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

Ethics 101, Part 3: Forseeable Consequences

Since we’re on basic ethics, let’s take another basic ethical principle.  It is impossible to have a good society if you do not punish and reward people for the forseeable consequences of their actions.

Let us take the most simple: in a war people die, they are injured, many rapes are committed.  Disease runs rampant, infrastructure is destroyed and people die to to the loss of that infrastructure, such as having sewage mixed in to their drinking water.  If we put sanctions on a country, people will die as a result of the lack of medicines, or food, or jobs.  Even without actual death, people will suffer who would not have suffered otherwise.

These consequences are forseeable.  When we implement the policy, we KNOW people will die. We are responsible for those deaths.  That does not meant that war is never the right thing to do, nor sanctions, but it does mean that the bar is high.  This is why the Allies hung Nazis at Nuremburg, because they started a war from which all the other deaths and rapes and hunger and so on flowed.  Those deaths, that suffering, was the foreseeable consequence of their actions.

The idea of forseeable consequences is fundamental to reasoning about ethics and morality.  It is especially important in reasoning about public policy.

It also applies to things like the subprime real-estate bubble, the use of derviatives, the piling on of leverage, the policies of neo-liberalizing money-flows first, trade second and immigration third.  All of these things have, and had, forseeable consequences.  People have died, lost their jobs, lost their houses, been beaten by their spouses, gone without meals, had their countries erupt in revolution because of the financial fraud and manipulation engaged in by bankers, brokers, central bankers and politicians in the run-up to the financial crisis on 2007/8.  The consequences were forseeable, they were forseen by many people (I did, and am on the record as having done so), and the actions taken by bankers and their compatriots were fraudulent on the face.

Entire countries have gone in to permanent depression as a result of the forseeable consequences of their actions.  Then various countries, especially in Europe, doubled down on austerity. Austerity has never worked to bring an economy out of a financial crisis or depression, and it never will.  It does not work, and this is well known.  Engaging in austerity has forseeable consequences of impoverishing the country, reducing the size of the middle class and grinding the poor even further into misery.  It also has the forseeable consequence of making it possible to privatize parts of the economy the oligarchs want to buy.

It is done, it has been done and it will be done because of those forseeable consequences.  They are all either desirable to your masters or, if not desirable, irrelevant compared to the advantages austerity offers them.

These are, if not criminal acts, then unjust and evil acts, done to enrich a few at the expense of the many, with disregard for the consequences to the many, including death, hunger and violence.

One of the reasons I write so little these days, is that there is so little point.  Basic ethical principles are routinely ignored even on the so-called left.  Basic principles of causation are ignored.  Basic economic reality is ignored.  And virtually everyone in the so-called democracies is scrambling to pretend that they have no responsibility for anything that has happened.

If someone does something with forseeable consequences they are responsible for those forseeable consequences.  Just because an act has bad forseeable consequences doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken, the alternatives may be worse, but whether the action should be taken or not, the decision has consequences.

I will, if I continue being irritated, deal at some point with the idea of alternate scenarios.  Too often we pretend that there are only two options, say “bailing out bankers” or “doing nothing” and ignore that there were other possibilities, like “forcing bondholders and shareholders to take their losses, nationalizing the banks and breaking them up.”

As a society we have in the last few decades and are today making decisions with entirely forseeable consequences (as with climate change) that will kill a few hundred million people to well over a billion people.  We know it will happen, and we’re doing it.

We are monsters.  And we tolerate monsters.  And we get worked up over exactly the wrong things, “ooh a single soldier was killed”, rather than what is going to kill the children we care about, like global warming, or the people who have or will kill hundreds of thousands, like George W Bush, or Putin or people who are engaging in ongoing serial murdering like Barack Obama.  We ignore financial fraud, we ignore… well, why go on, the list is endless.

Forseeable consequences.  We’re awash in them, and we don’t care.


Ethical Degradation


Brief comments on the Syrian civil war


  1. Bolo

    Thank you for being an oasis of sanity. If you are having a hard time writing lately, please know that I really appreciate what you do write.

  2. Celsius 233

    Well Ian, you’ve had quite a run here with your last three threads; well done.
    I particularly agree the last two paragraphs and closing sentence of this thread.
    I’ve been railing on this very thing for years and its caused the end of a few relationships; good riddance.
    I’m pretty close to the end of my tether; thanks for your efforts.

  3. There’s a legal expression that a respondent “knew or ought to have known” – you’ll find it occurring in cases where negligence is at issue.

    I hope you’ll continue to write, though I could well understand it if you were to stop. Nobody envies Sisyphus, and getting people particularly people who are soi-disant ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ to even acknowledge the existence of what should be core principles has become a Sisyphean task.


  4. jcapan

    Setting aside the ‘so-called left,’ I’d say most of your readers and the vast majority of radicals take these truths to be self-evident. However, due to comfort, fear or varying degrees of complicity, we allow ourselves to be distracted–soma comes in many forms, after all. Not just relatively trivial murders, but electoral politics, our many techno-toys–willful deceit is the sexiest of sirens.

    And let’s be painfully honest: most of us play dissidents online–we’re not prepared to be Bradley Manning. I don’t reckon many of us are communicating from prison cells, which is ultimately what’ll be required, or worse, if we hope to stop the machine. We know what’s coming but pray it’ll only affect the coastal Bangladeshi, the sub-Saharan African…. “Look, Ian, do you mean a million poor, brown fuckers who’d be better off dead or do you mean those of us here in the civilized world?” If we cared enough to prevent it we’d do more, since we don’t we talk and talk and talk and vote for change we can believe in. We’ll all have our comeuppance.

  5. Oaktown Girl

    Just adding my thanks to you, Ian, for being here.

  6. Dan Henry

    Japan said “willful deceit is the sexiest of sirens.”

    I may have to put that on a wall.

    Thanks for writing, Ian.

  7. cripes

    Jesus, Ian and commenters are all on point.

    The problem also is we know not what to do, or how to get to the place to do it. I know I have, and suspect others have also sacrificed much simply by saying truths that a six year old should know to be self-evident, that evil is among us, and I’m against it, and you shouldn’t be a part of it at work, at home, or for christ’s sake, nine thousand miles away by remote controlled death machines.

    For the rest who deny these self-evident truths, I can only think they are scared and willfully blinded, cleaving to the childish belief that a higher authority will keep them safe if only they pledge fealty to the lies, the avarice, the murder and the destruction.

    Don’t question the system, never point at the naked emperor, you’ll ruin the spell we all live under. It’s the way it’s always been, and I want to live as a rich person in a world of poverty, until I can’t which is fast approaching.

    How many times have I been accused of being a cynic, a conspiracy theorist, a marxist, an instigator, for uttering the mildest of criticisms at this towering edifice of evil? What on earth do these authoritarian followers think they believe when they babble about american values, the enlightenment or the rights of man?

    Sometimes I think I am already living in the asylum.

  8. Carol Newquist

    How many times have I been accused of being a cynic, a conspiracy theorist, a marxist, an instigator, for uttering the mildest of criticisms at this towering edifice of evil?

    Don’t forget to throw “troll” into the mix. The irony is, those who are called all these things at other places will come here and call people here the same thing rather than just discussing the topic at hand. Once they do that, they lose all credibility and their views and opinions, if they even have any, aren’t worth any more than the views and opinions of those who labeled them as such at other venues. Rather than challenging their paradigmatic prejudices further, they dig in and defend their vested ideological positions by attacking the character of anyone who contradicts them.

    If someone posts something with which I don’t agree, I will state why I disagree. Many people don’t like disagreement. They come to places like this and other places as refuge so they can sing in a choir. Not everyone, of course, but there are quite a few, and they like to set up camp on blogs and create consensus around their pet views rather than challenging their need to control dialogue by attacking what they perceive to be interlopers breaching their territory.

    I’m an equal-opportunity critic, meaning I don’t focus on just one ideology, but all ideologies, because where there is ideology, there are serious flaws. Case in point is this link to a blog I’ve visited over the past several months. This woman, Kristen Lamb, and I have had it out once before when she posted something about the Beantown Bombings. She deleted my post and then tried to rationalize her censorship in an e-mail. I accepted her justification even though I was suspicious of her from there on out. In the last day or two she posted a highly politicized statement and I felt obliged to state my opinion about it since she has made the effort of having her blog come up front and center when you do a search on writing blogs. In otherwords, she has purposely planted her soapbox in the midst of the public square and is using a megaphone to spread her message. If you do that, you have to accept that your message can and should be challenged. If you’re so sure in what you believe, you shouldn’t be worried about criticism and should accept said criticism graciously. If her blog is just about writing, then she should keep it about writing and keep the politics out of it. If she doesn’t want critical commentary on “her” blog, then she should hide it from public view and make it invite only, meaning she should take her megaphone and soapbox to a private place where those who disagree don’t have to see or hear it if they’re not allowed to respond. Here’s the link to her post and our exchange at the end of the comments before she deleted my last post and banned me.

  9. Joe S

    Wow, a one man pity party and his host of enablers. This thread is pissing me off, not because I don’t like Ian but because I expect a little better from him. Let me ask a serious question or two (that will likely be taken as trolling but deserves an honest answer):

    What are the foreseeable consequences of surrendering to your apathy and withholding this ‘idea of alternate scenarios’ from the greater discussion? Is it not a aspect of basic ethics to provide this insight to help those who might need it, rather than withhold it because the crowd does not provide the ego stroke you wish?

    Ian, you are an incredibly smart and insightful person. Two of my favorite political commentators online are you and Stirling N, but honestly both of you are enthralled with this Cassandra syndrome where ‘why speak the truth when no one listens?’ is the clarion call. The truth of Cassandra is that in the real world she couldn’t have known if anyone listened or not, speaking the truth is not provided for the ego of the speaker but the benefit of the crowd. Even if they hate it. Especially if they hate it.

    If the point of your posting is to receive accolades, then you picked the wrong damn business in blogging. Please either start posting what you see honestly and openly, or stop complaining about the lack of better alternatives in the discussion (that you refuse to participate in.) You and Stirling have too much value to be bogging down in this bullcrap – as the man cliched in the movie, “you got to either get busy living or get busy dying.” Are you going to start living honestly (with yourself) in these posts, or are you going to wallow and die?

    Because this is crap.

  10. Ian Welsh

    Dear Joe,

    What I post is what I honestly believe. It always has been. The question is simply whether it is worth posting. As with anything else, there are opportunity costs: I could be doing something else, and that something else could be more rewarding to me, or to the world, or to both (or to neither).

    If the posts do little good, and it is my judgment that in most cases they do, then why bother? At this point I blog mostly because I feel an obligation to long-time readers. Blogging has lost its leverage, been corporatized or bowdlerized, and it seems unlikely to me that there are many more people left for me to convince through this medium, which is why, among other things, I’m working on a book.

    Your point was made in an extremely rude fashion and you received a more polite answer than you deserve. If you continue to comment, be less rude, because one of the things I’m not inclined to put up with is crap from my commenters.

    As for Stirling, he won’t be posting in the near future, and possibly ever again (very severe stroke). You’re down to me.

    The more important point in the post, and the last 3 posts, is that people suck at ethical reasoning. The major problems we have today are largely ethical: our economic, political, rights, military and social problems are due to our ethical degradation. We usually know what the right thing to do would be if we were concerned with the wellbeing of the majority of the world’s population (or even just our own country’s) and we refuse to do it.

    This is not, as much as many of my readers and commenters would like to think, just the fault of our elites. It is very much a failing of the commons as well, as I see in the response to points which should be relatively uncontroversial like “it is better to kill military personnel than civilians” or “killing one person is not as bad as killing many people.”

    It dismays me that I find myself having to write these posts, to explain such basic principles. Stirling and I used to talk about this, he would joke that “if you become a moral philosopher, you’ll never have an original thought again.”

  11. hvdub

    Just want to add my voice in thanks for the extraordinary service you provide in helping me and undoubtedly others maintain clarity.

    Your patience is remarkable particularly when, as so often happens, the commenters get lost in their own contests of will and resort to often foolish ad hominems.

    I am very saddened to hear of Stirling’s stroke. I have been following both of you since the early days at BOP news and have come to depend on your clear sighted vision in seeing the world around me.

  12. nihil obstet

    First, please convey sincere wishes for a complete and speedy recovery to Stirling.

    On the post, you’re right about the ethics of what has become governing policy throughout most of the world — militarism and privileging of property with evil consequences to millions of people. The question is what ethics requires that each of us do about it. I think that question is blurred when we adopt too easily the notion that “we” did it all. As you say, “It is impossible to have a good society if you do not punish and reward people for the forseeable consequences of their actions,” so the propaganda is that “we” partied our way into financial collapse and now “we” must pay for our lack of responsibility by giving up social programs. Too sweeping a “we” allows those with power to be rewarded while those without power are punished, in the name of morality.

    We who are concerned with ethics need to be able to think clearly about what constitutes complicity with the monsters, whether and how to judge our fellow citizens for their very human tendency to concur with their society, what kinds of boundaries to accept in our own activism, and the like. Even for us members of the choir, the regular sermon is necessary to keep the faith.

  13. rumor

    Lurker here, chiming in to lamely piggyback on others.

    1. Ian, you are bang on as always. You’ve set out the foundation from where to build a sane system of justice.

    2. I will second hvdub. Clarity, perception, trenchant thought are what has always drawn me to read Ian’s posts with great interest. I’m thankful for them.

    3. Nihil obstet hit on the thing that tortures me from time to time: complicity as part of the system, unwilling though silent. Thank for you that, as well.

    4. My sympathies for Stirling, as well, as an appreciative reader of his work. I can only empathise with being unable to put words to paper the way one used to. It must be enormously difficult.

  14. alyosha

    Ian, you may well have other, better things to do (including nothing), but know that these postings on ethics are like water to people (the commons as you put it) wandering for years in the desert. A book may well be a much better vehicle than this blog for that kind of writing, and those of us here should absolutely root for its successful creation and launch into the world. Don’t fall in to thinking that your writing about this has no effect – you have no idea how many people it touches or will touch, nor what you will help start. I’m sure you’re writing your book with that kind of understanding in mind.

    I had no idea about Stirling’s stroke. What a blow.

  15. jump

    Ian, I too enjoy and follow your posts and am only sad that you do not write more frequently, but understand the banging your head against the wall feeling.
    I am fundamentally an idealist and think that people actually want to be in charge of their lives–I think you make that assumption too. All too often the cynicism kicks in and maybe it is more like what the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov, that people really don’t want freedom, just security and bread. No hard choices please.
    Complicity is often coerced when questioning the machine is severely punished. I have paid dearly. I don’t think the machine can be changed from within because you would have to accept the assumptions. But I do think it will self destruct.
    In the meantime I try to buffer myself from the system and surround myself with friends that share my values, nurturing an alternate society/economy/politic.

  16. Carol Newquist

    I’ve counted many instances of the word “we” in this thread. If you all believe it is you then why not take your life right now? You’ve indicted yourself and you have found yourself guilty as charged, so the only thing that’s left is to execute yourself for the morally reprehensible war crimes you have committed.

    Oh, but you’ll claim that all murders aren’t the same when referring to the act itself, but all murderers are the same and thus we can throw everyone into one big happy vat and call it “we.” Bullshit. Get some consistency. You want to split hairs here and lump millions of them together over there. Sorry, you can’t have your cake and eat it to.

    And how nice of you to respond so professionally to mfi in the other thread about the moderation of comments yet you don’t even acknowledge to me that someone spoofed my screen name and instead let everyone believe it was just me. That is a double standard and dishonest. I see you still link to Pat Lang as a legitimate source of inquiry even though he is every bit as much a murdering bastard as all the rest. Your link to his site gives him legitimacy and after what you and I have discussed via e-mail, it makes me very suspicious, especially in light of these most recent posts. At least I put my money where my mouth is rather than just talking. Apparently you and mfi are scared to buck up to the U.S. version of a Suleiman and when someone does, they get labeled paranoid and a troll. With attitudes like that, your hope for a better world could never transpire because you can’t move beyond the words and offer any form of support to people who don’t really matter.

  17. Joe S

    Thanks for the civil reply, reading it again it was not meant to be so forward. But as a long time reader (BOP originally), I would still iterate the central point: if you are only posting for us then do something else. If you can’t feel the vigor and drive to do more than throw verbal stones at the ethical failings of society, what good is it? Go out and find something to believe in, something to love, something worth fighting for. Posting out of tradition while surrendering to apathy is no way to live a life (or run a blog.) Of course, people may do as they wish and as always, I’m free to take my opinion and go f*** myself, but you can do better than this Ian. You have and you could if you could find your spark. In the past few years on this blog, it’s been slowly leaking away.

    Very sorry to hear about Stirling’s health, when did this happen? I truly wish him the best, I’ve dealt with strokes in the family, it is a major struggle for sure.

  18. Ian Welsh

    Stirling had his stroke almost 2 weeks ago now. I haven’t mentioned it publicly before, but since it’s been posted on Facebook, eh, it’s public. It is quite severe, and it wasn’t clear that he would survive. The damage is serious, and it’s unclear how much he will recover. At some point I’ll post info on where people can send flowers, etc… that might mean something to him in time.

    Posting is at the level people seem to require. Technical posts on the economy, which as an old time BOP reader you know I’ve done plenty of, are not the main need. Basic understanding of ethics and morality, understanding of basic power dynamics, understanding of incentives, of social structure and so on are the level people are at.

    There are still people doing good technical economic writing (though fewer who can both do that and handle the politics well), but it’s really not that important because the level of failure is far below the technical/operations level.

    We took our run as the netroots, and we failed. That’s not a whine, it’s a diagnosis. My take is that it’ll be a while before the next chance, and the current task is to make sure the ideas on the ground, waiting to be picked up, are good ones, the “right” ones, because when things do change, they’ll change fast, and people will use whatever is lying around.

    Blogging, as a way of reaching past the filter, is far past its prime.

  19. cripes

    By all means tend the garden and plant bulbs for the coming year. Someone’s gotta do it, and this probably isn’t a storming-the-castle moment.

    Let’s remember that the cynic is a closet optimist, and playing Cassandra at the Nuremberg rally in 1934 is a thankless, frustrating and often lonely task. Few get rich doing it.

    So, we do what we feel able, and carry on. There comes a point when the conforming mass may turn again, the same people who now dully follow the status quo will raise the flag of insurrection, withdraw their cooperation from the machine, and suddenly the omnipotent state is an empty shell.

    Let’s try to be ready when it does.
    Telling truth may be insufficient, but is a necessary precondition.
    Tell it wherever , bro.

  20. Formerly T-Bear

    Ian Welsh May 29, 2013

    Deeply saddened to hear Sterling sustained a severe stroke, may his kismet be a complete recovery or in the least no damage to a superb mind. Recently he had a post up elsewhere that shortly disappeared from the site posted which was unusual but had not thought further about.

    Your point about exploring:

    Basic understanding of ethics and morality, understanding of basic power dynamics, understanding of incentives, of social structure and so on are the level people are at.

    is well analysed. However the degradation of language and its use is probably more fundamental followed closely by logic as well as education. Without those basics, the effort may not be worth the candle, particularly when language becomes fluid of meaning and fungible for the occasion. This point was (probably poorly) made in a comment three isles down (which also needs a bit of clean-up just before the end – please – mea culpa) where it is not incumbent on the author for more than accuracy in writing whereas the reader has a responsibility of discernment and self-education about a subject the reader is not familiar. This is accentuated when opinion is involved.

    Totally agree with:

    …the current task is to make sure the ideas on the ground, waiting to be picked up, are good ones, the “right” ones, because when things do change, they’ll change fast, and people will use whatever is lying around.

    in that the tools of destruction are abundant whereas those instruments of construction employ knowledge and experience in their use or are otherwise ineffectual. Those old Greeks had it nailed – excellence in all things.

  21. Oh Damn, very sorry to hear about Stirling who I remember from BOP days. Even (particularly!) when I disagreed him I respected him because the terms in which he expressed himself both ab initio and when challenged were such that I was forced to think about why I disagreed. On more than one occasion this process forced me to change my mind and acknowledge that he had been right and I had been wrong.

    For that matter I still greatly miss ‘Old man’*


    * As does my son Dubhaltach who wrote to him querying a mathematical point OM had made – a lively correspondence leading to an invitation to Du to come and visit was the result. It’s a shame OM died before Du could take him up on it.

  22. the ideas on the ground, waiting to be picked up, are good ones, the “right” ones, because when things do change, they’ll change fast, and people will use whatever is lying around.

    Amen. And far more than your loyalty to your readers this is why I would urge you, plead with you even, to continue to post.


  23. Ian Welsh

    I miss Oldman greatly, though I didn’t know him as well as I do Stirling. Among the three of us, I was the least bright. I’m the one that’s left (for the time being, maybe Stirling will recover.)

    It’s a question of strategy, how to get the ideas to people in a way where they can actually hear them, and be changed by them, and know that it’s a world they want to live in, so they’ll create it when the time comes.

    Stirling thought that the only potential alternative ideology in an organized form might be lying nascent in the pirate parties. They aren’t there yet, too incoherent, but there’s potential.


  24. Me too, although obviously not to the extent that either you, or Du whom he befriended do.

    I’d agree with about the pirate parties and other small political groupings both on the ‘left’ and the ‘right’. There’s potential there. In any event the attempt must be made. If I’ve told you this before my apologies for repeating myself. At one point fairly early on in my career it was expedient that I become fluent in Dutch. For obvious reasons they admire William of Orange and his aphorisms and sayings remain widespread in the Netherlands to this day. The most famous of these:

    Het is niet nodig te hopen om te ondernemen noch te slagen om te volharden .

    Translates into English as:

    It is not necessary to hope in order to start and undertaking nor to succeed in order to persevere.

    I cannot help but feel Old Man would have agreed and not just because William of Orange took and defeated the most powerful empires of his time and founded the Dutch nation as we know it today.

    Some things are worth doing in and of themselves speaking up for very basic principles of decent behaviour towards our fellow human beings as you do is one of them. Please keep at it.


  25. “I miss Oldman greatly, though I didn’t know him as well as I do Stirling. Among the three of us, I was the least bright. I’m the one that’s left (for the time being, maybe Stirling will recover.)”

    you sell yourself short here, Ian. maybe it’s as you say and they were* brighter, however, even so, you are the one who is most capable of writing about this stuff with real clarity. writing about it in a way such that someone not as bright as any of you could understand. it took a little over a year of reading everything Stirling wrote (starting from draftclark), for me to understand most of it. he can gloss over big ideas sometimes, and reference his own previous work which I wasn’t familiar with at first. it wasn’t until I started reading you on BOPNews that I really got it.

    *I don’t have any specific details about the location, cause, or severity of his stroke, I just know that I’ve had someone in my life recover completely from a stroke, so the possibility exists that “were” should be “is”…

  26. Mommybrain

    But if you stop writing, there will be one less voice arguing these points. We need every voice, but especially yours.

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