Archive for February, 2012

Get off your bum, stop wasting time, and do something proper kiddo

February 19, 2012

This is worth a look, methinks.

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Malingering and moral judgements: Ethics in the army

February 10, 2012

A tableau:

An NSF officer, let’s call him 2LT Siao On, is in a hospital waiting room. Two rows behind him sit two NSFs in their green uniforms, showing off their conspicuous absence of rank badges. Our good officer can’t help but overhear the two of them (let’s call them PVT Chao and PVT Keng) discussing ways to convince the doctor to grant them additional medical leave. 2LT Siao On is disgusted. He shakes his head, and proceeds to complain on a public domain (say, Facebook) about the state of the SAF, and implicitly suggests that every conscript soldier should be as dedicated to the cause as he is.

What’s wrong with this scene? Is 2LT Siao On justified in his condemnation of PVTs Chao and Keng?

I’ve made some assumptions in analysis; bear with me. For the sake of argument let us assume:

  1. There is no immutable, objective rightness. I.e., 2LT Siao On may believe serving NS is a worthy cause, but he, and any others who share the same belief, may not be any more correct than others who disagree.
  2. PVTs Chao and Keng have valid reasons to believe the SAF is an unworthy cause for their time and effort. (They might believe nationalism and patriotism are outmoded, unnecessary, or downright detrimental to humanity. They might loathe rampant mismanagement they have witnessed first-hand in the service. It could be something else I haven’t thought of. Surely there is no shortage of valid reasons for a conscript soldier to believe his service is for an untenable cause)

In our scene, we have two parties that hold different, possibly opposite views regarding the subject of NS. 2LT Siao On sees it as a glorious sacrifice one should be proud to make, worthy of utmost effort and dedication because it is of utmost importance. PVTs Chao and Keng see NS as service to a cause they cannot and do not believe in or support. 2LT Siao On is a zealot for the cause, while PVTs Chao and Keng are slaves to it; the difference is their subjective evaluation of the worthiness of the cause, and their subsequent willingness to serve.

Turning to the question of moral obligation and justification, I present two possible scenarios:

1. NS is in opposition to the beliefs of PVTs Chao and Keng. Are they morally obliged to sabotage, what is to them, an “evil organization” by malingering and performing poorly, as well as actively working to promote alternatives?  If they are not morally obliged, are they morally justified in doing so?

2. PVTs Chao and Keng are disillusioned with NS. They see no value in their service beyond supporting an ideology they reject. Are they morally justified in abandoning service in pursuit of freedom or personal pleasure? (Noting that there exists a bias against hedonism in favour of traditionally noble values such as patriotism, honour, discipline, and sacrifice?)

If you ask me, it seems clear enough that a moral obligation exists to actively work against a cause that (one believes) is evil, supports evil ideology, or perpetuates misery or suffering. And as a slave for an evil cause, one has a moral obligation to seek freedom; although freedom itself is of no value, there is an obligation to utilise freedom to pursue a causes one considers good and right.

Less clear is the reaction to a cause one rejects, but does not condemn. If a cause is not evil or in opposition to personal beliefs, but only incongruent, there is justification to refuse service to it. But it is not clear if there is justification to pursue freedom for its own sake (although, in our scenario, it is more likely for pleasure’s sake), especially if the rejected cause enjoys widespread support from most other people. And there’s the rub, because the most likely scenario is that PVTs Chao and Keng are looking to slack off  for personal freedom, only to subsequently squander that freedom on personal pleasure instead of any cause they believe in and support, while 2LT Siao On shares a widely held belief that NS is an honourable and good cause.

So, 2LT Siao On condemning the PVTs. Can he or can’t he? What do you think dear reader?

EDIT: Well, that might not have gotten at what I really wanted to ask. Instead of whether or not 2LT Siao On should or shouldn’t be condeming our PVTs, I should be asking when our PVTs have moral justifications for their actions (i.e., keng-ing)

Old Boys’ Diplomacy

February 2, 2012

I’ve recently read S. Jayakumar’s Diplomacy (and put up a short review here; frankly, it’s not very impressive). I’ve come away from it with the impression that Singapore’s foreign affairs and relations with other countries are managed by a select cadre of senior diplomats. Names that regularly show up include Tommy Koh, Bilahari Kausikan, Kishore Mahbubani, and Jayakumar himself. Diplomacy draws on the author’s personal experiences from his time in MFA, so it is at least partly excusable that the book features Jayakumar’s close, long-time colleagues in his mostly anecdotal accounts of work in the diplomatic corps. But it does not discount the fact that this group of elite diplomats have been playing musical chairs with the positions of permanent representative to the UN, ambassador at large, and permanent secretary for foreign affairs for a considerable time.

Jayakumar also makes constant references to his close personal friendship with (long-time Indonesian foreign minister) Ali Alatas, and how it has greased problematic diplomatic relations. There are also numerous references to how his other personal relationships has helped in resolving issues with other countries. I cannot pretend to be closely acquainted with the machinations of government or the conduct of foreign affairs, but I cannot help but wonder about a couple of things. Firstly, how much of international relations, especially in regional ties between geographically close neighbours, is influenced by and dependent on an old boy’s’ network, both locally and cross-border, and is it plagued by insular, one-track navel gazing and barriers of entry for new diplomats in the marketplace of ideas? Secondly, to what extent is supposedly democratic statecraft shaped and dominated by a select cabal of ministers and civil servants, and how health would that situation be?

The answer to both questions is, in my opinion, a worrying, intractable conundrum. Unless an entire population can become knowledgeable, interested, and active in public life, and enabled (possibly technologically) to influence that public life through direct democracy on all issues of importance, we will be stuck with a small elite of power-brokers and technocrats running the show. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but we ought not to have pretensions to anything else, especially in a single-party democracy with the civil service and the party existing symbiotically. And although issues will remain decided by those select power-brokers, we can avoid the worst outcomes by ensuring organic (i.e., not party-directed) renewal of that group and truly meritocratic entry to that group, in order to avoid the pitfall of navel-gazing, slap-on-the-back old boy’s politics and policymaking.