PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, May 19, 2006



When a drug is found to have a serious side effect, it is immediately withdrawn from circulation. A lot of pharmacological compounds and molecules are withdrawn at the research stage because of unacceptable side effects. However, what is unacceptable is itself quite subjective. Of course, subjective does not mean arbitrary or something done on a whim of a doctor or researcher. But subjective in the sense that a professional value judgement has to be exercised. For example, cancer drugs are notoriously toxic with some nasty side effects, but they are still used because of the perceived value they might have to a cancer patient. A pain relief drug would be immediately withdrawn if there is a remote chance that it might have a negative effect on the liver, say.

Since this is not an essay on medical ethics, I will not go in ethical issues relating to drugs and medical science. What is important for us is that we expect a drug to be withdrawn if is has a negative side effect. We are prepared, however, to accept a certain degree of side effects, if the benefit of the drug far out weighs the side effects. And thirdly, Although, the decision to withdraw a drug is subjective, we accept that a certain professional process and standard is involved.

If we had to ask a person on the Clapham omnibus, or traffic jam as the case may be, they would certainly agree with the syntax that “totalitarianism is unacceptable.” However, we might not all agree what is totalitarianism, what is unacceptable and what to do about it. So, what I want to consider here is how do we get from a clear consensus of the proposition in syntax form to the disarray and chaos we find ourselves in when it comes to actually doing something about it?

It is very easy to forget that language is quite a complex tool and activity. And one of the easiest, if not convenient, things to forget about language is that its end point is an action. When we see a sign saying “emergency exit“ we know exactly what to do in an emergency. The same when we read a report in a newspaper, the result is that we feel we have more information about something which might lead us to change our opinion or whatever. Even this essay has the end point of providing some ideas for discussion during the meeting. So what is the end point of the syntax “totalitarianism is unacceptable?”

The syntax test assumes that the person answering the question (Is totalitarian acceptable or unacceptable?) understands our question and knows the meaning of such words as “totalitarianism“ and “unacceptable“. But the most serious assumption we make is that our meaning of totalitarianism & co is the same as the person being questioned. I don't think we are justified in making that assumption about the other person.

My understanding of “totalitarianism“ or “unacceptable“ could easily have different meanings to other people. For some people, “unacceptable” might mean, I have to change things now and actually start to change things now, whereas for others it might just be a label to describe a situation. In one case unacceptable might lead to physical action, whereas in another it might just lead to an opinion.

Why doesn't the word “unacceptable,“ or even words like evil, bad, intolerable, have the imperative import of say words like, stop, emergency exit, help, toxic, side effect? Could it be that we can identify more with buildings on fire or terminal diseases than say totalitarian political systems?

It could also be that most of us just have some kind of political inertia when it comes to political activism. Maybe, this is the result of a feeling that we are incapable of changing things as individuals. And probably, even as a society. An alternative is that we don't identify ourselves with the governing elite of our country. And as a consequence we don't read an imperative meaning in words such as unacceptable in a context of politics. So, the meaning of unacceptable depends very much on our opinion or belief in our role as political agents. Of course, not everyone feels they are ineffective in changing politics systems or are of the opinion that it’s just not their business.

Even if we did agree that a regime was totalitarian, that a regime is unacceptable and that we have hard evidence showing why a regime is unacceptable, this still doesn't necessarily lead to action. So far I haven't said anything about which government (system) is being totalitarian: our government or somebody else's government? This question has a direct bearing on two other fundamental questions? The first is, what do we mean by totalitarianism? The second question is, should we always remove a totalitarian state or regime?

What is totalitarianism? What do we mean by this? Because of its inbuilt ambiguity we probably cannot give an all encompassing definition. If we tried to do this by referring to the traditional meaning of the concept then we'll probably end up including all governments and all political systems under this heading. I won't refer to any specific author (a quick search on the internet will give you a good idea of who the major authors are), but we might consider totalitarianism to include such things as single party state, concentration of power in a few people, maybe exercised arbitrarily, lack of freedom of speech and/or movement of people. Totalitarian regimes are also very good at playing the nationalistic card; excessive nationalism is the equivalent of an “emergency exit” sign in a building.

One important reason why we cannot have a precise definition is because political institutions and system are the result of cultural development, historical events, traditions and political evolution. So, what might be totalitarian for one culture might be normal for an other. And the reverse is true, what might be considered as democracy for some might be incarceration for others.

At face value, this might be true, but not if we consider the issue carefully. This is where the analogy with medical drugs comes in. Some drugs act on the pathogen or disease in different ways. Some might have certain types of side effects, some serious, some not, some extreme, some not so much. However, what is certain is that a given drug is specific to a given disease or a given treatment. Of course, some drugs might become useful for other things, but this does not change the specificity principle. Normally, one does not prescribe a cancer drug for pain relief, say. Maybe one does, I don't know, what we do know is that there is usually a clear demarcation between one drug and another. By the same token, things might be hazy at the edges, but we can still find a demarcation test to establish, on the balance of probability, whether a system is totalitarian or not.

Maybe, the criteria should not be what a political system can do for us, but what does it do with opposition or people who believe that things should be done differently. Some supporters or apologists of totalitarian system always point at the supposed benefits people enjoy under the system. And if that was not enough, reference is always made to situations of times gone by for good measure.

However, education can always be given cheaply or at no cost whatever the political system; a health system can always be free at the point of use whatever the political concept we operate under. In other words, social benefits might not always be the best test we can use. On the other hand, how a system copes with opposition is a real test. A system that does not tolerate opposition, or worse, liquidates or incarcerates people with different opinions, is a good indicator whether a system is totalitarian or not.

But opposition in a totalitarian state is a bit of a catch 22 situation. If one claims one’s right to oppose the regime, one is probably going to end up in some serious trouble. If one does not express one's opinion then things are ok and the system works. One can even escalate the drama and use violence against the totalitarian system. But this means doing the same things as the system one is trying to oppose. In other words, trying to start a new system using the same tactics as the old regime might not set a good.

In a way, what we mean by totalitarianism is insignificant unless we are prepared to do something about it. On the one hand, if it is dangerous for people within the system to take action, it is equally dangerous for people outside the system to try and help out. This is a very convincing argument why words like “unacceptable“ might not have the imperative import words like “toxic“ or “help“ have. Doing something about totalitarian regimes does not come instinctively. Removing or taking action against totalitarian regimes takes a calculated and intentional action.

Another reason why totalitarian systems are allowed to flourish is that we sometimes stand to gain from these systems although we might not agree with what the regime does. This benefit can be economic, social or even political. For example, a country using totalitarian policies can manage over a billion people and a well run economic system, which in turn can create regional stability others can prosper in. Of course, this does not answer the question whether a totalitarian system is stable or, better still, inherently destined to disappear? We can say one thing for sure, though, they are safe until the opposition reaches a critical mass.

Does a global market stability justify a totalitarian system? In a way, a question about what to do with totalitarian systems, is a question asking about a balance between altruism and self preservation. Trying to help others can seriously affect one's welfare, safety or security. Not to mention that some people might not even be grateful for one's efforts. And as we know from present day realpolitik, turning a blind eye can be more than just rewarding.

Curiously, there seems to be a parallel between helping to get rid of totalitarian regimes and drugs. Those in charge for removing unsafe drugs from circulation have, in theory, no person interest in the matter. The unacceptable side effects only affect patients who need to take the drug. The parallel is that at least at face value, getting rid of a totalitarian regime in an other country will generally benefit the people ruled by that regime. Of course, I am excluding in this example, situations where the totalitarian regime is a direct threat to one's democratic country or security.

If you remember, I set out to explore how we get from the syntax consensus of the proposition, totalitarianism is unacceptable, to the chaos we find about actually doing something about. A choice between altruistic behaviour and self preservation is always a difficult choice. So it is not surprising that this should also be reflected at the practical end of the issue. But this choice is not the only reason, nor the most fundamental for the discrepancy.

Going back, for the last time, to the drug selection analogy, the people who decide whether to approve a drug or not are themselves professionally qualified. And not only that, but they also have a very sophisticated science in the background as an arbiter. Questions about actions relating to what is acceptable or unacceptable are grounded in ethics and moral systems. Of course, we can study moral behaviour scientifically, but does that mean that ethics is a science? Moreover, moral behaviour is human behaviour in which case, who are the experts when it comes to doing something about totalitarianism?

Take care


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