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Trolleys come to Terror

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a western koan makes it onto German TV? ]

What Hala Jaber calls a supermarket trolley in this tweet is not what this post is about — but it sure does connect trolley and terror!


Here’s the terror side of things, in a tweet from John Horgan:

The BBC halls it an “interactive courtroom drama interactive courtroom drama centred on a fictional act of terror” and notes:

The public was asked to judge whether a military pilot who downs a hijacked passenger jet due to be crashed into a football stadium is guilty of murder.

Viewers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria gave their verdict online or by phone. The programme was also aired in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The vast majority called for the pilot, Lars Koch, to be acquitted.

Here’s the setup:

In the fictional plot, militants from an al-Qaeda offshoot hijack a Lufthansa Airbus A320 with 164 people on board and aim to crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 people during a football match between Germany and England.

“If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die,” German air force Major Lars Koch says as he flouts the orders of his superiors and takes aim at an engine of the plane.

The jet crashes into a field, killing everyone on board.

So, is the pilot guilty, or not guilty?


At the very least, he has our sympathy — but how does that play out in legal proceedings?

What’s so fascinating here is the pilot’s dilemma, which resembles nothing so much as a zen koan.

Except for the Trolley Problem:

Image from Wikimedia by McGeddon under license CC-BY-SA-4.0


Substitute an Airbus for the trolley, 164 people for the lone individual on the trolley line, and 70,000 people for the cluster of five — and the pilot for the guy who can make a decision and switch the tracks.

There you have it: terror plot and trolley problem running in parallel.

To be honest, I think the full hour-plus movie is far more immersive, to use a term from game design, than the Trolley Problem stated verbally as a problem in logic — meaning that the viewer is in some sense projected, catapulted into the fighter-pilot’s hot seat — in his cockpit, facing a high speed, high risk emergency, and in court, on trial for murder.

It’s my guess that more people would vote for the deaths of 164 under this scenario than for the death of one in the case of the trolley — but that’s a guess.


The German film scenario — adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach — is indeed a courtroom drama, a “case” in the sense of “case law”. And it’s suggestive that koans, too, are considered “cases” in a similar vein. Here, for instance, is a classic definition of koans :

Kung-an may be compared to the case records of the public law court. Kung, or “public”, is the single track followed by all sages and worthy men alike, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An, or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the sages and worthy men regard as principles [..]

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like a poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. [..]

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the chief officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, as it were, and their collections of sayings are the case records of points that have been vigorously advocated.


Relevant texts:

  • John Daido Loori, Sitting with Koans
  • John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye
  • Prof Pogge teaches ethics at Yale, but does he shave himself?

    Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Pogge’s ethics, Russell’s barber paradox, and self-reference ]

    It’s that old ouroboros [1, 2, 3, 4] rearing its ugly head again, with its tail firmly between its teeth:

    DQ 600 ethicists & barbers


    The riddle, koan or potential paradox posed in the upper panel alludes to the matter of Yale’s professor Thomas Pogge, a noted ethicist, and some unbecoming behavior of which he has been accused — but as professor Judith Stark writing at Conversation suggests, there’s further interest beyond the case of Pogge and his accusers.

    Responding to the question posed by the title of her own piece, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?, she writes:

    This is an enduring dilemma in the area of ethics and one that has recently come to light with charges of unethical behavior brought against a prominent philosopher, Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Pogge has been accused of manipulating younger women in his field into sexual relationships, a charge he has strenuously denied.

    Without making any judgment on the case itself, this situation raises larger questions about how the behavior of the experts in ethics is to be reviewed and evaluated.

    Profession and practice are, in their own way, like word and act — or are they?


    In the lower panel, I’ve placed a discussion of Bertrand Russell‘s “barber” paradox that in Russell’s view partially but not fully resembles his paradox of the “class of all classes that are not members of themselves” — the question there being whether this class is a member of itself or not. I’m not in a position to argue such matters with Russell, so I’ll just say that he views both the “classes” and “barber” paradoxes as (different but similar) seeming knots which, when you pull on their loose ends, disentangle themselves, pop!:

    Russell writes of the “barber” paradox that it is a variant on the “classes” paradox in which “the contradiction is not very difficult to solve.” The “classes” paradox is harder, he says, but he finally dismisses it as “nonsense, i.e., that no class either is or is not a member of itself, and that it is not even true to say that, because the whole form of words is just a noise without meaning.”

    Or as Wm. Shakespeare might have said, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — to which Witty Wittgenstein might have quipped, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — which, alas, has the air of a tautology, with the entire Tractatus thereby eating its own tail..


    What do you think? Is the entire question of ethicists behaving ethically or unethically moot? a koan? does it eat its own tail? does it just melt into thin air, and leave not a rack behind?


  • Judith Stark, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?
  • Esther Inglis-Arkell, The Barber Paradox Shook the Foundations of Math

  • Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950
  • Across the great divide

    Friday, April 8th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — philosophy during a bank heist — and its implications in terms of military doctrine ]



    Two screenshots in sequence from the Denzel Washington movie, Inside Man, bring me back to the philosophical fissures and fusions between mind and brain, subjective and objective, quantitative and qualitative, man half-angel and half-beast — in a law enforcement context.


    When one side has reached the limits of its material strength, it can always add to its military efforts by mobilizing all possible moral strength.

    I often need to talk about this. As material, for Clausewitz, is the counterpart to moral, what for TRADOC is the counterpart to Human Terrain?

    Birds of a feather

    Monday, December 14th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — in this case, Trump / Clinton ]

    Friend of a friend or two Corey Robin on FaceBook — as quoted by Michael Degerald — pointed up an illuminating DoubleQuote between Trump and Clinton, which I’ve dropped into my usual graphical format:

    SPEC DQ Trump Clinton

    Whatever diagnosis you might be inclined to make of one of these two persons on the basis of their quote, perhaps you’d like to consider affixing it to the other one likewise..


    It’s that old liberty / security paradox, chestnut, koan or trade-off again, isnh’t it?

    The “refugee” koan

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — considering both sides, while tilting one way or the other ]

    I call it a koan because you can flip it — there are two sides to it, and very possibly a serrated edge that it can balance on, foiling your best efforts to come up with a yes-no answer:

    On the one side, Tsarnaev:

    Not a Christian, BTW..


    Okay, before the second shoe drops…

    Consider this, from Benjamin Wittes, In Defense of Refugees today on Lawfare:

    It is worth reflecting at least briefly on the security risks of turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of helpless people fleeing some combination of ISIS and Assad. Imagine teeming refugee camps in which everyone knows that America has abandoned them. Imagine the conspiracy theories that will be rife in those camps. Imagine the terrorist groups that will recruit from them and the righteous case they will make about how, for all its talk, the United States left Syria to burn and Syrians to live in squalor in wretched camps in neighboring countries. I don’t know if this situation is more dangerous, less dangerous, or about as dangerous as the situation in which we admit a goodly number of refugees, help resettle others, and run some risk—which we endeavor to mitigate — that we might admit some bad guys. But this is not a situation in which all of the risk is stacked on the side of doing good, while turning away is the safe option. There is risk whatever we do or don’t do.

    Most profoundly, there is risk associated with saying loudly and unapologetically that we don’t care what happens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people — or that we care if they’re Christian but not if they’re Muslim, or that we care but we’ll keep them out anyway if there’s even a fraction of a percent chance they are not what they claim to be. They hear us when we say these things. And they will see what we do. And those things too have security consequences.

    And, from a very different area of the political spectrum, this:

    There’s a reason that hospitality is actually a religious virtue and not just a thing that nice people do: it is sacrificial. Real hospitality involves risk, an opening of the door to the unknown other. There is a reason it is so important in the Biblical narratives, which were an ancient people’s attempt to work out what they thought God required of them in order to be the people of God. Hospitality isn’t just vacuuming and putting out appetizers and a smile — it’s about saying, “Oh holy Lord, I hope these people don’t kill me or rape my daughters, but our human society relies on these acts of feeding and sheltering each other, so I must be brave and unlock the door.” Scary stuff. Big stuff. Ancient and timeless stuff. “You shall welcome the stranger.”

    Now: is that wisdom, or foolishness?


    Aha, the second shoe..

    Besides Tsarnaev, who else do we know who came here as a refugee?

    albert einstein non christian refugee

    Einstein, no less.

    And Einstein was not a Christian either, FWIW.

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