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Archive for July, 2010

Late in the Day

with 5 comments

It is, in fact, much later in the day than I usually write anything, but it’s been insane from off, and I’m just glad I got Gregor done and in the box (metaphorically, these days) before my allergies exploded and I had to go lie down with ice on my eyes again.

But it’s later in the day, I’ve got a lot of Diet Coke with lime wedges, and…well, here I am.


The annoyance came a few days ago, actually, at a meeting I was required to attend for reasons that are beyond complicated.  And I won’t go into them.

Part of the meeting was a partial viewing of a PBS documentary called Sentenced Home, about two young men who were immigrants from Cambodia, who had been here since childhood, but who had, in their teen aged years, been members of street gangs and committed crimes for which they were convicted of felonies.

According to the film, changes in immigration law after 9/11 now makes these young men liable to being deported because a) they never bothered to get citizenship (they have green cards) and b) they are felons, although the law at the time they committed their crimes did not make them liable to being deported, and they’ve lived practically exemplary lives ever since.

Now, I’ve got some questions about this–I don’t understand, for instance, why this post-9/11 thing doesn’t qualify as an ex post facto law, which is unConstitutional–but that’s not really what I wanted to complain about.

I didn’t even want to complain about the accompanying “educational module packet” (I swear, English teachers love the word “module” because it sounds “scientific”), which started right out with a timeline declaring that 1492 was the date on which “the genocide of indigenious peoples” started with the arrival of Columbus.

Someday, honest to God, I’m going to take out commercial time on Cable television just to broadcast the actual definition of “genocide.”

But, like I said, that wasn’t it.  That was pretty much par for the course.

What got to me was the comments that went around after we’d seen the clip, which were–well, about as mind bogglingly stupid as anything I’ve ever complained about from students.

But you have to understand something.  By and large, the people who work in this place are not “intellectuals” as we usually use the term here.  Most of them don’t have PhDs, for instance, and most of them would be teaching just about anywhere else if they could manage it.

So I’m not sure  you could use what went on here as an example of what happens in a “normal” English department, because this is not in any way a normal English Department.

But here’s what I learned:

1) In spite of all the complaining they do about Fox News, most of these people are channeling Bill O’Reilly.  They think that the protections in the Constitution–due process, free speech, that sort of thing–only apply to citizens. 

2) They are all convinced that the US is “terrible” in its response to immigrants.  When I pointed out that most countries don’t allow immigrants to become citizens on any terms, they went, mhhhm, hummm, but–

Ah, but that’s when the shit really hit the fan, in the form of a woman, born Jamaican, I think, from the accent, and immigrated here from London, announced that every other country gives a safe haven so immigrants don’t have to fear being imported.

She knew this because she was an immigrant, and also because she had a cousin or a friend or something who was an immigration lawyer, and he’d told her that even if you got your citizenship, they could deport you any time they wanted to.

The whole thing was a truly remarkable performance, exacerbated by the fact that it was hot, they kept turning off the air conditioner so that people could hear the movie, I hadn’t had any sleep and I was ready to commit homicide on this woman by about a third of the way through the process.

One of the things that really got to me was the response to the clips of a woman from INS, who talked about immigration policy in terms of bestowing on people who asked for it a very valuable thing, residency in the US.

The objection to her seemed to be that she thought residency in the US was a very valuable thing.  That was proof positive of the arrogance and insularity of Americans.

So, I have to ask two questions:

1) Since the Cambodian men in the movie were fighting hard not to have to move someplace else–didn’t that mean they thought that residency here was a very valuable thing?

2) All those people who come here every year illegally, risking their lives and spending the last of their money to get across the border–aren’t their actions proof that they think residency here is a very valuable thing?

3) And if every other country in the world will give her a safe haven without having to fear every day that she’ll be deported, unlike here–why in the name of God is this insufferable woman here? 

I’m not talking about love it or leave it, now.  I don’t have a problem with criticism based on facts. 

But I think I was ready to completely explode by the end of the day.

How can I expect my students to know which war Pearl Harbor got us into if their teachers know about as much about anything as I do about changing a tire?


Whine over.

Written by janeh

July 30th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Pains in Various Parts of the Anatomy

with one comment

I’m sorry to be so incommunicado here lately.  I have this really weird allergic thing that happens to my eyes in very hot weather, and it’s been very hot weather nearly all summer now.  I get up to work on Gregor for a while, and then my eyes swell nearly shut, and I have to go put ice on them.

It makes for a very uneven work day.  And if I have to go outside at all, I’m a complete mess by the end of the day.  And, of course, I do have to go outside.  All the time.

But I have been thinking about those last comments.  And one thing that’s occured to me is that I don’t know a single writer who could pull off an excellent detective story on a consistent basis.

Good enough ones, yes–but that it’s got to be mystifying but then look inevitable when it’s explained thing actually occurs in the field on a very infrequent basis. 

Christie had a couple–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, At Bertram’s Hotel–but she, like most other detective story writers even in the Golden Age, tended to fall back on what I think of as the Really Complicated Plot.

In The ABC Murders, for instance, it all makes sense, but it assumes a murderer willing to go to Baroque lengths to carry out his scheme.   In A Pocket Full of Rye, the scheme is not only Baroque but full of  complicated confusions about nursery rhymes.

And I do tend to think that the best detective novel is the one where the issue is a really simple and straightforward murder.

And then there’s the problem posed by fair play.  If the writer is really playing fair with the reader, the chances are that at least some of the readers are going to “get it” before the solution is revealed at the end.

And sometimes time moves on, and what wouldn’t have been over obvious when the book was written gets that way.  For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcass, her readers probably found an exsanguinated body on a rock in the ocean to be totally mystifying.  I went, “Oh, Russian royality, hemophilia” and had the thing figured out before I was halfway through it.

Sometimes the only way to make the thing go at all is to have the detective look like an idiot.  In The Case of the One-Eyed Witness, the police and Perry Mason both blithely assume that a woman wearing a heavy dark veil must naturally be our suspect,  trying to fake an alibi.  The first thing I thought of was, “hmmm, dark veil, you can’t tell who that was,” and had the thing figured out long before the solution.

But dedicated mystery readers will have the crime figured out before the solution, more times than not.  If they didn’t, you’d have to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with them.  This is, after all, a form with its own conventions.  The kind of reader who likes solving puzzles in detective novels is going to have those conventions figured out by the time he’s read a dozen.

As for the detective story making demands on readers–I suppose it does, and I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked any longer when I find out that even readers don’t like to do any work.

But it’s possible to read a detective novel without trying to figure it out, and I once used to know people who did that.

I’ve got to go put ice on this eye.  It’s making me nuts.

Written by janeh

July 29th, 2010 at 5:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Point

with 2 comments

Well–let’s start here.  I don’t have a desired word count when I write.  There’s always a minimum, beneath which your publisher doesn’t think you actually have a book, but I get past that without too much trouble.

And no, the mysteries are no more complicated–but then I’ve never read or written mystery novels for the mystery. 

And I want to stress that thing about reading.  I don’t read mysteries for the mysteries.  I read them for the story, which in the best detective novels has to do with the relationships between people, usually the people who are the suspects in the case.

I am, in fact, so thoroughly oblvious to the mystery in a mystery that I often can’t remember it.  A very few mysteries–Murder on the Orient Express; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd–stick in my head so thoroughly that I do remember them, but I read those again anyway, because it doesn’t matter to me if I know who did it.

Which brings me to where I’m at at the moment, which is in the middle of a Perry Mason novel called The Case of the One-Eyed Witness.  I’m reading it hard on the heels of Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

And although the two writers are very different in some ways, in one they’re exactly alike:  these books are about the detection, period.  Not about the detective (although Perry Mason proposes to Della Street in this one, and she turns him down because she doesn’t want to have to leave work and stay home.  Ah, the Fifties!).

I’m not saying that the books are about their plots–that’s not quite right.  The plots are formulaic, really, and pretty much the same for both. 

What these books are about is the puzzle as a puzzle.  Christie spends time getting you into the lives of the suspects.  Gardner does not.   It almost doesn’t matter, because the primary focus is always on the complicated murder scheme and how it is unraveled.

I don’t think I ever realized how much Golden Age mysteries depend on the mysery.  The last time I read these things, I was very young, and that wasn’t what I took away from them. 

Maybe that’s a good thing, because if I had realized that that was the focus, I might never have written any mysteries of my own. 

I keep thinking about that discussion we had with the people from the other blog.  This seemed to be the kind of thing they said they wanted, but almost no modern day mystery will give it to them. 

The weird thing is, I’m having a really good time.

Maybe this is about what my brain can hold, what with all the other stuff that’s going on.

Maybe it’s just been a long time since I’ve done this.

I wonder why people stopped writing books like this, though, and why nobody seems to want to publish them anymore.

Written by janeh

July 27th, 2010 at 4:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Monday in Connecticut

with 2 comments

One of the odd things about writing a book–for me, at least–is that I often get to the point of having to stop before I’m ready to stop there.

Which is a sentence which makes very little sense, I know.

I think the problem is that when I start to write a book, the project feels absolutely impossible.  A book is a really long piece of writing,  so long that part of me can’t imagine anybody really doing it. 

And I know I’ve written a lot of books by now, some of them considerably longer than whatever it is I’m writing now.

It just feels impossible, that’s all.  So, when I start working, I find myself  pushing and strainoing to make sure there is “enough” to make a book. 

Then there comes a day when I suddenly seem to have too much.

This sort of silliness has been exacerbated by two factors–on perennial, the other temporary and recent.

The  perennial one is the fact that I never have any sense if a book is good.

I do know when a book is actively bad. I have no trouble noticing active crap, which is why the book that’s out now, Wanting Sheila Dead, was written twice. 

But if a book is better than that, I just don’t know, and won’t know until I read it myself  after it’s been published.

The more temporary and recent thing is the fact that the last two books I’ve written have been written in periods of great personal crisis.  It’s hard to keep a sharp eye on where you are in the manuscript when your mind keeps wandering to the latest disaster.

And the disasters have effects.  I’m usually at this stage in a novel around the month of April.  Now it’s July, and not only is it too hot to work in my office for whole swaths of the day–my office is a sunroom–but my allergies are going absolutely insane.    Some of those allergies affect my eyes, which means that I’m not only unable to see for the customary reason (I’m blind as a bat), but because my eyes keep tearing up.

I don’t really mean to moan and groan here.  The point of this wasn’t to make a complaint, but to state a fact.

This morning, I realized that I was on the home stretch of this one–a nice, complicated one, small town, lots of odd characters with unpleasant natures, and no social issue more complicated than whether or not small towns should have working police radios.

You think I’m kidding, but a small town near here had a referendum on that very subject–and it lost. 

If you want to commit a crime, there are areas of Middlebury, Connecticut where the cops are just not going to get the call.

But I’ve got calls to make, and I’ve just finished a Christie (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead–Poirot, and a good one) and started on an Erle Stanely Garner Perry Mason (The Case of the One-Eyed Witness–complicated opening, too early to tell), and it’s impossible to sit for much longer in this sun room.

Plus, I have tea.

Written by janeh

July 26th, 2010 at 6:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chaos Theory

with 3 comments

I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to say here today.  Yesterday it was some ridiculous kind of hot, and this morning it’s still pretty awful, and my eyes are getting that weird allergy reaction they have every once in a while.  I managed to get my Gregor work done for the day, but now I can barely see.


Let me try to hit the high points.

When I say that what Peter Unger is doing in the book Living High and Letting Die is not philosophy,  I was going by the traditional definition of philosophy:  the application of reason to human affairs.

Philosohy used to include not only what we call philosophy now–metaphysics, ethics, political theory and that kind of thing–but biology, astronomy, physics and chemistry as well.   The earliest studies in all these subjects were areas of philosophy.

But the operative word, I think, has got to be “reason.”  The application of reason to human affairs.  When you tell me logic does not matter and it’s irrelevant to know if any moral precept is “true,”  then I don’t see  how you can be said to be applying reason to human affairs.

I’m saying Unger specifically, and not Singer, because I haven’t read enough of Singer’s stuff to know whether Singer also want to ignore knowledge and an examination of whether moral precepts are true.  In the essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” he simply assumes that some things are true–such as that relieving suffering must always and everywhere be our primary goal, that fixing starvation now must supercede any other consideration in a situation where famine exists, and all the rest of it.

I’m not even saying that he’s necessarily wrong about these assumptions–or that he’s wrong about them all the time–but since he gives me no basis for them, I also can’t judge the criteria by which he is determining them.  And “starvation is bad!”–which he actually says at the beginning of that essay–isn’t a criterion.

The thing that did strike me, though, is the extent to which both these men are completely clueless about even basic economics.

Singer does manage to mention in passing that it might be the case that if rich countries gave away 40% of their income every year, it would so damage their economies so that they would actually be sending less money to the poor than they would be if they only sent 25% a year–but then he blows it off by pointing out that they barely send 1% now, so this isn’t anything we have to think about.

If you live in the real world, however, this is something you have to think about, because it applies to individual actions as well as governmental ones.  If everybody did what Unger wanted them to do, for instance–no big house, no nice new car, no vacations, no private schools or colleges for the kids–there would soon be widespread unemployment and a financial crisis at home.

This may be why Unger suggests, in his second to last chapter, that when books are written “for the general public” that promote his plan, they not mention things like such draconian self-privation, since it’s the kind of thing that will put people off, or make them stop listening to you whatsoever.

My guess is that neither Singer nor Unger is really interested in getting the West to send tons of money for famine relief–some, yes, certainly, but nothing like that strip-you-life-down-to-almost-nothing level they both suggest.

My guess is that what both these arguments are really aimed at is property rights–the idea that any of us has the right to own anything beyond what is needed for our basis survival if somebody else somewhere in the world needs it.

I think that’s why both these works concentrate so heavily on disasters in the third world. 

First,  because the first world is now wealthy enough that we hardly need to resort to reducing everybody to penury to ensure that all our citizens have access to the minimal levels of food, clothing and shelter needed to survive.  There are homeless people on the streets of American cities, but they’re not there because you insist on buying Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Second, because the third world is far enough away that most readers will not have access to any detailed information about the conditions there.  Unger dimisses worries about those conditions as “distorted futility thinking,” that is, wrongly imagining that your aid will do no good.

But Saddam Hussein took the food from the oil for food program, meant to keep his citizens from starving, and passed it out to himself and his cronies.  The program did not feed the starving, it just kept a dictator in power longer than he might have been. 

If what we’re actually talking about her is relieving the suffering of starvation, then these kinds of things matter.  In fact, they’re vital.

But once you start investigation them, “the west is bad because it wallows in luxury while the third world starves” looks less and less like a rational assessment of what’s going on in the world.

Finally, there’s that matter of the difference between ordinary and heroic virtue, that I meant to get to yesterday and never did.

Christ gave his life to save Mankind from Hell, according to Christianity, and if we want to be imitations of Christ, then we must push ourselves at least as far as martyrdom for the Church or for our friends.

But no ordinary Christian is required to go so far.  And ordinary citizens are required to go even less far than ordinary Christians.

The  hypothetical both Unger and Singer are enamored of goes like this:  you’re passing along on a road and see a small child drowning in a shallow pond.  If you don’t immediately go and save  him, you’re a bad person.

I don’t think much of anybody would disagree with that assessment–but the law wouldn’t hold you to it.  If you cared more about the state of your dress pants than you cared for saving the child, you would be doing nothing illegal to pass him by and let him drown.

And the assessment does not survive when you up the ante.  If you can only save the life of the child by risking your life, you’re still a better person if you give it a shot than if you don’t, but most people would not actually expect you to do it.

And if you could only save the child by your own certain death, nobody would assessed you as morally bad for not doing it. 

Even on the level of casual, undigested and unthoughtful common opinion–which Unger says is what he’s relying on–the hypothetical would not get Singer or Unger where he wants to go.

And now I thnk I ‘ll go off and call the nursing home to find out about my mother, and listen to music of some kind or the other.

Last night, I listened to Cannonball Adderly before going to bed, and I still think it’s a miracle I got to bed.

Did I ever mention that I like saxophones and trumpets almost as much as I like harpsichords.

I just don’t want to learn how to play those.

Written by janeh

July 25th, 2010 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Virtues, Ordinary and Heroic

with 4 comments

So, in the middle of all this, I finished reading the Peter Unger book, and I went rummaging around until I found a copy of Current Issues and Enduring Questions, which I knew had a copy of Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

For what it’s worth, that book also reprints Garrett Hardin’s “The Case Against Helping the Poor,” which is an attempt to directly counter Singer’s ideas without actually countering Singer’s–or Unger’s–methods. 

That is, both the essay and the book assume the existence of morality sort of a priori, without bothering to establish a foundation for that morality and largely without bothering to defend their stated core moral principles. 

For all these people, morality “just is.”  We have our Core Moral Principles, or, as Unger puts it, our Primary Moral Values.  We refer everything to them, no matter what they are.

On the other hand, there is something called “moral progress.”  I’m not sure how Unger, for instance, expects us to be able to tell that we are moving in the direction of “progress,” but progress there is supposed to be.  And that is what “philosophers” are for.

I put the word “philosophers” in quotes up there deliberately.  I do not think Unger is a philosopher, even though he has a doctorate in philosophy and works in a university philosophy department.

This is not what Socrates did, or Aristotle, or Liebniz, or Kant, even though Unger likes to refer to Kant a lot, sort of vaguely and in passing.

And I’m not really concerned about whether or not Unger and Singer live the lives of personal privation they declare to be the only decent moral behavior for first world people who should send all their money to starving people in the third world.

My guess is that neither one of them eschews nice houses (or apartments), nice cars and new clothes in order to send every dime to UNICEF and CARE, and Unger at least comes close to admitting that in his last chapter.

For the moment, I’m not even all that interested in the absolute train wreck of the arguments they present.  Unger at least tells us, at the outset, that logic isn’t an important consideration in moral philosophy, which makes it hard to counter his nonsense with, “But if you did that, then–”

Just at the moment, I want to consider just the  Core Moral Principles or Primary Moral Values Singer and Unger declare to be universally applicable, because I think if we do that, we get to a very interesting place.

They go like this:

1) If you know of a case of severe suffering and early death and you have the means to prevent it without at the same time causing harm of an equally immoral kind, then you MUST prevent it.

2) You must prevent it even at the expensive of your own life, if there is more than one life you will save by what you do.

3) You are morally obligated to do this not just for people you know or in your community, but for everybody, everywhere, all the starving children in Africa, all the starving and ailing people all over the word.

4) If the only way you can do this is to cause some harm to other people–say, by stealing their money or taking their property–you are morally obliged to do so.

5) The only criterion here is how many suffering people are saved from suffering, period.

I’m eliding a lot of verbiage, but that’s it.

And I’d like to point something out.

Singer and Unger think principles like those are good arguments for why you and I should give all our money away, down to depriving ourselves of decent food and housing if we have to.

I think principles like those are good arguments for empire.


Think about it.

The North Koreans are starving.  They aren’t starving because of natural disasters or cosmic bad luck.  They’re starving because they live under a government that is systematically starving them.

In fact, almost all the famine in the world for the last fifty years has had a political cause.

What’s more, children are dying in Africa and the Middle East because religious and government authorities spread lies that the vaccines sent by UN organizations are really poisons of one sort or another meant to wipe out blacks (in Africa) or Muslims (in the Middle East).

There is only one way to end all this suffering, famine and death, and that is to dislodge those governments and install others that do not victimize their own peoples in these ways.

And nothing else will actually do the job.

Of course, if you had other kinds of principles, the old fashioned ones that required logic and that sort of things, you’d have other reasons for not taking over the world to make sure the poor are fed and the ignorant are vaccinated.

But Singer and Unger have none.

Written by janeh

July 24th, 2010 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Break in the Routine

with 3 comments

Mary Agnes’s funeral is today, and it’s a long drive.  To get there, I’m going to have to get into the car and go no later than seven o’clock, and I should leave earlier.  So I’m feeling a little addled.

I agree with a lot of what Robert said about Unger and the myriad problems that all seem to have the same solution, but what I was thinking about were people for whom the very idea that harm might come to anyone, anywhere, wipes out any other kind of thought.  So if I tell you there are children starving in Africa, their reaction is that we must all send food now, and if you bother thinking about things (like, say, Saddam Hussein stealing the food shipments from the oil for food program and letting his people starve) then you have to be a heartless bastard with no morals.

But the issue with Unger, and Singer, is much more complicated than that, and I can’t keep my mind on it at the moment. 

So, I thought I’d propose a little break in the routine.

A couple of nights ago, on FB, a friend of mine posted an exercise:  name the fifteen books that “stick with you.”

You’ll note that the instructions are not to name the fifteen books that you like best.  On my list, there are a couple I don’t like at all.  But I did come up with fifteen books that have just bored themselves into my brain.

My list looked like this:

‎1 Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
2 For Love by Sue Miller
t The Razor’s Edge by Maugham
4 Rebecca by DuMaurier
5 A Moveable Feast by Hemingway… See More
6 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Christie
7 Confessioons by St. Augustine
8 The Blank Slate by Pinker
9 The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
10 The Nun’s Story by Hulme
11 Blindness by Jose Saramago
12 Eleanor of Aquitane by Weir
13 A Taste For Death by P. D. James
14 The Shining by Stephen King
15 Death in the Afternoon by Hemingway
So, I thought, you know, people could send me lists–books you’ve can’t get out of your head, whether you loved them or hated them, no thinking, just going right ahead and doing it.
And I’m going to do some driving.

Written by janeh

July 22nd, 2010 at 5:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Clarified Butter

with 8 comments

Mary Agnes’s funeral is tomorrow, and I’m  having one of those odd and floaty days.

When I get like this, I tend to wander around reading the kind of stuff I usually see no point to–this history of the Mediterranean through food, for instance.

Okay, that book is actually a good one, even if a lot of the recipes require a boatload of lard and salt pork.

But I do want to say a couple of things.

The first is that I’m not sure I agree with a lot of Rand–in fact, I am sure that I disagree with a fair amount of it.

I do think she made a credible attempt at a humanist morality with an objective foundation that is not merely a matter of saying “this is the behavior I like, so I’m going to call it moral.”

She did it, however, in a way that hasn’t been done before, or at least not really.

She did it by rejecting out of hand what most of us would consider “morality” to be. 

Instead, she identified as moral issues aspects of human behavior that common moral codes tend to ignore altogether–productivity and rationality, for instance–and to have no particular use for some ideas common moral codes simply assume (like charity).

What most moral philosophers try to do instead is to take common moral opinions–charity is a good idea, for instance–and provide them with a foundation from non-religious sources. 

And by and large, it hasn’t worked.

The most ambitious–and most honest–of these attempts has got to be John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which also has the virtue of being reasonably well-focussed.  What most of the attempts to write secular moral philosophy have done over the last 40 years–from Paul Kurtz to Peter Singer and back again–is to chase around trying to include everything they’ve decided is a good idea this week.

That way, you get the spectacle of Kurtz’s Eupraxia and Forbidden Fruit,  which start out declaring that we ought to look to those moral precepts held by all societies everywhere across time–and then trying to somehow make the emancipation of women and the right to abortion “fit” in a history that wants nothing to do with them.

For all Kurtz’s unrigorous silliness, however, he at least makes an attempt to be analytically rigorous.  His failures have mostly to do with the fact that he assumes his conclusions.  He begins by “knowing’ what belongs in a moral code and then goes casting about for some foundation that will fit it.

If there is a way to secularly ground an objective basis for a moral code, it can’t be done this way.  Whether you like Rand’s conclusions or not, the approach to discovering such a ground must be to do what she seems to have done–first investigate, then explicate, and if what you end up with is not the same as what we now call “morality,” so be it. 

It is possible that, if we investigate honestly, we will find that what it really means to be moral is very different from what we’ve been taught to expect it means.  The movement of the heavenly bodies turned out to be very different from what Copernicus had been taught to expect it would be, too.

What Peter Singer and his disciple Peter Unger do is far worse than anything Kurtz has managed, and it’s worse in Unger than in Singer.  Or maybe I should say that Unger hides it less well.

In fact, I’d say that what Unger does, at least in the book Living High and Letting Die, isn’t technically philosophy at all.   It’s closer to that great–and greatly embarrassing–fad of the 90s, “values clarification.”

As I pointed out here before, Unger does not try to provide any ground for his moral philosophy.  He rejects both logic and truth as being irrelevant to moral enquiry,  and then tells us he’ll give us a series of examples that will help us idenity our “Basic Values.”

If all this sounds hopelessly muddled, it is, but it was that when I first mentioned it days ago.

What’s been getting to me as I read through the book is Unger’s reports of the responses given to him by people to whom he’s given his hypothetical scenarios.

And just to make sure that it wasn’t just me–being a rather unusual sort of person for that sort of exercise–I read a few of the hypotheticals to Greg and Matt, and they didn’t respond as “most people” either.

Actually, I should have known that Greg wouldn’t respond to these the way Unger’s respondents did, because he’s never responded to this thing as  you’d expect.  Once, when he was much younger–around three or four–I gave him the Lifeboat exercise. 

He listened to the whole thing from start to finish, growing more and more exasperated, and when I was done he went, “Isn’t one of those people a carpenter?  Fine then.  He can build more lifeboat.”

It’s possible that Unger simply invented the respondents he reports on–he mentions, at one point, trying to get a sociologist interested in his project, and failing, so he’s the only one who knows–but maybe not, and if not, those responses bring us to some very interesting places.

The big one, for right now, is this:  that there are a significant number of people in this country (or on this country’s college campuses) for whom the very idea that somebody, somewhere might be hurting in some way brings them to such a degree of emotional panic that they’re no longer able to think their way out of a paper bag.

And it’s that panic I want to get to next, that hyperemotionalism that’s perfectly willing to throw out bath water, baby and just about anything else in the face of the possibility –well, I’m not sure of the possibility of what, yet.

Maybe I’ll get to that later.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2010 at 6:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 8 comments

Let me start out by saying that there’s going to be no coherent post today.  I got up at one thirty in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep, so, since I’m working a deadline on the new book and don’t want to be late, I got up to work, and here I am.

Right now, I just want to make a couple of points that seem to me so obvious I can’t believe we’re discussing them.

The first is that “artists, scientists and government” are not “parasitic,” nor are the people who engage in them parasites living on the productive work of others.

Government can, of course, be parasitic, and often gets there, but basic government (the police, the courts, military defense, to start) is absolutely essential to the functioning of any society.  Which means that the people who engage in it are engaged in productive work.

And the idea that scientists are somehow parasitic on productive people absolutely flabbergasts me.   i suppose what’s called “pure science” can seem that way to people who don’t understand how this works, but pure scientific research provides the knowledge from which technology is born, and technology gives us everything from the polio vaccine to air conditioning. 

This is, by almost any standard, probably the most productive work in any society.  It is essential for almost all the other productive work done in any advanced society. 

And as for artists–well, I could point out that art (narrative and plastic) is to be found in every society ever existing on earth.  Societies invent art (and especially narrative) before they invent the wheel and even before kinship groups are completely stable.

So we seem to need that.

But never mind that for a second, there’s a simpler way to tell if art is productive work.

Either people other than the artist are willing to pay for it, or not.

Every time somebody puts down a twenty to buy your composer’s CD, he’s testifying to the fact that he thinks the composer has done productive work. 

If you produce something worth something to your fellow citizens, you’ve done productive work, even if what you’ve produced is a Pet Rock.

The burglar and the con man aren’t different from the artist because they’re in a “different occupation.”  They’re different because, in fact, nobody wants what they have to offer.  You wouldn’t pay a man to rob you (well, except in a really complicated Patricia Highsmith plot) or a con man to cheat you out of your money.  They resort to force and fraud because they’re unable to offer you anything of value in exchange from what they want to get from you.

Nor does it matter if the thief goes home and volunteers for meals on wheels.

If the point wasn’t clear the way I put it, then change the way it’s formulated:  the productive citizens does not need thieves to survive, but the thieves need productive citizens. 

I could build a society with productive citizens and no thieves.  I could not build a society with thieves and no productive citiznes.

As for whether slavery is good for the slaveholder–the only way to support such a contention is to look only at the very short term and keep your mind completely blindfolded from history.

Slave societies always produce relatively fewer technological innovations than free societies do, and once you get to the modern world, they produce vastly fewer

So a slaveholder who thinks slavery is “good for him” is deluded–sit in your slaveholding society telling yourself how good you have it while your children die of diptheria and your wives die of puerpal fever and you die yourself from a cancer that can be cured now with very little fuss and bother.

If you don’t know that alleviation of these evils is possible, you won’t realize what you’re missing–but you’ll still be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

As for the Vikings–I was responding directly to a comment that said the Vikings built a successful society by plundering other societies’ wealth.

To the extent that the Vikings did productive work, they did indeed have a successful society.  To the extent that they engaged in plunder, they had a parasitic one. 

And they were a net drain on the wellbeing of the rest of the world–and on their own well being, since they chaos they caused retarded the advancement of learning on all levels.  And we’re back to the problem with the slaveholding society, above.

So, do I think it’s always irrational to break the social contract?


That is, first, assuming that the social contract is valid–an invalid and coerced “contract” (say, a dictatorship) is no contract at all, and not only can be broken but must be if any progress is going to happen.

But assuming a valid contract, then breaking it (to steal, for instance) may be logical, but it is never rational.

And it always involves violating the rationality of other men.

That’s what force and fraud does.

I have no idea how I’ve spelled anything today.

I’m going to go finish this tea and see what I can do about getting some stuff  done.

Written by janeh

July 20th, 2010 at 4:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Seven Hundred Pound Gorilla

with 6 comments

Sometimes it occurs to me that I can never quite get to anything on time on this blog.  I’m actually pretty good about deadlines in the real world, but this thing keeps me circling stuff over and over again.

Let me start by addressing John’s contention that the Vikings built a successful society by stealing the wealth of other societies.

I suppose this comes down to how you define “successful,” but to me it sounds like saying that Susie successfully completed her calculus course when in fact she passed only by cheating her way through every assignment and test.

The Vikings, like the burglar, live lives that are not successful but parasitic. 

Think of it this way:  a productive society can exist and thrive even if no burglars (or Vikings) exist in the world.  In fact, it will probably do better if they don’t.

A Viking society, or a burglar, requires productive people to survive–if those people did not exist, pursing a course of robbery would just leave them to starve.

That is the way in which the burglar “opts for death.”  He opts for a strategy that, consistently pursued by the world around him, would leave him to starve.

He can hide that fact from himself as long as he has productive people who do the work necessary for any human beings to survive, but it’s a form of denial.   It’s neither success, nor facing reality.

Robert says that the problem with the slaveholder is not that he doesn’t face reality but that he “uses people as things.”

But using people as things is not facing reality.  People are not things.

And it does not require an axiom to that effect to know it, either.

That people are not things, that they are ends in themselves and not to be used as the (unwilling) means to the ends of others, can be discovered through observation.

We know that human beings are the creatures that do things like create Rheims Cathedral, and antibiotics, and the Empire State Building, and theoretical analyses of all these things of things.

We know that it is only by the use of his mind that a man can do any of these things, or anything else. 

Since the free and full use of his mind is man’s only way to survive at all, but also the only way to survive as a human being (that is, something capable of stuff like the above), then the one thing a human being must have is the free and full use of his mind.

That mind will differ in degree of ability from the minds of other human beings, but it will differ only in degree.  Even a child with Down Syndrome has the kind of mind I’m talking about.  A dog, no matter how intelligent, does not.

It is a moral imperative to treat each man as an end in himself and not as an (unwilling) means to your ends because this is the kind of mind he has.

It doesn’t matter if God gave it to him, or if nature did.  What is, is. 

This seems to me to be such an obvious thing–that is, that human beings are different in kind from all other living things, and not just different in degree–that I am always completely astonished when people try to argue otherwise.

Birds build nests, yes, but they don’t build the Houses of Parliament and they don’t develop elaborate philosophical systems to explain the principles of beauty in architecture. 

Cats and dogs will tend to themselves if they are wounded or sick, but they don’t discover antibiotics to cure their infections and they don’t set their own legs and they don’t develop dense scientific treatises on the Germ Theory of Disease to explain why medicine will work if they have it.

The fact that human beings have minds that will do this is just that–a fact, part of that reality that we must face if we are to live.  And the better we face it, and the more generally any society does face it, the more successful we will be, in any strict understanding of the word “successful.”

When Susie cheats her way through her calculus course, she doesn’t “successfully” pass it, no matter what her transcript might seem to indicate. 

When the con man or the burglar or the Viking raider gets a bunch of money by force or fraud, he doesn’t “successfully” survive, even if he lives to a ripe old age.   He just makes himself the enemy of the survival of everybody else and in the process removes himself from the category of “human being qua human being”–that is, he chooses to live not a human life, but an animal one.

This seems to me to be a very strong ground for moral injunctions against force and fraud–and it doesn’t even take into considerations the grounds for legal injunctions against the same.

But it all starts with admitting that human beings are unique among all other living things, and that the nature of that uniqueness must be accommodated in anything we say about them.


You know what I mean.

I understand why religious people would hold to the idea that you cannot distinguish the uniqueness of being human by looking at the natural world–making man “special” is something God can do–but I never have understood why people who call themselves “humanists” would declare the same thing.

But then, there’s another rant in that…that modern humanism is not in fact humanism.

And I’m not going to get there today.

Written by janeh

July 19th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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