Trackback: Will Begly on Terrorism: 3/23

Last week, Will Begley posted on the topic of terrorism in response to the Gamma class’s discussion that week. He brought up an interesting point about the nature of the terrorist as being a product of nurture rather than nature. I think that this is a really relevant discussion to be had in western society, as I believe that so much of our xenophobia stems from our false beliefs that terrorists are inherently different from ourselves. I believe that history has shown us time and time again that young men are constantly looking for a cause to give their lives for. In World War Two, for example, many men would even lie about their date of birth in order to enlist for our campaign against the Third Reich. In our cities, young men and women will even risk imprisonment, death and injury to be a member of a local gang. Whether Islam is used as the basis for much terrorist aggression, I believe is irrelevant, as a terrorist group could almost as easily rally the youth against capitalist ideology or against race as they could against the infidel. Terrorism has a very tangible goal to cling to, as well as very clear guidelines for success.

Ultimately, I believe that young men sign up to fight and die for terrorist causes simply because young men have a primal desire to fight and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In Western society, we fulfill that desire by pursuing careers and hobbies, but both of those are intangible concepts in societies that have no clear system of government and no real authority.


Investigating Ethics (5/5)

Over the past four posts, I have examined the difference between ethics and morals, and what the purpose of each is. So far, I have determined that an individual cannot function practically as an ethical absolutist -one who adheres to a single ethical code -and have determined that the function of morality is to make judgments about ethical decisions. What I have not determined is what the purpose of judging ethical decisions is. I have examined the argument that morality judges ethical decisions to push us toward better societal interactions and self-preservation, but have dismissed these notions on the basis that on the whole, morality has not changed human interaction in many big ways. In thousands of years we have not yet created utopia, but instead we continue to wage war, overlook genocide, justify racism and sexism, as well as slavery. We even make jokes about subjects such as rape or abuse, perhaps subconsciously because we have accepted that those will always exist and we would rather learn to laugh than be stuck in perpetual bewilderment or sadness.

I have determined that the only purpose for morality that I can know to be true is that morality exists to show me my own failure. In some ways it conditions me to make better choices, though I have realized that my moral conscious will never prevent me from choosing to make all the bad decisions that I inevitably will. What I understand from this is confirmation of what my faith tells me: that I will inevitably live improperly, and that I am in need of a savior.

Investigating Ethics (4/5)

In my last post, I examined the reason for which morality serves to judge ethical decisions, and found only that that morality judges ethics to make known to us our failure in a particular decision. In it, I made the observation that perhaps one’s ethical code is not intended to be relativistic, but in fact that our moral conscious makes a judgment when we leave a specific ethical framework. In the post, I proposed that that framework might in fact be virtue. I chose virtue out of all the other ethical frameworks because I asked myself under what contexts have I experienced a moral conviction. I found that I experience moral conviction when I have personally caused some harm in the situation; or know that I will cause harm through my decision. I have found that this harm does not need to be strictly defined. I find that I will experience regret whether I knowingly I harm someone who is innocent, guilty, familiar or unknown, or even myself. It should be noted that regret occurs when a choice is made, not when a situation is beyond one’s own control.

I believe that, if followed, virtue ethics would free an individual from regret in decision making. However, it would also appear that it is impossible to make a virtuous decision in the context of the lesser of two evils. When one has to choose between “less wrong” and “more wrong”, ultimately it is not a virtuous decision. Virtue ethics maintains that decisions must be made by determining and choosing the outcome that is morally “right”, but in the context to a situation where there is no moral “right”, the individual must refuse to choose, or otherwise must change the ethical framework under which he is operating. And it would seem again that there is no functional ethical absolute.

Which leaves us where we were, asking, “why does morality judge ethical decisions?”

Investigating Ethics (3/5)

In my last post, I examined the difference between morality and ethics -that ethics is a framework for decision-making, and morality exists seemingly only to judge the decisions that are made under the ethical framework. What I would like to examine in this post is the purpose for which morality judges ethical decision making.

After much contemplation I have come up with the following progression.

Morality judges ethics for the purpose of:

  • Reminding us that we have failed.
  • Imploring us to learn from our mistakes; or the
    mistakes of the situation.
  • Pushing us to strive for an ideal in our decision-making.

But even these I am at a loss to understand. It would seem that regardless of how conscious we are of our morality, we continue to enter into situations where we disregard its judgment. Of course, I will not suggest that we are walking down a path of unending self-destruction by choosing to disregard morality in all of our decisions; most of the time we appear to make morally positive decisions, though it is undeniable that in many cases people choose to perpetuate their own self-destruction. For example, a man chooses to cheat on his wife. He knows this is wrong, yet he disregards this judgment, choosing to cheat, once, and very likely again and again. For this reason, I must refute the latter two observations because it appears that morality has so far been unable to condition human society into utopia.

The first observation is the difficult observation because it is both true, yet incomplete. It is a correct observation of the effect of the moral judgment, though from it, we have only arrived at the statement: “Morality judges ethics for the purpose of making ones own failures known.” At the moment, the only following observation that I have found is that perhaps my initial judgment -that ethics should be relativistic -is false, and our conscious is there to make some observation; perhaps that virtue is always the better choice.

Investigating Ethics (2/5)

Over the San Francisco trip I enjoyed a conversation with one of my peers about the novel by Issac Asimov, I, Robot, where robots are programmed with an ethical code -the three laws of robotics, where:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Ultimately in the novel, deciding that the only way to operate optimally under this system of ethics is by taking control of human society, the robots revolt, killing many people. The idea behind these actions is that humans are inherently self-destructive, and fewer people would be killed if the robots chose to eliminate the most destructive humans to the greater population. An interesting idea of its own, but it made me wonder whether one day there will be a computer that can comprehend morality.

In my last post, I discussed the difference between morality and ethics, and it can be said that any computer program has an ethical framework under which it operates. It is not so called, but essentially it is programmed to respond in a certain way when a specific input is given. =IF(X=Y), “yes”, “No”, at the most simple level.  I imagine that this code could be extrapolated to the point where a computer could be pre-programed to answer any number of expected situations with the
appropriate response -even when they begin to conflict with each other. You could even write a piece of code so long that the machine would cycle through thousands of responses to find the appropriate one. But the difference comes with the unexpected. You see, we may all expect to operate as ethical absolutists until the point where we realize that the only way to preserve our humanity is through virtue. At this point, our entire framework shifts because we have a moral conscience that instructs us that to continue to operate under this framework conflicts with either our idealism or our pragmatism, and to do so is indescribably “wrong”.

In a way, it may seem as though morality is simply another ethical position, though at the same time it is something entirely different. Morality can be overlooked, but it cannot be denied, just as actions can be justified and abhorred at the same time. Morality does not decide action; instead, it judges action. But the real question is for what reason does it judge?

Investigating Ethics (1/5)

If you’ve ever wondered what the world might look like during the zombie apocalypse, I invite you to watch an episode of the new AMC series “The Walking Dead”. My roommates and I have created out own cult this year on Sunday evenings at nine to examine the places where the human mind will travel when humanity is lost. In this post, I would like to examine the complexity of normative ethics.

This season’s finale ends with the murder of one of the main characters by the hero of the story. After continual threatening by the murdered, the hero finds himself led into a field at gunpoint to be killed by the man who would be murdered -a situation he has been in time and time again with this same man, and had succeeded in talking the man down. Though this time the outcome would be different. The hero, who had maintained a virtuous ethical position throughout the story now found himself in a position where he was unable to deny the danger of allowing this man to go on living. Ultimately, he decides to forgo virtue ethics in exchange for utilitarian ethics, choosing to kill the man instead.

This poses an interesting question: is there no such functional thing as an absolute ethical stance? If one permanently operates under a totalitarian code of ethics, individuals will be done injustice, though if virtue is employed, at times greater harm may be done to the larger group.

This is where ethics and morality differ. While normative ethics, being the framework under which decisions must be made, may be exchanged to produce the best outcome, morality simply is itself. One can justify the death of three to save ninety-seven, but one cannot reasonably argue that the death of those three was a good thing. War may at times be the most practical solution, though it can never be a desirable solution. We all know the glory of the U.S. involvement in WW2; it was a great thing that we moved to end the conquest of the Third Reich, though we seldom consider the lives of the millions of German men who were drafted into the Nazi army to die for their country.

I will continue this discussion in my next post.

A recipe for alienation

My fellow seniors; I invite you to read this essay on our misconceptions about “work”, and to examine your own strategy for how you will creating a legacy once you begin life after school.

“What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

“Give War a Chance”

This weekend I participated in the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. For those who didn’t attend, the SCNE is a simulation of a United Nations negotiation round -in this case between six countries regarding the political future of the South Caucasus region. My delegation represented Azerbaijan, and although I could take the rest of this post to describe all the novel things I learned about strategy, negotiation, and the Caucasus, I’d rather examine the nature of lack of resolution that we experienced in our negotiations (in brief).

We started the day with eagerness and excitement in the hopes of “winning” the simulation. As we scheduled meetings with the United States, Russia and Turkey (note: specifically with every party except Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh), we examined our influence and made guesses about what we would have to leverage to the other parties in order to gain the territory our government demanded. We expected that we would have to give up certain parcels of land, and a few other
minor assets and rights, but it seemed as though there was an optimal solution that would make each participating country happy in the end, and that all we needed to do was find it.

In the afternoon, however, Sara and I met with Armenia to discuss our terms, and it quickly became apparent that our delegation’s goals were in direct conflict with those of at least one of the other delegations. As the meeting went on I understood that I had found myself in the middle of a conflict without any “reasonable” or foreseeable solution. It seemed almost as though resolution to the conflict would only come to my country from one of two ways: either by simply yielding our demands and allowing Nagorno-Karabakh the right to self determination (which we weren’t prepared to do), or by continuing the assault until there is no more resistance from Nagorno-Karabak and Armenia. Although neither of these scenarios appealed to my delegation, it seemed after negotiations that we would be stuck with the latter.

As we concluded our simulation, the chairman asked us to reflect on this statement:

“Give War a Chance.”

The idea being that although in most situations war should be avoided at all costs, in the case of the “frozen conflict” it may be the only way for resolve. That is, the only way besides yielding one’s own demands.

Reflections on Unconventional Living

For the past few weeks I have been following the blog of a writer named Chris Guillebeau. Best known for his blog, “The Art of Non-Conformity“, Chris uses the blog to outline his “unconventional strategies for life, work and travel”, and to recount his experiences as he attempts to visit every country in the world by April 2013. As I read of Chris’ exploits, and his wisdom, I can’t help bus ask myself where I am refusing to be unconventional, and what the trajectory of my own life is. As I continue on in my last semester at Penn State, my mind is overwhelmed with thoughts of “what will I do when I graduate?” and perhaps more deeply, “what will people think of me if I choose this?” At the moment, I recognize in me a primary desire for two things: to be challenged (and to succeed), and to do something exciting with my life. Secondary to these though, I have a strong desire to make money and to be seen as successful by my peers. What I notice though, is that my primary desires are most often overshadowed by the secondary ones.

I find myself overwhelmed by choice and its potential (though mostly constructed) consequences. As I ponder these, I come back an ongoing discussion that I have had with a friend of mine all year: whether the problems of the world can really be mended by institutional reform, or whether more personal efforts -such as those taken by our former Coach, Joe Paterno to mentor countless students into responsible men -are where the real difference is made. In my case, does the company I work for really matter, as long as I enjoy my work and am committed to assisting the community around me? I think the answer is that both are required in order to change the world -though both may be equally arduous. It is not enough for me to work for an NGO and sit back when I come home at the end of the day while my own community may be falling apart. Likewise, it may not be enough for me to choose a job whose function contributes to the furtherance of destruction around the world.

When I was at home over Christmas break, a good friend of mine posed the question “if the only job you were offered was to work for this cigarette company, would you take it?” At first, I answered yes, though after further reflection, I cannot say it with the same assurance. You see, my friend’s own father found himself in that position when finishing his master’s degree. Despite having two children and a wife to support, he still chose to be unemployed for five months until finally being offered a job with a food conglomerate. Although I fully understand the argument that smoking is a choice, personally I would rather not spend my life promoting the habit, but I wonder whether I would have the same boldness as my friend’s dad to choose unemployment rather than a job that was not in alignment with my values. I imagine that I may soon be presented with a choice of stable living and one that is more risky, yet less conventional, and all I hope is that I will be able to look back on that decision 10 years from now and know that my life has been time well spent.

Trackbacks: Will & Rishi -Modern Media and the BFC


I relate to your grievances regarding the opacity of news today. As Penn Staters we know first hand the proclivities of news corporations like MSN, CNN and NewsCorp to misrepresent and under-represent the true details of a story. More than anything though; what I’ve understood through all of this is that mass media is in a particularly powerful position to simply turn our attention away from important social and civic discourse, and toward just about anything else. For example; I think you would be hard pressed to find more than two out of any ten students on this campus who would be able to define each of the republican hopefuls stance on the war in Afgahnistan, though I’m sure at least nine of ten would know something about Mr. Gingrich’s marital history. It seems to me more and more that we are failing as a nation to inform ourselves of current issues -and in many ways are losing our ability to shape the future by doing so.


Fraternities are pretty cool. I don’t have much experience with any of the business fraternities, but I pledged a social one during my sophomore year. From my experience and discussions with friends of mine in the Greek system, the quality of your experience will be what you choose to make of it. I’ve known many guys who have been able to shape their communities for the better through their leadership, and many who are simply apathetic toward the conduct of the brothers around them. You’re a pretty upstanding guy though, and I know you’ll be a great influence in your pledge class, and will take advantage of every opportunity.

Hope to see you at the ice rink on Saturday.