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Archive for July, 2010


with 3 comments

Well, okay, not quite.

It’s Sunday, it’s hot, I have to go out for a bit this afternoon, and I’m still not exactly cheerful.

But I do want to get back to Unger for a while, and I will.

Let me just say what I promised to say–although I will note that since I am, here, trying to explain what somebody else has said (Ayn Rand, in this case), I’m not sure how I’m supposed to achieve rigor except in the reporting of it.

So here it goes:

Rand says that the fundamental axiom of any moral system must be that “existence exists.”

An axiom is an idea that cannot itself be proven, but that also cannot be abandoned–it is impossible even to try to refute it without using it. 

And that is certainly true of “existence exists.”  My guess is that it’s impossible even to imagine a case in which existence does not exist, because you have to exist to imagine it.

If you see what I mean.

The axiom “existence exists” is usually called the “law of identiy.”

The second axiom that is fundamental to all moral (or other) systems is what’s called the “law of noncontradiction”–that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time. 

Something can’t be all black and all white at the same time.  Something can’t have a round head and a square head at the same time.  Something can’t be all hard and all soft at the same time. 

And, most importantly, something cannot be both entirely alive and entirely dead at the same time.

Living things, because they are living, are faced continually with a single question:  life or death?  Survive or perish?

Each living thing answers that question by pursuing the strategies inherent in its nature.

For human beings, the only available strategy is the use of the mind.  The mind is the survival mechanism nature has given human beings.

But human beings, unlike any other animals (as far as we know) is capable of refusing to employ this strategy, of undercutting it, of denying it altogether.

But to the extent that we do that, we opt for death–and the law of noncontradiction being what it is, even when we think we are opting for the death of somebody else, we are actually opting also for our own. 

This is not the same thing as saying that either we or anybody else is actually going to die right this second because of the choices we make.

Rather, when a con man cons a victim, he creates a situation where that victim is manipulated into at least crippling his ability to survive by entering into a world of lies.

But the con man is also crippling his own ability to survive.  In order to go on getting what he wants (or needs) he must make sure that the victim does not ever realize that his reality has been faked.  That means he must now work constantly and in perpetual knowledge that the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. 

The only way to do that is to create an ever widening miasma of lies, until the con man lives as much in that unreality as any of his victims do. 

And since the choice of unreality is–in the long run–the choice of death over life, the con man increases the strength of that choice not only for his victim and for himself, but for the world at large. 

With the burglar, we’re also dealing with a denial of reality.

Wealth does not simply spring into existence on its own.  It has to be created and earned. 

A burglar behaves as if that were not true.  Wealth “just is,” and all he has to do is pick it up.

To accept reality here, you would have to say “wealth has to be earned, and if I haven’t earned it then I have no right to it.”

I feel like I’m doing this badly here, but I do think it makes more than a little sense, and that it is clear.

It’s not just a question of Rand “not liking” force or fraud.

It’s that force and fraud always involve refusals to accept reality as real. 

In both cases, the criminal is assuming that wealth “just is” and is lying around for the taking.  Both refuse to accept that wealth must be creaed and earned to exist at all. 

And, in fact, both are counting on somebody else accepting that existence exists and that it is what it is.

If somebody else hadn’t done that, no wealth would exist for them to rob.

I’m really, really, really not doing a great job here.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2010 at 7:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Meaning of Life

with 3 comments

So, for those of you who don’t watch FB, there’s the news–my mother-in-law died yesterday morning.  This was not surprising.  Matt and I had gone up the day before to see her, and she was no longer able to speak, and not expected ever to be able to speak again.

But it was one of those things, if you know what I mean.  There’s a long way between “isn’t expected to” and “is.”  My mother, who went into the hospital at approximately the same time and wasn’t expected to recover, is in fact recovering nicely, and more alert and aware by the day.  Or, at least, that was what the nurse told me when I called last night.  I’ll call again this morning, and see.

I know that there are people who try to work out the “meaning” of all of this, but I’m not one of them.  For better or worse, I don’t seem to have much interest in the Meaning of Life as it’s usually understood.  Maybe I will when I’m older, I don’t know.

What strikes me about all this, and, interestingly enough, what has seemed to be striking Matt, is something else.  I am rapidly getting to the point when there is going to be nobody in my life who remembers the entire history of me, except me. 

I’m actually mostly there.  My brother and my father are gone, and although my mother is still alive she doesn’t remember me.  I remember sitting with her once, in the recreation room of the nursing home, when she turned me me suddenly and said, “I never had any children, did I?”

And that wasn’t a philosophical statement of some existential import.  She’d just forgotten–forgotten me, and my brother, and my father, and the more than fifty years of her marriage.

I do have cousins, but the ones I get along with grew up around D.C. and not around here, and the one’s I don’t get along with didn’t grow up here, either.  They were off in an entirely different world, so much of a different world that I tended to forget they existed when I went away to college and graduate school.

It’s not that I had such a wonderful childhood.  It was, at best, mixed, and I look back on it now as if I’d spent that entire time delusional.  I was not capable, at the time, of seeing it for what it was. 

Sometimes when I think about myself at that time of my life, I’m reminded of Bill’s line about John Lennon:  John Lennon was the only person in the world who had the opportunity to be John Lennon, and he  blew it.

I won’t say that I blew it, but I do seem to have spent my childhood and adolescence in a blur that was my inability to accurately perceive myself. 

I don’t know.  Maybe what I’m trying for here is not really available anywhere.  Maybe nobody else perceived me any more accurately than I perceived myself.  I certainly did not perceive my cousins (the ones I don’t get along with) accurately at all.

But maybe it’s just that some kinds of history exist only in the minds of the people who have lived it, and when those people die, the history dies with them.

And maybe it’s that it’s something of a shock to realize that things that mattered to me passionately once now matter not at all, because they don’t exist to matter.

If that makes sense.

Tomorrow, why con men and bank robbers are not in any way allowed under the schemata Rand put forward, and why Robert is geting that wrong.

But today, I’m just going to go off and have another funk.

Written by janeh

July 17th, 2010 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

I’ve got a new, upgraded version of this blog program to work with today.  It’s one of those things.  We’ve been meaning to upgrade for a while, but it wasn’t hurting anything to stay where we were, so we didn’t get around to it, and then we did.

I can’t see a great deal of difference between the old version of the program and this one, except that in the space for the post title it says Put Title Here in very faint grey letters until you do put the title there, and I don’t see the point. 

Otherwise, it’s just what I’m used to.  It feels like one of  those things, an upgrade for the sake of an upgrade, as if the people who write these programs think that something has to change every few years or so, even if there’s no need for it.

Having gotten my obligatory new thing bitch out of the way, I want to go back to Ayn Rand and Peter Unger, because I’ve started Living High and Letting Die:  Our Illusion of Innocence, and all I can say is that I’m flabbergasted.

Well, okay, that’s not all I can say.  But we’ll get there.

First, I think Robert is wrong that Ayn Rand gives no compelling reason why we shouldn’t just off and bash somebody in the head if they have something we truly want for ourselves.

Rand’s entire conceptual structure rests on the fact that human beings have one and only one means of survival–their minds–and anything that corrupts or violates that diminishes our capacity to live.  In order to survive and live, we must use of minds to their fullest, which means identifying and accepting the real.  Force and fraud are the chief ways in which some human beings try to destroy the minds of others.  When we engage in force or fraud, what we do is to deny reality rather than accept it.  We not only make other people less capable of surviving, by violating our own hold on rationality and reality, we make ourselves less capable of surviving.

I was also a little confused by Cheryl’s comment that she wasn’t being rational when she decided to read what she liked just because she liked it.  I don’t understand what isn’t “rational” about that.  In fact, I’d say–and I think Rand would say–that choosing to read what you “ought” to read because somebody’s told you that’s what you’re supposed to do would be irrational.  Reading what you want to read because you want to read it is, in fact, the rational thing to do.

And that brings me to Unger, because the issue of rationality looms large in his book, and the issue of truth does to.

But not in the way you’d expect.

Let me throw in a little background here,

I said when I first started this book that it looked as if it were going to make the same argument as Peter Singer”s “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

I was more right than I realized.  Unger not only directly acknowledges that Singer’s essay is his starting point, and that his book is meant to strengthen Singer’s and extend them. 

Singer’s premise, and Unger’s, is that people living in the first world are doing something deeply immoral and reprehensible if they do not give–by private donation or through their governments–all the wealth they earn beyond that necessary for basic survival to people in the third world who without such a donation would surely die early.

I do intend to address that premise eventually, but for today I want only to note a few things about this book.

The first is that Unger has a skewed idea of the “rational,” too. 

At one point, he declares that there is no need to insist on rationality in moral argument, because rationality has nothing to do with moral argument.  He “proves” this by giving a hypothetical example that goes as follows:

You’re walking by and see a child drowing in a shallow pond.  It would cost you nothing to save this child–it wouldn’t be dangerous for you, get you in trouble or otherwise negatively impact your life–and you easily can save him.  But you see that the child is your cousin, and under your uncle’s will, you and this cousin will share in the uncle’s great fortune.  The cousin with get four fifths, and you will get one fifth, unless the cousin dies before you.  Then you will get it all.

Unger then tells us to assume that you have a drug you can give the drowning child to make sure he won’t suffer, and another drug you can give yourself so that forget all about what you’ve done and therefore never feel any guilt.

It’s therefore rational, he says, for you to let your cousin die–and that proves that rationality is no use in moral argument.

The crux of all this, of course, is that it amounts to saying:  if we lived in an alternate universe that was nothing at all like our own, rationality would be no use in moral argument. 

But we live in this world, not that one, and there is no case in which you could commit such an act in which these conditions would prevail.  And once these conditions do not prevail–once you have to consider the cousin’s suffering and your own guilt–then rationality does indeed become vital to moral argument. 

And that’s without getting into whether or not it would be rational for you to gain a fortune by such means in the first place.  I think it wouldn’t, but we’ll get to that later.

The next thing Unger does is to make a slight nod in the direction of moral truths.  How can we know–on what foundation can we say–that moral dictates are “true.”

And then he doesn’t discuss it.  He just announces that the question is a distraction, and entirely beside the point.  Human beings, he says, act as if moral precepts are true, in fact are passionate about their commitment to them, so it doesn’t matter if they’re  “true” or not.  They just are.

In other words, Unger provides no basis at all for any of the things he is about to say, unless you accept his claim that we all have Basic Moral Values that are just here, however they got here, and we should just go with them as far as they will lead us, taking them to their logical conclusions.

And it gets worse than this.  He starts out with a single moral idea, which he ascribes to Singer and adopts as his own, which goes like this:

“If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.”

Then he amends this to say that it should be read in a strong sense–we are morally obligated to do it, and we’re doing something bad and wrong if we don’t do it.

He then points out that most of us would feel that there is something wrong with an adult who didn’t save a child from drowning in a shallow pond–that we feel that such an adult has an obligation to save that child.

And then he goes on to say that if we have an obligation in that instance, we have it in all instances, including when it comes to starving children in the third world.

Now, like I said, this mess of half-thought and solid confusion can use a lot of untangling, but right now I’d like to point out one more way in which Unger simply refuses to engage any argument at all.

There are two possible responses, he says, to our moral belief that the adult is obligated to save the child drowning right in front of him. 

One of those responses (he calls it the “preservationist,” accepts this obligation, but denies that it extends to people far away without whom we are in direct contact.

The other of those responses (which he calls the “liberationist”–is this stuff predictable, or what?) says that the obligation is the same in both cases because the cases are subtationally the same.

At that point I thought he was just going to ignore the third possibility, which is that it can be argued (and with good foundations, too) that we are not morally obligated in either case.

But he doesn’t ignore that, exactly.  He notes that the idea exists, calls it “negativist,” and airily announces that the idea is so morally repugnant that there’s no point in paying any attention to it.  When it can’t be helped, he’s going to restrict any comments about that to the footnotes.

It is, truly, one of the most remarkable examples of bad faith argument I’ve ever seen.  It’s not really argument at all.   It’s more like, “I’m going to tell you what’s what, and it is because it is.”

Unger is not trying to prove a case.  He’s simply announcing it, and then calling it self evident and declaring victory.

And the case is monumentally ridiculous, too.

But more on that tomorrow.

At one point,

Written by janeh

July 16th, 2010 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

Well, what can I say?  It wasn’t a bad birthday as birthdays go.  Matt even cooked me dinner.

So thanks to everybody who sent happy birthday wishes, and back to the fray.

First, I didn’t mean to imply that Rand based her moral philosophy on her definitions of selfishness and unselfishness.  The basis begins with the law of identity (a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time) and goes from there.

And I’m pretty sure that it’s a closed system–that you can only disprove it (if it can be disproved at all) by attacking its premises.  Its logic is not faulty.

And, I notice, that Cheryl was still using the words in their non-Randian definitions–she talks about how, if Paris Hilton was really a performance artist, she could be “just as unselfish as any other artist.”

But to Rand, “unselfish” is always a bad thing.

“Unselfish” does not mean be considerate of other people.

It means having no self–no convictions or ideas of your own.

And yes, using words in ways like this, in ways other than they are usually defined, can cause more than a little trouble.

But John said that people either based morality on God, or on what they just “felt” was a good thing–and my point here is that Rand does neither.  She does, in fact, provide a perfectly logical, consistant, objective basis for a moral code, and then she provides the code.

But here’s the kicker.

She doesn’t provide that basis for the moral code you and I are used to.  She is not providing a basis for the morality of Christianity, or anything like it.

And that is, of course, part of her point.  She holds that the reason we think there is no rational, scientific way to know what is moral is because we have been fed a moral code that is inherently irrational and unscientific.

Reason can tell us what we must do to be moral–but it will not support most of what people have been calling “moral” for centuries.

In other words, the problem is not that there is no objective basis for morality, but that there is no objective basis for the morality we’ve been taught up to now.

At this point, things get a little complicated.   I’m not going to try to outline Rand’s philosophy in a blog.  “This is John Galt Speaking” is probably 4000 words long, and it’s just a sketch of the overall argument.  She wrote books detailing the rest of it.

But I do want to point out two things.

First, that argument does, in fact, provide an objective ground for natural individual rights (freedom of speech, conscience, etc) that does not rely on religion and does not leave them up to “the government gives them to me.”

Second, that when you look at her list of virtues and vices, you’re struck by what’s not there–there’s no harping on sex and sexuality.  Homosexuality is not moral or immoral in Rand’s moral philosophy.  It’s irrelevant.

Let me list here, for a moment, the virtues as proposed by Rand:

a) rationality–we are morally obligated to accept the reality of the world outside ourselves and to seek and support the truth by the use of our reason.

b) independence–we are morally obligated to make our own judgments and be true to them.  It’s all right to figure out we’re wrong and change our minds because we have new facts, but it’s never all right to change our minds, abandon our beliefs or convictions, just because somebody else says so, or “everybody’ says so, or it isn’t what the dogma of our religion or politics declares to be true.

c)integrity–we are morally obligated to reject contradictions between our beliefs and our behavior.  We must act on what we have determined to be morally right, not just think it.

d) honesty–we are morally obligated to tell the truth, and to act the truth. 

e) justice–we are morally obligated to give each person what he deserves, nothing more and nothing less.  We must judge other people rationally, and be judged by them. 

f) productiveness–we are morally obligated to contribute to the society we live in by producing at least as much as we consume.  Productive work is the single most important obligation we have to other people and to society at large.

g) pride–not talking about hubris here, but about that interior demand that we always do our best and only our best work.  And we are morally obligated to judge ourselves as rationally as we would judge anybody else.  That is, if we cure cancer, build the Sears tower, write a good book or establish the first human colony on Mars, we not only should, but must, judge ourselves favorably, as we would judge someone else favorably, for doing these things.

I’m getting tangled up again.

But that’s a beginning–

And, again, that’s NOT the foundation of Rand’s moral code, it’s the code itself.  I don’t quite know how to get into the law of identity.

But this gives me a good place to look at the Singer/Unger “you have no right to anything until all the starving people on earth are fed” argument.

And I’ll do that at some other time.

Written by janeh

July 14th, 2010 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Defining Your Terms

with 6 comments

Well, to start, I’m definitely in favor of the poster who said that one way to beat depression was to read my books–yes, absolutely, the whole country should do that.  I could go to Maui.

But let me get to Cheryl’s comment on “This is John Galt Speaking.”

First, as an aside, I’d like to point out that I wasn’t (necessarily) advocating the content of the moral code Rand puts forward in that essay or in any other place.

All I said was that she has managed to provide an objective foundation for morality that is not based on God and that is not based on “it feels good.”

It also happens to be a moral philosophy that is humanistic in the original sense–it derives from a deep respect for and understanding of the special status of human beings.

That said–my guess is that, if you’d read it through rather than skimming it, you might have found less to disagree with than you’d think.

Rand does not define the terms “selfish” and “selfless” the way they’re defined in common usage.

Consider this example:

Mary is the mother of Tom.  She loves Tom passionately.  From birth, she’s recognized that he is extraordinarily talented.  As he’s grown, she’s seen that he’s also very ambitious.  For Mary, Tom is the single most important and valuable thing that has ever existed.  She scrimps and saves all his childhood to give him extra opportunities, like Space Camp and accelerated math programs.  She goes without things she really enjoys, like chocolates and movies and vacations, to make sure he gets the best possible start.  She really puts herself through the wringer to make sure he can go to the best college.

Is Mary being selfish, or selfless?

Is Mary living “for the sake of” Tom?

For Rand, Mary is being selfISH, and she’s not living for the sake of Tom, but for her own sake.

Selfishness, to Rand, is not that mindless grasping after do it my way whims that we think of when we use the term.

Selfishness, to Rand, is having a strong sense of oneself and what one values, and supporting those things one values most.

Since Mary values Tom above any of the things she gave up, she’s made no sacrifice at all, and her life is an example of a human being identifying her values and committing herself to the support of them.

Sacrifice, for Rand, means giving up something you value MORE for something you value LESS.

Now,  take this contrast:

For Dr. Jonas Salk, the most important thing was putting an end to childhood polio.  He worked all his life for very little money–relative to what he could have made if he’d done something else–to achieve this goal.  Once he had produced an effective vaccine, he put it immediately in the public domain.  He could have gotten rich from the sale of it.  Instead, he let the money go to make sure everybody could afford to have his child vaccinated against the disease.

Paris Hilton was born into a rich family.  She went to rich girls’ schools.  She lived in rich girl places.  As soon as she was old enough, she started to go out to parties nearly every night.  She chose her clothes with an eye to getting publicity, and she chose her actions with an eye to getting publicity, too.  She did whatever she had to do to be a public personality.  Even her spending habits were conditioned, at least in part, by what they would get her in terms of publicity.

Of the two people above–which one is selfish, and which one is selfless?

For Rand, Salk is the selfISH one–he identified what he valued most, dedicated his life to it, and pursued his goal without concern for what other people thought he ought to be doing or how the world would judge him.  He was selfISH because he had a strong sense of self.

For Rand, Hilton is selfLESS.  There’s no there there.  Her tastes, her habits, her life is determined by other people, what they will think, what they will say, how they will react.  She’s selfLESS because, when you get to the core of her, she has no self.  She’s the creation and reflection of other people.

Rand is not the only person in the world to use words in a way that isn’t usual in the population at large, but at least she does outline her definitions explicitly when she makes her arguments.  Buried in that long essay “This Is John Galt Speaking” is an argument about epistemology that includes a fair presentation of how she’s using the words she’s using and why.

Lots of people use unusual definitions without making those differences clear.  And others use words in a way that is common in one small group but not in the population at large.

I was confronted by this last night on Keith Olbermann’s program, where he discussed (with a female African-American professor from Princeton) whether or not the Tea Party movement was “racist.”

And what I got was this, “A lot of people don’t understand that if you support public policies that have a disparate impact on people of color, that’s racist.”


Most of us would define racism as treating individuals as members of their race rather than as individuals, or doing them harm simply because of their race, or denying them rights and opportunities simply because of their race.

No wonder “progressives” see the Tea Party movement and most Republicans as “racist” and the Tea Party movement and the Republicans just think the progressives are indulging in hate speech–they’re not using “racist” to mean the same thing.

So, before you decide Rand has nothing to say to you, try to make sure you know what she’s actually saying and how she’s defining her terms.

But today, I’m going to do neither.

It’s my birthday, and I’ve had NO sleep.

Matt’s going to cook for me, I have friends coming over this evening, and I think I’m going to go take a nap.

Written by janeh

July 13th, 2010 at 7:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Misery Express

with 3 comments

So–last night, to sort of cap everything off,  Bill’s mother went into the emergency room with blood clots in her legs, inoperable.  She’s had operations for those a few times, but now her arteries are just too hard.  So Bill’s sister Mary is looking for hospice for her, and we’re all hoping she lasts long enough for us to get there.  It’s one of those things, though.  She may not recognize us if we do come.

Mary Agnes has never really been okay since Bill’s sister JoAnn died.  I don’t suppose that’s surprising.  JoAnn was the third of her four children to die before her.  Bill’s father died years ago.  The last few years she’s been alone, relying on the Rosary and very depressed.


I look back over what I have seen in my life and I find it harder and harder to put the pieces together.   The extremes make enough sense.  The people who really screwed up, the people who lived so well ( in a moral sense), both seem to have come out where they should. 

So have the people with themes, as I’d guess I’d have to put it.  The people who weren’t actively bad but didn’t actually do anything except sort of go through the day by day by rote ended up–well, pretty much where they started.  The people who desperately wanted one particular thing and were actively engaged in working for it didn’t always get that one particular thing, but they did always get something above and beyond what they’d started with. 

And some of those stories are very interesting.

But there seem to be a lot of people who aren’t–aren’t defined at all, I guess.  Who just are.  When Mary Agnes was a young girl, she defied her very conservative Italian immigrant family to go off to Adelphi and become an RN.    My mother defied her father and spent a season singing in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. 

And then, you know, the Fifties happened, and they both came home and got married, and now we’re here.

It’s very odd for all this to be happening when I’m reading my way through This Is John Galt Speaking. 

I always thought the argument in that piece made perfect sense, but it does sometimes make it sound as if death is optional.

Ah, more later, maybe cheerier.

Written by janeh

July 12th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Few Stray Notes, Here and There

with 12 comments

First, let me say that I’m likely to be distracted over the next few days.

My mother, who is ninety-two and has been in a nursing home in Florida for many years, was apparently taken to the hospital sometime Wednesday and is now very ill.

This does not come as some kind of enormous shock.  I call her on a regular basis, and I insist on talking to her even though it’s been years since she knew who I was.  It’s been obvious for some time that she’s been getting more and more out of it with the passing weeks.

What bothers me here–besides the obvious–is that it took at least a day before anybody bothered to contact me, and it might have been closer to two days.   The news came in an e-mail late on Thursday afternoon, from the legal guardian who had never once before in all the past four years bothered to return a single one of my phone calls.

Even then, I got less than no information from him except the number of her attending physician.  I called the doctor, I called the hospital, I called the nursing home.  The nursing home hasn’t returned my call yet–and it’s been almost three days now.

When I got to the doctor, I found that there was no record on any of my mother’s paperwork that I existed, or that she had any living relatives at all.

When I got to the hospital, I found that her hospital records listed my brother as a contact person–my brother died four years ago.

I’m close to exploding here on some fundamental, visceral level that seems to skirt any form of reason. 

If she dies in this little stretch, it will happen before I have a chance to see her.  I don’t think the extra day’s notice will have changed that, but the people in Florida had no way of knowing whether it would or not. 

From what I can figure out about what’s been going on, they already knew, when I called last Sunday, that there was something going seriously wrong.  And yet, when I asked, all I got was, “oh, she’s doing fine.”

Between what happened to my father and what is now happening to my mother, I’m frantically trying to make sure that if anything ever happens to me, I’ve got enough people with my power of attorney, with their names on my accounts, with my health proxy and all the rest of it so that they can control what happens to me without ambiguity, and not get stuck in a mess like this.

And maybe I should listen to King Lear, but I trust the boys. And if I can’t trust them, I don’t care.

So there’s that.


I was going to get around to making some comments about the comments of the last few days, but I really don’t have the heart for it.

Let me just put in this, because it’s the most important part.

I don’t think “social science” is going to come up with a science of human nature.

I don’t think “social science” is science of any kind–and I include in that most of clincial psychology.

“Social science” has always been normative, not descriptive.  It has always existed to put scientific-sounding jargon around previously determined desired social outcomes. 

To ask, though, what would happen if we found that X was immoral and lots of people thought X was unjust seems to me to be just plain silly.

Lots of people find evolution objectionable–but that does not change the fact that evolution occurred.  The same is true for anything else.  Anybody can object to anything.  Facts are facts.

That said, I think part of the problem here is that we’re thinking of a science of human nature as providing laws of human nature that are moral laws.

But it’s at one remove.  The laws of physics and chemistry are what they are–engineering takes those laws and uses them to produce practical applications.

Moral law is like engineering, not like physics–first you find the laws of human nature, then you find the technical adaptations of them that work in real life.

Will everybody agree on the worthwhileness of these?

No, of course not–but you can’t get them to agree on the worthwhileness of air conditioning systems or SUVs, either.   So what?

My guess is, in fact, that lots of people will object to any moral system derived from an actual science of human nature, because most people have at least some incentitive to try to deny reality on one level or another.

But that’s for another time, when my brain is actually functioning.

Written by janeh

July 10th, 2010 at 8:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 7 comments

I’m continually amazed by how often this blog brings home to me the very different ways we all read things–so different that I wonder, really, if any two people are ever reading the “same thing.” 

Okay, that’s incoherent.

Let me tell you about yesterday, which actually hooks up to what it is I found “brilliant” about that essay I posted yesterday.

Yesterday, I got myself into trouble on Facebook.

Ack.  It was one of those things.

Somebody had posted a link to an article about how Facebook allows “hate speech” against fat people, with the comment that FB has a button up on every page that lets you declare the page “racist/hate speech” if you want.

People then responded to this by saying well, it’s amazing how much of that kind of thing goes on when it has nothing to do with free speech or the first amendment.

And, you know, I couldn’t help myself.  I posted responses–yes, this is free speech, freedom of speech is an individual right, it’s not just about the government, I don’t want corporations telling me what ideas I’m allowed to express any more than I want governments to, letting people decide who gets to say what endangers everybody and causes much more harm than “hate speech” ever could.

And, of course, I had nobody else defending my side of it.  I got snippy little comments about how the First Amendment only applies to the government so this isn’t a free speech thing, and what’s really immoral isn’t censorship or control of speech and ideas but “hate speech” itself, and then when I wouldn’t back down I got the message that “this is done now.”

In other words, agree with me or I stop talking.

And part of me is just annoyed at myself, because the idea of FB for me was just to have little light conversation, and that kind of thing.

But part of me went back to something I learned on the Internet–it’s not a matter of Left and Right, it’s not a matter of conservative and liberal, it’s a matter of libertarianism or the need for control.

And that division–libertarianism and the need for control–occurs inside the usual political divisions.

And that division seems to be visceral–it seems to be tendencies within personalities rather than a result of one kind of political thinking or another.

In other words, I know libertarian socialists as well as libertarian capitalists, and libertarian everything in between.  I know self proclaimed socialists who are just as much free speech absolutists as I am, and who are committed to Second Amendment rights to boot.

I know self-proclaimed conservatives who think it should be illegal to criticize people’s religion and who really want laws restricting all kinds of private behavior, from homosexuality to flag burning.

The real division is not what we think it is. 

Hayek, of course, is famous for saying that social welfare states will necessarily breed serfdom, in the sense of breeding need-for-control people dependent on their controllers. 

It seems to me that that is just sort-of true.  Lee’s “natural libertarians” seem to exist everywhere, and in some cases they actually develop out of the other thing.

The problem with arguing about things like “hate speech,” of course, is that people automatically assume that if you’re not for banning it, then you think it’s “all right” that some people should be insulting to other people.

But I don’t think it’s all right.  I think it’s inexcusable.

I just think it’s wrong to ban it, because banning it will, in the end, cause far more damage.

Part of the problem is that I’m not a feelings person.  I get mine hurt a lot–well, okay, less than I did when I was younger, but that’s mostly because I’ve developed a hide like a rhinocerso–but it seems to me that in issues of speech, feelings are irrelevant.

And that one drives people crazy.

As to John’s post:  Both Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand provided foundations for individual rights that do NOT rely on God and that do NOT rely on if it feels good or you like it.  That is, they both provided objective grounds for rights.

But Mill and Locke were relying less on God thanyou think–they were Deists, and the God of the Deists is more like what you and I would call “the laws of nature” than it is like the God of Christianity.

Mill and Locke assumed–correctly, I think–that just as you could establish the laws of physical motion, the way in which nature is constructed and how it works, you could do the same with human nature.

But more about that later.

It’s already getting too hot to sit in this office.

Written by janeh

July 8th, 2010 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On The Way To Miserable

with 5 comments

It was 102 by midafternoon here yesterday, so I’m in the office–which is a sunroom–early, because it’s either early or nothing until later this week.

But I really hate heat.  And I hate cold.  And I got up really early, so Gregor got done.

But, a couple of things.

First, one of the reasons for reading what Singer and this guy Unger write is to see how they defend their ideas.   That also tells me what I have to argue or explain to refute their ideas.

Some people construct closed systems, so that once you accept their definitions it’s impossible to seriously challenge anything they say.  Freud is like that.  The problem with Freud’s thought is far more fundamental than anything in any of his arguments.  If you accept his definitions, you’re stuck accepting everything that follows them.

Certainly part of the issue here is the definitions these people are using.  And yes, I do think they know that, at base, the ideas they say they are upholding began as religious ones.  I think they would answer that by saying that those ideas are not only religious ones, that they’re “commonly accept basic moral values.” 

I think that, in order to counter them, you would indeed have to attack what they define as the core values.  But I’ll know more when I’ve had a chance to read Unger’s book. 

With Singer, I’ve only been able to read essays. Singer tends to be highly controversial, so the best of the anthologies for composition courses–for me, that would be Current Issues and Enduring Questions, from Bedford/St. Martin’s, and not because that company also publishes me–tend to include his stuff to see if they can get students energized to write things.

Current Issues also includes an essay by Garrett Hardin called “The Case Against Helping The Poor,” which takes almost the opposite stance, so the book isn’t biased in the way so many of these books often are.

But Hardin’s essay is–as these things often are–a practical response to what is presented as a moral argument in Singer and Unger.  And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that works.

You have to counter moral arguments with moral arguments.

But I’ll get to that later.

Right now, I want to suggest a truly brilliant essay, linked to a couple of days ago on Arts and Letters Daily, by Lee Harris.  I’ve got a book by Harris around the house somewhere.  I like it a lot.

Anyway, the link:


And now I’m going to go drink something with ice in it.

Written by janeh

July 7th, 2010 at 8:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 9 comments

I knew it was going to be a bad day when I came downstairs this morning, at not quite four, and it was so hot I had to put on the air conditioner. I can usually get away with not doing that until at least ten, even if July and August.  Then I checked the weather, and the news was “temperatures near 100.”  It’s getting to the point where I hate both winter and summer.  I’m past the age where I can handle the -12 temperatures of February, and I’ve never liked the heat.

In the meantime, just as I’m finishing up the Ayn Rand, I’ve come across a little book my older son was assigned for a philosophy course this past term.  It’s called Living High and Letting Die:  Our Illusion of Innocence, by Peter Unger, and it literally came spilling out at me when I picked up a duffle bag.

From what I can see from looking at it, the book isn’t particularly original. Peter Singer says a lot of the same stuff, and his books are longer and more widely reviewed.

But what strikes me about it is that it (and Singer) represent yet another case in which I thought Rand was exaggerating, when it turned out she was only considerably ahead of her time.

Unger’s point–as is Singer’s in a lot of his work–is that we have no right to anything we (think we) own, not even the food we eat, if we haven’t given away every single thing to save every starving person anywhere on the globe.  If we have a nice house and a nice car and central heating, we are responsible for the death of any child in Africa, because we don’t “need” those things to survive and we therefore should have given them away.

I’m putting this badly.  But I was thinking I’d actuall read this thing next up, so maybe I’ll be able to put it better later.

Written by janeh

July 6th, 2010 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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