Who’s the Enemy?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There are two main ways of thinking about who threatens freedom and democracy. One is that it’s certain groups of people. The other is that it’s whoever actually does certain things.

Who’s the enemy who’s threatening the world right now? There are two main views about this.

One view is this: The enemies are those who don’t believe in the value of moral values and democracy. Those who stifle freedom, hurt others, commit crimes, commit terrorism, wage wars, preach and espouse hatred.

The other view is this: The enemies are those who don’t believe in the value of moral values and democracy. Those who stifle freedom, hurt others, commit crimes, commit terrorism, wage wars, preach and espouse hatred.

Wait, that can’t be right. These are opposite views, but both could be described with the same words, especially by their supporters.

Let’s try that again.

One view is this: The enemy are those groups that are seen as going against the values of morality and democracy. You look at ISIS and note the word “Islamic”, and then it’s Muslims who are the problem. All of them. You think illegal immigrants are criminals, and then all refugees are bad guys and can and should be rounded up like animals.

The other view is this: The enemy is whoever actually does these things. It doesn’t matter what side you say you’re on. A terrorist is a terrorist whether they’re a Muslim extremist or a white supremacist. Denying people their human rights it wrong no matter who does it to whom.

Extremism is the enemy. Intolerance is the enemy. Hatred is the enemy. Violence is the enemy. You don’t get to dress it up in nicer words if someone on your “side” does it. A decent Muslim isn’t the “same” somehow as an Islamist extremist, but an extremist on “your” side is. If two people make statements that are almost indistinguishable if you hide all references to groups or sides, then those people are doing the same thing even if they’re on opposing sides.

The first view thinks that the important thing is to be on the right side, and then you’ll know all the wrong happens on the opposing side and whatever you do after that is justified self-defense at worst. If there’s anything bad on your side, it’s traitors to the group who disagree about this… and there are actually quite a lot of them, but they don’t really count, that’s not what your group is. The second view thinks that good and bad are not divided by groups, but instead, evil can exist in any group. And it should always be opposed.


A Radical Animal Rights Proposal

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

In Finland, a group of activists and lawyers have drafted a proposal to take animal rights seriously in the constitution. What makes it radical is simply that the laws never really take them seriously anywhere.

The Finnish Animal Rights Law Society has a proposal to alter the constitution of Finland to take animal rights into account.

I would describe the change as radical because it would make the law take nonhuman animals’ rights seriously – and that would be something new.

Am I implying Finland has had particularly poor laws for the protection of animals so far? No, that’s not the point. I’m saying nobody has laws that take animal rights seriously. What we currently have is built around the idea that humans can exploit other animals almost however they like, and the laws try to make us be nicer about it.

Even as such, the laws can often be inadequate. But what they don’t even try to do is start with the rights of other animals before asking what we may do with them.

The proposal of the Finnish Animal Rights Law Society does. They are connected with the US Nonhuman Rights Project, and are taking the idea at least as far, if not further.

The proposal is detailed, of course – I’m on a small board of philosophy majors who have been asked to evaluate the details, which have been drafted by lawyers – but the basic idea is simple. If nonhuman animals really have rights, then human interests don’t automatically trump them.

So, for example, we may take for granted our interest in eating meat, but since it’s no longer a true necessity for us, it’s not justified to use animals for meat production. Our culinary preferences do not take precedence over the lives of others.

Such reasoning no doubt seems absurd to many. Really, it follows quite logically if you actually start reasoning ethics from the beginning instead of taking the status quo and all our biases as given.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has drawn ire already. People on the whole are not interested in expanding the circle of whom they take morally into account into new, inconvenient fields. If most of us bother to do any moral reasoning at all about nonhuman animals, we’re ready to dismiss the question of eating or otherwise exploiting them with something facile like “It’s natural.”

We might ask hard questions about when it’s right to take the life of another being to preserve your own. That’s not what anyone usually does. They just take it for granted you may.

I’m not expecting the constitution to really be changed at this point. There’s too much inertia against such a radical change, no matter how reasonable it would be in theory. Visa Kurki of the Finnish Animal Rights Society also comments that he expects change to be slow, but this will get the conversation started.

Kurki also mentions awareness of climate change and the imminent availability of cultured meat as factors that may help with the change. Cultured meat is something I have really been looking forward to for just that reason.

Tribalism and Moral Hypocrisy

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

We have a drive to favor “us” over “them,” but we also a need to appeal to universal moral standards. Unrecognized, the clash of their contradictory forces leads to the rationalization of hypocrisy and double standards.

Psychological studies have shown that humans have an unconscious tendency to favor people seen as being in their own group over those seen as outsiders. There is a likely evolutionary explanation for this in tribalism: we’ve evolved instincts to help us survive as small, competing groups, back in the days when things were very different. Helping your own tribe was helpful for survival, giving away resources wasn’t.

On the other hand, we also have a tendency and need to appeal to impartial, universal moral standards. An innate tendency towards fairness also has an evolutionary explanation. However, I believe that this is only a reflection of the inherent nature of morality. Morality must be impartial because part of what it is is akin to a contract that must be acceptable to everyone.

The impartiality of morality means that people must be treated based on their choices, actions, and needs – never just on who they are.

So we favor our own group over others, but the nature of morality that is ubiquitous in our thinking and rhetoric resists our openly thinking and saying that. How is this conflict resolved?

It could be resolved by openly prioritizing either one. The obvious choice is to prioritize morality over tribalist bias. Tribalism is just a largely nasty psychological fact, whereas morality is the only thing that can even partly prevent an endless war of all against all and even against themselves.

But what if you’re not even aware of the conflict? Morality needs both reason and emotion to work, but in practice, it’s common for emotion to throw in a quick verdict of right or wrong and “reason” to merely rationalize it after the fact. This can apply whether the moral conclusion is sensible or not. You don’t need to stop to think to see that keeping children in cages is wrong, but if you don’t feel that way, I doubt you arrived to that conclusion by impartial consideration of moral principles, either.

And thus, it seems that this is what usually happens when a person’s moral judgements are determined by their tribal instinct: First, the person’s biased thinking throws up a conclusion based heavily on who’s being judged. If you’ve got racist inclinations, even unconscious, you’ll judge a black person differently from a white person doing exactly the same thing. If you’ve internalized sexist stereotypes,you’ll judge a man and a woman differently. Or if it’s someone from your party or the opposing one

And then your brain makes up an explanation, which you likely believe no matter how ridiculous, as to why objective moral considerations led to your judgement. Obama went golfing X times, and that’s bad because X is objectively such a big number (not because it’s Obama), even though you won’t bat an eyelid if Trump does it more. Or, if your government keeps children in cages (and really those aren’t even cages because it’s your side doing it), well, they deserve it because their parents crossed the border illegally.

Rape and Self-Control

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There’s this idea that a man can lose self-control and rape a woman. What if we taught the same thing about other crimes?

Several years ago, I was involved in an online discussion where one participant defended the Islamic hijab on the basis that if women are not covered up, men will be unable to resist the temptation to rape them. I was young and unprepared for that conversation. This is what I wish I had told her – and it also applies to people with similar ideas in the West.

Suppose a man is dining with his friends. He’s very hungry and he’d like one more of the delicious cookies, but the last one is on the plate of the person sitting next to him. Will he grab it and stuff it in his mouth?

Suppose a man just heard his co-worker made a stupid mistake that will mean lots of extra work for him as well, and he’s angry. Will he punch his co-worker? Or strangle him?

Suppose a man really wants a new widescreen television, but he can’t afford one. Now, he’s walking past a store window and sees the television set of his dreams. Will he break the window and run away with the TV?

If not, why not?

Suppose a man sees a beautiful woman and feels lust for her. Will he rape her?

Maybe the man won’t steal the cookie because he knows that it would be a lousy way to treat his friend, and also because he knows everyone will think ill of him.

Maybe the man won’t physically attack his co-worker because he knows that his anger over a mistake doesn’t justify physical violence – and that he’d be held accountable both by other people and the law.

Maybe the man won’t steal the television because he knows stealing is wrong and because he knows he would get caught and go to jail.

And maybe…

Maybe the man won’t rape the woman because he knows it’s a horrible, traumatizing act of violence, and also because he would be reviled by everyone for it and punished by the law.

Or maybe the man will rape the woman because he thinks it would be her fault, not his; because all the talk he has heard about rape has focused on something other than in what way it harms the victim so he doesn’t even understand that; because he’s been told men such as himself don’t have free choice in such situations anyway; and because he knows she will be accused and questioned, not him.

In most situations, a person who’s so unable to control their impulses as to commit violent or otherwise wrong actions just because of being tempted would be considered deficient, a brute. We usually make it clear to people that they are responsible for what they do, and that’s enough to rein in most antisocial impulses. If you want to make an exception for a particular violent act and make it clear that men won’t be held responsible for it, you’re making a choice. It’s “won’t control himself,” not “can’t”.

Diana’s Naivety in “Wonder Woman” Is Our Own

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

One of the reasons I like the 2017 film “Wonder Woman” is that the protagonist’s struggles to understand the nature of good, evil and humanity reflect a common problem humanity has in understanding itself. Unfortunately, the point may be missed because the character seems much more naïve than we are. Psychologists have shown that we can be similarly naïve in a more subtle way. (Contains mild spoilers.)

At the beginning of Wonder Woman, it’s easy to see Diana, the protagonist, has a very naïve view of humanity. She believes the story that humans were created to be good and were corrupted by Ares, the god of war. When she hears of the horrors of the First World War, she expects that finding and destroying Ares would make it all stop instantly; the people would come back to their senses and stop doing such monstrous things. It’s easy to guess that, whatever the role of Ares may be, she’s in for a rude surprise.

When Diana finally encounters Ares, the Lasso of Truth can’t stop him from saying things about humanity that she finds hard to deny. They are certainly not good beings whose minds were taken over by an evil god. He has given them some ideas, but ultimately, they have chosen for themselves.

Ares believes that humans are destructive creatures who should be purged from the face of the Earth. Diana set out with the belief that humans were inherently good and Ares was the source of evil, but after seeing the truth about humanity, she finds that her way of thinking inevitably leads her to dark places – all too close to Ares for comfort.

Both characters share an underlying assumption: Beings who are good do good things, and only evil beings do evil things. In reality, it’s mostly not about being inherently good or evil, but about being inherently limited.

Diana’s journey prepares her to see both sides of things. She travels with people of the sort she’d consider dishonorable – a spy, a con-man, a sniper, a smuggler – and sees how they’re each trying to get by in a world that leaves little option to be perfectly good. Especially without superpowers.

Cynical as we may be, we have some of the naivety Diana starts out with. In his brilliant and startling book Evil, psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that we have an unrealistic tendency to suppose that, when someone does something that harms us, they must be driven by malicious motives that we ourselves could never share. He calls this the “myth of pure evil”, and it’s also related to the fundamental attribution error and banality of evil.

It’s no wonder, then, that we seek to answer the question of where evil comes from as if it’s an active power. But we don’t need a literal or metaphorical Satan when we have a world full of people with partly conflicting interests, who frequently don’t understand what harms another person or don’t care as much as they should.

Some of the greatest evil stems from the illusion that one is fighting evil, like Ares in the movie, or terrorists who think they’re Luke Skywalker and “enemy” civilians are the Death Star. Even when we don’t actively set out to harm others like that, if we want to avoid ever committing evil ourselves, we must see through the illusion that it’s a force outside of us.


The Strict Imaginary Line Between Humans and (Other) Animals

This post originally appeared on The Latest. See also here for a longer discussion of the same topic.

It seems that humanity is slowly moving towards the collective realization that animals of other species have moral worth – that they are not objects to be treated however we wish. There’s still a long way to go. We may talk the talk, but as long as things like factory farming exist, those words look pretty empty.

It’s unsurprising that philosophers may be found at the forefront of the battle for animal rights, since their job is to question that which is taken for granted. Nevertheless, even philosophers have often reinforced the assumption that “humans” and “animals” are two strictly separated groups.

There are two basic meanings of the word “animal.” There’s one that makes perfect biological sense: “animal” is coextensive with the biological kingdom Animalia. Then there’s the other one, far more commonly used: “animal” means everything in the kingdom Animalia except for humans.

Whichever definition we use, there’s an enormous diversity of differences on every scale among animals. Each difference also tends to appear on a spectrum, so intelligence, for example, ranges from minimal to great through all the steps in between.

In spite of all this, there’s a tendency to make generalizations that leave humans on one side and all other animals on the other. These are not automatically false, since humans do have some unique features (or features that are farther along a spectrum than those of any other animal, as with some kinds of intelligence), but they should be made with caution instead of assuming they are a safe bet. Besides, there are probably other species that also have their own unique features, but we don’t put them on the same kind of pedestal.

Sometimes, when making generalizations about other animals, people will really be talking about humans. Say someone is writing an introduction to an anthropological text and wants to make a point about how it’s part of human nature to think about the past and look forward to the future. They might start this point by saying “Humans, unlike animals…”

Now, since thinking of the past and future is a trait related to high intelligence, it might well be true that humans are rare if not unique among animals to have this trait. But why does an anthropologist with no background in animal psychology potentially falsify their own claim about humans by bringing in other animals? We seem to use non-human animals as a negative mirror reflecting what we think of ourselves.

As far as moral value goes, there are two main schools of thought. One is that a thing has moral value as long as it has interests, is capable of pleasure and pain and so on; if something can be hurt, you shouldn’t hurt it. The other is that for your interests to count, you have to belong to some kind of an exclusive club, usually excluding non-human animals. I think drawing such lines between humans and animals is only a little less monstrous than drawing them between humans.

A Very Strange Way of Thinking About Rights

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There seem to be two ways in which people think about rights.

First, the good way: People have various rights, they’re the same for everyone, and in any given situation, you have to balance off the rights of different people against each other.

Then there’s the other way. It works like this: YOU have rights. So do people whose side you’re on. So whenever you want to do something or stop someone else from doing something, you find the rights that could somehow be seen as supporting whatever you want.

I see this coming up again and again – mostly in American news, but that’s probably just because I read so much of them.

Here’s how it works.

Suppose someone boycotts YOU because you publicly said something they are very opposed to? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

But suppose YOU wanted to stop supporting someone who said something you think was very wrong — but someone told you that you can’t. Might you start getting some thoughts about how it’s your money and you can use it as you please? Or about how you should be allowed to stand up for your principles?

Suppose someone bans YOU from an online platform they’re hosting? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

Now suppose YOU are hosting the online platform, and you want to ban someone for the things they say. Might you start to have some thoughts about how you own the platform and you have the right to decide whom you let use it to gain visibility for their ideas?

There’s been discussion about whether conservative Christians should be allowed to, for example, refuse to provide services for a gay wedding ceremony because it contradicts their beliefs. What if someone used the same law to discriminate against them for being, say, conservative Christians? I doubt someone who feels oppressed by “Happy holidays” would think that’s just fine.

And, of course, whenever it’s your ideological or political opponent doing any of this, we’re heading straight towards a Fascist and/or Communist dictatorship. If it’s someone on your side, then great! About time!

There’s another thing behind this attitude besides self-centeredness. It’s the sense that the opinions you defend are right, and those of your opponents aren’t, and of course, evident truths and dangerous nonsense shouldn’t be treated equally. But outside of scientific or legal questions, we can’t appoint some authority to determine what’s right and then restrict people’s rights based on whether they hold the right opinions. Everyone must have the right to express their opinions, not just those whom you deem to have the right opinions. Everyone must have freedom of religion, not just those who belong to the “right” religion.

Rights are not just an excuse for you to demand that everything go your way. Appealing to rights in this way is a travesty, a form of selfishness and a demand for special treatment, not moral or a case of standing up for yourself.