an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘crime

Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

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Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

Sam Harris, Free will

https://theforeveryears.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/dunedin-study-findings-the-importance-of-identifying-personality-types-at-a-young-age-by-kirsteen-mclay-knopp/

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

Trump’s downfall: more palaver

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dream, dream, dream

As I’ve often said, I’m lazily distracting myself by watching Trump’s downfall and commenting on it. I don’t seem to have the staying power at present to write anything too sciencey, and the Trump disaster is easy to attend to, though I must say I mute the TV or youtube every time the Trump comes on (isn’t it funny how the name itself smacks of the con man). I much prefer hearing about him second-hand. Again, though, I must say my prediction of him being out by the end of the year looks more of a dead cert than ever. It’s just a matter of the Mueller team having too much on their plates to digest. It’s likely they won’t have finished their meal by year’s end. But Trump may well have been spat out and into gaol by then. It depends of course on how Mueller organises his indictments – bottom up or top down. It could also be a bit of both.

But Trump is America’s tragedy. What happens, after all, once he and his family are ousted? The Presidency itself, the institution, will be seriously damaged. I’m sure the nation will manage to limp along until 2020, and a likely big turnaround in the mid-terms will largely put the nation’s affairs in safer hands, but new, tighter laws will have to be enacted, re nepotism, emoluments, financial disclosure, vetting of candidates for office, inter alia. These are essential to make the USA safe, and to allow it to be taken seriously again on the global stage.

Okay enough of the high-minded lecturing, let’s get down to wallowing in the grubby details. Everybody’s waiting for the next indictment or subpoena from the enquiry. Kushner? Trump Jr? Erik Prince? Roger Stone? Take your pick from these and a host of others. And what about this Stormy Daniels affair, another follow-the-money rib-tickler? Where do I begin?

A shady Lebanese-American wannabe mover-and-shaker, George Nader, has been questioned by the Mueller team, presumably primarily about a meeting in the Seychelles involving himself, an even shadier mover-and-shaker Erik Prince (an advisor to and supporter of Trump), and UAE diplomats with financial ties to Russia. There was apparently a dodgy Russian banker, Kirill Dmitriev, at the meeting as well. There’s little doubt that getting Prince to testify will reveal more dirt, but the team will have to make sure they know everything before asking the questions. I just wish I could listen in on what they do know.

Meanwhile there’s a special election in Pennsylvania and Trump has been there big-noting himself and insulting opponents, mostly women. He’s even promoted the idea of executing drug-dealers, because he’s a great admirer of Phillipines dictator Duterte. I’m currently reading Chasing the scream, a fast-paced narrative and denunciation of the disastrous war on drugs, but of course Trump doesn’t read, and certainly doesn’t care. He just likes the idea of killing people. I’m waiting for the result of this election, waiting for the next subpoena, the next indictment, waiting waiting…

I’m also hoping that women will play a major role in Trump’s downfall. I’m a little wary of the Me Too movement, having been falsely accused myself. True, I wasn’t accused by a woman, but it has taught me very effectively that accusations can be easily made, and with devastating consequences. But what the movement highlights is that, because of power imbalance, men have been treating women too badly for too long, and women are fighting back. It’s interesting to note that the Politico article just linked to cited recent research which ‘found women were nearly twice as likely as men to be deterred from running for office because of potentially having to engage in a negative campaign’. Such campaigns are what so many men like Trump choose naturally as their MO. And here’s another interesting quote, with an Australian theme:

In 2016, the Guardian published an analysis that found Hillary Clinton received abusive tweets at almost twice the rate of her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders, while former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, too, received about twice as much abuse as her male challenger, Kevin Rudd.

Actually, Rudd and Gillard belonged to the same party, but it’s probably right to describe them as opponents.

So I’m hoping that after the carnage of this Presidency, with Trump and his family in jail and his successor discredited, that the President after 2020 will be a woman. Obviously she will be a Democrat.

Elizabeth Warren has struck me as very impressive, from my still fairly minimal observations of her – a leftish liberal more palatable to the squeamish Americans than Sanders. After some more research I may write a piece about her. I certainly wouldn’t want any ‘celebrity’ female candidates running for office, and I suspect Hillary Clinton has done her dash.

As I slowly write, things keep happening. Rex Tillerson has been sacked. Silly man, he should’ve resigned long ago. I’ve had a bit of a fantasy in which all the top White House staffers and Trump appointees get together, decide enough is enough, and stage a mass resignation. It would actually be better for them – instead of being stuck in utterly thankless jobs, they’d come out of it as instantly employable for having the guts to take a stand. But of course, this would take organisation and co-ordination, and we’ve seen no evidence of that in this administration.

Finally, Putin has attempted to murder another Russian expatriate, along with his daughter. Many others have been poisoned too. Trump has belatedly come out in support of the British government’s rather tepid statement that Russia is ‘highly likely’ to be behind the nerve agent attack – though the whole statement is worth reading. Putin’s minions are saying that given Putin’s recent announcement that they’ve created some kind of super-weapon, it’s dangerous to accuse Russia of wrong-doing. To me, this is tantamount to an admission of guilt, and fairly solid proof of Monsieur Putain’s mafioso scumbag credentials. How to deal with this? Internationally and with unassailable solidarity. Russia has already been brought to its knees by Putin’s thievery, but we need to apply more pressure and provide as much support as we can to the millions of Russians who want to be freed of this scumbag so they can enter the adult world.

I’m a little disappointed that the Trump is still holding good at 40%, which should ensure he doesn’t get re-elected (yes yes, out of office by year’s end), it seems that only more indictments of the inner circle will drop him down below 35. Not sure if I mentioned this before, but I’m reading Chasing the scream, the racy but horrifyingly tragic bestseller by Johann Hari about the spectacularly disastrous ‘war on drugs’ in the USA and Mexico (disastrously forced on it by the US). The Trump recently threw red meat to his base by promoting the idea of execution for drug dealers (in the campaign for the Pennsylvania by-election, won by the Dems, haha), another know-nothing piece of squawking from someone who knows nothing but the idea of crushing, stamping, beating. It’s Mussolini without the hanging – yet.

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2018 at 10:26 pm

Putin: a partial portrait of a ruthless barbarian

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a portrait of the small-minded, vindictive, mass-murdering multi-billionaire petty thief as a youngster – who’d have thunk it?

As I lie here, I sense the distinct presence of the angel of death. It is still possible I’ll be able to evade him, but I fear my feet are no longer as fast as they used to be. I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition.

You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be.

You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilisation.

You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilised people.

You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people. 

(Final words dictated by Alexander Litvinenko before his death by polonium poisoning, London, November 2006. A public inquiry concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) operation, that was probably personally approved by Vladimir Putin).

 

I seem to have always felt an extreme, visceral loathing for Vladimir Putin, or at least ever since the first reports about his behaviour and attitudes began percolating through to me, and in the following posts, at the risk of raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels, I’m going to examine why it is that with each little tidbit that comes my way I loathe him more.

Of course I know why in general terms. I’ve loathed bullies ever since I was a kid being bullied by parents, teachers and boys (and girls) who were bigger than me – which was almost everyone (I mean everyone was bigger than me, not that they were all bullies!). People seem to characterise me as a leftist, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. My politics springs above all else from anti-authoritarianism, though it doesn’t veer off into the kind of atomistic individualism known as ‘libertarianism’. We need each other, and it’s as a profoundly social species that we’ve achieved what we have on this planet – such as those achievements are. And our best achievements, I think, have been more scientific than political.

So, considering my greater focus on science in recent years, I surprised myself some months ago by buying a book on Putin from a second-hand stall at the market near my work. Even as I bought it I asked myself – why? Why make myself angry and outraged? Or was I wanting to indulge in that holier-than-thou feeling you can get from reading about a truly inferior being?

Probably not, since it took me a while to bring myself to start reading the book, entitled The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. It was written by an established journalist, Masha Gessen, and published in 2012. It’s a fast-paced page-turner, though necessarily convoluted given that Putin is the embodiment of KGB deviance and disinformation, and it’s reassuringly skeptical about its own findings given the incredibly murky and profoundly corrupt politics of post-Communist Russia – a mafioso-type situation for which Putin is almost single-handedly responsible.

My impressions: when Putin first became a prominent news figure out of Russia almost two decades ago, I knew nothing about him but I didn’t like what I heard and saw. He was clearly no eloquent reformer in the mold of Gorbachev; he looked cold and shifty and seemed inarticulate. From all I’d heard, Russia had become something of a basket case since the collapse of the USSR, and the transition to democracy was progressing slowly if at all. Insofar as I thought about the country at all, I recognised its Czarist history and its lack of any kinds of democratic institutions, but I couldn’t benefit from the knowledge gained from witnessing the mess of post-war ‘democratic’ Iraq and the largely failed Arab Spring. I imagined wrongly that Russia was a quasi-European nation whose sorry history would make its citizens leap at the chance of developing the sorts of democracies that had been so successful elsewhere. Putin hardly seemed the type to lead the democratic advance, but he was probably just a transitional figure. But when the bits and pieces of info started trickling in, I became – well, not so much alarmed as disgusted. After all, I lived worlds away and wasn’t directly affected by his exploits.

First, there were his KGB connections, and his apparent pride in them. Like most westerners I’d learned to think of the KGB as a kind of sick joke, a caricature of an evil spy agency. Any reasonably humane leader would surely have wiped the Russian slate clean of such an organisation, even if it weren’t guilty of half of what it was notorious for (which seemed to me unlikely).

Second was the apparent closing down of independent media outlets, together with the murder of journalists and other prominent persons critical of government. Elimination of ‘enemies’ seemed a high priority for this government, but I also got a sense of general criminality and corruption, so I couldn’t be sure of Putin’s culpability.

Thirdly, the Pussy Riot fiasco, which again I didn’t look into too deeply, but as an anti-authoritarian I was instinctively on their side. I felt that their over-the top antics were a natural reaction to the over-the top repression of the government, though clearly they were doomed to fail and suffer. It was probably for that reason that I didn’t follow events too closely. I had enough in my life to be depressed about. And by this time I was pretty convinced that Putin himself – Pussy Riot’s polar opposite – was the driving force behind much of the nastiness. And when I later learned that one of his favourite forms of recreation was hanging out with a bikie gang that specialised in bashing gays, the picture of a total scumbag and a walking advertisement for abortion was complete.

So now the very thought of Putin turns me, I’m afraid to admit, into a penis-hacking thug who wants to resurrect Vlad the Impaler and his delicious torture methods. Don’t blame me, blame my testosterone.

Of course, the real solution to Putin isn’t so simple or crass. It’s the creation of a civil, respectful society with institutions that promote its thriving. They include a free press, an independent judiciary, a comprehensive and accessible education system that promotes critical thinking and co-operation, and a system of democratic government that’s as open and participatory as practicable. People like Putin wouldn’t be able to thrive in such a society. More importantly, such a society wouldn’t often create people like him.

Of course there’s another good reason why we might need to focus critically on Putin and the Russia that shaped him and that he is shaping. He is the hero and role model of the current US President. Suddenly this genocidal, democracy-loathing multi-billionaire President of a failed state (oh, I’m talking about Putin, not Trump) has become more important to us all than he deserves to be.

One thing I knew almost nothing about was Chechnya (and nor have I paid much attention to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, which occurred too recently to be included in Gessen’s book). Chechnya, I’ve just discovered, is a tiny landlocked region between the Caspian and the Black Seas. Fundamentally Islamic, it has been in conflict with its Russian or Soviet overlords for centuries; however, after the death of Stalin, who had many Chechens and other ethnic groups in the region forcibly removed from their homes, things were relatively calm. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that, and a war of independence broke out in 1990. By the mid-90s hostilities had subsided, but a second war broke out in 1999, at the time that Putin was consolidating his power. Putin’s response was typically ruthless, and by the end of 2000 the main Chechen city, Grozny, lay in ruins, with no attempt to discriminate between fighters and civilians. Extremely bullish and threatening statements made at the time and since have indicated that Putin is prepared to go to any lengths to maintain and if possible extend the borders of his mafia regime. Unfortunately for him, times have changed since the days of Genghis Khan, or even Hitler. I’ve little doubt that he would invade the Baltic states if it weren’t for their NATO affiliations (which Trump, Putin’s greatest fan, has been seeking to undermine), and he must surely be envious and frustrated in his ambitions by the rise of China. He will no doubt try to use his influence on the man-child in the White House to provide licence for murderous adventures on his western borders, though hopefully current revelations will put a stop to that. Meanwhile, have pity for anyone who flags an independent and principled view within Russia itself. And please, everyone, we should try, with international co-operation, to do everything in our power to bring this monster to justice.

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/7-stories-of-putins-thuggish-behaviour-2013-6

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-russia-connection (interview with Anne Applebaum)

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-path-to-impeachment

Gessen, Masha. The man without a face. The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Granta, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 22, 2017 at 9:18 am

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.

Stephen-Hawking-AI-2

At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.

p16om5i0se1fk61ca91qpv1urm1j30_79928

The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

Iraq, ten years on

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I protested against the Iraq war ten years ago, but as always with my sceptical tendencies and my need to have a worked-out, informed position, I had qualms about simply joining the anti-war crowd. Getting rid of Saddam would surely be a good thing, but that wasn’t the motive of the US administration. They were talking about WMD and trying to make a connection – quite ludicrously – between Iraq and September 11. And they were clearly bullying the UN reps who were reporting no hint of WMD, and the UN Security Council nations who opposed war. What’s more, the US push had little to do with humanitarianism, and much to do with the restoration of national pride after a fall, an absolutely appalling reason for a militarily mighty nation to declare war on a much smaller one. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the cost to the Iraqi people would surely be enormous.

But that was my dilemma. Saddam’s dictatorship was obviously hurting the Iraqi people, though some more than others (and I didn’t really know too much about the ethnic, regional, economic and religious differences within the country and how they aligned with Saddam). Could an intervention manage to topple Saddam as bloodlessly as possible, and replace him with something more generally liberating for the Iraqi people? I thought not, even with the most meticulous international planning. And of course, there’s no such thing as meticulous international planning, and I hold little hope that there ever will be.

So, though, I believe in the, probably hopelessly idealistic, humanistic notion of humanitarian intervention to rid any nation or region of oppressive government, and though I have little respect for the notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty, being humanistically anti-nationalist, I recognised pretty clearly that the planned invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good. Of course I didn’t recognise at the time just how much harm it would do.

So just how much harm has it done? Just last week, in my adult English class, I talked to my students, apropos of the coming Australian election, about the politics of their own countries. One of those students was from Iraq. Her words were – ‘before, Saddam in power, bad person, but country not so bad. Now, after war, everything bad. No safe, all fighting, economy, all bad. All destroyed. Terrible.’

It was an assessment that confirmed my suspicions, but of course somewhat lacking in detail, and for all I know quite incorrect. So let’s have a bit more of a look-see. I’ll base much of what I write here on the three-hour BBC documentary aired recently.

That documentary starts with Bush’s simple-minded post-September 11 us-and-them pronouncement, ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’, and then takes us to communications between the US and Iraqi governments. The US was demanding a complete falling-in-line with their position, it appears. They were asking, ‘are you going to fully co-operate with us against al-Qa’ida?’ Saddam’s response, according to an Iraqi intelligence agent, was ‘America isn’t the only country to suffer terrorism. The sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism.’ He also said that these sanctions had killed far more people in Iraq than died in the US on September 11. He may well have been right, but he conveniently omitted his own role in bringing those sanctions about, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve manipulated the sanctions and their impact for his own propaganda purposes.

The point is that his response to the US administration wasn’t grovelling enough, and the Bush team used this as an excuse to target him. Ten years later, some 170,000 Iraqis are dead (the figures are of course notoriously rubbery) and their families devastated, Baghdad remains a hell-hole, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has assumed quasi-dictatorial powers and has been acting against the Sunni minority, within his own government and within the country, in order to suppress sectarian violence. This hasn’t been hugely successful, and I think it’s fair to say that the Iraq of today is neither peaceful nor particularly democratic, though earlier this year Maliki’s opponents managed to get a law passed banning him from seeking a third term in office. Maliki has been PM since 2006, having been re-elected in 2010.

So what was it all for? The war brought al-Qa’ida into Iraq, where it hadn’t been before. It unleashed terrible sectarian forces within the country, as well as creating huge anti-US and anti-western resentment. You could say it has led to an uncertain Iraqi future, but that would be unfair, since that was also the situation under Saddam. The war would have cost the US a fortune, though I’m sure that many Americans ripped their own fortunes out of the Iraqi economy during that time. About 4,500 US soldiers were killed during the invasion and occupation, and none of their objectives have been met. The world is not safer because of it, quite obviously, and Iraqis are certainly not safer for it. The main lesson to be learned from it is a lesson that never does get learned – don’t intervene in a nation’s affairs (or a region’s affairs) unless you’re sure that the outcome won’t be worse than the situation that caused you to intervene.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that this is something you can never know for sure, and could therefore be used as an excuse for never intervening anywhere, but generally you can have a good idea, and you can plan for an outcome. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible not to, especially when human lives are at stake. The Bush administration seems to have had very little interest in the outcome of its intervention. Was it interested in establishing a democracy in Iraq? Seriously? Could it possibly be so utterly devoid of realism? It seems to me obvious that it had never given the outcome that much thought. The intervention in Iraq was, as I’ve said, about restoring US prestige after September 11. Invading Afghanistan and ousting the Taliban (or half-ousting them) wasn’t enough of a muscle-flexer, something had to be done on a bigger stage. The Iraqi people, if they were ever considered at all, were treated as if they would be just like Americans. They’d all hate living under a dictatorship, they’d all embrace democracy whenever they got the chance – maybe they’d even become a new Christian outpost in the Middle East. As for the Sunni-Shia problem, the Kurdish problem and all the other sectarian issues, the lack of secular political institutions, the absence of any real history of democracy and so forth, all of these were barely considered.

It was irresponsibility on a massive scale, but the question is – was it criminal? Listening to Tony Blair talking in the documentary about – and this is a direct quote – having ‘taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East’, as if it was a piece of plasticine, shows breathtaking naivete, hubris and insensitivity (think of who the ‘we’ is here), but on the face of it, it hardly sounds criminal. After all, Blair is a ‘good guy’, unlike the bad guys of al-Qa’ida. He’s not out to kill as many infidels as possible so as to be a hero to his people. He genuinely wanted to help the Iraqi people, I’m sure, but in doing so he chose to minimise their nature, or to recast them, essentially, as western liberal democrats. I’m sure that he would argue that he wasn’t under-estimating the task, but the fact is, that’s exactly what he was doing. Underestimating the task and the cost to the – completely unconsulted – inhabitants of the region.

Heads of state, especially of powerful states, have an enormous responsibility, which carries with it extra accountability. History is an account of heads of state, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Adolph Hitler, using their power to conquer or reshape massive, and massively populated regions of the world, with little regard for the local inhabitants. In earlier times, this was just the way of the world – if you and your family were in the way of the Viking or Mongol or Nazi invaders, bad luck. But times have changed, and we now have terms like genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, to consider, and we have – admittedly fledgling – institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to render justice to those ‘inconvenienced’ by the mayhem involved in the remaking or reshaping of particular regions of the globe.

Iraq has been pretty well wrecked by the needless intervention of western powers in the last ten years. I would say that 200,000 avoidable deaths would be a conservative estimate, and that’s just the pointy end of the mess. Possibly as many as 2 million have been displaced. Nobody has been held accountable and western leaders are still telling bare-faced lies about the impact of the invasion. Just last month the death toll from fighting in Iraq was 1,057 – the biggest monthly death toll in 5 years. The descent into civil war looks inevitable.

The most powerful countries don’t want a bar of the ICC, they prefer to have a free hand for their reshaping and remaking, but if the behaviour of the decision-makers who created this bloody debacle isn’t criminal, I can only scratch my head and wonder what the word ‘criminal’ actually means.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

some thoughts on the Edward Snowden affair

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Like many people, my imagination has been exercised by the Edward Snowden case, though I haven’t followed ii particularly closely. When I do think of it, it’s in terms of what the USA’s National Security Agency has been up to. As a humanist, I’m obviously not so concerned about the security of particular nations as I am about the human consequences of surveillance, spying, secretiveness and the like. So it was with some interest that I read in yesterday’s Adelaide Advertiser a letter to the editor which argued that Snowden had not committed a “real crime”. I thought the argument, prima facie, a good one. Snowden released secret data collected by the NSA about individuals – or released data to the effect that the NSA was spying on individuals, I’m not sure of the details – but not before making sure he was in a foreign country, out of the reach of the US government. Since then, there has been much shrieking about treason, not only from US officials, but from US allies. This is as you would expect. Imagine, though, a North Korean citizen releasing data to the effect that North Korea’s National Security Agency was collecting data, not only on North Korean citizens, but on citizens of many other nations. But this North Korean citizen waited until she was out of the country (let’s say in the USA) before releasing the data. North Korea’s government shrieks treason and demands that the individual is returned to North Korea to face the consequences of her actions. I would be very surprised if the US government acceded to such a request. I imagine that the western newspapers would place much more emphasis on the information leaked by this ‘traitor’ than on her behaviour, and that she would be treated more as a hero than a villain. And we can look at many other scenarios of this kind, with many different responses, depending on national allegiances. It follows that this kind of behaviour is not a ‘real crime’ in the way that murder, rape, theft, assault and many other crimes obviously are.

I can imagine counter-arguments. For example, that this just takes a libertarian line, saying that ‘real crimes’ are only those against individual liberty, while ignoring what we owe to our nation, the abuse of which is like an abuse to ourselves, and has the potential to make each of us more insecure. My response to that would be that, while I do find nationalism a rather shallow allegiance, that doesn’t make me a libertarian, as I believe very strongly in the ‘social glue’ that enriches our humanity and is in fact essential to it. So the behaviour would have to be measured in a more complex way, against the background of how it affects the non-national, human social glue as opposed to how it affects nationalistic concerns, which themselves have their shifting impacts, pro and con, on the human social glue.

Taking that argument, and considering what seems to have been leaked – but I admit I haven’t looked at the detail of that – the criminality of Snowden’s actions seems at the very least questionable. And besides, I would take the USA’s complaints more seriously if they made a more serious attempt to subscribe to international law and international criminal jurisdiction, which of course successive US governments treat with scarcely veiled contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2013 at 8:34 am

discipline and punish

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There’s a tendency in certain countries to treat a juvenile as an adult when she or he commits a crime considered ‘heinous’, as if the nature of the act somehow constitutes evidence of maturity, though we know that this is not necessarily so. A child can easily kill another child, or an adult, or adults, if the requisite weaponry is to hand. We know that a sixteen-year-old isn’t sufficiently mentally developed to be treated as an adult – otherwise she’d be permitted to vote, to drive a car (without P plates), to drink alcohol, to watch R rated films, to travel overseas without parental permission and so on. Yet when such a person commits a crime that seems to us particularly unpalatable, with significant victim impact, we appear to let that impact affect our judgment as to the responsibility of the perpetrator. This, I think, is a serious problem.

It’s particularly a problem in overly punitive states, such as the USA, with its frightening prison statistics, and its vast swathes of the population living in a kind of anarchic, dysfunctional, hopeless poverty. Some of these people experience almost their first taste of discipline in a courtroom, where they find themselves the playthings of a system impossible to comprehend, speaking an opaque language, operating with such an indifferent forcefulness as to render its subjects inert and fatalistic.

I don’t have a solution to the problem, I simply observe and feel the unfairness deep under the skin, but as I’ve said before in other contexts, don’t get angry, get educated, and that means informing yourself, where possible, of the causes of this perversion of what most reasonable people would see as the proper treatment of juveniles as individuals with diminished responsibility.

First, there are claims of a rise in juvenile offences in the USA from the nineties, but this is not substantiated, and even if it was true, incarceration would seem more an evasion of the problem than a solution. Second, there is a general rise, again in the USA, in punitive approaches to criminal behaviour, moving away from long-term, more humane trends which first emerged back in the seventeenth century and which were bolstered by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. We can see this in the restoration of capital punishment but also in increased length of sentences. The USA is the only country on the planet that permits life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

But this, of course, is exactly the question I’m asking. Why has the US criminal justice system turned its back on humane approaches to crime and punishment? Is it merely reacting to public pressure, and if so, why is there this public pressure? Is it a response to real increases in crime, or to a mere perception of such an increase? My limited research tells me that there is no great surge in the US crime stats, but those in favour of tough sentencing and treating juveniles as adults might well argue that it’s because of the tough sentencing that crime stats are being kept low. So rather than wading into the statistical morass engendered by such arguments, I’d prefer to look at a more obvious and clear-cut connection – that dysfunction and deprivation are profoundly associated with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the like.

I’m now going to make a seemingly bizarre leap from crime and drug-taking in dysfunctional and deprived areas of the USA to the choices made by laboratory rats. In The lab rat chronicles, Kelly Lambert describes experiments done with lab rats some decades ago, experiments that should have garnered far more attention than they did. Individually caged rats will increase their consumption of a drug when they can self-administer it by pressing a lever, and they’ll show clear signs of withdrawal when the drug is taken off the menu. In other experiments, rats were given the choice of water, sugar water and water laced with morphine or cocaine. They drank more of the drug-laced water than of the other choices. When injected with a drug in a particular environment, and with a saline solution in another environment, they consistently chose to be in the ‘drug’ environment, when subsequently asked to choose.

These are fascinating experiments suggesting that rats, like us, are drawn very much to drug-induced states. Right? Well, actually it’s more complicated than that, and these are not the experiments Lambert wants to draw our attention to.

The experiments I’m referring to were carried out by Bruce Alexander and colleagues in the early eighties. Alexander was interested in exploring the difference between the responses of lab rats, who generally lived in deprived, unstimulating and most likely stressful conditions, much like the inmates of a prison, and their wild and free relatives. So he created a rich, colourful and varied rat environment with lots of opportunities for the rats to entertain themselves, and each other, because they inhabited the much expanded space (some 200 times that of a standard rat cage) in groups of sixteen or more. When the drug experiments were repeated with these more socially active and choice-enriched rats, the results were very different. These rats were considerably less interested in the drugs on offer. As Lambert points out, it’s noticeable that rates of  addiction to drugs in prison are far higher than outside, in spite of all the obvious difficulties in obtaining them.

The fact that these important experimental results have been largely ignored in favour of exploring, in rats and in humans, the neural processes implicated in drug addiction, perhaps provides a clue to the imprisonment problem in the USA. Finding the neural pathways for drug addiction, and finding ways to block those pathways, assuming that it would ever turn out to be a simple process, would make the problem ‘go away’. No drug addiction, or no drug effect which would encourage the user to keep returning to the drug, means no problem, right?  You just ‘innoculate’ the drug user with the ‘drug blocker’ and she’s no longer an addict, and you go and collect your Nobel. It’s a bit like incarcerating everyone who commits a major crime – you make them ‘go away’. Far easier than trying to transform them by creating a whole new environment for them, full of stimulating activities, community supports, and roles and functions to tap into.

So when you look at the incarceration rates in different parts of the USA, and among different sub-groups, note how they correspond to regions and populations of deprivation and dislocation and systemic poverty. It’s not rocket science, but the real solutions are costly, and they require the kind of collective action that the USA, of all nations, is least capable of. Meanwhile, the USA is the only nation on the planet where, having committed a major crime as a juvenile, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. That’ll learn em.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm