Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Monbiot on altruism and philosophers

George Monbiot asserts that the Common Cause Foundation has made the 'transformative' discovery that people aren't very selfish.  Or maybe it's not so transformative because, he say, science knew that all along.  Consistency aside, we should shun "philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau" (among others) because their accounts were "catastrophically mistaken".

This is what you get when someone doesn't know the limits of his competence.  It's wrong about philosophers (and economists) in a number of ways, and the survey's findings can hardly be 'transformative'.

For a start, it is childish to make a big deal of this survey.  Yes, a large majority, when you ask, say nice things rather than nasty things.   That's not behaviour.  Only a biologist who knows nothing of surveys or psychology could be so clueless.  People who actually look at society (e.g. Robert Putnam) have pointed to a decreasing interest in public goods:  no 'transformative' bunch of verbal responses can undermine that finding.  And innate selfishness, regarding these researchers, is a straw man.  They don't go on about 'selfishness' but about the decay of institutions that have effects not at all attributed to innate human characteristics.

As for philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau...

First, every single social contract theorist and classic philosopher who's made assertions about self-interest has noted that self-interested  desires include other-regarding desires.   These are universally assumed to extend at least to immediate family, but could reach much further.   So no philosopher has asserted that people are 'selfish' in any relevant sense.

Second, all well-known social contract theorists have asserted that the state of nature is a construct within a thought experiment, a state of affairs which may or may not have occurred.  This can hardly be 'mistaken'.

Third, Rousseau came closest to seeing the state of nature as a reality but in the Discourse on Inequality he suggests that orangutans may be the original, natural man.  In other words he situates the state of nature in, well, nature, millions of years before the emergence of the genus homo, never mind homo sapiens.  Given that and an only very slightly generous reading of the text, he then makes pretty good sense.  Moreover he spends a great deal of time presenting his view on the emergence and decisive importance of sympathy and empathy.  By no stretch of the imagination does he conceive of the human beings who form societies as 'selfish'; quite the contrary.

Fourth, Hobbes and other social contract theorists do not assert that humans are naturally 'selfish' even in the broad sense that includes other-regarding desires.  To take Hobbes, he says that humans are set one against another, not because of innate selfishness or greed or aggression, but because they compete for an irreducibly scarce commodity - security. (Leviathan I.13)  And for Hobbes the state of nature is simply a state where contemporary humans lack government - for example, Yugoslavia in time of civil war.  This has nothing whatever to do with "our innate, ancestral characteristics", Monbiot's witless take on the state of nature.

Fifth, the theories about altruism with which I'm familiar are weak.  Game theorists (some in biology) note that altruism is 'logical' in the sense that those who simply retaliate do worse in a *series* of games than those who don't.  But, as other theorists have noted, this doesn't carry much weight because in the real world, retaliation can end the series of games.

Then there's David Gauthier, who argues that, in a certain population, socially minded 'constrained maximizers' do better than narrow, 'straightforward maximizers'.   But his reasoning sneaks in assumptions about the proportion of one to another, and about the trust that constrained maximizers are rational to afford one another.  These assumptions are accepted by approximately no one.  In any case, as already noted, straightforward maximizers may well have other-regarding desires.  Gandhi might well have counted as a straightforward maximizer.

Finally Monbiot might want to consider the varieties of 'altruism' before he gets enthusiastic about it.  If I go out of my way to help others, even make sacrifices for them, I may do so out of loyalty to my family or town or region or clan or tribe, my country or race or ethnic group or co-religionists.   (Animal loyalties, too, may not extend to their entire species.)   I might also, out of those same loyalties, harm 'outsiders' whom I see, rightly or wrongly, as a threat.  Or I might harm them simply to obtain some benefit for 'my' people.  A great many atrocities are committed largely out of altruistic love for others, that is, for certain others.

It is a shame that Monbiot deploys his rubbish to pronounce on serious matters like Syria.  That degrades rather than enhances an understanding of the horror that transpires there.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Russia's price for peace in Syria

[This is a cleaned-up version of an article the appeared in Counterpunch.  I'd stopped writing for them because of their Assadist slant but was invited to do something on Syria and saw no harm in it.   However my intended audience isn't the 'anti-imperialists', much less Assadists.]

Russia’s price for peace in Syria

It's extraordinary how so much analysis is devoted to Syria, yet so little to the reasons Russia is there.   Russia is in some ways the key to the catastrophe.  Yes, the West could do more, but only Russia could put an end to the fighting without expense or risk.  Russia could from one day to the next stop direct support of the Syrian régime and pressure Iran to do the same. Russia could drop its Security Council support for the régime, unleashing vastly increased Western pressure on Assad. Iran on its own would know Assad was a lost cause, and he would fall.   All this would cost Russia not one penny, not one life.  Given this is more like common knowledge than a secret, why doesn't it attract more attention?

I submit it's because Russia's atrocious, unforgivable role in Syria has much to do with perfectly legitimate concerns about the West.

Why is Russia in Syria?

Since Russia's motives for pretty much anything are shrouded in an absurd fog of propaganda redolent of the crudest 1950s fanaticism, let's get some things out of the way.  Yes, the Ukrainian rebels are essentially Russian proxies supported by Russian troops and equipment.  Yes Russia or Russian proxies shot down a civilian airliner over the Ukraine - though not even most idiots have managed to argue that this was deliberate.  Yes, Russia broke international law in annexing the Crimea.   Yes, Russian elections in the Crimea and elsewhere are crooked or 'unfree'.  Yes, Ukrainian fascists don't run the Ukraine.  Yes, Russia has plenty of its own fascists* and supports neo-fascists in Europe.  Yes, Russia lies a lot.  Yes, Russia is homophobic, plutocratic, full or racists, corrupt and other bad things.  Yes, Putin is short.   Western leaders are generally taller and it's possible to argue they're a bit better, at least recently.

What's unclear is why any of this should blind so many to the fact that Russia is in Syria for the same reason it is in the Ukraine.  It really has been the target of Western encroachment, not to mention contempt, for decades.   It really has had to put up with attacks on its interests that no sovereign state would find anything but ragingly unacceptable.   Russians are quite correct in thinking that the West wants Russia at its mercy, just as in the good old days after the fall of communism.

What the prejudice against Russia fails to acknowledge is that Russian objectives are not only reactive and defensive, but quite limited.   Putin is not an idiot.  He never wanted to overrun Ukraine.  Controlling it would have been an impossible nuisance at best, never mind the international aftermath.   He wanted to secure a base he already had, in the Crimea, and if possible land access to that base.  In Syria, he also wants to secure a base he already has, in Tartous.

Why all this about bases?  It is again a matter of encirclement.   According to The Pentagon, the US has 662 overseas bases in 38 foreign countries.   How many does Russia have outside the former Soviet Union?  That would be one.  Tartous.

And there lies perhaps the only faint hope for a minimally acceptable end to the Syrian catastrophe.  Russia is a great power with a huge nuclear arsenal.   It will never be held accountable for its crimes, any more than any other nuclear power - any more than the US will pay for what it did in Southeast Asia, or Israel will pay for what it does to Palestinians.  Russia's criminal support for Assad will end when the world makes it worth Russia's while to end it.  What would that involve?

Tartous.  Assad or the Syrian régime may once have been an asset to Russia, but it is now a liability.  Once Syria gave at least the appearance of a serious military power, able at least to exert decisive influence in Lebanon.   Supporting the régime also gave Russia, after Sadat's rejection of a Soviet presence, some vestige of influence in the Arab world:  here was an Arab nationalist state, a brave opponent of Israel, whose strength derived from Russian arms.   Today, the notion of Assad as an Arab nationalist is a joke.  The notion that he would ever challenge Israel is another.  The idea that he could even continue to govern, or that the régime could endure, is at best wildly unattractive.  Putin must know that Assad will never be forgiven atrocities that in state-sponsored cruelty match anything the world has seen and in extent exceed perhaps anything since the Rwandan massacres.  Putin also knows that his intervention brings his long-time support for Assad into the spotlight, and exposes him to undying hatred throughout the Arab and Sunni Muslim world.  That is not too high a price to pay for the Russia's sole strategic possession outside the ring of US bases.  But of course Russia would be delighted to pay far less.

The example of Guantanamo shows that a major military base, particularly with convenient air and sea access, can easily survive in hostile territory.  The US and NATO can make its survival a certainty.   They can recognize its 'legitimate' presence (even if its presence has no legitimacy).  They can also agree that Russia may install and develop facilities to accommodate and support the latest aircraft, submarines and aircraft carriers.  They can accept the deployment there of Russia's most advanced, long-range air defenses, including the S-400 system.  They can accord Russia the right to deploy nuclear weapons.  Shocking?  Welcome to how Russia feels about US bases on its borders.

This would open the door to an end to the Syrian conflict.   Russia would then have something much better than the régime, and much better than Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon.  Indeed Russia would not greatly regret the decline of Iranian influence:  its support for Iran has always been lukewarm, not least because it offends the Arab world.  As for Syria itself, why would Russia care what happens there?  Very likely, after the fall of Assad, an Islamist régime would emerge from the ashes of the Syrian conflict.  This would be no serious threat to a greatly strengthened installation at Tartous.

Does this sound cynical?  Not at all; it is a matter of ending horror.  The fantasies of a liberal future for Syria, or one ruled by squeaky-clean pro-American groups, or bringing the Russian scoundrels to the International Court of Justice ...these are self-indulgent daydreams that push an end to the conflict ever further away.  And it is not a matter of what 'the world' 'must demand', as if there was such an entity in any position to demand anything.  A part of the world, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States, might take steps toward the solution.  The US, weak, feckless, and happy to be done with the Middle East, might go along.  But this can happen only when it is understood that Russia, however evil its Syrian strategy, is beyond the reach of justice, yet far from beyond the reach of remedy.


(*)  Though I’m not concerned to defend Russia against any accusations, it may surprise some that Russia doesn’t always wink at neo-Nazism.  For example, “When government finally decided to fight against fascists, they did a good job”.  Or “Russia neo-Nazis jailed for life over 27 race murders.”  Or “Leader of Russian neo-Nazi group sentenced to life.”  Or “Russian Neo-Nazi Sentenced to Five Years In Penal Colony, But Not For Antigay Attacks”.