Friday, November 29, 2013

Quick note: the Alberta floods

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently published a report I authored on the Alberta Floods. You can read it here.

Takeaway: mitigation measures pay. I know it's tempting to write-off post-disaster spending as altogether extravagant (boggling recovery costs!), but the berms, dams, land-use regulations and relocations are sound investments. It's just too bad they didn't happen sooner.

Friday, September 27, 2013

On whistleblowers and recognizing goodness.

Peter Ludlow blogged about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” for the Times last week. He argued that Edward Snowden, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning’s actions were based on a moral principle greater than the institutions that employed them, one that was grounded in the individual rather than the institution.

Systemic evil is a difficult problem to solve because it challenges the connection in our minds between lawfulness and goodness, and lawlessness and badness. Though we tend to trust our governing institutions and distrust those that act against them, “there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord.” And “If legitimate authority leads in the direction of administrative evil, it will certainly not provide legitimate outlets for resistance.

In other words, we rely on individuals like Snowden et al. to break ranks and speak out when they see something wrong. Though it is an act of disobedience, it is the only thing that can plausibly keep errant organizations on track.

What struck me most about Ludlow’s post was a quote from John Bolton that so perfectly expressed the root of the confusion over judging whistleblowers:
Snowden thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than the other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.
Bolton’s idea of what goodness looks like is useless in a situation where an entire system has erred. His moral compass is not internal, but external -- calibrated to the opinions of 299,999,999 other people. 

You don’t need to condemn the NSA, the US Army or the judicial system, nor defend the latest batch of dissidents, to see how Bolton’s thinking is a problem. You only have to acknowledge that systemic evil is a possibility and that amoral institutions make poor moral benchmarks.

Ludlow turns to Hannah Arendt’s report on Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann to illustrate how deferring to institutional norms can lead one astray. Eichmann sent millions to their deaths while asking “who am I to judge?”, leading Arendt to describe him as “neither the first nor last to be ruined by modesty.” He personified the difficult-to-accept fact that the scale of the destruction caused by the Nazi State could not have been possible without the widespread cooperation of ordinary people who could have resisted but chose not to.

Much has been written about how the Nazis used propaganda to deceive, but the bureaucracy offered its own kind of deception, one I suspect was more persuasive. The bureaucracy retained order while leading in the direction of evil. This appearance of banality was essential to the unprecedented crimes committed and the party did everything they could to preserve it.

For example, in 1943 the bureaucracy sent a memo reminding their murderers that they had “no right to take a single fur, a single watch, a single mark, a single cigarette, or anything whatever,” from the people they were sending to their deaths, “so that in the end [they could] say “we have not been damaged in the innermost of our being, our soul, our character.”

These token gestures of civility within the radically evil regime helped maintain the order people wrongly associated with goodness.

However, not everyone was so deluded. There were people who resisted and acted as rescuers. Kristen Monroe’s series of interviews gives an idea of what these people were like. On the whole, they reported feeling as if they could not have acted any differently. One rescuer, Otto, said his actions were “rooted in outrage.” That he simply “got mad.” He even admitted to having a “rather high opinion" of himself.

The anger of dissidents is often lost in the way we heroize them, a well-meaning but damaging lie. Monroe’s interviews brought to mind the controversy surrounding the release of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” a biography that published some of Parks' journal entries and by doing so revealed how her story had been sanitized.

Parks had experienced systemic evil personally. Before she refused to give up her seat, she had spent two decades fighting against the laws that treated her as less than human. She encouraged others to disobey these unjust laws and hated those who enforced them. Her actions were rooted in an entirely justified anger.

Everyone loses when we edit the stories of our heroes to suit our own taste for ordered goodness. When you sanitize people and hide their arrogance, when you paint Rosa Parks as a saintly figure instead of the righteously angry individual she was, you end up with a world full of people who have no idea what goodness looks like. A bunch of Boltons who figure the majority is a sound indicator of moral rightness.

The circumstances of each of the dissidents Ludlow considers are unique. You can judge their actions but ought to admire their nerve. In the context of systemic evil, they are what goodness looks like.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thinking aloud on abortion

Richard Johnson for the National Post.
I've had this draft on my dash for *ages,* but never hit publish because it is so far from perfect. Consider this the starting point for my thinking on abortion, not the conclusion.

The National Post published this graphic on December 7th 2012 that I think is really useful (click the link in the caption for the best view). There’s something so grounding about data, isn’t there? Particularly for controversial topics. I was tempted to tape it to the wall across from my toilet to force guests to look at it.*

Presently, Canadians have unrestricted access to abortion. There are no legal limits, though as the graph illustrates, late-term abortions are rare. This is unusual, and troubling for abortion moderates who have moral qualms about late-term or sex-selective abortions.

Talking about abortion is taboo. Harper thinks bringing up the issue in parliament is “unfortunate,” parties promise to avoid the issue altogether, and pro-life student groups have to fight for funding.

Which is why I keep thinking, silently, to myself, that Canadians need to have a rational discussion about abortion -- that both sides of the debate need to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and the difficulty of the decision.

So here’s my contribution: I do not know when human life begins, and I think the ironclad certainty of the pro-life and pro-choice movements is rootless and destructive. Both sides have deluded themselves into thinking they know the Truth, and in doing so have shut down debate.

Personally, untangling my feelings surrounding the abortion issue is trying. Politically, it’s nearly impossible. I really can’t think of a good, public, universal defense of the lives of fetuses/babies until they’re like, seven years old and smarter than the average jay bird.

On one hand, women should be at liberty to do whatever they want to their own body. The baby is within them, so the mother is sovereign. Governments have a history of denying women sovereignty over themselves and this is a continuation of that history. A fetus is simply tissue that grows within a woman's body, and no one has any right to tell women how to treat their tissue.

On the other, have a look at that fetus. It looks like a baby, no? From very early on. It certainly becomes a baby -- we were all once fetuses. Looks like a baby, acts like a baby, just what exactly makes you doubt it's a baby? Particularly when the fetus is viable. Sure, it's still dependent, but have you met babies? They stay dependent for a really long time. Seems like a silly distinction. A fetus is a baby, and killing a baby is murder, so abortion is murder.

Both positions are persuasive if you accept their definition of when a person’s life begins. The problem is that drawing that line in the sand is a crap shoot.* For you, for me, for anybody.

Frankly, I can’t even decide who ought to be in charge of determining personhood. A judge seems a poor choice. A philosopher or biologist seem incomplete. Certainly not a preacher -- Canada is a diverse society, there isn't any mention of abortion in the Bible (even though in Jesus’ time infanticide was common. I like to imagine Jesus was all “woooaah not touching THAT issue people need to love me”) and the church’s position is historically inconsistent. No one expert seems to possess the authority needed to state "personhood starts here."

The good news is, impossible issue like these are what politics is all about. When life begins is, for lack of a better word, a matter of opinion.

Opinions are trivial, but can be made valid through discursive thinking, persuasive and dissuasive arguments, and ultimately the consent of the community they govern.

For example, when Jefferson declared in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...” the significance of the statement did not come from the expressed “truths,” but in the consensus between individuals: that they held it to be true.

That all men are created equal cannot be proved. It is our collective preference that it be treated as true. It is our common sense of opinion that created this laudable ideal.

By refusing to argue publicly about abortion, we deprive society of the opportunity to determine and entrench the ideals surrounding it. Regardless of your position on abortion, if you desire consensus you will first have to embrace argument.

I’m still undecided on many aspects of the abortion debate. I think it ought to be legal, but I can see the value in limitations.  At the same time, I know personally I could never choose abortion.

I’m also certain that abortion is an emotional, intensely personal yet necessarily political issue that deserves a sensitive and caring approach. So please, please stop acting like the other side is stupid or evil. If Canadians think abortion is important enough to protect or forbid, Canadians need to feel confident enough to talk about it.

* Stop by sometime, I am an excellent host.
* “Mixed metaphors lighten the mood!” I thought to myself.