China and Russia’s veto of the UN resolution on Syria

I’m both sad and angry about China and Russia’s recent veto of a proposed UN resolution aimed at ending the violence in Syria. Although it’s currently hard to see how Assad can be persuaded to leave, an important first step – perhaps even an essential step – is for his Chinese and Russian allies to abandon him. Their veto shows that they have no intention of doing so.

Both countries have cited spurious reasons for rejecting the resolution. China said that it did not believe that “imposing a solution” could resolve the crisis, and Russia argued that the resolution was unbalanced, because it made too few demands of anti-government armed groups. In fact, reading the full text of the draft resolution exposes the nonsense of Russia’s argument: the third clause explicitly “condemns all violence, irrespective of where it comes from” and “demands that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately stop all violence or reprisals, including attacks against State institutions”.

No one should be under any illusion about the real reason why China and Russia have vetoed this resolution. The reason is that their respective autocratic regimes are afraid of the Arab Spring, and are hoping to stop it in its tracks by helping Assad crush his opponents. They are right to be afraid. Russia has recently seen unprecedented anti-Putin protests in Moscow. I believe that these protests would not have happened were it not for the Arab Spring.

There are now two possible directions for Syria: either Assad leaves voluntarily, or he leaves after a long and bloody civil war (which, by the way, is already under way). Convincing Assad to leave will be difficult. Western powers have said that military options are (quite rightly) off the table. And diplomatic pressure and sanctions will only succeed if they come from the West and China and Russia. But China and Russia have made their position clear with this latest veto. I fear then that unless China and Russia initiate an unexpected change of policy, we will see many more months of worsening violence.

Laughing at authority

Yesterday I watched an interview with Christopher Hitchens (conducted by Jeremy Paxman). It’s a fantastic interview and one that I’d strongly recommend watching. Hitchens (who passed away in December of last year) talks about living with cancer, the prospect of death, and his views on religion and politics. Whilst I don’t agree with him on many issues (for example, his defence of Bush and Blair’s toppling of Saddam Hussein), I could only be impressed by his eloquence and ability to speak so objectively about his illness.

At one point in the interview, Paxman asks Hitchens whether it’s helpful (in the context of countering the appeal of Islam) to make fun of the Quran. The gist of Hitchens‘s reply is that it’s important to make fun of those parts of the Quran that deserve it, just as it’s important to make fun of those parts of the Bible and Torah that deserve it, because “one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority”. This phrase resonated with me because I’ve always felt that a part of growing up and becoming wise is learning to challenge, question and laugh at (when appropriate) authority, in whatever form it presents itself. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect the views of others (whether they occupy some position of authority or not). It simply means that no person should be beyond reproach; nor should any person’s factual claims be beyond doubt.

Earlier in the interview – when Paxman is quizzing Hichens about some of the targets of his previous polemics – Paxman asks “who needs to attack Mother Teresa?” (This is a reference to Hitchens‘s criticism of Mother Teresa’s opposition to contraception.) Hitchens‘s reply is that it was very important to attack Mother Teresa because her opposition to contraception was harmful to efforts to reduce poverty in Calcutta. Behind this reply is again the principle that no person (no matter how esteemed and venerated) should be beyond reproach, if one or some of their actions invite it. I couldn’t agree more.

Some Bob Dylan lyrics

Bob Dylan is the most complete songwriter I know (and I’m pretty sure I know most of the famous ones). Musically his songs are relatively simple (compared to, for example, some songs of The Beatles). But no one can touch him lyrically; nor can anyone match his ability to write lyrics and music that complement one another so perfectly.

I generally prefer Dylan’s later lyrics for their simplicity and directness. His earlier albums (such as Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home) are lyrically impressive but often showy.

If You See Her, Say Hello is a song about lost love that perfectly illustrates what I like about Dylan’s later lyrics. I’d link to the video, but Dylan’s videos are always being removed from YouTube, so it seems pointless. If you can find it, I’d strongly recommend you listen to the version from The Bootleg Series.


If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier
She left here last early Spring, is livin’ there, I hear
Say for me that I’m all right though things get kind of slow
She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so

We had a falling-out, like lovers often will
And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill
And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart
She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart

If you get close to her, kiss her once for me
I always have respected her for busting out and gettin’ free
Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay

I see a lot of people as I make the rounds
And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off
Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m gettin’ soft

Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast
If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not that hard to find
Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time

The need to report all casualties of conflict – both civilian and combatant

Recently there has been growing interest in the idea that all casualties of war (civilian and combatant, friendly and enemy) should be documented. See, for example, the Every Casualty programme and an article by Gabriella Blum, entitled “The Dispensable Lives of Soldiers”. I’m pleased that this idea seems to be gaining momentum, and I wrote an essay in July 2011 – during UK involvement in the conflict in Libya – that explains why I think it’s important. Here is the essay, reproduced without alteration:

One thing that I’ve noticed about the media’s coverage of the Libyan conflict is the lack of any detail on how many combatants – either rebels or Gaddafi’s soldiers – have lost their lives. In contrast, we do receive *some* detail about civilian casualties – although it’s possible that not all civilian casualties are reported – and we would certainly hear of NATO casualties, should they occur.

I feel that this lack of information about combatant casualties is a bad thing (as I’ll argue below). Paul Rogers agrees with me. But I don’t wish to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media. I believe that *if* the information were made available by NATO – or, indeed, by Gaddafi or the rebels – then it would indeed be reported (at least by media whose editorial slant is somewhat critical of NATO’s involvement in Libya, such as the Guardian). The reason that the information is not reported is that NATO does not choose to make it available, even though it doubtlessly has estimates of the loss of combatant life. I can only assume that they feel that releasing a scorecard of how many of Gaddafi’s soldiers have been killed – as they do for the number of targets they hit each day – would be in bad taste and would weaken public support for their involvement in Libya. I think most of us would agree that this assumption is correct.

There are two main reasons why we should demand of our governments (in this conflict and in future conflicts) that they report to us the number of estimated combatant casualties on all sides, as well as the loss of civilian life. The first reason follows from the general principle that an electorate has a right to any information concerning their government’s activities, provided that right is not trumped by a stronger reason against the information being released. Governments will often want to withhold information on the basis that – for example – they don’t have accurate numbers or they don’t want to compromise the safety of their sources. I suspect that in many cases these reasons are bogus and are simply excuses for not sharing the information. However, we don’t need to consider these cases for present purposes. All we need to observe for the present case is that there is *no reason* that NATO can make for not releasing their best estimates of the loss of combatant life that trumps our right to that information. Claims, for instance, that they don’t want to pass strategically valuable information to the enemy, or that they don’t want to compromise their sources simply don’t apply in this case, because a) the enemy already has similar information; and b) the sources are NATO’s pilots and rebel soldiers, not undercover agents whose cover could be blown.

The second reason why we should demand estimates of the number of combatant casualties on all sides is moral. All human lives are equal and any loss of life – whether it is friend or foe, civilian or combatant – is a harm that we should strive to avoid. Believing that loss of enemy combatant life matters less than loss of civilian life is a mistake that can be made in two ways. The first way is to confuse a strategic distinction for a moral distinction. There is clearly a strategic distinction between combatants and civilians; the distinction in Libya is that Gaddafi’s soldiers are engaged in conflict and may therefore become legitimate targets for NATO on that basis (assume, for the time being, that NATO’s involvement in Libya is just) whereas civilians are not engaged in the conflict and pose no threat to either the rebels, NATO or other civilians. This strategic distinction means that it may be legitimate to attack and even kill enemy combatants should this be the only possible way to achieve a just end (such as protecting civilians from harm). However, the strategic distinction does not cross over to a moral distinction between the value of combatant life and the value of civilian life. All human lives remain of equal value – in war as in any other context – and any loss of life remains a harm that we should strive to avoid. Thus, the decision to kill enemy combatants to, for example, prevent them from attacking civilians, can be made only after judging whether a) killing the combatants is the *only possible way* of preventing them from attacking civilians; and, if so, that b) the harm that comes through the loss of combatant life is outweighed by the good that comes through saving civilian life. It is this second point that entails that we must have access to estimates of loss of combatant life; the information is essential for appraising the moral justness of our governments’ involvement in Libya.

The second way to make the mistake of believing that loss of combatant life matters less than loss of civilian life is to believe that we should care less when enemy combatants die because their engagement in something morally bad (e.g., attacking civilians) means that their death is their “just deserts”. There are three responses that I wish to make to this. The first is a weak response but worth making nonetheless. Some of Gaddafi’s soldiers may indeed have been engaged in attacking civilians, but the reason for this may have been ignorance (for example, Gaddafi had convinced them that the civilians were terrorists who wished to destabilise the nation) or coercion (physical or otherwise). Ignorance and coercion are just two of many factors that may lessen the moral culpability of soldiers fighting in an unjust war.

The reason why this is a weak response is that it relies on the assumption that enemy combatants are fighting in circumstances that mitigate their culpability. But I don’t believe that we need this assumption. Even without mitigating circumstances, such as ignorance or coercion, the lives of enemy combatants remain of importance equal to the importance of civilian lives. Regardless of the crimes they may have committed – by fighting in an unjust war without factors that mitigate their culpability – they retain their human rights. The only legitimate way to dispense justice to combatants engaged in an unjust war is through fair trial and sentencing. Thus, their death in conflict should be regarded as both a tragedy (as with the loss of any human life) and the loss of an opportunity to dispense justice.

The final response I want to make is to point out the double standards inherent in the idea that the deaths of enemy combatants matter less than the loss of other lives. Many UK and US citizens were opposed to their country’s involvement in the conflict in Iraq and regarded it as an unjust war. Many even regarded Bush and Blair as war criminals. Yet few, if any, would say that UK and US soldiers who fought and died in Iraq deserved to die because they were engaged in an unjust war or that the loss of their lives mattered less than the loss of other lives (such as those of Iraqi civilians or those of US and UK journalists). The proper position to take with respect to combatants who participate in an unjust war – and who do so without factors that mitigate their culpability – is to endeavour that they face fair trial and sentencing (whether it be during or after the conflict). This applies whether they fight for one’s own country or for another country.

At this point I hope to have convinced the reader that we should demand estimates of the number of all combatant casualties in the same way that we demand to know of civilian casualties or of the loss of our own soldiers. To recap, the main two reasons for this are that: 1) we have a right to any information concerning our government’s activities, provided that right is not trumped by a stronger reason against the information being released; and 2) the number of combatants killed by our forces in a conflict is an essential part of the information needed to appraise the moral justness of our governments’ involvement in that conflict.

I believe that this issue deserves more attention and ought to be pushed by moral philosophers, commentators and electorates as a whole. Whereas everyone can agree that we ought to know about civilian casualties that result from our governments’ involvements in conflicts, not everyone seems to agree about combatant casualties. Perhaps there is something of a taboo against showing too much regard for combatants who are actively engaged in trying to kill our own soldiers. I hope to have shown why it is essential that we overcome this taboo.

When civilian casualties are reported in our media, and this weakens public support for government involvement in conflict, democratic governments are forced to invest more effort in minimising civilian casualties in the future, both through short-term measures (such as issuing orders to the military to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties) and through long-term measures (such as increasing research into so-called “precision weaponry”). If governments were forced to report on combatant casualties, and if such reports weakened public support for conflicts, then democratic governments would be forced to: a) factor the possible resulting loss of combatant life in their decision to engage in a military conflict; and b) invest in future technologies that could achieve military goals without loss of combatant life (for example, increased investment in cyberwarfare technologies).

To summarise, I have argued that electorates should demand of their media and governments that all human costs (both friendly and enemy) of their governments’ involvements in conflicts are reported, and that we should view loss of combatant life as of equal importance to loss of civilian life. A long-term consequence of this could be increased government investment in future technologies that could achieve military goals (such as degrading an enemy’s military hardware) without loss of enemy combatant life. Although the outcome of such investment cannot be predicted at this time, there is a moral imperative to demand it.

The relationship between facial asymmetry and emotional expression

In September 2010 I completed an MSc in computer science at the University of Bristol, and the subject of my MSc dissertation was ways of measuring facial asymmetry in videos of faces, and the relationship between the degree of asymmetry of the face and the emotional expression displayed. I used a C++ library implementing active appearance models to write software that could track landmarks on the subject’s face (e.g. the corners of their mouth and eyes) and use these points to quantify the degree of asymmetry of the face (using Procrustes analysis). Once I had developed this measure, I was able to investigate the relationship between the degree of asymmetry of the face and the type and strength of emotional expression displayed. Interestingly, my results pointed to strong emotional expression (such as laughter) being associated with greater asymmetry than weak or neutral facial expression. You can read the dissertation in full here: Facial Asymmetry and Emotional Expression

Basecamp for universities

In 2009 I became familiar with the project management software Basecamp while working for openDemocracy. Later that year I decided that it could be useful for university departments to have a similar tool. I developed a prototype, with the help of a web designer, and was starting to market it to universities when I secured an internship at Mendeley, and so had to put the project on hold. I’ve never continued the project because a) it looks like universities prefer to write their own custom software for stuff like this, and b) getting a university to trial run any software involves negotiating masses of bureaucracy. I’m happy to put the prototype of the tool online, because it’s of no use to me any longer.

The idea is that a university department (e.g., philosophy department at Cambridge) would subscribe (just as companies and organisations subscribe to Basecamp) and they would use this tool to manage various departmental affairs. There are several use cases, and these are illustrated by the prototype. One use case would be a lecturer posting his lecture notes online to a group of students affiliated to his lecture course. Another use case would be a researcher posting a research article online and opening it up to comments and collaboration.

You can look at the prototype online. There are no links from the prototype back to my site, so you’ll have to use your browser’s address bar to get back to this page.

prototype of Basecamp for university departments

My philosophy dissertation on David Stove and Induction

As with the other philosophy essays that I’ve posted, I thought I’d make my philosophy dissertation available online, just in case anyone finds it interesting. It was written under the supervision of Peter Lipton, who was a fantastic teacher and philosopher. The subject of the dissertation was an argument given by the twentieth-century philosopher David Stove, in his book The Rationality of Induction. Stove’s argument is meant to show that inductive inference is rational. Inductive inference is non-deductive inference, such as: every time I have dropped a ball it has fallen to the ground, therefore it’s very likely that the next time I drop it, it will fall to the ground. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume had argued that inductive inference could not be justified because any argument that tried to justify it would itself rely on inductive inference. David Stove’s argument was one of history’s many responses to Hume.

In my dissertation I analysed, reconstructed and critiqued Stove’s argument. It’s around 6,000 words, and you can read it here: An Argument by Stove against Inductive Scepticism

Essays from my philosophy BA

On my old website I had uploaded most of the philosophy essays I wrote during my BA. For nearly every week of my 2-year degree I had to write an essay for my weekly supervision. I think in total I wrote 28 essays. I decided that I’d upload them here, and let Google index them, because it feels a shame to forget them completely. They’re only weekly supervision essays, but perhaps someone will find them interesting (especially someone doing the same degree I did!)

2004 – 2005

Ethics (supervised by Hallvard Lillehammer)

Logic (supervised by Brian King)

I could only find two of these:

Philosophy of Science (supervised by Peter Lipton)

2005 – 2006

Metaphysics (supervised by Alex Oliver)

Philosophical Logic (supervised by Michael Potter and Tom Smith)