On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt


July 24, 2017

On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

Petter Naessan examines Harry Frankfurt’s famous little book On Bullshit

Harry Frankfurt, a moral philosopher, starts this little book with the following observation: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” He then proceeds to develop a theoretical understanding of bullshit – what it is, and what it is not.

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Aspects of the bullshit problem are discussed partly with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine. Three points seem especially important – the distinction between lying and bullshitting, the question of why there is so much bullshit in the current day and age, and a critique of sincerity qua bullshit.

Frankfurt makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting. Both the liar and the bullshitter try to get away with something. But ‘lying’ is perceived to be a conscious act of deception, whereas ‘bullshitting’ is unconnected to a concern for truth. Frankfurt regards this ‘indifference to how things really are’, as the essence of bullshit. Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit is not – bullshit may happen to be correct or incorrect. The crux of the matter is that bullshitters hide their lack of commitment to truth. Since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.

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Having established the grave danger of bullshit, Frankfurt’s next step is to ask why there is so much bullshit around. The main answer to this is that bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about “events and conditions in all parts of the world”, about more or less anything and everything – so they speak quite extensively about things they know virtually nothing about. Frankfurt is non-committal as to whether there is more bullshit around now than before, but he maintains that there is currently a great deal.

There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal of correctness. Now, Frankfurt does not mention the word ‘postmodern’ at all in his book (which is a good thing, I think), but to some extent the last pages may be understood to be a critical punch on a postmodern rejection of the ideal of the truth. Be this as it may, when a person rejects the notion of being true to the facts and turns instead to an ideal of being true to their own substantial and determinate nature, then according to Frankfurt this sincerity is bullshit.

Bullshit seems to be defined largely negatively, that is, as not lying. Frankfurt’s discussion – which he admits is not likely to be decisive – reveals that there is nothing really distinctive about bullshit when it comes to either the form or meaning of utterances. It is predominantly about the intention and disregard for truth of the bullshitter. How then do we discern bullshit from other types of speech behaviour? Is it really possible to accurately know the values (or lack thereof) involved when a person speaks?

Probably not. One may have some intuition that certain utterances constitute bullshit. Frankfurt does not provide any answers here, but one could perhaps suggest that the ‘cooperative principle’ of H.P. Grice (1913-1988) might provide some further food for thought within the emerging field of bullshitology (as I would like to call the scientific study of bullshit). Grice, in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, outlined a number of underlying principles (‘maxims’) that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. Speakers and listeners assume that the others abide by certain, predominantly unstated, speech norms. The cooperative principle can be divided more specifically into the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. For bullshitological purposes, the violation of the maxims would appear to be relevant. So if utterances convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to any current topic or issue (relevance), and are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly (manner), they would seem to qualify, although not necessarily, as bullshit (minus the intentionally false utterance, of course). These elements may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Then again, can we be certain that to identify utterances as bullshit in any given situation necessarily is connected to an understanding of the bullshitter’s indifference to the truth?

Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analysed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt’s little book is a nice starting point.

© Petter A. Naessan 2005

Petter Naessan is a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Adelaide.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press (2005). £6.50/$9.95 pp.67.ISBN: 0691122946.

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Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics


July 3, 2017

Banyan

Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21724432-former-prime-minister-reinventing-himself-leader-opposition-mahathir-mohamads

The former Prime Minister is reinventing himself as a leader of the Opposition

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The Doctor seeks a Return to the House

WHEN Mahathir Mohamad spent a week in hospital last year, at the age of 91, talk naturally turned to his legacy as Malaysia’s longest-serving former Prime Minister. How naive. Dr Mahathir may have stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office, but he has hardly been retiring in retirement. His constant sniping helped topple his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, who lasted until 2009.

Now the old warhorse is picking a fight with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister since then and now leader of Dr Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has run Malaysia for the past 60 years. Dr Mahathir has registered a new political party and persuaded Pakatan Harapan, the fractious coalition that forms Malaysia’s main opposition, to admit it as a member. Now Pakatan is debating whether to make Dr Mahathir the chairman of their coalition—and, perhaps, their candidate for Prime Minister at elections which must be held within 13 months. Having long said that he would not be returning to Parliament, Dr Mahathir has lately been hinting that he would consider another stint in the top job.

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In Politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests

It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely turn of events. The original incarnation of the coalition Dr Mahathir might soon be running was formed in the late 1990s to oppose his own interminable rule. Its founder, Anwar Ibrahim, was Dr Mahathir’s deputy until the latter sacked him during a power struggle; he was later jailed on sham charges of corruption and sodomy. The current government’s methods are copied directly from Dr Mahathir’s playbook. Since 2015 Mr Anwar has been back in prison following a second sodomy conviction, this one just as dubious as the first. The reversal of the authoritarian turn Malaysia took under Dr Mahathir is one of Pakatan’s main objectives.

What makes all this even tougher to stomach is that Dr Mahathir’s conversion to the Opposition’s cause looks disturbingly incomplete. Though he is hobnobbing with former enemies, the old codger still finds it difficult to apologise for the excesses of his tenure. Many of his views remain wacky: in May he told the Financial Times that he still thinks the American or Israeli governments might have arranged the attacks of September 11th 2001. Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?

These are desperate times, retort Dr Mahathir’s supporters. Since 2015 news about the looting of 1MDB, a government-owned investment firm from which at least $4.5bn has disappeared, has dragged Malaysia’s reputation through the muck. American government investigators say that 1MDB’s money was spent on jewellery, mansions, precious artworks and a yacht, and that nearly $700m of it went to the prime minister. Mr Najib says he has not received any money from 1MDB, and that $681m deposited into his personal accounts was a gift from a Saudi Royal (now returned). He has kept his job, but only after replacing the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.

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The Prognosis is that Najib Razak is likely to win GE-14

One might expect this scandal to propel Pakatan into power at the coming election, but instead the opposition looks likely to lose ground, perhaps even handing back to UMNO and its allies the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This bizarre reversal has much to do with Malaysia’s regrettable racial politics: the Malay-Muslim majority largely favours the government and the big ethnic-Chinese and -Indian minorities tend to vote against it. Mr Najib has baited an Islamist party into renewing calls for more flogging for moral lapses, forcing them to leave Pakatan. The split in the opposition will lead to lots of three-candidate races, in which UMNO will romp home.

Put in this context, Dr Mahathir’s reappearance is a godsend. It stands to transform Pakatan’s chances by granting access to a broad swathe of rural constituencies that they had previously thought unwinnable. Many Malays have fond memories of the booming economy of Dr Mahathir’s era (they overlook its crony capitalism and his intolerance for dissent); in their eyes, he put Malaysia on the map. As coalition chairman, Dr Mahathir might also bring some order to Pakatan’s noisy council meetings. His backing could be invaluable after a narrow victory or in a hung parliament, when UMNO’s creatures in the bureaucracy might be expected to put up a fight.

All these benefits could probably be obtained without offering to make Dr Mahathir the Prime Minister. But he may be the only front man upon whom most of the coalition can agree. That role had previously fallen to Mr Anwar, but it has become clear to all but a few holdouts that he cannot continue to manage the quarrelsome coalition from his cell. Voters are not sure whether to believe Pakatan when it says that, should it win, it will find some way to catapult Mr Anwar out of his chains and into the country’s top job. Nor are they much inspired by the notion of accepting a seat-warmer to run the country while this tricky manoeuvre takes place.

It could be worse

This is a depressing mess, even by Malaysia’s dismal standards. The opposition bears no blame for the dirty tricks which, over several shameful decades, the government has used to hobble Mr Anwar and many others. But by failing to nurture—or even to agree upon—the next generation of leaders, they have played straight into UMNO’s hands.

It is possible that the thought of hoisting Dr Mahathir into the top job will at last force the coalition to thrust a younger leader to the fore (some suspect that this is the outcome that Dr Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, has always had in mind). But it is also possible that, facing only uncomfortable options, they will end up making no decision at all. Some in Pakatan seem happy to barrel into the next election without telling voters who will lead Malaysia should they win. That might seem like pragmatism, but it is really just defeatism.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Doctor on call”

Malaysia Practises KorekEconomics


June 12, 2017

Malaysia Practises KorekEconomics (Dig-Economics)

by Rais Hussin Mohamed Ariff

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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Finance Minister Najib Razak–The Proponent of KorekEconomics

COMMENT | The history of taxation is synonymous with the rise of the state. When kings and warlords could not go on plundering and pillaging the people, they switched to taxation to prevent the farmers and settlers from avoiding the punitive measures.

By soft pedalling on the extraction, the state was born. Mancur Olson, an economist, referred to the state as the evolution from the “stationary bandit”. Paul Collier, at Oxford University, spoke of the logic of using the state to collect rents systematically, rather than to steal sporadically and in a spurious manner too.

In Malaysia, under the current administration, the two concepts that separate stealing from collecting taxes have been collapsed into one. Both are two sides of the same coin.

By introducing the tourism tax, for example, it seems to be aimed at foreign tourists. Yet, does anyone remember “Cuti-Cuti Malaysia?” This is an ongoing campaign that encourages Malaysians of all ages to travel within the country.

Yet, the moment you do, any five-, four- or three-star hotels you stay in means you would incur an additional cost that will go to the current administration. This ranges from RM 20 per night in a five-star hotel to RM 5 per night in a three-star hotel.

Thus, it doesn’t matter if you are a high-end traveller or a low-end traveller. The administration of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is there to extract a portion of your hard earned income that you have set aside for a family holiday.

Digging deep for ‘korek economics’

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In other words, in addition to the goods and services tax (GST), your income tax and potentially the service tax too, the government wants to put its hands into your pockets. And they will dig deep to get what they want, in what can only be known as “korek economics”.

“Korek economics” is not based on collection. It is driven by the degree to which the Malaysian economy has become ruined, or “koyak” in Malay, the lingua franca of Malaysia.

In 1MDB, Malaysians are now saddled with, allegedly, a debt in excess of RM44 billion. When the debt of other government-owned companies are taken into account, the debt is easily more than 80 percent of the GDP.

Not forgetting the on-budget and off-budget debts. Off budget debts are debts created through bond issuance by an entity wholly owned by the government, with guarantees by the government.

Debts like the astronomical ECRL project, which is priced at an inflated price of RM55 billion and funded through debts from China. With an estimated three percent interest rate, seven years deferred payment and 240 months of repayment instalment, it will cost the government or the taxpayers a whopping sum of RM99.6 billion!

If we use the East Coast passenger load to find the breakeven ticket price one way from KL to Kota Bahru, it will cost a whopping RM3,586 one way, the same price for a return economy class air ticket to Siberia, Russia. Get the point?

Not happy with the revenue drawn from GST, the Malaysian government has offered a mere 15 percent discount to more than half a million graduates who remain unable to pay back their PTPTN loan. This harms the ability of the graduates to live an ordinary life. Given the youth unemployment is three times the national average, they seem to resign to the fact that they are in hopeless zone.

Thus, the process to “korek” Malaysia has not merely happened in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, where a hole is dug deep, without any structures on it, but it is proliferating across the whole country. Welcome to Curi-curi Malaysia.


RAIS HUSSIN MOHAMED ARIFF is a supreme council member of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). He also chairs the Bersatu Policy and Strategy Bureau.

 

Making Ignorance Great Again


June 6, 2017

Donald Trump just took us out of the Paris climate accord for no good reason. I don’t mean that his decision was wrong. I mean, literally, that he didn’t offer any substantive justification for that decision. Oh, he threw around a few numbers about supposed job losses, but nobody believes that he knows or cares where those numbers came from. It was just what he felt like doing.

And here’s the thing: What just happened on climate isn’t an unusual case — and Trump isn’t especially unusual for a modern Republican. For today’s G.O.P. doesn’t do substance; it doesn’t assemble evidence, or do analysis to formulate or even to justify its policy positions. Facts and hard thinking aren’t wanted, and anyone who tries to bring such things into the discussion is the enemy.

Consider another huge policy area, health care. How was Trumpcare put together? Did the administration and its allies consult with experts, study previous experience with health reform, and try to devise a plan that made sense? Of course not. In fact, House leaders made a point of ramming a bill through before the Congressional Budget Office, or for that matter anyone else, could assess its likely impact.

When the budget office did weigh in, its conclusions were what you might expect: If you make huge cuts in Medicaid and reduce subsidies for private insurance — all so you can cut taxes on the wealthy — a lot of people are going to lose coverage. Is 23 million a good estimate of those losses? Yes — it might be 18 million, or it might be 28 million, but surely it would be in that range.

So how did the administration respond? By trying to shoot the messenger. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, attacked the C.B.O., declaring that it did a “miserable” job of forecasting the effects of Obamacare. (It got some things wrong, but overall did pretty well.) He also accused the office — headed by a former Bush administration economist chosen by Republicans — of political bias, and smeared its top health expert in particular.

So, Mr. Mulvaney, where’s your assessment of Trumpcare? You had plenty of resources to do your own study before trying to pass a bill. What did you find? (Actually, the White House did do an internal analysis of an earlier version of Trumpcare, which was leaked to Politico. Its predictions were even more dire than those from the C.B.O.)

But Mulvaney and his party don’t study issues, they just decide, and attack the motives of anyone who questions their decisions.

Which brings us back to climate policy. On climate change, influential conservatives have for years clung to what is basically a crazy conspiracy theory — that the overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth is warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions is a hoax, somehow coordinated by thousands of researchers around the world. And at this point this is effectively the mainstream Republican position.

Do G.O.P. leaders really think this conspiracy theory is true? The answer, surely, is that they don’t care. Truth, as something that exists apart from and in possible opposition to political convenience, is no longer part of their philosophical universe.

The same goes for claims that trying to rein in emissions will do terrible economic damage and destroy millions of jobs. Such claims are, if you think about it, completely inconsistent with everything Republicans supposedly believe about economics.

After all, they insist that the private sector is infinitely flexible and innovative; the magic of the marketplace can solve all problems. But then they claim that these magical markets would roll over and die if we put a modest price on carbon emissions, which is basically what climate policy would do. This doesn’t make any sense — but it’s not supposed to. Republicans want to keep burning coal, and they’ll say whatever helps produce that outcome.

And as health care and climate go, so goes everything else. Can you think of any major policy area where the G.O.P. hasn’t gone post-truth? Take budgeting, where leaders like Paul Ryan have always justified tax cuts for the rich by claiming the ability to conjure up trillions in extra revenue and savings in some unspecified way. The Trump-Mulvaney budget, which not only pulls $2 trillion out of thin air but counts it twice, takes the game to a new level, but it’s not that much of a departure.

But does any of it matter? The president, backed by his party, is talking nonsense, destroying American credibility day by day. But hey, stocks are up, so what’s the problem?

Well, bear in mind that so far Trump hasn’t faced a single crisis not of his own making. As George Orwell noted many years ago in his essay “In Front of Your Nose,” people can indeed talk nonsense for a very long time, without paying an obvious price. But “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” Now there’s a happy thought.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 5, 2017, on Page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Making Ignorance Great Again.

Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority


March 22, 2017

Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority

by Dr. Sorpong Peou

http://www.newmandala.org

Cambodia’s ruling party is seeking to shore up its chances of electoral success with recent changes to the rules governing political parties, Sorpong Peou writes.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.–Dr. Peou

Is Cambodia heading towards a single party dictatorship? This is a legitimate question after the Cambodian government took a drastic but unsurprising step in February 2017 to amend the law on political parties – a step that its critics consider undermines liberal democracy. In my view, Cambodia has not resembled any form of liberal democracy since 1997, and the existing hegemonic party system is likely to remain.

If and when it comes into effect, the amended party law will allow the Supreme Court to dissolve any political party with leaders who have criminal records and to bar such party leaders from standing for political office for five years. Moreover, the new law requires that any party that loses its President find a replacement within 90 days of the King’s signature.

The amended law will also allow the Ministry of Interior to suspend indefinitely any political party that the government considers to be involved in activities resulting in an “incitement that would lead to national disintegration” and subversion of “liberal multi-party democracy.”

The amendments were designed to ensure that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen will remain politically dominant, but not to eliminate opposition parties. They were intended to further empower two CPP-dominated state institutions – the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior – to prevent opposition parties, especially the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), from winning enough seats to form a government.

The CPP does not want to see the 1992 or the 2013 national election repeated. It lost the UN-organised election in 1992, but forced the winning party (led by the Royalists) to share power, and then removed the royalist prime minister from power by force in July 1997.

The multi-party system has since weakened, giving rise to a hegemonic party system, with the CPP as the dominant power. However, the party was badly shaken by the 2013 election results: it won only 68 seats (compared to the 55 seats gained by the CNRP), leaving it with fewer seats than the previous elections.

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Attempts by Hun Sen to seek reconciliation with CNRP’s Sam Rainsy has not been successful

After the 2013 election, the CPP leadership did a lot of soul searching and took a number of steps to weaken the CNRP. Opposition politicians have been subject to intimidation and litigation. Sam Rainsy, ex-President of the CNRP and opposition leader (in exile since 2015), has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha had been subject to criminal prosecution and sentenced to five months in prison (for not showing up in court for a dubious lawsuit against him) before he received a pardon from the King at Hun Sen’s request.

All this goes to show that the CPP leadership was well aware of the fact that it would not do well in the upcoming commune election in June 2017 and the National Assembly election in 2018 – if the CNRP could have its way. After the July 2016 killing of Kem Ley, a popular political commentator known for his strong criticism of the government, the CPP has become increasingly unpopular with growing public anger directed toward them.

Government officials have confidentially indicated that the CPP is determined not to lose in the upcoming elections and that it would not transfer power to any winning party if it lost. The amendments to the party law were just another step the CPP has taken as part of its pre-emptive measures designed to avoid the repetition of the 1992 and 2013 elections.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.

Top members of the CPP elite remain as insecure as ever. What else can explain the fact that the (CPP) Prime Minister has up to 6,000 personal bodyguards? Opposition members have called CPP leaders traitors and threatened to bring them to justice for their past human rights violations (perhaps including some of those committed under the murderous Pol Pot regime) and rampant corruption. CPP leaders, thus, appear to believe that their political fate would be sealed if they lost the elections.

It is reasonable to assume that the CPP is not interested in turning the country into a single-party dictatorship, as some commentators think. The ruling party would be happy if it could just maintain a party system that would allow it to remain dominant and secure.

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 Cambodia has enjoyed peace, stability and sustained economic growth since 1998

The CPP’s behaviour may s also help explain weak reactions from members of the international community, especially donors, some of whom seem to prefer political stability under a CPP leadership to chaotic democratic politics. Others may simply have come to the realisation that there is not much they can do to weaken the CPP’s grip on power.

Over the past several years, CPP leaders have worked harder to deepen their relations with two powerful authoritarian states – Russia and China. China has emerged as Cambodia’s largest donor. Sino-Cambodian relations have grown much tighter in recent years. The harsh reality is that the CPP leadership remains suspicious of Western democracies’ regime-change agendas and wary of any criticisms directed at the human rights situation in Cambodia.

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The current global political environment also does not allow democracy in Cambodia to thrive. The looming return of fraught geopolitics (the rise of China, the escalating tension in the South China Sea, the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West over Crimea and Ukraine), the rise of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, and the persistence of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia – have all produced negative effects on Cambodian politics.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Canada, and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies.

This article is a collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and debate.