Thoughts of Venezuela from afar

On the question of what Canada ought to do about the constitutional crisis in Venezuela, I think it’s worth thinking about (a) what the constitution of Venezuela requires, and (b) how the right kind of stability can be produced (i.e., in such a way that democratic rule of law flourishes). I’d like to treat this as an opportunity to think about what constitutional law requires (a), as far as I understand it, and full well knowing that I have much to learn, and that facts may change daily.

The linked white paper from CSIS (a Washington think tank, not the Canadian version of the CIA) is instructive. In it, the author argues that Guaidó, head of the ousted legislature, is the current legitimate interim President and should be recognized as such. (More on that in a moment.) Moreover, he believes that, once Guaidó secures the office, he ought to delay election beyond the constitutionally mandated 30 days. Hence, he believes the shadow government ought to ignore the written Constitution of Venezuela. CSIS thinks a delay in elections would be justified because the country is experiencing extraordinary conditions, which the framers of the Constitution could not have reasonably foreseen. But this does not alter the fact that the recommendation is not consistent with the written constitution of the country.

So, either CSIS wants us to ignore the constitution of Venezuela, or it wants us to respect its unwritten constitution, and thinks the unwritten constitution permits a delay in elections. Since ignoring the constitution would amount to being an attack on the rule of law of that country, so I must assume that they are making an appeal to the unwritten constitution. e.g., by making reference to the political features of the system as such (even though the whole problem is that it is in tatters, with the neutering of the legislature), or by appealing to the conditions for identifying and preserving a system of law, or by telling a story about natural law, or some other thing.

I am personally convinced that there are ways to talk about the unwritten constitutions of civil law countries. But, to be sure, any claims we make about unwritten constitutions depend on substantive theories of law and considerations of public discernment of explicit meaning, which I am still actively wrestling with. Moreover, the standards for talking about unwritten constitutions are seriously constrained in civil law jurisdictions like Venezuela, since stereotypically, civil law fetishizes codes.

Here is the legal case for recognizing Guaidó as the President, as far as I understand it. The Venezuelan Constitution allows for the head of the legislature to take up the office in the “absolute absence” of a President, i.e., someone who is endowed with powers through ordinary processes of succession via election. But then the question is, “what does it mean for there to be an “absolute absence” of a President?”. Guaidó argues that the position is not occupied when the elections are fraudulent. This view is apparently shared by the international coalition. Though perhaps there is no objective third-party consensus that the elections were rigged, many seem to think it is plausible to say that they were fraudulent.

Yet, as a matter of fact, elections were held, and Maduro was sworn in — he is de facto ruler, whether or not he is de jure President. But can the Presidency be “absolutely absent” when there is a de facto ruler who fulfills many, but not all, of the conditions for orderly succession? What does the written law require, and who is in charge of figuring it out?

There’s a vast menu of options. Ordinarily, I’d have thought that this is the sort of constitutional question that needs to be resolved by jurists. But that is bad news for advocates of regime change, for a few reasons. First, there is a strong presumption that we ought to ask the Court what they think “absolute absence” means. Yet in cases of civil law jurisdictions, the rule of interpretation is supposed to be something like, obey the limits of the word. Moreover, since the ouster’s view is that the Court is “on the take”, that won’t be of much use in marshaling a legal case, since presumably, the Court will just vouch for Maduro.

What’s clear to me, though, is that if the election is demonstrably illegitimate — which it might be! — then, from a legal point of view, priority one should be to hold one that *is* constitutionally legitimate. With multilateral observers and all the bells and whistles of a democratic coalition operating in good faith. But that would seem to require holding an election within 30 days, as required by the Constitution. This, unless more is said about the processes for thinking about the supremacy of the unwritten constitutions, in a way that does not introduce uncomfortable questions about how we govern ourselves in our own backyards.


Those are the sorts of considerations that should be at issue when we think about whether Canada, or the West, ought to intervene. I think my suggestion is a substantive requirement that articulates a few of the conditions for just intervention without being paternalistic or imperial. Venezuela’s democratic sovereignty must be restored along the way to a just peace.

And that position is worth contrasting with the outdated neoconservative approach, which is to back a foreign dissident regime and arm them to the teeth. For example, unconfirmed reports from Democracy Now! give us reason to suspect that the US is smuggling arms into Venezuela. If true, then it signals that the States is ramping-up for yet another proxy war. And it is worth saying this doesn’t work out well for anybody.

If the international community truly worries whether or not the most recent election in Venezuela was free and fair, then a multilateral intervention should investigate. Again, ideally, this should occur at the request of the contesting parties who are looking for legitimacy. What the international community should not do is provoke violent unrest in an already complicated region.

Incidentally, none of these remarks issue from an especially idealistic foreign policy perspective. Even from a cold, reptilian neoconservative point of view, the extensions of the Monroe Doctrine (i.e., policies which ostensibly justify US intervention in other sovereign nations for American interests) are essentially subverted by the potential for blowback by non-state actors. From that same reptilian point of view, “No commies in our backyard” makes some sense when we were protecting from a conventional invasion. But it makes absolutely no sense in the context of arming paramilitants. For confirmation, consider former beneficiaries like Hussein and Bin Laden, and consider how well that turned out. (Please note that I am not making a direct comparison between these guys and Guaidó, except from within the reptilian point of view.)

The upshot for neocons in this new century ought to be something like this. Violence thinks it is intrinsically justified, and if you provide it with unfettered means and it will make itself its own end. Or, to put the point in a more prosaic way, once someone gains power, the way that they maintain their power is by scapegoating outsiders. This has been very successfully done by pointing, ironically, at the guys who gave them the guns in the first place, and saying — “we have to protect you from the meddling of the international bogeymen”.

Link roundup


I’m an alpha tester at, which is using market-based social epistemology to ferret out false news. I can’t say whether or not it works or not. The jury is still out as to whether the service is a success in helping correct the public record.

But what I find interesting and refreshing about the experience is that it has exposed me to the diverse lunacy of the human condition. So, e.g., a plausible post about Kanye having his Twitter account taken away from him turned out to be mere satire (contrary to my first-blush expectations). And a post that seemed implausible to me — of an overenthusiastic secularist Principal who mistakenly thought that schools were obliged to ban candy canes because their J-shape stands for Jesus — was verifiably true. (That is, it’s true that the Principal existed and banned candy canes because of an odd belief about their shape, and probably not true that candy canes really are shaped for that reason.)

Which is just to say that I’m skeptical of memes that tell me what to believe about what real people believe. Real token human beings believe all kinds of nonsense, and our meta-beliefs about what people believe turns out to be, sometimes, way off base.


The BBC reports here on research conducted on genocide. “Two research projects are attempting to predict the early rumblings of genocide and spread the information more widely so that world leaders and others might be able to stop it.” The contention is that there is a kind of etiology to genocide, a definite step-wise process, that can be monitored and noted. Especially interesting is that the precursors to genocide mostly involve the spread of information, leading to group polarization.


Considered as a method, philosophy involves the use of rational arguments in order to persuade people working in good faith of the reasonableness of certain passages of thought. Hence, medieval scholars used the term of ‘dialectics’ to refer to the art of logical disputation — contrasted with overly credulous appeals to textual sources (e.g., the scholasticism of the Church) or the use of rhetoric for the sake of persuasion without regard for its rational character (e.g., the sophistry of Gorgias). The medieval sense of dialectics makes pretty good sense of the argumentative practices of philosophy, be it Socratic dialogues and Aristotelian screeds, and is frequently articulated as the core deliverable in an education in critical thinking.

This article reminds us of the role of such critical dialogue in resolving disputes peacefully. It takes a lot of patience and searching in order to work, along with many of the agonizing costs of disputation. But history tells us that, in the long-term, the agonies of polarization are worse.


I hesitate to write about the academic job market. At the moment, I am in an especially precarious position; and, perhaps worse, I would be very embarrassed to write something that I later find is doused in sour grapes. I will say that it is a topic that requires a lot of patience, careful thought, and consideration of the changing “neo-liberalized” economy. It is easy to get wrong. But I thought this piece struck the right balance.

Modeling the concept of genocide

This month I’ve talked a little about conceptual spaces, and a little about genocide, and a little about law and non-classical categories. Now I would like to tie the strings together by showing what use computer models might have in relation to those subjects.

This past week I have been graphing the concept of genocide for the sake of demonstrating the potential appeal of the conceptual spaces paradigm. The hope is to find some way of capturing the information that a person processes which underlie their judgments about how to categorize episodes of genocide, in the absence of classical category structures imposed by definitional fiat. From the jurist’s point of view, looking at concepts in this way is legally obtuse, and hence of at best indirect importance to a court — which, of course it is. On the other hand, if the conceptual spaces paradigm is a worthwhile attempt to describe psychological processing, it is of great importance to a people. And since virtually everybody in the history of the philosophy of law believes that law is only valid law when promulgated, and promulgation presupposes shared conceptual inventory… well, you get the idea.

In the previous post I took a look at Paul Boghossian’s (2011) critique of the concept of genocide. (I could have chosen any number of scholarly critiques of genocide to focus on — e.g., R. J. Rummel — but settled on Boghossian’s paper for the prosaic reason that his paper is available for free on Boghossian offered a few cases which seemed to intuitively challenge the classical conception — the case of targeted warfare (Dresden), an imagined case of gendercide, and Stalin’s dekulakization. I take it that his remarks are not proposed in an effort to undermine the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, but rather to perhaps complicate and enrich it by making its intrinsic motivations more defensible.

Fig.1. Venn. Classic boundary structure.

The classical concept of genocide looks something like the Venn Diagram we see to the right. Put succinctly, genocide is the use of atrocious means, against vital populations, with the intrinsic end of destroying at least some of that population (i.e., destruction of the group is an end-in-itself). These strict criteria tell us what the international court would have to say about Boghossian’s cases: that dekulakization and gendercide don’t count (economic classes and genders are not protected populations). Meanwhile, the facts about Dresden and Nagasaki are borderline cases, depending on the intentions of the Allies in charge of the war. But a reasonable person might wonder whether the underlying legislation is a result of political expediency and moral complicity as opposed to the strict and merciless requirements of justice.

To get a better sense of the psychological lay of the land, I decided to create a model of the conceptual space of genocide. The really wonky methods I used are discussed in the next section. For now, I’ll just discuss a few interesting implications from what I found.

Fig.2. Gephi, which is a networked concept. “Distances” are approximated by color groupings.

One potentially interesting result that I keep running into, at least for the latest iteration of the model, is that American slavery occupies a space relatively close to the Holocaust. (see right) This happens even though no direct analytical links force the two together, and despite the fact that this was not an effect I was expecting. Compare that to the classic categorization pictured in the Venn diagram (above), where slavery is treated as a definite non-case.

This might be worth noting, I think, because if the spatial analysis had any probative worth, then it might be an interesting part of a roundabout explanation of America’s long-standing hesitation to intervene in episodes of genocide worldwide, discussed by Samantha Power. You can tell a story where the American civil war places them on awkward footing with the idea of genocide, because they share the same conceptual space, though are not technically part of the same legal category.

Fig.3. VOSViewer. Genocide as a spatial concept.

But I should place emphasis on ‘if-then’. The use of the model is questionable, and depends on what you think of the methods behind the model. If you are interested in those, keep reading. Still, even if we think the model has little probative value, I would be satisfied to see more conversation in philosophy about the usefulness of conceptual spaces when thinking about how concepts and categories are received.

Continue reading “Modeling the concept of genocide”

Notes on the concept of genocide


Remembrance Day has come and gone. I spent it in an Armory, listening to my parents’ choir, singing a rendition of Flander’s Fields and Handel and so on. All the hits, basically.

Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002) is a history of the concept of genocide. She argues that the American government’s default attitude to genocide is ambivalence.* Even if you disagree with her assessment of American foreign policy, it is also a lucid and useful volume just for the sake of understanding the imperfect legacy of the idea.

In international law, genocide is any act which involves (a) use of at least some atrocious means, (b) against protected groups as such, with (c) the intent to eliminate at least part of those groups. The atrocities in question include: killing, serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately undermining conditions of life (e.g., ghettoization), forced sterilization, and forcible transfer of children. The protected groups are “national, ethnical, racial, or religious”, and to target these groups ‘as such’ is to treat their destruction as a worthy end in itself and not just a means to a further end. Notably, this definition applies even when the aggressor is the ruler or sovereign over the targeted peoples, and it applies during wartime.

In this conceptual space the Holocaust of the Second World War is the prototype of genocide, since that episode involved all of the atrocious means (killing, torture, sterilization, etc.) and was perpetrated against the protected groups as such. During the course of Power’s recounting, we learn of other definite exemplars of genocide in the 20th century — the Armenian genocide by the Turks, the Khmer Rouge’s assault on urban centers in Cambodia, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and so on.

Though Power does not discuss this, it is noteworthy that the Canadian residential schools program was genocide. During that decades-long institutional crime against humanity, persons of Indigenous descent were sterilized and their children were forcibly relocated, notably during the period known as the “Sixties Scoop“. It has been alleged that episodes related to this event occurred up to 2017. To be sure, it is not be a prototype in the region of conceptual space of “genocide”, but it is a definite case.


For some Canadians this may be too much to take in. Nobody wants to be complicit in genocide, so denial of the facts is one strategy. However, there might be some problems with our grasp of the concept itself, which are getting in the way of getting accepted. That is, there might be features of the definition that hard to deploy in cognition, because our usage fails to meet the virtues of a well-behaved categorization.

So, for instance. Some time ago, Paul Boghossian suggested that the concept of genocide was irremediably defective. His arguments are reasonable. But is he right to suggest that the concept of genocide is especially hard to parse?

I must confess that not all of his arguments struck me as decisive. (1) So, for instance, the law requires actions that are intended to eliminate at least part of a protected group, and this “in part” clause is vague to the point of ambiguity. Boghossian argues that this is a major defect. But: for one thing, as many philosophers of law will tell you, that is one of the ambiguities that is strategic to lawmaking, as it affords a legal culture the opportunity to deliberate on the moral, political, and common-sense features of a non-obvious question in the mereology of social ontology. (2) For another thing, he argues that genocide is meant to be a distinctive injustice as a matter of analytical fact. But we can reasonably question whether genocide is distinctively worse than cases of mass killings without being incoherent, which (for classical conceptual analysts) should be sufficient reason to dismiss the need to establish that genocide is a distinct moral wrong. I think it is enough to establish that it is a wrong somewhere at the top of the heap of moral wrongs.

That said, many of Boghossian’s points are worth consideration. He identified several cases that are ostensibly excluded, but which ought to be included:

  • Stalin’s dekulakization was directed towards an economic class of ostensibly well-off peasants, the Kulaks, that resulted in millions of deaths by way of forced redistribution of essential goods necessary for life (a). This apparently does not count as genocide because “economic class” is not a protected group, (b). (For the sake of completeness, we might also include questions about whether or not it is targeting “as such”, as opposed to instrumentally targeting for the sake of collectivization.)
  • He wonders whether or not the intention of exterminating part of a gender would count. (e.g., we might cite sex selection and infanticide in the developing world.)

He also considered some cases that ought to be excluded, but are mistakenly included:

  • Egregious wartime episodes like the firebombing of Dresden or the bombing of Nagasaki, targeted nationalities as such, using atrocious means. But (Boghossian suggests) this is an awkward fit, since the episodes occurred during wartime. For him, these are not obvious cases of genocide, since it is at least plausible to say that they were targeted as a means to an end, the end being to end the war.

Ordinarily, this would be the place where I would argue for one or another categorization of the concept of genocide, such that these apparent exceptions are finessed into a rendering of a coherent whole, either decisively rejected as cases of genocide or decisively included.

But I will not do that. What I would prefer to do is examine the concept of genocide as a perspicuous region in conceptual space, following the methods in the previous post. Perhaps that will have to wait for a different installment.


*Her thesis has to be slightly complicated once you factor in G.W. Bush’s neo-conservative moralism when he argued in favor of the second invasion of Iraq in 2002 — but only slightly. History shows that that policy decision was driven by other factors — as I experience flashbacks to Condeleeza Rice’s “smoking gun mushroom cloud”, Colin Powell’s credibility-deflating testimony before the UN, and the bewilderment of the intelligence community reflected in the Downing Street Memo, and John Bolton’s ongoing impulse-control problems. Still, even if you grant that neo-conservatism certainly sold itself as a moralistic doctrine, it appears as a historical blip. And there is probably no surer evidence of this fact than Samantha Power herself was ousted from her position as representative to the UN during the crypto-isolationistic Trump administration.

To thine own self be [tpm]

Daniel Little leads double-life as one of the world’s most prolific philosophers of social science and author of one of the snazziest blogs on my browser start-up menu. Recently, he wrote a very interesting post on the subject of authenticity and personhood.

In that post, Little argues that the very idea of authenticity is grounded in the idea of a ‘real self’. “When we talk about authenticity, we are presupposing that a person has a real, though unobservable, inner nature, and we are asserting that he/she acts authentically when actions derive from or reflect that inner nature.” For Little, without the assumption that people have “real selves” (i.e., a set of deep characteristics that are part of a person’s inner constitution), “the idea of authenticity doesn’t have traction”. In other words: Little is saying that if we have authentic actions, then those actions must issue from our real selves.

However, Little does not think that the real self is the source of the person’s actions. “…it is plausible that an actor’s choices derive both from features of the self and the situation of action and the interplay of the actions of others. So script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action.”

So, by modus tollens, Little must not think there is any such thing as authentic actions.

But —- gaaah! That can’t be right! It sure looks like there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. When a homophobic evangelical turns out to be a repressed homosexual, we are right to say that their homophobia was inauthentic. When someone pretends to be an expert on something they know nothing about, they are not being authentic. When a bad actor is just playing their part, Goffman-style: not authentic.

So one of the premises has to go. For my part, I would like to take issue with Little’s assertion that the idea of authenticity “has no traction” if there is no real self. I’d like to make a strong claim: I’d like to agree that the idea of a ‘real self’ is an absurdity, a non-starter, but that all the same, there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. Authenticity isn’t grounded in a ‘real (psychological) self’ — instead, it’s grounded in a core self, which is both social and psychological.


If you ever have a chance to wander into the Philosophy section at your local bookstore you’ll find no shortage of books that make claims about the Real Self. A whole subgenre of the philosophy of the ‘true self’ is influenced by the psychodynamic tradition in psychology, tracing back to the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott.

For the Freudians, the psyche is structured by the libido (id), which generates the self-centred ego and the sociable superego. When reading some of the works that were inspired by this tradition, I occasionally get the impression that the ‘real self’ is supposed to be a secret inner beast that lies within you, waiting to surface when the right moment comes. That ‘real self’ could be either the id, or the ego.

On one simplistic reading of Freud, the id was that inner monstrosity, and the ego was akin to the ‘false self’.* On many readings, Freud would like to reduce us all to a constellation of repressed urges. Needless to say (I hope), this reductionism is batty. You have to be cursed with a comically retrograde orientation to social life to think that people are ultimately just little Oedipal machines.

Other theorists (more plausibly) seem to want to say that the ego is hidden beneath the superego — as if the conscience were a polite mask, and the ego were your horrible true face. But I doubt that the ego counts as your ‘real self’, understood in that way. I don’t think that the selfish instincts operate in a quasi-autonomous way from the social ones, and I don’t think we have enough reason to think that the selfish instincts are developmentally prior to the selfish ones. Recent research done by Michael Tomasello has suggested that our pro-social instincts are just as basic and natural as the selfish ones. If that is right, then we can’t say that the ego is the ‘real self’, and the superego is the facade.


All the same, we ought to think that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic self’. After all, it looks as though we all have fixed characteristics that are relatively stable over time, and that these characteristics reliably ground our actions in a predictable way. I think it can be useful, and commonsensical, to understand some of these personality traits as authentic parts of a person’s character.

On an intuitive level, there seem to be two criteria for authenticity which distinguish it from inauthentic action. First, drawing on work by Harry Frankfurt, we expect that authenticity should involve wholeheartedness — which is a sense of complacency with certain kinds of actions, beliefs, and orientation towards states of affairs. Second, those traits should be presented honestly, and in line with the actual beliefs that the actor has about the traits and where they come from. And notice that both of these ideas, wholeheartedness and honesty, make little or no allusion to Freudian psychology, or to a mysterious inner nature.

So the very idea of authenticity is both a social thing and a psychological thing, not either one in isolation. It makes no sense to talk about authentic real self, hidden in the miasma of the psyche. The idea is that being authentic involves doing justice to the way you’re putting yourself forward in social presentation as much as it involves introspective meditation on what you want and what you like.

By assuming that the authentic self is robustly non-social (e.g., something set apart from “responses” to others), we actually lose a grip on the very idea of authenticity. The fact is, you can’t even try to show good faith in putting things forward at face value unless you first assume that there is somebody else around to see it. Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, cannot act ‘authentically’ or ‘inauthentically’. He can only act, period.

So when Little says that “script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action”, I think he is saying something true, but which does not bear on the question of whether or not some action is authentic. To act authentically is to engage in a kind of social cognition. Authenticity is a social gambit, an ongoing project of putting yourself forward as a truth-teller, which is both responsive to others and grounded in projects that are central to your concern.

In this sense, even scripted actions can be authentic. “I love you” is a trope, but it’s not necessarily pretence to say it. [This possibility is mentioned at the closing of Little’s essay, of course. I would like to say, though: it’s more than just possible, it’s how things really are.]

* This sentence was substantially altered after posting. Commenter JMRC, below, pointed out that it is probably not so easy to portray Freud in caricature.