Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophy

If we stand by Charlie, we must end the Global War on Terror

The Worlds Reaction

The response to the recent attacks in France has been a mixed one. World leaders and media pundits have flocked to condemn the killings. Vigils have been held across France and the world, defying this apparent assault on our freedom of expression. While many Muslims have been forced to distance themselves from the attacks, due to a fear of reprisals from a growing far right.

However, my intention today is not to vindicate Muslims for the crimes of these men. Nor is to condemn the attackers, who are just one facet of a political struggle for power in the Middle East. My contention is with the conflicting values we seem to place on a human life.

complete

On Wednesday last week, 10 civilians and two police officers were killed by French gunmen of Algerian descent. These two men had been trained in Yemen, a country that has been targeted with US drone strikes since 2009. Within days they were made to pay for these crimes with their lives, in a dramatic hostage situation broadcast across the globe (in full HD of course).

In comparison, back in Yemen two years earlier, 12 innocent people were killed when a US airstrike hit a wedding convoy. But the US government refuses to acknowledge its role in their murder. Two years have passed and there is still no justice for these nameless people. Still no justice for the thousands of innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Yemeni’s and Pakistani’s killed during our supposed war on terror.

My question is simply, why?

Why is it that the loss of an innocent life thousands of miles away does not move us in the same way as those in Paris? Why does the death of journalists in Palestine not cause us to cry out in defence of Freedom of Speech? If every life holds the same objective value, then by standing by those killed in Paris, we must also stand by all those innocent lives lost, irrespective of who pulls the trigger.

The value of a human life

Even when confronted by truths such as these, many of us react with indifference at the loss of innocent lives in such countries. “We are good, and they are evil”, is the kind of one-dimensional thinking used to justify such murders. When Islamist militants are thwarted in distant lands, many of us commend the actions of our armed forces, rather than question the collateral damage incurred. But when a domestic attack takes place, we are moved to tears, anger and retribution. These are, ironically, the very same feelings that compel those in such war torn countries to seek out a similar kind of vengeance.

To some extent, this reaction can be explained as a biological mechanism. While philosophers are free to explore moral questions about the value of a human life, we must also look at how in practice people make this judgement. This is known as Descriptive Ethics. By doing so, we gain an insight into why foreign deaths of non-combatants, such as those killed in drone strikes, is often met with indifference in the West, whereas domestic attacks, such as those is Paris, stir up defiance and sorrow.

By combining the study of Morality with Evolutionary Biology, we start to see the emotional adaptations that influence our moral judgments and behavior. Peter Singer, a prominent ethicist, argues that “evolutionary theory can make a contribution to this debate” by offering us “reasons for believing that some of our emotional attachments are deeply rooted in our nature as intelligent, long lived primates, or even in our nature as social mammals.”

He argues that we as human beings find it easier to empathise with those who fall within certain proximity of our daily lives. As a result, we tend to place a greater value on the lives of our own kin in comparison to our neighbours. In a purely practical sense, this instinctive desire to protect our loved ones ensures the survival of our own genetic lineage. Yet despite this, our neighbours life still holds more importance than a strangers, perhaps because we consider them a friend. So here we can see a clear dichotomy begin to arise – a hierarchical manner in which we value the lives of others, based on moral intuitions acquired through evolution.

Put very simply, we tend to place a greater value on the lives of those who we see ourselves in. Yet with the Enlightenment and universalism – the idea that all sentient life has universality in experience – followed natural rights, then human rights, which bound together notions such as freedom, equality and justice, declaring them inalienable rights of all human beings. To reach such enlightenment ideals however, we had to first break ourselves from this innate way of thinking. So when we use our rational minds, we conclude that any loss of innocent life, irrespective of the context, ought to be met with the same kind of defiance that was shown in response to the Paris attacks.

Collateral Damage

When innocent people are killed in war, it is not considered murder, but callously labelled “collateral damage”.

Since 2004, an estimated 3212 people have killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Only 2% of them killed intended targets. The rest are civilians such as women and children. What differentiates this kind of collateral damage from the 17 murders that took place in France?

Some make the distinction that a terrorist attack is a deliberate act of violence on innocent people, while collateral damage is an unintended consequence of warfare. But they are similar in that both cause needless deaths for the political interests of a minority.

War is waged knowing that there will be noncombatants killed, and in that sense, there can be no accidental killing on the battlefield, but only an expectation that some innocent people will die. When noncombatants are killed in drone strikes then, it is no more an accident than an inevitable consequence of war, and therefore no less intentional than the murders committed in France earlier this week.

By allowing such military operations to continue in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, we facilitate extremism by providing a moral justification for groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. There is no doubt that the rise of jihadism is in part due to western influence. US backed coups and foreign control of natural resources has led to an anti-western sentiment in these countries. We can extend this thread of causality back to the conquest of Mesopotamia during the Great War, and the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed, rightly or wrongly, have to led to the volatile situation we see in the region today. Decades of extreme poverty, political repression, and poor education have created a fertile breeding ground for violence. To some extent therefore, we are culpable in the proliferation of extremism at home and abroad.

The verdict?

Thus the lessons we ought to take from this tragic event is that when we escape the constructs of our own subconscious mind, and the biological mechanisms that underpin our thinking, the deaths in Paris only highlight the hypocrisy of our actions, given the thousands killed and injured over the past decade. Similarly, by allowing our governments to continue hostilities in these distant lands, we are partly culpable for the inception and proliferation of these extremist movements. I want to stress that this is not a justification of Islamist aggression, but a call to all who stand by Charlie and by human rights, to use this incident as a catalyst to end all the human suffering caused by our war on terror. So while arguably justice has been restored in France as of yesterday, and calmness will quickly follow, for many millions elsewhere, the nightmare still continues…

 

Effective Altruism overview and thoughts

This is an essay I originally wrote earlier this year for “OpenDemocracy, Transformation” but was not published.

The expanding circle

I grew up in an area of northeast London marred by economic underdevelopment, drugs and crime. I never really understood the problems that existed around me while I was growing up. When I was old enough to be out late, I would often see a middle aged man that sat by the night time revellers outside an old Irish pub, asking for change and searching for cigarette butts. At first I would try and avoid him, as would most other passer-bys. But that all changed one cold and wet night while walking back from a friend’s house.

It was late – 2am I think – and all the shops were all closed apart from a drive through McDonalds a five minute walk up the road. I saw him curled up by a wall, soaked to the bone and huddled under a sleeping bag.  I turned back around and headed to the store, bought a cup of tea and took it back to him. He shook my hand and thanked me, while a warm look of gratitude stretched across his face. A conversation soon began that ebbed and flowed like any good conversation ought to. He told me his name is TJ, and that he’d been homeless since he was 16. That night TJ and I became friends.

So you may be wondering, why am I telling you this story? Perhaps the cynical reader may consider this to be a form of egotism. But my experience with TJ is important in that it sparked an interest in charitable giving. While a cup of tea is by no means a life changing gesture, from this initial act grew a desire to form a long lasting change in the world around me. Fast forward to today and I am now actively involved in a number of charitable organisations. Yet I found that as my interest in giving grew, so did my scepticism of how effective charity was in instigating meaningful change. I started to ask myself difficult moral questions, such as, why are we obliged to help? Who deserves our assistance? And most importantly, how can we instigate the most effective change?

The Effective Alturist movement

To begin to answer some of these questions, we must first turn to the work of the Australian bioethicist Peter Singer. The Drowning Child analogy plunges us into a simple thought experiment – if a child is drowning in a shallow pond, and we can save their lives with little harm to ourselves, are we morally obliged to do so?

From this very simple analogy came the subsequent conclusion that we are obliged to help everyone within our power, including those in distant lands unbeknownst to us, when there is little comparable harm to ourselves. This is based on the premise that all lives hold equal importance. To achieve the most effective outcome, we must then consider all causes and actions, and act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. In a sense, the act of giving becomes an investment in utility – an attempt to maximise the collective happiness of society, and reduce suffering of all as best we can.

Since these ideas first took shape, a great deal of effort has gone into turning this vision into a tangible reality. After the release of his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save, Singer and one of his Princeton University students founded a non-profit with the same name. The organisation informs the public of the facts underlying the third sector, and promotes community participation in activities it argues reduce poverty and economic inequality. The Life You Can Save also encourages people to publicly pledge a percentage of their income to highly effective aid organizations. Singer suggests this to be around 1 per cent of a person’s income. As of writing, over 17,000 people have pledged publicly.

Giving What We Can is a similar organisation inspired by the work of Singer. Founded by moral philosopher Toby Ord in 2009. So far the organisation has over 600 members, $300 million pledged, and seven chapter across the UK. Ord himself has capped his income at £20,000, and donates everything he earns above this to the most cost-effective causes.

As it stands, evidence suggests that only three per cent of donors give based on the relative performance of charities. This is a concerning statistic when we consider some of these organisations can be hundreds of times more effective at alleviating poverty than others. For instance, it costs thousands of dollars to train guide dogs in the developed world, while treating onchocerciasis, a major cause of blindness in the developing countries, costs just a few dollars per person.

If the average citizen from a developed nation was to donate 10 per cent of their income to the most effective causes, 7000 children could be cured of deadly parasitic infections a year, and the lives of countless others could be greatly improved.

So while viral appeals such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, or Cancer Research’s #NoMakeUpSelfie, have both been very good and generating popular support, the question remains, are these really the causes we ought to be donating to? While giving to these charities will undoubtedly improve the lives of many, we could theoretically generate more good by investing in combating malaria, which kills over half a million children every year, or tuberculosis, which is among the top three causes of death for women aged 15 to 44, according to the WHO

Both these organisations, along with many others, are attempting to transform the way in which we look at philanthropy. Proponents of Effective Altruism advocate the use of evidence and reason in working out the most effective ways to improve the world. They suggest we do this by making more informed decisions by using a non-profit charity evaluator such as GiveWell, or Giving What We Can’s research on the effectiveness of charities.

What makes a cause effective?

But this poses the question – does this mean we shouldn’t donate to any of these comparably less-effective causes at all? While this is not directly the case laid out by the EA movement, it seems that this would be the logical conclusion of their arguments.

So who defines what is a worthy cause to give to? Ultimately such judgements are based on the research these organisations conduct. But even so, in practice, responding to an emotive cause makes it difficult to take a wholly impartial view, and certainly there are many nuanced factors that affect our decision of why to give and to who.

Critics argue that the ideas outlined by Singer and his followers are objective views from detached scholars, which seemingly fail to take into account this context surrounding acts of charity. Effective Altruists argue we should give because we reason it to be an effective cause. But it is not the effectiveness of a charity that motivates people to give, as the evidence shows, but instead, biological mechanisms such as a feeling of love, a sense of injustice, empathy, guilt, or other social pressures (such as giving for prestige in some philanthropist circles).

Critics have dubbed this push for impartiality as “elitist”, and that the movement gives a particular emphasis on a small number of global health and nutrition charities. If we were therefore to adopt this viewpoint, there would be little apparent reason to invest in emergency relief, domestic causes, or the arts.

For instance, the thousands of pounds I was given by media charities could have been used to save lives in a developing country. The collective benefit to humanity would therefore far outweigh my need to acquire a profession. However, there is a less obvious benefit here, in that I can now use the skills I have learnt to bring about a tangible change in the long term, perhaps through activism and volunteerism. Similarly, the money I spent on buying my homeless friend a cup of tea could arguably have a far greater effect if given directly to a starving child in Ethiopia. Yet it was this action that sparked an interest in charity, which will continue to lead to further giving in the future.

The result therefore is that the consequences of acts of charity are often hard to quantify, and ultimately in an attempt to produce the most effective change, we may stifle social progress instead.

A deep rooted problem

Singer argues we must look beyond the evolutionary qualities that restrict our circle of compassion to those we share common bonds, and take an egalitarian, impartial approach to giving. As he puts it in his 2004 book, One World:

In a society like America, we should bring up our children to know that others are in much greater need, and to be aware of the possibility of helping them, if unnecessary spending is reduced. Our children should also learn to think critically about the forces that lead to high levels of consumption, and to be aware of the environmental costs of this way of living.”

Yet even in a developed nation like America, there are high levels of inequality that frustrate this process of transformation. Namely, it could be argued that to truly absolve the world of extreme poverty, we must first address the underlying mechanisms that cause this unequal distribution of resources in the first place. Partly this means having a more equitable society, something Singer himself argues for. It is easier to foster this kind of collectivist sentiment for instance, when our society by and large is well educated enough to think abstractly about such issues, or similarly, have the financial security necessary to devote to tackling global poverty. But to reach this goal, we need to invest our time and energy into transforming our own societies first, before any effective action could be achieved on a global scale.

So herein lies the problem – critics have lambasted the EA movement for trying to work within an inherently flawed system. For instance, David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt an “earning to give” strategy. This means individuals are encouraged to work in finance and other high-paying, arguably unethical industries, if that money can be used to serve the poor. This Robin Hood-esque approach may seem to many of us to be a morally grey area, but the consequentialist would argue that the ends justify the means.

Conclusion

While it is easy to be critical of seemingly less-effective forms of charity, it is my view that we must take this sentiment of giving and nurture it using the doctrines of empiricism and impartiality. But we must refrain from condemning those who choose to give to less effective causes, the consequences of which can be hard to quantify. For example, while my act of kindness to my homeless friend may not create any significant lasting change directly, recognising this feeling of love and empathy for you fellow human being is the first step towards making an effective change, just as it has been in my own life.

In other words, to become an Effective Altruist, you must become an altruist first. Love is a biological mechanism that applies to those we share our immediate lives with, but we must strive to expand this feeling and break it free of its biological moorings, by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures. We must also seek to address the underlying issues that cause poverty in both the developing and developed world – the social and economic forces that lead to intergenerational poverty, and the tragic consequences it entails.

Objectivity vs. neutrality on Gaza

 

Note: This post was originally written for openDemocracy.

The Palestine-Israel conflict poses a moral dilemma for journalists. But being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement.

Choosing sides

As reporters swarm the besieged streets of the shrinking Gaza strip, there has been an inundation of harrowing images and reports throwing Israel and its motives into utter disrepute. Palestinian mothers crying in anguish over the death of their children, families searching through rubble for survivors, hospitals littered with blood drenched casualties of the Israeli war machine – these images swell up inside us contempt for the perpetuators of such crimes.

Yet despite the international condemnation, the motives for these actions have been a hotly debated. I have even found it to be a polarising topic within my own circle of friends, despite most of them being strongly against the killing of innocent civilians. Was it the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers? Are they looking for tunnels or for revenge? Is Hamas rocket fire to blame?

Disregarding the constantly changing narrative (and the fact most of these reasons have been largely discredited), social media has been rife with accusations of propaganda from both sides. I myself have been accused of spamming pro-Palestinian articles on /r/worldnews – an internet community that has been targeted by pro-Israel groups such as the JIDF.

So the question remains – is it morally acceptable for reporters to pick a side? Certainly as journalists we have a duty to be impartial when reporting the facts, even though this can be argued to be a futile task. Any effort to disseminate news on a contentious issue will inherently cause accusations of media bias, “because journalists are human beings and journalism is not an exact science,” said Hilary Aked, writing for OpenDemocracy in 2012. “There is a great deal of truth in the assertion that to some extent one’s critique will depend on how the conflict is viewed,” she added.

We are emotional beings at our very core, and view all issues through the lens or prism of our own emotional sensibilities. And so it is of no surprise then that many of us turn to social media to express our outrage when we feel an injusticehas occurred. Quite simply, a significant majority of those who stand by the Palestinians do so because it is difficult to watch an injustice and not speak out. This is in itself a biological response, and is universal to humanity. For over a century now academics have studied this very issue, using anthropological and historical evidence to conclude that this sense of injustice is found everywhere, spanning across all cultures and periods of human history.

The process of evolution itself has carved this sense into humans. Those who witness others being subjected to injustice often respond as though it was an act of aggression towards themselves. This can be a powerful motivational condition. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote it in 1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Cognitive dissonance

Despite damning evidence of disproportionate aggression and international war crimes, many Israelis argue that they are the ones who have been demonised, and claim it is they who are in fact the victims of injustice. In turn many such persons choose to discredit opposing views as unduly partisan. But can it really be the case that those all over the world who all condemn the violence – international bodies, humanitarian organisations, world leaders, and so on – are simply liars, paid shills, or anti-Semitic?

In 1956, Leon Festinger and two colleagues released a classic work of social psychology that studied this very kind of unwarranted belief. When prophecy fails follows the story of a small cult that wholly committed themselves to an apocalyptic prophesy told by a woman named Dorothy Martin. She claimed to have received a message from a fictional planet, which revealed the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. What they found was that some of the group became increasingly dogmatic in their beliefs when the supposed prophesy was unfulfilled. The authors described this as a coping mechanism, and was one of the first published cases of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort one feels when confronted by information that conflicts with or significantly alters their worldview.

Fast forward half a century – in 2013, Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law, gave compelling evidence to the source of this diminished ability to reason. His paper, entitled Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government”, demonstrated hard evidence of motivated reasoning, a symptom of cognitive dissonance and part of this coping mechanism. His conclusion, as described by journalist Chris Mooney, is that partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [those] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

Essentially, Kahan found that even when presented with the facts, motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe by ignoring contrary data. As summarised by Marty Kaplan, writing for AlterNet:

“It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalise what our emotions already want to believe.”

This finding is very problematic, for if we are to come to any kind of truth on this matter, or any issue in fact, we must open our hearts and minds to honest and open discourse. As objective observers we must accept that there is propaganda from both sides, but quite often this fact is used to validate unreasonable beliefs.

For instance, to assume Hamas have the same capability as Israel and its allies when it comes to disseminating propaganda seems wholly illogical. From government backed Hasbara to organisations such as CAMERA, this battle of hearts and minds has not been fought on a level playing field. It is only due to the concerted efforts of activists and the public at large that world opinion is now firmly on the side of the Palestinians. This change is largely attributed to the advent of the digital age and the feeling of injustice we have touched upon.

Impartial judgements

Some argue that as reporters we have a duty to remain neutral in such conflicts, and certainly, this is reflected in the ethics of journalism, particularly when it comes to broadcast in the UK. In his paper, Delivering trust: impartiality and objectivity in a digital age, Richard Sambrook, a professor of journalism at Cardiff University and BBC journalist for three decades, outlines some of the key issues surrounding objectivity after the advent of the internet and social media. In the papers abstract he states:

“The ideas of impartiality and objectivity – at the heart of serious news journalism for most of the last century – are now under pressure and even attack in the digital a…Today, in the digital age of plenty, notions of special responsibilities being placed on those with a public voice, and different approaches for print and broadcasting, are rapidly breaking down. As the disciplines of impartiality and objectivity disintegrate, there are increased signs of propaganda, entertainment and fiction seeping into journalism. Broadcasters, regulators, politicians, and journalists are struggling to make the solutions of the last century fit the changed media characteristics and conditions in the new century.”

Through the course of the paper Sambrook proposes a number of principles to help journalism adapt to a world that increasingly demands partisan reporting. He calls for “a growing need to encourage critical awareness of the media” within the public that equips them “with the knowledge and tools to understand what they are consuming”:

“There are currently serious concerns about the quality and practices of news media and their impact on public debate. These principles, supported by greater media literacy, can help us navigate in the new digital world of information abundance and deliver journalism that is trustworthy and fulfils its public purpose.”

Yet despite our need to place an emphasis on trust and objective reporting, we as human beings have a moral obligation to, and often feel a strong impulse to, put an end to perceived injustices perpetuated on innocent victims. Martin Bell, a BBC Foreign Correspondent during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, said: “You can be fair to everybody, but you can’t stand neutrally between good and evil.”

Sambrook writes that Martin embraced “bystander reporting” while avoiding moral equivalence between the opposing sides. He says:

“Impartiality does not have to strip reporting of moral judgement (as distinct from personal opinion) as long as there is strong evidence to support it…Independence of mind, clear sourcing and evidence, accuracy, openness, and honesty are all characteristics of impartiality as well – and none of these qualities are necessarily require a report to be morally agnostic…In the circumstances of genocide, or a climate of hate speech, it might be argued that the discipline of objectivity (if not impartiality) becomes even more important … [as these] encourage free debate.”

Being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement. While the two may be interlinked, when the facts are laid out in front of us, free of political spin and misleading narratives, the truth does not and should not allow us to remain impassive. Ultimately if we truly believe in a practicable solution to this war of attrition, we must be objective when looking at the facts, but also brave enough to speak out against the injustices these facts reveal.

As so eloquently put by Peter Benenson in 1961, the founder of human rights charity Amnesty International:

“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government … The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”

 

The Enlightenment and Universalism

I am sure many of us have heard or read about the European Enlightenment.

enlightened-blog1

The Age of Enlightenment was a profound cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first inklings of this revolution in thought were shown by early French philosophers around 1670. It was the well mannered Salons which were at  ‘the very heart of the philosophic community’ of France at the time. In these places of dialectical discourse a new school of thought emerged, namely, it was from these academic salons formed by the aristocratic ‘schools of civilité’ that the European Enlightenment was born.

The Church fought these first revolutionary movements until they ultimately suffered a fatal blow during the French Revolution of July 1789. It was during this uprising of the French working class and left leaning intellectuals that the French Republic was formed, thanks largely in part to the aristocracies own centuries of excess and indulgence.

It was only befitting that the Enlightenment should take shape during this time, as the individual became aware of their own power and ability to shape the world. The Enlightenment was considered to be the “spiritual enrichment of Mankind by means of his own inner values and resources”. Apart from the French academic salons, the groundwork for the European Enlightenment was also laid by renowned British intellectuals and philosophers such as David Hume and Francis Bacon, who popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry.  The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is also argued to be an important figure in the Age of Enlightenment. These along with many other proponents of empiricism and rationalism helped lay the seeds of the modern scientific method and democracy as we have come to know it.

Whilst the Enlightenment first began in Europe, it later spread to the American colonies through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, although sadly its principles did not initially extend to slaves. Yet this period of history is still so very important for it has shaped much of the political and moral foundations of the modern world.  Rather befittingly the political and moral issues over which eighteenth century thinkers debated remain so often the issues over which we continue to differ today.

As the Enlightenment spread to Britain and throughout Europe, the Scholasticism of the medieval universities that were so prevalent from the 11th century to up until then, was questioned by this new breed of thinker. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Hume refuted the divine dogma of these established schools that so closely guarded knowledge. For centuries the majority of European society had been resigned to impotent ignorance. Whilst these two thinkers took different and radical approaches to human nature and the individuals place in society, it was ultimately Hume and other ‘moral sense’ philosophers who restored this notion of humans as social beings, freeing the concept from its theological moorings. These sentimentalists began a radical conception of Enlightenment principles compared to Hobbes,  arguing that it is ‘sentiment’ that invokes an innate understanding of our common humanity, and of our instinctive desire to feel empathy with fellow human beings.

No quality of human nature is more remarkable…than that propensity we have to sympathise with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments however different from, or even contrary to, our own.

From the Enlightenment then was this sense of Universalism born. All sentient life has universality in experience – this very idea could only flourish with this notion of sympathy, which allowed philosophers to give humankind an identity independent of God. These new Universalist’s would be attracted to the logic of universally applicable principles, rather than any belief or dogma ordained by supposed divine mandate. Human unity, solidarity, and the perceived need for a sustainable and socially conscious global order, were among the tendencies of this new non-religious Universalist thought. It provided a means of

…Recognising all peoples as of equal worth, and of embracing some kind of common good, without endowing them with immortal souls.

This period in history is very important for it has lead to a huge upheaval in the manner in which we treat another and how we come to learn about and understand the world. No longer are we shackled by blind dogma, no longer a slave to the power of religious and political institutions as we once were. The Age of Reason gave birth to human rights, modern democracy and the scientific method. Many argue that the roots of this enlightenment lay in Eastern thought, and hence the importance of this period is thereby diminished. I do not disagree with this fact, for Far Eastern philosophers dealt with the questions of ethics, morality and justice far before their western counterparts. Even the rise of classic Greek philosophy is in part due to the inspiring influences of its neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea. Still I maintain this is rather besides the point however, for all new thoughts are formed by a synthesis of old. Hence, we must not concern ourselves with the originality of such ideas.

Once we realise that we are the presiding force behind all laws of society, that we give all of societies conventions their governing power, and not a divine entity, then it is important for us to be concerned by how fair and just these regulating rules are. This notion which came from the European Enlightenment, means we must now also consider how we might continue to shape these laws for the betterment of all persons.

 

My Open Letter archive launched!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So those few of you who regularly follow my blog posts might of noticed a lack of activity these last few days. That’s because I’ve been hard at work on the MyOpenLetter project.

Recently I launched the archive section, and while it’s rather lacking with only two entries atm, I’m optimistic it’ll be filled up in no time with interesting posts. For now though, check out my letter or Anonymous Girlfriends story of overcoming odds

I’ve also posted my letter below, so please read and tell me your thoughts. Also I hope this inspires you to get thinking about what you might right about. You can email submissions to submit@myopenletter.info. Hope to read your letter soon!

Dear Reader,

I look in the mirror, and I see a face. It is a face I could describe to you in quite exquisite detail. From its dark brown eyes and faintly tanned skin, to its slightly crooked nose, its cherub cheeks and accompanying mischievous smile. This face has one very prominent dimple only on the right side, and has thick red lips surrounded by a dishevelled beard. Indeed, this is a face I have grown quite accustomed to. But whilst I could continue to go on describing this face in great intricacy and detail, I couldn’t tell you if it would be considered a beautiful one or not. I could not tell you what others thought about my face, for I am quite certain, some may dislike its roundness and plumpness, whilst some may feel otherwise. But I like this face, because this face mine, and this face is mine alone.

So I have no problems in admitting that sometimes I find myself wondering what other people think about me. I’m sure you have probably felt like this at one time or another dear reader. Who you are I am not sure, and perhaps my message has reached you after a thousand years, hidden like a Dead Sea scroll through a vast expanse of time. Dear reader whom is unbeknownst to me, I ask you this question, irrespective of whom you are when you are living, are these really important things to think about? For they are, when we look upon them objectively, only differences of mere millimetres. These are but slight disparities in the angles of bone and variations in skin tone. These are nothing but cosmetic, superficial vanities that seem to be so important to so many of us in this world today, myself included.

I put it to you dear reader that we as human beings ought to value something more substantial. For us to understand what I mean by this, you must understand what it means to be a human being first.

Throughout the eons, ever since the first tentative words were spoken by man, the very first inkling of thought expressed by our distant ancestors, we have always struggled to find absolute truth in this rather puzzling world. And ever since we became aware of our own mortality, many subsequent philosophical questions have been raised about our existence. Why are we here? How did we come to be? What is our inevitable fate? How should we treat one other? All profound questions that to date we have still not managed to answer with any degree of certainty.

But despite any criticisms I have of human beings, I am a firm believer in the capacity of us to be quite marvellous creatures. From the incredible lasting legacies of the great thinkers past, I cannot deny that we have come a remarkably long way since those inklings of consciousness were first exhibited by human beings. From those hesitant scrapings upon once bare lifeless stone, the seeds of destiny were firmly sown, and a great tree of knowledge has flourished in its wake. The full force of causality took hold, and here we find ourselves today in this moment of time, wondering what lies in wait for humanity in the centuries to come.

Once many moons ago, before I had eyes to see and a mind to think, I was a collection of particles wandering aimlessly through a vast expanse of emptiness. This potent soup of subatomic particles slowly took shape, and through the heavy hand of microscopic forces, you and I ware formed in the furnaces of time and space. We owe our existence to an incessant churning of masses, started by a miraculous mix spontaneity and improbability. And here we are now, living on the frontier humanity, forging a path that has not yet been walked by any living being before us. Yes, we have come a remarkably long way indeed, despite having still a great distance to travel. We have learnt some incredible things already about the nature of the universe and our place within it. Objectively speaking, this is quite an astonishing achievement for a mere primate, first emerging from the dishevelled canopies of prehistory countless millennia ago. The ascent of man has been a arduous and improbable journey.

One of the profoundest things we have come to learn in recent decades, something that has never been known before, is that the reality in which we reside is governed by chaos. Even in this new age of empiricism, there is no such thing as certainty. Life is fickle for the very laws that form the basis of nature, the cosmos, and everything in between are firmly rooted in anarchy. How do we find order in a naturally disordered universe?

Human rights were first formally brought into law internationally only in 1948. While at first this may seem a like an irrelevant detail, it is in actuality quite an incredible milestone in human history. We creatures who live in this world of uncertainty, have begun to formulate certain universal laws of our own, particular moral beliefs that apply to all human beings. And whilst 1948 may seem a long time ago, half a century is but a mere grain of sand in a great desert of time. Yes, we have come a remarkably long way it seems, but it is my belief that we now rest at a pivotal point in the story of humanity and the cosmos itself. A prestigious and self appointed promotion, if you will, to the narrator of its tale, the story of its existence and inevitable demise. With the gift of consciousness, comes the burden of being the bearer of your own destiny. The future is in our own hands.

With this realisation, my message to you is simply this – think. I know it is probably unwise of me to worry about how my face looks to others, because at the end of the day, it is just a face. But I also know that I should take an interest in Human Rights, because we need to bring order to the natural chaos of nature. In the long run, the latter benefits us all and also our descendants. The shape of my face however, brings very little long lasting joy and happiness to collective society. I had to think to realise that. We all have this rather wonderful set of abilities unique to human beings. We can look forward in time and plan ahead. We can ponder upon life and our place within the cosmos. But most importantly, we can also empathise with other human beings, and feel pain through their suffering. We can feel joy through the happiness of others.These are the qualities that I maintain, have gotten us here today, and are important to the future of humanity.

So I claimed that we are the bearers of our own destiny, and so my final question to you is this – what do we want for the destiny of humanity? It is a question I cannot answer alone, simply because, I am just one human being. I do not speak for the whole of humanity, but I am entitled to my say as everyone else is. So think with me, friends one and all, regardless of your race, irrespective of the colour of your skin or the nature of your beliefs, let’s think and try to answer all these profound questions together. Let’s try to understand the universe and our place within it, and let’s try to make this world just a little bit better for when that inevitable time comes for us to leave it.

Peace and Love,

From
Suhail H. Patel

The Writer, the Narcissist and the Critic

Note to Reader: This is a reworking of something I wrote for my blog on http://www.writingforums.org/ a while back.

I used to frequently post on this forum for constructive critique and assistance in creative writing, and I suggest any of you who like to write check it out for some useful assistance and like minded people.

One thing I noticed while posting there however was a lot of attention seeking, a lot of unwarranted heavy criticism. But the thing was, I was just as guilty as everyone else there for doing it. It got me thinking – do we as writers, care more for the praise or recognition gained by our creations, than the actual process of creating itself? Do we tend to unjustly hold our work and our abilities up on some elevated podium, with rose tinted glassed, perhaps look upon our creations with more favourable eyes we would the work of others?

I accept that it is difficult to escape one’s own mind, our own trivial desires and aspirations to be adored. Self delusion of one’s own aptitude and importance plagues many of us. For instance, I am subscribed to many blogs of fellow creators, but comment in very few of them. What does this say about me as a person?

Hence, today I hope to write about the narcissistic tendencies of writers and people in general.

I find that many of us are more concerned with our own writing then that of our literary peers. Do a majority of post our work to gain insight into how we may improve our writing? Or merely to stroke our ever inflating ego’s? Perhaps even pertain to some ideal that we are intelligent, we have talent, and seek confirmation of this fact?

I think maybe I might be being a bit cynical of the intentions of the amateur writer here. While even I admittedly don’t take enough interest in other peoples work, and have those narcissistic qualities highlighted above, I think when it comes down to it, I mostly write for fun, for escape, to ward off boredom and loneliness. (Sad times indeed my friend)

Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic – it’s a hobby put simply, one which I hope to turn into a career one day. I must by very virtue of the trade start out as an amateur unfortunately. But I like to think of it like this – we are all capable of greatness, while we may  or may not necessarily achieve it in our lives. But in order to achieve greatness, we all require recognition of our efforts, to keep us going along in a protective bubble of delusion, in the hopes one day we’ll be “good enough”. There are many failures along the way, and I think a touch of vanity helps an aspiring anything to overcome these frequent set backs. Nobody starts out as a literary genius, or a masterful artist; Picasso didn’t pick up a paintbrush and just paint a masterpiece. just as CLR James did not write The Black Jacobins in an evening.

What I’m getting at is, they had to believe in themselves, they had to think they had what it took. Because anyone who’s ever achieved anything worth achieving knows that it takes time, it takes effort and it takes perseverance. Sometimes a little ego stroking goes a long way in helping you actually become good at something.

Hence, I don’t think one ought to be to harsh in critiquing the aspiring writer or artist, for it can do more harm than good in my opinion. We all have this innate ability to create this entity, which is essentially an open concept. Always changing in the collaborative eyes of society. There is no set way of doing things, no matter how much you may think there is. While you may have personal preferences or certain beliefs to what you find “pleasurable” art, or how you think we ought to succeed at writing a novel – this is of course your prerogative as a living, thinking, free human being. We all needs time to find our own voice, our style, our message – and personally I’ve needed a lot of reassurance to get where I’m at today.

As an alternative, I put it to you dear reader, that maybe sharing our lovingly crafted works should be less about critiquing the parts you don’t like, but highlighting how something is good, and has this intangible, indefinable “value”. For if we are to define literature as essentially art, then what is its purpose? How do we as human beings, derive pleasure from its inception and creation? I think this is an almost impossible answer to formulate, for if we were to ask everyone on this planet, I’m sure the answers would be unique to every individual queried.

In this regard, I suppose we refrain from harsh critique, and focus more on understanding each other’s work, highlighting strengths, and seeing the stories behind these individual works of art, many of which, along my own that is, are destined to be lost in the great abyss of time. The only rules are that it entertains, it inspires and it has meaning. Sometimes picking over details, being pedantic and too technical is just unnecessary  While criticism can be effective, too much can lead to apathy or despair. I think that we should just give each other’s work the time and attention it deserves, for however brief it may be, and however little contribution we may give.

Growing up in poverty

Note to reader: This was my submission to the Guardian International Development Competition. As I did not make the shortlist I thought I’d post it here. 

Nelson Mandela once proclaimed that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Last year World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced that the target to halve global poverty had been achieved. Yet critics argue that serious issues with surveys used to support this claim undermine its credibility. To understand how we can better engage the poor youth of today, I spoke to three people who grew up in poverty, to see how it has affected their lives in adulthood.

We begin with a woman named Trisha from the US. Almost a quarter of all children in the industrialised nation grow up in low income families. She tells me she was considered “white trash” growing up on the outskirts of Lubbock, a medium sized city in the state of Texas. While both her parents were well educated, her father began to suffer from poor mental health at the age of four, leaving the burden of child rearing on her mother. This put enormous strain on her, and she would sometime­­s work two or more jobs at minimum wage.

They survived on mostly handouts – “We went to soup kitchens and churches for free meals, and got government food, and some food stamps.” She explains that “anytime anything unexpected happened…there was never any wiggle room, and my mother wrote hot checks to cover them.”

Trisha, now thirty, still lives in a trailer with her husband and two children. “Our car is broken down, and we rarely have extra money for anything.” She confides that at a point, she felt as if her parents “gave up… and just tried to keep things from getting worse…My mother is 65 and working part time as a cafeteria lady, with no retirement to speak of. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for my family. I feel like I’m a little too old to change things…[but] I keep trying to think of ways out of this rut.”

In comparison to Trisha, Hernan is a young man who grew up in Argentina. The countries official poverty rate almost doubled to 47% during the 1989 currency crisis, and continues to fluctuate during the country’s volatile economic cycles. His father was a waiter and drug addict, his mother a housewife. Both had failed to complete high school, which Hernan says motivated him to study and become a scientist.

“The first time I dreamt of becoming a scientist I was 8 or less. I read relativity theory… Not understanding more than a few words, but [that] was enough…Einstein is my all time super hero. I decided to copy, by all means his rebellious [spirit].”

While the poverty rate fell to 16% by 1994, the consequent Tequila crisis left Hernan’s father unemployed. During this time, he “was forced to work in the streets, selling toy cars at the age of thirteen for money.” Despite all the odds however, the young Argentinean persevered, attaining several degrees and a string of well paying jobs. He now works as a computer scientist for Microsoft.

When asked what he found most difficult about growing up poor, he said “Everything cost you more. If you got money, talent doesn’t matter. I made my way through college because I’m somehow gifted at math. So, I always earned financial aids. Some of my friends, with talent for… music, literature or even politics, didn’t get any kind of luck.”

The last person I spoke to is a young man named Aman who now also works with computers. He was born in Bahrain, but moved to the Indian state Kerala at the age of thirteen. The World Bank estimates that around one-third of the total Indian population fall below the international poverty line, while almost two-thirds live on less than $2 a day. Soon after his arrival in Kerala, Aman’s parents divorced, and he ended up living with his amputee father.

“With a single disabled parent and no means of income, my brother and I worked through all of school and college. We rode auto rickshaws, we did door-to-door salesmanship for curry powders, we worked at telephone booths, sold lottery tickets, and for a while I even sold liquor in the black market.” He says he felt ashamed by his poverty, and would go to great lengths to hide the fact he was poor from his peers.

Growing up in a low income family clearly has a dramatic effect on a person later in life, both economically and psychologically. While Hernan and Aman were ultimately able to escape the poverty trap, their struggles were exacerbated by growing up in low income families. Trisha has not been so fortunate, and I can’t help but wonder what she might of achieved if her and her family had been provided with more substantial government aid. If in a nation like the US income inequalities did not exist, every family would earn around $200,000 a year. While in 2012 Gross World Product per capita was approximately $12,400, it is estimated that 1.3bn people globally still live on less than $1 a day.

From speaking to Trisha, Herman and Aman, it is apparent the most important factor to a child’s success is investment in their education. Without support for poor households, children are often forced into work at an early age. Research is clear – poverty is the single greatest threat to child’s well-being. Currently there is a lack of effective policy dealing with the issue, even in developed countries, were income disparities continue to grow. Yet there is promising progress. For instance, a new pilot study at Panthbadodiya in India has shown that supplementing a family’s income at regular intervals can dramatically improve a child’s education, and the family’s general wellbeing. Academic performance improved in 68% of the families, and the time they spent at school almost tripled.

Collectively we can still improve the prospects of those children born into such unfortunate circumstances. As Hernan so eloquently puts it – “Impossible? It’s just a word.”

By Suhail H. Patel

What’s really important?

Just some thoughts for today, I’ll try to keep it brief.

I was reading an article the other day about people rioting over gay marriage legislation being introduced in France.

And the thought occurred to me – we live in a world where people riot over gay marriage, but celebrate the murder of innocent people, and venerate their killers. We live in a society that spends more money on researching male pattern baldness, than cures for fatal diseases such as Malaria.

To any rational person I suppose this kind of behavior is rather nonsensical. What harm does one’s sexual orientation cause to other peoples lives? What benefit is it to humanity to have a head full of hair, compared to protection from a lethal disease?

The value’s we instill and give to our children propagate through the generations. We often argue that concepts such as war are inherent to human beings, an evolved quality that cannot be simply abolished. Yet history paints a very different story of how we humans came to be. For the better part of the million year journey we have taken to reach this point,.humanity has been a predominantly peaceful and reciprocal species.

For us to continue down the path of self interest, greed and destruction, would be the self inflicted undoing of mankind. With the power of rational thought came the ability to break free from the shackles of inherited behavior. No longer are we burdened by the unwavering dogma of genetic code, the four walls of instinctive behavior.

If we are to accept that man and woman alike has something we have labelled “free will”, then it is within our power to dramatically alter the course of the future, and commit to an action using the power of reason, and the capacity of our intellects to guide us in this decision making. As living humans we have an unprecedented access to the collective knowledge of humanity, and we ought to make use of it.

Hence, I think it both important for us to dramatically alter the way we perceive the world, our actions within it, and the lessons or “values” we instill in our offspring. We can create a world, and a version of humanity, that value’s Freedom, that permeates a sentiment of equality and mutual respect for one another. We can be the generation that powerfully changes the world and the course humanity finds itself currently on.

Throughout the ages, every great civilization has met the same catastrophic fate. It is up to us to change this preordained course of events. And how can we do this? In every action we make, in every thought we express and share with others. In a previous post, I made the claim that time and pressure have the power to change even the most unwavering beliefs. Indeed, it is the evolution of ideas that will shape humanity in the coming centuries. And for the first time in the history of life on this planet, we have taken this process into our own hands. We define what is morally good, we collectively agree on the rules of society and how we ought to treat one another, and the planet as a whole.

Let us harness the power of compassion, let us propagate a sentiment of love among all of brothers and sisters on this earth, for the short spell we find ourselves here.

That’s the end of my rant for today. Hadn’t posted in a while since I’ve been busy learning to design blogs (or trying to at least). My plan is to make a few Photoshop tutorials using what I’ve learn’t, so check back beginning of next week for some useful design tips.

Till next time friends.

Peace
x

The Boston Bombings put in perspective


A terrible tragedy occurred yesterday in Boston.

Left: Victim of Boston Bombings  Right: Victim of US Drone Strikes
Three innocent people were killed and dozens more injured at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The cause of this disaster? Two bombs were detonated 50 to 100 yards apart as competitors crossed the finish line at the world renowned sporting event.

The reaction, and rightly so of course, has been a volatile mix of sadness and mourning, coupled with anger and a seething appetite for justice. In regards to the issue, President Obama made a statement, claiming that they “will get to the bottom of this”, and “any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”

Three people needlessly died yesterday in Boston, lives brought abruptly and very sadly to a catastrophic end. My question is, what would constitute as justice in this regard? More death? More destruction? This has been the response from the White house in regards to previous attacks on the US mainland.

The Boston attack has been the worst of its kind since the September 11th bombings, hence it is of no surprise then that this should be such a pressing matter for the US government, and a dominating headline for the media worldwide. The army, navy and FBI swarmed the devastated city to catch any lingering presence of the assailants – closing down phone lines, roads, and searching bags for any more explosives left undetonated. And we all saw this with live coverage,  beaming into our rooms, from the many news teams scrambling to give us every morsel of information they could conjure.

And this pertains to the issue I hope to raise today, which is simply; why does something like this always seem so much worse when it happens to a wealthy industrialized nation? What constitutes as justice to such an abhorrent attack on innocent people?

I think we need a little perspective before we can really gauge what is an appropriate response to the deaths and injuries incurred yesterday at the Boston marathon. If we are to accept the premise that every life counts, every life has objective meaning – then surely the weight of yesterday’s tragedy pales in comparison to the many deaths that accrue worldwide on a daily basis. Many of these deaths may also be directly correlated to actions by the US government, the actions of wealthy industrialized nations and their citizens.

For instance, one of the three killed yesterday was an eight year old child, and we mourn for them – rightly so of course. However, when you look at the issue of infant mortality worldwide, over 16000 children die a day from easily preventable causes, such as hunger, poverty or curable illness. Throughout the 1990’s more than 100 million children died from starvation. A terrible loss undoubtedly, and more so even, when we consider that all these deaths could be prevented for the price of ten Stealth bombers. All these lives could of been saved with what the world spends on its military in two days. Did you know, that the cost of a missile could feed a whole school full of children for five years straight? Even in wealthy countries such as the US, one out of every eight children under the age of twelve goes to bed hungry every night. A child died as a result of a suspected retaliatory attack from the loosely grouped extremist organisation known as Al-Qaeda. Thousands die every day because we’re to busy waging war to care about our sick and impoverished, our poor and destitute – you tell me, what is the real tragedy here? 


Disparity between the wealthy and poor families in the world. 
In aggregate, there are a great deal many more lives lost in the pursuit of power, the financing of destruction for profit.  Similarly, there are also many lives lost through capitalism and the allure of unrbidbled wealth and enterprise. All of these deaths are considered acceptable,  as they produce substantial economic gain for a privileged and unscrupulous few. And often we find such stories are very rarely adequately reported, and such data only found and used by the most persistent of fact checkers and activists. Sadly, it seems the majority of us are uninterested in the cold hard facts, which make for somewhat depressing and uninteresting news. Several more people were killed in Iraq? Happens to frequently to care about. Thousands die of hunger every day? We’ve heard it all before apparently, and we feign empathy for these poor individuals, watching their plight on fifty inch plasma screens whilst we tinker away on frivolous and expensive gadgets. 

Three die in bombings in Boston, and it’s all over the news – 24 hours of unrelenting live coverage. I turnt on the TV at 3am yesterday, in the UK, and there is still little I can do to avoid coverage of the attack. Yet there was no talk of world hunger, there was no mention of the Iraq attacks, the Afghan drone strikes that killed 40 at a wedding prior to the Boston bombings. We can’t just cherry pick what lives matter like this. We ought to be impartial in how we treat others and how much we value their well being.  While a dramatic and fear provoking attack in Boston caused people weep, caused the world all over to send their prayers to the people killed and maimed, their families – yet today alone, over 16000 children have died quietly and unknown of starvation. The most basic human need, we could not provide for these children. And not a single tear was shed by us for them, the people in the wealthy west, who live lives of comparable luxury. 

Death knows no hierarchy, hence every life should hold equal importance. Every life lost should surmise in the same amount of sadness and anger. But being merely evolved primates, that rely on social interactions, that depend of mainstream news outlets to tell us what to think and how to feel – we simply can’t empathise with these people who we seemingly hold no relations to. The use of repetitive, headline grabbing, mass produced and simplified content for the general public has blinded us to the real grave injustices  perpetuated in this world. US led drone strikes to the Mumbai bombings in 2011, where 26 were killed and 130 injured – they just don’t seem to resonate with us as much, nor do the killings seem as profound. The many deaths as a result of world hunger or curable disease also seem to lack the potency of a terrorist attack in rallying a nation behind a cause. But the point is, they are just as appalling, and even more so, when we consider that our tax money pays to finance such destruction, and to antagonize those who now wish to harm us. 


What would you rather we made? Schools or Missiles?
Instead of sending bombs to oppress those in these distant lands, why don’t we build schools to educate their children? Instead of making missiles and stealth bombers to kill and destroy, why don’t we facilitate the industrialisation and modernisation of these countries? What’s really important to us in this world? The lives and wellbeing of others? Or our own safety? The well being of our neighbours over the well being of people in distant lands unbeknownst to us?

We advocate, or at least allow the killing of many innocent souls in state sponsored terrorism. Families destroyed, lives wiped out by an unmanned drones that drop well coordinated, and well financed terror from the skies. Two days ago, four innocent people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Yesterday, 40 innocent died in Afghan drone strikes, and many more seriously debilitated. Where is these peoples press coverage? Where is the outrage we feel for the Boston victims? Why should these lives matter any less to us? If we are to accept that these are people also, with their own dreams, hopes, ambitions and worries – then why do we not care for these lives, as we do for the citizens in our own nations? 

The problem is that these people have become mere statistics to us. A foreign life destroyed holds no comparative importance to a domestic life lost. Where is this sense of entitlement coming from? Simply because we live in a rich and powerful nation, and we are not used to such domestic attacks, a domestic attack seems so much more unjust. Yet the reason for this infrequency is predominantly because we are too busy oppressing the very nations that are likely to have carried out the Boston bombings. When you wage war in other nations, of course you must expect some retaliation. If this does ultimately turn out to be another “terrorist” attack, it seems America’s chickens are coming home to roost yet again. 

In regards to the far right’s response to the issue – I read a story of a Fox News reporter, who tweeted after hearing about the bombings, with no evidence or inkling as to the perpetrators, that we should kill “all Muslims”  because they are “evil”. This is a foolish and narrow minded viewpoint to take. If the Boston Bombings upset us, so too should all deaths worldwide, particularly those we could alleviate by simply objecting to our government’s foreign policy, and those lives we could save with little loss to our own well being. Erik Rush should know very well that genocide is never an acceptable means of ending violence – there are innocent Muslims just as there are innocent American’s. Further death is never the solution to such problems. 

On the issue of media bias – of course we expect, and are used to media bias for a news agencies country of origin. And perhaps the frequency of such events, or the lack of more concisely, played a part in the stories dominating of headlines. Yet the US media is wide reaching and pervades many global news outlets. Thereby the stories leaving the US have a large sway in what the world thinks, and how the actions are perceived by the international community. Afghan media for instance, does not have the financial backing nor international credibility to spread such stories of US terrorism as effectively. And any US citizen who should question the US’s tacit use of drone strikes is an unpatriotic extremist supporter in the eyes of many. However, I believe that the media at large should be an impartial force for good in the world, and consider the welfare of all people when choosing what news to report. Hence, news outlets ought to report stories impartially, giving the appropriate time to all tragedies and human rights abuses that require our attention. And similarly, we the public who consume this content, ought to take the time to treat all stories objectively, and give all people the love and respect we show our neighbours, friends and kin – even those in distant lands that are unknown to us. 


Mourners from different parts of the world.
Left: Boston Bombings Right: Drone strike victim in Pakistan
My love and condolences to everyone who died today. The starving children and adults alike, the people who died in the Iranian earthquake, the Afghan bombings – those murdered through the pretence of war,  those who died as a result of curable illness in poverty stricken lands, those of us who are underpaid and overworked, those who’s lives were cut short working as slaves to the corporate elite. RIP to you all, and may the responsible groups “feel the full weight of justice” one day soon.

The concept of Moral Progress

So I saw a very interesting TED talk (thanks for that Freddie Collins), and considering ethics is the only module at university I actually enjoyed and tried to take part in, I thought I might have something to contribute to the discussion.

First off, watch the talk by Sam Morris, who is a neuroscientist and author of a New York Times best-seller:


Early in the talk Sam introduces this concept of “Moral Landscapes”. This is a frequently used term, one also used by a Peter Singer, a prominent ethicists and one of The Times 100 most influential people in the world. Here’s a video below outlining some of his views:


So now I take it you’ve watched these video’s, its time for us to begin the discussion  What do we mean by the concept of moral progress?

We live in a world of good and bad, light and dark, the enlightened and the barbaric. Or so it seems at least, we can broadly categorise moral agents and their actions within these two different groups.

Yet the world we live in also has varying definitions of what is considered good and bad. Social behaviour is something that is evolved, and hence we find across the ages and different cultures, there tends to be very differing moral premises, thereby altering the conclusions we draw from our social interactions.

Let me put it like this – morality is fickle. Like the great statues of Ozymandias, the sands of time will inevitably destroy all old ways of thinking.  Morality is ever changing in the collaborative eyes of society. Throughout history there have been both seismic “shocks” to our perceived view of what is good, and what is morally bad, influenced by exogenous as well as endogenous factors. Almost always however, progression of morality, or what we consider to be progression, has been shaped by the profound need of humanity to survive and adapt to its environment. Increasingly, reciprocity has become more prevalent in our globalised world, along with empathy and non-violence for these very reasons. It makes sense to promote nuclear disarmament for instance, when you could potentially be eradicated yourself in the event of international thermo-nuclear war.

On the topic of religion and morality – I find it no coincidence that with the birth of organized religion came an explosion in human population. While I concede that there are a great many socioeconomic factors that contributed to the relative success of the human species (including are industrialization, education, marriage, social status, family structure, health care and nutritional status), it is religion that has been integral to the progress in morality that we have today. I think for us to live in a cohesive and functioning society we required religion.  Sam states that “most moral talk is viewed through religion…[and] this is why we spend our time talking about gay marriage…and not genocide, or nuclear proliferation, or poverty or any other huge consequentialist issue.

Sam, along with Peter and other prominent ethicists of the 20th century, have shied away from religion. It seems we now live in a secular society, particularly more so in the west, which separates the laws of the state from the religious duties of church. However, as Sam notes, many still view moral questions through the perspective of religion. Is this a hindrance to moral progress? Does this cause backwardness?





So these are two images that stuck with me after Sam’s TED talk. The second in particular, is quite a poignant image in itself. The disparity in our ways of thinking are quite shocking when juxtaposed like this. On the one hand, in the west where we are free, where we have the utmost liberties and freedom, unburdened by the shackles of religious obligation to bronze age texts – we still have the “wrong” answers to questions of morality. Is this the kind of world we want our children growing up in? Not only that, but if you watch TV, read the news, media, film – anything these days that is produced for mass consumption, you get a sense that humanity has really taken a turn for the worse even in the supposed civilised world. Greed, self interest, lust – these qualities that were once considered morally “bad”, are now virtuous, are now necessary for a person to succeed in life. Yet Singer believes we ought to think differently, we ought to

In a society like America… bring up our children, both for their own good and for those of others, to know that others are in much greater need, and to be aware of the possibility of helping them, if unnecessary spending is reduced. They should also learn to think critically about the forces that lead to high levels of consumption, and to be aware of the environmental costs of this way of living.

However, despite this we can still rest easy knowing life in the west is comparatively easy when compared to that in Islamic or more conservative nation. Here the welfare of the individual is also dramatically compromised by adhering to a strict ideology, maintaining past beliefs and customs that we can consider to be outdated. We do not need to worry about eating pork any more because of religious duty or infectious disease. But we should still refrain from eating pork (and meat in general), because the resources that are used to produce it are unjustifiable with such rampant world poverty. The individual does not have the liberty to conceive and reason their own consequentialist conclusions like this however. They are not given the freedoms in which to figure out what is good, and what is bad given their moral premises. Does this mean that morality is subjective? Sam believes there can be moral truth. He gives the example of how in Chess, sometimes sacrificing the Queen is good a move, but generally speaking, it is always best to keep the Queen alive. Hence, it is always wrong to lie, but sometimes there can be exceptions to this rule. 

But as stated before, without religion of course, we would not have the moral progress that we have now. Reciprocal relations are integral to any civilised society, and religion provided stepping stones upon which our current moral topography is based. Through a slow process of miniscule changes, almost like the movement of tectonic plates, coupled with these tremendous “seismic” shocks in our concepts of basic human rights and individual liberties, we now have a very different moral landscape to lets say, 2000 years ago, and the birth of christianity. One that has a great deal many less peaks and troughs – we are more equal than ever it seems.

We can also use another Singer example to illustrate how our thinking has evolved, with the following moral premises;

If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.
Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

It was religion that originally taught us the virtues of altruism, and promised us intangible rewards upon death, or even during life for exhibiting such qualities. However, with Singers reasoning, any individual can conclude that we are obliged to help those suffering,   for we can do so without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant. Yet religion also teaches us things that are just no longer applicable. The “moral exception” becomes the new rule of law, with enough time and frequency. We know that this is the nature of good and bad. What is good today, is bad tomorrow, and vice versa. Several hundred years ago to defame the king would be blasphemy, and your head would be chopped off as punishment. Nowadays we consider it good to question those in power. This change accrued out of necessity. Time and pressure have a way of changing even the most seemingly unwavering beliefs and customs. (Hence why I find this topography analogy to be very befitting when talking about changes in moral thinking.)

Similarly religion also changes, it adapts with morality as well. Sam’s example of demi-gods – new popes have saw fit to progress the Catholic religion as its code of ethics became less popular and applicable to people. 


And while we frequently see on the news, the hate filled and backward few spewing their (subjectively at least) ignorant views – there is still progression. Even in religion – the moderate majorities views coincide with the secularist progressive. It seems while some of us may be inherently good at “moral thinking”, on the whole, moral progress is a collective movement of societies views, of our movement along these moral topographies. 

What are my views then? A quote from Einstein below sums it up quite nicely I think –

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”


I think, put very simply, what the world needs is love, love sweet love – and a damn lot of it.