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The Moral Wrongs of Obamacare. Part 1. Entrenching the Medical-Industrial Compex

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I believe it is important to set down, in as methodical and systematic way as possible, the ways in which Obamacare is not only risky or potentially harmful, but actually something morally wrong.  Several times I’ve begun to write an article that does this, and each time had to quit as the task became simply overwhelming in scope.  It is a big issue, a huge one.  We’re talking about something that may constitute, both in what it is and what it may lead to, a fundamental restructuring of the system of American government and the nature of our society.  Yet, as many times as I give up and put the project aside, I feel dissatisfied for having done so and return to it again.

In part, what I face is what every person faces when, in a debate, they encounter the big lie.  The big lie is the tactic by which a party presents a falsehood so enormous, so outrageous, so utterly beyond the realm of plausibility, that it literally overwhelms the ability of the other party to refute it.  The opponent is simply flummoxed, bewildered by the sheer audacity.  The big lie changes the ground rules of a debate, transforming what should be an earnest attempt by two agents of good-will to find the truth, into something of bad-will.  The big lie is a power play, a trick, which seeks to win  by deceit and  subterfuge.

The big lie tactic therefore, is not used, or should not be, by decent people, either in debates between two people, or between groups of individuals in a social or political context.  However in the present case we are not debating an individual, nor groups of individuals.  We are ‘debating’ – in a broad sense of that term – a vast system, something intrinsically amoral.  It is a system like or analogous to the military-industrial complex, but something much greater; a system that includes our government, our political parties, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and our news and entertainment media.  Moreover, each of us is, to varying extents, consciously or unconsciously, part of this system.  Anyone who has a mutual fund or retirement plan with dividends linked to Wall Street profits, is, to some extent, part of this system.  This system is our opponent.  That it resorts to the big lie to sway public opinion is the least of our problems.

One reason the big lie tactic is so effective is that an opponent faced with the prospect of refuting it envisions how hard a task it will be, and simply gives up before trying.  Much as I might like to do that, I simply don’t see it at as an option.  The only alternative, therefore, is to try to make this daunting task more manageable by breaking into several smaller ones.  The present, then, will be the first of several installments dedicated to this.

Preliminary Remarks

Some preliminary remarks are in order.  First I wish the reader to know that I am most certainly committed to the principle of social justice – both in general, and in the particular matter of health care.  I *am* a health professional, and I chose that profession not to make money, but because helping people with health and psychological problems is in my nature.  It is my vocation (or, at least, one of my vocations).  In fact, it is precisely *because* I care about people’s health that I am opposed to Obamacare, which I see as ultimately harmful to public health. I have major political and economic concerns, also; but, frankly, I would be willing to overlook these were it not for the disastrous effects on public health.

Second, I should make clear that it is not Obamacare in particular that I am concerned about, but rather any attempt to place the healthcare system further under the management and direction of the federal government.  If a plan of universal health care administered at the level of local or county governments could be developed, I would have much less reason to object.  In any case, it is certainly not because the new plan is associated with President Obama that I object.  For me that is simply a term.

Third, I wish to clarify what I mean by “moral wrong.”  I mean this in the strictly technical sense of moral philosophy.  That is by “moral wrong” I mean (1) what is opposite or opposed to moral good; and (2) that which we therefore have a moral responsibility to prevent, change, or oppose.

Finally, it should be pointed out that I am not writing this out of any need or wish on my part to merely complain or criticize.  There is already too much emotionalism, antagonism, and partisan strife in society today.  I know better than to be part of that.  I am writing because I should.  I have many years’ experience in diverse facets of the health field, an insider’s perspective (including positions at
Duke University, Wake Forest University, and the RAND Corporation) and, it could honestly be said, a uniquely informed one.  Much as I might like to evade it, I have a civic responsibility to write about this.

These clarifications made, let’s proceed to the analysis.

Reason 1.  Industrial Medicine

The first and greatest reason why I see Obamacare as morally wrong is that it will consolidate and entrench the paradigm of modern industrial medicine in our society.

By consolidate I mean it will strengthen and make more prominent the model of industrial medicine, and those organizations and institutions that promote it, and it will drive out competing, non-industrial health paradigms.  By entrench I mean that, once consolidated, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible, at least for many years, to change that paradigm.  We will watch in anger and disgust as public health and healthcare deteriorate, and be powerless to change it.

By modern industrial medicine I mean the prevailing system by which medicine is practiced today, which emphasizes (1) domination of healthcare and policy by large corporations, (2) treatment rather than prevention; and (3) expensive rather than moderately or low-priced alternatives.

The modern paradigm of industrial medicine is inextricably linked with profit motivation.  The innovations in healthcare, the new products that emerge, are those which deliver the most profit to corporations.  The nature of the system is that there is every incentive to develop expensive, invasive interventions, and virtually none to produce less expensive and less invasive treatments.  The paradoxical nature of “health for profit” can be illustrated with a hypothetical example: if we had the technology to develop a pill that cured the common cold that cost .1 cent per dose, we wouldn’t do so.  There’d be no profit in it.  But if the same pill could be sold for $10, companies would be fighting tooth and nail to develop and market it.

Similarly, it is well within our technological ability to wipe out a global scourge like malaria; but this receives comparatively little attention, because it isn’t seen as profitable.  I don’t know the actual statistics, but wouldn’t surprise me if more money is spent in the US developing new versions of Viagra and Cialis than goes into anti-malaria research.

Malaria doesn’t affect public health in the US, but obesity does.  So do the effects of alcohol and tobacco use.  The effects of this deadly trio alone probably account for at least half of all hospital admissions in the US.  We have virtually an unlimited ability to prevent these problems.  Anybody can stop smoking.  Most obesity can be prevented by intervening in childhood.  But, again, it’s much more profitable to treat the outcomes of these problems than to concentrate on prevention.

This problem affects the very foundation of medicine, the culture of it.  It affects how physicians, nurses, and medical researchers are trained.  It affects undergraduate education.  By the time someone gets an MD or a research PhD, they are fully indoctrinated in this model.  It becomes difficult to think of health in any other terms.

As long as the federal government stays out of healthcare there is some hope for change.  We always have the potential for new ideas and innovators to arise at the grass-roots level, to demonstrate new paradigms, which catch on and influence others.  But the danger of Obamacare is that, in centralizing healthcare delivery, planning, and policy to an unprecedented degree, and laying the foundation for still further centralization, we make it much harder for the grass-roots kind of innovation to occur.  Instead, will have a massively top-down model of dissemination of technology and practice.  Centralized boards will review and approve only certain medical procedures, and will pressure all players to use these methods.  Further, it is the large corporations who will have the most influence in choosing these methods and designing policies.  Naturally these policies will lean towards  practices and a basic philosophy of medicine that produces the most profits.

It is not just the actual dangers outlined above that concern me.  Beyond these is the fact that we will be placing literally our lives under the control of a vast, amoral, non-human system.  We have already seen, over the last 50 or 60 years, what happens when we place national defense in the hands of such a system: instead of peace, which is the natural desire of every human being, we have perpetual war.  Our collective policy becomes utterly dehumanized, and inimical to each individual.  I do not see how we can expect anything different when we hand over control of our health to the federal government and profit-driven corporate system.

Laurens P. Hickock — The Cause of Peace Demands the Specific Attention of Christians

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The Cause of Peace Demands the Specific Attention of Christians

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by  Laurens P. Hickock
American Advocate of Peace, 1835, Vol. 2, No. 9, pp. 17—27.*

“There is not one generation of the church which has slumbered over the evils of war that can stand guiltless.”

IF war could be abolished, and peace universally secured, the combined voice of mankind would admit it were a consummation devoutly to be wished.

But notwithstanding this admission, to some the whole subject of peace is but an Utopian scheme. To others, who admit the truth of inspired prophecy, universal peace is something that will take place in some distant age, but like the beauty of a fair morning, or the blessings of a fruitful season, it will be the absolute gift of God, exclusive of all human agency. Some entirely despair of its accomplishment, and feel that war, though terrible, is as inevitable as the tempest and the earthquake. Others stand aloof, and gravely rebuke its friends because they propose no one simple, undisputed principle, around which all may gather for common adoption and combined action. And others again seem to feel that no special effort is necessary, imagining that the general advancement of philosophy and Christianity will do the work.

We are persuaded that these views are fraught with no little danger to the whole cause of Christian benevolence and philanthropy.  Their influence, so far as it extends, (and this in some of the above forms is over a wide portion of the community,) discourages all distinct attention to the cause of universal peace on earth.  The first point is, to convince the advocates of Christian benevolence that something can, and ought to be done in the way of specific and direct action.   The evils of war, in all their dreadful detail, should be exposed to view, its effects upon social enjoyment, national prosperity, civil liberty, life, morals, religion, and every thing which enters into the composition of human happiness, should be effectually exhibited, for the purpose of awaking and directing the feelings of mankind; but still the great object now is to bring the Christian community to feel obligation and be excited by a sense of duty and responsibilityIn our view, the church, (and we use the word as including all who believe and love the gospel), must put forth efforts with specific reference to the cause of peace, or war will forever remain spreading its mourning and woe over the face of the earth, and laying its obstacles before every movement of the good, in their efforts of humanity and benevolence.

Full and deep is our persuasion, that the church will soon see, and be obliged to admit, that the cause of benevolence most fearfully, and perhaps fatally, labours under the weight which the spirit of war is from every side throwing upon it. But alas! so far is the church from this position, that if Christianity, in form and feeling as she now exhibits it, were to become universal, it would leave the nations of the earth still in the allowed use of all their terrible preparations for the slaughter of each other. And would such a result be that day of glory which the ancient Prophets have so exultingly described? Surely, something must be done to spread Christianity through the earth, a better form than her professors have practiced for sixteen centuries, or the leopard and the kid, the lion and the lamb, will never lie down together. Good men, who love the gospel, and believe its predictions, must be brought to act together, on this subject, with zeal and energy. The time is coming when nation shall no more lift up sword against nation, but like every other predicted good to man, it involves the obligation of his own direct agency; and it is time that with the prediction in view, and the way of its fulfilment clearly seen, the Christian world were up and moving on in firm faith to its accomplishment.

Many reasons combine their influence in urging to such a direct and specific effort in the cause of peace.

1.  The world will not free itself from war spontaneously.

Evils seldom cure themselves by their own operation. However terrible be the consequences which spring from the lusts of men, we never witness such a phenomenon as the rising of the mass of mankind spontaneously, and throwing off their vices, and thus shaking themselves loose from the despotism of their own appetites. The examples are all the other way. Unless some bold and zealous reformer has risen up, and with unsparing rebuke and faithful warning aroused the people, and in persuasive eloquence led them away from their delusions, they have gone on like the old world, filling the earth with violence; or like Sodom augmenting their wickedness before the Lord “exceedingly,” until his judgments have “cut short the work in righteousness by an awful extermination.” War presents no exception to this general rule. The years of the present century which have already passed, afford no encouragement in regard to the future, when left to its own course. In this term of thirty-five years, are included almost all the wars of Buonaparte, with the horrours of the Russian campaign, the bloody battle of Borodino, the passage of the Beresina, and the final consummation on the field of Waterloo—the wars with Greece, with the massacre at Scio—the war of America with Great Britain—the civil wars of Spain and Portugal—the invasion of Turkey by the Russians, with many other wars of less note, in South America, Europe, and Asia. How loudly do they proclaim that the savage thirst for blood is still unslaked, and that deeds of butchery are not yet foresworn, even by those who bear the Christian name! The present moment, it is true, is more calm; the future prospect is more bright, but it is not by any means the result of the mingled action of the vices and passions of men, working themselves pure from their defilements, by their own motion. The men of peace, and the still more widely diffused principles of peace, though unseen, are abroad in the earth; prayer and labour go hand in hand, and the public mind, unconscious whence it comes, begins to feel their influence. So by the silent influence of the dew of heaven, the air is softened and purified, and a fresher green is spread over the face of nature. But let these few hands hang down, through weariness and despondency, because the professed disciples of Christ refuse any encouraging cooperation, and the nations, unchecked, will pursue the course to which pride, revenge, selfishness, and mad ambition, urge, and the present calm be of but short duration; it will prove but the stillness before the storm. The tempest of war will again sweep over the land, and spread its mangled and bleeding victims over a thousand battle fields.

2. The deep delusion which prevails on this subject.

The public mind seems in nothing to be led on more passively, without rational conviction, and without inquiry, than the subject of war. For ages a deep delusion has rested on the nations, and led millions to the field of battle, unconscious of the cause, and regardless of the reasons of the war, like beasts to the slaughter. The ranks are filled by a thousand expedients. The bounty and pay, the hope of plunder, the freedom from moral restraint, change, excitement, fame, discontent, caprice, conscription, intoxication, all are used to allure or compel the man to become a soldier; and when once enrolled, the force of martial discipline controls and directs him, as passive to all the purposes of rational self-government as the weapon he wields. He is henceforth a simple instrument in the hand of another, to be used in the most effective way for human destruction. An hundred thousand men on a side are thus arrayed against each other; all made in the image of God, responsible to him for every act, at the price of eternal retributions, giving up their reason, and conscience, and submitting to be used by one ambitious or angry man, according to his own unquestioned order, and in blind compliance therewith turning all their force upon each other, to wound, and maim, and kill, in the greatest possible degree, till, in a few hours, half of them have fallen on the field, and their souls by thousands, in all their uncancelled guilt, have gone to the judgment. Where is there delusion so deep and dreadful as this, except it be that which permits the world and the church to look on and see the destruction of their brethren, with no inquiry into its necessity, no examination of its cause, no efforts to avert its certain and frequent recurrence? Here is one of the most astonishing instances to how dreadful an evil the human mind can be exposed, and yet from the force of long continued and deep seated delusion, slumber in guilty neglect and indifference.

A thousand things conspire to perpetuate this delusion. War appeals to all the bad passions of human nature, and also administers to the gratification of what is styled the nobler qualities of man. There is not only revenge and rapine and licentiousness for the depraved, but splendour, and distinction, and power for the ambitious.  Deeds of heroic courage and intrepid valour, and sometimes even of generous sacrifice and patriotic endurance spread a magic charm around this work of butchery, dazzling and deluding the mind, while poetry and its kindred arts lend their aid to heighten the effect. The option so generally imbibed, that this whole subject is beyond the reach of common hands, and in the keeping of legislators and national cabinets, as if they were sacred retreats from the influence of public sentiment, and the intrusion of injunctions of divine authority, with the power of precedent and habit, serve to bind this curse upon the world as with “bands of iron and brass.” Those who “will not touch it with one of their fingers,” bind the burden without resistance or rebuke on others, whose wealth, and sons, and blood, must be put in contribution to sustain it. And can such an evil be removed by efforts having no distinct aim or specific direction?

That credulous heart which has expected such a result, from such means, will meet with certain disappointment. The evil, in its length and breadth, must be measured, and the overwhelming sum of misery and death which it occasions, must be told, with direct purpose to awaken the slumbering millions that they may understand it, and arouse themselves to effort. In no other way will the least ray of hope dawn upon the future.

3.  Peace is important not only as an end, but as a means.

While the final triumph of religion is sure, it is not to be expected that the cause of peace will have no distinct agency in accomplishing this triumph. That it is simply to be combined with other blessings, and not itself to be a powerful agent in the accomplishment of other benevolent aims, is an opinion violating all probability. No subject seems to have filled the minds of ancient Prophets with more ecstacy than this. On no occasion do they pour forth their fervid emotions in more glowing language, than when describing the profound and holy peace which is to pervade the nations under the gospel. Whatever may be the state of the church now, prophets and apostles of old, held this fact in the most prominent and conspicuous point of view. The sons of peace, and the nations of peace, were to be the direct instruments of advancing still farther the principles and blessings of the gospel.

Thus the cause of peace is to be viewed not merely as an item in the last triumph, but as one of the essential agents in securing it.

The common knowledge of the wars of Christendom is one of the greatest obstacles to the success of Christian missionary work. The taunting and cutting remark has been made to more than one missionary— look at home!  The traditions of the bloody Crusades, and the remembrance of the invasion of Egypt by the French, are still retained by all the inhabitants on the plains of Turkey and Persia. Oh! how deep rooted must be the prejudices in many a non-Christian mind, throughout Asia, and suffering Africa, against any gift from nations whom they know to be so often, and so deeply stained with blood. We shall never win their confidence while in one hand we bear the gospel which reveals it, and in the other, hold a sword. Whatever may be the spirit and principles of the new religion, the practice of those nations who profess it will be felt the first, and strike the deepest. No miracle is needed to carry conviction to non-Christian minds that the religion of the Bible is from heaven. It is enough that it be sent to them by a people who practice according to its pure and peaceful principles.

4.  To clear the church from the guilt of war.

In morals and religion, we are responsible for the evils which we might have prevented, as well as for those which we immediately occasion. There is not therefore one generation of the church which has slumbered over the evils of war, that can stand guiltless before God. Though in times of general ignorance, God may have “winked at it,” yet now most emphatically, is the call to repent, and to “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.” Light has been shed upon the evils, and the absurdity of war as a redress for national grievances, both from nature and the Bible. Whatever may be said of the very few wars in self defence, for national existence, the great proportion of all wars, (the exceptions are so few as not to modify the general rule)—can be characterized only as bloody, savage, guilty transactions. Every injury inflicted, evil incurred, and life lost, cries aloud to heaven for justice, to be executed somewhere. And if the church of God, by slumbering at her post, is giving occasion to evils which she might prevent, she cannot stand acquitted at the bar of her final Judge. Judgment will “begin at the house of God” for it. It may be in the shape of abortive efforts, and fruitless charities, and unanswered prayers. God will speak till his voice be heard, and his meaning understood; and if his professed people refuse then to obey, there remaineth no other judgment but utterly to “destroy both them and their fathers’ house, while enlargement and deliverance shall arise from another place.” The church cannot, therefore, without fearful guilt and danger, refuse fairly to consider this subject, and solemnly and deliberately as in the sight of her Redeemer, decide what she ought to teach—how she ought to act—and where she ought to throw her light and influence. Her missionaries, and those to whom they go, her future sons and daughters, her coming prophets and evangelists, the whole world, need the full announcement of her creed, and this illustrated by her practice. All feeling which approaches the subject of war, other than that of the most serious and prayerful frame of mind, betokens an indifference to its enormities, worthy of all rebuke from both the church and her divine Lord and Master.

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* Another item from the 19th century anti-war movement literature.  Minor edits have been made for the benefit of modern readers — the webmaster.

Written by John Uebersax

December 28, 2012 at 12:27 am

Thomas Chalmers — On Christians Working Together to End War

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Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), ‘Thoughts on Universal Peace (Section 3).  In: Works of Thomas Chalmers.  Philadelphia: Towar, 1830 (pp. 295–303).  This is an example of the remarkable 19th century anti-war literature that awaits rediscovery by modern readers. More examples can be found in The Book of Peace (1845) and on my website.

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III. I trust it is evident from all that has been said, how it is only by the extension of Christian principle among the people of the earth, that the atrocities of war will at length be swept away from it; and that each of us in hastening the commencement of that blissful period, in his own sphere, is doing all that in him lies to bring his own heart, and the hearts of others, under the supreme influence of this principle.  It is public opinion, which in the long run governs the world; and while I look with confidence to a gradual revolution in the state of public opinion from the omnipotence of gospel truth working its silent, but effectual way, through the families of mankind — yet I will not deny that much may be done to accelerate the advent of perpetual and universal peace, by a distinct body of men embarking their every talent, and their every acquirement in the prosecution of this, as a distinct object…. Were each individual member of such a scheme to prosecute his own walk, and come forward with his own peculiar contribution, the fruit of the united labours of all would be one of the finest collections of Christian eloquence, and of enlightened morals, and of sound political philosophy, that ever was presented to the world. I could not fasten on another cause more fitted to call forth such a variety of talent, and to rally around it so many of the generous and accomplished sons [sic] of humanity, and to give each of them a devotedness, and a power far beyond whatever could be sent into the hearts of enthusiasts, by the mere impulse of literary ambition.

Let one take up the question of war in its principle, and make the full weight of his moral severity rest upon it, and upon all its abominations. Let another take up the question of war in its consequences, and bring his every power of graphical description to the task of presenting an awakened public with an impressive detail of its cruelties and its horrors. Let another neutralize the poetry of war, and dismantle it of all those bewitching splendours, which the hand of misguided genius has thrown over it.

Let another teach the world a truer, and more magnanimous path to national glory, than any country of the world has yet walked in. Let another tell with irresistible argument, how the Christian ethics of a nation is at one with the Christian ethics of, its humblest individual.

Let another bring all the resources of his political science to unfold the vast energies of defensive war, and show, that instead of that ceaseless jealousy and disquietude, which are ever keeping alive the flame of hostility among the nations, each may wait in prepared security, till the first footstep of an invader shall be the signal for mustering around the standard of its outraged rights, all the steel, and spirit, and patriotism of the country.

Let another pour the light of modern speculation into the mysteries of trade and prove that not a single war has been undertaken for any of its objects, where the millions and the millions more which were lavished on the cause, have not all been cheated away from us by the phantom of an imaginary interest.

This may look to many like the Utopianism of a romantic anticipation — but I shall never despair of the cause of truth addressed to a Christian public, when the clear light of principle can be brought to every one of its positions, and when its practical and conclusive establishment forms one of the most distinct of Heaven’s prophecies — “that men shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks — and that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn the art of war any more.”

Written by John Uebersax

December 25, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Pseudodoxia – A New Term for an Old Psychological Disorder

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Most educated people know at least a few facts about the life of Socrates, including that:

(1) he claimed to have wisdom only insofar as he admitted his ignorance;

(2) he constantly battled the word-twisting Sophists of his day; and

(3) he was ultimately tried and executed by the ignorant mass opinion of the Athenians.

Knowing just this much one could easily characterize Socrates’ mission as a crusade against false opinion.

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the term ‘false opinion’ occurs often and prominently. Interestingly, the actual Greek term used, pseude doxazein is a verb, not a noun. We might translate it in modern English as something like ‘false opinionizing’, ‘false opining’, or ‘the mental process of forming false opinions’. This is significant, for by understanding false opinion as a cognitive process, we can potentially understand and remedy it..

False opinion afflicts us everywhere, and it is no small wonder that Socrates was so committed to opposing it.  Some examples at the individual and collective level include:

  • I know that I’m right.
  • This other person injured me, so I must retaliate.
  • All Republicans are greedy (or all Democrats are soft-headed ‘bleeding hearts’).
  • The only way to counter terrorism is with multiple wars.

We could easily list a hundred other examples.  Not a day occurs that false opinion doesn’t harm us in dozens of ways.  Every human problem, if not caused by false opinion in the first place, is at least made worse by it.

Because of the importance of false opinion, I propose that we supply a better name for the phenomenon.  A plausible candidate is pseudodoxia (pseudo = false; doxia = opinionizing). This has the same form we use for other abnormal cognitive processes, such as dementia, melancholia, mania, and paranoia. A  term like this helps to underscore the nature of false opinion as a real and distinct cognitive abnormality or disorder.

What, then, do we know or what can we plausibly conjecture about pseudodoxia? Plato and Socrates give us clues, including these:

First, it involves a failure to distinguish between a proven fact and mere opinion. Valid reasoning involves (1) a proven or highly plausible first principle (e.g., all triangles have three sides), and (2) logical inferences derived from valid first principles.

Pseudodoxia, in contrast, involves (1) uncritical acceptance of an unproven and completely conjectural first principle (e.g., ‘I really want to smoke this cigarette’) and (2) logical inferences deduced from a such false or merely conjectural first principles.

Second, pseudodoxia involves an intrusion of wants, desires, and needs into the sphere of reason.  That is, wants and fears co-opt reasoning and judgment. In English, we informally call this sort of thing ‘wishful thinking.’  With false opinion or pseudodoxia, such wishful thinking is not distinguished from true, rational logic; one accepts the conclusions of the former as if it were the latter.

Plato and Socrates also outline for us what must happen to overcome this powerful enemy:

Our first recourse is to avoid the dangers of false opinion is to know it exists.  Once a person is alerted to the workings of false opinion, it becomes apparent how much harm it causes, and one develops the motivation to oppose it.

Second, people must understand that there is an alternative to false opinion.  As noted, false opinion develops in connection with faulty, self-serving first principles.  The antidote is to recognize the role of what philosophers call noesisNoesis is a special mental faculty, like seeing, which apprehends truths directly (bypassing verbal or discursive thought).  Not everything is knowable by noesis — rather, it concerns such things as direct insights into one’s own nature, (‘know thyself’) and moral truths.  For example, sometimes in life we have little epiphany experiences, where, either by reflection, or reading, or by noticing something in another person, we are made aware of the real meaning of something like love, friendship, integrity, and so on.  It is these sorts of things that should form the foundations of our logical inferences, not idle opinion that merely enters our mind as a hostile prejudice or wish-fulfilling daydream.

Thus, to take a concrete example, a soldier at war tends to accept uncritically the assumption that “my opponents are evil, demonic beings.”  Yet something may happen that causes him to see the enemy in a different light.  He may see them wounded, say, or interacting with families.  Then he has a valid, noetic insight:  “Wait, these people are no different from me.”  The conclusions he derives from the latter would constitute true opinion.

Third, another alternative, one based on ‘Socratic ignorance’ is to learn to be content simply to say, ‘I don’t know.’  This is also the strategy of Pyrhhonic skepticism.

I will write more on this, either with further posts or adding to this one, but this is enough to get started.

Written by John Uebersax

April 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

The Psychology of Political Fighting

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Question:  Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist.  Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now?  It seems like that’s all people do these days?  Perplexed in Peoria.

Answer: Dear Perplexed.  Thank you for your question.  No doubt many people are asking the same thing.

The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one.  There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response.  In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.

Imitation.  Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior.  Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation.  For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture.  Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword.  We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones.  This is related to the phenomenon of conformity.  In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way.  They can change very rapidly.  Once a critical mass of  “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform.  Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.

Instigation.  The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict.  News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation.  As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government.  Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism.  We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm  us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.

Stress.  Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody.  It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.

Ignorance.  People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects.  First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking.  Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose).  Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy.  Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills.  Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.

Laziness.  This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative.  Partly this is due to stress and fear.

Lack of good examples.  This is self-explanatory.  Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones.  Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.

False opinion.  By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact.  Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions.  Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely.  At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs.  But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts.  Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts.  In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.

Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates.  (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant).  From Socrates we also learn the solution.  Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance.  That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.”  The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions.  By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.

Schematizing.  In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world.  This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception.  We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it.  If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so.  We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.

Identity.  One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity.  If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses.  People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.

Perversity.  So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord.  These ones are not very threatening.  Most people can probably agree that they exist.  But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues.  The first of these is the perverse side of human nature.  Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good.  Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy.  Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose.  In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful.  The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.

Concupiscence.  If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples).  To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order.  The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience.  And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason.  By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one  has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.

Collective selfishness.  From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level.  We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures.  To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused.  If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged.  Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.

Question:  That’s more than I bargained for!  With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless?  How can we straighten out something this complex?

Answer:  It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others.  If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible.  Fortunately, there is a short cut solution.   So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective.  But there is another dimension to the human person:  that of ethics and moral nature.  In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.

The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure.  All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis.  Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence.  These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc.  In short, it means seeking the finer things.  This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.

Question:  Great!  So how do we get other people to do that?

Answer:  The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.

The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.

Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties.  A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her.  If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.

Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it.  Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.

Question:  And how is that done?  Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?

Answer:  One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.)  Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy.  The Westerner will find much of value in  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms.   A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”.  In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable.  The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.

Poll data reveals strong sentiment against Afghanistan war

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Though the information isn’t especially easy to find, semi-regular opinion polls on the Afghan and Iraq wars have been conducted by several sources, including CBS News, Fox News, USA Today, Newsweek, CNN, and the Gallup Organization.  The ABC News/Washington Post polls are especially instructive, because of arguably better-worded questions. (As we know, how a question is phrased can substantially affect results.)

Since 2007, the ABC News polling unit has been asking the question, “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not?” to groups of roughly N = 1000 respondents.

The latest results are described here, and cumulative historical data for the poll can be found here:

Because the cumulative graphs in the report are not very good, I’ve prepared two figures, below, from the data.

The first shows the proportion of respondents saying, “No” to the question over time.  The blue line indicates actual response rates; the green line is a quadratic trend line.  The important thing is the growth of negative opinion, now well over 50%.

Because, each time, from 3% to 5% subjects gave “Unsure” as their response, pro-war opinion and anti-war opinion sum to less than 100%. For example, in July 2010, 53% called the war not worth fighting, 4% were unsure, and only 43% were for the war – a 10% disparity.

Buried in the data is an interesting detail.  Respondents were asked to say whether they felt “strongly” or “somewhat”  that the war was worth/not worth fighting. This invites a stratified comparison of rates of strong approval vs. strong disapproval. This comparison is shown in the following figure:

As shown, when considering only those with strong beliefs, the disparity in favor of anti-war sentiment is more marked.  For example, in July 2010, 38% of respondents strongly believed the war was not worth fighting, vs. only 24% who felt strongly the opposite.  Factoring in degree of sentiment, therefore, makes an even stronger case that Americans do not support the war.

Maybe the media hasn’t exactly hidden this information, but they’ve taken no pains to draw attention to it!

Written by John Uebersax

August 3, 2010 at 11:03 pm

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