Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 4 – Lava

In Epistemology, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on January 18, 2014 at 8:17 PM

And some wonder why it is called the ivory tower:

Suppose that the mountain erupts, leaving lava around the countryside. The lava remains there until S perceives it and infers that the mountain erupted.  Then S does know that the mountain erupted. But now suppose that, after the mountain had erupted, a man somehow removes all the lava. A century later, a different man (not knowing of the real volcano) decides to make it look as if there had been a volcano, and therefore puts lava in appropriate places. Still later, S comes across this lava and concludes that the mountain erupted centuries ago. In this case, S cannot be said to know the proposition.


Alvin I. Goldman, “A causal theory of kn0wing,” in Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske (eds.),  Knowledge: readings in contemporary epistemology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.21.

A comment on drug legalisation

In Drugs, Libertarianism, Nozick on January 11, 2014 at 7:13 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on January 10th 2014, 3:00 pm.

James Bloodworth has an interesting article on Left Foot Forward making the case for the legalisation of cannabis. His major points are utilitarian and libertarian. His utilitarian argument is this: “The illegality of drugs (and the criminal activity which is funded by drugs) causes vastly more misery than the use of drugs.” His libertarian argument is a rhetorical question: “If someone wants to put a substance into their system, then why should it be any of the government’s concern?” He clearly wants his readers to infer from the question that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own bodies. This libertarian position was expressed eloquently by Michael Huemer last year. He argued that drug laws are unjust because “they violate a substantive moral right, the right to control one’s own body, that individuals possess regardless of the decisions of the state.” (Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, [Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], p.172.)

The general libertarian argument about controlling one’s own body does not just work for cannabis use, it also works for the use of any other drug including crack cocaine and heroin.  Depending on the services the state provides it is not at all clear that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own body. In the UK we have a government (tax payer) funded National Health Service. If someone wishes to start injecting themselves with heroin then it does become the concern of government if that person gets addicted and wants to avail themselves of government funded support services such as rehabilitation, withdrawal programmes, prescription methadone and any other services.

The National Health Service is funded by the tax payer which is a payment extracted from people with coercion. If James has the view that people should be able to do what they want with their own body, does he accept that this should be universally applied and not selectively applied? If so, then how can he justify taxing person A to pay for the drug treatment of person B? If James wishes to make the libertarian argument then he should really consider Robert Nozick’s point that “Taxation of earnings is on a par with forced labour.” He explains it thus: “taking the earnings of n hours labour is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing a person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, [Basic Books, 1974], p.169.) In order to be consistent with his argument, James should be of the opinion that someone who started using crack cocaine and became addicted has no right to use the tax payer funded National Health Service for addiction treatment. If this is not his position then his position is that a drug user can control their own body and they can also force others to work for their benefit if that benefit is required. This means that others cannot control their own body as they find themselves having to work extra hours to pay for the treatment of the addict. It is a logical contradiction as it means not everyone can control their own body.

Mao’s Murders

In Book Review, China, Far Left, Marxism on January 5, 2014 at 12:27 PM

This is  a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on January 5th 2014, 12:20 pm

The most memorable historical book I have read in the last few years is Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 about the manmade famine responsible for tens of millions of deaths in Communist China. (I reviewed the book here).  Dikötter has recently had published the prequel: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57. It reads like a horror story but sadly it is true.

What is shocking in the book is how many ingenious ways the Communists found of murdering people.  They had a lot of practice doing so because as Dikötter explains, “the first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.” With an obvious allusion to Daniel Goldhagen’s description of the Nazis, Dikötter labelled many of Mao’s communist henchmen as “willing executioners.”  Even if the Killing was not carried out with gusto, it went on. For as one party official explained to members: “You must hate even if you feel no hatred, you must kill even if you do not wish to kill.” But Mao deemed that the people enjoyed killing. He stated: “The people say that killing counter-revolutionaries is more joyful than a good downpour.” And there is evidence backing up the “willing executioner” label.  Dikötter reports on a twenty year old woman who felt “proud and happy” watching a dozen victims be executed in the wake of a rally she had helped organise.

Mao installed and encouraged a reign of terror and relished in the violence. He declared that they would “sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.” But it was not necessarily the case that those deemed wealthy or landlords were either.  Ordinary farmers were killed. “Some victims were knifed, a few decapitated. Chinese pastors were paraded through the street as ‘running dogs of imperialism’, their hands bound behind their backs and a rope around their necks.”  Bombed, starved to death, beaten to death, shot, tortured, buried alive, dismembered, throttled to death, strung up from trees, chopped up, hair pulled out, ears bitten off, urinated on, forced to wear dunces caps, stripped and exposed to the cold in winter, trussed up, hung from beams, buried up to the neck and torched, stabbed to death with bayonets, decapitated, choked to death with wire, stoned, forced to sit on their haunches with a kettle of boiling water on their heads, flogged, hanged,  forced to cut out their own tongue, knees broken and sodomised. It is not surprising that the party noted that the suicide rate was “incessant.”

People froze to death hiding from the Communists. It was not enough just to kill those deemed landlords, family members and anyone else they might have thought would seek revenge for the killings were also killed. Indiscriminate beatings were common place. In Pingyi county a local official proclaimed, “from now on we should kill somebody at every one of our meetings.”  Elsewhere, merely looking suspicious was sufficient to be thrown in prison.  One candid report noted that in west Sichuan, “there are extremely few people sentenced to a term of five or more years, as some comrades feel that if a prisoner is given a long sentence, he might as well be killed to save time.”  Nor did they hesitate to “beat one to scare the many.”

Children did not escape. Some even under the age of ten were tortured, crippled or maimed for life with some tortured to death. Other children were given away because “the majority of workers lacked food.”

One foreigner who escaped China wrote in her diary, “Don’t let anyone fool you about Communism.” These are wise words. If there is a lesson for the modern day it is this: when communists of all stripes demonstrate in London against government policy and chant “Hang the Tories from the lampposts,” believe them. That is exactly what they will do if they ever get in power.

Dikötter’s book is a worthy read for anyone interested in history and a must read for anyone interested in Communist history. I await his next book on Mao’s Cultural Revolution.