A Philosopher's Blog

Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
SS Leviathan
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A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.


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5 Responses

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  1. beyondanomie said, on August 30, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Good article.

    I would add that one key part of making a rational assessment is knowing why you’re making the assessment in the first place. In other words, what constitutes a threat and what does not. You touch upon this when discussing prejudices/biases, but to me, it’s more fundamental than that and questions whether there is such as a thing as a universal good/truth or not.

    Even leaving that issue to one side, many people either think too short-term, too long-term, or – most commonly – just don’t think at all!

    A balanced threat assessment requires a careful understanding of both the starting point and the desired end-point (at least from one’s own perspective). That kind of self-knowlege is rare.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      Excellent point. Sometimes a perceived threat is not even a threat. Sometimes something that seems no threat is actually a danger.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 30, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    What about the threat of a sovereign debt crisis? Historically, this is what brought down most empires.

    I think this threat is what is animating the tea party.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2010 at 2:08 pm

      Debt is a serious concern. While there are many factors that can add to the downfall of a nation, fiscal disaster is a major player. As such, getting the deficit under control is rather important.

    • kernunos said, on August 31, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      I think this is what most Conservatives are concerned with as the biggest threat to the fall of the Republic and not terrorists.


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