Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

what effect should statistical probability have on moral choices (if any)?

I was intrigued today by this letter to the Tribune today. Here are a few of the more interesting paragraphs:

All civilized legal and moral systems operate on the principle that people who carry out an action with predictable results must be held accountable, as if they had intended those results. Therefore the statistically predictable innocent deaths that U.S. military attacks routinely and inevitably produce must be regarded as intended, if we take seriously the concept of moral agency and responsibility.

A truly unpredictable death is different. If an enemy tank in combat was unexpectedly harboring a lost child when attacked, we wouldn’t regard the child’s death as intended, since children cannot be predicted to be in a battlefield tank.

But the U.S. attack on Iraq and Pakistan is far different—the essence of our war on these countries, just as in Vietnam, involves methods that are statistically guaranteed to produce tens of thousands of civilian casualties. The civilian casualty rate in Iraq has been statistically fairly stable (and, thus, predictable) throughout the U.S. invasion, as was true in Vietnam.

I generally agree with the idea that we should have some sort of accountability system for systems with statistically predictable flaws. Workers' safety is a good example. Rather than make every workplace accident a case of individual moral judgment, we make the problem abstract and say, "Well, there are going to be so many accidents a year, so let's set aside a certain amount of money to compensate for them." A similar ideas is behind insurance systems -- at least, when they work well. But you can also see where we could use more of this sort of statistical morality -- in malpractice cases, for instance. Our system would be much more fair to doctors and patients if we handled (most) medical error through some of statistical system rather than focusing on spectacular cases.

But it seems like a tough call when it comes to military decisions. On an individual level, almost no one would say it is right to kill civilians in the name of a military goal, no matter how great. Yet just as with medical error (or, perhaps the more relevant case, police policy), a certain number of civilian deaths can be predicted over the long run, no matter what the military policy. I'm skeptical that we can approve or deny military policies based on the fact that *any* civilians would be killed. On the other hand, I don't know if there's any good way of coming up with an "acceptable" rate of error, especially when it might give the military leverage to use tactics that seem immoral. Statistical thinking is helpful in so many situations, though... I wonder if there is a way to use it to think about military policy that does not invalidate war altogether (not that that's not on the table).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

why is Condoleezza Rice so anti-Russian?

Why, because she's a single woman with no children, of course...


It's hard to believe this isn't a parody... but Zhirinovsky is a real guy, a Russian ultra-nationalist, and he's just kooky enough to say this sort of thing. In my freshman year of high school the topic was U.S. relations with Russia, and we would quote him all the time. He advocates a Russian re-conquest of Alaska, endoresed Pat Buchanan and markets his own brand of vodka with his face on the label. Yup, crazy!

should protesters be allowed at soldiers' funerals?

If there are two things I know, it's that the First Amendment is right and Fred Phelps is crazy. Jimmy Greenfield of RedEye speaks to both points in his column today, but I question his ultimate conclusion that not allowing protesters at soldiers' funerals dilutes the right to free speech.

The principle of Greenfield's argument is correct -- we can't deny free speech to one group or individual merely because we disagree with what they say. The situations where government can regulate the actual content of speech are well circumscribed -- speech can be regulated when it clearly threatens the security of the nation or other people (yelling fire in a crowded theater, etc.) Then there's also libel law, which says that in some circumstances, speech must be true.

But it seems like a different principle should control protests at funerals -- our collective need to decide *where* and *how* free speech will occur. In some cases, free speech is a "natural" right and there is no need to decide in what forum it will occur. The ultimate example is yelling things out in a field by yourself, but a practical example would be something like book publishing. There are no national shortages of ink or printing presses, and no way that publishing millions of pamphlets in your basement could harm anyone as a physical act. However, there are some circumstances where the circumstances of speech clearly need to be regulated -- for instance, broadcasting on the AM and FM bands, which are viewed as public property.

Funerals (for soldiers or anyone else) don't quite fit either of these models, but I think there should be precedent enough in the law to ban people from protesting them. Greenfield says a law against protesting funerals would be akin to an amendment banning flag burning. I think it would be closer to cases where courts have found that placing burning crosses near the homes of African-Americans to be intimidation. In that case, the main reason why the speech is not protected is not the content (you can burn a cross out in an open field, if you like) but the location. I think you could make a similar argument here. I would add, though, that it makes the most sense to ban *any* protest or demonstration, as the unidentified "Illinois legislator" of Greenfield's column would do (it's Brandon Phelps, by the way, no relation to Fred). That would make it clear that the reason for the ban is the circumstances, not the speech.

Out of steam...