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Archive for June, 2009

Fruit, Forbidden and Otherwise

without comments

First, let me start with the book I mentioned.  It’s Forbidden Fruit, by Paul Kurtz, with a new edition published this year by Prometheus Press.  The original edition, if I remember correctly was put out by Transaction, which is the university press of Rutgers, in New Jersey. 

I may have the publishing history wrong, here–I have the paperback edition of the first edition of this book, and I even know vaguely where it is in my office, but crashing around among the piles for the last few days hasn’t brought it to hand.

The important thing to note here is that Kurtz, emeritus professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, is a significant person in the debate we’ve been having–in the modern debate between religion and the lack of it, and whether or not one can establish a non-relativist moral code without religion–for reasons having very little to do with the actual content of the philosophy he publishes.

Kurtz is sort of the William F. Buckley, Jr. of secular humanism.  The parallels between the two men are actually rather startling. Both started out  in the Fifties trying to revive traditions of American thought they f elt had become moribund in the post-FDR liberal consensus.  Both founded magazines and organizations to promote those points of view.  Both saw the institutions they founded become the originating point of growing and more publicly visible movements.

Kurtz left the American Humanist Association to found what is now called the Council for Secular Humanism–it started out as CODESH, the Council of Democratic and something or the other, one of those names that sounds like a B-movie parody of a Communist front.  CSH was not a Communist front, however, and I have to give it, and Kurtz, credit for at least trying to include various political viewpoints, something the AHA is still unwilling to do.

Along with the organization, Kurt founded another, called CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal,which looks into things like ESP and telekenesis, mostly by sending out investigators who are or have been magicians, and who therefore know what the tricks are.  He founded two magazines, as well:  Free Inquiry, which reports on the CSH side; and Skeptical Inquirer, which reports on the CSICOP side.  He founded Prometheus Press, which was for a long time one of the few publishing houses willing to put out books criticizing and/or denying religion.  It’s now among the top five most successful small houses in the country. 

In other words, Kurtz has done a lot of things in his life, all to advance the cause and arguments of atheism and of secular philosophy in general.  If there are now New Atheists publishing with big national houses and showing up on cable TV, Kurtz is the reason.

But Kurtz’s primary vocation has always been philosophy, and besides doing all the things named above, he’s written a number of books attempting to present a coherent case for a secular morality.

I’ve read pretty much all these books, and the themes run together in my head, but in one of them–and I do think it was Forbidden Fruit–Kurtz pointed out that there is a solid agreement across cultures on at least some moral precepts, and that if we are to construct a useful secular morality, we have to start there.  He called these things the “common human decenies.”

And, so far, I agree with him.  The place we should start investigating the idea of morality, that we should begin looking for an objectivelybased moral code, is definitely in those ideas that we all, or almost all agree on.

And most of those ideas are unexceptionable.  Murder, theft and rape are virtually universally condemned, for example.  Yes, it’s true, the definition of what or who is “human” and therefore protected by such condemnations vary, but the principles do not, and that’s an important thing to know.

The problem with Kurtz’s book, and with every other book of secular morality written in the 20th century (or 21st) that I’ve read, is that the commitment to evidence-based research goes only so far.  When it meets up with something that is universal but contradicts Kurtz’s moral commitments, he ditches the evidence and pounds his convictions.

In other words, Kurtz assumes his moral conclusions, rather than letting the evidence lead where it will.

And there’s a word for what goes wrong, for Kurtz, in the evidence:  women.

Before I go on from here, I’d like to say a few things to the side.  First, we need to separate politics and morality in this discussion.  Democracy is neither moral nor immoral, and natural rights have nothing to do with morality, either.  They’re a separate issue from what we’re discussing here.

Second, I think the fact that some people dissent from the general consensus on some things–that some people don’t care about living in comfort and security and will give those things up for one reason or another–is blown way out of proportion in these discussions.  Most people don’t give a damn about forms of government or moral codes.  They want to have and raise their children in comfort and security, and they’ll go wherever they think they’ll be able to do that best.  They vote with their feet, and they put the dissenters into a distinctly marginal minority.  That’s why China has to pass laws to stop its people from emigrating, and we not only don’t have to do that, but have a bigger problem with too many people eager to get in.

But back to the problem Kurtz and company have, and the problem of women in particular.

I was put in mind of Forbidden Fruit by a review–sort of–in the latest issue of Free Inquiry.  Kurtz is better (smarter and better educated, at the very least) than his reviewer, who produced less a reviewer than a fervent declaration that the days of American conservatism are over, and that we’ll all embrace the federal government and make progress toward a single world government for the foreseeable future.

This is the kind of thing that made me write that essay on the web site called “Why I Am Not A Humanist,” and it’s endemic to organized atheism in the US, at least.   And it’s the frame of mind that leads to the mess Kurtz and others make of trying to work out a secular moral code, or a secular defense of natural rights.

Women, as I said, are the problem, because if we’re looking at universal moral precepts over time, one of the things we find is the double standard of sexual behavior between men and women.  Men can screw around.  Women must remain (at least relatively) chaste.  That’s the case in every single literate society that has ever existed on the planet before the second half of the twentieth century, and all of the ones that exist now outside the EuroAmerican sphere.

But there’s something else that’s universal across all literate (and most nonliterate) societies across time–that women are socially and politically secondary to men.  That phrase covers a lot of ground.  It takes in everything from the Taliban to the US in the Fifties,where women could do anything men could do at the same time that they were routinely discriminated against in employment and education because they were female and where women, but not men, lost significant social status if they were not married. 

Now, here’s the thing.  Any moral code which we adopt has to do at least one thing, and that is that it has to make it possible for a society to survive.  No matter how beautiful your principles are, they won’t do you much good if they result in your being unable to repel a neighbor who wants to conquer you or in your having so many children, you simply die out.

But here’s another thing:  we know from experience that women have fewer children when education are careers are open to them on the same basis as men, and they have a lot fewer children when that is true and there is no stigma attached to their remaining unmarried. 

In Europe right now, women are having so few children that what’s going on is beginning to resemble societal suicide.   In another generation, more ethnically Italian children will be born in the United States than in Italy.  In another three generations, there may be no ethnically Italian children born in Italy at all.

This is not to say that it’s the emancipation and full equality of women in these countries that’s causing the problem, but the problem is unique.  Societies have died out over the course of time, but before now they’ve always gone that route because of losses in war, or great natural devastation, that made the bearing and raising of children difficult to nearly impossible.  Europe is rich, Western Europe especially so.  For all the bitching and screaming they do about “American hegemony,” they’re powerful in the world in many ways, especially economically.

Of course, there may be other reasons why European women no longer have many children.  It can’t be the emancipation of women on its own, because the US is holding its own demographically, and women are at least as emancipated here as elsewhere.

But if we then start to look at what else Europe is doing differently than any society before it, we get even more of what Kurtz and company desperately want to hold onto–we get the cradle to grave comprehensive welfare state.

In other words, if we begin our search for an objective basis for morality in a survey of the moral codes of all cultures throughout time and their apparent effects on their socieites, it looks very much as if Kurtz and company will have to abandon one or more of the precepts they consider vital to human beings behaving morally.

Instead of doing that, they simply bull on past the contradictions and announce (as Kurtz did talking about abortion in one of the books I’ve read) that “all” socieites have agreed with us on this issue, and it only looks like they haven’t.

This is the explanation for the phenomenon John noticed in  his philosophy classes–modern philosophers give up God as a foundation for their preferred ideas (sexual equality, freedom of expression, whatever) and then come up with no actual basis at all for what they want. 

It’s  not that no actual objective basis for morality exists, but that there is no objective basis for some of the things they want to consider moral, and real morality at least may potentially lie in a direction they don’t want to go in.

Personally, I think that all sound thinking about morality starts not only with defining who we will consider to be human–and including everybody, beginning to end–but what we define a “human” to be–that is, back to that other question, of whether human beings are just another animal, different in degree but not kind from the rest of nature, or whether they are a special case.

And that’s a discussion for another time.

Oh, but by the way–NO, I wasn’t suggesting it would be morally good to discriminate against women in any way at all.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Okay, I’m a little bemused–first John says it’s not possible to derive a moral code from our knowledge of human nature, and then he proceeds to derive a moral precept from our knowledge of human nature.

There are two problems going on here.

The first is the assumption, on the part of both Robert and John, that “derive a moral code” means “take one look at the evidence and come up with a complete system full blown that can never evolve, be amended, be questioned, in a situation in which we can never be wrong.”

You couldn’t attain that kind of knowledge about anything, anywhere. Ever.

Knowledge in the natural sciences does not have this quality.  Paleontologists pick up a fossil here and a fossil there, work with what they have to formulate a hypothesis about this particular creature, find other fossils, change the hypothesis…

Why should knowledge of morality be any different than this?  Knowledge is tentative–we do the best we have with what we have and remain open to change based on new evidence. 

The first paleontologists derived from the first fossils a lot of ideas that later turned out to be wrong, or only partial.  They corrected those ideas as new evidence came in.

The other problem is to give far too much weight to the fact that human beings can be perverse–that some individual human beings can dissent from, or actively oppose, whatever moral precepts we discover.

Human beings can dissent from or oppose any knowledge out there–they can declare that everything we say we know about tooth decay is wrong and that they can eat all the sugar they want and never brush their teeth (it’s bad for you!) and never get a cavity.  They can do it, but they cannot escape the effects of their decisions, because the knowledge we have in this case is not wrong, and it’s beyond their capacity to change.

Human beings can, of course, “decide” that any kind of thing is right or wrong.  What they can’t do is escape the consequences.  We do not define right and wrong in a vacuum.  Morality is a set of operating instructions for real human beings in a real world, and not all sets of operating instructions are created equal.

But the issue of whether a moral code differs in its precepts or in its definitions is not a small matter.  In fact, there are vast differences between the two kinds of discordancies.

And no, I don’t think that a difference in definitions is a small thing.  It’s a very large one indeed, and Christianity did an enormous thing when it redefined “human being” to mean “every single human thing that is biologically alive.” 

Still there’s a vast difference between a moral code that says “murder is okay sometimes” and one that says “murder is never okay.  But killing that thing over there isn’t murder, because that thing is not a human being.”

My guess is that there aren’t too many people reading this blog who would have a lot of trouble with the second statement, if “that thing” referred to a steer or a tiger or a Black Widow spider.   That it is okay for human beings to kill not-human beings who are biologically alive has been a moral precept in every single society that has ever eisted on this planet, and even now is only denied by fringe groups in very rich Western countries who are not taken particularly seriously by most of their fellow citizens.

And think of the Fruitarians..

There is no reason, either, why having nailed down a moral precept–murder is never acceptable–we should expect to be able to see, instantly, all its ramifications in all its side issues.  “Grains are part of a healthy diet for human beings” is something generally true, and I see countless declarations of this fact from government and institutional organizations trying to improve the health of twenty-first century citizens.  But some people are allergic to grains, and giving grains to them can cause all sorts of bad things, including death, some of the time.

Abortion is an issue of definition.  The death penalty is more interesting, because it rests on a valid question about response–if I know that grains will make  people healthy and fats will make them unhealthy, what do I do about it?  How do I set up my school cafeteria, my refrigerator at home, my tax structure as it applies to sales tax on food? 

The death penalty is a response.   When Sheila is proved to have murdered her husband for the insurance money, what should we do about Sheila?  How about Mickey, who murdered Craig because he thought Craig was coming at him with a shotgun, except it was dark and Mickey was wrong, and all Craig really had with him was a rolled up map of Nebraska? What about Clark, who murdered Larry, because–so Clark says–Larry asked him to, since Larry was dying of cancer and didn’t want to live any more?

Questions about response can only be answered by an investigation of the effects of such responses in the world at large.  The way we answer the kinds of questions posed above will determine many diverse things about the way our societies function, and some of those answers will provide for better functioning than others.

Real dissent from core moral principles–from the basic moral precepts found in virtually all societies–is a phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and it has specific roots that did not exist anywhere before this in time.

I’ll get to that, eventually, but first I wanted to point out–in the Euthyphro, Socrates asks if we call something morally good because the gods have commanded that it is  good, or if we think the gods have commanded it is good because we already think it is morally good?

It’s an early form of just that kind of examination of the facts about the real world that John and Robert want, and it comes to an uncompromising conclusion–no matter what we say we’re doing, what we are in fact doing is first deciding what we think is good, and then giving the gods the credit for commanding it.  Not the other way around. 

What Socrates is discussing here, the tendency all people all over the world thorughout all of history have had to feel almost instinctively that some things are just “wrong”–and pretty much the same things–is what Aquinas would have called the “natural law,” and what the Catholic Church thought they meant by saying that God’s law had been written on the heart of every man, who could, if he consulted his conscience, discover it.

If we look throughout history at what each society has considered “moral,” we’d be able to come up with a skeleton of basic moral precepts that have applied to all people at all times–and I would argue that, in the case of precepts that honestly very widely in fact (and not just in definition), we’re then looking at peripheral or marginal issues.

The basic code–stripped down, skeletal, “mere morals”–would be famiiar to all of us and probably unexceptionable to most–except for one thing.

Tomorrow, I want to go into a book, just rereleased, called Forbidden Fruit. 

That, and the problem of women.

Written by janeh

June 29th, 2009 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

God on a Sunday

with 3 comments

Well, first, let me say that if I said Augustine, and not  Aquinas, I’m sorry–Aquinas is the great saint of rational proofs of both the existence of God and the discovery of the natural law.

That said, I wasn’t quoting him as an authority–or saying that one should assume that these things are possible on his say so–but to illustrate the fact that the project of investigating the world, and knowing it, “by reason alone,” did not require anybody to be nonreligious, nor did it leave out Christian thinkers.  It was, in fact, a Christian position for over a millennium, and it’s Roman Catholic doctrine to this day.

No, I don’t think we need to take it on the authority of Thomas Aquinas or the Catholic  Magisterium that we can and should investigate our world–including the existence God, the existence of the Big Bang and the particulars of the natural law–by reason alone, meaning without resort to supernatural explanations.  I don’t think we need to assume that this is possible on authority, either.

I think it is possible for us to discover the basics of morality, at least, by reason alone, because that’s the only conclusion that fits with what looks to me to be a fact-that human nature is fixed, and not infiinitely immutable.  

If that’s true, then it’s almost by definition the case that I can investigate that nature, determine its parameters, and devise formula for if-then situations (IF this is the case, THEN people will react more or less particularly).

Note that I’m not trying to be reductionist here.  Human nature may be fixed, but it’s obvious from experience that it’s fixed in a range of responses, not in singular reductionist ones.  But even making allowance for that, I can discover its particulars and the way it operates.

As for “you can’t get from an is to an ought,” yes, you can.  We do it all the time.  We know that if we do  X the bridge will carry the weight of a ten ton truck, and if we do Y it won’t, so we look at the road, figure out of ten ton trucks are coming, and when we know they are we say “we ought to do X.”

In the same way, we can understand how human beings will react to a whole raft of things–rules, disciplines, the behavior of fellow human beings or governments–and we can figure out from that what most human beings will prefer (virtually automatically) given the choice.

Because that’s part of human nature, too–an innate tendency to make certain innate choices.

And it’s true enough that individual human beings are capable of–and will–make other choices, and that that presents an interesting set of problems on its own, but it’s like that Kenny Chensey song.  I believe I speak for the crowd–

As for the differences in morality between philosophers, like I said,  I think there’s a lot less than you’d think.  With very few exceptions, what differs between moral codes is not a matter of the general rules for how we treat human beings, but the definition of a “human being.” 

As far as  I know, Christianity provided the only set of cultural definitions that insisted that anything both living and biologically human was a human being, with the full moral status of a human being.  Treat not the man before you but the image of Christ in that man, the old  Franciscan dictum went–and if they could actually have gotten people to do it, it would be a very different world.

The Greeks were good, but they were not that good.  At least some of the Greek city states considered the newborn to be less than human, and therefore killable by its parents for any reason whatsoever (although the actual practice was often much kinder.  Oedipus was not alone in his adoption).

But I do think I can make the case that Greece was the most successful culture of its time.  For all its faults and frailities, it was, even during its existence, the benchmark of civilization for much of the known world.  It discovered phlosophy, democracy, even the beginnings of science.  Even when the  Greeks were conquered physically, they took over large swathes of the Roman civilization that conquered them.

And it’s with us still.

But let me give you a link here for a minute. 


That goes to Plato’s Euthyphro, at the  MIT  classics archive.  I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now, and then somebody sent me an e-mail saying that the son of a friend of mine was reading it. 

If you’ve never read a Socratic dialogue before, the form may be a little difficult to get used to.  And a lot of modern readers find Socrates’s personality and methods rather annoying.

But here it is, the first known investigation of the pertinent question here–is something morally good because God says it is, or does God say it is because it is already, intrinsically morally good?

Socrates took one side and the Taliban took the other, and the results are interesting.

But we’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2009 at 7:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Robert points out that the FF of the US were not establishing the observation of individual rights in the Constitution because they wanted to enable the study of atoms or chemistry, but because they valued things like freedom of speech, conscience and the press in themselves.

He’s perfectly right, but beside the point.  There are a lot of things in this world worth being valued in themselves–I’ve been arguing that some of those things are what we call the Humanities, and the study of all the Liberal Arts (including chemistry and physics) is predicated on the assumption that these are things worth knowing for the sake of knowing, valuable in themselves, without reference to their practical effects.

But to value something in itself is not the same thing as saying that it has no effects.  When governments observe individual rights, that has effects  on the societies those governments govern.  When they don’t so observe them, that has effects, too. 

And the effects appear to be generally predictable.  Modern natural rights theory–this is the 20th century version I’m talking about here–says that that society which most widely observe the individual rights of the largest percentage of its population will be the most successful relative to the other societies existing at that time.

As far as I’m able to tell, this works historically without a hitch.  You will note, by the way, that the society does not have to observe the individual rights of women and well as men, or not to own slaves at all–although no scientific civilization seems ever to have existed in a society where slavery was widely practiced and common–only that it should be relatively better than the other societies on offer.

What’s more, a scientific civilization requires much more than that one or two people “do science” or invent a few things.  The first scientific civilization ever to have arisen on this earth occurred in Western Europe between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  

And it hasn’t been that easy to transport.  It came to North America without a problem, but the two countries which absorbed it well–Canada and the US–were the cultural offshoots of those same Western European countries where scientific civilization had arisen to begin with.

The Middle East,  Africa and the Indian subcontinent show very spotty results.  The  Middle East and  Africa haven’t managed to do it at all.  India (including what is now  Pakistan) managed, after four hundred years of British rule and a conscious attempt by many of its British-educated Independence leaders, to sort of get started on its way in that direction, but it’s not entirely there yet, either.

Asia presents what is possibly the best case scneario for societies that either do not observe individual rights or greatly restrict that observance:  they pick up the research and innovation done in freer societies and translate it into practical technology of their own, but what “scientific civilization” they manage to maintain is mostly an act of mimicry.

What’s more, when these societies throw up an individual with natural talent in the sciences, those individuals tend to…emigrate to places like here, or England.  America receives the lion’s share of Nobel prizes in the sciences, but many of them go to men and women who didn’t start out as Americans. 

So no, developing a scientific civilization does not require a society to be perfect.  Its relative success will be determined by its relative closeness to the ideal, and there is obviously some point in the continuum between no observation at all and ideal and optimum observation where the scales tip in favor of the development of such a civilization.

But here’s the thing–if those effects are largely predictable, then we’re dealing here with something that is not just human wish and invention. 

And if human nature is fixed, then its operations can be described objectively, even if we don’t yet know how to go about doing that. Scientists described the behavior and effects of electrons before anything existed capable of observing those electrons.

As to God and morality–it’s certainly not the case that the Church had to right about both the ability to prove the existence of God and the ability to discover the moral law, any more than chemistry becomes just opinion and invention because the alchmists couldn’t make gold from lead.   Some lines of inquiry are unproductive or even mistaken without the entire enterprise being condemned to impossiblity.

The proofs of God offered by the Medieval theologians–Aquinas especially, but also Anselm and others–are very sophisticated, and my problem with them is not that they are in themselves inconclusive, but that they do not address any of the things that make me unconvinced by that particlar hypothesis.

My guess is that nobody has ever addressed those things, because when  I ask those questions, I get the inevitable, “who are you to think you can understand the motivations of a being who is immortal and almighty?”

Which is just another way of saying, “shut up and don’t ask questions.”

But the issue with morality comes down to this.

Either human nature is fixed, and it is possible to discover that nature and how it operates–which would be an objective basis for morality.

Or human nature is not fixed, but infinitely malleable, and Plato and  Rousseau were not only absolutely right, but more right than  Edmund Buke or John Locke or Thomas Jefferson.  and we can indeed change men and women so that we have no more war, violence, jealousy or hunger–and, on top of that, we should do it, because the benefits would be far greater in the long run than the pain we would cause in the getting there.

But, as I’ve said before, it seems to me that we have ample evidence by now that human nature is largely fixed and not infinitely malleable, and if that’s the case, it must be possible to describe it and to trace the ways in which it responds to different kinds of stimuli–and that’s all you need for an objective basis for morality. 

As for how much philosophers disagree on what is and isn’t moral–well, two things.

First, philosophers largely disagreed about the make up of the material world–we had four elements, and atoms, and a lot of other things–but that didn’t mean that there was no objective reality to be discovered.  It only meant that we were going about the attempt at discovery in wrong an inadequate ways.

And second, I think philosophers actually disagree on less than you think when they talk about morality.  

But maybe that’s a discusion for another day.

Written by janeh

June 27th, 2009 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Decent People

with 2 comments

First, before I start this, I want to point out that I added a short second post last night, to clarify a point, and that if some of this post seems a bit convoluted, that one may help.

But let’s get on, then, to John’s assertion–that either human rights are based on God because God gave them, or they’re “human inventions.”

Here’s the thing–I don’t believe in God, and I don’t think human rights (or, at least, individual rights) or justice or any of that, is merely a human invention.

Let’s start by untangling the rights thing, first.  People like the sound of “rights,” and they tend to throw the word at anything they think people should have, but the word is not properly defined that way. 

Rights in their original–and only supportable–formulation consisted of those areas of automony each and every individual must be granted by the state if society were to function properly.

What they–I’m thinking of people like Locke here, but also the Milton of Aereopagetica, and others–meant by “function properly” is what you and I would call “establish a stable society capable of making and sustaining progress in the sciences.”

Modern versions of what’s now called Natural Rights Theory are explicit about the benchmark role of the sciences–the first thing you lose when individual rights are not observed by governments is science–but Locke and company knew what they were looking at.

What Locke–and Jefferson–meant when they said that the Creator had given men “certain unalienable rights” was that these rights were based on something innate to human beings–something we were hard wired for. 

It’s not the rights that are innate, of course.  It’s a certain set of predictable human responses to certain environmental conditions. 

In other words, the utopian fantasies of Plato and Marx not only have not worked in the world, they are incapable of ever working in the world, because human beings are not infinitely malleable.  They can’t be made into anything we all.  What is traditionally called “human nature” is ard wired into all of us and cannot be changed short of genetic engineering of the most radical kind.

It is this fixedness of human nature that made the Catholic Church say it was possible to discover the moral law “by reason alone”–even if you knew nothing about God, you could observe human beings and how they behaved, and what things they held in common in their emotions and responses, and work out the moral law from that.

It doesn’t matter if human nature is fixed because it’s hardwired by genes or because God made us this way–and, yes, I do know that those things are not mutually exclusive–it only matters that ir is fixed.  

As long as human nature is fixed and immutable, neither human rights nor morality are “human inventions.”   Instead, their human formulations of an objective truth about being human–think of them as user’s manuals for how to make this machine run at optimum in at least some areas.

The only way rights, or morality, can be merely human inventions is if Plato, and Rousseau, were right–there is no such thing as human nature, and we can make human beings into anything we want them to be if we just change the environment enough.

I think that the untruth of this assertion ought to be self-evident by now, but a lot of people disagree with me.  

The confusion comes, however, with the continual misuse of the word “rights” to mean “stuff we think every human being should have.”

Rights are properly negative–they are a list of things your fellow citizens must not be allowed to do to you, a kind a fence around that first and most important piece of property, yourself.

What the  UN and certain people in Europe and the rest of the West call “human rights,” however, is a mess of positive demands–everybody has a “right” to food, for instance or a “right” to housing.

But a right is an absolute claim.  The only way some people can have a “right” to food or a “right” to housing or a “right” to education is if they are able to compel other people to work for them whether those other people want to or not. 

If you have a “right” to education, then, if nobody chooses to be a teacher, your government must be able to draft the unwilling and force them to be teachers so that you can have your “rights” fulfilled.”  The same is true of all the other laundry list of “human rights” that clutter up the UN Charter.

Human rights, as they have been internationally conceived for the last seventy or so years, pretty much destroy the concept of rights altogether–they are only possible in a world where nobody has any real, individual rights.

But individual rights do exist, and they are not simply something human beings made up.   It matters not at all if we were endowed by a Creator or the blind forces of evolution, our human nature is not infinitely malleable.  It is hard wired to respond in some ways and not in others.  It is the same across races, classes, and cultures.  Rights are those things that, if you violate them, the consequences are always predictable, and vary only in degree, not kind, throughout history.

You’re perfectly capable of building a society based on the suppression of speech and conscience, just like you’re perfectly capable of building a bridge by propping stone slates on unsecured tooth picks. 

If you do it, though, your society will be Afghanistan under the  Taliban, and your bridge will fall down as soon as anybody tries to cross it.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2009 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Word of Clarification

with 2 comments

Okay, usually I won’t post twice on the same day, but I’m losing it here.

You’re misconstruing the phrase “by reason alone.’

It doesn’t mean that God is “entirely out of the equation,’ or that Christianity isn’t part of Western Civ.

Which is a good thing, because the phrase “by reason alone’ comes from Roman Catholic dogma–it is dogma in the Catholic Church that you can prove the existence of God and discover the basics of the moral law by use of secular reason without recourse to Revelation.

You need Revelation to tell you about the salvific mission of Christ, and about the Trinity, which are “revealed truths.”  But that God exists at all?  That, the Church said, you can do on your own without ever having heard a single religious idea in your entire life, by referring toyour own experience and applying logic and reason to what you’ve witnessed and experienced. 

The same is true of the moral law.  In Roman Catholic Christianity–which is pretty much the only Christianity there was in the West for a millennium and a half–the assumption is that the moral law is planted deep in our nature by our Creator, and can be discovered from an inquiry into that nature, even by unbelievers and rank atheists. 

There is nothing about the core Western assumption–that society is something men do, not something handed to them by tradition or God–that requires anybody to be a nonbeliever.

And Augustine is thoroughly inside this tradition.  He made a career of explaining God and the moral law to unbelievers by the use of reason, and he recommends it to his readers.

If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems to me to be a perfect example of why just reading a history “about” philosophy is not enough–you have to actually read the philosophy. 

It’s the process of thought, not the particular content, that matters first, and that process is not always clear–in fact, is virtually never clear–from a third person account.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Apotheosis of the Status Quo

with 3 comments

It occurred to me, reading through the comments from last night, that part of the problem here may be a matter of definition.   Robert says that once a society rejects the core principles of Western civilization, it should no longer be considered part of Western civilization.

I agree, I think I just don’t agree on what those “core principles” are.  Western civilization is uniquely the one that assumes that we can master the world “by reason alone,” that we should not simply accept morality or government or explanations of how the giraffe came to be on the basis of religion or tradition, but should apply our minds to those things instead.

Communism is as thoroughly Western as capitalism is, and the French revolution is as thoroughly Western as the American one.   No matter how different these things look on the surface, and they’re very different in vitally significant ways, they are still examples of societies that assume that the status quo is not sacred and that people can–and should–change even those things that seem most sacred or most anchored in a longevity of usage.  

I  think that what Robert is calling the “core values” of Western Civilization are actually the core values of the Anglophone sphere, which is a very particular branch of that civilization.  I  think a case can be made that it’s also the best branch, and the most useful, but that’s for another topic.

I don’t think we can split the history of political philsophy between one strain that just describes actually socieites and another that wants to change them root and branch. Even a quick look through Aristotle’s Politics will show you that Aristotle was not content with describing and cataloguing the societies around him.  He wanted to formulate principles for change, and did.  He differs from  Plato in that regard only in his essential pessimism.  Plato thought people could change a lot.  Aristotle thought they could only change a little, and that some things about human nature could not be cured, no matter how bad they were.

But you don’t even want a political philosophy that restricts itself to describing what actually is, or limits its recommendations for change to what already exists.  If that’s what we’d done, we’d still have slaves, and women would be unable to vote.  

One of the most interesting things about the history of politics (and political philosophy) is just this:  the most radical, lasting and successful changes to human society have come out of that very  pessimistic, theoretically-committed-to-the-here-and-now philosophical tradition of that same Anglophone sphere.  While Continental Durope was sneering at the British for being a nation of shopkeepers, and preening itself on its “real” (as opposed to the fake American) revolutionary tradition, the British managed to end slavery worldwide (for a time, at least), give women full political rights, and establish religious toleration, while their colonies and former colonies were moving on to full religious freedom and the first modern democratic states.

But besides that, it isn’t true to say that Plato didn’t look into the societies that really existed around him, and it really isn’t true to say that of Hegel.

Look through the Socratic dialogues, and you’ll find endless references to and discussions about the particulars of actually existing societies.  Look through the Laws and The Republic and you’ll see that Plato at least thought he was basing his suggested reforms on life in Sparta, which Plato tended to idealize in ways that were only possible to somebody who didn’t live there.

(Here”s an idea for a blog post sometime–I’ve just finished reading Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World, which is a history that begins in the first Greek city-states and ends with the Emperor Hadrian, and one of the things he kept pointing out at one point was that a lot of the enmity between Athens and Sparta came from the absolute disgust of the Athenians when they discovered that Spartans kept fellow Greeks, and even fellow Spartans, as slaves.  I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that Plato, in his old age, felt it necessary to decamp to the provinces to go on teaching.)

At any rate, Plato was not attempted to found a society from scratch using nothing of what he knew of actual societies to build it.  The Socratic dialogues are absolutely full of the investigation of the particulars of those societies, and criticism of them, and we really don’t want to do without the criticism.

But the thing about Hegel is this:  he not only wasn’t trying to design a society from the ground up, he wasn’t trying to design one at all.   Hegel’s political philosophy consists of a just-so story about how the very society he lived in represented not only the ultimate and final pinacle of civilization, but held that position inevitably.  History had a purpose.  It was a story of progress, which reached its goal in early nineteenth century  Berlin.

Hegel became important not because of blueprints he drew up for the ideal society.  He drew no such blueprints.   He merely described the society he lived in as ideal.

Hegel becomes important because of the way in which he justified his judgment of the perfection, the system he erected to explain why “progress is inevitable” and why that progress necessarily led to the world in which he lived.

It turned out that you could take that idea that “progress was inevitable” and put it to a lot of uses Hegel never even considered.

First, note what should be obvious here: the idea that history has a goal, that it is moving purposefully to a predetermined end, is not Hegel’s invention.   It’s standard Christian eschatology.  In Christianity, life on earth is a story that starts in the Garden of  Eden and ends at the Second Coming.  Its ending is predetermined, because God cannot lose. 

Hegel took God out and substituted History instead.   With Hegel, it always helps to capitalize History.  The role of History, however, is so like the role of  God in the Christian story that the two are largely indistinguishable.  History guides and directs everything we do, even when we’re not aware of it.  History cannot lose the fight to produce that ultimate civilization.  The victory has been predetermined.

Of course, History was a blind force and not a conscious being who could answer prayers–but that distinction is less significant than you’d think.  Even most devout believers don’t expect  God to actualy talk directly to them.  Instead, they expect to have to interpret messages from the Almighty through signs and signifiers.  Hegel thought we could do the same with History.

What Hegel produced was not so much a new political philosophy as a form of Christian heresy–and no, I didn’t think that up.   I wish I had.  I think it was probably pretty obvious.

But here’s the thing–if Hegel constructed what was essentially a Christian heresy, then all the philosophers who followed him and used his ideas as their starting point produced Christian heresies as well.

I got into a lot of trouble on a newsgroup once by pointing this out in regard to  Marxism, only to be told that Marxism might be an ideology, but it couldn’t be a religion, because in order to be a religion it had to have dogma and rituals.  Leaving aside the fact that there are several world religions without dogma, this was a person who apparently wasn’t paying much attention to  Marxism either.  I mean, dogma?  Rituals?   Yes, absolutely.

The apotheosis of history led to two superficially divergent, but actually nearly identical, political philosophies–fascism and communism–and they’re both Christian heresies.  Fascism looks less like one, because it’s so concerned with the will to power, but in fact there’s an entire strain of  Christian theology that concentrates on the power and the glory of the Risen Christ, of Christ triumphant. 

Marxism managed to take over not only Hegel’s apotheosis of history, but Christianity’s revolutionary redefinition of the status of the victim. 

We’ve become so enmeshed with this idea, it’s so much a part of the everyday fabric of our lives, that we don’t even realize that it’s unusual.  It is, however, very unusual indeed.  The idea that victims are have moral status because they are victims, that suffering is valorous and to be admired, is thoroughly Christian and was spread throughout the West along with its conversion from paganism.  It properly comes out of one strain of Judaism, but its force is a result of Paul’s mission, to “preach Christ, Crucified.”

The Romans and the Greeks would have thought this idea was nuts.  So would most present-day Muslims.  It was the part of Christianity that both Nietzsche and fascism rejected, and that rejection is, I think, part of why fascism has had a limited appeal in the West.

Marxism took Christ off the cross and nailed the Proletariat up there instead, and by doing so made it possible for a secularizing people to transfer their allegiance from the old religion (Christianity) to the new one (Marxism) without missing a beat. 

I don’t think that this is the only reason Marxism has had such staying power in the West, but it’s part of the reason, and I would think a big part.  I don’t think Marxism as a phenomenon, as it has played out in the West, makes any sense except as a religion, and as a specifically Christian religion.  

Maybe the word I’m looking for is “Christianoid.”

Whatever the word is, or should be, we come down to this:  Plato and Hegel and Rousseau and Marx are not only indelible parts of Western civilization, but they have and will continue to influence us all in a lot of ways.   Ideas have consequences, but those consequences are not always entirely straightforward, or unmarked by divergencies.

Both the American revolution and the French one derived from the same sources.  Both the ideals of the Anglophone sphere and those of Continental sources derived from the same sources.   If  I set a two balls rolling down a hill, they won’t necessarily take the same course. 

If you want to keep the particular strain of Western civilization that resulted in the ideals and assumptions of the Anglophone sphere, you have to know all of it, even the stuff that didn’t lead to what you want, because if you don’t, you’re going to get hit in the face b the newest variation coming down the line.

And even if you know it, you might still get blindsided.

And here I am again, and not a word about the Durants.

Ack.  Big day. 

See you all later.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2009 at 5:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Variations on a Theme

with 2 comments

Every once in a while, I get up in the morning and wonder just how much trouble I’m willing to get myself into, and end up deciding that it’s a lot.  So, let’s take a look at Rousseau, and Hegel, and Nietzsche and all the rest of the philosophers Robert seems to think–I  may be getting this wrong–don’t actually fit into the Western tradition.

First, Robert says:

>>>As for Literature, a few months ago it was worth studying for its own sake–like dance and porcelain–and we were to study the best specimens of each type.>>>

To start with the obvious, I NEVER  said we should study literature “like dance and porcellain.”  

In fact, I said we SHOULDN’T.

The study of literature is not properly classified with the study of dance or porcellain or basket weaving–those things might fit into a coherent category with creative writing, but not with the study of literature.

The study of literature would fit best in a category with philosophy, history and chemistry, not “dance and porcellain.”

Which I’m misspelling.

As for studying it for its own sake–of course.  We study all the liberal arts, including physics and chemistry and biology,  for their own sake–that’s why they’re the liberal arts.  

But the fact that some things are worth studying for their own sake does not mean that we can’t take what we’ve learned and use it in our lives and our world.  Of course we do, all the time.  In fact, we use what we’ve learned in literature, philosophy and history much more often than we use what we’ve learned in, say, particle physics, and there are entire areas of the natural sciences that produce no pragmatically applicable knowledge at all.   It really does not matter if we know how fast the universe is expanding, and never will.

Then there’s this, also from Robert:

>>>Philosophy. I’m sorry, but if observing reality and drawing conclusions is all that’s required, I’ve been practicing philosophy without a license for years. But can that definition be stretched to include Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Nietzche, none of whom are noted for actually checking their diktats against reality?

I don’t say philosophy can’t be stretched to include some interesting and useful writing, but Locke seems better placed with Hobbes, Parkinson’s EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT or even PJ O’Rourke–and wherever that is, it’s not the center of Philosophy, though it could be off in the hinterland.

First, the basis of philosophy is the quest to find answers to the most basic human questions–what is matter, what is the good, etc–by reason alone.  That is–without resort to the supernatural.  If you ponder life and death and try to figure them out without resorting to “well, God said…” you are doing philosophy, albeit at a rather minimal level. 

Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Nietzsche all fit quite comfortably into that definition.  And I think that they did, in fact, make reference to the reality around them.  They were, however, forced–given the state of the natural sciences of their time–to take sides on an issue that could not be empirically decided at the time and that provides rather contradictory partial evidence in the everyday world.

That’s the question of nature and nuture–how much of what we are is a matter of what we’re born with, and how much is a matter of how we’re raised, educated, and socialized?

We’ve actually come a long way in the last thirty years or so in finding biological-neurological answers to this question, sort of, but it’s still nowhere near clear.  And if you’d lived in a society where genes had not yet been discovered, the empirical evidence around you would not be conclusive in either direction.

Or worse, it would seem to be conclusive in both directions.

Any mother can tell you that children are vastly and distinctly different from the day they’re born. Hell, practically from the minute they’re born.  I can still remember Matt, barely three hours old, reacting to his first kiss on the cheek (from his father) by rearing his head back and delivering a devastating glare.   He absolutely hated that tight little coccoon thing all newborns are supposed to love, and kicked it apart every time the nurse wrapped him in it.  Then he glared at her, too.  Greg, on the other hand, loved that coccoon, and he was always smiling at everybody and everything.

At the same time, any teacher can tell you that environment can make an enormous difference.  It won’t raise or lower your IQ or change your basic temperament, but it will determine lots of things like work and life habits, you overall fund of general knowledge (which can make you look smarter on those tests that determine so much, thereby giving you opportunities, which in turn…), and do all kinds of other things we take for granted are a matter of “how we’re raised.”

But it can have bigger consequences than that.  Consider envy, one of the most basic human emotions, one of the most destructive ones, and one of the most universally acknowledged in literature, philosophy, and history. 

For the purposes of this post, I’m conflating the definition of envy and jealousy–as bitterness at the fact that other people have more than you do.  Envy technically is the emotional state where you would rather have both you and the people around you be dirt poor, than have you all be richer if you in particular were less rich than the rest.  Jealousy is just wishing you had what somebody else does.

There’s certainly plenty of envy in this society, but it is one of the most striking things about our politics–and the reason why “class warfare” politics doesn’t work very well here–that the ordinary middle class American doesn’t seem to engage in it much.  He’d like to win the lottery, or get the kind of job that would pay twice what he has, but you know?  Bill Gates?  God bless him.   Isn’t it great he can do all that stuff!

I really enjoyed Thomas Franks’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he really hit a wall on this one.  It drove him completely crazy that so many people just didn’t seem to care that other people had so much more than they did.  As ong as they felt they had enough, they were perfectly willing to let Bill Gates have his fifty thousand square foot house.  Besides, Gates looked like he’d earned it.

This is not a minor finding here.   The fact that you can reduce the total amount of envy in your society, even in the face of significant inequalities of material resources, by producing a general prosperty even at the lower levels of the scale, is nothing but good news.  

But it also gives rise to a question about what else might be malleable in the human condition.  And it’s a legitimate question.   We just don’t know, at this point, how far we can improve ourselves and our societies at that basic level of human nature.  What else, besides envy, might be manageable under the right cultural conditions?

Consider, for instance, something that we know is innate and inborn–the drive of adolescent males to risk taking and violence.  This is consistent across cultures and it doesn’t go away, and much of any society’s resources is taken up with trying to figure out how to handle it.  The vast majority of violent crime is committed by males between the ages of 15 and 35, and every prison warden knows that all except for a very small percentage of violent offenders become much easier to handle (and much less violent) when they hit their mid-forties.

We also know that some attempts to deal with this situation do not work very well–the forced feminization of much of our educational system, for instance, doesn’t work at all on the boys we need to be most worried about, and tends to make a lot of the others mutinous and recalcitrant, bringing down their grades and their prospects at the same time.

But some of our attempts to deal with this issue have worked very well indeed.  Any sane person would rather have the adolescent males in his community joining the football team than the local biker gang, or competing for who gets the highest score in World of Warcraft than who can rack up the most rapes on the week-end.

What’s more, even the more straightforward kind of nurture, teaching people that X is wrong and then expecting them to stop themselves from doing it, works at least sometimes.  We didn’t eliminate the problem of rape–which is probably perfectl natural, and yes, probably largely about sex–by teaching men it was wrong and that they shouldn’t do it, but we suppressed the vast majority of it, and that’s not a small thing.

It was therefore not stupid, or delusional, or lack of checkin into the evidence that made somebody like Plato think that the behavior of human beings was determined by their environment, and not by any innate tendencies delivered by the gods or human biology. 

And that is, after all, an enormously hopeful assumption.  If the way human beings behave is the result of the way we raise them, then it should be possible to raise them differently and get different results–to eliminate war, crime, even irresponsibility and hatred.

The problem, of course, is that when you actually try to do this, it turns out to be a lot harder in practice than it looks like in theory.  And I think Plato knew that, too–I think that the reason why The Republic is a blueprint for totalitarianism is precisely because Plato was rsponding to real evidence in the real world that the traits he was trying to eradicate were a lot less amenable to training than he had hoped they would be.

The Republic shares a lot–in fact, is the original source of–the philosophies not only of outwardly totalitarian states like the old USSR, but also of the kind of child development “expert” who thinks that if we can only control every aspect of a child’s environment, we can produce a perfect little regiment of good, successful, happy people who will never commit crimes, do drugs, or have children of their own at the age of twelve.

And that assumption is held, these days, by a lot of the right as well as by a lot of the left.  Your local  Christian academy is as involved in the attempt to totally control the environment of its children as your local public school.  It’s just that where the public school is carefully erasing any mention of junk food or good people (say,  FDR) who smoke cigarettes from its reading selections, the Christian academy is doing the same with the stories of gay people who are happy being gay and teen-agers who have sex without ruining their lives.

There was no lack of resort to empirical evidence for Plato.   He looked at the same evidence everybody else did, and interpreted it as best he could, and his conclusions were only really partly wrong.  But they were not willfully stupid, and they were not simply flights of fancy unconnected to a study of the real world or the evidence to be found in it.

Okay, ack, it’s late.  I haven’t gotten to half of this.  I’ll put off both Hegel and Will and Ariel Durant until tomorrow.

Also peace and justice.  I’ll get there.  I promise.

But one thing–I’d put Hobbes smack inthe middle of the Western philosophical tradition, and I think he’s got a ot more in common with Plato than with Locke. 

But that, yes, of course, is going to have to wait for another time.

Written by janeh

June 24th, 2009 at 8:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Philosophy and Physics, Or Something

with 5 comments

Okay, I’m going o try to get to a bunch of stuff in turn.

Robert asks why, just because the  Founding  Fathers knew Greek, Roman and even English history, that should mean that philosophy and literature should be in the core curriculum.

But the Founding  Fathers didn’t just know the history.  They knew the philosophy as well, and they knew it thoroughly.  What’s more, they knew the extentions of that philosophy that had recently appeared in English philosophy–they knew John Locke, they knew the arguments in defense of freedom of the speech and press that had been made by  Milton and others.

The America they founded was an exercise in philosophy, and they knew it.  Some of the best political philosophy ever written was written in the run-up to the establishment of the Constitution.  Histor was what the used to test their political ideas against reality–to the extent they were able to, they tried to find what had and hadn’t worked in the past, so that they would know what would and wouldn’t work in the present.

But philosophy was still what they were doing, and philosophy was still what they were founding a country on.   And that was a good thing and a bad one, which I really mean to get to some time later.

But the reasons for philosophy and literature to be in the core curriculum are obviousL  because they are both part of what makes us us, and uniquely us, and it requires being uniquely us to produe the science you’re so fond of.

Philosophy is the story of how we first came to decide that all the questions in life–about the natural world, about ethics, about government, you name it–could be understood by approaching them on the basis of evidence, and with their causes restricted to the materials to be found in this world. 

Philosophy is not religion precisely because it does not allow for “God says so,” or for supernatural forces to control and direct what we do and think.  

Literature we study for two reasons.

First, because Western literature, like all the literatures that have ever existed, is the narrative that defines this civilization.  Civilizational definition always occurs in narrative.

But second, Western literature provides something unique in world literatures, and that is a sweeping, comprehensive and detailed account of the full range of human nature in action.   If we were doing more of it, it might save us from the “bitterness dysphoric disorder,” or whatever it was.

(Hi< Cathy–I’m going to go look this up in a minute, but I thought the psychiatrists were the Freudians, and the DSM was the manual that decided things like the definition of  ADHD, which doesn’t sound like a Feudian definition.  Never mind, I’ll get back to that later.)

Anyway, John asked about the predictive qualities of the  Humanities.  I think he’s restricting the definition of “predictive” too much.

Back at the time when DNA was discovered, some guy in England wrote out a list of 11 things that would have to be true about DNA if Darwin was right and evolution was a fact. 

Over the next twenty years, all of those 11 things turned out to be true.   That’s pretty damned predictive, even if it isn’t predticting a future event. 

As for the particular issue you were dealing with–I think you’d have to frame the issue differently than you’re doing.

The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution exists to protect the minorities from the majorities.  The point of it is precisely to stop majority rule in some areas, to allow “majorities of one” in speech and conscience, for instance.

This is actually a more interesting question than you realize.   For instance, for the Greeks, the concept of “freedom” was defined almost entirely as one of self-determination.  A city-state was free if its citizens could vote to do whatever they wanted to do, without being imposed upon either by a king or a foreign power.

This had some very interesting side effects, of which the best known is certainly the execution of Socrates.  And that was more complicated than it looked on the surface.   This was not Attica they imprisoned Socrates in.  He could easily have simply left town and saved himself in the process, and we’ve got decent evidence that this is what the citizens of  Athens expected him to do.   His refusal to do so (in the Apology? I’m sorry.  I can’t remember this morning.  I slept in, never a good idea with me.) is one of the more distinctive philosophical discussions of the nature of an individual’s obligation to his country out there.  And it’s lent force by the fact that Socrates did not abscond, but lived out–or died for–what he had decied was true.

Political philosophers in  England knew Socrates, and they also knew most of the discussion that came after him, of what a man (or woman–in Christianity, women were held responsible for their consciences to exactly the same extent as men) owed the sovereign who ruled him.  Christianity said that men were required to obey their superiors in “all things that are not contrary to the will of God,” which is a squishier concept than it appears to be on the surface.

That’s especially true in Christianity, where salvation is supposed to rest on faith, and that leaves open the question of “faith in what?” 

Put all of the above together with Martin Luther–try The Freedom of a Christian–who argued that each man was given the competence to interpret scripture for himself, and then a near century of blood religious wars, and you land at John Locke, desperately trying to get it all into one package. 

The resulting package was the US Bill of  Rights, which exists because the FFs took from the philosophy they knew and the history they knew a firm conviction:  the majority will beat the crap out of the minorities if they get half a chance.  The only way to stop that from happening is to deprive the majority of certain kinds of power altogether.

I don’t think the US Supreme Court is a panel of gods who can do no wrong.  I think they have decided wrongly any number of times, and I certainly think that they go overboard now and then.

But the overboard seems to right itself over time, and I’m less worried about that than I am about another question: given the truth that there will always be new wrinkles on old passions, that some people will always be out to crush the freedom of speech, press and conscience of people with “bad” ideas, what system, with or without a Bill of Rights, is most likely to stop them?

Right now,  I’m much more worried about expansive “hate speech” legislation–the prosecution of Oriana Fallaci in Italy, a couple of things that have happened in Australia, including one n which some pastor was convicted of a hate crime because he quoted the Koran; proposals in the UK and the UN to make it a crime to “insult” somebody else’s religion–than  I am about the silly pettiness of which songs we get to sing at the Christmas (winter!) concert. 

So far, the US Bill of Rights has successfully beaten back the hate speech juggernaut.  You can’t be prosecuted for hate speech at all, and “hate crimes” are things that are already crimes (like murder or assault) for which you can get an extra couple of years added to your sentence if your motive was one form of bigotry or another.

I’m not happy with even that, but it’s a far cry from the Fallaci persecution, or the one against Hollebeq (sp?) in France.

John said some interesting things about modern philosophers and truth and justice, which  I want to get to tomorrow.

But first–Lee, yes, of course, there are lots of places you can go to get a thorough grounding in the Humanities without having to go back to school.

If this was thirty years ago, I’d suggest you start with Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume The Story of  Civilization.   It’s now out of print and costs a mint, although you might be able to get it through the library or on inter library loan.  I read my way through it over the course of six years–in which  I was also reading everything else–when I was in junior jigh and high school.  My father had a set which I still have around the house. 

But there are lots of places to start with this.  I even have one up on the web site, under the section called Reading and Writing.  I think I may have posted a link to it in the early days of the blog.  It’s called The Western Canon According to Me.

You might look up the work of Jacques Barzun, who has a couple of books out meant to give an overview of civiliation as we know it, or don’t know it, as the case may be. 

And if you want to spend money, there are excellent courses on DVD and audio tape from The Teaching Company and The Great Courses. 

Any of these things, plus dozens of sites on the web, can give you preliminary reading lists of the basic works in the Humanities.   Nobody has read them all.  Nobody could.  But once you have the outline you can follow your incliinations.  If you’re like me, some things will make you nuts.  Hegel is vitally important to understanding an entire sequence of events in the West–the rise of Messianic politics, of Naziism, fascism and Communism; Hegel is the Apostle of Totalitarianism–but h is prose is so turgid and his passion for jargon so intense, he just makes me want to scream.

I’ll look around and see if I can’t find some good links to post to general overviews.  I know that the eople who run the AP course program have some good ones, although some of them go out of sequence for some reason or the other.

And now I’m going to go look up the DSM again.  I’m goin to get back to Gail’s statues one of these days.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

War! Uh! Huh! What Is It Good For? Absolutely–Okay, Never Mind

with 5 comments

So John says he knows that the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments evolved from the British, and that they’re similar and different in many ways, but he doesn’t see anything he could use that information for. 

And Robert says we don’t have “departments” of alchemy and astrology any more, so philosophy has nothing to do except blither about and be sort of like religion.

On the subject of what is it good for, I’d first like to point out that we know that therapsids are the intermediate forms between reptiles and mammals, and we take endless (and very expensive) measurements of the rate at which the universe is expanding, and there is absolutely nothing we can do with either  piece of information, or with a significantly large hunk of what the sciences study and discover.

We study it because it is there to know.  Period.  We want to know because we want to kno.  A love of knowledge for its own sake is the basis for all human progress.   It’s another one of those things the Greeks invented without which we could never have built the scientific civilization we’re so proud of now.

But physics and chemistry are now separate departments–rather than divisions of philosophy, as they started out–because we’ve found new ways of investigating the things they concern themselves with.

Like it or not, ethics, government, and human nature are areas where we desperately need to know and understand, but where no alternative paths to discovery yet exist.

Anthropology certainly investigates “cultural norms,” but its purpose is to catalogue and describe them.   Moral or ethical philsophy often also investigates cultural norms, but looks to compare them, to figure out the conseqences o each set of ideas and to determine the moral partially–note the partially–on the basis of what those consequences are.

As for human nature–the evolutionary psychologists are interesting for providing a scientific basis for the assumption (before the twentieth century, the fixed assumptions of everybody everywhere) that human nature is largely inborn, but it’s not much good at doing anything about that except positing genetic surgery to get rid of some human fault or the other.

And clinical psychology is mostly a mess.  I’d say that, based on most of what comes out of the “clinical psych community” these days–there’s a move underfoot to make “bitterness” a “disorder” in the new  DSM–clinical psych is not only not a knew and better way to understand human nature, it’s a positive step backwards. 

But on top of that, philosophy departments do indeed–or good ones do–insist that people read Aristotle’s Natural History and quite a bit more of what you’d think is “discarded” science, because the point of studying intellectual history–philosophy, literature, et al–is to replicate as far as possible the evolution of the thought..

Historical events are not available for us to participate in.  The evolution of mammals is not available for us to participate in.  We have to look at these things from the outside, describe them as well as possible, and go from there.

But intellectual history is available for us to paticipate in.  We don’t have to read “about” what Aristotle or Kant or Jefferson thought, we can read Aristotle and Kant and Jefferson. 

And the fact that we can do this has had, over time, very real consequences in the very real world.  Jefferson and Madison and  Adams were all educated in classics, first and foremost.  They read Plato and  Aristotle and Seneca and Cicero, and then they read John Locke–who’d read all the same things.  They knew Milton’s Aereopagetica and Martin Luther’s The Conscience of a Christian.  They took what they knew, looked at how it had worked itself out in history, and came up with a plan for a Republic that they thought would work better because they’d cured a few of the kinks Republics had tended to have.

We don’t read Plato and Aristotle know because we’re can’t decide who’s right and whose wrong.  We read them because they’re among the first steps in a long journey which we want to participate in.  Participating in that journey is valuable in itself–just as studying the evolution of mammals is valuable in itself–but at the moment, I think it’s also vitally, practically important.

I feel like we’re rowing in a sea of ignoance so profound and so universal it’s coming close to swamping us.  It comes from both the left and the right, neither of which have any idea how this country was actually founded, or on what principles, or by what reasoning.

Both sides throw around breathtakingly inane crap that would have put a 1939 fifth grader into fits of giggles.  The Right declares that we’re a “Christian nation” fonded on “Judeo-Christian principles” and that we couldn’t have derived any of what we do from the Greeks and the Romans because they didn’t have the concept that “all men are created equal.”  This argument proves that its proponents not only know virtually nothing about the American founding or the men who made it, but nothing about the intellectual history of “Judeo-Christian principles,” either.

The left junps up and down declaring that separation of Church and state means nobody can mention God in public or base any decision he makes (in office or out) on his faith, and that the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to own guns because it was meant to make sure states could field militias.   These arguments prove that their proponents know no history and don’t even know what a militia was at the time the Bill of Rights was written.

The  more people I have with a thorough grounding in the Humanities–philosophy and literature as well as history–the less the likelihood that I have to put up with arguments like these, or the endless erosion of the rights and liberties that have been fundamental to this place at this historical moment in time.

If we have enough people who know this–all of this–if we have enough people who have actually participated in the conversation from beginning to end, then no matter what falls apart, we’ll be able to put it back together, or put it together in new ways that may last longer and be less prone to faults.

If we lose this and keep the math and science, the math and science will not be able to reproduce liberty, democracy, or the principle that every individual is an end in himself and not the means to the ends of any other. 

And in the long run, we’ll lose the math and scence, too. 

And here I am, and I never got around to the statues.

The other da, Gail remarked on the differenes between the idealizing Greek style in statuary and the Renaissance style with more acceptance of human fraility, and I wanted to say something–which speaks to Cheryl’s thing about heroes, too, and the way we portray them–about the Roman statuary of the early Republic/Beginning of the Empire.

Because the Romans produced statues, of Julius Caesar, among others–that are eerily almost like photographs, they’re so realistic.

Okay, maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2009 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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