Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Attacking Mere Employees Doing Their Jobs

"I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless." ~Thoreau

In the post-war Nazi trials, soldiers would justify their horrible actions as just "following orders." Employees of big corporations do less horrible but still offensive actions and justify them by saying "I'm just doing my job." (Recent case in point: TSA Agent frisking a 6 year old girl.)

Through the Milgram experiment, psychology tells us that these people may even have a point. For whatever reasons, we evolved to respond differently to authority than we might under our own direction. Can we really blame these perpetrators for their actions when they're just victims of the same human malfunction we all have?

We not only can, but we have to. You can't blame the transistors for doing the dirty work of the machine, but you can't stop the machine without stopping the transistors. Things are made of smaller parts, it must work that way. It's unfortunate to me, but I don't see any way around it.

Anonymous finds information of Sony executives and harasses them and their families at home. What would you have them do? The executives may not make all the decisions but they get paid by the same entity going after people publishing a certain number, and without the executives Sony would cease to function like its current ability. Distracting the executives also lowers their performance. Yes, it's only a distraction, and it does seem very childish, but little bits sum. My own disapproval of Sony is marked by my refusal to purchase any of their products in the future, which is equally tiny and less distracting.

I'm all for making TSA Agents feel awful while they're at work, they should. I know a lot of people like to just say "They can always quit", and while that may be true in principle, often it's not true practically speaking. Do you know what the job market is like for minimally-skilled people? It's a weak moral argument, it's even weaker when used in a discussion about how to actually change things. I've used it myself, since it also applies to crack dealers selling to children, and to all of our dear soldiers. The moral argument is that while it may be practically hard, what those individuals do is still wrong, and they should suck it up and stop doing it.

What else can we use besides "They can always quit"? The problem with that moral argument is that, as I said above, it's used wrongly in a discussion about fixing the issue. If we want to attack something morally, there are usually better arguments. If we want to discuss how the individuals "responsible" (in part) for the wrongdoings can get out of the system, it's not a very useful argument. What should a TSA Agent do? First he or she should feel bad about themselves, then they should spend at least an hour each night learning things online and start looking for other jobs. I don't ask that they quit immediately, but I do want them to quit expeditiously. The same goes for soldiers. It would be a bad idea to get every soldier back onto US soil and out of range of harming people as fast as feasible, but it needs to be done, and sooner rather than later.

What can a person do, fighting against a power much larger than themselves? In Thoreau's time, his main government contact happened to be the tax collector, and so it was the tax collector who faced Thoreau's wrath. In other words, when faced with a faceless power, you attack its smaller parts made of faces. Those faces don't always deserve, individually, what you're dishing out, but those elevations are necessary to make even a challenge to the faceless entity. Humans run the machine, it is humans we must deal with to deal with the machine. Why is it that, while Microsoft has many smart people working for them, they don't usually acquire people from the hacker culture, which also has many smart people in it? Microsoft's name has been long sullied by hacker-types, that humans working there would be negatively associated by other peers in the hacker community. In a circular way, the culture has protected itself from Microsoft by protecting itself from Microsoft by making its members feel that Microsoft is a threat and that anyone working with them is dangerous, and that the community needs protecting from that danger.

The point that the pieces are responsible (in part) for the actions of the whole bears repeating. This also means that I, and you, and everyone else in America, is responsible (in part) for the actions of our government. For those who wish to make things saner, and who may even have concrete ideas on how to do so, it is their failing to make their case to and convince the majority. Just because you're right doesn't mean you're not responsible for your wrong opponent's misdeeds: you failed to convince them they were wrong. And there are many reasons why one can fail to persuade, two big ones are: you're not right after all, and you're not practicing what you preach. (In other words, you don't seem to believe what you want others to believe.) You can't convince people of the evils of government aid while at the same time benefiting from government aid.

So next time you are blaming the world for its problems, sit back and remark that you, too, are responsible, in part, and you should blame yourself, in part, for failing to quell the madness.

Posted on 2011-04-16 by Jach

Tags: morality, philosophy


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