Who is the “I” behind AI? 

FR-Vazirani-Age-AI-Artificial-Intelligence-2400AI refers to a set of technologies based on advanced computing power enabled to perform activities heretofore thought to be unique to human beings, such as playing (and winning) chess or Go, writing news reports, or responding to natural speech, to name a few. Not only does AI push the boundaries between activities proper to humans and those to machines, but it also oftentimes significantly augments what the best endowed humans can do. For instance, even the most intelligent people would be no match to the information storage and recall capacity the Google search engine puts at anyone’s fingertips. Because of these advantages, there is a growing tendency to replace human agents with AI in many fields, both mechanical, as in driverless cars, and cognitive, as in interpreting radiology scans.

Most ethical issues concerning AI involve areas such as privacy, equity, or accountability. People are increasingly distressed at how Facebook and Google store their personal data and sell them to advertisers and political interest groups. Complaints are on the rise on how sexual, racial, and economic biases are embedded in employee hiring and court sentencing software. And lawyers and law-makers still haven’t figured out how exactly to attribute responsibilities when self-driving vehicles such as those tested by Uber, for instance, figure in accidents. However, the question of who the ethical subject is in AI is often overlooked, taken for granted, or deliberately ignored. 

In the Western philosophical traditions certain distinctive features have always been required of moral agents. Does AI, in its various forms, meet the test? Let us run down the list. 

First, moral agents need to be alive, that is, capable of self-motion due to an internal principle. We see this even in the simplest unicellular organisms that seek nourishment, grow, and reproduce by themselves, free from external intervention. They are not tethered to a power source from which they could be plugged or un-plugged, nor do they use batteries. They themselves “produce” energy from within, although counting, of course, on “ingredients” from the external environment: think of photosynthesis, for example.   

Second, it is not enough simply to be alive to become a moral agent. One also needs to be a life-form of a particular kind, displaying rationality and willfulness. That’s why we generally do not consider plants and non-human animals as moral agents (whether we should regard individuals belonging to other animal species as moral subjects is a different matter altogether). We do not get angry or scold a plant if it fails to flower and bear fruit, or if its fruit is not to our liking. We do not sue our neighbor’s dog if it bites us, but our neighbor, who perhaps has been careless with the pet. We give plants and animals of other species a pass because we know that whatever they do, they do not, indeed, they cannot mean it, the way we humans do. Non-human subjects cannot envision a future goal or purpose, nor choose one among several possible objectives or aims. Neither can they self-direct their behavior consciously towards the achievement of that target. They have no sense of self-worth.

Let us now return to AI. 

We realize from the above that despite the appearances, AI is not alive. It is not alive because it is a human-made machine, albeit a very sophisticated one. Actually, only nature has been able so far to produce life forms; through genetic engineering, all we humans have done is to mix and match from previously existing samples. I’d even wager humans will never be able to create new life forms for the same reason that they cannot create that internal principle of motion the Ancients called “soul”. Because AI doesn’t have a “soul”, neither does it have a body. When we disassemble the pieces we verify there’s nothing there. And more importantly, unlike any living thing, we could skilfully put the pieces back together and AI would continue to function as before. 

Not being alive, without a body, AI does not have consciousness either. It is incapable of willful, rational action nor does it have a sense of self-worth. AI cannot know and does not know what it is doing. It simply carries out instructions contained in the controlling algorithm. What happens is that these algorithms or instructions can sometimes get so complicated that not even programmers are able to foresee, predict, and control results or outcomes. Not having a will, AI cannot choose; of itself it has no inclination or tendency towards anything; it can have no preferences. Why not? Because there is no self to protect, satisfy, or perfect. 

As a consequence of the above, AI is not nor can it be a moral agent. There is nobody, no “I” behind AI.            

As AI moves from research labs to society at large by the hand of business, clarity in the moral agent should help us deal with the myriad ethical problems concerning algorithm design, benchmarking, training, deployment, and decision-making capacities of these systems. But whatever the promises or dangers of AI use, the responsibilities belong to humans alone. AI has no shame, honor or intrinsic worth. In this sense, there is no such thing as AI ethics .

 

Advertisements

Why I Teach

caps

June is the month of graduations. It is also a time to take stock of the school year that has just passed. A recurring question I ask myself is “Why do I teach?” (or try my best to do so). Below is my response. 

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by saying that all human beings by nature desire to learn. We are all innately curious; we seek to know, always and everything. It’s our default mode. This is probably the main reason why I’ve dedicated the greater part of my life to teaching. In teaching I’ve found the most effective way to pursue my real passion, which is learning.

But teaching isn’t learning! True enough. However, in some sense, teaching is the perfect excuse for learning. One can only teach what one has previously learned. And in teaching, one learns double. Firstly, he finds out whether he has really learned whatever it is, or was simply under a false impression. Secondly, he also learns to share that precise bit of knowledge with others, something which requires the mastery of a very important craft.

Despite more than 25 years in the teaching profession, frankly, I still have serious doubts about whether it is really possible to teach anyone anything. Socrates’ irony —he only knows that he knows nothing, and knowing nothing, he cannot claim to teach anyone— increasingly makes sense to me. Little by little, I’ve disabused myself of the common notion of teaching as transmitting knowledge, as if it were a thing or an object. Google and Wikipedia can provide all the factoids and for this students don’t need my help. Perhaps the only way to keep myself from becoming redundant as a teacher is by wedding my teaching to mentoring. Like all human beings, students, by nature, already desire to learn. Sometimes, I just have to get out of their way. Other times, however, I may have to take a more active role, rekindling the desire for learning when the journey becomes too long, too arduous or even too dangerous for them to travel alone. My role is to provide guidance and to accompany them to the extent necessary in this wondrous adventure. But ultimately, learning, like walking, is something they can only do by themselves. It would be wrong even to pretend that it could be otherwise. 

Another metaphor for teaching, besides being a travel companion, is that of offering a gift. Normally, when presenting a gift, we give the best of what we have. Yet despite our best intentions, unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the other person receiving the gift will actually like it. Just the same, I think this is a risk is worth taking: presenting my students with the best that I can muster, in the hope that, if not immediately, at least, some day, they will come to appreciate my gift. After all, we do not always value things at once, based on our first impression. This is especially true, I realize, when it comes to the content of business ethics courses. In any case, it would be a pity that, having renounced wealth by choosing the teaching profession, I would now seek applause and fame.

In other words, teaching for me is nothing else but cultivating in others the love for learning. That way, my students will always continue to learn, even if I’m no longer around to nudge, cajole or grade them. 

“Well and good”, one might say. “But let’s get real. What’s in it for you, in this teaching philosophy of ‘tending the fire of learning’ in others?”

Knowledge, viewed as a gift, is indeed a very strange creature. Most of the time, we imagine gifts as objects of competition, something whose possession necessarily entails exclusion. What one wins, all the rest lose. For me, however, this is not the case with knowledge. By sharing what I’ve learned with students, I do not lose it. On the contrary, what I know only grows and increases. Knowledge displays the characteristics of what we call a “common good”. And as a result of sharing knowledge through teaching, everyone  —students, myself and the society of which we form part— ends up very much better, enjoying greatly enriched and improved lives.

 

No “dirty” money for “clean” art?

300_ar_matthew_green_picasso_thumb_01

Isn’t it rich? First, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate in London, then, the Guggenheim and the Met in New York, all recently decided to turn down money from the Sackler family. Why? Because of the Sacklers’ role in the US opioid epidemic. Their company, Purdue Pharma, by misrepresenting and aggressively marketing the drug Oxycontin, is said to have contributed to the opioid addiction which, so far, has claimed around 200,000 lives. The pressure is now on on a long list of art galleries and museums, not only in the UK and the US, but also in France, Germany, and Israel to rebuff scores of millions of Sackler donations. Ditto for the universities of Oxford, Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard which, through their museums and research institutions, have long been beneficiaries of the Sacklers’ largesse.

Already in 2007, Purdue Pharma and three top executives paid more than $630 million in fines to the US government for “misbranding” Oxycontin, fraudulently promoting it and playing down the risk of abuse. Since then a handful of states have pursued their own cases, giving rise to settlements in the tens (West Virginia, $10 million; Kentucky, $24 million), if not in the hundreds of millions (Oklahoma, $270 million). During the past year, the advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), founded by photographer and opioid-abuse victim Nan Goldin, has turned up the heat on the management of Sackler-funded museums, regularly staging disruptive protests or “die-ins” on their premises. Thus far, PAIN has chalked up significant triumphs, with art institutions walking away from “gifts not in the public interest” and the Sackler family foundation itself withdrawing donation offers. It is difficult indeed to cast a company many perceive no less than murderous to be a “benefactor” or “philanthropic”.

The causal relation between Oxycontin and the opioid abuse epidemic is clear. Not so between the Sackler money, on the one hand, and the aims of the art and educational institutions, on the other.

Museum authorities state they do not wish to be complicit in the Sackler family’s attempts at “white-washing” or even “moral money-laundering”. They object to abandoning the moral high-ground by accepting the Sacklers’ tainted money. Is there sufficient basis for such thinking?

It’s difficult to condemn, at face value, the mere act of making donations to cultural and educational institutions. On the contrary, many governments tend to encourage and reward such civic behaviors, giving tax breaks. We generally want more, not less of them. Hence the need to look into the donors’ intentions. Not being privy to the legal deeds or agreements, we do not know for sure what they were. However, it seems reasonable to think that the Sacklers’ motivations were more reputational and social, than economic or financial. Otherwise, why make donations in the first place? Surely, there would have been other more lucrative ways to invest money. Perhaps members of the Sackler family were just genuinely interested in the arts and would like the wider public to benefit from aesthetic experiences through their patronage. So to complete our analysis, we have to turn to the circumstances surrounding the donations, particularly the opioid abuse epidemic and the lawsuits.

Whichever way you examine it, Richard Sackler’s call to create a “blizzard of prescriptions to bury the competition” sounds horrific. But by giving money to museums, his family cannot be accused of concealing the sources of their estimated $13 billion wealth. Neither could one maintain that their fortune, accumulated through decades and a wide array of business activities, was entirely illegitimate. We depend on courts to determine that. And if they do, most likely, it would not be for all, but only for specific earnings or profits. That’s why judges take care in establishing fines and damages.

So despite the appalling optics, it doesn’t seem right to accuse the Sacklers of trying to buy legitimacy or covering up misdeeds through charitable donations. They have long been engaged in giving to the arts, even before the first charges were levied, and no attempts were made to mislead government authorities or the public about the true source of their wealth.

How, then, can we explain the smugness of the museums’ reactions?

Certainly, as art critic Philip Kennicott suggested, they could have adopted a pragmatic stance and continued accepting the donations. They need support and would put the money to good use; they had no say on how it was made and could not be held accountable. To argue that museums condone the opioid-pushing by simply displaying the Sackler name on their halls seems ridiculous. Further, there is also the issue of consistency. Are museums now supposed to investigate the origins of all the gifts, in cash or in kind, that they receive? Can they guarantee that none of their donors was ever involved in illegal dealings or made a fortune while engaging in human or environmental exploitation? Could they vouch for the legitimate conveyance of all the artworks they possess? Would all these inquiries even be feasible? If not, then why pick on the Sacklers?

The problem is that many, like the museum directors, seem to look for a state of innocence long gone among donors. They fail to realize that we are all flawed human beings, the Sacklers included. But this shouldn’t prevent us from at least attempting to do good works. Otherwise, we couldn’t even perform the reparation or restitution that justice demands. Sainthood should not be a prerequisite to support cultural and philanthropic organizations. Even imperfect people can and should do good deeds.

Theodore Roosevelt was supposed to have said, criticizing John D. Rockefeller’s newly-launched foundation, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them”. But even if Roosevelt were right in his allegations, aside from court-mandated sentences, how else could Rockefeller redeem himself, if not through charitable giving?

Debunking Performance-Related Pay for MBA CEOs

IMG-5312

Data from the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business track the steep, relentless climb of average CEO annual compensation in the top 100 US companies. In the 80s, it was $1.8M, mostly in keeping with the trend for the past 45 years. In the 90s, however, it shot up to $4.1M, and at the turn of the millennium, to $9.2M, scaling new heights at $13.7M in 2014. The sky is indeed the limit for chief executive pay. Perhaps no one can claim greater responsibility for this phenomenon than Harvard Business School finance professor Michael Jensen. In line with Milton Friedman’s financial theory of the firm (its purpose is “to maximize shareholder value”) and his own agency theory (managers are “agents” of stockholders, who are “principals”), Jensen (and co-author Murphy) advocated tying CEO compensation to stock price performance through stock options and other equity-based pay. Thus CEO incentives align with those of stockholders, and agency problems such as shirking are avoided. Moreover, this way corporate management careers would attract “the best and the brightest”, for no doubt they prefer greater monetary rewards, not less, and they’d rather be paid for their performance, not independently of it. Further, performance-related pay could stop the flight of top talent to investment banking or consulting, encouraging them to seek jobs in the “real economy” instead.

In a recent article for Institutional Investor, Dan Rasmussen and Haonan Li tested Jensen’s almost intuitive claims relating MBA CEO pay to stock price performance and found no supportive empirical evidence. Stock options did not discourage MBAs from elite schools from working in investment banking and consulting. Even more worrying, elite MBA diplomas for CEOs were not correlated with market-beating stock price performance, nor was CEO performance measured in stock price consistent through a period of six years. In other words, the impact of CEOs on their companies’ stock prices was no greater than that of randomness. If Rasmussen and Li are right, then aren’t CEOs being grossly overpaid on the basis of a mistaken attribution?

Let’s have a look at their methods. Rasmussen and Li created a database of around 8500 CEOs, their tenure and education, with information on company stock returns. First they tested the predictive power of CEO characteristics on stock price performance. They found that CEOs with MBAs did not outperform those without them. It didn’t matter from which school they graduated. Neither did CEOs from banks and consultancies do better than the market average. “MBA programs simply do not produce CEOs who are better at running companies, if performance is measured by stock price return,” they reported. CEOs with MBAs from top schools are of course well-represented in corporate boards. But this only indicates that executive search firms have a clear preference for recruiting them, despite the lack of evidence for superior performance. It would be just another case of confirmation bias, when people tend to see a clustering of MBA CEOs in successful companies although there is no due cause.  

Next, Rasmussen and Li examined whether CEO performance was persistent through a six-year period, either in the same company or in successive companies. Again, surprisingly, they discovered it was not. At least, outcomes were no different from what we could expect to occur by mere chance. Companies, then, seem to be rewarding (or punishing) CEOs based on exogenous factors rather than their own performance or trajectory, measured in stock price behavior during their tenure. Similarly, this may be an example of the “hot-hand” fallacy, when we project a pattern from past results to the future without justification.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And we cannot really prove or demonstrate that CEO MBAs do not increase stock prices (all things being equal), because that is a null hypothesis. But the lack of correlation between CEO credentials and superior stock performance is certainly puzzling, were the contrary true.

What the research seems to imply, however, is that we cannot attribute company success in terms of stock price to the CEO, either exclusively or mainly. Management has always been a team effort. A just compensation policy has to take this principle more into account. Also, it may not be wise to focus on a single metric as stock price to gauge company performance, because this is far more complex. Doing so only creates an enormous temptation for CEOs and other members of the management team to be working for the wrong motives. And lastly, perhaps we should reconsider the usefulness of MBA programs to society at large, apart from boosting school and alumni incomes through networking. Originally, business schools were meant to help transform business into a profession, like law, medicine, or religion; now they are considered pricey leadership bootcamps. Do they really provide the right education for the kind of corporate and civic leaders we need?          

  

Should B-School Rankings Be Based On What You Earn or What You Learn?

IMG_5314

Full disclosure. My first job was teaching ethics at a business school and it was horrible. I went from reading Plato’s Dialogues in Greek to what felt like taming lions in a circus ring during sessions which lasted all of 75 minutes. (That’s how I fell in love with research!) At that time, I couldn’t understand what the problem was: the topics? the methods? the class dynamics? Should I just study more? Were the students simply too smart for me? Only much later did I realize that while professors in other subjects taught students tricks on how to earn more, I did no such thing. On the contrary, I was perceived as the fun-spoiler, the one who kept on pulling the brakes. That doesn’t make you very popular when students are over a hundred thousand dollars in debt and have virtually put their lives on hold until they break even. Perhaps it was a motivational conflict, then, on why people went to business school. Was it to earn or to learn?

This clash of objectives lies at the heart of a new set of proposals for business school rankings. Authors David Pitt-Watson and Ellen Quigley of Cambridge University begin with a simple observation. Only two criteria, salaries and the opinions of alumni and recruiters, account for an average of 70% of the ranking scores by media companies such as BusinessWeek, Forbes, Financial Times, the Economist, and US News & World Report. This being business, returns on investment in the form of salaries and pre- and post-MBA differentials should indeed figure prominently. But is it all right to consider this the main business school deliverable? How much of it can be correctly attributed to the educational experience itself? As for the results of alumni and recruiter surveys, just how reliable and scientific are they? Wouldn’t alumni desire to inflate their own value or the ease of having a heuristic for recruiters exert undue influence?

Business school deans, we are told, are the first to criticize these ranking tables designed by self-styled education experts. However, they also acknowledge their outsized influence on students, companies, and society at large. Despite the self-fulfilling prophecy loops such reports generate, deans cannot afford to ignore them; any precipitous drop in rankings could make them lose their jobs. Hence, they have no choice but to govern schools sheepishly to the very rankings they detest.

Pitt-Watson and Quigley’s beef with the old rankings is that, besides salaries and reputations, hardly anything else matters. Not what programs teach, how well, and how much students actually learn which, presumably, come closer to what is expected from a school, even a business school. Nothing is said of the “sustainability development goals” —no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and so forth— espoused by the UN Global Compact (which promoted the study), or of the environmental, social, and governance concerns of the responsible investment firm (which provided generous research support). Certainly, not every business ought to have any of these aims as an immediate objective, but they do proffer a great deal of social legitimacy to the concentration of power and resources in corporations. To say the least, they remind us that businesses are not meant to be self-serving, but to serve families and society. They are not supposed to be mere legal inventions to line the pockets and boost the egos of a few. Of course businesses aren’t governments; their job is to produce wealth. But even then, businesses can and should take care that wealth is distributed equitably, according to need and merit. Besides increased earning capacity and social lustre, progress in ethics and attention to the environment should also count for a good business education.

The Cambridge authors agree there’s no such thing as a perfect business school ranking. They are equally aware of the difficulties in measuring the tacit knowledge and soft skills associated with ethics and sustainability. Yet they still manage to put forward some sensible recommendations. First, reduce the weight of salary differentials which encourage the funneling of graduates to jobs in finance and consulting, punishing those who opt to work in public service, NGOs, and not-for-profit sectors. They may earn less, but would arguably have a wider and more positive impact on society. Second, in hiring faculty and crafting programs, pay greater attention to social relevance and practical knowledge than to purportedly rigorous, but absurdly specialized and generally esoteric themes found in scholarly journals (“The Genesis and Metamorphosis of Novelty Imprints: How Business Model Innovation Emerges in Young Ventures”, for instance). The latter may burnish faculty and school credentials, but they don’t necessarily translate into more effective teaching and learning in the principled (we hope) art of business. Just take a look at the havoc wreaked in business practice by the uncritical repetition of the homo oeconomicus model, agency theory, and the financial theory of the firm. Regardless of what they say, the purpose of the firm should not be simply to maximize shareholder value. Nevertheless, the report also contains some insufficiently justified recommendations concerning diversity in the student body, faculty, governance structure, and so forth. Increasingly we’ve come to realize that obsession with diversity and identity politics creates intolerance and imposes uniformity of thought. Neither bodes well for creative and participatory business practice.

Ideally, people’s earnings should be a faithful reflection of their contribution to the productive effort of business, largely determined by their knowledge and skill in free market conditions. If that were the case, then perhaps salaries would be a good enough guide for school rankings. But we do not live in an ideal world. Too much emphasis on compensation in rankings produces an inversion of values, putting the means of earnings before the end of learning. Far from promoting the flourishing of business schools, students, and faculty, it breeds corruption. Further, top rankings are positional goods which are scarce, but only in a socially restrictive way. There cannot be more than one top-ranked business school for the same reason that not everyone in Lake Wobegon can be above average. No amount of time, money, and effort could produce more of such goods. So competition for them is mostly a waste of resources. And that doesn’t make sound business sense at all.    

The mark of Cain

cain-killing-abel

Finding out the truth about someone else’s character often requires diligence, and saying it, courage, especially if it’s not pretty, and the other person’s more powerful than you. So, many are surprised we can still err by speaking the truth of other peoples’ failings. That’s called “detraction”, the “taking away” or diminishing of another’s good name or reputation. It need not be malicious, born of envy or a desire for revenge, for example; being petty, thoughtless, or careless is enough. Pity that, nowadays, detraction no longer raises moral red flags, just when the ubiquity of social media has made its practice a lot more pervasive.

The case for truth-telling is clear. Social life would be impossible without it. We simply could not act on the basis of what other people say. Instead, we would constantly have to verify things for ourselves: Did Jim remember to close the faucet and turn off the stove? Did Sheila fill the tank with gas and not diesel? Is the credit card you’re paying me with valid? Are the macchiato grande and red velvet muffin I ordered ready? Have you filled my prescription correctly? and so forth. Lying not only destroys trust and confidence, but also damages society. It could even provoke violence and revolutions, given the pent-up frustration of people who, by default, cannot help but expect to be told the truth.

To be a virtue, however, truthfulness needs to strike a balance between honesty and discretion. A truthful person hits the right mean between what ought to be expressed and what kept secret. There are several reasons why true knowledge should sometimes be kept in reserve. It may involve trade and industrial secrets, or privileged information we share with trusted professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and priests. On occasions, it need not even have any economic value, or be embarrassing, or make us vulnerable in any way, such as the kindergarten we attended or our grandfather’s birthday. We just think there’s no need for other people to know about these bits of information, so we choose to keep them private.

Detraction distances itself from truthfulness in missing the just mean between honesty and discretion. The detractor speaks of another’s faults, mistakes, and errors to people who do not need to know, that is, without valid reason. Frequently, detraction is justified by a zeal for transparency: one thinks they have a right, even a duty to communicate —so long as it’s true— what satisfies another’s right to be informed. Detraction and morbid curiosity make a perfect pair. After all, truly honest people have nothing to hide, so be suspicious of anyone who behaved differently. And once you’ve discovered the rot (that would invariably be present), you’d do humanity a great service by unmasking the hypocrites and exposing them to the winds (or worse, to the jackals).

Detraction is especially grave because all human judgment and judicial systems are fallible. Credible accusations are not proofs of guilt and higher standards must be met for people to lose their presumption of innocence. Yet, once a person is publicly condemned, restitution becomes virtually impossible, even when the verdict is later reversed due to new evidence. Fame is a fragile glass which, once broken, can never again be pieced back together. That’s why it may indeed be preferable at times for the guilty to go scot free than for the innocent to be punished.

Social media are tools whose goodness depends on the purposes for which they are employed. For detraction, sadly, they are ideal, and it’s hard to imagine designing a more effective instrument. They offer one-click convenience at practically zero cost, allowing detractors to anonymously reach, depending on the platform, millions of users at once. That’s why governments and politicians are keen on influencing, and if possible, dominating or controlling social media platforms. But as we’ve come to realize, memes, posts, and tweets, despite factual content, can be totally misleading because they’re shorn of the contexts from which they derive relevance and meaning.

Detraction, which has found a great ally in social media, unjustly deprives individuals of the honor and respect to which they continue to have a right despite their failings. Human beings, thankfully, possess an irrevocable basic dignity, which even the worst punishments have to acknowledge. It would at least be equally criminal and dehumanizing to treat the guilty without pity or mercy, that is, inhumanely. Justice has to move beyond vengeance and retribution to healing and restoration. Instead of leading to despair, restorative justice includes a chance for the guilty to be remorseful, make amends, and eventually return to the fold. In short, it implies a path to forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Detraction also causes scandal, which is a great lesion against the common good, especially when it refers to people invested with authority. Not that authorities should be granted impunity or given carte blanche, but prudence dictates that scandal —especially among the weak— always be considered. This refers to how their nefarious deeds are made known and how they are punished. Proceeding in this way does not put them above the law. Moreover, we have to find a way to safeguard the reputation of institutions these authorities have betrayed. They, too, are victims. It makes no sense to hand institutions the same sentence as the unfaithful representatives who abused their trust. Analogously, the abundance of corrupt politicians and officials does not give us license to forswear all government and become anarchists. That would be far worse than attempts at reform.

Above all, committing even the most heinous of crimes does not convert the guilty into fair game:

“And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth”. And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me this day from the soil I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” And the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him. (Gen 4: 11-15)

We have a duty to tell the truth and to do so justly, calling evil by its name, no matter how ugly. But none of this dispenses us from living charity. Rather, we are always enjoined to think of our neighbor in the best lights. For small, inoffensive imperfections, it may be enough to make excuses for them. Perhaps they were in a hurry or have done so inadvertently, we may think. For more serious faults, we ought to admonish and correct them nobly, as we would a brother; privately, first, and publicly, only when expedient. And always, we have to reassure them that we continue to keep their interests at hand (heart?). For they are, in fact, our brother, and we are their keeper.   

Are Populists a Moral Political Alternative?

has-populism-in-politics-peakedI know I’m biting off more than I could chew. I could not in a single blog entry give a thorough and cogent response to the question I pose. That is not what I intend to do. But I believe there is value even in just raising the query. And if I am able, besides, to signal the more crucial issues, then we may all get closer to coming up with a thoughtful answer.

 First, a bit of context. Are populists a moral political alternative to whom? Above all, to the so-called globalist elites from traditional political parties who, til recently, have ruled established liberal democracies. Populist leaders have democratically risen to power in the wake of voters’ discontent with liberal democratic regimes not having delivered on their promises. So populism is largely viewed as the illiberal yet radically democratic and nativist remedy to problems liberal governments before them have proven incapable of resolving. Populists may endanger purportedly universal values such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and civil liberties, but citizens have been willing to pay that price if they are guaranteed physical security and economic well-being in their homeland in exchange.

Flashback to 1989, when the world seemed closest to achieving the liberal democratic utopia. The Berlin Wall broke down, communism collapsed, and democracy and free markets reigned triumphant. What began around 300 years ago as a struggle against absolutist monarchs had culminated in popular sovereignty and the conquest, not only of political and civil liberties, but also, and increasingly, of social and economic rights for citizens of all nations. Of course, even for the majority of countries, there was still quite a distance to be covered; however, the path was already settled and clear. There was faith in that democratic processes and free markets together would unfailingly help societies move forward. They only had to stick to the Washington Consensus master-plan.

Then came 9-11, when passenger planes were used as bombs against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, resulting in thousands of casualties. Afterwards came the horrific attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in London, Madrid, Nairobi, and a host of other cities. Meanwhile, different wars in the Middle East, not only between Muslims and Christians, but also among different Muslim sects themselves likewise came to a full boil.

As if this weren’t bad enough, on the economic front, there was the Dot-Com bust at the turn of the millennium, and less than a decade later, the Great Recession that almost triggered a global financial meltdown. It was right at this moment when charismatic populist candidates first, and parties that coalesced around their personalities afterwards, began conquering political ground.

To be sure, macroeconomic data were already indicating a recovery. The US, for instance, embarked on what has become the longest period of continuous growth, and quarter upon quarter, unemployment figures just kept on falling. Although not as robust, the same optimistic tendency could also be found among the EU and Asian economies. Moreover, the much feared specter of inflation was nowhere in sight. Nonetheless, for the great majority of individuals, it certainly didn’t feel that way. Economic growth seemed to have benefitted only the extremely wealthy, whereas the middle class saw their salaries stagnate or worse, their purchasing power erode. Inequality then became everyone’s favorite whipping-boy.

Further, people just didn’t feel safe commuting to work, dining out, visiting tourist spots, or even exploring Christmas markets. Any time, at the shout of “Allahu akbar!”, suicide bombers can detonate their vests, rogue drivers ram vehicles through crowds, and knife-wielding madmen hack their way through a thicket of pedestrians. All Muslims are now viewed as Islamic fundamentalists. These, in turn, are conflated with all Arabs, and lastly, with all migrants, foreigners, or whoever look different.

Populists build their platform on providing safety and taking care of their own citizens first. What could be wrong with that? So voters, driven by anger and fear, bought into these promises head on. Never mind if it meant leaving boatloads of refugees stranded at sea and lifeless bodies of toddlers washed ashore. Never mind if children of asylum-seekers are separated from parents and detained in cages. Never mind if hundreds are murdered by government forces in an all-out war on drugs. They’re all just unfortunate collateral damage, sacrificed to a future greater good. If that is the price of social order and economic security, so be it.

But as in all things human, we must consider not only the what, but also the how; along with the objectives, the methods. Dignity requires that we acknowledge and safeguard the inviolable, intrinsic value of each human being, regardless of the situation or consequences. All human beings deserve respect as “ends in themselves”, never to be used simply as means or instruments to another’s ulterior motives, however noble these may appear. The same holds when choosing politicians as well.

So next time you cast your vote for populists, just to get the job done, without worrying over the how, consider the following: you may have unknowingly added a hit-man on your payroll. Now, what does that make of you? Who have you become? Politicians cannot be mere thugs for hire to do our dirty work. We may be content at first, for they seem effective and unscrupulously deliver the goods. But because they lack a moral conscience, it won’t take long til they turn against us. Beware.