Joho the Blog » morality

November 8, 2015

"Bridge of Spies" and Spielberg's American heroes

Bridge of Spies” continues Steven Spielberg‘s conscious (?) attempt to refashion what it means to be an American hero. It’s impeccably made, beautifully acted, and a compelling story. It’s more muted than Spielberg at his most exuberant (Jurassic Park, Jaws, Tintin), but it was a good night out at the movies.

And once again it’s Spielberg giving us the counterpoint to the cartoon heroism of Indiana Jones. It’s Spielberg being Frank Capra (e.g., Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Tom Hanks being Jimmy Stewart — both with a defining ambiguity. As in Schindler’s List, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and Lincoln, to be moral is to be morally conflicted, which for Spielberg is a big step up from being right. As in Amistad and Lincoln, to be an American hero is to take the Constitutional promise of equality under the law as what binds us into a nation, and then to be conflicted about its application. In particular, it is to worry about the conflict between the rule of law that one has accepted as constitutive of the nation and the exceptional worth of every individual. It is the exact opposite of Indy facing the crazy swordmaster, shrugging his shoulders, and shooting him from a distance, and walking away. Tom Hanks never shrugs his shoulders in a Spielberg movie.



By the way, when it says at the beginning that it’s based on true events (truthy spoilers here), it’s not some wild fictionalization. All the major elements are true. Knowing that makes the movie more interesting.

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September 15, 2015

Against hard cases

I was talking with someone the other day who who was telling me about her response to the “trolley” problem that professors in a surprising number of different fields like to pose. (It was first posed by the philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967.) In essence: you’re standing next to a switch. A trolley is barreling down the tracks. Weirdly, there are five people tied up at the end of the tracks. You can pull the switch to put the trolley onto a new track but — what a coincidence! — there’s a man on that track also. What do you do?

This woman said she’d throw herself in front of the trolley. Creative and noble, but …

…Even assuming that that would stop the trolley and that it wouldn’t overturn the trolley which happens to be full of the most adorable babies who would all have grown up to be Nobel Prize winners , it only affects decisions if morality is the adherence to principles or is the outcome of personal virtues, or some such. Whether you or the solitary man on the track dies is of no interest to the utilitarian calculus, unless you throw in some more information, such as you are a reprobate who only has two weeks to live anyway, and the man on the tracks is an adorable baby whom we know will grow up to be the greatest Nobel Prize winner of them all.

But the real problem is that the woman I was speaking with violated the Rule of Hypotheticals: The person who makes the hypothetical gets to define the hypothetical.

Hypotheticals in moral reasoning often are intended to confound us. The trolley case challenges our intuition: Of course the rational action would be to sacrifice the one for the many, but if we vividly put ourselves in the position of the person at the switch, we may find it hard to imagine ourselves taking an action that we know will kill someone. Variations of this try to make it even harder for us to imagine ourselves taking that step: Suppose we could push someone in front of the trolley to save the many? Suppose the person we pushed were young and healthy, in a wheel chair, fat? (Fat? Yup, the person has to have sufficient mass to stop the trolley, but, really, the Hypothesizer could just have specified that even a thin person would stop this particular trolley and avoided any implication that the weight of the person has something to do with her/his value.)

So, we construct hypotheticals, making them as weird as we need, in order to show that a moral principle or guideline is unreliable. In the classic case, we first convince our students that utilitarianism makes sense. Then we give them a hypothetical in which it’s pretty clear that utilitarianism leads to an unjust outcome. The canonical example is a sheriff who hangs an innocent man because it’s the only way to reassure a terrified town that a killer has been caught; the sherif knows the real killer drowned but can’t prove it for some unlikely hypothetical reason. (And thus was rule utilitarianism born.)

I am very sympathetic to the idea that moral reasoning is premised on moral empathy: to be moral requires recognizing that we share a world with people to whom that world matters differently but equality. But I have problems with morality-by-extreme-hypothesis.

These hypotheses are extreme on purpose. They want to clarify our thinking, so they remove all extraneous context and they remove every possible escape from the dilemma. For example, we’re asked to imagine that a terrorist has planted a dirty bomb in NYC and the only way to get the information out of him (inevitably a him because that’s more “neutral”) is to torture him. “But how do we know that he has the information?” “A reliable informant.” “How do we know the informant’s reliable?” ” That’s part of the hypothetical.” Oooookay, but life doesn’t work that way.

Because hypotheticals are usually weird — if they weren’t we would’t need them — it’s hard to know that we can trust our reactions to them, and it’s hard to know if the right action in that case generalizes to all cases.

I suppose these hypotheses can disprove that any particular moral theory is sufficient for all cases. But once we give up on that idea, the question becomes: What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right theory — or theories — to apply in this non-hypothetical case?

Ultimately, I believe that as sentient creatures we have the obligation to do right, but there isn’t a right thing to do. Why would we think that there is? The people affected, and even those who merely observe, are right to carry on their arguments and to make their positions and their plights clear. We should and will never stop. But there can be no resolution because every aspect of our existence as individuals and as groups is in play and has its own interests. So we do the best we can. But the notion that there is a single right answer to any sufficiently complex moral question strikes me as wishful thinking. There is no single action that is all right because the world is not the same to any one of us.

That’s the real problem I have with these sorts of hypotheticals. Their virtue is clarity and simplicity, which means they miss the essential reality of our lives as moral creatures.

So, my answer to the trolley question is: Pull the switch. Sacrifice the one for the many. Then grieve for the rest of your life because its never enough just to be right.

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July 20, 2013

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.

[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)


June 27, 2013

Relevant differences unresolved

After yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions, I’m just so happy about the progress we’re making.

It seems like progress to me because of the narrative line I have for the stretch of history I happen to have lived through since my birth in 1950: We keep widening the circle of sympathy, acceptance, and rights so that our social systems more closely approximate the truly relevant distinctions among us. I’ve seen the default position on the rights of African Americans switch, then the default position on the rights of women, and now the default position on sexual “preferences.” I of course know that none of these social changes is complete, but to base a judgment on race, gender, or sexuality now requires special arguments, whereas sixty years ago, those factors were assumed to be obviously relevant to virtually all of life.

According to this narrative, it’s instructive to remember that the Supreme Court overruled state laws banning racial intermarriage only in 1967. That’s amazing to me. When I was 17, outlawing “miscegeny” seemed to some segment of the population to be not just reasonable but required. It was still a debatable issue. Holy cow! How can you remember that and not think that we’re going to struggle to explain to the next generation that in 2013 there were people who actually thought banning same sex marriage was not just defensible but required?

So, I imagine a conversation (and, yes, I know I’m making it up) with someone angry about yesterday’s decisions. Arguing over which differences are relevant is often a productive way to proceed. You say that women’s upper body strength is less than men’s, so women shouldn’t be firefighters, but we can agree that if a woman can pass the strength tests, then she should be hired. Or maybe we argue about how important upper body strength is for that particular role. You say that women are too timid, and I say that we can find that out by hiring some, but at least we agree that firefighters need to be courageous. A lot of our moral arguments about social issues are like that. They are about what are the relevant differences.

But in this case it’s really really hard. I say that gender is irrelevant to love, and all that matters to a marriage is love. You say same sex marriage is unnatural, that it’s forbidden by God, and that lust is a temptation to be resisted no matter what its object. Behind these ideas (at least in this reconstruction of an imaginary argument) is an assumption that physical differences created by God must entail different potentials which in turn entail different moral obligations. Why else would God have created those physical distinctions? The relevance of the distinctions are etched in stone. Thus the argument over relevant differences can’t get anywhere. We don’t even agree about the characteristics of the role (e.g., upper body strength and courage count for firefighters) so that we can then discuss what differences are relevant to those characteristics. We don’t have enough agreement to be able to disagree fruitfully.

I therefore feel bad for those who see yesterday’s rulings as one more step toward a permissive, depraved society. I wish I could explain why my joy feels based on acceptance, not permissiveness, and not on depravity but on love.

By the way, my spellchecker flags “miscegeny” as a misspelled word, a real sign of progress.

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July 8, 2012

Louis C.K. and the Decent Net, or How Louis won the Internet

(This is the lead article in the new issue of my free and highly intermittent newsletter, JOHO. Also in it, a Higgs-Bogus Contest on particles that would explain mysteries of the Internet.)


Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he’s made over $6 million in ticket sales.

But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.

There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.


Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.

We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.

It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.

But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.


I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.

We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.

And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…

This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.

Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.

Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)

And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.

So, here’s why I think this is relevant.

The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?

That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.

Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.


April 25, 2010

Games, art, morality, themes, and mechanics

I don’t know why I’m being sent issues of Game Developer magazine, but I’m vastly enjoying them. It’s fun seeing how people so deeply embedded in their craft talk amongst themselves, eve3n though much of it is over my head.

It’s not all tech talk, though. There are thoughtful reflections on the meaning and role of games. For example, in the March issue, Soren Johnson has part 2 of an essay that argues that “a game’s meaning springs from its rules, and not necessarily from its theme.” In fact, he says, the two can be in conflict, which is not a good thing. So, Left4Dead’s theme is zombie survival, but it’s actually about cooperation. Grand Theft Auto’s theme is “crime and urban chaos, but the game is actually about freedom and consequence.” (The magazine charges for online access, but you can read a report of Soren’s talk on this topic here.)

In the same issue, there’s an editorial by Brandon Sheffield called “Making Decisions Matter in Morality-Oriented Games.” (You can read it here.) After observing that in Bioshock, although you make a moral choice about harvesting or helping “little sisters,” the choice turns out to have very little effect on the game. But, he also writes:

I believe if one is going to present choices or issues in games as ethical, those choices have to matter in the game world. But I get antsy when games present me with choices that clearly open one door while closing another, as I want to see all of the game’s content, since I’m unlikely to go through it multiple times.

Well, you can’t have your little sisters and eat them, too. If the moral choice is going to affect the game, then you necessarily won’t see all the game’s content.

This is more of a problem with games that are pathways through a narrative. In an open-ended online multiplayer game like Left4Dead, moral choices affect games constantly, and in far more complex ways. For example, on the normal difficulty setting, friendly fire incidents don’t hurt your teammates too much, but on advanced, you can pretty easily kill a teammate by accident if your aim isn’t good. (Um, not that I’ve ever done so.) If you kill your teammates on purpose, you’ll get kicked out of the game; that’s not a choice within the rules so much as an infraction of the rules. But, even if you’re trying to be a good teammate, you will have to decide whether it’s worth the risk of hurting a teammate in order to rescue another teammate under attack next to her/him. Likewise, you’ll have to decide whether to risk your own health by going back for a teammate under attack. These are not the sorts of examples we normally give when talking about moral questions, but they are quite like the moral questions we generally have to face in the world — balancing risk, skill, and probability while trying to accomplish an aim we are convinced is right. That is, they are instrumental moral questions, not questions of ends. Moral questions are unavoidable in multiplayer games because multiplayer games are by definition social, and all social interactions have a moral dimension.


February 5, 2010

[ahole] Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, Web exceptionalism

In the spirit of my Be A Bigger A-hole Resolution, here’s a video of my talk at Reboot this summer. It leads to “Is the Web moral” segment, based on a talk I gave at the Drupalcon a few months before.

In it, I claim to be a cyberutopian (gosh the Web is wonderful) and a Web exceptionalist (the Web is way different from what came before), but not a technodeterminist (the exceptional goodness of the Web won’t happen by itself.)

[Later that day:] Ok, fine, if I’m going to stay true to my Resolution: I’m going to be on today at 4pm EST, talking mainly about cluetrainy marketing stuff, I think, although I hope we also touch on some other stuff as well. (I think I’m going to start prefacing the titles of this a-holic posts appropriately.)


October 30, 2009

Argument by analogy

A judge has ruled that email is not protected under the Fourth Amendment. This sounds wrong to me (although I am very much not a lawyer), but what I really enjoy are the many many arguments by analogy as slashdotters try to figure out what email is like, so we can see what privacy expectations to port over from the familiar world of telephones, Fedex trucks, and glass-bottom boats.

I’m not saying there’s a better way to figure this out. I just enjoy watching us flounder our way through ethical dilemmas.

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July 26, 2008

Hyperlinked Society book now online

The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age, edited by Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, is now available in full online. It’s an anthology of essays about hyperlinks and society by a great collection of folks. (And then there’s my contribution, which argues that the Internet is good — what a surprise! — because the hyperlinked architecture of the Web mirrors the architecture of morality itself.)

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May 27, 2008

Moral games

Gene Koo sets up the problem: We are wired to react morally to the people we see, but we have trouble extending that to people at a distance. Yet, we have to broaden our moral embrace if we are to make it through another century. So, Gene wonders whether games might help:

Computer games offer at least two possible responses to our collective human predicament. First, they can open players’ eyes to the moral implications of systems by experimenting with them and witnessing the results. Games might offer moments of reflection and of epiphany, connecting personal morality with systemic awareness. A player might see how tweaking health care policies affects a family’s lives, or how environmental regulation could shape the destiny of a polar bear. Games might lead people to begin to see a soul within the machine.

And perhaps systems might begin to learn lessons from game design. Why must the computer systems that exercise more and more control over our daily lives be morally inert? If computer games — mere software — can lead players to weep, perhaps the mechanization of our world needn’t be soulless…

Gene’s not saying that games will save us. He’s suggesting that morally designed games might help.

So, before you point to all the games that seem to abrade our conscience — Grand Theft Auto, just about every first person shooter ever made, even PacMan if you look at it from the point of view of the dots — you might want to note that The Sims has sold 100 million copies.

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