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21 December 2012

President Putin, Kamikaze pilots and the obligations of the logic of language

This man has accepted an obligation to die.
So what is the logic in the fact that he
appears to be wearing a life-jacket?
Does the act of tying a flag round your hat
destroy the capacity for logical thinking?
Many would say it does!
Further to the piece I wrote yesterday about a BBC report on President Putin’s marathon press conference on Thursday, the Moscow Times published several articles today about the same meeting. One of them reported the President discussing the Russian tiff (contemporary translation: “spat”; likely result: “bitch slap”—see post: 18 September) with the Republic of Georgia. The President seemed not to understand either the word “logic” or the word “obligation” since he used the two together in a way which offends the linguistic obligations of general logic:
The president also promised that Russia would lift the ban on importing Georgian wine and mineral water if doing so is required by WTO rules. The ban was introduced in 2006 amid a surge of political tension between Russia and Georgia.
     Since Georgia, which was blocking Russia’s accession to the trade organization, withdrew its objections, “we must be logical and fulfill our obligations,” he said in answer to a question from Georgian journalist David Akhvlediani about opening Russia’s market to the Georgian goods.
     You do not have to be “logical” to “fulfill obligations” since an obligation is a requirement to act imposed by private law (in this case, WTO law) or etiquette. However derived, an obligation generally implies reciprocity. It does not arise from the application of logic, which does not usually require reciprocity.
     If the house is on fire, it is logic that dictates that you go outside as soon as possible. You have no obligation to leave. Self-preservation is logical but it is not obligatory. Indeed sometimes the opposite is the case.
     An example of that might be the Japanese naval pilot in early 1945 who found himself in a Kamikaze squadron. He was under an “obligation” to crash his plane directly onto the flight-deck of an American aircraft carrier, thereby killing himself and destroying his plane, but without any realistic hope of imposing serious damage on a 30,000-ton armoured ship.
     There was no logic to such acts. They were done out of a sense of obligation which was so strong that it required the senseless sacrifice of a life and a plane. It would be like an artillery battery deciding to throw their gun at the enemy than to continue firing it.
     A civilised Western equivalent of the Kamikaze pilot might be the person who feels he has an obligation to finish all the food on his plate, since to waste food is to behave arrogantly in a world in which so many people are starving—or so his parents have told him since he was a boy. When the fire alarm sounds during dinner, he starts eating more quickly, but still not quickly enough. The flames are already licking the other end of the table and the flowers in the vase in the middle have wilted. But he still has three roast potatoes on his plate, two slices of lamb and a pile of peas, which always take time to eat politely.
     The Kamikaze diner is faced with a dilemma: does he behave logically and leave the house before the fire engulfs him, or does he respect the obligations of moral etiquette and express his respect for those in poverty by never getting up from the table while there is still food on his plate? Out of such situations are many profitable dramas and amusing comedies made.
     These Kamikaze examples may seem extreme, but they spring to mind because a friend of mine this morning paid me a handsome compliment on his blog on LiveJournal. He is a doctoral student of international naval policy and recent naval history. I feel an obligation to reciprocate. Anyone interested in the logic of maritime conflict and the obligations international naval co-operation should consult his blog (in Russian) at this link.

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