Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ezra’

The Utilitarian Doctors: A True Story

In Animal Rights, History, Human Rights, Utilitarianism on March 10, 2014 at 2:57 PM


The time: 1932. The place: Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), in Tuskegee, Alabama, among the nation’s oldest, most respected African American institutions of higher learning. The study’s sponsor: the U.S. Public Health Service. The participants: 399 impoverished African American men who volunteered to receive, without charge, what they were told was “special treatment’’ for their “bad blood,” not knowing that in fact they suffered from syphilis and that the “medicine” they were given was not medicine at all and would have no therapeutic effect. Also unknown to the participants was the reason for the study. It was not to help them recover from their illness; it was not even to find a cure for syphilis; instead, the study was conducted to determine what would happen to the men if their condition went untreated. To learn this, the researchers thought, would help physicians understand the long-term effects of syphilis. Armed with this knowledge, syphilis sufferers in the future could receive better treatment.

Remarkably, in a country founded on respect for human dignity, the study was carried out on these uninformed, trusting men, from 1932 to 1972-for forty years with funds from, and with the knowing support of, the United States government.

All this is bad enough. What makes matters worse is that even after it became known, in 1957, that syphilis could be treated successfully using penicillin, the researchers withheld the cure. The results? By the time the true purpose of the study was exposed, twenty-eight men had died from the disease, another one hundred had died from related complications, forty wives had been infected, and nineteen children had been born with syphilis.


Tom Regan, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp.68-69.

The Daily Fail

In History, World War Two on February 24, 2014 at 7:41 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on  February 23rd 2014, 8:50 am

The Mail Online has an article up about an anti-fascist, topless, feminist activist in Dresden praising Bomber Harris for the bombing of that city in 1945.  Anna Edwards, who wrote the article, comments:

Between February 13th and February 14th 1945, between 35,000 and 135,000 people were killed by Allied bombing in Dresden.

In his findings in the Irving-Lipstadt trial (Section 13.126), The Hon. Mr. Justice Gray said:

In my judgment the estimates of 100,000 and more deaths which Irving continued to put about in the 1990s lacked any evidential basis and were such as no responsible historian would have made.

The Bombing of Dresden and the Anti-Imperialist Left

In Just War, World War Two on February 16, 2014 at 6:51 PM

This week is the anniversary of the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Best estimates are that approximately 25,000 people died in that bombing raid.[1] Many of them would have been civilians. In my opinion, the death of any innocent civilian in a war is a tragedy and that is irrespective of nation in which that civilian lived. That does not mean to say that I have no consideration of the context of a bombing raid or lose my moral compass as to which side in a war was fighting a just war and which side was not.

The anti-imperialist left do not have the same morals as the rest of us. For them, criticising the actions of Britain, America and their allies takes precedence over criticising Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and other enemies of liberal democracies.

It therefore does not surprise me that a Facebook friend, who was long associated with the anti-imperialist left, has used his Facebook status to highlight the bombing of Dresden and to perpetuate what the historian Frederick Taylor has accurately described as a “pervasive postwar myth” that Dresden had no strategic value. [2] The 1942 Dresdner Jahrbuch (Dresden Yearbook) itself declared that Dresden was “one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich.”[3] In fact, as Taylor demonstrates, factories in Dresden were responsible for making torpedo parts, shells, machine guns, directional guidance equipment, and much more to aid the Nazi war effort. Moreover, the city was a key junction for both North-South and East-West railways in Germany.[4]

The friend also used an out of context quote from a contemporaneous Bomber Command briefing note to express surprise that Bomber Command admitted that the bombing of Dresden was a sign to the Russians as well as an act on German’s industrial base. Had he explained the context then he would have mentioned that it was the Red Army that was advancing on Dresden and that the bombing of the city was to assist this advance.[5]

When challenged as to why he has highlighted the bombing of Dresden in his Facebook status but has not used his status to highlight the German bombing of London in the Blitz, the response, as expected, was that of course he viewed such bombing was a “bad thing.” I have no doubt that this is the case, but it does not change the fact that he has used his Facebook status to highlight the British bombing of Germany but never, as an example, used it to denounce the earlier Luftwaffe’s systematic bombing of Stalingrad which killed substantially more people than the bombing of Dresden.

Highlighting the crimes of Nazi Germany is not really of interest to the anti-imperialist left. The opportunity to attack Britain and America is of far more importance and the distortion of the historical record to do so is not something that seems to bother them.


[1] Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial, (New York, Basic Books, 2002), p.177.
[2] Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February 1945, (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), p.149.
[3] Ibid., p.148.
[4] Ibid., pp.149-165.
[5] Tami Davis Biddle, “Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory,” The Journal of Military History, Volume 72, Number 2, (April 2008), P.427.

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.


In Animal Rights, Philosophy on July 18, 2013 at 5:18 PM

A philosophical question is if it is not morally acceptable to kill another human and eat it, on what grounds can we kill non human animals and eat them? Are we guilty of “speciesism,” the characteristic of which is an unjustified prejudice against other animals? Speciesism can be compared to racism, an unjustified prejudice against other races, or sexism, an unjustified prejudice against a different sex. Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, believes that  many people are  unjustifiably speciesist. A different prominent philosopher, the late Bernard Williams, an opponent of utilitarianism, believes it not to be so. Both Singer and Williams use aliens to make a related  point.

Peter Singer, (Practical Ethics, [Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2011], p.68) appears unhappy that we might identify as members of the species Homo-sapiens and would prefer it if we identified as “self-aware beings” or, perhaps, “sentient beings.” He comments. “Personally, I would feel that an intelligent alien with whom I could communicate and share feelings would have more in common with me than a member of my own species who is so profoundly disabled as to be unable to have any conscious experiences at all – even if the latter looked much more like me.”

Bernard Williams, (Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, [Princeton University Press, 2006],pp.149-152) implies that if aliens land on earth and wished to live with us, whether they look like us or whether they are slimy and disgusting, “opponents of speciesism [would] want us to join them— join them…on principle.” In his fantasy, such people, presumably Singer included, would be the “collaborators.” Against them would be the “resisters,” those “organizing under the banner ‘Defend humanity’ or ‘Stand up for human beings.’” It is a question of whether people can be loyal to other human beings. The question to ask is “Which side are you on?”

Considering these two positions, I think I would fall into Bernard Williams camp. The nearest real life event to any of these fantasies that comes to mind is when Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, played the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue at chess in the mid to late 1990s. At that point in time I desperately wanted Kasparov to win.  The reason for wanting Kasparov to win was because “he’s one of us.” Perhaps I am prejudiced in favour of humans, but I am not convinced that this is unethical.

Lies, Damn Lies, and False Rape Allegation Statistics

In Feminism, Trotskyism on July 18, 2013 at 3:43 PM

This is  a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 14th 2013, 11:12 am

Last month Rosie Warren wrote an article published by the International Socialist Network (ISN) entitled “On Believing Women Who Allege Rape.” Her concluding sentence sums up her position: “The statement that we believe someone alleging rape is not only an important act of solidarity, but is also, given what we know about the nature of rape allegations, the only logically coherent position to take.”

As part of her argument Warren discusses the possibility that the woman is lying:

She is lying – This is understandably an incredibly difficult thing to estimate, not least because so many rapes go unreported (a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police,1 and most reports suggest the latter is more accurate) but those who have attempted to examine it place the figure at somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations2 – which means 5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped. I believe we can reasonably disregard (a), then, unless there is a very strong reason to suggest the woman is lying – these are exceptional circumstances, and should not be foregrounded.

This is a very flawed argument. Warren has accurately represented her first source for her claim that “a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police.” She adds to this an unsourced claim that “and most reports suggest the latter  is more accurate.” I presume she means by this that 95% of rapes not being reported to the police is the more accurate figure.

Warren makes a further claim that “somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.” Her source for this is an article in the Guardian. I am not sure why Warren linked to this article for her claim because the article does not justify the claim. The article does quote the Director of Public Prosecutions as saying “False allegations of rape are rare,” but there is no reference that “around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.”  We can however look back to Warren’s first source, (paragraph 3.25, page 45) where it is stated that based on samples in 2000 and 2005, and dependent on counting methodology, somewhere between 8.1% and 10% of allegations are false.

It is now where Warren’s interpretation of the data is worryingly erroneous.  This is her statement: “5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” The 5% figure is clearly her view that 5% of reported allegations are false (a figure I have already discussed that she has not properly backed up). The “roughly 10%” figure I assume is her estimate of what percentage of rapes are reported. Her cited source states “between 75 and 95 per cent of rape crimes are never reported to the police” and she has settled on 90% not being reported and hence 10% being reported. Even if we accept both of these statistics (5% of reported rape allegations being false and roughly 10% of rapes being reported) we cannot, as Warren has done, conclude that “less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” While 5% of 10% is 0.5% and that is less than 1%, this is not what the data shows.

In order for Warren’s claim to be fair, and assuming we accept her statistical data, she would have to demonstrate that away from the women who report rape, all of the women who allege rape have been raped. She has not done this. Just because a large proportion of rapes go unreported, it does not mean that all women who allege rape are women who either reported rape or fell into the category of women who were raped but did not report it. The women could fall into a completely separate category: those that did not report rape, and falsely allege a rape. We have no idea of what this  percentage is, or certainly not from the statistics presented by Warren. Intuitively, far from the zero percent (or close to it) which is what it would have to be for Warren’s statistics to follow through, one might actually think that this category of false allegations is higher than the false allegations of rapes that are reported. This is because the consequences of falsely reporting a rape to the police are far more severe than the consequences of falsely alleging but not reporting rape, particularly so if no perpetrator is named. However, my intuition is not necessary to demonstrate that Warren has jumped to a conclusion where she had no justification to do so.

Warren goes on to argue that a woman cannot be mistaken about consent but a man can. This contradicts an example in a recent report by Alison Levitt QC and the Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit to the Director of Public Prosecutions (paragraph 42, page 31):

In another case, it was plain that the suspect did not understand the legal definition of consent. Thus although she said in answer to a question put to her that she did not “consent” to sexual intercourse, it became clear that she did not understand what the word meant.

Warren gets around this legal conundrum to change the definition of consent to suit her purpose.

Moving on, Warren states:

Given what I’ve already outlined, there is a 99% chance she is telling the truth, and she cannot consent by accident. If she says there was no consent, we can be 99% sure that there was no consent. Either the man was mistaken about the consent, or else he was well aware, and was not concerned. Either way, sexual intercourse without consent is rape. Rape has occurred.

In other words, Warren is declaring, based on erroneous reasoning, that if a woman claims that she has been raped, there is a 99% chance that she has actually been raped.

Warren also states:

Some of those I have the utmost respect for, reveal they will still not categorically, even privately, make a stance beyond “This needs to be investigated with absolute seriousness” and “We can’t say anything about guilt, or innocence, because we know nothing about the details”. I reject this wholeheartedly; such tentativeness is a failure of political rigour. We should, of course, start by believing the alleger.

This is a very dramatic statement. Warren is “wholeheartedly” rejecting the idea of a serious investigation and finding out the details of a rape allegation prior to guilt being determined. She is suggesting that someone who alleges rape should “of course” be believed. This view correctly leads her onto the following: “this throws up issues for dealing with rape accusations in law.” Of course it does! There is a long standing legal principle in this country that someone is innocent until proven guilty. If Warren has her way, at least when it comes to allegations of rape, someone would be guilty until proven innocent. This is not something that I feel anyone who truly believes in justice should accept.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 3

In Just War, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on July 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Jeff McMahan wrote a book, published in 2009, that sought to turn on its head what we understand about morality in war which is based on the centuries old tradition of Just War Theory. In the traditional theory, the morality of war is broken down into two major areas: just reasons for going to war (jus ad bellum) and just actions in the conduct of war (jus in bello). It is accepted that there is a moral equality of combatants. Hence, even if one side was unjustified in going to war, it does not mean that the combatants on that side are war criminals unless they commit unjust actions such as deliberately killing civilians.

This can be illustrated by a good example. It is not particularly controversial to say that the Allies were the just side in the war against Nazi Germany in World War II and the Nazi side were the unjust side. According to standard theory, Nazi soldiers who were involved in permitted actions of a soldier, such as fighting other armies and not killing civilians, are not doing anything morally wrong. This means that while SS officers who were involved in killing Jews were war criminals, Rommel’s Nazi troops who stormed around North Africa but obeying the rules of war such as proportionality and not deliberately killing civilians are not morally blameworthy.

McMahan thinks this is wrong. He thinks that an unjust war should not be participated in and that soldiers are morally blameworthy if they fight for an unjust side. He would view, contrary to the standard theory, Rommel’s Nazi troops as war criminals.

A conflict can occur when a just side would kill innocent civilian without intent but as a side effect of a just action. McMahan argues that while soldiers on an unjust side should not engage in combat with a just side, innocent civilians on the unjust side are permitted to defend themselves from harm resulting from actions of the soldiers on the just side. McMahan’s case is illustrated with a very bizarre thought experiment:

Suppose that just combatants are justified in destroying a storage facility for chemical weapons, but that the destruction of the facility foreseeably creates a cloud of toxic gas that will soon engulf an area inhabited by innocent civilians. If the civilians could somehow blow the cloud of gas away, they would be permitted to do that, even if their only option was to blow it over the just combatants, who would then be killed by it.


Jeff McMahan, Killing in War, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.47.

Vietnam and the Trotskyists

In Trotskyism, Vietnam War on June 27, 2013 at 6:03 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on  June 26th 2013, 12:00 pm

From a history book:

Vietnamese Communists who adhered to the Communism of Leon Trotsky, the Soviet luminary who a few years earlier had been murdered with an ice-pick on orders from his archrival Joseph Stalin, were shown no more mercy than the others. For Ho [Chi Minh] and the other Viet Minh leaders, Stalin was the supreme leader of the world revolution, while Trotsky was a dangerous heretic. The Viet Minh killed some Trotskyites right away, often by tying several people together and throwing them into a river to drown slowly. In 1946, the Viet Minh apprehended Nguyen Ta Thu Thau, the most gifted Trotskyite leader and writer, at the train station in Quang Ngai, then took him to a sandy beach, gave him a mock trial,and put a bullet through his head.


Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.18.

From the memoirs of a leading Trotskyist:

22 October 1967

It was a nice Sunday. No rain and not too cold. We had expected a few thousand people at most, given that none of the established groups such as CND or various front organizations of the Communist Party had supported our call. When I arrived in Trafalgar Square for the rally, I saw a much larger crowd which had virtually filled the square. A number of us spoke and then, carrying NLF [ National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong] flags and placards proclaiming ‘Victory for Vietnam’, ‘Victory to the NLF’, we began the march to Grosvenor Square.


Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005), p.233.


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