Tag Archives: Natural disaster

Reasoning & Natural Disasters

As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.

While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.

Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.

People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.

Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?

As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.

Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.

“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.

There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.

To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.



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Sandy & Socialism

Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.

Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.

Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.

Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.

An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.

While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.

In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”

As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.

However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.

The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.

The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.

It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.

While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.

In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.

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God & Disasters

Lisbon in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake...

Image via Wikipedia

When natural disasters strike it is common for people to pray for assistance and rely on their faith for comfort. The earthquake that devastated Haiti has been no exception. When watching the news coverage of the terrible aftermath I saw many people mention how they had prayed and how they had been relying on their faith.

On one hand, it would seem to be cruel and callous to offer any philosophical discussion of prayer and faith in such a context. After all, in such a disaster people need something to sustain them and give them hope. If this involves faith, then so be it.

On the other hand, there is certainly something here well worth discussing.

When watching the news clips of people speaking about prayer and faith in the face of an earthquake, I was reminded of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. in philosophy, this event is best remembered in the context of Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz‘ claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. After all, it is rather difficult to reconcile the idea of a benevolent and all powerful God with such natural disasters. David Hume also wrote on this problem and explicitly criticized Leibniz.

Rather than focus on the problem of evil, the point I am addressing is that it seems rather odd to pray to God in such a context. After all, if it is assumed that God exists and has the usual attributes (all good, all powerful and all knowing) then praying would make no sense. This is because the earthquake was allowed (or perhaps caused) by God. He knows about the event and hence prayer is not needed to let God know that a disaster has struck. Since He is all powerful, He could render aid. However, if He did not want the disaster to strike, then it would not have occurred. Praying to God would be like asking for help from the person who is punching you in the face-obviously that person is not going to render aid. Finally, if God is good then He would not need to be asked to help. A good being does not watch from the sidelines waiting for someone to beg for help. Further, if the initial disaster is compatible with God’s goodness (and perhaps part of his plan), then allowing people to continue to suffer would seem to be just as compatible. As such, praying for assistance would seem to make no sense at all (except insofar as a psychological salve).

As far as faith goes, it also seems odd to be sustained by faith in such situations. After all, God has shown that He is willing to allow terrible things to happen (or cause them to occur). Having faith in such contexts would seem to be somewhat like remaining in love with a cruel abuser. At the very least, if you look among the aid groups then you will see no angels. Oddly enough, God never shows up for His disasters.

Fortunately, people do. So, it makes sense to ask other people for help. Unlike God, we respond and take action. Then again, perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one here to help us but us.

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