Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Month: November, 2012

Leaps of judgment

A couple of days ago, I linked to this article on the Guardian  website: I suggested in my comment that ‘Killer robots should be banned’ is about as unambiguously right as any moral statement gets. I added, in a rather combative fashion, that anyone who disagreed was probably approaching robothood themselves.  Although the link and accompanying comment were ‘liked’ by a lot of my friends, they quite rightly also prompted a flurry of responses arguing that things were, in fact, more complicated than that.  It was pointed out that it could well turn out that ‘autonomous’ drones could be better at discriminating military targets from civilian ones, that they avoided risking the lives of troops on one’s own side, and that the language of ‘killer robots’ (note the inverted commas in the Guardian headline) was highly emotive and already assumed a moral position, putting us in mind of the 38th governor of California on the rampage.

I was, of course, being deliberately inflammatory and facetious in my comment. I don’t believe that the friends who made these very sensible points are robots, and I admit that there are complexities to this debate which my comments knowingly overlooked. There is a background to this: over the preceding days, I had been extremely (some would say excessively) upset about the situation in Gaza, to the point of insomnia. In particular, I was depressed about the way events were being covered by the British media, particularly by the BBC.  The general approach seemed to be that, because of the massive complexity of the situation, and because there was suffering on both sides, it would be wrong to cover the unfolding story with anything other than a ‘neutral’ stance, that treated the wrongs of both sides as equally reprehensible and held back from ‘taking sides’.  This seems to me to be wrong, both conceptually in the idea of what neutrality or impartiality consist in, and ethically in the wilful blindness to domination, oppression and inequality, and the way that such blindness compounded the wrong being done to the Palestinian people.

Ten years ago I was the victim of an assault on a quiet street late on an evening, and was forced to fight off my assailant, who was a great deal larger than me, and who was attempting to physically invade my body.  Witnessing such a situation, nobody with any compassion would either shout at us both to stop it, tell me that my situation could only be remedied if I stopped struggling, or simply ignore the situation on the basis that they are ignorant of the complexities or history that led up to what was happening.  Once again, I am being inflammatory. People could point out that this is a poor analogy, that a nation is not a person, that Israeli civilians are suffering when they are not directly responsible for what is happening, and so on. It might also be said that it is disrespectful to women to bring the example of sexual violence into the debate in this way, rather as comparisons to Hitler trivialise the suffering and death that he caused.

I hold up my hands to this, but I am not merely offering an analogy to be held up and examined for structural similarities that could lead us to a conclusion of ethical parity or disparity.  What I am trying to do is to evoke, rather than explain, the simplicity and clarity that one has to adopt in situations of extreme violence, invasion and victimhood.  The fact of immediate threat and oppression may not make the victim or the observer blind to any complexities of the situation – with a decade acting as a soft buffer between myself and the past, I often reflect on the fact that my attacker probably had a very unpleasant childhood and clearly had a serious drug problem – but when the assault is taking place, these issues have to be overlooked: for the victim this is a demand of immediate necessity, and for the witness it is a demand of compassion based on the recognition of that necessity.

We could say that the two situations are nothing like each other, and that we should not draw any comparisons of this kind, but to go down this road is in danger of leaving us morally paralysed, as I suspect the BBC are right now. Nothing, in history or in current experience, is exactly like the situation of the Palestinian people. As a comfortable middle-class person in Western Europe, I have incredibly little comprehension of what it must be like.  But it is only through interaction and engagement with the particular and the familiar that we can have any sort of compassion at all for people in situations very different from our own.   We abstract from the particular, in a more or less fine-grained way, towards an attitude of care and compassion for those whose particular experiences differ greatly from our own.  This is the ancient concept of agape, a love found towards one’s fellows that is able to transcend the particular and extends to a love of humanity.  This is an extremely different thing from the abstractions of analogical reasoning, and without it any theoretical abstraction in ethics or politics would be empty words.

What does this have to do with the killer robots? It is about the nature of taking a moral stance. Frege described the act of judgment as making a leap. In the case of moral and political judgments, it is a leap from our safe cosy comfortable ‘neutral’ stance and the false sense of superiority that it gives us, towards an engagement with the messy, screwed-up reality of things.  This necessarily involves a certain focus: the reality is messy and screwed-up, but compassion demands that we throw down the gauntlet and describe robots that kill people as ‘killer robots’.  We have to make these sorts of judgments with emotion and conviction, despite the knowledge that things are very complicated, that we will never have a full or complete understanding of the situation, that sometimes we will be battling alongside those whose own motives we might question, and that it could turn out that we were wrong.  A leap need not be a blind one: we should spend some time looking at the size of the chasm to be leapt, and what is on the other side, but eventually a leap must be made, in full knowledge and full ignorance of the nagging voices from both sides of the debate.

One motivation for the particular judgment in this case is that the development of ‘autonomous’ killer technology is itself a failure to make such a commitment, and an attempt to hold moral responsibility at a distance.  The unmanned drones currently in use are the subject of much debate of this kind – the remoteness of the operators is said to give them a sense of distance and unreality, and a lessened moral responsibility.  This debate has been going on for hundreds of years: the invention of the crossbow prompted debates about whether there could be just conduct in wars where people could be attacked from such long distances, and where the attacker was often safely shielded behind a stone fortification, firing through an embrasure, a narrow slit of a window that allows the arrow out and nothing in.  The Catholic Church ruled, tellingly, that such technology could be used against ‘heathens’, but not against fellow Christians.  Reel forward through the centuries and similar things were being said about guns, and much later about the cutely nicknamed ‘doodlebugs’, the sinister flying bombs pioneered by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.  I don’t say this to undermine the current arguments about drones – quite the opposite, I think there has been a general movement through the centuries toward more remote forms of warfare which have pushed the gap between victim and assailant ever further apart – but I think that the current research into ‘autonomous’ weaponry presents us with a difference of kind, not just one of degree.  In all the former cases, the decision to kill has been made easier and less involved, but it is still a decision that a person makes.  In this case, the very question of life and death is moved out of human hands, into those of an unconscious mechanical killer that is everything but autonomous in the most meaningful senses of the word.  To develop and employ such warfare is to present a hideous caricature of keeping one’s hands clean at the expense of one’s very humanity.

‘man finds himself in an organised situation in which he is himself involved: his choice involves mankind in its entirety, and he cannot avoid choosing’ – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism.


Remembrance Sunday 2012 (Written Sunday 11th November)

(in this note I make reference to a particular teacher. Some of the people reading this will know who it is, either through having been there, or through the general description making it fairly obvious. Please can I request that you do not mention his name in any comments: my home town is a small place, and I would not wish to upset anyone who knows this person. At the same time, I think I have the right to say what follows, because it is both personally and more broadly important, especially to those of us who work in education today.)

When I was a teenager, I went into school wearing a white poppy. Much to my surprise, my history teacher demanded that I take it off. I was called to the front of the class and interrogated, being told that I did not understand the significance of the sacrifice that people had made, that my sentiments were naïve, and that I was disrespecting all the people who had given their lives for our country, and those in the armed forces who continue to be prepared to do so. I felt a painful lump in my throat and my face burning as I tried to fight back tears, I felt an intense sense of unfairness at the inequality of the situation, but also a deep self-doubt and self-interrogation. Perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough, and maybe I really was treating ruined lives and unthinkable deaths as a way of making an adolescent statement. At the same time, it seemed obvious that no matter how many clever arguments were thrown my way, war did ruin and destroy lives and communities, and that it should be avoided in anything except the most extreme circumstances. This was what I took the white poppy to stand for, and it seemed to me to be a modest point.

I stood with my feet rooted to the spot, completely at a loss. The simple question of what to do next had taken on the most pressing significance. I had pinned the thing to my blazer in the morning thinking that it would pass with no more than a few questions or comments, but now I had all these arguments thrown at me, twenty-nine pairs of eyes staring at me in what seemed like an unbearable period of silence. To remove the poppy would be treating my teacher’s words as the last ones, but to keep it on might be nothing more than petty teenage stroppiness or posturing in the face of people who had risked far more than losing at some silly classroom standoff – that would make me a monster. I didn’t take the poppy off. I’d like to say that it was down to a principled stance, but it was really more to do with paralysis and confusion, and the sense that if I did anything or made a single movement the tears would become unavoidable and I would be humiliated in front of the whole class. I was sent out of the lesson, which was a relief because it allowed me to rush to the girls loos to splash cold water on my face so that I could pretend that I had been braver than I was.

The teacher’s behaviour was an abuse of authority, and I try to bear it in mind when I teach students, particularly when I teach them applied ethics and political philosophy. There had been another similar moment with the same teacher when we were studying the cold war, although it didn’t reach quite the same heights of drama. I had asked whether we really had a right to tell other countries they could not have nuclear weapons when we continued to have them ourselves. This was apparently a ‘stupid’ remark, and one that I would never have made if I had had any understanding of history or politics. The teacher’s age, position of authority and knowledge of facts was used to silence my opinions, and in fact, for years I believed that he must be right, despite not being able to shake off the contrary conviction.

On a later occasion I got quite a different view of the same teacher. We were on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme. We had been given the usual safety talk about how we should leave anything we find there on the ground – unexploded material from the First World War still occasionally surfaces there, and obviously needs to be treated with extreme caution. One of our school party found a hand grenade, and despite what we had been told, came running along towards the rest of the group waving it in the air and shouting about what he had found. The teacher ran ahead to meet him before he got close to the rest of the group, wrestled the grenade from his hands and threw it as far as he could to an unpeopled area. Of course, it didn’t explode, but I was struck by how the teacher’s sense of his duty of care went beyond legal obligation and extended to putting himself at direct personal risk. He had struck me as cold and authoritarian – this act did not contradict that, but it illustrated the complexity of human beings. A person who behaves in ways that we regard as hurtful and unethical can surprise us with great actions – in this case an act of great moral courage.

He was a man who took fear and violent death extremely seriously. It is understandable, although not excusable, that a pupil who did not grasp these things, and who wore symbols that he saw as undervaluing human sacrifice, would annoy him in the way that I did. Where I think that he made a mistake was in thinking that the white poppy is supposed to stand in opposition to the red one. When I think about the First World War, I think about the communities that lost vast numbers of young men. I think of my brothers, my partner, my best friends, and even my nephews, who are coming up to the ages of many boys who lied about their age in order to fight in the war. I think about all of those close, unique, complicated personal attachments, made special by how particular they are to that irreplaceable person, and imagine (or fail to imagine) not losing just one, but many of them. It is not just the loss of those who are close to you, but the loss of them to something that is so anonymising – an entire complicated special significant individual is reduced to a machine that kills and a piece of flesh that is killed. Respect for the troops and all who love them, rather than respect for a sentimental myth, requires that this sacrifice should never be made for trivial purposes such as economic gain or political manouvering. Wilfred Owen expressed far more deeply than I ever could that ‘dulce et decorum est…’ undermines the significance of a human life lost or destroyed through a needless war. It also undermines the fight of those all over the world who have no choice but to take up arms against the murder and torture of members of their communities and families. To make this point is not to disrespect the troops, but to respect them as people with lives of their own.

The teacher was right that I was naïve, and I still am. Nobody in my immediate family saw active combat in the Second World War, and although I have friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality of it is very distant to me. My grandfather, who was of an age to go out and fight Nazi Germany, stayed at home because he was an architect; a reserved occupation. His work during the war involved rebuilding areas of Bristol that had been destroyed by bombing. He was also a committed socialist and a local Labour politician. While others were out risking their lives to fight a totalitarian regime, my grandfather was involved in trying to build a country that would be worth living in – housing that would allow people to live happy flourishing lives, regardless of their earnings or social status. These are, or should be, two aspects of the same thing.

Today I wear a white poppy alongside a red one. It is easy for us on the left to trivialise military service and denigrate soldiers without really intending to, in order to make abstract theoretical points about politics. But real respect for them involves making ours a country that is worth living in, and only employing force when it is a genuine defence against the horrors of oppression and violence. If this is to be possible, people must not be forced into blind obedience to authority – they must be allowed to express opinions, challenge oppression and fight violence. This is not just about a lack of constraints at the level of what our government can do, but has to begin with how people are raised and educated. If we are made to learn a particular conception of the world, and made to think that any challenge to it is a feature of our ignorance or pig-headedness, we may become citizens of a country that can sleepwalk into self-destruction, and even when this is not the case our theoretical freedoms become far less valuable. Peace is not an end-state that we can eventually achieve and then relax – achieving it is a constant struggle requiring that we are awake, engaged, critical, caring, imaginative and mutually respectful.

To the English Defence League (written Friday 9th November 2012)

This is what I would like to say to the EDL, who are marching in Norwich tomorrow, but it is too long to put on a placard.

You say you want to preserve Englishness, so let me tell you about Englishness. Our country’s name means ‘Land of the Angles’. The Angles were a Germanic tribe from the bay of Kiel area of the Baltic sea. This is one of the many tribes that found a home in these islands that make up Britain. Over the centuries there have been many incomers: Anglo Saxons, Celts, Vikings, Romans, Normans… the list goes on. But we both know that Englishness is about so much more than etymology or genetics.

Englishness is about many things: languages, cultures, religions, ideologies and identities. It is a living culture that carries its complicated history with it, and that is what makes it so valuable. We have a language that mixes Old English, French, Old Norse, Gaelic, Scots and Latin with the languages of millions of other people who have settled here. We have a Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, our favourite foods are Italian, Chinese, Indian and Turkish. The dominant religions in England originate in the Middle East, as does our (fictional) patron saint. Much of the music we love has its origins in black American culture, and can be traced (as, incidentally, we all ultimately can) to Africa through the slave songs that are also part of our troubled history.

Every revolution, development and change in England has brought waves of people from all over the globe, most of whom have initially been met with racism and bigotry, but many of whom still found that this was a place they could love, where they could raise children, and where they could learn from and add to our culture.

This is England. There would be no Englishness without it. Our history is a history of a living, dynamic country, and to love England is to love the ways that we are built on change and diversity. John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ These islands are not an island entire of itself, cut off from the world that surrounds it. That world, and our relationships with it, constitute us; these ever-changing relationships are what makes England what it is. To be proud of one’s Englishness is to be proud of being a part of a history and a culture whose stories originate from and extend to all corners of the globe. Through our Englishness we are all influenced by what is Anglo-saxon, Viking, Celtic, African, Chinese, Roman and Middle-Eastern, regardless of our ethnic origins. To be English is always to be more than just English, and you cannot help but express that every time you use our language.

When you try to stagnate and ‘purify’ our culture, you do it violence. It is an attempt to preserve a complex identity in aspic while denying its complexity. This cuts off the oxygen that our culture needs to survive – we breathe change and diversity; without it there would be no Englishness left. Love of our history ought to leave us with a sense of the legacy that we can leave for future generations, and we must leave them a culture that they can act within and change as previous generations have, not a mummified corpse in a museum.

We speak the language of Shakespeare, whose poetry deals with interracial love, and whose plays portray incomers and visitors to strange new lands. Shakespeare wrote that ‘Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds’. Your professed love of your country is not true love, but rather the self-indulgent obsession of the lover who worships a mythologised version of the one they claim to love. This is a ‘love’ that shades imperceptibly into resentment. You are blind to the beauty, dynamism and complexity of the country that you inhabit, and that is terribly sad. You do not love England, or Englishness. You love a dangerous idea that is fuelled by hatred and self-importance, and that blinds you to England itself. Your ideology is directly opposed to Englishness, and seeks to destroy it.