Friday, August 30, 2002

Philosoblog is will post some essays soon. (“How to Determine the Right Thing to Do”
and “Fundamental Flaws of Leftism” are on tap.) Let's postpone the philosophizing for now and look at a list of moral principles I’ve extracted from a rather patriotic novel. (Thanks to Bigwig at Silflay Hraka for recommending the book. Read his review of it.)

Eric Flint’s 1632: We Hold these Truths to be Self-Evident

We hold the following truth to be self-evident: All men are created equal. There is a lot about that statement to discuss, but we have a science fiction novel on our plate today. But I should point out a couple of things. A “self-evident” truth is any proposition that is obviously true to anyone who understands it. (That’s an oversimplification, and some of the truths on the list below aren't technically self-evident. But it doesn’t matter.) Also, “equal” does not mean equal in abilities or intelligence. It means equally deserving of moral consideration. It means that irrelevant differences between people should not be taken into consideration when making moral judgments. It means that one should be impartial in making moral judgments. Millions of human beings have denied these painfully obvious truths. The people of Grantville, West Virginia take them to be self-evident.

Eric Flint’s 1632 is a novel in which a town of Grantville gets deposited into 1632 Germany, right in the middle of the horrific Thirty Years War. The novel is patriotic, and it depicts American values with dramatic and comedic flair. I’m not going to review the book. I'm just going to list the values that the Americans of Grantville hold to be self-evident. Many of these values are shared with other societies, of course, but the American achievement is a particular combination of them that gets everything just right. And many of the values aren’t shared by other societies. I’ll list them in the order in which they appear in the book. See if you can find them as you read the book. We hold these truths to be self-evident (if you’re in a hurry, just read the principles in italics):

It’s okay to own a gun. It’s even a good thing, although it’s certainly not morally required.

A system of values should enable the lower class to live vibrantly good lives and to be morally equal to anyone else in the society. (Enable them, not guaruntee; more on that in future essays.) The countenance of Mike Stearns, West Virginian miner, is mistaken for one of nobility by Europeans of 1632, except that he’s not arrogant enough: he has the “open smile” of a “peasant”. Our poor people own houses and cars and go see the Grand Canyon in the summer. There are awful exceptions. We rack our brains to try to solve those problems.

Classism is wrong. Many Americans fail to fulfill this value. But here this is well-known to be wrong.

One should be prepared, on a hair trigger, to protect obviously innocent people from danger in a way that is unselfish and devoid of considerations of class or nationality.

It is good to proclaim that we accept that last value and to threaten those who threaten innocents. In order to protect others, the Grantvillians threaten roving murderers and rapists with execution without trial, as they should when there is no legal system left. Think of today's America as the world's policeman.

Grantville is cut out of a clean circle of West Virginia and deposited into the nightmare of 1632 Germany. Perhaps Flint means that it is not too far from the truth to say that America's role is that of an oasis of impartial moral reasoning. Just outside the circle lies chaos, torture, rape, pillaging, and murder of the Thirty Years War. Americans know that this view of things is a bit over the top. They also know that it’s not wildly false.

Girls and women may be exuberant about life and need not cover their bodies or be passive.

The presumption of an individual’s leadership authority based on status, power, and even past accomplishments is rightly and abruptly shattered by the slightest hint of arrogance. Flint’s snobbish CEO from Pittsburgh who gets caught up in Grantsville’s adventure is supremely arrogant. His accomplishments are considerable but he is rejected as a leader without a second thought by the people of Grantsville. Snobbishness shows a tendency to violate the supreme principle that all men are created equal. The arrogant leader is liable to be paternalistic and decide what is right for others without their input.

One should have an unswerving commitment to judge by action, not by irrelevant group membership. Americans so zealously protect this principle that they are sometimes overly suspicious of racial profiling by law enforcement authorities.

It is fundamentally important to be impartial. All men are created equal. This means coming to the aid of strangers of other cultural, national, or ethnic types. This can confuse people from societies that don’t champion this fundamental value. Flint’s Alex Mackay, a 17th C. Scot, wonders why the Americans helped the Saphardic Jews so extensively (giving them medical aid and a place to live).

The fact that we aren’t morally perfect doesn’t show that our values aren’t the best. America haters often fail to grasp this. Speaking of being imperfect...

It is okay to have a mischievous fondness for one’s past minor wrongdoings. It is good to love oneself, including one’s past, as long as one is a decent person. This includes loving one’s minor wrongdoings. Mike Stearns smiles with mischievous pride at the mention of his youthful, drunken brawling. The phrase “Hell, they’s good old boys, they’s just funnin’” is part of our repertoire Americans know what it means. They also recognize when it is used as a cover for serious wrongdoing and is unacceptable.

Our laws are to be cherished above personal rank and lineage because they are good laws that we have given to ourselves. Flint makes clear that laws imposed on a people are not likely to be followed because the people won’t be proud of them or sure that they are right.

It is right to impose our laws on others when their way of doing things is obviously very wrong. In such cases, we are rightly arrogant because we know we’re right. Americans champion impartiality and equality. America represents a breakthrough into the light of impartial moral reasoning, a culmination of a world historical struggle. As you’ll notice in the next point, Americans know that that is a bit over the top and, paradoxically, they don’t take themselves too seriously in that regard. This makes sense; why should we think ourselves superior for championing the ideal of equality? We're no better than anyone else; we just have the right values. Paradox resolved.

It is still good to have classical feminists in our society. Even if they harp on the wrong things sometimes, they are in agreement with our most important values. It is self-evident that women’s liberation was good, and classical feminism is a welcome part of our moral fabric. As Mark Steyn (New Criterion, Feb, 2002) has argued, one reason Americans have acquired such good values is that we are overly self-critical. We’re overly self-critical and arrogant, a paradox which we know makes perfect sense, because being self-critical makes one sure of oneself. Flint’s Melissa Mailey is overly vigilant of sexist behavior. But she also spots wrongdoing, as well. And she recognizes Mike Stearns for the “real prince” that he is. She’ll even have a beer with good old boys. That our values are very good renders all radicalism self-evidently absurd. That’s what the “classical” means.

Survivalism is goofy. (Flint’s adjective.)

One of our moral achievements is to leave behind the class oppression and penchant for taking pleasure in the pain of others in which European history has been awash for centuries. This does not mean none of us ever engage in these wrongful behaviors. It means that we vigilantly enforce these standards to the highest degree in human history.

All people should feel, “I am somebody important. Valuable. Precious. Good blood.” (Quote from the book). This does not mean that self-esteem is an entitlement. It does not mean that wicked or lazy people should feel this way. It means no irrelevant characteristics of a person are to be used to hold him back from living a life that manifests this feeling.

People can think or say or do whatever they want. That’s not the same thing as what society sanctions.” (Another quote.) You can live as you please. Others may voice strong disapproval of it.

Nobody is to be considered scum who’s never had a chance, not even the lowliest whore. Flint’s example of never having a chance: as a child, being forced on pain of death to become a kept whore for psychopathic mercenaries who made you watch them kill your unarmed family. The principle applies only to debased people, not to people who become genuinely evil.

Whether someone is a princess or a prince has nothing to do with bloodline. You may find this trite, but it is a key to millions of good lives. And it is true. Before America, it was considered self-evidently false!

Closing our borders to trade and to people who are considered scum only by those who deny that all men are equal is nasty and stupid.

That’s the list from 1632 (and more items belong on it that the book leaves out). We don’t always live up to the principles. Not every American accepts every item on list. But it is an achievement of inestimable value.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Just getting started. A short essay soon. Rhythm: an essay approximately every two weeks. For now, this:

There is an astonishing fact. There is no systematically recorded great American moral philosophy. There is no great American moral philosopher. England has Locke, Hume, even Butler and Smith. Germany has Kant. Ancient Greece had Aristotle. Ancient China had Mencius. America: The Founding Fathers? Rawls and Nozick? The latter pair are of passing interest: an unsound argument for left-liberalism, and a predictable statement of libertarianism. Even Butler will outlive them. The Founding Fathers are lacking not in truth or depth but in systematicity of philosophical justification. They produced works of profound political insight and a great political system, but they gave us little in the way of thorough and systematic treatment of crucial philosophical problems or rigorous philosophical justification. "We hold these truths to be self evident" is a phrase which makes my point. Strokes of genius follow it, but it announces that it will disappoint demands for justification or worries over conflicts between intuitions about what follows from the self-evident truths.

Yet, American moral and political values perhaps represent the pinnacle of human moral history. These values cause more freedom, good lives, and justice than any other set of values in history. How odd that we've no recorded moral philosophy, and how regrettable, given the challenges to American values by many foreigners and even many Americans. There are many thinkers attempting to change this regrettable fact. Philosoblog joins the effort.