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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

Whence Comes Morality?

Posted by Nath at 10:57 AM
The most inconvenient thing about being an Atheist/Agnostic/Pastafarian is that there's no easy way to tell right from wrong. If you insist of having a sense of morality, you've got to invent one from scratch and then come up with a convincing-sounding justification for it later. Me, I'm partial to the whole 'inalienable rights' thing. Of course, it's all pretty arbitrary when you think about it. Who decides which rights are inalienable? Why do these rights apply to humans, but not to dolphins or sandwiches?

Silly little Nath, I hear you say. Everyone knows that human rights only apply to humans. And, presumably, to other sentient beings we might make contact with some day. So what makes a being sentient? Is it empathy? Evidently not. Curiosity? No. Reason? Creativity? None of the above, I'd say. There are humans that have none of these, and non-humans that have plenty.

When I started writing this, I was hoping to bring these nihilistic ramblings to some neat conclusion supporting the claim that it somehow makes sense for human beings, and only human beings, to have rights. Unfortunately, I cannot logically come to that conclusion – Athe knows I've tried. Young children, people in permanent vegetative states, people with severe mental retardation, and people with sociopathic tendencies may fail one or more of the criteria usually considered prerequisites for sentience. Yet they have inalienable rights, while more intelligent and/or compassionate creatures are slaughtered (cover your eyes) and eaten. Now, I'm no environmentalist, but this sort of thing gets hard to justify objectively.

The bottom line is that humans have rights while jam sandwiches do not simply because humans have more power over their environment. If a race of intelligent alien jam sandwiches were to descend from the skies tomorrow with advanced technology and a craving for toddler meat, our cries for justice and mercy would be no more valid than the squeals of the dolphins in that video.

That is all. I'm no closer to justifying my ideas of morality than I was when I started writing this, and now I feel like a sandwich.
(11) comments

Lest We Remember

Posted by Nath at 6:37 AM
When news of last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai first came to my attention, I could not help but wonder whether this was the proverbial 'Big One'. A Big One is a terrorist attack of the sort you find in Tom Clancy novels. It's the nightmare scenario in the back of society's collective mind. It's what happens if certain kinds of weapons get into the hands of certain kinds of people. Big Ones are rare, except in fiction. 9/11 is the only successful Big One I can think of off the top of my head.

Around 200 people died in the Mumbai bombings. That's by no means a small number, but thankfully this isn't our Big One. Mumbai has seen worse. These attacks will not have any real consequences. The peace process will take another kick in the pants. Various officials from both sides of the border will issue (or rather have issued) the sternly worded but ultimately meaningless statements expected of them. People will froth at the mouth for a couple of days, and then go back to whatever's on TV.

It is fortunate that we are so quick to forget. That's a strange thing to say, but bear with me: I'll explain. The bulk of the damage done by a terrorist attack – particularly a Big One – does not involve the people who actually died. The damage occurs when the victim nation decides that things have gone too far, and starts doing things without really thinking about what's best in the long run. Take 9/11. Three thousand lives were lost in the attack – tragic, certainly, but in itself not a large enough number to have a noticeable effect on a country that loses 40,000 lives a year to road accidents.

Yet it's hard to deny that the US is in a tougher position today than it was on 10 September, 2001. Why? The US could have healed, recovered, and moved on. Instead, it fell into the carefully laid trap that had been laid out by its enemies. Yes, Al Quaeda was ultimately beaten back into the woodwork for a few years, but at great cost (and I'm not just talking about money here). A large democratic country will take a lot more time to heal and rebuild than a bunch of thugs with Kalashnikovs.

Okay, back to Mumbai. Let us, for a moment, get into the head of a Lashkar-e-Toiba strategist and try to understand his motivations. I will resist the urge to make a joke about how cramped it would be in a jihadi's head, because we would do ourselves a disservice by assuming that our enemy is a brainless protohuman who knows only how to eat, sleep and explode. I have written in the past about how these attacks bring the extremists no closer to their goals (see Festival of Explosions). I wrote that post under the assumption that what they wanted, ultimately, was Kashmir. I have begun to suspect that this is not entirely accurate. Kashmir is one of the root causes of the conflict, but you can't cure burns by putting out the fire. I have a feeling that these attacks are intended more to weaken India than to reorganise Kashmir.

And how are 200 deaths meant to weaken a country of 1,103,371,000 people? Well, push people hard enough and they'll do the damage themselves. The equilibrium between liberty and security will shift a couple of notches to the right. Words like 'revenge' and 'retribution' suddenly become fashionable even among those who ought to know better. The consequences would be disastrous if people stayed in this frame of mind for any length of time.

As I said, it is fortunate that we are so quick to forget.
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