Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Moral Illusion

This ridiculous body-scanner uproar is a perfect example of our well-cataloged moral illusion: our bias towards caring more deeply about things that affect us physically.  To take an example from Sam Harris, compare a WWII pilot dropping bombs over a city with a person killing five little girls with a shovel.  The person committing the latter would probably feel more moral remorse or disgust, but of course the bombing run results in much more human suffering of equal intensity.

There is some usefulness in this moral illusion, but to fully implement the morality we espouse we should soberly calculate human suffering in more objective terms.  This would really put things in perspective.  Adam Serwer does just that regarding the airport scanner thing:
The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.
But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."
 The most extreme idea I've heard along these lines concerns the deployment of nuclear weaponry, which causes untold human suffering and death, and yet is conducted through a series of mechanistic checklists by technicians miles away in airplanes or submarines.  To correct the nuclear moral illusion, we should place the nuclear launch codes physically inside a close aid or family member of the President.  In order to get the codes, the friend or family member would have to be killed.  This extreme step would more accurately reflect the moral dilemma faced by the president and serve to eliminate some of the distortion.

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