Monday, May 30, 2011

Honoring Vets

Memorial Day seems a fitting time to show this trailer for a coming documentary on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. Honor Flight is a project to fly as many WWII vets to Washington as possible so that they can see the WWII Memorial before they die:
Hot Air has more details on the Honor Flight film project here.

Singer's Evolving Ethics

There's a simple and compelling argument that goes like this:

1. If there is no God then there are no moral duties.
2. There are moral duties.
3. Therefore there is a God.
Of course, both premises need to be defended, but I don't think it's hard to defend 1. (though 1. is precisely the assertion Sam Harris wishes to deny in his book The Moral Landscape) and denying 2. leads the denier ineluctably to moral nihilism. So, it seems that if 1. can be defended one either has to believe there is a God or be a nihilist.

Few non-believers are prepared to embrace moral nihilism so they're in an awkward position. Unwilling to accept belief in God they're also unwilling to accept the logical conclusion of their atheism.

This appears to be the predicament in which Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has come to find himself. The Guardian's Mark Vernon explains why. Here's the key graph:
[Singer] described his current position as being in a state of flux. But he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity because he now rejects [David] Hume's view that practical reasoning is always subject to desire. Instead, he inclines towards the view of Henry Sidgwick, the Victorian theist whom he has called the greatest utilitarian, which is that there are moral assertions that we recognise intuitively as true.

At the conference, he offered two possible examples, that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people's preferences should be satisfied. He has not yet given up on ... utilitarianism. Neither is he any more inclined to belief in God, though he did admit that there is a sense in which he "regrets" not doing so, as that is the only way to provide a complete answer to the question, why act morally? Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.
Or to put it differently, Singer seems to be recognizing that unless there exists a transcendent moral authority, an omniscient and perfectly good God, there's no non-arbitrary reason for being a utilitarian rather than an egoist. In a world without such a moral authority nothing one does can be morally wrong, and it'd certainly not be wrong to simply live for oneself or adopt a might-makes-right ethic. However we choose to live, if there is no God, is purely a matter of taste and to say that one should be a utilitarian is nonsense. The word "should" implies a moral duty and if there is no God there are no moral duties.

The only surprise in Singer's last sentence above is that it has taken someone of his intellectual stature so long to see it.

Cyber Warriors

An operation like the one which took the life of Osama bin Laden requires tough, hard, highly disciplined warriors, but much of modern warfare is being waged not by men such as these but by guys who considered themselves geeks and nerds when they were in high school.

Take, for example, what's going on in the cold war between Israel and Iran. Strategy Page explains:
Israel makes no secret of what it thinks about its Cyber War capabilities. Over the last year, Israel has revealed that its cryptography operation (Unit 8200) has added computer hacking to its skill set. Last year, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence said that he believed Israel had become the leading practitioner of Cyber War. This came in the wake of suspicions that Israel had created the Stuxnet worm, that got into Iran's nuclear fuel enrichment equipment, and destroyed a lot of it.

Recently, Iran complanied that another worm, called Star, was causing them trouble. Usually, intelligence organizations keep quiet about their capabilities, but in this case, the Israelis apparently felt it was more useful to scare the Iranians, with the threat of more stuff like Stuxnet. But the Iranians have turned around and tried to attack Israel, and are apparently determined to keep at it for as long as it takes.

This struggle between Israel and Iran is nothing new. Seven years ago, Israel announced that Unit 8200 had cracked an Iranian communications code, an operation that allowed Israel to read messages concerning Iranian efforts to keep its nuclear weapons program going (with Pakistani help), despite Iranian promises to UN weapons inspectors that the program was being shut down.

It's .... unusual for a code-cracking organization to admit to deciphering someone's code. Perhaps the Iranians stopped using the code in question, or perhaps the Israelis just wanted to scare the Iranians. Israel is very concerned about Iran getting nuclear weapons, mainly because the Islamic conservatives that control Iran have as one of their primary goals the destruction of Israel.

In response to these Iranian threats, Israel has said that it will do whatever it takes to stop Iran from getting nukes. This apparently includes doing the unthinkable (for a code cracking outfit); admitting that you had successfully taken apart an opponent's secret code.

Israel is trying to convince Iran that a long-time superiority in code-breaking was now accompanied by similarly exceptional hacking skills. Whether it's true or not, it's got to have rattled the Iranians. The failure of their counterattacks can only have added to their unease.
One almost imagines teams of Woody Allen look-alikes sitting in front of their monitors saving the world from a nuclear holocaust while seasoning their successes with a little trash-talk directed at the opposition. God bless 'em.