Miscellaneous Essays by Eric Postpischil

How to Reduce Terrorism

Waging war against terrorism is not a winning strategy because: Our military spending is so huge that spending even a fraction of it on worldwide aid would generate a great deal of goodwill. This would reduce terrorism by removing its support. Fewer people around the world would be angry at the United States, and fewer people would give terrorists aid in the form of money, shelter, recruits, or information.

Instead of waging war, we should wage peace. Feed hungry people, build schools, house displaced people, and treat the sick. Every dollar spent on war is lost. Every dollar spent on good deeds is productive and returns to us in goodwill, favorable treaties and foreign relations, better business opportunities, and friends who will support us.

Give aid based on need, independent of political strings such as family planning. Show people that democracy thrives on multiple opinions, that one of our strengths is embracing differences.

War makes more terrorists. Charity reduces them.

Copyright 2004 by Eric Postpischil.

Privacy

A common criticism of privacy is "What do you have to hide?" Some good answers are below. The first of them goes to the core of American democracy. The voting booth has a privacy curtain. We could not have an honest and candid vote if people did not feel free to vote the way they want. The privacy of the voting booth gives us freedom to vote honestly. In some places and times, you might need to hide your religion to protect yourself from persecution. You might need to hide an embarrassing hobby to protect yourself from harassment.

What do these answers tell us? Honest people have things to hide from dishonest or inconsiderate people. The answer to "What do you have to hide?" is "Everything I want to protect." Privacy is freedom.

I was motivated to post this essay by a news story on May 23, 2002. Two FBI agents were charged with using inside FBI information to make money by blackmailing officers of publicly traded companies and by manipulating the stock market. This answers the question "Why should we have privacy from the government?" Because we cannot trust the government. FBI agents cheated, and honest citizens are entitled to protect themselves.

A good metaphor is that privacy is a shield. Riot police hold up shields to protect themselves from thrown rocks, not because they are ashamed of their tender bellies. We all have weaknesses and use shoes to protect our feet, coats to shield against cold, curtains to shield against nosy neighbors, and privacy to shield against coercion, intimidation, theft, embarrassment, and a host of other ways some people would take advantage of us. Privacy shields our freedom from those who would take it away.

Copyright 2002 by Eric Postpischil.

Politics and Power

Too frequently holders of public office abuse the powers of their offices. That used to upset me, but I have come to expect it. It still upsets me, but I do not have as much energy to expend on expressing that, although I do sometimes. I think most people in office at the state level and above use their power in ways that are essentially selfish even if not overtly so, and they are not guided principally by philosophy. Some of them may be guided by a desire to improve the place we live in, but even that is not the same as being guided by philosophy. For one thing, it is more subject to "compromises" and possibly even corruption, but, more importantly, I think most representatives consciously serve mostly the majority and do not give enough value to balancing the needs, desires, and rights of all people.

Like many other animals, humans tend to organize into leaders and followers, and hierarchies of leaders. This leads to us putting too much power in the hands of too few, when there is no real structural reason we cannot dilute the power a great deal more, especially with today's information technology. But even so, the United States concentrates power more than some other countries. Our elections tend to be all-or-nothing things, which encourages the two-party system, since splintering a party has a great cost. Some other countries have systems of distributing votes across many candidates in an election, with the result that subgroups of the population can be represented proportionately in a legislature. Instead of having to choose a few representatives in elections with my New Hampshire neighbors, I might be able to throw my votes to parties of my choice with other people around the country.

In the past, most people living in a farming state would benefit from legislation helping the state, and it made sense for them to have a common representative, who would represent farming interests while other states promoted industrial interests. Today, I may have more in common with another engineer in California than with the guy across the street, so the California engineer and I would be better represented by having a representative who owes his votes to citizens with technical interests rather than those from New Hampshire. Other people could vote for environmental representatives. As it is now, Congress gets almost entirely representatives who pandered to the majorities in their states, so almost only the majority view is represented. Other groups, which means many millions of people even if they are not the majority, do not get represented, so they get the short ends of the legislative sticks, so they get upset, and our society has more friction and contention than it needs to.

My mother once remarked on a visit to the Maryland legislature that most motions were passing nearly unanimously. I pointed out that may be because the likely votes are sized up in advance, and negotiations are initiated well in advance of the floor vote. Arrangements are made, things are traded, and the ultimate vote is settled. On the one hand, this is a good thing because a consensus is formed instead of a simple majority—more things are settled by a balancing of assorted interests than by a single forced decision. On the other hand, it is a bad thing because the true deal-making and power-wielding occurs behind closed doors, where the public cannot judge and interact. And on the third hand, it is another example of our animal nature. Many animals engage in ritualized combat, the main purpose of which is to determine who is dominant. But it would be counter to survival to expend too many resources fighting, so animals in the tribe observe combat and tend to defer to previous winners without a battle. The winners (and leaders) are discovered and known without any real battle. Similarly, the representatives discover the winners and often skip any real battle.

Copyright 1999 by Eric Postpischil.

Death Penalty

Some people commit acts so horrific they may "deserve" to die. But that is not the only issue we have to consider when deciding whether to impose a death penalty. We cannot impose the death penalty because: I will expand on the last two of these.

We must not kill innocent people.

We grow up believing in our judicial system. It seems so careful, so deliberate. We give accused people a fair opportunity to defend themselves. It has to be this way; we need to trust that our government is punishing people who are actually guilty.

But our judicial system evolved in a time before scientific evidence. The system contains errors that were largely invisible before DNA testing. For the first time, we have a solid, scientific double-check on the accuracy of our judicial system. DNA testing now proves that courts make many mistakes we never knew about before. DNA tests of people previously convicted and sentenced to death provide a new check on the accuracy of the legal system.

We would have expected that a trial, including all its procedures of revealing evidence to both prosecution and defense and arguing both sides and deliberation by an impartial jury, would produce an accurate, fair decision. Even more, our system provides an appeals process to correct errors in trials. In spite of this, DNA testing has proven that a hundred people convicted of serious crimes such as rape and murder are actually innocent.

These are not cases in which a trial verdict was overturned because of some technical error. These are cases in which the convicted person truly did not commit the crime.

Now we know that our judicial system is not doing the right thing; it is not ensuring that an accused person is actually guilty before convicting them.

We could ask how this can be. The answers could help us believe, but they would not alter the conclusion: The system is gravely flawed. There are a variety of causes. Famously, witnesses make mistakes; most people will readily identify any similar person placed in front of them as the person they saw previously, even though the person is not the same. They are trying to do the right thing, and jurors empathize with them and believe them, but they are wrong.

Another cause of mistakes is that sometimes jurors have a hard job to do to figure out whether the evidence really proves a person is guilty, and they make the wrong decision.

A frightening cause of mistakes is misconduct by police and prosecutors. Some police and some prosecutors get caught up in their own beliefs about who the "bad guys" are and want to see those "bad guys" punished. Then they break the rules. They lie and cheat to get a person convicted, even when there is evidence the person is innocent. Sometimes they are caught. Sometimes they are not, and an innocent person is jailed or killed. It is sad that sometimes jurors make mistakes, but at least they are honestly trying, and that sort of error is random. But when police and prosecutors persecute people instead of prosecute them, we are all in danger.

But the reasons do not matter: The judicial system convicts too many innocent people, and we have to be extremely careful about using the ultimate power of the death penalty. When a sentence is imprisonment or corrective action, we can accept some mistakes. Mistaken imprisonment can be partially remedied by paying the person for their lost time or providing other compensation. Mistaken killing can never be remedied at all.

A mistaken killing by the courts should be extraordinarily rare, the result of nearly unbelievable chains of errors beyond anybody's control. If we cannot achieve the high standard necessary, then we are not entitled to impose the death penalty.

We do not have an ethical right to kill as punishment.

I have some lengthy reasoning on this point, but I would like to express it succinctly:
Criminals are bad, and they do bad things, including killing people. That is a problem we have to deal with. Should we adopt the method of the criminals, and also kill? No, it would be foolish to choose to be like criminals. We are not bad people, so we do not do bad things. When we can solve a problem without killing a person, then we should do so. We have better, smarter, more powerful ways to solve the problems. We choose not to take guidance from criminals and not to kill.
With crimes in general, there are several motivations to punish a person: These motives are all ethical reasons to punish a person, because they all reduce the effect of a crime or prevent crimes that are likely to occur, and they punish the person who committed a crime. They all move the balance back toward justice.

Another motivation to punish a person is:

This is not an ethical reason to punish a person, because it does not punish the person for something they did or are even likely to do. It is not fair to punish Bob just because it would make John less likely to commit a crime. It is okay to punish Bob for what he did, but not to teach John a lesson.

Also, we cannot punish Bob any extra for the purpose of teaching John a lesson. Bob should be punished only for his own crime and no other.

The final motivation I will consider is:

Revenge is a desire to hurt. Revenge is not a desire for justice. It does not fix a wrong, and it does not prevent future wrongs. Therefore, revenge is not an ethical reason to impose punishment. We should recognize that revenge is fueled by ugly human emotions. Revenge is the infliction of harm on one person to make other people feel better. When we feel a desire for revenge, we must control it.

Now that we know what motivations there are for punishing a criminal and which ones are ethical, we are ready to consider whether it is ethical to impose a sentence of death. The first ethical motivation was restitution. Imposing a sentence of death does not remedy the crime that was committed, so restitution cannot motivate the death penalty. The other three ethical motivations are prevention, deterrence, and rehabilitation. None of these apply because we have the ability to to imprison a person for life. That prevents future crimes by the criminal and makes deterrence and rehabilitation irrelevant.

So none of the ethical motivations for punishing a person justifies imposing a death sentence. There is no ethical reason to impose a death sentence.

Some argue that our political system may not guarantee that a person is imprisoned for life or that it is expensive. These are flaws in our political system. They are mistakes made by us and our representatives. But the blame for that is ours, not the criminal's. It is not ethical to kill a person to prevent our own mistakes.

We have a right to impose sentence on a person who has committed a crime, but we only have the right to impose as much of a sentence as is necessary, and no more. Therefore, when it is possible for us to imprison a person for life, we must choose to do that and not kill the person.

Copyright 2001 by Eric Postpischil.

Why Do Mirrors Reverse Left and Right?

Asking why mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down is a common question, but let's try an experiment. Hold your hand in front of a mirror, then move your hand to your left. Which way does your hand's mirror image move? It also moves to your left. When you move your hand to your left or your right, the image moves the same way—to your left or your right. When you move your hand up or down, the image moves the same way—up or down. The mirror is not reversing any of these directions.

Why do we think the mirror reverses left and right? When you move your hand to your right, your mirror image moves its hand to its left. At least, it is "its" left as we think of it. But how do we think of it, how do we visualize which direction is "its" left? Well, we imagine where our left would be if we were in the place of the image. In order to get where the image appears to be, we would have to move to it and turn around. That is the key. When we turn around, our left and right turn around with us. The mirror does not reverse left and right; it is simply that our labeling of left and right for the image in the mirror is reversed from our labeling for ourselves.

There is one dimension the mirror does reverse. It reverses forward and backward. This is because the mirror effectively bounces the light particles hitting it, reflecting them back. If you move your hand in the direction of your forward, the hand's image in the mirror moves in the direction of your backward. Mirrors do not reverse left and right. They reverse forward and backward.

Copyright 1999 by Eric Postpischil.

Very Unique

Can something be "very unique"? Some people say no because "unique" means one of a kind, and "one" is absolute. "One" does not have degrees; there is either only one of something or there is not exactly one. But this neglects the rest of the meaning. "Unique" means one of a kind, and there is nothing absolute about kinds. There are all kinds of kinds, some with only a few members and some with billions. If you happen to be the only red-headed kid in a small town, you are unique, but that is not a very strong attribute. But if you were the only red-headed person on the planet, that would be something else; it would be quite amazing.

So although you would be unique in both of these cases, one of them is a much stronger characteristic than the other. Clearly there are degrees of uniqueness, and it is appropriate to qualify them with adjectives. The kinds of uniqueness that are harder to achieve deserve to be emphasized as very unique. "Very unique" means one of a very numerous kind.

Copyright 1998 by Eric Postpischil.