Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Onto the Next Gear

The Age of Artificial Intelligence, the age where intelligent machines play a central role in our society and in our economy is here. This is not science fiction or the prelude to a Hollywood movie; this will be the reality for most of us starting the later part of the twenty-first century. With search engines, bots, drones, and prototypes of self-driving cars, we can already perceive first glimpses of these agents of artificial intelligence. I do not wish to call for general alarmism but, rather, to only too briefly discuss what may be an important inflexion point in the history of human progress, as a handful before it. The coming-together, with enough industrial maturity for large-scale production, of our semi-conducting and digital technologies; our algorithmic and computational knowledge; and our mechanical technologies will usher a new age upon us. After the mastery of fire; agriculture and animal husbandry; the alphabet and abstract scripts; the forging and casting of bronze then iron; and the birth of empirical sciences and the industrial revolution, self-adapting artificial intelligence is, likely, the next driver of a great change to our way of life, our socio-political structures, and even our ethics. If this indeed turns out to be our next technological high-plateau, it will have, as those abovementioned that preceded it, many deep implications on all human societies.

Some of these implications will be on our professional endeavours and our socio-economic structures. Since the dawn of agriculture, some human beings have relied on the surplus production of others for material sufficiency. Agricultural surplus allowed for hierarchical social structures, but also for greater possibility of leisure; and from there, more time for speculation, aesthetics, knowledge development, invention, and discovery. In fact, manpower surplus has shaped social structures and traditions across the globe for millennia. Only, in the age of smart and adaptive robotics en masse, this economic way of being will be challenged, as the surplus on which we will depend shall increasingly come from technological agents. This will not happen overnight; it will be a gradual process. Nonetheless, a critical mass will be reached in the not-so-distant future, even in the services sector, and I fail to see how this will not precipitate important socio-political changes and reorganisations. Possibilities include more deflation stemming from gains in productivity (e.g. we can already take notice of numerous products and services that have become cheaper and more accessible over the past decade with digitisation and the Internet); the question of ownership of the distributed productive capacities (i.e. who will own these widely available smart robots, certain monopolies or all of us?); the problem of subsistence of low income populations, those who would be deprived from such smart agents and whose livelihood depends on providing services replaced by robots; and even, changes to the traditional ways of exchange of goods and services, including the notion of money itself. Furthermore, as it is unfortunately often the case with new technologies, intelligent robots will have direct consequences on the conduct of human warfare, as we already see with the increased usage of drones.

Other implications will be philosophical and ethical, with the increased dissociation between intelligence and consciousness on one side, and biological life on the other, even as far as the transfer and continued functioning of human consciousness and memory following biological death. In addition to the problems of ‘immortality’ it might generate, developed and self-recognising artificial intelligence will expose us fresh to ethical questions that have preoccupied some thinkers for millennia but remained fringe specialist subjects up until now. The problem of what makes personhood will become of a more general importance in society with the coming of enduring artificial consciousness and greater self-learning and self-adapting artificial intelligence. Equally, the problem of what makes someone human will emerge again with the emergence of alternative developed consciousness; and this problem will theoretically be as vivid as when Homo sapiens co-existed with its cousins of the Homo genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis, who equally had developed consciousness (not that Homo sapiens bothered then with what makes them human; they mostly cared about staying alive). This time around, we will be facing another co-existing consciousness, only of the ‘artificial’ kind. Again, these are not fanciful scenarios today but in the remit of where artificial intelligence can take us. The ethical and legal implications are evidently tremendous, and the other equivalent ‘ethical earthquake’ would be to come face-to-face with a sophisticated and conscious alien civilisation. Ironically, it is quite likely that we will create artificial consciousness before meeting any such outside civilisation.

On another aspect, the frontier between virtual and real will become blurrier with the expansion of an intelligent digital world. ‘Virtual reality’ and reality as we have envisaged it so far will be harder to distinguish. The body does not differentiate easily, especially without prior awareness of their origin, sensations triggered by virtual vs. real drivers. Furthermore, one of the main ways by which we distinguish the virtual from the real is in the prevalence of the latter. All of this is subject to change with widespread artificial intelligence. We only have to think about us living constantly in a self-adapting virtual environment initiated by our own; or think about what a robot finely imitating a baby would do to our parenting instincts. And if we have a tendency to anthropomorphise biological animals, it will indeed prove difficult for our conscious control to constantly alert us against sensations caused by a well-engineered virtual reality or human-like robots.

These are only some of the deep implications that an age with mass-scale developed and conscious intelligence will likely bring.


Our Revolution Against Evolution

One can make different interpretations of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and several of these interpretations continue to preoccupy and divide even the specialists in present evolutionary debates. Notwithstanding, three key consequences from Darwin’s theory are generally agreed by most who subscribe to it; they are that:

  • Human beings do not possess any fundamentally different nature from that of other living forms; any difference is a matter of degrees of evolution. To quote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
  • Various forms of life constantly struggle and compete to live; some win and some lose in the process. “[…] one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings – namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species.
  • Suffering is a fact of life; it is even one of the modus operandi of Nature – after a few documentaries on any wildlife channel, this reality becomes evident rather quickly. “[…] the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” Charles & Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.

These ideas in themselves are far from being original to Darwin; he has however the merit of grounding them in scientific theory. That we are all of the same nature has been part of pantheistic religions, such as Hinduism and Taoism, for millennia; that the fittest (in fact, in Darwinian theory it is not necessarily the fittest but, rather, the most adaptive) survives was a subject of Empedocles following the philosophical development of Strife by Heraclitus in Greek Antiquity; and that there is great suffering in the world, or that even life is suffering (or more accurately ‘unsatisfactoriness’) is a pillar of Buddhism with Dukkha.

Being as they are, these three precepts could be taken as eternal and indubitable facts of life; only, part of human civilisation, through greater awareness, is forcing its own, different mark on Earth. Despite a long history of violence and, in many cases, cultural and ethnical exterminations, and despite many human groups today remaining violent and only responding to power, coercion, and fear of death, there is a distinct trend developing in human society: a growing number of us are taking greater ethical measurements from the first of the abovementioned precepts – that we are all not that different – and increasingly rejecting the other two precepts. Many humans in the world today are working against the universality of generalised struggle, violence, and suffering in life, be it within our own species or extending to other species.

This may seem wrong to say at first, when we continuously read about violence and wars in the news; when we hear constant rhetoric about humans abusing and subjecting Nature for their own selfish pleasures; when we know that many species are on the verge of extinction; and when we realise that we farm and kill billions of animals annually for food and clothing. Only, we are not all as evil and cutthroat as the news might indicate. In fact, if we were so, there would be no ‘real’ Nature left in the world today, as we have the technological capability to fully wipe it out. There would also be many more wars than there is, given that we number in the billions on the planet. In judging human nature and its impact on our planet, we often omit the fact of our large number in billions of people walking this earth, which makes the selfish actions of few percentage points substantial in absolute terms; we also tend to forget about the millions of relief and charitable organisations working in the world today, not to mention daily acts of kindness; and we do not account for the billions of people and millions of animals we protect, give to, defend, or make part of our families. When it comes to damages to Nature, for example, our most dangerous action typically stems from lack of awareness about the consequences of our behaviour, magnified by our large numbers and our greater technological footprint, more so than premeditated aggressive will against other forms of life in the name of gene dominance.

Through greater awareness and capacity for ethical judgment, humans could be in the midst of a revolution against classical evolution and many of its selfish and painful ways; we are exerting greater empathy and sympathy from the realisation that we are all fundamentally not that different, and we have the technology to do so. By accepting the first precept, we cannot but become open to forms of compassion, acceptance of other’s personhood, or, at the very least, a certain degree of respect. As such, human differences appear circumstantial and often the result of chance; and by becoming aware of the reality of suffering of all living beings, we come to feel that we are all in it together. We come to care, even when we choose to reject anthropomorphism. Moreover, through the drive for universal ‘pursuit of happiness’, we strive for evermore technology in order to alleviate suffering and dissatisfaction – constant and eternal happiness being a utopia notwithstanding.

In our days, we do not throw away the sickly and the weak in the name of better genes, and we feel more pain when we are made aware of animal suffering and abuse, where classical evolution tells us not to care in the name of our ‘better’ survival. When we see someone in pain, we do not shrug and say this is life, but we look for the technology at our disposal to try to remedy the pain. We do not have to, but we do so nonetheless. We care, and we care even more when we realise that other living beings, human and otherwise, are not fundamentally that different. We have more technology and awareness today to fight this fight, but we are also exposed to greater threats that make this fight more consequential. In response to those who argue that there must be some general indirect utility behind our compassionate actions within the human community and outside it, I genuinely doubt that we always do so strictly from the point of view of maximisation of some general utility, intentional or otherwise. We are social and affective beings, and it is often enough for us to realise that what is around us is not of an alien nature; that the animal condition is not stranger to ours; and that we are all small in the grand scheme of things, to extend this sociability and affection beyond a small group of individuals. Other mammals have also been witnessed to act in similarly compassionate ways within their species and outside it. And the more we become conscious that what is around us is not that different from us, the more difficult it becomes for us to dismiss the other one as a mere threat to our existence, a competing gene, a tool, or food.

Respecting a living being does not preclude you from defending yourself from it if threatened or in the case of animals not under the threat of extinction killing it for food on need basis; it does however preclude you from disposing of it unnecessarily and recklessly without the slightest awareness; it does also preclude you from exerting on it unwarranted pain and remaining agnostic towards, or even enjoying, its pain. There is a general trend today towards rejecting blind servitude and commoditisation of other living beings – it is a key reason for why brutal practices in the food industry are often kept hidden from a public eye increasingly unaccepting of its practices. Only, we all do so imperfectly; we generally care less about people with whom we do not associate; we might give money to a charity but pass by a person in distress with indifference; we tend to care more about charismatic animals than others; and we still largely disagree about the criteria to use for defining legal and moral personhood, such as subjectivity, consciousness, or emotional reciprocity. Nevertheless, we are bringing our own morality into Nature. We have a choice, and, whether we want it or not, we are continuously making this choice. Thinking that we can leave Nature to be and just watch it develop in isolation is simplistic; we cannot but interact with our environment, under all its forms, as all things interact. By the fact of breathing we interact with our environment. We can look to minimise the effects of our living and our technology, but we cannot look to eliminate them. I argue that we should not look to remove ourselves entirely from the equation even if we can; and I say so while being a conservationist at heart.

Our stand against ruthless evolutionary ways is far from certain. Our technological capabilities are quite meaningful today and our numbers are great in comparison with other animals. Both these facts make the battle a highly unpredictable one; it is enough for a minority to steer in the wrong direction and put technological capabilities to the wrong use for precipitous developments to ensue. But even if we ultimately lose the battle of bringing a balanced morality in our approach to Nature – one that is different from selfish, cutthroat, and unstable domination – it is a cause worth fighting for in the name of collective identity. In the long run, the whole universe will change including the existence (or not) of our own species; we therefore have a choice in the matter regardless of conjectural long-term outcome.

The classical model of evolutionary theory goes something like this: each form of life only cares, directly and indirectly, about the preservation and the propagation of its own genes (or DNA). Each gene cares about itself and strives to conquer as much as possible of the living world. And in this race between various DNAs, the ones which endure the longest with changes in environmental conditions, the ones which compete better, and the ones which mutate more effectively under extreme environmental changes are those which are likely to persevere the longest, albeit in an evolved manner, in the phenomenon of Life in general. Darwin, who was a highly sensitive and tormented recluse, and who reportedly turned physically ill when watching or hearing people in pain, was astounded by the prominence of suffering and strife in life; evolutionary competition seemed to him to be the reasonable explanation. Only, this classical interpretation of evolutionary theory (the “selfish gene” theory) might turn out to be the wrong interpretation. Instead of selfish DNA, there is actually the possibility of selfish RNA (it is a possibility and not a proven fact). In a paper published earlier this year (cf. The ribosome as a missing link in the evolution of life, Journal of Theoretical Biology, February 2015, Volume 367), Meredith and Robert Root-Bernstein have argued that all life forms could simply be perceived as different homes for ribosomes. rRNA or Ribosomal RNA might actually turn out to be of greater importance than DNA, and it might have preceded DNA in the evolutionary genesis, rendering the latter a mere stored assembly instruction. To quote from the article, “Ribosomal RNA, in short, is not just a structural scaffold for proteins, but the vestigial remnant of a primordial genome that may have encoded a self-organizing, self-replicating, auto-catalytic intermediary between macromolecules and cellular life.” Superior DNAs might have indeed prevailed in life forms out of evolutionary circumstances, but DNA propagation may not actually be the primary objective of Life; replication of ribosomes could be more important for Life, and that means seeking all ways of replication. And I may be going too far with my conjecture by saying that we could even envisage the ‘selfish’ RNA leaving more room for compassion and refusal of suffering as a mode of being than the selfish DNA.

“Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.” Charles Darwin.


A Greater Bad Should Not Make a Lesser One More Acceptable and Making an Effort Towards Some Good Is Better Than None

Person A sees undue violence against a pet and starts revolting against it. He gets all agitated and starts voicing his concerns loudly. Person B looks at him and says, “Why are you getting all worked up about this? There are human beings who are dying every day and you are getting all angry about some mistreated animals.”

Person A passes a stand of catastrophe relief for the victims of a natural disaster in a remote island; she decides to contribute a bit of money for these victims. Person B looks at her and says, “Why are you spending your money on some people in some remote location whom you do not know when people here in your own country also need help?”

Person A does not like that his country practices unrestrained torture against some incarcerated individuals, regardless of what they have done or were intending to do. Person B is shocked and shouts, “Are you a fool? Do you even know what these guys would do to you if you were on the other end? Are you aware of how much evil and suffering they were intending to bring? Do not talk to me about any rights; they would not give you any if you were their prisoner.”

I guess the bigger irony is that, in most such cases, Person B’s indignation has more to do with him/her almost never standing for anything of worth and feeling guilty about it at some level. And by belittling the good efforts of Person A, he/she hopes to feel less bad about his/her state of inaction. By shaming Person A, Person B avoids shaming him/herself.

Person B throws out the rest of an apple from his car’s side window. Person A looks at him wondering. Person B retorts, “Oh please, this is nothing. Besides we have greater problems in this country. Look at how corrupt our politicians are!”

Person A sees an empty bottle left on the side of the street. Without thinking much, she picks it up and throws it in the public garbage bin nearby. Person B says, “Forget about it. Do you know how many kids throw bottles and cans on the sides of the streets around here every day?”

Person A does not like to have power running at home when it is not really needed. Person B mocks her by remarking, “You eat meat; do you know how much pollution that creates? And you are worried about few lamps running unnecessarily when you are not at home?”

With the wide availability of information, it is easier to rationalise not doing a certain good and to portray the good action of others as ineffective.

Person B, who is not in the habit of eating foie gras, finds it urgent to put in place a law that forbids the selling of foie gras in the name of animal rights; but, as he eats pork, he objects to laws that forbid some of the most inhumane ways of farming pigs (pigs are one of the most sentient mammals with capacity for self-awareness and emotional awareness) because this might impact the selling price of the meat he most likes.

It is easier for us to claim to be doing good when it is something that does not require much effort and action. As a good friend of mine once remarked, “This is how it is with human nature. They often choose an easy cause in order not to think about other more difficult ones.”

We all exhibit some of such behaviour and judgement in one way or another, and that includes me.

But a great amount of evil does not justify not paying attention to or dismissing as inconsequential other lesser evil somewhere else. And it is not because one cares about addressing some particular injustice that he/she is oblivious to other injustices. We all live a limited amount of time and have each his/her own character and individuality – each chooses his/her moral battles. The more important is to have some of such ethical sensibility that goes beyond the mere minimum of just avoiding trouble with the law. And what is also important is to encourage others to have some of such sensibility, as only collectively we can reach a better tomorrow, and none of us is capable of remedying all ills out there by him/herself.

As we are on the verge of a new year, please pick a good cause, no matter if it seems inconsequential to others, and make a genuine effort for it. And hope that your neighbour will similarly choose another good cause and strive for it. I will.

Happy holidays,


Privacy and the Digital Age

“Historically, privacy was almost implicit, because it was hard to find and gather information. But in the digital world, whether it’s digital cameras or satellites or just what you click on, we need to have more explicit rules […]” Bill Gates

We live in an age of easier information; information, whether good or bad, worthy or unworthy, travels faster, is more often recorded, and is traceable more easily. Pandora’s box of social information is open, and it will be very difficult to close it now, no matter what data protection assurances and technologies we are given. For every technology securing information, there is likely to be another one to decrypt it or go around it. And the trend towards more open information is only accelerating. Open information has great advantages; more informed constituents, new services, and greater access to knowledge are among its benefits. On the other hand, greater ease of deliberate misinformation, weakening of secrecy, and loss of privacy are among its problematic aspects. And yet, it is the latter, the loss of individual privacy, that is the most worrying to me, more worrying in my view, over the long run, than the loss of any government or corporate secrets.

Every year, we are given new ways of exposing our private lives more easily, not only to those with whom we want to share our lives, but also to everybody else – all ‘privacy policies’, ‘privacy settings’, and the like notwithstanding. For most of us, mature and young alike, we marvel at the greatness and ease of information-sharing technologies and we use them without necessarily paying attention to the possible long-term consequences. It is as if we are given new toys; we rush to play with them but to realise the consequences of our actions only with time. This does impact and will continue to impact our societies in many ways, some of which we can already foresee. Let us take an example: leaders in forty or fifty years from now, at least in the countries where social information-sharing technologies are rife today, will have to deal with the challenge of having a greater degree of their personal and private lives ‘out there’ for others to make use of as they wish. And so, said in another way, if we require to have leaders with no social vulnerability that is common knowledge forty or fifty years from now, what we will likely end up with is either individuals who are suspiciously too clean from a digital record point of view or too recluse from a young age to have not had much of a personal and social record online. We should then ask ourselves, is this the type of leaders we want? Or do we prefer that our future leaders have a normal human aspect like all of us?

Privacy is not about trying to hide things that are illegal or immoral; privacy is first and foremost about giving every human being a healthy degree of liberty to grow and to simply be in an environment that is protective to a certain degree. For the more introvert among us, privacy is equally crucial to regenerate psychologically. We are all evolving and learning beings; we are beings who get influenced by their environment; and we all make mistakes, even sometimes need to make mistakes, without which we do not learn. In the same way that a patient requires privacy with her doctor, a religious person with his clergy, a citizen with her lawyer, and a sportsman with his coach, all of us, and specifically the young among us, gravely need some level of protection of information in our private lives in order to grow and evolve in a healthy manner. People critical of this line of thinking may say that no one shares information today unless he or she wants to. This is not entirely accurate; moreover, referring back to the point above, we are sometimes unfortunately not even aware enough of the consequences of what we do, or the draw towards using new technologies is too strong to resist it at first. Walking a line between protecting one’s privacy and not being socially cut-off from the rest of the world has become a much more difficult exercise of late.

The discussion of the strict boundaries of privacy is becoming more of a social necessity. Unfortunately, the impressive advance of technologies of information only make this debate more pressing and the degree of awareness and the level of education of the users of such technologies all the more important, for their own sake but also for the sake of others around. There is no easy solution to the challenge of privacy vs. growth of technologies of information; we have to maintain a delicate moral balance between the two. But we have to be aware of the challenge first in order to do something about it. So let us start with that…


Is it Legal? Is it Moral? (3/3)

So how can we best address this conflict that seems inherent to our modern social governing structures? When do we satisfy ourselves with what the current law says and when do we look beyond it to what is moral? And in case of a society with different groups having different moral codes, how do we reconcile among these if we need to look beyond the legal into the moral? These are some of the difficult questions that need to be asked and answered. We will only tackle here two broad situations where we are required to look beyond the legal into the moral.

Any legal corpus includes certain scope, jurisdiction, processes, and enforceability; all legal codes address particular subjects, apply to particular groups of individuals and particular geographies, are defined and changed based on certain rules, and are enforced by some form of physical power. Today there is no one Universal Law that includes all subjects and applies to all humans and to the entire universe. I am stating what is evident, naïve, but at the same time important and often forgotten. We need therefore to be careful when action is undertaken based on a certain legal code where it does not apply; in such situations, we need to look beyond what is legal to what is moral. This is for example the case when we justify breaching the right for privacy of non-US citizens by claiming that the US constitution does not forbid from doing it. We also need to be careful when action is undertaken in the name of some law when the legal code is inexistent, incomplete, undefined, or blatantly vague. This is the case for example when it comes to International Law today. Unfortunately, we repeat, the international legal system, if we can call it as such, is highly deficient both in terms of scope, processes, and jurisdiction. How can the legality of geopolitical action be subject to the veto power of five particular governments in the world, and we still put international law on the same pedestal as domestic law? It is as if we were saying that five members of the United States Supreme Court have veto rights that can render mute anything they do not desire. There are several international agreements in place today in the world, and several legal bodies the largest of which is the United Nations, but there is no one International Law on all subjects and for all jurisdictions. Absent of a satisfactory international legal code in terms of scope, jurisdiction, processes, and enforceability, we often need to look in international law beyond what is legal to what is moral. The long-term solution to the problem of international law is in completing the international legal code in the same manner as the domestic legal codes, but we remain alas miles and miles away from achieving this goal.

The second broad situation where we need to look beyond what is legal into what is moral is when the processes and enforceability of the legal code are compromised to the benefit of particular individuals or groups in society over the others. This is the case with dictatorships, rulings of the few, ethnical segregations, religious segregations, and the list is long. Here, an element of common sense and collective consciousness is necessary and cannot be circumvented in judging these situations. Our greatest moral and legal achievements have often been realised through this collective consciousness, through this aspiration for a better future identity, and through the acknowledgment of our common humanity and equality; these realisations are likely to continue to be our driving force in situations of legal uncertainty.

Legality vs. morality will continue to be a source of conflict for the modern man as long as Law is limited in scope and in jurisdiction; and this is not necessarily a bad thing. A world where Law dictates and regulates our every single behaviour is both dangerous and dull. Morality and Law are both, to some degree, cultural phenomena, and as our cultures proceed on the path of greater abstraction and intellectualisation so will these two concepts, as well as the nature of the conflict between them. It is important however not to forget the genesis and order of priority of these concepts in human affairs; they are often blindly mixed as politically suitable but intellectually unacceptable.


Is it Legal? Is it Moral? (2/3)

We can continue citing examples for long; legal and moral oppose each other every day and in different contexts. Torture may not be explicitly forbidden by law in some jurisdictions, but is it moral to turn a blind eye on it? Animal abuse is not illegal in many places, but what is our moral stance concerning it? Domestic violence may not be explicitly punishable by law in some cultures, but should we not do anything about it from a moral point of view?

All such examples are an illustration of the conflict between legal and moral that is a growing sign of our last centuries of intellectualisation and of our most civilised societies. But why is this happening? Was it always the case? And what can we do about it?

Law is rational; measured; composed; often precise; can be partially put to test and its social consequences measured; refuses to be swayed easily by subjective opinions; and represents our best cultural mode of addressing social conflicts. Law is necessary in some form for social governance and for the stability of societies, as through it physical power is better controlled. But Law is a branch of Politics, and as such, it can be subject to change, sometimes-rapid change, as well as politicking. Political abuse can be translated into legal abuse as it happens with many governing systems around the world. Morality, on the other hand, is of a higher nature. Morality precedes Politics in importance; it is (or should be) the guiding force of Politics. Morality is less precise than Law; can have a higher element of emotionality in it; its sources can be many (religious, cultural, rational etc.); but it is also less subject to politicking and compromised rhetoric. In Morality reside our collective consciousness, how we perceive ourselves or wish ourselves to be, our collective identity, and our ideals. It is generally accepted that we cannot always be one hundred per cent moral all the time, that we aspire to be moral but we may sometimes fail, and that our collective structure pulls us back in line when we stray away from what is moral in some instances. We are however supposed to act legally one hundred per cent of the time, and if we do not, there are (more physically harsh) consequences to bear.

Law and Morality were not however always that distinct from a historical point of view. Law and Morality as concepts have evolved with our cultural evolution as is the case of many of our social and cultural concepts. The distinction between Law and Morality seems first and foremost a question of where political power (and by extension physical power) truly resides in a society and where moral authority actually resides. In theocracies, and they are quite present in history, Law and Morality are more or less the same. But beyond theocracies, many rulers have historically combined both political and moral power either explicitly (such as with many monarchs outside Catholicism in Europe) or implicitly (by having the power to appoint or change the key custodians of Morality). In ‘Old Catholic Europe’, there were two entities with ‘divine rights’ competing, and they somehow serve as precursors to the kind of conflict we witness today in a more generalised way: the King, chosen by God to rule, and the Pope, head of the Church, also chosen by the Holy Spirit. In our days, the concept of a custodian of Morality or a monopoly over Morality has somehow faded away, with the exception of few cultures, and we find Morality to be held and updated collectively, rather than through the push of a particular individual or institution. This seems to be a direct result of the French Revolution, the American Constitution, and the consummation of the separation of State and Church during the Enlightenment Period. The disappearance of the caliphate in the Muslim World after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ‘un-deification’ of many rulers (e.g. the Japanese Emperor after World War II) contributed to a further geographical expansion of this concept of separation. In this separation, State and Law have precedence over particular personal, moral, or religious inclinations, and components of Morality make their way into formal application only through the legislative process, i.e. through becoming part of Law. In other words, Law indirectly reflects some components (but not all) of Morality through the political process. Political process is necessary when a society desires its governance to be influenced by the collective will in a way or another. But one of the unfortunate consequences of the political process is the appearance of this conflict between Law and Morality, the difficulties we previously described, and the subjection of Law to narrow politicking in many instances.

Not all what has been legal is moral, and many great civil rights activists were deemed in breach of law until they managed to acquire the right political support. Revolutionaries are considered illegal at the beginning of independence movements and become later on liberators and symbols of morality once they achieve a certain success. Civil disobedience against tyranny, refusal to torture someone when given an order to do it, and sheltering ethnically persecuted people from harm are all historical examples of actions that were considered illegal at some point by somebody to later become not only legal but also morally praiseworthy.

[To be continued].


Is it Legal? Is it Moral? (1/3)

The permanent conflict between what is legal and what is moral is a key sign of our times and of our modern cultures; it is an important conflict and a great challenge to almost all of our current social considerations. As Action (and most human action is social) is central to our living, to our identity building, and to the shaping of our general human culture and civilisation (whatever the latter might be), then it is a matter of simple inference to consider the subject of legality vs. morality as central to our humanity. Our action is governed and/or judged by a certain compass, and this compass is often legal, moral, or a combination of the two. It is precisely in this confusion of the compass to use, and in the circumstantiality of the compass we use, that we continue to find great difficulty in our days in acting and judging social action. Should we base our actions on some legal code, legal practice, or legal tradition? Or should our action be ultimately accounted for by a higher morality? When should we consider that doing something morally right is more important that doing something legal, and why? And why is it, in any case, that we have this conflict between legality and morality? What is it so difficult in unifying them and ridding ourselves of the problem?

Before we continue further, we shall note that we will purposefully concentrate in this three-part series on the conflict between legal and moral within the context of one particular general culture (say for example, the European culture, American culture, or Chinese culture), and not address the even more important and more difficult subject of reconciling different legal codes and different moralities pertaining to different cultures. In other words, we will limit ourselves to the opposition between one legal system and one moral system only, which is admittedly quite a simplification of our global social reality as it presents itself today.

The subject of what is moral in opposition to what is legal has been quite alive in recent geopolitics, in both explicit and implicit manners. Let us take two recent examples: we witness heated debates today on the subject of surveillance programs and their scope, as well as on the subject of Western powers intervening in foreign conflict areas and what scope of intervention exactly.

The current US administration’s defence line on the surveillance program consists of saying that the programs currently in place are actually legal, or, slightly more controversially, are not forbidden by the US constitution in place. These surveillance programs, it holds, do not tap into the content of the communications of US citizens on US soil, even if it records them, unless under direct US court authorisation or warrant; hence, these programs respect the civil liberties of the US citizens as protected by the US constitution. As for the rest, i.e. as for what is not strictly forbidden by the US constitution, it remains silent on what is really happening. It is worth noting that this ‘rest’ is around 6.8 billion people around the world… We can then naturally ask, are the practices of these surveillance programs morally acceptable acts, by the same moral standards that the American culture holds high? The scope of the US constitution is predominantly US citizens and US soil; we do not expect of any constitution or legal code of any particular country to legislate everything concerning every foreign citizen, soil, and circumstance. Hence, if these surveillance practices are indeed legal under US legal code, are they really moral?

Let us now consider the case of intervention in foreign conflict areas, such as Syria or Central Africa, and the debate over whether militarily-capable powers, especially Western ones, should intervene in foreign lands to secure peace and protect the innocent, under which conditions, following whose decision and support, and according to which defined scope and objectives. Here, we must say, we are not any longer in the realm of any one particular culture anymore because of the international aspect of the problem; nevertheless, there exists today an international legal code for such geopolitical matters, and I like to think (or hope) that most human beings in this world can agree or do agree on some very basic human rights and moral values, such as the protection of innocent children from being massacred in a large-scale manner. Western powers intervening in conflict zones without the formal consent of the United Nations is illegal under current international law. Many have expressed this view, for example in the case of Syria, and they are right in saying so from a legal point of view. NATO consent and Arab League consent in the case of Syria are not commensurate with UN consent; hence, a military move in Syria without UN consent would remain illegal under current international law and how it is structured, regardless of what NATO and the Arab League might think. But should we not do anything in acute conflict zones because of that? Is it ethical to have children and innocent people killed continuously and on a mass-scale; know that this is not likely to stop in the near future; know that if anything it is actually worsening; and sit idly or shrug and say we can not do anything because the UN Security Council can not come to a decision on the subject? The current UN political structure is a relic of post World War II dynamics and needs modernisation – most reasonable people know that. Several attempts have already been made to discuss the subject of the governance of the UN with no luck so far; International Law and its enforcement systems remain highly deficient today. So what are we to do in cases of acute human conflicts, especially when weapons of mass killing are being used? Here, in contrast with the above, and despite opposing wars in general from having seen their consequences first-hand, I find myself closer in agreement with what the current US administration wanted to do in Syria or what France is doing today in some parts of Africa.

What is important to note is that legal definitions and structures do change with politics; moral values and ethical systems are also prone to politics but less so and in a different, slower manner.

[To be continued].