Droning On

I’m teaching the issue of drone warfare and targeted killing in one of my ethics classes, the fifth or sixth semester in a row I’ve taught this material, via Kenneth Himes’s 2016 book, Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing. It’s been a frustrating, even despair-inducing experience: Of the 90 or so students enrolled, only half attend. Of the 45 of who attend, 40 are utterly indifferent to the material, unmoved even by the most shocking finding, revelation, or video I can throw at them.

My students–whether rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white–simply do not care whether drones increase or decrease the incidence of terrorist attacks, much less whether their use is in any sense morally justified. Whether drones kill innocents or kill “bad guys,” whether the targets are justified in resisting U.S. policy or obliged to lie down and take it: none of this is nearly as important as whatever they’re doing on their phones.

We’re killing kids in Yemen? The Trump Administration wants to conceal the number of civilian deaths taking place through drone strikes? “Signature strikes” axiomatically treat all “military aged males” between 15 and 70 within an ill-defined battle zone as candidates for targeted killing? The Israelis are bombing Gaza with our eager approval? Yawn. Scroll right. Go shopping. Text a friend.

Meanwhile, one or two of the remaining students are combat veterans so traumatized by their experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan that they request (and get) ADA 504 disability accommodations that permit them to skip the drone material altogether–on the grounds that the content of the material triggers combat-related PTSD. Felician prides itself on being a “military friendly school, a “stigma-free zone,” and an institution that goes out of its way to accommodate ADA 504 disability requests. It would in this context be considered both quixotic and offensive to ask whether combat-related PTSD is best handled through self-induced amnesia and thought suppression. It’s obvious enough that the wrong stimulus can trigger traumatic memories, and that trauma is correlated with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Solution? Suppress the stimulus. No need to take things further than that.

At some point, I imagine, the accommodations office (or someone else) may simply request that I stop teaching this material altogether. Why teach such upsetting material when there are so many less triggering topics out there? Do I have to fixate on topics like these? Does it make sense to teach a topic that has such adverse effects on already-vulnerable students? I usually spend between two and three weeks (five classes) on the Himes book. How long can I permit veterans to absent themselves from my class before I get accused of excluding them from three of fourteen weeks of class? How long before I get accused of wasting three weeks’ worth of veteran’s benefits, all in the name of some anti-American-sounding agenda?

Upshot: there’s no point in trying to cover material of this sort. Between apathy and disability, the demographic I teach is, in one way or another, impervious to rational inquiry into drone warfare and targeted killing. And if that demographic is in any way representative of the country, or even an important swatch of it, we get a snapshot of the state of public opinion on policies that produce mass death. The ignorant don’t care; the knowledgeable know too much to care. And the first group hugely outnumbers the second. If this isn’t a self-conscious public relations strategy on behalf of perpetual warfare, it should be.

Churchill is thought to have said that a fanatic is one who redoubles his efforts after forgetting his aims. There are days when, as an instructor, I often feel as though I fit that description. Resigned to this fact, there comes a time to hand up the shovel, throw in the towel, and give up. Plato’s Meno expresses skepticism that virtue can be taught. Twenty-five years in higher education have made me skeptical that the desire for knowledge, and the intellectual virtues associated with it, can be taught. On the bright side, it’s worth remembering that no one has ever stopped an imperialist juggernaut by running himself into the ground. The recognition of that fact is the beginning of a certain kind of wisdom. That the wisdom is allied to a certain kind of cynicism doesn’t make it any the less true.

15 thoughts on “Droning On

  1. I usually don’t have quite those problems in my classes; more often I get important, real life stuff treated like a mental exercise, but at least they do the exercise. Recently, though, I did have students respond to anti-theistic arguments based on horrendous cruelty to children by saying, ‘I just don’t see why it matters. Children suffer. It doesn’t matter.’ This supposedly in defense of Christian theism! I tell myself that the indifference is just a defense mechanism in service of an unexamined religious faith. At least they’ve got something to defend?

    For much of the history of philosophy in the traditions that stem from the Greeks, the idea that we could confidently expect a large portion of ordinary young adults to respond to philosophical problems philosophically would have seemed absurd; philosophy is not just intellectually demanding in a way that not everybody will find congenial, but requires motivations and attitudes that are not very widely distributed. I tend to operate on the assumption that hardly any of my students will become philosophers in any sense, but that most or all of them can think through philosophical questions profitably. But maybe even that is quixotic.

    I want to say something about how it’s worth doing anyway. I’m not coming up with anything. But it’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m still on my first cup of coffee, so…

    I want to take your drone class, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I face problems of this variety every single day, several times a day. I do think that your students’ response is preferable. As you say, a least they have something to defend. That gives you something to work with, even if working with it ends up being as much like pastoral counseling or psychotherapy as it does philosophical pedagogy. Their response sounds half-way between a defense mechanism and a gesture at some kind of theodicy that they don’t know how to articulate. But that’s something. What I face is just blank indifference, less that warfare doesn’t matter than that it’s practically unreal.

      It is possible that I am facing defense mechanisms, too. It could be that my students reflexively and fideistically want to believe that all that killing is justified and necessary, and simply want, at the outset, to shut down any inquiry that heads anywhere else. Feigned indifference is their way of doing that. But if so, they are really, really good at feigning indifference. Because their feigned indifference looks a lot like the real thing.

      I would have thought that the Nicomachean Ethics or Cicero’s treatises and dialogues (etc.) were intended for well-brought-up and well-to-do free male citizens, the idea being that even the second-best practical life expected of such men required some philosophical reflection.

      It may take things too far to infer that you can democratize education in a country like ours, and have the same expectations of everyone hankering after a bachelor’s degree, regardless of why they want it. Contrary to people like Charles Murray, the fundamental issue strikes me as motivational, not cognitive. In other words, I don’t think that the problem is that “low IQ people” are inundating higher education. I think that low motivation people are inundating higher education–low motivation people with IQ’s that are perfectly satisfactory, but who lack any good reason to use them for anything beyond scoring some weed, scoring some chicks, and watching ESPN. I guess the point of my post is that while I think they have a “duty to self” to cultivate their talents, I’ve lost my motivation to make the case for that duty as a prelude to teaching philosophy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a teacher, at least, my main challenge is lack of student motivation. I have students who will never be intellectually brilliant, but who learn and benefit and are fun to teach because they want to learn things, or at least to think. It’s much harder, and much less pleasant, to try to motivate students who seem determined not to care. It’s one thing for them to need us to show them why they should care; I can do that. But when they don’t want to care, or even occasionally want not to care, there’s not a great deal I can do. For many I think it’s due to issues in their lives outside of school, but some seem to want to prove that I can’t compel them to care. As if that were in any doubt.

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    • That was supposed to be a reply to your earlier comment, and was supposed to echo your claim, contra Murray, that the main issue is motivation, not cognitive ability. In my own experience, though — at rather different institutions — the problem isn’t what I’d call ‘low motivation’; it’s the wrong kinds of motivation, viz. ones to which learning is thoroughly instrumental. Of course I’ve encountered plenty of low motivation people, too, but in the main my challenge has been figuring out how to cope with students who are highly motivated to earn good grades so that they can eventually make money, but who somehow could not care less about truth, knowledge, understanding, or any of that stuff. Things only get weirder when the students in question claim to be devout Christians, yet claim to be bored to tears with philosophical discussions of whether the extent of undeserved suffering in the world poses serious difficulties for Christian belief. I find myself feeling almost offended — I do not find offense a natural emotion — as a Christian at these sorts of non-responses, despite my own lack of faith. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

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      • I think we’re talking about qualitatively different phenomena. You’re describing the problematically-motivated; I’m describing the unmotivated. I have a paranoid suspicion of intoxicating substances, born of my Muslim upbringing, so I often default to the supposition that my students’ lack of motivation has something to do with their affection for weed. Weed famously produces an “amotivational syndrome, or at least is said to produce one, and what I confront is lack of motivation, not misdirected motivation.

        I don’t think that it’s particularly weird that devout Christians are bored to tears by philosophical questions, whether about undeserved suffering or anything else. All Christian belief in America is Protestantized, even if it’s supposed to be Catholic or Orthodox, and whether this is doctrinally sound or not, that means that Christians think of themselves as having a directly personal, fideistic relationship to God, conceived of as a Super Therapist. A relationship of that kind serves deep psychological needs, and is not likely to be amenable to rational discussion (certainly not to rational discussion about God’s existence). It’s not going to be affected by some pseudo-Catholic classicist’s blatherings about undeserved suffering (I’m describing the way they likely hear it, assuming they know your theological biography). And so it isn’t.

        I have a certain sympathy for that point of view, because I have a similar sort of belief in God. It serves similar psychological needs, and is similarly resistant to rational analysis. Mine is the God of Abraham, the God of the Qur’an, and the other Peoples of the Book(s). Except that for me, the Qur’an is a work of fiction, and so is God. I’m sure there are deep ontological questions to be asked about him, but none of them are affected by the amount of suffering in the world, and none of them are distinctive to God. They apply to Jane Eyre and the Brothers Karamazov, too. I don’t worry too much about the ethical propriety of his, I mean His, commands, either. I don’t accept the legitimacy of anyone’s commands, much less the commands of some fictional character. I do follow some of them sometimes–when I feel like it, and precisely because I feel like it.

        It’s fun. It certainly beats atheism. Or ontologically realistic theism, come to that. And contra both Pascal and Christopher Hitchens, there’s no downside. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll be sent to “Hell”? Oooh, scary. I’m from New Jersey. I’m already in Hell. How could it get any worse?

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        • Yeah, what you’re confronting is quite different. What I confront now is different in many ways from what I encountered elsewhere, but in most cases it was the same sort of problem, and not the one you face. In my previous experience, the reason for the difference is easy to spot: besides teaching at institutions quite unlike Felician, I almost never taught classes that anybody took for any reason other than sheer interest, and even when I did I had enough motivated students that the unmotivated ones drifted into the background and didn’t pose a problem for anyone. I suspect that many high school teachers encounter classes more like yours; my experience at that level is different, because my students’ families choose our school in large part to increase the students’ chances of getting into college and succeeding there. Voila.

          I don’t think the therapeutic conception of God or religion can explain everything about the sort of indifference to philosophical theology I sometimes encounter. In part that’s because I’ve dealt with many — the majority, probably — students who embrace such a conception and yet are alive to the questions. They see that there’s a prima facie conflict between the idea that God is love, is perfectly benevolent, wills eternal salvation and ultimately happiness for all people, and yet allows innocent people to suffer horrendous evils; they see that an easy free will theodicy won’t satisfactorily resolve this tension, and they either try to resolve it in some other way or they appeal to the incomprehensibility of God. Above all, they evince some sort of discomfort with the fact of terrible, undeserved suffering. They often do not respond in ways that I or most any philosopher would find remotely satisfying, but they acknowledge and feel the problem, even if they’re not particularly shaken by it. What’s weird is when some brusquely deny even the appearance of a problem.

          That sort of response might make sense for a theological fictionalist, but the students I have in mind are not theological fictionalists. They’re just unreflective, convention-bound dogmatists who lack an intellectual conscience and perhaps suffer from some sort of empathy disorder.

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          • And, for what its worth, I do not myself think that the problem of evil poses any insuperable objections to theism or Christianity. So I’m not just flabbergasted by students not sharing my own views here. I’m flabbergasted by their not caring at all.

            Still, the lack of care strikes me as pretty different from what you describe. I went to an infamous party school as an undergraduate, and students who really cared about their education for anything but instrumental, economically-driven reasons were not in abundance. Still, virtually any class of kids would have engaged with your material on drone warfare. I mean, maybe they wouldn’t have read the assignments, and many of them would probably have just emoted on the topic, but the ones who showed up to class would have been engaged. I was a snooty bastard and so I thought of my average classmates as intellectually lazy, unsophisticated, and superficial, but even I couldn’t have thought that they’d be indifferent to something like drone warfare. Maybe times have changed. I suspect there’s more to the story than that.

            I mean, I prefer my problems to yours. And that’s saying a lot, because I do not prefer my problems to much.

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            • Still, virtually any class of kids would have engaged with your material on drone warfare.

              I have no reason to doubt you. But surely my students are more representative of the attitudes of the “average American”? Because if the average American were engaging with the the issue of drone warfare, popular opinion be more focused on the morality of signature strikes than on whether Joe Biden’s apology was apologetic enough. And yet.


          • The explanatory weakness of the therapeutic conception of God can be handled by saying that some people are more susceptible to a stronger version of it than others. It’s one causal factor among others, but it’s an important factor. The ones more susceptible to the strongest version will deny the appearance of a problem by appealing to God’s incomprehensibility. It may be an implausible view, but I don’t find it psychologically hard to understand. The independent causal factor is probably something happening in the student’s personal life that requires the solace or security of a personal God. Which I also get.

            Passing comment: I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that Leonard Peikoff agrees with you that the problem of evil doesn’t pose an insuperable (or, as he puts it, even a prima facie creditable) objection to theism. Since I don’t remember where he says this, I don’t remember the particulars; I just remember that he said it somewhere, possibly in Understanding Objectivism. I’m tempted to say that you’re in good company, but the truth is probably closer to this.


            • Oh, I think it constitutes a prima facie serious problem for Christian theism. It’s just that I don’t think it’s an insuperable problem. Part of the solution, to my mind, is recognizing that God is not plausibly taken to be morally good or subject to the kinds of moral requirements or standards that human beings are. Whether that’s compatible with Christianity is a complicated question; the reason I don’t think the problem is insuperable even for Christian theism is that some version of the we-can’t-see-the-whole-picture defense seems well motivated given the other assumptions of Christian theism. But I’d distinguish the version of that defense that I find plausible from versions that attempt to deploy it to defend the claim that God is in fact morally justified in doing or allowing such-and-such. But many, maybe most, Christians and non-Christians think that moral goodness is part of the very definition of God, and denying it requires a kind of revision to many people’s notions of what God is like. If Christian theism requires that God be a moral agent like us, then I think the problem is at least pretty close to irresolvable; I take Aquinas and Augustine as my evidence that Christian theism has no such requirement. So, since I think that many standard defenses fail and that the plausible defenses are at best not clearly consistent with many people’s highly personalist conceptions of God, which I think are vulnerable to the problem, I’d say that sets me apart from Peikoff. The only snippets I’ve read of Objectivists on theism suggest that they haven’t the faintest idea of what they’re talking about, so I haven’t gone further, but it sounds like his view is pretty different.

              I think you might be taking the therapeutic conception more broadly than I am, too. It seems to me that any form of Christian belief that goes beyond mere convention has something at least broadly therapeutic about it, but I don’t think that counts against it or leads it in an unreflective or unsophisticated direction. What I have in mind is something like Christian Smith and Melinda Dunquist Denton’s “moralistic therapeutic deism,” perhaps even minus the ‘moralistic’ part (http://outreachnorthamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Smith-Moralistic.pdf). There’s some God and some morality in there, alright, but they’re both incredibly thinned out, and most of what makes different theistic religions or traditions different is lost or invisible; religion is about being nice and coping with problems, not about understanding existence or transforming oneself. Smith and Denton’s own views on the phenomena seem perhaps unduly influenced by their own attitudes toward thicker, more traditional and doctrinally/ritually robust religion, but what they describe is what I see a good bit of in my students. The more widespread phenomenon whereby people’s religious commitments depend deeply on their therapeutic functions is not quite what I have in mind, because it — unlike moralistic therapeutic deism — is consistent with real depth of thought, feeling, and commitment.


  3. Some of the theological bits of this discussion prompted me to remember how much I loved Walker Percy’s THE SECOND COMING years ago. God as Super-Therapist (along with lots of mental illness) is a good bit of what I remember from that book. Refreshing my memory of it via the internet, I came across this quote: “The present day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole–which is why he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.” Speaks to some bad attitudes that tend to come along with unalloyed atheism.

    I was at first surprised to find you describing yourself as a believer, Irfan (albeit in a way that entails a second-order belief that the belief in God is false). But both the substance and the mental gymnastics here make sense. And the sum of my relevant attitudes is probably not really that far off (given how appealing and fascinating I find religious belief, including “from the inside” when I “try it on”) even though I still — and still somewhat militantly — describe myself as a non-believer and atheist full-stop.

    I got Percy’s book off of my bookshelf and it seems that my best friend from high school (Stephen — you now know him, Irfan) lent the book to me — and I never gave it back! For it is inscribed by his very odd but charming (and, I think, very significant to him) girlfriend from college, a gift from her to him. So I’m a jerk. I’ll return it next time I see him.


    • I read Percy’s Thanatos Syndrome in grad school, years ago. Wikipedia refreshes my memory about the plot:

      Set in the near future in Feliciana, it tells the story of an imprisoned psychiatrist who is freed and returns to his town with the active members demonstrating new mysterious behaviors. He suspects that something or someone is making everyone in his town crazy and reversing them to be like primitive apes.


      Re religious belief: recall that I spent a decade living in a Jewish household, and attended Jewish day camps as a child. So I consider myself an honorary fictional Jew, too. I mean an honorary Jewish fictionalist. One of those. And I dabble in Presbyterianism when I get the chance (I don’t mention this much, but I went through a Presbyterian phase). I thought of myself as an atheist for awhile, but I found it so joyless and tedious that I just decided to bag it. Same with Buddhism, which I adopted for the better part of a week, but quickly recycled. I’m guessing that a lot of “real” religious believers would be offended by the frivolity of my approach to religion, but you can’t please everybody, and I don’t intend to. You only have one life to live, after all. I mean, one real one.

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  4. The problem with the topic of drones for an audience younger than 30 is they have not truly immersed himself into the real world and they don’t really need to until they are affected directly. The luxury of living in the United States is that there are very few war like altercation here at home we as a country choose to send our troops to defend our beliefs of life and liberty across the world and this allows us to keep the trouble far from home soil sheltering the non-combatant civilians from the truth of war. There won’t be a video that will keep any student focused if they fall under the age of 30 they have seen enough movies and television shows to not be raised by the killing of innocent bystanders of the war. To make it worse the younger the student the more you will have to try to convince them that this done warfare is bad because kids grow up with video games that allow them to murder any and everything from random adults down to children and small animals this early emersion to violence allows for a greater desensitisation to killing for the younger audiences. That is why you can’t get or keep your students attention during your lecture.


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