Sunday, January 25, 2004


This blog has evolved, ratherly quickly, into a collection of essays.  Most have a common theme: I take some facts, usually from news outlets, and use them to illustrate some broader concept.  My intent is to make the linkage between fact and concept in a creative way.  Of course, not all of the posts will follow this format.  Remember, I reserve the right to be unconventional. 

Today, the factual basis for the article is only partly from a news source.  The rest is from an essay first published in 1861, expanded in 1863.  The author was John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806 - May 8, 1873), an English philosopher.  The essay I am referring to is Utilitarianism.  It was unusual among Mill's works, in that it was not so much a cogent analysis of some important topic, as it was an explication of a topic that he had strong feelings about.  Utilitarianism, after all, is a branch of philosophy put forth by Mill's godfather, Jeremy Bentham.  The basic idea of Utilitarianism is that useful things are good; things that are good are good because they are useful.  At first glance, this might seem to be an unemotional, Spock-like philosophy; or, depending or your definition of 'useful,' an embrace of pure hedonism.  An important part of Mill's philosophy addresses this.  He was fond of saying, "It is better to be Socrates unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied."  The implication is that the virtues of Socrates are implicitly better than the virtues of bodily contentment. 

It is not my intent here to argue the merits of Utilitarianism; the various links above lead to expositions of that topic.  Rather, this article is intended to look at one of Mill's works, and see how that can be connected to modern political debate. 

I am now convinced, that no great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought. -- JS Mill, Autobiography

Excerpt from Utilitarianism:

... confusion and uncertainty, and in some cases similar discordance, exist respecting the first principles of all the sciences, not excepting that which is deemed the most certain of them, mathematics; without much impairing, generally indeed without impairing at all, the trustworthiness of the conclusions of those sciences. An apparent anomaly, the explanation of which is, that the detailed doctrines of a science are not usually deduced from, nor depend for their evidence upon, what are called its first principles. Were it not so, there would be no science more precarious, or whose conclusions were more insufficiently made out, than algebra; which derives none of its certainty from what are commonly taught to learners as its elements, since these, as laid down by some of its most eminent teachers, are as full of fictions as English law, and of mysteries as theology. The truths which are ultimately accepted as the first principles of a science, are really the last results of metaphysical analysis, practised on the elementary notions with which the science is conversant; and their relation to the science is not that of foundations to an edifice, but of roots to a tree, which may perform their office equally well though they be never dug down to and exposed to light. But though in science the particular truths precede the general theory, the contrary might be expected to be the case with a practical art, such as morals or legislation. [emphasis mine]

I like to summarize this by saying, "experience always trumps theory."  Over the course of my life, I often have seen people try to refute some kind of observation by saying "that can't be, because (insert theoretical principle here.)  Or they will describe some atypical experience to me and then ask, "does that make sense? "I almost always say in response: "If it happened, then it must make sense.  If it doesn't seem to make sense, that means we just don't understand it yet."  Mills goes on to say:

All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. [emphasis mine]

This excerpt is basically a refutation of ideology.  Here I am referring, not to the kind of idealism espoused by John Lennon ("you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one;") but rather the idealism of ideologues.  An ideologue is a person who holds so tightly to some kind of idea, that his or her behavior is determined almost exclusively by that one idea; competing ideas, and perhaps even common sense, are not even considered.  In modern political process, this kind of ideology leads to such things as unilateralism and promotion of a one-party state.  A biologist might say that this is the philosophical equivalent of inbreeding. 
Secretariat, oil on linen by C. Picavet
To follow through  with this analogy, let's say you start out with two fine horses, a mare and a stallion; both are bred from champion racehorses.  In your pursuit of further greatness, you might be tempted to breed a whole herd from just those two horses.  Indeed, the first generation might turn out a number of fine steeds.  But if you keep breeding this same small population, soon you will end up with nothing but a bunch of runts.  Indeed, you might very well end up with nothing but infertile runts. 

Now, let's look at the recent crop of Republican Presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, and now Bush 43.  Eisenhower, born in Texas, was by most accounts a good president.  He was a moderate.  He kept the budget balanced, and supported desegregation.  Nixon, although he left in disgrace, was considered to be intelligent.  He formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and ended the Vietnam War.  Ford, also had a reputation for being intelligent, and had the virtue of being rather benign, a welcome change from his predecessor. Reagan, although he did a number of bad things, was essentially a nice guy.  Bush, the 41st President, started a war.  At least it was a war that had popular support. 

If ideology is carried by a recessive gene, then Bush 43 is a homozygote.  (I know: don't ask, don't tell.)  To examine this point, let's look at the following quote  from an article by Roger Burbach (link from Counterpunch.opg):

Bush Ideologues vs. Big Oil

The Iraq Game Gets Even Stranger


Weekend Edition
October 3 / 5, 2003

Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) argues, "administration neoconservatives like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz are dreamers driven more by ideology than by concrete material interests. They believe the United States is virtuous and has a mission to remain indefinitely as the world's sole superpower.

They don't really care about specific oil interests. Iraq became the focal point for their dreams so the United States could exert unparalleled power in reordering the Gulf, the Middle East and the world."

I was surprised to find the material quoted above.   A common perception is that one reason we invaded Iraq was to give a boost to the big oil companies.  This perception may be misguided, aided by the association between Bush, Cheney, and big oil companies.  The Burbach article goes on to explain that, big oil affiliation notwithstanding, the primary interest of the ideologues now in power is in the military:

Other analysts of the Iraqi war like Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies see the neoconservatives as tightly aligned with "unreconstructed cold warriors" like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "They represent the interests of the defense industry and want to see ever expanding military budgets for the world's only superpower."

Indeed, the Pentagon has proposed a 7% increase in the military budget for next year.  This request is made despite the administration's public statements that we need a smaller, leaner, faster-moving military, with a new emphasis on special operations.  The connection between this, and the Utilitarian ideas explicated by Mills, is found in the next paragraph from the Burbach article:

The problem for the ideologues and militarists is that their dreams of forging a new world order by invading Iraq are contradicted by reality. As Toensing notes "the war planners thought they could simply lop off Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party in Iraq and install their own hand picked rulers." Ahmad Chalabi and other exiled Iraqi's grouped together in the Iraqi National Congress convinced the Pentagon that "liberated" Iraqis would welcome US troops with flowers and rice when they took Baghdad. Of course as we now know from the growing toll of US causalities in Iraq, Chalabi and his cronies duped the Bush administration into believing what they wanted to hear.

I happen to believe, that if the decision to go to war in Iraq had been preceded by a careful analysis of the situation, considering all sources of information, and gaining input from all sides of the issue, that we either 1) would not have started the war in the first place, or 2) we would have anticipated the current insurgency, and waited until we had penetrated the potential insurgents more effectively before starting the war.  In my view, the only possible justification for the was is that it was an humanitarian mission.  In Utilitarian terms, the horrors of the war could be seen as justified by the need to liberate the people of Iraq.  In order to best pursue this end, it would have been necessary to anticipate the political turmoil that followed the toppling of Saddam's statue.  Instead, what happened was that the United States started a war blindly, pursuing a misguided ideal, rather than a greater good.