Friday, January 31, 2003


My post on Kekes (please see, just below) mentions the prevalence of evil, and some might doubt that there is that much evil. Well, one yardstick for telling whether human nature is largely evil - not to say "mostly," but just "largely," to leave it ambiguous - is the fact that the UN is largely evil. You could say that humanity is 98% good, with just a handful of evil oppressors holding power and holding sway at the UN. But cultures, people, produce evil oppressors. A society which century after century produces only evil dictators is likely to have a largely evil culture. And culture is produced by human beings. Moreover, the UN is hailed as legitimate, though it is largely evil. So, Kekes is right.

Thursday, January 30, 2003


About six months ago, I was struck by a revelation, and since then I say and write, "he," and not "they" or "he or she" when referring to a person of unspecified sex. I realized that if the listener or reader is sexist and assumes that the individual of unspecified sex about whom I am speaking is a male, then the fact is just that - the listener is sexist. The language is not sexist. "He" has the meaning "third person pronoun, sex as yet unspecified." I can't believe I bought into that PC social engineering stuff. And it's nice to have my streamlined language back. There is no obligation to substitute "they" or "he or she" for "he". In fact, there is an obligation not to do so, since doing otherwise condones an important error. Plus, life can be humdrum sometimes, and going back to saying "he" can give you a giddy thrill in some situations, in which you are sure that some of your listeners are being rubbed the wrong way by it. Here you are thinking of your referrent as of unspecified sex, whilst a member of your audience is undergoing spasms of twee consternation. Hey, I have to get my kicks somehow.
The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#1)
The book, Against Liberalism (post A)

This is the first in a long, numbered series of posts on the contemporary philosopher John Kekes. I will very concisely present the ideas in five of his books: Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, Facing Evil, The Art of Life, and Moral Wisdom and Good Lives. I hope you will read them. They are quite readable.

Against Liberalism is a painstaking critique of liberal philosophy. Kekes usually targets left-liberals, rather than libertarian liberals (classical liberals), but he offers a conception by which both may be encompassed. Liberalism is the belief that we should take as our highest values the promotion of liberty, equality, and autonomy of the individual, and the allowance of a plurality of good ways of life. The liberal ideal is a society in which everyone is allowed and enabled to act autonomously. The left-liberal and the libertarian deeply disagree about whether forced redistribution of wealth makes sense as a way of achieving this goal. But they are both liberals in sharing an ideal of equal entitlement to autonomy. The conservative argues that we ought to value many other things at least as much as autonomy, and liberalism runs aground in the midst of this criticism.

The shoal upon which liberalism runs aground is evil. Evil is prevalent. It should be inhibited. Maximizing autonomy and liberty would promote evil, rather than inhibit it. The liberal offers the proviso that in addition to maximizing autonomy, we should also act to inhibit misuses of autonomy. But this action would require severely curtailed liberty (law enforcement, military) and a strong social commitment to enforcing morality, including the inculcation in youth of moral character traits. The egalitarian aspiration of liberalism is inconsistent with the recognition of widespread evil. The vicious should not enjoy economic equality or equal opportunity, and people should not be left alone, free of paternalistic pressure, as if in a private and autonomous vaccuum, to determine what is good. Since there are many vicious people, what remains after instituting mechanisms for combating evil is hardly recognizable as liberal. It would be a system in which freedom, pluralism, and equality were not higher values than prosperity, order, civility, peace, security, happiness, and law-abidingness. Good lives require that these and other values be treated as just as important as liberalism's preferred values.

Liberals may argue that evil doers are often psychologically corrupt and unable to act autonomously, and that the liberal program of increasing autonomy will eliminate this evil. If people could only be made to understand right and wrong and to learn how to make decisions rationally, they would be virtuous and not vicious. But this premise is the belief in the fundamental and overriding goodness of human nature. And there is no evidence for it. Rather, the plenitude of evil but autonomous actions refutes it. The liberal faith that human nature is good is hopelessly naive and utterly undermines liberalism.

The liberal predicament is that the great measure of evil in human nature is inconsistent with the liberal doctrine that liberty and autonomy are the highest values.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Calvinist Libertarians has a reply to my post on abortion. I'll give it some thought, busy now.

UPDATE: The reply is a good one. I am forced to bit the bullet and accept that certain very retarded and very brain-damaged human beings are not people. This is almost as tough a bullet to bite as the admission that infanticide in the case of a two-week-old baby is also permissible. I'm forced to accept these things by the fact that it's clear to me that at the time when the fetus has no brain tissue it is permissible to kill it. I know it is okay to remove and let die a cell of my skin. I can't see any relevant difference between that cell and the brainless fetal cells. I must therefore accept that killing is permissible in the aforementioned very unsettling cases. Anyway, it's clear to me that this is the only plausible pro-choice argument. The usual one is hopeless. It's either pro-life or the case I'm making. Nothing else is tenable.

UPDATE: Calvinist Libertarian has more. I ask him to consider how powerfully common sense tells him that crushing a skin cell is permissible. Anyway, as for this partial-birth abortion issue, it's a monstrous issue about which the pro-choice side is full of utter nonsense, and their nonsense is due to the fact that their case for abortion is full of holes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

This is a moral philosophy blog, but let’s take a break from that for a moment. It’s epistemology and metaphysics time.

Falsification and Consciousness

Aaron Haspel asked about falsification in the comments below. I gather that “all men are mortal” seemed to him to be meaningful and true though not falsifiable. (I was confused when I suggested that his comment was slightly confused, by the way.) “All men are mortal” is falsifiable, meaningful, and, for presently living men, we are justified in accepting it as true. If we found some billion-year-old people who easily survived all the disasters we could imagine, and if we found that this resilience indicated resistance even to any final state of entropy of the universe, or any ultimate return to singularity that the universe might experience (say, we noticed that their bodies underwent no entropy, and we exposed them to black holes to no effect, etc.), then we would be justified in believing that these people were not mortal but would live forever. Even lying on our death beds, we would be justified in believing this. We wouldn’t need to see that they have lived forever, which it would be conceptually impossible for anyone, immortal or not, to do.

The claim that “all men are mortal” is not falsifiable is an attractive claim only when it seduces one into believing that one would need to see that someone has lived forever in order to falsify it. But one needn’t see that a proposition is certainly false in order to falsify it; certainty isn’t necessary for sufficiently robust falsification. If this weren’t so, then “some men are mortal” would not be falsifiable. We’ve seen apparent deaths, but one might wonder whether the corpses were mere decoys, that all of these apparent deaths were actually placements of these decoys and simultaneous light-speed transports of the real, living person to another planet. One can never see that someone certainly has died.

So, yes, maintaining that a proposition is meaningful only if falsifiable does not run aground on the sentence “all men are mortal.” Therefore, it can be true only if falsifiable. Why does this matter? Because of the deeply important question of the nature of consciousness: Is it physical?

Some like to say that the smell of lilac and the taste of chocolate - that is, these two experiences - are not physical. But - and here is a crucial point - if mind is non-physical, then it would be meaningful to say, “Joe is physically and behaviorally just like anyone else, but he has no conscious states, no mind; in other words, Joe is a zombie.” But this concept of a zombie, a being physically just like us and acting just like us - saying “ow” to pin pricks and “mmm” to chocolate licks - is meaningless. No one has any idea what would count as evidence that showed that the claim “Joe, who is physically and behaviorally normal, does not lack non-physical consciousness; in other words, Joe is not a zombie” was false. This is because nothing could count as evidence that the claim “Joe is a zombie” was true. Therefore, the concept of consciousness as something non-physical is a pseudo-concept. Using that concept of “consciousness,” you couldn’t even in principle prove that there was someone like us who didn’t have consciousness. But there would have to be a way to prove this in principle, if the concept were to have meaning. In other words, if there is an attribute A which you like to believe that some things have, you need to have standards by which to demonstrate that two things with other attributes being the same were different only in the respect that one has while the other lacks A. No one can tell the zombies from the conscious people. This proves that conscious is physical; mind is brain. The proof turns on the premise that meaningfulness requires falsifiability (and verifiability).

(The attempt to get a materialist to accept that “all men are mortal” is meaningful, true and non-falsifiable is often made in order to force the materialist to admit that the non-falsifiability of the proposition “consciousness is non-physical” is no basis for denying its meaningfulness or truth. But “all mean are mortal” is falsifiable. The same holds for the concept of soul. It’s a pseudo-concept, so it’s not the case that we have souls. What would you take as evidence that you didn’t have one?

In other words, the attempt to rescue anti-materialism from charges of meaninglessness is a move to argue that (a.) the standard of meaningfulness has been raised too high by the materialist when he requires falsifiability, given that (b.) even the materialist will find the standard illegitimately high in the case of propositions which he himself accepts, such as “all men are mortal”. The move that I, as the materialist, have made, is to maintain the high standard and to argue that nothing I ought to believe, including “all men are mortal,” fails to meet it. I then proceed to show that the belief that our minds are non-physical requires that the proposition “Joe is a zombie” is falsifiable, when in fact it is not falsifiable.)

Calvinist Libertarian has this and this on Roe v. Wade.

Consider Sally. She lives out in the boonies. No phone, no car, no neighbors. Somehow a six-year-old child appears in her house. (Either she created him or some jackass put him there by force.) She dislikes his presense on her property, and she puts him out. He finds his way in, and again she puts him out, but he finds his way in. So, she either bludgeons him to death and puts him in the trash, or she carries him out a hundred yards and lets him die of exposure, hunger and thirst. I assume that Sally has done something illegal and terribly immoral. She had a duty to care for the child for some time, until she could manage to hand him off to someone else, even if this would amount to nine months of care. So, I find the commonly proffered moral and legal basis for abortion to be full of holes. On the other hand, you legal experts might inform me that by putting the child out to die of exposure, Sally has not violated the law. If so, I'm wrong, and Roe v. Wade is what our laws commit us to.

Don't get me wrong, I believe abortion is permissible. The fetus is not a person (a being with preferences, and with reflective knowledge of itself and its preferences and of its having a future in which it can discover ways in which to fulfill them). But if it is a person, as the commonly proffered moral a legal basis assumes, it is a hideous crime to kill it. It is murder.

Monday, January 27, 2003

Mo' Poetry

God of the Machine has poetry for us.

The contemporary philosopher Susan Haack (in various articles and books, such as Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate) offers us a nice distinction amongst three kinds of inquirer. The first is the good kind, the real inquirer. This is the person who desires to know the truth and therefore conducts disinterested inquiry in order to get it. (Haack points out that "disinterested" means lack of bias in interpreting the evidence. It doesn't mean "uninterested in what the truth turns out to be." You might hope that the truth is that, for example, substance X will cure cancer and make you rich, but you can still engage in disinterested inquiry, as you do when you fully acknowledge evidence that your hoped-for belief is wrong.)

It's the other two kinds of inquirer which are the bad ones: the fake inquirer and the pseudo-inquirer. They are dishonest, and what they do is not really inquiry at all. The fake inquirer merely digs up evidence and slings arguments around in order to convince people of propositions because doing so is fun, will make him rich, will make him seem sophisticated, etc., but not because he wants to know the truth or because he desires that those certain propositions turn out to be the truth. He doesn't care about inquiry or truth. He cares only about the other things I mentioned. Still, he is biased and not disinterested, in that he uses mere rhetoric and dishonest argument in order to win at debate. He wants the proposition he upholds (but doesn't really care about) to be accepted by others.

The pseudo-inquirer is differently perverse. He is the dogmatist. He has a cherished belief. He thinks it is true and won't give it up under any circumstances. He is thus biased and not disinterested in his evaluation of the evidence but will forever attempt to distort it. He doesn't desire to know the truth, whatever it is. He desires that his dogma be the truth.

(Haack's Evidence & Inquiry is a great work in epistemology. She's best known for Philosophy of Logics.)

Sunday, January 26, 2003


Hey, there's another philosophy blog in the world! It's The Philosophy Site of Rafe Champion. Also, a blog for parents: Rational Parenting. Who knew?
The Blogosphere

We were speaking of the blogosphere just below. Let me just say this: Bigwig, Aaron Haspel, Noel, Vodkapundit. Good gracious! And that's just a few (already: Cold Fury, Cinderella, Blowhards, The Corner....). Okay, now look at what your daily newpaper editorial/op-ed/letters page puts out. Not so bad, but it's no blogosphere. And they work full time for good pay to put that stuff out, while those bloggers casually spin gold daily.

One Good Turn has this post and this post on intuition, consciousness, and conservatism. Eddie's brought to light an important part of the puzzle. I think anti-conservatism (leftism, liberalism, progressivism) is an effort to reinvent life and value. It's more than simply wrong. It's not even in the ball park. Consider a coach that tells the baseball team, "I will preserve for each of you a special stadium where you can play baseball of the kind you like." Put one player in each of nine equally good stadiums. Play ball! Your rights are perfectly protected now! That's liberal government. A conservative government is a coach that just stands by, lets the players play as they have done for generations, according to their intuition. He says little, but sometimes interjects softly, or forcefully, a word of advice, according to his intuition.

John Ray has insteresting stuff on Christianity and moral anthropology.

Friday, January 24, 2003


With all the anti-war protests around these days, I'd like to chime in.

I, too, disapprove of what the U.S. did in Vietnam. We didn't fight hard enough or with decisive enough violence.
Blogosphere University

My readers and comment makers, and those of many other blogs, prove all the time that the blogosphere is a fine university. What a university requires is a high percentage of bright people interested in inquiry. Most universities fall short, but the blogosphere excels in this. A youngster could get a fine education by staying in the blogosphere for a year after high school. He'd have to do his reading, too. But he'd be better off than he would be going to university for a year, taking poli sci, history, and philosophy. He'd need science at university, of course.

Of course, the blogosphere is very libertarian. I'm a conservative, but my readers lambaste me as though I were Lenin, for chrissake. I'm a friggin' lefty out here! But the point is that the quality of inquiry is high in the blogosphere. Most physical campuses are the doldrums by comparison.

Plus, we have Bush in the White House and a Republican Congress (pipe down, you libertarians, and look at this high point in history!), so let's all hoist a pint this evening and be merry about what's what.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Slippery Slopes

God of the Machine is on slopes. He wants to know how to draw a line to demarcate how far the requirement of justice in aiding the unfortunately destitute extends. He wants an "intellectually respectable principle" that determines what the fortunate ought to do for them. At least we can distinguish between a brute-causal slope, on which a welfare minimalist society (such as the U.S.) is caused by stupidity to slide into socialism because its doesn't recognize this point, and the logical slope, on which a welfare minimalist society rationally must slide into socialism because, having rejected libertarianism, it has no basis upon which to avoid socialism. Aaron asks why I think that there is no logical slope.

Notice that Aaron has the same problem. He defines "too much drinking" as the point beyond which the drinking will "seriously impair one's ability to function". But that's a pretty gray area. What counts as "serious"? He also allows for imprisonment of those who violate the rights of others. But right is gray, too. May I rightly be imprisoned for lightly bumping your arm on the subway? When it comes to practical rationality, it's always gray. There is no finite formula determinative of practical norms. There is no finite algorithm for prudence.

In the cases of alcohol, imprisonment, and welfare nets, we know that in the grayness there is a sweet spot, even if it can't be rendered determinate in a finite rule. We know that there is a sweet spot where you better watch your drinking, because we are aware of an array of clear cases of non-problematic drinking, as well as an array of cases of drinking too much. We know of a sweet spot in the case of imprisonment, because we can clearly see an array of cases in which interference with others is not wrong and should not be illegal, as well as an array of cases in which interference clearly warrants lengthy imprisonment. The same holds for welfare. We know, as surely as we know anything, that it is terribly wrong for a wealthy person to stand by idly as a homeless child starves to death. We know that it is wrong to deprive the middle and upper classes of 90% of their wealth. In follows unavoidably that there is a sweet spot in between and that there is no logically slippery slope.

So, my case rests, released from the burden of stipulating where this spot lies in one principle. I need only prove that it is there, which I have done. Get a Republican Congress to find the spot over the course of lengthy deliberations meant to design a tax code and a minimally decent welfare net.
Human Shields

See ya'! Wouldn't want to be ya'!

Call Bush a Nazi and physically try to stop the liberation of Iraq and defense of America? That's evil.

Gaudi left us plans that might be used for the WTC spot. Not surprisingly, they are
stunning. Yes, please!

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Modern Political Philosophers

I told my class today that the three foremost modern political philosophers in academia, Marx, Rawls and Nozick, are all sophists who are not serious about finding the truth. These are the three an introductory textbook in philosophy will give the student to read when it comes time to study economic justice. But none of them have serious arguments or demonstrate a willingness to consider intuitively compelling alternatives to their views. They spin ingenious arguments meant to convince, but they avoid and conceal uncomfortable spots, falsehoods in the foundations of their arguments. This makes them sophists and not philosophers. Marx is the communist, Rawls the welfare leftist, and Nozick the libertarian. I've blogged about Marx and Rawls enough. As for Nozick, I'll be brief. I know the blogosphere is loaded with libertarians. So be it. But just don't use Nozick's book as your Bible.

Nozick says that if a distribution of wealth is just at time 1, and if wheeling and dealing transpires, business of a fair kind in which no one is cheated, injured, stolen from, etc., then the distribution of wealth at time 2 is just, as well. If you have no injustice at time 1, and you put no injustice into the pot, then you can have no injustice at time 2. In other words, if some are rich by time 2 and some are impoverished, this is not unjust. Of course, you might wonder about five-year-olds with no shelter or food, or adults who, through some misfortune, have no arms or legs, and you might inquire of Nozick whether it might be unjust if at time 2 these people are left to die by the very wealthy; you don't have to be a lefty to suppose that perhaps a minimal welfare net for such awful cases is a requirement of justice. But you won't get any reply from Nozick. He will merely repeat the argument: If at time 1 there was no injustice, and if wheeling and dealing.... Nozick is right that it is unjust to take from the very rich and give to the lazy or the middle class. But if you ask him about dying five-year-olds and the injustice of leaving them to die, he'll just change the subject, or, my favorite, ask a rhetorical question, What would be unjust about that? His premise is that justice has nothing to do with distributions of wealth but only to do with the fairness of economic transactions. This premise begs the question. Nozick avoids the issue. He's a sophist.

Yes, Marx, Rawls and Nozick are the best. Are any college classes teaching John Adams, Oakeshott, or John Kekes? Of course not. Only the finest make it to the syllabi of political philosophy in America.

Sunday, January 19, 2003


The tradition is rationalism and it comes to us from Plato and Kant and the recent utilitarians. It tells us that pure reason, in abstraction from desire, feeling, and traditional ways of life, is the sole route of access to moral facts. Since its maturation in the Enlightenment, it has been largely leftist, promulgating 'progressivism' as the march toward ever more rational values. It has Truths:

War is wrong.

All people are equally deserving of prosperity.

No one is better than anyone else.

These truths come from on high, from the realm of pure reason. They can be grasped when one takes a "view from nowhere" (one of liberal progressivist philosophy professors' favorite Kantian phrases). Stepping outside of your desires, tradition, and particular place in the world you see that the three statements above are axiomatic, unassailable, obviously true, and the knowledge of them is incorrigible. Rationalism thus breeds dogmatism right away. Once we leave behind empirical reasoning, which is the only kind of prudential reasoning there is, dogmatism is unavoidable. In addition, the disavowal of tradition and local preference is written into the creed of rationalism. The rationalist will be a leftist and he ineluctably must finally crush tradition and preference-based resistance under his jack-booted heel. The values upheld on the basis of tradition and preference are meaningless, irrational, unfounded, and brutish. There is no compromise with brute desire; it simply must be defeated.

But the notion of Moral Truths of Reason having specific and non-trivial content is gibberish. Pure reason tells you nothing at all about how to act or how to live your life. If you rely on it exclusively and dogmatically, you will end up with absurd pronouncements such as the three above. Just some of the falsehoods entailed by those three are the following:

It is wrong to have a military or use one to defend your country against an evil attacker.

Justice requires that we redistribute the wealth to absolute equality (or its Rawlsian utilitarian variant).

We should encourage all ways of life, no matter what the empirical evidence tells us about their effects.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Thanks, U.S. Military (and allied forces)

If you're in the military, thank you. My boy and I will be there to cheer when you come back safe. This isn't small potatoes. A long time from now history will have been better because of your efforts.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Big Lie

My college announced today that it was going to start hiring more disabled, non-white, and/or female people because we ought to promote diversity. The argument was that the college should reflect the diversity of the community. My question is, Are they going to hire more short people? Are they going to hire more hockey players? Redheads? People who've had several root canal treatments? Of course not, because those people aren't supposed to be angry at white males. Diversity is affirmative action in a new package aimed at attracting more adherents to the cause.

The cause is a lie. Eddie's on this today, too. The lie is to deny that if you are alive and have food and shelter and haven't been injured by anyone, you have no right to be angry, indignant or agrieved at any injustice. The lie denies that just being alive and in minimally decent condition affords one an awesome gift of an opportunity for a fulfilling life. The lie claims that a minimally tolerable life, and hence justice, requires that one's way of life, one's culture, be praised and applauded by the rest of society. If you are not morally and psychologically healthy enough to reap the full value of being alive, then you need to blame the unhappiness on the unwelcoming cultural hegemony of the established culture. You will therefore lie, saying that, as a matter of minimal decency, others have a duty to welcome your way of life and applaude it. You become an advocate of diversity because this cloaks your selfish scheme and gives you a coalition, power in numbers. If you feel shut out and excluded, of course you won't want to admit that what has shut you out is the basic gut level at which you connect to reality. It is less depressing to think that it is some oppressor. Instead of an economic oppressor, now its a cultural oppressor, a cultural hegemonist. Hiring strictly on the basis of merit, of course will not do. You will demand that hiring be done also on the basis of skin color, disability, sexual preferences, sex, etc. This is a psychopathology.

Think of blacks, gays, women, or disabled people you have known who are against such biased hiring practices. Did you notice that there was something vibrantly healthy about those people? Something calm, confident, optimistic, glad, and happy?

Can you imagine that after I leave in the Spring I may be replaced by a person in a wheelchair who was not the best applicant? The Committee on Diversity in Hiring will scrutinize the philosophy department's proposed new hire and demand that a disabled person be considered. This is insane. It's sick.
Arguments for a Free Market

There is something odd about the major arguments given by the right for maintaining a free market. They are two, and one of them is somewhat traitorous in appearance. The first is straighforward, basing itself on the right to property and the wrongfulness of taking wealth away from someone who is no willing to give it. The second is a bit squirrelly. It says that free market economies lift up the poor and maximize wealth for the greatest number. It is a utilitarian-style argument.

The difficulty is that the premise of the second argument seems to concede to the leftist opponent that we ought to institute whatever economy lifts up the poor and promotes the happiness of the greatest number. I'm sure you've heard conservatives urge leftists, saying, "That is precisely why those countries need a free market: because it will enrich them and reduce poverty." This is traitorous in appearance, because in appealing to a leftist premise, it seems to commit itself to leftism. In fact if one accepts the premise in question as a strict rule, one is a leftist. One's only concern is the poor, and their problems must be solved by any means necessary. Utilitarianism is a form of leftism. The only other form of leftism is strict egalitarianism which says prosperity be damned, we should be concerned only with maintaining equality of wealth. These two siblings quarrel, but at least they agree that no one has any intrinsic right to keep his wealth. Thus, if an unsuspecting member of the right decided to defend the free market by fully embracing the leftist premise, he would commit himself to accepting that if the free market turns out to lift up the poor less efficiently than socialism, we ought to accept socialism. This is unsettling.

But not to worry. One may appeal to the second argument as a self-respecting conservative. The trick is that one mustn't treat the premise (that we ought to institute whatever economy lifts up the poor and promotes the happiness of the greatest number) as a rule. One must appeal to it as a defeasible principle which is worth following as long as other things remain equal. "Other things" are people's rights to their wealth. In other words, as long as people's rights to keep their wealth are not violated, we ought to prefer the economic system that maximizes prosperity for the greatest number of people. This is not a leftist premise. It's just the commonsense notion that promoting happiness is a factor of some weight.

Monday, January 13, 2003

The Herd and Individualist

Victor Davis Hanson is on the mark again. He notes that while the causes of leftist Americans' anti-Americanism are probably various, mob mentality has a lot to do with it. Human beings are strongly prone to mark, accept and champion the core values of their society. (This disposition has obvious evolutionary advantages; a tribe without shared values doesn't last.) When there is a strong trend towards a silly and illogical value, the mechanism works nevertheless. This is where a culture of individualism - a culture recommending to each of its members the habit of reasoned reflection and evaluation of the proffered values of the society - does well. John Ray has explained the connection between conservatism and individualism. The individual's desire to figure out and do things for himself conduces only to small government of libertarian principles. I've argued in various posts that failure and envy drive leftism. But of course, that's too simple. At this point, perhaps we can draw a few more connections.

For an intelligent and educated person, the route to happiness lies in reasoned reflection about how to select from traditional ways of life a set of values, projects, and practices that best suit one's own circumstance. You'll have little luck creating anew; you need tradition. But you'll have little luck just drifting through life without the sort of self-determination that requires the reasoned reflection of the sort I've just mentioned. A mere semblance of this traditional yet individualistic attitude can be found in the disposition to reject and denounce the powers and values of one's society and to call for an egalitarian revolution. It seems to be thinking for oneself. It seems to be a recovery of the value of justice. Of course, it is neither. It is merely to tune in and begin to resonate with the moral frequency of a large group: leftists. It seems to be a discovery of a meaningful way of life. But of course it is not this, since it is too uncritical and, as a result, embedded in error (error about the nature of justice, error about the difference between a value's cause and its justification, errors of logical coherence, errors about economic realities, etc.).

Conservative individualist culture took quite a blow from Marxism. Demographically, we're still reeling. The blow has inhibited the ability of many to find happiness, encouraged the envy that results from this disability, and lodged itself in our culture as a focus around which to gravitate and align one's moral values. In attacking individualism and offering a nihilistic version of justice wrapped in sweet utopianism, Marxism has proven itself to be a meme of considerable virulence. When the members of a large portion of society's elite group are disinclined and unable to love themselves in the sense of taking pleasure and pride in the events and ways that make up their particular lives, it is no surprise that they will feel envy and hate established ways of finding happiness. It is also unsurprising that the basic mechanism that causes people to align with a group's morals will kick in and reinforce the failure in themselves (and encourage it in others - "How can you just live your life while people are dying?!"). This virus has real staying power. It feeds itself, replicates itself, and, in portraying rational criticisms as mere tools of oppressive powers, it defends itself superbly.

Marx said that all talk of justice is merely the tool of an oppressor and never based on good reason or evidence. The postmodernistic Marxist adds that all talk of evidence is merely such a tool. The infection includes the insanely incoherent inference that therefore only strict egalitarianism is real justice. This is enough. In the body, the virus quickly metastasizes, issuing forth both the devastating creed that it is evil and delusional to reject the virus and the psychopathological notion that finding happiness individually, by one's own lights and in acceptance and delight in the tradition and circumstances in which one finds oneself, is a life empty of meaning.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Why Did Oakeshott Quote Chuang-tzu?

I don’t own a microwave or a dishwasher. My friend has a microwave, but it’s 25 years old. He has a thirty-year-old overcoat worth nothing. He will do anything necessary to keep it with us. He and I are sentimental; we don’t want things to change. I like the life in which one does the dishes. I don’t like the large square machine. It’s not everything that makes me misty. Only some old things do, the ones that somehow announce the past, represent it well, with the flair it deserves, the beauty with which I remember it. An old Penguin paperback from the 1950s does the trick. But somebody fifty years hence will get misty over things new today, things that leave me cold because I prefer not to change. Is there no sense in this? Is this pleasurable melancholy called “being sentimental” irrational?

Suppose you love yourself in the sense that you take deep pleasure and pride in the course of events that has made up your life. This entails loving the world in which these events took place. The accoutrement, the things, the props in that world (even the ways, such as the hand washing of dishes) are endearing in their particularity. It is this life that you have loved, and so many specific things are necessary to it and therefore beloved. It could not be reasonably said of any poem that one loves this poem but none of the turns of phrase in it. Even things that weren’t actually part of your life - the 1950s Penguin paperback was printed before I was born - can endear because they can be thought of as representing a life lived well. An old, worn-out knife from the late 19th C. can be imagined to have been an element in a life dearly loved. The sentimental are thus prone to melancholy and longing for another’s life, as long as it was an object of its owner’s melancholy and longing. For the sentimental are not narcissistic but rather in love with good lives anywhere they are had. There is always this human experience of joy at life and world, and it keeps the mind turning back in recollection of the past. Moving forward has nothing to do with it. Ideas of progress never arise. To contemplate progress would merely distract from the adoration of a good life that is almost entirely in the past.

But there must be more, because Michael Oakeshott quoted Chuang-tzu. Chuang-tzu was no traditionalist. He held no traditional values dear. He was a mystic and quite radical in his dismissal of the importance of traditional culture. He cared little for how well a life was led according to normal standards, thinking on the contrary that a life was led badly only if it was made to aspire to fulfill values. Chuang-tzu’s point was that just to be, in whatever circumstance, affords deep fulfillment. Aspiration of any kind distracts from this and ruins lives. Chuang-tzu was nihilistic about all traditionally cherished moral values and virtues. Why did Oakeshott quote him? Because the conservative shares with him the idea of a life lived in a way such that the parts of your life come together in a beautiful harmony, such that you have no need to attain anything further. A life led perpetually in need of attaining some improvement, meeting some standard, cannot be good. Chuang-tzu failed to see that it may still be the case that a good life cannot be had without including in its early stages earnest effort to attain to traditional values about how to live a good life. He merely advised that one drop out and tune in. The conservative, the sentimental, doesn’t make this mistake. He knows that orchestration is created, not absorbed by ne’er do well in a mystic trance.

Not only aspiration for change, but change itself interrupts a radiant stillness that envelopes a good life. This is the reason not to cave in and buy a new coat. It isn’t irrational if that’s what stillness requires. Moreover, it’s a sign of health, as Nietzsche would have rightly said.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Evil Cultures

Why would a body grow conservative after the 9/11 bombings? The reason is that this evil directs one's attention to wholely evil societies and cultures. It makes one find out that it is not the case that evil is a small set of isolated incidents, anomalies diverging from any cultural norm, and that it is rather the case that evil can be a cultural norm. It shows that "because that culture is evil" is an adequate explanation of the origin of some evil trends. It alerts one to the fragility of good culture, its vulnerable and precarious position in history from which it can decline and fall. It demonstrates that it can indeed be normal for human beings to murder many thousands of innocents.

This accounts for the shift in view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Americans no longer stare blankly at the reports of dozens being massacred in Israel, supposing that it can be accounted for only be decent people being driven to lengths by tormentors. Now, these Americans see that a more likely explanation is that Palestinian society is largely evil. It is, after all, an Arab culture: a culture which cherishes the killing of innocents as one of its highest religious duties (though you aren't aloud to say that in American universities). The pattern is there throughout Arab societies, and so one comes to make large-scale judgments of culture. Atrocities can lead one to make harsh evaluations of entire cultures. This is a conservative thing to do, because any leftist believe that people, being mostly good, cannot produce an evil culture, or, at least, brown people cannot (leftist racism). Hence, atrocities can lead one to conservatism by making one, as John Kekes would put it, face evil.

By the way, more on Kekes, this year on Philosoblog.

UPDATE: Can we please start calling a spade a spade (link via Silflay Hraka)? This is a culture which delights in the suffering of innocent people. This is a religion which requires that little girls be pinned down and have their clitorises hacked off. Hundreds of millions of Muslim woman to go through life without a clitoris, getting fucked by their sadistic husbands or johns. There is not even a remotely plausible basis for the suicide bombing in Israel, yet it is celebrated throughout the Arab world. Arab/Muslim society is evil.

Friday, January 03, 2003


The Odyssey: At first Odysseus wants more and is ungrateful. This costs him many years of his life and the death of most of his friends. The gods teach Odysseus to accept what is the case and to feel grateful for whatever life he has. Also, he chooses half a life of traditional values over an eternity of exotic and simple bliss. He could have an eternal life of sex with a beautiful goddess and service by her maids. But he chooses to live a broken life with his family in his position as king of Ithaca, though half of this life - 20 years of it - have been destroyed. Odysseus accepts what is but also chooses to devote himself to certain norms and ways of life. He learns how to keep his standards while finding what falls short of them less irksome.

The lesson that natural fact is acceptable is difficult to learn. Natural fact is irksome to us; finding it unsatisfactory is our naturally selected-for disposition. The basis of the lesson is that the totality of what is is good. But you aren’t to sum goods to check this. The world is good willy-nilly. Odysseus’s sacrilege is naturalistic; he doesn’t value the fact that this world exists. He prefers a variant. He challenges fate. But to devote oneself as ardently as he does to such a change implies that one doesn’t find this world and one’s place in it supremely valuable. The sacrilege is nihilistic.

Yet, there are values to be promoted, good ways of life to be pursued with considerable eagerness. While the world, just as it is, is good and acceptable, utter passivity and sloth are not. Odysseus could have stayed on island with Calypso. If what is is good, whatever it is, then why not stay and enjoy simple bliss for eternity? Action of any kind, as an effort to change circumstance, would seem to be nihilisic.

It isn’t so. Only action flowing from a deep sense of rejection of the world qualifies as nihilism. Desire, intention, and action are all consistent with deep acceptance and gratefulness for the fact that this world exists. Odysseus eschews a life of pleasure with a goddess because it isn't desireable to him. He is self-directing and acts on his own preference. This is consistent with a disposition to accept the final outcome.

This lesson has been treated with considerable mystery by the writer of the Bhagavad Gita, Kierkegaard, and Chuang-tzu (to name a few). But I think it needn't be so mysterious. What Odysseus learns is how not to find so many things irksome, how not to feel so wounded by them. In the end, he finds that even rage has a place, but it is he who calls the tune, and not it. He is angered by what ought to anger, and he delivers the terrible punishment, but he is in control of this motive and is never driven by it to despair. He is at home. The lesson is that natural facts are our own home, and, at best, only complete catastrophe warrants despair, and perhaps not even that. There is no mystery in the fact that the world is good.

The paradigm in the Odyssey is therefore a man who is on an even keel even when what he wants most - a life with his family and friends - is half destroyed. He stands steadfast for what is good but is never dejected by failure. The next question is whether the wisdom of such a person extends also to the mundane. Is such a one more trustworthy in judgments of value - political policy, everyday ethics, and the like - than those who are deeply wounded, depressed, or scandalized by the sort of world the gods have given us? This is a question of folk wisdom about which tenor of voice is a mark of one to listen to.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Stumbling Tongue talks about hang gliding. I recommend this activity. Go here. Alexis points out that hang gliding can be banal. Oddly, this is true. After soaring free in the breeze for two hours 800 feet above a beautiful ridge, one can get slightly bored and decide to land! But the two hours are happy ones indeed. The risk in hang gliding is of the same order as motorcycling and skiing, by the way.

Anyway, now this:

Human Nature

Don’t ignore it. Of course, it is obvious that certain ways of life are far beyond the limits of human nature: a bed-ridden life of heroin bliss, enforcement of female infant castration or universal monastic austerity, or living without shelter or warm clothes in the polar regions, for example. But there is also a less obvious fact that certain ways of life run counter to human nature, while alternatives to these harmonize with human nature well. A tradition is the results of lengthy empirical, trial-and-error inquiry into the details of this fact.

Radicalism often denies the existence of human nature. Mao, amongst others, said that we were blank slates on which he would program us as he pleased. But radicalism can also resist tradition while pretending to acknowledge human nature. It can acknowledge the obvious cases of ways of life that run counter to human nature and pretends that that this is enough. Don’t be fooled by this ploy. Two ways of life may seem to be equally harmonious with human nature when in fact one is far less so than the other. For example, it was perhaps not unreasonable at one time to think that communism was perfectly compatible with human nature. This is why it is wise to be conservative and presume that traditional ways of life are better until sufficient evidence to the contrary turns up. “Liberal” in the pejorative sense refers to the failure to understand this.

But there are things to keep in mind, and it is “liberal” in the positive sense to do so. First, human nature does not always determine the answer to the question of which of two mutually incompatible ways of life is better. There may be several traditions that harmonize equally with human nature but that offer fairly starkly contrasting ways of life, in the sense that a member of one of the traditions may find the others abhorrent. The traditions of China, India and Europe might be examples. This means that moderate cultural relativism is true: the legitimacy of some values depends upon the society in question, even though other values are untenable under any social circumstance.

Also, it is we who decide how to live, not human nature. It is rational to choose what is preferable to us, not to choose what fits with human nature. Adultery may harmonize with human nature better than remaining faithful to one’s spouse. But remaining faithful may be preferable and may therefore be the more rational course. Human nature is a biological system that makes the organism have certain dispositions which, when acted upon, best promote the proper biological functioning of the organism. But some of these dispositions may lead to unhappiness or injustice. Tradition is cultural, not just biological. It has located our less obvious dispositions and discovered ways of fulfilling them, but it has also given us ways of fulfilling them that may be given a coherent and unified description. When a set of ways of life cannot be given a coherent and unified description, tradition has eschewed it. “Be true to your spouse, but try to cheat when you can” is incoherent. The gene likes it, but we do not.

What remains is to examine descriptions. Whether accepting homosexuality can fit coherently into a tradition embracing male-female romance and reproduction is an example of such an issue. Whether accepting abortion can fit coherently into a tradition in which infants are dearly loved is another. Whether cloning and the use of sperm banks can fit into a tradition in which the biological parents ought to care for their children is a third.