Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

The Arab Spring: For Locke’s Eyes Only

arab springThe end of each year brings the customary “best”, “worst”, and “newsworthy” lists for various subjects such as sports, political events, and movies. Any list describing the most significant political events of 2011 will undoubtedly include the Arab Spring—a series of events kick-started on December 2010 by a fruit vendor, named Mohammed Boauzizi, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Mohammed’s self-immolation began the Tunisian Revolution which resulted in the resignation of their 23 year president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. These events provoked a series of revolutions and demonstrations throughout the Arab World. It led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the resignation of Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

In addition, there have been major protests in Syria, Bahrain, and other Arab nations. There have been many causes for the Arab Spring such as high unemployment, inequitable distribution of income, the disenfranchisement of voters, high food prices, government corruption, nepotism, and the suppression of basic freedoms. The call for greater accountability in government officials had been evident in the protests and uprisings as the citizens of the Arab world became tired of the substandard treatment handed out by their governing officials along with the lack of transparency in the governing process. This has not been exclusive to the Arab world as the same concerns have arisen in Russia with numerous protesters against election fraud in Russia’s latest elections.

The Arab Spring raises numerous issues in political philosophy such as the justification of the state, the nature of the state, and the role of the state, liberty, and property. All of these concepts are evident in these monumental series of events. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques-Rousseau are believed to be the foremost political philosophers of Western Civilization. However, the 17th century British philosopher, John Locke, holds a special place in American political thought. His views had a great impact upon the Founding Fathers of our country, particularly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and served as the philosophical foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

john lockeLike Hobbes and Rousseau, Locke believed in the social contract theory. This theory states that there exists an arrangement among the governed to submit to a common authority. As a result, the governed surrender themselves to a sovereign authority. This theory is an attempt to answer the question, “What justifies the existence of the state?” Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke were avid proponents of the social contract because they felt that the existence of the state was necessary for the flourishing of mankind. Locke is famously known for his emphasis on individual liberty and personal autonomy. This emphasis served as the principal philosophical catalyst for the independence of our country.

Locke believed that human beings are naturally free and equal. They are not naturally under the authority of another person or persons. Unlike Hobbes who argued for absolute power to the sovereign authority and argued against resistance against the sovereign, Locke argued that the governed do not surrender all their rights simply because they participate in the social contract. The governed retain their basic freedoms and these freedoms place limitations on the power of the governing authority.

How might Locke perceive the Arab Spring? This is best answered through Locke’s idea of the social contract and the consent of the governed. For Locke, someone is obligated to obey political authorities if they give their voluntary consent. However, Locke believed in two types of consent: express and tacit. Locke discusses these types in Two Treatises of Government. Express consent is straightforward. Locke defined it as a “declaration of a man's consent to make [himself] subject to the laws of any government." This consent was written or spoken. Tacit consent is not that straightforward. Locke defined tacit consent as such:

“Every man that hath any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth thereby give his tacit consent, and as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government during such enjoyment as anyone under it; whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs forever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway.”

According to Locke, a government is legitimate if consent is provided by the governed. However, there are those who have not given express consent to an authority or government. This group of people gave tacit consent by accepting the benefits of their government. They have tacitly consented to their government and burdens imposed by their government. Although they have not consented explicitly, the fact that they accept and enjoy services under the jurisdiction of the government produces an obligation on the governed to obey their authorities. The difficulty with tacit consent is the degree to which the consenter is bound or obligated to the government to which she is consenting.

Locke did not believe that express or tacit consent permitted a government from ruling with no restrictions whatsoever. Locke was clear, for example, that a government that devolved into tyranny was no longer the legitimate ruler of the governed and the governed were justified in resisting the authority of the government. Locke appealed to the Founding Fathers because of the relationship he advocated between a legitimate, consented government authority and the basic freedoms that the governed deserve.

As I mentioned previously, high unemployment, disenfranchisement of voters, government corruption, high food prices, and suppression of basic freedoms coupled with preexisting rifts such as tribal and religious divisions (e.g. tribalism in Libya, Sunni-Shia division in Yemen) explain the Arab Spring. These causes show that the governed in the affected countries were justified in resisting their authorities. The governments of these countries strongly restricted the rights of the governed. Journalists were not free to report the news; the government censored the Internet and imposed penalties on citizens who chose a different religion other than Islam; it prohibited the governed from freely assembling and expressing their views and interfered with property rights; the government also refused to hold fair and democratic elections.

These reasons and others are why Locke probably would agree that the citizens of the Arab Spring were justified in resisting their governing authorities. Their individual rights were violated and the governed is not under any obligation to submit to tyrannical authorities who govern with no regard to the individual rights of their subjects. Whether the Arab Spring will produce positive changes for the Arab world is yet to be seen. The effects of the Arab Spring will take time to be measured. However, looking at the Arab Spring through the eyes of John Locke shows us that the citizens of the Arab Spring possess rights independent of the state and they have made this point known loud and clear.

Isn’t Logic Great?

imageOf all the fascinating aspects of philosophy, the practicality of logic is one of the most important. Observing the tenets of logic in action can be quite eye-opening. Here’s an example from popular media. During episodes of Law and Order, the characters use inductive reasoning to solve cases. Detectives arrive on the scene and see a dead body. Subsequently, they gather evidence from the body and the surrounding crime scene in hopes of garnering enough information to determine the culprit or culprits. The reasoning utilized by the detectives contains premises: statements about fingerprints, autopsies, interrogations, and weapons that lead to a probable conclusion: one shooter intentionally targeted and shot the victim. The popularity of criminal investigation shows like Law and Order has provided plenty of opportunities for viewers to familiarize themselves with inductive reasoning. However, there is another aspect of logic that is highly noticeable in our lives – the fallacy.

A fallacy is an error in reasoning pertaining to the structure of the argument or the content of the argument. The field of logic classifies fallacies into two groups: formal fallacies and informal fallacies. Formal fallacies are errors in the structure of the argument.  An example of a formal fallacy is “affirming the consequent” (a fallacious form of what is known as the “modus ponens” argument). The argument form is:

1) If A then B

2) B

Therefore:

3) A

At first sight, there seems nothing wrong with this argument. However, if you substitute A (the antecedent) and B (the consequent) with specific premises, it is easy to see why the form is fallacious:

1) If I am in Boston then I am in Massachusetts.

2) I am in Massachusetts.

Therefore:

3) I am in Boston.

What is the problem here? The premises are true but the conclusion could be false. Simply because I am in Massachusetts does not mean that I am in Boston. I could be in Springfield; I could be in Cape Cod. The form of the argument is erroneous and thus commits the formal fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” Knowing formal fallacies is useful because any argument in a fallacious form is a bad argument. I could have changed the premises in the above argument to any other set of statements and it still would be fallacious.

Formal fallacies can be hard to spot but once you learn the correct forms, picking them out becomes second nature. Informal fallacies, on the other hand, are more obvious—once you know what to look for. Informal fallacies are errors with the content of the argument, specifically with the premises. Informal fallacies can be easier to spot because the content of an argument is “out in the open” whereas the form can sometimes be hidden. There are numerous informal fallacies such as “appeal to authority,” “ad hominem,” “equivocation,” “straw man argument,” “begging the question,” and “non sequitur.” For example, a straw man argument occurs when someone distorts their opponent’s argument in order to make it weaker than it actually is and claims that the opponent’s position has been refuted. Let’s suppose that David and John are engaged in a debate about the invasion of Iraq. David is in favor of the invasion and John is against it. David presents his reason for supporting the invasion and John responds by arguing that David and supporters of the invasion condone violence and as such are warmongers. John makes this new claim but acts as if he’s responding to David’s original argument and in so doing refutes it. John is guilty of advancing a straw man argument. John never offered a rational rebuttal but misrepresented David’s argument by introducing a new claim and attacking that.

“Shotgun argumentation” is an informal fallacy that may not as familiar. This fallacy pertains to a flawed method of argumentation due to the sheer amount of purported evidence being presented. Short, quick-fire arguments are directed at a person’s interlocutor with the intention of overwhelming him or her (Eugenie Scott dubbed this technique the “Gish Gallop” after creationist activist Duane Gish). The more small, usually fallacious, arguments presented by the arguer in favor of some claim, the higher the probability that someone will believe the arguer regardless of the absurdity of the arguments. This fallacy can be effective because the recipient of the arguments finds no time to properly refute the arguments.

Recently, I observed this in action. While watching a soccer game from Portugal with my father and a friend recently at a local restaurant, an unusual event occurred on three separate occasions during the game. This was an important game between two top teams in Portugal and we all favored the visiting team (as did most of the people at the restaurant we were visiting). The score was 0-0 midway through the first half when half of the stadium lights went out thus forcing the referee to pause the game. The lights came back on after a few minutes and the game resumed. Minutes later, the same stadium lights went out again.

Two of the fans next to me claimed that the home team had the lights shut off intentionally to disrupt the game. From there, a slew of short, quick fire arguments initiated with the intention of providing evidence for an alleged conspiracy led by the front office of the home team. Just like a “shotgun” fires many bullets with the hope that one will hit its target, the fans presented a series of claims about these supposed actions with the hope that one of these arguments will support their conclusion. However, no solid evidence was presented to support the conclusion. The fans overwhelmed any would be rationalist with a bunch of alleged evidence that is never given a chance to be scrutinized. The fans presented no solid reason for why the home team might benefit from intentionally shutting the lights but, from their perspective, they had irrefutable evidence of a conspiracy.

We all, myself included, have been guilty of committing this fallacy. But when we learn to recognize it, we can more easily pick out errors in reasoning. There is a catalogue of informal fallacies that are important to know and understand for our sake and for the sake of others. This is part of the significance of philosophy. To be able to observe logic in action, recognize its practical implications, and apply its principles to our lives is not only reasonable, it’s necessary to live a better life.

Ballot Box Epistemology

Red_Checkmark_In_Vote_CheckboxFor the citizens of the United States,the presidential campaign is upon us again; another season of passionate debates, name-calling, and political table talk. How many times have you heard the following statements regarding presidential candidates, “he/she is a good speaker” or “that candidate gives excellent speeches”?  Good communication skills are certainly an important trait for a president but it seems that for some voters, rhetorical skill is one of the most significant skills a president must have. Others may argue that rhetorical ability is overrated and prefer other traits such as determination and transparency. Still others desire determination and transparency in their president but still value strong rhetorical ability. In this installment of Table Talk, we will examine the role of rhetoric in the epistemology of the voter, specifically how rhetoric contributes to the voter’s knowledge which is then utilized in the voter’s decision making.

Rhetoric is the art of argumentation and persuasion. It is a tool used by a speaker in public debates with the objective of persuading an audience to consider or accept a position or a set of positions. Rhetoric has an epistemology (a knowledge component) because rhetoric involves the exchange of ideas between the speaker and the listener with the goal of foster belief in the latter by the creative use of words by the former. Political debates and speeches specifically involve a candidate’s attempt to get the listener to believe what the speaker is claiming to be true with the goal that the person hearing the claims will choose him or her for office. These exchanges are crucial to presidential elections and make up the most salient and often overlooked philosophical aspects of the election process.

Voters make numerous decisions during the campaign season. Various issues are presented to voters: the economy and taxation, education, foreign affairs, immigration, gay marriage, abortion rights, health care, and monetary reform, among many others. Based on their beliefs regarding these issues and others, voters then decide which candidate’s platform best represents their views on these issues. Subsequently, decisions about which candidates earn the vote are made based on these beliefs. Throughout this epistemic process, voters form beliefs and subsequently make decisions about candidates through a variety of media. For example, voters learn about a candidate’s positions by reading the newspaper and talking to friends. But one of the most influential medium is, arguably, what they hear from the candidates themselves. This is why debates, forums, town hall meetings, pep rallies, and visits to commercial establishments are widely used by candidates to persuade voters.

Aristotle is arguably the most famous classical philosopher to address the subject of rhetoric. In his book, Rhetoric, Aristotle defined the idea as theRhetorical_skills ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case. This does not mean that the rhetorician will persuade every time but it does mean that he or she possesses the expertise to attempt to persuade each time they have the opportunity. Aristotle believed that persuasion can occur in three possible ways: through the character of the speaker, through the emotional state of the hearer, or through the argument itself (sometimes referred to by the Greek terms, ethos, pathos, and logos respectively). The first way pertains to the credibility of the speaker. If the hearer trusts the speaker, there is a greater chance that the hearer will be convinced by the arguments advanced by him or her. The second way pertains to the disposition of the hearer. If the hearer is sad or anxious, their emotional state will distract them from the speaker’s attempt to persuade. The third way pertains to the logical content of the speaker’s arguments. Aristotle addresses the epistemic aspect of rhetoric when he states, “But since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions-the hearers decide between one political speaker and another….” Rhetoric aids in the voter’s thought process which is translated into decisions at the polls. The speaker presents arguments and the hearer must decide whether these arguments are rationally and/or emotionally persuasive to incite the hearer to vote for that speaker.

Despite its importance, Aristotle believed that rhetoric has its drawbacks and these drawbacks can be seen in modern politics. After all, how many candidates state their platform persuasively, promise to institute their platform once in office, and yet do not fulfill their campaign promises once in office? Candidates also exaggerate the benefits of their platform and the deficiencies of their opponents’ platform in order to win votes. This method of campaigning has been common in modern-day presidential campaigns but it was also a rhetorical device used by the Sophists--contemporaries of Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato strongly argued that the Sophists were deceivers and their deceits were products of rhetoric.

Candidates can be strong rhetoricians but lack other important presidential attributes such as governing experience, clear purpose, consistency, collaboration, and the like. Some voters prioritize a candidate’s speaking abilities over all other attributes. Whether this is a deficit or not on the part of voters is not the point. The point is that rhetoric plays a vital role in the belief-forming and decision-making process of the voter. Voters need to take time and think about this epistemic process. After all, epistemology is vital to our lives. As Paul Pardi correctly stated in his article, What is Knowledge?, “But of all the things to spend time on, it seems thinking about how we come to know things should be at the top of the list given the central role it plays in just about everything we do.” Hopefully, voters can apply this statement when they go to the polls in 2012.

The Adjustment Bureau and Free Will

“We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries... until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you'd brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix. You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.”

(Agent Thompson’s response to David Norris when asked “What ever happened to free will?”)

Movies are an excellent vehicle for illustrating philosophy. Whether it is the deontological ethics of The Lord of the Rings or the metaphysics of The Matrix, you can glean philosophical insight from just about any movie. When it comes to the concept of free will, The Adjustment Bureau is among recent big screen film to tackle this subject. This movie, starring Matt Damon and directed by George Nolfi, is based on the 1954 short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer and self described “fictionalizing philosopher.” In The Adjustment Bureau, Damon plays David Norris, a charismatic congressman who seems destined for national political stardom. David meets a beautiful ballet dancer named Elise Sellas. However, strange circumstances keep the two from advancing their relationship. Soon, David finds out who is behind these strange circumstances. When David arrives at work one morning, he sees something he shouldn't - a team of agents (adjusters) in suits and fedoras reprogramming the brain of his business partner. They explain that they're part of the Adjustment Bureau, the people who make sure things happen according to The Chairman's plan.

This mysterious team of agents influences and “adjusts” the events in everyone’s daily lives. In addition, they inform David that he is not supposed to be with Elise because it will ruin The Plan for his and Elise’s lives. The main adjuster takes Elise’s phone number from David and warns him that if he tells anyone about the Adjustment Bureau, the adjusters will erase his mind. But David will not give up pursuing Elise and by doing this, David is risking the loss of his promising political career. Throughout the film, circumstances brought about by the Bureau, at the behest of The Chairman, hinder David’s plans. However, Harry, the main adjuster assigned to David, experiences inner conflict with what is happening to David and Elise. Harry, along with David, wrestle with their roles in this world and, the movie thus tackles the issue of free will.

In the film, reality consists of order maintained by the invisible hand of The Chairman and is administered by the Bureau. Any disruptions to this order produces chaos in the world. The destiny of all humans is preordained. However, despite this deterministic program, the main characters are confronted by another reality: their desire to act in the way they wish. David, Elise, and Harry choose to resist the Bureau’s plans and create their own path. The message seems paradoxical, (at least to an incompatibilist): there is free will but the world we live in is largely deterministic. Moreover, the mysterious existence of The Chairman is central to the engine behind the deterministic themes. The Chairman largely is absent to the viewer, a quite intriguing idea because it leaves the viewer wondering who Dick envisions as the Chairman. Is he a deity of some sort? Is he good or evil?

The Chairman has a plan for each person; a good plan if you abide and a consequent inferior plan if you do not abide. The Chairman wants the good plan to be fulfilled or else the adjusters would not be necessary. It is in this relationship between the Adjustment Bureau and the inhabitants of the world that free will and determinism collide. Although the idea that men in suits secretly controlling the destinies of people is implausible, the plot along with its implications is quite interesting because there are clear resemblances to the world we inhabit. It is great entertainment but, more importantly, the philosophical implications are both profound and persistent.

Free will is the apparent capacity at least human beings possess to choose a course of action among alternatives. The most vigorous debates throughout history involving free will have attempted to answer two questions: 1) Do humans have free will? and 2) Are humans morally responsible for what we do and appear to choose? It is question 1 which is most relevant to the film. Even though Agent Thompson claims that there is no free will, The Adjustment Bureau portrays a world that contains some free will, albeit limited, but simultaneously portrays a world in which free will seems impossible*. This paradox is the product of two elements that are suggested throughout the plot of the film: theological determinism and a materialistic view of man.

Although the nature of The Chairman is not clearly revealed to the viewer, you get a sense that The Chairman is a deity and the providence of this deity guides the affairs of man. This type of determinism, held by some religious traditions (most notably the monotheistic religions), states that God ordains everything that happens. Within theological determinism, there are two groups: hard and soft theological determinism. The latter states that humans have free will despite the fact that God ordains all events. Although God ordains and knows what will happen beforehand, man still has the ability to freely choose their courses of action. The former argues that free will is non-existent and God is in complete control of events including human action (the fact that we think we make free choices is just an illusion of some sort). Although each view has rational difficulties, the film opts for a kind of theological determinism in the form of The Chairman and The Bureau secretly conducting their life-altering activities. An unseen boss who runs the world, knows its outcomes, and charges his agents to execute his plans suggests this type of determinism albeit with some deviations. One of those deviations is the unusual role of free will with this type of determinism.

The love story of David and Elise adds the philosophical intrigue. Their intense love for one another leads them to continually fight against the fate that has been ordained for them. This fight culminates in their attempt to find The Chairman to convince him to change the plan for their lives. Their attempt was futile but their perseverance has produced a change in their life plan. Towards the end of the movie, atop a New York City building, Agent Mitchell explains to David and Elise what is written in a paper that he is holding in his hand, “It says that this situation between the two of you is a serious deviation from the plan. So The Chairman rewrote it.” The choices of two human agents, contending with their assigned fates, were able to change the mind of a divine or divine-like figure.

Some may argue that even the apparent free acts the players make are not free acts because the brain determines their actions even when the Bureau is not involved. When certain people did not comply with their preordained life plan, the adjusters simply altered your brain. David accidentally witnessed this process being performed on his friend. This alteration causes you to make the correct decisions and stay on the determined path. This method undermines free will as humans are perceived as merely machines that need to be physically or chemically altered. (This materialistic view of man denies the existence of the soul which is the aspect of man that, many argue, is the locus of free will.)

All of these issues expressed in the film seem to raise more questions than answer them. Ironically, the director of the film, George Nolfi, stated that the "intention of this film is to raise questions.” Yes, this film has raised questions. But one also gets the sense that being able to choose the course of one’s life is something at least the filmmakers--if not Dick himself--values. We ultimately may be fully determined but if so, it is something we should fight against. The biting irony in that last sentence creates the core of the plot of the film. Dick suggests it’s also the core plot of our lives. That’s worth thinking about.


* This isn’t the entire story. Some of the players in the film appear to make free choices. It is the outcome of those choices that is adjusted by the Bureau. If I choose to talk to a person and some powerful being changes the “natural” course of that action, the choice may still be free even if the outcome is adjusted by another person.

Talk About Love

Listening to Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is a great experience. He is witty, engaging, and informative. His many years of experience are evidenced by his ability to explain complex concepts in terms that can be understood. Recently, he spoke at a Catholic church in an adjacent town on the topic of divine love. The speech was a mixture of philosophy and Christian theology. From the nature of the Christian God to modern societal perspectives on love, Kreeft’s lecture contained numerous compelling observations about divine and personal love. His speech got me thinking about the notion of love, particularly personal love. What is striking is how frequently the word “love” is used today but yet there exists various perceptions about this concept. Polling people about the meaning of love would produce interesting responses simply because of this diversity.

Phrases such as “I love you,” “I love my wife,” “ I love my dog,” “I love the Boston Celtics,” “I love chocolate,” and “I am in love” are frequently uttered but may have very different meaning. “Love” is a big part of everyday life. Some die for it, some live for it. Whole industries, such as music and greeting cards, owe much of its success to what probably is a manufactured definition of love. Dr. Kreeft’s lecture got me thinking about modern perceptions of love: how people talk about it, what people think it is, and the like.

Aristotle wrote numerous classics in philosophy but it was Nicomachean Ethics which touched upon the concept of love. The main focus of the book was the achievement of happiness, its relationship to virtue, and the resultant benefits to one’s political community. According to Aristotle, virtue is essential to the pursuit of happiness. When it came to love, Aristotle believed that self-love is a prerequisite to loving others. For some, this may not sound right. Your first impression could be that Aristotle is promoting selfishness. He is clear in Nicomachean Ethics that self-love is an entirely proper emotion provided it is expressed in the love of virtue. As long as you love yourself, not just for the sake of loving yourself but for the benefit of others. Aristotle made it clear that if self-love led one to acquire goods such as wealth and power then this is immoral because of the damage that it would cause to the community. Aristotle argued, “The defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself. For a friend is taken to be someone who wishes and does goods or apparent goods to his friend for the friend’s own sake.”

Aristotle uses the term “love” synonymously with “friendship” because the English rendering of the Greek word, philia, can be translated into friendship or love. We see two important elements that comprise the Aristotelian view of love – self love and doing good for the other’s sake and for no other reason. Aristotle goes on to describe friendships of utility and pleasure and argues that these friendships do not demonstrate the true nature of love because one who truly loves themselves would not enter into a friendship that is merely concerned with using the other person as a means to an end. Aristotle’s ideas on self-love has caused some to consider him an ethical egoist. However, ethical egoism argues that one should pursue their own interests exclusively with no obligations to others. Aristotle viewed love and its prerequisite of self-love in quite a different fashion. His focus was what is best for the other not simply what is best for ourselves only; the community over the individual. Aristotle’s self-lover was considered noble because he thought of himself first in order to love others properly.

The recent cinematic release of Atlas Shrugged got me thinking about Ayn Rand and her view on love. Unlike Aristotle, her philosophy was driven by individualism rather than Aristotle’s communitarianism. Here is what Rand had to say about love in a 1964 interview:

Selfless love would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.

Interesting perspective from Rand but it is in line with her objectivist philosophy--particularly her view of man. Rand argued that man is an end in himself and not the means to the ends of others. He must not sacrifice himself to others and the pursuit of his own happiness is man’s chief purpose. The idea that love is selfless is considered anathema by adherents of objectivism. One such adherent, Gary Hull, argues that it is a philosophical crime to advance the idea that love is selfless. He contends that love is not based on self-sacrifice but rather self-interest. Genuine love is the most selfish experience possible and one in which no sacrifice is involved. Rand felt that one must regard themselves as worthy of being loved in order for genuine love to exist. You should expect to be loved because you offer positive value to another. Without this, no genuine love can exist.

It is interesting to note that Rand praised Aristotle and considered him as her favorite philosopher. Although they may agree on the necessary role of self-love, Randian ethics was driven by selfishness as the driving force behind pursuing one’s happiness. Aristotelian ethics was known for its emphasis on eudamonia built from the habitual practice of virtue in one’s life. In addition, the individual’s social life in a community is a necessary condition for a man’s complete flourishing. However, compare this with Rand who argued that emphasis must be placed on the individual’s pursuit of their own happiness with no regard to others. Randian love starts with yourself and ends with yourself. This pursuit of individualism can be seen in her famous characters such as Harold Roark, John Galt, and Dagny Taggart.

Love: so many great thinkers have talked about it and written about it and yet so many still strive to comprehend it.

Is Religion to Blame–Part III

“History is full of religious wars; but, we must take care to observe, it was not the multiplicity of religions that produced these wars, it was the intolerating spirit which animated that one which thought she had the power of governing.” -- Baron de Montesquieu

Keith Ward and Alister McGrath, two well-known British theistic philosophers, have tackled the problem of religion and violence. McGrath in response to Richard Dawkins’ negative views on religion has stated that, “Religious people can do disturbing things, so can anti-religious people. Religion and anti-religion can inspire people to good in some and inspire senseless acts of violence in others.” Ward seems to concur when he states in his book, Is Religion Dangerous?, “The lesson is that anti-religious corruptions and religious corruptions are both possible. There is no magic system or belief, not even belief in liberal democracy, which can be guaranteed to prevent it.”

The point here is that war and conflict are not unique to religion as they are not unique to atheism. The problem is not religion or anti-religion, the problem is human koran-covernature itself. Equally important is the central message of the ideology in question. Does religion promote war and conflict? Major religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism do not promote war and conflict insofar as their doctrine is concerned. When these religions are used as the reason for aggression and violence, this is a distortion and abuse of the central messages put forth by these religions. Surely, some will object with this last statement particularly how it relates to Islamism. Islamism, also known as militant Islam, is a matter of fierce theological debate. For some, Islamism reflects pure and true Islam, whereas others argue that the violent elements embraced by Islamism is a distortion of the Koran and other Islamic holy writings such as the Hadith.

With the exception of heterodox sects such as Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, RSS of India, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, the Ku Klux Klan, the Army of God, and others who have utilized violence to promote their religious agenda, religions do not necessarily promote war and conflict. The problem is that most religions contain an inherent element which leaves it susceptible to abuse and corruption. The transcendental and divine element contained in most religions offers valuable meaning to countless lives but has also been utilized to abuse and manipulate others. This transcendental and divine element is normally typified by a divine being whether it be Yahweh of Judaism, the triune God of Christianity, Allah of Islam, Brahman of Hinduism, etc. This indispensable aspect of religion is important to the lives of its adherents. Yet, as many have argued, the concept of a divine being provides philosophical grounding for morality, establishes meaning in life, provokes good works, develops spirituality, and nourishes the soul. However, not everyone has employed beliefs about a divine being properly.

american-providentialismA distorted form of providentialism has hijacked religion by using appeals to providence to promote any means necessary to advance a religious agenda. Thomas Kidd, an associate professor of History at Baylor University, illustrated this problem in his fantastic and informative book, God of Liberty. In his book, Kidd concentrates on the religious history of colonial America until the United States of the early 1800’s. A good portion of the book deals with the Revolutionary War and the role of religion in the war and the birth of the nation. Kidd presents a well-balanced view of the religious views of the colonists, particularly the Founding Fathers. He elaborates on the appeals to God’s providence that was commonplace during the Revolution. This common belief provided the colonists with a sense of purpose and confidence in their struggle against Great Britain.

However, this providentialism had a dark side also. Unfortunately, these appeals to providence were abused by some to commit injustices . Some colonists thought that if God were on their side, how could they do wrong? The colonists who viciously treated Native Americans justified it with the rhetoric of divine providence as well the colonists who believed in slavery . Kidd makes it clear that appeals to providence played an important role in the formation of our country but he was also honest about the abuses that occurred when providentialism was employed to advance God’s alleged will at the expense of incurring great harm upon certain people. When writing about the injustices suffered by Native Americans during the war, Kidd stated, “…using God’s might and right to justify one’s cause can easily obscure the complexity or injustice of war.” Moreover, Kidd, a Christian himself, fires a warning in the closing chapter of the book, “Despite the prominence of providentialism in the founding era, religious believers should remain very careful about claiming that a position or policy is God’s preference. Few issues possess the moral and religious clarity to warrant such claims.” (It’s worth mentioning that a healthy understanding of the the philosophical discipline of epistemology (the study of knowledge and belief) is essential to these topics as the above illustrates.)

For all of the goods that religion possesses, religion seems (some may argue otherwise) to contain an epistemic liability. If a particular religious group claims to know that God wills a something particular and only that group possess the requisite knowledge to act on that command without any evidence that others outside that group can evaluate or come to believe in a reasonable way, this potentially can turn into something undesirable and harmful (emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically). Epistemic claims based on divine will or revelation that are intended to apply to others who may not believe them must be handled carefully. Divine claims to which only a select few have epistemic access are fit for abuse. 

Does that mean that passionately holding onto a religious doctrine or concept is wrong? Clearly not. A secure understanding that our finite knowledge and finite grasp of religious issues is limited should keep one from affirming total confidence and using this confidence to improperly manipulate others in to believing the same thing (like any claim, there are good ways to convince another that something is true and there are poor ways). Grievously, the divine and transcendental element of religion can be and have been used to uphold defective epistemic claims. But the same can be said for dogmatic “secular” claims.

Although the notion that “religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor” is simplistic and inadequate, religion does possess an inherent characteristic, in the form of epistemic claims of the divine, that makes it vulnerable to this accusation. Nonetheless, the root causes of wars and conflicts lie in human nature and the ugly consequences it produces when humans are unrestrained. Yes, history has shown that if religion can be utilized as an excuse to dehumanize others, some people will use it to do so but this also applies to atheism. Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc. utilized their atheistic worldviews to build communistic utopias and dehumanize their enemies.  Stephen Asma succinctly stated in his article, The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview, ”Re­li­gion is not the only ide­ol­o­gy with blood on its hands.” Despite the role that religion and non-religion has played in conflicts, it is safe to conclude that the root cause is not a primarily religious one.

Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News Service

Is Religion to Blame? Part 2

The last installment of Table Talk examined the popular notion that religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor. The conclusion included a statement by Dinesh D’ Souza, Christian apologist and author. D’Souza argued that atheists have "greatly exaggerated the crimes that have been committed by religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics."

Many atheists and secularists have presented arguments that attempt to demonstrate that “religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor.” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Denett, and Sam Harris have led the modern resurgence of these types of arguments. These “four horsemen” have argued that religion is evil and its effects have been felt in history particularly through its role in global conflicts. Dawkins has stated that religion (particularly monotheism) is a bad thing which is described as “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture….Religion causes wars by generating certainty” and “…such absolutism nearly always results from strong religious faith and it constitutes a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.” Sam Harris contends that “faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of religious affiliation…The conflicts are not always explicitly religious. But the hatred that divides one community from another are often the products of their religious identities.”

As mentioned in the last installment of Table Talk, these statements have been accepted as truisms not only in academia but are starting to be repeated in popular treatments. Are Dawkins and Harris’s arguments sound? Dawkins’ point that monotheism is “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture” stems from his perspective about the causes of war and religion’s role in them. But consider the following.

History, specifically 20th century history, shows that numerous anti-religious regimes have caused much bloodshed. RJ Rummell, professor of political science from the University of Hawaii, created the term “democide” which means the murder of any people or person by a government. He has done extensive research in the area of democide and he has concluded that there were more deaths by democide in the 20th century than deaths by war. This means that more people died in the 20th century as a result of recognized governments who unjustly incarcerated people in camps where they died of malnutrition and forced labor or deported people into lands where they would die of exposure and disease. Many of those 20th century governments who committed democide were regimes that committed massacres in the name of anti-religious ideologies such as communism. These regimes included the Stalin regime of the former Soviet Union which killed an estimated 20 million people, the Mao Zedong regime of China which killed an estimated 65 million people, the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia which killed an estimated 2 million people, and other communist regimes in Latin America, North Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique.

In addition to Rummell, other sources such as Jonathan Glover’s powerful book, Humanity, and The Black Book of Communism compiled by a group of French scholars attest to these numbers and atrocities. The 20th century has been considered the bloodiest century mankind has ever known and anti-religious regimes have been the most significant perpetrators in this century. This does not mean that religion played no part in these atrocities as can be seen by recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Israel, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite this, much destruction has been caused by anti-religious and militant atheistic governments. Which provides at least prima facie evidence that religion may play a secondary role when it plays a role at all.

From these historical facts, is it justified for one to conclude that all anti-religious ideologies and anti-religionists are corrupt and violent? No, this is not justified and the facts do not permit this conclusion. These anti-religious regimes do not represent all anti-religionists out there and someone who judges all anti-religionists and their ideologies in this fashion is wrong. But why do men such as Dawkins and Harris conclude that religion is evil from the premise that there have been conflicts influenced by religion? They do not draw the same conclusion from the non-religious conflicts that have occurred. They do not conclude that anti-religionists and their ideologies are forces of evil in this world. Dawkins and some of his fellow atheists are guilty of special pleading because they utilize different standards when assessing wars and conflicts with anti-religious elements and when assessing wars and conflicts with religious elements-religion is to blame but anti-religion (e.g. atheism) is not to blame. Why? Dawkins and company have argued that regimes such as the Stalinist, Mao, and Pol Pot regimes were misrepresentations of atheism, but they have not extended this same charity to religion.

If they did, perhaps the current conversation would move in a more productive direction.

Is Religion to Blame?

“Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today.” Richard Dawkins – A Devil’s Chaplain

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil-that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg - Facing Up

religion-and-warHow many have heard this statement: “Religion has been the cause of more wars than atheism.” This has been stated by academics and non-academics alike (see Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great , chapter 13, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion , chapter 8, and Sam Harris, The End of Faith , chapter 4 for examples of more formal cases for this position). This reasoning has been accepted as a truism in Western societies and recited as a mantra by many who passionately believe that religion is principally a source of conflict and harm rather than a source of good. The prevailing thought is that if we could eliminate religion, we would be well on the road to peace on earth. Just think about the song “Imagine” when John Lennon sings ”no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace….”

When you read about modern conflicts, you can’t help but think that religion is to blame. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging even before the modern state of Israel was created in 1948. What about the conflict in Ireland which has occurred from the 17th century until the late 20th century? This conflict pitted Catholics who opposed British rule versus Protestants who favored British rule in Ireland. Then there are the conflicts in the former Yugoslavian republics in the Balkans which took place throughout Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and involved Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim followers. The religious tensions that have engulfed Nigeria since 2000 are another example. Demographically, Nigeria is essentially divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south and this factor, along with other factors, has produced inter-religious violence. There are more conflicts that can be mentioned here but these illustrations serve the purpose.

Is religion truly the cause of human suffering through conflict? Is this ingrained notion correct? A philosophical examination of war is a complex issue. Although warfare and conflict are common throughout human history, the causes of conflict are not simple. For something as complex as war, single-attribute causes are rare. There are a variety of reasons people, groups, and nations enter into conflicts and one of them has been religion. But does that mean that most wars are based on religious differences? The difficulty with answering this question comes largely from the lack of a clear distinction between why people go to war, and why people remain in conflict. The former pertains to the primary reasons that engender conflict while the latter pertains to the elements used to help the combatants achieve their objectives.

Carl von Clausewitz, the German military theorist and philosopher of war of the early 1800’s, wrote a famous book titled On War. Clausewitz writes about the theory, nature, and strategy of war in great detail and his views have been widely debated since then by political scientists, historians, and philosophers. One of the remarkable theories in his book is his “fascinating trinity of war.” In this short, yet significant, doctrine (300 or so words), Clausewitz argued that war consists of three sets of inputs: violence and passion; uncertainty, chance and probability; and political purpose and effect. Regarding the trinity, Clausewitz explains,

“The first of these three phases concerns more the people; the second more the general and his army; the third more the Government. The passions which break forth in war must already have a latent existence in the peoples. The range which the display of courage and talents shall get in the realm of probabilities and of chance depends on the particular characteristics of the general and his army; but the political objects belong to the Government alone.”

Religion can apply to the first element in that it has been used to ignite the passions of the people. Leaders have appealed to religion to serve as motivation for the participants of the conflict. For instance, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095 by urging the knights to stop fighting each other and to make common cause against God’s enemies. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous “a day that will live in infamy” speech in which he requests Congress to declare war on Japan. Preceding his verbal request to Congress, the President stated, “With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” The President appealed to God and thus, another example of religion serving as a motivator to the people. There are numerous examples of this type of motivation used by leaders.

Even so, it seems that confusion regarding the distinction between the cause of war and reasons that sustain it is what drives the “religion has been the primary source of more wars and conflicts than any thing else” mantra. Religion has unfortunately played a role as a cause or contributing factor to wars throughout human history, but it has played that role alongside myriad other causes and factors. For instance, when one examines the Crusades and the conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries such as the series of civil wars fought in France in the late 1500’s and the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, religion was one of the causes, it was not the only cause. Other factors, particularly economic factors such as trade, property, and wealth were also causes in these conflicts. Maj. John Conway of the US Army wrote in his essay, War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame? , that “religion played the essential role amongst the individual combatants (the Crusades) and was the essential fabric of the two warring cultures. Economics, power, influence, and trade are the true causes; causes that hold firm regardless of the religion factor.” Seldom has a conflict been fought solely because of religion.

The point is not to dismiss the role that religion has played in many conflicts, past and present. Rather, the intent is to point out that placing the blame squarely at the feet of religion is a gross overstatement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as a good illustration. There is a clear religious element involved here, on one side there is the Jewish state of Israel and on the other side are the Palestinian people and their state which is predominantly Muslim. Moreover, some of the participants on this conflict such as Hamas and radical Orthodox Jews make strong theological claims such as "God gave us this land." However, at its core, this conflict arises from disputes over self-determination and land (i.e. occupied territories, checkpoints, pre-1967 borders, control of seaports and roads, etc.) and its main participants, the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, have secular not religious roots. The founders of the modern state of Israel were secular Jews and the PLO was founded as a secular group whose goal is to prohibit Zionism and to gain self-determination for the Palestinian people and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Again, there is no doubting the religious overtones in this conflict but to claim that this conflict is solely a religious conflict is unfounded. Some have even argued that this conflict would remain the same even without the religious elements.

Of course, there are those who strongly disagree and believe that religion has caused more wars than any other factor and produced the greatest evils in this world, none more so than modern atheists. Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian apologist and author, contends that atheists have "greatly exaggerated the crimes that have been committed by religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics." This is a strong statement that runs counter to popular belief about the role of religion in historical conflicts but it is a statement that merits further examination in the next installment of Table Talk.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

Thinking About Dexter

If you had the skill, opportunity, and will to kill murderers that the police were unable to catch, would you? Before answering too quickly, suppose one of the murderers you were stalking killed one of your children, or a spouse, or a parent. Suppose the police, after investigating the murder for months, closed the case as unsolved. Suppose further you had excellent information that led you to be very confident that you knew the identity of the murderer but the information you possess would never stand up in court. Does this make a difference in how you would act? Should it?

The Table Talk series examines philosophical ideas that are discussed in everyday settings whether it is at the dinner table, the water cooler, the kid’s soccer game, or on your pillow. Table Talk has covered topics such as common sense, the importance of religion, personal privacy, and the existence of God. Thankfully, the topics seem endless.

I became aware of an interesting conversation recently that focused on whether it is appropriate to watch the highly acclaimed TV series Dexter. There were many mixed feelings among the interlocutors involved. For those who are not familiar with the show, it is about a young man named Dexter Morgan who is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Dexter moonlights as a serial killer who is governed by a code created by his adoptive father, Harry, who was a Miami cop himself before he passed away. The code is called the “code of Harry.” Harry recognized that Dexter, at an early age, had a propensity to kill and Harry trained him to kill other murderers who were never caught. This code was implemented to help Dexter not get caught and to help Dexter live a somewhat normal life.

This hugely popular show is suspenseful and intriguing and produces a number of questions. For some, it even poses a moral dilemma: is it ethical for someone to watch and enjoy a show that portrays a serial killer in a somewhat friendly moral light? Is Dexter truly carrying out justice? Isn’t Dexter saving other innocent lives by taking known murderers off the street? Does this justify his lifestyle? These questions raise a variety of philosophical issues.

At the heart of the matter lie two significant issues. First, films and TV shows have an enormous ability to shape culture thus serving as an important medium for the transmission of ideas into society. Second, the entertainment produced by Dexter is “entertainment by way of mass murder” as coined by Mark Vernon of The School of Life in London, UK. The former has implications for the importance of examining philosophical ideas propagated by films and TV shows. The latter proclaims that Dexter is truly meant for entertaining a TV audience although this form of entertainment is not accepted by all. These two ideas serve as the launching pad for the variety of philosophical issues brought about by this hugely popular TV series.

Arguably, one of the most fascinating and appealing elements of the show must be the sense of justice (if it truly is justice) that is felt by audiences as they watch Dexter eliminate murderers who have never been caught or who were acquitted. Dexter seems to “fill in the cracks” left by our legal system. Not only is this highly entertaining to some but, more importantly, it may be morally satisfactory. Let’s not kid ourselves, although Dexter believes that he is balancing the scales of justice, his greater concern is satisfying his lust for murder. However, fans of the show will be moved by his elimination of murderers who they feel should not be running around the streets scot-free. Although they intend it as entertainment, the creators and writers of Dexter depend on an important philosophical assumption in order to make this TV series popular: the notion that criminal injustices occur in American society and the fact that there probably is a resultant disillusionment by the populace towards the American legal system. This concept carries the appeal of the show to its fans. This philosophical underpinning is necessary for the popularity of this TV series.

Whether the creators and writers of the series use this intentionally is another issue altogether, but they do utilize the notion (not a universal notion) that the legal system has its shortcomings and disappoints some. This is why some fans can watch and tolerate the vigilantism displayed on the show. Moreover, Dexter does not employ a blatant “slasher” motif. It does not have the feel or visual dynamics of a typical gore or slasher film like Halloween or Friday the 13th. The actual time devoted to the acts of homicide is very small; much more time is spent on the existential issues such as relationships and personal choices and the resultant ethical implications. These elements along with Dexter’s plot to remain undercover are another fascinating aspect of the TV series.

Philosophically speaking, there still remains questions to be answered such as the morality of watching Dexter and the notion of justice promoted by the character of Dexter Morgan. Ethically, some question whether they should view—and by implication—support such programming. This is an ethical concern because they feel that, by watching the TV series, they may be condoning the behavior of Dexter Morgan, the serial killer. It at least sounds legitimate. On one hand, Dexter can contain humorous moments which tend to lighten the otherwise weighty subject matter. On the other hand, the calculated and uncaring Dexter Morgan murders people. It is easy to see why this can pose a moral dilemma for some people-entertainment on one hand but murderous actions on the other. Providing a fool-proof response to this is not easy.

Cultural relativists may argue that if it is not harmful to the individual then it is okay to watch. Virtue ethicists may argue that watching a homicidal vigilante will not cultivate the proper virtues in life. Kantians may argue that you can only watch Dexter if the moral principle you employ that enables you to watch it can be considered a universal law. Despite all this, what about schadenfreude, German for delight felt at the failings and sufferings of others? Certainly not all fans of Dexter succumb to schadenfreude when they watch Dexter but for those who watch to simply revel at the sight of others suffering, certainly seems to present a problematic moral situation.

Regarding the notion of justice on the show, there are numerous ethical theories that can be applied here such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative or John Stuart Mill’s greatest happiness principle. But the one ethical theory, specifically a theory of justice, that stands out in the life of Dexter Morgan is retributivism. According to Thom Brooks, Reader in Legal and Political Philosophy at University of Newcastle (UK), retributivism “holds that criminals should be punished to a degree equal to what they deserve.” This certainly sounds like the “code of Harry” and retributivism is something that many people would agree with because, at face value, it seems to be a system where criminals get what they deserve. What better way than for the punishment of the murderers to be equal to their crime? Dexter is simply giving those murderers what they deserve. Is this justice? Well, for one thing, it is not that simple to assess the values of crimes and punishment. But murder seems simple enough, right? You kill someone then the punishment deserved is to be killed yourself. No, it is not that simple. Thom Brooks brings up an interesting objection in his essay for the book, Metallica and Philosophy:

“If murder is the worst crime and the death is the worst punishment, then the punishment fits the crime. But, then again, maybe the worst punishment is being tortured, hung, drawn, and quartered, before being bled to death in front of an angry mob. Why not set this worst punishment “equal” to murder? There is a simple answer: most people find this kind of thing barbaric and evil…We do not impose the worst punishment imaginable on the worst crimes imaginable because we do not want to treat people-even murderers-in that way. It has nothing to do with making a punishment “equal” to the crime. It is instead about fit: a punishment should fit our intuitive sense of what is legitimate and justified for a crime.”

This is an eye-opening argument from Brooks.  This argument can easily be applied to the show. Despite this, there is probably a diversity of views regarding the notion of justice on Dexter. No matter which side you fall on, it is important that we think about Dexter. While all crimes are horrific in their own way, murder has a permanence about it that sets it apart from everything else humans do to one another. Dexter plays on that sense of permanence and draws us into the philosophical question: how ought we to live.

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