Posts Tagged ‘Kant’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 2)

June 11, 2019

What Pompeo seems to be saying, therefore, is that the Republican government wants to redefine this notion of “human rights” in terms of a particular definition of “human nature.” Is this necessarily “misogynistic” or “homophobic”? I will mention the sophistic argument that if it is based on “human nature” and “natural law” then of course it can’t be, since by definition it can’t be an “irrational” hatred of women or fear of gay people if it is “natural.” This is circular and unlikely to quell any concerns by people who are not already convinced that the particular “nature” on which this “natural law” is based is the true one. The real question, after all, is whether this proposed alteration is likely to be harmful to the interests and desires of women, gays or anyone else. Aristotle’s philosophy stated that all non-Greeks (whether Asiatics, less civilized Europeans or whatever) were inherently “irrational” and thus natural slaves, most fulfilled living lives in slavery to the wiser Greeks. Likewise, he believed women were inherently less intelligent and less rational than men, and would only be truly happy living in households controlled by Greek men. In essence, he looked at his own Athenian culture and judged all others in comparison to it; those that gave greater rights to women or to non-Greeks were said by him to be disordered in some way, and those that were a completely different culture he deemed “barbarian,” a term that literally meant “non-Greek speakers,” fit only for domination. Clearly, a society based on that sort of “natural law” would be bad for women, since women would only fulfill their “nature” by running the household for men who were active in the political and economic life of the society, having and raising children, and managing their slaves. Whether it would be bad for gays is another question; the Greeks accepted and expected male-male sexuality, particularly between older men and teenage boys. But in the Catholic understanding, the fact that there are two genders suggests that sexuality is intended for reproduction, and any expression of sexuality that cannot possibly lead to pregnancy is unnatural and disordered: not only abortion, but homosexuality, contraception, and masturbation.

But the Thomistic view of natural law is not the only possible one. Utilitarians in the 19th Century had a very different view of human nature, one that emphasized pleasure as the motivation for all actions, and thus defined a “good” act as one that brought the most pleasure possible to the most people possible, or aimed to reduce suffering to the least amount to the fewest people possible. Based on this understanding of human nature, and of nature in general, they were politically active supporting laws against animal cruelty (since animals too can suffer), in support of workers and poor people (such as opposing debtors’ prisons), supporting the rights of women, and so on. Kantians by contrast argue that “human nature” is to be guided by pure practical reason, apart from concerns about sensation; therefore, what is moral is what is done out of a sense of duty towards the universal moral law. A prominent example of this sort of moral law reasoning is the philosopher Robert George, who in an interview argued against Peter Singer’s extreme utilitarianism by asserting that we must base our legal understanding of human rights on the principle of always treating others as ends in themselves, never as means towards another end (Kant’s second version of his Categorical Imperative). By this understanding, any law that seems to treat another person as less than infinity valuable would be immoral and unnatural, even if the person wished to be so treated. For example, from a Kantian perspective voluntary suicide to escape a painful terminal illness would be wrong since it would be treating the other in terms of sensation rather than as a rational being whose every moment of existence is valuable regardless of whether it is pleasant. So taking the legal definition of “natural law theory,” we can wind up at radically different legislation based on different moral theories. A full commitment to natural law as both a philosophical and legal principle would most likely argue that moral people reasoning together will be able to discern the moral principles inherent in human nature and base legislation on those principles. Whether this idea should cause alarm to any group would depend entirely on how they expect this administration, and the panel it has created, to define “human nature.”

To be continued…

Advertisements

Review: “Kierkegaard’s Great Critique: Either/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;”

February 6, 2013

Ron Green, “Kierkegaard’s Great CritiqueEither/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 139-53

 

 

Ron Green has really taken the lead in exploration of Kant’s influence on Kierkegaard.  While the Hegel-Kant connection has been debated by many writers and from various angles, Green has leapt past Hegel to look at the Kantian roots.  His book, Kierkegaard and Kant:  The Hidden Debt, examines (among other things) how Fear and Trembling can be fruitfully interpreted as a response to Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone; this article goes even further back to examine how Kant’s influence can be seen in the writings of Judge William.  There are some issues of content that are obvious:  Kant discusses duty in terms of “universal law,” William in terms of the “duty to realize the universal.”  Green goes further in also looking at the form of the argument in E/O, comparing it to the structure of Kant’s Critiques. As he points out, Kant undertakes his transcendental deduction following a form laid down in German law, governing property claims between petty nobles:  start with what is granted by both, explore the lineage of the claim, and deduce what must be true for this given to have been true.  The first Critique starts with sense experience, and with the claim that sense experience is all that there is.  Exploring the nature of sense experience, Kant argues that in fact a number of a priori concepts must be assumed for sense experience to be what it is.

William does something similar, although his manner is far less formal and systematic.  The experience he starts with is first love.  A writes extensively about love, falling in love, the passion of love, and so on; and the Judge points out to him that he really does believe in first love.  However, A also believes that only the aesthetic is real; he rejects eternal ethical principles and claims that as soon as duty is mentioned, love goes out the window.  Judge William points out that the promise of love is that it is forever; lovers say things like “I shall love you as long as there are stars in the sky,” swear that their love will outlive life itself, and (regularly in dramas and occasionally in life) even die for love.  William argues that A’s principles cannot explain this, which is why he ends up mocking first love even though he really longs for it (see his review of Scribe’s play).  Only the ethical believes that first love can endure, and it does so by arguing that it ought to last, lovers ought to keep their promise to one another, and (as Kant would say) “ought” implies “can.”  When the ethical makes love a duty, it is saying that love can last and therefore your love ought to last.  This is what aesthetic love wanted and even believed all along, but could not fulfill on its own principles.  Therefore, it is necessary to accept these other principles, ethical principles, for the aesthetic experience of first love to be true.

Green’s interest in the first Critique is more in the formula than in the content; he doesn’t discuss Kant’s notions of causality or God as expressed there.  Green finds more direct evidence for the content of the Critique of Practical Reason, even referring to the Judge’s arguments as a working out of Kant’s argument for freedom (p.  151).  Since Green is discussing William’s position and in particular his defense of marriage, he never discusses sin; so the usefulness of this article to my purposes is simply in reinforcing the Kantian nature of William’s ethical thought.

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4)

October 29, 2012

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4) 

 

Although “coherence theory” of truth is more commonly associated with rationalism than with empiricism, James’ rejection of the “correspondence theory” is not enough to justify his claim that pragmatism can be a mediating position between “tough-minded” empiricism and “tender-minded” rationalism.  Instead, it is in his last two lectures that he most thoroughly breaks with empiricism, and with the idea that all our knowledge ultimately rests on empirical pillars.  In Lecture VII, James argues in support of what fellow pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller calls “humanism:”

 

Mr. Schiller… proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially …what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.”[1]

Clearly, this is not what we normally call “humanism.”  It almost seems like Nietzsche’s claim in “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” where he argues that the individual’s psychological needs and personal projects shape that individual’s world.  Instead of basing our categories on our encounter with the world, Schiller seems to base our encounter with the world on our categories, which are themselves based on our own natures.  James defends this position, while also qualifying what he means by it.  True, he does admit that we shape our experience of the physical world; we attend to this fact rather than that, we value this more than that, we interpret.  The word “Waterloo” means something different to a Frenchman than it does to an Englishman.  But James is not particularly interested in this, and admits that our “truths” are beliefs about reality, and our first and primary source for these are sensations.  We cannot prevent or control the flux of our sensations.  Nor can we willy-nilly shape the relations between our ideas concerning these sensations.  I experience the light to come on after I feel the switch click, not before.  However, even though the fact that some aspects of our truths are simply given, and even though our later truths must usually find some accommodation with our previous truths, there is still a lot each one of us does to shape his or her world.  We never encounter the world as it is in itself, but only as shaped by our minds.  James even admits this has a certain resemblance to Kant’s view, though he points out that Kant saw these categories as inborn while pragmatism takes them to be based on experience; as he writes, “Superficially this sounds like Kant’s view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature’s presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns.”

So even to this point, James cannot claim to really mediate between empiricism and rationalism.  Even in his most Kantian moments, he is still conceding that experience shapes our categories at least as much as our categories shape our experience.  It is in his motivation for raising this whole “humanist” argument that James really takes on his appointed task as mediator.  James describes the empiricist position as “tough-minded,” and the rationalist as “tender-minded.”[2]  The rationalist, he says, is motivated by principles, by an optimistic belief that the universe is ultimately united and meaningful, and ultimately by a religious or spiritual faith.  The empiricist inclines towards facts, observations, and materialism.  As an archetype of this and an example of where it leads, consider David Hume’s theory of language.  For Hume, all meaning is based on sensation.  Any word that cannot be traced to a sensation is meaningless.[3]  Hence the “tough-minded” verdict he offers:

 

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]

 

It is not surprising then that James takes empiricism as essentially atheistic, while equating both rationalism and religion as “tender-minded.”  And while much of his epistemology is founded on empirical principles, he has a good deal of sympathy for the religious impulse.  For William James, pragmatism is not only a theory of meaning; it is also a philosophy of life.  A person should believe what allows him or her to function well; and that means that one has every right to religious faith, where this can be sufficiently integrated with one’s other beliefs.  As he writes:

 

At the close of the last lecture I reminded you of the first one, in which I had opposed tough-mindedness to tender-mindedness and recommended pragmatism as their mediator. Tough-mindedness positively rejects tender-mindedness’s hypothesis of an eternal perfect edition of the universe coexisting with our finite experience.

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

Well, the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history. The eternal arms are then beneath. Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.[5]

 

If I try to use my religious belief to draw scientific claims, then my beliefs will inevitably collide and I will end up with a schizophrenia of the intellect:  following cause and effect and scientific reasoning almost all the time and particularly when I rely on any aspect of technology, medicine, or scholarship of any sort, but willfully ignoring reason when it conflicts with some pseudoscientific claim based on my perception of my faith.  But if I use it to give me a reason to keep living, as an organizing or justifying principle for my experiences, or as an ideal to strive towards, etc. then it need not conflict with any useful empirical claim.  Thus James recommends pragmatism as a middle ground between the fatalistic, materialist and pessimistic elements of the “tough-minded” and the free-willst, optimistic, and idealistic aspects of the “tender-minded.”  Because he believes that we create our reality, he can say that we do in fact have a right to hold beliefs that have a pragmatic use contributing to one’s psychological and spiritual health; and because he believes that ultimately our minds and our categories are rooted in our experiences of reality, he says we should not simply embrace the “tender-minded” rationalism wholeheartedly, but consider how these two sides can be reconciled.

To be continued…..


[1] Pragmatism, lecture VII, “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[2] Pragmatism, lecture I

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter II, “Of the Origin of Ideas.”

[4] Enquiry, chapter XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy,” part III

[5] Pragmatism, lecture VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion.”

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 2)

October 15, 2012

The Nietzschean pragmatism is based on this will-to-power; it gives me my goals, and then those goals create the structures by which I construct my reality.  In contrast, the Wittgensteinian approach eliminates this psychological theory, but keeps the idea that the categories by which we construct reality are themselves the creations of human goals and practices.  In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, all language evolves from human practices.  “True” words are those that make sense within a particular practice, in that they allow a person to achieve a goal or communicate/coordinate with others.  In Philosophical Investigations, he presents a very simple example as a thought experiment.  Suppose a group of people were building.  If I want a large, flat rock, I call out “Slab!”  and everyone knows what I want.  If I get the sort of rock I need, that is all the “truth” I need.  So the “language-game” necessary for this simple practice needs a few words such as “slab,” “pillar,” and perhaps a few other basic shapes, together with some prepositions (Slab here!  Pillar there!).  Wittgenstein hypothesizes that all language arises as part of this sort of language-game, where we learn certain words to convey what we mean in order to interact together.  Some of these words may spring from purely private experiences, such as pain.  Strictly speaking, I don’t know if you feel the same thing I feel when I sprain my ankle.  However, when you see me roll around on the ground with tears streaming from my eyes and profanity streaming from my mouth, you act as if you understand.  You ask, “Where does it hurt?” and I tell you or point, you bandage or do something like that, and it reduces my pain.  Taken together, this is “pain behavior,” some instinctual and involuntary and some socially structured; and “pain language” is part of this overall activity.  We don’t know whether we feel the same things, but we know we both act the same ways and respond to the same sorts of assistance, so we both call what we feel “pain.”

Instead of concepts, then, Wittgenstein is more inclined to speak of “language-games” and “the grammar” of an activity.  What are the words used by people who engage in a particular activity, and what are the rules whereby they use those words?  How well do they understand and coordinate with one another?  Some may engage in different language-games, and experience reality differently than others.  And the words, concepts and grammar that one employs can structure how one experiences reality.  To illustrate this, Wittgenstein presents this example:

 

What is this?  You might say, “It’s a rabbit; see its long ears and the little mouth?” I might say, “It’s a duck; see its bill?”  Depending how you look at it, it could be either.  It is a duck-rabbit.  If you had no word for “duck” and had never seen one, you would only see the rabbit; and likewise, if you’d never seen a rabbit you’d have no idea that this duck might be anything else.  The concept you employ shapes your experience; and you cannot see both simultaneously.[1]  You probably are able to switch between seeing it as one or the other animal; if one is particularly close-minded, one might be unable to see it as the other at all.              Like Kant, both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are interested in how we use our concepts to construct our world.  We filter our reality through our concepts.  Unlike Kant, both these philosophers see our concepts as rooted in our language, not in universal human concepts.  Nietzsche sees our concepts as themselves rooted in the will to power; Wittgenstein largely moots inner psychological considerations and focuses on shared human activities and behavior.  Nietzsche is more deductive; his theory flows from his conception of will, which of course is largely invisible.  Wittgenstein’s theory seeks to be more observational and inductive.

James shares elements of both of these philosophers.  Like Nietzsche, William James was an early pioneer in psychology, and based much of his philosophy on psychological theories and concerns.  Like Wittgenstein, James was more inclined to look to observation, and less judgmental of the different options others might choose.

It is clear that the European pragmatism of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as different as they are in many ways, do have at least one thing in common:  they both follow Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.”  Both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein agree that the object of knowledge must conform to the structure of knowledge, rather than knowledge being determined by the object.  The mind creates useful categories, concepts and connections that serve pragmatic purposes; it then shapes its world and the objects of experience according to those categories.  For Nietzsche, these purposes flow from individual psychological needs, and are (or ought to be) the tools of personal projects.  For Wittgenstein, concepts flow from human activities and the need of humans to communicate with one another; therefore, there are no private concepts.  But whether the concepts are the spawn of individual projects or social projects, both agree that concepts are created by human interests and activity and are “true” insofar as they are useful.  The actual world is little more than the raw material to be shaped by human concepts, interests and projects, and is not really an object of philosophical consideration at all.  How does the American pragmatism of William James compare to these?

To be continued…..


[1] The closest you can come (which I don’t recall Wittgenstein mentioning) is that if you’re a student of Wittgenstein you might see a figure like this and identify it as neither one of those, but as a “duck-rabbit.” When I see it I see an ambiguous figure.  I think I experience this figure as a figure and must make a slight effort to see it as either animal in particular.  That is, I have three concepts and structure the experience in three different ways.

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 1)

October 8, 2012

I’ve been reading William James’ Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, and a few points struck me.  The first was that, even though I’ve done little reading in American pragmatism, much of what James says seems rather familiar.  I can see two reasons why this should be so.  First, pragmatism has had an enormous impact on U.S. culture.  It has influenced the American school system more than any other philosophical approach, and thus it has impacted most Americans far more than they realize.  Second, I realize that I have been exposed to some European models of pragmatism, and have read those authors extensively.  In some important ways, European and American pragmatism are similar.

The second thing that struck me was that, in other ways, the European and American pragmatic philosophies are very different.  I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, but I want to try to work through some of these differences for my own benefit, and I hope someone else’s.

European pragmatists are interested in how pragmatically derived categories are used to construct the world; American pragmatism, not so much.  At least, the pragmatists with whom I am familiar make this seem true.  I would start with Nietzsche, but to make what I will say clear I first have to delve a little into Kant.  Kant’s epistemology, of course, is “transcendental idealism.”  In Kant’s theory, the individual is constantly bombarded with sense data, or “intuitions.”  In themselves, these do not have a particular structure; they could be perceived in different ways by different perceivers.  A fly, a human and God might all experience the same world very differently.  The human must first organize these intuitions in terms of linear time and Euclidean three-dimensional space.  Everything I can perceive will be organized as above or below me, nearer or farther, and so on, and I perceive events as happening sequentially.  This Kant refers to as the “transcendental aesthetic.”  Here, “transcendental” refers to the rules that must a priori hold true of every experience I could have; “aesthetic” refers generally to my experience of sensation.  But humans are rational beings, so I further process my intuitions according to logical categories:  thus, the “transcendental analytic.”  For example, I not only perceive events as following one another; I perceive them in terms of causes and effects.  Again, these principles are rules I impose on my experience.  I cannot have an experience that is not structured by the limitations and the functions of my human mind.

Nietzsche, building upon Schopenhauer, starts with the notion of pure, chaotic experience as the starting point, which is then structured by the human mind.  He writes:

What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing![1]

The initial intuition, in Nietzsche’s language, is the nerve stimulus.  In and of itself, it has no mandatory structure; my human mind imposes a structure by creating categories.  Why is a whale a mammal and not a fish?  It all depends on one’s priorities.  Once, whales were seen as fish, since they swam in the ocean; thus Jonah was swallowed by “a great fish,” when the only possible candidate would be a whale.  Later, we began grouping all sorts of creatures in greater categories, and the ability to produce milk became the defining quality.  The categories we choose are those that are subjectively useful.  Since most of us desire to be part of the herd, we learn and adopt the language of society, and use the categories and the values of those around us.  The “rational” person is the one who excels in cataloging and organizing the sense stimuli according to the categories created by language—that is, by the society.  The intuitive, artistic, “free intellect,” by contrast, rejects the conventional ways of structuring reality, and substitutes its own.  “The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by meeting his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an ‘overjoyed hero,’ counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. “  That is, both the rationalist and the artistic temperament seek to structure and control a reality that suits that one’s particular needs and goals.

The difference between the Kantian and the Nietzschean understanding of the construction of the world is that Kant believes the categories by which humans structure their experiences is inborn and universal to all human beings, while Nietzsche believes they are essentially irrational and individual.  The fundamental driving force, he says, is not rationality but will, the will to power, expressed as power to control and power to create, and most importantly as power to assert one’s continued existence.  How one structures one’s world will depend on one’s particular will to power.  The strong, healthy will to power desires to live according to personal needs and for personal projects, and to be “true to the earth;” so that sort of person will structure experience by categories that are based on personal needs and on the needs of life and of self-expression.  The weak, “underman” will develop categories that are hostile to life and the earth (for example, Platonic idealism), and above all, categories that are shared by others and give the comfort of helping one live as part of a group.  But in either case, the categories are pragmatic; they are tools to achieve goals, whatever those goals might be.  The person who wants to feel at home on the earth will develop categories that help him or her live as an individual working projects in this life; the person who wants to feel as if he or she is escaping from this life will have categories that are otherworldly, and also those which are socially validated; this allows one to construct a world where one is sheltered in the herd in this life and expects to be freed from the pains and struggles in the future.

To be continued….


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873, (http://faculty.uml.edu/enelson/truth&lies.htm) accessed 8/27/2012

Kant: the intersection between Rand and Sartre (short preliminary sketch)

January 9, 2012

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. ….I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

J.P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

 

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. ….Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.

I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

So every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others….

A. Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

 

So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

How remarkable that Sartre and Rand, despite their different politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and on and on, both end up reverting to Kant when it comes time to describe what, exactly, is the good that one should do.  Sartre says that by making a choice, I am in effect saying that this choice should be made by every human being; so when I choose monogamy or not, or choose a Christian trade union over a Communist one, I am choosing as every human ought to choose.  My actions are therefore of utmost seriousness; whenever I choose, I am to choose as if my principles were to become a universal law.

Rand justifies ethics on the personal satisfaction of the individual, which Kant would roundly reject.  Rand despises the existentialists, who (she claims) base their life-view on impulse rather than rationality.  But when it comes time to describe the content of Objectivist ethics, she falls back on the “second formulation” of the Categorical Imperative:  treat rational beings as ends in themselves, never as mere means to another end.  Neither a victim nor a victimizer be.

I’d like to follow up on this sometime.  How many other philosophers start out from how many different starting points, only to end up with some version of the Categorical Imperative?  And why should this be?  I suspect the common element is individual freedom, though this would need to be examined in detail.

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today? (pt. 2: The Looters)

January 4, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Looters

“If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing.  Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”  Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand is celebrated today for her denunciations of the “moochers and the leeches,” the poor who demand to be supported by the rich.  Less often repeated are her denunciations of “the looters and the thugs,” those who steal not through the welfare state but through criminality, or crooked laws, defrauding those who work to become rich off the labors of others.  Of course, Rand is no Marxist; she celebrates the entrepreneur and capitalist who take risks with their own talents or their own resources, and bear the costs of their own failures.  These are the responsible, productive individuals.  They deserve whatever their intelligence and industry brings them.  They choose not to be victims of others, and not to victimize others either.  Rand says that either is a denial of one’s true humanity, which is to say one’s rational nature.  To victimize others is not to survive as man qua man, since it is to live not as a human being but as a parasite.  To be human is to be rational and productive.  These are the traits that lead to survival of the human individual and species.  The looter, like a tapeworm, survives only because there is a productive being it can sap life from; as long as it kills its host slowly enough, it can live.  But the looters are ultimately destroying humanity.  One tick may not kill a dog, but a dog with enough ticks will bleed to death; and when the last dog is gone the ticks will die too.

For this reason, the rationally selfish person chooses to live by trade, not by looting.  Trade is the honest and open exchange of goods, services, talents and knowledge.  It strengthens the human race, and in doing so it strengthens every individual who participates in it.  As Rand puts it, the purpose of ethics is one’s own life and happiness; but the standard of ethics is human life.  What does not preserve and promote human life—-not just my life, but man qua man—-is not ethical.  So the moral person lives by trade and not by looting because this is what preserves human life, the life and continued existence of humanity.  That is the standard of what is ethical.  My own purpose may be my own preservation, but the measure of whether the means I would choose are proper is human life.  Rand thus starts from an egoistic purpose, it seems, but ends up sounding very much like Kant:  “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—-and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Press, 1964:  p. 30).

Rand would approve of the one-percenter who earned his or her wealth and now resists giving it away to support the lazy leech.  The rich one has every right to give his or her wealth away voluntarily, but must resist being forced; not to resist is to betray one’s own human nature.  But “the principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice…..  A trader … does not switch to others the burden of his failures….” (pp. 34-35).  From the savings and loans crisis of the Reagan era (which cost 3.2% of our GDP) to ENRON to the TARP bailout (which is estimated to have cost us 1% of our GDP) and the other bailouts, it is clear that business in the USA is not being carried out under Rand’s principles of trade.  It is being carried out by the looters, under laws made by the looters and for the looters.  And whenever some regulation is proposed to prevent these CEOs and CFOs from gambling with other people’s money and keeping the winnings while sharing the losses, the lobbyists and the SuperPACs come out and make sure nothing comes of it.  Today, virtually every major banking institution suckles from the taxpayer’s teat.  By threatening to crash the entire world global economic system, rich banks and rich bankers have set themselves up with a sweet deal.  Today, the big banks borrow from the Fed at no interest, and then loan that money back to the government at interest.  The taxpayer’s money, that was supposed to allow banks to start lending again so the taxpayer could start borrowing and entrepreneurs could start investing and inventing and producing, is instead being recycled to pay huge bonuses to bankers.  It’s not the 1%, but the 0.1% that are pulling this scam.  Cut them off, and we go into a Second Great Depression.  Regulate them, says the GOP, and we’ll be squelching the “productive” class.  But when the GOP and FOX whines about the leeches draining the poor productive class, who are they defending?  Not the traders.  The SuperPAC money from the banking industry is raised from the looters, to pay for laws to protect the looters.  The fact is that at this point, the banking industry is funded and supported by the taxpayer.  They are both looters and leeches.   And the GOP has made itself the party that defends the anti-competitive monopoly in its efforts to squelch the small entrepreneur who tries to start a small business, the multinational corporation that dumps its wastes in drinking water and expects someone else to pay to clean it up, and the big manufacturer that accepts shipments from small businesses and then refuses to pay them for months at a time so it can use small businessmen as its own no-interest bank.  In short, the GOP is the party of the looters.  (The Dems take their share of money from looters, too, but they haven’t made defending the looters part of their stated party platform.)

From the Regan-Bush bailout of the S&Ls to the Bush bailout of the banks, the GOP has chosen to be the party of deregulation, not in the name of free markets but in the cause of crony capitalism and kleptocracy.  When the financial industry has been deregulated and allowed to take greater risks, the profits were raked in by the top executives while the risks were assumed by the taxpayers.  When polluters are deregulated, the profits go to the 0.1% while the costs in health and cleanup go to taxpayers.  Even Ron Paul has said that libertarian principles do not mean polluters can use their neighbors as mere means to their own ends.

Rand wrote that we should have real capitalism.  She would have defended Bush’s decision to let Lehman Brothers go under; the executives and the stockholders who hired them should go bankrupt for their own follies.  But this also nearly destroyed the nation’s economy, so the decision was made not to allow any more major financial institutions to fail.*  Fine:  I’m not looking forward to a Second Great Depression either.  But would Rand really demand that we allow a few reckless, foolish looters to destroy the wealth of millions of rational, productive individuals?


* Instead FOX News defended paying the executives big bonuses, with taxpayer dollars, because it is necessary to attract “top talent.”  Talent for what?

Epistemology, Anxiety, Faith, Sin (pt. 2)

November 20, 2011

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  As far as knowledge of the world goes, I would start without wasting much time on theories like the Cartesian evil genius or The Matrix, if only because they are largely non-starters.  Evolutionary theory says that we have the senses we do because they work; they allow us to find food and mates, to avoid predators and other threats, and in general tell us about the world.  They don’t have to be perfect to do this job; in fact, we know many creatures that have superior senses.  The classic arguments of skeptical philosophers, like the stick that looks bent in water, are not really problems at all as far as pragmatic, survival-value knowledge of the world goes.  We are material, our senses evolved as part of the material world to know the material world, and in a sense it isn’t really a separation between subject and object here since the material world is reacting physically to the material world.

(The creationist could even admit some of this; after all, Adam was created from the earth, so again Adam and the world are substantially similar and the physical senses are part of the physical world.)

While some philosophers have worried about the problems of knowledge of the physical, the real problems seem to stem from knowledge of the metaphysical.  Even if, as Plato said, we can’t know the physical world because it’s always changing, we can know it well enough.  But what about the principles on which we depend for our scientific activity, or just our reasoning?  What about causality, or object permanence?  Hume said that these are abstractions from our sense data and hence are imperfect.  Therefore, we should only assume them as far as we need to.  Kant wanted certainty, and therefore concluded that the laws of nature were like the laws of logic:  principles that are necessary for our thinking of the world.  Because we (or any rational finite being) must perceive reality in this way, the laws of nature are just as universal as the laws of logic.  Hamann said that if knowledge is that, then it is empty; for it to be knowledge of the actual physical world it has to come from outside us.  But he would go on to say that if we let it, the world will disclose itself to us; so the principles of causality and so on are in fact true of the world as it is.  (At least, I think Hamann would say this; he is considered the most obscure writer in the German language, and that is saying a lot!  Even Kant found Hamann a hard read.)

What can we know, then, about the world, besides what we immediately experience?  On the surface, the pragmatic tests would seem to be pretty good.  If I can make predictions based on my assumptions that this action will cause that reaction, that my test tube won’t disappear when I turn my back and so on, then principles of causality, object permanence and so on seem to be born out.  True, they are creations of our mind, above and beyond the immediate sensations; but our minds are largely our brains, and our brains are also physical objects which evolved/were created to understand and react to the world, so it is reasonable to conclude that we wouldn’t have these concepts if there weren’t something in the world that made the suitable impact on us.  Eyes exist because there is light and physical objects that make something like eyes useful ways to perceive them.  Brains exist because the world does in fact follow rational patterns that can be discerned, rational principles that can be inferred and which will prove useful and effective.  But Hume is right about one thing:  this cannot be the same sort of certainty that we see in logic or math.  Just as our physical sensations, perceptions and conclusions from these can be mistaken, so too our metaphysical reasoning can be mistaken.  At some point, we have to simply accept that the evidence is good enough.

That may be the problem with so much scientific debate these days, and where the second phase of an epistemology needs to begin:  Aside from the inexactness and limitations of our finite senses and finite minds, what other sources of error exist?  And, given our limitations and any other sources of error, what can we do to avoid or correct error?

To be continued…..

EPISTEMOLOGY, ANXIETY, FAITH, SIN (pt. 1)

August 31, 2011

EPISTEMOLOGY, ANXIETY, FAITH, SIN

Background Considerations:  Kierkegaard describes two approaches to knowledge in Philosophical Fragments:  recollection and revelation.  “Recollection” is originally the Platonic theory, and more generally refers to the theory that knowledge is immanent:  humans have the knowledge within them already, and each individual must simply bring that knowledge to the surface.  “Revelation” is the Christian view that we are in fact ignorant, even trapped in ignorance and hostile to the truth, until God bestows it through grace.  Hamann used the distinction between recollection and revelation in his critique of Kantian transcendental idealism.  Kant made knowledge inherent in the human mind; what we know when we know nature is in fact the universal structures of our human experience of nature, the categories and ideas, so we can have knowledge that is certain because any experience that we could possibly have must conform to those structures.  We experience reality through the tinted lens that is our reason, and thus everything we can possibly experience will be tinted; knowledge is knowledge of the nature of our lenses.  Hamann said if that is your epistemology, Christian revelation is impossible since there can be no knowledge that isn’t already contained in human reason; so instead of developing an epistemology and then trying to force theology to conform to its strictures, he began with the idea that revelation is real and developed his epistemology on the assumption that knowledge in general comes to us from the outside.  In fact, what he developed was a “mitigated credulity” in reply to Hume’s “mitigated skepticism:”  while Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and hence also his conclusion that all knowledge is uncertain, Hamann was less afraid of making a mistake by assuming too much than he was of rejecting the truth by assuming too little.  Therefore, he chose to believe what his senses told him, but with the caveat that he might be mistaken and must be ready to admit an error when one is discovered.

If one lumps Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s idealism into the general category of “recollection,” one can begin to see how a Kierkegaardian/Christian critique of epistemology can be useful.  What Hume and Kant share is the view that whatever knowledge is, it is a human undertaking; we know the world ourselves.  All knowledge is immanent.  But the fundamental premise of knowledge is “know thyself;” if we don’t know ourselves, how can we know anything?  Whether empiricism or idealism, our knowledge is distorted by our anxiety.  We believe ourselves more capable than we are, and at the same time we feel threatened and anxious in the world and seek to reassure ourselves of our knowledge and control of the world around us.  We cannot just let things be, and let them appear to us as they are in themselves, in their self-centeredness; we perceive everything through the filter of our needs and wants and fears.  When faith overcomes anxiety, we are able (insofar as faith does overcome, which is never total) to see what is as it is.  Humility is essential to allowing truth to give itself, and humility is the fruit of faith.  Hubris and fearfulness are both fruit of the lack of faith (Greek pistis, trust).

All of this is a distortion of Christianity, of course.  Christianity is not an epistemological theory, and sin is not primarily an epistemological problem; however, it has epistemological ramifications.

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  (To be continued, I hope.)