A Philosopher's Blog

America, Iran & the Authoritarian Mind

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2009

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 people 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.

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Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2009

As a philosophy professor, I have waged a never-ending and largely pointless battle against people using “fallacy” when they mean “factual error.” For example, someone might say “people often think that dogs won’t eat anything that is bad for them, but that is a fallacy.” This is, of course, a mistake. A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that occurs when the premises presented in an argument fail to adequately support the conclusion.

So, to think that a dog won’t eat anything that is bad for them is not a fallacy. Rather it is just a factual error. After all, dogs will consume anti-freeze and that will kill them.

Naturally enough, people might argue that words should mean whatever people say they mean. So, of folks use “fallacy” in place of “factual error”, then that is just they way things are.

While that has some appeal, since language is mostly a matter of convention, this sort of use is problematic. After all, there is an important distinction between an error in logic and a factual error. It certainly seems important to distinguish between those two mistakes. To see why, think about balancing your checkbook. You can make a mistake by doing the math incorrectly (adding $500 + $50.50 and getting $555) and you can make a mistake by entering the wrong amount (for example, $50 instead of $500) for a check. These errors are different and calling them the same would be a mistake and would also cause confusion.

Now, if people insist that “fallacy” should mean the same as “factual error”, then a new word would be needed to name what we used to call “fallacies.” However, since we already have a perfectly good word for fallacies, namely “fallacies”, then it makes sense to simply stick with the current usage.

A minor problem with using “fallacy” for “factual error” is that it makes teaching logic a bit more challenging. To be specific, it is quite challenging to make the distinction between assessing the quality of reasoning and assessing the quality of a claim without adding to the confusion by using two terms for the same thing.

As such, it would be nice if people would stop using “fallacy” in place of “factual error.” One refers to a mistake in reasoning and the other refers to being wrong about a fact and these are not the same things.

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Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2009
MEKONG DELTA, Vietnam -- A South Vietnamese Ai...
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James Cameron‘s upcoming film Avatar (not to be confused with Nickelodeon‘s Avatar) is already drawing a great deal of criticism. This is despite the fact that the film is not yet finished. While it is reasonable to criticize what is known about the film (it is expensive and not yet done) it is not reasonable to make judgments about the quality of the film itself until it has been finished and seen.

From what I have seen of the film, it does seem to draw heavily from existing sources. First, people are making the obvious connection to Dances With Wolves.  However, it is even more appropriate to go back before that movie and compare Avatar’s core plot device with that of the (original) Outer Limits episode Chameleon. In this episode a human is genetically modified to pass as an alien so that he might discern their purpose (and kill them if need be). He finds that the aliens are actually morally superior to humans and ends up joining them (or at least the sole survivor after he kills the others).  No doubt there are numerous other science-fiction stories with similar themes that predate even the Chameleon episode.

Of course, it is rather difficult to create a movie that does not draw from some pre-existing source. Interestingly, some movies are actually lauded for doing so. A good example of this is Star Wars (the original movies) which brilliantly weaves together an array of old threads (the farm boy who seeks adventure, the wise old man, the dashing hero, the princess, the evil empire, the plucky rebels, the Tao, and so on)  into a “new” story. As such, Cameron should not be criticized for re-using a plot device or theme-provided the movie successfully weaves the old into something new. If Cameron simply copies these other works, then the film should be regarded as artistic plagiarism. Interestingly, Cameron’s Terminator film was alleged to have been “copied” from two episodes of the Outer Limit. My own view is that although Cameron was probably (okay certainly) influenced by those episodes, Terminator is is significantly different story.

Second, comparisons are being drawn to the Vietnam war (and other conflicts). On the face of it, this seems reasonable. Naturally enough, the fact that visually the soldiers and equipment resemble those of the Vietnam war (for example the VTOL craft look like modified Huey UH-1 helicopters) lends credence to this claim. Of course, while there may be debate about whether we need yet another  movie commenting on the Vietnam War (or commenting on the current wars through commenting on Vietnam) even if the movie does this it is no mark against it. After all, some very good movies are created to (in part) comment on war.

Naturally, there is also some criticism of the cost of the movie. While cost is something worth considering, it is only a real problem if the movie does not make a profit. After all, it is not just a matter of how much a movie costs-it is also a matter of how the cost matches up against the box office take (and other revenue). If Avatar makes a Titanic amount of money, then the movie would be a success financially. Sure, it would be better to make that sort of  money without spending as much, but such profits can be presented as a justification for the expenditures.

Speaking of Titantic (and Terminator 2), Cameron has a track record of being able to deliver. Perhaps this will hold this time as well. Then again, perhaps Avatar will not turn out to be like Dances with Wolves, but rather Waterworld.

As a final point, even the negative buzz about the movie might help it. After all, the more people hear about the film, the more likely it is that they will go to see it on opening day. Of course, too much negative buzz might have the opposite effect.

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Is America’s Decline Inevitable?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2009

The recent economic disaster has raised the old questions about the fall of empires. Now, the questions are being asked about the United States. While the rise of China, India and other countries has left the US in a relatively less elevated position, we have actually be losing ground by declining. Signs of this include the obvious: a weaker economy, talk of moving away from the dollar as the world’s currency, less political clout and so on. Signs also include the less obvious: less brain drain from other countries to the US, less innovation in science and technology, and so on.

One reason for the decline of the US is that the US reached its height in the ruins of WWII. The other great industrial nations were in ruins or were at least badly damaged by the war. While the Soviets did present a challenge, they were (as history showed) burning bright by burning far too hot. The US, whose lands were not directly touched by war, was in a position to become a true superpower.

Now the world has recovered from WWII and the US is thus losing relative ground. Also, former empires such as China and India are reclaiming their former glory and power, thus returning to the world stage in force. These other countries are spending considerable resources on the future: education, research, energy and so forth.

Naturally, some folks might think that the signs are in place: the United States reached its peak and is now in a slow (or not so slow) fall.  It is quite reasonable to suspect that the US must fall. After all, all other empires have fallen and thus empires seem to be analogous to living things: they are born, reach their maturity and then perish.

Of course, while the history is accurate, the analogy is flawed. Living creatures do perish because they cannot replace their mortal flesh. But, an empire need never fall in this manner. Provided it can keep restoring its vigor and the basis for its success, it could be effectively immortal. The challenge is, of course, to pull of this seemingly imposisble task. Of course, it is not actually impossible-just rather difficult.

Even if the United States does decline, it need not become irrelevant nor need it stay down forever. After all, China was once a great empire that fell into a great decline. But China is on the rise and is a great nation once again. Interestlingly, China was rather easily defeated by the Japanese just a few decades ago. But now China is a giant looming over Japan. This, of course, may not last-as an empire rises again it can easily slide down the wheel of history and end up back on the ground.

Whether the United States declines or not is largely up to us. One factor that seems to be driving our decline now is the rot and corruption within our economic and political systems. Perhaps this will be the cancer that brings about our end, or perhaps it is but one disease among many infecting the political body.


Posted in Ethics, Running by Michael LaBossiere on November 26, 2009
Thanksgiving Day
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Since I am related to John Howland, who came over on the Mayflower, I see Thanksgiving as something of a personal holiday. Of course, since I am also related to some of the native people who once owned these lands, I also take it personally in that way as well.

Some folks might be inclined to see the holiday as somewhat hypocritical given how the Europeans ended up dealing with the natives. While I can see the appeal in this and we should not forget the past, I think that the holiday has evolved into something that can be quite meaningful.

On the most surface level, it is about family and friends gathering to share fellowship and food. This is, obviously enough, a good thing. On a deeper level, it is a day we set aside to give thanks for all that we have and to, if we are kind, think about others. For me the most important part of my Thanksgiving is when I bring my donations to the local Turkey Trot race. Two of my friends, Brian and Judy, collect clothing and other items every year for the homeless shelter. I am thankful that I have enough that I can help those who have so much less. While in a better world everyone would have enough, it is right for those of us with more to show our appreciation by helping those who have less. To me, that is what Thanksgiving is really about: gratitude and generosity. Oh, and running.

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Obama & Kant

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2009

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.

Obama & Cinderalla

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2009
Pantomime at the Adelphi
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While Obama enjoyed high approval ratings at the start, they have begun to fall. This is hardly surprising and seems to follow the usual historical pattern.

In terms of general reasons, there is the seemingly natural tendency of approval to decay over time. For whatever reason people seem to think less well of other people or things as time goes by. This is, of course, most evident in fads. Also, there is the fact that people often have high (even unrealistic) expectations of  a new president (just as people do for a new boyfriend or girlfriend) and when the person proves to be a fallible mortal, the magic begins to fade.

In terms of more specific reasons, Obama has been dealing with a rather awful economy and as unemployment continues to increase, his approval will drop. Throw in two wars and concentrated attacks from the right, and it is somewhat surprising that his numbers are as good as they are.

While his approval ratings have dropped in general, he has been suffering significant loses among white women. He still remains hugely popular with black women (around 90%), however.

Folks on the left tend to attribute this to the fact that he has not strongly opposed the attempts to ensure that public money will not be used for abortion, he has not done anything about “don’t ask, don’t tell” or same sex marriage, and that he has not seen to it that enough women are in his government.  While these facts no doubt have led to some dissent among the left leaning folks, they do not explain the general drop in approval among white women in general (especially older women, low income women, and women in the southern parts of the US).

One way to explain this is to refer back to the general reasons why his approval ratings are dropping: while Wall Street folks and big companies are starting to make huge profits again, the economic recovery has yet to trickle down. Unemployment is still increasing and this matters to people. Of course, this does not explain why he would have such a significant drop among white women.

Not surprisingly, some folks on the left might attribute this to a resurgence of racism, perhaps inspired by the harsh attacks from folks on the right. Of course, the obvious reply is that these women knew he was black before he was elected president-hence race should not be the main factor. Unless, of course, something has triggered a racist revival-which is a possibility that is worth considering (if only to refute).

Another factor that some might see as worthy of consideration is the stereotypical view of women and men. Stereotypically, women are seen as somewhat fickle-they will see a man as great and wonderful at first. But, when that man does not prove able to meet up to the impossible expectations and that “new man” glow wears off, then women become discontent and unhappy. So, perhaps Obama is experiencing what so many men have experienced: the discontented woman.

This does have some plausibility. After all, Obama was presented as an amazing man and hyped like a Hollywood hunk. His media generated image was clearly such that no mortal man, however amazing, could ever live up to. But, during the election and the start of his presidency, Cinderella was still at the ball and he was still Prince Charming.

But, the ball is over now. The coach has returned to being a pumpkin and the coachmen (and women) are now out of work. Prince Charming has been revealed to be a man who does not have the fairy Godmother’s magic to fix everything instantly. And so Cinderella is not happy. Not happy at all.

I’m expecting some kick-ass refutations of the Cinderella hypothesis.




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Tuition Hikes

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2009

College students in California are protesting, but not against a war or for a social cause. Rather, they are motivated by the threat of a 32% tuition increase. While this large of an increase is unusual, college tuition generally has increased across the nation.

Some of the tuition increases are due to what are clearly legitimate factors: colleges have had to pay more for energy, maintenance, building, equipment and salaries, thus creating a need for more income. Of course, there are also concerns that the tuition hikes are due to other factors. To be specific, schools (like all organizations) suffer from administrator bloating (that is, more and more administrators are hired and are paid ever increasing salaries), corruption, and waste. Because of such factors, the operating expenses of schools increase in ways that do not add to the quality of education. Clearly these sorts of costs should be reduced. Equally clear is the fact that these costs are often the hardest to reduce. After all, the folks who make most of the budget decisions are administrators and they generally do not decide to reduce their salaries or their numbers. Corruption and waste are also notoriously difficult to weed out.

Not surprisingly, one proposed way to counter tuition increases is to increase the federal and state aid to students. While this would lower the financial burden for these students, it merely moves the financial burden rather than reducing costs. After all, the federal and state money has to ultimately be provided by taxpayers (loans from China and other places do have to be paid back eventually). To make matters worse, the more federal and state money that is available, the less incentive schools have to reduce tuition. This is because this government money (that is, taxpayer money) shifts the financial pain and dilutes it across the tax paying population.

While I do think that government support for students can be an excellent use of tax money (far better than spending on pork, bailouts, and other spawns of corruption), it is important to be careful with this money. After all, if such money enables schools to get away with tuition hikes, then the students who lack such aid will be in even more dire straits. What is needed is a combination of government aid and a reform of the schools to lower costs.



While education is generally the best investment a person can make, this does not justify overpaying for education.  As such, it is wise to shop around in order to find the best education for the cost. My own experience in education is that while the high priced schools do provide students with a degree of prestige, the quality of education is not always directly proportional to what the student pays.

Abortion & Heath Care

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2009

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 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.

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Darwin & Cameron

Posted in Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2009
Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret...

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Kirk Cameron, formerly of 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.


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