Thursday, October 22, 2009

Alan Ryan on "Risk and Terrorism"

Certain events shock us in to action despite the fact that we experience different events of identical or greater magnitude that do not shock us in to action. More technically, the (negative) value, v, of some event that we find acceptable may be greater than some v that we do not. So when we evaluate risk as the probability, P, times v of an event it should be relatively easy to calculate which of two events have the greater risk and subsequently act accordingly.

But as a matter of human psychology, we do not. There are many asymmetries we observe in humans that belie this obvious point. For example, many people think it worth insuring against misfortune whilst they are averse to a quantitatively identical gamble on fortune, that is even where the absolute value of the probability of (mis)fortune times possible loss in the insurance case is equal to the absolute value of the of the probability of gain times the value of the gain in the gambling case. (Insurance companies, by the way, make money because they do not differentiate between the two.)

A fairly concrete example, people are more scared of flying than driving despite the fact that we all know that planes are a safer mode of travel, statistically, than cars. That is, the probability of being injured on a plane times the severity of the possible injury is far lower than the corresponding number for a car.

There are numerous psychological reasons to account for the asymmetries in the types of cases illustrated above. Alan Ryan's paper "Risk and Terrorism" (in Risk: Philosophical perspectives, Tim Lewens, ed; Routledge: 2007.) claims that there are likely evolutionary reasons why we make the judgments we do, but the overriding reason we accept some risk is because of the way it is "framed". Airplane incidents, for example, when they occur, don't just go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong and it is the shock-value that causes us to mis-estimate the probabilities of certain kinds of events. Ryan refers to an event's salience, its size, proximity, and surprise factor that contribute to an event's ability to seize our attention (181).

Terrorists too take advantage of humans' inability to innately miscalculate P(v) by relying on spectacular incidents: attacking the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, a suicide bombing at the wedding of a coreligionist, or a videotaped beheading. Interestingly, most such terrorism accomplishes little. Moreover, groups that employ such tactics make few realistic demands of the governments they attack.

It seems to me that this all speaks to a number of issues including the ability of terrorists to use rational tactics (regardless of the immorality of the tactics or irrationality of their goals), and the fact that we need an approach to counter-terrorism that realizes that these are the tactics and the effects and thus we need to prepare accordingly.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Philosophy in Islamic Countries

I came across a copy of John R. Burr's edited volume Handbook of World Philosophy: Contemporary developments since 1945 (Greenwood Press, 1980). The volume has chapters summarizing the state of philosophy in various countries as it was in 1980. The chapter on "Islamic Countries" was written by the eminent scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr was somewhat illuminating, but not too surprising.

The Islamic world is large. It includes many countries and many
people. The people are also as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, and the Sudan and Pakistan. What we discover reading Nasr's essay is that from WWII to 1980 there was much philosophical interest in different brands of Islamic thought - from Sufism to wahabism, there were many people engaged in philosophical pursuits that descended from medieval Islamic thought and there was a rather large interest in Islamic political thought that was often very influenced by the 60s and 70s. Thus we find much Islamic neo-Marxism and the like. We also find that there was considerable philosophical work done comparing Islam and contemporary European philosophy.

I would be rather curious to see what an article would be like if it were written today, 30 years later. Obviously countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey have westernized philosophy being done in ways that are indistinguishable from contemporary Anglo or European philosophy - beside Islamic philosophy. But I am somewhat curious about the rest of the Arab world. In the US, I assume, one can go a whole philosophy career and not hear about about philosophy in the UAE, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Dubai, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Qatar, etc. They all have universities, and certainly Islamic universities, but little makes it to English, I assume. Other Islamic countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan are mentioned in the article, but I cannot remember seeing a philosophy paper from someone in one of those countries in a while.

Iran too is said to have some serious philosophical thought, but the political situation when Nasr's article was being written in the very late 1970s was quite different from what it has become now. I suspect
that it is to the detriment of philosophy.

Much has changed in many Muslim countries and philosophy is still a luxury that many Islamic countries cannot yet afford. But given that as many as one fifth of the world's population is Muslim, one expects more. Again, I'd be curious to know what advances have been made in recent years.

Update 2-May-2010: Brian Leiter has a post about philosophy in Pakistan.

On Nancy Sherman's Stoic Warriors

Nancy Sherman's <i>Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the
Military Mind</i> is an absorbing examination of Stoic thought as it
pertains to what is typically believed to be the military mindset. It
is a book that both engages stoic philosophy and attempts to capture
how it could work as a backdrop for a soldier's way of thinking about
various aspects of military life. Stoicism, as we have it from such
figures as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cicero, and Epictetus is a
comprehensive approach to physics, logic, and ethics. Sherman is
mostly concerned with ethics and the prospect of understanding whether
a stoic ethic is a viable way of handling issues that are an expected
part of a soldier's life.

Given the writings we have, we are able to reconstruct a stoic
approach to certain relevant themes including: the body, grief, one's
bearing and decorum, anger, fear, trauma, and general emotional
resilience. Her analysis is generally insightful and clear. Sherman
and her approach to Stiocism has a lot to teach us about how soldiers
think and how soldiers ought to think. One thinks of stoicism and the
image of a solitary individual devoid of emotion, expression and
feeling. And while this does not exactly sum up Stoicism and it is a
simplification, it is not all that far off. As Sherman says in the
opening sentence of the preface "This book is about 'sucking it up'";
which is military-speak for maintaining your composure despite the
fact that something traumatic happened.

And military personnel are never far from trauma. Members of the
military perpetually face the risk of getting killed or kidnapped,
getting in to a fight, taken hostage, getting wounded, losing a limb,
killing someone, and losing a friend. Facing the prospect of this is
sometimes a bit scary, but having it actually happen naturally causes
soldiers to experience emotions - and to a greater degree - then much
of the rest of society. Anger, fear, grief, rage, post-traumatic
stress, regular stress, guilt, relief, and sorrow are all common in
the military, especially during times of war. People worry about
themselves and dealing with the trauma of injury, for example and they
grieve when the lose friends. And friendships forged in war are said
to be amongst the strongest.

The problem then is how a soldier is to express the emotions that he
or she experiences? A soldier, after all, is encouraged and
conditioned to "suck it up and drive on", "Charlie Mike" - continue
mission, and "maintain control". A soldier has a very small range of
expressions that are generally considered acceptable, especially in
public. Part of the appeal of stoic thought is that it provides a
worldview in which a lack of emotional expression is both possible and
commendable. It does so by encouraging one to realize that happiness
must not be dependent on circumstances and events that are external to
one's control. And one must train the body to act in alignment with
this philosophy and not exhibit these emotions.

Sherman analyzises a few important emotions in chapter-length studies.
She talks about anger in one chapter, fear in another, and grief in a
third. In all cases she looks to the work of the Stoics for
inspiration adn guidance. But she doesn't stop at saying that there
are similarities between Stoic philosophy and being "warrior stoic".
She fully engages Stoic thought and challenges it, often for going too
far, sometimes for not going far enough. This is not a book of
history of philosophy <i>per se</i>, but rather a book that engages
the history of philosophy in the laboratory of contemporary mankind.

The backdrop of each chapter is clearly some account of virtue ethics
that takes the right way to behave as a function of having the proper
outlook on life, or the proper habits and dispositions. It is an
important virtue ethics characterization of a soldier's propensities
to act the way we typically expect them too.

The book is not a typical philosophy book. It is replete with stories
that illustrate attitudes and events sometimes via fiction and other
times via anecdotes culled from (apparently) her own interviews with
soldiers. The book is also thoroughly enjoyable.

There is enough to quibble in with the book. Most of my qualms are
minor. Expecting every soldier to be familiar with the Geneva accords
in the way she does seems naive (p. 177). The interpretation she
borrows of Exodus and Numbers (p. 119) is a stretch. Finally, most
soldiers, even during war will not be in combat and most of the
"sucking up" in the military actual involves the annoyance that
accompanies having one's leadership make decisions for you that don't
seem to be in your or anyone's best interest but their own. But those
are all minor issues with respect to the book's point, and not really
worth elaborating on, that do not detract from the overall value of
the book. It is valuable to understand the origins of, and the
problems with, the behavior that we take to epitomize soldierly