Category Archives: Narrative Ethics

Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Taken Alive: A Moral Victory

Good job to the Boston Police Department!

Taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive is a very good thing. I don’t know if he was wearing a suicide bomb, but given his and his brother’s blatant disregard for human life (and reports that his brother was wearing one) I wouldn’t be surprised. And in that case the BPD did a huge job – they not only saved the lives of any other innocent victims Tsarnaev might have killed, they saved his life too.

The best possible outcome is still, then, possible – Tsarnaev might say he is sorry. It might not happen, but if it does we should rejoice because that would deflate the terrorist cause; he would be acknowledging that he and his cause were wrong. And that is a powerful witness to keep others away from it. And it would help restore Tsarnaev’s own humanity – he needs to have his sense of right and wrong corrected. It will also show that moral behavior on our part pays off.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan it was only a half-victory for the USA, as I noted at the time. We not only acted outside the law, but we denied him the ability to apologize. That would have been the ultimate victory – the apology of our foremost enemy – and we lost it by killing him. We denied ourselves the opportunity for a moral victory. And as we continue our “War on Terror” we continue to deny ourselves the opportunity for this highest victory.

No matter how unlikely the apology is, we still need to give our enemy that chance. It is not only better for them, it is better for us. Even though distorted towards vice, they are human too. Because in a deep way treating one’s enemy as a human denies the dichotomy of “us” and “them.” It makes us all “us.”

If we deny the humanity of our enemy, we reinforce their denial of ours.  The only way to end this war is by mutual respect or total annihilation, and as I said before, we aren’t going to choose the second path. So we better get started on the path to the first.

In this act of good law enforcement, the BPD respected the humanity of someone who attacked us as an enemy. We need more of this behavior towards those who call themselves our enemies. So once again, good job Boston PD. When BPD officers (and I hesitate to bring it up, but it is the truth and we should never shy away from it) brutalized the peaceful Occupy Boston protesters that was a low-point, but today you have show us the better way.

Let this be a formative moment for our nation, to direct us to defend justice with compassion and respect even for those who deny it to us. We need the moral high ground, not only for the sake of our enemies, not only for the sake of those watching, but for our sake, for us, to keep us human.

And on that note I will end with a link to a story from World War Two. It is a must-read, about a German pilot sparing an American B-17, but I’ll just excerpt one quote.

“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.”

The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters.”

Today we did not become monsters. That might sound like a hollow hurrah, but it is not just a negative, it is much more than that.

Instead we became humans.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a spectacular novel. It is a tour-de-force through six stories, each story with its own genre, creating a multigenre whole unlike any work I’ve read before. (There may be other works out there like this, but I don’t know them – I’m an ethicist, not a lit guy – so if you have suggested readings, let me know!)

I picked up this book because I saw the trailer for the movie version by the Wachowskis (of “The Matrix” fame) that is coming out today. I could tell that the story was going to be fascinatingly intricate, and that a movie could not do it justice, so I wanted to read the novel first before seeing the movie. I won’t include the trailer here because it may affect your reading of the story; it did for me (while reading I kept thinking “I wonder who is going to play this character?”). I will review the movie in a few days and include the trailer then.

In this review I am going to try to avoid specific spoilers, however, the generalities of the work will come up and especially what I see as the moral and philosophical core of the work. If you read this review it may spoil the novel for you on that level, so if that concerns you, just go read the book instead, then come back.

But if you want to know anyway, come along. Here’s how we will go: 1) The story itself, its style and composition, 2) Its major themes, 3) Its similarities and differences with a few other works, and a few allusions I picked up, 4) Its movie potential. Continue reading

The Illusion of Validity vs. Phronesis

Last night I was lucky enough to catch KQED’s Forum with Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. One of the most interesting concepts that he mentioned last night was what he calls the “illusion of validity.” The idea is that oftentimes the stories we know, tell ourselves, and interpret our experience through can be misleading (perhaps that’s really not so earth-shattering). Even in instances where we may really think we see something, interpret it, and are highly confident in our interpretation, our conclusions can be totally wrong (he points this out especially among financial advisors who often cannot predict market directions regardless of knowledge).

Yet, Kahneman differentiates this from expertise. Over long periods of time, if we are engaged in a practice that involves trial and error wherein we can learn from our mistakes and there is a regularity in the phenomenon we are looking at, we can develop a skill–something akin to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis (or practical wisdom).

I find Kahneman’s work interesting and intend to look into it further. The concept of the “illusion of validity” will be of interest, perhaps, to those also who utilize Bourdieusian theory in their work. Bourdieu’s notion of “illusio” (i.e., a socialized interest in the particular culture and social position within one lives) combined with his concept of “misrecognition” and Kahneman’s “illusion of validity” are worth comparing and maybe even integrating.

If these stories we tell ourselves or these internalized social schemas really filter and organize the internal and external stimulus we experience, there are interesting implications to explore in the realm of practical ethics and even in the study of how religious beliefs may either affect behavior or at least the interpretation of behavior.

Is Power Evil? The Ethics of Power

Power.  It’s what everybody wants, right?  That’s the story at least.  Money, political influence, weapons, power to intimidate, power to make people do things, power to build things, power to get things done.  Every movie, every news story, most everything we hear, it’s is just pursuit of power, over and over again. Nietzschean realism.  Power and violence are interesting.  That’s the story.

Power causes a lot of problems, and it is tempting to think of power as being an evil thing, because it is so liable to abuse.  The adage that power corrupts has ample supporting evidence.

So should power be limited, curtailed, restricted, controlled, even eliminated?  Or distributed so widely that no one can ever use it for wrong?  Should we make power so difficult to obtain that it can never threaten anyone?  It is dangerous after all.  The entire US system of government is based on checking power and balancing power, to prevent abuse.  Does power only work when it is hobbled and weak?

Power is a dangerous thing because it is – well – a powerful thing.  But power in itself is not evil.  Think of the US military, for example.  The US military can vaporize anywhere on earth in with a nuclear weapon in 30 minutes.  Avoiding nukes, it can conventionally bomb anywhere on earth within a few hours.  That is serious, horribly dangerous power.

But the military spends a lot of time NOT doing things like that.  When there are disasters, who can get there first?  The US military – precisely because it has a global presence and rapid-response capability.  I know the US military responds to disasters with food, water, personnel, and supplies, because I know people who have done these missions of aid, and they are deeply appreciated by the people they help.

Continue reading

On Narrative Malfunction

I’ve been reading Stanley Hauerwas on narrative.  And it reminded me of a story.

Once there was a young boy who lived in Arkansas.  The time was World War Two.  Across the field from his farm was an internment camp – not for prisoners of war, but for Americans of Japanese ancestry.  Every day the prisoners would come to his farm for water, and he became friends with them.  All the prisoners had to eat was bread and a disgusting runny syrup called “Red Jelly” which was just water, sugar, and food coloring.  And for water they came to his farm.

He had heard that the German prisoners of war would play cards with the guards at their camp, and ate good food.  “They treated them like goddamn family,” he said.  He knew that the contrast between the treatment of Americans whose ancestors were from Japan and German soldiers who had just been killing people was wrong.

Later during this same conversation this 60-something year old man made many racist comments about other groups of people.  About the hotel owners in West Sacramento and Muslim terrorists.  The contrast in his words has become more apparent to me over time.  What we see and who we are we do not always put together.  As a boy this man knew right and wrong, at least in one particular case.  But later in life, and pressed with life’s pain, the lesson would not extrapolate.  Now I want to add two more turns to this story, just to heighten the moral pain.

The man I was talking to was homeless.  He may well be dead now, this was 10 years ago and he was already old.  He was harassed by police, forced from town to town, ignored, rarely treated as a human.  He had grown up and come to live the worst part of his childhood story, shunned by his own country, treated as an outcast and obstacle to be pushed aside and to be, only grudgingly, let live on the scraps of civilization. Continue reading

Mental Violence and Toxic Narratives

I have been meaning to write on narrative ethics for a while now, but haven’t had the chance yet to finish a piece I started on quite a while back.  So when a friend of mine told me of other bloggers writing on the dangers of narrative – specifically on esotericism, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I was pleasantly surprised.  I’ll just add in my two cents, briefly, based on my research into human nature.

Humans are composite creatures: we are partially biological, and partially cultural.  A human without culture is a mess, studies of feral children are enough to make clear that no further experimentation in that direction should be allowed.  The cultural part of humanity is not insignificant.  It is what completes us biologically.  We biologically need to learn a culture, and stories are the primary means of teaching culture.

So when humans tell stories (including true stories, I’m not talking only fiction), they are no trivial matter.  These stories “finish” us, they embed in our brains and become part of our bodies.  Desecrations of stories and symbols are a form of violence.  They don’t just upset people a little bit, they upset people A LOT, and with good reason.  People die, and kill, for symbols and stories, it happens all the time.  Think of protecting flags in war, or suicide bombers.

Insulting someone’s narrative calls into question their very self, who they are, as a composite creature.  It is, perhaps, the equivalent of trying to grab part of their body and pull it off (and perhaps replace it with a new piece, because every piece of symbolic and/or narrative violence is an attempt to show another narrative is superior).

We need to pay attention to bits of culture competing with each other.  The author of the above linked post is right that narratives are dangerous, and some like the FSM are simple weapons, meant only for attack purposes, for tearing down.  Humor just makes it attractive.  Of course, everyone has an arsenal of attack narratives at their disposal, we learn them as we acquire identity in our childhood (e.g. group X = universal goodness, group Y = universal evil).  But weapons need to be used judiciously.  Indiscriminate destruction – even just with words – is dangerous and wrong.

The ethics of narratives are serious business as we grow in power to disseminate culture.  Some even speak of “cultural engineering” which sounds about as safe to me as starting to pull random clumps of neurons out of people’s heads.  Media is a very free place in our society, and the internet is just adding to our freedom.   But the results affect us all.  As cultural narratives struggle, we will feel the effects and our individual natures will be affected.  Let’s hope it is not only a matter of “survival of the fittest,” as in reddest in tooth and claw, but rather survival of what makes us good, moral, people.  But I’m not holding my breath.