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Semiformalishmaybe

Yelling at people to be reasonable

I spend a fair amount of time on Youtube and other forum-y places yelling at people to be reasonable. Al Jazzera, because it is probably the world's best news agency at this moment, has stories that cover topics all over the world, with meaningful discussion on the issues of each country (from whether Taiwan's proposed establishment of red-light districts is good social policy to the meaning of democracy in Egypt).

It's tiring yelling at people to be reasonable. By yelling at, I'm more describing how I feel while doing it; at grumpiest, I tend to use heavy sarcasm rather than actually yell. Recently, there was a story on piracy from Somalia threatening Kenya's tourism industry by kidnapping vacationers.

People get very angry at pirates. I'm sympathetic to that anger, and would be happy with a show-no-mercy approach towards them. Unfortunately, reconciling anger and our need to be civilised is not an easy habit, and people out-of-that-habit suggested using nuclear weapons to eradicate the entire population of Somalia. I don't think many of my readers here would accept such an atrocity, and while engaging in such dialogue is exhausting, I did get a nice little pat on the back from a fellow commenter which made it feel all worthwhile, for today.

I think we've got morality in political dialogue all wrong. It's not about good and evil. There's no such thing as good or evil; they're rubbish ideas from myths, perpetuated by stories that want to give us an easy one side to cheer at and another to swing our graggers around at. I still hold that on the individual level, we're best off thinking of these things in terms of discrete values, frameworks synthesised from those values, and what we're willing to do for those frameworks. On the societal level though, we should consider, instead of good versus evil, two separate axes:

  • Civilised versus uncivilised - How much we're aiming to uphold the values of civilisation. How much dignity and well-being our preferences are aiming for, and how well-performing our judicial and other institutions would be. This is a complicated matter of philosophy; balancing the good of society versus one's individual good takes good habits, upbringing, and careful thought.
  • Craziness (I am looking for a better word for this) - How connected our policies are to reality, and how much structure, planning, and care we're willing to put into them

The first is a matter of upbringing; we need to be raised to hold the torch of civilisation high, and to keep pressing forward with it. The second is a matter of temperment; excessively high-strung personalities will seek catharsis in ways that make them crazy. (Julia Galef's discussion of rationality touches on this) I suspect high rates of social stress (polarisation in society or rapid social change) also contribute to high levels of crazy.

Comments

Why do you consider it civilized to show no mercy toward pirates? Note FWIW that Somali pirates rarely harm their captives.
The threat to harm, with no justifiable reason, is at least of-the-same-kind as actual harm. I see it as being compatible with being civilised because the act explicitly occurs in an area where state power is negligible (high seas, or Somalia, your pick), there is threat of deadly force, and there is little-to-no balance in justifiability.

In general, with hostage situations I would be loathe to ever allow the hostage-takers to survive, even at cost of the hostages. By repeatedly showing no mercy, this kind of attack can be stopped cold.
It seems we have fundamentally different views of law enforcement and justice. Would you endorse shooting on sight a suspected bank robber?
No.
So the key issue is not the threat of violence. You obviously don't advocate a)capital punishment with b)no due process in response to the threat of violence to take money or property. So is it all about where the incident occurs (e.g. international or uncontrolled Somali waters)?
I believe that the combination of these factors suggests acceptability of that kind of response, not any of them alone. This is an edge case that suggests a response different than what'd be generally suggested by my ideas of justice.

This touches on a broader topic though, in that this combination of factors is not arbitrary. I believe that many of our ideals of civilisation are only doable/worthwhile given an effective government with certain traits. When that's not present, it is prudent to revert to less lofty ideals until and unless we can reestablish effective civilisation. What is moral and reasonable for a person accused of a crime to do in a reasonably-functioning society might be very different for that same person accused of a crime in a very-badly-functioning society.

Edited at 2011-10-05 03:24 am (UTC)
I'm surprised that you, as much more of an ardent socialist than I am (unless things have changed), don't show much sympathy for Robin al-Hood.
There's more to a set of political intuitions than a general direction on a map. Under certain circumstances, I would be relatively friendly to hijacking of ships or disruption of naval activity (I approve of Sea Shepherd), but in general I find it reprehensible. The property relations behind industrial activity are the problem, not the activity itself.
Are you familiar with how Somali pirates justify their actions?
I am. Unfortunately, to the extent that their justifications are honest, this happens in an area where no coherent morality (that is, one that marks an action as right or wrong) is possible. It may be right for a legitimately poor legitimately-no-other-choices somalian who somehow has the resources to do piracy to do what it takes to feed their family, but it is also right for others to shoot them on sight.

Were this to take place under the umbrella of an effective government that were eradicating the practice, we might make a different judgement, but given the lack of that, that's the response I see as appropriate.

(Unless you're talking about the other actions, like the claims of illegal fishing and pollution and the like in Somali waters, which demand a more sophisticated analysis; I've heard those justifications too, and have more sympathy for them)
I think they are connected. Illegal fishing by large trawlers has made it impossible for many Somalis to make a living in a traditional manner.
I don't think piracy is the solution, but I think that there are significant mitigating circumstances that should bear on the treatment of captured or suspected pirates.