Monthly Archives: June 2009

Iran, the US, and the UK

Mike LaBossiere

Mike LaBossiere

With the situation in Iran dominating much of the world’s attention, it might be wondered what a philosopher can say about the situation. Being an American writing for a British blog, I decided that the most reasonable thing to do would be to write about what the US and UK should morally do or not do in regards to Iran. Naturally enough, some history will be required to set the stage for the discussion.

While an examination of the history involving the United States, the United Kingdom and Iran could (and does) fill numerous books, For a concise and well written overview of the history between these three nations, I would suggest this Smithsonian article on the subject.  For this essay, I will just be focusing on the basic details of the past half century.

In 1951 the Iranian people elected Mohammed Mossadegh to the post of Prime Minister. Mohammed Mossadegh, backed by an ever growing nationalistic sentiment in Iran, decided to nationalize the oil industry. In response, the British attempted to launch a coup against him. When this failed, Churchill tried to persuade Truman to get the CIA to stage a coup of their own. Truman refused to do this.

Unfortunately for Iran, Eisenhower (perhaps worried that nationalization would lead to socialism) had no qualms about getting the United States involved in toppling a foreign ruler. In 1953 the government was overthrown and Mohammad Reza Shah was installed by the United States as ruler of the country.

The Shah proved to be a staunch American ally and also a dictator. Not surprisingly, his oppressive ways did not endear him to the people of Iran and he was famously overthrown in 1979.  While there were some moderates in Iran at this time, the revolution was quickly taken over by the Fundamentalist Shiite clerics and Iran was transformed from a dictatorship propped up by America to a theocracy that professed to want death for America.

Having lost Iran as an ally, the United States was happy to help Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. During the long Iran-Iraq war, the United States aided Iraq.

This now leads us to the current situation. As in 1951 and 1979, the winds of change are blowing. The current rulers of Iran are obviously familiar with history, so they are no doubt concerned that they might find themselves on the other end of a revolution.

Back in 1953 we dealt with Iran by replacing the government.  In 1979 our puppet government was overthrown. Now in 2009 we are watching the situation in Iran, wondering what we should do. It is to this  moral question that I now turn.

Put in somewhat simple terms, we (the folks in the UK and US) are in a dilemma. The first horn is taking no action. The second horn is taking action in support of the protesters against the government.

Interestingly enough, the rulers of Iran probably want the US and UK to get involved with the protesters. Naturally, they do not want us to be involved enough to actually present a credible threat to the regime. But our limited involvement would provide them with an ideal political tool to justify and rationalize their actions. Of course, they would also be pleased if we stay out of the situation-that would give them the freedom to do as they wish.

On the one horn, if we stay out of the situation, the rulers of Iran can act with impunity against their own people. This would seem to be morally wrong because we would be allowing innocent people, like Neda Agha Soltan, to die. Doing nothing would seem to be a betrayal of the democratic and moral ideals of the US and the UK. Assuming that these ideals are correct, such a betrayal would clearly not be an acceptable choice.

On the other horn, if the US and UK get involved, then the Iranian rulers can use that as effective propaganda and also use it to justify escalating the violence against their own people.  After all, the United States is their Great Satan. American and British involvement would allow the rulers of Iran to claim that it is an attempt on our part to interfere with their country and they could use this to justify (or rationalize) cracking down even more on their people. They could also use this to discredit the reform movement by claiming that it is being controlled by the United States and the UK.  They do, of course, have quite a history to draw upon. Even now, the rulers of Iran are attempting to blame the US and the UK for the dissent in their country. Interestingly, the UK is getting most of the blame-perhaps you’ll get to be the new Great Satan.

From a moral standpoint, taking actions that would result in greater harm to the Iranian people would not be acceptable. We have done considerable harm to Iran in the past and should certainly not continue in that tradition.

The challenge is, of course, to make it through the two horns of the dilemma. Doing and saying nothing is morally unacceptable and would, to be purely pragmatic, waste a political opportunity for the US and UK. Acting in ways that empower the current regime would also be morally unacceptable. What must be found is a way to do something that does not hand the rulers of Iran a propaganda tool and a rationale for crushing the “foreign caused” dissent.

This, naturally enough, requires resisting the desire to play the old game, the game that has often been called “Western Imperialism.” What is needed is a new sort of a approach, one that allows us to express a genuine (or so I hope) commitment to democracy and desire for a peaceful resolution in an effective way all the while avoiding the appearance (and reality) of foreign intervention.

Obviously, some might see such an approach as timid, weak and futile. There is, of course, something to be said about that. If we confine our response to mere words, then the rulers of Iran will feel free to do as they wish. From a moral standpoint, we would be like spectators to domestic violence who say “good luck” and “we feel for you” to the person being hit. Obviously, we would be failing in our moral duty.

Fortunately, we can go beyond mere words without becoming directly involved. One thing that we are already doing is disseminating information about and from Iran via our commercial media. Oppression thrives best in the shadows and modern information technology means that there are fewer and fewer places of darkness.  Diplomacy might also prove effective-although it might seem to be mere words. A key factor is, of course, making sure that the Iranian dissent remains just that-Iranian (as opposed to being British or American directed). Iran is a sovereign nation and her people should decide her fate; but it must be decided by the people and not just the rulers.

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Jane Austen and women

Norman Geras has this cool thing where writers are asked to talk about a book that has inspired or influenced them. Here’s something interesting I noticed (though perhaps not surprising). Twelve different people (as far as I can tell) have elected to talk about a Jane Austen novel (or character). Eleven of those people are women. I make no comment as to why this might be or what it might tell us about Jane Austen’s work and/or women (or indeed men).

Descartes & My Dog

Around 1648 Rene Descartes wrote a letter to Henry More on the topic of whether animals think or not. While Descartes was well aware of the complex behavior of animals such as dogs, he regarded the belief that animals think to be fundamentally mistaken.

He does note the reason why people think that animals think: they reason by analogy. Animals are similar to us in terms of their bodies and also in their behavior. Since we believe that we think (that is, we think we think) it is natural for us to infer that animals think as well. For example, when I see food that I like (perhaps some cheesecake), I will indicate that I would like some of that food. Similarly, when my husky, Isis, sees certain foods, she behaves in ways that seem to indicate that she would like some of that food. In my case, I know that a mental operation is going on in my mind. So, I infer that Isis has something going on in her mind as well.

While Descartes does acknowledge that we cannot prove with certainty that animals do not (or do) think, he believes that he has excellent reasons to conclude that they do not.

His first two developed arguments rest on the use of Ockham’s razor. The general principle that he is using is that if a phenomena can be explained without inferring the existence of an extra metaphysical entity, then the existence of such an entity should not be accepted. To set the stage a bit more, Descartes accepted to fundamental metaphysical categories: matter and mind. For Descartes, these two substances were opposites.  Immaterial substance had as its essential property the capacity to think and lacked extension. Material substance could not think and was extended (three dimensional). Material substance made up the bodies of creatures and could (laying aside the skeptical problems of Descartes’ First Meditation) be seen. Immaterial substance could not be seen and hence its presence would have to be inferred.

Getting back to how the Razor fits in here, if the behavior of an animal can be explained entirely in terms of the behavior of matter, then there would be no reason to infer that it had an immaterial mind. Naturally, if it lacked a mind, then it would not think.

Obviously enough, Descartes’ assumptions are not shared by all philosophers. In fact, materialism (the view that all that exists is matter) is a rather popular view among scientists and philosophers today. But, let us discuss the matter in the context of Descartes’ assumptions so we can see how his arguments play out.

So, given his assumptions, how do we sort out the thinking from the non-thinking?

Descartes begins by noting that “animal and human bodies contain bones, nerves, muscles, blood, animal spirits, and other organs which can produce themselves without aid of thought.” He adds also that “in convulsive movements” the body often moves with more force and diversity than in the case of intentional motion. As such, a body can grow and move without the direction of a mind.

Of course, animals do more than grow and have convulsions. Animals have rather complex and often elaborate patterns of motion and behavior and this requires more of an explanation. To counter this, Descartes notes that we (humans) can build machines (“automata”) that can engage in complex motions without having minds of their own.

From this fact he reasons by analogy. If we can build such machines, then nature could produce organic machines far more excellent than the ones that we build.  With the right degree of complexity and construction, such a natural automata could do some very impressive things-all without having a mind. Put in modern terms, Descartes argues that animals are mindless biological robots.

Interestingly, folks who are materialists use this same sort of argument with one main difference. They infer that not only animals are biological machines, but so are we. The idea is, of course, that if our behavior can be explained without bringing in an immaterial mind, then there is no reason to accept its existence.

Descartes was no doubt aware of this. After all, what worked for animals would also apply to humans. Unless, of course, there were some crucial difference between humans and animals. Naturally enough, Descartes believed there was a crucial and empirically testable difference: we can use true language and animals cannot.

Descartes does freely admit that animals can convey things such as anger, fear and hunger. However, he distinguishes that from using true language. Animals, he says, “have not indicated by voice or other signs anything referring to thought alone, rather than to movement of mere nature.” Humans, however, can use words that indicate they think. Since, for Descartes, the mind is what thinks, it follows that if something is using true language, then it has a mind.

So, when you read this blog, you know that I think and Descartes would (were he not long dead) say that you could infer that I have a mind. In contrast, if you heard Isis going “rarawarooo” (a special husky noise with various possible meanings ranging from “time to run” to “your ontology is needlessly bloated with dubious entities”), you would chalk that up to mere natural motion-that is, purely mechanical and not mental processes. Of course, if you were a materialist, you would say the same about this blog-it is but words created on a silicon based computer by a carbon based, ghost-free machine.

Some folks believe that animals do use language. For example, there have been experiments with primates that allegedly demonstrate the use of language. However, these are not without controversy. They do, of course, show that Descartes’ test is still in use. This is because it is a sensible test: if something can talk to you as a human would, then you have good grounds to think that it is intelligent.

Interestingly, Descartes’ test for mind was latter appropriated by a fellow named Turing and repackaged as the Turing test. While the Turing test applies to computers, the core idea is similar to Descartes test.

While Descartes view might seem harsh, he actually does concede quite a great deal to animals. He does accept that they are alive and that they do feel. However, their feelings depend on “the bodily organs” and not on an immaterial mind.

So, if I seem sad because my tendon repair has kept me from running for months, then my sadness is due to a state of an immaterial mind (at least for Descartes). If Isis seems sad because she, as my running companion, is also missing her runs, then this is due to the mechanical and chemical states of her material body.

Of course, the materialist would say that our sadness is the same sort of thing: a state or function of a material system.

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Lines of Thought

Jake suggests a consideration of the doctrine of the association of ideas, and I’m game if you are.  Like all good philosophy, you can get it up and running with a question:  Why does one thought follow from another?  And like most good philosophy, it goes back to the Greeks.  I’m most familiar with Hume’s take on things, though, so maybe that’s where we should start. 

For Hume, ideas or thoughts are distinguished from impressions.  You have an impression of a tree when you see one, and you have an idea of a tree when you think about what you saw.  Hume wonders what explains the way in which ideas flow from one to another.  Are there rules or laws which govern the movements of the mind, just as laws govern the motion of bodies?  Obviously looking from tree to shrub will give you one impression and then another, but what connects one idea to another?  Why are thoughts about acorns swiftly followed by thoughts about oak trees?

Hume thinks that our imagination is part of the answer, and it operates according to three principles of association:  resemblance, contiguity (in space and time), and cause and effect.  If I see a sketch of Churchill, I’ll think of what it resembles, namely the man Churchill.  (The principle of resemblance explains why staring at clouds is sometimes rewarding.)  Thinking about my living room leads on to thoughts of nearby rooms.  Reflection on a few beers makes me think about tomorrow’s hangover.  There’s room for one or two more principles, but they might just be complicated versions of cause and effect.

You can say that our thoughts aren’t governed by laws at all (but the consequences of that prospect might not be much fun), and you can wonder about other possible principles, but what gets me going, sometimes, is the fact that it’s all so phenomenologically blank to us.  I have a thought and have another and another and several at once and then nothing.  Maybe I can tell a story, after the fact, about why I thought this and then that, but it really is just a story.  And no doubt your guess is as good as mine.

Kill All The Lawyers

‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’

Thus Dick the Butcher in Henry VI.  Meant as a bit of comic relief, I always smile too much at the line.  It’s funny, and, well a dark part of me half thinks it’s an excellent idea.  Kill all the lawyers.  What better way to a happier world, a world without an entire class of money-grubbing fiends getting in between us and our happiness?  It’s a line and a thought that can get stuck in your mind whenever you read the news.  Perhaps you too are following the recent outrages associated with MP’s expenses in the UK.  (Expense claims in detail.)

Probably everyone thought that the government had more than a fair share of autoerotic asphyxiating perverts in it, but maybe no one realized that they were almost all so disgraceful.  The upshot is something like all the lawyers getting whacked at once.  The worst are standing down now, and we are preparing to boot out the rest, swapping generations of MPs with people deliberately chosen for their moral fibre.  We are going to be run by a bunch of innocents.  I’m not sure what’s worse.

It’s easy to complain about politicians — particularly when they do things like claim for porn on their expense accounts.  But is there a sense in which we need self-interested, morally suspect creatures to look after us, particularly in a world populated by states run by equally nasty people?  Are we so bad, so ungovernable, that replacing these self-serving goofs with a gaggle of wide-eyed independents will turn out to be the wrong thing to do?