A Philosopher's Blog

A Cure for Tyrants

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2011
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, the United States has a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be a democratic state committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values and revolutionary history, we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the United States and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

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15 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

    The proper cure for tyrants is death? So we did the right thing to Saddam Hussein?

    • frk said, on March 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      Note: This Anonymous post isn’t mine.
      I’d hope you don’t get us confused.
      But then, I guess I risk that since I’ve had 6 or so separate identities on here, three or more of which were “Anonymous” or variations thereof. My bad. 😦

      Hmm. Does that make me a troll? Was I a troll in my original role as biomass2? Did I become one when I changed identities and returned as freddiek? https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/ethics-of-newt/

      This issue gets about as confusing as what a “straw man” is. For example, when Michael is accused of creating a straw man, which he denied , is the accuser actually trying to avoid dealing with Mike’s claims?

      Can the accusation of “Troll” be used for the same purpose? For example, I generally don’t post off-topic messages–this one being one of a few exceptions. When I’m “off-topic” it’s usually because someone is leading us down a false or questionable trail, and I follow him in pursuit. Sometimes it’s when the edges of the topic are general enough to “sideswipe” an idea that I find related to the main message. Or do I sometimes magically morph into a troll when I disagree with a poster and bring facts to the table to back my opinion?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 23, 2011 at 11:46 am

      I would argue that he did deserve to die, many times over.

  2. magus71 said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:20 am

    So we did the proper thing to Saddam, right?

    What about people like Augustus? Was he a tyrant?

    • magus71 said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:21 am

      My bad; double post.

    • frk said, on March 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm

      A quick Google shows that the words “Augustus” and “tyrant” are frequent companions. The word “tyrant” is sometimes followed by “OR” and words like “hero” “dictator” and “benevolent statesman”. As Michael points out, sometimes tyrants are overturned, only to be replaced by something worse. Interetingly enough, we have the word “dictator”, a word with stronger negative connotations (“tyrant”), but do we have a word for the “something worse” that he refers to?

      So, for some your question is still unanswered. How will history judge Augustus? Well. Some distance lies between Augustan times and our century. Quite a a bit of history there, yet an absolute conclusions hasn’t been reached for some.

      But,ya know, the term “tyrant” is quite slippery. It means one thing at one time and place, and another at a different time and place. It means different things to people of different political persuasions who have differing expectations of their government.

      Jefferson wrote “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” But what does “the people” consist of”? 50% of the voting public? 55%? 60% 65% 70%. Does our government as formed run on the concept of “simple majority rules”, or are there enough countermajoritarian elements built into the system to prevent simple majority rule?

      They could have used a “Shock and Awe” campaign to eliminate Augustus!

      • magus71 said, on March 24, 2011 at 12:42 am

        The idea of a tyrant to the Arab world is significantly different from that of the West.

        In my mind, Augustus was a great leader, though of course, a man of his times. He knew when to be ruthless and when not to be.

        40 years as Emperor of Rome at its peak is no mistake.

        • frk said, on March 24, 2011 at 10:03 am

          And for me, the jury’s still out on that one–as I pointed out in my post. Actually, what I was trying to get at by noting the slipperiness of the term “tyrant” is an issue more current and closer to home (see also my 2:20pm post below). Are we currently living under tyranny? Is Obama a tyrant?


          There’s also an interesting opinion piece @ the Washington Post site: “Obamas Quick Trip from Tyrant to Weakling 2011/03/22 It emphasizes pretty effectively the slipperiness of the term.

          For an opposing view:
          But, as one commenter to this pessimistic americanthinker article pointed out : “This is not Rome”.

          As I noted the term “tyrant” is slippery–in part due to the fact that each era is different. Each era requires a different kind of leader:”a man of his times”. Perhaps better questions would be: How do our times differ significantly from, say, Roman times and Colonial American times? How have “the times” altered over, lets say 220 years? Is Obama “a man of his times”? Or a tyrant?

  3. magus71 said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Mike’s finally seen the light…or i sthis an apology for obama’s recent actions?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am

      Nope. I’ve always been for killing tyrants. People who were in my graduate ethics class back at Ohio State probably vividly remember my position on this sort of thing.

      • magus71 said, on March 24, 2011 at 12:38 am

        Never heard it once form you during Bush’s tenure.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Good article. Have you seen the video footage from the protest in support of Bradley Manning, which took place this past Sunday at Quantico?! When you spoke of “tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements” I thought of this ridiculous image: soldiers and riot police called out against peaceful protesters as if they were terrorists. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWdu_vaeI7c

    • frk said, on March 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      “Four Dead in Ohio”

  5. Anonymous said, on March 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” from Jefferson, of course. Frequently quoted on here.

    But we’d better define what a tyrant is (see my response to your 10:20 am post) before we “shed the blood of patriots and tyrants” And since Jefferson was so close to the Revolution, we should be certain whether he was talking about perceived internal tyranny, which the Constitution that was in the works at the time would be designed to discourage*, or external tyranny like the colonists had experienced under English rule.

    In that same letter Jefferson wrote “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” Have we lived up to his standard? That would be, what, eleven rebellions?

    *And we know the FF’s were never wrong.

  6. frk said, on March 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    OOPS! 2:02 is my post. . .I forgot to fill in the info.

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