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The quantity of mercy is not strain’d?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

[by Charles Cameron — some remedial philosophy at age 71 ]

I seem to be doing remedial political philosophy this week. As it happens, I read a Chinese comedian in my youth and was admonished against “sitting down while running round in circles” and have been aerating my brain with too much conscious breathing ever since — neither leaving me much time or interest for what in Oxford in my day was known, somewhat dismissively, PPE — Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Which brings me today, and to grabbing lectures in just that sort of thing from Harvard’s Michael Sandel, courtesy of YouTube:

The video shows Sandel’s lectures, “Justice: Putting a Price Tag on Life”, and “How to Measure Pleasure” — salted with some dark humor:

Back in ancient Rome, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum for sport. If you think how the utilitarian calculus would go, yes, the Christian thrown to the lion suffers enormous, excruciating pain, but look at the collective ecstasy of the Romans. .. you have to admit that if there were enough Romans delirious with happiness, it would outweigh even the most excruciating pain of a handful of Christians thrown to the lion.

I enjoyed the two lectures immensely — maybe I should rewind fifty years, and try PPE at Harcard?.


All of which caused me to wonder:

SPEC pinto and lincoln continental


  • Mark Dowie, Pinto Madness
  • W Michael Hoffman, Case Study: The Ford Pinto
  • See also:

  • ES Grush and CS Saunby, Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires
  • **

    I mean, all of which made me wonder about Jeremy Bentham, I suppose.

    We had Locke at Christ Church, staring disdainfully from his portrait during dinners in the Great Hall — but Bentham? I don’t think I saw any utility in utilitarianism.


    But then I also wondered:

    SPEC trolley problem torture

    I wondered: how close is the analogy between the trolly problem and the ticking bomb torture questionn? Do we start from numbers of likely victims in each case and decide from there, or should we instead start by contemplating torture — and recognize the abyss staring back at us?


  • Wikipedia, Trolly problem
  • Michael Sandel, Justice: Putting a Price Tag on Life & How to Measure Pleasure
  • See also:

  • Kyle York, Lesser-Known Trolley Problem Variations
  • **

    What Shakespeare said, though — getting back to my title — was “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” — not the quantity, the quality — unquantifiable.

    Iconic: compare and contrast

    Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron — iconic images, riot police, compare and contrast, repetition with variation ]

    First, let’s be clear that both these images have been widely considered iconic.

    Thus NPR reported of the first photo:

    There have been countless accounts of violence recorded during the uprisings in Egypt but the image that perhaps has captured the most attention is the most recent. The image has been widely referred to as the “girl in the blue bra.”

    While Real Clear Politics quotes Michael Moore on the second:

    “The images have resonated around the world in the same way that the lone man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square resonated. It is an iconic movement in Occupy Wall Street history,” Michael Moore declared on MSNBC’s “Last Word” program.

    Moore was referring to police pepper spraying students at an “Occupy” protest at UC Davis.

    So we have two similarities between the two images: they both show police in riot gear taking action against demonstrators, and they have both caught the public eye as somehow being representations that can “stand in” for the events they seek to portray.

    Beyond that, it’s all compare and contrast territory — or variations on a theme, perhaps — and different people will find different reasons to attack or defend the demonstrators or the police in one, the other, or both cases.


    These are, for many of us, “home” and “away” incidents, to borrow from sports terminology, and some of our reactions may reflect our opinions in general of what’s going on in Egypt, or in the United States.

    We may or may not know the rules of engagement in effect in either case, on either side.

    In a way, then, what the photos tell us about those two events, in Tahrir Square and on the UC Davis campus, may tell us much about ourselves and our inclinations, too.


    As I’ve indicated before, I am very interested in the process of comparison and contrast that the juxtaposition of two images — or two quotes — seems to generate. And I’ve quoted my friend Cath Styles, too:

    A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

    I’d like to examine these two particular photographs, then, not as images of behaviors we approve or disapprove of, but as examples of juxtaposition, of similarity and difference — and see what we might learn from reading them in a “neutral” light.


    What I am really trying to see is whether we can use analogy — a very powerful mental tool — with something of the same rigor we customarily apply to questions of causality and proof, and thus turn it into a method of insight that draws on our aha! pattern recognition and analogy-finding intuitions, rather than the application of inductive and deductive reason.

    And that requires that we should know more about how the mind perceives likenesses — a topic that is often obscured by our strong emotional responses — you’re making a false moral equivalence there! or look, one’s as bad as the oither, and it’s sheer hypocrisy to suggest otherwise!

    So among other things, we’re up against the phenomenon I call “sibling pea rivalry” — where two things, places, institutions, whatever, that are about as similar as two peas in a pod, have intense antagonism between them, real or playful — Oxford and Cambridge, say, and I’m thinking here of the Boat Race, or West Point and Annapolis in the US, and the Army-Navy game.

    Oxford is far more “like” Cambridge than it is “like” a mechanic’s wrench, more like Cambridge than it is a Volkswagen or even a high school, more like it even than Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford — more like it than any of the so-called “redbrick universities” in the UK — so like it, in fact, that the term “Oxbridge” has been coined to refer to the two of them together, in contrast to any other schools or colleges.

    And yet on the day of the Boat Race, feelings run high — and the two places couldn’t seem more different. Or let me put that another way — an individual might be ill-advised to walk into a pub overflowing with partisans of the “dark blue” of Oxford wearing the “light blue” of Cambridge, or vice versa.  Not quite at the level of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, perhaps, but getting there…


    So one of the things I’ve thought a bunch about is the kind of analogy that says a : A :: b : B.

    As in: Egyptian cop is to Egyptian protester as UC Davis cop is to UC Davis protester.

    Which you may think is absolutely right — or cause for impeachment — or just plain old kufr!

    And I’ve figured out that the reason people often have different “takes” on that kind of analogy — takes so different that they can get extremely steamed about it, and whistle like kettles and bubble over like pots — has to do with the perceptual phenomenon of parallax, whereby some distances get foreshortened in a way that others don’t.


    So my thought experiment sets up a sunken garden — always a pleasure, with two video cameras observing it, as in this diagram:

    And from the two cameras, the respective views look like this:

    In this scheme of things, Aa (Oxford) seems very close to Bb (Cambridge) seen from the viewpoint of camera 1 — but from camera 2’s standpoint, Aa (Oxford) and Bb (Cambridge) are at opposite ends of the garden, and simply couldn’t be father apart.


    Now, my thinking here is either so obvious and simple as to be a platitude verging on tautology — or one of those subtle places where the closer examination of what looks tautological and obvious leads to the emergence of a new insight, a new “difference that makes a difference” in Bateson’s classic phrase.

    And clearly, I hope that the latter will prove to be the case here.


    What can we learn from juxtapositions? What can we learn from our agreements about specific juxtapositions — and what can we learn from our specific disagreements?

    Because it’s my sense that samenesses and differences both jump out at us, as Cath Styles suggested — and that both have a part to play in understanding a given juxtaposition or proposed likeness.

    Each juxtaposition will, in my view, suggest both a “sameness” and a “difference” — in much the same way that an arithmetic division of integers, a = qd + r, gives both quotient and dividend.

    And then we have two or more observers of the juxtaposition, who may bring their own parallax to the situation, and have their own differences.


    Tahrir is to Tienanmen as Qutb is to Mao?

    Or is pepper spray just a food additive?

    And how do icons become iconic anyway? Are they always juxtapositions, cops against college kids, girl vs napalm, man against line of tanks?  Even in the iconic photo of Kennedy from the Zapruder film, the sudden eruption of violence into the stateliness of a presidential parade is there — a morality play in miniature.

    Any thoughts?

    Lex Talionis I: the matter of Subramaniam Swamy and Harvard

    Friday, December 9th, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron — Harvard controversy, free speech vs hate speech, Hindutva, moral high ground & sanctions for and against violence ]


    I am grateful to various members of the New Religious Movements list for pointing me to the recent events in Harvard, where a group of scholars led by the formidable Diana Eck (her book on Banaras is a masterpiece and greatly treasured) have persuaded the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to omit two courses in economics usually taught by Subramaniam Swamy from their Summer School offerings next year, on the ground that an op-ed he published in Daily News and Analysis titled “How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror” fell under the category of hate-speech (as opposed to free speech).

    The article in question is no longer available on the DNA site, but can be found on Pamela Geller‘s Atlas Shrugged blog.  An account of the controversy can be found on Inside Higher Ed, and Harvard Faculty’s debate was reported in the Harvard Magazine.

    Subramaniam Swamy is President of what remains of the once powerful Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister.

    With that as background, I would like to address the issue of the varying principles and rule-sets invoked as offering a moral high ground – or a necessary safeguard – in various religious and other traditions.


    I have read Dr Subramaniam Swamy’s article, and while the various quotes in it recommending specific actions — such as “Remove the masjid in Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat” and “Enact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hindu religion to any other religion” – give western readers a sense of Swamy’s overall mindset and intentions, it was another quote that held my attention:

    This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us.

    I suspect the reason this quote has not been featured in the reports I’ve read of the debate have to do with the number of words in it that are unfamiliar to the western reader.

    I’m acquainted with Kaliyug (the Age of Darkness) and with the concept of the sattvic (“Sattva is a state of mind in which the mind is steady, calm and peaceful” to quote the sacred Wiki), but had to dig a bit to discover that apat dharma is essentially “righteousness in emergencies”:

    There are special Dharmas during critical and dangerous circumstances. They are called Apat-Dharma.

    Swami Sivananda

    Apat Dharma: They are duties that come to one under extraordinary circumstances, in crisis or in emergencies (apatmulakah). In such circumstances, even that which under normal circumstance is deemed wrong becomes dharma (tatra adharmo’pi dharmah). Here the righteous motives guide our actions (bhava-suddhimattvat). Normally a doctor gives anaesthesia before operating the patient but an emergency operation performed on the battlefield to save the life or limb of a soldier on the battlefield may be done without anaesthesia and with the instruments available, be they sterilized or not. When emergency is declared in the country, the elected parliament can be dismissed, the Constitution suspended and the ruler assumes extra-ordinary powers to deal with the situation. When peace prevails, the youth of a country should get education and work, but during war, the country may call upon its youth to sacrifice their education and fight in defence of the country, sometimes with hardly any training.

    Sanjeev Nayyar

    So that quote – “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us” – is essentially the abstract principle on which Swamy’s various proposals are based, and thus corresponds to the principles articulated by PM Netanyahu in his recent opening of the Knesset as underlying his government’s policies with regard to national security:

    Our policy is guided by two main principles: the first is “if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” and the second is “if anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands.”

    If you want a sense of how important that quote about apat dharma is to a Hindu (and a fortiori, a Hindutva) reader, see the way it is singled out and quoted with an illustration of Krishna driving Arjuna‘s chariot into battle by “Sanchithere (I’ve used the same illustration at the head of this post):


    What am I after here?

    It seems to me that we could use a brief yet definitive scholarly account of what the guiding principles of the various religions and secular worldviews allow their adherents, in terms of justice, forgiveness, pre-emption, retribution and retaliation.

    This would need to include, compare and contrast such principles as:

    • The Judaic notions of pre-emptive killing (Netanyahu’s first principle, found in the Talmud and commonly quoted as ‘ha’Ba Lehorgecha, Hashkem Lehorgo, If someone tries to kill you, rise up and kill him first) and the injunction, in fighting the Amalekites, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3).
    • Christ’s “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” (Luke 6.27)
    • Christian “just war” theology.
    • The western / UN “norm” that some actions are simply beyond the pale, unacceptable under any circumstances (essentially the basis for war crimes tribunals)
    • Game theory’s “tit for tat” strategy in an iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma as proposed by Anatol Rapaport and articulated by Robert Axelrod in his book, The Evolution of Cooperation.
    • The Islamic tradition’s notion of response in kind (Qur’an: 2.194, “and so for all things prohibited, — there is the Law of Equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him but fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves”) – which would appear to imply that actions that would not normally be acceptable may be appropriate in response to an enemy that has already “transgressed” in that specific manner
    • Gandhi’s ahimsa, together with his corollaries, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” (attributed) and “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”
    • Swamy’s own “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people” and “the nation must retaliate — not by measured and ‘sober’ responses but by massive retaliation.”
    • Buddha’s “Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat” (Dhammapada15,5)…

    … and so forth.


    I am grateful for further pointers and comments you may care to offer.

    I hope to follow this post up with another, Lex Talionis II, which will address the use of private rewards for revenge killings in the Israeli / Palestinian matter.

    [Reposting] Talking the audible talk

    Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

    [ previous version deleted for tech reasons, now reposted — pls comment if you were unable to do so before ]

    [ by Charles Cameron — importance of suiting language to intended audience, importance of graphics, Tajikistan, Yemen, importance of poetry in conflict and conflict resolution ]



    Et voila! Two publications issued this month by the Centers for Disease Control.

    I’ve already stated the two lessons that I think we can draw from these, in the parenthetical header where I try to warn ZP readers of the approximate through-line and likely detours of each of my posts:

    • graphics, graphics, graphics!
    • talk the talk your intended audience can hear!

    But why?

    Of course I’m mildly amused at the CDC using zombies — just like Daniel Drezner — to get a serious point across. And I like the play between the seriousness of the Morbidity Report and the morbid fascination of the undead…

    But I am going somewhere with all this, and on this occasion the CDC’s sense of presentation is the detour, and my through-line leads to the importance of poetry in conflict resolution.


    I want to borrow a story from the keynote speech delivered by John Paul Lederach at the Association for Conflict Resolution’s 2004 Conference, as told to him by a Tajik professor named Abdul:

    “I was tasked by the government to approach and convince one of warlords, a key Mullah-Commander located in the mountains to enter negotiations,” Abdul begins. “This was difficult if not impossible, because this Commander was considered a notorious criminal, and worse, he had killed one of my close friends.” Abdul stops while the translation conveys the personal side of his challenge.

    When I first got to his camp the Commander said I had arrived late and it was time for prayers. So we went together and prayed. When we had finished, he said to me, How can a communist pray?

    I am not a communist, my father was, I responded.

    Then he asked what I taught in the University. We soon discovered we were both interested in Philosophy and Sufism. We started talking Sufi poetry. Our meeting went from twenty minutes to two and half hours. In this part of the world you have to circle into Truth through stories.” In the hallway Abdul’s gold capped teeth sparkle with a smile as he relays his message: “You see in Sufism there is an idea that discussion has no end.”

    His point well conveyed, the Professor picks up the story again.

    “I kept going to visit him. We mostly talked poetry and philosophy. Little by little I asked him about ending the war. I wanted to persuade him to take the chance on putting down his weapons. After months of visits we finally had enough trust to speak truths and it all boiled down to one concern.”

    “The Commander said to me, ‘If I put down my weapons and go to Dushanbe with you, can you guarantee my safety and life?'” The Tajik storyteller pauses with the full sense of the moment. “My difficulty was that I could not guarantee his safety.”

    He waits for the translator to finish making sure I have understood the weight of his peacemaking dilemma and then concludes.

    “So I told my philosopher warlord friend the truth, ‘I cannot guarantee your safety.'” In the hallway Professor Abdul swings his arm under mine and comes to stand fully by my side to emphasize the answer he then gave the Commander.

    “But I can guarantee this. I will go with you, side by side. And if you die I will die.’ The hallway is totally quiet.

    “That day the Commander agreed to meet the Government. Some weeks later we came down together from the mountains. When he first met with the Commission he told them, ‘I have not come because of your Government. I have come for honor and respect of this Professor.’ “You see, my young American friend,” Abdul taps my arm lightly, “this is Tajik mediation.”

    Think about it. Think about the Yemen.

    Consider that Steven C. Caton of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard suggests:

    Every day in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, battles are being waged that don’t involve bombs, guns or even a raised fist. Rather in Yemen, where physical violence is considered an inferior form of honor-conflict, poetry is one of the preferred weapons of choice.

    If Yemen is important to you — or conflict resolution — I have a question for you:

    Are you fluent in poetry?


    Your copy of the Zombie Pandemic awaits you here. For those more interested in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, here’s the report.

    Hat-tip to Tony Judge for his paper, Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran: an unexplored strategic opportunity?

    Gene Sharp

    Monday, February 21st, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron ]

    I was impressed by him in London in the early sixties.

    Okay, I was young and impressionable. But others have noticed him more recently, too: Hugo Chavez accused him of being a conspirator with the CIA, and the Iranians thought he, George Soros and John McCain were in cahoots.


    Gene Sharp has been in the news quite a bit recently [1, 2, 3, 4], because he pretty literally wrote the book on non-violent resistance.

    The young leaders of the Egyptian revolt that toppled Mubarak studied tactics with members of the Serbian Otpor youth resistance who topped Milosevic, Otpor studied tactics in the writings of Gene Sharp, specifically his 90-page pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy [download as .pdf]. Sharp wrote that handbook for use in Burma, where it was apparently translated at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi — who once cautioned her readers that that phrase they kept hearing wasn’t “jeans shirt”, it was “Gene Sharp”.

    And before that, he’d penned his masterful 900-page, three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action

    I told you he was impressive.

    Recommended reading:

    From Dictatorship to Democracy is now available in Amharic, Arabic, Azeri, Belarusian, Burmese, Chin (Burma), Jing-paw (Burma), Karen (Burma), Mon (Burma), Chinese (Simplified Mandarin), Chinese (Traditional Mandarin), English, Farsi, French, Indonesian, Khmer (Cambodia), Kyrgyz, Pashto, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Tibetan, Tigrigna, and Vietnamese.

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