Friday, September 27, 2002

Where we've been on Philosoblog: We figured out how to determine the right thing to do in any case. We've seen that leftism (liberalism) has fatal flaws. We've found that libertarianism isn't quite right. I've been arguing for an American conservatism. There will be more of this: We'll be taking a look at John Adams this fall. The philosophy of John Kekes (a contemporary conservative philosopher) will also occupy us soon. We'll have a chance to look at envy, relativism, and the meaning of life, too.

Today, however, let's pause and take a look at what we do not mean by "philosophy" at Philosoblog: the pursuit of the great philosophical issues. Our concern is to come to clarify American moral philosophy. This is not the arcane subject called "philosophy" in universities. Philosoblog began its existence a month ago by noting that there are no great American moral philosophers. Americans are pragmatic and cleave to common sense. Philosophy, as the pursuit of the great issues, the subject taught in universities, defies common sense. It's a ruse. It's a bunch of pseudo-problems. None of these problems has been solved in 2500 years of philosophy. This should tell us that they're not real. They are posed by attempting to undermine common sense. Don't listen to "philosophy". Listen to common sense as it would approach some of the great "philosophical issues":

1. Morality is a set of norms about how much concern to show for others in various circumstances. In order to determine the right thing to do in a given situation, get your facts straight and reason coherently about those norms by using common sense. End of story. The moral philosophy of Kant, Plato, Moore, etc., and all the 20th Century professors of moral philosophy, is a long stream of meaningless nonsense, of musing upon puzzles fabricated by twisting common sense.

2. The mind is a function of our brain. The brain does something or other, and that's our conscious life. You can't separate the two. Here's how the pseudo-puzzle gets started in "philosophy": "We can imagine someone having a brain functioning as ours does but being devoid of any mind or consciousness at all. So, the two can't be the same thing." But that's gibberish. Nothing would count as evidence that someone was such a mindless zombie. By the way, none of this means that there is no soul. Religious faith takes over there, unimpeded by common sense.

3. We're free because we can do what we want to do. Everything that happens is determined by natural law. There is no free will problem. But you can make one up by saying, "But what we want to do is determined, so we're not free" or "We're free, so what we want to do is not determined." Go ahead. Knock yourself out. It's meaningless verbiage. Publish dozens of books on your ravings. Earn a lot of money teaching kids how to rave the ravings.

4. Physical objects change over time. They can still be the same thing if they don't change enough. Just define the thing you're talking about and you can tell when the changes are too great for it count as still there. On the other hand, you can write dozens of books about "How can it be the same and change, too?"

No, at Philosoblog we're not interested in "philosophy". We're interested in philosophy, the real thing: common sense inquiry into our values.

Who am I? I'm a philosophy professor with a Ph.D. in philosophy. My field is mostly a load of baloney. Oddly, this does not mean you shouldn't send your child to study philosophy in college. As Bigwig has noted, philosophy teaches you how to think. The problems are so insanely twisted in their logic, that your child will improve his critical thinking skills immensely by studying them. Philosophy and physics are the two hardest topics in college; philosophy is good for the brain. But suggest majors in history, English, or science (and help him choose classes with professors who aren't pomo-lefties, by the way).

Monday, September 23, 2002

Philosoblog hopes you'll enjoy "Some Recent Nonsense and Being Conservative" below. Now for something completely different: the facts. Making the right moral decision requires the facts. Here are the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute presented with different characters, in order to make the facts fresher and easier to see. Weirdly, Bigwig at Silflay Hraka also has a metaphorical version of the conflict today! Anyway, you can see the moral judgment that follows from the facts. The big lesson today: often all you need is to know the facts well, in order to make the right moral judgment. Just get the facts, and common sense will take it from there. The big question today: how many of Israel's detractors know the facts?

A Metaphorical and Very Short History of the Oppression of Israelis

We’ll call them Puritans and put them in eastern Massachusetts. Suppose that the Puritans had lived in eastern Massachusetts for millennia. Suppose that in the 7th Century, the Indians (you know, Arabs), occupants of the huge North American landmass, had kicked almost all of the Puritans out of the continent, whereupon they fled to Europe. (A tiny number remained, such that there has always been Puritans in eastern Massachusetts.) A few centuries later, the Vikings (these are the Turks, eh?) come and take over North America. By 1900, the Viking Empire is on its last legs. The British (these are just the British) liberate the Indians from the Vikings, who go home to Vikingland.

Then, the British tell the Puritans of Europe, “Tell you what, we’ll restore you to eastern Massachusetts since everyone hates you and has for no good reason kicked your ass all over the globe for thousands of years.” At this time eastern Massachusetts is a desolate wasteland: a few nomadic Indians, a handful of Puritans (still there), no infrastructure, no architecture. Even hardy plants do not grow on the ground, which is mostly rocks. You could walk around outside naked in eastern Massachusetts with little fear that anyone would see you. If you walked ten miles, you’d see fewer than ten people. So, there is plenty of room for the Puritans’ homecoming. And nobody owned the land; no Indians had mixed their labor with it. So, the British say, “Look, you Indians have an entire continent back, thanks to us. Hardly any of you live in this desolate, tiny, part. We’re going to give it to the Puritans, whom you kicked out 1300 years ago. The Indians there are welcome to stay. But notice that they can also go to any of the vast, open areas of your land, too, so....” The British let thousands of Puritans come from Europe to eastern Massachusetts. From the time they arrive, the Puritans face constant attack from the Indians.

Weirdly, the British decide to double-cross the Puritans and side with the Indians. The British think they need Indians as a geo-strategic ally for the British Empire. They stop bringing the Puritans from Europe, as promised. The European Puritans say, “But the Germans are killing us in ovens. You promised.” The British say, “Shut up.” Furthermore, the British allow the Indians to rape, beat, and murder the Puritans with impunity for two decades. They arrest Puritans who defend themselves. They tell the United Nations, “These Puritans don’t get along well with others.” Finally, the Puritans violently kick the British out and take power, in order to save their lives. The United Nations recognizes Eastern Massachusetts as a Puritan state, out of sympathy for the fact that everyone wants to kill them, and for the fact that the 10% of Puritans in Europe who weren’t exterminated in ovens and who are now homeless refugees, need a place to go. In just a few years, the Puritans build a prosperous country in the desolate wasteland: irrigation, agriculture, infrastructure, industry. Indians have been unable to do this for themselves anywhere in North America; they have always been destitute. Their hatred for the Puritans increases, because of envy and shame. Hundreds of thousands of Indians immigrate to Eastern Mass. Puritans build them four universities, and give them millions in other aid. The Indians get good jobs and have nice lives, unlike the impoverished and bellicose Indians elsewhere in North America, who are constantly at war with each other, as well as with the Puritans.

The entire Indian Nation of North America tries for the entire second half of the 20th Century to kill all the Puritans, and they send invading armies, money, armaments. In the late ’40’s, the Indian Nation of North America tells many of the Eastern Massachusetts Indians to leave their homes and become refugees in order to make room for the invading Indian armies. The Puritans defend themselves successfully against the invasion. The world calls this racist oppression of poor Indians and says, “And look at the refugee camps full of homeless Indians you created! Dirty Puritans!” The Puritans maintain defensive armies on the western part of their country. The world calls this an “occupation”. They build towns there. The world calls this “illegal settlements”. Unfortunately, there are mountains in western Massachussetts. They would enable the Indians to stage a devastating attack on the Puritans and, as the Indians themselves promise, "push the Puritans into the sea". So, the Puritans must keep that land or suffer a holocaust of six million again.

In 1964 the Indians invent an ethnicity called “the Eastern Massachusettans”, an ancient Indian tribe with a distinctive culture and a right to self-determination, although they have no genetic or cultural differences from any Indians and have never heard of the concept of “Eastern Massachusettans”. (And had this concept been explained to them, say, in 1880, they would have said, “That’s a weird concept without any resemblance to reality. We’re Indian nomads living at the desolate edge of our country.”)

The leader of the Eastern Mass Indians, Fat Ass, who has been killing Puritans for decades, gets the Nobel Peace Prize for defending the rights of his poor, “oppressed” people. He pow-wows with the Puritans many times, while sending his people to kill as many Puritans as he can in between pow-wows and praising the killers. Any Puritan soldier who responds too violently is court marshaled by the Puritans (500+ court marshaled so far). The Puritans offer Fat Ass a part of Eastern Mass, as his own state, for his people. He responds by killing more Puritans than ever. The Puritans send tanks into the western part of their own country to round up the terrorists. Every country in the world denounces this hostile “invasion” and demands that the Puritans not defend themselves and “give peace a chance”. Even the Puritans’ faithful friend, Greenland (that’s the U.S.), says, “Come on, violence never solves anything.” Meanwhile Greenland has, in just the months before, violently and successfully eliminated the Indians who were invading it and thousands of Greenlanders. The six million Puritans living in Eastern Mass say, “I think we’re all going to be killed.” The rest of the world laughs and says, “That’s the craziest thing we ever heard. Six million Puritans get massacred? Who ever heard of such a thing! Dirty, lying Puritans! Now, stop oppressing Indians!!”

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Some Recent Nonsense and Being Conservative

A couple of things on our plate today.

The idea that not stopping foreign famines is morally equivalent to murder is in the news again. Some academic philosopher thinks that we we had it coming on 9/11 because we are murderers, having not given our money to the starving in Africa.

We give plenty in foreign aid. Much of it is wasted because the recipients cannot solve their problems. In some cases we're throwing good money after bad, and, a la Malthus, creating even more suffering by perpetuating the dysfunction.

But leave all that aside. The point is that there is a vast moral difference between not acting to save someone and murdering him. It's common sense, but many academic philosophers deny it. They demand some grand theory by which to make the distinction valid, but none is to be found. And there are odd cases in which not saving someone is as bad as murder. Imagine staring and laughing at a child who has just been hit by a car. You could save him, but you just watch him bleed to death. That's close enough to murder. In the vast majority of cases, however, allowing harm is not as bad as doing harm. There is no grand theory. Philosophy professors are handsomely paid to think there needs to be one and to seek it. Instead, just use common sense. (I am a philosophy professor, and I can assure you that you are at least as well prepared to make a sound moral judgment as any philosophy professor.)

Here's the deal: In our society we uphold the values of self-reliance and the right to keep what you procure. If we made the duty to help others as stringent as the duty not to harm them, we would have to give up those values. You'd have no right to your property; you'd have to give it to others. You wouldn't have to rely on yourself; you'd just rely on others. Instead, we uphold a duty to help others to some degree (libertarianism is false, as I've shown below), and we maintain the values of self-reliance and private property. Our values are coherent. We rightly stand by them.

Leftists reject our entire system of value. Leftism is not just one moral standpoint amongst others; it's a rejection of the morals we hold dear. Don't do it. Be conservative:

Being Conservative

Forget all that jive nonsense. Let's talk about something that really matters: being conservative. Philosoblog has already given good reasons to avoid leftism and full-blown libertarianism. So, just uphold the tried and true traditional moral values of the Western tradition. Let fall by the wayside only those values that have been shown to be faulty. Uphold the rest. That's conservatism.

What if there are values that you don't have any reason to think faulty, but don't have complete evidence to believe true? Uphold them with utter devotion. That's the heart of conservatism. Unless you're a genius with a vast sea of social experience under your belt, you don't know everything about humanity. Why say "please" and "thank you"? Why go to funerals? Why get married? Why is it worse to hurt someone than to fail to stop someone from being hurt? You don't know. You just trust that these things are right. You don't have time to check all the values you're given to see whether they are fully grounded in good reason. So, you must uphold the ones that have stood the test of time and been found by thousands of your forebears to be worthy of living by. The guts of conservatism is this: take these traditional values very seriously.

Here are some values: hard work, self-reliance, education, helpfulness, developing talents that fulfill you and are useful to society, the duty to help the unfortunate, monogamy and staying together for the sake of the children, praising and instilling discipline in your children, tolerating dissent but arguing against it when it's wrongheaded, etc. There are others you can think of. None of these values has been proven to be incorrect. It hasn't been proven that disobeying them leads to good lives and respect for others. Better be conservative about these.

But don't be undiscriminating. Here are two traditional values the violation of which has been shown to be perfectly consistent with leading a good life and respecting others:

1. Don't be homosexual.

2. Be religious.

People have tried being unreligious and homosexual, and many of them have had good lives. The jury is in; these two values have to go. (This is not to say that being heterosexual and being religious are not things to value, as well, of course.) Conservatism has a duty: to monitor the traditional values and be sure that none of them has been impeached. (Would someone please tell National Review that it's okay to be a gay atheist? Nevermind, I don't think they care.) When you find a rotten apple in the bunch, cast it out. That's what Abe Lincoln did to the old value that said, "It's okay to enslave blacks."

An alternative: be progressivist or radical. If you think you don't need thousands of years of tradition to help you figure out what is right, if you think you're smart, you can invent human values from scratch. Yes, go for it, be a progressivist. Join in with Mao, Stalin, Lenin, the Terror, Pol Pot, and the postmodern, and socialist professors of the contemporary university who claim that the U.S. murders every Arican who starves to death. You never know what sort of exciting terrain you could come into by letting your mind wander free of traditional values. I'm stacking the deck? Surely there has been a success story in progressivism? Name one. I'm not talking about abolition, women's liberation, or the improvement of labor conditions. These are all cases of conservatively applying our values to cases where something was found to be amiss in our tradition. It was conservative values on freedom, equality, and decency that accomplished these things. All that was called "progressive" back in the old days. But the progressivism of today is radical stuff. It yeilds only Stalin, Mao, and befuddled professors.

Another alternative: be a libertarian, instead. Forget tradition; liberty is the only value. It trumps all others. If you could just eliminate authority, you'd be happy. You just want to be left alone. Being left alone to do what you want is happiness, no matter what tradition says. There is no duty to others or to the maintenance of traditional values. If the millions of people in our tradition had not sacrificed much of themselves to the tradition as something higher than themselves, something worthy of being nourished and sustained, we would be just fine now, right? "That was their choice. I have my choice." Libertarianism means freedloading on a tradition of value. Sure, it's possible to be a libertarian who devotes himself to traditional values. Such a person is just like a conservative, except he believes in a strictly free market and no duty to help the unfortunate. But how many libertarians like that have you heard of? No, libertarians usually have it in for authority all around.

The moral of the story is that we may relax and stay the same. We should uphold our values and not change them. It would be wrong to go against our values. Use common sense. Don't listen to academic philosophers who tell you your values are deeply wrong. These are idiotarians. Study your tradition and cultural heritage of value. Embrace it and take it seriously. Don't just relax; this tradition is under fire. It is the only important thing there is besides being alive.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Philosoblog's recent entry is "Moral Equivalence". I hope you enjoy it.

Another note on libertarianism. Some tidying to do:

Philosoblog has received keen criticism from Tisnot. He objects to my argument against libertarianism because he rejects the premise that the Good Samaritan has no right to pass by the injured man. Here is the argument for that premise.

It would be wrong to pass by the injured man. Therefore, the Samaritan has no right to do so.

As well, it follows that the injured man has a right to aid.

Libertarians and Tisnot think that there may be things you ought to do, but you have a right not to do them. But there is no meaning in the idea of something you ought to do but have a right not to do. It would be wrong not to do it. So, how could you have a right not to do it? Libertarians have never answered that question. They stir a witch's brew of mysterious semantics, in which our obligations are different from things we don't have a right not to do. It's a murky and occult business, and no one really knows the recipe. Better stick to common sense.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Moral Equivalence

Let’s talk about moral equivalence. Millions of heads are dizzy since 9/11, due to the surfacing of this concept. It was always there, usually found in the conceptual furniture of the academic left. But now that Arab culture has been thrown into the spotlight by bin Laden and shown to be one about which it is appropriate for the dean of Middle East historians, Bernard Lewis, to ask, “What went wrong?”, leftists have been bringing the concept out of the ivory tower and using it as a premise for defending that which would ordinarily be thought evil. Six months after 9/11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up. The moral equivalence pundits turned up the volume of their message, so that the people defending themselves would be seen as just as wicked as the people murdering them. There are plenty of other examples. I won’t mention them. You can go find them easily. What is the idea behind this message of moral equivalence? The answer is threefold.

Egalitarianism. All people are equal. All cultures are equal. It is arrogant and nasty to consider one culture worse than another. It is wrong to take sides in a dispute; that’s bias. One should mediate it evenhandedly, so that it is resolved peacefully.

The trouble is that in leftist hands egalitarianism becomes an undiscriminating caricature of itself that doesn’t hold true often enough to be considered a sound principle. In some contexts it sounds true. When two different cultures are thriving and producing people who live good lives without injuring others, it is nasty for a member of one to consider the other inferior. When a judge hears a suit, it is wrong for him to start out making an unwarranted assumption about who is right.

Of course. But some cultures do not produce people who are apt to live good lives and refrain from using others as mere means to their own happiness. Therefore, the moral equivalence of all cultures is untenable. Criminals are not equal to the rest of us; they are people of lower moral standing than Mother Theresa or even than the average person. Sometimes the judge has heard the evidence already and is indeed morally and evidentially entitled to favor one side. These are things about which we should say, “of course,” as well. But when you discuss current events with the moral equivalence pundits, they will mumble something about these examples being red herrings. They will try to bring the conversation back to the cases of genuine equality, in culture or in evidential standing, in order to obscure the difference. Don’t let them do it. Tell them, “But wait a minute, in the case in question, the evidence is now in, just as much as in the case of Mother Theresa versus the criminal. Have you read the historical documents of the case? A is guilty and bad, and B is innocent and good. Culture A is not as good as culture B. You’re confused. You have in mind the time when we hadn’t yet examined the evidence.” Moral equivalence pundits cling to their caricature of egalitarianism and will therefore ignore and suppress evidence of genuine inequality. This makes it impossible for them to join in upholding good moral standards. But why on earth do they think that way? There must be a more fundamental reason.

Marxism. Not “Marxism”, really, but an insidious remnant of the creed, according to which a society’s standards are always attributable to a cultural background and therefore have no better foundation than any other society’s moral standards. You’ll get this in college. “If you grew up there, you’d have their values, too,” you’ll be instructed, as if it proved something. The professor will remind you of the egalitarian principle I mentioned, about the arrogance of judging other cultures to be bad. The Marxist addition to this innocent-sounding principle is that there can never be reason to make exceptions to it because the moment when “the evidence is now in” never happens. Why? Because there is no such thing as “evidence.” Standards are just the effects of culture and this goes for standards of evidence, too. Standards have no real basis.

You send your kid to college to learn how to think - basically, to evaluate evidence - but instead he’s often taught that doing so is impossible and, even worse, that the notion that it is possible is a trick foisted on the oppressed by the oppressors who offer up thoughts the acceptance of which as evidentially justified will benefit the oppressors. Don’t let this happen to your kid. Suggest that your kid ask his professor whether he has any reason for the belief that good reasons are a myth and moral judgment a ruse. Or email the professor yourself and ask whether he has a reason why the moral judgment that all morals are equally good is good while the judgment that only some are good is bad.

Of course cultures give rise to morals. But some of these morals are ones for which we can find abundant reason, while others are not. Cultures give rise to every hypothesis in science, too, but not every scientific hypothesis is equal. The one about the earth being flat turned out to be false, while the one about the earth being round turned out to be true. It’s a silly business, this Marxist remnant. No one could believe it, unless there were something else pushing him to do so. What’s really going on?

Envy (and guilt). I remember that when I was a child I sometimes envied people who were better than me. I sometimes wished them to be taken down a notch or two, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the indignity of being lesser any longer. Okay, you caught me; I still do this as an adult, from time to time, when I’m bested. I’m only human. The problem is that a deficit in moral character in this sort of situation can lead to real problems. Winners can drive losers mad. The excellent inadvertently put the mediocre through spasms of twee rage.

What does this have to do with moral equivalence? There is a dominant culture of excellence today. It produces people who lead good lives and who are not likely to take advantage of others. It acts as policeman to the world and throws its huge military weight around. Imagine living in an ivory tower defending a nutty, multiculturalist, socialist utopianism that has now been deemed of lesser value by most of your country. You watch the Big Man strutting around, with his wealth and his happy, judgmental, confident and proud demeanor - it’s enough to drive you mad with envy. Champion the cause of the poor! This will help alleviate your guilt for not being poor, and it will give you a chance for revenge against Big Man. You’ll be able suppress your feelings of envy and guilt if you take up the leftist cause without flinching, no matter what flaws someone might find in your reasoning. Find out Big Man’s sins; try to bring him down a notch or two. Didn’t his spy agency put an evil dictator into power Nicaragua or somewhere like that? Of course, the regime was better than the alternative, but still, that can score a point if you twist it hard enough. And didn’t Big Man make some pretty valueless mass entertainment and some ugly suburbs? Yes, Big Man isn’t so great, and you can put him in his place. If you squint your eyes and cock your head to the side, it almost looks as though his record is morally equivalent to that of every other culture. And surely his values are no better, either.

That’s the ticket! We’re all equal, so he’s wrong to strut around with such arrogant pride and to meddle in others’ affairs. And Big Man’s values derive from cultural contingencies, just as anyone else’s values do, so they have no better foundation. If there aren’t any reasons, then you don’t have to listen to any. Yes, that eases the pain of failure and gives you a chance for stunning success. Radical chic feels so much better than envy and guilt! Grab onto it for all your worth and let logic be damned! It’s either that or admit that you’re a loser. A society of people living bad lives? Blame Big Man, be he Israeli or American. After all, he’s no better than anyone else, but he hogs all the happiness to himself and shoots at the poor people when they try to take their fair share away from him. Put him in his place! By any means necessary, even violence. After all, he uses violence, too. What if you’re a successful, wealthy leftist (where “wealthy” means able to afford a house, a TV, and a car)? Well, you don’t give all your wealth to the poor, of course. You find an excuse to keep the wealth. But you find the idea of maintaining the moral standards according to which you are entitled to your wealth and success to be a guilt-ridden prospect. You’re not up to it. You therefore envy the Big Man, who is able to embrace his success with no excuses and with guilt-free gusto. Those healthy, confident, smiling, blonde fat cats in their expensive new cars! Damn them!!

You won’t just embrace the nonsense of moral equivalence. You’ll even say it: “Big Man got what was coming to him on 9/11”. Envy, guilt, and cognitive dissonance can lead the mind into very dark places. You’ll say anything to get out of those places. Even that. Of course, you'll hedge, hem, and haw when confronted about that. Cognitive dissonance.

It’s all nonsense: Marxism and a mindless form of egalitarianism, both based on envy (and guilt). The leftist idea of moral equivalence is based on a mixture of nonsensical ideas and feelings of envy. This is the only good explanation for the phenomenon. There certainly aren’t any good reasons for moral equivalence, so I’ve had to look for psychological sources. Leftists who uphold moral equivalence are in a state of cognitive and emotive dysfunction. They need help. Do not turn a cold shoulder. Go the extra mile. Be kind, and lift them up. Approach them, show patience, compassion and sternness, and make an effort to correct their thinking. Show them their errors. Emphasize the compassion in your delivery. Otherwise, they’ll think you’re just Big Man lording it over them again.
Here is the key point about the first limit of libertarianism, which libertarians have a hard time grasping. This is the argument:

Since the Good Samaritan has no right to pass by and leave the unfortunate person to bleed to death, and since you have no right to pull your shoulder away when someone touches it to regain his balance (so that he doesn't plummet to his death), libertarianism is therefore false. The duty the rich have to the poor is analogous to those cases. The rich have no right to let the poor in America die of starvation or exposure.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Greetings. Where Philosoblog has been recently: 1. Common sense is the reliable method of reasoning our way to the right thing to do. 2. The leftist view of social justice is almost entirely erroneous. 3. The grain of truth in the latter is that the rich ought to give minimal welfare aid to those amongst us who are extremely unfortunate through no fault of their own. 4. Libertarianism is not entirely correct; it overlooks the aforementioned point 3, and gives short shrift to considerations of security and traditional culture. We've also taken a look at religion in American political life and found that all reasonable parties may be satisfied with it. I hope you will read these essays and make comments where they err.

Philosoblog's future has the following essays in store:
Contemporary Leftism: Marx’s Lasting Legacy
The Meaning of Life
Moral Equivalence
The Philosophy of John Adams
The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson
The Conservatism of John Kekes

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Philosoblog continues to try to discover the exact nature of the values that Americans rightly hold dear. A year ago today we learned how fragile and precious those values are. In tribute to the victims of the bombing, Philosoblog presses on in its effort to nurture, polish, and clarify these values. It is now obvious how astonishingly fortunate we are to have them.

Limits of Libertarianism I

The fundamental value of libertarianism is a good one. As long as one isn’t harming anyone else, or freeloading off of others in any way, one should have the right to do as one pleases. America threw off the noose of subjection to another’s will, especially taxation without representation, for good reason. People ought to be able to live the way they like. One has no duty to serve others unless one has contracted to do so. However, there are limits to the libertarian value. There are three kinds of case in which libertarians wrongly cling to it.

The first limit is found when we notice that there is a duty to help the very unfortunate. The limit may be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan sees that he has a duty to help a severely injured person by the side of the road. Libertarians handle the case by admitting that there is a duty to give aid but that no one may be forced to fulfill this duty. The idea is that there is a duty to aid others, but the duty may not be enforced. However, this is not correct. Consider a case in which someone will plummet to his death unless he leans, without getting permission, on a nearby stranger’s shoulder in order to regain his balance. The stranger has no right to pull his shoulder away. The fact becomes clearer when we consider the following case. Suppose the Good Samaritan, having no water, were unable to help a man dying of thirst through no fault of his own. Suppose a third party passing by had plenty of water, enough to waste, yet would not offer any to the dying man. It would be permissible for the Good Samaritan to take a serving of water from the third party in order to save the dying man. If resisted, the Samaritan would have the right to apply force. Hence, taxation of the rich to support a minimal welfare net may be compelled by force.

This is a matter of degree: socialist egalitarianism goes too far to one side, while pure libertarianism goes too far to the other. Libertarians contend that we should adhere to pure libertarianism because departing from it leads to a slippery slope. But the slippery “road to serfdom,” as Hayek calls it, has not been found. We’re not serfs in America. How long are we to wait before Hayek’s argument is to be considered refuted? Slippery slope arguments are often invalid for the simple reason that people are intelligent enough to be able to limit the magnitude of their actions. There is a slippery slope argument that says that America should be a communist dictatorship by now, given that it is not a fully libertarian state. The fact that the U.S. government spends too much, taxes too much, and interferes with people’s lives too much does not prove that Hayek is right. For we have pulled in the reigns and can do so again. All it shows is that we are failing to pull the reigns in enough at this point in time. So, Hayek’s slippery slope argument is more of a scare tactic than an argument for libertarianism. Albeit it does have merit, in serving to keep us on our toes and to call us to the task of reigning in government grown too big.

The second limit to libertarianism is encountered when national security is in jeopardy. As David Hume said, “[A] regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinate to a reverence for established government” since the latter is “essential to [the former’s] very existence.” Refusal to recognize the gravity of a threat can be dangerous. The difficulty in hitting the right mark comes in balancing the threat from democratically overseen law enforcement officials against continuing threats from evildoers (common criminals) and emergent threats (unusual attacks by terrorists). Libertarians tend to be close to absolute aversion to risking the former threat and are thus rendered unwilling to recognize that exposure to the latter threat jeopardizes the liberties they so zealously seek to protect. When the question lies between the duty to protect innocents from evildoers and the duty to avoid ostracizing innocents and stripping them of their freedoms, libertarians are prone to fixate on the latter and shirk the former. But there may be cases in which this will result in their fulfilling neither duty.

The question is one of degree. An Orwellian “big brother” state is to be avoided, as are catastrophic breaches of security. There are shades of gray in between, and there is no general calculus to be used to find the right point. It isn’t clear whether the dispute between libertarians and others is a dispute over the facts relevant to deciding what is right or a genuine moral disagreement. If the former is the case, then it may be that libertarians don’t see that security cannot be maintained well enough without more flexibility in liberty rights than they would countenance. If the dispute is a case of the latter, then it may be that the libertarian contention that we have a moral duty to “live free or die” is false in many cases.

Suppose the latter is the case, and the libertarian maintains that liberty should not be sacrificed, no matter what the risk. That is clearly untenable. No libertarian would walk through fire or, having eradicated the law-enforcement bodies of our country, walk in any downtown late at night. Absolutism about liberty is untenable. Therefore, when special security threats arise that are on the order of fire or a city devoid of law enforcement at night, libertarians need to explain why they would oppose any sacrifice of liberty in order to combat the threat. This usually involves appealing to defensive measures other than those that deprive us of liberty. For example, libertarians might support the War on Terror but oppose stiff surveillance measures, such as the FBI’s discovering which books a suspected terrorist has bought or checked out of a library, or holding enemy combatants without charge. It’s not clear why these measures are grave dangers to our liberty while ordinary police surveillance is not.

Since the issue is a matter of degree, and there is no general rule that libertarians are putting forth which I can assail, the objection I’m making can only be a vague one. The point is this. You will find libertarians voicing strong opposition to the government’s taking security measures that require reduction of liberty. Be very careful. Is there sufficient argument to support this opposition? One of America’s greatest achievements is to protect its citizens from oppression by law-enforcement authorities. But this does not mean that we should never sacrifice any of our liberty for security. We already sacrifice quite a bit of it by maintaining a police force.

The third limit of libertarianism has to do with the protection of culture. The tendency of libertarianism is to overlook the fragility and maintenance requirements of traditional values. Anti-authoritarianism can be taken too far. If moderate authoritarianism is the view that there are important and fragile values that have stood the test of time, failed to be shown mistaken in open democratic debate, and therefore need to be protected against the will of a minority, then such an authoritarian, call it “conservative,” has its merits. The American Revolution avoided the mob rule of the French Revolution by building a stable structure of government with checks and balances of power, instead of merely tearing down government. But America, in its libertarian zeal, embraced the Enlightenment credo that reason alone will show the way to good lives. In this sense, America tore down more than it should have. It was not, and is not, conservative enough.

Of course, conservatism is a matter of degree. Unreflectively accepting all of a cultural tradition and then stringently forcing in on everyone within one’s society is clearly wrong. Moderation lies in vigilantly looking for evidence of bad values within one’s tradition and moderating the degree of force with which one enforces the values of a tradition. In other words, moderate conservatism avoids dogmatism and paternalism. Yet, it is conservative. It maintains certain traditional ways of life and not others, even when there is no full proof that those ways are not as good.

We are already conservative and anti-libertarian in some ways. Even those of us who don’t have a complete understanding of why it is important to learn history and read literature in high school think these subjects should be required. We shake hands, open doors for one another, value the institution of marriage, and scoff at communes, all without knowing exactly why we should do so. There is a plethora of ways in which our lives are shaped by tradition and which we trust as good without knowing why they are good.

Libertarianism tends to undermine these efforts by pushing us farther than we need to go to avoid dogmatism and paternalism. The third limit of libertarianism would sanction a libertarian stance only to the extent it is necessary to avoid those to undesirable traits. There are two ways in which libertarianism goes to far: in demanding that government not support cultural traditions and intending to undermine private support of traditions. The libertarian objects to the government taking his money and supporting someone else’s choice of a tradition. He believes that the minority are being oppressed when taxes at the majority’s behest in order to fund cultural programs. That there must be a limit to this stance if it is not to reach the absurd is evident from the fact that it will otherwise commit us to the abolition of public schooling, as schools support cultural traditions. The more radical libertarian is even against private, non-governmental agents’ making efforts to spread their values. The town full of clubs that won’t have members who drink is an example, as is the orchestra that won’t play experimental or popular works, even if some of its members desire to do so.

It is permissible, and in many instances morally obligatory for the government and private agents to maintain traditions that have stood the test of time and seemed to make good lives. The reason is simple. Only a minority of people in a society will have the wisdom to see the value of its tradition, and if they don’t move to protect it, it will expire. Good ways of life are not always effortlessly maintained. People are far from perfectly wise. Great cultures can end. Such endings are evil since what comes afterwards is usually lives that are not, though they might have been, good. They often need discipline from the voice of authority. When people have the power and the wisdom to protect a valuable tradition, they should. That this is true to at least some extent may be observed in the fact that a man who decided to stop the practice of shaking hands, saying please, and holding doors should be socially censured by others. They needn’t respect the differing view of the minority. A way of life is usually good beyond the ken of the people who live it, and they should protect it even so.

Obviously, libertarians are right that people should be allowed to do as they wish, as long as they aren’t harming anyone else. Nevertheless, it is not wrong for the government to tax them to support ways of life of which they do not approve, if the taxation is supported by democratically elected leaders who choose wisely which traditions to support. It may be that governmental support of culture is more efficient than leaving it to the private sector, and the difference in efficiency may be crucial to preserving a tradition. The minority’s dissent is outweighed, just as it is in the case of parents who desire their children not to have to learn Western history and literature.

There is good reason, therefore, to prefer moderate authoritarianism, or conservatism, to libertarianism. The only question is where the limit lies. Here I can only gesture at a few points, and no general rule can be given. State-funded museums and concerts in which traditional art and music are supported, and state funding of a performance of Antigone, for example, are cases in which the minority’s dissent is outweighed. The minority may be the libertarian who doesn’t want to part with his money, or the immigrant who wants the culture of the country he left to be funded, as well. In either case, we are asked to allow our culture to erode for the sake of a minority’s preference. The potential result is a country with no culture to speak of, and the destruction of the cultural key to good lives. This is such a weighty matter that the minority’s wishes are outweighed. If there are cases in which state funding is crucially more efficient than leaving the matter up to the private sector, then the taxation and state funded cultural programs are right. This being so, pressure in the private sector meant to support the country’s tradition is right, as well. Private social pressure may be exerted in support of a tradition. Ways of life that diverge from the tradition may rightly be censured (provided that the censure is polite and reasoned). Only in cases in which the divergent way of life has been proven to cohere, rather than conflict with, the traditional way is the censure wrongfully oppressive. Homosexuality is an example of such an innocent divergence that should not be censured. A wildly promiscuous sexual habit is not. Zen Buddhism is an example. Requiring all women in a household to be covered from head to toe is not, nor is the habit of frequently using hard drugs. The social circle in an apartment complex that excludes homosexuals and the local Zen Buddhist is narrow and pig-headed. Its exclusion of the promiscuous, the family that requires the burka, and the drug addict is not.

Of course, libertarians will argue that the state is bad at selecting cultural programs. Bureaucrats choose awful culture to promote, they will say. This may be. But it is beside the point. It merely reminds us that in entrusting the state to support culture, we are taking the risk that leaders may not be wise and may fail. What libertarians would have to prove is that the private sector has a better record than the state. Then there would be an empirical, practical reason to entrust the task to the private sector. But there is no philosophical principle sufficient to rule out government support of one culture over others. The point of the third limit is that there is a depth of wisdom in Western culture that individuals can’t reinvent with every generation but must merely trust, uphold, and pass on to the next generation. The upholding and the passing on are authoritarian in nature, and if the government is able to contribute, it should be enlisted in the effort. America trusts liberty distrusts tradition too much. (Thomas Jefferson wrongly praised the mob rule of the French Revolution.) Realizing this fact, and its perfect consistency with the maxim “question authority,” will help prevent the catastrophic erosion of our culture.

American values are libertarian. They are Jeffersonian. They are the values of self-reliance, complete liberty, and self-direction. The American will not be forced to work for others, he will not be scared into sacrificing his liberty, and he will not listen to elitists who tell him how to live. But American values also include the awareness of the propriety of caring for the unfortunate. And American values are not only Jeffersonian but also those of John Adams, though less so, unfortunately. Americans are at least dimly aware of the magnitude of evil that the wicked amongst us are capable of, the utter lack of any right of the wicked to share in American liberty, and the prudence of our sacrificing some of our own liberty in order to protect ourselves from the wicked. Americans also know that there are old, wise traditions that the uneducated cannot match.

Here we have only broached the issues. In the future, Philosoblog will examine each limit separately. We will look at the extent and kind of welfare net that we ought to provide. We will discuss the details of the security-liberty tension, including a review of John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts, so germane as they are today, given the presence of America haters and terrorist sleeper cells in the country for the foreseeable future. And we will also examine the manner and extent to which the traditional culture of America ought to be preserved and favored.

Friday, September 06, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. Below you will find "The Fundamental Errors of Leftism" and "How to Determine the Right Thing to Do". "Limits of Libertarianism" will appear soon. Now this:

Religion and American Political Life

That religious faith is part of American political life is undeniable. Our government states, “In God We Trust.” America is also based on the principle of the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. The tension between these two inclinations has troubled the county since it began. Even in 2002, the country was vexed by a judge’s ruling that for a public school to hold recitations of The Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, because the Pledge includes the phrase, “under God.”

The conflict lies between two undeniable facts about American moral values. We desire our public policy to be based on reason, evidence, and open and democratic deliberation. It is obvious that policies with that sort of basis are most likely to be the better ones than policies based on guess, chance, or on specific prescriptions of a particular religious faith. For likelihood is one and the same as basis in reason, evidence, and deliberation, while the pronouncements of guess, chance or faith come without those grounds. Even those who trust the guidance of their faith must admit that occasions on which the believer thinks he is guided by God but is not are too numerous for reliability. Reliance upon faith also has an uncomfortable vulnerability to charlatans and corruption within the trusted church. Deliberative, reasoned, evidence-based policy making is also vulnerable to corruption, but not nearly as much. This commonsense requirement of reasons for policy is a check on corruption unavailable to a theocracy. The policies of a theocracy are likely to be poor, given their lack of reliance upon reasons. Whether the theocrat is listening to God’s advice or just guessing is anybody’s guess.

Yet, American moral values are inextricably intertwined with American religious faith. The radically separationist position that religion has no place in American political life cannot be reconciled with the religiosity of the vast majority of the American people. It is impossible that the moral inspiration and guidance they receive from their faith has no effect on their determinations of governance. The link naturally expresses itself in the pledge and oath I already mentioned, the song “God Bless America,” the oath “God and Country,” etc.

How strong can the link be without violating the aforementioned requirement of reasons? How can a people that recieves moral guidance from religion govern itself without propounding policy based on faith? And when do expressions of the link by the government violate the separation of church and state? There are two issues, then: the causal role of religion in government, and the expression of religion by government agents, such as schoolteachers, speakers of the House, and drill sergeants. How great may the role be? How strong may the expression be? In a sense, the two issues aren’t entirely separate, in that the greater the causal role of faith in government, the less it makes sense to limit the expression of that role by government agents, since there is little point in hypocrisy. But let us examine the difficulties in turn. Fortunately, there are solutions to both of them.

The causal role of faith in government can come in two forms, and these forms delimit important degrees of magnitude of that role. The first form is inspirational, and the second is justificatory. Faith inspires moral works, courage, resoluteness in moral life, and even insight into moral truths. Trying to remove this influence from, for example, the Senate, is hopelessly misguided, since most senators are religious and faith has these inspirational effects. No wedge can be driven between the heart of a leader of faith and his performance of the duties of his office. Nor should we attempt to drive one, unless we wish to embrace the manifest absurdity that the pervasive inspirational role that faith has played in the governance of the nation has been pernicious. The experience of the moral guidance and love found in faith clearly has played a salutory role in American political history by encouraging the faithful, deepening their reflection, and resolving them to duty.

We need not worry that America is a theocracy. As soon as someone shows that a leader of faith, such as Condoleeza Rice, makes decisions without good reason, there will be basis for worry. But this never happens. When has Rice ever said, “We should do X because God told me so”? Anyone religious looks to inspiration from religion. The government is full of religious people. Therefore, if looking to religion for inspiration makes a government official a loose cannon, our government is full of loose cannons. Our government is clearly not full of loose cannons. Therefore, looking to religion for inspiration does not make a government official a loose cannon.

In order to secure our government from theocracy, we need only demand that its policies be based on reasons. Any policy based on merely religious grounds will thus be checked. Policies on abortion and cloning are good examples. If an appeal to make either of these practices illegal is based only religious inspiration with no reasons cited, we should reject the appeal. Even if the majority in America share the religious stance of the appeal, we should demur. Unless it can be demonstrated that a person’s actions are immoral, he has a right to do them. For the majority to stop him from doing what he thinks best for himself is wrong even if based on sincerely religious motivation. The belief that all human life is sacred is not a good reason to ban abortion or cloning, any more than the belief that God gave whites dominion over blacks was a reason to permit slavery. The religious aspirations of no one should be imposed on others. Reasons - evidence free of religious inspiration - must be presented before a policy is accepted. This is the key to the separation of church and state, a key which allows faith to play a vibrant and inspirational role in American political life.

The question of the extent to which government agents may express their faith is a different matter. Even if faith plays no causal role in policy making, it may still play a large role in governmental institutions if government agents (including judges, schoolteachers, and so forth) express their faith while standing in their capacities as government agents. Government agents can give voice to religion and in so doing express the view that the religion voiced is the norm for citizens of America. This is pernicious if it is reasonably interpreted as a genuine norm, a standard that it is impermissible for citizens of America to fail to meet. The government should not establish any religion, either formally or by implication of the actions of its agents. The reason is simple. There is no way to prove that it is immoral to fail to meet this norm, since the norm is based on faith, not reason. It is wrong to hold people to a standard for which there is no proof. Quite simply, we have freedom of religion in America, and this requires government agents to refrain from establishing any religion as the norm.

The devil is in the details, however. There are clear cases in which government agents cross the line, and there are clear cases in which they do not. As long as there is no compulsion involved, the offering of a Bible to swear upon in court is not an establishment of religion. Nor is the singing of “God Bless America” at a high school football game, or a prayer uttered by a senator in the Senate. Religious Americans are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to express their faith in these ways. That this explains these behaviors shows that they are not in themselves an effort to proselytize. To demand full participation by all present would be to step over the line. But it is what constitutes demand that makes for difficulties.

The saying of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the refrain “under God,” has been required of all students in some public schools. This is a tough case. Even if nonreligious or Buddhist students are allowed to remain silent during the Pledge, this puts them on the spot. It is obvious that peer pressure is being applied. Children are made to stand for questioning of their patriotism and scrutiny of their religious lives or lack thereof. The classroom is too small for this, children too vulnerable, and the spotlight too intense. Many religious students scorn the irreligious. For the state knowingly to cause this is wrong. Of course, children who are not athletic are scorned, too, yet this doesn’t imply that we should disallow athletics in schools. However, the difference is that athletics is vital to our society, and most children are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to partake of athletics. The saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms is not of vital importance, and most children are not so inclined to have the Pledge led in class. It may be permissible for the Pledge to be led by government agents in large gatherings of children, such as at stadium events where one blends into the crowd. But the Pledge should not be led in classrooms. At my high school the pressure on non-religious students from evangelical Christians was intense enough. For the state to turn up the heat by leading the Pledge would have been to violate the right to freedom of religion of the non-religious students. The state’s interest simply isn’t important enough; it will matter little to anyone if the Pledge is not said in homeroom.

There may be other examples. My high school teacher required all students to take a quiz on Jesus on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. It was English class, and we hadn’t studied Jesus. (Any student who took it received an A, so she wasn’t requiring knowledge of Jesus. Any student who refused to take it received an F.) This was clearly in violation of the separation of church and state. On the other hand, the non-religious, and Buddhists (and other non-theistic religious people) should recognize when their rights are not being violated by expression of religious sentiment on the part of government agents, even those on the job and not on free time. “America is praying to God for you,” a government agent might say, on national television, while on the job. I’ve given other examples above. There are many instances in which the non-religious (and others) are too rigid about this sort of thing. They should understand that the vast majority are theists and are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to express their faith and to have government agents express it while on the job. There is a plethora of cases in which this is permissible. By the same token, the religious should be mindful of the line, where the non-religious minority begin to be put under pressure to comply with a norm.

Most Americans on both sides have demonstrated an ability to show perfectly harmonious concern for each other’s interests. They need to counsel those others who are less than sensitive about these things. The religious may have their religious expression in the state and their religious guidance of the state, as long as they show a perfect regard for the constraints of reason in policy making, a concern for right of the non-religious to be free of religious standards in the state, and a forebearance where they might like to make their religion the norm for all. The non-religious can have perfect freedom of religion, as long as they respect right of the faithful to live faithful lives and tolerate the active role that faith plays in their lives, including their political endeavors. People on both sides have considerable sacrifices to make but magnificent liberties to reap. One would hope that the regard we have for each other’s interests and the gain we stand to make by maintaining the balance would settle the matter. Yet, there are plenty of vociferous atheists and strident evangelists who scorn those who take what they consider to be the wrong attitude toward religion in American political life. Both sides are mistaken.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. "Limits of Libertarianism" and "Religion in American Political Life" will be posted soon. Below you will find "The Fundamental Errors of Leftism" and "How to Determine the Right Thing to Do".

Monday, September 02, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. The most recent essay was “How to Determine the Right thing to Do”. Now this:

The Fundamental Errors of Leftism

Here I will succinctly set forth five fundamental errors of leftism (commonly called “liberalism” today, a habit which causes confusion with classical liberalism, or libertarianism). I won’t discuss any specific leftist’s views, quote leftists, or name them. This is unnecessary, given their familiarity to anyone interested enough to read past the title of this essay. It is enough to think of leftism as the view that justice has not been reached as long as there is a sizeable gap in goods between the wealthy and the poor. There is considerable variation within leftism, and not all leftists make all of the errors that I’ll list. But the following five errors are frequently made by leftists.

The first error is the most important. It is the error of thinking that a gap in goods is a sign of injustice. This is an error because it is not such a sign in the situation in which we find ourselves, a situation in which the poor are not prevented from gaining goods by the wealthy. In conditions in which such prevention was pervasive, a gap would be a sign of injustice. But in our actual situation, in which differences in talent, opportunity, effort, and amount of antecedently held goods are prevalent, the gap is a sign that those factors are operating, and not a sign that some wrongdoing is to blame.

Of course, the leftist will say that in spite of all this, the gap itself is unjust. But this is incorrect. Differences in talent, opportunity, effort, and antecedently held goods are matters of luck or personal responsibility. It’s not unjust that these four factors are distributed unevenly. It’s not unjust for a rich youngster to be given excellent means by which to become a rich adult, while a poor youngster is not given this opportunity. It’s a matter of luck, a roll of the dice, and not the result of any action on the part of the rich or anyone else. To be born without legs is not an injustice, and neither is to be born without a rich father. Only if one were morally required to become wealthy would such unequal starting points be unfair, as unfair as unequal starting points in a game or sport. But no one is required to become wealthy.

Here is further proof that the gap doesn’t matter. If the gap mattered, then in a society in which those at the very bottom of the scale in wealth were so well off as to afford a house, two cars, and a swimming pool, we would have to consider it unjust that they lacked the means to acquire the mansion, four cars, and a jet airplane, which the rich can afford. But clearly that would be absurd. Therefore, gaps in themselves are not morally significant, unless there is reason to suspect they were caused by the rich against the will of the poor, as by theft or other oppression. Therefore, the gap by itself is not morally significant in our own actual case, in which the poor are not able to afford those luxuries.

One might worry that while a gap in itself is not unjust, it will give the wealthy too much economic and political power, as well as power to shape culture. Leftists decry disastrous plant closings, political payoffs, and the degradation of popular culture by large corporations. However, the degradation of culture is the fault of consumers who subsidize it, as well as the wealthy who offer them what they want; there are alternatives to the redistribution of wealth and a degraded culture. Moreover, a degraded culture is not sufficient reason to take wealth from those wealthy people who have not contributed to it. It is clearly wrong to punish them for the faults of those who produce and consumer the rot. As for political payoffs, they can be stopped by legislation and law enforcement. And plant closings are backed up by the welfare net provided by the rich, a minimal security which fulfills every obligation of justice that the wealthy have towards the poor. There is no obligation to keep an employee on the payroll in the absence of any promise to do so. (That some plant closings are done with callous unfeeling by CEOs is a sign of the cruel character of those CEOs, but it does not indicate injustice.) Therefore, the worry about power and wealth gives us no reason to remove the gap in wealth.

The fact that the first error is an error should not be taken to justify an extremely libertarian position, however. The wealthy do have an obligation to help those who are utterly destitute through no fault of their own. This is as obvious as the duty of the good Samaritan to help the injured man by the side of the road. It is unjust for the wealthy not to provide a minimal welfare net for those people. But that rejection of the extreme of libertarian does nothing to show that leftism is true.

The second error of leftism is the contention that any argument against the first erroneous view is flawed because self-serving. This is the Marxist idea that any argument or system of values can be accounted for by the interests of the one espousing it, and that there is no need to suppose that the argument may be sound. All morals are just systems put in place to maintain wealth, the Marxist argues; no morals are genuinely true. Of course, one can understand how someone might be seduced by this line of thinking, since there have indeed been cases of such sham moral ideology, salient examples being feudalism and the right to own slaves in 19th Century America.

Nevertheless, the second error is indeed an error. Whenever one intends to refute a position by attacking motives, one first must refute the argument for the position. This being done, a supplementary demonstration of a selfish motive underlying the position may help to show that the position did not originate in reason and thus cast further doubt upon it. The second error eschews the preliminary duty and sanctions the mere impugning of motives. This is as absurd as rejecting a physicist’s theory on the grounds that he knows it will make him a renowned physicist. Moreover, the second error is self-refuting for leftism. Leftism holds that the poor have a right to the goods of the wealthy. To be consistent, the leftist would have to admit that this contention, too, is based on interest and may also be dismissed. So, the second error is doubly erroneous. (You will find this error in ubiquity. At present many leftists argue against invading Iraq, with little attention to more substantive points at issue, on the premise that President Bush wishes to attack in order to help Republicans win more seats in Congress. Also, leftists opposed the Gulf War on the grounds that it was motivated by U.S. oil companies’ interests)

The third error is an extension of the first and second. It is that all rich people are either wicked or deluded. The rich maintain that they have a right to their wealth. According to the point of view generated by the second error, they do this because they are greedy for their wealth. Thus, the rich are dishonest, oppressive, greedy, and therefore wicked. Alternatively, those amongst them who are not wicked are deluded by conservative ideology. The leftist reasons that anyone who cannot recognize the injustice of a large gap in wealth is under the influence of delusion. This is an error because it is less plausible that the hundreds of millions of wealthy people are all either wicked or deluded than that the leftist argument rejected by the wealthy is sound. Many rich people are decent, well-educated, reasonable people. Delusion requires some error in thinking, which has yet to be demonstrated. On the contrary, the first error is a reason to believe that the wealthy are correct in rejecting leftism. Further, the rich give plenty in charity and in taxation for poverty relief. So, there is no evidence for widespread wickedness, unless we take the fact that they are wealthy while the rich are poor as evidence, which would simply beg the question.

The third error might seem like merely a repackaged version of the first and second. But it has a life of its own. The rich won’t heed the leftist’s arguments, so they must be under a spell of wickedness and delusion. If this spell leads the rich to perpetrate terrible injustices upon the poor, then the reigning ideology of the wealthy must be dispelled. If argument won’t work, “consciousness raising” will. The left reaches for the subtle and ruinous weapon of thought control by non-rational methods: social ostracism, educational curriculum engineering, repeated exposure to images of poverty, suppression of any evidence of a poor person being responsible for his own poverty, publication of evidence of oppressive acts by wealthy people, etc. 20th Century communist China and the USSR practiced this mind control in particularly egregious forms. The educational establishment in America is largely controlled by the ideology that one of the central tasks of educators is to make wealthy children feel guilty and embrace leftism. It is deeply wrong in multiple ways, and the third error makes one liable to partake in it.

The fourth error of leftism is to think that assistance in defending the injustice of gaps in wealth is to be had in radical relativism, or postmodernism. When certain facts are pointed to as evidence in support of the justice of the gap, these facts are simply denied by leftists succumbing to the fourth error. All distinctions between people, whether in sex, talent, or character, are simply constructs of the reigning elite. The head of a national feminist organization denies that men have more upper body strength than women, anti-war leftists argue that America has no wicked enemies in reality because wickedness is merely subjective (except, incoherently, the wickedness of wealthy America), educational activists deny that differences in intelligence are objectively real or that some arguments are better than others, property rights are said to be based on power and not on reality, etc. These are all echoes of Marx. He is thus the founder of contemporary socio-political postmodernism; by giving us the second error, he assured that the fourth error would eventually be made.

Notice that the fourth and third errors combine. Some leftists chastise those who say “disabled,” on the grounds that the disabled are not objectively disabled and are therefore to be called “differently abled.” The disability being removed from reality, the disabled are therefore to be held up as oppressed if they are not as wealthy as the average. Some leftists hold that all cultures are equally good and charge anyone who denies this with racism (thus confusing race with culture). In every case, the goal is to say anything to cause the rich to give more of their wealth to the poor. Any objection that the case made for this cause are devoid of reason is deflected away on the grounds that structures of rationality are merely constructs established by the rich to secure their interests. This is truly an intellectual house of mirrors, which, thankfully, most leftists never fall into. But most leftists are liable to make the second error, and it commits them ultimately to the mental disorder of the third and fourth error. Resisting the latter two errors, they must renounce the second error and face squarely the first.

The fourth error is committed to nihilism. For any leftist who makes it must conclude that the values of leftism, too, are merely the constructs of leftism. The duty to champion the rights of the poor itself becomes a phantasm. In this way, leftism puts the interests of the poor in more jeopardy than conservatism. Witness the devastation wrecked on the poor in communist economies, all perpetrated by dictators who began with some feeling for the poor and ended up treating them as pawns in their private play.

The fifth error of leftism is to think that there is plenty of goods for an egalitarian economic scheme to work without everyone having to work hard at production. There is not plenty, and nor will people work hard enough to produce enough if they know that the hard work will not improve their situation appreciably. Given that many are lazy, more will become lazy, rather than carry the weight of the lazy for no reward. There is plenty only in systems of free market capitalism. But leftism rarely champions the value of self-reliance at the core of those systems. Rather, it runs under the banner of desert. It therefore falls into the error of eroding other core values of good societies: thankfulness for what one has, joyful desire to recompense the culture which gave one the values, character, and environment in which to thrive, and the desire not to be a burden on others. If the leftist assumption is not that all can have a good life without producing it by hard work, then it is that, given the shortage of goods, all must tolerate a mediocre life. The noble dream of a society in which all have good lives, including those who don’t produce them, yields to the clearly false view that all must tolerate egalitarian mediocrity. This is just the first error again.

The five errors of leftism reflect a failure to embrace the values of liberty and self-reliance, values deeply held in America. Leftism is the bleeding-heart, the myopic view of beneficence which ignores those two values. Of course, beneficence is a fundamental value in America, as well. We are the most charitable country in history. We put great energy into establishing a minimal welfare net, the only duty of beneficence. America’s harmonious combination of the values of liberty, self-reliance, and beneficence is unimpeachable. None of the three values should loom large and dwarf any other. The various errors of leftism can be resolved into the failure to acknowledge this fact and instead to champion only beneficence at the expense of liberty and self-reliance. Moreover, the first error tells the tale. It is the ignorance of what most Americans know to be a self-evident fact: that, outside of contracts or promises, no one owes more than minimal welfare assistance to the unfortunate. If your neighbor needs $5 in order to save his son’s life in an emergency, you ought to give it. This is the common sense of the good Samaritan. But if you neighbor asks for $5 for his son’s college fund, for his summer camp, or for a basketball, you have no obligation to give it.

The position that justice demands no more than minimal welfare support this is therefore on solid ground. (Details about degree and targeting of support, as well as whether support should be state funded or private only will be worked out later on Philosoblog.) While this gives no credence to the libertarian view that the rich have no duty at all to help the unfortunately destitute, it shows the baselessness of the leftist view that justice demands a massive redistribution of wealth in America.

There is more to leftism than its position on gaps in wealth gaps. It is also anti-conservative about values other than justice, as has already become apparent here. Philosoblog will examine other aspects of leftism in the future.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. Recent post: “Flint’s 1632: We Hold these Truths to be Self-Evident”. “The Fundamental Errors of Leftism” will be up soon. The future holds "Limits of Libertarianism" and "Religion in American Political Life". Now this:

How to Determine the Right Thing to Do

When it’s not obvious what is the right thing to do, we have to determine the answer in one way or another. For thousands of years, philosophers have been proposing various ways. We have Platonism, Kantianism, utilitarianism, religious natural law theory, Confucian traditionalism, etc. But none of the proposals has turned out to have much merit. It seems that common sense cannot be improved upon, but Americans have knew this even before Tom Paine’s Common Sense spurred us into declaring independence. Still, there is some philosophical work to do. We should make clear just exactly how we use common sense to determine the right thing to do. Reflecting on the mechanics of common sense will make it keener and help obviate future abuses of it. Philosophy still needs a theory of moral reasoning, albeit a common-sense one.

Let’s name our theory of moral reasoning “critical common sense-ism”. This is the name that the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) coined for one of his theories in epistemology. It’s a bit of a stretch of the term from Peirce’s meaning, but no matter. Let there be a cluster of ideas in American philosophy, all aptly named “critical common sense-ism”. I should point out that the heart of the theory I will explain was developed by the contemporary American philosopher Alan H. Goldman during the late 1970s and the 1980s. I’ll have a bit to add of my own at the end.

It’s really very simple. We all embrace many moral judgments that are obviously true. There are millions of ordinary actions that we could imagine and pass obviously true judgments on: breaking your neighbor’s window for fun, praising a child who’s tried hard, returning a lost wallet, etc. The judgments of these cases are our moral values, and they are a matter of common sense. However, we also face cases that are difficult to decide. Then we can’t just get out of the way and let our common sense make a pronouncement, because it can’t. We have to be critical: to conduct some form of reasoning in order to determine what is right. Hence, the name “critical common sense-ism”.

The “critical” does not deprive common sense of any of its authority in these matters. On the contrary, the critical reflection merely serves common sense when it needs assistance. We have a large set of moral judgments that we know are true. Therefore, in order to judge a new, difficult case in which a person does X, we need only determine which judgment - “X is right”, or “X is wrong” - fits with that set. One or the other must be true. It can’t be that X is neither right nor wrong. Only one of the two statements will be consistent with the large set of judgments that common sense knows to be true. That one is the true one, the other the false one. For a statement can’t be true if it is inconsistent with another statement that is true.

But how do you determine fit? It’s easy. You determine the cases about which you know the true moral judgments and that bear the closest resemblance to case X. For examples, if X is an abortion, then we determine whether X is more like ordinary murders or more like perfectly permissible medical procedures. Common sense tells us that it’s wrong to kill a child but also that it’s not wrong to scrape skin cells off of your skin. It depends on what the fetus is. If X is a welfare program, we determine whether X is more like robbing Peter to pay Paul or more like requiring Peter to do his duty to save a child who is drowning right before him. It depends on the program. Common sense can make its pronouncement, but only after we make fine distinctions and comparisons, and draw analogies and disanalogies between various cases we’re sure about and X.

These deliberations depend on having our facts straight; we need to know the relevant facts in order to judge them. Whether the fetus is not importantly disanalogous to a skin cell is question that can be decided only if we know the pertinent biological facts. In the other case, we need to know whether the welfare program will support the indolent or be wasted and not help the deserving, and whether innocent lives will be saved, whether innocent people who are unable to support themselves will be kept from living in abhorrent conditions, whether they will be given more than that, how costly the program will be, how rich the rich are, etc. Saving a drowning person might be analogy to the welfare program. But it might be disanalogous if the people it helps are not in as dire straights as the drowning person, for example.

By relying on the analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment, we can find out whether X is more analogous to cases of obviously wrong action or more analogous to cases of obviously right action. This will determine the judgment about X that our values commit us to. We need to know the relevant facts, in order to draw any conclusion.

That’s all there is to critical common sense-ism. We apply common sense values to tough cases under a critically comparative examination. There are a few more points to add. First, what about principles, such as “Do not kill”? Don’t principles have a role in moral reasoning? It is true that there is a place for citing moral principles in effort to determine the right thing to do. But the place is just one of framing the issue. It won’t solve the issue. It doesn’t solve the abortion conundrum, for example, unless we figure out whether abortion is more like killing or more like scraping off a skin cell. That’s where the real moral reasoning lies. This becomes clear when we notice that the principle “People may do as they please with their bodies” does not solve the abortion issue any more than “Do not kill” does, though both help frame the issue. Each side has a principle in the abortion debate, but if little effort is made to go beyond the principles, stalemate results. So, principles won’t take you very far. Principles get the ball rolling by calling to mind some values that may come into play. But they can’t substitute for the moral reasoning of critical common sense-ism. None of this means that critical common sense-ism is “unprincipled”. Rather, critical common sense-ism is a theory of the correct application of principles.

What about religion? Why can’t one let one’s religion settle the tough cases? The reason is that religion doesn’t settle them. It passes judgment but gives no basis or argumentative grounds for the judgment. Now, religion can come into play, just as principles do: by enabling us to call to mind important values. But we need to reason our way to the right answer after that. “Because I think God says so” is not good enough. You could be wrong. And what is one to do when religious inspirations conflict? Religion may guide us, but reason makes the final determination.

There is one more thing to say about determining the right thing to do. Let me offer a simple topographical map of the moral terrain we face when making determinations of right and wrong. This may also help you call to mind important values when you begin your deliberations about a tough case. Morality has largely to do with burdens and benefits in life. It is wrong to foist one’s burden onto someone else, unless it will save one from terrible consequences and not be very burdensome to the person on whom you foist the burden (as in the case of leaning on someone’s shoulder without asking for their permission, if you will otherwise lose your balance and plummet to your death.) It is also wrong not to provide benefits for someone who would otherwise face terrible consequences when providing the benefits is not costly to the provider. You can imagine several examples, besides the one I’ve given in parentheses, to illustrate the contours of these two principles. Note that the principles assume that the parties foisting burdens onto others or receiving aid are innocent people.

What these two principles show is that we have three important values that often enter into moral reasoning: that of self-reliance for shouldering burdens, that of the liberty one has to keep one’s benefits to oneself, and that of the duty to help others in need. These values of self-reliance, liberty, and beneficence fit together such that in cases of dire need the duty of beneficence outweighs the right to liberty, while the duty of self-reliance cancels any right to take other’s benefits against their will, except in cases of dire need. Whether the need is dire enough and the liberty not important in a given case is a matter for critical common sense to determine.

Now, you may be wondering how critical common sense-ism can rest assured that the set of moral judgments embraced by common sense is true. Using our set of values, we can determine what, according to that set, is the right thing in a new and difficult situation. But how do we know the common-sense set of judgments is true in the first place?

This appears to be a deep question. But notice that it asks how we know that torturing children for fun is wrong, that giving back wallets is right, that helping the dying is good, etc. These are matters of common sense understandings of the English words “wrong” and “right”. In one respect, then, the question is senselessly nihilistic. But it has a subtler side. It also asks how we can be so sure that a plausible alternative set of moral judgments isn’t the right one. Various European countries, Taiwan, and Singapore, all are societies with plausible alternative sets of values. Now, take for the sake of argument that the alternative set in question is found not to be flawed: neither incoherent, based on factual errors, nor conducive to unhappy lives. (If we don’t assume that, then the answer to the question is easy.) In such a case, the question asks how we can be sure that our values are preferable to alternatives. It’s not a nihilistic question, but it is, nevertheless, senseless. Our values simply are our preferences. We prefer to live according to their dictates; that’s what makes them our values.

It is a matter of common sense that people in a society may live the way they prefer and should live up to their values. This does not make morality “simply a matter of preference” in any way that should disturb us. Anyone who thinks he needs a reason to refrain from torturing children besides “these are the values I stand for” hasn’t listened to common sense. For if it were determined that there is no additional reason at all, he would know full well that he has reason enough to refrain from torturing children. This does not make morality subjective or relativistic in any way that should disturb us. Our values are our preferences, but there are constraints on them (already mentioned: coherence, basis in fact, conducivity to good lives). The abhorrent forms of relativism one finds bandied about nowadays are all ruled out by critical common sense-ism. This will become clear in another essay, “Relativism,” which will appear later on Philosoblog.