Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

Israel and the Pretense of International Law

So I frequently run into articles like this one which aim to criticize Israel’s behavior with respect to the occupied territories but, rather than laying out a clear policy argument (or direct moral considerations) instead fall back to invoking the supposed fact that Israel’s behavior with respect to the settlements and/or occupied territory is in violation of international law. While there are any number of grounds on which to criticize Israel’s polices invoking claims of international law short circuits important discussions while misleading readers.

One might wonder why people even bother to invoke international law regarding Israel’s occupied territories. The treaties most credibly cited as outlawing Israel’s behavior aren’t ones that Israel is a signatory to (though some arguments are based in such treaties) and the ICJ lacks any jurisdiction in Israel1. Thus, whatever the status of the occupied territories and settlements they don’t raise any practical issues of treaty compliance.

Rather, I think its fair to say that in most cases people raise international law regarding Israel’s settlements and occupied territories to either somehow suggest that international law reflects the settled opinion of the global community or leverage the reader’s presumption that illegal behavior is immoral/unacceptable. However, both cases invite the reader to inappropriately transfer assumptions we make about the internal laws of nation-states to the context of treaties and the international community. While we are used to the idea that laws are non-negotiable rules whose meaning is discerned by an independent judiciary and subject to enforcement by any one of many government agents virtually all these assumptions fail when we consider treaties.

Usually treaties do not specify any authoritative interpretive body leaving the interpretation ultimately in the hands of the signatories (some modern treaties do assign such power to the ICJ but I don’t believe any are at issue here). Moreover, international law is frequently openly violated without consequence (most famously during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia2). The fact that inconvenient international laws can simply be ignored, or at least bent, combined with the lack of any enforcement mechanism undermines one of the principle aspects of the law which justifies the moral significance we assign it: the assumption that, good or bad, it binds everyone equally. Moreover, in the absence of independent enforcement (and the ICJ is not independent) there is no pressure to ensure that international law truly reflects global norms (without any risk the rule will be enforced against you the incentives are to declare Israel’s actions legal/illegal based on whose favor you wish to curry). In short, it is misleading to use international law either as a proxy for global consensus or to imply is has the default moral warrant we give to standard laws. While many writers obviously fervently wish it were otherwise, if you want to hold forth on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations there simply isn’t any way to avoid diving into the contentious issue of the moral status of Israel’s actions regarding the occupied territories

Still, despite appearances to the contrary, maybe there is some genuine reason to raise the issue of international law in this context. Perhaps one sees Israel as a first step toward a more legalistic and predictable world order (though picking such a controversial and vexed issue as a kicking off point is dubious) or has some other reason to consider international law. However, to the extent one is genuinely concerned about the legal status of settlements and the occupied territories one has to treat the issues as serious legal questions. That means its not enough to observe that the 4th Geneva convention bans the occupying power from transferring parts of its population into occupied territory and claim case closed. One has to verify that, as a legal matter, the land Israel controls in the west bank is technically ‘occupied territory’ (some suggest that occupied territory refers to occupied land legitimately belonging to another country) and that ‘transfer’ encompasses merely enabling voluntary movement rather than merely forced migration. Indeed, at least one scholar (Eugene Kontorovich) has made extensive arguments claiming that most of the clauses which are purported to ban Israel’s activities in the occupied territories inapplicable and that this interpretation is supported by a variety of recent precedents.

Of course, Eugene Kontorovich is not only pretty obviously driven by ideological affinity3 and represents an extreme viewpoint in the international law community. Many of the arguments he presents as decisive have been considered and rejected by other scholars. Ultimately, I simply don’t know enough about international law to reach a conclusion on the matter. Is Kontorovich ignoring independently established interpretive norms when he makes his arguments? Is the very liberal makeup of legal academia in general and international law in particular biasing the mainstream position against Israel? Does this disagreement mask a fundamental divide over the appropriate level of precision and detail in international law? Or, as I tend to suspect, does it reveal that international law is still sufficiently subjective that supplementing a plausible argument about international law with the support of both most UN member states and the legal elites renders it valid.

In any case, I won’t try and adjudicate this controversy merely note that the issue is complex enough to warrant multiple books and that facially plausible concerns have been raised by both sides. As such, anyone genuinely considering the legality of Israeli occupation and settlements (rather than merely using this as a proxy for moral condemnation) owes readers at the very least a summary of how they take such arguments to play out. The fact that 99% of the places which raise the issue of international law with respect to Israel have absolutely no interest whatsoever in doing this is all the more reason to treat their use of international law as suspect.

The Moral Particulars

This post is not the place for a detailed analysis of the moral issues regarding the occupied territories. However, I would like to make some general remarks about the unfortunate failure modes of moral analysis regarding this issue. In particular, I think 50% of the vitriol on this issue could be avoided (or at least diminished) by giving explicit answers to the following three questions.

  1. Whose actions are being morally evaluated (or compared to alternatives)? Why them? What, if anything, do your claims imply about the morality of actors on the other side?

  2. What standard are you using when you condemn/praise Israeli/Palestinian actions? Are you calling people out merely for deviation from perfect saint-like willingness to turn the other check or suggesting they fall short of normal standards in western countries?

  3. Are you merely engaged in an intellectual/social exercise or are your criticisms intended to motivate actions.

For instance, with respect to 1 a great many people in the US (and possibly Europe) seem to simply tacitly assume that Israel is within the sphere of rational actors and subject to moral suasion based on shared moral norms but make no such assumption about the Palestinians. As such, and often without making a conscious judgement, many people behave in a way that suggests an anti-Israeli bias when, in fact, they are actually exhibiting anti-Palestinian bias by unconsciously viewing them as foreign and beyond the pale of our shared moral norms. By explicitly answering this question one can recognize such implicit biases and avoid creating the unintended impression that you are drawing a moral distinction. Note that a converse effect is also common in which people go out of their way to sympathize with individual (imagined/idealized) Palestinians (who, by stipulation, do not support violence against Israelis) but make no analogous effort to empathize with individual Israelis. This has the unfortunate effect of hiding the fact that individuals on both sides are powerless to make the major changes needed and, recognizing these limitations, act rationally and relatively morally within them. Again, explicitly considering the implications for actors on the other side resolves the potential confusion.

Point 3 is simply a variant of point 1 except it guards against falsely implicating differences as a result of policy oriented criticism/encouragement, e.g., criticism aimed at one party to encourage a change in behavior must be distinguished from criticism for the purpose of attributing relative moral blameworthiness. However, I think pure ascriptions of blame are probably best avoided in any event.

Point 2 is probably the most important. It is very common to hear strident criticism of Israel based on their treatment of Palestinians. While such criticisms often acknowledge the real threat of terrorism they hold Israel to task for taking measures that affect Palestinian’s collectively, e.g., the wall and extensive security checks required to move to and from Gaza and the West Bank. While I think we all acknowledge that ideally we would treat each and every person as an individual it’s absurd to suggest that any western democracy would behave differently in the same situation. Indeed, comparing Israel’s relative restraint in dealing with terrorism to Guantanamo Bay and our extreme and unjust indefinite detention of sex offenders is instructive. This doesn’t change the fact that many Palestinians face very unpleasant conditions, often through no fault of their own, but it is important to distinguish considerations of moral luck (if Americans found themselves in Israel’s position they would probably behave even worse) from questions of moral blameworthiness.

Ultimately, the one substantive position I will take here is to condemn the way the rest of the world shoves this problem off on the Israeli’s and Palestinians and then scolds them for not doing a better job. We should recognize that the Israelis (and probably the Palestinians as well) face an insoluble collective action problem (normal political differences make strong actions to resolve the problem very difficult to initiate much less maintain). The mere fact that we don’t live there and they do doesn’t make the rest of us any less responsible for the welfare of our fellow citizens so, rather than continuing to lay into Israel for not doing more to solve the problem, those of us in the west would be better served by convincing our own governments to help. Frankly, until we have at least managed the tiny step of passing a law which authorizes substantial payments to Palestinians in exchange for giving up various regions, e.g., certain parts of Jerusalem, it is a bit rich to criticize Israel for not taking much more drastic steps that could put its citizens at risk. While the situation between Israel and Palestine may be deadlocked I honestly believe that if the rest of the world (or even just NATO possibly with an assist from China) was sufficiently dedicate to solving the problem headway would be made.


  1. If one wants to get technical the issue is somewhat complicated but from a practical point of view Israel isn’t bound by any ICJ decision. 
  2. This isn’t grounds for dismissing his arguments but it justifies treating his work as pure advocacy and taking care to avoid assuming that neither the factual backdrop he presents nor the interpretive process he uses present the complete picture. 

Disclosing Vulnerabilities

Does Wcry show the NSA should disclose 0-days?

The recent (highly damaging) Wcry ransomware worm is derived from NSA code recently disclosed by hackers. This has lead Microsoft (and others) to call on the government to disclose security vulnerabilities so they can be fixed rather than stockpiling them for use in offensive hacking operations. However, I think the lesson we should learn from this incident is exactly the opposite.

This debate about how to balance the NSA‘s two responsibilities: protecting US computer systems from infiltration and gathering intelligence from foreign systems is hardly new (and Bruce Schneier’s take on it is worth reading). The US government is very much aware of this tension and has a special process, the vulnerabilities equities process (VEP), to decide whether or not to disclose a particular vulnerability. Microsoft is arguing that recent events illustrate just how much harm is caused by stockpiled vulnerabilities and, analogizing this incident to the use of stolen conventional weaponry, suggesting the government needs to take responsibility by always choosing to report vulnerabilities to vendors so they can be patched.

However, if anything, this incident illustrates the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities to vendors. Rather than being 0-days the vulnerabilities used by the Wcry worm were already patched a month before the publication of the NSA exploits and the circumstances of the patch suggest that the NSA, aware that it had been compromised, reported these vulnerabilities to Microsoft. Thus, rather than illustrating the dangers of stockpiling vulnerabilities, this incident reveals the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities. Even once vulnerabilities are disclosed the difficulty convincing users to update and the lack of support for older operating systems leave a vast many users at risk. In contrast, once a patch is released (or even upon disclosure to a vendor) the vulnerability can no longer be used to collect intelligence from security aware targets, e.g., classified systems belonging to foreign governments.

It is difficult not to interpret Microsoft’s comments on this issue as an attempt to divert blame. After all, it is their code which is vulnerable and it was their choice to cease support for windows XP. However, to be fair, this is not the first time they have taken such a position publicly. Back in February Microsoft called for a “Digital Geneva Convention” under which governments would forswear “cyber-attacks that target the private sector or critical infrastructure or the use of hacking to steal intellectual property” and commit to reporting vulnerabilities rather than stockpiling them.

While there may an important role for international agreement to play in this field Microsoft’s proposal here seems hopelessly naive. There are good reasons why there has never been an effective international agreement barring spying and they all apply to this case as well. There is every incentive for signatories to such a treaty to loudly affirm it and then secretly continue to stockpile vulnerabilities and engage in offensive hacking. While at first glance one might think that we could at least leave the private sector out of this that ignores the fact that many technologies are dual purpose1 and that frequently the best way to access government secrets will be to compromise email accounts hosted by private companies as well as the uses big data can be put to by government actors. Indeed, the second that a government thought such a treaty was being followed they would move all their top secret correspondence to (in country version of) something like gmail.

Successful international agreements forswearing certain weapons or behaviors need to be verifiable and not (too) contrary to the interests of the great powers. The continued push to ban land mines is unlikely to be successful as long as they are seen as important to many powerful countries’ (including a majority of permanent security council members) military strategies2 and it is hard to believe that genuinely giving up stockpiling vulnerabilities and offensive hacking would be in the interests of Russia or China. Moreover, if a treaty isn’t verifiable there is no reason for countries not to defect and secretly fail to comply. While Microsoft proposes some kind of international cooperative effort to assign responsibility for attacks it is hard to see how this wouldn’t merely encourage false flag operations to trigger condemnation and sanctions against rivals. It is telling that the one aspect of such a treaty that would be verifiable, the provision banning theft of IP (at least for use by private companies rather than for national security purposes), is the only aspect Microsoft points to as having been the subject of a treaty (a 2015 US-China agreement).

While it isn’t uncommon for idealistic individuals and non-profit NGOs to act as if treaties can magic away the realities of state interests and real world incentives I have trouble believing Microsoft is this naive about this issue. I could very well be wrong on this point but it’s hard for me not to think their position on this issue is more about shifting blame for computer security problems than a thoughtful consideration of the costs and benefits.

Of course, none of this is to say that there isn’t room for improvement in how the government handles computer security vulnerabilities. For instance, I’m inclined to agree with most of the reforms mentioned here. As far as the more broad question of whether we should tip the scales more toward reporting vulnerabilities instead of stockpiling them I think that depends heavily on how frequently the vulnerabilities we find are the same as those found by our rivals and how quickly our intelligence services are able to discover what vulnerabilities are known to our rivals. As such information is undoubtedly classified (and for good reasons) it seems the best we can do is make sure congress exercises substantial oversight and use the political process to encourage presidents to install leadership at the NSA who understands these issues.


  1. Facial recognition technology can be used to identify spies, code advertisers uses to surreptitiously identify and track customers is ideal for covert surveillance and the software the NSA uses to monitor it’s huge data streams was built by private sector companies using much of the same technology used to various kinds of search engines. 
  2. A less idealistic treaty that recognize the role for land mines in major military operations probably could have done more to safe guard civilians from harm by, instead, banning persistent mines. As such a ban would actually favor the interests of the great powers (persistent mines are easier to make by low tech actors) they would have helped enforce it rather than providing cover for irresponsible use of landmines.