Monthly Archives: November 2009

America, Iran & The Obedient Mind

Reading Maziar Bahari’s article about his ordeal in Iran reminded me very much of the novel 1984 and all the other descriptions of “interrogations” I have read. Thinking about this, I began to suspect that there is a core authoritarian mindset that remains the same across a wide variety of ideologies. In the case of Maziar Bahari’s horrible ordeal in Iran, he faced this mind in the form of Mr. Rosewater-his primary tormentor. While Mr. Rosewater is an individual, he is token of a type-that of the authoritarian mind.

The first, and most obvious, quality of this mind is that it is obedient to authority. While Milgram‘s famous experiment showed that most people seem to be naturally obedient, the authoritarian mind takes this obedience to a greater extreme. While the obedience does come in degrees, the truly authoritarian mind reaches a state of almost unquestioning obedience. This sort of obedience is, of course, critical to rulers everywhere-without such “dogs” (as per Animal Farm) they would lack an essential tool of their power. These “dogs” are the people who tortured Bahari, the people who ran the Nazi camps, and those folks who tortured in the name of defending freedom and democracy.

The second quality of this mind is a self-fulfilling paranoia. This sort of person sees any disagreement as the mark of an enemy, thus often forcing such people to become enemies in fact. Hobbes, of course, took this sort of view in the Leviathan when he noted that people see a failure to agree as the mark of disagreement and that people react with hostility to such things. Of course, the authoritarian mind takes this to a greater extreme than normal and tends to be willing to take violent action against those who disagree.

The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression. As such, these people tend to regard intellectuals and journalists as natural enemies. After all, people who think tend not to obey unquestionably and they often raise difficult moral concerns by failing to see the world as those in power wish it to be seen. Journalists, at least those not owned by the state, have a tendency to report unpleasant truths rather than the official “truths” of those in power.

Interestingly enough, both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media. In both countries, these folks blame the media for creating dissent, undermining the state, and encouraging immorality. The intellectuals and elites are also criticized and regarded as enemies. After all, these people are out of touch with “the people” and are not part of the true America/Iran.  Needless to say, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Rosewater’s view of the media is the same as that of Sarah Palin.

Of course, the dislike of the authoritarians for folks who think and talk is ancient. The sort of people who killed Socrates are the same sort of people who tortured Bahari.

The fourth quality is a flexible moral absolutism. In general, authoritarian folks believe that their cause or side is absolutely right. They also tend to hold to an absolute moral view of pure good and evil: the enemy is pure evil while they are pure good. This is often associate with a religion (for example, Islam in Iran and Christianity in the US).

What makes their absolutism flexible is that although they see the world in absolutes, they accept that they can do terrible things in service to their cause. For example, Mr. Rosewater worked very hard trying to paint Bahari as a morally evil man. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosewater was beating Bahari, subjecting him to mental torment and keeping him locked away for no legitimate reason. That is, Mr. Rosewater was evil and doing evil things. Likewise, in the United States people advocated using torture and imprisonment without trial and justified this by claiming that America is good and hence must be protected.

But, perhaps the authoritarians are not really flexible absolutists. Perhaps they just have two absolute principles: “my cause is right, so anything done its defense is also right” and “my enemies are wrong, so anything they do is wrong.” These two principles do seem to nicely capture the authoritarian mind.

A fifth quality of the authoritarian mind is a lack of concern about truth. In the case of Mr. Rosewater, his goal was not to find out the truth about reality (that Bahari was just a journalist and not a spy or agent). Rather, his goal was to impose a “truth” upon reality. For the authoritarian mind, “truth” is not something that one finds by objective investigation. The “truth” is provided by those above and it is “confirmed” by the use of force and torture. For example, if the authorities say that Bahari is a spy, then Mr. Rosewater would torture him to get him to say that he is a spy, thus “confirming” the “truth.” In contrast, real journalists and “intellectuals” investigate reality to see what the truth is-yet another reason why authoritarians hate intellectuals and journalists they do not control.

Authoritarians might also think that other people do what they do in this regard and this might also help explain this hostility. After all, if they think that the intellectuals and media people are trying to impose “truth” on the world, they would see these people as competitors to their “truth” and hence enemies. Perhaps the idea of objective truth is foreign to the authoritarian mind (as nicely illustrated in 1984).

Not surprisingly, authoritarians are terribly dangerous and help make small and great evils possible. Unfortunately, criticism of them generally tends to reinforce their paranoia as they see any criticism as an attack (especially if it is true). For example, criticism of Iran tends to simply make the hardliners take an ever harder line as they see more and more “evidence” that their paranoia is correct.

They also tend to be immune to reason and moral appeals-they are, after all, confident in their own moral goodness and regard reason as an attempt to create dissent.

So, then, how do we deal with such people? In some cases, they can be reached-after all, they are still human. For example, Bahari’s article reveals a great deal about Mr. Rosewater, such as the fact that he seems to truly love his wife. In some cases, these people cannot be reached and then it comes down to what they understand quite well-force.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this sort of person is by increasing the numbers of people who are not them. While authoritarians are very dangerous because of their willingness to obey and do terrible things, they are obviously not superhuman. As such, their power can be countered by numbers of people who are willing to resist them and the evils that they defend.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

On Consensual Sex

On my own blog, I’ve been complaining about this absurd practice of jailing people for engaging in consensual sex (see here, here and here).

A central ethical issue in these cases is whether or not youth and an asymmetrical power relationship eliminates the possibility of informed consent. Now obviously the whole issue of consent is complex. Here’s a small thing I’ve written about it (for a book that isn’t out yet).


Dido and Aeneas, first year students of philosophy and husbandry, have become inseparable during Fresher’s week at Carthage University. However, somewhat conservative – old fashioned even – in their attitudes towards love, they have not yet consummated their dalliance in a sexual union. This situation, however, is under threat after they spend an evening quaffing wine under the cypress trees at their halls of residence.

Aeneas: Your golden locks are more resplendent than the most resplendent of sunsets, my darling. Thou art more lovely and more…

Dido: Yeah, what are you after, Aeneas?

Aeneas: Well, I think it might be time to express our love in a more physical manner – a union of body and soul.

Dido: You want sex?

Aeneas: Pretty much, yes.

Dido: I’m tempted, but it’ll probably end badly. For all I know you might run off to Italy afterwards…

Aeneas: Never, my love. I am yours until Aphrodite herself rips out my heart.

Dido: I doubt that, Aeneas, but anyway there’s another issue here. We’ve been drinking. We can’t be sure that we really want to have sex. We might be taking advantage of each other…

Aeneas: Come on Dido, that’s setting the bar for consent way too high. People often regret sexual encounters: the fact that tomorrow we might wish we hadn’t had sex, doesn’t mean we that we don’t want to have it now.

Dido: The great philosopher Immanuel Kant says that it is wrong to treat people simply as a means to an end. If we’re not concerned about our feelings going into the future, then we’re treating each other purely as tools for the gratification of our sexual desires. The point is that drink undermines our ability to make a judgement about how we really feel about a sexual encounter.

Aeneas: But all kinds of things undermine our ability to make that judgement. Maybe we’re lonely, or we haven’t had sex for a long time, or we feel unloved, or we’re desperate for a meaningful relationship. Neither of us is incoherent or unconscious. If people don’t have sex simply because they can’t be sure they won’t regret it in the morning, then not many people are going to be having sex…

Dido: Look we haven’t brought any Trojans with us anyway! Now be quiet, and eat another date…

So is Dido right to suggest that people shouldn’t have sex when they’ve been drinking – even if it is only a small amount – since they can’t be sure that their consent is genuine rather than alcohol-fuelled?

Health Care, Abortion and Moral Choice

One issue that has become part of the American health reform debate is that of abortion. Oversimplifying things a bit, some folks are very concerned that public money will be used to pay for abortions and they are fighting to prevent this.

It might be believed that the politicians who oppose using public money for abortion are acting on the basis of principle. After all, they claim to be taking this stance based on a moral opposition to abortion. Of course, the cynical might suspect that this stand is not such much a matter of principle as a matter of politics. However, let it be assumed that they are acting on the basis of principle. An important question is, of course, what principle is being used.

The obvious principle is that public money should not be used to fund things that are immoral. Alternatively, the principle could be that public money should not be used for what people disagree with.

The first option seems rather reasonable-after all, since immoral things should not be done, that it makes sense that public money should not be used to make such things possible. Of course, there is still the matter of whether abortion is immoral or not (the same would apply to all moral issues).

The second option also has some appeal. After all, people should have a say in how their money is being spent-this is a basic principle of democratic government. Also, an analogy could be presented by comparing this to a phone bill. If a get a phone bill that includes services I do not want and do not use, then I should not have to pay for those services. Likewise, the same should apply to tax money.

Of course, this principle has to be applied consistently: if people can insist that public money not be spent on abortion, then people can make the same insistence in regards to things that they oppose. For example, people who are morally against war can insist that no public funds be spent on wars. As another example, people who are opposed to using public money to pay for abstinence education could also insist that public money not be used in that manner. Of course, given that people are opposed to a wide variety of things on moral grounds, there would be very little left that public funds could be spent on. This would, of course, be something of a problem.

Of course, there is a way to address the problem of reconciling the right people have to choose and the need for public money to be used on things like defense, art, unemployment benefits, infrastructure and so on. That is to follow the decisions of the majority. Of course, this raises the concern that the majority might use its power to tyrannize the numerical minorities. However, allowing every numerical minority to tyrannize the majority based on their moral disagreement would probably be even worse.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Is It Just Me?

From time to time, people who I think must be intelligent and civilised behave in such unreasonable ways I think I must be missing something. This is one example.

In order to conceal the identity of the person, all I will say is that s/he (henceforth X) is well-known and respected in certain fields of ethics. X holds a senior post.

X had been in touch about his/her new book, which is not unusual. I always explain that we are always happy to hear about new books, but authors’ requests do not affect our decisions about whether to review or otherwise feature them. In this case, I was keen to have a related article. However, X was only prepared to offer an extract, and I’m not keen on having too many such pieces, and that although I’d take a piece based on the book, I would like more than an extract. X was unwilling for various understandable reasons to write such a piece. Our exchange then reached an impasse and faded away.

Recently, X got back in touch. Here is the full, verbatim copy of our exchange. What I find extraordinary about this is that X seems to think that it is I who would look bad if our correspondence became public. In fact, not only am I happy to make it public, I feel compelled to hide X’s identity because I’m sure that X would look bad, not me.

So how can it be that two apparently intelligent people can have such different ideas about what constitutes reasonable behaviour? And what does this say about the power of a lifetime of ethical reasoning to help people behave ethically? I find it quite depressing. And please do tell me if I’m the party in the wrong here. (Update: Please do NOT speculate as to X’s identity. I won’t reveal it unless X does and speculation could be potentially libellous.)

X wrote:

I know our exchanges about an article reached a dead end. But is there any chance that TPM might publish a review of my —– book? It did receive a review copy yonks ago. I do find TPM fascinating and so one always hopes that one is going to be noticed by the things that one notices. X

I replied:

Thanks X, but I’m afraid we missed the boat. We did indeed notice your book and wanted to cover it in some way, but you couldn’t provide what we were after. It is now too late to review the book – we like to review as close to publication as possible – and it is also a policy never to allow appeals by authors to have their books reviewed to influence our decisions in any way – you will appreciate the importance of editorial independence.

I hope we will be able to publish something by you in the not so distant future.

Best wishes


X wrote:

Pretty pissy, I think. I shall delete TPM from my favourites and tell others how arbitrary you are.
It is my policy to badmouth all publications that behave in a capricious way. My turn will come. You will appreciate the power of consumer reaction I’m sure.
Best wishes


I replied:


I hope when you calm down you realise how unreasonable this reaction is. It is in no way arbitrary or capricious to want to have articles which are not just extracts from books or to want to review books close to publication. It is an insult to your intelligence to believe that you can’t see this.


X wrote:

It is better that I do not reply to your email than send the reply your email deserves. X

I did not reply.

Obama Quotes Kant

From a painting of Immanuel Kant

Image via Wikipedia

While watching CNN this morning, I heard an excerpt from the speech given by President Obama at his first state dinner.  What immediately caught my attention was the fact that Obama seemed to have quoted Immanuel Kant:

“For it’s been said that ‘the most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us.’ Mr. Prime Minister, today we worked to fulfill our duty –bring our countries closer together than ever before. Tonight, under the stars, we celebrate the spirit that will sustain our partnership — the bonds of friendship between our people.”

While it would be rather too much to claim that Obama is a Kantian based on this one phrase, it is certainly interesting.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Leibniz, Texas and Gay Marriage

This is mildly hilarious:  ‘Texas’ Gay Marriage Ban May Have Banned All Marriages’.  It turns out that a failure to appreciate the nature of identity might have resulted in the banning of all marriages in Texas, not just the pesky gay ones.  Here’s the relevant bit of the article:

‘The amendment, approved by the Legislature and overwhelmingly ratified by voters, declares that “marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman”.  But the troublemaking phrase…is Subsection B, which declares:  “This state or political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage”‘

Whoops.  (And, strictly speaking, even without the identity trouble, it might also mean that you can have at most one married couple in the entire state.  Don’t get me started on ‘all’ in the headline.)

I thought for a moment that I should find out what the fuss is really all about.  Why would a state vote ‘overwhelmingly’ against gay marriage?  Who cares what consenting grown ups do with a willing priest?  Is there something more to it than prejudice?  I Googled ‘arguments against gay marriage’ and spent a very short moment of my life, a moment I will never get back, reading some very silly claims about what’s natural and two examples of the slippery slope fallacy which I’ll keep in case I ever teach logic again.  Satan was mentioned a lot — I can’t recall the last time someone mentioned Satan to me.  Is this all there is to opposition to same sex marriage?  Did I miss a really good argument somewhere?

Darwin & Cameron

Kirk Cameron, formerly of the American sitcom Growing Pains, has lent his skills to the defense of creationism against Darwinism. He is currently involved in handing out a version of Darwin’s book with a new introduction. Not surprisingly, the introduction is highly critical of Darwin.

While there are some reasonable criticisms of evolution and it is quite possible to give reasonable arguments in favor of teleology (see, for example, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas), this introduction seems to focus primarily on ad homimen attacks against Darwin. To be specific, the main criticisms seem to be allegations that Darwin’s theory influenced Hitler, that Darwin was a racist and that Darwin was a misogynist.

The logical response to these charges is quite easy: even if these claims were true, they have no bearing whatsoever on the correctness or incorrectness of Darwin’s claims. After all, these are mere ad homimen attacks.

To see that this sort of reasoning is flawed, simply consider this: Adolf Hitler believed that 2+2=4. Obviously the fact that Hitler was a wicked man has no bearing on the truth of that view. Likewise, even racists believe that fire burns and to say that this makes the claim about fire untrue is obviously false.

To use another example, it has been argued that Hitler was influenced by Christianity. However, it would be a logical error to infer that Christianity is flawed because a wicked person was influenced by it (or believed in it).

Interestingly enough, certain atheists attack religions in the same manner that Darwin is being attacked here: by noting that people who did terrible things were Christians/influenced by Christianity (such as the impact of Christian antisemitism on the Holocaust). Obviously, this sort of tactic is based on a fallacy whether it is used against Darwin’s theory or against a religious view.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Killing Prisoners

Two years after the event, CNN is doing a major story on the killing of four Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Not surprisingly, the incident raises serious moral concerns.

On the face of it, the killing of prisoners is morally unacceptable. While this should be obvious, it can be argued for in the following manner. Killing an individual in time of war is generally justified in terms of the threat presented by the enemy combatant. To be a bit more specific, the killing of an enemy combatant in direct combat can be justified on a similar basis to that used to justify killing in self defense outside of war. When someone is a prisoner, he no longer presents the degree of threat needed to justify killing on these grounds. As such, the moral justification for killing in combat is lost and thus such a killing would be immoral.

If this argument succeeds, the soldiers who killed the prisoners acted wrongly. However, some attempts have been made to argue that the soldiers are not fully responsible for what they did. To be specific, it has been argued that the soldiers were pushed towards the killings by the rules placed upon them. Rather than go into details about these rules and policies, suffice it to say that the soldiers seemed to be required to act like police officers and provide evidence of the sort expected in criminal courts when turning in prisoners. Because of these rules, the soldiers believed that the prisoners they captured would simply be released in a short while.

Not surprisingly, this situation was rather frustrating. The soldiers lacked the training needed to conduct such police style procedures and the rules themselves seem to have been rather ill suited for the situation. Perhaps most importantly, the soldiers believed that they would soon be under attack again from the very same people they had recently captured, thus making them feel that their efforts were pointless and that they were being severely handicapped in their operations.

Of course, such frustration does not justify murder. Neither does the fact that the policies seemed to be unrealistic (something that seems to have marked the Bush administration‘s entire approach to Iraq). However, these relevant facts do seem to provide a small degree of moral mitigation. It seems likely that the soldiers would not have committed murder if they believed that their prisoners would have been properly processed and detained. As such, those responsible for the policies and rules must accept some small portion of the blame for the murders.

Interestingly, a case can be made as to why the killings were acceptable in the context of war. As noted above, killing in direct combat seems to be justified on grounds similar to self-defense: if I do not kill you, you will kill me. Killing someone who does not pose a direct threat would thus not be justified on these grounds.

However, we certainly seem to accept the killing of combatants even when they cannot fight back. For example, targeting troop transports and personnel carriers is a legitimate part of war, even though the soldiers being transported often cannot fight back. As another example, bombing targets without warning is also considered acceptable as is the sniping of unaware soldiers. As a final example, all the combatants in World War II eventually came to accept the bombing of civilian targets as legitimate-after all, hitting the enemy’s capacity to produce weapons and supplies certainly seems fair.  Such attacks are justified not on the basis of direct self defense, but indirect self defense: those people can be justly killed because they posses an indirect threat or will soon present a direct threat.

Going back to the murders, if those prisoners would have returned to try to kill Americans then they were a potential threat. Going back to the troop transport situation, soldiers are not expected to let the enemy get out of the transport and set up for battle before trying to kill them. They can be justly killed because they present an adequate potential threat-if they are not killed then, then they will kill. As such it could be argued that the soldiers were acting within the boundaries of what is morally acceptable in warfare.

Of course, it can be countered that the analogy breaks. After all, while attacking helpless soldiers is acceptable in some cases, there are established moral guides to the treatment of prisoners. In addition, while a prisoner is a potential threat, the threat presented is not the same as that as an active combatant who happens to be unable to fight at that time. This, it might be argued, is enough to break the analogy and thus re-establish that the killings were wrong.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Another Life or Common Doom?

Here are two views for you, presented to me over beer and wasabi peanuts last week.

A Christian friend argued that atheists have no way to ground moral value.  Something transcendental is required, — a plan or purpose or creator of objective value — if we are to have good reasons to help one another.  You can go on about the good will or pleasure or happiness, but there’s no reason to prefer one or the other of these.  Only with religion do you get a proper moral code.  Only with the promise of eternal life and divine purpose do you get meaning.  If we’re just an accident of evolution doomed to a short life and nothing more, there’s no reason to do anything, much less bother being good.

My atheist friend recalled something from Russell.   (I’ve since looked it up.  It’s ‘A Free Man’s Worship‘ — it soars way too much, but it is worth reading.)  He said that it’s the theistic view that the world is as it ought to be, all part of God’s unfolding plan, which actually gets in the way of doing good.  We need to keep the reality of evil always in view, not explain it away, if we are ever to do something about it.

He said next that human beings are bound by the ‘tie of common doom’, and if we get the chance to help each other, to do something about unhappiness, we have to do it.  Unlike some religious demands, the demand is unconditional and non-judgemental.  Here’s Russell on it:  ‘Let us not weigh in grudging scales [other people’s] merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need…let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves.’  There’s no God, no afterlife, we’re all stuffed right now and, being stuffed yourself, you know how important, how necessary, a little help is.

Oh go on.  Who do you think is right?

Socrates, Islam & Conscientious Objectors

Portrait of Socrates, Roman marble, Louvre museum

Image via Wikipedia

In 2009 Major Hasan is alleged to have killed 12 soldiers and one civilian at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. In 2007 he presented “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military” During his presentation he said that “it’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” Based on this, he recommended that the “Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as ‘Conscientious objectors’ to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.” In light of the deaths at Fort Hood, perhaps his recommendation should have been taken quite seriously.

While this event is a recent one, the idea of being a conscientious objector is a rather old one. Also, the question of obedience is an even older one, dating back in terms of philosophical discussion to at least Plato’s Crito.

While Socrates is not discussing military service in the Crito, he does discuss the moral question of whether a citizen should obey the commands of the state or not. In Socrates’s case, he is in prison and awaiting his execution. His friends, lead by Crito, have arrived with a plan to spring him from jail and go to another city state. Socrates refuses to flee and, like all good philosophers, decides to spend the final moments of his life in philosophical argumentation.

While he presents three distinct arguments, the two that are relevant to the matter at hand can be presented in the following condensed versions. The argument that does not apply here is his argument that he could have chosen exile during his trial and hence would appear foolish to run away.

One argument can be classified as the benefit argument: Socrates argues that since the state benefited him and he freely accepted these benefits, then he owes the state his obedience. A second argument, the contract argument, is that by remaining in the city of Athens by his own free choice he thereby agreed to obey the laws of that city. Socrates does, however, add two important conditions: the state cannot trick or force people to remain and still expect their obedience. But, once an adult person agrees to obey by remaining and accepting the benefits of the state, then she owes her obedience to that state. If she disagrees, then she is obligated to persuade the state that it is in error, but if she fails to do so, she must remain obedient.

Now, let us turn to the matter of Muslim soldiers and Hasan’s case. As noted above, he contends that it is difficult for Muslims in the United States military (and this would presumably also apply to Muslims in any Western military) to morally justify serving when the United States military is engaged in operations against Muslims. He also presents a view that can be easily made into a utilitarian argument: Muslims should be allowed to leave the service so as to avoid harms such as damaged morale and other adverse events (perhaps including such things as violent actions by Muslim soldiers against their fellow soldiers).

While I cannot speak for Socrates with certainty, given his views in the Crito, I suspect that he would present a much better version of the sort of argument I will now hazard.

When Muslim soldiers enter the United States military, they know that they might be required to fight against fellow Muslims. Of course, anyone who enlists knows that they might very well be required to fight against other people who belong to groups they identify with (such as Christians, or men, or women, or Russians, or any number of groups). As such, there seems to be no trickery in play. Also, entering the military is completely voluntary: no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, has to enlist and serve. As such, there is no force.

When people enter the military, the United States spends a considerable amount of resources in training them. Also, the soldiers are given various incentives (such as signing bonuses) and opportunities (such as education). Naturally, the soldiers are also paid and receive other benefits as well.

Since Muslim soldiers have not been deceived or forced into serving and they have accepted the benefits provided by the service, they are then obligated to fulfill their obligations. If they did not wish to risk facing fellow Muslims in battle, then they should have chosen another career path.

It might be objected that this would discriminate against Muslims by not allowing them to enter the service. However, this is not the case. This would no more be discrimination against Muslims than expecting pacifists to either be willing to fight or not join the military in the first place. After all, the military’s function is to fight and service members might be, in theory, called upon to fight people of almost any faith.

Of course, this still leaves open the possibility that a soldier can correctly object to immoral orders or situations and do so within the rules of the military. This right is, of course, held by all soldiers.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is immoral for a Muslim to fight a fellow Muslim (although a shared faith, be it Islam or Christianity rarely if ever seems to be a deterrence against violence in war). However, the same sort of argument could be made by anyone who objects to fighting folks whom they identify with. Of course, I do find this appealing: when we are killing each other over land, power, or whatever, it does seem like we are acting in an immoral manner.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]