Book Review: Niles Schwartz’s “Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies”

Elijah Davidson begins his foreword to Niles Schwartz’s book titled Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where he mentions how that book was, among other things, about God.  While it wasn’t a spiritual text in any traditional sense of the term, it nevertheless pointed to the finitude of human beings, to our heavy reliance on one another, and highlighted the fact that the natural world we live in is entirely indifferent to our needs and desires at best if not outright threatening to our imperative of self-preservation.  Davidson also points out another theme present in Moby Dick, the idea that people corrupt institutions rather than the other way around—a theme that we’ll soon see as relevant to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.  But beyond this human attribute of fallibility, and in some ways what reinforces its instantiation, is our incessant desire to find satisfaction in something greater than ourselves, often taken to be some kind of conception of God.  It is in this way that Davidson refers to Melville’s classic as “a spiritual treatise par excellence.”

When considering Mann’s films, which are often a cinematic dichotomous interplay of “cops and robbers” or “predator and prey,” they are, on a much more basic level, about “freedom and control.”  We also see his filmography as colored with a dejection of, or feeling of malaise with respect to, the modern world.  And here, Mann’s films can also be seen as spiritual in the sense that they make manifest a form of perspectivism centered around a denunciation of modernity, or at least a disdain for the many depersonalizing or externally imposed meta-narratives that it’s generated.  Schwartz explores this spiritual aspect of Mann’s work, most especially as it relates to PE, but also connecting it to the (more explicitly spiritual) works of directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, to name a few).  Schwartz proceeds to give us his own understanding of what Mann had accomplished in PE, and this is despite there being a problematic, irreconcilable set of interpretations as he himself admits: “Interpreting Public Enemies is troubling because it has theological and philosophical precepts that are rife with contradictions.”  This should be entirely expected however when PE is considered within the broader context of Michael Mann’s work generally, for Mann’s entire milieu is formulated on paradox:

“Michael Mann is a director of contradictions: aesthetic and didactive, abstract and concrete, phantasmagorical and brutally tactile, expressionistic and anthropological, heralding the individual and demanding social responsibility, bold experimenter and studio genre administrator, romantic and futurist, Dillinger freedom seeker and Hoover control freak, outsider and insider.”

Regardless of this paradoxical nature that is ubiquitous throughout Mann’s filmography, Schwartz provides a light to take us through a poetic journey of Mann’s work and his vision, most especially through a meticulous view of PE, and all within a rich and vividly structured context centered on the significance of, and relation between, freedom, control, and of course, the future.  His reference to “the future” in OTM is multi-dimensional to say the least, and the one I personally find the most interesting, cohesive, and salient.  Among other things, it’s referring to John Dillinger’s hyper-focused projection toward the future, where his identity is much more defined by where he wants to be (an abstract, utopian future that is “off the map,” or free from the world of control and surveillance) rather than defined by where he’s been (fueled by the obvious fact that he’s always on the run), and this is so even if he also seems to be stuck in the present, with Dillinger’s phenomenology as well as the film’s structure often traversing from one fleeting moment to the next.  But I think we can take Dillinger at his own word as he tells his true love, Billie Frechette, after whisking her away to dine in a high-class restaurant: “That’s ‘cuz they’re all about where people come from.  The only thing that’s important, is where somebody’s going.” 

This conception of “the future” is also referencing the transcendent quality of being human, where our identity is likewise defined in large part by the future, our life projects, and our striving to become a future version of ourselves, however idealized or mythologized that future-self conception may be (I think it’s fair to say Dillinger’s was, to a considerable degree).  The future is a reference to where our society is heading, how our society is becoming increasingly automated, taken over by a celeritously expanding cybernetic infrastructure of control, evolving and expanding in parallel with technology and our internet-catalyzed global interconnectedness.  Our lives are being built upon increasing layers of abstraction as our form of organized life continues to trudge along its chaotic arc of cultural evolution, and we’re losing more and more of our personal freedom as a result of evermore external influences, operating on a number of different levels (socially, politically, technologically), known and unknown, consciously and unconsciously.  In PE, the expanding influences were best exemplified by the media, the mass-surveillance, and of course Hoover’s Bureau and administration, along with the arms race taking place between Dillinger’s crew and the FBI (where the former gave the latter a run for their money).

As Schwartz explains about J. Edgar’s overreach of power: “Hoover’s Bureau is increasingly amoral as it reaches for a kind of Hobbesian, sovereign super control.”  Here of course we get our first glimpse of a noteworthy dualism, namely freedom and control, and the myriad of ways that people corrupt institutions (as Davidson explored in his foreword), though contrary to Davidson’s claim, it seems undeniable to surmise that once an institution has become corrupted by certain people, that institution is more likely to corrupt other individuals, both internally and externally (and thus, institutions do corrupt individuals, not merely the other way around).  If bad ideas are engineered into our government’s structure, our laws, our norms, our capitalist market, or any other societal system, they can seemingly take off on their own, reinforced by the structure itself and the automated information processing that’s inherent to bureaucracies, the media, our social networks, and even inherent to us as individuals who are so often submerged in a barrage of information.

Relating Hoover to the power and influence of the media, Schwartz not only mentions the fact that PE is undoubtedly “conscientious of how media semiotics affect and control people,” but he also mentions a piece of dialogue that stood out to me as well, where FBI Director Hoover (Billy Crudup) just got out of the Congressional Hearing Room, having been chastised by Senator McKellar (Ed Bruce), and he says to his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Chandler Williams): “If we will not contest him in his committee room, we will fight him on the front page,” showing us a glimpse of the present day where news (whether “fake” news or not), and the overall sensationalism of a story is shown to be incredibly powerful at manipulating the masses and profoundly altering our trajectory, one (believed) story at a time.  If you can get somebody to believe the story, whether based on truth or deception, the battle is half won already.  Even Dillinger himself, who’s own persona is wrapped in a cloud of mythology, built up by Hollywood and the media’s portrayal of his life and image, shows us in a very concrete way, just how far deception can get you.

For example, Schwartz reminds us of how Dillinger managed to escape through six doors of Crown Point jail with nothing other than a mock gun made of wood.  Well, nothing but a mock gun and a hell of a good performance, which is the key point here, since the gun was for all practical purposes real.  By the time Dillinger breaks into Warden Baker’s office to steal some Tommy guns before finishing his escape, Warden Baker (David Warshofsky) even says to him “That wasn’t real was it?,” which resonated with the idea of how powerful persuasion and illusion can be in our lives, and maybe indirectly showing us that what is real to us in the ways that matter most is defined by what’s salient to us in our raw experience and what we believe to be true since that’s all that affects our behavior anyway.  The guards believed Dillinger’s mock gun was real, and so it was real, just as a false political campaign promise is real, or a bluffed winning-hand in poker, or any other force, whether operating under the pretenses of honesty or deception, pushing us individually and collectively in one direction or another.

The future is also a reference to Michael Mann’s 2015 cyberthriller Blackhat—a movie that Mann had been building up to, and a grossly underappreciated one at that, with various degrees of its foreshadowing in PE.  This progression and relation between PE and Blackhat is in fact central to Schwartz’s principle aim in OTM:

“My aim in this book is to explore Public Enemies as an extraordinary accomplishment against a backdrop of other digital films, its meditations on the form precipitating Blackhat, Mann’s stunning and widely ignored cyberthriller that converts the movie-house celluloid of its predecessors into a beguiling labyrinth of code that’s colonized the heretofore tangible firmament right under our noses.”

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is; and fortunately for us we’re in a better position to appreciate it after reading Schwartz’s highly perceptive analysis of such a phenomenal artist.  In PE, the future is essentially projected into the past, which is interesting to me in its own right, since this is also the case with human memory, where we reconstruct our memories upon recall in ways that are augmented by, and amalgamated with, our present knowledge, despite not having such knowledge when the memory itself was first formed.  So too in PE, we see a number of questions posed especially as it relates to the existentialist movement, which hadn’t been well-developed or nearly as influential until some time after the 1930s (especially after WWII, with the advent of existential philosophers including Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger), and not becoming nearly as pertinent or socially and politically relevant as it has now in the present day.  And this is where Blackhat becomes decidedly apropos.

So what future world was foreshadowed in PE?  Schwartz describes the world in Blackhat as an utterly subliminal and cybernetic realm: “The world is pattern recognition and automatic information processing, the stuff of advertising.”  Though I would argue that our entire phenomenology is fundamentally based on pattern recognition where our perception, imagination, actions, and even desires are mediated by the models of the world’s causal structure that our brains create and infer through our experiences.  But this doesn’t mean that our general schema of pattern recognition hasn’t been influenced by modernity such that we’ve become noticeably more automated, and where many have seemingly lost their capacity for contemplative reflection and lost the historically less-hindered psychological channel between reason and emotion.  The Blackhat world Schwartz is describing here is one where the way information is being processed is relatively alien to the more traditional conceptions of what it means to be human.  And this cybernetic world is a world where cultural and technological evolution are accelerating far faster than our biological evolution ever could (though genetic engineering has the potential to re-synchronize the two if we dedicate ourselves to such an ambitious project), and this bio-cultural desynchronization has made us increasingly maladapted to the Digital Age we’ve now entered.  Furthermore, this new world has made us far more susceptible to subliminal, corporatocratic and sociopolitical influences, and it has driven us toward an increasing reliance on a cybernetically controlled way of life.

The social relevance of these conceptions makes Blackhat a much-needed lens for fully appreciating our current existential predicament, and as Schwartz says of Mann’s (perhaps unavoidably ironic) digital implementation of this somewhat polemical techno-thriller:

“Conversely, Mann’s embrace of the digital is a paradoxical realization of tactile historical and spatial phenomenology, lucidly picturing an end of identity, while leaping, as through faith, toward the possibility of individuation in nature, free from institutional conscriptions and the negative assignments of cybernetics.”

Schwartz illustrates that concomitant with identity, “… the film prompts us to ask where nature ends and the virtual begins,” though perhaps we could also infer that in Blackhat there’s somewhat of a dissolution of the boundary (or at least a feeling of arbitrariness regarding how the boundary is actually defined) between the real and the virtual, the natural and the artificial, the human and the transhuman.  And maybe each of these fuzzy boundaries implies how best to resolve the contradictions in Mann’s work that Schwartz describes in OTM, with this possible resolution coming about through a process of symbiotic fusion or some kind of memetic “speciation” transitionally connecting what seem to be distinct concepts through a brilliantly structured narrative.

And to take the speciation analogy even further, I think it can also be applied to the changes in filmmaking and culture (including the many changes that Schwartz covers in his tour de force), where many of the changes are happening so gradually that we simply fail to notice them, at least not until a threshold of change has occurred.  But there’s also a punctuated equilibrium form of speciation in filmmaking, where occasionally a filmmaker does something extraordinary in one fell swoop, setting the bar for a new genre of cinema, just as James Cameron arguably did with the heavily CGI-amalgamated world in Avatar (with his planet Pandora “doubling for the future of cinema [itself]…” as Schwartz mentions), and to a somewhat lesser technological extent, in Michael Mann’s PE, where even though the analog to digital leap had already been made by others, “Mann’s distinctly idiosyncratic use of HD cameras rattled viewers with its alien video-ness, explicating to viewers that they were perched on a separate filmic architecture that may require a new way of seeing.”

Similarly in Blackhat, Mann takes us through seamless transitions of multiple scales of both time and space, opening up a window that allows us to see how mechanized and deterministic our modern world is, from the highest cosmological scales, down to cities populated with an innumerable number of complex yet predictable humans, and finally down to the digital information processing schema at the micro and nanotechnological scales of transistors.  Within each perspective level, we fail to notice the causal influences operating at the levels above or below, and yet Mann seamlessly joins these together, showing us a kind of fractal recapitulation that we wouldn’t otherwise fully appreciate.  After reflecting on many of the references to freedom Schwartz posits in OTM, I’ve begun to more seriously ponder over the idea that human freedom is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one’s awareness of what is being controlled by another, what is predictable and what isn’t, and one’s perception of what constitutes self-authored behavior or a causa sui formulation of free will.  Once we realize that, at the smallest scales, existence is governed by deterministic processes infused with quantum randomness, it is less surprising to see the same kind of organized, predictable causal structure at biological, sociological, and even cosmological scales.

Aside from Blackhat, Schwartz seamlessly ties together a number of Mann’s other films including Thief, Miami Vice, and my personal favorite, Heat.  There’s also a notable progression or at least an underlying and evolving conceptual structure connecting characters and ideas from one film to the next (above and beyond the transition from PE to Blackhat), as Schwartz eloquently points out, which I see as illustrating how various salient psychological and sociological forces and manifestations are so often reiterated in multiple contexts varying in time and space.  Clearly Mann is building off of his previous work, adapting previous ideas to new narratives, and doing so while continuously trying to use, as Schwartz puts it: “alchemic cinema tools to open a window and transform our perception,” thus giving us a new way to view the world and our own existential status.

An important dynamic that Schwartz mentions, not only as it pertains to Mann’s films, but of (especially well-crafted) films in general, is the notable interplay between the audience and the film or “the image.”  The image changes us, which in turn changes the image ad infinitum, establishing a feedback loop and a co-evolution between the viewer’s interpretation of the film as it relates to their own experiences, and the ongoing evolution of every new cinematic product.  There may be some indoctrinatory danger in this cycle if the movie you’re engaging with is a mass-produced product, since this product is, insofar as it’s mass-produced, deeply connected to “the system”, indeed the very same system trying to capture John Dillinger in PE.  And yet, even though the mass-produced product is a part of the system, and despite its being a cog in the wheel of what we might call a cybernetic infrastructure of control, Schwartz highlights an important potentiality in film viewing that is often taken for granted:

“…The staggering climax inside the Biograph beseeches us to aspire to the images conscientiously, reconciling the mass-produced product with our private histories and elevating the picture and our lives with the media.”

In other words, even in the case of mass-produced cinema, we as viewers stand to potentially gain a valuable experience, and possibly a spiritual or philosophical one at that by our forming a personal relationship with the film, synthesizing the external stimuli with our inner sense of self, coalescing with the characters and integrating them into our own relationships and to ourselves, thus expanding our set of perspectives by connecting to someone “off the map”.  On the other hand, Schwartz also mentions Herbert Marcuse’s views, which aptly describes the inherent problem of art insofar as it becomes a part of “the system”:

“…Herbert Marcuse writes that as long as art has become part of the system, it ceases in questioning it, and thus impedes social change.  Poetic language must transcend the “real” world of the society, and in order to transcend that world it must stand opposed to it, questioning it, quelling us out of it.”

But we need also realize that art will inevitably be influenced by the system, because there are simply too many subliminal or even explicit system-orchestrated ideas that the artist (and everyone else in society) has been instilled with, even if entirely unbeknownst to them.  It seems that the capacity for poetic language to transcend the real world of the society lies in its simply providing any new perspective at all, making use of allegory, metaphor, and the crossing of contextual boundaries, and it can do so even if this new perspective doesn’t necessarily or explicitly oppose some other (even mainstream) perspective.

This is most definitely not to in any way discount Marcuse’s overarching point of how art’s connection to the system is a factor that limits its efficacy in enacting social change and its ability to positively feed the public’s collective stream of consciousness, but merely to point out that art’s propensity for transcending the status quo isn’t entirely inhibited from its unavoidable connection to the system.  And to once again bring us back to the scene in PE where Dillinger is fully absorbing (or being fully absorbed by) his viewing of Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater, Schwartz seems to describe the artistic value of a film as something at least partially dependent on whether or not it facilitates a personal and transcendent experience in any of the viewers:

“Cinema is elevated to a ceremony of transubstantiation where fixed bodies are resurrected through the mercurial alchemy of speed and light, contradicting the consumption we saw earlier during the newsreel.  Dillinger’s connection to cinema is a meditative and private one…”

I think it’s fair to say that, if there’s anything that can elevate our own experience of Mann’s work in particular, and film viewing more generally, Schwartz’s Off the Map is a great philosophical and spiritual primer to help get us there.  Both comprehensive and brilliantly written, Schwartz’s contribution to film scholarship should become required reading for anybody interested in cinema and film viewing.

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Moral Deliberation, Religious Freedom & Church-State Separation

I’m glad we live in a society where we have the freedom to believe whatever we want to believe.  No matter how crazy or dangerous some of these beliefs are, no matter how unreasonable and irrational some of them may be, and no matter whether some of these beliefs may hurt others and detract from their happiness and life fulfillment, we have the freedom to believe them nevertheless.  We also live in a representative democracy (for now at least), thereby granting us the freedom to vote for political representatives and the policies they stand for and in some cases granting us the freedom to vote for some of the particular laws themselves.  Combining these two freedoms, freedom of belief and freedom to vote, we have the freedom to vote for a particular candidate or law based on whatever reason or belief we wish.  It is this latter freedom that I believe is being grossly abused by so many in this country.

I’ve written previously about the imperative of democracy for any just society, but within that post I also mentioned the (perhaps) equal importance of moral deliberation within any just democratic framework.  People should be justifying their votes and their positions on particular issues through a moral deliberative process.  We do this to some degree already but not nearly enough and not in any useful public format.

We can’t simply leave it up to a room full of politicians to decide for us (as we primarily do now) as then all the individual perspectives that constitute and drive the public’s understanding of some issue become truncated, distorted, or superseded by some kind of misleading rhetorical caricature that can take on a life of its own.

Our society needs a political system which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted through moral deliberation not only to create more transparency in the political process but also to help resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive critical discourse, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.  The increase in transparency is not only to help us distinguish between political aims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests, but also to point out the different fundamental reasons driving people’s voting preferences.  In order to point out errors in one another’s reasoning (if there are any errors), we have to talk with each other about our reasons and the thought processes that have led us to some particular point of view.  It may be that the disagreement is about a difference in what we value but often times its due to a rational argument opposing an irrational argument.

Moral deliberation would help us to illustrate when political or legislative points of view are grounded on beliefs in the supernatural or other beliefs that are not based on evidence that the opposing side can examine and consider.  We may find points of view that are dependent on someone’s religious beliefs, which if voted to become the law of the land, could actually exclude the religious freedom of others (simply by majority rule).

Let’s consider abortion and embryonic stem cell research as examples.  If through a moral deliberative process we come to find that people are voting to ban the right to an abortion or to ban the use of life-saving medical technologies that require embryonic stem cells, because they believe that human embryos have souls or some other magical property, then we need to point out that creating a law grounded on non-demonstrable religious beliefs (such as the belief in souls) is not something that can reasonably be implemented without violating the religious rights of everyone in that society that do not share their unfalsifiable belief in souls.  Those people should consider what they would feel like if a religion other than their own became endorsed by the majority and tried to push for legislation based on some other unfalsifiable religious dogma.

Ultimately, a majority rule that enacts legislation based on religious belief is analogous to eradicating the separation of church and state, but rather than having the church or churches with direct political power over our laws, instead they indirectly obtain their political power by influencing their congregations to vote for some law that is deemed acceptable by the church’s own dogma.  It’s one thing for a religious institution to point out what evidence or secular arguments exist to support their position or that of their opponents, whereby the arguments can at least move forward by examining said evidence and seeing where it leads us.  But when an argument is based on beliefs that have no evidence to support them, then it lacks the objective character needed to justifiably ground a new law of the land — a law that will come to exist and apply to all in a secularized society (as opposed to a theocracy).

If we are to avoid slipping further into a theocracy, then we need to better utilize moral deliberation to tease out the legislative justifications that are based on unfalsifiable beliefs such as beliefs in disembodied minds and magic and so forth, so we can shift the argument to exclude any unfalsifiable beliefs and reasoning.  Disagreeing on the facts themselves is a different matter that we’ll always have to deal with, but disagreeing on whether or not to use facts and evidence in our legislative decision-making process is beyond ridiculous and is an awful and disrespectful abuse of the freedoms that so many of our ancestors have fought and died to protect.

The arguments surrounding abortion rights and stem cell research, for example, once the conversation shifts from the personal to the political sphere, should likewise shift from those that can include unfalsifiable supernatural beliefs to those that eventually exclude them entirely.  By relying on falsifiable secular claims and arguments, one can better approximate a line of argumentation that is more likely to transcend any particular religious or philosophical system.  By doing so we can also better discover what it is that we actually value in our everyday lives.  Do we value an undetectable, invisible, disembodied mind that begins to inhabit fertilized eggs at some arbitrary point in time?  A magical substance that, if it exists, is inadvertently flushed out of many women’s uteri countless times (by failing to implant an egg after conception) without their giving it a second thought?  Or rather do we value persons, human persons in particular, with consciousness, the ability to think and feel, and that have a personality (a minimum attribute of any person)?

I think it’s the latter that we actually value (on both sides of the aisle, despite the apparent contradiction in their convictions), so even if we ignore compelling arguments for bodily autonomy and only focus on arguments from person-hood as they relate to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, we should see that what we actually value isn’t under threat when people have an abortion (at least, not before consciousness and a personality develops in the fetus around the 25th-30th week of gestation) nor is what we value with persons under threat when we carry out embryonic stem cell research, since once again there is no person under threat but only a potential future person (just as blueprints are a potential future building, or an acorn is a potential future oak tree).  If I choose to destroy the blueprints or the acorn to achieve some other end I desire, nobody should falsely equivocate that with destroying a building or an oak tree. Unfortunately, that is what many people do when they consider abortion or embryonic stem cell research, where even if they limit their arguments to falsifiable claims and make no mention of souls — they falsely equivocate the potential future person with an actual realized person.  In doing so, they falsely attribute an intrinsic value to something that is only extrinsically valuable.  It should be said though that the latter argument to ban abortion or embryonic stem cell research, while still logically fallacious, is at least based on falsifiable claims that can be discussed and considered, without any mention of souls or other non-demonstrables.

It should be pointed out here that I’m not saying that people can’t decide how they ought to act based on religious beliefs or other beliefs regarding magic or the supernatural.  What I am saying is that one should be able to use those non-secular reasons to guide their own behavior with respect to whether or not they will have an abortion or have their embryo used for stem cell research.  That’s fine and dandy even though I strongly discourage anybody and everybody from making decisions that aren’t based on reason and evidence.  Nevertheless I think it’s one’s right to do so, but what they most definitely shouldn’t do is use such reasons to justify what other people can or can’t do.

If I have a religious belief that leads me to believe that it is immoral to feed my children broccoli (for some unfalsifiable reason), should I try to make it a law of the land that no other parents are allowed to feed their children broccoli?  Or should I use my religious belief to simply inform my own actions and not try to force others to comply with my religious belief?  Which seems like a more American ideal?  Which seems more fair to every independent citizen, each with their own individual liberties?  Now what if I find out that there’s a substance in the broccoli that leads to brain damage if fed to children of a certain age?  Well then we would now have a secular reason, more specifically a falsifiable reason, to ban broccoli (where we didn’t before) and so it would no longer need to remain isolated from the law of the land, but can (and should) be instantiated in a law that would protect children from harmful brain damage.  This legislation would make sense because we value conscious persons, and because reasons that appeal to evidence can and should be examined by everyone living in a society to inform them of what laws of the land should and shouldn’t be put into place.

In summary, I think it is clear that our freedom of belief and freedom to vote are being abused by those that want to use their non-demonstrable, religiously grounded moral claims to change the law of the land rather than to simply use those non-demonstrable moral claims to guide their own actions.  What we should be doing instead is limiting our freedom to vote such that the justifications we impose on our decisions are necessarily based on demonstrable moral claims and beliefs (even if our values differ person to person).  And this still allows us the freedom to continue using any number of demonstrable and non-demonstrable moral claims to guide our own behavior as we see fit.  This is the only way to maintain true religious freedom in any democratic society, and we need to push for the kind of moral deliberation that will get us there.

CGI, Movies and Truth…

After watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I liked, though not nearly as much as the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), it got me thinking more about something I hadn’t thought about since the most recent presidential election.  As I watched Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, both characters made possible in large part thanks to CGI (as well as the help of actors Ingvild Deila and Guy Henry), I realized that although this is still a long way away, it is inevitable that (barring a nuclear world war or some other catastrophe that kills us all or sets us back to a pre-industrialized age) the pace of this technology will eventually lead to CGI products that are completely indistinguishable from reality.

This means that eventually, the “fake news” issue that many have been making a lot of noise about as of late, will one day take a new and ugly turn for the worse.  Not only is video and graphic technology accelerating at a fairly rapid pace to exacerbate this problem, but similar concerns are also arising as a result of voice editing software.  By simply gathering several seconds of sample audio from a person of interest, various forms of software are getting better and better at synthesizing their speech in order to mimic them — putting whatever words into “their” mouths that one so desires.

The irony here is that this means that despite the fact that we are going to continue becoming more and more globally interconnected, technologically advanced, and gain more global knowledge, it seems that we will eventually reach a point where each individual becomes less and less able to know what is true and what isn’t in all the places that you are electronically connected to.  One reason for this is that, as per the opening reference to Rogue One, it will become increasingly difficult to judge the veracity of videos that go viral on the internet and/or through news outlets.  We can imagine seeing a video (or many series of videos) released on the news and throughout the internet containing shocking events with real world leaders or other famous people, places, and so forth, events that could possibly start a civil or world war, alter one’s vote, or otherwise — but with the caveat that these events are entirely manufactured by some Machiavellian warmonger or power seeking elite.

Pragmatically speaking, we must still live our lives trusting what we see in proportion to the evidence we have, thus believing ordinary claims with a higher degree of confidence than extraordinary ones.  We will still need to hold to the general rule of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence in order to meet their burden of proof.  But it will become more difficult to trust certain forms of evidence (including in a court of law), so we’ll have to take that into consideration so that actions that result in more catastrophic consequences (if your assumptions/information turn out to be based on false evidence) require a higher burden of proof — once we are able to successfully pass some kind of graphics Touring Test.

This is by no means an endorsement for conspiracy theories generally nor any other anti-intellectual or dogmatic non-sense. We don’t want people to start doubting everything they see nor to start doubting everything they don’t WANT to see (which would be a proverbial buffet for our cognitive biases and the conspiracy theorists that make use of these epistemological flaws regularly), we still need to take this dynamic technological factor into account to maintain a world view based on proper Bayesian reasoning.

On the brighter side of things, we are going to get to enjoy much of what the new CGI capabilities will bring to us, because movies and all visual entertainment are going to be revolutionarily changed forever in many ways that will be worth celebrating, including our use of virtual reality generally (many various forms that we do and will continue to consciously and rationally desire). We just need to pay attention and exercise some careful moral deliberation as we develop these technologies. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to easily avoid being duped by artificial realities like the ones we’re developing (we already get duped far too often within our actual reality), so we need to engineer our path forward in a way that will better safeguard us from our own cognitive biases so we can maximize our well being once this genie is out of the bottle.

The Imperative of Democracy For a Just Society

How important is democracy for realizing a society that is just?  It seems to me that democracy is an important if not vital component of any just society, because any principles of justice that a society seeks to abide by should be established through means that are also fair and just, and thus those principles (or the laws that instantiate them) should be a legislative product resulting from the deliberation and input of every citizen that is to be bound and protected by such standards.  In this post, I’m going to argue for this position by illustrating how reasonable principles of justice are more likely to be realized (if not only realizable) through a democratic form of government over any other system, and by showing how a democratic system for legislation is the most effective way of protecting and improving principles of justice once they are established in a society.  It’s important to note that I am not arguing that all forms of democracy are necessarily capable of achieving a just society, but rather I’m arguing that some form of democracy is necessary to do so.  One major objection to my overall contention is the argument that democracies can lead to a form of majoritarianism that may oppress minorities and restrict their basic rights, thus precluding even any semblance of justice.  This objection is a very serious one that ought to be considered and so I’ll conclude my argument by responding to it accordingly.

Reasonable principles or descriptions of justice as proposed by many philosophers and other important political figures such as Aristotle, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls and others, generally encompass a number of different concepts such as: liberty, freedom, fairness, equality, desert, mutual respect and consideration, and moral rightness, among others.1, 2, 3, 4  I tend to agree with Rawls’ views in particular, where principles of justice revolve around some set of equal rights that is maximally extensive, including equal access and opportunity of holding various political offices and positions.  What’s most important to note about Rawls’ views is the concept of fairness and how the principles of justice can be derived from the original position, i.e., from behind a veil of ignorance.4  If we apply this reasoning to determine what is in fact fair from the perspective of a collective of citizens that hold different sets of values, it stands to reason that the best one can do is to try to find some kind of an overlapping moral consensus that is informed by the very same set of citizens.  It seems that the only political system fit to accomplish this task is going to be some form of a democracy, because only in democracies can the citizens take direct action to influence legislation that is compatible with that overlapping consensus.5 No other political system allows their citizens to have this kind of power.  Furthermore, since all people can only have an equal say in some kind of democratic society, it’s hard to imagine how any other system used to establish principles of justice could have a higher level of fairness.

Maintaining and protecting the principles of justice that are implemented by a society is arguably just as important as establishing them in the first place.  Moreover, if the current established principles of justice (or laws) in a society are at any point perceived as being unjust in light of new information or a change in the overlapping moral consensus of the people that comprise it, there needs to be some mechanism to modify them accordingly.  I would argue that democracy is the most effective way to achieve both the protection of, and the capability of modifying or improving, any implemented principles of justice or laws that instantiate those principles.

To illustrate this point, we can simply imagine that there are two societies, one democratic and one non-democratic, and for the sake of argument we can assume that they both have established principles of justice.  Now let’s consider that some new law has been proposed in both societies that, if enacted and implemented, would result in some gross form of injustice.  I think it’s evident that the democratic society has the best chance of maintaining (or restoring) their established principles of justice because a majority of citizens have the greatest chance of influencing future legislation and/or any future political representation in order to block or reverse the legislation that would have led to any injustice.  If the fate of this decision was merely left in the hands of some subset of people in power, even if it could result in a just outcome, it is less likely to for the simple fact that the interests of a small group in power are statistically less likely to result in a mutually desirable outcome for everyone when all else is equal.  Similarly, if we were to imagine that the overlapping moral consensus changed in both societies, once again, I would argue that democracy would prevail as the best system for modifying or improving any laws in place so as to better conform to any modified principles of justice.  This would be the case because the most thorough way to determine which laws or principles of justice should replace the old ones, would be to survey all members of that society through a process of moral deliberation6 — a task best fit for a democracy.

One strong objection to my argument (i.e. in short, that democracies are an important if not necessary component for a just society) is the argument that democracies can lead to a majoritarian populace that may choose to strip minorities of their basic human rights and liberties, and thus enact some form of injustice.  One could take this objection even further and argue that a majoritarian populace could (perhaps unknowingly) enact legislation that strips every citizen of some or all of their basic rights and liberties.7 Now this is certainly a reasonable objection and one that is worth careful consideration.  However, this argument can only be successful if it can be shown that there are only non-democratic forms of government that guarantee (or at least do a better job of) establishing, protecting, and/or improving the principles of justice (or the laws that instantiate them) in a society.  I haven’t yet seen anyone satisfy the burden of proof required to support such a claim (even if it is a reasonable objection).  In addition, this objection must hold up to the most robust form of democracy at our disposal to demonstrate a fortiori that all other forms of democracy are likewise insufficient and that they are all demonstrably worse than at least one non-democratic alternative.

Now I will grant that this objection is particularly applicable to a pure democracy, where there are no protections whatsoever against majority rule oppressing minorities’ rights.  However, most forms of democracy that exist today are some kind of democratic republic or constitutional democracy, whereby a constitution is put into place to protect some set of inalienable rights that majority rule can’t overturn.8  While this solution isn’t fool proof, it is nevertheless an effective safeguard to limit majoritarian tyranny while retaining the aforementioned maximally-just benefits of democracy.  Furthermore, one could employ a deliberative democracy, which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted that would instantiate any sought-after principles of justice.  A deliberative democracy accomplishes this justification and helps to resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive moral deliberation, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.6  What better way could there be to achieve a just society than to have equal rights to vote on legislation combined with the societal expectation of justifying any proposed laws through open critical discourse and moral deliberation with one another?  What better way could there be to find the overlapping moral consensus that Rawls pointed to, as idealized in his original position?

As such, I believe the majoritarian objection fails not only because there are democratic systems with safeguards in place to help prevent these kinds of majoritarian problems from occurring (such as a constitution), thus limiting tyranny at least as well as any non-democratic government could, but also because even in the absence of these safeguards (which are of course limited in efficacy), deliberative democratic institutions can further reduce the risk of oppressive tyranny of the majority by their having to justify their positions/votes with the other members of society through moral deliberation.  Combining these two institutions — a constitution and moral deliberation — into one democratic framework, would provide a robust rebuttal to such an objection and also provides a good template of democracy that further supports my overall argument.

In conclusion, I’ve argued that democracy is a vital component for just societies because it offers a means of deriving a society’s principles of justice, through the laws that instantiate them, in the most fair and equitable way known, and because of its strength to adapt to societal changes in order to maintain justice in light of a shift in overlapping consensus or as a possible counter-response to unjust legislation enacted.  In addition, it can in principle provide a way of maximizing justice through institutions that encourage (if not mandate) the use of moral deliberation to justify the votes of any and all citizens.  Among other benefits, this latter principle provides a way of helping to sort out and distinguish between political claims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests.  In doing so, it offers a platform of transparency and dialectic that helps to prevent injustices from coming into fruition.

References

  1. Aristotle, trans. Terence Irwin (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hacket, pp. 67-74, 76; 1129a-1132b, 1134a
  2. Immanuel Kant, trans. John Ladd (1999) Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1999., pp. 29, 38, 30-31, 37
  3. John Stuart Mill, ed. Mary Warnock (1962) Utilitarianism and Other Writings.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company, pp. 296-301, 305, 309, 320-321
  4. Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  5. Christiano, T. (2006, July 27). Democracy. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/
  6. Gutmann & Thompson (2014) Moral Disagreement in a Democracy.  Arguing about Political Philosophy.  Routledge Publishing, NY (pp. 596-601)
  7. Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green
  8. No author (n.d.). CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.civiced.org/resources/publications/resource-materials/390-constitutional-democracy

Demonization Damning Democracy

After the 2016 presidential election, I’ve had some more time to reflect on the various causes of what has been aptly dubbed Trumpism, and also to reflect on some strategies that we as a nation need to implement in order to successfully move forward.  I’ll start by saying that I suspect that most people will not like this post because most people sit at the extremes of the political spectrum, and thus will likely feel uncomfortable facing any criticism that they think lends legitimacy to their opponents position.  Regardless of this likelihood, I’ve decided to write this post anyway because the criticisms that this post points out reflect exactly this problem — the diminished capacity for the politically divided to be charitable and intellectually honest in terms of their treatment and representation of their opponents’ positions.

Many would be hard pressed to name another period in American history that has been defined by as much political polarization and animosity that we’ve seen in the last year.  The Civil War that transpired in the mid 19th century is perhaps the closest runner up to match this “great divide” plaguing our nation.  In the interest of moving forward, we need to find quicker and more pragmatic ways of bridging such a divide.  We’re not going to agree on most issues, but there are some things we can do a hell of a lot better.  For starters, I think that we all need to stop talking past one another and acknowledge that there were legitimate reasons to vote for Donald Trump (keep in mind that I thought Clinton was the only sane choice which was why I knew I had to vote for her).  The majority of people on both sides of this debate have been demonizing the other rather than being intellectually honest (let alone charitable) about one another’s position.  Unfortunately the damage has already been done and Trump is now going to be our president (barring some miracle occurring between now and January 20th).

I’m in no way attempting to underplay the moral travesty that a large number of voters are responsible for, and which happened despite the fact that they were outnumbered by almost 3 million Democrat voters in the popular vote (which actually set a record for the highest margin direct-democratic victory for any candidate voted against by the electoral college).  I am however trying to open up a civil discourse between progressive liberals such as myself and those that voted for this inexperienced plutocrat for at least some legitimate reasons.  We may still disagree on the importance of those reasons when weighed against all others under consideration, and we may disagree on how effective Trump would be in actually addressing any one of them (even if they were the most important issues), but we should acknowledge those reasons nevertheless.

Economy, Immigration & Terrorism

Before looking at some of these specific reasons, I think it’s important to note the three main issues that they seem to revolve around, namely terrorism, immigration, and the economy.  It’s also interesting to note that all three of these issues are themselves intimately connected with one another with respect to the impetus that turned the election on its head.  For example, many immigrants and refugees from nations that are predominantly Muslim are getting unfairly lumped into a category of would-be terrorists — largely resulting from anti-Muslim sentiments that have escalated since 9/11, and perhaps climaxing with the formation of other Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS.  And on the economic front, Mexican or other Hispanic immigrants in particular are getting flack in part because of their being largely indistinguishable from illegal immigrants, and some people think that their jobs have been or will be taken from illegal immigrants (or taken from legal immigrants that many simply assume are illegal) that are willing to work for below minimum wage.

Of course the irony here is that conservatives that embrace true free market capitalistic principles are shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting this “free market” consequence, i.e., letting the markets decide what wages are fair with no government intervention.  It’s one thing to argue against illegal immigrants breaking immigration laws (which everyone agrees is a problem, even if they disagree on the degree of the problem), but one can’t employ an economic argument against illegal immigrants or legal immigrants based on sub-par wages or a lack of jobs without also acknowledging the need for government-imposed market regulations.  These market regulations include having a minimum wage that is enforced let alone raised to provide a living wage (which is now at risk with Trump’s newly elected Secretary of Labor Andy Puzder, given his history of screwing his fast food workers while raking in millions of dollars per year).

It goes without saying that the anti-immigrant (even anti-legal-immigrant) mentality was only exacerbated when Trump filled his campaign with hateful “build the wall” rhetoric, combined with Trump calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, despite the fact that immigrants comprise a lower percentage of criminals and rapists compared to non-immigrants in the U.S.  None of this helped to foster any support for embracing these generally decent people that are crossing the border looking for a better life in America.  Most of them are looking for better opportunities, for the same reasons our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. long ago (both legally and illegally).  Having said that, it’s also true that illegal immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed, but lying about the actual impact of undocumented immigrants on the economy (by either denying the fact that they can suppress wages in some industries, or by denying that there are benefits that these people can produce in other work sectors), is only going to detract from our ability to solve the problem effectively and ethically.  Hate mongering certainly isn’t going to accomplish anything other than pissing off liberals and hindering bipartisan immigration reform.

As for Islam, people on the right are justifiably pissed off that most people on the left don’t even acknowledge the fact that Islam has dangerous doctrines that have been exploited to radicalize Muslims into Jihadists and Islamists that have fueled various forms of terrorism.  Saying that ISIS isn’t fundamentally Islamic is ridiculous once one sees that its adherents are in fact motivated by a literal reading of the texts (i.e. the Koran and Hadiths) including a true belief in eternal paradise and glory for martyrs that die on the front lines or by flying a plane into a building.

As a progressive liberal, I’m disappointed when regressive liberals call anybody that points this out a racist or an Islamophobe.  It’s true that many people that make these points (generally on the political right) are also racist and Islamophobic, but many of them are not (including some liberals such as myself) and it actually pushed a number of people toward Trump that would have otherwise stayed away from a clown like Trump. If only the left had done a better job being honest about these facts, then they wouldn’t have scared away a number of people that were sitting on the fence of the election.  A number of people that ran away once they believed that Clinton was being either dishonest or delusional on this point, and who subsequently saw Clinton (albeit erroneously) as someone who was not as likely to handle this terrorist threat effectively. It’s clear to me that she was the most likely to handle it effectively despite this concern given the facts that she was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, including having valuable and relevant experience in helping to take down Osama Bin Laden as Secretary of State.  This misperception, induced by this bit of dishonesty, gave fuel to a ignorant bigot like Trump who was at least right on this one point, even if for all the wrong reasons, and even if he combined this point with bigotry and bogus xenophobic rhetoric based on his ignorance of Islamic culture and Muslims generally.

So while the Trumpers had some legitimate concern here, they and most others on the right failed to acknowledge that Islamic doctrine isn’t the only motivating factor behind ISIS terrorism as there are a number of geopolitical factors at play here and also some number of radicalizing leaders who simply high-jacked Islamic doctrine to fuel terrorism with the primary goal of meeting those geopolitical goals.   Many Trumpers also failed to realize that most Muslims in the world are peaceful people and are not members of ISIS or any other terrorist group or organization.  Many failed to realize that Trump has absolutely no political experience, let alone specific experience pertaining to national or international security, so he is the last person that should claim to know how to handle such a complicated and multi-faceted international conflict.  Furthermore, Trump’s “I’ll bomb the shit out of them” mentality isn’t going to appease the worries of our Muslim allies nor our non-Muslim allies that are seeking diplomatic resolutions at all costs.

I think one of the biggest oversight of Trumpers is their failing to realize that Trump’s threat to place all Muslims residing in the U.S. into a fascist registry and the effects of his anti-Muslim rhetoric are, if anything, accomplishing exactly what ISIS wants.  ISIS wants all Muslims to reject Western values including democracy, equality, and humanism, and what better way to radicalize more Muslims than having a large number of (mostly) white Americans alienating them through harassment and ostracization.  What better way could there be to lose the trust and cooperation of Muslims already residing within our borders — the very Muslims and Muslim communities that we need to work with to combat radicalization and domestic terrorism?  Trump’s hateful behavior and rudderless tactics are likely to create the ultimate Islamic Trojan horse within our own borders.  So while many on the left need to acknowledge that Islam does in fact have an ideological influence on terrorism, and is thus an influence that needs to be addressed honestly, those on the right also need to appreciate the fact that we need to avoid further alienating and angering Muslims such that they are more compelled to join radical groups, the very radical groups that we all (including most other Muslims) despise.

Multi-culturalism & Assimilation

Another big Trump-voter motivational reason is the ongoing clash between multi-culturalism and traditional American culture or perhaps better described as well-established highly homogeneous cultures in America.  Some people were driven to Trumpism by their feeling culturally threatened by immigrants that fail to assimilate to the already well-established cultures in various communities around the country.  If they’ve lived in a community that is composed of only English speaking, reality-TV-watching, hamburger-eating, football fans (to give an example), and then they start seeing other languages and entirely foreign cultures in schools, on the bus, at their workplace, etc., they feel that their way of life is being encroached upon.  When immigrants fail to assimilate to the predominant culture of an area (including learning the English language), with the natives in these communities pressured to adopt bilingual infrastructure, to suspend cultural norms to make new religious exceptions, etc., people understandably get pissed off because humans have evolved to be highly tribal and most of us fear change.

Some feel like there’s a double-standard at play where natives in a community have to adapt to accommodate the immigrants and their cultures, but without having the immigrants compromise by accommodating the native cultures and norms (or at least not to a large enough degree).  As a result, we often see pockets of foreigners that bud off to form micro-communities and groups that are very much like small versions of their home countries.  Then when there’s an influx of these immigrants in schools and certain workplaces, there is increased animosity toward them because they are that much more likely to be treated as an out-group.  This is no doubt further fueled by racism and xenophobia (with vicious cycles of increasing prejudice against immigrants and subsequent assimilation hurdles), but there needs to be a give-take relationship with better cultural assimilation so that the native communities don’t feel that their own culture is threatened while simultaneously feeling forced to preserve and make way for an entirely foreign one.  Additionally, we need to better educate people to be more accepting of reasonable levels of diversity, even if we place pragmatic limits on how far that diversity can go (while still maintaining solidarity and minimizing tribalism).

If it’s not a two-way street, with effective cultural assimilation, then we can expect a lot of people to run away looking for someone like Trump to throw them a proverbial life preserver with his “I’m the greatest and I can fix it all and make America great again” motto (perhaps disguising the implicit motto “make America WHITE again”) even if it’s really nothing but a bunch of snake oil demagoguery so he can get into power and rob the nation blind with a cabinet full of fellow billionaire plutocrats (including those tied to Big-Oil and Goldman Sachs).  Trump learned fairly quickly how effective demagoguery was, likely aided by his insider knowledge of American TV-junkie culture (including The Apprentice), his knowledge of how bigoted so many people are, how attracted they are to controversy and shock-value (rather than basic common decency) and how he could manipulate so many voters through hatred and fear given such weaknesses.  But none of that would have worked if there weren’t some grains of truth in the seeds Trump was sowing, if Trump wasn’t saying things that many Americans were simply too afraid to say out loud (including that which was largely racist, bigoted, and ignorant).

But rather than most people on the left acknowledging the inherent problems with unlimited multi-culturalism, including it leading us down a path where the population becomes less and less cohesive with less solidarity and common goals, the left largely labeled all people with these legitimate concerns as racists and bigots.  While it’s true that a substantial chunk of Trump supporters are racists and bigots (perhaps half, who really knows), an appreciable chunk of them are not racists or bigots.  Much like those that saw obvious problems with Islamic ideology in the modern age as it pertains to terrorist threats (with race being irrelevant, as can be seen by radicals such as Adam Gadahn), many saw problems with immigration in terms of the pragmatic limitations of multi-culturalism (rather than problems with any particular race).  On the other side however, Trump supporters have to at least acknowledge that even if they themselves are not racist, their support of Trump does in fact validate his racist rhetoric and the racist supporters fueled by that rhetoric (even if Trump himself had no racist intentions, although I think he did).  So they may still think it was worth it to support Trump but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.  They have to own up to what Trump’s rhetoric fuels and take at least some responsibility for it, including any consequences that they do not like or endorse.

Political Correctness, Safe Spaces, & Free Speech

Last but not least there are debates regarding things like political correctness (which play into the multi-culturalism battle), safe spaces, and freedom of speech, that deeply affected this election.  For one, I acknowledge and sympathize with others’ aggravation in terms of political correctness, where sometimes people are just trying to communicate some semantic content and don’t want to be bogged down with ever-changing social conventions on what terms one is and is not allowed to use.  But I also understand that social conventions change as a result of what comprises a society’s “stream of consciousness”, including the ever-changing ethical and moral concerns of the day, issues with social justice, stereotypes, marginalization of one group or another, etc.  People on the right should try not to be completely callous and inconsiderate about social conventions and work harder to understand why others are offended by certain terms, and those on the left need to try harder to understand the intentions of those using possibly offensive terms.  If we each work to give a little leeway to the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and vice versa, we’ll have better chances of getting along and finding common ground rather than being demonized and never getting anywhere in terms of societal progress.  People on the left should work harder to not to be so thin-skinned that everything offends them (in other words, try harder not to be like Trump), and people on the right should try to show a little more empathy and try not to be inconsiderate jerks.

Safe spaces have become another problem.  While it’s true that some events can be and should be exclusive to certain groups (for example keeping Nazi or KKK members out of a Jewish festival or speech), it is crucial that we don’t fall down a slippery slope that abolishes freedom of speech or that establishes constant safe spaces that exacerbate the polarization plaguing our political sphere.  For example, social platforms like Facebook and the like allow people to block the comments of others, feed their wall with news and articles that fulfill their own cognitive confirmation biases and prevent their ideas from being challenged.  The irony is that while many Trumpers raised legitimate concerns and dismay over the concept of safe spaces as espoused by those on the left, they too were guilty of the safe space methodology on their own Facebook pages, etc.  Even my own sister (a Trump supporter after Cruz lost) blocked me after I pointed out a few flaws in her logic and reasoning with regard to a couple Trump apologetic posts she had shared.  After her husband came in to defend her (she never attempts to defend herself for some reason), I refuted his points as well in a civil way and then she blocked me from her wall.  This is a problem because people on both sides are making their own safe spaces not allowing diversity in the opinions and points they are exposed to.  It only increases the in-group/out-group mentality that is ripping this country apart.

Trump is ironically the worst offender using safe spaces that I’ve seen, with his “Sean Hannity” safe space on the radio, his one-dimensional rallies (filled with supporters to boost his ego and who have been encouraged by Trump himself to punch protesters in the face, with him offering to pay their legal fees like some kind of totalitarian mobster), his disdain for the free press, free speech, and journalism in general — not to mention the libel laws he wants to change so that he can sue news organizations that report on facts he doesn’t want made public.  The chronic safe space mentality has got to go, even if we reserve the right to safe spaces for some places and occasions.  There needs to be a careful balance so people are exposed to diverse ideas (not just what they want to hear) and we need to protect free speech (limiting one group opens the doors to limit them all).

Where to go from here?

While there may have been some other legitimate reasons to vote for Trump (I couldn’t think of any others to be honest), these seemed to be the primary ones I noticed at play.  So what do we do now?  Well, people need to stop talking past one another, and better empathize with the opposition and not simply demonize them.  The sooner everyone can acknowledge that the opposition had at least some legitimacy, the sooner we can have more civil discourses and keep moving forward to heal this great divide.

The WikiLeaks Conundrum

I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like.  I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.

Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate.  And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.  In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).

While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities.  One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC.  One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public?  After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know.  Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.  Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.

To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking.  Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform.  Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.

This point illustrates the following conundrum:  while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing.  That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome.  This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get.  Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true.  But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed.  That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.

So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this?  Should we just scrap WikiLeaks?  I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources).  Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?

Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution.  We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose.  This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas.  Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously.  It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait.  In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns.  Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public.  This won’t be an easy task.

This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there.  If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information?  Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function?  Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security?  Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats?  There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety.  Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.