Advice to a young dissident by mattsteinglass
June 25, 2009, 11:13 pm
Filed under: Iran

Yesterday Matthew Yglesias posted a nod to philosopher Derek Parfit’s chapter “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics“, with reference to the mistakes people make in thinking about action to mitigate climate change. Reading Parfit’s chapter, I was struck by its relevance to the moral decisions facing potential dissidents and political activists — i.e. at the moment: if you’re an Iranian, should you go out in the street and risk getting killed, or stay at home? Parfit begins:

It is often claimed that, in cases that involve very many people, any single altruistic choice would make no difference.

He goes on to elaborate a series of reasons why consequentialists should find that this is not true. Basically, the argument is that if a collective action by millions of people greatly benefits millions of people, any one person’s contribution to that immense benefit is still substantial, and that any other way of thinking about it leads to absurdities.

But the most difficult cases Parfit considers concern various kinds of Prisoner’s Dilemmas, especially ones with a complex range of outcomes and large numbers of participants. The problem with those kinds of cases is that you have to take into consideration what each participant knows about the outcomes of different actions, and what he knows about the intentions of other participants, in order to decide whether or not he has acted morally. In a situation with five possible outcomes from bad to good, and three participants, it’s entirely possible for Actor 1 to do something that would be good in 66% of the cases but that turns out to be awful because of what Actor 3 happened to do, which Actor 1 couldn’t possibly have predicted.

For example, let’s say that if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army mutinies and prevents bloodshed, then there will be a “velvet revolution”-type peaceful transition to a democratic system. But if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army doesn’t mutiny, then 1,000 people will be massacred and the regime will become more repressive; and there is no reason to believe that this outcome will lead to a democratic transition any sooner than might have happened otherwise. And meanwhile, one of those 1,000 people massacred could be you, or secret police might identify you at the rally and kick your sister out of university, or whatever. Should you join the march?

I have known several appealing young democratic activists in autocratic countries inspired by visions of creating “velvet revolution”-style transitions to democracy. In conversations with them, one inevitably feels compelled by empathy to offer one’s opinions about what they should do. And I generally wind up making it implicitly clear, just out of empathy, that I don’t think they should be engaging in pro-democracy activism. The issue depends, for me, on the question of how large the democracy movements in their countries already are. Where such movements are quite substantial, then participation makes intuitive sense. But in countries with tiny, irrelevant dissident movements, where autocratic governments are in firm control and there seems very little likelihood of change on any scale shorter than the generational, I think it’s not worth the risk. I can’t sit across from someone I find appealing and intelligent and wish for them anything other than that they keep their heads down, get a well-paying job, read widely and have informal unrecorded discussion groups with close friends, and wait for the moment twenty years down the road when some kind of shift may become possible. I can’t wish for them that they make an example of themselves and wind up jailed, their reputations and careers ruined, with exile the only promising option — an option that generally renders all their attempted activism irrelevant.

But sometimes, the brave ones go ahead and do it anyway. And in those cases I don’t think Parfit’s moral math or my wimpy skepticism even matter, because I don’t think such people are chiefly motivated by consequentialist thinking. I think that the Iranians who go out to protest are chiefly motivated by considerations like honor and hope.


2 Comments so far
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I do not think that the mathematics of the situation is as important as you make out. If the current crisis has shown us that there is no such thing as a movement which is too big to fail, the situation in Burma and Zimbabwe have. Likewise, I suspect that the pro-democracy movement in, say, communist Bulgaria in 1984, was not huge, but its existence was more important than its achievements.

As for whether I would advise someone to join a million-strong march against a repressive regime, well, no matter its size all that is required to defeat it is for one man to pull the trigger. In such circumstances it is not for you to encourage or discourage, but a display of support for a brave decision is only human. As an outside observer, the best thing you can do is to ensure that nothing is done which might undermine the actions of those who oppose tyranny.

Comment by FOARP

Those who rule by force and fraud, whether in some tiny gangster empire or in a national dictatorship, do so because they are skilled at predicting what their victims will do in response. They fall only when they miscalculate, and predict incorrectly. The main danger to the current wave of democratic revolutionary activism is its assumption that there is some sort of formula, a step-by-step playbook that can be followed. If you follow such a playbook, your actions become predictable, and can be countered. Worse than that, phony democratic revolutions can be cooked up by unscrupulous con-artists, who know how to dress up a putsch to look like a popular revolution, or how to undermine and a real one and convert it to a sham. There are no easy strategic answers. As for the risks — when people are genuinely interested in democracy, it usually isn’t just for themselves, but for the sake of their children, so risk calculations based on the security of their own skins usually take a back seat. And some values, such as dignity, turn out to be more important than survival.

Comment by Phil Paine

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