A Philosopher's Blog

Dictatorships & Moral Defects

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2017

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Dictatorships are built upon the moral defects of citizens. While it can be tempting to think that the citizens who enable dictatorships are morally evil, this need not be the case. Dictatorship does not require an actively evil population, merely a sufficient number who are morally defective in ways that makes them suitably vulnerable to the appeals of dictatorship.

While there are many paths to dictatorship, most would-be dictators make appeals to fear, hatred, willful ignorance, and irresponsibility. For these appeals to succeed, an adequate number of citizens must be morally lacking in ways that make them vulnerable to such appeals. As would be expected, the best defense against dictators is moral virtue—which is why would-be dictators endeavor to destroy such virtue. I will briefly discuss each of these appeals in turn and will do so in the context of an ethics of virtue.

For the typical virtue theorist, virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between excessive bravery (foolhardiness) and a deficiency of bravery (cowardice). Being virtuous is difficult as it requires both knowledge of morality and the character traits needed to act in accord with that knowledge. For example, to be properly brave involves knowing when to act on that courage and having the character needed to either face danger resolutely or avoid it without shame. As should be expected, dictators aim at eroding both knowledge and character. It is to this that I now turn.

Fear is a very powerful political tool, for when people are afraid they often act stupidly and wickedly. Like all competent politicians and advertisers, would-be dictators are aware of the power of fear and seek to employ it to get people to hand over power. While dictators often have very real enemies and dangers to use to create fear, they typically seek to create fear that is out of proportion to the actual threat. For example, members of a specific religion or ethnicity might be built up to appear to be an existential threat when, in fact, they present little (or even no) actual threat.

Exploiting the fear of citizens requires, obviously enough, that the citizens are afraid. In the case of exaggerated threats, the fear of the citizens must be out of proportion to the threat—that is, they must have an excess of fear. The best defense against the tactic of fear is, obviously enough, courage. To the degree citizens have courage it is harder for a dictator (or would-be dictator) to scare them into handing over power. Even if the citizens are afraid, if their fear is proportionate to the threat, then it is also much harder for dictators to gain the power they desire (which tends to be more power than needed to address the threat).

Some might point to the fact that people can be very violent in service of dictators and thus would seem to be brave. After all, they can engage in battle. However, this is typically either the “courage” of the bully or the result of a greater fear of the dictator. That is, their cowardice in one area makes them “brave” in another. This is not true courage.

Dictators thus endeavor to manufacture fear and to create citizens who are lacking in true courage. Those who oppose dictators need to focus on developing courage in the citizens for this provides the best defense against fear. Americans pride themselves as living in the land of the brave; if this is true, then it would help explain why America has not fallen into dictatorship. But, should America cease to be brave and submit to fear, then a dictatorship would seem all too likely.

It can be pointed out that some who back dictators seem to be driven by hate rather than fear. While this can be countered by contending that hate is most often based in fear, it can be accepted that hate is also a driving force that leads people to support dictators. Hate, like fear, is a powerful tool and leads people to act both stupidly and wickedly. While it can be argued that hate is always morally defective, it can also be contended that there is morally correct hate. For example, those who engage in terrible evil could be justly hated. Fortunately, I do not need to resolve the question of whether hate is always wrong or not; it suffices to accept that hate can be disproportionate—that is, that the hate can exceed the justification for the hate.

Dictators and would-be dictators, like almost all politicians, exploit this power of hate. As with fear, while there might be legitimate targets for hate, dictators tend to exaggerate hate and target for hate those who do not deserve to be hated. Homosexuals, for example, tend to be a favorite target for unwarranted hate.

The virtue that provides the best defense against excessive or unwarranted hatred is obviously tolerance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators endeavor to breed and strengthen intolerance in their citizens. This is aided by mockery of tolerance as weakness or as being “politically correct.” Racism and sexism are favorites for exploitation and would-be dictators can find these hatreds in abundance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators encourage racism, sexism and other such things while opposing tolerance.

This is not to say that tolerance is always good—there are things, such as dictators, that should not be tolerated. That said, tolerance is certainly a virtue that provides a defense against dictators and as such it should be properly cultivated in citizens. This does not require that people love or even like one another, merely that they be capable of tolerating the tolerable.

One concern about my approach is that I seem to have cast the supporters of would-be dictators as hateful cowards and this could be unfair. After all, it can be argued, some of their supporters might be operating from ignorance rather than malice. This is certainly a reasonable point.

Dictators, like most who love power, know that the ignorance of people is something that can be easily exploited. It is common to exploit such ignorance to generate hate and fear. For example, it is far easier to make people afraid of terrorism in the United States when those people do not know the actual threat posed by terrorism relative to other dangers. As another example, it is easier to get Americans to hate Muslims when they know little or nothing about the faith and its practitioners.

Those who are afraid or hateful because of ignorance can be excused to some degree; provided that they are not responsible for their ignorance. Willful ignorance, however, merely compounds the moral failing of those who hate and fear based on such ignorance.

Most virtue theorists, such as Confucius and Aristotle, regard knowledge as a virtue and hold that people are obligated to acquire knowledge. Knowledge is, obviously enough, the antidote to ignorance. While, as Socrates noted, our knowledge will always be dwarfed by our ignorance, willful ignorance is a vice. If someone is going to act on the basis of fear or hate, then they are morally obligated to determine if their fear or hate is warranted and to do so in a rational manner. To simply embrace a willful ignorance of the facts is to act wrongly and is something that dictators certainly exploit. This is why dictators and would-be dictators attack the free press, engage in systematic deceit, and often oppose education. This also contributes to creating citizens who are irresponsible.

A classic trait of a dictator is to claim that they are “the only one” who can get things done. Examples include claiming that they are the only one who can protect the people, that only they can fix our problems, and that only they know what must be done. In order for citizens to believe this, they must either be willfully ignorant or irresponsible. In the case of willful ignorance, the citizens would need to believe the obviously false claim that the dictator is the only person with the ability to accomplish the relevant goals. While there are some exceptional people and there must be someone who is best, there is no “the one” who is the sole savior of the citizens. In any case, a dictator obviously cannot be the only one who can get things done. If that were true, they would not need any followers, minions or others to do things for them. While this might be true of Superman, it is not true of any mere mortal dictator.

In the case of irresponsibility, the citizens would need to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens and turn over agency to the dictator. They would, in effect, revert back to the status of mere children and set aside the responsibilities of adulthood.

If the citizens were, in fact, incompetent human beings, then (as Mill argued in his work on liberty) a dictator would be needed to rule over them until they either achieved competence or perished. If the dictator took good care of them, this would be morally acceptable. If the citizens were not incompetent, then their abdication would be a failure of the virtue of responsibility. It is no coincidence that dictators typically cast themselves as father figures and the citizens as their children. They certainly hope that the citizens will cease to be proper adults and revert to the moral equivalent of children, thus falling into the vice of irresponsibility.

Thus, one of the best defenses against the rise of dictators is the development of virtue. Dictators are well aware of this and do their best to corrupt the citizens they hope will hand them power. While it is tempting to think that the United States can never fall into dictatorship, this is mere wishful thinking. The founders were well aware of this danger, which explains why they endeavored to make it hard for a dictator to arise. But the laws are only as strong and good as the people, which is why citizens need to be virtuous if tyranny is to be avoided.


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16 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 19, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    If citizens need to be virtuous if tyranny is to be avoided, then the USA is toast.

  2. TJB said, on April 19, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    “He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”

    • WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 8:25 am

      TJ, do you suppose this is the kind of tyranny that Mike is writing about?

      Former Vermont governor and Democratic National Comittee chairman Howard Dean called out conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Twitter.

      Dean said, “Hate speech is not protected by the first amendment.”

      Just to be clear, this being the age of Poe’s law and all, I of course mean the kind of tyranny from the likes of Howard Dean that says which people should be silenced. And of course, by extension, the citizens who either support or are indifferent to such? Would they not be lacking in virtue as well? Not to mention those who ignore or even provide tacit support to the kinds of people who use violence to shout down and shut down those with opposing views?

      • TJB said, on April 21, 2017 at 8:39 am

        What Mike fails to understand is that the cult of Obama is probably the closest the U.S. has come to tyranny.

        And we are not yet free of that danger. It has been reported that Obama is setting up a “shadow government.”

        • WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 9:17 am

          I really don’t fear much from Obama setting up a “shadow government”. Others on the far left, most definitely. One big advantage that most conservative and mainstream Americans have over these leftists is, their leftism is rooted in laziness. Call me racist if you will, but I certainly don’t see Obama himself as having the ambition, or even the intelligence, to set up a shadow government. I’m sure he’d be happy to have his face on all the propaganda materials and show up to have his ego stroked. But doing actual work, even when president, was left mostly to Valarie Jarette.

        • WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 10:23 am

          What Mike fails to understand…

          I think I’ve pointed this out to you before, but…one cannot “fail” if one has never really tried.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 25, 2017 at 6:57 pm

          I’d say slavery was far more tyrannical than anything Obama did.

          Obama seems too busy vacationing to shadow government things up.

          • TJB said, on April 25, 2017 at 10:11 pm

            Tyranny requires the existence of a tyrant. Slavery can exist with or without a tyrant.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 25, 2017 at 6:59 pm

        I’m no Constitutional lawyer, but I’d say that the broad definition used for “hate speech” does include speech that is protected by the First.

        I don’t think that most of what Coulter says is worth saying or hearing, but she has the right of free expression.

    • WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 9:11 am

      In other news, what philosophy professors at other colleges are doing these days. Cutting edge stuff…

      Gatway Pundit reports that independent investigators and hackers have unmasked — literally — the Berkeley Antifa terrorist who struck a free speech supporter in the head with a bike lock. The victim bled profusely from the head wound and needed immediate medical assistance.

      A group of online free speech advocates at /pol/, a message board hosted on 4Chan, allegedly exposed the violent agitator as… wait for it… a college instructor. Eric Clanton teaches philosophy at Diablo Valley College.


      Is it not rather easy to signal one’s virtue? Is it not questionable how virtuous doing so truly is? Isn’t it much more accurate to say that being virtuous is much more difficult, as it requires both knowledge of morality and the character traits needed to act in accord with that knowledge. Where would that put so many of our so-called virtuous citizens of today?

      Damn, I’m full of questions today, ain’t I?

  3. TJB said, on April 21, 2017 at 8:40 am

    This kid of stuff redlines the creepy tyranny meter for me:

  4. WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Me again…but no questions this time…David Brooks, of whom I am certainly no fan but given that even a stopped watch is right twice a day, writes the following:

    This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.

    Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

    It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

    The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.

    Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

    Emphasis added. Of course his usual Trump Derangement Syndrome on display. Though even the rest of that last sentence is a bit week. It’s not like Russia, China, Turkey, and Norks haven’t been under strong men in the past. And China an Russia, for all their faults, are more liberal and west-looking today than when they were run by their predecessors in the 20th century. Turkey has been teetering on dictatorship and coups it’s entire existence.

    But to the general point, just who is it that has been undermining the faith in Western civilization? Precisely whose moral defects does this warped perception reflect?

    • WTP said, on April 21, 2017 at 5:08 pm

      a bit weak…not week…doh…a preview button would be nice.

  5. TJB said, on April 22, 2017 at 11:11 am

    This is what Mark Steyn has been saying for 15 years. Brooks is just now waking up?

    “The intellectual yet idiot.” https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577

    • WTP said, on April 22, 2017 at 9:59 pm

      So pissed right now. Had a long, well thought out and written reply but this f’n iPad i just bought for Christmas and upgraded to the latest version lost it. Short version:
      Brooks is an elite preppy, wtf
      I lothe these socalled “compassionate conservatives” who are neither truly compassionate, because they don’t grasp hard scrabble life and what it takes to rise above, nor conservative. Understand where they are coming from but their obtuseness to those who have truly struggled and what it takes to rise above is near criminal.

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