The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Hitchens


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Shortly before his execution for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was visited in his prison cell by his friend Crito, who offered Socrates a chance to escape. To Crito’s surprise, Socrates turned him down, remained in his cell, and was made to drink hemlock soon after.

Socrates said that he saw all this coming. He knew at the outset that his determination to challenge presumed authority wherever he found it would make him powerful enemies; knew that the consequences would be dire, perhaps fatal. But because he knew what would happen – and because, motivated by a higher commitment to intellectual honesty, he went ahead anyway – he was duty bound to accept his punishment, however severe. He’d already made his decision. Now he was following through with it.

What we have here is a social contract: a citizen’s implicit agreement to abide by a society’s rules in order to benefit from the services it offers. Yes, Athenian society was corrupt and killed dissenters, but there were other societies to choose from, and Socrates had chosen Athens. He had made a free-market decision that this society offered the best cost/benefit ratio, and going to his death was, to him, keeping his end of the bargain.

Very noble, and very moving; but was his analysis correct?

The notion of accepting a society’s demands because you were free to choose another has a dangerous flip-side. It showed its face in a recent documentary about radical Islam, where a clear-eyed young man and self-confessed terrorist calmly stated that the government of the UK had committed terrible crimes; and because the British people voted for that government in a free election, they are directly responsible for its actions. They are enemy combatants, valid targets for military action.

This is an appalling doctrine. And yet it is only the social contract turned on its head. If you consent to benefitting from society’s gains, you also consent to culpability for its crimes.

That is my objection to Socrates’ acquiescence. He should not have taken it lying down. Contrast it with an assessment by Christopher Hitchens:

…as you read this you are in effect wearing a military uniform and sitting in a very exposed trench. You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. … I do not recognise the legitimacy of a government that puts me in that position.

No system of representative government perfectly expresses the view of any one person. Nor should it; that way lies dictatorship. Democratic government is a compromise reached between people with wildly differing views. I heartily endorse the machinery of government that takes as input suggestions for policies, and then modifies and improves them with bargaining and debate – but I reserve the right not to be happy with the result.

When Crito came to Socrates, I would rather Socrates had found the government that sentenced him guilty of gross negligence, and decided that the social contract no longer bound him. I would rather he’d escaped. But then, I do like a happy ending.


The Hitchens bit was from Letters to a Young Contrarian.

The dialogue of Crito can be found in its entirety here.

Written by The S I

October 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Maths With Morals

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The S I is proud to present Bayes’ theorem, a mathematical treasure and ethical dilemma all in one:

This equation gives us a mathematical formalism for updating old opinions with new evidence.

We begin with our initial hypothesis, H, and the probability, in our opinion, that H is true, p(H). Say you’re sitting next to a young man on a bus. Does this man want to kill you? Probably not, you think. Most people are not killers, so the chance of having one sitting next to you is very slight ­– p(H) is low. Note that this number p(H) is a knowable fact: it comes from crime statistics.

But then he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a sharpened axe. This provides new evidence, E: our man has an axe.

Now, not everyone who carries an axe is a killer. Some are, some are not. But it certainly changes your assessment of the situation. What is your new assessment? In the equation, it is written as p(H|E) ­– the probability of hypothesis H being true given new evidence E. We base the calculation on one more term, p(E), which basically translates to ‘how often killers carry axes with them’. This number is also a fact, and can be found from case studies of murders.

Putting these numbers together allows you to determine, with mathematical exactness, just how worried you should be when your scary-looking travel companion starts to grin at you and make suggestive slashing motions.

Bayes’ theorem is used all the time in science, finding uses in artificial intelligence, drugs testing, even searches for archaeological ruins. So why did I say it was an ethical dilemma? The answer is easy enough to see when you repeat the story given above, but change E. You are sitting by yourself on the bus when someone sits next to you. Probably not dangerous. But you look up and learn new information: the man is ­– well, pick your prejudice. Black? White? Muslim? Christian? Homeless?

Isn’t it the case that Bayes theorem takes knowable facts about the world, and turns them into a kind of statistically valid and logically justified racism?

No. Yes, the reasoning is sound, and in some cases when time and resources are extremely scarce it is unfortunately necessary to treat people as representatives of groups rather than individuals.* But this is always evil ­– sometimes necessary, but always evil. And what makes the racists different is that they are content with it. If, facing a selection of candidates for a job, with all the time in the world do make a decision, you don’t look at their CVs because you are satisfied with what race alone tells you – that is racism, and rotten to the core.

As is so often the case, Hitchens says it best:

“It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.”


Christopher Hitchens ­– Letters to a Young Contrarian

Also Richard Dawkins’s chapter on racism in The Ancestor’s Tale is highly recommended

* Blood donation is a good example. In the UK, people from South America are not allowed to give blood because of their higher probability of carrying Chagas disease. This is a decision to treat everyone from one ethnic group in the same way. Of course the ideal solution would be to test everybody for the disease wherever they come from; but in a world of scarce resources, time spent testing is time that could also be spent collecting more blood from ‘safe’ groups. So high-risk groups are eliminated out of hand, ignoring the individuals, so that lives can be saved. Evil, but necessary.

Written by The S I

July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm