Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy

Right Wrongs

August 1st, 2015

Drowning in the ocean of injustice.

Context: An atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945. This event was the critical one which ended the Second World War. Some claim that it was an act of savagery needlessly killing many because the war could have been ended without that event.

Dear Ted:

Thank you for the passages from Zinn. (H. Zinn, 2010, “The Bomb”) Your outrage against the injustice portrayed by Zinn is understandable. My world outlook forbids me from accepting Zinn’s thesis without scrutiny but let us accept it for the sake of conversation. The thesis is this:

    Influential advisors, mainly Jim Byrnes, led President Truman, in 1945, to sacrifice the lives of over 200,000 people unecessarily, by dropping an atomic bomb on them, for the sake of a political power gambit: to pre-empt any Russian influence in the defeat of Japan. To “let us dictate the terms of ending the war.”

Let’s grant this interesting thesis. What are we to make of it?

I know, Ted, what you make of it. A reason for moral outrage. A call to wake fellow citizens to this atrocity committed by our government.

To what purpose? To let the decision makers know that inhumane actions will earn them the curses of posterity? To let politicians know that future bad behavior will lose them their constituency? To inaugurate more responsible leadership, a more humane society?  May these come to pass.

Ted, I am grateful that there are human beings like you, about. Our world would be a seethingly evil place were there not compassionate, selfless and concerned people among us. The lives of many are blessed because of your dedication. There is power in your indignation.

What I would like to understand is this: how do you keep from drowning in the evident ocean of injustice, suffering and misery around us?

For every exposé by Zinn, ten thousand lay buried. And without any Zinns at all there are valid calls for justice and humanity in every direction. Against the torture of human beings. For the care of the poor, the oppressed, the sick. For the rescue of the persecuted and of the refugees migrating to escape war. How bear the overwhelming burden of what is so evident; that the calls for help are interminable? And valid!

Most must be ignored. Else what time is left for play, for art, for merriment, for the fanciful, for adventure, for science, for theater, for rejoicing and celebrating life? For irrelevancy? For delicious decadence? Musn’t one ignore injustice – at least for intervals of time? Were the burden of injustices to infuse all art and dance and music it would be a sorry world. As sorry as it would be to lose those who fight for justice. Ones meagre allotment of life’s spare moments may be rationed in many ways: used to play games, used to be entertained, to go shopping, for socializing, used to explore nature, to succor the needy, to right wrongs and to promote justice, to analyze the righting of wrongs  . . .

Fighting injustice is one of the passions; as consuming and noble as that for art or for dancing or for science or playing tennis or buying clothes …  We allot our most precious life moments to these enthusiasms. Fighting injustice is a passion. It has an appeal to some. It is ignored by others. They are consumed with other enthusiasms.

Righteous indignation is a very compelling emotion. When it engulfs me I lose perspective, become humorless. So I try to minimize it. I cannot be righteously indignant and celebrate life. Jubilation and anger don’t coexist.

Therefore my reaction to Zinn’s news is not righteous indignation. This news is about one of ten thousand wrongs to be righted; on my ranking, not worth my time. I am no activist to make the world a better place. There is no respite from that angry task.

Worse, the task may be in vain. The goal is too elusive to be achieved. From my readings the decision to drop the atom bomb is the norm for history. It’s what I would expect. Of government. Of business. Of academe. Of my neighbors. What any constituency demands of its leaders is decisive actions on the basis of personal conviction.

‘The world will be a better place’, thought Byrnes and Truman, ‘if Japan is kept out of Russian hands. A blow of overwhelming awesome power would accomplish it. That 200,000 Japanese would die was of minor concern; they, the enemy, would enslave us if they could.’

Truman and Byrnes were sure what ‘good’ was. One cannot imagine that they viewed their action as atrocity; as doing evil? Not even Zinn would say so, I’m sure. They perceived their decision as a good. They believed they were working from a broader perspective; steering the ship of state not only by the sea at its bow but by the look of the whole broad ocean of history around them.

And, indeed, many would not fault them. Suppose the Russians had invaded before the war ended. The atom bomb preceded the scheduled Soviet invasion only by days. With their troops in Japan the Russians would have leverage for a voice in the peace. They had just such leverage in Eastern Europe and in Germany. There the Soviets created despotic puppet states in which generations of people suffered abuse of human rights, lived poorly and in terror. How would the Japanese have faired under such Soviet domination? Not happily, I’m sure. Were 200,000 lives worth fifty years of prosperity and freedom from Soviet oppression? I expect even Japanese could be found to say that it was.

Values change. What’s right now becomes what’s wrong later. A generation ago the virtue of eating meat was unquestioned in the West. Now less people eat beef. One commonly hears the moral rationale, “I only eat what I, myself, could kill”. That principle would restrict me to lettuce, flies and mosquitos! Too unappetizing a principle for me to contemplate. But those who know the ‘good’ view my choice to eat beef as bad.

Any number of things might have gone differently if Byrnes had not prevailed. These scenarios would be the theses of alter-Zinn historians full of righteous indignation that Truman withheld the bomb when, in the name of humanity, he could have used it.

Acting within the context of their situation – the hysteria of war and their personal prejudices – a decision was made to make the world a better place. From our present broad humanitarian perspective we find the world is not a better place. Or is it?

May my words be powerless, Ted, to sway you from your crusades.


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May 11th, 2014

“We must believe in free-will. We have no choice.”

― Isaac Bashevis Singer
tamsnMagGlasThe words, “free will,” as commonly understood, are without meaning. (Explanation here.) They are words that describe an illusion about reality. Like the word, sunset, describes the illusion that the sun is moving whereas, in fact, the sun is not moving. Rather the effect is due to the earth’s spinning.

We don’t want to acknowledge that we have no free will. Free will is precious. We spend the whole of our childhood acquiring our right to decide. The little boy wants ‘to do things by himself’. The little girl wants it her way. Our struggle in adolescence is to get control of our destinies; to finally decide for ourselves; to exercise our own free will instead of conforming to our parents’ constraints. Is it any wonder that we don’t want to lose, to philosophy, this hard won gain.

There is a strong emotional attachment to the idea of having free will. And that attachment is connected to its function in evolutionary success. So we end up with this remarkable fact: although the commonly held notion of free will is an illusion we cannot function without embracing the illusion – without treating it as real.

Wherein lies the illusion? It’s embedded in this portrayal of the popular conception of free will:

Free will is choice from nowhere. But inspired from within. Inspired by the individual entity that defines one as a being distinguishable from all other beings. Free will presumes an essential you that is expressed by your behavior, behavior for which the elemental you is responsible. For which you must accept blame or praise. There is a kernel of you-ness that governs your behavior. What some might call your soul.

The illusion is that there is an elemental you apart from the workings of nature.

There is no elemental you. The experience of you-ness is a natural phenomenon. The experience is something within nature, not outside of it.

If there is no essential you what is it that inhabits your skin and uses your bones and muscles? Answer: Your bones and muscles and skin and viscera and tissues and cavities and microbiota are all the you there is. Imprinted in their molecules are all your past experiences. Like the redwood tree has branded in its tree rings all the vagaries of weather of season’s passed. This is where science will look for the essential you. In your molecular structures. It has no other place to look.

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