Saturday, June 27, 2009

The spectator's dilemma

Over at Accumulating Peripherals, this thoughtful piece: human sympathy and a lack of posturing.

...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....

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 [emphasis SM].

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Blogger Bavardess said...

That is a very sobering and humane take on what the costs of protest really are for many people.
The gut reaction for those of us who've been raised on Hollywood heroics and been lucky enough never to have lived under totalitarian regimes is to think, 'of course you must do the noble thing and protest!' Articles like this are so important for getting people to really think about all the implications involved in that.

11:01 PM  

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