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An Argument for Vegetarianism

Over the past few months, I have eaten meals every day in term time with a large group of new people. This has been interesting partly because it has led naturally to a number of conversations about (my) vegetarianism. Such conversations became scarce between my friends and I in Southampton after they eventually got used to the fact of the matter – that I was unwilling to convert to meat-eating! There are fairly many vegetarians here in Oxford, and so now, unlike before, attempting to justify and explain why I’m a vegetarian hasn’t always been a solo effort, and hearing some other perspectives has probably sharpened my thoughts on the issue. Although I’m tentative about arguing the case too strongly, for fear of coming across as militant, I do believe that vegetarianism is morally preferable (although if you happen to disagree, I won’t spend too much time preaching at you). If you don’t mind being preached at just a little, then I suggest you consider my favourite pro-vegetarian argument, which I came across in Robert Nozick’s book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (which seems a slightly odd place to find a passage about vegetarians, but there you go).

There is no doubt in my mind that utilitarian arguments in favour of animal rights and/or vegetarianism, as advocated by people like Bentham and Peter Singer, have a great deal of merit. But they don’t seem to be very effective at convincing dedicated meat-eaters, and I’m sure you’ll know just as well as I that there comes a point in most ethical arguments at which the person walking on the slightly shakier ground says “this is absolutely my opinion, and I don’t care at all for you attacking it and trying to change it”, which is often invoked in response to utilitarian-based arguments for vegetarianism. Nozick’s argument usually avoids this. His argument runs roughly as follows:

Imagine that a super-advanced alien race came to Earth. These hypothetical aliens are more sophisticated than humans to a great degree. They have means of communication, intellects, and technology which makes all of the human equivalents seem totally simplistic by comparison. To these aliens, humans are remarkably undeveloped. The difference is so great that human life is to them what animal life is to humans. It also happens that for these aliens, human meat is a delicacy, and it is nutritious, although it is not necessary for the aliens to eat humans.

The question is this: If these aliens began to farm humans for food, would they be justified in doing so?

I find it very difficult to see how meat-eaters can possibly reject this argument, which of course assumes that we would say the aliens would not be justified if they started farming us, and therefore extends the principle to say that humans are not justified in farming animals, which is a parallel to the thought experiment.

Perhaps it is possible to maintain that the aliens would not be justified, but that it is still acceptable for humans to farm animals for meat. It might be argued that humans have reached a certain stage in cognitive development such that it is immoral to keep humans living in certain conditions (i.e. kept captivated, and liable to be carted off and slaughtered at the discretion of the more advanced species), but that it is acceptable for animals, which have not reached that certain stage of development, to be treated so. It first of all seems to me that any cut-off point at which it would be decided that those above had the right not to be farmed, but not those below, would be entirely arbitrary. It may also carry some uncomfortable implications. In general, we do not decide the rights of others by examining their cognitive development in comparison to our own. To do so would seem to invite prejudice against persons with cognitive disabilities, for instance. Here, we also run in to the problem that evaluating cognitive development is an absolutely relative practice: the aliens might be so advanced that they attach no significance to the disparity between human development and animal development, just as we do not often differentiate between the development of different animal species. For these reasons this line of argument seems untenable.

The more radical response to Nozick’s argument is to assert that the aliens would actually be justified in farming humans. In general I think this line of argument appeals to those who favour moral relativism, or at least some theory similar to Thrasymachus’s in Plato’s “Republic”, i.e. “justice is the rule of the stronger”. (In general I tend to take issue with that view of morality, but to explain why would take far too long and distract from the issue directly at hand). I firstly find it unlikely that the people who take this view would continue to do so if they were, in fact, being farmed. I assume that in such a situation they would, after all, find their situation to be pretty unjust. The biggest problem with living as a farm animal would be that your life would be unnecessarily short. My personal moral philosophy, which seems at once to be hotly disputed and yet, in practice, widely shared, is that in our apparently mostly-empty universe, life is a rare and precious thing; it has true value. Reading Dostoyevsky and Camus has fostered within my mind the now unshakable conviction that to cut short any life without exceptionally good cause (i.e, not just because meat tastes good, etc.) goes against fundamental principles of reason and morality. I cannot agree that the aliens would be justified if they farmed humans and I therefore cannot agree that humans are justified in farming animals.

If you eat meat, I don’t want to preach at you. I understand that old habits die hard, and that eating other animals is one of the oldest of all human habits. Having been raised vegetarian, I’ve had it easy – you don’t miss what you never had. But I do think that this argument is worth considering, if nothing less because it is interesting. My aim in writing this is not to attempt to stop people from eating meat. It is more to encourage people to think about what they are doing when they eat meat, and that thought process can hopefully lead to good thoughts about ethics and about life in general. If I recall rightly, that’s why Nozick raised it in his book (which is of course about political philosophy, not animals). The point is that thinking about animal rights also makes us think about human rights.

I cannot help but be reminded of a scene in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, namely the opening scene, in which Christoph Waltz’s character Col. Hans Landa is attempting to coax a French farmer, M. La Padite, to give up the Jewish family that he is hiding in his home (if you didn’t know, Inglourious is set in mainland Europe, circa World War 2). Landa delivers a subtle argument to the effect of saying that we all have our unfounded prejudices. He points out that M. La Padite, for instance, has a hatred of rats that is ill-founded: rats were historically hated for carrying disease, but that was a long time ago, and that any disease carried by a rat could also be carried by a squirrel, yet squirrels are not hated. The key point in the conversation then arrives:

M. La Padite: That’s an interesting thought you have, Colonel.

Hans Landa: However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel.

It is left unstated in the dialogue, yet the purpose of Landa’s argument subsequently becomes clear: exposing LaPadite’s unfounded prejudices seems to put the Nazis’ unfounded prejudice against Jewish people in a different light for the Frenchman. Although other factors contribute, La Padite proceeds to give up the family he is hiding.

It may be that you find Nozick’s argument convincing, but it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel about eating meat. For my part, I believe that if you find an argument convincing, then you should accept its conclusions and live by the results until you find a better alternative. Whether you agree with that is, of course, perfectly up to you.

P.S. There is an excellent essay by David Foster Wallace, an American novelist, about this subject which I recommend very strongly if you enjoyed reading this post. Here is the link:

Romney Resorts to Desperate Measures: Invoking the Spirit of Disraeli

Note: This article can also be read on The Oxford Student Online.

As British Conservative Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli probably did more than anybody else to reconcile the politics of his party, composed by a considerable degree of aristocrats, with the interests of working class voters. In the early twenty-first century, a confusing age of free market economics and economic inequality, a range of politicians have found it expedient to reproduce the message of Disraeli’s successful “One Nation” Conservatism. David Cameron has famously attempted to “detoxify” the Tory brand, which is associated by the public with unapologetic elitism. The line “We’re all in this together” is simply a clumsy rehash of Disraeli’s message to the electorate. Interestingly, Ed Miliband has also made a focal point of the “One Nation” phrase in his most recent speeches.  Despite his overt leftist streak, which distinguishes him from Cameron and Disraeli, recently commentators have noted the Labour Party’s tendency to social conservatism in this period of opposition, and so perhaps it is not so surprising to hear Mr. Miliband borrowing from old Tory rhetoric. More surprisingly, it seems as though this trend has now crossed the Atlantic, as the latest electioneer to opt for this strategic tack is none other than Mitt Romney.

If Nate Silver’s controversial psephology is to be believed (1), then Barack Obama is, by some distance, the favourite to win the US Presidential Election this week. It may be partly due to this that Mr. Romney and his campaign staff have opted to make a late play for voters in the centre. Invoking the spirit of Disraeli is a very canny way of doing this. Republicans will surely hope that this ploy can help to generate the electoral momentum of which Mr. Romney – according to Mr. Silver’s analysis – is in desperate need. A brief glance at Conservative-minded newspaper websites (2) is enough to confirm that Mr. Romney’s claim that he will “represent one nation” is generating at least some enthusiasm. Yet to my mind, Mr. Romney’s attempt to mimic Disraeli’s One Nation conservatism smacks of hypocrisy.

It is true that during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney went about his business in a way that could realistically be described as fitting with Conservatism of the Disraelian tradition. Much has been made of the similarity between Romney’s healthcare reforms at the state level and Obamacare, for instance. However, the bulk of Mr. Romney’s campaign has been built around Conservatism of a very different ilk. It was first of all necessary for Mr. Romney to pander to the borderline-extremist right wing of the Republican Party in order to win nomination, against such absurd candidates as Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. Each of these three did, for a time, enjoy the favour of Tea Party Republicans well ahead of the pragmatic Mr. Romney. Mr. Romney’s selection of his Vice-Presidential running mate also marks a fundamental departure from moderate, Disraelian Conservatism: Paul Ryan’s enthusiasm for slashing government spending would make George Osborne seem positively Marxist by comparison, and this seems like another concession to the Tea Party. Many observers, myself included, worry that Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan’s planned methods of cutting taxes will result in further increase of inequality. Note that I write that sentence with all due respect for, and some agreement with, the opinion that lowering taxes in the right way can have a positive effect on the economy and equality. But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Romney gave a strong impression in a certain speech that a large group of American citizens were essentially beyond helping:

“My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. (3)

Such a sentiment is quite simply the exact opposite of the fundamental principles of Disraelian conservatism, and that is why Mr. Romney’s attempt to emulate Disraeli is an example of hypocrisy of the worst kind.

It is not my intention to place Disraeli on a pedestal, but his politics were based on a set of principles which I believe that many people find reasonable and just. A true One Nation Conservative accepts that a degree of inequality is an inevitable result of the capitalist system, but stresses that those who find themselves in more fortunate positions have an absolute duty to care for those most disenfranchised. That is a message which translates well from Disraeli’s era to our own time, and it is unsurprising that modern politicians have sought to reproduce it. But Mr. Romney’s attempt to do so is simply a bid to disguise the markedly less palatable form on Conservatism which many Republicans now adhere to. Even if hypocrisy and untruthfulness are qualities that we come to expect from all modern politicians, I say that this particular brand of ideological dishonesty is particularly troubling and particularly repulsive. For this reason I can only hope that Nate Silver’s model is correct and the American electorate will opt to reject Mr. Romney’s final masterstroke of electioneering.





Trotsky, Stalin, and Social Media

It is alleged that Leon Trotsky proposed at one time a modern telephone system for the new Soviet state, and that Stalin vetoed this idea with the remark that he could imagine no greater instrument of counterrevolution.

(Philip Bobbitt, Shield of Achilles, p.695).

I found this little footnote in the book I am reading. If Stalin thought that of a telephone system, what would he have made of Twitter and Facebook?

P.S. Shield of Achilles is a great book. It will start by challenging every political view you hold, and then it will improve them. It is, however, exceptionally long.

P.P.S. In the next week or so I’m going to be posting a review of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” on here as part of a competition set by Penguin. Mostly because they gave me the book for free on the condition that I would enter the competition, and promised lots more free books if I win.

P.P.P.S. Having said all this I can’t help but link you to another great Orwell essay, “Books vs Cigarettes.”


A Quick Comment on the US Presidential Debate

I was taking a quick look at The Economist’s commentary on the first Presidential debate between Obama and Romney this morning and one comment struck me as being particularly noteworthy:

Romney has been masterful thus far, in his own way. He has proposed a tax plan that would inevitably add to the deficit, but claimed he would never pass a tax plan that would add to the deficit. He says he wouldn’t bring down the deficit by raising revenue, but attacks Obama for not supporting a plan that would bring down the deficit by raising revenue. And it all sounds rather convincing.

So, it seems that all you have to do to give a “masterful” performance in the most widely publisiced politicial election debate in the world is to tell convincing lies.

If Obama, or any standing leader talking during a re-election campaign, tells lies then at least these lies can be checked against his recent record, which is still fresh in the minds of the public. Politicians in opposition, it seems, do not have to worry about such trivialities as whether what they say makes any sense.

Many people I know have expressed their disillusionment with politicians, and the chief reason for this is that they are frustrated by politicians saying one thing and doing another. I would suggest that the remedy to this could be making a conscious cultural change, so that blatant hypocrisy on the part of politicians like Romney should be met with derision, instead of being described as “masterful”.

A Short Review of Bloc Party’s “Four”

I was talking with my friend a few days ago about Bloc Party’s new album, “Four”, and he asked me whether I thought “Four” was better than “Silent Alarm”. I’m not quite sure what my answer to that question is yet, but the fact that it is not an easy question to answer should in itself tell you that “Four” is an incredibly good album.

“Silent Alarm” is one of those albums on which every single track has a profound beauty that you can get obsessed with and listen to over and over again. Most people have heard Helicopter and Banquet, but you’re missing out if you haven’t paid close attention to all the other tracks from Bloc Party’s debut, because most of them are equally as good.

Does “Four” match up to that? It’s a big question, I guess partly because most people agree that “A Weekend in the City” and “Intimacy” don’t (incidentally, the former remains one of my favourite albums, but that’s kinda beside the point). Well, I think “Four” is better than either of those two.

I’ve noticed quite a few comments online about the new album have described Bloc Party’s sound, generally, as being “epic”. I think that word describes them better than it would many other bands. What makes them good, I think, is that the band combines complex, beautiful guitar and lyrical melodies with a very angular, fast and varied rhythm section. So “epic” is an apt description.

“Four” manages to combine the best qualities of each of the preceding albums, whilst retaining enough of a unique sound to be a great album in its own right. Matt Tong’s drumming is quite possibly better than ever, which is saying something. The guitar and vocals are more atmospheric than in the second and third albums, but I also like that many tracks in “Four” have a heavy quality to them which is present elsewhere in Bloc Party only really in the opening tracks of “A Weekend in the City”, like “The Prayer” and “Uniform”. Although the tracks “So He Begins to Lie”, “3×3” and “Kettling” are heavy, they do not lack variety or fluidity. In fact, one of Bloc Party’s best qualities is a fluid, non-repetitive sound. That quality may have been slightly lacking in “Intimacy”, but it definitely isn’t in “Four”, even in the heavier tracks.

I think the reason that the sound of “Four” is slightly heavier than in “Silent Alarm” is because the bass takes a more prominent role. The bass sound on most of the album is slightly distorted, so you hear it clearly even behind the guitars, unlike sometimes on “Silent Alarm”. Being a bassist myself, I can hardly help but like this. It’s not as though the bass lines in “Four” are particularly complex – at least not more so than those in the first three albums – it simply has a more distinct position from the guitars. Prominent bass sounds often give a heavy texture to the music, in certain styles, at least. Even some jazz bands like Weather Report sound heavy at times simply because of the bass sound. (By the way, Jaco Pastorius is one of the best bassists of all time, so check him and Weather Report out if you haven’t already).

I don’t want to go into lots of detail on each track, but I will say that the rhythm, vocal sounds and lyrics of “Real Talk” are mesmerising,  “Day Four” includes some beautiful harmonies and sounds that rival the likes of “This Modern Love” from album one, and “The Healing” is a gorgeous, layered track. Bloc Party are back to their best, essentially.

It’s probably too early to say whether “Four” is better than “Silent Alarm”, but I’m just about tempted enough to go out on a limb and say that I reckon it is.

Passing on some fine advice: Read Orwell

Looking back on it, I reckon some of the best advice that I’ve been given in the past few years was very simple. It was “When in doubt, read Orwell”. At the time, I had already read 1984 and thought it to be an interesting book, although I wouldn’t say it became one of my favourites. Having been given this advice, however, I came across some of Orwell’s essays on the internet. His essays are thought-provoking, as well as amusing.  Some, such as “Notes on Nationalism” and “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” have influenced my beliefs very much. If I hadn’t read the former, I certainly wouldn’t have decided to write an Extended Project on the same subject, but that was not really the true benefit of it: rather, by leading me to consider ideas that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, it has made my opinions about politics better-rounded and far less prejudiced. Orwell aimed to turn political writing into “an art”, and one result of this is that his writing is a pleasure to read. In “Politics and the English Language”, however, he explains that writing is not just about aesthetics: it’s not simply about what we write about, but how we write, that is crucial to exploring ideas in a sincere way. In fact, making a conscious effort to write (or speak) accurately and honestly must be the first step in checking that our ideas are sound ones, particularly when it comes to what he calls the “sordid process” of politics.

I’ve no doubt personally that reading Orwell has improved my own writing in a very drastic way. It’s quite possible that this little blog might have existed if I hadn’t read his work – I fancied myself as a writer before I read Orwell’s own explanation, “Why I Write” – but I’m certain that absent of his influence, this blog would not just be even more boring, but also far more poorly written!

Now that I’ve finished singing Orwell’s praises in an admittedly fanboy-like fashion, I’ll link you to the essays of his I most recommend. In case you don’t fancy reading all of them, I’ll include a few lines on each with a summary and a couple of my own ideas on the content, which may help you decide which are worth your while.

Politics and the English Language:

This is one of the essays that remains very relevant today, perhaps even more so than when it was published. Although Orwell is giving a sort of lecture about writing style, his angle is not one of Grammar Nazism. If I had to summarise it quickly, I’d say that this is about cutting the bullshit out of your writing and thinking. It’s very helpful in this regard. He also discusses what I mentioned briefly before: the connection between writing, the efficient communication of ideas, and politics.

Notes on Nationalism:

Although politically this is now slightly dated, I was still influenced by it in a major way. Those of you familiar with my political views will know that I am an anti-nationalist, and presented here are many of the reasons why. Orwell realises that we all have powerful nationalistic emotions. For me, when I was younger this took the form of Irish (in the sense of anti-British) nationalism, owing to my family background and upbringing. Orwell emphasises the need to check oneself for these emotions and attempt to replace them with objective realism.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool:

An extremely interesting read about the criticism of one literary giant by another. Even if, like I, you have read neither King Lear or any of Tolstoy’s works, I think you can really get something out of this essay – Orwell explains the necessary historical and plot-related details sufficiently. It has influenced my thought on literature and film, the result of which can partly be read on this blog. Orwell also discusses his objections to religion and, subsequently, what I think could be termed a sort of short existentialist manifesto which compliments the work of Camus and Sartre quite nicely.

Shooting an Elephant:

It is an intriguing story, even if I am not personally sure what to make of it on any other grounds. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this one especially.

Why I Write:

If you wonder why I write this blog, this may shed some light on the matter. If you’re wondering, I would say that my own reasons for writing are mostly related to what Orwell categorises as “historical impulse”, although “political purpose” and “sheer egoism” also play some part. When it comes to “aesthetic enthusiasm”, I fear that I am one of those writers in whom this particular motivation is “very feeble”.

A full index of Orwell’s writing, aside from his novels, can be found here:

Thanks all for reading, and as always I would like to hear your opinions – in this case, either about Orwell’s essays themselves or my own comments on them.

More on Film, Literature

If anyone was interested in the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on film, you may be similarly interested in the article in this link, which discusses the Hunger Games trilogy:

He concludes:

Nothing in The Hunger Games trilogy makes me reflect on my own life or on the human condition. I don’t think or feel any differently about anything now that I’ve read these books. And that, for me, is the mark of bad literature.

This is the idea I was trying to put across in my post about film, only far better expressed. I’d say that it applies just as much for film as it does for literature.

Would be interested to hear other opinions on this! You can make use of the comment feature on here or, alternatively, Twitter (@FODonovan).



Why Philosophy is not Useless

Until recently, I assumed that the idea that philosophy is useless was one unique to recent times. For some peculiar reason, lots of people (myself included, it seems) tend to believe that our ancestors were somehow much wiser and more sensible than we are today.

You might have heard of the passage of writing complaining about how rude, lazy and useless teenagers were at the time, which reads like an angry letter to the Daily Mail from a 21st-century pensioner, but actually originated in Ancient Greece. I like this because it shows that stereotypes that we think of as being a fault only with modern civilisation have actually pretty much been faults shared by people throughout history. I think this gives a healthy sense of perspective. With the world economy in such a bad place at the moment, a lot of doomsayer-type-people are moaning about how terrible we all are and how hopeless everything is in these modern times. But really, doomsayers have been saying those things for centuries, and frankly the human race has been in far worse places than it is now. So, I’d say it may be reasonable to ignore pessimists.

What does this have to do with philosophy? Well, as I said, I thought that it was only now that people considered philosophy to be pointless. I’m not a big fan of this viewpoint, myself. It seems to me that most people who hold this view only have a very hazy view of what the subject actually is. But I seem to be in a minority here. Most people genuinely think philosophy is useless. And it gets worse (for me) – because apparently people have thought philosophy is useless for the whole of history! It turns out that one of the first ever philosophers, a bloke called Thales who lived in Greece around 600 BC, was mocked by his society because they thought he was wasting his time with philosophy:

“[Thales] was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy is of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.”

This is from Aristotle’s “Politics”, but I found it quoted in Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy”.

So, Thales used his basic scientific knowledge to make a profitable investment. It’s worth noting that pretty much all of the early philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Pascal and others, were all scientists or mathematicians that made significant contributions to those fields. In the early days, people like Thales, who was essentially a very early scientist, was mocked: science, not just philosophy, was disrespected, as religious ideas were considered the most important.

In the last 200 years or so, science has become well-respected, mainstream knowledge. In the near future I expect philosophical knowledge will join it in that position.

What Matters in Film: Ideas, not Effects

According to this review in The Economist, “Prometheus” is one of those let-down films that has lots of cool special effects but not much substance behind it.

I’m going to be controversial here and say that it sounds similar to Avatar, in that case.

It seems that a lot of people really do enjoy going to see films which have lots of cool special effects but have little else to them. I don’t see the appeal of that personally, but it’s fine in my books if people want to do that. What I don’t like is when directors use superficial films to try and push some sort of stunted and ill-considered philosophical point of view that doesn’t make much sense. “Prometheus” seems to be an example of this: apparently it makes a sort of pseudo-scientific swipe at evolution, but really includes no in-depth discussion of the issue at all. As The Economist’s Propsero blog notes, that’s not really a savoury point to be pushing when recent polls say 46% of Americans believe that humans were created by God 10,000 years ago, in direct opposition to lots of sound evidence. Hence my rant here.

Anyway, at a broader level, the point is that films like Avatar are quite harmless, because although I’d say they’re over-dependent on special effects and pretty images, they do sort of have a moral message to them. Even if, as in Avatar, it’s a very basic one that really hardly needs to be told to many people older than primary-school children (Colonialism and the exploitation of minorities is wrong? Really?). But what makes a good film is not special effects. Great films are ones which make you think about issues for yourself. They give a scenario and invite the audience to deliberate on its repercussions. Some of my favourite examples of this are:

1) Resevoir Dogs. Take the scene in which Mr. Orange is shot. He was an undercover policeman who was about to help catch a bunch of criminals, who mostly don’t turn out to be particularly pleasant characters (especially the bloke who seems to have a thing for cutting people’s ears off). Mr. Orange was attempting to hijack a car to escape the crime scene when the owner of a car shot him in the stomach with a well concealed handgun. The car owner, clearly no expert either at shooting nor dealing with hostile situations, was promptly shot by one of the real criminals. Now, had this car owner simply not had a gun, all of the gruesome events shown earlier in the film would not  have happened; in fact, everything would have turned out hunky-dory. The criminals would’ve been caught and the woman even would’ve got her car back. I like to think that Tarantino is asking us here: are gun control laws in the U.S. really satisfactory as they are? In this one scene, Tarantino shows how arming civilians can cause serious problems. It isn’t dogmatic, but it does invite us to think about a serious problem, and I like this. Action is best not just when it thrills us, but when it makes us think.

2) The Shawshank Redemption. This excellent film pretty much challenges the assumptions we have about criminals, the legal system, the penal system, and the idea of guilt. I particularly like the parallels between the first scene in the court, when Dufresne is convicted, and one of my favourite novels, The Outsider, because they help show how judges and juries can be absurdly unjust. I also like the scene in which Dufresne uses his brains to win 30 beers and shares them out amongst his cell-mates, which is a great example of how helping the people around you benefits pretty much everything in the long run. These two scenes are notably devoid of action or special effects at all, but they’re still far more enjoyable than Avatar, because they engage you with a real problem.

Having said all this, it’s pretty much certain that simply discussing interesting topics is not enough to make a great film. Ultimately the best place to do that is probably a book, if that’s literally all you’re trying to do. Film is about acting, imagery, music, characterisation and many other things. But I think it’s vital to have something in a film which makes you think. In a book I read a while ago, there was even a section on how the plot of “Kung-Fu Panda” relates to certain aspects of human psychology in a very interesting way (which I know sounds ridiculous, but it made sense at the time). I guess that means that as far as I’m concerned, “Kung-Fu Panda” is a better film than “Avatar”.

Elections in Europe: Parmenides’ Fallacy

This excellent article by Philip Bobbitt illustrates perfectly why Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 Presidential Election campaign speech rested on a fallacy:

Bobbitt writes:

The turning point in the 1980 presidential race came in a debate when Ronald Reagan criticized President Jimmy Carter’s record by asking the American people, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

While rhetorically devastating, this question is hardly the way to evaluate a presidency. After all, the state of the nation will never stay the same for four years, regardless of who is in office. A more relevant question to have asked would have been, “Are you better off now than you would have been if Gerald Ford had continued as president and if he had had to cope with rising oil prices, a revolution in Iran, a Russian invasion of Afghanistan and soaring interest rates?”

If I’m not just spelling out the obvious by this point, the issue here is that even if Americans were worse off in 1980 than they were in 1976, that is not necessarily a damning indictment of Carter’s Presidency. The reason for this, as Bobbitt points out here, is that the right way to assess a Presidency is to imagine what would have happened if the alternative choice had been elected instead, and compare. Of course, it is very likely (though impossible to say for sure) that had Ford been elected in 1976, Americans would have been worse off in 1980, just as they were after four years under President Carter. They may well have been even worse off. Yet nobody considered this at the time. Reagan’s fallacious speech was “rhetorically devastating” and it was enough to carry him to the White House.

What can we draw from this? In general, I think it shows we are far too hasty to attribute all blame for political and economic problems to the current or outgoing government. In Britain today, it is easy to see examples of this in party politics. In the build-up to the 2010 election, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were keen to attribute blame to the Labour Party for “causing” the recession, and even now, many people’s opinions are influenced by this line of propaganda. Similarly, a number of Labour supporters are now keen to attribute blame for Britain’s slow growth, and the double-dip recession, on economic mismanagement by the Coalition, when it would perhaps be more apt to cite problems in the Eurozone and the rest of the world economy. You might also consider structural weaknesses in the British economy which, again, are scarcely the fault of any one political party more than any other. The reality is that political and economic circumstances are more often determined mostly by factors outside of the government’s control. Of course, government policy is important and can have a considerable impact. It’s just that that impact is often exaggerated for propaganda’s sake, or that in practice, mainstream political parties all govern in a moderate way and the policy of one government in reaction to economic crisis is likely to be similar to another’s.

It is important not to indulge to much in the fallacy epitomised by Reagan’s campaign speech, which Bobbitt calls “Parmenides’ Fallacy… after the Greek philosopher who held that all change was an illusion”. In the general case,

This fallacy occurs when one tries to assess a future state of affairs by measuring it against the present, as opposed to comparing it to other possible futures.

It seems to me that in Greece, the populace has failed to pay attention to their intellectual ancestor, at least judging by the outcome of their general election yesterday. Their country is obviously in utter economic turmoil. Frustration against the moderate centrist government, which has supervised the country into a situation of crisis, is understandable. Yet it is a grave mistake to believe that the extreme right or extreme left offers a superior option at this stage. The centrist parties are almost certainly at fault for their recklessly high spending, lax tax policy, and corruption. Yet, if you really consider it, would Greece really have been better off it had been governed by the neo-fascist Golden Dawn Party for the past decade? Of course not. The same issues would have existed, whatever party happened to be in power. Greece suffered for decades under a fascist government in the 20th century, and it would be best to avoid a relapse. Even without such a relapse, it now seems difficult to imagine how Greece can avoid default, exit from the eurozone, and years of depression.

As is often the case, votes lost from the centre move to the fringe parties simply as a protest against the existing establishment. This has recently proved to the benefit of Marine Le Pen in France. At a delicate stage of economic crisis, this is probably the worst thing that could possibly happen for Greece. Voters in the rest of Europe must realise that a vote for an extremist fringe party might be a great way of voicing your dissent towards the status quo, but it definitely isn’t constructive for the future of one’s country. It might feel painful to hand in a vote for a party which has left you worse off than you were four years ago, but sometimes it’s the only rational option there is.