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Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: First

April 8, 2021

First Thesis:  The state exists to serve the people, to encourage human flourishing, and any aspect that fails to do that is unjustified

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, book I, chapter ii, 1253a1

            The Founding Fathers of our American Revolution were deeply influenced by social contract political theory, particularly as described by John Locke.  The essence of Enlightenment-era social contract theory is:  Imagine humans living in a “state of Nature,” an existence without government or laws.  In such a situation, every individual is completely free.  When humans join together in a society, they give up some of those freedoms and rights they had in the state of Nature, ceding that power to the State or Commonwealth to control through laws, magistrates and so on.  However, each individual retains their “inalienable rights:”  those rights which, by their very nature and the nature of the social contract, cannot be logically said to have been given up.  The most obvious is the right to life.  Even Thomas Hobbes, who had the lowest opinion of human nature and thus believed the State needed the most power to control its citizens, still conceded that no one gives up the right to life.  If your government demands your death, you can flee, or resist in any way you can.  The reason you agree to live under the sovereignty of your king and country is to protect your life; if the government can’t or won’t protect your life, the only rational thing to do is try to protect it yourself by any means available.  A State that doesn’t protect the lives of its citizens has broken its side of the social contract, and thus is no government at all. 

            Locke, Rousseau and other social contract philosophers were more influential on the Founding Fathers than was the monarchist Hobbes.  They believed that humans are basically good or at least decent and rational, and therefore include not only life but also personal liberty among the inalienable rights.  Even agreeing to be governed is not so much a surrender of one’s basic freedom, as it is a modification of how it will be expressed:  through voting, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people.  But one point these democratic thinkers shared with Hobbes was their starting point:  the atomistic individual who, though perhaps only an intellectual construct, was the theoretical starting point and thus also the aim of the State.  There was little chance you ever actually made a decision to leave a state of Nature; you were born a citizen.  But still, the social contract thinker takes this idea of the pure individual in the state of pure anarchy as a given, and then proceeds with the thought-experiment of asking why and how a number of such individuals might join together to form a community.  In answering these questions, the social contract philosopher seeks to define the role and the limits of the State, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

            Social contract theory is often based not just on individualism, but on egoism.  Glaucon’s argument in Book II of Plato’s Republic is the classic example.  Glaucon proposes that any individual, if able, will strive to fulfill their ambitions and desires regardless of concerns for morality or justice; but since this results in chaos, the majority band together like sheep seeking the protection of numbers and the shepherd to save them from the wolves.  Humanity is thus divided between the majority of sheep, who make up the State, and the few supremely ambitious and powerful ones, who seek to live as wolves as far as they are able.  In this view, the State is a constraint on the “superior” ones, the cleverest and strongest and most politically adept, which everyone tolerates because the majority prefer its safety but which everyone, if able, would live without.  Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan is similar, and even goes so far as to describe the State as an “artificial person” created by the agreement of a large group of individuals to be welded into one will, that of the sovereign.[1] 

            Aristotle, by contrast, does not see the state as “artificial” or an unwelcome concession to the demands of the mob for protection from their more rapacious neighbors.  He describes the state as entirely natural, the culmination of the needs and desires of the individual and the only way the individual can be truly happy.  In Book I of his Politics he discusses how the individual’s natural desire and need to reproduce requires another and, from this union of male and female, the family is created.  The individual family can’t attain all the goods and security it needs alone, so families come together to form villages.  The village can provide its members with their survival needs, but Aristotle says that more than survival is necessary for happiness/eudaimonia; for the individuals to have what they need to not merely live but to live well, they require a polis, a state, which will have sufficient division of labor, markets, and cultural institutions such as law courts, education, the arts, and so on to allow its citizens to fulfill their human nature as not only living animals, but as rational beings who seek to learn and discuss and guide their lives philosophically.  Thus the natural needs of the individual lead inevitably to the city-state, which finally has the population and the sophistication to be fully self-sufficient.  Aristotle writes:

For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural.  This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we cal its nature…

            It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

This idea has many possible implications, which will only be fully shown later.  One might guess that if the state exists to secure the good life for the citizen, that the state will tend naturally to some sort of democratic or libertarian structure so as to better achieve its goal of the fulfillment of the individual’s true happiness.  Contrariwise, one might speculate that if the state is the telos of the individual, that something more like the anthill or the Borg collective might be its final structure, with the individual finding fulfillment in losing all sense of individuality.  While both of these guesses will prove wrong, the early indications in the Politics are for the second.  Aristotle accepts as given the existence of both slavery and patriarchy.  He quotes the poet Euripides as authority for the proposition that it is fitting that Greeks should rule all other people, and asserts that non-Greeks are naturally irrational and slavish and thus can only find their fulfillment as slaves to Greeks.  He further claims that women too are not fully rational, and thus are incapable of the sort of happiness which the citizen expects; a woman’s nature is to be guided by her husband.  While the state may exist to enable the citizens to achieve happiness, Aristotle denies that women and non-Greeks are capable of happiness since they lack the rationality essential to it; so they are not in fact citizens.  This, I would say, is the dark side of Aristotle’s way of thinking.  He has a view of human nature, which is largely based on his own nature as an individual and a member of a certain culture; he judges every deviation from that “ideal” as a failure to be fully human.  Social contract theory, by contrast, assumes everyone is essentially equal, whatever political inequalities may arise later.  It is much easier to sacrifice some individuals to the state if the state exists only for the sake of some of its inhabitants, who are deemed “citizens,” while seeing the others only as helpers, tools, adversaries or raw material for the citizens.  Even a Hobbesian social contract has a notion of “inalienable rights” to which all individuals are entitled; if the state denies them these minimal rights, they in turn owe the state no loyalty either. 

            On the other hand, the inherent egoism of much social contract thinking can undermine the community and even destroy it.  This can be seen most clearly in the extreme egoism which underlies much of American conservatism:  the philosophy of Ayn Rand.[3]   Despite the admiration she expresses for Aristotle in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand utterly rejects his claim that humans are naturally social.  In a journal entry, Rand writes:

For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?

Rand claims that the human individual is innately selfish, and should be; only the life of rationally-pursued selfishness fulfills our human nature as a rational animal.  She strongly doubts the claim put forth by Hume in the 18th Century and by other philosophers and psychologists to this day that humans have any natural social or cooperative sense; she believes this is imposed on us by our upbringing, and the sooner we shake it off, the better.  But even if this is wrong and the social instinct is natural, she still believes it should be rejected.  Only egoism gives proper due to the rational nature and the supreme value of the individual.  Thus, when she discusses the ideal state, it is only the barest of Lockean social contract:  the state as neutral party mediating between neighbors, with even large portions of the legal and penal systems handed off to the private sector.  Aside from maintaining an army for border security and maybe some police to prevent violent crimes, supported by voluntary taxation and service-type fees, everything is to be left to the unfettered capitalist.  In practice, however, attempts to actualize this philosophical libertarian utopia have universally failed.  So far, it hasn’t been as bad as the national attempts to actualize Marxism, but perhaps this is just because it hasn’t been tried on that scale.  Certainly, the attempts to manage Sears according to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy were a disaster leading ultimately to the destruction of one of our nation’s longest-lived retailers; and Honduras, a country largely run on Objectivist-style conservatism since the 2009 coup, has spiraled into poverty, crime and dysfunction where even basic road repair is beyond the government’s capacity, and necessary infrastructure like an airport can’t be built because no individual is willing to shoulder the expense alone.  But despite the failure of these and other attempts to run human affairs according to Rand’s egoistic political philosophy, American conservatives continue to push her views as something more reliable than Gospel. 

            While Rand would say that the progression from men (social animals) to man (the free, independent egoist) is “the only possible progress,” Aristotle would say this would be a disaster.  Gods and brutes may be self-sufficient individuals, but that is not a life for humans; gods can live independently and be happy because they are not animals and have no physical needs, while beasts and brutes like Polyphemus are incapable of happiness because they are uncivilized.  Human nature is only fulfilled, he says, when humans use their human reason and human language to work out how to live together in justice and cooperation. 

            A political philosophy that sees politics as an unfortunate and unwelcome necessity, a yoke laid on the shoulder of the citizen to bridle their natural vitality, is bound to encourage the anarchic egoism we see in American conservatism today.  When “freedom” is described as the individual’s escape from all obligations or regard for neighbors, for laws or for cultural achievements, even democracy can be seen as oppression.[4]  To such a mindset, only anarchy would be truly natural and truly free, fulfilling the individual’s true nature as an independent free-floating atom of humanity.  And in such a state, as the social-contractarian says, life is nasty, poor, brutish and short.  If we are looking for a political philosophy, instead of an anti-political ideology, we need to find one that can guide social cooperation and help determine wise social goals.  Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the earliest attempts to analyze the nature of citizenship and the state, and still offers some advantages over today’s ultra-libertarianism.  At the same time, Aristotle accepts many aspects of his own culture without question which we today would regard as either quixotic (he declares money-lending “unnatural”) or abhorrent (his easy acceptance of racism, sexism, and slavery, among other things).  What we need to consider is if we can learn from Aristotle and find valuable insights which can be separated from the historical dross and repurposed to help create a more functional society today. 

            The state exists to allow the citizens to live their best lives possible.  So, who are these “citizens” who should benefit?  Can we expand citizenship, and the benefits of citizenship, beyond the limits Aristotle imagined?  If we can, and refuse to do so in order to protect the interests of some elite minority, does that represent a failure of our politics, and our justice? 

To be continued….


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, chapters 14-16

[2] Aristotle, Politics, book I, 1252b27-1253a1

[3] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour February 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

[4] Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc, “Trump’s Fed Pick Stephen Moore is a Self-Described ‘Radical’ who said he’s not a “Big Believer in Democracy’” CNN April 13, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/12/politics/stephen-moore-kfile/index.html)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

October 12, 2020

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

“Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.”

—–Amartya Sen

            U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described the states as “laboratories of democracy.”  In our federal system of government, the states have considerable autonomy from the national government, and can implement many policies as chosen by their own voters and governments .  If something works at the state level, the nation may well implement it later; if it fails, the state can reverse course more quickly while the nation avoids the misstep in the first place.  In this analogy, Wisconsin’s health system is the frog in Ang Lee’s Hulk

            For decades, the Republican Party of the United States of America has expressed deep misgivings about democracy, and has sought to both legally restrict the ability of citizens to vote and to more informally discourage the majority of people from even trying.  The more informal, or even illegal methods they have adopted have included intimidation by “poll watchers” to threaten and harass legal voters, stealing absentee ballots in North Carolina, repeatedly purging voter rolls of thousands of legal citizen voters who live in primarily Democratic areas, and so on.  In Wisconsin, the GOP is carrying out its grandest experiment yet.  In 2010 they gerrymandered the state so thoroughly that even though 53% of Wisconsinites voted for the Democratic Party, 64% of the seats in the state legislature went to Republicans.  Democracy, rule of the people and by the people and for the people, is dead in Wisconsin, at least on the state level.  Instead, they have minority rule.  Republican politicians even admit that they are not representing the majority and see no need to do so; they only want to enact the desires of the “conservative voters” who sent them.  The disproportionately white, rural, and less educated minority will dictate to the more diverse, more urbanized and more educated majority, with little knowledge of or interest in the needs of the majority of the citizens. 

            Wisconsin has thus become the laboratory for the grandest experiment in democracy possible:  what happens when you abolish democracy?  What happens when you take the national priorities and policies of the Republican party, to reduce voter participation and weaken democracy itself in order to defeat the Democrats, and carry them out more ruthlessly than has been possible previously?  There are many states where the Republican party gerrymandered themselves an overwhelming majority in the legislature when the electorate was in fact only marginally Republican in the 2010 reapportionment period, but Wisconsin locked in not just a dilution of the will of the people, but its utter subversion.  We get to see what would happen across the nation if other states, and the nation as a whole, follow Wisconsin’s example and allow Republicans to replace functional democracy with the sort of “managed democracy” employed by Putin and other 21st century autocrats.  And the result of that experiment has been a disaster, not just for Wisconsin but the nation as a whole.

            Wisconsin has had the worst response to the COVID-19 pandemic of any state in the nation.  To be more accurate, they have had no state-wide response at all.  The only actions by the Wisconsin state legislature and Republican-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court have been to block any attempt by the Democratic governor to implement common-sense policies such as those enacted by neighboring states.  The state legislature seized control of the state’s pandemic response, and then basically shut down.  As a result, Wisconsin’s coronavirus numbers are climbing higher and faster than anywhere else.  Wisconsinites are sickened, some injured for life, and others dying because the Wisconsin Republican Party cares more about scoring political points over the governor than they do about actually governing the state.  They grabbed the wheel, popped open a beer to celebrate, and promptly passed out and let the car careen over a cliff.

            None of this should have surprised anyone.  It was all explained by the Nobel-prize winning work of Amartya Sen decades ago.  At a time when many economists were looking towards centrally-controlled markets like China and the USSR as the way of the future, Dr. Sen’s research showed how political structure, more than GDP alone, could foster the well-being of citizens.  His study of the Bengal famine of 1943 showed that the problem was not food production.  There was enough food, but the poor couldn’t afford it.  The colonial government could have helped them, but chose not to; they were appointed by the British Empire and were answerable to the Crown, not the Indian people.  Even when cultures and GDP were similar, as in Costa Rica and Brazil in the 1970s, life expectancies could vary by ten years or more; in Costa Rica the government was answerable to the people, while Brazil at that time was ruled by a military junta.  In a functional democracy, the government must keep the people’s support, and must listen to them quickly when their bellies grumble.  Colonial powers, military strongmen or other oppressors are generally deaf to the cries of the suffering; they have other priorities.  So while other economists were looking at the Chinese Communist regime with the hope that the country’s rising GDP would lead to greater freedom and a more humane government, Sen argued (and had the statistics to back up his claim) that this was backwards; democracy in fact drives economic development, and has other benefits for the citizens even beyond material prosperity, which leads to health, the elimination of widespread hunger, and so on. 

            When the Republican Party in Wisconsin turned its back on democracy, it likewise turned away from sound government that responds to the needs of the citizens.  Instead, it became a mechanism for the rural minority to rule over the majority.  Since epidemics hit urban areas first and filter into rural, less populated areas more slowly, the Republican base didn’t see any need to address the coronavirus pandemic.  The suffering it caused was far from their farms, and the people who were infected were strangers to them even though they were fellow Wisconsinites.  As the GOP politicians themselves said, they weren’t there to represent or worry about all Wisconsinites or even about the majority of them; they were only elected to serve the interests and desires of their conservative base.  This meant out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the social conservatives who see the more liberal, educated and diverse populations of the cities as cultural enemies and intellectual contagion.   Better to keep their moral and mental purity, and let the virus finish off their opponents for them.  Just as drug use was only treated as a public health problem when opioids ravaged the white rural and non-college educated base of the GOP, so too COVID-19 was treated as a problem of the corrupt Democrat cities, and the Wisconsin state legislature is perfectly pleased to let the virus ravage people who didn’t vote for them in the first place.  It’s callous, short-sighted, even stupid, but it’s also perfectly natural, a pattern repeated across the globe and throughout history.  The more democratic a government, the stronger its commitment to free and fair elections, widening access to the ballot box, to rule of law and fighting corruption, to free markets not dominated by either excess regulation or to monopolies and cronyism, and to a free press keeping the people informed, the better its response to crises affecting the people. 

            The GOP Wisconsin experiment in extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression and pandering to billionaire donors and populist ressentiment has led to the result which even a passing understanding of political and economic philosophy predicted:  a government with no interest in actually governing, no motivation to take notice of the needs of the people it governs, with disastrous impact on the health and life expectancy of the people.  In the name of economic prosperity, the GOP rejected one of the primary drivers for true prosperity, namely democracy, and now the Wisconsin economy is hamstrung by the sickening of its consumers and work force.  What is worse, the public health infrastructure is nearing collapse, with the state already preparing to open a massive field hospital to handle the ever-increasing load of coronavirus patients. 

            Wisconsin’s Republicans have shown the nation the inevitable conclusion of Republican policies for the nation, if they are allowed to continue pursuing the strategy they mapped out in 1980 of relying on voter suppression instead of voter recruitment.  Just as Gov. Brownback in Kansas showed the utter idiocy of Republican economic theories by nearly bankrupting his state, the Wisconsin GOP has shown the moral and functional bankruptcy of GOP politics.  Republicans were not always “the Stupid Party,” as Bobby Jindal named them.  The Republicans I went to college with in the 1970s were, by and large, intelligent, thoughtful, patriotic and committed to the freedom of the individual expressed through voting.  That party is largely dead, and is not coming back anytime soon.  If and when Donald Trump, his family, his cronies, and his enablers have all been removed from power, and true, responsible conservatives return to lead a pragmatic conservative party, then it will be safe to vote Republican again.  Today, and next year, and likely for some years to come, the only way to protect the economy, the public health, and the security of this nation is to vote against every Republican candidate from the Presidential candidate down to county clerk, until they get the message that even conservative voters want responsive, responsible government committed to democracy and the public good.

SOURCES

Editorial.  “Cries of Voter Fraud Should be Aimed at Those Committing It:  Republicans.  Las Vegas Sun, July 16, 2020.  https://lasvegassun.com/news/2020/jul/16/cries-of-voter-fraud-should-be-aimed-at-those-comm/

Blue, Miranda.  “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote.”  Right Wing Watch:  a project of People for the American Way September 24, 2015.  https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/

Lambert, Jonathan.  “Good News about Democracy:  It’s Good for your Health.”  NPR July 4, 2019.  https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/07/04/738477296/good-news-about-democracy-its-good-for-your-health?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=npr

Rauch, Jonathan and David Wittes.  “Boycott the Republican Party.”  The Atlantic. March 2018.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/

Romano, Andrew.  “Wisconsin is Battling America’s Worst Coronavirus Outbreak, and Wisconsin’s Broken Politics are Partly to Blame.”  Yahoo! News October 10, 2020 https://www.yahoo.com/news/wisconsin-is-battling-americas-worst-coronavirus-outbreak-and-the-states-broken-politics-is-partially-to-blame-143650745.html

Paul, Shantosh.  “Eclipsing Dissent and Democracy.”  The Economic Times, April 4, 2020.  https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/eclipsing-dissent-and-democracy/

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 2: Abortion

April 1, 2020

THINGS THE RIGHT GETS WRONG….about abortion!

 

I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

——-Rev. W. A. Criswell, Pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, 1973

 

 

White American Evangelicals say that Donald J. Trump is the most, even the only Christian candidate for President of the United States. When asked why, they don’t generally point to his strict adherence to the Ten Commandments; after all, they themselves attribute Christly titles to him such as “Chosen One” or “King of Israel,” and he gladly accepts this idolatrous praise. He never attends church, preferring to spend the Lord’s Day on one of his privately-owned golf courses where the U.S. government pays him many times his official salary as President every time he swings. He’s boasted of his adulteries and how he gets a special thrill out of sleeping with the wives of his friends. His life has been defined by his covetousness. He lies and slanders with the impunity of a crumb-covered toddler denying he’s eaten a cookie. Nor do his followers cite Trump’s strict adherence to that central statement of Christian ethics, the Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus said to love the poor, Trump has repeatedly committed charity fraud, taking money meant for children with cancer, for veterans, for anyone. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” Trump says, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”—- a “way of life” much more like the Satanic Bible than the Gospels: “if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!” (Book of Satan III, 7). When Jesus councils humility and urges his followers to “take the lowest seat,” Trump literally shoves world leaders out of his way so that he can be in the front of the picture. Trump has even said that he’s never sinned, he’s never had to ask for forgiveness—-denying a central teaching of Christianity and arguably the central tenet of Evangelicalism. All of this and more, Evangelicals say, is simply irrelevant. What they care about, what proves that Donald John Trump is the greatest defender of Christianity ever and that “going against him” is a sin against God. is that he’s appointed judges who opposed abortion. Nothing else—-not slander, not incitement to violence, not calling for violence against his opponents or peaceful protestors or even people found innocent of any crime, not corruption, not any possible charge one could make——can possibly match the great good he’s done by appointing “pro-life” judges.

But what if this is not true? What if this vilest of sins, abortion, is in fact not a sin at all? What if the entire controversy was simply created by Republican politicians, and right-wing clergy wishing political power, as a club with which to beat up Democrats, to whip up conservative voters, and to relieve the would-be righteous of the burden of actually fulfilling all that stuff about forgiving enemies and giving to the poor? If that is true, then not only is the Evangelical adulation of Donald Trump unfounded, but it is actually blasphemous, idolatrous; in vain do they worship, teaching as divine commandments what are only human teachings (Mark 7:7).

I want to start by saying that this is aimed at Protestant Fundamentalists and other so-called “biblical literalists.” Roman Catholic teaching is not “literalism” and has never claimed to be. Catholics say there was a Church well before there was a Bible, and that the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church is a second source of divine revelation alongside the Bible. In fact, prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962) Catholics were generally discouraged from reading the Bible itself, since laypeople required the Church (through its priests or at least the missal) to interpret it correctly. Catholic teaching on abortion has changed over time, as the judges in Roe v. Wade themselves noted; it was never solely based on the Bible, which hasn’t changed, but also on Catholic philosophical and theological teachings, on changing scientific understanding of reproduction, and on papal authority. Of course, if you are Catholic and it is part of your faith that even early-term abortion is a sin, you should follow that teaching; for whatever is not of faith, is sin. But good Catholics like Charles and Daniel Carroll, leaders of the American Revolution and early Constitutional debates, might not have believed this, since many prominent Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas) held that the fetus did not gain a human soul until at least forty days after conception. Early-term abortion might have required penance in the medieval Church, but it wasn’t murder. Only as the biology of reproduction was more fully understood did the Church settle on conception as the moment of ensoulment, in the 1800s. Given that history, the Supreme Court asks in its Roe v. Wade decision, how can we impose one religion’s view on the nation? And not only one religion’s view, but one part of one religion, and only one part of the historical view of that one part of that one religion? Catholics should follow their faith, and they have every right to try to persuade others to follow their faith and their moral teachings. But as I said, they are not pretending this is the “literal, uninterpreted, direct Word of God.”

The Protestant “Religious Right,” as established by Rousas Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson, W.A. Criswell, Phyllis Schafley and many others, do claim to be Biblical literalists, defending the original faith which every true Christian must embrace. Furthermore, they claim that since this is a Christian, and even a Protestant Christian nation, any true American must oppose abortion because our Founding Fathers established this nation to follow God’s law.   But what if that is not true? What if literally none of that is true? What if the Founding Fathers did not oppose abortion, what if this “Christian nation” allowed abortion for the first century of its existence, what if the Bible itself allows abortion, and what if the Religious Right was not even founded to fight abortion and did not oppose abortion when the Roe v. Wade ruling was originally pronounced?

Let’s work backwards through history. The Religious Right (as we understand generally understand it) was originally founded to defend segregation: specifically, the right of private Protestant Christian schools to exclude black students based on their claim that the “clear, literal truth of the Bible” mandated that the races should remain separate. Their argument was that God created the various races and nationalities and assigned each to live in different parts of the world; if God had wanted them to all live together He wouldn’t have confused their language at the Tower of Babel and scattered them across the earth. When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came down, requiring desegregation of public schools, white Protestant Christian racists began establishing private religious schools where they could keep minority children out based not on the now-debunked “separate but equal” argument, but because it was their religion. One of the more prominent of these was Bob Jones University. The U.S. government threatened Bob Jones with loss of tax-exempt status and all federal support if they did not allow non-white students to enroll and take classes with the same rights as every white student.

Protestant conservatives fought the Federal government for years to protect the tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University and other overtly racist institutions claiming religious backing for their discrimination. In the end, they lost, and Bob Jones was forced to at least officially cease discrimination on the basis of race. However, by that time a number of Protestant pastors and activists had organized and campaigned, legally and politically, for years, and had built a strong grass-roots organization which we today would call the “Religious Right.” At the same time Paul Weyrich, a Republican activist, had been working for years to lure Evangelicals away from the Democratic party and into the Republican camp. Now there was this network of politically involved and ambitious Evangelical clergy, if only they could stay together. After the final court ruling against Bob Jones, there was a conference call between a number of these Evangelical activists, to plan their next move. They had an organization, and at least the beginning of a movement. Fighting on behalf of segregationist religious institutions had brought Evangelicals into politics more forcefully than they had been since the disaster of the Scopes Monkey Trial. They didn’t want to lose that momentum, and that chance to reclaim political and cultural leadership of the nation. They needed a cause, something that they could rally around and could rally their congregations around. Some anonymous voice suggested, “What about abortion?”

Up until then, abortion had been a Catholic issue. Protestants opposed sex out of wedlock, but had no theological stance against abortion per se. The legal opposition to abortion in the USA was primarily driven by the anti-sex campaign of Anthony Comstock, a moralistic zealot who fought birth control, pornography, sex toys and anything else he considered “obscene.” Thus the opposition to abortion was moral, not theological; the feeling among anti-abortionists was that anything that made sex easier was immoral, unless the sex was necessary for married procreation. Prominent Evangelical leaders, such as W. A. Criswell, were at least moderately pro-choice, as was the Southern Baptist Convention overall. Politically, even vigorous conservatives like Barry Goldwater could be found in leadership positions in Planned Parenthood. But some six years after the Roe v. Wade ruling, Protestant Fundamentalists began working to convince other Evangelical clergy and congregations that abortion was not only an invitation to free love, but a sin against God, and that the clear and unvarnished Scripture said so.

And that is where we are now. Abortion was once almost entirely a Catholic issue; but for purely political reasons, white Protestant Evangelical leaders decided to create a new sin, to make it the centerpiece of their moral teaching and political organizing, and to use that issue to bring White Evangelicalism into the Republican fold. Once abortion would have been a personal matter for Protestants, a decision each individual made after consulting God in prayer and their doctor in the clinic. Now, it has become a shibboleth for all would-be religious conservatives, and even for irreligious conservatives. A businessman can be convicted of thousands of acts of fraud, can boast of his adulteries, can do business with known criminals, can brag about bribing politicians, can brag about his history of sexual assault and improprieties even with underage beauty-pageant contestants, can reject the words of Jesus about forgiving others and the words of Paul about the need for repentance, and can still win 80% or more of white Evangelical votes. So long as that politician opposes abortion and gay rights, there is literally no other sin he can commit that would strike Evangelicals as disqualifying. And while there are certainly Scriptures in the Torah and in Paul that oppose homosexuality, there is, I repeat, nothing in the Bible that condemns abortion.

It could be argued that in the 1970s the culture was becoming excessively libertine. Drug use, promiscuity, and general frivolity were praised everywhere, or so it seemed. Even “conservative” mainstream entertainment suggested that the society was falling apart, from the “Dirty Harry” and other movies where the “good guys” upholding law-and-order must turn vigilante against their incompetent and feckless bosses, to cop shows as diverse as “Kojak” and “Barney Miller” showing how all the police offices were shabby, with antiquated equipment, the cops themselves overworked, and generally showing a legal and law enforcement system underfunded and on the verge of collapse. It isn’t surprising that the message of the Religious Right found a sympathetic audience. The nation was struggling economically, the social fabric was frayed, we had seen riots and assassinations and domestic terrorism left and right, and millions of Americans expected a nuclear apocalypse in their lifetimes. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robinson spoke to this situation and urged America to reform itself morally. As a college student in the 1970s I shared some of those concerns, if not the near-panic that others felt.

But over time, worries about all these other excesses, and concerns about proclaiming the Gospel, seem to have slipped into the shadow of the one great monstrosity, Abortion. A billionaire playboy who indulged in virtually every excess of the 1970s, and who said he’d never had a sin to repent despite his life of drug-fueled sex parties, was not only accepted but is now praised in literally messianic terms. When nonbelievers look at the words of Jesus written in the Bible, about forgiving and loving and caring for the poor and humble, and then look at the modern Nero to whom Evangelicals make obeisance, the Gospel itself is discredited (Romans 2:24). Preaching and calling the nation to repentance has been replaced by power-politics, and as a result the desire for a gentle Shepherd had been replaced by a longing for a “strong man” who will protect his followers and humiliate their opponents. And what is most striking to me is that the Right seems largely unaware of how their message and values have changed, and how recent all those changes are.

The actual Biblical backing for this literalist anti-abortionist stance is surprisingly weak. As W. A. Criswell noted, the Genesis account of Creation states that Adam became a living soul when God breathed into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew understanding of the nature of human life was that it was a living body; it did not preexist the body, and when it died and went to Sheol it was largely devoid of personality. The Psalms regularly depict the afterlife as a gloomy place regardless of whether one was “good” or “evil” (see Ps 6:5, 115:17 as examples). That is why Christians preached “the resurrection of the dead,” which was “to Greeks foolishness.” To the Greeks, and specifically to Platonism which was the dominant philosophy of the time, souls were immortal: they existed before birth, existed after death and were reborn into bodies according to their deeds and personalities (see Phaedo). Much Christian thinking about souls owes more to this pagan philosophy than to Hebrew understanding, because it was the common way of thought among so many early Christians. In this regard the Sadducees, who denied all notion of an afterlife, were more “fundamentalist” than were their Pharisee rivals, because the Sadducees rejected all Scripture except the Torah, and rejected the notion of an afterlife (Luke 20:27-33, Acts 23:8).   Much of the later debate about “ensoulment” depends on this Platonic metaphysic that Christians inherited from their culture, their previous lives as pagans, and from Neoplatonic philosophy which influenced important Christian theologians such as Origen and Augustine.  The original Christian teaching was much more in line with the Hebrew understanding:  that the dead are dead, and our hope in in a resurrection of the body, when both body and its animating soul will be restored to life by God, rather than in a soul that either was floating around in Heaven waiting to be born or which floats around after death waiting to be reborn.

The Torah did not have an idea of life prior to birth, and its concern was primarily for God’s blessing in this life. The famous Biblical quote, “Choose life,” had nothing to do with abortion; it is an admonition to obey the Torah so that God will grant you, the adult hearing these words, a long life (Deut 30:15-20). Exodus 21:22-25 states that if two men are fighting and accidentally injure a pregnant woman so that she miscarries, this is treated as a civil crime against the woman’s husband, not as a murder; only if there is injury to the woman is there punishment of “life for life.” Later Christian attempts to interpret this as not referring to the woman’s injury but only to the child’s does not fit the original Hebrew or the history of Jewish interpretation. It also does not fit with Numbers 5:11-31, which actually requires abortion in the case of suspected but unproven adultery. And while there are passages in the Prophets and the Psalms about how God knew me before I was born, while I was being made and so on, these are mostly poetry and intended as imagery and praise rather than scientific statements of the biology of personhood. Anyone who thinks the Bible does not use imagery or metaphor needs to explain how God walked through the Garden, sat on His throne in Heaven, or wrestled with Leviathan. The straightforward passages must guide our understanding of the less straightforward; and in this case, the Torah indicates that the fetus is not the same as an adult life. It is special, it is precious from the moment of conception; it is even said to be a blessing from God. But the Torah puts it in the hands of the parents, and does not tell the government to impose its will on the family.

I am not saying that abortion is morally permissible. I am not saying abortion is impermissible, either. I am saying that it is a moral decision, and requires the consideration of philosophers as well as religious and legal experts. It is not as straightforward as it is depicted by The Right, who did not even care much about it until it became a convenient club with which to beat The Left and a convenient flag to rally around. If it is recognized as a serious issue, nothing more or less, then people of good will can debate it and seek moral consensus. But today, people of insincere political ambition treat it as the highest commandment, outweighing everything the Bible and human moral reason has to say about racism, sexism, social justice, feeding the hungry, providing clean air and water for our children and their children’s children, or providing a sound economy, or peace, or anything else. Every sin, every incompetence, every corruption, every blasphemy has been forgiven by The Right so long as the corrupt, blasphemous, stupid, mentally unstable and unrepentant sinner is a president willing to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Literally all morality, all political reason, and all religion has been overturned and buried beneath the one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Allow a Woman to Choose to Abort a Pregnancy, for Woman is Too Immature, Unstable and Wicked to Make Choices On Her Own. Millions of the so-called Party of Lincoln are ready to require rape and child molestation victims to have their attackers’ babies, which is the very definition of sexual slavery. These people say it is morally necessary to require a woman to risk her health and her life, to give up nine months of her life to make whatever sacrifice she must to try to ensure a healthy pregnancy, and will gladly shame her if her pregnancy is outside of wedlock regardless of the circumstances——but if we require a rich man to pay even one percent more in taxes so that we can feed, cloth and shelter that baby once it is born, as Jesus commanded us to do, then that is said to be immoral, to be exploitation of the poor persecuted rich person, as a punishment for being rich, and even slavery. Making a woman give up at least most of a year and then endure greater pain than most men will ever know—-that is good and righteous; but making a man obey the express word of God to clothe, feed and shelter the poor, even when he can do it with the money he was going to pay for a tenth yacht—-that is horrible, unthinkable, slavery! How truly Isaiah prophesied of this generation: they set aside the word of God and replace it with the commandments of men.

Recognizing that abortion is a moral issue, as is taxation, adultery, political corruption, hunger, the environment and the rest would mean that we could consider all the moral duties and moral values in this issue. It would mean that we would not allow ourselves to treat the rights of women who are born and persons according to the Constitution matter less than future persons who are not considered persons under the Constitution. It is possible to argue that abortion is morally wrong without resorting the idolatry of the so-called “pro-life movement.” Granted, that would mean having to actually argue, which means listening to both sides, offering reasons the other side can understand, and striving for compromise that preserves values both sides respect instead of relying on legal force, murdering doctors and other attempts to replace civility with power and oppression.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

 

Abelfatah, Rund. “‘Throughline” Traces Evangelicals’ History on the Abortion Issue.” NPR June 20, 2019: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734303135/throughline-traces-evangelicals-history-on-the-abortion-issue

 

Balmer, Randall. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico. May 27, 2014: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.

 

Ravitz, Jessica. “The Surprising History of Abortion in the United States.” CNN. June 27, 2016: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/23/health/abortion-history-in-united-states/index.html

 

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter”

January 17, 2020

I’ve been busy reading Bergson and haven’t posted in awhile.  In the interest of providing some content and maybe getting feedback, I’m offering a portion of the notes I took.

 

NOTES ON BERGSON’S “LAUGHTER”

 

 

 

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.

—–Henri Bergson[1]

 

This appears to be wrong. Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[2] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. A friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. There are other alleged examples of parrot humor, such as the African Grey who would say “Here, kitty kitty” until the cat came, and then bark like a dog to scare it.  But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or verbals signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[3]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

[1] Henri Bergson, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[3] McGraw/Warner

Comedy and Lies

January 9, 2020

Comedy and Lies

Two cannibals are eating a clown, and one turns to the other and asks, “Does this taste funny to you?
——-Tommy Cooper

The concept “funny” is ambiguous in the English language. We say, “You should go see that comedian. He’s so funny!” We also say, “Stay away from the tuna salad; it smells funny.” And when we say a $20 bill is “funny money,” we don’t mean either that it makes us laugh or that it’s spoiled; we mean it’s counterfeit. Is there a connection?
Even when we say, “It’s funny because it’s true,” we generally imply some sort of connection between comedy and falsehood. After all, if all true statements were funny or no factually false ones were, there would be no reason to say such a thing. When we say something’s funny because it is true, we mean it is true but in an unexpected way. Will Rogers said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” The Democratic Party is an organized, recognized political party, so his statement seems self-contradictory; but when we recognize the ambiguity in the word “organized,” and compare it to some other “organized political parties,” we see it can also be true. The momentary confusion gives way to a realization of a truth; but if he’d simply said, “The Democratic Party is disorganized,” it wouldn’t be funny at all. There had to be a way that the statement was false before it had the possibility of humor.
So how is the “funny” of humor related to these others? The tuna smells “funny” because it isn’t what it seems to be; it looks edible and supposedly is healthy, but the smell suggests the appearances are deceptive. The money is “funny” because it looks like legal currency when it isn’t. Comedy too is not straight-up truthfulness, even if it is not straight-up lying either. Comedy is always a little “off.” It has a certain falseness, at least in being false to our expectations. “Stay away from the tuna, it smells funny tonight” is not humorous; but sung to the tune of “The Eye of the Tiger” it’s hilarious (Weird Al Yankovich, “The Rye or the Kaiser,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGJd8FLAqRA; “The Rye or the Kaiser (Theme From Rocky XIII)” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC). The statement may be true, false or simply fiction; but it is false to the context, it doesn’t fit, and thus it’s funny.
Sometimes a straight-up lie is funny. The classic example in American culture is the “big fish that got away” story. If the story is a straightforward “I hooked a bass that looked to be ten pounds but he got away,” it’s not funny even if it’s a lie. If the story is “I caught a huge fish but sharks ate it,” it’s not funny, it’s Hemingway. But if the story is colorful and wildly exaggerated, listeners will pay rapt attention and laugh even though they’re pretty sure the “fish” was half that size if it existed at all. There’s nothing funny about murder, or about accusing someone of murder; but when it’s done in a way that is so exaggerated as to be unbelievable, and we’re told it’s not true but the claim is repeated so often that it’s certain to be remembered, it is (if you’re into NSFW roasts (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2x1bwa) for instance). The humor is the obvious falseness, which negates any pain that would exist if it were true.
The difference between a good lie and a good joke or schtick is that a good lie hides its deception, while humor revels in obvious falseness. Even if the story is true, what makes it funny is generally a falseness. I used to tell the story of my efforts to take my wife to the beach on the last day of our honeymoon, 24 hours with an average of one misadventure every two hours. The story was true, but what made it work for the audience was the falseness in the telling. An account that actually conveyed the frustration and anger would have left people not laughing, but merely uncomfortable. Comedy can be complete fiction or absolutely factual, so long as there is enough dishonesty to take away the sting of “real life” and leave the pleasure of sifting the true from the false.
Part of the joy of the humor, then, seems to be the discovery. The lies are exposed, or at least the lying is exposed since it isn’t funny if seems completely true. I once told a person that at the last meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Society of Dyslexic Agnostics debating whether or not there is a Dog. She just nodded along. That line usually works because people notice the incongruous canine. Maybe she thought SAD is a real group. But if the audience sees through the confusion too quickly, it’s not much of a joke either. The principles of a good joke and a good detective story seem to be the same: enough confusion that the audience is temporarily perplexed, but a retrospective clarity so that they can look back to see how you got from the set-up to the finish.

Comedy: The Basics

January 6, 2020

Comedy: The Basics

The last time I went flying I started a game of Peek-a-Boo with a toddler in the seat in front of me. After the fifth time I had to grab him by the throat and say, “Look, no matter how many times you try this, it’s always going to be me.
——Rita Rudner

We are born crying; we must learn to laugh. I’m not sure what that says about life. Still, while we must learn how to laugh, we are not taught how to laugh; it seems to be one of those inborn traits of humanity, that unfolds naturally in the fulness of time. Babies are not generally known for having a “sense of humor,” even if they laugh readily. A baby who laughs a lot is said to be “happy,” not “joking.” I’ve been trying to pay attention to my grandson, and I tried to pay attention to my children before; and it seems that children first laugh spontaneously, from joy. When we took my grandson to Dinosaur World, he was so excited to see the full-sized models that he laughed and danced. This isn’t to say they were funny to him, but rather that they gave him joy. He also, like every child I’ve known, laughs in anticipation, like when he’s expecting a tickle. After all, what is so funny about peek-a-boo? It’s tremendously predictable and repetitive, the very opposite of humor for adults. But for a child, this seems to be the point. Young babies seem to be startled the first few times when the familiar face suddenly reappears, and then delighted. Later, as object permanence firms up, they take joy in anticipating the return of the missing face. So laughter is an expression of present or anticipated happiness.
Babies seem to laugh at funny faces, pratfalls and so on pretty early, particularly when an adult seems to show silliness or clumsiness. I’ve never seen a toddler laugh at another who fell down, but adults who pretend to fall but then pop up again smiling seem to be hysterically funny. Some young children may laugh even at a genuine fall where someone was hurt; but research today shows that an instinct for altruism also appears in toddlers at about (or shortly after) they begin to appreciate silly physical comedy. This leads me to think laughing at another’s pain is due to a lack of empathy, which is also to say a lack of maturity, or else perhaps a simple mistake where one does not realize the other is really hurt.
It is often said that children do not have a sense of humor, or have a terrible sense of humor, and have to learn what is funny. However, I saw an interview with a comedian years ago who made his living entertaining children, who said this isn’t true. Rather, small children are amused by different things, and in particular by the role-reversal of an adult who knows less than the child. The obvious example of this is the “Mr. Noodle” routines in Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s World” segments (such as here: Mr. Noodle). When the adult does something so silly that the child has to come in and become the teacher, that is funny to children. The physical humor of Mr. Noodle is part of the appeal, but clearly the role-reversal is part as well. Perhaps this is part of the well-known quality of humor to remove the pain of painful situations. The life of a small child is to be surrounded by giants, who are generally benevolent but can also be frightening and confusing. The child constantly tries to imitate these giants, and feels satisfaction when able to do it well. When an adult takes on the role of the child, pretending clumsiness and ignorance which need rescue by the superior understanding of the child, it is particularly funny to the kid. This is also the fun of later games of peek-a-boo where the child “hides” from the adult and pops up, and the adult feigns the surprise and delight which the infant once genuinely felt.
For the child, laughter is a natural expression of joy. For the adult, this sort of laughter becomes rarer. Comedy is the art of intentionally producing laughter, not through physical means like tickling and not spontaneously by simply giving joy. What distinguishes comedy from these other sorts of laughter is that something is done that is “funny,” which generally involves some sort of swerving from the “normal” or “expected” way things usually go in a way that gives pleasure.

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

December 26, 2019

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

Counselor Deanna Troi: [explaining] While they’re learning how to communicate with Riva, they’ll be learning how to communicate with each other.
Lt. Commander Data: [interpreting] And that is the first and most important aspect of any relationship.

—–from Star Trek, The Next Generation, season 2, episode 5, “Loud as a Whisper” (1989, Paramount Studios)

     The fundamental divide within our nation is not religious, political or even moral; it is epistemological. We do not see the same reality, so how could we hope to agree on solutions? Some even claim there is no “reality,” just a war of wills between those with “facts” and those with “alternative facts.” Did Donald Trump commit crimes worthy of impeachment? How can we agree, when we don’t even agree with what a “crime” is, what words like “I’d like you to do us a favor though” mean, what “interference” in an election means, or any other independent reality?
If Donald Trump is removed from office, that will not heal the divide in our nation. If Donald Trump is quickly acquitted, that will not heal the divide in our nation. While polls suggest that most people agree that he did things that are immoral and unfit for our nation’s leader, there is debate even there about whether the crimes were “high” enough to justify impeachment. And some people, looking at the same evidence, claim there is no crime at all, not even a questionable act.
Every major intelligence agency of our nation agrees that Russia, and Russia alone, illegally interfered in the 2016 elections. Even the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, run by Republicans, agrees that this is true. Yet Republican senators, who supposedly listened to those reports and who voted to accept those reports into the Congressional record as facts, publicly deny them. Often they simply refuse to even look at such evidence at all, preferring the news feed from RT over any direct briefing from the CIA.
This is not political partisanship. This is epistemological apartheid: two populations side-by-side, with no language in common, no shared reality, virtually forbidden to communicate with one another. Is there an escape from this trap?
If anyone knew (or will know, it gets confusing) political impasses, it was (will be?) Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Thousands of inhabited planets, each with radically different cultures, languages, histories and values, each with competing interests, and one diplomatic misstep could lead to war that could possibly extinguish any or all of these and kill billions of sentient beings. While he had an arsenal of weapons at his command, often the problems were those that could not be solved by a war of wills or weapons. Often the task was to end a war, or stop one before it started. In such situations, what was needed was communication: and before that, the foundation of communication, a shared reality.
Two examples come to mind. The first is from Star Trek, TNG’s second season, the episode “Loud as a Whisper.” The story revolves around a planet which has virtually destroyed its civilization through warfare, and now has finally decided to seek peace between the two enemy factions. They have requested a famous diplomat from another planet, someone with no ties to either side, to mediate between them. The diplomat is actually mute; he has an extrasensory bond with three interpreters, who express his thoughts and emotions. However, at the first peace meeting, one of the two negotiating parties attempts to kill the mediator rather than give up the war that has defined his life. The assassination attempt fails because everyone else realizes that endless war is pointless; the assassin is tackled and his shot goes wild, missing the diplomat but raking his interpreters with deadly fire. Suddenly, this great negotiator is not only deprived of his greatest tool—-his “chorus” of interpreters who provided him not only a voice but also different perspectives——but he is now unable to communicate. He uses a sign language that no one on the ship understands. He is isolated, and the two sides have no mediator.
This seemingly insurmountable problem becomes an asset. Both delegations still want peace and want the mediator to resume his work. He cannot do this without a way to communicate. He resolves therefore to teach them his sign language. By learning to speak to him, they’ll be learning to speak to each other, something they have not done for more than a generation of constant warfare. It may take many months before any but the most rudimentary communication between the mediator and the warring parties is possible, but the whole time they will be engaged in the joint project of learning this new skill, working together, and helping the diplomat help them. The fact that it will take months or maybe years is an asset; they’ve been killing each other for years, and the war was never going to end in a day. This first, drawn-out project will be the start of their reconciliation.
The second episode I thought of was “Darmok.” In this case, an alien culture is seeking to negotiate directly with the Federation and with Capt. Picard. While they have technology that allows them to understand the words each is saying, the cultures are so different that they cannot understand what the other means by those words. The humans use words like you do; the other race, the Tamarians, communicate through metaphor. This is such an important part of their culture that they cannot even think in any other way; but without knowing the story to which their words refer, no one else can know what those words mean. It’s as if I said, “Archie Bunker” in response to something you said. If you knew that Archie Bunker was a bigoted character in the 1960s sitcom “All in the Family,” you’d know I was calling you a bigot. But if you didn’t know the story, you’d have no idea what I meant even if the words were comprehensible. So the aliens have a problem; they want to establish communication, but even though they understand the words the other side is using, neither understands the other’s meaning.
The solution, again, is a joint project. The Tamarian captain traps himself and Capt. Picard on a planet with a dangerous beast, which they can defeat only by cooperating. As a culture that communicates entirely through stories, they set up a situation where the two captains must work together, and the story of this cooperation becomes the context of future communication. It will clearly not be a fast or easy process, but a rushed process would not solve the underlying problem: a lack of shared context.
The current political situation in the United States has been called “a civil cold war.” I was a child in the 1960s and vividly remember television references to “the generation gap” even if I was too young to be part of that conflict. In addition to the clash between the military-aged and their elders who started the war and sent them to fight, there was the ongoing struggle of non-whites and of women to be treated as equal human beings. But I don’t have the impression that the divisions between the two sides were ever as stark as they are now: more violent, but not more decisive. For the most part, people got their news from the same sources. They knew what the issues were and what words meant. Some may have thought Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous Communist agitator while others saw him as a Christian peacefully crusading for justice, but at least both sides understood what “Communist” and “justice” meant; the gulf between them was largely about facts and values. Today people who fight to protect children throw thousands in cages, sometimes to die alone or to simply disappear by the hundreds if not thousands, because the “children” they care about are unborn; those already born are on their own. Others say that an “unborn child” is like an “unbuilt car:” not a thing at all but only the potential for one. If we can’t even agree what a person is, how can we decide whether something is an unjust crime against people? How can we decide whether a leader’s excesses are the necessary price we pay to protect hundreds of thousands of “tiny unborn persons” or simply crimes with no excuse except the grievance and will-to-power of his supporters?
Some of this confusion is genuine; groups with different views and values, different metaphysical assumptions and so on deriving different ethical injunctions. Some of this confusion is intentionally created. Russian political scientists have openly discussed their theory of “managed democracy” where the government attempts to create a “post-truth” society as a means to keep the people disorganized, divided and therefore more easily controlled. Whether the divide is natural or manufactured, the result is the same: a society divided not only by competing economic theories or moral philosophies, but even by different epistemic worlds. We don’t agree what truth is, how to find it or even whether it exists. In this situation, I think the great negotiator Riva from “Loud as a Whisper” would agree that what we need is to take the time to recreate a shared reality, a shared frame of reference. The impeachment of Donald Trump is one opportunity to begin this process. A thorough investigation, a lengthy and careful trial, would not only discover the events that actually occurred, but would also establish the meaning of those events. And what is at least as important, even though it would be an adversarial situation (prosecution and defense) it would also be a joint project. A well-played sporting event is a joy to its viewers, no matter who wins, so long as both sides agree in the end that the result was fair. Those who can’t agree are known to be “bad sports.” The fact is that just as you can’t have a football game without two teams, you can’t have a trial without two sides; the adversaries need each other.
What is more fundamental, and most important at this time, is that a real trial would have to be one that accepts the principle that truth matters. Did the President of the United States violate the law, violate his oath of office, and use taxpayer money to secure personal advantages for himself at the expense of national security? That is a factual question; it is either true or false. Did Putin’s government actively and covertly attempt to undermine our free elections, and is he working to do this again, as the Senate Intelligence Committee and 17 U.S. intelligence agencies say? Or is the real “interference” the fact that some Ukrainian official wrote an op-ed article, openly using his own name, expressing his opinion that Donald Trump should not give vast swaths of Ukrainian territory to Putin? Does the factual reality, the truth, matter, or is the only thing that matters whether some claim suits the agenda of some politician?
What this nation needs, more than anything, is a return to a belief in objective reality. When I was a kid, we had race riots, anti-war riots, corruption, the Kent State Massacre, the Weathermen, and more. We had real troubles. But we didn’t have a major political party and millions of people denying objective reality, rejecting science as some sort of conspiracy, rejecting medicine, and even arguing that education was bad because people who know stuff tend to disagree with the party. We had plenty of paranoia, and sometimes it turned out the paranoids were right; but we didn’t have people actually in the government denying everything they heard from over a dozen of our own intelligence agencies. In that sort of situation, we need some long-term work to re-establish a shared frame of reference. A serious investigation of Mr. Trump’s guilt would do that. It would presumably allow witnesses on both sides: the side that says Trump was pressuring Ukraine to cook up evidence to smear a political rival, and the side that says that there was something terribly wrong in Ukraine that Mr. Trump was legitimately investigating. This would in turn raise the question of where each side was getting its information and how it was validating its claims, which would raise the more fundamental question of how we can establish “truth” in any functional sense so that communication is possible. By contrast, having a one-week “trial” in the Senate would allow no time for serious debate about how either side decides whether to believe any particular claim, and would reduce everything to a mere power-play that solves nothing.
Maybe there is no “objective truth” that is free from personal interpretation or projection. Even if you say this, you must also agree that there are degrees of distortion. People of differing cultures and values can work together to solve problems. We may disagree about many things, but we can generally distinguish between those with whom we disagree versus those who are seriously crazy. If we’re trying to avoid drowning in a flood, say, and five people are filling sandbags to reinforce the levy while one is killing cats because cats are agents of Satan, we don’t just say, “Well, he’s got alternative facts.” We don’t just say, “Five of us think sandbags are the way to go, so we decide what’s true.” We look at whether killing cats has ever solved any problem, such as the Plague in Medieval Europe, and we find it hasn’t. We look for some rational reason to believe killing cats might help the situation, and can see no causal connection such as we usually see in other areas of life. On the other hand, we do find instances where sandbags have helped, and our past experience suggests that it is the sort of thing that would be useful. We might also consider the dangers of adopting a sandbag strategy versus the dangers of ignoring the levies and just hunting cats. We would decide that the stakes are too high to do nothing, that the course of action most likely to help was to fill sandbags, and would decide that the person who refused and instead ran around killing cats was (at best) a useless loony. The need to work together, coupled with the urgency of the situation, would force us to make judgments about shared reality and how we can judge truth. In calmer times, we might have just left the cat-hater to his superstition; but when the flood waters are rising, the “he’s entitled to his own opinion” that suggests epistemological relativism becomes “we don’t have time for your nonsense anymore.” The past successes of filling sandbags during floods, versus the failure of felinicide, would give us a practical, pragmatic way to sift likely truth from probable falsehood. If our species could never apprehend the world with any accuracy, we’d have died out a long time ago; so we are capable of some truth, and should try to find it.
The first step towards making the divides in our society manageable and possibly even productive is to decide to seek to treat reality first as a matter for investigation rather than power struggles. No doubt struggles will continue even after all the facts are established as well as they can be, and that is fine. But unless we can at least agree what it is we disagree about, there can be nothing but fighting without end. Democracy is, in the end, a way to have internal struggles without destroying our society, by agreeing to shared rules of engagement and conflict resolution. The only alternative is violence.