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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Tremough Scholars Project 2010/11

Me and 5 other students from the Tremough Campus in Penryn, Cornwall have been working on a sustainability project for the last year.  The videos below are the end result.  The project explores the sustainability and environmental issues raised by the development of Tremough Campus. It is aimed at students and staff currently based at the campus, as well as prospective students or those interested more generally in sustainability in Cornwall.

Thanks for watching!  

Part 1

Part 2

Monday, 14 March 2011

Are You A Good Samaritan? Responsibility and Intervention in Libya

At the heart of the debate in Western countries over how to respond to the civil war in Libya there is something quite fundamental at stake: what is the rest of the worlds responsibility towards people in other countries?  Haunted by the spectre of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq many are understandably tentative about direct military involvement in Libya from any of the big players in the West 'going it alone.'  Some would go further and even view a UN sanctioned intervention as dangerous and wrong.  Yet when you see Gaddafi's forces pushing back rebels in the East, and using considerable force to do so, it is difficult not to hear a kind of 'call' that makes one think that 'we' should do something to help 'them.' But is there a call for us to intervene? And how should we respond to that call?

The typical Christian parable of this moral dilemma would be the story of the 'Good Samaritan.'  I'm sure many people were taught this biblical story, where the Samaritan crosses the road and helps the beaten and robbed Jewish traveller after a priest and a Levite have both avoided him.  In fact, it is perhaps the most fervently impressed story of morality I can remember from my early years at school (and my primary school was not overly religious.)  Whether one is a Christian or not, the way the story is constructed and the point it makes would seem to be pretty much universally relevant.  On the most basic level the Samaritan is 'right' to cross the road and help the beaten Jew.  The priest and the Levite are 'wrong' to leave him.  The story is made more powerful still by the fact that one would probably expect for the Levite and the priest to have helped the Jew because of who they are, yet it is the Samaritan, who would typically have been an enemy of the Jew, who does the 'right' thing and crosses the road.   

So what does this parable tell us about morality?  Does it work? Do we agree with the point it is making? I think there are certainly a couple of ways to unpick the Samaritan story in a way that might be useful for thinking about the crisis in Libya.  Firstly, I think it is interesting to think about the emphasis on 'the road' in the parable.  Depending on the version of the story you know, either the Samaritan crosses the road to help the Jew, or it is the priest and the Levite that cross the road to avoid helping him.  Either way there is an element of distance involved.  We distance ourselves to absolve responsibility.  Or we come closer to increase our responsibility.  So would the story read the same if none of the three travellers could see the victim, and were instead told by another person on the road that there was a Jewish man beaten some miles further on?  Would we still expect these men to go and help?  And what if they were told about a beaten Jew in another country or continent - do we expect any person to go and help a complete stranger in another country?  It would seem that distance, space, time and territory have an impact on responsibility and morality, and it is perhaps this that the Libyan crisis brings into sharp perspective.  Do we help those far away from us?  Do we have the same (or even more?) responsibility for them as we do for those close to us? Or should we be concerned with our fellow citizen over our fellow human? We would help a member of our family if they were in trouble in another part of the world but would we help a stranger? Is it contradictory to help 'us' in one circumstance and not help 'them' in another?  

There is also another role that I think 'the road' plays in the Good Samaritan tale.  It represents, or perhaps with the impact of Christianity it is better to say that it has come to represent,  something of a metaphor for the way people understand the moral journey we all go on in life.  Often people say things like 'we are all travelling the road of life,' or 'life is journey and there are many choices we must make along the way.'  The Good Samaritan parable has come to illustrate this idea.  It suggests that sometimes we may make the wrong choice, we might be the priest or the Levite in some cases, but that the right thing to do is to be the Samaritan, and to do the right thing is how we ultimately stay on 'the road.'  This metaphor of the road has left a legacy in modern times, most obviously explored in Cormac McCarthy's novel by the same name.  I definitely recommend reading his book, and also watch the film if you get the chance as it is a great adaptation with excellent performances from Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  The story is very depressing but at the same time also very uplifting.  While the title of 'The Road' is most obviously representative of the physical journey the man and his son take in the story, I think it also represents the moral road they both travel on.  For instance, at the beginning of the story the man teaches the boy that they are 'good guys' and that they 'carry the fire.'  The boy asks whether they would ever eat people to stay alive (as many other people in the story have done) and the father says 'no, because we are the good guys.'  So the boy has to learn morality from his father, much in the same way as we learn morality in our youth from stories such as the Good Samaritan.  However, as the man and the boy's journey continues, they switch roles, and the boy often has to guide his father and make sure he keeps doing the right thing, making sure the man does not stray from the very path he has taught to the boy.  There journey along the road is therefore one where they must each help each other to keep doing the right thing, despite all the challenges and despair they face along the way.  

The point I think we can take from this for thinking about intervention in Libya is that it is important, even with all the challenges and problems in the world today, to still try and do the right thing, whatever that may be.  The decision of whether to intervene is therefore crucially important because it has to be the right thing to do and it has to be done for the right reasons.  I always think it interesting that former PM Tony Blair makes a similar argument to the Good Samaritan parable for intervention in Iraq.  He constantly repeated at the Iraq Inquiry that he believed intervention was the right thing to do because Saddam was an evil dictator and was oppressing his own people.  We in the West had to 'cross the road' and help the people from Saddam's tyrannical rule.  Now to a certain extent I can actually buy this as an argument for intervention; I think it is probably quite a good one.  The problem is that Blair (and Bush), whether they believe this argument themselves or not, are both full of shit because that is categorically NOT the reasons that were cited for intervention in Iraq.  At the time it was all about the threat of WMD's (that subsequently did not exist,) the perceived threat from terrorist factions in the country, and, quite obviously for most people, about the threat to Western oil supplies.  At no point was the primary reason for intervention anything other than in the name of our own Western security.  It was never primarily to help others or to stop acts we deemed to be abhorrent.  I have no doubt that Saddam was a bastard, but there are many regimes all across the world that are no better, and some are even worse.  How can we pick and choose between which ones we should stop?   

I guess I think then that Western intervention is justifiable in certain circumstances despite what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that the reasons for intervention have to be thoroughly thought-out internationally, legally and publicly.                                                         

However, a final point that strikes me in relation to Libya is that the Jew in the Good Samaritan parable does not ask for help.  We assume he is in need of help because he has been hurt and robbed.  Yet we do not know why that has happened, it is just assumed that these are bad things and someone should help the Jew.  But what about the politics of the attack on the Jew?  What if he had done something really bad and deserved to be beaten?  What if he had attacked someone who had simply overpowered him and returned the favour?  Or what if he does not want the help of the Samaritan (which may well be true because the Jews hated Samaritans)? Does this change the scenario and how we think it is right to respond to the situation?  Therefore I think we must ultimately ask the question: do the Libyan revolutionaries want Western help?  And if they do not, and they end up getting defeated by Gaddafi's forces, then would it still have been right to not help them? The picture below may seem to answer the question, but then I wonder: can they really manage it alone? And do all Libyans feel this way or is it a minority?  How could you even find that out?

Of course in this respect the real surprise of the Samaritan story is in some ways the fact that ANY of the three men go and help the Jew.  You cannot deny that many people, sometimes even good ones, often choose to ignore some of the bad things happening around them because they are so difficult to deal with.  So maybe we should just leave the Libyan's to their fate? Is this what the good person would do? I am not entirely sure, but I suppose what the international community and the Western world needs to consider is what really are the reasons for intervening, whether they can be consistent in that reasoning and apply it to other situations, and what the impact of intervention would be.  My own opinion would be to say that, if the situation continues to deteriorate in Libya and Gaddafi continues to attack and kill his own people, then some intervention is necessary and justified, even if some Libyans do not want it, because as long as their are some Libyans who do want help to remove Gaddafi then there is a strong case for doing so.  The best way to then ensure the correct reasons for intervention were being applied would then be to have full UN backing via a resolution and then an introduction of gradual measures to restrict the Libyan military i.e. a no fly zone, that would then only be ramped up to more fundamental military involvement if it was really necessary.   But I will put up a poll to see what you think...     

Monday, 28 February 2011

Torture is a Ticking Bomb

I am currently writing an essay about the use of torture during the 'war on terror' and, in particular, the ethics of the 'Ticking Bomb' (TB) scenario as a moral thought-experiment.  What follows is just some general thoughts and musings on the issue.

 For an overview of the TB scenario as an ethical dilemma look here.  Read first otherwise what I am talking about makes no sense. (Not to say it will make sense in any case but here's to hope!)  

It seems that nowadays having any kind of opinion on torture is somewhat controversial, because there are different arguments from all sorts of angles.  Some take the view that torture is never justifiable in any situation (, no matter whether millions of lives are at stake, thus firmly refuting the TB scenario as a justification for torture.  Conversely there are those who argue that certain exceptional situations exist where torture is justifiable, as in TB situations.  There are a myriad of views between these two points, but, thankfully, there seems to be few people who outright condone the general use of torture as a state practice.  However, there is still alot of debate about when torture might be justified, and how such a justifiable situation should be defined (both legally or more generally in a moral sense).

It seems a very difficult debate to take a stance on without being controversial, but it is a debate on which the very notions of liberty, justice and freedom that are so upheld in Western society begin to be called into question.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I have come across is this excerpt from a piece by Slavoj Zizek entitled 'Are We In A War? Do We Have An Enemy,' which can be found here.  I think there is one section that deserves particular note when it comes to Ticking Bomb Scenario's and I will quote from it later.

Taken as a whole, the TB moral scenario tends to lead us to a position where we must either accept that torture is justified in certain situations OR that it is still never justified even if it would allow us to save hundreds, thousands or even millions of lives; lives that we may well identify strongly with i.e. they are friends, fellow citizens, fellow humans etc.  To me, this 'choice' is a problem of the scenario itself.  Firstly, there are many  assumptions that the TB scenario makes that try to remove all sorts of political, ethical, temporal and spatial elements from the equation.  See chapter in this book for excellent overview of this point.  The TB scenario divorces practice from theory, and then reconciles them in a way that is hugely problematic and symptomatic of many 'positivist' ways of thinking about the world.  However, notwithstanding the problems of thought-experiments in this sense, there are other things that are also really problematic within the moral dilemma presented in TB scenarios.   One is the 'choice' it asks 'us,' the moral decider, to make.  A 'choice' between millions of lives on one hand and torture on the other.  The more I think of it, the more I see this choice as the main problem of the scenario as well as a dire reflection of the post-9/11 world we live in.  In fact it barely deserves to be called a choice at all.  We live in a world where this, the decision or choice to torture, has become a serious area of debate that influences policy (think Guantanamo) and moral reasoning.  Yet it seems to me that there is something hugely unethical about being asked to give an answer to the TB scenario.  How fucked is it that our world imagines that someone might one day have to make that choice, a choice between torture and saving innocent lives.  Yet this is a choice that the 'war on terror' is forcing us to think seriously about.  The U.S. tortured, at least to some extent, detainees in Guantanamo in order to save the lives of US citizens threatened by terrorist activity, or so the argument goes.  It is clear how the appearance of TB scenarios illustrates the logics going on in the 'war on terror'.  In this sense, it is the very presence of TB scenarios which is perhaps most disturbing.

I think Zizek gives a really interesting look at these issues in the article and, in relation to ticking bombs, put it perfectly when he says:

I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted with the proverbial 'prisoner who knows', whose words can save thousands, I might decide in favour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given the unavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, in the very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do we retain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done.’

It is not then just the TB scenarios assumptions that are problematic, but also the choice it forces one to make between universal principles on one hand and exceptional situations on the other.  I certainly agree with Zizek that torture should never ever be a universal principle, and that torture is wrong, but I also agree that TB situations might force me to make a decision to torture.  It is the problem of liberalism that it's own points of principle, like freedom and liberty, are brought increasingly into a moral discussion of rights vs. security that then legitimises the very negative of the things it pretends to stand up for.  So by positing an absolute right to not be tortured against condoning torture in exceptional circumstances to provide security, liberalism ends up in the moral mess of TB scenarios where I have to choose what is right between two oppositely posed wrongs, largely because they are the only options that are on offer to a liberalist morality in the 21st century.  The logic of the 'war on terror,' in a very real sense, is asking us to choose between two wrongs: to torture on the one hand or allow a terrorist act killing thousands of people on the other.  What I want to do is refute the choice it is offering me.      

This is because I think we are being forced to be absolute on the issues of torture, of rights, of war and of violence in modern society to such an extent that they become the way we relate to right and wrong i.e. in absolute terms.   (Please note I am not saying that having strong moral principles is not a good thing).  We are told acts like torture must be wrong absolutely.  But then someone comes up with the TB scenario and shows that is not always the case.  Torture must be ok then? At least sometimes? What bollocks.  What sort of a choice is it that asks if torture ok!  It is sad that we cannot have a situation in modern society where we just know that torture is wrong.

 Lets take another common liberal claim - for instance, the claim killing is wrong.  On the surface, fine.  Yet soldiers kill and we don't seem to mind so much.  We bombed Dresdan to pieces in WW2, killing thousands of German civilians, but is that ok as part of the wider war against the evil Nazis? Suddenly we have a problem with the absolute claim that killing is wrong.  So is killing ok? And what about those that aren't even given life to kill? Millions starving around the globe because of the capitalist machine that works through helping us in the West and depriving and extorting those who can barely eat.  Do they get the same access to life as me and you? When they die do we even see that as killing? Can we kill what is a non-life? Again these problems are what are hidden when thinking in absolute terms.  I do not know what questions we should be asking, but they should not be: "is torture right/wrong?" Because torture is wrong.  It should not be "is killing right/wrong?" Because killing is wrong.  We should not need to debate it.  But killing and torture are not wrong absolutely.  Nor are they right absolutely.  At least in the sense that liberalism wants.  Ethics does not work like that in my eyes, and our morality should not have to be based on these absolute 'principles' that distort and hide the realities of life rather than reveal them.  Why do people need a rationality of absolute ethics that can justify what to think about killing, torture, etc. rather than people just 'knowing' it?   We always ask the absolute questions like 'is killing wrong?' as if it is the normal question.  If killing was truly an exception to the norm then we would not have to ask the question.  To ask the question would be exceptional.  Unfortunately, the world revolves around killing, our world revolves around this very question, and any absolute answer to it is to invite more trouble.  To ask the question is to beg for an unintelligible answer, and to me this is half the reason why the world is so fucked up most of the time.  We do not need new answers to these questions all the time, we need new questions, and quickly.  

Sorry, rant over. 

Well done if you read this far.  The fact that you are reading this and I am writing it shows how difficult it is to escape the net that the torture debate leads us into.  I have been writing how the very fact we can debate torture is part of problem while simultaneously discussing the debate again, and thereby legitimating it to a certain extent.  Apologies.  Torture is wrong, and we should not need to debate it - perhaps unless we ACTUALLY WERE in a ticking bomb scenario.  But we are not, despite what America might want us to think.  And in fact, the world is far messier and complicated than any TB scenario can grasp, and rightfully so.