On Being Evil

Are you a good person? If you ask most people this question, they’ll answer, “Yes.” Of course they are. They might think to themselves, “I’m not a monster. I’m not like X.” Pick your monster, let X equal Hitler for illustration purposes here.

But, what’s the threshold for good? Does the same thinking apply in the opposite direction? Do we think to ourselves, “I’m not a saint. I’m not like X.” Pick your saint, let X equal the Buddha for illustration purposes here.

If we draw a line, with the most evil person that ever lived, assuming talking about “the most evil” could be quantified in some way based on objective analysis of the horror that was a direct result of their existence, and drawing it to “the most good” quantified in a similar way, where do we sit? Are we on trajectories over the course of our lives, moving in more evil or more good directions? Does it vary based on specific features that are dominant at a particular historical moment?

Is it easier to be good, or evil, in a particular time and place? Was it easier to be good when humanity was living in pre-history, in small bands before the dawn of the agricultural revolution? Are there some eras where evil and good don’t even apply, e.g., if you worked 18 hour days in one of the early factories after the Industrial Revolution? Or, perhaps being literate and being exposed to new ideas makes us more inclined to be evil, or good.

When I think on these things, I come to one conclusion. We aren’t good. We aren’t bad. We are people in a particular situation, and we all think that what we are doing is good, in some sense of that word.

Hitler, for instance, believed that some people were sub-human, and if you got rid of these lesser humans, humanity as a whole would be better off. Even saying it in that way implies a value judgment because if some “people” are sub-human, they are still human. Hitler’s argument seems to be that they aren’t really people at all, so it should be said differently under that assumption. If you accept the perspective that people are people, then Hitler’s line of thinking is evil.

But, Hitler’s line of thinking is the norm. Humans are tribal, and outsiders are always not quite as human as insiders. If you think that some people are better in some fundamental way – whether that is because they subscribe to a particular idea/dogma, such as a religion or they belong to a particularly ethnic group – whether that is a Han Chinese in modern China, white Englishman in Colonial America, or any colonizing civilization’s view of aboriginal hunter/gatherer groups, or simply because you know them – how much different are you from Hitler? What differentiates Hitler’s view from the tribal view?

Beyond views, there are actions. Does the ability to act in the world make us capable or greater evil or good? If someone has the same views as Hitler but is unable to act on them as he did, are they also evil? Is it the idea that some people aren’t people the evil part? Or, is it the causing, in one way or another, the deaths of millions the evil part? Well, it seems they both are evil, right? It’s just more evil if you act on and the scale of your actions amplifies the evil in some way.

The same idea applies the other direction. We all want to be good. But, is it enough to have good ideas? Or, does the good need to impact the world in some significant way? If we do smaller acts of kindness, are we less good than a Bill Gates who can do something like eradicate a disease? Is Bill Gates good? Is he more good than the Dalai Lama or the historical Buddha? Why or why not?

When we look into our hearts, we know that the desire to be and do good competes with other desires. We also want to be comfortable and materially well-off. We want to be important, respected, possibly famous. We want to be accepted by the communities in which we are part, some of which may not be good communities. We may want power or control over our environment. And on and on. All of these desires compete, and while everyone wants to be good, we very often want these other things more.

I think it helps to understand that none of us are inherently good or bad. None of us are “good people”. Luck and circumstance plays a very important role in who we are. We are the sum total of a vast network of influences: genetic, environmental, psychological and so many others. But, perhaps, the important thing is that we always have a choice in what we think and do, and perhaps it is helpful to realize that we may be rationalizing some evil, and that we are in fact being and acting evil. That the good we believe we are or doing might be evil and perhaps, it is time to stop.

Introduction to Immanuel Kant

“The basic value in Kant’s ethics is that of human dignity – the rational nature in persons as end in itself. A person is a being for whose sake we should act, and that has an unconditional claim on us. This is the source of what Kant calls a categorical imperative: a ground for action that does not depend on any contingent desire of ours or any end to be effected by action set at our discretion. John Rawls corrected the basic and traditional misunderstanding of Kant’s ethics when he said that it is not an ethics of stern command but rather one of self-esteem and mutual respect. To this I would add that Kant’s ethics is also an ethics of caring or empathy – what Kant calls Teilnehmung: sympathetic participation. This is not sympathy merely in the sense of passive feeling for or with others, but instead an active taking part in the standpoint of the other which leads to understanding and concern.”

-Allen W. Wood, “Immanuel Kant: What lies beyond the senses.Times Literary Supplement. February 21, 2020.

Probably the most accessible introduction to Kant’s thought I’ve read. Also worth taking a look at the Five Best Books on Immanuel Kant.

Safety or Stalker App?

“…Life360, a location-sharing app aimed at families, is apparently ruining the lives of teenagers all across the United States…Parents can now remotely check their child’s browsing histories and social media accounts, watch their movements via motion-sensing cameras, and track everywhere they go with location-sharing apps. In a Pew Research Center study last year, 58 percent of US parents said they sometimes or often look at their teenager’s messages, call logs, and the websites they visit. In a separate study from 2016, 16 percent said they used location-sharing apps.”

—Louise Matsakis, “On TikTok, Teens Meme Life360, the Safety App Ruining Their Summer.” Wired. July 12, 2019.

Contrast the features of Life360 with this report from The Citizen Lab on Stalkerware:

“Persons who engage in technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment sometimes install spyware on a targeted person’s mobile phone. Spyware has a wide range of capabilities, including pervasive monitoring of text and chat messages, recording phone logs, tracking social media posts, logging website visits, activating a GPS system, registering keystrokes, and even activating phones’ microphones and cameras, as well as sometimes blocking incoming phone calls. These capabilities can afford dramatic powers and control over an individual’s everyday life. And when this software is used abusively, it can operate as a predator in a person’s pocket, magnifying the pervasive surveillance of the spyware operator.”

Christopher Parsons, Adam Molnar, et al. “The Predator in Your Pocket A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry.” Citizen Lab. June 12, 2019.

Open question: What distinguishes a “safety app” from a “stalking app,” the presumably benign intentions of parents? What happens to children that grow up in this environment? Will they go on to submit to this kind of surveillance from their domestic partners and spouses? What of the underlying economics that are reporting all your activity in order to refine automotive insurance pricing?

If you think through the implications, surveillance capitalism is often sold as a “safety” feature, but the economics are driven by other considerations. Further, the impact on human flourishing and autonomy are rarely understood and often significant. These developments are not good for anyone other than the people providing the app. Don’t be fooled.

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

The Impossibility of Comparative Consequences

A calculus of comparative consequences is impossible. Every effort to develop one is a process of rationalizing bias.

Consequentialism assumes, based on experience or thought experiments, that it can assess the consequences of a particular act. This position implies that one act causes consequences. These consequences can be evaluated, reduced to some kind of common metric, and then compared to other actions and their consequence to determine which action is best.

At the most broad philosophical level, consequentialism raises the problem of causality and induction. The problem of causality is one can never be certain that one event causes another. The problem of induction comes up when one makes assertions about circumstances where one has no experience by assuming that they are similar to circumstances where one does have experience, e.g., actual events are similar to counter-factual ones.

Therein lies sufficient grounds to reject consequentialism. One can never be certain consequences were caused by a particular act. Further, even if one wanted to pretend that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence, there is no way to be certain one is accounting for all relevant consequences.

Suppose it is possible that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence and that all morally relevant consequences can be accounted for. Consequentialism also claims that it can compare among the many different possible outcomes and determine which is “best” according to some criteria.

This assumes two things. One, it assumes that not only can one account for all relevant consequences in circumstances that actually occurred, but one can also do so in evaluating the consequences of actions that were not taken. This is the problem of induction, where one assumes that some possible course of action would happen with consequences similar to what one has experienced in the past.

Consequentialists defend against the problem of induction by saying that consequentialism is not intended as a guide for decision making but as a standard for evaluating consequences after the fact. Yet, the standard still requires making comparative judgments about acts that did not happen, which is as impossible to know as knowing all consequences in advance before acting. Making this distinction does not help them.

Pretend for a moment that even if one’s sense of consequences is not perfect, it is enough to draw useful moral distinctions. Now, suppose one has a billion US dollars, and one decides to invest it developing a space elevator. Based on consequentialist moral standards, which out of the infinite number of ways or combination of ways one could have spent that money is best? For example, it could have been used to provide clean water and food to people starving or suffering from food insecurity, eliminate disease through vaccination programs, train physicians, etc. Ultimately, any assertion of which way is best is based on a value judgment that comes before the consequences. If one thinks eliminating suffering right now is more important, then one is going to think an action aimed at addressing the here and now, such as alleviating hunger, is preferable to a space elevator even if, in the long run, the space elevator may have better consequences.

Consider the Trolley problem, where a trolley is out of control and going to kill five people and you only have the option to throw a switch which will turn the trolley down a track to kill one person. What is the “best” outcome? Aside from moral questions about the responsibilities of the actor and committing harm, how does one value the lives in this and other hypothetical scenarios? If these five people being saved are a criminal gang, then it seems difficult to argue that saving them would result in the most happiness for everyone. Or, perhaps the person being sacrificed is a once in a generation talent of some kind and the other five bring less happiness than this gifted person on one’s consequential scale. On the other hand, perhaps the criminal gang will eventually turn into good people that bring better net consequences than the person that was sacrificed. The only thing that is certain is that all lives do not have equal consequences, and it is impossible to tell what they are if some of those consequences remain in the future, and every action of current moral import will have future implications.

So, what is consequentialism really doing when it says it is evaluating consequences, when in fact it cannot? It is cherry picking moral options and which consequences are relevant. If one dictates the premises, one can dictate the conclusion. It’s a system for rationalizing bias. At base, consequentialism is a morality market with only one buyer determining the value (consequences) of different products (actions). And, like any market, there are externalities that are not factored into the price that are borne by society at large or are simply ignored. It’s a terrible basis for a morality.

Varieties of Good

Ethics is talked about having three flavors: consequentialism, deontological and virtue ethics. One way of thinking about it is that consequentialism is relative value. Deontological ethics is value according to an objective standard. Virtue ethics is inherent value.

Unwritten Rules

tl;dr: Ponyatiya is a code of conduct of the Russian criminal class. The way it has evolved in Russia suggests that there is a give and take between written and unwritten rules, and the balance between the two points reflects the level of confidence a people have in their civil institutions. If the U.S. has a crisis of faith in its institutions, perhaps brought on by the Trump Presidency, what kind of unwritten rules will predominate? (1,903 words)

“My friend Andrew Ryvkin, who wrote for the same blog, was also attacked — in broad daylight, by two well-known pro-Kremlin writers, for a Twitter slight; his attempt to report the case ended when the detective told him, ‘Come on. They’re famous guys. You must understand.’ That last sentence was telling. There is a Russian word, ponyatiya, which literally means ‘things that are understood’ — i.e., unwritten rules. Like many phenomena of modern Russian life, it comes from prison culture. And to live by the ponyatiya means not only to stay within the lines but also not to acknowledge the lines’ existence out loud…”
—Michael Idov, Russia: Life After Trust

“Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.”
—David Simon, The Wire

During the Russian Revolution, armed gangs emerged to control major parts of Russian society. As the state apparatus was re-instituted, these gangs were systemically repressed, and many gang members were sent to forced labor camps. In the camps, they developed a distinct culture, and the culture is centered on a criminal code of conduct. This code of conduct is called ponyatiya (понятия in Russian). It stems from the root word ponimat, which means “to understand”. In broad strokes, it means:

  • “Your own prison you shall not make.” Or, an ethic of non-cooperation with authorities, particularly observing a code of silence and not aiding prison officials, police or the military in any way.
  • “One is not a thief in a field.” Sever attachments to blood relations, personal possessions and other (non-thieving) employment.
  • “Live with wolves, howl like a wolf.” Participates in the life of the thief community: recruits new thieves, arbitrates conflicts, enforces punishments, perpetuates the culture of thieves, etc.
  • “Every person is the blacksmith of their own destiny.” Avoid being controlled by your emotions, intoxicants, and gambling. Make good on your promises, help other thieves, and keep secrets.

Ponyatiya points to two interesting dynamics. First, it shows that there is a continuum in group formation that moves from one extreme of individuals acting alone to decentralized, informal networks of personal relationships to centralized, formal bureaucracies based on command and control and written rules. The greater the centralization, the greater the power of the group, and there’s an ongoing process of building and eroding of power. Second, unwritten rules are foundational for formation of groups and when shared across society, they turn into the laws of civil society.

It is difficult to maintain power and centralized control. It is very easy for a society to revert back to a code of the street, such as this description of the environment facing black communities in the United States:

“The code of the streets is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect inner-city residents. When called, they may not respond, which is one reason many residents feel they must be prepared to take extraordinary measures to defend themselves and their loved ones against those who are inclined to aggression. Lack of police accountability has in fact been incorporated into the local status system: the person who is believed capable of ‘taking care of himself’ is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and psychological control. Thus the street code emerges where the influence of the police and the justice system ends and personal responsibility for one’s safety is felt to begin. When respect for the civil law erodes, ‘street justice’ fills the void, thus underscoring the need for street credibility to operate on the streets of the local community. Exacerbated by the proliferation of drugs and easy access to guns, this volatile situation promises those with unassailable street credibility, often the street-oriented minority, the opportunity to dominate the public spaces.”

Whether it is the breakdown of civil government for minorities, a foreign invader colonizing an entire population, a prohibition of particular activities (such as drugs or gambling), new commercial developments, or reactionary forces challenging regime change, these changes create room for the code of the streets. Enforcing ‘street justice is hard, and invariably, it leads to the development of informal groups to do it. These groups are often at odds with the state.

For examples, we can look to the history of other major criminal organizations in the world. The Triads, the organized crime syndicates of China, were originally formed as a secret society aimed at overthrowing the contemporaneous government and restoring the old. They were not any more in favor of the British and the Chinese communists and as those groups came to power in China and were resisted, the Triads were suppressed by both in turn.

The origins of the Sicilian Mafia can be described in this way:

“The Mafia, a network of organized-crime groups based in Italy and America, evolved over centuries in Sicily, an island ruled until the mid-19th century by a long line of foreign invaders. Sicilians banded together in groups to protect themselves and carry out their own justice. In Sicily, the term ‘mafioso,’ or Mafia member, initially had no criminal connotations and was used to refer to a person who was suspicious of central authority.”

The Japanese Yakuza have their origins in either: (1) providing gambling services at a time when gambling was outlawed, or (2) providing security to trading communities for their markets during religious festivals when the local police force was inadequate. Some argue that yakuza codes against street crime served as a deterrent, which partially explains why the were tolerated by the Japanese state.

While these are well-known international criminal organizations, each illustrates the need for groups to develop a code of conduct. The Triads, Mafia, Yakuza, the black gangsters of Baltimore depicted in the television series, The Wire, each has a code. Sometimes, it is written. More often, it isn’t, and it has many of the same features of the ponyatiya of the Russian Vor. The codes provide greater group cohesion and effectiveness, prevent preying on one another within the group, and help their organization keep a low profile.

The evolution of these groups also shows how social organizations, when they are repressed or prohibited by civil authorities, evolve into criminal organizations. For a recent example, consider the current environment of the United States, where several state legislatures are considering bills to criminalize “unauthorized” protests.

On one hand, government prohibitions tend scare off law-abiding citizens who do not want to be labeled as criminals by the state. But, it also tends to organize and radicalize opposition. If protesting is a felony — on the same level as arson, burglary, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug sales and so forth — with similar penalties to severe crimes, then the legal line between these activities has been erased. Then, the only rule is the unwritten code of the group and the opportunities presented by the environment. In other words, the incentives are for the group to evolve into true criminal organizations because they can do so with little additional cost.

Any group suppressed by the civil authorities faces similar challenges to survival, which do not change with time or place. The group needs to take precedence among the various allegiances of their members. They need to maintain individual competence and have procedures for managing conflict and corruption undermining the group. These groups have to be able to resist other groups. And ultimately, they have to have income to support their activities. Ideally, they should also provide social services — whether it be security, education, food, or something else — to win popular support. All of this leads to an unwritten code of conduct to achieve these objectives.

When looked at in this light, then the difference between a state, a criminal organization, international corporation, paramilitary, terrorist or other group amounts to scale and their level of success. Winning “hearts and minds” is just as important to groups of criminals, insurgents, outlaws, etc. as it is to the marketing campaigns of corporations or the counterinsurgency efforts of militaries of the state trying to impose state rule. The limits of government, in any form, are essentially the limits of enforcement, which is a function of the level of popular cooperation. Compliance is control.

The same pattern is there for minority communities such as Jews. They may rely on codes of silence like mesirah, which is a code for not reporting fellow Jews to an abusive authority and rely on religious leaders and institutions for arbitration, rather than civil institutions. Then, there’s the dynamics between different groups, such as the ethic of Stop Snitchin’ in black communities and the corresponding ethic of the police to observe a blue wall of silence, the unwritten code among police officers not to inform on fellow police officers. The latter places allegiance with one’s group above civil society or ideas like the rule of law. It undermines centralized authority and moves all the groups of larger society down the continuum to less concentrated power and more reliance on unwritten laws of groups and reliance on informal personal networks.

Ponyatiya in Russia is no longer a counter-cultural criminal code, but the de facto social code for all of Russian society. It’s an ethic that impedes the functioning of the state. One unwritten rule that the quote above shows us is that famous people live by a different standard than everyone else, to the point that they can expect to attack someone on the street for a tweet and not be called into account for it. Another is that anyone can be called into account, at any time. If they attack the wrong person with better connections, then the script will be flipped. It is reminiscent of the old saying about the law, that it is “what is most boldly asserted and plausibly maintained” backed up by what is affectionately known in Chicago as “clout”, or political connections.

And lest we think this is some strange phenomena in Russia, there is a lot of lip service given in the United States to the Constitution, the rule of law, the strength of our government institutions, the goodness of U.S. military intervention in promoting democracy around the world and other notions of this sort. At recent mass protests, many people still believe that the police lining the streets are there to protect them. So, there is still a great deal of confidence in the centralized institutions by significant parts of the population. However, the election of Donald Trump has created a great deal of uncertainty — for immigrants, increasing the surveillance state to the point that the Department of Homeland Security seriously floated the idea of asking visitors for their social media passwords, taking a much more aggressive stance towards Iran, etc. It does not take much imagination to think that four years of a Trump administration using the significant powers of the Presidency could undermine the faith that the American people have in their civil government.

When/if that happens, what groups and unwritten codes will U.S. civil society devolve into?

Dark Monarchy

tl;dr: Starting with the ethics of paying for a book written by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., The Unabomber, this essay discusses the implication of payments and their relationship with ethics and values. Money is a Dark Monarchy; one that looks at other values, such as morality, as a cost. End result, endemic corruption that births monsters. (4115 words)

“We also have to ask where so-called ‘progress’ will take us in the future. What kinds of monstrous crimes will be committed with the godlike powers of the new technology? Will human behavior be so regulated through biological and psychological techniques that the concept of freedom becomes meaningless?”
           -Theodore J. Kaczynski, “Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. The Unabomber”

“Maybe I am a monster…I don’t think I would know if I were one.”
           -Joss Whedon, “Age of Ultron”

Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, has a new book out, his second, entitled: “Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How”. Fitch & Madison is his publisher, and on their site and on their Amazon listing, they include this note:

“Note: Theodore John Kaczynski does not receive any remuneration for this book.”

On the surface, this is a straight-forward appeal trying to address the ethical concerns of book buyers that do not want to provide financial support to a serial killer. But, something about it seems strange when you look at the context:

Ted Kaczynski was motivated by an anti-technology ideology to kill three people and injure twenty-three others. His primary method was to plant or send, through the United States Postal Service, homemade bombs to people with a pro-technology stance. Kaczynski was caught and sentenced to eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. He’s in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day in ADX Florence, a Supermax prison with one of the harshest prison environments in the world, one with conditions that arguably qualify as “cruel and unusual“. If given the privilege, prisoners at ADX Florence can shop at a commissary once a week and purchase a limited selection of items, such as food, personal hygiene products, stamps, etc.

If Kaczynski is in a federal Supermax prison, there are spending caps for federal prisoners of a few hundred dollars per month. Further, inmates who are ordered by a judge to pay restitution, like Kaczynski, have much smaller limits, perhaps $25 a month. Most remuneration for his book would go to his victims. There’s also the issue that the purchases he can make are limited to buying deodorant and food at the prison commissary. The ethical question about his remuneration, when you consider the details, borders on the absurd.

But, it’s one absurdity among many. In our society, there is a taboo on individual violence, and any list of serial killers largely points to criminal tendencies being transformed by mental illness into something monstrous. But, there’s something different when murder is committed in the service of an ideology. The language we use changes from serial killer to terrorist. While we use terms such as The War on Crime and The War on Drugs, serial killers are an anomaly. It is not a problem that requires war. But, we do have a War on Terror, and we are more than fifteen years into it.

Let’s use a recent U.S. drone strike that killed at least fifteen people and injured another thirteen as a point of comparison. From an ethics based on rules or consequences, the drone operator has killed and injured more people than Ted Kaczynski. However, the drone operator will never be given a prison sentence. So, what is the justification for treating these two cases differently?

In an article in The Guardian (linked above), one justification offered is based on intent. It justifies the deaths involved in the drone strike as an unfortunate by-product of the war against ISIS, or terrorism more generally, and as such, it is unintended “collateral damage”. Again, on the surface, this argument seems to have some merit. But, there is a better mental model for thinking about the difference than ordinary ethics.

Ordinary ethics requires a moral agent, someone capable of making and being held accountable for moral decisions. It is a framework for individuals. But, the decisions of consequence in our world are made by organizations, such as governments or multinational corporations. Organizations are not moral agents. In fact, organizations are often characterized by decision-making that is diffused throughout the organization to shield individuals from making moral decisions or being held accountable. Further, they provide incentives for the people at the highest level, those making policy decisions on behalf of the organization, to choose profits over morality. Organizations primarily make decisions based on two questions:

  1. Is it necessary to their business?
  2. What are the costs/profits?

Morality, if it has a place, is used as a piece of public relations and managing public perception. But, it isn’t a major driver in decision-making, because morality is a cost, one that is rarely necessary above a minimal token threshold.

At the level of an individual organization, just as with individuals, having a few behaving as psychopaths willing to transcend ethical and social boundaries might have a protective function to play in a society. Even if that is true, it is also easy to imagine that there is a tipping point, where as the number of psychopaths increases, their presence becomes harmful. The major organizations in our world operate using this model. Each organization functions as its own fiefdom, but the decision-making logic of reducing costs and increasing profits reigns everywhere. It is a Dark Monarchy, and it is the ideology of our age.

To illustrate, let’s return to the drone attacks. The costs can be calculated: personnel, equipment, consumables (such as food, fuel, and so forth), condolence payments, etc. The condolence payment part of the expense is an interesting window into the logic of the Dark Monarchy. For one, condolence payments are an insignificant part of the total expense. In 2012, the U.S. military spent $891,000 on condolence payments in Afghanistan. Detailed information on condolence payments shows that there can be a lot of variation in what is dispersed. But, as a general rule, “according to a Pentagon spokesman, condolence payments can be up to $5,000 for a death or injury, or $5,000 for property damage.”

A Hellfire missile costs $115,000. The condolence payments for the lives it took in this instance would likely be less than the cost of the missile itself. From the perspective of the U.S. military, drones are a powerful new and necessary weapon for their business. And the costs of using it are much cheaper than conventional weaponry and are becoming even less expensive. Lastly, the moral question can be reduced to a dollar value: up to $5,000 per death or injury in Afghanistan. By the logic of the Dark Monarchy, the costs are necessary and acceptable.

One objection to this framing can be heard in a Radiolab episode, Our Condolences. This story provides the history behind condolence payments. These payments started with the use of Jeeps in World War I to address accidents from a new form of transport, and it focused on “non-combat” accidents. In the episode, an individual responsible for making condolence payments in Iraq, which were capped at $2,500, says that these payments did not represent the value of a life, but they were tokens and their real value was in providing an opportunity for someone in a U.S. military uniform to apologize, explain what happened, and hear what is said in return.

The model of necessity and cost is particularly useful here because it allows us to see that the veneer of ethics can be useful and worth paying a small cost. The U.S. military does not have to make any condolence payments, and by making this effort, it buys goodwill. But, buying goodwill is not the same as living up to a moral code or acting ethically. Just as the claim that “collateral damage” is an unfortunate by-product of fighting ISIS and terrorism suggests that there is a higher good being pursued, these are good public relations techniques to obfuscate, placate and appease, but it isn’t ethical decision-making. It is a token pretending to be ethics.

What about the Unabomber? What were the costs involved? The FBI investigation took 17 years and cost them $60 million to conduct. While new investigative techniques were developed during the Unabomber investigation, the FBI, no doubt, views most of the money spent as unnecessary cost. To prevent these kinds of costs in the future, it was necessary to make an example of him. In addition to receiving a life prison sentence in a Supermax prison, the judge in the case ordered Kaczynski to pay his victims restitution payments of $15 million dollars, or about $576,923 per death or injury.

How does that compare to what the rates that federal, state and local governments in the United States pay, when they are responsible for death or injury? A rough comparison can be made using reparation packages offered by the U.S government for Japanese internment ($20,000 or $33,400 adjusted for inflation, total $1.6 billion) or the City of Chicago for torture victims of Jon Burge, a Chicago police Commander ($100,000 per person, total $100 million). This suggests U.S. valuations that are somewhere between five to twenty times the values in Afghanistan when U.S. government personnel are responsible for the death or injury of U.S. citizens.

Or, we can look at it slightly differently. What fines does the U.S. government impose when its interests or U.S. citizens have been harmed by other organizations? A research paper suggests that when the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutes foreign firms, it tends to impose fines that are fourteen times higher than the fines it imposes on U.S. firms for the same offense. If these fines are a type of condolence payment demanded by the U.S. government when it has been harmed, then it suggests it has a fairly consistent way of looking at foreign and domestic value. If harm from foreign actors is handicapped as fourteen times the harm of domestic agents, then it explains the U.S. government focus on Islamic and other forms of foreign terrorism over domestic terrorism, even if the latter are the greater risk.

Condolence payments and fines are unusual, and as the $1.6 billion for Japanese internment or the settlement costs for misconduct by Chicago police from 2004 to early 2016 of $662 million indicate, they can become significant. But, sometimes they are necessary. Paying these settlements may also be the cheapest alternative.

Given the size of these sums, how is that possible that settlements are a cheaper alternative? A recent study focused on police integrity and crimes committed by local and state law enforcement officers provides a clue. The research design of the study consisted of 48 terms in a keyword search of articles in Google News, hits were verified and coded using National Incident-Based Reporting System guidelines, demographic data of all police officers were compared to those arrested and results were subjected to statistical analysis. The report states in its conclusion:

Cases in which sworn law enforcement officers act as criminals—whether dealing drugs, or driving drunk, or sexually molesting a vulnerable citizen—strike a direct blow to the law enforcement enterprise and…threaten to undermine public trust in both the authority and legitimacy of state and local law enforcement organizations…The contrast between the [topic of police crime’s] substantive weight and comparatively light coverage within the scholarship is mostly due to an absence of suitable data. The traditional sources of data and methods of study, whether official statistics, self-report surveys, or direct observations, either do not exist in any usable format or are ill-equipped to identify, count, or provide the basis for empirical analyses of instances in which police perpetrate crimes themselves.

First, the authors of this study are using an ethical framework for interpretation. Their study’s recommendation contains a number of ethical statements about what “should” be the case, but isn’t. The question of why reality is so far from the truth or the possibility that ethics are irrelevant is not considered. Second, data for an empirical analyses would be the source of a great deal of additional cost, which is why it doesn’t exist and the researchers had to make a proxy for it using Google News articles.

Tom Jackman, in an article in The Washington Post discussing the above study, shows exactly what kind of problem empirical analysis can present:

To be clear, police are not committing crimes at anywhere near the level of civilians. Stinson’s data found 1.7 arrests of police per 100,000 population over the seven years of the study, where the general arrest rate in 2012 alone was 3,888 arrests per 100,000 population.

Unfortunately, the conclusion that “police are not committing crimes at anywhere near the level of civilians” is not logically supported by the evidence provided. The conclusion the evidence supports is that police officers are much less likely to be arrested than the general population.

It is likely that police officers commit crimes less frequently than the general population. Also, the study methodology is surely missing instances because of the deficiencies in their keyword search, the inherent limits of what gets published in newspapers and the limits of Google’s list of sources. But, these factors do not explain the magnitude of difference in arrest rate ratio of 1.7/3,888. However, this is not a possible observation to make when there is no data on police arrests, which is precisely why it doesn’t exist. Data negative spaces are useful red flags indicating where costs have trumped concerns for transparency and ethical accountability.

Suppose that police officers are 95% less likely to commit crimes than the general population. We would expect arrest rates of 194.4 per 100,000 police officers. Or two levels of magnitude higher than reported in this study. What kind of oversight regime would need to be instituted to watch the watchmen? And how much would that cost? For the City of Chicago, the amortized annual cost of settlements of $55 million must be less than the perceived benefit of investing in more police oversight, particularly if doing so might uncover problems such as criminal police conspiracies and undermine the Police Department’s “narrative control“.

While concerns about legitimacy can play a part, it’s a small part. The end result is that police officers, like drone pilots, are subject to a different legal and ethical standard than the one applied to the general population.

And this is not just true of people employed by government, these different standards are also for people working in large corporations as well. When you look at something such as the Libor scandal, where major banks colluded to make their balance sheets look stronger and defraud U.S. municipalities and home owners of billions of dollars, thirteen men were prosecuted, and five people were convicted in the United Kingdom. While this case is still unfolding, it suggests that line workers and officers, such as traders or senior bankers, can face prosecution — if the scandal is big enough relative to their organization. But, relative to the frequency fraud is committed, arrests are extremely rare, and in the case of an arrest, more than half of those do not make it to a conviction. And, criminal arrest rarely makes it up to the executive suite. At that level, it becomes an organizational crime punishable by fines and executives being forced out of their positions.

Barclays, the financial organization, recieved a misconduct fine of $160 million for its part in the Libor scandal, and the repercussions severely impacted its business. The CEO of Barclays at the time, Bob Diamond, stepped down from his post and started a company providing financial services in Africa, and in an interview, he describes his current activities as his having “found the perfect intersection of doing good and doing well.” Again, we see ethics being used as a cover, when the history of the person involved suggests that “doing well” is what matters. And it’s not just Bob Diamond. Any CEO considering some illegal action with the same type of risk/reward profile that Libor presented has powerful incentives to choose the illegal action. In the end, if the profit is worth the consequences, it’s done.

The financial crisis of 2008 provides another useful example. The Department of Justice does not keep statistics on convictions related to the crisis, so it is difficult to say how many arrests and convictions occurred. Again, it is an example of not collecting data in order to avoid informed discussion and transparency of the consequences of committing systemic fraud. Despite this lack of information, we can say that the only one senior executive at a top bank to be convicted was Kareem Serageldin. None of the CEOs or C-level executives of the major banks that precipitated the crisis faced criminal charges.

A few CEOs in the banking industry were convicted and given prison sentences. Edward Woodword, former CEO of Commonwealth Bank, is a good example. He made the mistake of approving loans outside of his bank’s normal oversight channels that personally benefited friends and family members, and subsequently, he tried to hide his fraud in the bank’s books using TARP money from the U.S. federal government. If he had used the funds of a smaller organization rather than the feds, like Barclays and other banks involved in the Libor scandal did, and if he had limited himself to acceptable types and levels of personal profit, in the form of bonuses and stock options, he wouldn’t have been prosecuted. In the end, he become one of those rare examples where a CEO is sentenced like a common criminal.

This pattern is consistent. If a single company causes an environmental catastrophe, such as BP and Deepwater Horizon, the company pays settlements and fines. But, no one goes to jail. A more general problem, such as global warming, is very difficult to address at all, because climate change is all cost from the perspective of the organization, one that would require oil & gas companies to change their business models. It might also require a significant change in the general quality of life of individuals. That’s a choice that won’t be made until it is an obvious existential risk, and maybe not even then.

Same is true of systemic financial fraud. If a single company such as Barclays commits the fraud, fines will be paid, a few lower level employees that implemented the policies will go to jail, there may be some company level and perhaps regulatory changes instituted, but the general conditions will remain the same. A more general problem of fraud, like the one that drove the 2008 financial crisis, cannot be addressed because it requires systemic changes that puts other values — such as stability, transparency or trust — above cutting costs and increasing profits.

And even though we do not typically think of governments running as businesses, the same logic applies. Profit motives drive individual police departments to prey on their populations, like in the City of Ferguson. Or, it might be a softer brand of corruption, where cities choose to ignore police crimes and pay settlements rather than pay the increased costs of oversight and losing “narrative control” that comes with informed discussion.

This corruption of ethics and the primacy of cost and profit as the principle value is the existential threat that the Dark Monarchy presents to our society. Striping out ethics has intangible costs that are not factored into to the decisions made by our largest organizations. These undermine the intangible qualities of trust, legitimacy and so forth that the system relies upon to function. And while there is some understanding that the myopic focus of business on the next quarter and on immediate profits has a negative impact on the long term health of individual companies, how many companies are managed to mitigate those risks? Relatively few, because it means lower profits. It is rare to see discussion of the systemic risk that the focus on the quantifiable and the profitable imparts to the whole system. It’s even more rare to see a frank discussion of whether any ethic, beyond mere tokens, is relevant at all.

And to bring this meditation full circle and return to Kaczynski and his anti-technology stance, what are the likely consequences of our expanding technological capability, when it is used in the service of the Dark Monarchy? Of course, lip service will be given to maintaining standards of ethical behavior. But, ultimately, what happens to those standards when the incentives are to focus on profit and ethics are viewed as unnecessary costs, possibly slowing down the rate of progress? We already know what kind of decisions organizations make when the catalyst of technology gives them new capabilities, such as firing missiles from remote-controlled drones from half-a-world away, drilling or fracking for previously unaccessible energy resources, city-wide networks of closed-circuit television, arming robots and so forth. What happens when CRISPR moves on from fixing birth defects to offering the capability to design a human being to a specification, such as one optimized for physical labor, space exploration, etc. before they have even been born or have self-awareness? What happens when surveillance capabilities can provide real-time tracking of the locations, activities and thoughts of 99% of the population? What happens when the goodwill value of condolence payments aren’t $5,000, but $5?

These are questions that start to nudge us from the world as it is into the world as it could be, and our culture has imagined some of the outcomes in games, literature, songs, and movies: Bioshock, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Hunger Games, Silent Running, Mirroredge, Half-Life, Matrix, Fallout, Divergent, System Shock are just a few. And while these scenarios may seem far-fetched, consider the kind of world the Pentagon envisions in the not too distant future depicted in this video:

And when do these decisions turn from being just good business to the business of manufacturing monsters, where the cost of doing business is Supermax prisons, desertification, and the turning of every technological tool toward population pacification to prop up a system with few redeeming values beyond profit?

Kaczynski is the canary in the coal mine. While his focus was on how the Dark Monarchy will logically evolve as the technological tools used in its service get increasingly sophisticated, the continued concentration on money as a central value and the ability to marginalize other values will radicalize anyone who sufficiently values something else. And, the tighter the grip, the more extremism will be created.

Consider this philosophy, from a work of science fiction:

“The personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry. The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here – it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft-. Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide from under it with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Do as much damage as you can. Get your message across. That way, you stand a better chance of being taken seriously next time. Of being considered dangerous. And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous marks the difference – the only difference in their eyes – between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it’s just business, it’s politics, it’s the way of the world, it’s a tough life and that it’s nothing personal. Well, fuck them. Make it personal.”
          -Richard K. Morgan, “Altered Carbon”

In a world where more decisions and products are made by machines, where limited resources drive war and creates large refugee populations, and as more people concentrate in cities, it doesn’t require much imagination to think that this philosophy could become very real. At some point, it will move beyond serial killing and Supermax prisons and be a war. The ideology will be other values, and the people still thinking in terms of ethics and monstrous behavior will have a hard time drawing a distinction between Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. Who is who will likely be subjectively determined by who is providing the next meal. And, perhaps, at some point, we will come to realize that we are the monsters, all of us.