Truth, lies, and Venezuela

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro has a prob­lem with me again. The gov­ern­ment-con­trolled na­tional tele­vi­sion sta­tion re­cently broad­cast an il­le­gally taped pri­vate phone con­ver­sa­tion in which I pro­posed a study to ex­plore how to res­cue the Venezue­lan econ­omy by lever­ag­ing the sup­port of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The gov­ern­ment un­suc­cess­fully edited the record­ing to make what was said sound ne­far­i­ous, lied about the con­ver­sa­tion’s mean­ing and about me, and plans to pros­e­cute me.

This got me think­ing about the eter­nal prob­lem of evil. Is it en­tirely rel­a­tive, or are there ob­jec­tive grounds to char­ac­terise a be­hav­iour or act as evil? Do all con­fronta­tions oc­cur be­tween le­git­i­mate par­ties – with, say, one per­son’s ter­ror­ist be­ing an­other’s free­dom fighter – or can we say that some fights re­ally are be­tween good and evil?

As the son of Holo­caust sur­vivors, I have al­ways had an in­tu­itive aver­sion to moral rel­a­tivism. But what ob­jec­tive grounds are there to say that the Nazis were evil? As Hannah Arendt fa­mously pointed out, peo­ple like Adolf Eich­mann were plen­ti­ful and “nei­ther per­verted nor sadis­tic”; rather, “they were, and still are, ter­ri­bly and ter­ri­fy­ingly nor­mal.” A sim­i­lar nor­mal­ity emerges from Thomas Hard­ing’s por­trait of Ru­dolf Höss, the com­man­dant of Auschwitz, a man proud of hav­ing ex­celled at his as­signed task. So what do we mean by evil in the first place? Moral phi­los­o­phy has taken two very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to this ques­tion. For some, the goal is to find uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples from which to de­rive moral judg­ments: Kant’s cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive, Ben­tham’s util­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ple, and John Rawls’s veil of ig­no­rance are some of the best-known ex­am­ples.

For oth­ers, the key is to un­der­stand why we have moral sen­ti­ments in the first place. Why have our brains evolved to gen­er­ate feel­ings of em­pa­thy, dis­gust, in­dig­na­tion, sol­i­dar­ity, and pity? David Hume and Adam Smith pi­o­neered this way of think­ing, which even­tu­ally spawned the fields of evo­lu­tion­ary and moral psy­chol­ogy.

Ac­cord­ing to this lat­ter view, moral sen­ti­ments evolved to sus­tain hu­man co­op­er­a­tion. We are pro­grammed by our genes to feel con­cern for ba­bies and em­pa­thy for peo­ple in pain. We seek oth­ers’ recog­ni­tion and avoid their re­jec­tion. We feel bet­ter about our­selves when we do good and worse when we do bad. Th­ese are the un­der­pin­nings of our un­con­scious moral sense.

As a con­se­quence, I doubt that any mod­ern so­ci­ety has ever broadly sup­ported what they saw as evil. Events like the Holo­caust or the geno­cides in Ukraine (1932-1933), Cam­bo­dia (1975-1979), or Rwanda (1994) have been based either on se­crecy or on the dis­sem­i­na­tion of a dis­torted world­view de­signed to make evil ap­pear good.

Nazi pro­pa­ganda blamed Jews for every­thing: Ger­many’s de­feat in World War I, uni­ver­sal moral val­ues that pre­vented the Aryan race from ex­ert­ing its su­pe­ri­or­ity, and both com­mu­nism and cap­i­tal­ism. Ukraini­ans were ac­cused of be­ing Pol­ish spies, ku­laks, Trot­skyites, and what­ever else Stalin could in­vent.

The spread of evil re­quires lies, be­cause lies form the ba­sis of the world­view that makes evil seem good. But the de­pen­dence of big evil on big lies gives us a chance to fight back.

The bi­ol­o­gist Martin Nowak has ar­gued that the only way hu­mans have been able to sus­tain co­op­er­a­tion is by de­vel­op­ing cheap ways to pun­ish mis­be­haviour. To dis­cour­age A from hurt­ing B, the re­ac­tion of C can be im­por­tant, be­cause if A knows that C will pun­ish him for what he does to B, he might think twice be­fore hurt­ing B.

But if pun­ish­ment is risky or costly for C, she may not do much to A, mak­ing A feel un­con­strained. But if C can pun­ish A in a cheap and even en­joy­able way, the threat to A may be more sub­stan­tial.

Ac­cord­ing to this view, the need to solve this co­nun­drum is the evo­lu­tion­ary ba­sis of gos­sip and rep­u­ta­tion. Hu­mans love to gos­sip, and gos­sip can harm our rep­u­ta­tion, which in turn af­fects how oth­ers treat us. So pun­ish­ment through gos­sip is both cheap and pleas­ant – and A’s fear of be­com­ing the sub­ject of gos­sip by C may be enough to de­ter bad be­hav­iour to­ward B.

This opens an im­por­tant av­enue for the con­trol of evil. As US Sen­a­tor and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han put it, “Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to his own opin­ions, but not to his own facts.” So one way to con­tain evil is by at­tack­ing the lies on which it is based and con­demn­ing those who pro­pound them.

In the US, there is a nat­u­ral ten­dency to pun­ish po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates when they lie, but mostly about their per­sonal pec­ca­dil­los. It would be great, for ex­am­ple, if Don­ald Trump’s calum­nies about Mex­i­cans made him un­electable. If a coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture is such that all agree on con­demn­ing in­ten­tional lies and liars, es­pe­cially when their goal is to pro­mote ha­tred, a coun­try may avoid big evil.

But this is not the case in Venezuela. Its gov­ern­ment has run the coun­try’s econ­omy and so­ci­ety into the ground, over­see­ing the world’s steep­est de­cline in out­put, high­est in­fla­tion rate, and sec­ond high­est mur­der rate, not to men­tion short­ages be­yond com­pare. And now it is sys­tem­at­i­cally ly­ing about the causes of the mess it cre­ated and in­vent­ing scape­goats.

Maduro’s gov­ern­ment blames its eco­nomic col­lapse on an “eco­nomic war” led by the US, the oli­garchy, and in­ter­na­tional financial Zion­ism, of which I am sup­pos­edly an agent. The prob­lem is that the gov­ern­ment has paid al­most no cost for its sys­tem­atic lies, even when th­ese in­volve scape­goat­ing poor Colom­bians for Venezuela’s short­ages, and il­le­gally ex­pelling hun­dreds of them, and de­stroy­ing their homes. While Latin Amer­i­can former pres­i­dents have spo­ken out against this out­rage, im­por­tant lead­ers such as Pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff of Brazil and Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet of Chile have re­mained quiet. They should heed Al­bert Ein­stein’s warn­ing: “The world is in greater peril from those who tol­er­ate or en­cour­age evil than from those who ac­tu­ally com­mit it.”

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