Truly Worth Honoring

Today is Memorial Day.  In a park near my home is a plaque that reads:     

We honor all those who fought for our community.

There is probably a similar plaque near you.  I would be more proud to live in a community with a plaque that read:    

We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong. 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Will

    As Abraham Lincoln admonished: “Do not pray that God is on our side. Pray that we are on His.”

  • http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/05/hanson_whats_wo.html EconLog

    Hanson: What’s Worth Celebrating

    I don’t think I’ve ever quoted an entire post before, but today I’ll make an exception for the incomparable Hanson:…

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    One of the most remarkable political achievements of many rich democracies is that the military is loyal to its political masters and consequently there is no realistic chance of a military coup. To a large extent we have solved the “who guards the guards” problem.

    If U.S. soldiers thought they would be more honored if they “fought against our [country] when it was wrong” than if they “merely” fought for our country against external enemies then we might have to worry about the military using force to intervene in the political system when they believed it was producing unjust outcomes.

    Robin, let’s say that most of the military officers stationed near Washington D.C. believe that abortion is murder. Should they be honored if they attempted to use force to get the Supreme Court to change its position on abortion?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    James, even when a cause is just, war is not always, or even usually, recommended. But if we are to celebrate any side in a war, it should be the side whose cause was just.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.

    Seeing how history works – it gets written by the winners, and we look to the past for people who share our values, and elevate them – we do honour a lot of those who fought against their communities (like George Washington, the suffragettes, abolitionists, etc…) All of them were ultimately victorious, however, and their victory erases their initial transgression.

    Even better would be: We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong, and who failed to win.
    Those are the ones who never get honoured otherwise.

  • spencer

    It is really amazing how you guys at the GMU economics department never have any doubt that you are always completely correct and the rest of the world is wrong.

    Do you have a freedom is not free sticker on your car?

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    Robin,

    Your suggestion would weaken the U.S. military. Part of the payment that soldiers receive is being honored by society on days such as Memorial Day.

    Let’s say that we implement your idea and only celebrate sides in a war that we currently think are just. A soldier in Iraq today might reasonably conclude that we won’t think the Iraq conflict was just ten years from now, and thus ten years hence we won’t celebrate his bravery. This will reduce his incentives to risk his life in Iraq and so weaken the U.S. military.

    I agree that we should only celebrate the contribution of a wartime President if we believe that the war he got us into was just. But we will have a stronger military, and thus a safer society, if we celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers regardless of what we think of the morality of the conflicts in which they were in.

  • eric

    That sounds like a placard straight from the 60’s, where unfortunately we can’t be certain about what is wrong (especially when every choice generates winners and losers, ie, no choice is Pareto Improving). This was the theme of The Closing of the American Mind, that the alternative to ethnocentrism was moral relativism, and thus enabling aggressive, greater evils. It has been several decades since the US fought a ‘good’ war, but the sacrifice of lives for things the average Joe doesn’t understand is essential, otherwise that country ends up like Russia in WWI and shrinks. If the US tried to only celebrate the fallen dead of ex-post good wars, we would have a lot of trouble getting a military staffed, and perhaps would have lost the Cold War.

    I’m sympathetic to not cheerleading blind courage, but the alternative you suggest is also too extreme: instead of celebrating specific individuals who, regardless of affect, did pay a clear price (death in battle, presumably at a young age), you propose celebrating your personal heroes, so 20% would celebrate Noam Chomsky and 20% Ronald Reagan. That kind of holiday doesn’t bring people together, and it’s hard to get excited about such a Unitarian view of politics (e.g., it doesn’t matter what heroes you have, as long as you have heroes).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, good point.

    Spencer, I think you misread the post; try again.

    James, I didn’t say we should not honor those who fought for us. But let’s pay soldiers more in other ways, rather than via exclusive unconditional unmoderated praise.

  • Amos

    As an American of Vietnamese descent, let me just say, eric, that you can speak for yourself when you talk about ‘good’ wars. There are wars one may or may not agree with; the better question is what are the outcomes of how those wars were fought and what the alternatives were.

    I see 30+ years of Vietnamese totalitarianism (for which its architects like Vo Nguyen Giap are/were regretful), hundreds of thousands of refugees and a Cambodian genocide that resulted from our unwillingness to maintain enough pressure on the North Vietnamese to keep them from supplying and aiding the Khmer Rouge.

    You (and Noam Chomsky) might see ending that not-‘good’ war as a success story regardless of what the enemy – well, the enemy of some of us – ended up doing.

    Then again, you might not. To-may-to, to-mah-to.

    But that begins to lead you to questions about when a soldier knows that a war is ‘good’ or ‘not good.’ The rest of us may not figure it out until years later. Some of us (all?), I submit, will never have the right estimation of the issue. Yet the soldiers who go out and fight are going out with the assumption that what they are fighting for is the correct thing. No doubt, there are situations that are clearly wrong, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the Germans who went out to fight for their cause honestly believed that what they were fighting for was really the best thing for the entire world. Even the Monster painted the Jews as a universal problem. (Much like those we fight today.) If, indeed, Jews were a universal problem, and if, indeed, you imagined that the best thing for the world was for the German people to take the lead in it, then invading East Europe and depopulating it of Jews is a logical consequence of that. It’s insane, yes; evil, too. But I have the benefit of seeing it from beyond its end.

    At the end of the Civil War, the terms at Appomattox were generous. The reason wasn’t simply because of any thought of brotherhood, but also because Grant understood that the whole bloody mess called on men of all sides to do and to sacrifice things that maybe were largely than they understood. But also because they were larger than even they understood them to be when they signed up. Remember that Emancipation didn’t happen until later in the War. From that perspective, the Southerner signed up because he was fighting for HIS land and for HIS rights and for HIS people. Should he not be honored as well? Was his sacrifice worth nothing?

    But what I’m really here to ask about is who the painter is of the image at the top of the page. I saw it once 5 years ago at an Art Museum and it’s been driving me crazy ever since.

  • anon

    Robin,

    I think you could read the plaque in another way…

    We should honor those whom we think have fought for our community.

    Why don’t we leave it to the reader of the plaque to decide for himself who has fought for our community and is therefore worthy of being honored.

    As always, hindsight is 20/20. Many of you liberals supported the war in the beginning and there are many troops who believed in the beginning that they were protecting the US from future attacks. Should we not honor them because of what we know now?

    Should we not honor those who are currently servig in Iraq… those who are attempting to bring peace to the region and prevent it from being taken over by an insurgency. Should we not honor those who are attempting to help Shia and Sunni work out those differences and live together in peace.

    Would we be honorable if we immediately pulled out from Iraq…. when I think about the consequences of such an action, I think not… so where does that leave our current position?

  • michael vassar

    It seems to me that Spencer is a troll and should be banned. His comment simply wasn’t a response to the post.

    Will: Thanks for the Lincoln quote.

    All: Robin might justly be more proud to live in a community that had figured out how to survive while only honoring those who fought against it when it was wrong better than ours does without this indicating that ours does not do an exemplary job compared to most communities in the world and in history at doing just that. That this hypothetical would make one the object and subject of just pride does not change the fact that in the absence of knowledge of how to become the object of just pride excessive efforts to do so may in fact be self-destructive hubris.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    All, to be very very clear: I was not proposing that we not honor those who fight. In fact, I would also be more proud to live in a community with the plaque:

    We honor those who fought in any struggle, no matter what side.

    Anon, we can’t assume that fighting for the right cause is fighting “for” our community. The painter is John Waterhouse, 1891.

  • anon

    “We honor those who fought in any struggle, no matter what side.”

    Robin,
    Are you sure you want to make such a broad statement? Do you think the Nazis are deserving of being honored?

  • http://bbnflstats.blogspot.com Brian

    Mr. Hanson,

    I am very confindent you have no idea what you are talking about.

    “Our community” has waged wars against murderous terrorists, fascists, Nazis, slave masters, communists, totalitarians, genocidal dictators, or megalo-maniacs bent on world domination. I cannot think of a single one of “our community’s” enemies that does not fit one of the descriptions above, aside from the Spanish.

    Our community may or may not have been just in fighting any or all of those wars, but to honor any of these enemies is perverse.

    In case you are referring to war protester-types: To dissent before war is declared is one thing, but to sympathize with, encourage, or in any way give comfort to an enemy is not honorable.

    The enemies you seek to honor wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet into the heads of any dissenter, or even a contrarian like yourself. They would probably delight in some torture for a while first. Go ahead, honor them.

  • http://www.mothering.com/discussions/forumdisplay.php?f=44 Acksiom

    Is this an example of what I refer to as negative exclusionary utopianist comparison error?

    I.e., are you faulting the utility (WRT your own emotional state) of the plaque’s message for its distance from an unreachably perfect goal without also estimating its distance from a known set of abyssal results — namely, the sort of tragic outcomes more likely to occur the more that members of a community look only to securing their own individual defense and survival, and refuse to take personal risks to, let alone actually sacrifice, their well-being, safety, health, and lives for the defense and survival of others?

    In short, you appear to be criticizing it for not being good enough compared to an ideal abstract without any consideration for how far much better it is than a known reality.

    Or even more pithily, “But what have you done for me lately?” I’m pretty sure there are both psychological and economic formal characterizations of this. . .dissatisfaction resulting from taking existing improvements for granted and ignoring their development and maintenance costs, but I can’t for the life of me remember their names or contexts.

    Anyways. . .when trying to Overcome Bias, one should remember to look back at the darkness behind oneself, too.

  • Pete

    This strikes me as the Donald Trump approach to life – violent disagreement is much better (at least on television) than compromise or level-headed discussion. Not what I would expect from Overcoming Bias. Isn’t the logical extent of “fighting any struggle, no matter what side” an attack on public goods where the benefit for all comes at a cost to the individual?

  • Pseudonymous

    “Our community” has waged wars against murderous terrorists, fascists, Nazis, slave masters, communists, totalitarians, genocidal dictators, or megalo-maniacs bent on world domination. I cannot think of a single one of “our community’s” enemies that does not fit one of the descriptions above, aside from the Spanish.

    King George III.

    Not to mention the previous inhabitants of North America.

    And Mexico.

    And various slave revolts.

    Not that anyone else would have behaved differently, but you did ask.

  • Bernard Guerrero

    Robin, this post brings up one basic issue that I have with the “overcoming bias” project. At what point does removing one’s biases remove one’s self? The determination of what is or is not a “just” cause without reference to one’s biases seems impossible to me, because the concept of justice is arbitrary and intimately tied up with our biases. For instance, one can argue that on the basis of comparative advantage two polities as a whole will always benefit from free trade. Whether this is “just”, however, depends on whether you see yourself as a consumer, whether you are directly connected to the handful of producers that will suffer an immediate shock, whether you identify with some third polity and don’t wish to see the other two polities prosper for political reasons, etc. Not believing in comparative advantage is a bias but, as to the results of free trade, where you stand depends on where you sit.

    Were the Nazi or Confederate causes just? I’d say not, but my morals are path-dependent and I come from a line that opposed both. A real-world victory for either would have resulted in many fewer sharing actual-me’s beliefs and a much larger number believing in the fundamental justice of those causes.

  • Pseudonymous

    I suppose it depends what you mean by bias. The suggested plaque read:

    “We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.”

    This would seem to mean “We honor those who fought against our community when it was fighting for causes we currently disapprove of.”

    I cannot help but think of the czarist officer in Darkness at Noon who says that “Honour is fighting for a cause you believe to be just.” I tend to agree with him, and I suspect that most people do.

    I have to admit that the 9/11 hijackers, the SS and the Royal African Company all believed their causes to be just, which is why I would not support a plaque reading:

    “We honor those who fought against our community when they considered it wrong.”

    We say that “We honor all those who fought for our community” because they fought for us, and we owe them that much, even if we later changed our collective minds about the war they fought in.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Bernard, your point is well worth exploring further.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    Robin, you write as if our community being wrong implies that those who fight us are just. I claim that it’s common for both sides in a fight to be wrong.

    James, it’s not obvious that a stronger military will produce a safer society. In particular, the ability to fight wars of questionable justness may do more to create enemies than to deter them. Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win provides some fairly clear evidence that U.S. mideast policies have been doing that.

  • joe

    Robin and Bernard,
    So I guess the real issue is not to attempt to overcome all biases, but rather to choose wisely which biases we do and do not want to overcome.

  • michael vassar

    Pseudonymous: You forgot the natives of the Phillipines, the British in 1812, and most notably, depending on who counts as ‘our community’, the Northern opposition to slavery.
    Do little conflicts like that with the Mormons count?
    Ongoing semi-conflicts with 1M people in jail at any given time like the war on ‘Drugs’.
    The expected collateral dammage from MAD?

    Regarding the statement
    ‘I cannot help but think of the czarist officer in Darkness at Noon who says that “Honour is fighting for a cause you believe to be just.” I tend to agree with him, and I suspect that most people do.’

    I agree that most people agree, but most people haven’t allocated sufficient attention to noticing the degree to which ‘beliefs’ are typically simply signifiers of group loyalties (hence part of the importance of overcoming bias). In such cases, ‘believe to be just’ degenerates into ‘are convenient to support given my social environment.’ In typical situations, overcoming bias, and hence, reaching beliefs that map onto the world rather than simply vocalizing the ‘beliefs’ supported by one’s community is not seen as admirable. In fact, Brian’s quote

    ‘In case you are referring to war protester-types: To dissent before war is declared is one thing, but to sympathize with, encourage, or in any way give comfort to an enemy is not honorable.’

    seems to me to suggest that this is the case even among some posters here, at least in certain circumstances including ‘[after] war is declared’

  • Stuart Armstrong

    “Our community” has waged wars against murderous terrorists, fascists, Nazis, slave masters, communists, totalitarians, genocidal dictators, or megalo-maniacs bent on world domination. I cannot think of a single one of “our community’s” enemies that does not fit one of the descriptions above, aside from the Spanish.

    U.S.-Philippine War (against Philippino ex-allies, not against the Spanish), the early wars in Panama, the wars with Mexico… the examples are really not hard to find. And if you include various smaller scale interventions, then “our community” has a regular history of fighting democracies.

    In case you are referring to war protester-types: To dissent before war is declared is one thing, but to sympathize with, encourage, or in any way give comfort to an enemy is not honorable.

    Why? Where does this singular belief come from, that once war has started, “honourable” people stop acting on their beliefs and simply follow the crowd? Now, I admit that wars are difficult to stop, and that it may be more rational to support a war, and hope it ends quickly, rather than oppose it. But if you believe that the best possible outcome is that your community lose the war (for us Brits, this used to happen quite often in various colonial adventures) then legally undermining your own military is the moral thing to do.

    To risk the wrath of Godwin’s Law, I would ask you if you believe that Richard Sorge was wrong to spy on his Nazi masters and their allies for the Soviet Union. “Honourable” wartime behaviour depends on who your community is, and on what war they’re waging.

  • Bernard Guerrero

    Michael Vassar,

    “I agree that most people agree, but most people haven’t allocated sufficient attention to noticing the degree to which ‘beliefs’ are typically simply signifiers of group loyalties (hence part of the importance of overcoming bias).”

    This raises two objections in my mind:

    A) As I stated previously, to some extent we _are_ our biases. A dislike of slavery and slavers is, to some extent, an arbitrary one. Unless you take as received knowledge some base set of morals, a great deal of behavior you don’t like really only boils down to arbitrary taste, with no error in mapping reality to mental picture involved. A slaver might be quite rational, simply taking advantage of a chance to confiscate somebody else’s labor simply because he can. I’m not sure you want to give up your biases in that situation.

    B) In some cases, arbitrary group loyalties (and the signaling of same) might actually be the rational response to a given set of circumstances. Keep in mind the theory that the rapid evolution of human language is a response to the free-rider problem which allows a given group to easily identify outsiders who are less likely to carry the group’s genes.

  • Bernard Guerrero

    Joe,

    “So I guess the real issue is not to attempt to overcome all biases, but rather to choose wisely which biases we do and do not want to overcome.”

    Possibly there are two sorts of bias. (Forgive me if this has come up before and I’ve missed the posts.) There is clearly a bias involved in mis-mapping reality to one’s mental picture. The Monty Hall Problem describes a bias; probabilities are what they are, regardless of whether we intuitively grasp them. Likewise for overconfidence and more mudane mis-mapping like “the sky is green”, “the Moon is made of cheese” or, with somewhat more serious consequences, “the Jews are out to destroy Germany”.

    OTOH, some bias would appear to not be a matter of mis-mapping. I am clearly going to feel it more and in a very different way if I break my leg in a car accident than I will if you do. I might feel a great deal of sympathy/empathy for your leg, but the break in mine might well have me screaming in agony.

  • Prasanth

    Brian,
    [“Our community” has waged wars against murderous terrorists, fascists, Nazis, slave masters, communists, totalitarians, genocidal dictators, or megalo-maniacs bent on world domination. I cannot think of a single one of “our community’s” enemies that does not fit one of the descriptions above, aside from the Spanish.]
    Apart from the examples given above, What was the US trying to do when they were fighting against all of the above types and many more innocent ones?
    megalo-maniacs bent on world domination seems a reasonable guess 🙂

  • http://www.pareen.wordpress.com Pareen

    Amazing,

    There have been long essays and books written to express all that you have expressed in just a few lines…

    I salute you for that…

    Pareen

  • mobile

    At the risk of devolving into a Judean Peoples’ Front meeting, how about

    We honor and dishonor all of those who fought and didn’t fight for and against our community when it was right and/or wrong.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jefallbright/ Jef Allbright

    How about

    We honor those who fought for principles promoting our community’s most coherent values.

    Never mind, more than one level of abstraction loses nearly all the popular audience.

  • Michael F. Cannon

    Do you honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong, even if they did so for the wrong reasons?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    How about: “We frankly admit that we don’t know whether or not we should be honoring these fallen soldiers.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, I would be very proud to live in a community with the plaque you suggest.

    Michael, I might not honor them as much if they had the wrong reasons, but I would still probably honor them.

  • Michael F. Cannon

    But then you should honor your community as well, even though it was wrong, because it was opposing another community when that community was wrong. So you’d be honoring both warring camps, equally, simply because each made war against a community in the wrong. Ad absurdum, you might honor both the Nazis and the Soviets. It seems to me that neither community should be honored — though, per Truman, we might want to arm whichever side is losing so they’ll kill as many of each other as possible. We should only honor those who fight for or against our community when they do so for the right reason.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.trowbridge Dave Trowbridge

    As a Quaker, I have a big problem with holidays like Memorial Day, since I’m convinced that war is always against God’s will, and, moreover, that such holidays are rituals of a civic religion that is in opposition to the Gospel.

    I can’t put my thought as pithily as you did, but it seems to me that honor is due to those individuals who, in accordance with the measure of the Light they were granted, acted as they thought necessary to preserve their community.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Snowden: Hero