Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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Philosophy Weekend: The Turn

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 20, 2014 11:05 am

I didn't start a blog series called "Philosophy Weekend" so I could write the same old shit you've already read. That's what a lot of other philosophers and ethical theorists and historians seem to be good at.

I don't know what their problem is; our universities are packed with professors and writers and academic bloggers with impressive degrees and credentials. But they don't seem to be writing what needs to be written about real world problems that need to be solved, so I guess it's up to me, a humble software developer with a humble bachelor's degree, to put two and two together and ask if you agree that it adds up to four.

We've been discussing the causes of genocide here for several weeks, and I think we've reached a surprising conclusion. Let's retrace our steps.

We began with a querulous blog post in which I proposed that we must not be thinking creatively or constructively enough, since there are obviously answers that we're not finding. I observed that typical debates or conversations about problems of global politics tend to be packed with emotional keywords and frustrating misconceptions and sensitive "don't go there" areas, and suggested that we try to put aside our emotional responses and try to analyze the known facts about the genocidal disasters of the last hundred years in a systematic way, with a puzzle-solver's mentality. This is where it all began:

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide and Drunk Driving and Causality

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 12, 2014 08:36 am

When we write about genocide, it's customary to descend into paroxysms of inexplicability. Jeffrey Herbst of Foreign Affairs magazine marked this month's 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda with a typical display. "Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide," writes Jeffrey Herbst in Foreign Affairs magazine, "we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why?" It's clear from the tone of this introduction that no clear answer will be supplied -- though many words will be spent -- and when the Foreign Affairs paywall kicks in after a few paragraphs, most readers will do as I did and click away. No need to pay $2.99 just to read the same old cliches.

It's strange that Jeffrey Herbst thinks the genocide in Rwanda is inexplicable, since the political and psychological motivations behind the disaster are vividly and clearly documented in the massive historical record. The anguished "why" is a fraud -- the question Jeffrey Herbst and so many other commentators are grappling with is not actually "why" at all. The question they're really stuck on is this: "How can we live with the truth about why this happened?". That's the painful question nobody wants to ask.

The causes of Rwanda's genocide are obvious to anyone who learns the history and analyzes the data points systematically. The same obvious causes can be seen in the other terrible genocides that shamed the 20th century, from Armenia to Nazi Germany to China, and in several genocides that are raging right now in Darfur and Central African Republic and Syria. We're going to discuss these causes today. Our results will differ, though, from the weak pop-psychology answers embraced by common wisdom. The cause of the genocide will not turn out to be racial prejudice, or tribal hatred, or economic class envy, or repressed sexual aggression, or man's inhumanity to man. We're going to do a better job than that. And we're going to be systematic about it by starting with Aristotle's well-known list of four types of causes. To quote Wikipedia:

Philosophy Weekend: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am

One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm

We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.

Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm

It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).

Philosophy Weekend: Blood Alienation

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 15, 2014 09:50 am

What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.

Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.

A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.

Philosophy Weekend: The Ashley Wilkes Principle

by Levi Asher on Sunday, March 9, 2014 10:17 am

A huge realization came to me recently, as I immersed myself in books and old movies about the US Civil War. We all know that the Confederate nation that lost this bitter war was also soundly trounced by the judgement of history, since the Confederacy's key pro-slavery position is clearly on its wrong side.

But the 150 years that have passed since the end of the Southern rebellion might have put a thick patina on the moral arguments that once energized the rebellion, and I made it my goal during my recent bout of Civil War reading to try to understand how a typical well-educated and high-principled Southerner would have explained the Southern position. There were, of course, many thoughtful intellectuals in the Civil War South, and we can take two of the four main characters in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind as useful examples. The noble Ashley Wilkes is a brave Confederate officer who loves books, who loses himself in his vast library, who befuddles Scarlett O'Hara with talk of the Gotterdammerung. His equally noble wife Melanie Hamilton Wilkes relishes the opportunity to discuss literature and morality; we first meet her condemning the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray for being "a cynic" and "not the gentleman Dickens is".

As a lifelong American Northener, I grew up with a shallow perception of Confederate politics as essentially unprincipled. It's clear today that the Confederate position on slavery was terribly wrong -- but even so, an ethical philosopher who wishes to understand history can't stop there. There's a puzzle to be solved, because even though we see the Confederate position to be wrong today, we must recognize that the Confederacy was populated with principled intellectuals who somehow convinced themselves that it was right. How, exactly, did they convince themselves of this, and what can we learn about our own closely held beliefs from their example?

Philosophy Weekend: Images of Ukraine

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm

I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.

I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.

Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.

Philosophy Weekend: Ukraine as Puzzle

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 22, 2014 12:03 am

Last weekend I suggested that we attempt the exercise of visualizing global conflicts as Sudoku puzzles, and explained some of the basic techniques typically used to solve these puzzles. I then got a bit carried away discussing the difference between Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, and how some KenKen techniques could also be applied. One commenter was smart enough to ask: just what difficult questions was I trying to answer? This question brought me back to earth, and I promised to respond today.

The broad question I want us to consider is the same one I've been asking here for a long time. Why are we stuck in a militarized society, so stuck that most people don't even realize an alternative is possible? What are the conditions that can enable world peace?

This is the broad question, and in this sense the entire history of the world leading up to today is the puzzle I want to solve. This puzzle contains other puzzles within it. Europe is a puzzle, Africa is a puzzle, Asia is a puzzle, North America is a puzzle. These puzzles also contain puzzles. Within Europe, Ukraine is a puzzle, Russia is a puzzle, France is a puzzle. In order to focus on something very relevant right this minute, let's look at the stunning events of the last couple of weeks in Ukraine -- violence and determined protests on the streets of Kiev, hot dealings between Russia and its puppet government, news flashes arriving by the minute -- as our first case study.

Philosophy Weekend: Ethical Sudoku

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:29 pm

It occurred to me only recently that I have a revealing habit: when I am under a lot of stress, I find myself doing Sudoku puzzles. I suppose what I crave is the reward of completion, and the illusion (it is only an illusion, I'm sure) that I am a successful problem-solver. There have been moments in my life when I have clung to my iPad Sudoku app like an alcoholic clinging to a bottle.

There is something magical about the process of solving a Sudoku puzzle, and the magic may reside in the fact that a new puzzle contains a lot of empty spaces with a few numbers filled in, which corresponds to a solved puzzle with all the numbers filled in. The new puzzle may look like this:


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