Friday, November 29, 2002


Into the blogroll with Junius. He's defending Rawls against my criticisms (see the comments section on my Rawls post). His blog promises "egalitarian liberalism...and non-political-correctness" to which Moe of the Simpsons would surely respond, "Whaaaaa?!" (Don't worry, Philosoblog will stay a pop philosophy blog and will not become an arcane Rawls interpretation blog.)

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Not a Conservative at 20

Michael Blowhard wondered about why people don’t become conservative. The old saying is that “If you weren’t a liberal at 20, you didn’t have a heart. If you aren’t a conservative by 35, you don’t have a brain.” What are the details about the early half? Why is conservatism repellant to so many? I've argued in earlier posts that it is envy that makes people turn to the left; Michael has suggested perhaps it has to do with aesthetics. Now I think that the answer is "both, inextricably, at once."

Liberty and Moral Authority. Here is a simple error: that since people should have liberty to do as they like, to find ways of life that suit them and make them happy, therefore, there is no such thing as a moral authority, a person who, as a transmitter of established tradition, is wise and discriminating about ways of life. The idea that someone knows better offends the notion that oppression is wrong, that no one is the boss of anyone else. To subject one’s will to another is degrading to the modern sense of autonomy. A liberal is born whenever someone makes this error. For it is an error, given that the wrongness of oppressing and depriving people of liberty is fully consistent with the appropriateness of willingly submitting oneself to the traditional wisdom of those who are better. Some people are better than others. The rest of us should follow their lead, at least to some degree. (We should of course discover our own individual inclinations and preferences, as well, and prudently develop an idea of the right way of life by using both sources of guidance.) But let’s cut the chase.

Arrogance and Blue Blazers. Michael thinks aesthetics has a big role. (There were many posts on this on many blogs about a month ago.) The adolescent who has not been shown how to find fulfillment in any particular way of life looks upon the conservative role models; blue-blazer, khaki-slacks, and arrogance are all that he sees. They listen to violin music. What’s that? Oh, yes, “Classical.” They have nothing immediately gratifying in their aesthetic, either in their dress, their music, or their art. All is understated, because the conservative values aesthetic pleasures that require subtle attention. This requires uncommon ability on the part of the perceiver; it is a cultivated, acquired taste. It is better to be someone who can take these pleasures. The character, experience, and life, of such a one are finer than those of the hoi polloi. The conservative knows this and acknowledges it in body language, and sometimes, arrogantly, by directly stating his superiority. The adolescent finds nothing aesthetically gratifying in the conservative way but, noticing its arrogance and wealth, concludes that it is a sham.

The adolescent without direction suddenly gets direction: to prove the conservative to be effete, pretentious, and, even vacuous in his tastes. The young liberal will show that profoundly rich experiences are there to be had precisely by those who are not so controlled and discriminating. Sloth enters in; no one wants to work hard at achieving excellence of character. Of course, simple hedonism is not usually the goal; that would be patently absurd as a method of aesthetic one-upsmanship. So, the anti-establishment aesthetic is cast sometimes as a spiritual mysticism (usually Asian kinds, since those involve profound aesthetic experiences and ‘not making distinctions’), but usually as an avante garde, rule-breaking aesthetic elitism to rival that of the conservative establishment. From Duchamp to the Butthole Surfers, from the performance artist who had himself nailed to a VW to John Cage’s 4’33”, and from Naked Lunch to Black Flag, the jig is up. These are unquestioningly held to be several orders of magnitude greater in aesthetic profundity than traditional, conservative culture. This is the jaded cognition of the world-savvy, the one who has “seen through the charade” to the underlying reality, the one who is bored with the game and will toy with its rules, twisting them, distorting them, breaking them, in order to express his victory over his aesthetic rival, the conservative. In other words, the liberal makes his victory over the rival he envies precisely by desecrating the rules of the game. Victory is easy and swift. This is the meaning of “cool”. The new liberal does not sweat the distinctions between fine and uncouth; he is cool to them. He has a pleasure far beyond their league.

He scoffs, as well, at the middle-class, conservative masses located below the blue-blazered elite; they are the duped and mindless drones that make up the elite snobs’ army. In addition to the aesthetic and moral pretensions of the conservative elite, the liberal has also seen through the economic system designed to support these. He therefore feels himself in touch with the laborers and the disenfranchised poor, whom he views as closer to nature than the middle- and upper-class establishment. “At 20 to have a heart” because obviously the poor have miseries put upon them as a result of the scandalous pretensions of a blue-blazer aesthetic and the insidious age-old lie that the wealth required to finance this aesthetic ought by “rights” to left amongst those who are of nobility and worth. He is also a multiculturalist because he knows that distinctions of better and worse ways of life are mere tools of oppression, and that only one culture is lower than any other: the Western, conservative, elitist culture that denies this. He would therefore add economic egalitarianism to his agenda, alongside the aesthetic of the cool. All distinctions are to be exposed for the frauds they are, be they distinctions in character, culture or economic desert. And all this arises from a simple event in adolescence: humiliation and envy in the presence of the upturned nose and the blue blazer, the inability to face one’s own inadequacy in taste and moral character. By late adolescence the youngster was not made liable to take pleasure in truly fine activities, and he now realizes that the door to these is quickly closing. He rages against this fate and discovers a commonly followed escape route: revolution, progressivism, leftism: the only ideology according to which failure may be easily avoided and victory is at hand: the only ideology according to which personal fulfillment, and even membership in a bonafide elite group, can be had merely by getting hip, by simply having the guts and savvy to see through the game - personal adjustments which may be had in a matter of a particularly wild evening or, at worst, a month and a half of finding out how to “turn on and tune out”.

Adolescence finished, the liberal takes his place amongst those “working for change”: a nebulous goal which, as a utopianism, means little more than a prideful and narcissistic “not this culture, for I can find no personal fulfillment in it, and I am worthy of great fulfillment, of partaking of what is fine.” Therefore, the dispute over whether liberalism is motivated by envy or aesthetics is therefore settled by answering "both, inextricably, at once".

UPDATE: The connection John Jay Ray makes between authoritarianism and leftism can be detected here (N.B., I'm using "liberal" and "leftist" synonymously in this post, though I usually just use "leftist"). The liberal must have the government enforce economic equality and cultural non-judgmentalism (including multiculturalism) because this is the only way to make the situation seem to count as a victory for him over the conservatives. As long as there is a free market for wealth, morals, and aesthetics, the conservative will be shown to be the victor. The liberal therefore tends toward authoritarianism (and narcissism, as well). Ironically, what got the young liberal started on this unhealthy spiral was a libertarian suspicion of authority and respect for autonomy. This is why people don't often associate liberalism with authoritarianism. The confusion lies in the fact that early on it is moral, aesthetic, or cultural authority that the young liberal does not respect. He later develops a great appreciation for state authority. The two are consistent, in that the liberal's state is to enforce equality and the cessation of all distinctions, be they economic or moral. (N.B., This is why I don't like to use "liberal" but prefer "leftist". I've used "liberal" here because it is the term used in the old saying, "If you weren't a liberal...)

UPDATE: John has more on this (his area of expertise), and, in addition to correcting me in places, he gives us the locus classicus of the "old saying" I've been on about.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Vile Display of Fascist Authoritarianism!

Cinderella urges delinking of a blog! This is an outrageous and unspeakably cynical move to crush freedom of speech! And the victim in this case appears to be not even a conscious being! A "bot" of some kind, like R. Robot! Um, the last time I checked, Cinderella, there was supposed to be freedom of speech. Maybe you didn't get the memo. And to grind a lowly robot under your jackbooted heel! Unconscionable!

UPDATE: Aaron jumps on the authoritarian bandwagon. My world is coming apart around me. I don't know where to turn. I can't trust anyone anymore.

UPDATE: I'm being threatened with delinking. Look at this email I got from "Can", obviously a bot: "You are an idiotarian. They did it. They finally did it. I fisk the idiotarian. Um, the last time I checked, terrorists were trying to take over this country. Maybe you didn't get the memo. I guess you prefer to provide foot massage to Babs or Alec Baldwin. If you do not delink R. Robot, I will delink you. Either you delink R. Robot or I delink you. They are fisking some idiotarian over at R. Robot's. Unless you delink R. Robot, I delink you."
Totalitarianism, Radical Progressivism, Fascism

Two items tonight:

1. The first thing is two pairs: One pair: Two letters to the editor in the Nov. 25 New Republic continue the leftist rant about Iraq: It’s all about oil, and the U.S. is taking itself to be above the law. Well, this seems to prove John Jay Ray’s point that leftism and fascism go hand in hand. Whatever the socialist authority - the UN - says, goes; whatever they say is law is therefore, by the very fact that they say it, just. The Authority can make no unjust law. And how dare the U.S. object that the law is immoral or bad for private interests! Determinations of justice will be posited by the authority and disobedience is not an option.

Another pair: Catherine MacKinnon, a professor at University of Michigan, said that she would disallow professors to teach that there are biologically based behavioral differences between men and women. Also in the news, in Iran teachers suffer anything from being barred from teaching to being sentenced to death if they questions the establishment’s values. Determinations of justice will be posited by the authority and disobedience is not an option.

Leftist, fascist, progressivist, reactionary - what’s the difference?

2. Cinderella has a nice post on historicism and radical progressivism. The post includes a speech by early 19th C. playwrite Georg Buechner. The speech contains the fundamental fallacy of radical progressivism:

"[A]ll are equal, ... therefore everyone should have advantages and none should have privileges, neither should there be a special or a lower or a higher class of individuals."

As John Adams pointed out, the fact that all men are created equal implies only that one should treat others in the same way unless there is a morally relevant reason not to do so. In other words, arbitrary and groundless distinctions in people's moral rights are unjust. (Examples: bigotry, fantasies about blue blood. In other words, if you let everyone be free except people with big feet, but you make exceptions for those amongst your group of friends with big feet, you're in violation of the principle of equality.) What this equality does not imply is that there should not be upper economic or social classes or advantages and privileges. It means only that anyone should be free to earn these things, either by hard work, talent, or luck. As Adams argued, a natural aristocracy will develop and we should accept this. The leftist doesn't understand any of this; he fails to distinguish the two kinds of equality. The result, as Cinderella's post shows, is often mass murder by fanatic revolutionaries. After all, shouldn't those who stand in the way of fundamental equality be cut down? The dead now number in the hundreds of millions.

"Determinations of justice will be posited by the authority and disobedience is not an option." Two paths: hundreds of millions of murders or a Lockean democratic republic. Locke said that there is a common-sense, natural morality, and we don't have to obey any government that violates it. Can you think of another path? I can't.

Monday, November 25, 2002

John Rawls

John Rawls has died. His argument for redistribution of wealth is the foremost defense of liberalism in academia. Let's take a look at the argument. Here it is, the pinnacle of 20th C. liberal philosophy of social justice:

Rawls argued that if you had to be born into any society without knowing at which level of wealth or with what sort of opportunity you would have, you would, if you were rational, pick a society with the following redistributive scheme:

The situation of those on the lowest rung of the ladder of wealth is to be made as good as possible. No one is allowed to get richer than anyone else unless allowing this helps those at the bottom.

In other words, it would be irrational to gamble with poverty. You might be born into a lifetime of poverty, so if you have your choice, you should choose the society with the richest poor people. It might be a society of no wealthy people, but so be it. It is irrational to take a chance on wealth when this means exposing yourself to a chance of worse poverty than necessary.

Now, since that is the society you should choose when you don't know how well-off you are going to be, it is the just society. Justice is impartial. You can't rest your decision about justice upon whether you are rich. Suppose that you knew that in the next moment were going to be reborn as a new baby, such that where you were going to end up on the ladder of wealth and opportunity were going to be a matter of pure chance. If you would say, "Hang on a moment. Can we first put in place the most generous welfare minimum possible? I really don't like gambling," then you do not believe your present society is a just one. You believe the rules of the game are not reasonable or impartial. You don't think the wealthy in your present society do unto the poor as they would have others do unto them if they were poor. You know that only a society with the most generous welfare minimum possible would be just. This is Rawls's argument for an extensive, elaborate, cradle-to-grave welfare state. The rich should give and give to the poor until giving more won't do any more good.

There are two devastating problems with the argument. First, it's not irrational to gamble. If you have a good chance at fantastic wealth, you might reasonably accept taking it, even if it entails a real chance of pretty bad poverty. Therefore, other societies are rational besides the large, liberal welfare state.

Second, the argument entails that the following society could be unjust if its poorest people could be made better off by further redistribution of wealth to the poor from the rich: a society in which the poorest people own nice houses and two cars, and other such middle or upper-middle class things. But it's silly to think that such a wealthy society would be unjust. So, Rawls's argument must be flawed. Again, the flaw is to think that it is irrational to desire to live in a society in which you might very well get rich but also might end up with only minimal welfare support. Rawls thought this would be foolish risk taking. But clearly he was wrong about that. In sum, Rawls failed to show that the rich ought to provide the poor more than a minimal welfare net.

There's more. We value self-reliance and property rights. I wouldn't want to be such a burden on the rich as to have them give me more and more money until giving me more wouldn't help me any more. The Rawlsian society is inconsistent with my values. There is nothing inconsistent or irrational about my values, so Rawls's argument does not refute them. Viewed in this light, Rawls's philosophy is seen for what it is: an artificial game-theoretic approach to justice that is neither here nor there. His abstract method would have us decide what's right by first leaving our moral values aside. But how are you supposed to decide what's right without applying your moral values? Rawls's project, like that of any Kantian, was destined to fail from the start.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan today said, "Although Rawls's writing never, to my mind, plumbed the psychological, spiritual and moral depths of the great political philosophers, his bold attempt to re-think liberalism from first premises reinvigorated political theory in the 1970s and became the basis for much valuable and intricate criticism...." Jacob Levy said, "Rawls created a common disciplinary discourse within which arguments could be had...." Levy quotes Robert Nozick regarding "Rawls' systematic vision" that shows "how beautiful a whole theory can be." These are supposed to be words of praise. To me they fall flat. No political philosophy of any value has emerged from the ivory tower in the late 20th C. Sullivan and Levy like "intricate criticism", "disciplinary discourse", and "beautiful systems". Millions in grant money and salaries have been poured into these. But what use have we for these things in the political forum? They are out of sync with common sense and ordinary values. Neither the House nor the Senate has any use for them. No novel and interestingly true theories in political philosophy have emerged from American academia in the last 50 years. (No? Name one.) If the theory isn't common sense, it's not worth following. If it's common sense, we don't need professors to "discover" it.

UPDATE: John Jay Ray posts on Rawls. "Rawls is simply irrelevant. He is popular in academe only because his conclusions are Leftist," says John. Yes, but he is also popular because he is thought to have given the idea of impartial, unbiased reasoning to political philosophy. "Therein lies the greatness of Rawls," says Richard Epstein. Huh? Impartial and unbiased reasoning, the golden rule and such, are not new to political philosophy. Even Epstein admits, "The great engine that drove Rawls's analysis was, like all great ideas, not uniquely his." So, what's going on here? Just ivory tower nonsense. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Get a guy with an IQ of 160, pay him to spend his life on that. You'll get ingenious results. Blah, blah, blah.

A Question

By now it has become apparent that anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are normal in Europe and Arabia. This American Jew has a question for those people:

Are you living good lives, lives of freedom, mutual respect, and prosperity? We Americans, including the many American Jews, sure are.

Just asking. Okay, I admit it, I'm rubbing salt into the wounds of envy. But it's for your own good. If you think about that question and how to make the answer "yes," you might do yourself a lot of good! Yes, you might! So, stop farting around! Enough bed wetting and whining. There is no mommy or daddy. Get a culture, make a life for yourselves. Stop with your insane religion, your multi-culti nihilism, your bleak socialism, your radical chic, and your scapegoating. Good lives await you. You have a social disease. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Tell us to bugger off one last time, and then roll up your sleeves and get to building healthy societies.

This is metaethics, and it's not greatly important to life. It's only important to philosophers who stroll with their head in the clouds and fall down holes as a result! John Jay Ray posts on the nature of moral judgment today. He says judgments of right and wrong might be merely personal recommendations rather than statements of objective oughts.

David Hume demonstrated that there are no objective oughts. But still, moral judgments aren't personal recommendations. Moral judgments can be true or false, but recommendations can't. So, they can't be the same thing. I'd suggest that moral judgments are statements of shared recommendations, and more precisely, statements of what the majority in one's society all recommend when they're being consistent with their other recommendations and the relevant facts. And in order to be moral judgments, rather than culinary judgments, they have to be recommendations about the desirable balance of altruistic and self-interested desires.

John is right to connect this British sentimentalist view to conservatism. People who claim to have important objective judgments almost always want society to change radically. They claim that there is some way we ought to live even though we don't desire to live that way. Conservatives suggest that it makes good sense, and can't be wrong, for us to live as we prefer. You might object that cruel and oppressive ways of life are wrong even if preferred. But recall that what is in question is where to strike a coherent balance of altruistic and self-interested desires. Cruel and oppressive ways of life don't do that. There are many plausibly moral ways of life to be conservative about. Confucian conservatives prefer their way (and Mencius was a sentimentalist, by the way), while Westerners prefer theirs. There is no single, absolute, objective morality. Though this doesn't mean "anything goes" (it rules out slavery, Nazism, castrating little girls, and probably Islamic sharia), it does mean that we should be conservative and live as we prefer. Conservatism is the only rational way to live, as I've argued before. Prudential rationality is conservative in its very nature. To look for objective values independent of preference is probably delusional. Anyway, no one has ever come up with a plausible theory of what it would mean to be an "objective moral fact". (This doesn't mean you can't have a career at fine universities spilling more ink in utter ignorance of Hume's conclusive demonstration.)

(This gives us the reduction of ought to is: What we ought to do is the same as what it is that we coherently prefer to do, when coherent in our preferences, in line with the relevant facts, and have struck what counts as a balance between altruistic and self-interested desire. By the way, Hume famously said that you can't get an ought from an is, but also famously reduced morals to sentiment. How could this be? Well, the 'is' he had in mind was objective, desire-independent facts. Once you factor in desire, voila, reduction is at hand.)
Jonah has More

On Freedom. Scroll down to "more on freedom".

One question: The extent to which tradition and its representative authorities - be they person, books, or works of art - ought to be deferred to or heeded without full comprehension of their grounds. The next question is Which traditions and authorities ought to be heeded? Finally, there is the question of the extent to which the state ought to reinforce this authority. Clearly, all children in America ought to be required to go to school and to study history. Most Americans can't say why, but they still support this requirement. Should there be state funding of arts, such as symphonies and museums? If we elect representatives because they are wise (senators and presidents, the natural aristocracy John Adams spoke of), which cultural values should these representatives decide ought to be funded by the state? Or should they fund none and let the market decide? We all know what the market tends to support. Should kids be required to study Latin or Greek? They obviously should not be required to be Christian. People are often stupid and wicked, and stupid and wicked people should heed wise authorities. But governments are sometimes stupid and wicked, since they are made of people. So, there is some doubt about the extent to which we should empower government with authority. Nevertheless, unless anarchism is in principle correct, there is no reason to judge a priori that the state should not support cultural authority. Again, we all want kids to be required to learn history in school. So, the question now is where to draw the line.

Another question: Security v. liberty. We already have a large military and a police force under control of the government. These forces have not compelled our enslavement yet. Unless anarchism is in principle correct, there is no reason to judge a priori that the state should not go even further, for example, with the Homeland Security program. There is a real chance that St. Louis will be obliterated by a suitcase nuke. How real is the chance that the U.S. government will use recently installed surveillance techniques to enslave Americans? There is evil coming at us from Arabia, and there is potential evil in the U.S. government. This is a matter of risk management. The philosophical question has already been answered: anarchism, or strong libertarianism, is false. Only someone who advocates getting rid of the military and the police can coherently take issue with that. The question now is how far we should let the government go. To say that just on principle it should go no further is to refuse to offer an argument. We need to see the risk management details.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

A Rough Topology of Right and Wrong

The plethora of moral judgments that hold true in our modern, Western society cannot be systematized. No one has ever discovered any strict principles or rules that could not be easily debunked. Hobbes tried to reduce morality to self-interest; Kant tried to show that the golden rule (the “categorical imperative,” which he wrongly claimed was different from the golden rule) could tell you what was right in any case; and the utilitarians suggested that we simply do whatever promotes the most happiness. All went down in flames. As Aristotle said, moral life is too complex to be systematized or crammed into a finite list of rules.

But I can offer a bird’s eye view of our modern, Western morality, a sort of rough topology or description of its shape. In many cases, one has a right to act in his own self-interest. Also, everyone has a duty to sacrifice one's interests in order to help others in some cases. There is a restriction on harming; it is wrong to inflict harm in many cases. But, it is also wrong to allow harm in some cases. Finally, the degree of harm and self-interest at stake matters. Those are the features of the terrain. Now, what is the overall shape of the terrain?

You have no right to harm others, unless the harm to them is slight and the benefit you derive from it necessary to save yourself from great harm. For example, you may lean on someone’s shoulder without his permission, in order to get your balance and prevent yourself from falling off of a high balcony to your death. You’re not allowed to take wallets, however, or rob banks.

You ought to help others when they will otherwise suffer undeserved and severe harm and helping them will not be very costly to you. For example, you ought to call 911 and administer first aid if you see someone bleeding to death. But you have no duty to fund your neighbor’s college education.

In general, causing harm is permissible when it averts undeserved disaster, and helping others is obligatory when it averts undeserved disaster. In other cases, causing harm is wrong and helping others is not obligatory, because people have liberty and property rights, as well as a duty of self-reliance.

In other words, self-interested and altruistic desires take their shape in our morality as follows. The duty to aid others and the permissibility of harming them kick in when the balance of interests tips radically, such that aiding or harming will cost no one very much but help an innocent greatly. Otherwise, they don’t kick in. It’s wrong to cause grievous injury to an innocent, in order to save one’s own life. It’s permissible to let an innocent die, when the only way to save him is to sacrifice one’s health. Welfare nets should be minimal, not luxurious. Wealth should not be equalized; that would involve theft.

None of this is meant to be a rule-based system. It’s a rough topology of morality that will not help you solve any moral dilemmas. Once you descend from the bird’s eye view, the features of the moral terrain come into view in their vast complexity. We see that loved ones and friends may be treated differently from strangers, that manners count, and that projects shared amongst people can involve mutual fulfillment, as well as requiring altruistic desire. The complexities continue on from there.

This is the picture of altruism-based morality inherited from the British sentimentalists, such as Butler and Hume. Morality is a set of altruistic and self-interested desires widely shared in society and carefully shaped into a complex but coherent set by culture’s long history of experience. The task of figuring out the right thing to do is the task of deciding how the case in question fits into the topology of this set.
Abortion: An Odd Reductio Ad Absurdum

Nobody likes the killing of abortion doctors. Now, consider this. If abortion is murder, then the killing of these doctors is clearly justified. When it's a question of Nazi doctors vivisecting innocents, passive resistance is insufficient. Simply announcing one's objections in the strongest of terms won't cut it. On the contrary, there is a duty to take the law into one's own hands and kill Nazi doctors. Now, if abortion is murder, then abortion doctors aren't relevantly different from Nazi doctors. They ought to be killed if abortion is murder. The fact that our government protects them is no more relevant than the fact that Nazis protected Nazi doctors. It would be the murder of thousands of children we're talking about.

But obviously killing abortion doctors is wrong. Therefore, abortion is not murder. What this odd reductio shows is the following. The fact that we know killing abortion doctors is wrong shows that deep down we know that the fetus is not a person.

Friday, November 22, 2002

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg really outdid himself today. Conservatives take all our values and try to fufill them all as much as possible. Libertarians don't (and neither do leftists, I'd add). A must read.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

The Political Philosophy of Paul Wellstone

In a sense, Senator Wellstone was a conservative. Most of the time, he took the attitude that instead of radical upheaval, we should look for specific, evidentially demonstrable problems in the political system and rectify them by applying American values and law. But he was a liberal in that he devoted himself to the problems faced by the poor. He would use political power to bring the country's treatment of poor people in line with our values. This core vision therefore puts the Senator, on balance, slightly to the left of center.

The first point about the Senator's political philosophy is this: Poverty brings with it the lack of power to protect one's rights, rights established by our values and laws. When the poor are in dire need or being treated wrongfully by the rich, the problem goes overlooked and therefore unrectified. Some wealthy people succeed in perverting and impeding representative democracy and thus in preventing us from living up to our values. We should endeavor to change the structure of power in society so that it comes more in line with our values. This will be a matter of grass-roots organizations (such as tenant groups), unions, and public funding. The leaders of these groups should emerge from them democratically, rather than being outsiders claiming to have special leadership powers. The point is to inquire carefully into the overlooked facts about poverty and to survey our values and laws clearly. The goal is facts, truth, and correct application of American values and law. A progressive attitude towards changing the power structure in society is meant to accomplish this goal. This philosophy puts the Senator slightly to the left of center: conservative in the aforementioned sense, but progressive in a moderately leftist sense.

In brief, the Senator devoted his career to a simple value: that there was tremendous suffering amongst the poor, particularly amongst poor children, and that this suffering should be alleviated by grass-roots mustering of political power in order use power to bring government back in line with our values.

The second point about the Senator's philosophy is that there was a fallacy in it that moved it too far to the left. Wellstone was right that our core values commit us to redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor because of the undeserved misery amongst the poor. He inferred from this premise that as long as there was any such misery we should continue to redistribute the wealth with more government programs, such as socialized health care. This was a seductive inference indeed, given that if we have a duty to help the miserably poor, then it would seem that as long as there are still miserably poor people we haven't fulfilled our duty. What Wellstone wasn't able to see was that the duty of the wealthy is not necessarily to sacrifice as long as there is any undeserved misery amongst the poor. Their duty was to sacrifice substantially, and Americans had determined, according to their values, that they had already fulfilled this duty. In other words, the fact that you have a duty to help people in need does not prove that you ought to exhaust yourself until there are no more people in need; the burden of doing so might be too great. But Wellstone could see only the misery and not its practical ineradicability. He couldn't reconcile himself to the fact that ending misery was a practical impossibility or, at least, would hamstring the American economy in ways unacceptable to American values.

The Senator might have devoted his career and enormous energy to streamlining the welfare programs already in place by making them more effective at the same cost. This would have kept his politics moderately to the left. In this sense, the fallacy in his philosophy was somewhat tragic. Twelve years devoted to streamlining welfare programs would have served American values, both moderate left and moderate right. But the urgency he felt about the miserably poor kept him from taking this more judicious stance.

In spite of the fallacy, Wellstone was intellectually honest. He knew that the point of the political forum was to argue about what American values entailed when rendered coherent and in line with the facts. He didn't think, as Plato, Lenin, and Mao did, that he knew better and ought to impose his special knowledge of justice on others too stupid to grasp it. He would argue, and he would stick to grass-roots democracy. He was motivated neither by hatred nor envy. He was motivated by benevolence, reason, and democracy. He was a true-blue American liberal.

[Paul Wellstone's books: How the Rural Poor Got Power (1978) and The Conscience of a Liberal (2002)]

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Zen Buddhism


Bigwig's got the Carnival on again over at Blogcritics. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Leftist Cooperation Argument

John Jay Ray posts today about an email he received from a leftist. The topic is the often heard argument that the wealthy should be willing to redistribute wealth to the unwealthy (those below upper-middle class), on the grounds that society is a cooperative enterprise. Without the unwealthy, the wealthy would not be able to become wealthy. A workforce is needed, a monetary system, an infrastructure, etc. In other words, you can live high off the hog, but only because there is an elaborate society, and any elaborate society requires laborers. These people deserve payment, a fair share of the take. Fully fledged egalitarian leftists would say that everyone should have the same amount of wealth. In any event, this is the cooperation argument in favor of leftist economic justice.

It seems like a seductive argument. But it's little more than a thinly veiled threat. For an unwealthy person to say that he deserves a bigger piece of the pie because he makes society possible is tantamount to his threatening to rebel, to undermine society. The unwealthy participate in society of their own volition. They could leave or commit suicide. Since no one is forced to contribute to society, the cooperation argument is spurious. There are no grounds to complain about the contract if you are always free to leave. The contract says that we are going to work together to create society, and luck, skill, and market forces will determine outcomes. The cooperation argument merely threatens to disrupt this endeavor, to return society to the Hobbesian state of war, unless the terms "luck, skill, and market forces" are stricken.

Maybe I'm being uncharitable to the cooperation argument. However, if it's not a mere threat, then the argument merely says that anyone who contributes to society deserves a comparable share to anyone else. But there is no good reason to accept this premise.

There ought to be a minimal welfare net for those unable to support themselves. After that, it should be a free-for-all.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Locke was No Libertarian

People often think of Locke as a libertarian. They see him as the one who proposed that the state’s purpose was merely to protect the property of the people from seizure and that the state had no right to seize the property of any citizen against his will. Neither of these things is the case.

Locke believed that the state’s role was to act according to its determinations of moral rights and duties. But one of the moral duties of every person who had plenty was to help others who could not sustain themselves. He said of every citizen, “[W]hen his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind” (Second Treatise, #6). Therefore, if the state were to tax the wealthy in order to distribute wealth to those unable to sustain themselves, this would be an appropriate determination of moral rights and duties. Locke would thus have supported mandatory taxation for a welfare net.

Consent of the governed was required for taxation, but this is merely democratic, majoritarian consent. According to Locke, by living in a society, one gave one’s consent to acquiesce to the majority’s determinations of moral rights and duties to be enforced by the state. Therefore, if the minority did not like to pay tax for a welfare net, this would be irrelevant to the matter. The taxation would be just.

Locke certainly championed the rights of the people not to have their property taken by the government against their will. The Founding Fathers based their justification of the American Revolution on his reasoning. But the idea was merely that it isn’t true that whatever the state says is righteous confiscation of property is so. The idea wasn’t that the state mustn’t take your property unless you give your okay or unless they are going to use the funds to protect your proptery. In addition, commonsense moral principles and majority rule were constraints on the right of the state to tax. And one of the commonsense moral principles he had in mind was that one ought to sacrifice for those unable to sustain themselves. Thus, Locke’s idea would support taxation for welfare. Locke was no libertarian.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Why Vote?

You might have noticed that it is not in your interest to vote. There is only a negligible chance that your vote will matter; rarely are elections won by one vote. So, voting will be highly unlikely to make any difference to whether your favored candidate wins. Voting is therefore irrational if only self-interest is taken into account.

The reason to vote is that it is your duty. We all have a duty to learn about the issues and the candidates, make a considered choice of the best candidate, and vote for him. It is important that Americans do this in as large numbers as possible, so that the chance of the best candidate winning is most likely. With every eligible American deliberating over the issues and candidates and then voting, the results of the election will be most likely to be the best. More brain power uncovers the right answer better than less. Therefore, anyone who doesn't vote is a freeloader. It is about the same as littering. One piece of paper won't matter. But to litter that piece of paper is to transfer the burden of not littering onto one's fellows and to take a free ride: a clean city.

This is a good example of a case in which acting morally is not in your interest. Taking the trouble to read up on the issues and spend an hour voting is not in your interest. But it is your duty. (What's duty based on? Altruistic desire, as Hume demonstrated.)

Friday, November 15, 2002

A Couple of Things

Mind Floss mentions determinism v. freedom, and leftist rejection of sociobiology. So, here are a couple of things about freedom.

Without too much difficulty, you can find leftist screeds against the sociobiological theory that men are naturally inclined toward rape. The leftist will say that this is an attempt to excuse rape and therefore reject the science. Baloney, for the obvious reason that morally distasteful results cannot be evidence against a theory. But besides that, consider that the sociobiological theory in question actually has no morally distasteful results. A theory of the origin of someone's urge, by itself, can do nothing to show that the person is not to be blamed for acting on the urge. People are responsible for handling their urges, reasoning about them, and doing as reason bids. There is no escape clause to this principle that says that it depends upon the origin of the urge in question. Where urges come from, be it genetics, upbringing, what have you, is entirely irrelevant to assigning responsibility for action. My tongue is genetically made for chocolate appreciation. But if I steal chocolate, I am blameworthy.

The other thing is this. All events are determined by previous events and natural laws. But you can do whatever you want, so you're free. No one's stopping you. You can go downtown or stay home today. "But it's determined which I will do." Yes, it's determined by your desire. "But my desire is determined." So, what? If you wanted to do otherwise, you could do otherwise. Your sphere of free action does not need to reach to points causally prior to your desires in order to be just that - your sphere of free action. No one's controlling you. You can do what you want.

So, now take the guy who doesn't rape. He might have an urge to rape, but he has a stronger urge not to rape. The rapist, on the other hand, has no such overriding urge, so he rapes. Both do whatever they want. Both have a chance to introspect and determine which they most desire. Both can act contrary to their urge to rape if they so desire. Both are free.

In the news: several Arabic linguists have been fired from their military posts because they are gay. There is a bad shortage of Arabic linguists. Whoever is responsible for their firing should be brought up on treason charges. I guess they number in the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. Congressmen, too, I guess. They should have changed policy right after 9/11. Do you realize that they won't let you translate Arabic for the CIA or NSA if you smoked a joint in college 20 years ago? The chance that dozens of American children will be murdered is now greater thanks to these people. "I can't figure out what these Arab terrorists are saying on their cell phones. Maybe their talking about killing 100,000 Americans, I don't know. But we'll just have to hope for the best, because I sure as hell ain't having no faggits 'round here. Durned faggits! Already bad enough with the coloreds and Jews."

Thursday, November 14, 2002


Greetings. Check out One Good Turn. Alright! Another blog by a philosophy professor (Eddie Thomas)! And it's good, too. Also, John Jay Ray has been good as ever. Would you two please stop taking the piss out of me? Thanks. 'm not interested in the truth. I just want to make others believe to be true what I believe to be true. (Just kidding, of course.)

Eddie says that my attempt to render conservatism a logical truth won't work but will construe everyone as a conservative. I don't know. I think many are un-conservative because they just don't grasp that it makes no sense not to be. They either cling dogmatically to certain values against the countervailing evidence, or they want to change values out of anger or envy or some other irrational disposition. More later, gotta think about it.

One bad thing is time. I don't seem to have time to think about all these interesting things, or finish my research into John Adams. I don't have time for intellectual pursuits, being stuck in university...;-)
A College Education

The curriculum in English and sociology departments is largely the following. Systems of value and belief, ideologies, are imposed upon reality. None of them is true. Books and films are ideological instruments of control. Ways of life are all equally devoid of objective worth. They are imposed by a cultural system in order to serve those who most benefit from them: the elite. You can take class after class, and each one will have this curriculum. Of course, there are exceptions. There are professors of poetry or Durkheim who will have none of this. But this is the mainstay of the curriculum: postmodern Marxism. The latter is a redundant phrase, meaning that all beliefs and values are merely caused by the interests of those in power and are not based on truth or good reasons. Indeed, there is no such thing as truth or good reasons, these themselves being mere ideological tools.

End tenure and fire these professors for gross incompetence. They can have no good argument for their curriculum. For their curriculum's core concept is that there is no such thing as a good argument. They are charlatans and sophists.

In philosophy departments, you have some of the same stuff, though not in such large helpings. Rather, you have a different problem. If the department is based in Contenental philosophy, you also have meaningless verbiage. Most departments are based in analytic, or Anglo-American, philosophy. Here the problem is not usually pomo Marxism (though it will be if there are professors hired to bring "feminist perspectives on epistemology" and the like). Rather, the problem is that the curriculum is pointlessly arcane. Philosophy professors tend to be slightly but catastrophically dogmatic. Each clings to his favorite premise and spends his career bending over backwards to fill in a story that brings the evidence into alignment with this premise. There are exceptions, but in general, philosophy professors don't spend much time investigating commonsense solutions to philosophical puzzles. They prefer the sexy theory that elegantly makes the evidence seem to support it. 20th Century American philosophy departments have produced little in the way of interesting results. Catastrophy. I think most philosophical problems are solvable by common sense. There should be no Ph.D. in this subject. Just have an M.A. for qualification for teaching. Defund all the philosophy journals. If all the back-issues of the last 50 years burned, it wouldn't matter.

Victor Davis Hanson has pretty much the same to say about Classics departments: pomo nonsense or mindless logic-chopping. See his Who Killed Homer.

Political science? I don't even know what that is. I've tried but failed to discover what it is. For this reason I can't recommend taking courses in it. But perhaps there is something there. I don't know.

History? It's dicey. Many pomo-Marxists, who say that there is no objective history. But there are many regular historians.

Send your kid to major in a science, and sit down with him to choose with great care courses in literature, Classics, history, and philosophy. If your kid won't do this, refuse to pay the tuition. Hopefully, he'll drop out and get a job.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Conservatism: Form or Content?

John Jay Ray posts about my definition of conservatism. John thinks that I'm trying to give a formal definition of conservatism - cynical, pragmatic - as well as a contentious definition. I enjoy his incisive comments. We'll get to the bottom of this yet! The content I built into conservatism is that conservatives are commited to traditional ways of life, traditional values, until overwhelming evidence shows that they should not be. However, there is not much content here, so the definition is still formal. A conservative in one society and a conservative in a traditionally very different society are both just that: conservatives. Even though they are commited to different values, they are both commited to traditional values. There are more than one sets of values to which a society may be commited. Anyone in any society, no matter how different the values from those of other societies, is a conservative if he is reluctant to change the system of values and adopt a new one. What conservatives from various societies share is a pragmatic commitment to the wisdom of generations upon generations of value-formation, values formed by prolonged experience and passed down from generation to generation. The commitment to tradition is pragmatic, and the definition of conservatism is formal. Confucians are conservatives, and so are the folks over at NRO.

I would also argue that conservatism is a logical truth. It is never rational to change one's values, as long as one prefers the values, they are consistent with the relevant facts, and they are consistent with each other. Value is simply preference, and it is never rational to do what you do not, all things considered, prefer. The good is the rationally desireable, Hobbes and Hume would have said. But the "reason" part is merely slave to the desires. Rationalism, on the other hand, holds that value is independent of preference. Look at the link between rationalism and progressivism/radicalism: Plato was a rationalist and utopian radical. I submit that Kant is the hero of the 20th C. progressive left. He's Rawls's inspiration. The idea of rationalism is that there is a highly intelligent elite who know what's best even though the rest of us would not prefer it. But as long as you define "prefer" as "coherently and with full information to desire," then rationalism may be seen to be the lunacy that it is: that there can be something desireable that is not desireable.

There are stark options: conservatism v. progressivism. Conservatism is the moderate choice (as I've argued below), and the only one that makes sense. It is therefore a logical truth (a truth the denial of which is literally nonsense).

Monday, November 11, 2002

Philosophy Professors Against the Invasion of Iraq?

Here is a statement on the prospect of an American invasion of Iraq, that the East Coast division of the American Philosophical Association is deciding whether to make their own (the membership will vote on the matter in December):

"Both just war theory and international law say that states may resort to war only in self-defense. Iraq has attacked neither the United States nor any other nation, and claims that it is about to do so are not credible. Even in the absence of imminent threat, the United States claims a preemptive justification for war in this case. This claim stretches the meaning of preemption beyond reasonable bounds and sets a dangerous precedent which other states may feel free to follow."

The problems with the argument:

1. We have a right to disarm by force a nutjob who has bazookas and bombs in his Manhattan apartment building. By analogy, we have a right to disarm Iraq. There is no significant disanalogy.

2. It would be good, not bad, if other countries would follow our lead and disarm evil nutjobs. It would be bad if morons took it upon themselves to do this. But there is no evidence that morons will do so because we do. Do they invade innocent countries because they saw us invade Germany during WW II? Even if they did, to advise on those grounds inaction in the case of WW II would, well, make you a nutjob. Besides, if the morons ape us and go gun happy on innocent peoples, well just invade and disarm those morons. That's that.

3. Poor risk management. "Saddam might not suitcase-nuke us? What is the probability that he won't? 99.5%? Oh, good, only 0.5% chance that we will be nuked. That sets me at ease." The risks are such that invasion is prudent. There is a reasonable chance of millions of Americans being killed by suitcase nukes. Invasion will cost only a few lives. By the way, once the threat is "immanent," you're dead. How will you find the suitcase nuke?

4. The statement gives no inkling of an alternative way to handle the threat of Iraq. This violates the rules of elementary critical thinking courses: provide an alternative to the policy you criticize, or accept that your refutation is unsound. Maybe the idea is that Iraq is simply not a threat. But that would make the statement stupid. So, the statement is either illogical or stupid.

This is one of the reasons I'm no longer a member of the APA. They are also against capital punishment. Could someone tell me why we shouldn't execute the D.C. snipers? Little known fact: 99.9% of research done in ethical theory in philosophy deparments the last 50 years is worthless. Besides a few exceptions, if the library of late 20th C. ethical theory burned, the human race would have lost nothing. They spin silly theories that no one needs or can use. (But at least they give us brilliant statements like the one above, right?) The world proceeds in its moral reasonings, in total ignorance of these theories. Thank goodness for common sense. I've given notice here at work. I can't wait to be an ex-professor. University is intellectually unstimulating. Students are 40% dead weight, placing no value on education. Enrolment ought to be slashed in half. But I digress.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Rice in 2008

As I said a couple of posts back, some people are better than others. Condoleezza Rice is better than me. She's of greater worth. If it's between me and her, you should save her. She speaks better Russian and is a better musician, and that only scratches the surface. I'm a Republican conservative, and that's what I say. So, shut up, you idiotarian.

This raises another startling fact about the political landscape in America: it is the Right, the Republicans and such, who are the colorblind ones. You remember the old days when right wing folk were bigots and lefties were with Martin Luther King? Dem days is gone. Now, lefties will let you in to law school if your black, but not if you're white. I've lost out on jobs as a professor because I am white. Conservatives don't care what color you are, as long as you've got the goods.

Rice in 2008 won't happen. She is fully intending to become commissioner of the National Football League and dismisses the Rice 2008 idea. But just maybe....

John Jay Ray posts that I collapsed too soon in defending what he calls my "pragmatic" definition of conservatism (scroll to Nov. 9 on his blog). Perhaps! He posts some interesting references. Philosoblog will report back on these references soon. I'll add to the list John Kekes, A Case for Conservatism.

Maybe I'll un-collapse a bit. Consider 'conservatism' as a cluster concept. It is a cluster of ideas: the desire for smaller government, a tragic view of values (the star-crossed intention to try to maximize them all without clinging to any of them lopsidedly - anti-radicalism/anti-fanaticism), a certain deference to tradition as trusted, tried, and true, and a resulting reluctance to change without overwhelmingly good evidence, and a reminder to make changes only to the extent warranted, and to avoid systemic changes that might upset parts of the system one would rather not change. Conservatism as merely the desire for a smaller government leaves too much out of the concept, it seems to me. Libertarianism fails to weigh in on conserving our allegiance to the tradition of values that make life so much better than it would otherwise be. If unwilling to recommend that one stick to our Western heritage of value without fully knowing the reasons why it is good, one can't count as a conservative. And if a libertarian is willing to make the recommendation, then he implies that one ought to relinquish some of one's liberty to to this tradition. Do libertarians make every effort to instill in their children the values I have in mind? Do they give their children the upbringing Aristotle recommended: teach your kids to take pleasure in good things and to despise bad things? If so, they're conservatives, not libertarians. (In addition, John Adams and David Hume would scold libertarians for being rather un-conservative about security. More later on that.)

Nevertheless, John had a good point in his earlier post about facts. If one is pro-abortion and in favor of legalizing drugs, this might appear un-conservative, rather libertarian to those conservatives who believe that the evidence favoring these positions is not overwhelming yet. So, we have, in addition to the fundamental concept of conservatism, the standards of applying the term (rough-and-ready set of conditions under which one should apply it).

By the way, A Sharp Knife waxes conservative and anti-libertarian today (no permalink available).

This issue will preoccupy us for quite some time on Philosoblog.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Equal Opportunity

Let's revisit this concept in a bit more detail (thanks to Greg for raising it). There is no requirement of justice to ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed. It's bad luck to have more daunting obstacles to surmount than the average. But it is not unjust that there is such bad luck or that it goes unremedied by others. If it were unjust, then this could be so only because everyone deserves to have as much happiness as his character would allow were there no unusual obstacles to his efforts. But there are two kinds of case that show that this isn't so. First, the case of one child: Abe, who starts out at the bottom: poverty, disease, bad parents, and a bad neighborhood. Abe achieves an unusually good life through the efforts he makes to improve his situation. Having achieved such happiness, Abe has no claim on Americans to provide him with even more happiness. He might have been even happier, had he had an equal opportunity (i.e., an opportunity equal to the average person's). If Americans ought to have given him an equal opportunity during his youth, then since they failed to do this, they owe him even now. But they do not, so they did not.

The second case is that of two children: Amy and Alan. Amy is upper-middle class, healthy, and has good parents. Alan is very rich, has an astonishingly supportive extended family, exquisite schooling, etc. It is not unjust that Amy's opportunity is not as good as Alan's. Nobody owes Amy an equal opportunity to Alan's.

The case of Abe shows that it is not unjust to have an opportunity worse than average, and the case of Amy and Alan shows that it is not unjust to have an opportunity worse than someone else's. Differences in opportunity, like gaps in wealth, are morally irrelevant. There are matters of justice here. First, anyone who wrongly causes another to have a worse opportunity in life than he otherwise would have had has a debt to his victim. People who abused Abe owe him recompense. But other Americans do not, since they did not abuse him. Second, if someone of decent character fails miserably through no fault of his own, consequently ending up destitute and temporarily or permanently unable to provide himself shelter, food, and simple medical care, then other Americans, being quite wealthy, should break his fall with a welfare net, temporarily or permanently, as the case requires. But this is a matter of end-state justice, not initial opportunity. All initial opportunities, no matter how miserable, are just.

On the other hand, as Greg pointed out in comments below, there is a sense in which Americans ought to do something about the poor opportunities some children face. We should do so in cases in which the benefit to the children will be very high, relative to the cost to the rest of us. But this duty is not a matter of equalizing opportunities; it is a matter of improving society and maximizing happiness at little cost, so that its members have better lives. If you see an old man who might have had a good life had he had better opportunity early on, then it is appropriate to wish you could have improved his opportunity. This is a reason to provide vaccinations to poor children, for example. It is a reason to station more police officers in troubled neighborhoods, so that poor children living there will be more secure and better able to play and study. It is also a reason to provide education to poor children, although the benefit to society of having an educated population is already sufficient to make it prudent to do this. In addition, it may be cheaper to improve opportunity now than to pay the welfare bill later. If we can do a few things to help a child now, this might stop him from unfortunately landing in dire circumstances later.

Of course, whether the government or private charities should provide improvements to opportunity depends upon the efficiency we can expect from either. In addition, if we decide to have government provides such services, we should be vigilant about seeing to it that government doesn't interfere with liberty or encourage dependancy. We don't want the government to design people's lives. But government vaccination programs do not do this, nor do police officers. We should be conservative in recognizing problems, considering costs, and assigning remedies.
More Conservatism

Gaps in wealth are not unjust. Inequality in opportunity is not unjust. I've demonstrated this in earlier posts.

"Anti-war," as a position, is either meaningless or wrong, depending on how it's defined.

Some people are better than others. They are wiser, better educated, and more skilled. They are able to engage in finer activities in their lives than others. They inevitably have more political power. Some of it is luck; some of the powerful are buffoons. But they are a natural aristocracy and there is nothing wrong with that. The alternatives are much worse. (I'm echoing John Adams here.)

Nevertheless, all men are created equal, in the sense that all have equal rights and responsibilities, and are equal under the law. In other words, when you make a moral judgment, you should not base it on irrelevant features of people. Government should not establish an aristocracy by law. (I'm echoing John Adams here.)

Anyone is free to become one of the elite. It requires developing moral character, educating oneself in the history and literature of good ways of life, and avoiding distractions. Denying or getting angry at this fact will only delay one's efforts.

The right kind of education in Western history, literature, and philosophy is the best opportunity to achieve such an extraordinarily good life.

The government should be smaller than it is because it inevitably has large and inept parts which waste money and make life worse. This specific problem should be solved by carefully reducing the government.

While Western culture is the best at promoting good lives, other than mandatory education in Western culture, people should have the liberty to live as they please. This gives them the best chance at happiness, since they know better than anyone else what makes them happy.

Thursday, November 07, 2002


John Jay Ray has more on conservatism. Indeed, conservatism favors smaller government than we tend to have now, whereas my realist definition of conservatism leaves open debates about what the facts are, the facts to which one is supposed to be attuned, as a conservative. John remains meta-conservative, thinking it best not to try to define conservatism as realist and pragmatic but just to characterize it as such. I'll differ slightly. The realism entails a tragedic streak in conservatism, according to which not all values can be fulfilled completely and it is madness (fanaticism) to try to fulfill one completely at the expense of others. So, I'll be meta-conservative by being tragedic about realism: It may be very difficult to find out the facts. We may fail. This is the best we can do. There's clearly more to say here.

This is actually interesting. Not much in university is interesting.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Common Sense, National Review, and God

National Review is a great source of wisdom. But it likes to assure us that morality requires God, and this is as false as can be. In the latest issue we are told that we human beings can’t figure out what is right by using common sense and reason and examining facts. Carol Iannone scolds conservative Anne Hendershott for leaving out God, saying, “Without a belief in the transcendent and its embodiment in custom and tradition, such guides as consensus, common sense, and even nature and reason will prove an insufficient basis of social order, being...prone to the ‘unlimited desires’ that...must be held in check.” Here are four reasons to reject that position, any one of which is sufficient to devastate it.

1. There are clear cases of sound moral reasoning devoid of reference to God. Every National Review itself is full of such cases.

2. The facts about what is right and what is wrong are independent of the existence of God. If God doesn’t exist, it is still wrong to torture children for fun. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that believing that God exists will help us determine what is right and wrong. If you would think it permissible to kill me and take my money if there were no God, I won’t say that you’re a psychopath, but you have, let’s say, “issues.”

3. If our powers of reason are so clouded by our lusts that we cannot determine right and wrong on our own, then surely they are insufficient to figure out the mystery of what God bids us do. Ms. Iannone would have us believe that determining what the creator of the cosmos thinks is easier than figuring out the right thing to do in our ordinary lives. This is patently absurd. (Read the Bible? What evidence is there that it’s the word of God? Meditate and let God’s command ‘come to you’? A recipe for danger.)

4. Finally, this: Suppose we confront a case in which we must figure out what is the right thing to do. Once we have used our common sense to determine the judgment that is most coherent with the set of values to which we are committed by broad consensus, and assured ourselves that that set itself is coherent and consistent with the relevant facts about the world and human nature, then we have determined the right thing to do. There is nothing that would count as evidence that our shared values are wrong other than that they are based on mistakes about the relevant facts or on inconsistencies. If we value a certain way of life and are consistent and fully informed in this evaluation, then we are right to live that way. (For more on this point, see “How to determine the right thing to do” in the Philosoblog archives.)

This is why Iannone’s contention that we can’t “have morality without a lively belief in God and transcendent truth, something higher than man to which man is bound...” is wrong. God is irrelevant to moral reasoning. In fact, even if he commanded us to live some other way than the way we coherently and informedly prefer, his command would be irrelevant.

Monday, November 04, 2002


[Voice of Jeff Foxworthy]:
Being conservative means accepting traditional values on trust; until you come across enough evidence to reject one of these values, you will not. But if you cling to traditional values, come what may, no matter what the evidence against them, then you might just be a reactionary.

Being conservative can include finding inspiration in religion for your values. But if you take the pronouncements of your religion as enough to reject good reasons against your values, you might just be a reactionary. If several times a year your voice becomes shrill and you say, "I don't care, God says not to do that, that's all!" then you might just be a reactionary. Conservatives think God is reasonable and won't advise us to do things that don't make sense. But if you are prepared to protect something that obviously doesn't matter "because it's holy," then you might just be a reactionary. In fact, if you vote Republican and think that morality stays what it is whether there is a God or not, you're a conservative. If you think God is the basis of morality, then you're definitely a reactionary.

If you are pessimistic about human nature and are tragically prepared to accept a non-utopian society as the only one possible, you're probably a conservative. But if you feel your gut tighten and your pulse race when you think about ushering in a society of perfect liberty or holiness, then you might just be a reactionary. If you are tragically prepared to sacrifice some of your precious values as the situation changes, in order to fulfill as many of your values as possible, I have no doubt that you're a conservative. But if you cling to certain principles, bound for glory, while you let other principles go to hell, it's just possible that you're a reactionary. You might not be. You might be principled, it depends on the case. If you see slippery slopes everywhere, you're definitely a reactionary.

If you are prepared to look at the facts as they come in, such as that some towns have cut crime with downtown surveillance camaras without men in black making townspeople disappear, that blacks are people, that there's nobody home in a brainless zygote, that we evolved from monkeys, that large sections of humanity are evil, etc., and if you are prepared to adjust your moral judgments so that they fit the facts, you are certainly a conservative. That is, you are if you are tenaciously committed to your values and won't alter them because of new-fangled technologies such a reproductive cloning or sperm banks, trendy New Age movements, or trendy multiculturalism - all admittedly exciting phenomena for some but no factual evidence to alter our values. But if you won't listen to anything new because you've already made up your mind, you're a reactionary. And if you first ask yourself how the facts square with your morality or religion before you accept them as facts, you're definitely a reactionary, and a little loopy, too, if you don't mind my saying. Something's amiss if you will laugh at Zen meditiation without knowing what it is or you will crush a skin cell to relieve an itch but will let a woman die before crushing a zygote because zygotes are holy. If that's you, you're not a conservative; you're a reactionary, at least a little, anyway. Sure, a person can be a little reactionary, we all are. But let's all try to be a bit more conservative.

Leftists are reactionaries, too, by the way. No, I'm serious. Economic equality, come what may! Bound for glory! Oh, yes, and they won't accept biology any more than the "I-ain't-come-from-no-monkey" right. That whole sociobiology thing.

What makes a conservative: undaunted acceptance of fact and devotion to truth, plus allegiance to traditional, tried-and-true values, as long as they are not found to be refuted by the facts. We moderate amongst our values, like beloved children - we nurture them all as much as we can. We won't make any radical moves that would jeopardize any of them. I looked up "conservative" in the dictionary today. It said, "moderate." Oh, my word!
Two Items

One in epistemology, one in philosophy of language.


Do you have a belief that you cherish, a belief that you won't give up, even though the evidence runs against it? Do you spend all your time looking for evidence for your belief because there seems to be none but you don't want your belief to be false? Do you spitefully lash out at others who reject your belief? Do you ever examine the basis of your belief? What do you do when you can find no basis? How do you react? Ignorance and falsehood are dark places. Avoid them at all costs by avoiding dogmatism. Vow to accept only those beliefs that have sufficient evidence. Submit yourself to the possible fate of relinquishing the beliefs that your cherish. False beliefs are worthless.


The meaning of this word depends upon how the speaker means it. There are no meanings written in the fabric of nature. "Lemon" can mean a citrus fruit or a bad car. For the most part, Muslims mean by "jihad" the central duty of a Muslim to kill non-Muslims. There are a few Muslims who mean more benign things by the word: suppressing one's irreligious feelings, for example. The latter group simply cannot plausibly argue that those benign meanings are what "jihad" really means. There is no such thing as what a word really means in some cosmic sense. Or, if they mean that the benign meanings are what most Muslims mean and have meant by the term, then this is just false. When a jihad is called, the Muslim world doesn't start introspecting. They scream bloody murder. So, let us use stipulative definitions. "Islam" is a cult, a dysfunctional religion. One of its central duties is to kill everyone else. It is a social disease. (To call it "Islamicist" in effort to distinguish it from "Islam," as the media does, obfuscates these facts.) Now, let's use "Izlam," to refer to what is often called "moderate Islam" (the latter term, by the stipulation I'm presenting here, being an oxymoron). Izlam rejects the dysfunctional parts of Islam, thus forming Izlam. We should tolerate Izlam, but not Islam. Of course; you can't tolerate people who want to kill you. The problem is that a member of Islam, as a subversive, when confronted on his beliefs, will be likely to claim to be a member of Izlam. If he wants to kill all non-Muslims, he will not tell them this in polite company, since this would impede his cause. So, if anyone says that he is Muslim, I have no way of knowing whether he is a member of Islam or Izlam, until I have observed his behavior for decades. Sleeper cells, you know. Of course, members of Izlam should be tolerated. It's just that you hardly can tell who they are unless you know them well. But at least we can have different words for the two different religions. This will be useful. (Also, "jihad" and "jikad" might come in handy for the two meanings of "jihad".)

By the way, if a Muslim were insulted by this argument, I'd have to assume he was a member of Islam, not Izlam. If he thought I'd smeared the whole religion, then he'd be trying to trick me into assuming that "jihad" has an objectively non-violent meaning, no matter how the term is used. But this is to misunderstand language; usage determines meaning. "But the true Islam has no violent jihad!" is obviously false. So, as I've indicated that Izlam is a perfectly valid religion in principle, if he construed what I've said here as a vicious attack, then I would have to conclude that he was defending Islam. That's the only religion I've attacked. "Islam is a religion of peace" is either deeply confused or a lie. In any event, it's false (oxymoronic, in fact). But Izlam is a religion of peace. Any reasonable member of Izlam, since benevolent, should have no objection to any of this.

Friday, November 01, 2002

The Sweet Spot

Vodkapundit has said that he's "a Falwell-tweaking, gay-marriage supporting, drug legalizing, pro-abortion, pro-immigration, anti-trade barrier, wary-of-organized-religion kind of conservative. Hardly a conservative at all...."

Sounds good to me. But "wary"? Okay, wary. But I think organized religion is mostly good. You know, I'm one of those religion-liking atheists.

Here's what I'd like to add to the list: I'm a welfare-minimalist conservative. Conservatives of this stripe believe we have a duty to protect children from starvation and death by exposure, and that private charity won't suffice. Libertarianism is the extreme position that no one has a positive duty, a duty to help others (unless he has contracted to do so), or that, if we have such a duty, at least that the state may not force us to fulfill this duty by taxing us in order to provide a welfare net. Libertarians would cut the welfare net, with disastrous results. Libertarianism is thus radical, and welfare minimalism more conservative. (The "minimalism" refers to pretty austere welfare support. More on that later.) I don't know whether Vodkapundit is one of this sort of conservative.

This is not just silly semantics. There is a large set of values that we cherish and desire to uphold. It is radical to dispose of any of them in favor of any other, merely on the grounds that it's hard to satisfy them all. Better to take the tragic view that we must act in ways that maximize the satisfaction of as many of these values as we can. We will fail to fulfill many of them as much as we'd wish. Accept this tragedy. The conservative will stay the course, adhere to these cherished values and not desert any of them (unless shown that there is one that is flawed, such as "It's okay to enslave blacks.") This is the description of conservatism of the contemporary American philosopher John Kekes. More on Kekes later.

We moderate amongst our values. Why did Vodkapundit say he was hardly a conservative at all? Because he's a moderate. Why did he say he's a conservative? Because you have to be conservative to be moderate. No, I'm not kidding. (You're thinking of "reactionary". That's the stance of clinging to your values no matter what evidence comes in that you need to change them. That's "too conservative.") All moderates are conservatives. All interesting debates are amongst moderates trying to determine where the sweet spot is. Libertarians, leftists, and reactionaries will cling to only a few of our values and foresake the rest. That's a non-starter.

I'm also a back-to-basics-in-education conservative: math and science, history and civics, literature and Greek/Latin, and nothing else (okay, maybe some other stuff sparingly.) More on that later.

I'm also a who-cares-whether-one-race-is-statistically-inferior-to-another conservative. What if there were statistics to show that intelligence varied according to big toe size? So, what? More later.

Oh, yes, and Vodkapundit said something about being a paleofeminist. Yes, please! Women are to be treated with equal respect to men.

Coming this Fall on Philosoblog:
The Philosophy of John Adams
The Philosophy of John Kekes
The Poltical Philosophy of Paul Wellstone
Education, Assimilation, and Virtue
Welfare Minimalism

Libertarian premises: If you're a libertarian, make sure you have evidence that this is an absolute rule with no exceptions: "It's never okay to apply force to someone who has not applied force to anyone else." The idea that forced taxation is wrong would need to be proven on this premise. But what is the proof for this premise? The case of Fred forcing Joe (see the post below) seems to refute it by counterexample. Fred did nothing wrong.

Slippery slopes: Be careful with slippery slopes, such as the idea that believing that we have a duty to look after each other will lead to communism or fascism. Human beings are smart. They don't slip down slopes so easily. The belief that there is an important duty to look after the unfortunate is consistent with a belief in the free market, self-reliance, and private property. To say that these two beliefs are inconsistent is about as plausible as saying that valuing safety is inconsistent with ever leaving your house. If you value safety, you should never leave your house, right? Of course not. Does the sentence, “If we continue to make caring for others a moral duty, we’ll end up in a communist dictatorship,” have solid evidence for it? It seems wildly implausible to me. Caring for others has been a duty in Western culture for millennia.

Rules (there aren't any): There is a difference between adhering to moral rules (formulae which have no exceptions) and adhering to moral values without yielding. A moderate looks for the sweet spot - the determinations of which action or state of affairs will most fulfill our many moral values - and adheres to it without yielding. The analogy to safety: You want to be safe, but you want to go out and do worthwhile things that involve risk. So, you manage risk. It would be silly to say to someone who leaves his house from time to time that he doesn't really value safety. One can hold to the sweet spot absolutely, relentlessly, without holding to any rule or formula. As Aristotle said, our values are much too complicated to describe with rules or formulae. Distinguish being lax about one’s values from not subscribing to rules. You don’t subscribe to the rule “Always pick the safest option,” or “Never kill,” but if anything is a rule, those are. Even, “Never harm anyone who hasn’t harmed anyone else” isn’t a rule. The case of Fred forcing Joe is a counterexample. So is forcing Americans who do not want to pay any tax to pay it.

In sum, there are "rule absolutists," such as leftists and libertarians, who take the rules "equalize wealth" and "do not inhibit liberty," respectively, to be absolute rules, rules without exceptions. But why would someone cling to a rule and abandon all other values? On the other hand, there are conservatives (moderates, whatever): "sweet spot absolutists," who maintain absolute devotion to a large set of values arranged in a coherent system.