Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Philosophers and welders

November 22, 2015

… make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training.  For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education.  Welders make more money than philosophers.  We need more welders and less philosophers.

==Senator Marco Rubio in the 4th GOP debate

Marco Rubio is mistaken about the purpose of studying philosophy.  The purpose is not mainly to earn a big salary as a professional philosopher.  It is to give student a broader perspective on life.  This is important for everyone, whether a welder or a United States Senator.

education-in-liberal-artsEveryone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not.   Everyone operates on certain assumptions about how you know what’s true and what’s false, and what’s right and what’s wrong.   Some people get their basic assumptions about life from parents, teachers or  religion.  Some get them from peers.  All too many get them from the mass media.

The study of philosophy helps you to look at your assumptions and decide how well they stand up.  It helps you to understand the assumptions of people different from you and where they’re coming from.

And it gives you a kind of cosmic perspective that helps you escape the limits of the here and now.  It can be a kind of spiritual practice.

Once the study of the liberal arts—including philosophy—was reserved for the upper classes to give them the perspective they needed to be successful rulers.   Education for the lower classes, what there was of it, consisted of basic literacy and vocational skills.

With the rise of democracy, many Americans had the dream that the kind of education once limited to the aristocracy could be made available to everyone.   Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey believed that American citizens could not be both ignorant and free.

That’s why Americans established free public schools and free or cheap public universities.  It was also a reason for the eight-hour work day and five-day work week—to give people time and energy to engage in something else besides labor.

I fear we’re reverting to the older idea—liberal education for the elite, vocational education for the masses.


The large philosophical idea collider

November 9, 2015

philosophyNewsNetwork1 (more…)

Two resolutions I made early in life

September 13, 2015

I resolved never to make make myself unhappy about things that don’t really matter.

I resolved never to base my sense of self-esteem on anything somebody else had the power to take away from me.

Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth

September 10, 2015

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY on Thursday, September 10, 2015

One of the things that Bertrand Russell wrestled with all his life with a theory of knowledge—how we can know anything for sure.  It is a question we have discussed in different ways at the Russell Forum.

I plan to discuss some ideas of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that have helped me understand these questions better —specifically, his idea that there are different kinds of knowledge, each with their specific tests for validity.

Jurgen Habermas is the grand old man of German philosophy.  He is now in his 80s, and occupies the same position in German intellectual life as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey did in British and American intellectual life at that point in their lives.  Habermas by the way was an admirer of the American pragmatists.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

He served his philosophical apprenticeship as a member of the Frankfurt School – the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt – which sought to develop ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx.

Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt school, believed (like John Dewey, but unlike Bertrand Russell) that philosophy was not a separate academic discipline, over and above the natural and social sciences, but rather must be integrated with and draw on all of them.

Neither did the Frankfurt school believe that philosophy could be separated from the times and the social setting of philosophers.  Its members believed in something they called Critical Theory, which showed how the ideas of any given time were a product of a historical process.

The Frankfurt school transplanted itself to New York City during the Nazi era, and its leaders, like many cultivated Europeans before them, were horrified by the vulgar industrialized American culture.  They thought that Americans in their way were just as manipulated by propaganda and just as lacking in independent thought as Germans under Hitler.

Horkheimer and his follower Theodore W. Adorno wrote a treatise called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I haven’t read, but in which I understand that he said that the ideals of reason and science, developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, have failed.  They have been turned against themselves, and merely resulted in new methods of oppression and social control.

But, as Habermas said, if we are all products of our particular society and historical era, and if the public opinion is controlled by the manipulation of the powers that be, how it is possible from something such as Critical Theory to have any objective validity?  How is it possible that any progress or improvement takes place at all?


Book notes on Jurgen Habermas

September 10, 2015

This is an archive of my notes written over the years on the works of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Jurgen Habermas (1962) translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick J. Lawrence (1989)

I read this book as part of an informal seminar organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.  I don’t claim to have fully understood it.  Habermas wrote in a highly abstract style, but his style was not an attempt to obfuscate, but rather to integrate complex ideas.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

Habermas’s subject was the evolution of what’s considered public and what’s considered private.  His focus was on Germany, France and Britain, which I found interesting because it showed that the changes he described were not specific to the United States.

In the age of absolute monarchs, Habermas wrote, royalty lived their lives as a public spectacle, while the common people lived private lives in obscurity.  What we now think of as the public sphere arose in the mercantile middle class—hence “a category of bourgeois society.”

Merchants organized shared newsletters and foreign correspondents to get accurate information about business conditions.  Out of this evolved the press as we know it, which reported on politics and culture.  Coffee houses in Britain, salons in France and Germany provided means by which middle-class and upper-class people could meet, talk freely and form public opinion, which in the 18th century was a new concept.  There arose an ideal of governance based on free public discussion and exchange of ideas.

Advocates of democracy in the 19th century hoped that the mass of the people could be assimilated to this ideal. Instead the mass media arose, and the mass public became passive consumers of culture.

Ordinary people only to got to choose which newspaper or magazine to read, which political party to vote for and which soft drink to consume, but communication was downward, not upward.


Meaninglessness, horror and philosophy

August 8, 2015


My friend Hal Bauer called my attention to a radio interview with a young philosopher named Eugene Thacker, author of In the Dust of This Planet: the Horror of Philosophy, Volume I.

Thacker, a self-described pessimist and nihilist, thinks that horror fiction—in which nothing makes sense and something bad can happen at any moment—is a good guide to the modern predicament of living in a meaningless world.

My argument with Thacker is that he treats meaningless as a fact, and I think meaninglessness is a choice.

The old Greek and Roman philosophers were not concerned about meaninglessness.  To them, the purpose of philosophy was to teach you how to endure hardship, pain and death, with dignity and without whining.

Christianity created meaning.   The Christian church taught people they were actors a drama that extended from birth to the afterlife, and from Creation to the Last Judgment.

I once read Dante’s The Divine Comedy as part of a reading group, and was saw how Dante gave every little thing that he encountered a theological significance, a metaphysical significance and a moral significance.  It would be wonderful to see things that way, I thought.

The disappearance of this significance is hard on people who can’t believe in Christianity, but who’ve grown up in a civilization formed by Christianity.

Thacker tries to get this back through the study of occult philosophy, which does indeed give things metaphysical and magical significance.

There may well be “hidden worlds” as occult philosophers believe.  If you think, as I do, that everything that exists is the result of impersonal natural laws and of the decisions of sentient beings, then the occult is the realm of natural laws and sentient beings we don’t know about.

The problem with occult philosophy, as opposed to empirical science, is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing truth about the “hidden world” from meaningless gobbledegook.

In science, if the experiment doesn’t work or the prediction doesn’t come about, the theory is not true—or at least is subject to doubt.  In occult philosophy, the only criterion is whether it rings true to you personally.

If you can’t believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other established religions, I recommend you took at the classic Greek and Roman philosophers.  Broadly speaking, they were concerned with happiness, not with meaningfulness, and they pursued happiness in two ways.

One was to learn to appreciate life’s blessings, however small, and to not make yourself unhappy wishing things could be different from what they were.  The other was to live your life in such a way that you could look back on it with justified satisfaction at having done your duty.


In The Dust of This Planet – Radiolab.

Playing: In the Dust of This Planet.

In the Dust of This Planet: an excerpt from the book.

The Sight of a Mangled Corpse, an interview with Eugene Thacker.


Right, wrong and the “wrong” side of history

August 5, 2015

When Leon Trotsky was in exile the Soviet Union after losing his power struggle with Joseph Stalin, he still led a tiny splinter group.  He expelled dissidents from the group, saying he had consigned them “to the dust bin of history.”

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

There are certain unstated assumptions in that remark, and in any statement about the right or wrong side of history.   The assumptions are that (1) the course of history is predictable, (2) the outcome of history is just and (3) being on the winning side proves you were right.

I disagree with all these assumptions.  I don’t think the course of history is predictable. I don’t think the outcome of history is necessarily just and I don’t think being a winner proves you are right.

Just to be clear, I agree that gay couples ought to enjoy the same rights as straight married couples.  I think this is a question of right and wrong, not of the right or wrong side of history.  However, I don’t think that people who were slower to see this than I was should be fired from their jobs or driven out of business merely because of their personal opinions.

But gay marriage is not the topic of this post.  The topic is why philosophies of history are bad guides to moral and ethical philosophy.


Donating fetal tissue for science is pro-life

August 4, 2015

tissue-gateI can understand being opposed to abortion under any circumstances, although I respectfully disagree.

But granted that abortion is legal, I don’t see any additional harm that is done by donating the fetal issue for use in scientific research.

Suppose somebody is the victim of a homicide.  Suppose the victim’s loved ones donate the victim’s organs for transplants or medical research.  Does that sanction homicide?

Suppose a convict on death row decided to become an organ donor.  Does honoring the convict’s wishes imply endorsement of the death penalty?

I’m an organ donor myself, and although the idea of my carcass being cut up by medical students has its gruesome side, I won’t be around to see it.

A friend of mine, also an organ donor, said she likes the idea of literally living on after death in someone’s heart.  In fact, most organ donations are used for research and medical education, but this, too, is a good contribution.

Likewise, I can see how a woman, having had an abortion, can take consolation in the thought that the tissue of the fetus can be used in scientific research.

If Planned Parenthood helps her do that, it is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Such research could save human lives.  It is pro-life.


Wing-nut conspiracy theorists have done it again: The truth about the Planned Parenthood hoax revealed by Bob Cesca for Salon.

The Memification of Planned Parenthood by Robert Tracinski for The Federalist.

Fetal-Tissue Research and the Long Fight to Defund Planned Parenthood by Julie Ravner for The Atlantic.

Fetal tissue research has been with us a long time — and it’s saved lives by “Hunter” for Daily Kos.  [Added later]

The world outside our heads

July 31, 2015

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.


The worlds inside our heads

July 31, 2015

Somebody once wrote that the most embarrassing of all studies was intellectual history, because it shows how the ideas that you take as simple common sense were once new and implausible, and the agendas of the people who argued for them.

This was my feeling after reading Charles Taylor’s  2004 book, MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES, as part of an informal study group organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.

It is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that they were embedded in a divine hierarchy resting on the animal world and lowest human beings, and reaching up to Heaven in a great chain of being.

It also is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that society is something pre-existing, which people are born into and have to serve as best they can.

Taylor traced the steps by which we came to the present predominant believe, that society consists of separate and independent individuals and exists for their benefit rather than the other way around.

He calls these beliefs “imaginaries” because they form the background of how we perceive our world–a perception that only partly matches up to objective reality, but which we take for granted.

I found his book illuminating and disturbing because it showed me how many of the things I believe in are based on assumptions I can’t prove.

Taylor.Imaginaries978-0We modern Americans take for granted, for example, that religion has to do with individual morality and that each person has the right to choose their own religion.

But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the worship of the gods was something they had to do to avoid the gods’ wrath and seek the gods’ blessings.  The gods didn’t care what individuals thought about them, only that they perform the rituals correctly.  That is why the pagan Romans couldn’t understand the Christians’ refusal to burn incense for the Emperor.

The Hebrew Bible has some teachings about individual morality, but nothing about individual salvation or an afterlife.  Israel as a whole either worshipped God or strayed after false gods, and the nation was rewarded or punished accordingly.

Christianity changed this.   Christians believed they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their individual faith and works, and that lip service to religion wasn’t enough.  Protestantism took this tendency further.  Then freethinkers and rationalists, rather than assuming morality came from religion, questioned religious dogmas and practices in the name of morality.

Many individual Americans and Europeans believe that the ultimate basis of morality is a transcendent religious belief, but American and European societies are not organized around this belief.  Taylor for this reason calls our society “secular”—not because it is hostile to religion, but because it is neutral to religion.


Do animals have the same rights as humans?

May 14, 2015

If a firefighter died going into a burning building to save a human baby, I would regard that firefighter as a hero.

If a firefighter died going into a burning building to save a puppy or kitten, I would regard that firefighter as a tragic victim of bad judgment.

animal_rights_by_animebigboy-d393s4vNow, from the cosmic point of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, it could be argued that, from the cosmic point of view, there is not all that much difference between a kitten, a puppy and a human baby.  But I don’t have the cosmic view.  I have the human view.

To say this, however, is not a sufficient answer to the animal rights warriors when they talk about cruelty to animals, especially the systematic cruelty of today’s industrial agriculture—chickens, cows and pigs forced to spend their entire lives in cages.

You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in.  The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights.

You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you.  It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings.


‘You need to think about death five minutes a day’

April 25, 2015

festival1A writer named Eric Weiner visited the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan, and was suddenly overcome by shortness of breath, dizziness and numbness in the hands and feet.  Fearing a heart attack or worse, he visited a physician name Dr. Karma Ura, who told him he suffered a panic attack.

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

via BBC


What happened to our dreams of freedom?

April 24, 2015

The Trap: F*** You, Buddy

Adam Curtis makes documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation that are remarkable for revealing hidden connections and bringing out the unexpected consequences of ideas.  His weakness is that he sometimes connects dots that, in my opinion, are not connected in actuality.  His strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his three-part series, “The Trap.”

The first two parts of the series show the working out of the ideas of three brilliant economists.

Friedrich A. Hayek believed that governmental power is dangerous and counterproductive.  It is better, he thought, to allow the economy to be regulated by an automatic system, the free market.

John Nash of the RAND Corporation saw human beings as selfish and suspicious, but, for that very reason, predictable.  He worked out the implications of “prisoner’s dilemma” situations, in which rational people are unable to cooperate for their mutual benefit because they cannot trust each other.

The USA and USSR could not give up atomic weapons because neither could trust the other not to cheat.  Instead the road to peace supposedly was for each to be armed to the teeth and ready at retaliate as soon as they were attacked.  Because each could predict the other’s behavior, the situation supposedly was stable.

James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, was the creator of “public choice” theory.  He asserted that politicians and administrators are selfish beings who worked to their own advantage and not the public whom they supposedly served.  Idealistic politicians and officials are the most dangerous, in this view, because they could not be controlled.

Curtis documented how these ideas played out under Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors.  Many governmental functions were sub-contracted to private companies.  Since government employees, according to public choice theory, could not be trusted to exercise their own judgment, they were given incentives to meet measurable targets.

The idea was that this is liberating because people are not subjected to the arbitrary personal judgments of people over them, but to objective and neutral measurements.

This kind of thinking is also playing out today in U.S. corporate and government administration.  The result is a micro-management that diminishes individual freedom.  And it doesn’t work.   The incentive is to figure out ways of meeting the target which is a different thing from doing your job well.

Curtis asserted that psychological studies show that the only people who behave according to the Nash-Buchanan theory are economists and psychopaths.  That is an exaggeration.

There is a measure of truth in what Nash, Buchanan and also Hayek say.  The problem is that human beings are diverse and complex, neither altruists nor selfish calculating machines, and no one-dimensional theory can sum them up.

The Trap: The Lonely Robot


Confucius on how to learn wisdom

April 19, 2015

tumblr_nls2znK41O1r0o12to1_500Source: Tragedy Series.

Adam Curtis and machines of loving grace

April 17, 2015

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace is a remarkable three-part documentary film series made by Adam Curtis for the BBC.

He explores the consequences of looking at the economy, at nature and at human nature as an self-regulating cybernetic-like system, governed by automatic feedback, without the need for human thought.

Thinking this way make people assume that political action is futile and it is better to stand aside and let things come into adjustment automatically.  This is profoundly anti-democratic.  Also, it doesn’t work.

Love and Power is about the idea that the economic system will come to a desirable equilibrium based on individual self-interest without outside regulation.

He reports on Ayn Rand and her attempt to set up a utopian community based on the virtue of selfishness, and on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who internalized the values of Ayn Rand.


The battleline between good and evil

March 15, 2015


I believe there is such a thing as goodness, which is devotion to human flourishing in myself and others, and I believe there is such a thing as badness, which is the human weaknesses that prevent people from serving the good.

I also believe there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.

There are such things as good countries, which allow their people to flourish, and there are bad countries, where corruption, privilege and power without accountability prevent human flourishing.

And there are such things as evil regimes, such as those of Hitler and Stalin, which kill and torment people for no real reason except pure malice.

The ISIS regime and its allies such as Boko Haram in Nigeria seem to be pure evil, although they may attract followers who don’t realize what they’re getting into until it is too late.  If I could push a button and blow up all the ISIS leaders while sparing innocent human life, I certainly would do so.

At the same time, I recognize that the seeds of the ISIS atrocities and of almost every other bad and evil human action exist within myself.   I have never wanted to set anybody on fire or slowly saw anyone’s head off at the neck, and I have never fantasized about it, but I have thought and done things that, in their small way, were just as pointlessly malicious.

To recognize the evil in myself is not to deny or mitigate the evil of ISIS.   It is to recognize the truth of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, once said, which is that the battleline between good and evil does not run between nations nor between individuals, but through the heart of every human being.


Vaccination and the pro-life philosophy

February 27, 2015

VaxExemptionsThe basic argument of the anti-abortion movement is that the right to life is more important than the right to choose.

I agree with that argument.  My freedom of choice ends where the threat to your life begins.

My disagreement with the anti-abortion movement is over when human life begins.  I agree with the older Christian philosophy which Dante expressed in the Divine Comedy, that conception creates a vegetable soul, capable of growth, which develops into an animal soul, capable of movement, and only later becomes a human soul, capable of understanding.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that anyone committed to the right to life philosophy would deny that there is a right of parents to withhold vaccination or life-saving medical treatment from children.

The right of the child to live is more important than the right of the parent to choose.  And in this case, there is no question as to what constitutes a human life.

How should you spend your life?

January 24, 2015


The chart shows the life on a typical American, arranged on a grid of 52 weeks and 90 years.  It seems pretty optimistic.  I retired at age 62, but not many Americans today will be able to afford to do that.

The question arises: How do you spend all these weeks?

Venn1Being able to ask this question shows what a privilege it is to be a middle-class Americans.  Many people in the world have no time for anything except trying to survive and helping their loved ones to survive.


Your Life in Weeks by Tim Burton on Wait But Why.

The problem of free will

January 18, 2015


I believe in free will.  I can’t say what it is, but I believe in it.

comic-freewillPhysical and chemical reactions are governed by scientific laws.  Living things are governed by biological laws.  A virus, a bacterium, a tree and an earthworm are all alive, but they don’t make choices.  A housefly has freedom of motion, but does it have free will?

Does a mouse have free will?  If you knew everything there was to know about a mouse, could you predict what it was going to do?  How about a dog or cat?  How about us?

If free will exists, how and when did it arise in biological evolution?  When I decide things, it is for a reason—sometimes a reason of which I was not conscious at the time.  Does that mean my decisions are not free?  Suppose I made decisions at random (whatever random means).  Would that make them free?

comic2-897Religious people believe that human beings have souls—a supernatural quality independent of biological evolution.  Would that change things?  Would beings with souls do things that are neither caused nor at random?

These questions have practical consequences.  If I think that I exercise free choice, I take responsibility for my actions and try to improve.  If I think my actions are predetermined, maybe I do and maybe I don’t.

dilbert-free-willPossibly the most radical philosophical proponent of free will was Jean-Paul Sartre, who taught that human beings are completely free to choose, with no excuses.  “Man [sic] is condemned to be free,” Sartre taught.  “Condemned” is an appropriate word if Sartre is right in saying there are no objective criteria that make a decision right or wrong, and all decisions are at bottom arbitrary.

Sartre praised authentic persons who wholeheartedly commit themselves to a set of values, which they have chosen arbitrarily but live up to without hypocrisy.

By his standards, I’m not an authentic person.  My belief in free will is selective.


John Stuart Mill on knowing both sides

December 13, 2014

john stuart millHe who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.  His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. 

But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion … 

Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.  

He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

==John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


A lesser good is good, but a lesser evil is still evil

November 3, 2014

There is a thin but important line between saying that half a loaf is better than none, and saying that the lesser evil is better than the greater evil.

Vote-Chop-LegCircumstances alter cases, and there are tragic situations when the lesser evil is the only choice.   But people of good will should not allow themselves to be trapped into accepting lesser-evil-ism as a general rule of life.

The best may be the enemy of the good, but the lesser evil also is the enemy of the good.

When you settle for the lesser good, you still have good.  Achieving lesser goods may bring you step-by-step to the greater good you hoped for.

When you settle for the lesser evil, you still have evil.  Accepting lesser evils will bring you step-by-step to the greater evil you feared.

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.”


“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.”


“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)


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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