about what is right and wrong. Specific conclusions can even be overturned from one generation to another: an honest butcher can father a proud vegan.

A learning theory or developmental approach to moral growth understands aberrant behaviour as coming from development that is missed or gone awry. Usually the further explanation for this incorrect development is a lack of appropriate authentic and congruent relationships in a persons life. Sometimes intellectual impairment or other neuro-biological factors are seen to be in play, such as high cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone. The corrective intervention is usually seen as taking time and involves establishing the necessary relationships that the person has missed out on.  These relationships have to include consequences for negative behaviour but not simply as a punishment to change behaviour. Rather the consequences are ideally natural consequences. They are part of holding a genuine space for the other person to experience what they need to in order to develop a socially appropriate morality.

There is clinical evidence to support these kinds of interventions and thus the developmental model that they draw from. We know that many people diagnosed as  sociopaths or psychopaths will grow out of it in time. There are obviously no experimental studies to support developmental ideas of how people become inclined towards evil. It’s unconscionable to imagine controlled testing of different parenting models to see if they make one child into a villain and another into a hero. Schools are very interested in building empathy amongst students. Diverse interventions based on learning theory claim excellent results in schools but its hard to be sure of their data. When terrible acts of violence and cruelty are displayed in the media, our desire to blame improper development may have much to do with our hope that, by parenting well, we can avoid the fate of the perpetrator’s parents, who often seem bewildered by what their child has done.

Systems theory and social models.

Developmental models can tell us how people become “bad people” or fail to aquire what they need to be “good people” but they struggle with the problem of how supposedly “good people from good homes” with a history of authentic caring relationships, do bad things. This is a problem that seemed to have occurred when U.S. soldiers brutally tortured and degraded the inmates of Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The U.S. Military at the time sought to blame a few bad apples for the mess. One of those bad apples enlisted, as an expert witness in their defence, psychologist Phillip Zombardo.

Phillip Zombardo has made a lifelong study of what makes people willing to comitt atrocities and is most famous for his deeply troubling study, the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this social experiment he showed how within only a few days, through dehumanization of their victims, uniforms to establish anonymity and socialization into authoritarian roles, ordinary people could act with terrible cruelty to their peers. The experiment began with socially adjusted participants but had to be shut down in six days because it had become dangerous to participants who were roleplaying prisoners. To use Zombardo’s own language, it was not bad apples that were to blame in the Stanford Prison Experiment or Abu Ghraib, but a bad barrel; a set of social conditions that enabled and normalized cruelty.

Zombardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment is an intense case study that is supported by the repeated experimental work of Stanley Milgram. His study in 1963 found that an overwhelmingly percentage of ordinary people would apply electric shocks to a stranger even if that stranger was screaming for mercy. All that was required was that they were asked to do so by a person in a white lab coat who promised to take responsibility for the act and that their involvement was introduced incrementally. Once again there is nothing to suggest that participants who complied with potentially murderous instructions were in any way developmentally impaired. They were ordinary people.

Looking at the barrel rather than the apple enables us to understand evil on the scale that was tolerated by Germans under Nazism, Whites under apartheid in South Africa and arguably Australians in relation to our off shore indefinite detention policies. In each of these cases near universal developmental impairments seems unlikely. Systems theory can seem at first despairing though. We can’t necessarily rely on our good character to ensure that we will not commit terrible evil. We might find ourselves slipping into it step by step until our capacity to recognize our behaviour as evil is severely diminished.

Critics fear that systems theory diminishes any personal responsibility for our actions. It is important to note that not every person capitulates and co-operates with systematic evil and that some personalities capitulate all too easily. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew herself, explained the Nazi Holocaust with the acceptance that many compliant Nazis were not sadistic or psychopathic personalities in their individual selves, no more than Milgrams study participants or the guards of the Stanford Prison Experiment were. Her understanding was that evil on that scale is committed, not by sadists so much as by nobodies, people who have forgone their moral agency to become the ultimate obeyers. Hannah Arendt was adamant that even under the most totalitarian systems people voluntarily obey or resist.  In her most famous quote from her book published in 1963, the Banality of Evil, she says;

[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Phillip Zombardo is currently engaged in a project designed to cultivate and promote the people who can stand up to evil and the conditions they thrive in. These are the people who form the small portion who refused to electrocute strangers in Milgrams work, the whistleblowers who expose events like at Abu Ghraib, or the Germans who stood up to the Nazis. Contrary to what we usually hear from school programs wanting to produce positive behaviours, the Heroic Imagination Project views dissent positively. It views social conformity as the greatest enabler of evil. The crucial space needed to resist evil is what Hannah Arendt refers to as the conversation we can have with ourselves.

What use are interventions like the Heroic Imagination Project in preventing those acts of evil which are seemingly indifferent to the rules of society, even closed societies? Although rare, violence by “lone gunmen” who act in isolation and against expectations, does exist. It seems counter intuitive to suggest that such villains need to obey less and listen to their convictions more. Two responses come to mind. Firstly that the Heroic Imagination Project is right to focus, not on the abberant perpetrator, but on the aberrant but more important heroes in these stories. These people are far better role  models than the lone gunman and to some extent whoever we focus on will be a role model whether we call them the villain or hero.

Secondly, it is possible that aberrant lone gunman are not so aberrant or lone as they think. Often their choices are consistent with beliefs shared by others. While no more than a tiny proportion of men kill their partner we recognize that those who do are obeying social scripts that exist about men’s pride and women as property.  If a shooter targets dancers in a gay club as occurred recently in Orlando this is certainly consistent with a  range of social and religious messages. Even in these cases where the perpetrator of evil is clearly disobeying certain laws and mores it may be that they are simply obeying more fiercely other laws. Even if they might view themselves as some kind of tragic hero, they may have allowed themselves to be a nobody in a system of prejudice.

I began this post wanting to pierce the darkness around why people do evil. The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando has been blamed on masculinity, Islam, U.S. Conservatism, internalized homophobia and easy access to weapons. Fingers have been pointed at the perpetrators family, the man himself has been called mentally ill and they have been treated as a symptom of their society. All of these are perfectly reasonable speculations. Early and contradictory reports from news sources with agendas can’t be treated as evidence of anything though. I felt a need to look away from that news cycle to get some perspective.

I've finished this post with a little more clarity and hope. We aren’t completely blind about what produces evil. We might even be on track to knowing how to reduce incidences of evil. That might not give us an easy explanation of an individual case like the Pulse nightclub shooting.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of untested ideas, in developmental models particularly, rushing to answer them. But as humans we aren’t entirely throwing our arms up in resignation either. We are challenging the fear that evil will always be a mysterious eruption from beneath an opaque surface. We are shining a light on where it comes from. We are planning to live in this world without the shadow of inexplicable destruction stalking our attempts to dance and have fun.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Challenging Choice Without Creating Victims.

Many politically contentious arguments rely on the reality of choice; the idea that humans are able to weigh up and elect to follow one of a few alternative courses of action. Three relevant topics which come to my mind are debates about euthanasia, abortion and sex work in which the ability to make a choice for people who want to die, or have an abortion or engage is sex work is broadly assumed. Philosophically though, choice is a contested idea. There are diverse arguments that we don’t make our own choices because we are under delusion, driven by our unconscious, slaves to our desires or bound by historical paradigms. More mundanely we make choices within a set of possibilities we don’t get to entirely invent. If we consider freedom to be the capacity to make maximal choices, we can appreciate that having money, the invention of the airplane, and the state of conflict in Syria all decide how free we are to choose to holiday there. These mundane restrictions on our capacity to choose are what I want to focus on in this post.

What is motivating me to write this post is a reaction I have encountered when I question the reality of choice. The opposite of a belief in choice is often interpreted as the desire to overlook a person’s agency and to reduce them. especially amongst all creatures, to a victim of their circumstance. This is possibly a result of those arguments against choice which depend on saying a person is deluded or unconsciously driven. The reaction is righteously fierce because these arguments contain within them a core of arrogance. The person making the argument is claiming that they are enlightened enough to see the others choices as unenlightened while lacking any insight that this would be what a deluded person would think of themselves too. This fierce reaction creates a duality where in order not to cast a persons as a passive victim we must accept they are making completely free choices.  I want to explore a way past this duality where a person can have their choice respected as coming from a person who is, in no way especially, a victim (no more deluded than the arguer) but still the complete freedom of their choice can be challenged.

I’ll start with the innocuous issue of Sunday Trading. Bob is a hypothetical businessman who wants to open his supermarket on a Sunday in a small town with Sunday trading restrictions. Let’s imagine Bob’s costs are being covered by the other days of the week with enough profit to make the business worthwhile. A Buddhist might argue that Bob is oppressed by ignorance unless he is a Buddha and a Freudian may suspect some other driving force, but I can accept for practical purposes that Bob is making a free enough choice to open on a Sunday that we can call this his autonomous decision. But equally, Bob is not making an entirely free decision. Bob can’t also decide to fly his shop around town or to have a successful business selling only his toenails. Bob’s options are constrained by reality, and this includes economic realities.  That much is obvious, although Bob probably wouldn’t consider it relevant when defending the freedom of his decision to open on Sunday.

We should acknowledge that Bob’s acceptance of reality is of great immediate benefit to him. What purpose could be served if Bob allowed himself to constantly remain aware of gravity preventing him from soaring about with his supermarket? What kind of businessman would Bob be if he didn’t accept from the outset that the nature of doing business was meeting consumer demand? It seems better for Bob to simply incorporate these kinds of restrictions into his idea of freedom and enjoy or demand freedom only within their bounds. This practical acceptance of reality is entirely taken for granted by Bob.

But although Bob has been told that the reality of business in this town is not to trade on Sundays, he reads this as the result of other people’s decisions and not an unchosen state of reality. He doesn’t accept that not trading on Sunday is a boundary within which he can have all reasonable freedom – instead Sunday trading laws are a boundary running through his reasonable freedom like an unwelcome fence through his garden rather than a natural border around it. Bob is likely to be supported in this way of looking at his world by people who either agree with Sunday trading or don’t. If Bob was to bemoan his inability to fly his shop around he might face more opinions that consider him eccentric at best and insane at worst.

Bob’s (and our) acceptance of reality’s restriction raises concerns. There are a number of elements of Bob’s world which are just as clearly the result of people’s decisions and not an unchosen aspect of the world. Bob’s shop depends very much on people paying for the goods they want and if they don’t they must face some consequence enforced by the community. This is not some natural state – although a philosopher Locke might claim it is. Every iota of stuff in our world is bounded and owned in some way, usually with disregard for indigineous claims and certainly with disdain for the natural state of anything. Bob’s isolation of Sunday trading as if it was especially a rule running across the field of his freedom, rather than a natural limit around it, has no basis. Bob accepts other rules as just “reality” when they are just as apparently imposed.

We are not always in cultural agreement about what rules we consider realities that are beyond the scope of questions of freedom, and what we consider to be mere rules constraining freedom. Forgetting his failed toenail line for a moment, Bob might also have dreams of selling t-shirts in his shop. This too might be impractical because of an exchange rate which favors imports and a tax regime which encourages online purchasing. Should Bob accept these commercial limits as beyond the scope of what constitutes his freedom or should he perceive his freedom as extending beyond them and hampered by them? That is a political question. Are globalised free markets just base economic realities? Is freedom what happens inside these realities while these realities are not themselves restrictions of freedom?

This is the political world Bob lives in but it is also the world Bob shapes. Bob knows that a smiling checkout operator brings return business. Bob decides to hire and fire on the basis of who is the biggest grinner. Is this the sort of reality that Bob’s employees must accept (they are still free to smile or quit) or can they see losing their job due to not smiling as a limit cutting across their freedom? What if Bob wanted them to wear rabbit ears at Easter? What if they were required to work nude on Naked Gardening Day? At one point we might believe the people who are working there remain free because Bob’s demands are reasonable. Once they cease to be reasonable we may consider Bob’s workers’ freedom to be at risk.

The important thing to note here is that the person who has no problem smiling more for their job, just like Bob who has no problem opening on Sunday, is not a victim. Not especially. We do not have any justification to look down on them in any way. They are not delicate flowers that need protecting. We can accept that their decision is as much their own as any decision we would call our own. We might even want to think of them as braver, more confident and harder working than their peers. That doesn’t change if they are willing to wear rabbit ears or remove their clothing. We don’t have to think of them as poor victims of exploitation if they make these choices.

What we do need to consider is that their willingness to make those choices affects the realities of other peoples choices. If I am a particularly unhappy fellow I will not get a job at Bob’s emporium, while it is acceptable to smile one’s way to employment. I don’t need to see this as an incentive to be weak and join all the other victims of exploitation. I can see it as a simple trade off – I get to be guaranteed a smile when I shop but I need to smile if I want to work. It’s a trade off I might be keen to accept if I like smiling. I can choose to accept as a given economic reality the need to smile at customers, within which I am free to smile or not, or choose to perceive it as a restriction that curtails my freedom to frown. In fact I must make that choice. There is no objective way to decide the issue. There is no absolute definition of what is reasonable freedom and what is demanding a ridiculous amount of choice.

The mechanisms by which our choices affect everyone’s reasonable freedom are sometimes apparent. The most easy to see is the business council choosing to ban Sunday trading. Also fairly visible is if I accept, when applying for a job in a competitive marketplace, certain conditions, such as smiling. We can understand how this acceptance pressures other applicants to do the same. We can understand how through business competition, one business improving their sales in this way can pressure other businesses to do likewise, or even to imagine further expansions of what constitutes customer service. (Did you make the customer feel like a king today?)

My attitude towards sex work relies heavily on this sort of understanding. I don’t consider sex workers to be necessarily victims, or their work to be necessarily exploitative. The fact that sex work happens to be largely exploitative and workers are most often victims of trafficking around the world is possibly partially a result of its criminality. My concern is that arguments for sex work often contain extremely individualistic assumptions about the nature of choices. Engaging in sex work is seen as a choice which only impacts on the worker and their client and maybe someone the client goes on to interact with. In fact sex work legitimizes a type of service and doing this has an impact on all people who either provide services or want to or face expectations to. In other words, everybody. The fact that sex-work is a separate industry to Bob’s supermarkets is only a thin barrier. When someone is looking for a job they may well be looking at both industries, and businesses in both are competing for the same discretionary spending.

I am frustrated when I hear the argument in defence of sex work that one cannot tell a person what they can do with their own body. For one thing, this blurs the distinction between saying that a person cannot have sex and a person cannot obtain money for sex. Such a distinction is important for a range of situations. We ban the sale of human blood for example while encouraging its donation. Even if the owner of the blood wants to sell, genuinely preferring some money to a pint of easily replaceable blood, we prevent this transaction from being possible, while making no objection to them giving it away. Likewise we prosecute people for commercial surrogacy. We don’t do this because the exchange necessarily and always involves one party being oppressed. We likewise make every worker on a worksite wear a hard hat – no choices allowed. We do this because of how it shifts the realistic expectations which frame freedom for everyone, perhaps in the hope that less oppression (or head injuries in the case of the helmets) will result. Whether talking about helmets, or blood, there is no absolute autonomy for each person over their own body

Harder to understand is how the sorts of controversial choices of abortion or euthanasia affect what is real and acceptable for other people. I believe these choices still do. If a student has an abortion because having a baby would derail their studies, implicit in this is the idea that babies derailing one’s studies is a restriction that is beyond the scope of reasonable questions of freedom: one shouldn’t expect to be free to both study and have a child, one’s freedom exists only to make this choice. Likewise euthanasia can carry with it the presumption that certain health and lifestyle outcomes of illnesses or disabilities are not themselves to be railed against but are realities we must accept. Our only freedom is in how we respond to such outcomes. This is severely problematic for disabled activism which attempt to challenge the outcomes of disability that are determined by our societies prejudice and frankly monstrously ableist evaluation of peoples worth.

This doesn’t establish that sex-work, abortion or euthanasia should be illegal. For one thing individuals always have to make choices inside realistic expectations. We simply ought to acknowledge that on a broader level when sex-work, abortion and euthanasia are legal we are shaping those realistic expectations. I think it is possible to be entirely pro-choice in regard to abortion out of regard for women’s bodily autonomy while recognizing that under capitalism abortion serves a purpose. It is one way that women can be expected to remain the most useful worker unit without adjustments to workplaces or men’s lives. I think we should hold on to the sense that anyone encouraging a woman to have an abortion for “common sense reasons” is shifting the conversation around legitimate freedom. I would hope it is still taboo for an employer to make that suggestion to an employee for example.  I likewise am concerned that mainstreaming sex-work might require unemployed people to justify why they turn down a sex-worker position. I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen. It’s bad enough when the labour market expects everyone to smile.

For me there are still plenty of good arguments for the legality of sex work, abortion or euthanasia. I am not thoroughly convinced by them but I am certainly not convinced against them. I want to acknowledge that I’m not trying to engage with these arguments here. I am simply want to challenge the reality of choice as a basis for supposedly left positions. Across a number of previous blog posts I make references to myself as a big-ass lefty. I recently told a friend, tipsy on a couple of wines, that I am only interested in the left wing take on things because the left wing take is what cares about people. Hyperbolic as I was being, there’s a truth to that for me. I don’t think I have betrayed lefty principles by being critical of the individual choice rhetoric that is used to argue for the legalization of sex-work, abortion or euthanasia. In fact I think it is imperative for lefties to be critical in this way. Yet, uncritical belief in free choice rhetoric in these areas can seem like a measure of one’s progressiveness. Perhaps here is the difference between left and progressive and if so I am more left than progressive.