The anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse by Carlos Escudé

    Normative implications of the anthropomorphic fallacy


The calls for foreign policies based on national "honor", "pride", "dignity" or "glory" are to be found, in certain conjunctures, in all societies. Obviously, concepts such as honor, pride, dignity or glory refer to emotional values that are connected to an individual's nervous system. One does not have honor; one feels honor. An individual can feel honor, dignity or glory, but a collective entity that is not endowed with a nervous system of its own cannot. There is no such thing as "national" honor; in the best of cases, there is only the sum of the "honors" of the individuals that make up a "nation" or (more precisely) a country.

The latter may not be a logically valid statement, of course, if our assumption about the "nation" is organicist, as is the case with some totalitarian ideologies. But if we do not subscribe to totalitarian political values and want to prevent them from creeping inadvertently into our thought, we must be aware of the essential fallacy of ascribing to a "nation" qualities and feelings that are attributable to individuals but not to aggregates of individuals.

If we agree to reject organicist assumptions, then we must concede that the sacrifice of material values necessary for the livelihood of a people, to emotional values such as those proposed by the anthropomorphic fallacy (i.e., the call for foreign policies based on values such as "national pride", "glory" or "greatness") is:

1. Essentially elitist. The distribution of emotional values is usually unequal (Khadaffi probably enjoyed his challenges to the United States more than the average Libyan), and the distribution of the material sacrifices involved is almost sure to be unequal. The distribution of material values is also unequal, of course. The difference lies in the fact that because no one is fed with "dignity", the modest benefit obtained by the poorest sectors of society from, for instance, a better commercial balance, is much more important for these sectors, in terms of simple biological survival and welfare, than the modest share of nationalist pride that can accrue to them from a foreign policy that is willing to sacrifice material values for the sake of "dignity". Concomitantly, they will be the ones to suffer most from the material price paid for that "dignity". Honor, dignity, glory and pride are inevitably more important for those whose primary necessities are well covered than for those who are hungry and without shelter, and the state is under the obligation to serve both of these sectors of society fairly. The duels of honor of the days of yore were basically an affair of gentlemen, not of plebeians: generally speaking, and unless they are hypnotized by indoctrination, the great masses had and continue to have other urgencies, and policies designed to promote these emotional values cater to the vanity of the elites. This is not to say that they serve only the vanity of the elite in power. On the contrary, they frequently serve both the government and the opposition elite, and sometimes an aspiring counter-elite as well, and this is what makes it so difficult to expose these policies as just another kind of class exploitation. This sort of elitism is incurred in by elites of both the right and the left, under all sorts of social and economic systems.

2. Consumerist. Such policies often lead, for example, to arms purchases that are made at the expense of development projects, and thus lead to more poverty and less power in the future. Today's nationalist emotions are tomorrow's additional subordination.

For both reasons given above, policies based on the anthropomorphic fallacy are less justifiable the poorer a country is. Yet empirically, extreme policies based on the anthropomorphic fallacy that lead to great material sacrifices are usually adopted by Third World countries (Libya, Iraq, Iran, North Korea), and indeed in present days the frequent invocation of values that emerge from the fallacy as a basis for policy is much more frequent in the Third World than in the industrialized West.

This was not always the case, of course. Until recent decades, some of the foreign policies of the countries of Western Europe had a clear prestige orientation (the German expression eine Prestige-frage became a bane of European foreign offices), and such foreign policies were justified with arguments that incurred in the anthropomorphic fallacy. In certain extreme cases, the anthropomorphic fallacy became a metaphysical fallacy: "eternal France", a cliché of educational textbooks and political discourse, is an illustration of the phenomenon.

Ultimately, the anthropomorphic fallacy and associated phenomena are finely-tuned mechanisms used to mobilize irrational energies at the service of a "national" cause (which is frequently only the cause of an elite). By referring to the collective entity to which the individual belongs in language that is identical to that used to refer to the individual's body, the sense of an identity inextricably linked to the collective entity is reinforced in very powerful terms. The collective entity "suffers", "kneels", is "humiliated", is "glorified", "loves" its "children", has "brethren", its provinces are each others' "sisters", and territorial losses are painfully referred to as "dismemberments" (as in the loss of a human arm or leg): these anthropomorphic expressions are typical of the contemporary Latin American political discourse, and abounded in nineteenth century Western European literature, among several other times and places. Fed to citizens from earliest childhood, they help to activate nationalistic emotions through the unconscious identification of the collective entity with the individual's own body. Later, when used as a justification for policy, it is psychologically very difficult for the individual not to accept a rationale which would be impeccable if it referred to his/her own biological body. The mechanism serves therefore to mesh the levels of the individual and of the collective entity into one and the same in the citizens' minds, facilitating mobilization and making opposition to policy based on anthropomorphic rhetoric appear ignoble and criminal. Thus, the use of the masses for the purposes of the elites is facilitated.

As already said, the poorer a country is, the greater the relevance of the costs of such policies in terms of the welfare of the populace. Yet this self-evident argument is usually obscured by the very power of the anthropomorphic fallacy, a power that is enhanced by the widespread use that has been made of this fallacy for centuries, everywhere.

 
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