The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: May 2018 Page 1 of 3

Ethics 101: The Difference Between Ethics and Morals

EthicsThe best short definition I’ve heard, courtesy of my friend Stirling, is that morals are how you treat people you know. Ethics are how you treat people you don’t know.

Your morality is what makes you a good wife or husband, dad or mother. A good daughter or son. A good friend. Even a good employee or boss to the people you know personally in the company.

Your ethics are what makes you a good politician. It is what makes you a statesman. It is also what makes you a good, humane CEO of any large company (and yes, you can make money and pay your employees well as Costco proves.)

When you’re a politicians or a CEO, most of what you do will affect people you don’t know, people you can’t know, people who are just statistics to you. You have no personal connection to them, and you never will. This is at the heart of Stalin’s comment that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Change the welfare rules, people will live or die, suffer or prosper. Change the tax structure, healthcare mandates, trade laws, transit spending–virtually everything you do means someone will win, and someone will lose. Sometimes fatally.

Ethics is more important than morality in creating a functioning society. This comes back to what I was discussing earlier, that it is worse to kill or harm more people than to kill or harm fewer people.

Morality dictates that you take care of your family, friends and even acquaintances first. It is at the heart of the common admonition to “put  your family first.” Whenever I hear a politician say “I put my family first,” I think “Then you shouldn’t be in public office.”

We call the family the building block of society, but this is nonsense except in the broadest sense. The structure of the family is entirely socially based, generally on how we make our living. A hundred years ago in the US and Canada, the extended family was the norm, today the nuclear family is, with single parent families coming on strong. In China, this transition, from extended to nuclear family, took place in living memory, many adults still in their prime can remember extended families, and were raised in them. The wealthy often have their children raised by servants (I was for my first five years), tribal societies often put all male children into the same tent or tents at puberty, and so on. A hundred and fifty years ago, children were taught at home, by the extended family, and not by professional teachers. They spent much more time with family until they were apprenticed out, if they were. To be sure, children must be born and raised for society to continue, men and women must come together to get that done, but there are many ways to do it, and God did not come down and mandate the nuclear family.

This may seem like an aside from the main point, but it is not. Family is not fundamental, it is not first.  Society is first, and family is shaped by the needs and ideology of the society.

For a large society–a society where you can’t know everyone–to work, ethics must come before morality, or ethics and morality must have a great deal of overlap. By acting morally, you must be able to act ethically.

Our current ethical system requires politicians to act unethically, to do great harm to people they don’t know, while protecting those they do. This can hardly be denied, and was on display in the 2007/8 financial collapse and the bailout after. The millions of homeowners and employees politicians and central bankers did not know were not helped, and the people the politicians and central bankers and treasury officials did know, were bailed out.  Austerity, likewise, has hurt people politicians don’t know, while enriching the corporate officers and rich they do know.

The structure of our economy is designed to impoverish people we don’t know. For developed nations’ citizens, this means people in undeveloped nations. For the rich, this means cutting the wages of the middle class. For the middle class, it means screwing over the poor (yes, the middle class does the day to day enforcement, don’t pretend otherwise.) We are obsessed with “lowering costs” and making loans, and both of those are meant to extract maximum value from people while giving them as little as they can in return.

We likewise ignore the future, refusing to build or repair infrastructure, to invest properly in basic science, and refusing to deal with global warming. These decisions will overwhelmingly affect people we don’t know: Any individual infrastructure collapse won’t hit us, odds are, and global warming will kill most of its victims in the future. The rich and powerful, in particular, believe that they will avoid the consequences of these things. They think it will affect people other than them.

To put the needs of the few before the needs of the many, in public life, is to be a monster. But even in private life, if we all act selfishly, as our reigning ideology indicates we should, we destroy ourselves. If we all put only ourselves and those we love first, and damn the cost to everyone else, our societies cannot and will not be prosperous, safe, or kind.

The war of all against all is just as nasty when it is waged by small kin groups as when it is waged by individuals.

(Reprinted from 2013: this is the most popular article, by traffic, I ever wrote.)

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How People Crack or Succeed

After a recent school shooting, the shooter’s father deflected blame from his son, saying that he had been bullied, but was a good kid.

He was immediately jumped on by critics. Most of them  had an argument that ran as follows, “I was bullied all the time and never turned into a mass shooter.”

This argument is a corollary of the standard one for not caring about poor people, “I grew up poor/sick/whatever and I still got rich.”

Now obviously a kid who goes on a mass shooting isn’t a good kid, and obviously also, I hope, a father who loves his son, in the immediate aftermath of something like this, may be in denial and that denial should lead to more sympathy than mockery. If you can’t manage that, at least understand.

But the larger argument is important: the bullying may have been necessary but not sufficient. In other words, the kid, had he not been bullied a lot, might not have gone on a killing spree.

For other people the bullying was not enough.

People are different. What breaks one person doesn’t break another. One succeeds in circumstances another wouldn’t succeed in. A broken down loser like the Civil War’s General Grant (before the war) becomes the war’s greatest general and a two-term president. No war, he’d probably have stayed a loser.

No bullying and that kid might not have gone on a killing spree, even though bullying doesn’t make most people go on killing sprees. But chronic bullying is high stress, and it does break some people, and some of them will be violent.

There are always the extremes: the people on the edges, who are close to breaking or exploding anyway. Push them, poison them, and something goes wrong.

This should be obvious.

What should also be obvious is that explaining something isn’t excusing it. Of course being bullied doesn’t justify going on a killing spree.

But since it is a known factor in causing mass killing sprees maybe we should admit that, and try not to push the one in ten million kid (or adult) over the edge?

Life is luck. Your genetic endowment was luck. Your parents were luck. Your character is luck. It all comes from being born with a specific body in a specific place and time, and everything flows from that.

We want to run from this. We want to believe were are in full control, that we would never do something like “that”, whatever that is. That we would never obey Hitler’s orders (most of us would have, and if you don’t have a record of standing up even when you knew you would be hurt for doing so, you probably would have.)

The kid did something monstrous. The father, understandably, tried to hold onto his view of his kid as good. And while bullying is no excuse, it may be a reason.

And just because you’re rich and were once poor doesn’t mean everyone else should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

And yeah, although following a mob is a different thing, you almost certainly would have done what Hitler told you to; would have been chopping with a machete in Rwanda, and so on.

This doesn’t mean no one is good, of course. There are those who didn’t obey Hitler. A small minority. There are those who won’t shock a subject in the Millgram experiment, no matter  how hard the authority figure pushes (about 5% at the extreme end.) There are always good people.

But most people aren’t good, and they aren’t bad. They are weak, and they follow their personal mob, doing whatever other people they identify with do.

And some people are close to breaking, and one day something, usually some cruelty, pushes them over the edge.

And they become monsters.

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Remembering Soldiers’ Service

Back in 2008, I covered the US Democratic National Convention on the ground. It was very revealing to me, because it showed just how different American political culture was from Canadian in their military worship and emphasis on the family.

Joe Biden had a long segment on how wonderful a family man he was, and a military man spoke and spoke and spoke.

And it was intensely alien: Your family isn’t a big deal in Canada, and we don’t military worship, though we do make nods of respect.

Americans love to say, “Thank you for your service” to those who were in the military. Good.

But what bothers me sometimes is all the “they fought for freedom” talk.

They did?

When? In Iraq? Afghanistan? Nicaragua? When was the last time the US military was clearly fighting for freedom, either at home or abroad?

The US military exists to do what the President tells it to do (no one else has much of a say any more, despite the Constitution).

I don’t blame members of the US military who went to Iraq, even though Iraq was clearly an illegal war, the sort of war crime that Nazis got hung by the neck until dead for.

After all, I saw what happened to those few who did resist.

But the world would clearly be a better place if the military as a whole had refused the Iraq war.

Bravery, loyalty, and even honor are morally neutral virtues. They make good men better, bad men worse, and men under orders better tools, that is all. Service members are due respect for serving, but they don’t fight for freedom, and while we can argue when they last did, it’s been a long time.

They do, however, fight for the US state, and inasmuch as the US is a democracy, Americans are responsible for what they do, and do owe them a debt of gratitude for their service to the President.

Perhaps one day there will be a time when US soldiers will have to decide based on their oath to the Constitution, but for now, they exist to uphold The US empire, knocking over any states the US wants knocked over.

So, remember your fallen, those who did die fighting for freedom (there are plenty, just not too recently), eat your steaks and ponder, perhaps, when it is right to ask soldiers to fight, die, and kill for you.

So that perhaps they fight for freedom more often, and for war criminals like Bush, Jr. less often.

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Trump’s Cancellation of the Korea Meeting Is an Excellent Excuse for Europe and Asia to Break America’s Financial Power

Globe on FireThis is vastly disappointing, even though, after the appointment of Bolton to the White House, it is not all that surprising.

A peace treaty with North Korea would be, or would have been, a great accomplishment. One hopes its negotiations will resume in the future.

Even if they do not, I expect that South Korea will continue to push forward with the peace process, much as Europe has decided to ignore the US in regards to Iran. Unfortunately, as the structure of sanctions and their enforcement hinges on the US Treasury department and its ability to unilaterally sanction foreign banks and companies, the US’s participation really is necessary. At the least, the treasury needs to be willing to look the other way.

This is why allowing the US to control the payments system has always been a bad idea. China and Russia have been doing what they can to create their own system, and I would say it is time for the world as a whole, ex-US, to do so. The US can’t be trusted. This has been true for some time–it didn’t start with Trump, but if Trump is the excuse needed to end the US’s ability to choose who can move money around, then seize it.

Europe will never be a real power, in any case, so long as it allows the US to set the rules and control their implementation. And every time a Trump, a Bush, or even an Obama (whose Treasury abused this power as well) rises, well, everyone will have to bow.

The hegemonic power is the, well, hegemon, but the US is in decline and in such a situation it behooves the US to pay attention to the concerns of its satrapies (and Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Canada are all core vassals).

This is especially true when dealing with vassals like South Korea who is under vast pressure from China (the rising super power), and has reasons both to abandon the US shield and to stay under it.

Trump is an opportunity. I suggest Europe and the Asian satrapies take it to free themselves.

And while they’re at it, make peace with North Korea.

Update: and it may be back on?

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Amazon Rolls Out Face Recognition to Police

Our panopticon is on track:

Powered by artificial intelligence, Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces, according to Amazon.

Amazon is marketing Rekognition for government surveillance. According to its marketing materials, it views deployment by law enforcement agencies as a “common use case” for this technology. Among other features, the company’s materials describe “person tracking” as an “easy and accurate” way to investigate and monitor people. Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “people of interest,” raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments — such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists — will be seen as fair game for Rekognition surveillance. It also says Rekognition can monitor “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports,” at a time when Americans are joining public protests at unprecedented levels.

This is only one piece of the full panopticon toolkit, of course: Various technologies which allow for seeing through walls will mean that eventually the authorities and most large corporations will know or be able to know everything you do, all day, no matter where you do it, but it is still part of an escalation.

China has particularly been a keen adopter of this sort of technology (though not from Amazon, obviously).

The core problem authorities are trying to solve here is part of the surveillance paradox: In the past, surveillance societies have just been too costly. When you need to have people watching other people, it takes too many people, and the watchers aren’t productive.

The second part of the paradox is harder to deal with, which is that surveillance societies tend to become uncreative: When you know everything you do or say is being judged, you tend to internalize the external rules for safety.

This surveillance doesn’t have to be governmental, of course, a measure of creativity in America shows a decline in children from the 80s onwards, almost certainly due to the widespread adoption of helicopter parenting and the tethering of children, so that they do not control their own time but are constantly under adult supervision.

This is only a real problem, however, societies exist which are more free than yours. If everyone is living under a surveillance society, then there is no competitive issue: Everyone has drones (er, human drones.)

But elites are also betting that mechanical drones, AI, robotics, and so on will reduce the need for humans to be creative: Machines will do that, and do it in ways of which their masters approve. Much safer than letting humans be creative.

Ironically, it may be that widespread social collapse due to various environmental issues may be our best bet at avoiding our masters desire for a steady state authoritarian dystopia.

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Loving-Kindness Isn’t About Morality

It is said that once upon a time, Siddhartha Gautama, before he was the Buddha, was sitting on the ground and was overwhelmed by a great feeling of sweetness towards all that lived, from the bug he saw on the ground, to the grass, and trees, to all the people, and including himself, without any distinction. He remembered that he had felt this way before, as a young child, and he realized in this feeling part of the solution he had sought to the problem of ending suffering.

One of the great problems with the mandate to love that is one of the keys to most, perhaps all, great faiths, is that it is taken as a moral commandment.

Thou must love, or you’re a bad person.

By the time Siddhartha had this insight, in the stories (who knows what happened in reality), he’d been seeking for a long time. He had studied under many masters, was an expert meditator, and so on.

He was seeking an end to suffering, that is all. His goal wasn’t to be a good person.

But here’s the thing, when you truly love, and I’m not talking about the lust that often passes for love, especially in the early throes of infatuation, but that tender warm sweetness, you can’t feel fear.


Likewise, anger, hate, and so on are disabled while you are in this state.

Being loving protects you from a lot of suffering. It doesn’t stop pain, but it reduces the suffering of pain.

If you love, all and everything, and combine this with deep equanimity, you fall deep into parasympathetic mode. You are relaxed, you do not tense against pain and loss, and so the effect of them is reduced.

The effect of love becomes confused when the insights of mystics become the dogmas of religion.

Love is, as best I can tell (and many great mystics disagree with me), not the highest form of consciousness. But it is an easy path towards the highest, as it allows easy concentration and complete relaxation, with all the attendant benefits.

There are other ways to do this, but oddly, if you relax enough, love tends to arise. It is a strange sort of dispassionate love; felt for everyone and often everything, with little compulsion to action.

And it is an unconditional love. When mystics look at what secular people call love, they find it a sickness. We love people because they make us feel good, and when they stop making us feel good we usually stop loving them. This isn’t love, to a mystic, it is a transaction.

The practice of loving kindness is simple enough. Find someone or something you can love unreservedly (the Christian God is usually bad for this, since most people are terrified of him and hate him, though they will not admit it. After all, if you displease him, he will have you tortured for eternity.)

Feel love to that person (a puppy or a young child, or a God who isn’t a torturer are good candidates). Imagining open you arms wide for a big hug (or even starting by actually opening them) can be a good start.

Then once you can feel this love on demand, move it to people you love, but about whom you have mixed feelings, and slowly work your way to loving people you hate or fear or despise.

The trap to be careful of here is not falling into misery. If you spend too much time on how these people are suffering, instead of feeling love, you can wind up sad, and that’s not the point.

Deep lovingness allows the body and mind to rest and relax. It allows muscles held in contraction, often for decades, to let go. It allows concentration, because fear and worry and other compulsive thoughts are reduced.

It is NOT the entire path (though there are many who think it is), because it can get you very very far, to the point where you’re both genuinely a sage and a really wonderful person (and other people can feel it when they’re around someone who has developed like this).

But it feels really great and gets you a long way, and of the techniques with which the Buddha is associated, it ranks next to concentration on the breath as one of the two main spears of practice. (There are other pieces to the practice, like insight meditation; more on that in a later piece.)

And remember, the most important person to love, and often the hardest, is yourself. Don’t start there, as a rule (few people have uncomplicated feelings towards themselves), but somewhere along the path, spend a lot of time loving yourself.

There’s a ton of cultural baggage and conditioning in the West that says one shouldn’t do that–that it’s selfish, that we’re bad people who don’t deserve love, and so on.

Forget it. Even if you’re a terrible person who has done terrible things, to walk this path and reduce suffering, you’ve got to love yourself. It’s not about “deserving”; full loving kindness includes loving terrible people, it’s a technique to accomplish something.

Nor need you fear that you’ll be unable to take care of yourself if you’re loving. You don’t have to become a pushover just because you love people. Kill them with love if necessary. You’ll just be far less likely to hurt others as a default action.

When loving kindness becomes crippling is when it is taken as a moral prescription, rather than as a skillful means. You aren’t loving because others deserve it (they neither do nor don’t), you are loving because it is a far better way to live than being angry, hateful, and scared.

More on anger and hate later.

And, uh, before you love your neighbour as yourself, learn to love yourself. The way some people treat themselves, I’d rather they hated me.

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Gina Haspel, Torture Supervisor, Confirmed Head of the CIA

The US is what the US is. And what the US is is a nation whose leaders commit mass murder and assassination with impunity, and which rewards those who do either, or both.

This bit from the Intercept on one of Haspel’s victims speaks loudly.

“I have evaluated Mr. Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, as well as close to 20 other men who were tortured as part of the CIA’s RDI [Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation] program. I am one of the only health professionals he has ever talked to about his torture, its effects, and his ongoing suffering,” Dr. Sondra Crosby, a professor of public health at Boston University, wrote to Warner’s legislative director on Monday. “He is irreversibly damaged by torture that was unusually cruel and designed to break him. In my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. al-Nashiri presents as one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen.”

Warner, of course, supported Haspel, because Warner is scum. Competent scum, according to people I trust who know him, but scum.

The US and those it elects have been very clear to the rest of the world. They support the Iraq War and torture and always have. In 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected, everyone knew about the torture, and by then the fact that Bush had lied about WMD was becoming clear as well.

The New York Times, which helped lie the US into Iraq, kindly did not release a story showing that the Bush administration was spying on Americans until after the election. They explicitly said they were worried he might lose if they ran it. Despite all their caviling over the years, when it mattered the NYT was for illegal war and torture. That’s who the NYT is when the chips are down, and it’s only when the chips are down that it matters.

The bottom line is that Americans and their leaders are really, truly, okay with illegal wars and torture whenever the decision has to actually be made–and today, American leaders showed that they do not even feel any actual remorse, or even think that torturing was a mistake that matters.

This is just who the US is.

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Israeli Killings Are the Result of De-Humanization of Palestinians

So, Palestinians protested moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and Israel shot and killed somewhere between 52 and 60 of them, and injured hundreds more.

The rule of international law (yes, I know, a dead letter) is that force must be proportional to threat.

This is disproportionate.

The simple fact is that too many Israelis now think of Palestinians as sub-human; animals to be killed if they are inconvenient.

Israel is an apartheid state. A large chunk of the population is denied their rights–including their right to vote. And both the West Bank and Gaza are, yes, open air prisons.

The two state solution is dead. I’m not sure it was ever viable, but it no longer is. Israel will either have to cleanse Palestinians from its territory (something the de-humanization is clearly working them up to) or Israel as a religious-ethnic state will, inevitably, end.

It is well noted that those who are abused tend to become abusers. The applicability to Israel is obvious and sad.

Still, while tragic, today’s events pale in comparison to what Saudi Arabia, with America’s assistance, is doing in Yemen.

Plenty of tragedies to go around on Earth.

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