Monday, September 14, 2009

On Scott Atran's "Religion, suicide, terrorism, and the moral foundation of the world"

If the Defense Department had its act together and its priorities straight it would find a way to put Scott Atran on the payroll.  I do not know what he thinks of the US or the current administration, but he seems to have a good handle on the latest and greatest research about suicide terrorism.  In his "Religion, Suicide, Terrorism, and the Moral Foundation of the World" (in Vilarroya and Argimon (eds.) <i>Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition</i>) he has an interesting discussion of the socio-biology of suicide terrorism.  

Atran begins by noting that religion survives because it is beneficial.  Supernatural agents contribute to that by assuring cooperative trust and trustworthiness of followers.  In general, we thus find that the more one is committed to the religion the more he is trusted.  

As yet, neuroscience does not really have a grasp on normal religious behavior.  Apparently even suicide bombers have no discernible psychopathology or socio-economic disadvantages as a group.  They do tend to have a rather acute sense of the grievances and needs of their own group.  

However, the root causes of suicide terrorism have been very misunderstood in the west.  Political leaders often construe suicide terrorism as the work of depraved individuals or as the product of an unfortunate social or economic situation.  But neither seems to be the case.  Organizational factors play a large role in explaining terror networks and their appeal.  Most Muslims who support suicide terrorism and bin Laden favor elected government, personal liberty, economic choice and educational opportunities.  Their support of terrorism generally correlates with the US support of weak or failed corrupt states.  And finally, the fact that in places where suicide terrorism thrives the societies tend to be more communal and less individualistic.  

A possible connection between suicide terrorism and religion might involve the role that ethnic religious groups play.  Religious groups which can take over important social functions when the expected opportunities that the youth have for for their future are not met, can find recruits willing to make extraordinary altruistic sacrifices for the welfare of future generations.  

Also, we must note the key role of the organization in suicide terror.  Suicide terrorism is almost never perpetrated by a lone terrorist.  And, although an individual commits a suicide bombing, it is not an individual choice.  

If we want to figure out a way to stop suicide terrorism, Atran seems to be the man to talk to.  Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and intelligence collectors have amassed a lot of data about suicide terrorism.  Scientists are starting to understand the reasons and socio-cultural mechanisms by which individuals are recruited, trained, and turned from ordinary people to suicide terrorists who transcend their genetic programming and kill themselves. His work merits further study if this phenomena is to be stopped.  

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dando on the moral responsibility of scientists

Malcolm Dando has an Opinion piece in the 20 August 2009 issue of Nature ("Biologists napping while work militarized") arguing that new biological non-lethal weapons are being developed and the developers are not addressing the ethical issues that they generate. He opines that that "all use of novel non-lethal agents such as fentanyl for law enforcement should be prohibited, or at least heavily restricted." We must do this lest we head down a slippery slope toward the militarization of biology, including the intentional manipulation of peoples' emotions, memories, immune responses, or fertility. (More on fentanyl shortly.)

Let us ignore the fact that this argument, by its own admission, is a slippery slope argument, and see to the main points of the piece. First, and this is rapidly becoming a pet peeve of mine, it seems like there is a rapidly growing consensus that unlike the rest of philosophy, the last place you want to look for military ethics is the military. The article's main point, or one of them at least, is that "the lack of engagement with [the issue of the development of non-lethal weapons] among life scientists is alarming." The assumption Dando makes, as best I can tell, is that scientists have a particularly special moral obligation to be introspective about the uses to which their creations can be put. Moreover, they have some particular insight about how to address these ethical problems. Without this assumption, this is a general ethical problem that ought to be solved the same way society solves all its other ethical problems, and the scientists' job is superfluous.

If his assumption is correct however, then one can just as easily draw the conclusion that those with the most insight into this topic (i.e., the scientists) simply don't see the issue as worth engaging, and perhaps the mere fact that they are developing these weapons reflects the fact that they have no moral qualms about it, and Dando is in the minority in seeing a moral problem. After all, the scientists are not working on new ways to randomly torture people; because if they were and not engaging that, then we would be able to say that they are being morally negligent. But Dando assumes that they are morally able and responsible enough to engage a moral issue as they create them. Yet they do not.

I am also curious to know if Dando finds it alarming that the average designer of conventional weapons is not engaged with the moral issues facing the ways their products may be used or misused. If he does not, why the disparity between conventional and non-conventional weapons? Have all the ethical issues about conventional weapons been solved? Does he not trust the engineers who make conventional weapons? If so, why not trust them to be moral experts?

Finally, the piece does not do a particularly good job of giving us any reasons or arguments for why these new weapons are bad (beside for the possible slippery slope mentioned above). The slippery slope that the militarization of biology is said to be sliding own sounds like an urban rumor (with particularly nasty origins) that circulates from time to time: The US is poisoning the wells or putting something in the water to make our villagers impotent or sick, etc.

Dando does take a paragraph to refute the idea that advocates of the argument put forth - to wit that these weapons are often used to minimize the amount of people being killed. He refutes it by claiming that "historical evidence suggests otherwise". What historical evidence? In the Nort-Ort seige where the Russians used fentanyl to sedate Chechen terrorists who held about 800 hostages in a Moscow theater, the terrorists were ultimately shot dead instead of arrested. Second, when the US used CS "tear gas" to flush the Viet Cong out of their hiding places, they generally did so to increase the effectiveness of their conventional weapons, thus increasing the body count, not decreasing it.

But first, the chemicals in the examples (CS gas and fentanyl) are a) hardly similar to the biological agents he claims are now being developed; b) in the case of fentanyl, not particularly good, as the gas killed over 100 hostages in the process. Thus this is an argument for better non-lethal weapons and better training on how to use them. c) A primary goal of any law enforcement or military agency is to minimize loss of life of your own people, not the enemy. And finally, the better your weapons are, even the non-lethal ones, the stronger the disincentive to fight against you. In the long run that should save lives. Minimizing the loss of life is a long-term goal, not one that is measured by a few incidents describing where people were killed. We also have no reason to assume that more lives were lost using these approaches than the alternative. A post-hoc utilitarian analysis requires a discussion of the counterfactual case where we examine what happened versus what the alternative was. We are given no such thing in the article, and there is no prima facie reason to believe that the fewer people would have been saved by a conventional rescue of the Nord-Ost Theater. Thirty Nine of the forty to fifty Chechen terrorists were killed. Without the fentanyl (if that is what it really was) how many hostages could the terrorists have killed? 300? 400? More? Without the CS gas, would the VC have killed more US troops? Would we have resorted to other more deadly tactics? Did the US get more prisoners using CS gas that generated useful life-saving intelligence than we would not have had otherwise? These must be considered in any ethical analysis.

In general, scientists should be giving us options, politicians make the decisions, hopefully with the consent of the peoples they govern, and it is the job of intellectuals to inform the discussion. Scientists like Feynman and Oppenheimer all said after they created the first atomic bomb that they were involved int he project because of the technical challenge and only later did they consider the ethical repercussions of their actions. However, their discussions of the reasons behind their backpedaling are generally woefully inadequate as compared to the magnitude of the weapons they created. And this is fine. Scientists are entitled to their conscience and their opinions. But like any public intellectual, they have a responsibility to give us reasons and justification, not just their remorse couched as a philosophical treatise.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review of Kelsay's Arguing the Just War in Islam

John Kelsay's Arguing the Just War in Islam is a very interesting introduction to the contemporary thought about just war within Islam.  The book begins with a particulary good background to the history and sources of Islam.  It does not give a comprehensive history or theology, but rather explains the Muslim drive for Sharia law in the context of the origins of Islam.  Kelsay discusses sharia reasoning and outlines of some of the history and disputes in different strains of Islamic legal and political thought.  

The next part of the book continues with the some central questions about who muslims may wage war against, when is violence called for?, Is a legitimate authority needed?,  Are there standards to determining "just peace" in Islam as there are in Western just war theory?,  Who is protected and how long do they stay that way?,  Is there a requirement and standard of proportionality?, and how is booty divided?  Especially discussed is the tradition from al-Shaybani, al-Mawardi, al-Sulami, and ibn Taymmiyya.  

Next the book addresses, in historical terms, what circumstances justify revolution, and what justifications exist for  the vatious struggles against, e.g., America, Israel, . . . There is an overview of some instructive contemporary texts calling for armed resistance, especially against the West, such as The World Islamic Front's Declaration on Armed Struggle against Jews and Crusaders, Muhammed al-Faraj's The neglected Duty, the Hamas Charter, and bin Laden's Epistle.  Each is held to scrutiny in light of sharia reasining to see whether they are consistant with Islamic precedent and legal standards.  Most importantly for Kelsay, he explores how they extend the tradition of sharia reasoning about just war.  

The book then explores the quesion about who has the right to wage war on behalf of Islam.  What is the true Islamic political order. Who represents the real Islam and what are the contemporary internal debates concerning the democratization of Islam.  

Finally, the book concludes by showing that some of the more recent pronouncements to come from Islam, from Ahmadenijad in Particular, are attempts to spotlight the worst aspects of democracy in an attempt to convince a muslim audience that an Islamic order is more consistant.  Kelsay is quick to point out that this does not mean that they have the better argument, but they are making a point that will resonate with Muslims and perhaps hurt the cause of reformist Muslims.  

Kelsay's book describes how Islamist groups whose goals are to voilently establish an Islamic order justify their goals end up being taken seriously in Islamic religious circles.  The history of Islam, does not necessarily, or obviously in any case, condone the various radical incarnations of contemporary Islam, neither does it quickly advocate condemning them.  There is some consistancy and continuity between the classical tradition of Sharia law and much that goes on today.