Posts Tagged ‘values’

Moral compass: is Australia a kind nation?

by Nicholas Hookway

We’re in a state of moral decline in the West – or so we’re told. From sky-rocketing divorce rates and the shrinking of life-long commitments to an excessive concern with self and consumerism.

Morality has been diagnosed and it’s terminal.

But does that mean as a nation Australians are less kind or compassionate than we used to be? What’s at the cause of this moral decline? Or does it even exist?

New research suggests that there’s reason enough to question the conventional wisdom around moral decline.

Shaky premise

In an Australian survey, my colleagues – Daphne Habibis and Anthea Vreugdenhil – and I asked nearly 2,000 respondents how kind they see themselves and others.

We found that 95% of respondents believe that it is quite or very important to be kind to one another; 97% agreed that they see themselves as a kind person; 90% reported performing a kind act at least once a week and 82% say most Australians are quite or very kind.

51% said they were kind because “it’s who I am” while only 12% of respondents said it was because they like to be seen as kind, it may benefit them or that they are required to be kind.

These findings suggest that perhaps the extent and nature of moral decline is not what we thought it was.

Two schools of thought

So where do these ideas about moral decline come from?

There are two schools of thought – the first argues that with the weakening of community, we have become less friendly, kind or giving.

Proponents of this view, like Australian commentators Clive Hamilton and Hugh Mackay, argue that the breakdown of community and rise of the individual have undermined a common moral culture and a shared sense of responsibility toward others. Hamilton for example, suggests that materialism has worn away at everyday virtues of honour, courage or self-sacrifice while Mackay suggests that Australians are now less charitable, more prejudiced and less compassionate, because we’re all less focused on our communities.

But there’s another group of thinkers that don’t blame a decline in morality on the decline of community. Instead they point to the lessening of traditional sources of authority like religion. They also point to the rise of a “therapeutic culture” where we focus on improving ourselves. These thinkers see this as leading to uncaring narcissism, where self-improvement and self-gratification become the ultimate concerns of life.

For example, American thinker Christopher Lasch argues that Western culture is pathologically preoccupied with the care and well-being of the self:

“Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate”, overcoming the “fear of pleasure”.”

Not so simple

Common to both these views, is the understanding that morality has little hope in a culture where strict moral rules are no longer enforced by religion and community. A culture that values emotions and self over rule following and communal values.

But does the alleged damaged moral order just boil down to a weakening of faith, community and tradition? Such perspectives fail to acknowledge the more complex picture of morality. The first view has a romantic image of community, ignoring that communities often silence individual moral responsibility and exclude alternative moral voices.

The second view offers a simplistic view of cultures of therapy and self-fulfilment. They see them as unavoidably self-absorbed, but overlook the morally creative potential of the values of self-development. For example, does turning to “the wisdom of the east” or “eating health food” have to be read as signposts on the way to narcisstic moral impoverishment?

Does the recent growth of Buddhism in Australia, for example, not centre on an ethics of minimising suffering for self and others? Further, why is a better diet simply self-indulgent? Recent research in the area of food and the ethics of consumption shows how the growth of fair-trade and cruelty-free products, the slow food movement, practices of “buycotting” and vegetarianism can engender new modes of ethical citizenship and encourage “politics of the self”.

It seems then the jury is still out on the reasons of moral decline or whether it’s happening in the first place. But perhaps morality is in a better state than we think.

Nicholas Hookway is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania. His research focuses on how Australians grapple with questions of meaning and morality in contemporary social life. His key research interests are morality and ethics; religion and spirituality and new media and internet technologies.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.com.au

 

 

The Unrepentant And Unreformed Bankers

By Phil Angelides

Money laundering. Price fixing. Bid rigging. Securities fraud. Talking about the mob? No, unfortunately. Wall Street.

These days, the business sections of newspapers read like rap sheets. GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America [2] tied to a bid-rigging scheme to bilk cities and towns out of interest earnings. ING Direct , HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank  facing charges of money laundering. Barclays caught manipulating a key interest rate, costing savers and investors dearly, with a raft of other big banks also under investigation. Not to speak of the unprecedented wrongdoing that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008.

Evidence gathered by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission clearly demonstrated that the financial crisis was avoidable and due, in no small part, to recklessness and ethical breaches on Wall Street. Yet, it’s clear that the unrepentant and the unreformed are still all too present within our banking system.

A June survey of 500 senior financial services executives in the United States and Britain turned up stunning results. Some 24 percent said that they believed that financial services professionals may need to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to succeed, 26 percent said that they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, and 16 percent said they would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it.

That too much of Wall Street remains unchanged is not surprising. Simply stated, the banks and their leaders have paid no real economic, legal or political price for their wrongdoing and thus have not felt compelled to change.

On the economic front, the financial sector has rebounded nicely from its brush with death, thanks to an enormous taxpayer bailout. By 2010, compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms had hit a record $135 billion.

Last year, the profits of the nation’s five biggest banks exceeded $51 billion, with their chief executives all enjoying pay increases. By 2011, the 10 biggest U.S. banks held 77 percent of the nation’s banking assets.

On the legal front, enforcement has been woefully inadequate. Federal criminal financial fraud prosecutions have fallen to a two-decade low. Violations are settled for pennies on the dollar – the mere cost of doing business, with no admission of wrongdoing and with the bill invariably picked up by insurers or shareholders. (When it’s shareholders, that’s not someone else far away, that’s your 401(k), pension fund or mutual fund.)

When Goldman Sachs was charged with failing to set policies to prevent insider trading, it was fined $22 million, an amount the bank collects in about seven hours of trading. Goldman’s record $550 million penalty for securities fraud in 2010 amounted to less than 2 percent of that year’s revenue.

On the political front, after a brief stint in the penalty box, the big banks have resumed the political muscling that got them two decades of deregulation.

To block reform, the financial industry has spent more than $317 million on lobbying in Washington over the past two years and more than $230 million in federal political contributions in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

It’s been to good effect. Two-thirds of the regulations called for in the financial reform law passed two years ago are still not in place. And the House Republicans, the banks’ sturdiest allies, have slashed at the budgets of the Securities and Exchange Commission and theCommodities Futures Trading Commission to impede their ability to investigate wrongdoing.

Clearly, the present order is unsustainable. We need to demand fundamental changes now, breaking up the big banks to snap their stranglehold on our markets and our democracy, ensuring that the newly minted financial reform laws are implemented, and wringing out rampant speculation.

But true reform can only occur if we root out the corruption that has distorted our banking system and undermined the productive work of the many good people in the financial sector.

The system of financial law enforcement is clearly broken. Think of it this way: If someone robbed a 7-Eleven of $1,000 but could settle a few days later for $25 and no admission of guilt, would they do it again?

Only enforcement with real consequences will work. That means vigorous pursuit of criminal cases against individuals involved in wrongdoing, the surest method to deter malfeasance.

It means enforcement agencies eschewing weak settlements in civil cases and seeking remedies with teeth such as civil penalties, restitution and executives forfeiting their jobs. And, it means tougher financial fraud laws. In that regard, the bipartisan proposal by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to increase fines for securities fraud is a place to start.

To make any of this a reality, the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal regulators must have the will and the resources to do the job. President Obama has asked for additional funds for the Department of Justice, the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Giving these agencies the tools to detect and prosecute wrongdoing will more than pay for itself – the Commodities Futures Trading Commission’s fine against Barclays for interest rate manipulation alone will pay for almost an entire year of that agency’s budget.

None of these changes will come easily, but this much is clear: We cannot allow Wall Street to continually flout our sense of right and wrong, to erode faith in our legal and political systems, and to put our financial system and economy in jeopardy.

Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.

The WikiLeaks War Logs Don’t Show Rare War Crimes–They Show The (Legal) Reality of War

by Chase Madar
 
The real problem with the laws of war is not what they fail to restrain but what they authorize.

Anyone who would like to witness a vivid example of modern warfare that adheres to the laws of war — that corpus of regulations developed painstakingly over centuries by jurists, humanitarians, and soldiers, a body of rules that is now an essential, institutionalized part of the U.S. armed forces and indeed all modern militaries — should simply click here and watch the video.

Wait a minute: that’s the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video!  The gunsight view of an Apache helicopter opening fire from half a mile high on a crowd of Iraqis — a few armed men, but mostly unarmed civilians, including a couple of Reuters employees — as they unsuspectingly walked the streets of a Baghdad suburb one July day in 2007. 

Watch, if you can bear it, as the helicopter crew blows people away, killing at least a dozen of them, and taking good care to wipe out the wounded as they try to crawl to safety.  (You can also hear the helicopter crew making wisecracks throughout.) When a van comes on the scene to tend to the survivors, the Apache gunship opens fire on it too, killing a few more and wounding two small children.

The slaughter captured in this short film, the most virally sensational of WikiLeaks’ disclosures, was widely condemned as an atrocity worldwide, and many pundits quickly labeled it a “war crime” for good measure.

But was this massacre really a “war crime” — or just plain-old regular war?  The question is anything but a word-game. It is, in fact, far from clear that this act, though plainly atrocious and horrific, was a violation of the laws of war.  Some have argued that the slaughter, if legal, was therefore justified and, though certainly unfortunate, no big deal. But it is possible to draw a starkly different conclusion: that the “legality” of this act is an indictment of the laws of war as we know them.

The reaction of professional humanitarians to the gun-sight video was muted, to say the least.  The big three human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and Human Rights First — responded not with position papers and furious press releases but with silence.  HRW omitted any mention of it in its report on human rights and war crimes in Iraq, published nearly a year after the video’s release.  Amnesty also kept mum.  Gabor Rona, legal director of Human Rights First, told me there wasn’t enough evidence to ascertain whether the laws of war had been violated, and that his organization had no Freedom of Information Act requests underway to uncover new evidence on the matter.

This collective non-response, it should be stressed, is not because these humanitarian groups, which do much valuable work, are cowardly or “sell-outs.”  The reason is: all three human rights groups, like human rights doctrine itself, are primarily concerned with questions of legality.  And quite simply, as atrocious as the event was, there was no clear violation of the laws of war to provide a toehold for the professional humanitarians.

The human rights industry is hardly alone in finding the event disturbing but in conformance with the laws of war.  As Professor Gary Solis, a leading expert and author of a standard text on those laws, told Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine, “I believe it unlikely that a neutral and detached investigator would conclude that the helicopter personnel violated the laws of armed conflict.  Legal guilt does not always accompany innocent death.”  It bears noting that Gary Solis is no neocon ultra.  A scholar who has taught at the London School of Economics and Georgetown, he is the author of a standard textbook on the subject, and was an unflinching critic of the Bush-Cheney administration.

War and International “Humanitarian” Law

“International humanitarian law,” or IHL, is the trying-too-hard euphemism for the laws of war.  And as it happens, IHL turns out to be less concerned with restraining military violence than licensing it.  As applied to America’s recent wars, this body of law turns out to be wonderfully accommodating when it comes to the prerogatives of an occupying army.

Here’s another recent example of a wartime atrocity that is perfectly legal and not a war crime at all. Thanks to WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs, we now know about the commonplace torture practices employed by Iraqi jailers and interrogators during our invasion and occupation of that country.  We have clear U.S. military documentation of sexual torture, of amputated fingers and limbs, of beatings so severe they regularly resulted in death.

Surely standing by and taking careful notes while the Iraqi people you have supposedly liberated from tyranny are getting tortured, sometimes to death, is a violation of the laws of war.  After all, in 2005 General Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly contradicted his boss Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by commenting into a live mike that it is “absolutely the responsibility of every American soldier to stop torture whenever and wherever they see it.” (A young private working in Army Intelligence named Bradley Manning, learning that a group of Iraqi civilians handing out pamphlets alleging government corruption had been detained by the Iraqi federal police, raised his concern with his commanding officer about their possible torture.  He was reportedly told him to shut up and get back to work helping the authorities find more detainees.)

As it turned out, General Pace’s exhortation was at odds with both official policy and law: Fragmentary Order 242, issued by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, made it official policy for occupying U.S. troops not to interfere with ongoing Iraqi torture.  And this, according to some experts, is no violation of the laws of war either. Prolix on the limits imposed on the acts of non-state fighters who are not part of modern armies, the Geneva Conventions are remarkably reticent on the duties of occupying armies.  

As Gary Solis pointed out to me, Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention assigns only a vague obligation to “ensure respect” for prisoners handed over to a third party.  On the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan, this string of words would prove a less-than-meaningful constraint.

Part of the problem is that the laws of war that aspire to restrain deadly force are often weakly enforced and routinely violated. Ethan McCord, the American soldier who saved the two wounded children from that van in the helicopter video, remembers one set of instructions he received from his battalion commander: “Anytime your convoy gets hit by an IED, I want 360 degree rotational fire.  You kill every [expletive] in the street!”  (“That order,” David Glazier, a jurist at the National Institute for Military Justice, told me, “is absolutely a war crime.”)  In other words, the rules of engagement that are supposed to constrain occupying troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are, according to many scholars and investigators, often belittled and ignored.

Legalized Atrocity

The real problem with the laws of war, however, is not what they fail to restrain but what they authorize.  The primary function of International Humanitarian Law is to legalize remarkable levels of “good” military violence that regularly kill and injure non-combatants.  IHL highlights a handful of key principles: the distinction between combatant and civilian, the obligation to use force only for military necessity, and the duty to jeopardize civilians only in proportion to the military value of a target.

Even when these principles are applied conscientiously — and often they aren’t — they still allow for remarkable levels of civilian carnage, which the Pentagon has long primly (and conveniently) referred to as “collateral damage,” as if it were a sad sideline in the prosecution of war.  And yet civilian deaths in modern war regularly are the central aspect of those wars, both statistically and in other ways.  Far from being universally proscribed, the killing of high numbers of civilians in a battle zone is often considered absolutely legal under those laws.  In the pungent phrase of Professor David Kennedy of Harvard Law School, “We should be clear — this bold new vocabulary beats ploughshares into swords as often as the reverse.”

The relative weakness of the laws of war when it comes to preventing atrocities is not simply some recent debasement perpetrated by neoconservative Visigoths.  Privileging the combatant and his (it’s usually “his”) prerogatives has been the historical bone marrow of those laws.  In the Vietnam War, for instance, the declaration of significant parts of the South Vietnamese countryside as “free-fire zones,” and the “carpet bombing” of rural areas by B-52s carrying massive payloads were also done under cover of the laws of war.

IHL has certainly changed in some respects.  A century ago, the discourse around the laws of war was far more candid than today.  Jurists once regularly referred to “non-uniformed unprivileged combatants” simply as “savages” and the consensus view in mainstream scholarly journals of international law was that a modern army could do whatever it wanted to such obstreperous, lawless people (especially, of course, in what was still then the colonial world).  On the whole, the history of IHL is a long record of codifying the privileges of the powerful against lesser threats like civilians and colonial subjects resisting invasion.

Even though the laws of war have usually been one more weapon of the strong against the weak, a great deal of their particular brand of legalism has seeped into antiwar discourse. One of the key talking points for many arguing against the invasion of Iraq was that it was illegal — and that was certainly true.  But was the failure to procure a permission slip from the United Nations really the main problem with this calamitous act of violence?  Would U.N. authorization really have redeemed any of it?  There is also a growing faith that war can be domesticated under a relatively new rubric, “humanitarian intervention,” which purports to apply military violence in precise and therapeutic dosages, all strictly governed by international humanitarian law.

Here is where the WikiLeaks disclosures were so revealing.  They remind us, once again, that the humanitarian dream of “clean warfare” — military violence that is smoothly regulated by laws that spare civilians — is usually a sick joke.  We need to wean ourselves from the false comfort that the law is always on the side of civilians.  We need to scrap our tendency to assume that international law is inherently virtuous, and that anything that shocks our conscience — that helicopter video or widespread torture in Iraq under the noses of U.S. soldiers — must be a violation of this system, rather than its logical and predictable consequence.

Let’s be clear: what killed the civilians walking the streets of Baghdad that day in 2007 was not “war crimes,” but war.  And that holds for so many thousands of other Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed by drone strikes, air strikes, night raids, convoys, and nervous checkpoint guards as well.

Regulatory Capture

Who, after all, writes the laws of war?  Just as the regulations that govern the pharmaceutical and airline industries are often gamed by large corporations with their phalanxes of lobbyists, the laws of war are also vulnerable to “regulatory capture” by the great powers under their supposed rule. Keep in mind, for instance, that the Pentagon employs 10,000 lawyers and that its junior partner in foreign policy making, the State Department, has a few hundred more.  Should we be surprised if in-house lawyers can sort out “legal” ways not to let those laws of war get in the way of the global ambitions of a superpower?

It’s only fair that the last words on the laws of war go to Private Bradley Manning, now sitting in a prison cell in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, awaiting court-martial for allegedly passing troves of classified material to WikiLeaks, documents that offer the unvarnished truth about the Afghan War, the Iraq War, and Guantánamo.  They are taken from the instant-message chatlogs he wrote under the handle of “bradass87” to the informant who turned him in.  The young private saw very clearly what so many professors and generals take pains to deny: that the primary function of the laws of war is not to restrain violence, but to justify it, often with the greatest lawyerly ingenuity.

(02:27:47 PM) bradass87: i mean, we’re better in some respects… we’re much more subtle… use a lot more words and legal techniques to legitimize everything…

(02:28:19 PM) bradass87: but just because something is more subtle, doesn’t make it right

 

Chase Madar, is the author of a new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning (OR Books), is a lawyer in New York.   Madar tweets @ChMadar
 
First published at AlterNet.org

Women Responding to War

by Roberta Cohen

Whatever would Aristophanes, the Greek playwright of antiquity, think of the new US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary, Women, War and Peace? In his play Lysistrata performed in the fifth century B.C., Aristophanes depicted women tired of war and angry over its devastation of their and their families’ lives, uniting marching, occupying the Acropolis and withholding themselves to force men to the negotiating table. They triumph: the warring parties sign a peace agreement and the women propose some of its terms. For Aristophanes and his Greek audiences, women in war did not have to be victims but rather potentially powerful agents of change.

Fast forward twenty-five centuries to the US PBS documentary whose five riveting segments also show that when women join hands, they can rise above enormous odds in wartime. Here is some of what they achieved:  

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Going Green without the Moralism

by Heleen de Coninck

There is no question about it: social democrats need to embrace environmental sustainability. Protecting our natural surroundings, keeping our air clean, providing a healthy environment and access to nature for everyone should be at the core of social democratic policies, just like providing economic and social sustainability should be.

However, we have to admit that in the triangle environmental, social and economic sustainability, sometimes simplistically referred to as planet, people and profit, the balance is tilted. While we see that at the moment either type of sustainability is sacrificed to short-term gains, environmental sustainability often loses out even in more prosperous times. Why is that?

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