Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas

September 10, 2014

The struggle against the radical Muslim jihadis, as in the Cold War against Communism, is more than a struggle for power.  It also is a war of ideas.

We Americans have disarmed ourselves in that war.  We don’t advocate foundational American ideas—the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address—because we no longer have confidence in them.

We are so paralyzed by our internal culture conflicts that our official spokesmen dare not speak of religious or moral principles.   About the only ideals they can uphold unequivocally are feminism, gay rights and recycling.

Andrew Doran reported, in an article in the current issue of The American Conservative, reported on how this played out.  His article is largely based on interviews with two Army offices he calls Joseph and Brian about their service in Afghanistan.

“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’  All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”

AmericanConservative2014.0910Cover-125x160Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure.  Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems.  The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent.  A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off.  Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”

[snip]

“We were there writing checks and shooting people,” says Joseph.  “It was as incoherent to me as it was to the Afghans. But building a soccer field isn’t building a civilization.  The foundations for civilization, for reason, for the common good, for law, for science—all of it was missing.  It’s still missing and no one seems to have a sense of how to build it.”

[snip]

“The Afghans wanted to talk to us about what we value,” says Joseph, “But we had to censor ourselves.”  They both recall the Afghan perception of Americans, largely shaped by the entertainment industry.  “They thought we all lived in porno films,” Brian says with a chuckle. “One time they asked if I prayed. When I said ‘Yes,’ they laughed because they thought I was joking.”  America’s institutional culture did nothing to alter this impression.

“If I’d been part of the British navy in the 19th century,” says Joseph, “civilizing would’ve been part of our mission. But for us, it was dialoguing about nothing, about projects, using words that mean nothing—sustainability, dynamism, governance, implementation, transparent, relevant, outreach, consolidate, force multiplier, cross-pollinate, trust-gap, legitimacy, capitalize, mobilize, incentivize, mandate, aftermathing, liaisoning, conflict-mapping, indices, unity of action. You see what I mean—the antiseptic, PowerPoint sociology speech.”

There are two ways a confident civilization spreads its values.  One is by conquest, as was done by the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Spanish and, to a lesser extent, other European colonial powers.  The other is by setting an example of a way of life that others want to imitate.  The American way of life once had a strong appeal to the world’s peoples, and there is still an afterglow from that.

I don’t think we Americans are capable, at present, of spreading our civilizational values either by conquest (which I do not advocate) or by example.  The answer to al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and like movements will have to be in the best traditions of Muslim civilization itself.

Click on Absurd in Afghanistan: the Islamic world needs Avicenna, not America to read the entire article by Andrew Doran in The American Conservative.  (Hat tip to Robert Heineman)

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Paul Graham’s greatest hits

August 17, 2014
Paul Graham

Paul Graham

PAUL GRAHAM is a computer programmer, venture capitalist and essayist in the Boston area, who publishes his writings on his web site.

Most of his writing is about start-up companies and why they succeed or fail, but occasionally he writes on subjects of general interest, and I find these essays both interesting and wise.  Here are my favorites.

Why Nerds Are Unpopular

What You Can’t Say

Made in USA

What You’ll Wish You’d Known

How to Do What You Love

Is It Worth Being Wise?

Two Types of Judgment

You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss

Lies We Tell Kids

The Top Idea in Your Mind

The Acceleration of Addictiveness

Russia’s ‘Eurasianism': a challenge to democracy?

August 5, 2014

Eurasia 2

Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union would not have the economic or military strength of the United States or the European Union.  Its significance may be otherwise—an ideological rallying point to those who reject Western liberalism.

Liberalism in this context means more than the ideas of the New Deal Democrats in the United States.  It means the whole modern movement toward increasing freedom, reason and tolerance, fostered by free-market capitalism, free scientific inquiry, free elections and respect for human rights.

These ideas are so taken for granted in the USA that we Americans forget that many people in the world give priority to other values—community, tradition, national solidarity, cultural identity and obedience to legitimate authority.   This is not limited to the countries of Putin’s Eurasian Union.

The appeal of anti-liberal philosophies is strengthened when Washington justifies invasion of foreign countries and unchecked corporate rule in the name of freedom and democracy.

China, the central Asian countries and Iran share an interest in the economic integration of the interior of Eurasia.   Construction of railroads and pipelines will inevitably draw these countries closer together.  But they also have in common political philosophies that reject individualism and value stability and unity, whether in the name of China’s Confucian-style Communism or Iran’s religious law, and this also will draw them closer together and away from the influence of the USA.

By the same token, to the extent that freedom, reason, tolerance and the other values of the modern world have appeal, people and nations will draw away from the Eurasian Union and toward the values of the European Union and the USA.

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Three philosophies for hard times ahead

July 27, 2014

John Michael Greer, author of several books about the consequences of peaking of world oil supplies, thinks progress is a consoling illusion.  He does not believe there is anything about the nature of things that guarantees that this generation will be better off than the previous one, or that future generations will be better off than this one.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

He writes a weekly web log, The Archdruid Report, which is one of the Blogs I Like.  In a recent post, he points to better and more enduring philosophies.

There is the Epicurean philosophy, which teaches you to be grateful for life’s blessings and not to wish for more than you have.  Epicurus did not teach the Playboy Philosophy.  He was a laborer who worked hard to support his aged parents, and who only enjoyed leisure late in life when his followers bought him a house and garden.

There is the Stoic philosophy, which doesn’t bother about happiness at all, but only acting constructively and with integrity no matter what the circumstances.   A Stoic would agree with one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Stoicism provides a grim satisfaction that comes from not having expectations and from not basing happiness or self-respect on anything that someone else can take away from him.

The third philosophy, to which Greer adheres, is the Platonist philosophy, which is that our world is a a shadow of a divine order, which, when glimpsed and understood, makes everything make sense.

I am more of an Epicurean than a Stoic, and not a Platonist at all.  That is not to say I deny the truth of Platonism and other religious philosophies.  It is that I have not had the religious and spiritual experiences that I read about, and that people I know tell me about, and I cannot say anything one way or the other.

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Why I wouldn’t want to live forever

July 20, 2014

[This is the draft of a lay sermon given at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 2014]

I remember lying in a hospital bed some 20 years ago after having had a pre-cancerous lobe of my right lung removed.  I got to thinking that this body part was not going to regenerate and that, in fact, the warranty had expired on many of my body parts.

Lying there in the bed, I began to fantasize about what it would be like if this wasn’t so—if I didn’t have to grow old and die, if I could live indefinitely, in vigorous physical and mental health, like  Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain.

life's.clockI imagined having infinite time to do everything I ever had dreamed of doing.  I could read every book I ever wanted to read.  I could study every subject I was ever interested in, and could master every skill I lacked.  I could travel and see every sight I ever wanted to see.  There would be nothing I could not do—that is, if I were capable of doing it and willing to do the work.

I tried to imagine my future life for 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future and, to my surprise, I couldn’t imagine a future that I would like.

 There are only two things I know with certainty about the future.  One is that it will not be like the present.  The other is that I can’t predict it.  I am amazed at the transformations that have taken place during my lifetime.  None of the changes that I expected in my youth have come about, but things that I took for granted have been utterly transformed.  Sometimes it seems to me that the only things that haven’t changed are the structures of economic and political power.

The future brings the challenge of having to adapt to change.  Learning new things is delightful when it is voluntary.  I delight in things new technology makes possible—my blog, for example.  At the same time I am happy to be old and retired, and to be in a position in which I don’t have to master new knowledge and skills that I’m not interested in.

The worst thing about living forever would be that I would leave my friends behind.  If you live long enough—I haven’t yet lived to that point myself—you see all your contemporaries disappear, one by one.  I have made newer and younger friends, but to me, at age 77, a “young” friend is someone in their 40s or 50s.  I don’t really share the experience and thinking of the new generation.

If I lived long enough, not only everyone that I loved and cared about were gone, but everything that I loved and cared about would be no more.

The world during my lifetime has changed in many ways that I don’t understand and can’t relate to, from the music to the technology to the manners and morals. What would it be like in 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?  I would be as alienated as someone from the 18th or 19th century in the world today.

I am curious to know the future.  The far future would be an interesting place to visit.  But I’m not sure I would want to live there.

What would be the point of living so long if I lived it as a grouchy old man? I already find myself talking much too much about how different things are today from the way they used to be.

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How to be a conservative liberal socialist

July 15, 2014

By Leszek Kolakowski.

Motto: “Please step forward to the rear!” This is an approximate translation of a request I once heard on a tram-car in Warsaw. I propose it as a slogan for the mighty International that will never exist.

A Conservative Believes:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed.

Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible, i.e., we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously; but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time.

A society in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is not. The same applies to the compatibility of planning and the principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress.

Put yet another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

2. That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life—families, rituals, nations, religious communities—are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.

We have no certain knowledge of what might occur if, for example, the monogamous family was abrogated, or if the time-honored custom of burying the dead were to give way to the rational recycling of corpses for industrial purposes. But we would do well to expect the worst.

3. That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment–that envy, vanity, greed, and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed– is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.

How on earth did all these institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man? To hope that we can institutionalize brotherhood, love, and altruism is already to have a reliable blueprint for despotism.

A Liberal Believes:

1. That the ancient idea that the purpose of the State is security still remains valid. It remains valid even if the notion of “security” is expanded to include not only the protection of persons and property by means of the law, but also various provisions of insurance: that people should not starve if they are jobless; that the poor should not be condemned to die through lack of medical help; that children should have free access to education–all these are also part of security.

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Thoughts about youth and age

July 13, 2014

 

youth old age plato calm and happy nature

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The pitfall of relying on intelligence and logic

July 10, 2014

Last week a blogger called Avery Penarrun wrote:

Smart people have a problem, especially although not only when you put them in large groups.   That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.  [snip]

If you know all the constraints and weights – with perfect precision – then you can use logic to find the perfect answer.  But when you don’t, which is always, there’s a pretty good chance your logic will lead you very, very far astray.

Most people find this out pretty early on in life, because their logic is imperfect and fails them often.  But really, really smart computer geek types may not ever find it out.

Click on The Curse of Smart People for his complete post.   It is, of course, not an argument for replacing reason with gut feeling, but against over-confidence and in favor of frequent reality checks.

Non-moral arguments for humane goals

June 26, 2014

History professor Eric Rauchway pointed out how progressives advocate humane policies based on strictly economic criteria.

Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit.

You had, he said and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment, to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus.  Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

via Crooked Timber.

I hear this kind of rhetoric  liberals today.  They concede the moral high ground to their opponents and then argue that their policies would be a better way of achieving non-liberal goals – for example, that health care reform would be a good way to help balance the federal budget.

One problem is that this type of argument is not always valid.   The larger problem is that when it is, it is not convincing to people committed to the view that the harshest policies are always the most realistic

The difference between Communism and fascism

June 10, 2014

MaoTens of millions of people died in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of Mao Zedong’s failed policies and his refusal to acknowledge they were failures.

I said his policies were failures, but from Mao’s standpoint, maybe they weren’t.  Like Stalin’s agricultural collectivization policies in the 1930s, they have have caused death and suffering, but they enabled the government to tighten its grip over the nation’s food supply and its population.

adolf-hitlerSome scholars think that Stalin and Mao caused the deaths of more than beings than Hitler did.   It is impossible to say for certain because the historical record was suppressed.

Why, then, does Hitler stand alone as a symbol of evil?  I think that one reason is that Hitler is a defeated enemy.  If Nazi Germany had won the Second World War, and if there were a powerful government in existence today that was the heir of Hitler’s regime, there would still be apologists for Hitler.

638519-stalinThe other reason is the difference between the appeal of fascism and Communism.  Fascists for the most part are racists, elitists and thugs.  Communists for the most part are defenders of labor rights and civil rights.

Throughout the 20th century, members of the American Communist Party became disillusioned when they discovered that Communist regimes in fact suppress labor rights and civil liberties.   I never heard of a member of the American Nazi Party becoming disillusioned because they discovered the Nazis were insufficiently racists and thuggish.

I don’t think that Communists—the ones outside actual Communist countries—are as bad as fascists.  Many have fought courageously for civil rights, labor rights and other things I believe in myself.  The worst you can say of them is that they have been willfully blind to horrible things.

But Communism is the more insidious ideology.   It is one thing to recruit racists and thugs to defend a cruel totalitarian dictatorship.   It is a far worse thing to persuade people who believe in democracy and workers’ rights to justify the crimes of a totalitarian dictatorship.


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