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Wind Storm

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Actually, what we had yesterday in Connecticut was a whole series of thunderstorms that rolled through the state and seem to have pretty much trashed the city of Bridgeport, maybe via a small tornado.  It’s hard to tell, but there are branches all over my yard this morning and Bridgeport made Fox News.  They’ve declared a state of emergency down there and everybody keeps showing the picture of this three story tall building that looks as if the Seismosaurus from Hell has just taken a bite out of the top of it.  It’s very impressive.

As for me–well, a couple of things.

The first is that it interests me that people who have responded to that last post, in comments and e-mail, have largely ignored the second issue for the first.

That is, they’ve talked about the fact that even people born into disadvantaged circumstances–to alcoholic parents, or poverty, or whatever–sometimes make quite a lot of their lives.

And that’s certainly true.  But the bigger issue, I think, is the second one–that some people are born with more intelligence and more talent than other people, and some people are born with very little of those things indeed.

Yes, Obama’s family was poor, and so was Lincoln’s–but I’d be willing to bet that both of them had IQs above 140.

Think of all the people, born poor and middle class and rich, who struggle to get through basic arithmatic because they just can’t understand it, no matter how hard they work.  Think of the people who cannot make simple inferences about things like the connections among a series of bus routes.  And I do mean CANNOT.  People for whom all the education and training in the world just won’t make it possible for them to understand.

There really are such people in the world, and they’re not mentally retarded.  They’re just not very bright.

Certainly they didn’t choose to be not very bright–it’s not their fault in any way that they are unable to “get” algebra or contextual analysis.

If, in a meritocracy, people are supposed to rise or fall by their merits.

And if, in a meritocracy, we feel the moral need to equalize opportunities as far as possible so that mere accidents of birth like race or being born to jerks do not prevent people from succeeding.

Then why is involuntary lack of talen any different than involuntary membership in a race or a sex?

The lack of talent is just as unchosen as is the race.  It is just as much an accident of birth.

Let me try to be clear here–I do not actually think the luck egalitarians are right here, but why I don’t think they’re right has to do with the practical aspects of the case, not the moral ones.

And it’s the moral ones the luck egalitarians are trying to address.

If, in fact, a meritocracy is legitimized by saying that rewards should go to those who earn them, and further that those rewards should not in any way be dependent on accidents of birth–

Then what makes it acceptable to penalize this particular kind of accident of birth?

Cheryl complains that I’m defining “success” materially, but both the meritocrats and the luck egalitarians do so as well–the issue is, who decides and on what basis is the decision made, who gets more or less of the material resources of any particular society.

If, in all other ways, we resist the idea that biology is destiny–why do we accept the idea that biology is destiny HERE?

In terms of making a moral argument for liberty, this is not a minor issue. 

And I think what got me about that article I posted yesterday was this–one of the prime differences between people who argue for liberty and people who argue for equality is that most of the people who argue for liberty do so on pragmantic grounds, while most of the people who argue for equality do so on moral ones.

This was, I think, a big issue in the health care debate.  The Republicans had a lot of practicaly, commonsense objections to the Obama plan, a lot of which are probably true.

But the question was not, “will this plan work?”  The question was, “a family that’s worked hard and saved and struggled for decades has a kid with cystic fibrosis and ends up getting dumped from their health insurance plan, trashed economically trying to pay for the kid’s treatments and then thrown out on the street when they’ve exhausted all their resources–we think that’s morally wrong.  What is your plan for doing something about it?”

And the Republicans did not, in fact, have such a plan. They had no method at all of addressing that kind of problem, of insuring that accidents of birth or fortune (think about getting hit by a drunk driver when you’re sober yourself) do not destroy whole families financially because of the cost of medical care.

In any argument in which one side is making pragmatic points and the other side is making moral ones, the moral side will almost always win.  For most people, morality trumps pragmatism every time. 

That is, I think, why Ayn Rand was and is so enormously popular as a writer–because she tries to make a case for liberty on moral grounds, not simply on practical ones.  That’s why so many people who reject wholesale whole swaths of her ideas–the atheism; the idea that women’s nature wants to be “mastered” by a man–still call themselves Randians or Objectivists without a problem. 

What that article said to me was that the case for liberty must be made on moral grounds, and not because “God said so.”  If it is not made on moral grounds, it will lose.

And yes, part of making that case will be defining success in such a way that it is not only about material resources.  And part of making that case will be insisting that we all pay attention to the consequences.

But the moral issue will be more important, because men and women in the real world respond more strongly to moral arguments than they ever have, or ever will, to practical ones.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2010 at 8:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Wind Storm'

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  1. You can’t decide on an answer to a moral question in isolation. It won’t fit with your answers to other moral questions if you do, and you’ll end up with a moral code that’s full of inconsistencies and irrationality.

    That is, of course, what passes for moral codes and discussion over moral issues among a lot of people, especially today.

    So, I don’t think it’s possible to come up with an answer to your question since you – or rather, the people you are wondering about – are trying to cobble together a whole lot of moral ideas about what makes people valuable and what sorts of aims and achievements should matter in a good life and attach them to a practical outcome – the desire to protect people who are unlucky in life.

    You can start with various assumptions about what it means to be a human and end up anywhere from ‘make them all slaves to be protected by the superior humans’ to ‘change the aims of society to recognize other values than brains and money’…I could think of lots of others if I had time. But you can’t start with ‘let’s find a moral reason to fix the lot of the unfortunate’ because you’ll have no particular reason to prefer one solution over another, and sooner or later the contradictions caused by everybody starting from the end point and assuming their own version of the underpinning ideas will destroy any cohesion or agreement among people as to what needs to be done.

    I think I’m not expressing myself well, and I really don’t have much time today. It’s sort of like everyone agreeing that we need to help pregnant women and then discovering that there are different views on whether abortion is a help to them – which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but seemed to in Canada recently.

    It seems like quite an impressive storm. We routinely get about 100 kph (62 mph) in a normal storm, but you beat that by a bit.


    25 Jun 10 at 8:28 am

  2. It seems to me that there’s a place for moral arguments and a place for pragmatic ones, but the problem is where one draws the line. To me, defending individual liberties at almost all costs makes sense because without that we haven’t got the nation we thought we had.

    But questions of how to pay for health coverage probably should be a more practical argument, and I suspect the Republicans know so. Their use of moral arguments is tactical, and you know, it works.

    The problem is that tactical considerations aside, there’s probably almost no point at which you’d have consensus about whether an issue is moral or practical. That’s pretty much the divide on abortion too, when you think about it.

    It also seems that taking a moral stance lets you ignore minor irrationalities (like the teabaggers who want to keep the government out of their Medicare).

    I’d prefer that everyone involved be capable of rational thought and at least KNOW when they’re arguing morals and when they’re arguing practicalities, but I doubt I’m going to get what I want in that respect.


    25 Jun 10 at 10:05 am

  3. But the Republicans DIDN’T use moral arguments on the Obama health care bill.

    They used practical ones, and only practical ones.

    It was the DEMOCRATS who framed the issue in moral terms and kept it there–as a vote about whether that family should lose the house when their child was born with a disability.

    The Republicans came in and said, “hmm, but these numbers don’t work!” and nobody cared.

    Because they needed to here how the Republicans would solve that family’s problems.

    The moral argument won–and it always will, in a situation like that.


    25 Jun 10 at 11:02 am

  4. First, when did socialism become about equality? Socialism is about WHO DECIDES who gets what, and I have yet to see ragged half-starved member of a Board of Production or a barefoot Price Control Authority. A few days go there was a report that North Korea was once more permitting citizens to buy and sell food because “the number of deaths by starvation was getting out of control.” One wonders, of course, how many deaths by starvation would be regarded as an aceptable price for the maintenance of North Korean Socialism–or indeed any other kind. You CANNOT separate the “moral” from the “pragmatic” in political and economic policy.

    I’m sure Obama and Lincoln would test quite well–and I am sure that we have people with IQs of 140 or more working small farms or living in rented rooms because they lacked other helpful traits. The point was not that we are born equal, or raised equal, but that we can’t tell. Every failure has some good reason why he ought not to have succeeded–but so do the successes.

    Health care. Do we HAVE to do health care again? If we must, it’s fair to point out that Republicans have been offering chronic and catastrophic insurance plans for a good 20 years–and ways to lower the cost of those plans if purchased privately. This was consistently opposed by liberals who wanted the whole shooting match. Yes, Obama and Pelosi said there was no alternative to their plan. But they’ve said a great many things.

    And is a political party passing a program over the steadfast and rising objections of the electorate the moral argument “winning?” That would make the Yazoo Land Development Company a great moral triumph.


    25 Jun 10 at 3:54 pm

  5. Socialism has always claimed to be about equality. Sure, it’s failed more often than not, if you use ‘socialism’ to include various flavours of communism and especially to exclude various western democracies that have some socialist aspects. (I think ‘socialism’ is like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’; it now means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, and we need another, clearer term.)

    That’s the great appeal of socialism, after all – that it’s not just the rich and powerful who get to decide how things will be done, or who get access to education and health care.

    Of course, with the innate human tendency to create hierarchies, socialists (ie, the political doctrinaire type) usually end up replacing the old hierarchies with new ones, but it’s the claim to the equality of opportunity to get in the new hierarchy and the claim of equality of access to necessities that’s their big selling point. So, yes, socialism is about equality.

    I don’t really think you can separate the moral from any aspect of life, which is why the rather incoherent state of modern moral thinking is distressing to me.


    26 Jun 10 at 7:44 am

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