July 2009
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Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


Kant and wastebaskets

            Most of the philosophy I’ve read is real “jello creature” stuff. Kant’s categorical imperative, by contrast, is a practical guideline which really works.

            As for the jello creatures, I could have said “castles in the air” and not needed to explain myself. But that’s such a trite expression that I’d rather use my own and then explain it.

            As a child, I imagined that an intelligent race may have existed on this planet millions of years before the dinosaurs. However, it had the consistency of jello, as did the structures and the technology it built, and left no trace whatever of its existence in the fossil record or anything which could be found in an archaeological dig. You could spend hours, even a lifetime, working out the history, accomplishments and setbacks of the jello people, but you could never link it up to anything real.

            That’s how I feel about Plato’s archetypes and Spinoza’s God. But Kant’s little thought experiment is different.

            He said that, before taking any action, we should think about the consequences if everyone acted the same way. If the results would be beneficial or neutral, the action is acceptable. But if everyone acting the same way would have destructive consequences, we should refrain from the action. In the latter case, the action would be selfish, and made in reliance on very few other people following our example.

            A commonly given example involves the New York subway. You are tempted to jump the turnstile rather than pay for your fare. But if everyone jumped the turnstile every day, the subway could no longer exist, as there would be no money to pay for its operation. (This is an oversimplification, obviously, because public transportation tends to run at a loss and be subsidized by taxes.) If you jump the turnstile, you are therefore a “free rider” relying on everyone else to pay for the system you yourself depend on.

            This simple rule helps with almost every moral decision. (I say “almost” because I am careful, but I haven’t yet seen an example of a decision on which the categorical imperative shed no light.)

            In the condo where I am staying in Sanibel Island, Florida, we are expected to carry our own trash to a large bin out by the front entrance. Until recently, there was a small wastebasket fixed to the wall near the parking spaces, about two hundred feet closer than the large bin.

            The unwritten rule for using the small basket was to deposit in it only small and incidental items, and not your household trash. Yet every Sunday night, as I came back home with a handful of small garbage from the car—a soda can or sandwich wrapper—the basket was stuffed with large household bags. Small items which people had tried to cram in on top of the large ones had fallen out onto the floor.

            The development’s handyman put up a sign pleading with people to obey the common sense rules and carry their household trash to the bin. They didn’t. A few weeks later, he pulled the trash basket out and now we have none. A splendid example of the categorical imperative, where a few selfish free riders caused the end of a benefit.

What North Korea means to me

            It is an understatement to say we are ruled by technological determinism. We are ridden by it the way a voodoo god rides a mortal. We are riddled by it.

            Technological determinism is the idea that any possible technology will be, and therefore should be, exploited, regardless of morality. People who argue that humans should ever refrain from developing a new technology are regarded as idiots or simple-minded idealists. After all, if we don’t develop it, someone else will, and use it to destroy us or at least to compete with us.

            Nuclear weapons tests by North Korea, a pathological state if there ever was one, raise the question of exactly what we let into the world when we developed the first nuclear weapon. North Korea proves that quite outlandish or crazy people can develop nuclear capability.  Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mahmood believes that nuclear weapons belong to the entire Umma, the Islamic world, will hasten the end of days predicted in the Quran, and that djinns, the fire beings also described in that holy book, are a potential powerful energy source. His colleague, Abdul Qadeer Khan, assisted North Korea and other states, rogue and otherwise, with nuclear knowledge and materials.

            We are very far from the mutual deterrence concept of the 1960’s, where people of quite antithetical beliefs, us and the Soviets, had one thing in common: a rational desire not to be immolated. Today, nuclear weapons are almost in the hands of people who want to die and take millions of others with them—or may already be. Soon after 9/11, I saw a think-tank report that Bin Laden had purchased scores of the suitcase nukes known to be missing after the fall of the Soviet Union—but lacked the codes necessary to detonate them.

            Waiting for a terrorist to detonate a nuclear weapon someplace is similar to watching a waiter’s race, as I did one day in Washington DC thirty years ago. A dozen waiters walked briskly down the sidewalk, each carrying a platter with a glass of wine filled to the brim. In order to win, a waiter had to avoid spilling a single drop. Now imagine a race that must continue for decades and centuries, where every day, more waiters join with more glasses of wine.  What are the odds that no waiter will ever spill a drop?

            This sheds a whole new light on technological determinism. Instead of the arrogant but essentially progress-oriented statement, “Technology will be, so don’t attempt to prevent it,” we could substitute the following, with the same assurance: “The human race will certainly immolate itself, so don’t attempt to prevent it.”

            Can anyone still argue that the presence of nuclear weapons in the world has done more good than evil? Will we continue making that argument after new cities are added to the list that today consists of only Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It is ironic that we are still considering spending billions for air and space defenses when the next nuke that destroys a city will be delivered in a cargo container or the back of a van.

            Technology has already grown so powerful that a single human (the President of the United States, or of Russia) can decide in effect to destroy the planet. Technology has assumed such awesome power that it warps even religious belief. My favorite hypothetical in any discussion of the doctrine of free will is: if one person can destroy everything in creation, why would God  have structured the universe so that the one individual’s desire to end everything trumps everyone else’s desire to live? Or God’s desire to witness the continuation of His creation?

            Human survival will certainly depend on our ability to renounce nuclear weapons technology. Easy to say, hard to imagine how it could ever be done, humans being what they are. We tilt towards death; what would it take to reverse that tilt?

Pleading guilty to death

            The single most morally deplorable decision the Obama administration could make, would be to allow Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 conspirators to plead guilty in the military commission system and receive the death penalty.

            The four men have announced that they would like to be martyrs. The U.S. motive in allowing them to plead would be to avoid the disclosure of the details of water-boarding and the other torture which was applied to them.

            Forget 9/11, terrorism, politics. Nobody should ever be sentenced to death based on a plea without a trial taking place on the penalty at least. Innocent people plead guilty with some frequency out of pathology, suicidal wishes, or because they would rather die than spend the ensuing years in the legal process or prison. In this case, we are giving  way to a desire for martyrdom for the most selfish and dishonest reason possible, to conceal our own misdeeds.

            Churchill was opposed to the proposed Nuremberg trials, which applied ex post facto laws to the mass murders which of course had been perfectly legal under German law when done.  He said in all seriousness that the Nazi leadership should just be put against a wall and shot, not subjected to legal farces. Allowing these would be martyrs to plead guilty, and then sentencing them to death, is the moral equivalent of a firing squad without due process.

Censorware in China

            Everyone is fussing about the newly announced Chinese requirement that all computers sold in China have pre-installed “Green Dam” filtering software created by the government. Sanctimonious American commentators are intoning about the impact on free speech.

            What nobody seems to remember is that our own Congress mandated in the '90's that all computers in public libraries receiving federal aid also have censorware installed. This mandate was affirmed by the Supreme Court in one of the most careless decisions ever written. The fact that numerous First Amendment-protected political sites (including The Ethical Spectacle) were blocked by these products didn't impress the Supremes, who apparently felt that the sacrifice of these benign or beneficial sites was the price we pay to block a certain amount of porn (certainly not all of it).

            “Wait a second! How can you compare American anti-porn products  with nefarious Red Chinese software designed to block discussions of Tienamen or democracy?!!”  In an episode so amusing I  could have invented it myself (but didn't), the publisher of “Cybersitter”, one of the most nefarious and politicized of the U.S. censorware products, is accusing the Chinese government of stealing its blacklist and including it in Green Dam.


            Iran is a very strange mixture of fundamentalism and of highly educated middle class people who know better. This is a dilemma shared by every authoritarian country which educates its young people and allows them to enjoy a middle class lifestyle. We saw it in the Soviet Union, and in China at the time of Tienamen and again now.

            Iran after the shah was based on a rugged if limited democracy which involved real campaigns, with full blown rhetoric, unexpected overturns and swings between fundamentalism and liberalism, all tolerated by the mullahs who run things. Now Ahminejad and his backers (he seems essentially to be a vocal puppet) have made the democracy-ending decision not to tolerate any more upsets or swings to liberalism. One reasonable-sounding analysis of what is happening is that we are seeing a shift, in background, away from the mullahs and towards what will essentially be a military dictatorship of the Revolutionary Guard.

            My heart has always been with young people taking to the streets for democracy and against autocratic rulers. Watching them being beaten and killed is heartbreaking and I hope it doesn’t get worse. However, the background to Iran’s plight as to all oppressive governments is quite simple. No matter how brutal, no matter how many men under arms it has and the size of the weapons they carry, every government and army is outnumbered by the people governed. Therefore, every government exists by the tolerance of the people it rules—even those of Stalin and  Hitler.  If enough people stand up and say, “This is over” then it is always over. Autocratic governments surf on complacency even more than they do fear.


            The Supreme Court just handed down a radically wrong decision on the hiring of firefighters in   New Haven. It is one of those  masterpieces of conservative spin which seems logical if you keep a tight focus on a few facts but which utterly fails when you pull back to see the full picture.

            The city threw out a test which white firefighters passed in much higher numbers than blacks. The Supreme Court now calls this an act of discrimination against white firefighters.

            This goes to the moral heart of affirmative action. I have been on both sides of this issue myself. A classmate of mine at Harvard Law School was a Latino guy who, in a vain, boundaryless conversation in which we all told each other our LSAT scores, told us his. He had scored almost 200 points lower on the LSAT than anyone else in the room. After that we didn’t respect him, but looked at him as an artifact of government policy in our midst.

            On the other hand, Sonia Sotomayor has announced that she too was a beneficiary of affirmative action, with lower scores. Her subsequent career as an intelligent, careful and fair judge has completely validated her admission to Yale. It would be impossible to say that people with higher LSAT scores have been better judges.

            When you pull the camera back to look at the wider picture, you understand the reason why minorities sometimes score worse on tests than Caucasians. I am prepared to admit there is a cultural bias in the way test questions are drafted, but you don’t have to go that far. More minorities than whites come from a hard scrabble economically difficult background, where there are more problems and interruptions and less money and resources needed to create the stability necessary to study. Schools are worse, teachers are worse, and in certain neighborhoods the people become stuck in a generation-to-generation spiral in which there aren’t even any role models to illustrate the benefits of education. When an inherently smart child is poised for a break out, she still is held back by a lack of grounding and preparation. Just as you  can’t ace the LSATs iuf you haven’t had enough nutrition and sleep in your life, you also can’t if your teachers didn’t bother to teach, your parents moved and you changed schools all the time, there was gunfire in the schools you attended, and nobody responsible for you who was able to create the environment you needed to study.

            In 1995 in the Galapagos, in the month I wrote the first issue of the Spectacle,   I met an American woman who was on the board of an exclusive Western girls’ school. “We admit the best and brightest Native American girls from the local reservation,” she complained, “but they always drop out within a year.” The answer was obvious to me: It was impossible to see how anyone who had attended a reservation school her whole life would be even slightly prepared to cope with the vanity, complacency, and meanness of a ritzy Caucasian girls’ school.

            It is intuitively obvious to me, based on life experience, that there is no  difference in intelligence between races. I have met African and African American people who were much smarter than me, including software developers who worked for me, two of whom had degrees in quantum physics, a discipline I cannot even begin to fathom.  The only real differences which exist are economic and class differences which easily get masked as racial. Those differences in opportunity and preparation  between Caucasians and African Americans in particular have their roots in slavery, the effects of which have not nearly yet been erased from the United States. Freedom in 1865 with continuing oppression, lynching, the northward migration which led to a concentration in northern ghettoes with limited educational and work opportunity, the continuing exclusion for many generations from white universities of the Ivy League and elsewhere—the through line from slavery to the present is obvious if you let yourself see it.

            Finally, the court should have looked at the tradition of firehouses as an exclusively white (Irish and Italian) enclave even in cities with a huge African American population, like New York. When I was an EMT, the firefighters fought like bastards to make sure the ethnically integrated, largely black EMS service, which had merged with the Fire Department, was not based in their almost all-white houses. In a place like New York City, where decades of court decisions requiring inclusion of minorities and women in the fire service have largely been ignored, the FDNY is the last great successful bastion of racial and gender exclusion.

            Ironically, fire fighting is really analogous to football as a discipline. You need a few guys who can decide tactics and give orders, and a lot of people who can follow those orders and knock down walls with their heads. Almost by definition, complex tests which are passed mainly by white people, administered in a culture which has fought so furiously to remain white, are suspicious. If football was run that way, the teams would have also remained all skinny white guys, and most of the great players of the last forty years would have been excluded. But what football fan believes that written testing is the right way to determine who can play?

            Many cities have changed over from written testing to job skills evaluation where they watch candidates function in real time situations. This is a much better way to determine who can be a firefighter. I hope these places, living real life, on the ground, with real neighbors and community considerations, will ignore the Supreme Court’s invitation to turn the clock back to an earlier age of racism.