The Force of Argument

I've been thinking about Richard Posner's claim to the effect that deliberative democracy is argued for in bad faith.

The model that is implicit for DD, he contends, is the academic seminar; the academic theorists who advocate DD know that in such a context they have more power, since arguing is pretty much what we academics do best.

Really, we're sick of all the ignorance and manipulation in politics, and think that we could do things better, that we could show people how things really ought to be, if only they'd just listen! These supposedly democratic theorists are just would-be philosopher kings.

I think there's some truth to this--quite a bit, actually. Is it at all strange that the best reasoners among us (and philosophers have been shown to be pretty much the only group of people who reason well) should want a society governed by reason? The force of argument is the strongest weapon we possess. On the right political terrain, we'd be as the English longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt, grimly outnumbered but triumphant at the end of the day because of our piercing intellects.

(That may just be the best metaphor I've ever devised. If nothing else, it's certainly the most pretentious. Yay, me!)

There was this episode of South Park on last night about people who drive hybrid cars and citizens of San Francisco, in particular, who go around thinking they're so much more progressive than everyone. As a result, they end up polluting the atmosphere with "smug," eventually leading to a storm which wipes San Francisco off the map as it "completely disappears up its own asshole."

As someone who has been known to don a T-shirt that reads "I assume my reputation for arrogant presumption precedes me," I feel qualified to speak as an expert on the subject of smugness and self-absorption. And it's endemic among intellectuals. Many of us won't admit it, but in our behavior we clearly evince it.

We're smart people, so we've always been told, and we think that we know other people better than they know themselves--just look at all the manifestations of the whole "hermeneutics of suspicion."

"Oh yes, what you said, that's not what you mean. As a (trained psychoanalyst/member of the Marxist vanguard/Ueœbermensch), I can say with authority that you're under the spell of (the Oedipal complex/false consciousness/bourgeois ideology/ressentiment). Let me tell you what's really going down..."

And we hold the unwashed masses in contempt. Maybe we're more sympathetic to the plight of African Americans and other racial minorities, but look at the way we stereotype the South or white working class men who vote Republican. "They're voting against their interests!" we say with confidence.

Maybe the world would be better if smart people ran things. But not necessarily. I find that often I care more about ideas than I do about people. And I wonder whether many of the failed political experiments of the 20th Century, with all their suffering, desolation, and death, weren't the results of this kind of attitude.

And yet, I still have faith that we can do things better. That reason and inquiry do actually make the world a better place. That democracy and science and technology and education make us better, stronger people.

But we must act with caution and prudence. When our ideologies matter more to us than our fellows, we must take pause. Admit our own ignorance and limited perspective.

And yet, this seems to me one of the aspirations of deliberative democracy. Reasoning may be our particular strength, but it does have the potential to overcome prejudice and provincialism. By thinking critically, we do recognize our own limitations, but also begin to arrive at solutions for overcoming them through cooperation. Let's not lose sight of that.

So, at the end of this post, I feel like Posner's cynicism is not completely justified. The fact of the matter is that we're not calling for elitist forms of governance. We want to enable people to develop themselves and exercise their own powers of self-determination. We are educators, not propagandizers or advertisers.

Even though there's often a fine line between instruction and indoctrination, there is nonetheless a substantial difference. We do perform the world a service. Now let's not be snooty about it.


Let's just junk those "Dumbocrats" and their bleeding-heart "smellfare" program...

This is an interesting little piece on the overall worthlessness of the Democratic Party. An excerpt:

The Democratic leadership has sold itself to the highest corporate and military bidders, offering its furtive political support to facilitate the looting of any assets, American or otherwise, that can be had for the taking. It is Democrats who make possible the retailing of "globalization" which is nothing so much as a blank check for corporate capital to arbitrage one country against another in its relentless pursuit of the cheapest labor and the weakest environmental laws. It was the Democrats who championed and pushed through NAFTA and the WTO.

It is the Democrats who similarly caved on Medicare, Roberts, Alito, bankruptcy, torture gulags, wiretapping, the immigration wall, tax cuts, and so much more. It is the Democratic leadership that speaks exultantly, rapturously, of "the magic of the market," and of "liberating the competitive spirit," all the while knowing that it means abandoning the American worker to the ravages of a bottomless spiral of downward mobility and inevitable immiserization. But rather than cast their traitorous acts as the regrettable betrayal they are, they spin their perfidy into yarns of opportunity, bolts of inspiration. Far from a broken nation, a bankrupt people, a lurking Stalinist regime, theirs is the more effective empire, the more efficient global economy, the kinder, gentler police state.

They are Potempkin "leaders", hired and sired from the same bank accounts as their Republican "adversaries," empty suits propped up by their corporate masters for the sole purpose of sustaining the illusion of opposition, but without any real intent to actually exercise it. They are political entrepreneurs, hawking their ability to round up the constituents and deliver the votes that will cheerily sell their own people down the drain. Their function in the political food chain is to occlude the fact of corporate takeover of government, to pacify a restive public into quiescence that their democracy remains vital, that their interests are being looked out for, that their country remains their own.

These are important things to remember. The utter horribleness of Bush makes us look to the Democratic Party as some kind of savior. Talk has begun in progressive circles about how we're going to end up turning to "electability" again to pick a candidate for 2008. We on the left must reconcile ourselves to this, because that's just how things are in US politics.

That's utter bullshit. If Al Gore and John Kerry had not been so obsessed with seeming electable and actually took a fucking stand on something, we wouldn't be in quite so bad a situation as we are now.

I can understand voting for the candidate you like the most, or the one most likely to satisfy your selfish interests, or the one who you feel sympathizes with your situation the most, or--heaven forfend!--the one most likely to serve the common good. But voting for the guy who you think is least offensive, who most other people would probably vote for, is just idiotic and a surefire way to lose elections.

Let me reiterate: I will not vote for Hillary Clinton. I will not vote for Joseph Biden. I will not vote for unprincipled DINOs selling themselves out to appear "moderate".

Give me Al Gore, Russ Feingold, Howard Dean (if he hadn't agreed not to run in taking the DNC chairmanship). Hell, give me Gore/Feingold '08. I'd even consider Edwards (I like his Two Americas story; he's not afraid to talk about class differences) or that Paul Hackett guy who's already been dicked over by the leadership.

Otherwise, I'm done. I will not accept the "political reality." This is nothing but a lame talking point that leads to forfeited hope and unproductive cynicism. The Democratic Party is not by any means entitled to my vote--their attempts to blame Nader for 2000 are just bullshit, and I stand by anyone who made that choice, even if they lived in Florida.

There is a whole community of progressive minded people who have had enough. We've been unhappy w/ Bush from day 1, and even though our rage has sort of plateaued (I mean, after a while it's just impossible to maintain that level of anger, and you almost get used to it), we're still mad enough to do something about it. At least I am.


DD in the Hizzy!

Deliberative democrats will be interested in this piece byJames Fishkin (co-author of "Deliberation Day") which talks about an effective form of deliberation called "deliberative polling".

This stuff has actually been tested and it works! It leads to informed decisions, increased sympathy for other positions, and increased interest in democratic participation. It almost sounds too good to be true!

UPDATE: Read this. It is brilliant. It reminds us that we have a long way to go before democratic advances like the one above have any chance of being implemented.

Thoughts on Ethics

This morning I read a piece that is one of the most challenging I have encountered in a long time. Assigned for my ethics class by the instructor, it is a potentially devestating critique of my fundamental ethical values.

Rarely do such opportunities come along in life, so I am overjoyed by this prospect of finding myself to have been possibly completely misguided. I will try to share some of my thoughts as I myself formulate them.

The piece I refer to is merely an excerpt from a larger essay entitled "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," by one J. Baird Callicott. The section of the article I read was largely an explication of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic," a view of which I have been vaguely aware but also thoughtlessly dismissive.

Let us think of human history since the Enlightenment, for the sake of argument, as characterized by an ever-increasing scope of moral consideration.

We begin by considering only the interests of our particular in-group, gradually expanding to include more and more individuals. So, to take a well-known example, only rich white guys had full rights in America, but then all white men, all men, and finally all men and women.

Of course equality under the law is only a first step, and many other struggles have been waged to expand the range of principles of equality, liberty, respect, etc. For the sake of simplicity, let us think of this as increasingly inclusive determinations of full moral status, or "personhood".

Now, battles are being waged to extend personhood status to (some) nonhuman animals, to human fetuses, to corporations, and perhaps someday to robots, cyborgs, and their ilk.

Callicott characterizes this as a continuum from "ethical humanism" (all humans deserve equal consideration) to "humane moralism" (all [or some] animals deserve equal consideration) to "reverence-for-life" (all lifeforms) to "pan-moralism" (all beings whatsoever). Pan-moralism, as a limit case, seems an outright absurdity unless you are a pantheist or hylozoist (i.e., you believe that consciousness is omnipresent in the universe).

All of these views share a few assumptions. First, there is a hierarchy in nature (whether intrinsic or agent-dependent) such that some kinds of things have more value than others. (This categorization wouldn't have to be a simple person/non-person dichotomy, but could include a range or continuum of values.) This ranking of individuals is usually thought to depend on certain "morally relevant" qualities, e.g., agency, rationality, sentience, or life.

Part and parcel with this is the presupposition that the value of a whole is merely the aggregate of the value of each individual. In other words, to use a utilitarian example, the greatest happiness is conceived not in terms of some overarching entity which feels happy or sad, but as a sum of the pleasures and pains of individual persons. Thus, these positions are all individualistic or atomistic.

Now, as someone who as considered himself a utilitarian and an ethical hedonist, I have seen sentience as the most plausible morally relevant criterion. To put it crudely, pain = bad, pleasure = good. Thus, I am sympathetic to the plight of nonhuman animals of a certain neurological complexity.

Now, if one is a completely consistent utilitarian and takes it to its logical conclusions, in my view, one must embrace, as amateur philosopher Dave Pearce puts it, "the hedonistic imperative". You can read about it here. To quote Mr. Pearce:
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.
The basic idea is that we take all of the chemicals that cause pain out of existence, and replace them with chemicals that still provide the necessary information that pain conveys, but without the sting, the phenomenological unpleasantness. In other words, we make it so that pain doesn't "hurt" anymore, starting with humans and then to the whole of the natural world.

This line of reasoning is largely why I'm such a huge advocate of psychopharmacology, genetic enhancement, and other future technologies that have the potential to revolutionize life as we know it.

As well, it has committed me to a number of interesting conclusions, for instance: 1) a life of suffering is worse than no life at all, 2) the survival of individuals is a moral concern, but not the survival of species, 3) painless killing is (prima facie) admissible in cases where the individual lacks concern for its future survival (this has applications to issues such as euthanasia, abortion, and the humane raising of some nonhuman animals for human consumption), etc.

Thus, for instance, the argument that farm animals owe their existence to our carnivorous tendencies is not the least bit compelling for me. It would be better if there were no cows at all if the only life possible for cows was one of intense torment and suffering on a factory farm. It is better to (painlessly) kill an animal than to torture it.

(A somewhat unpleasant conclusion is also thus: if the world has more suffering than satisfaction [which is extremely plausible], it would be better if there were no world at all.)

Now, I'm not of the opinion that pleasures and pains of more sophisticated animals can be so easily ranked: there are qualitative differences beyond the merely quantitative (I agree with Mill on this point). I think that something like "flourishing" is more than just, say, the constant stimulation by an electrode of the pleasure centers of one's brain.

OK, so far has more or less been a summary of (certain aspects of) my ethical opinions. Last semester, however, as a result of reading Nietzsche, I began to ask the question: is suffering really so bad?

The ethic of health and strenuousness that Nietzsche seems to advocate is almost the antithesis of utilitarianism--and he is quite fond of poking fun at them. This raised a fascinating question, but ultimately I returned to my old view.

To defend this, my inclination was to say that Nietzsche was glorifying suffering for the sake of alleviating some of his own psychological and physiological pain: if suffering is noble, it's not quite so bad. (This is a point he more or less makes in Genealogy, anyway: what people can't stand is meaningless suffering, not suffering per se.)

Now, we finally get back to Callicott. In his explication of Leopold's view, he presents an "holistic" alternative to the atomistic conception of ethics dominant in Western thought. The land ethic is not something like the reverence-for-life ethic mentioned above which is merely an extension of previous views, but is based on a radically different principle, originally formulated by Leopold: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

My first reaction to reading this was that it was preposterous. As a firm believer of the maxim "things are neither good nor ill, but thinking makes them so," I found it implausible that there was any good in such a thing. (Of course, if it were the case that this is what humans valued, then it would be a good, but then the question is, "why value that?".)

But then I began to see how this is the Nietzschean ethic in a different guise, one that sees organicity, health, wellness as morally good. What we want is a more "natural" life, w/o domestic animals but w/ hunting and meat-eating, one in which our primary concern is the ecosphere. This kind of view would regard humanity as a blight upon the earth, a cancer that has exceeded its appropriate place.

But still, why value organicity and wholeness and integration, especially if it has such radical consequences? Here, Callicott draws upon a number of analogies that are quite compelling.

First, he points out, consider the good of a human being. This is not simply the sum of the good of its individual cells. Some cells must "suffer" more than others, but if each cell was just fending for itself, it would probably be bad for the organism as a whole.

The same sort of consideration would apply to social contexts. One of the largest problems today w/ human societies is that individualism is destroying community. Each cares only for him- or herself, and the lot of us suffer as a result. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" just ends up giving us the finger.

This is a good point, I thought, although it could potentially lead to some sort of fascism. But it's not that Callicott denies moral significance to individuals. Rather, their value is determined functionally, by the role that they play in the whole. (This is still pretty fascist, but let's leave that aside.)

But, in his account of the function of pain and pleasure, he really got me. Pain serves the vital function of conveying information and adjusting behavior accordingly:
The idea that pain is evil and ought to be minimized or eliminated is as primitive a notion as that of a tyrant who puts to death messengers bearing bad news on the supposition that thus his well-being and security is improved.

Damn! I was floored by this analogy, but then he lays it on more heavily by pointing out that hedonism and other such views are "world-denying" and "life-loathing". Pain, fear, frustration, suffering, death: these are all parts of life. "If nature as a whole is good, then pain and death are also good."

Finally, even though he does not mention Nietzsche, he presents this very Nietzschean view:
Personal, social, and environmental health would, accordingly, receive a premium value rather than comfort, self-indulgent pleasure, and anaesthetic insulation from pain. Sickness would be regarded as a worse evil than death....

The hidden agenda of the humane ethic [espoused by utilitarianism, et al.] is the imposition of the anti-natural prophylactic ethos of comfort and soft pleasure on an even wider scale.
Now, these two statements struck me as remarkable. The first since it is so Nietzschean and the second because it's the very same conclusion that Mr. Pearce reached above--he doesn't hide that agenda.

OK, this post is massively long and should probably be broken up into parts, but I want to get it all down first. Where we stand we are presented with 2 radically different ethical worldviews, one of which is appealing to me since it's very Nietzschean (not too mention Spinozan [not "Spinozistic" b/c "Spinozism" is Hegel's awful bastardization of Spinoza]), the other of which coheres better w/ my scientific sympathies.

I am at an impasse. Nevertheless, I did come up with some criticisms to Callicott's view, which is really what I wanted to write about, but needed all that other stuff as preliminary.

So, Callicott advocates a sort of end to domesticity and perhaps even to civilization as we know it, b/c it is unnatural and artificial. It attempts to make the organic into the "mechanicochemical".

But, I thought to myself, why have this prejudice against the mechanicochemical? The biotic world is just one complex instance of it, even if it has certain interesting emergent properties. And if it's the emergent properties we like, then why advocate against technology, since it leads to even more interesting things.

In a nutshell, Callicott seems to view the human world as a "dominion within a dominion," to use Spinoza's phrase. On a more holistic view, everything is a part of nature, including the whole human world and all of its artifices. Strictly speaking, the human world is no less "natural" than any other part of the universe.

Moreover, why value things like stability and integrity? In essence, it's a sort of idealization of a particular state of affairs (even if it's one that is organic and dynamic). Even life itself will come to an end at some point. What happens is that we start to ask why anything at all in nature should be deemed good or bad. Everything is natural--what's so special about the organic?

And, I think that's true, strictly speaking (I agree with Hamlet and Spinoza here). But we can't live that way. Just because life evolved in a certain way doesn't mean that we have to like it. Why should we, as Callicott suggests "reaffirm our participation in nature by accepting life as it is given without a sugar coating"?

There are plenty of things that are "natural" that we reject. There is no intelligible sense of "natural" that makes it a coherent ethical category. Why shouldn't we view "nature" in the sense Callicott uses (the organic rather than the merely mechanicochemical) as something we should rise above?

Yes, there is an organicity in nature, but at what cost? Evolution is a blind process that works by trial and error. With animal life, the errors can be devestating. Evolution never "intended" something like torture to be possible; it's a nasty side effect of pain's informative function.

We have foresight. We can institute our own designs, improvements on nature's blind development. Shouldn't we do that? Shouldn't we remake the world in our own image?

From the perspective of the whole, whatever happens is equally "natural". And what then are we left with but the perspectives of individuals? So, let us give conscious beings consideration since they actually have a perspective, and to hell with the natural world except insofar as it aids our projects!

Perhaps this is my distaste of the outdoors speaking, but I would love to live in an "unnatural" world in which pleasure was more prevalent than pain. Pave over nature! Let's build domes over our cities! Why not? To whom does it matter?

And this is probably why I won't embrace something like a "land ethic." I don't particularly care for trees or rocks or rivers; I find a cityscape far more beautiful than a bunch of dumb old plants and dirt. Nevertheless, this has significantly challenged me, and I still have a lot more reflection to do about the subject.


But enough about me...

...let's talk about what you think of me.

In all seriousness, I just want to get a sense of who my readers--if any--are and what they think.

How's my writing or ideas? Any suggestions for improvement? Am I saying anything of value?

I'd like this blog to be more discussion oriented, so I'd also be open to hearing issues of interest to people, particularly if said topics relate to areas of my relative proficiency.

In the least, I'd like to know who you are--and I'm speaking particularly to people who read this who I don't know personally. There's at least one known unknown--her comment is what actually motivated this post--but I'd prefer to pare down the number of unknown unknowns.

All I request is that you identify yourself; anything else is gravy.


Logophobia, Alethophobia,Theophobia

When you learn the secret of how good philosophers use language, you start to see how so many of them are saying very similar things in different idioms.

One is raised to view concepts and objects as static, stable. Most of us are realists about the everyday things. A good philosopher allows his words to fluctuate and grow as he develops his argument.

For instance, Descartes tries to begin philosophy anew. Many accuse him of importing old scholastic concepts ready-made into his Meditations. But, if you read him charitably--as all good philosophers should be read--you see that the meanings of his words become increasingly clear and distinct as he progresses.

Spinoza is another great case, my personal favorite. He seems to be philosophizing with a synthetic, geometric (Euclidean) method. He gives definitions, axioms, postulates, and derives all the various propositions in his Ethics therefrom. Many have read this as a sort of cheating; if you grant a philosopher her premises, she's probably already won the battle.

However, Spinoza, as I understand him, is doing something different. He's not saying, "this is how things really are." He is saying, "let's cut the world up like this, and see what we get." Thus, he starts with God, i.e., what we imagine to be the totality of nature. Whatever exists, and is conceived through itself, is God. Thus, God is as surely existant as something like Descartes' Cogito.

One of the lessons I've learned as a philosopher is the potential for language to be highly constraining or highly liberating. If we don't allow our concepts to evolve, if we take our words as if they were things, we stifle thought, we let it ossify.

Like the ladder climbed up and then kicked out from under you, Spinoza's philosophy undermines itself, it leads to paradoxes. Spinoza warns us not to take any discourse as being final or definitive, even his own. His is just one possibility among indefinitely many others.

If we accept this and understand it, we are still not immune to error however. Many of us are in the grips of what I'd call "logophobia", fear of words. Philosophy makes its advances by useful misreadings of earlier figures.

So, for instance, postmodernism takes the traditional concept of truth as correspondence, and deconstructs it. Many of those influenced by this movement will thus be made very nervous about "truth"-talk. Even in an author recognized as like-minded, a postmodernist will see the word "truth" or "objectivity" or "universality" and instantly go on the offensive.

But, if he would only listen to the author, because good authors will tell you how to read their texts, he would not be so quick to read "truth" and understand "correspondence". This is a mistake--although it sometimes works for the better, producing new philosophies with different emphases but similar spirits. The subtle philosopher will undermine a term but then redeploy it, strategically.

Consider Spinoza. He proves that "good" and "bad" are just words that we tack on to the world, that things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. And yet, in Book IV of the Ethics he (re)defines good and bad and uses it to argue for his own ethical stance. If we read this and accuse him of inconsistency, we completely misunderstand what he is doing.

So much of philosophy today is reaction to unpleasant words. No one is immune; we all have our little pet peeves, words and concepts that we abhor and dismiss. For me, God and assorted religious concepts like spirituality, mystical experience, reverence, and so forth have proven distasteful.

I was once a believer, but what now seems like an eternity ago, I quickly reversed my stance. It's not that I believed in an implausible deity; indeed, my conceptions of God were largely influenced by certain mystical thinkers and poets. I was more or less a pantheist. But in the end, even that came to disgust me.

So a part of me fears finding myself on my deathbed, renouncing my atheist ways, and just totally selling out to Jesus. But, thanks to philosophers like Spinoza, I am reclaiming religious terms for my own use, and my fear of such scenarios is waning. (For instance, I almost got hit by a car the other day, and my instinctive response was to yell "Jesus Christ!" [and to try to use my umbrella as a shield]. Interjections and ejaculations needn't reflect one's actual beliefs.)

I've started to think of spirituality more in the sense of the German term, geistigkeit, which has some traditional religious resonance, but which also is a term used to describe intellect, intelligence. Spirituality is metaphorical, ideal, something on top of our day-to-day existence that we struggle for.

Faith has been reclaimed by the pragmatists to take on larger connotations. It's impossible not to take some things on faith. I take for granted that there's an external world, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that I can't walk through solid objects, that other human beings have minds, that my actions have consequences, and so on. Ultimately, we find ourselves having to have some faith in matters concerning the efficacy of human activity. We could not muster the strength to act if we always thought of ourselves as doomed to failure (or guaranteed to succeed).

Now let's take the big one, God. A number of thinkers--Spinoza, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Tilich, Rorty--have humanized this concept. It stands, in Dewey's work, as the imaginative unity of ideals, one which it is up to us to enact--the good is not now realized in some ideal realm, but must be something we struggle for, that is created by our activity.

I do not believe that God was some dude named Jesus, or that God chatted with people like Moses and Mohammed. I do not believe that God loves us, or judges us, or guides us, or tests us, or anything like that. I will use the word God, but only in an impersonal, almost pantheistic sense. And, even then, it's not my word of choice (I'd sooner use nature, or universe).

My belief, which I cannot fully support at the present is that personhood is a complex phenomenon, and one that is fundamentally finite. A self must be able to differentiate itself from other things. If God is all-encompassing, there is no real distinction between "him" and "his creation". (And I don't even like to use the masculine pronoun: I tend to call God an it, unless I'm not paying attention, or if I'm feeling whimsical--maybe trying to piss off a bothersome Christian--I'll use "she".)

Since I deny the theistic coneption of God, I call myself an atheist. And yet I find myself using the term all the time: when I teach, in my seminars, in casual conversation, even when everyone present is a non-believer.

Personally, I find I have nothing against left-leaning and liberal Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths. I'd prefer religion/spirituality be a private matter, but of course I'm always happy to discuss it--just don't expect me to hold back. If you have an absurd belief, I'll tell you and show you why, if I can.

Let me raise one last question, which came to mind only today in my philosophy of religion seminar. Let's say that you grant that God is real, in an impersonal sense. What implications does this have in terms of attitudes and activities?

Can you "worship" an abstract God, can you "pray" to it? Should you? Can it be a source of hope or an object of love? (Here we might consider Dewey's unity of ideals or Spinoza's amor dei intellectualis) Can you have a special relation or connection with it?

Personally, I feel no need for these things, but I imagine that those of such a temperament would never be satisfied by the impersonal Deus sive Natura. I think there's something to Freud's characterization of God as a father-figure who offers security and stability (if not always affection).

But there are exceptions. It seems like theology and divinity students are satisfied with more sophisticated versions of God. And then there are secular-minded individuals who are cultural Catholics or Jews, who take solace perhaps in a faith community or in the comfort of ritual.

And all those are fine by me. I have no special access to truth that I could rule definitively on these matters. All I'd like is that you admit the same: that human beings are fallible, irrational, stubborn--that you just might be wrong. And if you grant that, then it only makes sense that religion should not play a major role in a heterogeneous political community in which people of different faiths and non-faiths must coexist and cooperate.


Russ, Russ, he's our man...

If you haven't signed the MoveOn petition supporting Senator Feingold's censure resolution, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Feingold seems to me like the real deal. If he's not a man of principle, he's the closest approximation of it in Congress right now.

Bush's approval rating is at an all-time low of 33%. Most people think that if he broke the law, he should be impeached. Tell me, why the fuck won't Democratic senators support this thing?

I'm starting to gain more faith in the left blogosphere. We're very polarized right now, but this is good. We are firm in our convictions. Part of this is that preaching to the choir does have an effect: it makes people more radical, more angry, more confident that they are in the right.

This is a mixed bag. Under the present circumstances, however, I think it is good for the country. Our constitution is in jeopardy. This is not political posturing. The undermining may not be devestating, but it is certainly there.

The Republicans are complicit, even "mavericks" like McCain eventually fall into line. The Democrats are cowering, afraid of fucking up. But they're fucking up by being afraid. Democrats, stop listening to these goddamned strategists who have been taking the party in the wrong direction for over a decade.

Follow the example of Feingold, Gore, Dean, Conyers, and everyone who actually gives a damn about this country enough to do something out of principle, rather than out of political expediency. That's what people want!

The more of you who come out and support Feingold, the less it will seem like an extreme measure. How fucking stupid can you be?

Anyway, Greenwald and Digby have been saying these things far more articulately than I. Read them. And don't lose hope. If we just assume the Democrats are incorrigible cowards we are following their very pattern by conceding defeat before the battle even begins.

We have the Constitution on our side, and we've come a long way (just read Chomsky on Vietnam, and you'll see how, for as bleak as things look, they're far, far improved).


Feingold in '08!

If you're like me, you're sick of the invertebrates who constitute the congressional leadership of the Democratic Party.

As one blogger put it, the only thing more disgusting than seeing what Bush is doing to our country is seeing the Democrats' (lack of) response.

For this reason, Russ Feingold is to be commended for proposing a censure of Bush. Really, Congress should be drafting articles of impeachment, or in the very least conducting a thorough explanation.

But since the Republican Congress, in its refusal to investigate Bush, has not only sacrificed a number of its core principles (federalism, economic restraint, caution regarding state intrusion, and so forth) but also abdicated its responsibility to serve as a check on executive power and as guardian of the rule of law, Feingold's censure proposal may be the only viable option to press for some measure of accountability.

Thus, Feingold is to be commended, along with other outspoken Bush critics like Dean and Gore. Any Democrats who attempt to distance themself from Feingold and his proposal are unprincipled cowards, plain and simple. I know and you know and a majority of Americans know that Bush has broken the law and must be held accountable.

As pointed out on Greenwald's blog, if the Democrats would but stand in unison here, it would aid in the credibility of this measure, such so that media talking heads might recognize it for the eminently reasonable proposal that it is and not dismiss it as radical, extremist, or (heaven forfend!) "liberal".

To thine own self be true?

"I...question the widespread view that Prozac and other drugs in its class are overprescribed. It's easy for those who did well in the cortical [genetic] lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts. But for those who, through no fault of their own, ended up on the negative half of the affective style spectrum, Prozac is way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery."
-Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (43)
This, from the second chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, which I've only just begun to read. I can already tell I'm going to like it.

Haidt is engaged in a brilliant project. He's putting to the test bits of ancient wisdom on living the good life. His goal, although he doesn't know it, is a very Spinozan one: to find ways to increase reason's power over the (other) affects.

To this end, in this second chapter he prescribes 3 (empirically) proven techniques: daily meditation, cognitive therapy, and the use of antidepressants. The last has dramatically improved my life for the better and although my therapist is not in the cognitive school, the main focus of our engagement has to do with me coming to terms with my somatic and affective characteristics. Now, I'm even considering meditation: I could use some more self-discipline so that I can establish healthier habits, including more frequent exercise.

For those of you who have not read it, I strongly, strongly recommend reading his 2001 article "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail". You can find a pdf of it here. I wrote a paper on the Spinozistic aspects of Haidt's theory, and for me it remains one of the most influential texts on my thought (along w/ Spinoza's Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise; Darwin's Descent of Man along with a number of contemporary neo-Darwinian works like Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind; Nietzsche's Joyful Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and Genealogy of Morals; James' "Sentiment of Rationality," A Pluralistic Universe, and other works; and Mouffe's Democratic Paradox, to name some of the most striking examples).

As I read more of this stuff, I find myself increasingly excited about an area of research both philosophical and interdisciplinary. I am almost sure now that this is the general direction I shall take my dissertation research. The combination of philosophical wisdom and empirical research is extremely potent in terms of actually bringing about human flourishing.

Of course there's an ineliminable social/economic/political aspect to this also, but I remain skeptical of the power of theory to do much good in that realm. As we change humanity for the better by allowing one individual at a time to overcome the obstacles of fortune and live a happy, meaningful life, I suspect political progress may become increasingly more feasible.

Then again, a content citizenry might foster increased political apathy (I think this is a major component of the crisis of democracy today). Nevertheless, if we are utilitarian about it, there will likely be less suffering and that's certainly a good thing.

The task now, as I see it, is to pave the way for new life-altering techniques and technologies, and to fight against the Neo-Luddites who, though right in offering a critical voice and in stressing the very real possibility of doomsday scenarios, seek to impede scientific progress.


The Implications of Personhood

Consider the following argument.

1. A fetus is a person. (A claim anti-abortionists like to make.)
2. Killing a person is murder. (Leaving out some specifics, everyone grants this.)
3. Therefore, abortion is murder. (This is a conclusion following from 1 & 2 that anti-abortionists also like to draw.)

But let's continue the argument.

4. One definition of "first-degree murder" is the "killing of a person that is deliberate and premeditated." (The legal definition will vary from state to state, but this is pretty basic.)
5. Abortion is a premeditated act. (This is obvious. Accidental or spontaneous abortions occur naturally, but here we are talking specifically about the medical procedure.)
6. Therefore, abortion is an instance of first-degree murder. (This follows from 3, 4, and 5.)

You probably see where this is going now.

7. Those who commit, are tried, and convicted of first-degree murder typically face penalties as extreme as life in prison or execution. (This again varies from state to state.)
8. Therefore, as an instance of first-degree murder, women who have abortions should be subject to penalties up to and including life-imprisonment and death. (This follows from 6 & 7, although I'm being a little loose with my language here.)

Now, 8 is a consequence that few pro-lifers are willing to admit. Let's assume that they're at least minimally consistent and also oppose the death penalty. They would still be reluctant to want to put women who have illegal abortions (for instance, in South Dakota or Mississippi now) in prison, and certainly not for life.

Doctors who perform these procedures (in essence, the equivalent of hitmen) are subject to up to 5 years in prison under the South Dakota statute, I believe--but this is still well short of what a first-degree murder charge would confer.

Why do I raise this argument all of a sudden? Because of this video (h/t Digby).

While perhaps half the country calls themselves pro-life, a fair number still don't favor outlawing abortion. The people in this video all do.

But what's amazing is that despite dedicating years of their lives to this project, they've never thought once about the practical implications. One elderly woman in the video argues in a circle and clearly contradicts herself. It's funny and sad.

This is why premise 1 is ultimately implausible. Further reinforcement is found in this example (h/t Leiter), in which a right-wing radio host is asked whether he'd sooner save 5 petri dishes or a toddler in a burning fertility clinic. And while you may call something a "person", if you don't treat it like one, you are just being dishonest.

For a while, I had been working on trying to develop an argument in favor of the legalization of abortion that acknowledged, for the sake of argument, that a conceptus is ensouled (which seems to be the only plausible basis for confering personhood from the moment of conception).

Part of my argument was based on the finding that over half of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions anyway. What happens to all those souls you might ask? (It depends on who you ask. The Catholic Church recently abolished Limbo so who knows where they all went. If you're a really nasty fundamentalist and think that only people who accept Jesus get to heaven, then they're all roasting over a slow fire somewhere.)

In any case, it's presumably the same as would happen to intentionally aborted fetuses. So it's really no great harm to a fetus to be aborted, besides the actual pain of the procedure, if it's done after the nervous system is sufficiently developed (I think a majority of abortions may occur even before this happens, but I'm not 100% on that).

To finish the story, my argument (which I sort of abandoned mid-formation) maintained that what made murder of an adult worse and justifiably unlawful was that, in addition to having whatever value a soul confers, adults also value their own lives. Fetuses and their ilk do not, so their murder isn't as great a loss. Let God judge those who have abortions. (Of course, then there's the whole problem with infants. Personally, I bite the bullet with Peter Singer on this one and see infanticide as less immoral--but still wrong!--than adulticide.) And so on and so forth.

But this, I think, is a far more promising direction. Once people realize what outlawing abortion actually does, what happens to women who will get abortions illegally, only the most diehard anti-choicers would continue to be in favor of an outright ban. (I mean the fact that women who have been raped don't even have an exemption in SD is just sick.)

There are a number of things I want to say to religious individuals in emphasizing this point on practical consequences. It's between a woman and her God if she chooses to have an abortion. Let the individual make the choice and if you're against abortions, don't have any! Tell your friends not to have any! Feel free to continue discouraging women from making that choice, but in the end let them make the choice.

Unless you're prepared to grant all of the things that come with personhood to children, infants, fetuses, and zygotes, you can't make a binary distinction between persons and non-persons. And if you don't go the all or nothing route, then you admit that while abortion may be like murder, it is not actually murder (the killing of a person in the full sense) and should not be subject to the same restrictions.

This doesn't yet prove that any or all abortions should be legally permissible. But at least it starts to raise questions and doubts. I mean, if you're so damn sure of the truth, why haven't you even drawn the most basic consequences for what you're advocating? Use your goddamned purportedly God-given minds, people!

Really, though, I wish more rightwing Christians took that whole "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" line from the Bible more seriously, and just stayed the fuck out of politics.


Distance and Moral Imagination

On my brother's recommendation, I got "Lord of War" via Netflix and watched it this evening. It's a powerful film, highly recommended. (It's about gun-running, although I'm not going to talk about that at all, at least not directly.)

There's something nice about movies--and books, too--in that they aid the moral imagination.

I'm not talking about documentaries or news or non-fiction generally. Yes, one can read about all the horrific goings-on the world over, but there's something about a good novel or film that puts you in the midst of things.

"Lord of War," among other things, is about the lies we tell ourselves to get through life. Even those of us who think that we act nobly, who make a concerted effort to take the moral highground, will find, if we care to look, that we inadvertently aid those very things we most oppose.

Through our inactions, our mundane everyday activities, we contribute to untold suffering the world over. And it's amazing how adept human beings are at rationalization. How easy it is to live with oneself!

I tell my students that no human being thinks of themselves as evil. There's a way in which Socrates is right that no one knowingly chooses the bad. Usually, we just make our choices, and if we find ourselves pressed with unpleasant consequences, we then reflect and find that our decision was justified, somehow. I mean, it must be! Our intentions are always good, aren't they?

But what else is there to do? What happens if no justification is satisfying? What then? Suicide is itself an action that requires significant justification. Leaving life because the world is too difficult for you--well, we could call it cowardly, or senseless, perhaps honest, but if nothing else I find it distasteful.

Distance. Distance from oneself and from others is a necessity in the modern world. There are too many people to care about. Most of human life prior to great civilizations is believed to have been spent in groups of no more than a few hundred. That may sound like a lot, but it's about how many acquaintances a person can have and still keep track of.

In small, close-knit communities, it's easy to keep track of others. The ability to detect cheaters is one of the means that enabled human beings to develop a conscience. In terms of survival and reproduction, those who can get away with being unscrupulous are the fittest (they have the most success passing on their genes).

However, if we live in cooperative communities, it is to our advantage to find those who game the system and ostracize them. At that point, having a reputation for being trustworthy, responsible, and kind is to your advantage. One of the easiest ways to acquire such a reputation is to actually be those things. And thus, moral sensibilities can be adaptive.

But today we live in a world with too many people to keep track of. The vast majority of people that you encounter in a day, if you live in a major metropolitan area, are people you will never get to know and will quite possibly never encounter again.

Thus, there is less of an impetus to be good. If you establish a bad reputation, there are always new people and new places elsewhere--you may not even have to leave home. And because rationalization is so easy, what's the point of getting upset if you dick a few people over? There are always opportunities to start fresh in a new place.

This is all obvious, there's no need to belabor the point. People do awful, terrible things to each other all the time. Some do it for a living. It's so easy to hurt someone, kill someone, if you don't know him or her. This is why wake-up calls like films and literature are so essential. They make it easier to empathize with people in different places and situations.

Unfortunately, too much empathy can be paralyzing. Here I sit, typing away, muddled with Weltschmerz, feeling utterly impotent to do something about it.

This is when I throw up my arms and proclaim that humanity is doomed. This is when I think about how much better we'd all be if we were more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees, and how great it would be if we could just redesign the human genome to make us exactly that.

Ideas are a great escape from responsibility. And they occasionally do make a difference, sometimes even for the better. More often than not they're probably just self-gratification.

But, enough. Now is the time for forgetting. The myths must be reinstated and I must "go on with my life." This painful sympathy is counterproductive. Back to distance, to rationalization, to the illusion that I'm doing my small part to make the world a better place.

At least it's a lie one can live with.