Moulton Lava

Moultonic Musings

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Location: New England, United States

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Brain Cancer

There is a culture war of biblical proportions underway.

The frontier of the battle line lies between the 4th and the 5th rung of Kohlberg's Ladder of Moral Reasoning.

The DoJ is operating no higher than the 4th rung, corresponding to the Law and Order Model, also known as the Crime and Punishment Model.

The 5th rung is called the Social Contract Model. It is not yet very well known outside of academia. I reckon it won't gain a foothold until at least 25% of the population become well-educated in the STEM disciplines.

The 4th rung has an inherent affliction that we might characterize as "brain cancer."

The more familiar name for that particular type of cancer is corruption.

Brain cancer is an insidious killer.

But it's not the only scourge afflicting the Body Politic.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Purposes of the Law

Over on The Volokh Conspiracy, (a popular blog discussing controversial legal issues), Professor Orin Kerr of the George Washington University School of Law, has been discussing and defending his analysis of various legal issues arising in the case of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

In one of these discussions, where Professor Kerr was examining the issue of whether Swartz violated the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) by engaging in "unauthorized access," there came this colloquy:

Barry Kort: Trying to overlay the criminal law on the Internet has been an exercise in misadventure, to put it politely.

Orin Kerr: But there's a law on the books, and the only issue in this post is what it means.

BK: It means that whoever made the law wasn't working from a reliable system model of its consequences.

OK: Barry, if you want to talk about laws that were not based on a reliable system model of its consequences, I suggest you start with 1 U.S.C. 1 and go from there.

BK: Actually, Orin, I start with the fundamental axiom upon which the entire system of law is founded -- namely the axiomatic assumption that the Crime and Punishment Model is functionally capable of crafting a peaceable and orderly society. That axiom has been studied by criminologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists, mathematicians, humanists, theologians, and systems scientists.

OK: Barry, that's not the fundamental axiom upon which the entire system of law is founded. The fundamental axiom upon which the entire system of law is founded is that human beings are imperfect, and when we get together to govern ourselves we invariably do an imperfect job, muddling through as best we can and satisfying no idealist but hopefully doing better than the realistic alternatives that come to mind. That's the difference between law and engineering that is so hard for engineers to understand. Engineering is about the perfection of math and science, and the faith that rigor produces objective truth about the world. Law, by contrast, is a profoundly human enterprise. It can never be more perfect than people themselves.

BK: That's why I took a look at the Kohlberg-Gilligan Model of Human Imperfection and elected to operate at the 5th rung of Kohlberg's model, and to fold in Gilligan's Ethics of Care as an orthogonal axis. Orin, do you see how my belief, that 21st Century humans were capable of functioning at Kohlberg Level 5, tempered with a touch of empathy, is just as much a religion as Hammurabi's belief, expressed some 3760 years ago, that humans of his age were capable of operating at Kohlberg Level 4? Orin, if it truly is unrealistic for members of our species -- including the best and brightest members of academia -- to rise to Kohlberg Level 5, then I am afraid to say our species is doomed. Can you see why, Orin?

OK: Barry, I have no idea what you're talking about.

BK: I am talking about Rawls' Theory of Justice, Orin, and the need for our society to solve the problem of systemic injustice.

The good professor did not respond further at that point in the discussion thread.

In another colloquy, we again came to the same controversial question on the applicable law.  My position was that MIT's policies amounted to a collegial social contract expressed in the language of ethics, calling upon members of the MIT community to use the campus network in a "responsible, professional, and ethical" manner, which is why it was so problematic to interpret it as a hard and fast rule.

Orin Kerr:  Barry, it seems to me that your answer is that the conduct was authorized because you feel like universities including MIT work on informal social contracts, and you seem to think that this fell within the informal social contract that you sense applies at MIT. But that doesn't answer the question: How does one know if a particular act is authorized by a sensed social contract versus prohibited by the explicit policies, acts, and shared social norms that usually indicate authorization or its absence? Is that something that you just sort of feel out?

Barry Kort: Often one doesn't know in advance whether other members of an academic community will take exception to some activity and consider it a breach of expectations with respect to the social contract. That's why the social contracts I helped craft all have built-in conflict resolution protocols. Social contract cultures rely in part on ethical reasoning. We appreciate that ethical reasoning is part of the process of functioning within an academic or research culture. As you know, Larry Lessig is the Director of Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics. Having worked with faculty members who teach ethics, I appreciate how difficult it is for even highly intelligent, conscientious, and fair-minded people to devise ethical best practices.

OK: Barry, I'm confused. Are you arguing that Swartz's conduct was "authorized" for purposes of the law? Or are you saying that you think that the best way way to deal with Swartz's conduct would have been to engage in a conflict resolution protocol, even if technically it was an unauthorized access as a matter of law? 
BKFar be it from me to apprehend the purposes of the law, Orin. I am saying that the ethical best practices for MIT and JSTOR would have been to do what JSTOR actually did, which was to resolve the breach as amicably as possible, learn from the experience, and go forward from there. 
OKSo you are not arguing that what Swartz did was legal: You are not contesting that the conduct was prohibited by federal criminal law. I think I understand, and I appreciate the clarification. I just wanted to be sure I understood your argument, which I had misinterpreted to be a claim that Swartz had not violated the law.

BK: I have no idea if he violated the law. I have heard your arguments that he did violate the law, and I have heard the arguments of Alex Stamos that he did not violate the law, and I have not heard a decision by a judge or a jury as to their verdict. But it occurs to me that the machinery of the law has not done anyone a beneficial service here.

What's interesting to me in the above excerpts is that the "Purposes of the Law" seem to have gotten lost in the process of arguing over the minutiae of what the terms and phrases in the codified statutes even mean.  It reminds me of the Talmud and the Mishneh in which the rabbinic scholars endlessly debated and discussed the meaning of the divine word of the Torah.

At least in the case of the Torah, the purpose of the debate was to infer ethical or moral best practices for living one's life.  In the case of the comparable debate about the statutory law, it appears that the purpose is to justify labeling this or that imperfect human being as a felon who needs to be punished for any discernible imperfections.

What's even worse, there seems to be some serious confusion over the axiomatic foundation upon which the System of Law is built.

And people wonder why I disbelieve in the Hammurabic Method of Social Regulation.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Solving Systemic Problems Requires Systems Thinking

As many of my colleagues and online acquaintances may know, my professional work has largely been grounded in the application of systems theory, to analyze and solve problems calling for a systems approach.

Now that I'm mostly retired, I've increasingly begun to reflect on the larger class of problems that plague humankind, above and beyond the more tractable class of problems that a person of my educational background in the STEM disciplines might have been recruited to work on at research venues like Bell Labs, BBN, Stanford, or MIT.

About eight years ago, I began to chronicle my thoughts about the ten biggest and most intractable problems, observing that, from a systems theoretic point of view, all ten of them had a common underlying structure.

As I assay it, the ten most intractable plagues of western civilization are conflict, violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, poverty, ignorance, alienation, suffering, and terrorism.

All ten of these hellish problems have something in common. Like cancer, they tend to reseed themselves, round-robin, from one instance to the next, in a never-ending cycle of recursion.

Systemic problems call for a systems approach to problem-solving. But that’s not going to happen until we elevate our collective problem-solving skills to near-genius levels.

I would like to see President Obama convene a national problem-solving congress, staffed with the best and the brightest systems thinkers our society has to offer, to systematically address, analyze, and solve the interlinked systemic problems of conflict, violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, poverty, ignorance, alienation, suffering, and terrorism.

How can those of us who share and promote the systems approach elevate this idea and organize an effective community of forward-looking problem solvers?

Challenges for the 21st Century — Jay Forrester


Friday, February 08, 2013

Lamentations and Remorse

I’ve read and reviewed pretty much all the news reports, commentaries, analyses, profiles, tributes, and lamentations that have been published online since Aaron Swartz hanged himself on January 11th.

A lot of people — including those close to Aaron who knew him well — were variously shocked, surprised, angered, grieved, and perplexed by his decision to take his own life.

By his own admission, Aaron Swartz was on a “crazy roller coaster” in the wake of his indictment by the US Attorney.

One of the features of being on a “crazy roller coaster” is that one’s emotions rapidly oscillate between both familiar and unfamiliar extremes. At times, one has high hopes. The next moment, one has high anxiety that plunges into despair.

Aaron was known for his mood swings. He could be enthused one day and lethargic the next.

His life story reads like his own idiosyncratic version of a passion play. He could be passionate about a cause and then undertake a systematic campaign that calls for sustained effort and dispassionate problem-solving.

If I had to guess what Aaron Swartz was thinking and feeling the day he took his life, my best guess is that he was feeling scapegoated, and perhaps thinking that he was hopelessly ensnared in a long-term, nightmare, no-win, dispiriting drama with the US Attorney.

When one is ensnared in a lunatic scapegoat drama, there is likely to be a crucial phase where the protagonist feels forsaken. That’s the phase that is most likely to immediately precede a fatal moment of irreversible despair.

Justice is supposed to be a dispassionate process. But in Aaron’s case it clearly was not. The prosecution has been characterized as over-zealous and vindictive. To an idealistic person on the receiving end of such relentless persecution, the whole system comes off as being arbitrary, capricious, and beyond redemption.

There are reports that Carmen Ortiz has been shaken by the turn of events associated with Aaron’s suicide and its aftermath. Perhaps now she is also feeling scapegoated, too. That’s the odd thing about passion plays. The extreme emotions of the protagonist become unexpectedly transferred to the antagonist.

In the end, all that’s left to feel is remorse.