Religion, Vodou

A Realistic Prayer About Hurricanes

Photo by Matt Hendrick

Every year our Vodou temple holds a public ceremony for Hurricane season. This is considered a community service, a “turning” ceremony asking Ezili Danto to protect our city from storms. As you can imagine, in New Orleans this is a big deal.

This year I was away in Texas. I held my own version, singing Danto’s songs for the benefit of the city around me. But the words I said are, I’m sure, very different than the prayers of my compatriots.

I’m a priest of many gods, but not a priest in Vodou. It’s not my place to lead the Hurricane Turning, but below you’ll find the words I would say if it was. Many Vodouisants would disagree with my take. But I spend much of my time on the road thinking about faith, and this, I think, is the most honest prayer I could give.

“Danto! Protective mother. You take care of your baby, and today we ask you to take care of us. Enter into our heads, so that may we protect others as you protect your child.

“Danto, the storms are coming. The storms could destroy our lives and our homes and our city. We are scared, Danto, but we are not going to ask you to save us.

“We won’t ask you to save us, because the hurricanes must come for a reason. They are a part of the world just like we are, just like sunny days and warm summers and full moon nights. The living world needs its storms, and we need our living world.

“The storms may be worse this year. They’re bigger these days and they’re fiercer these days and they kill more people than ever before. And if the storms are worse this year, we know it’s because of our own industry, because of oil and gas and power, because we use so much and we give so little. Each of us accepts the oil and the gas and the power, so we have to accept the storms, too.

“But we do pray to you, Danto. We pray because you are older than us, older than oil and gas and power, older than the storms. In your old age you are wise, and we have one simple request for you.

“If the storm comes this way, then be here with us. Be in our heads. Help us to act with courage and compassion. Help us to share our supplies, even when we have little. Help us to look at those beside us and help them, even when they’re strangers. And help us to help the children and the elderly before we help ourselves.

“Remind us, Danto, that however different we may be, we must work together. Because it’s only by caring for each other that we will best survive the storm.

“Danto, we know that prayer will not save us. But we know, also, that in you we find strength and calmness in the storm. It is the calmness that will help us survive. Lend us that calm, that we may lend it to others.

“In the storm, Danto, let us not be the baby, waiting for you to save us. Let us be the mother, saving everyone else.

Ayibobo!

Did you know that you can now ask me anything?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Philosophy, Social Skills, Spotlight

I thought it was rude but Noam Chomsky said it’s okay

Photo by Antoine Walter

A man and a woman are at a bus stop. I’m the man, and a woman is the woman.

A minute passes. I decide to say something.

“Are you familiar with Noam Chomsky?”

The woman looks at me, but doesn’t immediately understand. It’s normal to strike up a conversation when you’re stuck waiting with someone. But she expected something like “Hot out, isn’t it?”

It sinks in, though.

“Um, sort of,” she says. “I know the name.”

“Noam Chomsky is a linguist,” I say anyway. “He studies language.”

“Oh.”

“Noam Chomsky says that when two people are near each other, it’s almost impossible for them not to start talking to each other. He says that even if it’s strangers at a bus stop, we have this powerful urge to just start talking, just because we’re stuck together.”

The woman nods and says something very polite.

“But I disagree with Mr. Chomsky. I think some people have this trait and others don’t. I personally hate talking to strangers. Sometimes I even hate talking to my friends. I like them, I just don’t want to talk all the time. I’d rather pretend to be alone, and just think. Or read a book on my phone.”

She’s actually listening now, and she’s tilted her head and opened her mouth, but doesn’t seem quite sure what to say. I go on.

“So what I’m asking you,” I asked, “Is are you the kind of person who wants to talk to strangers? Or are you the kind of person who would rather I just shut the hell up?”

Transmission Lost

This theory really is one of Chomsky’s, although I’m sure that in the literature he has already accounted for the variation between introverts and extroverts. (Let’s not rehash that topic, internet.) The reason I bring it up is that it’s made me feel slightly better about one of my worst qualities.

One of my worst qualities is that I don’t listen to people, and I don’t like to talk to them either. Don’t get me wrong; if you’re a friend and we’re having a good conversation, and I’m making eye contact with you, my head is 90% in the game. I hear you. But if you can see my eyes twitching toward my computer screen, or a book, or the ingredients I’m chopping, or any other task I decided voluntarily to be involved in before you started talking to me against my will, it’s a sure bet that André is safe in his private inner life and the only person hearing you is my auto-responder.

If you are a stranger, the chance of getting the auto-responder is very, very high.

During these exchanges my number one goal is finding a way to exit the conversation: either an excuse to leave, or a body language cue that will get you to shut up. Really anything just so I can go back to spending my mental energy on what I wanted to spend it on, instead of using it to either filter out your attack or (worse) actually engage what you’re saying.

I consider this a worst quality of mine not just because it’s disgustingly rude, but also because it seems like a failing of my mind itself. Maybe a better meditater would be more present in all conversations, and a more spiritual, compassionate heart would truly listen to strangers.

Being “present” is, I suppose, a sign of a sharp mind. Caring is a sign of a good person.

So I’ve always secretly loathed this run-from-contact side of myself. But Noam Chomsky has given me a reason to reconsider.

Noam says (and seriously, you should read this interview) that language is not primarily designed to communicate. Language mostly helps us shape our thoughts, and talking to other people is really just kind of a side-job.

Which means that a lot of our out-loud talking is also not designed to communicate.

The example he gives is the bus stop. The two people just feel compelled to talk to (at) each other, just to fill up the time. Or, as Chomsky says, to solidify social relations. The small talk lets them establish that they are friendly, not creepy, and maybe it also establishes their relative importance to each other. (I made that up, by the way; I don’t know if that’s what Chomsky means by “solidify social relations.”) So they end up talking about the football score, the weather, where each person grew up. They shoot the shit.

“You don’t care, they don’t care, you’re not trying to transmit any information,” Chomsky says.

Moving the Conversation

This is a great source of relief for me. Because, you see, I always thought that you do care when you’re prattling at me. I thought the NFL draft really meant a lot to you, or that you were hoping I would have an interesting response. That you were disappointed that I don’t like football and all your hopes for making a new friend just got dashed.

I thought you really cared.

(Or in the case of truly meaningless talk like the weather, I thought that you hoped I’d say something clever and we’d hit it off.)

I thought all this because I am not wired to talk immediately to anyone I happen to be near, so the reason why other people do it has always been a mystery to me.

But Chomsky says you don’t really care. You don’t care any more than I do what we’re talking about, or how I respond (unless I suddenly get really offensive, I suppose). You’re just saying things out loud because it makes you feel good.

Which means that really, when a stranger is making chit-chat, they are broadcasting garbage at me. My auto-responder is exactly the amount of my mental effort they deserve, because they’re just burping words near me for their own personal comfort. Not only am I not the asshole in this scenario, I’m sort of the victim.

Now I can’t deny that my own strange impulse—looking for any way to get out of the conversation, quickly—may be just as annoying to them as the word burping is to me. But at least now we’re in this together, both of us doing selfishly whatever we can for our own ease of comfort, with little regard for the other. I don’t really feel too bad about that.

With a friend it’s a little different. I can indulge a friend who needs to off-gas some words for their peace of mind. Maybe they had a bad day at work or an argument with their parents. But when I find myself daydreaming, I’m not really cheating them out of the great gift of my considered opinion. I’m giving them exactly what they want, which is someone who will listen while they put their thoughts “on paper” (paper being my ear) and organize what they think and feel about the situation. Chances are, any seeming clarity they get comes from that process of venting it all out—not from any advice I give.

Looking back over my life, my habit of not listening seems to always happen when the other person is broadcasting junk, when they aren’t really trying to transmit meaningful two-way communication. That tells me two things:

  1. Instead of feeling guilty about not paying much attention, I suppose I can feel comfortable with it. I’m giving them what they need (someone who will let them talk) without pretending they need anything more.
  2. If I can move a conversation toward meaningful two-way dialogue, as I did with the woman at the bus stop in the beginning of this essay, I will actually enjoy the conversation.

This is where I’d like your opinion (in a meaningful, two-way sense). The auto-responder may be just what someone needs, but what is the limit? When does it become just as rude as I always feared it was?

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Philosophy, Spotlight

Rebecca Roache On Futuristic Torture

Art by Angela Su

One month ago I wrote a particularly sarcastic, critical review of philosopher Rebecca Roache’s ideas on futuristic torture and how it might affect our treatment of prisoners. Like a true philosopher Dr. Roache replied with a level head and agreed to do a followup interview.

From her previous work I was convinced Dr. Roache believes criminals must suffer, and I asked her seven of the toughest questions I could think of to call that into question. Her answers (and my response) are below.

André: You’ve clarified that you don’t condone these futuristic punishments. But almost all responses read you as supporting strong, unpleasant punishments—at least in general, if not these specific punishments. Do you think your interview and blog post come across as pro-punishment? Why do you think people read it that way?

Rebecca Roache: I suspect that part of it is because the distinction between philosophically analysing an idea and endorsing it gets lost when provocative philosophical research is reported in the media.

Something similar happened in relation to another paper I worked on (about engineering humans to mitigate climate change—there’s an interview about it here), although the lead author on that paper, Matthew Liao, bore the brunt of that attention. Another point is that, as I wrote in the blog post clarifying my views on this, I think the most interesting philosophical issues about punishment and technology relate to retribution, so we’re focusing on those issues. By ‘focusing on those issues’ I mean that in most (but not all) cases, we’re trying to see the issues from a retributivist’s point of view, and considering what the attitude of such a person should be towards certain interesting interactions between punishment and technology. If anyone takes that point of view to be my own, then that’s going to make me look like a strong retributivist.

A: When discussing a hypothetical unethical scenario, should a philosopher need to disclaim that they’re not in favor of it? Does disclaiming that add anything of value?

RR: For the author, disclaiming that they don’t endorse ethically objectionable views is valuable assuming that they don’t enjoy being taken personally to endorse those views, and assuming that they don’t want to encourage others to adopt those objectionable views by appearing to support them. Perhaps doing so is also valuable in that it might help prevent people viewing philosophy as a dangerous or amoral pursuit. As to whether philosophers should prudentially disclaim that they’re not in favour of these things, I think it would be useful to draw a distinction between clearly setting out the motivation for considering an idea, and adding some sort of explicit disclaimer to their work. Doing the latter would be overkill, I think: anyone who is misinterpreted having done the former has cause to complain if they’re misinterpreted by those who don’t read their work properly.

A: While some commentators read you as specifically endorsing futuristic torture, the main objection I raised was more basic: in considering each future technology, you seem to take it as a given that criminals should suffer. You repeatedly consider the limits on how much they should suffer, or the appropriate way to make them suffer—but for all the detail devoted to those questions, you spend very little time asking whether they must suffer at all. Do you believe justice requires suffering?

RR: Part of this question, I take it, is answered by my previous point about being interested in retributive issues. Retributivists believe that criminals should suffer some sort of deprivation, and that this deprivation should be proportional to the crime committed. Whether and when that deprivation must involve suffering is an interesting and difficult question, and is not one that we ignore. The answer, in part, depends on your definition of ‘suffering’. Is a vandal made to suffer when she is punished by being made to clean up her mess? Do people suffer when they are made to pay fines as punishment for parking violations? Or when they are placed under curfew, or simply asked to apologise? If they do, then we’re using a very broad understanding of ‘suffering’; one that roughly equates to ‘being made to do something that you’d rather not do’, or perhaps, ‘having one’s freedom or choice restricted’. Pure consequentialists about punishment will have no problem answering this sort of question: inflicting suffering is justifiable only to the extent that it is effective in bringing about the desired consequences of punishment. The question is more difficult (and hence more interesting) for retributivists. How can retributivists be humane while also issuing proportional punishments, especially in the case of criminals who have caused enormous physical and/or mental suffering to their victims? I’m still thinking about this.

A: On a related note, you said many rebuttals distorted your views by framing you as pro-futuristic-torture (which you aren’t). But as I review the responses to your work, many don’t seem to make that mistake at all. Rather, they seem shocked by how casually you (seem to) assume we must make criminals suffer. To many of these commentators, it doesn’t matter whether you prefer futuristic methods or current ones, more severe suffering or lesser suffering—they believe that our current justice systems are already too punitive, and that the ethical move is to focus on rehabilitation. 

Since your work does not focus heavily on rehabilitation, are they really then distorting your view? Do you feel that this is a valid objection to your approach to these technologies?

RR: As I’ve said, a lot of this work involves considering a retributive view. That involves starting from the premise that the aim of punishment is to impose a deprivation. I am less interested philosophically in rehabilitation than in retribution. I don’t mean that I think rehabilitation is unimportant, just that it doesn’t raise the most interesting philosophical issues. One rehabilitation-related issue that I do raise in the paper is the question of whether radically extended lifespans might improve rehabilitation rates: it might be possible, over the course of a centuries-long prison sentence, to reform and rehabilitate the sort of criminals who are currently thought to be impossible to reform and rehabilitate (say, 80-year-old psychopathic serial killers). But, even here, it’s the retribution-related questions that are most interesting, such as: Would it be fair to keep a criminal in prison for hundreds of years on the off-chance that we could reform him? Might that result in a disproportionately severe punishment, especially given (at least initial) empirical uncertainty about whether such reformation attempts would be successful?

As for whether I casually assume we should make criminals suffer, this is far from being the case. This is probably the aspect of the paper that I find myself constantly returning to and thinking hardest about, so there is nothing casual about my views here. I’m not a strong retributivist, in that I don’t believe that retributive aims are the only relevant aims of punishment, and I’m not in favour of ‘sinking to the level of the criminals’ by inflicting ‘eye for an eye’ type punishments—but neither am I dismissive of retribution. I have the intuition that a punishment system that focused purely on rehabilitation or other desired consequences would be naïve, unsatisfactory, unjust, and likely to backfire. (More on this in my answer to your final question, below.) What counts as an appropriate level of deprivation for criminals, and why, is something I’m still considering.

A: Long before this interview you wrote a more speculative blog post about these technologies. That blog post got a similar negative reaction. You later said you wrote it as an emotional response after reading about a terrible child murder, and that it wasn’t balanced philosophical work. But now that you’ve done extensive work on the subject, the recent interview seems to be an expansion of the same basic ideas—and received almost identical criticism.

Does your Aeon interview then reflect a balanced philosophic evaluation? Why does it arouse the same basic anti-retribution reactions as the earlier, less developed piece?

I think that the problem with that first blog post is that I didn’t make adequately clear the issue I was interested in exploring. Part of the reason I didn’t make it clear is that it wasn’t clear in my own mind—although it is, I think, revealed in some of my remarks on the blog and in the comments that follow it.

That issue is as follows. An important retributive idea is that punishment should be proportional: it should fit the crime. There are some crimes, such as torturing and then murdering a child, to which it is difficult to respond with a truly proportional punishment, given laws about what punishments can be inflicted on criminals. In our current UK justice system, the most severe punishment available is a very long prison sentence. There is, I think, a very obvious sense in which being subjected to a prison sentence of thirty years is less of a deprivation than being subjected, as a four-year-old, to prolonged torture, denial of basic needs, and eventual murder by the people who owe you protection and tenderness (as was Daniel Pelka in the case I considered in the blog).

This ‘very obvious sense’ has to do with my hunch that, if offered a choice between the two, nobody would choose the latter. The sheer length of the prison sentence inflicted in such cases is perhaps partly due to an attempt to translate a shorter period of intense suffering into a longer period of lesser suffering in order to make the punishment fit the crime—but I think this case, given that nobody would choose Daniel’s fate over that of his murderers, illustrates that it’s not always possible to perform such a translation. If it were, we should expect people to be ambivalent about which options to choose, or perhaps to have a roughly 50:50 split between those who would choose Daniel’s fate and those who would choose his murderers’ punishment.

These reflections suggest that Daniel Pelka’s murderers are not receiving a proportional punishment for their crime: their deprivation is less than his. Once, there existed options of more severe punishment methods, such as the death penalty or the infliction of physical pain, but such methods are outlawed in the UK because they are viewed as inhumane. A long prison sentence is the severest available punishment that is currently deemed humane (and hence permitted) in the UK justice system, and so retributivists must just accept that some very serious crimes are not punished proportionately. But, what if technology could offer means to increase punishment severity without immediately entering the domain of inhumane punishment? Would pure retributivists—and, again, I’m not one—be committed to endorsing such punishments? My initial sense is that they would. And deciding that they would is about as far as I got with that initial blog post.

Since writing that blog post, however, I have realised that things are less simple than they might initially appear. Using technology to tinker with current punishment methods might certainly change them, but it is not obvious how these changes affect the severity of those punishments, or at what point we cross the line (if there is one, and if we have not already crossed it with our current methods) between what is humane and what is not. I suspect that much of what we mean by ‘humane’ is ‘familiar’: consider that one common definition of ‘inhumane’ takes it to involve ‘unusual’ punishment. This makes it appropriate to question the humanity of our existing methods as well as novel ones, since it’s surely possible for a punishment method to be both inhumane and familiar, and for inhumane methods to become familiar over time without thereby growing more humane.

It’s actually quite horrifying that our current system allows people to be locked up when they are very young and never allowed out of prison alive. If it were possible to use technology to achieve the aims of punishment (whatever they are) humanely (whatever that is) and within a short period of time, so that criminals did not spend decades behind bars, then doing that would be better (for the individuals and for society) than locking people up for significant portions of their lives.

Whether it is possible—and what such a punishment would even look like—is a difficult question to answer. But, as a first shot, imagine the possibility of a drug that could induce in criminals an intense experience of empathy for the victim and remorse for the crime, such that these experiences were both morally appropriate responses to the crime committed, and sufficiently unpleasant for the criminal that retributivists would be satisfied that the experience of using such a drug constituted a deprivation comparable to a prison sentence. Perhaps—and I’m not certain of the answer here—giving such a drug to criminals would be more humane than sending them to prison. Perhaps criminals could be given the choice between going to prison for a long period of time or taking such a drug. Perhaps their victims, or the relatives of their victims, could have some say in what punishment method is used.

A: You’ve said that you are not a strong retributivist, but you add, “but I think the idea of desert is important.” Can you explain the basis for the retributive concept of deserved suffering? Clearly desert can be a source of consolation to victims (although some victims even of violent crimes speak against desert). But do criminals truly “deserve” punishment, or is that just the conceit of emotions running high after a crime?

RR: Desert is important not only in the context of punishment, but in the context of our interactions with each other more generally.

Let’s start by considering its relevance to punishment. Suppose that we’re all consequentialists about punishment, and that we’re not concerned about desert at all: our sole intention in inflicting punishment is to bring about certain consequences, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, etc. It might be that the most effective way to bring about those consequences would involve doing things like framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, in order to make a public show of ‘punishing’ them and deterring others. Or sending serial parking violators to prison for many years so that we can be absolutely sure of reforming them.

If such a system were widely implemented, I’m not sure it could properly be called a punishment system at all. In fact, if we don’t care about desert and if all we’re concerned about are consequences—specifically, preventing criminal behaviour—why wait until people actually commit crimes before interfering with them? Why not, instead, take steps to prevent people from committing crimes before they offend, if we have reason to think it likely that they will do so?

Consider that a famous study links maltreatment of children who have a certain genotype to an increased risk of anti-social behaviour in adulthood. If we’re concerned about preventing crime, why not proactively incarcerate maltreated children with the relevant genotype in order to ensure that they don’t go on to commit crimes? Social workers could take maltreated, traumatised children straight out of their abusive homes, give them a genetic test, and immediately imprison them for life if they turned out to have the relevant genotype. This could be an easy, effective way to reduce crime.

Even so, I hope you’d agree that this idea is abhorrent, and the reason it is abhorrent has to do with desert.

Desert is not just about inflicting punishment on those who have done wrong, but also about not interfering with those who have done nothing wrong. Maltreated children do not deserve to be imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong, even if there are good reasons to believe that they will commit crimes in the future.

The point I am making here is that a society of people who cared about preventing crime but who did not care about desert would be terribly dystopic. Those who emphasise the consequentialist aspects of punishment generally also care about desert, at least implicitly: where achieving a desired consequence (deterrence, reform, etc.) must involve inflicting a deprivation (such as a prison sentence or a fine) on someone, consequentialists generally hold that society should restrict itself to inflicting deprivations only on those who have committed crimes. That is, the deprivations necessary to ensure deterrence and so on should be inflicted on those who deserve to suffer such deprivations; those who have not acted wrongly deserve to be left in peace. Desert, then, is important to consequentialists as well as to retributivists.

When I say that I think desert is important, I mean that I think desert must play a central role in any system of punishment. More generally, it plays a central role in our interactions with each other that have nothing to do with punishment. We apologise to those who deserve our apologies. We reward those who deserve reward. We thank those who deserve our thanks. Apology, reward, and gratitude are—like punishment—built around the concept of desert. Life would be very different if we rejected the notion of desert.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache. Photo via Oxford.

Commentary

Has Dr. Roache answered all the objections to her work? I don’t think so, but it is clear that her interest in the topic is far more thoughtful than the original interview made it seem.

There are questions I’d like to see her engage more deeply: for instance, when she credits criticism to her audience not understanding philosophical analysis, she seems to neglect that the audience in question was that of Aeon Magazine, a philosophy-heavy outlet with an intellectual readership. Many of that site’s commenters made very thoughtful, careful points that deserve to be treated seriously. Likewise, I find it dubious whether we can force criminals to experience “deprivation,” as Dr. Roache says, without acknowledging that we are making them suffer. It seems hard to imagine any form of mandatory deprivation that does not entail suffering.

But the main cause of outrage—that Dr. Roache was apparently advocating high-tech torture of prisoners—seems misplaced. She’s clearly interested in these issues from the abstract perspective of what they tell us about our views on justice.

Personally I’m most interested in her take on just desert. “Deserving” punishment means, to me, the somewhat icky idea that bad people must suffer. Roache points out that desert also means innocent people must not. That’s an excellent and oft-forgotten point; but I also think the two ideas can be treated separately. If you believe the innocent deserve to be left to live their lives in peace—as everyone other than dictators does—you are not automatically committed to the idea that criminals must pay a price in pain. We can have fairness without revenge.

The reality is that not all crimes can be made up for in eye-for-eye fashion, so imagining more complex revenges is not fruitful. Adding more years to a prison sentence—even centuries—is not a way to even it out with a particularly horrific crime. In the Middle Ages we tried to even out such crimes with superbly horrific punishments, like being doused alive in boiling water, being burned at the stake or being drawn and quartered. But these gruesome fines, which give a guttural sense of satisfaction, are not permitted under our prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. That alone ought to tell us that “getting even” shouldn’t be permitted in general.

This followup interview has given me a much clearer idea of Dr. Roache’s intentions in her research, but no clear idea of her personal views on her subject matter. It’s obvious she doesn’t advocate torture, but not obvious what she does advocate. She’s very careful to pull back questions of justice, punishment and desert to the level of their philosophic interest, and not to comment on what she personally feels is the right course. That’s understandable for an academic discussing a sensitive topic, but I find myself wanting more from our ethicists. If someone’s discussing torture, I want to know where they stand. I’d hope that any serious depiction of futuristic sci-fi torture is meant purely to condemn our worst impulses, but Dr. Roache refuses to go that far.

I originally labelled Dr. Roache as a “bad philosopher” dealing with a bad question. Do I still think that? Our interactions since my original piece have made it clear that Rebecca Roache is a thoughtful person and a committed academic—everything one could ask of a philosopher. But her answers to all my questions also give me the sense that she essentially believes punishment, in some form, is a necessary part of justice. I understand that she sincerely wrestles with that idea, and she’s carefully avoided committing to it; but that only makes me feel that she’s had her gut instinct challenged, and is now uncertain of her moral compass.

I suspect that I’ll take great interest in Rebecca Roache’s continued work on this subject. But when she does finally reveal her conclusions—if she does reveal them—I also suspect I’ll disagree.

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Writing

What I’m Writing These Days

Having released Lúnasa Days, a few people have asked me what I’m working on next. The answer is “several things,” but until recently I wasn’t sure which ones were priorities. A big part of my sabbatical in Mexico is focusing on my writing, and over the last few weeks I’ve not only written but assembled a clearer plan. So, while definitely still subject to change, here’s a rough idea of what you can expect next.

Fiction

While I have both fiction and nonfiction projects in the works, fiction is my first priority. I have many ideas I’d love to develop, but I had to choose one to painstakingly outline, storyboard, write and publish.

So I chose the one I’m most excited about.

The book starts with one simple question: How bad would things have to get in Medieval Europe before the Pope authorized demonic magic?

The answer delves into the lives of knights who have lost their faith, friars who renounce their vows, virgin warriors of the Church, damned tomes of ancient spells, and a supernatural enemy devouring whole kingdoms.

The first chapter wipes Portugal completely off the map. Things get worse from there.

This story will be told as a series, with each episode following the arc of one character or group of characters as world-changing events unfold. The first tale follows an underpaid soldier as he’s dropped, by the dark arts, far behind enemy lines—knowing that he’ll go straight to Hell if he’s killed before he can find a priest to confess his sins.

I don’t have a title for this series yet, but I’m wide open to suggestions. I want to finish three whole episodes before I send any to press, which I hope will happen by mid-2014.

Nonfiction

Increasingly I want to take my work in the direction of serious philosophy and the effects of real life adventure. At present that involves two projects.

1. Philosophy of Adventure

Last fall, I released a preview of my long-requested book about adventure. I received extensive reader feedback on that preview version, including dozens of responses to an online survey that closed December 31. Thanks to that robust feedback, I’m reworking and expanding the book.

Originally, the book was titled Heart of Adventure. I was never totally in love with that title. It seemed better than a troped Art of Adventure, but somehow not quite right. Now I’m leaning more toward a plain, simple The Philosophy of Adventure.

Again, I’m open to title suggestions or your votes between those options.

2. My Own Story

The other nonfiction project is autobiographical. It was pointed out to me that just the first leg of my Journey–bicycling the Mississippi River–is a huge adventure by most people’s standards, and that I have dozens of stories from those hazy months. It got me really excited about writing the story of that first leg as a standalone tale, leaving it open to sequels as I reach new milestones. I can’t wait to start outlining.

But I plan to try something new with this one. Instead of indie publishing it, for the first time I’m going to pitch a book proposal to the big names. I’m interested in getting a literary agent—nothing drains me more than handling the business end of writing myself—and I think this would be the ideal project to shop to agents. An agent would then, in turn, pitch it to big publishing houses.

The time frame for the nonfiction projects is less certain than the fiction series. I would expect the tale of my bike ride to come out if and only if someone has interest in publishing it; and the Philosophy of Adventure book to come out around the end of 2014. Both are much lower priorities than the fiction work right now.

Becoming a Professional Writer

I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was a kid. Slowly, that dream has been becoming real. But it’s not something I’ve accomplished on my own.

After the initial success of Lúnasa Days I wrote that much of my success was because of my readers. Early on, readers encouraged me that the idea behind Lúnasa Days was a good one. A number of readers stepped up as patrons and helped finance the creation of the book, and stood by me patiently as I dealt with numerous roadblocks. I don’t think the book would have succeeded without all of the reader support.

So, to all of you reading this: thank you.

And if you don’t have it already, feel free to snag Lúnasa Days yourself:

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Available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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ExPostModern, Philosophy, Spotlight

A Bad Philosopher Answers a Bad Question Badly

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig.

Philosophers fill an important role in our society, and not only in academic circles. As specialists who use logical deduction to answer tough questions, philosophers have dominated the worlds of business leadership and law; many of us instead choose to work as authors, teachers and public intellectuals. Philosophy by its nature can come up with answers even when there is no hard empirical data to swear by—that’s both why it’s less rigorous than science, and also why it can sometimes answer questions that science can’t, such as ethical questions. Having a mind that’s trained to think calmly through great uncertainty is an asset in figuring out right from wrong in real-world situations.

That’s why it astonishes me that one academic philosopher, Oxford’s Rebecca Roache, chose not only to give an interview on what is essentially a fantasy question (should we use technology that doesn’t exist and isn’t on the horizon to create an artificial hell for criminals?) but managed to give all her answers without one whit of critical thinking. You can read the entire interview here.

Faced with this question, one might expect a philosopher to start by digging at its premise. Before addressing, “Should we use to make life hellish for prisoners,” they could ask: why are we using anything to make life hellish? It may be a natural impulse, but is it right to make criminals suffer?

That kind of questioning is the essence of what philosophers do. Most of society treats its beliefs as sacrosanct, but philosophers are that professional class trained to pick at scabs that most of us would rather keep covered. Philosophy as a discipline is perhaps most famous for asking questions like, “How do we know the world is real?” and “Do we truly know anything?” Taking that same healthy skepticism and applying it to ethics, philosophers have successfully tackled big questions like is it right to kill one person to save many and does morality mean anything if there is no God?

Dr. Roache apparently missed those classes at Leeds. She begins:

I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice [in certain cases] was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

Now, as a thought exercise, this is fine; because of our question-everything attitude, philosophers often touch on repulsive ideas as hypotheticals. But if you’re wondering whether this is merely Roache’s setup for a refreshingly ethical solution, the answer is no. The same reasoning runs throughout everything she says on the topic of life-extending punishments.

Discussing potential future technology, she suggests we may someday live for centuries or millennia (which is plausible, if you really emphasize the “someday”). And it seems to her that we should seize upon this tech to artificially extend a prisoner’s lifespan to, say, 1000 years. That way they could really, really suffer in the slammer.

Does she have any moral qualms about creating all this extra suffering? Only one:

…I soon realised it’s not that simple. [Among death row inmates] death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

So her concern about using sci-fi to create extra suffering is that she doesn’t want to overlook ways to create even WORSE suffering.

Dr. Rebecca Roache, Philosopher.

Dr. Rebecca Roache. Photo from Oxford University.

(To be fair to Dr. Roache, she also raises an existential question about whether the individual in the cell at age 1000 is even the same person who went in at age 30, but she never explores this point—which would incidentally serve as an excellent objection to life sentences in general, even with our current 70-year lifespan.)

Now, like all the best villains, Roache has a great moral justification for the suffering she believes we should create: these are criminals. Criminals, after all, need to suffer to make up for their crimes. Everybody knows that. But few people can answer why: why exactly do criminals have to suffer? How does that help anything? That’s a question that Roache neither asks nor answers. She just assumes that they do need to suffer, and that it’s our job to make that happen.

I want to point out some reasons why we might question that assumption of hers, and these are reasons that are actually raised in the real world by legislators, criminal justice experts, human rights activists, prisoners and even the families of murder victims.

First, creating suffering seems inhumane.

As a society we have decided that some types of persons—typically those who have engaged in violence—need to be separated from the population and kept confined for our safety. As long as they are securely confined, that objective is met without piling on any extra suffering; the main point is just to keep them away from the rest of us.

Second, confinement itself is a form of suffering.

There is almost nothing as debilitating to the human psyche as loss of agency. In prison this confinement is combined with tight day-to-day control and constant observation by guards. So if we have some moral imperative to make prisoners suffer (and it’s unclear that we do), we’re already doing a darn good job of it.

Third, the law in most developed countries forbids creating extra suffering for prisoners.

If needed, we can discipline a particular prisoner for bad behavior; but it’s against laws and regulations to actually torment prisoners. They’re typically allowed beds, toilets, washing facilities, meals, health care, entertainment, religious meetings, educational opportunities, and other amenities because they are human beings and torturing human beings is wrong. If someone were to suggest, “Should we cut off three toes from every prisoner’s right foot?” or “Should we burn the eyes out of prisoner’s heads?” we would not take them seriously—or we might even wish that they themselves were locked in prison. Finding more existential ways to torture prisoners might seem cleaner, but it violates the same basic prohibition on cruel punishment.

Fourth, and most importantly: isn’t justice about something more than revenge?

If an individual commits a violent crime and is confined, wouldn’t we much rather see that individual eventually become peaceful, and thoughtful, and mentally stable, and productive? Wouldn’t that rehabilitation be a better outcome than simply flogging them, one way or another, for a few hundred years?

That last question is a point of contention—maybe the biggest point of contention—in the field of criminal justice today. Roache mentions this debate, framing it as a “long-standing philosophical question” between retributivists (punish the bastard!) and consequentialists (fix them!). She jumps away from actually engaging this important issue by claiming, perhaps wrongly, that even consequentialists want to see punishment, “because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.”

I understand that one can only cover so much ground in an interview for an online magazine, and Roache may have wanted to avoid directly engaging the reform-versus-revenge debate so that she could spend more time imagining make-believe ways that a make-believe society could torture its criminals. But there are ways to do that that would keep her hypotheticals tethered to the context of the most important debate in criminal justice theory. If, for example, she had framed each of her answers as, “If you wanted to maximize punishment…” or “If you believe criminals need to suffer for their crimes…” she would have constantly reminded us that this is not given. (She only does this once, when explaining why Hitler needs a really really long sentence but not a literally infinite one. Infinite prison sentences she reserves for physicists who create black holes near Earth, and other such hoodlums.)

Another way to very eloquently anchor these ideas to real-world issues would have been to directly disclose her own opinion on retribution. Imagine reading a passage something like this:

“I like to pose these futuristic scenarios to people because, generally, it makes them uncomfortable. It pokes at their fear of mankind’s ability to play God with human lives. And it might scare them a little about future technology, but we have to remember that we’ve already built some truly horrific methods of abusing prisoners, and we use them everyday. So why is that okay?”

That would have really given her imaginings a sense of connection to the real world, and it would have indicated that she has a conscience. Roache does try to ask some big questions like this, but she sort of hurriedly tacks them on at the end. Tying the future into our current debates is clearly not her first priority.

Instead, she seems to take these imaginary technologies as very realistic, very practical issues that are right on the horizon. We could be rocking thousand-year lifespans any day now. Certainly by 2015.

“The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic,” Roache tells us, “But if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before.” Her proof: pacemakers. Some prisoners have pacemakers, a device which primarily allows a person with certain heart conditions to live a normal lifespan instead of dying young. We may be pushing out our longevity a year or two here and there, but even just 100-year average lifespans are a long way off.

(Not all of Roache’s torture dreams involve longer lives. She’s also suggested artificially adjusting prisoners’ sense of time so they experience thousands of years of punishment in one normal lifespan—explicitly referencing torture tactics to make it sound plausible—as well as simply giving them brain implants to cure their behavior. This last option, the only one that might actually reform a criminal into a good person, is the one she warns us against: it “makes some people uneasy” and, she points out, the person whose brain is fixed so they feel remorse over their past crimes might not suffer enough from remorse alone so it’s probably a bad idea.)

But perhaps the most disappointing part of the interview is the hypotheticals that Roache doesn’t raise. For example: currently, life in prison is seen as a less severe, more lenient punishment than execution. But if we all had 1,000 year lifespans, and judges could still hand out life sentences, would that change? Instead of death row inmates begging to commute their sentence to life in jail, would we see 200 year old prisoners begging to be executed? Would suicide rates among prisoners rise, and would this affect public opinion about the use of life sentences?

That, of course, is a question Roache never raises, and seems to actively dodge when she’s asked about a world where everyone lives centuries or more. It’s not the kind of question she’s interested in, because, after all, it’s the kind of question that hints at some compassion or concern for prisoners—some need to view them as dignified human beings with feelings and rights. Roache carefully excludes any such mamsy-pamsy sentiments from her vision of the future.

Clearly I’m not voting for Rebecca Roache for Space Emperor, but fortunately we don’t have much to fear. That’s because the other practical consideration that she ignores is cost, and its perennial primacy in any discussion of prisons. Conservatives already grind their teeth at the cost of keeping a prisoner incarcerated per-year, and one of the toughest expenses to get approved is bolstering prisoner health care. That means that if life-extending technologies become available as a commodity, they certainly won’t be purchased for prisoners; and if they become ubiquitous as a basic health care product, prisoners will be among the last to receive them. In the world of future longevity, the most likely fate for prisoners is either to be denied long lives altogether, or to face a higher execution rate because of the cost of keeping them for centuries.

A better solution would be, of course, to simply reduce incarceration rates, improve rehabilitation practices, and teach our children that ideas like Roache’s are wrong and dangerous; but the thirst for revenge, I suspect, is a human failing we will still have to deal with even long after we’ve banged out longevity.

On a final note, I’ve picked a lot on Dr. Roache in this commentary, and for good reason; but I don’t think her interviewer is without blame. Ross Andersen, the Aeon Magazine editor who conducted the interview, began with an eloquent opening in which he decries the barbarism of the past. He sets the stage for a piece on the dangers of misuse of emerging technology, but that’s not what his subject gives him at all. When she focuses over and over on how to create more suffering, I would expect him to ask point-blank: why should we create more suffering at all?

An experienced philosophy journalist, Andersen should be eager to question her assumptions, twice over: not only as anyone discussing philosophy should, but also because an interview is far more interesting when the journalist asks hard questions. Instead, Andersen seems to play along with the basic presumption that prisoners deserve pain, and that they might not be getting enough of it just yet.

(Anderson also “condensed and edited” the interview for the public; while I can’t exclude the possibility that he spun it significantly, as of Sunday Roache hasn’t given any defense or correction in the comments section, which is almost entirely critical. [Edit: see update below.])

Of course, I don’t study ethics, human rights or prisons for a living. So in closing, I’ll leave you with a commentary from someone who does. And while most blog posts end with a question and a call for comments, this one ends with a more personal request: the next time someone does you wrong, think about whether it would really help the world one bit if they went to a place called Hell—whether that place was made by angels or by politicians.

Update: Dr. Roache has now come forward to say that the interview does not accurately capture her views. She replied in the comments below and has also posted a clarification on her own website. These responses partially address the points made in this essay, and she has agreed to answer follow up questions. Her answers will be posted here on Rogue Priest.

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Philosophy

Would you give an addict a drink?

Is this man an addict? Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

This week I wrote about gutter punks and train jumpers, and I mentioned that on Thanksgiving I gave out sandwiches, $20 bills and bottles of booze to the homeless.

I knew this story might anger some people. Whenever confronted with a chance to help a human being, a disturbing number of people refuse to give a dollar because that hurting human being might buy alcohol. I have absolutely no tolerance for this attitude, and had no reservations about confessing my booze-donor past.

But my trusty mentor Ken critiqued my donation from a different, more compassionate angle. He asked:

“What percentage of those kids do you think are addicts?”

This made me think. I had considered my actions as spreading holiday cheer, not enabling addicts—even though I can’t deny that some percentage of homeless people are certainly drunks. Let me explain some of my mental arithmetic.

If you’re not from New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine the level to which alcohol saturates the culture. Bars are open (legally) 24 hours a day, every day of the year. (Except during the Bayou Classic, but that’s a long story.) Alcohol is consumed casually in the morning or afternoon, especially on a festival day (which can be once a week or more) and is woven into both business and hospitality. For NOLA, it’s like the 1970’s never ended.

So there’s no shame about a New Orleans bum asking for a beer. Many will skip the formality of requesting money at all. Cardboard signs may say “I won’t lie, I want a drink.” This feeds on—and into—the dark, cynical humor that New Orleanians love, and the idea of going without a drink on a holiday is as horrific as the idea of going without turkey.

So in the environment where I handed out 375 mL bottles to the homeless, nothing and no one gave me pause on moral grounds. Reactions from friends ranged from applauding my generosity to simply thinking it was funny.

Reactions from the recipients were more unilateral. Someone would ask us for change or a dollar, and we’d slowly open a bag and reach in. As the bottle came out they couldn’t believe we were serious, and gave out shouts of love and gratitude. Bums can get a good meal at any shelter on Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to get the wine.

I came away from the experience feeling good about what I’d done. I viewed it as truly making the day of a couple dozen people on the street… in a pretty unique way.

But Ken introduced the idea that these same people may be hopeless alcoholics, and that my apparent goodwill simply fueled a disease. I can’t deny his point: if I know someone’s an alcoholic, I won’t buy them a drink. How was this different?

I think the answer depends on two things:

  1. How many of the recipients are alcoholics?
  2. Is it ever right to give alcohol to an addict?

Both are hard to answer. When Ken asked how many young train jumpers are addicts, my initial response was “almost all of them.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that they drink heavily and frequently, almost without exception; but they’re mostly in their early twenties. College kids also drink heavily and frequently, and the majority of them are not alcoholics.

For the homeless more broadly, I think it’s almost impossible to know offhand how many are be addicts. I would expect a higher percentage of alcoholics among the homeless (alcoholism ain’t great for the old career), but I don’t really know if we’re talking 10% or 80%.

The second question is likely “no,” but with a footnote. When someone is suffering for numerous reasons—cold, hunger, injuries, lack of love—giving them something that makes them feel immediately better, for a short while, may have some merit. I don’t have the means to solve any of the long-term problems afflicting a homeless person, and denying them booze won’t cure their addiction; but I do have the power to make one day a lot less painful. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

The next time I go out to give alms, I think I’ll follow Ken’s lead. Even though I view alcohol as a welcome and not-unethical gift, I could take that same money and put it into supplying more food, or buying blankets or gloves, and offer those instead. These may get less shouts and cheers, but they may also do a lot more long-term good.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Heroism, Spotlight

CNN Heroes: Not Heroes

Reblogged from Running Chicken:

Writing in the University of Mary Washington student newspaper, Sarah Grammar identifies the problem with “CNN Heroes”

CNN finds everyday people in communities all over the world who are reaching out to increase the quality of life for those around them. These people devote their lives to others and for many excellent reasons. The 2013 top CNN hero of the year, Chad Pregracke, dedicated his life to cleaning up the Mississippi River when he realized no one else was bothering to do it.

He first started pulling up tires, washing machines and other discarded items out of the river fifteen years ago and has since then gained about 70,000 volunteers. Is this really Heroism though? Cleaning up a mess no one should have made in the first place? Sure it is a great thing for us and for the environment, but should it be considered heroic?

It certainly takes a lot of effort to do the volunteer work that Pregracke did. But it’s not heroism.

Pregracke did not go against his family, or tradition to accomplish his goals; no one stood in his way.

One would say a hero is someone who overcomes obstacles, sometimes dangerous ones. What obstacles were in his way that could not be easily solved? What dangers did he face?
Unquestionably, we should all do more to help other people and our communities; most of us really don’t do much at all. And perhaps that’s what CNN is trying to inspire with its awards show: Put some feel-good stories on television and encourage viewers to do likewise.

But using “hero” to label any positive action that takes some effort or that not everyone is doing is a mistake; it downplays what it really means to do something heroic and, at the same, it also might be setting these “heroes” apart from the rest of us by putting them on a pedestal that we might think is out of our reach.

Running Chicken is the heroism-and-politics science of professor/human rights thinker Ari Kohen. It’s the only blog I read daily. You can check it out for yourself.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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