Michael Robillard’s Posts

Cross Post: In Defense of Offense

Written by Michael Robillard

*  Please note that this essay was originally published at Quillette Magazine

 

In Defense of Offense

“The urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…”

–Chief Judge Alex Kozinski

In September of last year, conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, spoke at the UC Berkeley campus for approximately 90 minutes. The cost of security for the physical protection of Mr. Shapiro, an American citizen, and Harvard-educated lawyer came to approximately $600,000. Prior to Mr. Shapiro’s visit at the Berkeley campus, right-wing British speaker and internet provocateur, Milo Yiannopolis, was prevented from speaking on campus due to security worries caused by approximately 150 masked agitators who committed various acts of vandalism, arson, and violence, resulting in the harm of several innocent Berkeley students and local citizens and totaling around $100,000 in property damage. In May of last year, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, biology professor, Bret Weinstein, refused to participate in the “Day of Absence” in which “white students, staff, and faculty,” were, “invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.” Weinstein’s refusal resulted in him being surrounded by an angry mob of 50 students who called him a racist and insisted that he resign. He was later advised by campus police to remain off campus indefinitely for his own physical safety. Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, did so, and eventually resigned from their positions at Evergreen in September. In March of 2017, at Middlebury College, demonstrators physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair and giving her whiplash, sending her to the ER.

Berkeley. Evergreen. Middlebury. Missou. Yale. Brown. McMasters. Wilfred Laurier. The list goes on. One must wonder where this trend will ultimately take us. There have been several justifications given for this increasing rash of no-platforming, shaming, and at times, physical violence on North American campuses. In essence, these justifications can be distilled into a triad of well-meaning but ultimately flawed theses, namely, 1.) that all discourse is  about power and that any speech that renders a listener physiologically uncomfortable therefore rises to the level of a physical attack upon that individual, thereby justifying actual physical violence in response, 2.) that for the sake of historically marginalized voices, persons who are members of historically privileged groups should forfeit their right to free speech or ought to remain silent, 3.) that certain assertions, even if possibly true, are nonetheless morally impermissible to make since to do so will likely create conditions whereby bad-intentioned persons will inevitably and successfully advance their morally heinous projects.

This first thesis—that all discourse is fundamentally about power—finds its philosophical origins in the likes of post-modernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. To quote Foucault, “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations.” Thus, on Foucalt’s view, if all discourse is, at heart, really just veiled force relations between competing groups; if language isn’t fundamentally capable of being about objective truth or about the world in any meaningful sense, then the ink symbols written on the page and the shaped air admitted from one’s mouth in the forms of ‘rationality’, ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’ are just another set of weapons in a person’s overall arsenal to seize and maintain power, no different in kind from weapons of a physical sort. To speak then, on Foucault’s view, is to wield a weapon, albeit a subtler and refined one. The uncomfortable physiological feeling of hearing offensive speech, it would then seem, vindicates this view that one is being attacked. One might thus conclude, “Why not attack back with heavier, more effective, and more expedient weapons?”

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The ‘Killer Robots’ Are Us

Written by Dr Michael Robillard

In a recent New York Times article Dr Michael Robillard writes: “At a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva in November, a group of experts gathered to discuss the military, legal and ethical dimensions of emerging weapons technologies. Among the views voiced at the convention was a call for a ban on what are now being called “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

A 2012 Department of Defense directive defines an autonomous weapon system as one that, “once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. This includes human-supervised autonomous weapon systems that are designed to allow human operators to override operation of the weapon system, but can select and engage targets without further human input after activation.” “

Follow this link to read the article in full.

Super Soldiers, Civ-Mil Relations, and the 21st Century Coriolanus

Written by Michael Robillard

 

            “Let me have war, say I: it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.”
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus

As 21st century technology continues to progress at an ever alarming pace, the science-fiction notion of ‘human enhancement’ looks, day by day, to be an ever-approaching reality. Neuro-chemical enhancement, genetic enhancement, man/machine pairing; each of these emerging technologies carries with it, both individually and collectively, a host of ethical worries concerning the well-being, autonomy, and identity of the individual person. These ethical worries arguably become even more problematic and complex when considering the specific enhancement of soldiers.

In addition to the many ethical concerns surrounding human enhancement in general, the issue of soldier enhancement in particular appears to come with its own set of unique moral problems. This is so, at least in part, since the role of soldier often requires the promotion of attributes, aspects of character, and capacities that are arguably virtuous within the context of war but potentially vicious within the context of otherwise ‘normal’ society. Indeed, a propensity towards obedience, a disinhibition towards violence, extreme tolerance for risk, and being exceptionally skillful at the trade of killing are not typical attributes we would consider noble or praise-worthy within the day-to-day domestic sphere, though they are attributes absolutely vital for success on the battlefield. Continue reading

What the Present Debate About Autonomous Weapons is Getting Wrong

Author: Michael Robillard

Many people are deeply worried about the prospect of autonomous weapons systems (AWS). Many of these worries are merely contingent, having to do with issues like unchecked proliferation or potential state abuse. Several philosophers, however, have advanced a stronger claim, arguing that there is, in principle, something morally wrong with the use of AWS independent of these more pragmatic concerns. Some have argued, explicitly or tacitly, that the use of AWS is inherently morally problematic in virtue of a so-called ‘responsibility gap’ that their use necessarily entails.

We can summarise this thesis as follows:

  1. In order to wage war ethically, we must be able to justly hold someone morally responsible for the harms caused in war.
  2. Neither the programmers of an AWS nor its military implementers could justly be held morally responsible for the battlefield harms caused by AWS.
  3. We could not, as a matter of conceptual possibility, hold an AWS itself morally responsible for its actions, including its actions that cause harms in war.
  4. Hence, a morally problematic ‘gap’ in moral responsibility is created, thereby making it impermissible to wage war through the use of AWS.

This thesis is mistaken. This is so for the simple reason that, at the end of the day, the AWS is an agent in the morally relevant sense or it isn’t.

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Targeted Killing and Black Boxes

Written By Mitt Regan and Michael Robillard

            Various aspects of the US targeted killing program have attracted considerable attention and some criticism in philosophy and international law. One important aspect of the program that deserves more attention is how targeted killing reflects how the growing number of conflicts involving non-state actors are eroding conventions regarding the use of violence.  Those conventions are based on the paradigm of conflict between states waged by uniformed armed forces on segregated battlefields.  In such conflicts, an individual’s status as a member of the armed forces makes him/her liable to lethal force without examining his/her specific conduct.  Non-state actors, however, do not wear uniforms and seek to be indistinguishable from civilians.  What, then, should be the basis for their liability? Continue reading

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