Ethics

Cross-posted from Tumblr: Unit 731

(In response to this post.)

Unit 731 has been a point of interest for me since it came up in a bioethics class back in college. Recently, I was reading a journal article on the subject written by Tsuneishi Keiichi, one of Japan’s top biowarfare specialists, and several details stood out:

  • “It is said that Ishii [Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, the head of Unit 731 and Japan’s wartime biochemical weapons research network] first became convinced of the need to develop biological weapons with the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925.”

For context: the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawed use of biological and chemical weapons in war. Which means Ishii decided to embark on his research precisely because a good number of nations (38 original signatories), including many then-formidable powers – France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US* – had agreed not to use biological and chemical weapons.

* Though lobbies in Congress blocked US ratification of the 1925 Geneva Protocol until the 70s

(My first reaction: What an asshole. This impression remains unchanged, and is much more vehement than that pithy statement implies.) Taking off from this point, it seems reasonable to imagine that Ishii Shiro plunged into Japanese biological and chemical weapon development with the intent of taking advantage of the prohibitions placed on protocol signatories. But did Japan – or at least Ishii and his research network – really intend, or at least expect, conflict with these powers?

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On human rights and drug-related killings

I caught a really thought-provoking interview on human rights featuring the philosopher John Tasioulas recently. Being an (old) episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, which caters to a general audience, the interview focused on a basic1 question: What are human rights?

Basic, but not simple, since “human rights” has become both a very charged term and, perhaps in some circles, one so overused as to have turned into a bit of a hollow buzzword. Which is why it’s notable how Tasioulas kicks off the interview by first dispelling the, shall we say, “special snowflake” air that has enveloped the concept: human rights are only one kind of rights, he asserts. Now this doesn’t undercut the importance of these rights, but it at least does away with the tunnel vision that they tend to inspire and situates them within a broader category of similar concepts that, he implies, are no less worthy of discussion.

But the dissolution of the term “human rights”‘ definite edges is, like I’ve said, something of a problem. So what distinguishes human rights from other kinds of rights? Tasioulas says: universality, these rights’ applicability throughout humanity.

This is the point I find most interesting, mostly because of personal experience. Ever since it became clear that our new president had won the post, there’s been a disturbing spike in drug-related extra-judicial killings. The number keeps ticking up to this day, and there’s been a lot of debate about the validity and ethics of these incidents.

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Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells These Stories: Orlando and Narratives of Trauma

“There are no words.”

There’s also no counting how many times I’ve said that in response to various facets of the Orlando shooting: first, the burst of reports; then the rising death toll; then the slow unraveling of each victim’s biography; and then, the aftermath, the responses — in forms both heartwarmingly compassionate and shamelessly opportunistic.

The extent and range of those responses isn’t surprising. Forty-nine people died and 53 were injured at a mass shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This is the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and the shooter targeted the LGBT+ community, a group that — despite significant progress in recent years — remains a minority in every sense of the term. Many members of the community have already spoken about how jarring, how traumatic this attack has been; many more have continued to speak about how subsequent responses have been disrespectful, exploitative, damaging, or unhelpful at best.

I found myself unable, somehow, to join those engaged in the former. So far, the most I’ve been able to do is retweet messages of support and guidelines for volunteers, because secondhand sentiments are the only things I felt comfortable posting about the matter. Let me be clear: 140 characters, no matter how many sets I retweet, will never be enough to articulate the grief, anger, and despair I feel about this attack. However, shameful as it is to say so right now, 140 characters are more than enough to be a potential breach in the illusion of safety that stems from being a straight-passing, low-key member of the community.  (more…)

On Enid Blyton, David Foster Wallace, and awareness as ethics

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon an article on morality in Enid Blyton’s work (of all things) from Aeon this week. Nakul Krishna looks into the ethical life as demonstrated by the schoolgirls of Blyton’s Malory Towers and comes out with a quote from Iris Murdoch:

‘Love,’ Murdoch wrote in an essay called ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (1959), is ‘the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’

[…] The schoolgirl’s hell is not, as a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) memorably puts it, other people; her hell is the isolated self, incapable of getting outside itself. […] But Blyton, like life, can be brutal: not every character is redeemed by the end of the series, and no character is straightforwardly rid of her vices. There is only the lifelong challenge of acknowledging the reality of other people.

This calls to mind a similar train of thought from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, where he cautions the graduates about the dangerous ease with which one can sink into unconsciousness.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. […] Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

Granted, the “default settings” that he describes aren’t limited to a person’s perception of themself, as the castigated examples in Blyton’s work seem to be; DFW’s idea of “default settings” extends to cover all sorts of perspectives one might hold. Nevertheless, these default settings bring about the same kind of objectionable condition found in Blyton: isolation, residing “too tightly in [one’s] own skin” (as one character puts it) that other people cease to be real.

It’s an interesting brand of ethics, particularly in our world of virtual realities, curated feeds, and intangible communications. Faced with a glut of information and an ever-growing toolkit with which to tailor received information according to our preferences, it’s easy to build “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We can build and expand that bubble of familiarity, all the while narrowing our own perspectives; the catch, too, is that it is easier than ever to lose everything else to the constant noise that surrounds us. When we miss (or choose to overlook) something, it’s often irretrievable.

As Enid Blyton and David Foster Wallace gently remind us, too often that means losing something invaluable to the ether. As we drill down on our own concerns and beliefs and goals, we forget to acknowledge the full extent of other people’s existence. Hence DFW’s alternative:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

Great care should be taken in how we conceive of this awareness, though. The idea of “sympathizing” with others by imagining them through our experience — by reconstructing their lives through patterns and notions culled solely from our own — can itself be a default setting that erases as much as any other automatic mindset. Throwing ourselves into a careless project of sympathy risks imposing our selves on others, thus invalidating these people’s experiences and identity. Essentially, we end up talking over the very people we aim to recognize and connect with. We ignore their personhood, reducing them to a collection of identified (or invented) points of similarity and choosing instead to talk to this facsimile of them constructed within our heads.

It is not enough to acknowledge the reality of others. Ultimately, it is necessary to arrive at that acknowledgement without filtering it through the lens of the self. We must remember and respect that our personal realities are no more important or essential than theirs; and certainly, that their realities are not mere extensions of ours.

Or, taking from Kenneth Reinhard, too often sympathy is “based on narcissistic identification, on seeing the other as ‘like yourself.'” This can easily lead to a reduction of the other, serving to extend our skull-sized kingdoms in a more insidious (and self-congratulatory!) way.

More difficult, and perhaps more valuable, is the constant effort to “[welcome] the other as Other rather than reducing him to Same.” (Reinhard)