Sunday, June 30, 2019

Kant and Altruism: The Man and the Myth

By Roger E. Bissell

Leonard Peikoff has long propagated the myth that Kant is an altruist who advocates that one do one’s duty and sacrifice one’s values because they are one’s values, of “sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, as an end in itself” (1982, 82). This is a serious distortion of Kant’s views. Doing one’s duty, for Kant, does not require setting aside one’s values, but merely one’s personal inclinations and desires, and then acting according to moral principle. One of his chief illustrations of this point is quite revealing, particularly in comparison to Rand’s “ethics of emergencies” (and please bear in mind, this is Kant writing in 1785 in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. His later, more evolved thinking on this is even more revealing, as I’ll show shortly):
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g. the inclination to honor, which, if happily directed to which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. (Kant [1785] 1952, 258; emphasis in original)
Note carefully here that Kant is not saying that acting benevolently when one is so inclined is per se without moral worth, but only when one so acts out of that inclination, rather than setting it aside and acting instead from duty, that is, from one’s awareness and acceptance that this is the morally right thing to do, that one should “be kind where one can,” regardless of the personal feelings of honor, inner satisfaction, and so on that one may also experience as a result.

Now, it is true that Rand does not advocate being kind to others as a moral duty. The term “duty” is, in fact, anathema to her, for it signifies an obligation that is necessarily divorced from one’s values. But as we’ve seen, Kant does not regard moral obligation in this way either, and to claim that this is what he means by “duty” is a gross misrepresentation of his views. Instead, as already noted, “duty” for Kant means acting according to moral principle, regardless of your feelings and personal inclinations—of “doing the right thing,” even if you don’t feel like it. How different is this from what Rand advocates in the Objectivist ethics?

Moreover, Rand does embrace the concept of an “obligation” to help others, which though not altruistic is very real and rationally justifiable. In fact, though nothing like an altruistic duty, Rand’s humanitarian “obligation” to help others is very much like Kant’s non-altruistic “duty” to help others. Helping others, for Rand, is a highly conditional, contextual matter, tied firmly to one’s self-interest, values, and happiness, and she discusses it at length, expressing principles such as the following: “If one’s friend is in trouble, one should act to help him by whatever non-sacrificial means are appropriate” (Rand 1963, 53; emphasis in original). “It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one’s power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life)” (55; emphasis in original).

But observe that though these are conditional imperatives, they are imperatives, that is, moral principles. The “should’s” she uses multiple times in this essay are not a cynical ploy in order to deflect criticism that Objectivism is morally egocentric or sociopathic. When Rand says you should help others, she is making an emphatic statement of what as what she regards as morally right for you to do for others, given certain conditions. Not morally permissible, but morally required, obligatory. And these acts of helping others are not the right thing to do because one will get a heroic or warm-and-fuzzy feeling out of doing them—though one indeed may get such a feeling or other—but because they are virtuous acts, moral actions. Specifically, Rand says, they are acts of integrity, which she defines as “loyalty to one’s convictions and values…the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality” (52–53).

Also, Rand insists, there are limits on such moral obligations. As she colorfully illustrates this point: “…a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should [there’s that word again] help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean…that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save” (55).

Now, considering what a vicious, sacrificial, duty-driven altruist that Rand and Peikoff paint Kant as being, you’d think Kant would have had nothing to do with such rational limits on the obligation to help others in need. Just give and give and give—and don’t ask if you can stop. Well, if your reading of Kant’s ethical writings never progressed beyond 1785, you might be excused for thinking this (though even then, only by overlooking the egregious misrepresentation of what Kant means by “duty” and “sacrifice”). However, consider this from Kant’s Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics (1797):
If happiness, then, is in question, which it is to be my duty to promote as my end, it must be the happiness of other men whose (permitted) end I hereby make also mine. It still remains left to themselves to decide what they shall reckon as belong to their happiness; only that it is in my power to decline many things which they so reckon, but which I do not so regard, supposing that they have no right to demand it from me as their own (370, emphasis added).
And just to make absolutely clear that “permitted” end does not involve a blank check (compare to Rand’s rejection of the obligation to sail the seven seas!), Kant adds: “…no one has the right to demand from me the sacrifice of my not immoral ends” (370, emphasis added). Instead, deciding when and how much one is to “sacrifice” (give up) on behalf of another is a highly individual, open-ended matter, to be decided by the giver, not the receiver, of assistance.

As Kant says: “I am only bound then to sacrifice to others a part [note: not all or without limits] of my welfare without hope of recompense; because it is my duty [translate: my moral obligation], and it is impossible to assign definite limits how far that may go. Much depends on what would be the true want of each according to his own feelings, and it must be left to each to determine this for himself” (372, emphasis added). In other words, each person must be free to deter mine for himself when giving to others does or does not require “sacrifice of [his] not immoral ends,” and to be free to not go beyond the limits of non-sacrificial action.

True altruism, according to Kant, is simply not viable as a moral principle: “For that one should sacrifice his own happiness, his true wants, in order to promote that of others, would be a self-contradictory maxim if made a universal law” (373, emphasis added). This ought to be conclusive proof to Objectivists that Kant has been very unjustly portrayed as a moral monster by Rand and her followers. But of course, it won’t be, because Kant is such a convenient person to demonize and hold up as the root cause of all of our social problems, and recycling the distortions and context-dropping of Rand et al is so much easier than doing the heavy lifting of reading and truly trying to understand what Kant had to say.

On Deirdre McCloskey’s Postmodern Economics

For Deirdre N. McCloskey postmodernism is not a dirty word—she calls herself a postmodern, minimal-government conservative. In her The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, she notes that she is in favor of postmodernism in economics: "“Postmodernism” does not mean what you may have gathered from the outrage of conservative cultural journalists. It means merely dropping the artificialities of high modernism, and in particular dropping the fact-value split in its cruder forms and the established church of social engineering." She agrees with the postmodern thinker Richard Rorty on several issues and is appreciative of his 1985 thesis on “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”: "But if I had to be principled I would reach back before the French Enlightenment, or back into the Scottish Enlightenment, and offer a fourth justification for the free society, namely, that it leads to and depends on flourishing human lives of virtue. My so-called principle shares some features with the “postmodernist bourgeois liberalism” of Richard Rorty, or the “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin…"

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Jung On The Stages of Life

Carl Gustav Jung, in his essay, “The Stages of Life,” (Chapter 1; The Portable Jung, Edited by Joseph Campbell; translated by R. F. C. Hull), points out that there are four stages in a man’s life, and he talks about the physiological issues that arise as a man transitions from one phase of life to other. Here’s an excerpt in which he is using the analogy of the sun’s motion to describe the difficulty a man faces in transitioning from the phase of mature adulthood to extreme old age:
"Experience shows us, rather, that the basic cause of all the difficulties of this transition is to be found in a deep-seated and peculiar change within the psyche. In order to characterize it I must take for comparison the daily course of the sun—but a sun that is endowed with human feeling and man's limited consciousness. In the morning it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significance; it will see the attainment of the greatest possible height, and the widest possible dissemination of its blessings, as its goal. In this conviction the sun pursues its course to the unforeseen zenith—unforeseen, because its career is unique and individual, and the culminating point could not be calculated in advance. At the stroke of noon the descent begins. And the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them. Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished." 
Jung notes that it is fortunate that we are not like rising and setting suns, because that would fare badly with our cultural values. “But there is something sunlike within us, and to speak of the morning and spring, of the evening and autumn of life is not mere sentimental jargon.”

Intellectuals Versus The Ignorant

The silliness that you find in intelligent and perceptive intellectuals is often more severe than the silliness that you may find in people who are seemingly ignorant.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Macintyre on Philosophy and History

Theory and practice are conjoined, one informs the other. Alasdair Macintyre traces the artificial division between theory and practice (philosophy and history) to the Age of Enlightenment. Here’s an excerpt from Macintyre’s After Virtue (Chapter 5: “Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality”):

"Abstract changes in moral concepts are always embodied in real, particular events. There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing in their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.

"Thus the transition into modernity was a transition both in theory and in practice and a single transition at that. It is because the habits of mind engendered by our modern academic curriculum separate out the history of political and social change (studied under one set of rubrics in history departments by one set of scholars) from the history of philosophy (studied under quite a different set of rubrics in philosophy departments by quite another set of scholars) that ideas are endowed with a falsely independent life of their own on the one hand and political and social action is presented as peculiarly mindless on the other. This academic dualism is of course itself the expression of an idea at home almost everywhere in the modern world; so much so indeed, that Marxism, the most influential adversary theory of modern culture, presents what is just one more version of this same dualism in the distinction between basis and ideological superstructure."

Why is Libertarian Political Analysis so Lousy?

Why is political analysis by libertarian scholars so lousy? I think this is because the libertarians tend to take a philosophical approach to politics. They don’t get it that political activism and philosophizing do not mix well in a man’s mind. Good politics is one thing; good philosophy is another. You can either be a philosopher, or a political activist. If you try to orchestrate a forced marriage between politics and philosophy, they will not live happily ever after—they will rip each other apart, and a stage will be reached when there will be neither good politics nor good philosophy left.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

On The Limitations of Human Reason

Hugo Mercier and Daniel Sperber in the Introduction to their book The Enigma of Reason:

"Human reason is both biased and lazy. Biased because it overwhelmingly finds justifications and arguments that support the reasoner's point of view, lazy because reason makes little effort to assess the quality of the justifications and arguments it produces. Imagine, for instance, a reasoner who happens to be partial to holidays at the beach. When reasoning about where to spend her next vacation, she will spontaneously accumulate reasons to choose a sunny place by the sea, including reasons that are manifestly poor (say, that there’s a discount on the flight to the very place where she would like to go, when in fact the same discount applies to many other destinations as well).

"The solitary use of reason has two typical outcomes. When the reasoner starts with a strong opinion, the reasons that come to her mind tend all to support this opinion. She is unlikely, then, to change her mind; she might even become overconfident and develop stronger opinions. But sometimes a reasoner stars with no strong opinion, or with conflicting views. In this case, reason will drive her toward whatever choice happens to be easier to justify, and this sometimes won’t be the best choice. Imagine she had the choice between visiting her horrible in-laws and then vacationing at the beach, or somewhat cheaper. Reason will drive her toward what seems to be the rational decision: taking the cheaper option."

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (Page 53-54): "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect."

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Why Ayn Rand Failed as a Philosopher?

Ayn Rand was unaware that philosophy provides the proximate explanations and not the ultimate explanations, and she launched her movement called objectivism with the intention of providing the ultimate explanations for living happily on earth. She regarded the truth that she embraced as the ultimate truth and envisioned a perfect civilization which she would create through her novels and philosophy. All her followers till this day see themselves as the chosen people. Their agenda is so monumental and magnificent that only an entity with superhuman powers, a god, can achieved it. The objectivists do not have a god, but they have Rand. Their logic is: 100% certainty implies 100% perfection and as Rand was 100% certain, she is a perfect mind or a god. Objectivism was originally conceived to be a “philosophy of reason and individualism,” but it soon morphed into a movement that is dedicated to worshipping its founder Ayn Rand as the perfect mind or god, and the world’s ultimate repository of ultimate explanations--it now operates as a religious cult.

Monday, June 24, 2019

What Turns Intellectuals into Strident, Ruthless, Slavedrivers?

Eric Hoffer, in his essay, “The Readiness to Work,” observes that most intellectuals, even those who stand for liberty and individualism, cannot feel wholly at home in a free society. Here’s an excerpt:
"The paradox is, then, that although the intellectual has been in the forefront of the struggle for individual freedom, he can never feel wholly at home in a free society. He finds there neither an unquestioned sense of usefulness nor favorable conditions for the realization of his talents. Hence the contradiction between what the intellectual profess while he battles the status quo, and what he practices once he comes to power. At present, in every part of the world, we see how revolutionary movements initiated by idealistic intellectuals and preserved in their keeping tend to crystallize into hierarchal social orders in which an aristocratic intelligentsia commands and the masses are expected to obey. Such social orders, as we have seen, are ideal for the performance of the intellectual but not for that of the masses. It is this circumstance rather than the corruption of power which has been turning idealistic intellectuals into strident, ruthless, slavedrivers." ~ (The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer; Chapter 5, “The Readiness for Work”) 
I think that our modern society offers several examples to substantiate Hoffer’s point of view.

On The Advantage of Having a Philosophical View

To have a philosophical view of the world is like going up a mountain and from the height taking a look at the world below. All the filth and confusion, sadness and pain, irrationality and malice fade away and what you have is a sanitized, grand, orderly, and sublime perspective of civilization.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Heart of Darkness

The final page in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

When Mr. Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader, dies his last words are: “The horror! The horror!” By then the novel’s narrator, Charles Marlow, is himself very ill—he is in the borderline between life and death when he contemplates about the sadness of life in these words:
“Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.” 
Marlow survives and returns to London and there be breaks the news of Kurtz’s death to his fiancé. But in the settings of the modern world he is unable to tell her the truth and lies about Kurtz’s life and business in the jungles of Africa. When she asks him what were Kurtz’s last words, Marlow replies: "The last word he pronounced was—your name.”

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Schopenhauer On University Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer talks about university philosophy in his book The World as Will and Representation, Volume Two, Chapter 17, “On Man's Need for Metaphysics.” Here’s an excerpt:

"As for university philosophy, it is as a rule mere juggling and humbug. The real purpose of such philosophy is to give the students in the very depths of their thinking that mental tendency which the ministry that appoints people to professorships regards as in keeping with its views and intentions. From the statesman's point of view, the ministry may even be right, only it follows from this that such philosophy of the chair is a nervis alienis mobile lignum*, and cannot pass for serious philosophy, but only for philosophy that is a joke. Moreover, it is in any case reasonable that such a supervision or guidance should extend only to chair-philosophy, not to the real philosophy that is in earnest. For if anything in the world is desirable, so desirable that even the dull and uneducated herd in its more reflective moments would value it more than silver and gold, it is that a ray of light should fall on the obscurity of our existence, and that we should obtain some information about this enigmatical life of ours, in which nothing is clear except its misery and vanity. But supposing even that this were in itself attainable, it is made impossible by imposed and enforced solutions of the problem.”

*"A wooden puppet moved by extraneous forces." [Tr.]

Friday, June 21, 2019

Moral Argument is Rationally Interminable

Why can’t mankind reach an agreement on the problems of wars, abortion, welfare state, and several other issues? Why is it that the philosophical and political debates on these issues are always unending? According to Alasdair Macintyre, in modern times all moral argument is rationally interminable. In Chapter 2, “The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today,” of his book After Virtue, Macintyre writes:

“Contemporary moral argument is rationally interminable, because all moral, indeed all evaluative, argument is and always must be rationally interminable. Contemporary moral disagreements of a certain kind cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present or future, can be resolved.”

Macintyre notes that this challenge of there being no rational way of securing agreement in moral disputes invites us to confront the philosophical theory of emotivism. He defines emotivism as a “doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gnosticism and The Nature of Modernity

Eric Voegelin defines Gnosticism as a type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery over reality—it relies on a claim to gnosis and considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. In the modern world, Gnosticism takes immanentizing forms as in the case of Marxism. Voegelin notes that while the Gnostics tend to make a claim to special knowledge through intuitions of an intellectual kind, their claims can take emotional or volitional forms. For instance, an emotional gnostic can make a claim that he has grasped the truth through the feelings of his heart, or a volitional gnostic may assert that his own will in perfectly attuned to the will of God and therefore his insights and wishes are a revelation of God’s will. Here’s an excerpt from Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics:

"The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. This expansion will engage the various human faculties; and, hence, it is possible to distinguish a range of Gnostic varieties according to the faculty which predominates in the operation of getting this grip on God.  Gnosis may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling.  Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler." (Page 124)

Voegelin says that the gnostic feels a sense of alienation from his present world and pines for deliverance, but the deliverance can only come from a transformation of the aspirant or of his world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

On the Rise of Socialism in Asia

In his article, “The Awakening of Asia,” (Chapter 2; The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer), Eric Hoffer examines the reasons for which the masses in several Asian nations were eagerly embracing the communist system and accepting the hegemony of the Soviet Union. The article was written in the 1960s, but it contains wisdom that is relevant to our times. Here’s an excerpt:

“It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression.”

Hoffer goes on to note that the intellectual and cultural weakness is so deep-rooted in some of the Asian countries that it is difficult to stop the march of communism through any kind of direct intervention:

“Nor can we win the weak by sharing our hope, pride, or even hatred with them. We are too far ahead materially and too different in our historical experience to serve as an object of identification. Our healing gift to the weak is the capacity for self-help. We must learn how to impart to them the technical, social, and political skills which would enable them to get bread, human dignity, freedom, and strength by their own efforts.”

I think Hoffer’s arguments can be summarized in this modification of Lord Acton’s words: Weakness tends to corrupt, and absolute weakness corrupts absolutely.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Political Consequences of Destruction of Language

Eric Voegelin blames the intellectuals and their destruction of language for the rise of National Socialism. Here’s an excerpt from his Autobiographical Reflections:

"It is extremely difficult to engage in a critical discussion of National Socialist ideas, as I found out when I gave my semester course on “Hitler and the Germans” in 1964 in Munich, because in National Socialist and related documents we are still further below the level on which rational argument is possible than in the case of Hegel and Marx. In order to deal with rhetoric of this type, one must first develop a philosophy of language, going into the problems of symbolization on the basis of the philosophers’ experience of humanity and of the perversion of such symbols on the vulgarian level by people who are utterly unable to read a philosopher’s work. A person on this level—which I characterize as the vulgarian and, so far as it becomes socially relevant, as the ochlocratic level—again, is not admissible to the position of a partner in discussion but can only be an object of scientific research. These vulgarian and ochlocratic problems must not be taken lightly; one cannot simply not take notice of them. They are serious problems of life and death because the vulgarians create and dominate the intellectual climate in which the rise to power of figures like Hitler is possible. I would say, therefore, that in the German case the destroyers of the German language on the literary and journalistic level, characterized and analyzed over more than thirty years by Karl Kraus in the volumes of Die Fackel, were the true criminals who were guilty of the National Socialist atrocities, which were possible only when the social environment had been so destroyed by the vulgarians that a person who was truly representative of this vulgarian spirit could rise to power."

He notes that Hitler could come to power because society was intellectually and morally ruined:

"The phenomenon of Hitler is not exhausted by his person. His success must be understood in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society in which personalities who otherwise would be grotesque, marginal figures can come to public power because they superbly represent the people who admire them. This internal destruction of a society was not finished with the Allied victory over the German armies in World War II but still goes on. I should say that the contemporary destruction of German intellectual life, and especially the destruction of the universities, is the aftermath of the destruction that brought Hitler to power and of the destruction worked under his regime. There is yet no end in sight so far as the disintegration of society is concerned, and consequences that may surprise are possible. The study of this period by Karl Kraus, and especially his astute analysis of the dirty detail (that part of it that Hannah Arendt has called the “banality of evil”), is still of the greatest importance because the parallel phenomena are to be found in our Western society, though fortunately not yet with the destructive effect that led to the German catastrophe."

Monday, June 17, 2019

On The Libertarian Flags

Why do some libertarian movements use as their flag the picture of a rattlesnake coiled ready to strike with the text “DON'T TREAD ON ME” written beneath it? I understand that the flag has a historical connection—it was designed in 1775 (during the American Revolution) by the American general and politician Christopher Gadsden. During revolutionary times a flag with this kind of a symbolism is fine, but it makes little sense to use it in times of peace and stability.

When the libertarians use such a flag, they risk sending out the signal that they are dogmatic in their thinking, full of hatred for all non-libertarians (which means vast majority of the population), and alienated from the society. Your philosophical, economic, and political thinking might be good, but few people will come forward to support your cause if your calling card contains the image of a rattlesnake with its fang bared and the text “DON'T TREAD ON ME”. People have a poor sense of history—most of them may not even know about the connection with the Gadsden flag.

Some libertarian scholars, I have noticed, use the image of a hemp leaf as their flag. Perhaps they think that that the hemp leaf stands for liberty and good life. I believe that people should be free to consume the intoxicants of their choice, but to use a hemp leaf as the flag for a social and political movement is not a good strategy as it creates the impression that this is a movement of the hedonists, by the hedonists, and for the hedonists.

The “DON'T TREAD ON ME” flag and the hemp leaf flag should be rejected because they create the impression that the libertarians are a community of unhinged and alienated people. A social and political movement is also about winning—your flag should be such that it helps you in making a positive impression on maximum number of people.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Skepticism is the Fountainhead of Philosophy

In his book Way to Wisdom,  Karl Jaspers writes, “The source of philosophy is to be sought in wonder, in doubt, in a sense of forsakenness. In any case it begins with an inner upheaval, which determines its goal.” ~ (Chapter 2: “Sources of Philosophy”). I think this is correct. Till about 70,000 years ago the human beings were more or less like animals—they lacked the ability to doubt anything. But if people believe in everything that their senses tell them, there can be no philosophy. Philosophy came into being when language become advanced and human beings developed the ability to communicate to themselves and share with each other their doubts about the nature of the world. The first spark of philosophy must have been lit by the man who for the first time propagated the idea that the things that he and others see can be something else or may not even exist. But this implies that  the idea that there is a reality outside the mind and that the world that we perceive through our senses is real has been gained through skepticism itself.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Definition of an Intellectual

In his article, “The Definition of an Intellectual,” (February 16, 1969), Eric Hoffer gives a definition of the kind of intellectuals that he despised:
I have been wiping the floor with the intellectuals these many years, blaming them for everything under the sun. Though I have spelled out many times who these intellectuals are, I am still being asked quite often for a definition of the intellectual. Here it is:  
My intellectual is a person who feels himself a member of the educated elite with a God-given right to direct and shape events. He need not be well educated or very intelligent. What counts is the feeling of the being a member of the educated elite. 
What the intellectual wants above all is to be listened to—with deference. He will forgive you everything if you take him seriously, and allow him to instruct you. It is more important to him to be important than to be free, and he would rather be persecuted than ignored. 
He ends his article with these lines: “The intellectual knows with every fiber of his being that men are not equal, and there are a few things he cares for less than a classless society. He is convinced that government is too weighty and complex to be left to common people. He cannot see how anything originating in an uninformed, unprincipled and uncommitted populace could be of any value. There is nothing he loathes more than government by and for the people.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

MacIntyre's Comparison Between the Fall of Rome and Modern Civilization

Alasdair MacIntyre ends his book After Virtue with this paragraph:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” (Page 304-305)

Since the barbarians are not at the gates, but are governing us, what should the modern man do?

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Hegel’s Rabble and Marx’s Proletariat

In his account of civil society, Hegel argues that modern society creates an impoverished class, whose existence is against the principles on which the society is founded, and whose condition cannot he improved through the economic and social institutions. Hegel calls this improvised class "rabble" and sees them as a threat to society. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Right, Hegel says: "The rabble is a dangerous ill, because they have neither rights nor duties" Karl Marx, on the other hand, sees a political significance in the Hegelian rabble class; he sees them as the working class, the proletariat, and the true spirit of the society.

Allen Wood, in his essay “Hegel and Marxism,” (Chapter 13; The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Edited by Frederick C. Beiser) conducts a comparison between the rabble of Hegel and Marx:

"Like Marx, Hegel thinks the condition of poverty gives rise to a distinctive disposition or mind-set on the part of the poor, which is hostile to the ethical principles of civil society. But whereas Marx sees the mission of the impoverished class as positive and its (at least incipient) mentality as creative and progressive, Hegel sees this mentality, despite the fundamental rationality embodied in it, as entirely corruptive and destructive, harboring no potentiality of abolishing or redeeming the evils that have produced it.

"Poverty, Hegel says, turns the poor into a "rabble" [Pobel). The mark of the rabble is not poverty itself, but "a disposition coupled with poverty, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, the government, etc." (Philosophy of Right) The poor turn into a rabble not through want alone, but through a certain corrupted attitude of mind that want tends inevitably to bring with it under the ethical conditions of modern civil society. The separation of the poor class from civil society's cultural benefits leads to a deeper separation, a separation of "mind" or "emotion" [Gemiit): "The poor man feels himself excluded and mocked by everyone, and this necessarily gives rise to an inner indignation. He is conscious of himself as an infinite, free being, and thus arises the demand that his external existence should correspond to his consciousness" (Lectures on the Philosophy of Right).

"Poverty is a wrong, an injustice; but the poor do not suffer merely some contingent denial of a right, which might leave intact their dignity and their will to defend their rights generally. Instead, poverty destroys the sense of self that for Hegel is the necessary vehicle of ethical attitudes in modern society."

While Hegel denounces the rabble mentality, he accepts that the rabble class is justified in believing that they are not being fairly treated by the civil society. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel talks about the “right of necessity,” which entails that when the rights of others threaten my well-being as a whole, then my violation of their right ceases to be a wrong. In normal cases, the right of necessity becomes valid only in circumstances of extreme danger or distress, but Hegel confers this right on the rabble class. In his essay, Allen Wood says:

"Hegel argues that when you are poor, the right of necessity comes to apply generally to you, because your whole life is carried on beneath the minimum level recognized as necessary for a member of civil society. Thus the right of necessity becomes universal for you; against you, no one has rights any longer: "Earlier we considered the right of necessity as referring to a momentary need. [In the case of poverty, however], necessity no longer has this momentary character." Poverty thus gives rise to "the non-recognition of right.” The poor thus fall outside the ethical life of civil society. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Strauss on Success and Truth

In his discussion of the connection between historical knowledge and political philosophy, Leo Strauss says: "If, however, we do not worship “success” as such, we cannot maintain that the victorious cause is necessarily the cause of truth. For even if we grant that truth will prevail in the end, we cannot be certain that the end has already come." ~ (What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies by Leo Strauss; Page 61). I think this is a fine point—history has no beginning or an end and therefore the old cliche that truth will prevail in the end has no meaning.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

Ancient Greece, according to Josiah Ober, fell for virtually the same reasons for which it had once achieved greatness. In his The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Chapter 11: “Creative Destruction and Immortality”), Ober says: “Both greatness and fall had similar causes: high levels of specialization, innovation, and mobility of people, goods, and ideas as the result of distinctive political conditions.” But the fall of Greece was never total—it was more of a creative destructive, rather than a ruinous destruction leading to quick economic and cultural collapse. Many of the Greek city-states continued to thrive—Ober notes that “by the end of the fourth century BCE, it is likely that more Greek poleis were democracies than ever before.”

When Imperial Rome took control in second century BCE, the Greek world was flourishing. Impressed by Greek culture, the Roman elites themselves became hellenized and they ensured the preservation of Greek culture and its propagation throughout the expanding Roman Empire. Ober writes: “By the time imperial Rome took over a still-flourishing Greek world, the Romans had become eager consumers of Greek culture. By the second century BCE, Roman elites were deeply enough Hellenized to ensure the subsequent preservation and dissemination of Greek thought and culture throughout the huge and still-growing Roman empire and across the next several hundreds years. Having jumped scale to become a dominant imperial culture in one of the two biggest empires of the premodern world (the other was Han China), the immortality of Greece was, if not ensured, at least made possible.”

After the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth to seventh centuries, Greek culture was preserved by the Eastern Empire and by the scholars and scientists of the medieval world.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Schopenhauer On Kant and Scholasticism

In his essay, “Criticisms of The Kantian Philosophy” (Chapter: Appendix; The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1), Arthur Schopenhauer notes that scholasticism lasted for 1400 years before Immanuel Kant, but this would mean that scholasticism predates Thomas Aquinas, and that the scholastic system got manifested towards the end of the Roman Empire when there was a significant rise in the power and influence of Christianity. Here’s an excerpt:

"That Kant's great achievements were bound to be accompanied by great errors is easy to understand on merely historical grounds. For although he effected the greatest revolution in philosophy, and did away with scholasticism, which in the above-mentioned wider sense had lasted for fourteen hundred years, in order really to begin an entirely new third world-epoch in philosophy, the immediate result of his appearance was, however, in practice only negative, not positive."

According to Schopenhauer, Kant was unable to break away from scholasticism in every region of his philosophy. As an example of the bad segments in Kantian philosophy which are reminiscent of a scholastic mindset, Schopenhauer mentions the chapter on the Transcendental Ideal in Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason.  “There now follows the chapter on the Transcendental Ideal, which at once takes us back to the rigid scholasticism of the Middle Ages.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Philosophy is a Never-ending Dialogue

Julia Annas in her book Ancient Philosophy (Page 17):

"Ancient philosophy (indeed, philosophy generally) is typically marked by a refusal to leave things opaque and puzzling, to seek to make them clearer and more transparent to reason. Hence reading ancient philosophy tends to engage the reader’s reasoning immediately, to set a dialogue of minds going.

"Ancient philosophy is sometimes taught as a procession of Great Figures, whose ideas the student is supposed to take in and admire. Nothing could be further from its spirit. When we open most works of ancient philosophy, we find that an argument is going on – and that we are being challenged to join in."

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Ignorant are More Wise than the Learned

Eric Hoffer, in his article “The Cauldron of Youth” (Published on Feb 11, 1968), writes:
The ignorant are a reservoir of daring. It almost seems that those who have yet to discover the known are particularly equipped for dealing with the unknown. The unlearned have often rushed in where the learned feared to tread, and it is the credulous who are tempted to attempt the impossible. Where you see a revolution taking place without revolutionaries there the vulgar and the ignorant are at work.  They know not whither they are going, and give chance a chance. 
Often in the past the wise were unaware of the great mutations which were unfolding before their eyes. How many of the learned knew in the early decades of the 19th century that they had an industrial revolution on their hands? The discovery of America hardly touched the learned, but it influenced the minds of the common folk.

I think Hoffer is spot-on. A country of ignorant and hardworking folks is more likely to succeed than a country dominated by intellectuals.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

On the Regime of Ignorance

Here’s an excerpt from the speech by Thon Taddeo in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz:

"Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man. His dynasty is age-old. His right to rule is now considered legitimate. Past sages have affirmed it. They did nothing to unseat him.

"Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind his throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth. His empire shall encompass the Earth. And the mastery of Man over the Earth shall be renewed. A century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works.

"And how will this come to pass?" He paused and lowered his voice. "In the same way all change comes to pass, I fear. And I am sorry it is so. It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world.”

He glanced around, for a soft murmur arose from the community.

“It will be so. We will not will it so.”

“But why?”

"Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry: But that is how I see it."

(A Canticle for Leibowitz; Chapter 20; Pages 214-215)

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Reading Kant in the 1790s

Germany, in the 1790s, witnessed the pantheism controversy, the effects of the French Revolution, and the rise of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Jakob Friedrich Fries was introduced to Kantian philosophy by Karl Bernhard Garve, his teacher at the Moravian seminary in Niesky, where Fries was studying in the years 1792 to 1795. The brethren at the Moravian seminary considered Kant’s thought bad for religious faith and they did not take kindly to Garve’s endeavors for acquainting his students with Kantianism. Garve was relieved of his duties, but his efforts had the intended effect—at the top of the reading list of his students was Kant. In his book The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880, Frederick C. Beiser writes about Fries’s attempts to read Kant at the seminary. Here's an excerpt: "At first the only books he could obtain were the Prolegomena and the so-called Prize Essay, that is, Kant’s 1764 pre-critical work Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral. Fries was greatly impressed by both works, which, he said, taught him a completely new method of doing philosophy. But how was Fries to get Kant’s masterwork, his Kritik der reinen Vernunft? Only with great stealth. Against regulations, Fries sneaked out of the seminary and walked to the bookdealer in neighbouring Görlitz. There he bought only parts of the book, some printed sheets; he dared not buy a whole bound copy, because this would have attracted the suspicion of the inspectors. When the seminary’s doctor visited the bookshop in Görlitz, the bookdealer praised the youth’s intellectual curiosity; the doctor raised alarm, and the inspectors duly confiscated the sheets. Fries managed to get them back by convincing the inspectors that he would do it again anyway." Beiser notes that “Kant had become “forbidden fruit” for students at the seminary. The temptation of reading him was all the greater precisely because it had been prohibited.”