Sunday, April 19, 2009

torture memos, Eichmann, and irrevocable irresolution

eichmannThe Bush administration “torture memos” released last week contain the following gem of bureaucratized sadism. It’s lengthy, but definitely worth your time to read. Asked to advise the CIA on the legality of various techniques to acquire “cooperation” from captured Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee wrote:

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you also would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death. [two lines redacted here] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect's placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box. Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him severe physical pain or death. Thus, we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confinement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act.

Translation: you know that Zubaydah has a phobia about insects. It’s okay to lock him into a small, dark box and toss in an insect to crawl all over him, provided that it isn’t actually a dangerous insect, and you don’t explicitly tell him that its sting causes “death or severe pain”. This is okay because a “reasonable person” would not react too badly if his torturers locked him in a trunk with a non-lethal stinging insect.

Such is the Kafkaesque legacy of the Bush administration. This week the Obama administration willingly donned a bit of the old Bush garb, as the new president promised to shield from prosecution CIA officers who engaged in torture. In his prepared statement, Obama said:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. … We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

The idea, in part, is that the CIA torturers, people who work in very dangerous circumstances and whose ability to follow orders is crucial to national security, should not be punished for having done what they were told was their job. This is the point of a chain-of-command: the people at the top make policy, and the people further down carry it out. If CIA officers were to engage in constant second-guessing of policy, America’s intelligence capabilities would be drastically hindered, perhaps resulting in terrible things. So, while we might hold accountable those who created the torture policy, we should leave alone those who carried it out.

To keep track of things, call this the Good Faith Principle: government agents who act in good faith – who conform to a policy they’ve been told is legal – should not be punished if the policy is later found to be illegal or immoral. I endorse the Good Faith Principle, for the reasons given in the last paragraph.

But, of course, there are obvious counterexamples. Most infamously, perhaps, there is Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi bureaucrat who knowingly kept the deportation trains running on time to the concentration camps. Before being sentenced to death in Jerusalem years later, Eichmann insisted that he ought not be punished, for he had merely been “following orders”. Nearly everyone agrees that this is just not good enough; even though Eichmann did not set Holocaust policy, he executed it. He did something absolutely terrible, and he deserved punishment for it.

Call this one the Eichmann Principle: government agents who do bad things should not be later excused from punishment on the grounds that they were “just following orders”. I endorse the Eichmann Principle.

Clearly, the Good Faith Principle and the Eichmann Principle are in tension. One says that government agents may not be held culpable for following orders, while the other says precisely the opposite. And, as I’ve indicated, I endorse both principles. Am I being inconsistent?

At this point the dominant methodology of (analytic) moral philosophy says we should try to formulate some new principle, a middle point that captures the concerns animating each of the previous principles. It will presumably be very complicated, drawing a fine distinction about what sort of conduct may be excused on grounds of good faith, or just how bad an act must be before triggering Eichmann-style responses. I don’t think we should try to formulate any such compromise principle. I don’t believe there is any way to antecedently circumscribe some region of the dense, tangled moral terrain confronted by policy makers and their agents. The problem is one of irrevocable irresolution: there are good reasons behind each opposed principle, and no formulaic way to accommodate both simultaneously.

This much must be clear: there is a line, somewhere between producing one’s own version of “Fear Factor” with entomophobic mujahideen and facilitating the mass slaughter of an ethnic group. Government agents who cross that line, even in good faith, are liable to later punishment. Where is that line? I don’t know. Neither do you, Barack Obama, or various anonymous CIA torturers at black sites around the globe. This is why real-world ethics (not the sterilized academic version) is so difficult: we cannot map unexplored moral continents before we’ve set foot on their shores.

(image: NY Times / Israeli Government Press Office)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

the evo-psych of not being Larry Summers

I’ve just finished reading Robin Dunbar’s 1996 book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Dunbar is an Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, most well known for the ‘Dunbar number’: the hypothesis that the ratio of human neocortex to overall brain size predicts (successfully, it seems) stable human social groups of around 150 individuals. Although the book bears a Harvard University Press imprint, it reads at times like popular science, a bit scanty on citations and too-quick with some important arguments. Nevertheless, it’s quite fascinating to read; Dunbar attempts to explain human language (and high-level cognition) as an evolutionary solution to the problem of social friction in a species whose group size has outgrown the practical limits of bonding behavior in other primates (e.g. reciprocal grooming).

I want to riff on a few different points in the book, starting in this post with a point about gender differences in the use of language, and its relation to the status of women in intellectual professions. In chapter 9, Dunbar describes research conducted with colleagues, from which they conclude that “conversations often function as a kind of vocal lek. Leks are display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.” (176) This idea is based upon data gathered from studies of actual human conversations. In one-on-one male/female dyadic conversations, men and women talk for more or less equal periods of time. However, in conversational groups of any larger size, men tend to dominate air time. This is true even when one particular man and one particular woman break off to form a dyadic sub-conversation on the periphery of the main group; the man will tend to speak much more than he would were the pair isolated.

Dunbar and his colleagues think that the lek hypothesis can explain this difference between male/female conversational behavior in dyads and in larger groups. In lek species, males engage in competitive displays to persuade observant females of their reproductive superiority. The females are welcome to sit back and merely observe; indeed, they must do so if they want to pay attention and accurately size up the males. Dunbar and colleagues hypothesize that a similar thing happens in human conversational groups; the men (unwittingly, most of the time) are driven to speak up, to out-compete one another for the attention of the women. Such competition is unnecessary when there are no other men around, hence in isolated dyads men and women share speaking time more evenly.

One more bit of data ties this into the status of women in intellectual professions. Dunbar and colleagues analyzed not only the total quantity of speaking time, but the frequency of particular conversational content. In general, all humans of any gender tend to talk mostly about social matters; about 65% of their talk-time centers around ‘who-is-doing-what-with-whom’. (That’s one bit of critical data behind Dunbar’s central hypothesis that language evolved primarily to facilitate gossip.) Dunbar observes that in single-gender conversational groups, certain relatively intellectual topics like “work and academic matters or religion and ethics” take up only 0-5% of total conversational time. However, in mixed-gender conversational groups, the proportion of male talk-time devoted to these topics rises significantly, with much less increase in corresponding female patterns.

Dunbar offers a somewhat sketchy evolutionary hypothesis to explain that last bit. In mixed-gender groups, discussion of relatively intellectual topics increases among men because they are a way of advertising intelligence, a type of reproductive advantage. Women have no need to advertise (they are the ones who get to be choosy about mates) and so no need to out-compete each other (or men) in conversational prowess. Hence, women are less likely to increase their conversational attention to abstract subjects. (It’s important to note that all of the underlying data comes from observation of casual conversations – like those in the lunch room or hallway – not from formal contexts as in the seminar or board room, where participants gather with a specific purpose in mind.) Following on all of this, Dunbar concludes the section with the following remarks, whose relevance to his preceding points about gender difference is left unclear:

In the intellectual world of the university, demonstrating your intellectual skills by showing off your knowledge of Kant or the Romantic poets, or by being able to explain yesterday’s lecture on the second law of thermodynamics, may be quite acceptable hallmarks of competence and status. They mark you out as a cut above the rest, the obvious choice in the mating stakes. In that kind of environment, intellectual prowess is as appropriate a criterion of future status or earning power as being the best card player in a bridge club or the best musician in a music club. Knowledge, as it is so often said, is power. (177)

Given all the attention he’s just paid to the relative preponderance of intellectual topics in male conversation, and their role as a competitive advertising mechanism, is Dunbar here attempting to explain the greater success of men in intellectual, academic fields? He doesn’t say – presumably he’s smart enough not to explicitly stick his leg into that political bear trap. But it certainly sounds as if he’s suggesting as much.

Now, here’s the thing. I think we can react to this with the sort of bristly outrage that usually greets evo-psych-fueled gender difference research in feminist circles. The research is reductivist and essentializing; it provides ammunition to those who would naturalize (and implicitly justify) oppressive stereotypes. Et cetera. But I don’t think that’s the correct reaction. I actually think this sort of research should be welcomed by feminists, provided that it rests on solid methodological grounds (about which I won’t judge here).

Notice that nothing in Dunbar’s story implies or entails that men are actually better at intellectual pursuits than are women. The account just explains why men are more prone to talk about them even in informal contexts, and why men are more prone to dominate conversations regardless of topic. So it is entirely consistent with the Dunbar story that we might insist there is no (presently relevant) evidence for suspecting latent intellectual superiority in males. Instead, the account offers us two different tools for correcting gender imbalance in the intellectual professions.

First, the account provides a potential debunking explanation for gender imbalance. We needn’t invoke (as Larry Summers once did) a natural superiority among men in certain intellectual areas. Rather, we need merely presume certain sociological facts about the intellectual professions, and add these to what Dunbar and colleagues tell us. Who is most likely to get ahead? Those who speak up in front of the professional power-brokers. Who is most likely to speak up? Men. Does tendency to speak up have anything necessarily to do with actual competence? No. So we may very well understand the relative success of men in intellectual fields as an incidental consequence of behaviors that are simply arbitrary as to ability.

I would go one step even further. If Dunbar et al. are right, then all of us – men and women alike – are hardwired to expect differential linguistic behaviors between genders. We expect men to be more dominating and intellectual (even in casual conversation), and we expect women to be more quiet, or attentive only to gossipy matters. We’re generally not aware of having these expectations, still less of why we have them. But have them we do – and as with all expectations, we are unnerved when they are not met. We are biologically conditioned to react appreciatively to dominating, intellectual discursive behavior from men, and to react with at least some measure of confusion to the same from women. Hence, in addition to the success-generating basic tendencies mentioned in the last paragraph, we see another explanatory factor for relative male domination of intellectual fields: we are disposed to reward intellectual success-seeking men, and to punish similar women. Indeed, this might explain why, until very recently, nearly every human culture excluded women from political and other intellectual discussion, on grounds of propriety.

Building upon these explanatory stories, Dunbar’s account offers us a practical tool for remediating gender imbalance. Consider your academic department ‘s or workplace’s resident alpha male blowhard. He seizes control of every conversation. He clearly experiences intellectual discourse as a form of combat. Merely pointing out to him that his behavior edges out other conversational participants probably has zero effect. He cannot understand why they don’t just talk more, if they want to!

But imagine now another strategy. Show him Dunbar’s research. Explain to him that his behavior is at least partly explicable as the bidding of his lek-frenzied ape brain. Ask: does he want to be the sort of creature whose manner of participation in an abstract, rarified environment conforms better to that of a horny chimpanzee? He is a conscious, reflective being; if he wants to, he can modify the output of his evolutionary programming through a regime of attentive habituation. And with this new insight, he might also try to correct inferences he makes about the competence of others based upon their inability or unwillingness to act just like him. Is such an argument likely to work on most blowhards? No - people’s self-concepts are extremely resilient. But getting the story out might have appreciable effects upon more moderate men, and more generally on everyone in authority, whose assessments of individuals’ conversational practices matters to their advancement in the profession.

If nothing else, here’s a take-away point. Evolutionary psychology, even gender-difference evolutionary psychology, needn’t always be a vehicle for unreflective stereotype reification. We – our brains, our behaviors, or social institutions - are products of naturally selective forces. Some of the outcomes of these evolutionary processes worked perfectly well for our primate forebears, but they have come out of sync with modern, reflective, socially-conscious humans. Evolutionary psychology can sometimes allow us to trace (speculatively, at least) the causal origins of these undesirable behaviors, and so might sometimes point us to the causal-psychological joints where they may be most efficiently dismantled.

image (c) Charles Burns at

Thursday, April 9, 2009

chirp chirp chirp

After a hiatus, birdsday returns, audibly.

Take a look at You can listen to peaceful chitters and chirps whenever you want!

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