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C.S. Lewis on Government

I recently stumbled across an article at The Beacon on C.S. Lewis’ views towards government. Long, but engaging and worth the read. I will leave you, dear Reader, with a quote of his, quoted in the article:

The first of these tendencies is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. . . . if one were inventing a language for “sinless beings who loved their neighbours as themselves” it would be appropriate to have no words for “my,” “I,” and “other personal pronouns and inflexions.” In other words . . . no difference between two opposite solutions of the problem of selfishness: between love (which is a relation between persons) and the abolition of persons. Nothing but a Thou can love and a Thou can exist only for an I. A society in which no one was conscious of himself as a person over against other persons, where none could say “I love you,” would, indeed, be free from selfishness, but not through love. It would be “unselfish” as a bucket of water is unselfish. . . . [In such a case] the individual does not matter. And therefore when we really get going . . . it will not matter what you do to an individual.

Secondly, we have the emergence of “the Party” in the modern sense—the Fascists, Nazis, or Communists. What distinguishes this from the political parties of the nineteenth century is the belief of its members that they are not merely trying to carry out a programme, but are obeying an important force: that Nature, or Evolution, or the Dialectic, or the Race, is carrying them on. This tends to be accompanied by two beliefs . . . the belief that the process which the Party embodies is inevitable, and the belief that the forwarding of this process is the supreme duty and abrogates all ordinary moral laws. In this state of mind men can become devil-worshippers in the sense that they can now honour, as well as obey, their own vices. All men at times obey their vices: but it is when cruelty, envy, and lust of power appear as the commands of a great superpersonal force that they can be exercised with self-approval.

 

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Quote Of The Day

This passage is by Soren Kierkegaard, quoted from Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, a collection of existentialist writings assembled by Walter Kaufmann:

[T]o honour every man, absolutely every man, is the truth, and this is what it is to fear God and love one’s “neighbour”. But from an ethico-religious point of view, to recognize the “crowd” as the court of last resort is to deny God, and it cannot exactly mean to love the “neighbour.” And the “neighbour” is the absolutely true expression for human equality. In case every one were in truth to love his neighbour as himself, complete human equality would be attained. Every one who loves his neighbour in truth, expresses unconditionally human equality. Every one who, like me, admits that his effort is weak and imperfect, yet is aware that the task is to love one’s neighbour, is also aware of what human equality is. But never have I read in Holy Scripture the commandment, Thou shalt love the crowd- and still less, Thou shalt recognize, ethico-religiously, in the crowd the supreme authority in matters of “truth.” But the thing is simple enough: this thing of loving one’s neighbour is self-denial; that of loving the crowd, or of pretending to love it, of making it the authority in matters of truth, is the way to material power, the way to temporal and earthly advantages of all sorts- at the same time it is the untruth, for a crowd is the untruth.

[. . .] The crowd, in fact, is composed of individuals; it must therefore be in every man’s power to become what he is, an individual. From becoming  an individual no one, no one at all, is excluded, except he who excludes himself by  becoming a crowd. To become a crowd, to collect a crowd about one, is on the contrary to affirm the distinctions of human life. The most well-meaning person who talk about these distinctions can easily offend an individual. But then it is not the crowd which possesses power, influence, repute, and mastery over men, but it is the invidious distinctions of human life which despotically ignore the single individual as the weak and impotent, which in a temporal and worldly interest ignore the eternal truth- the single greatest individual.

Life is Finite

A man that I knew recently passed away. I didn’t know him well, only having met his acquaintance through various parties and social gatherings over the years, but I always enjoyed his company when I was around him. He happened to do the same work as I, a carpenter, and we both enjoyed talking about music and, specifically, guitars.

His death was unexpected, stemming from an accident at work. He was working under a house in a tight area, and (probably while fumbling around), accidentally fired a nail from his nail gun into his heart. He was air lifted to a hospital, treated, went through rehab, and was sent home to recover further. Several days later, his wife arrived home from work to find him dead, looking “almost as if asleep”.

Moments like this in life, when an acquaintance, friend, or loved one passes away changes your perspective, if only for a little while. Our time here is limited, and while we struggle daily against that fact, eventually our bodies will decay, we will contract a disease, or suffer an accident, and suddenly we will be no more, our existence being extinguished like the flame of a candle being blown out.

As it turns out, this absurdity of life is something I happen to think about often. What makes life meaningful? Why? Is my life meaningful? Is there or can there be an objective standard of meaningfulness? I struggle to answer these questions, but increasingly I feel as though I am being pushed away from the things that I think are constraining me; work, money, etc. I wonder how much I am actually constrained by these things I worry about, and how much is dead weight that I am forcing myself to carry to my own detriment.

I can’t claim to know what makes life meaningful, but for me personally, I enjoy it the most when I feel free.

Life is short. Live freely.

Are There Limits to Natural Rights?

I have been thinking about natural rights and their relation to political theory. Now, I have for quite a while now been in favor of a natural rights based approach, but lately have been questioning how viable it truly is. Most natural rights political theory begins with some form of the Non Aggression Principle, which according to Wikipedia is “… a moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate.”. Now that certainly sounds like a good starting point to me, but does it tell the whole story? Wikipedia goes further:

NAP and property rights are closely linked, since what aggression is depends on what a person’s rights are.[1] Aggression, for the purposes of NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately-owned property of another. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of others that physically affect an individual’s property or person, no matter if the result of those actions is damaging, beneficial, or neutral to the owner, are considered violent or aggressive when they are against the owner’s free will and interfere with his right to self-determination and the principle of self-ownership.

There are several problems that I have currently. One, strict adherence to the NAP would necessarily lead to anarchism, since taxation is a function of the state, and is inherently coercive, thereby violating the NAP (Also, notice how a definition of property rights is presupposed in the NAP, at least as presented here. The definition is taken for granted while using it to support the very thing in question!). Now, I see no reason to dismiss anarchism prima facie, but it could be a tough pill to swallow for some, and intuitively I think most people are inclined (whether rightly or not) to dismiss it. However, I myself am not an anarchist; I do believe a minimal state is necessary to secure individual’s rights. In any case, the supporter of a minimal state now finds his or her self at odds with the common natural rights approach.

Is there a way natural rights can be reconciled with a state? I read an argument, presented by Mark Friedman, which goes as follows:

Quite clearly, deterring or preempting foreign attacks and international terrorism promotes rational agency in a way the basic scientific research does not…Therefore, the coercion of rational agents to support national defense is an exception to Nozickian side constraints because it can be justified in terms of the very value, rational agency, which generates those constraints.

At first I found this argument rather compelling, but of late have questioned it. If rights truly are an inherent part of being human, and are universal across a myriad of cultures and times, then why is a state necessary to secure them? It seems as though the state must exist prior to those rights if they are to be secured through the state. In the absence of a state, can individuals truly be said to have intrinsic rights if they are unable to effectively secure them? (It is at this point that anarcho-capitalists will chide me for thinking a state is required to protect rights. For reasons I don’t care to get into at the moment, I do not agree with them, though I’m sympathetic to their commitment to non-coercion.) It is true that individuals would be free to contract with others to provide them with protection services, but this leads to the “free-rider” problem: Would enough people contract with a particular agency in order to effectively provide security for a given area? I think it is likely that they would not, perhaps not seeing any immediate threats to their rights that would prompt them to want to. But the free-rider argument is itself a consequentialist one. What place does that have in a system of natural rights?

To me this is a significant problem. Can we really just pick and choose what types of arguments we want to use in any given moment, even if they are at times contradictory? It may work well in your average internet political battles, but hardly would withstand scrutiny enough to be considered a consistent political theory.

I am naturally disinclined towards consequentialism. At the root of it, I feel as though there is nothing in the way of an ever increasing leviathan of a government, that there is no universal framework with which to point to when government goes too far. However, I am coming to grips with the idea that I may be wrong; after all, people can just as easily reject the whole idea of natural rights, and either way it is a battle for liberty. There may not be, in fact, any universal framework at all, but only individual’s subjective thoughts, feelings, and opinions on certain matters. If another individual doesn’t feel as though I have a right to something, then I can’t expect my right to be respected by them, can I? In aggregate, this can mean that by default I do not have a right after all, even if I feel as though I should. It might be nice to appeal to natural rights in such a case, however if we still must at times appeal to consequentialist arguments, why hold to natural rights at all?

I still would like to see natural rights saved, if you will. I’m open to hearing arguments for and against, but more and more I’m leaning towards consequentialism.

The Kingdom of God is like a Post Scarcity Economy

John 6 1-15 says:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks,and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

We just covered this passage in church today, and although I have heard the story before, I found it interesting from an economic perspective.

Economics centers around the idea of scarcity; resources are scarce, yet our wants are endless. The purpose of economics is to attempt to explain how and why people make the decisions they do in light of the limitations that they face. Going by the subjective theory of value, items cannot be said to have intrinsic value in and of themselves. People choose to trade what they have for things that they prefer more, and attempt to satisfy as much of those wants as they can with their finite resources, and the willingness of individuals to trade for things is what determine’s an item’s value.

However, in this story Jesus completely breaks those rules. The very thing that most limits us here on earth in our ability to satisfy our wants and needs, scarcity, is completely broken. All of the five thousand are fed, to the point where there is even twelve baskets left over! This of course points to how God is able to abundantly meet our needs, and isn’t bound by the same constraints as us humans.

My immediate thought is to say, “Well, in a post-scarcity economy, that would mean that everyone’s individual ends are satisfied, because there is no longer any reason for them not to be; everyone would be able to ‘afford’ whatever they want.” That would lead us towards the joy of heaven, where we experience happiness and community like we never had on earth. However, there is still a constraint here, at least from an earthly perspective. Jesus didn’t simply multiply the silver coins (which, from other sources I’ve read that an average day’s wage at the time would be one denarius, and if we assume a denarius to be one tenth of an ounce, then it would be $542.60 in today’s dollars to buy all the bread needed), and allow everyone to buy their own bread. After all, perhaps some people preferred wheat bread to barley bread, or some didn’t like fish (admittedly unlikely), or what have you. Jesus directly provided for their needs; he didn’t simply provide everyone the means to provide for themselves as they saw fit (ignoring, of course, the practical problem of how they would actually do that in this exact situation, with presumably no market nearby). What this tells me is that we as Christians are still to seek Jesus for our needs, that He still retains some sort of control over how we are provided for, even in a post scarcity setting.

There’s one more thing I would like to highlight: The people try to capture Jesus and make him King, by force. Besides the irony of trying to force someone to rule over you, Jesus rejects the idea and escapes. It reminds me of  1 Samuel:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to theLord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lordanswered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

 The Israelites were then looking for a political solution, and again with Jesus were looking for a political solution. Solutions rarely come through politics. Voluntary interactions and habits are far more likely to make the change that we seek.

 

Quote of the Day

This passage appears in F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, pages 112-113 under the heading Our Animistic Vocabulary and the Confused Concept of ‘Society’ (footnotes omitted):

[I]n the study of human affairs difficulties of communication begin with the definition and naming of the very objects we wish to analyse. The chief terminological barrier to understanding, outranking in importance the other terms we have just discussed, is the expression ‘society’ itself – and not only inasmuch as it has, since Marx, been used to blur the distinctions between governments and other ‘institutions’. As a word used to describe a variety of systems of interconnections of human activities, ‘society’ falsely suggests that all such systems as of the same kind. It is also one of the oldest terms of this kind, as for example in the Latin societas, from socius, the personally known fellow or companion; and it has been used to describe both an actually existing state of affairs and a relation between individuals. As usually employed, it presupposes or implies a common pursuit of shared purposes that usually can be achieved only by conscious collaboration.

As we have seen, it is one of the necessary conditions of the extension of human cooperation beyond the limits of individual awareness that the range of such pursuits be increasingly governed not by shared purposes but by abstract rules of conduct whose observance brings it about that we more and more serve the needs of people whom we do not know and find our own needs similarly satisfied by unknown persons. Thus the more the range of human cooperation extends, the less does motivation within it correspond to the mental picture people have of what should have in a ‘society’, and the more ‘social’ comes to be not the key word in a statement of the facts but the core of an appeal to an ancient, and now obsolete, ideal of general human behaviour. Any real appreciation of the difference between, on the one hand, what actually characterises individual behaviour in a particular group and, on the other, wishful thinking about what individual conduct should be (in accordance with older customs) is increasingly lost. Not only is any group of persons connected in practically any manner called a ‘society’, but it is concluded that any such group should behave as a primitive group of companions did.

Thus the word ‘society’ has become a convenient label denoting almost any group of people, a group about whose structure or reason for coherence nothing need be known – a makeshift phrase people resort to when they do not quite know what they are talking about. Apparently a people, a nation, a population, a company, an association, a group, a horde, a band, a tribe, the members of any particular place, all are, or constitute, societies.

To call by the same name such completely different formations as the companionship of individuals in constant personal contact and the structure formed by millions who are connected only by signals resulting from long and infinitely ramified chains of trade is not only factually misleading but also almost always contains a concealed desire to model this extended order on the intimate fellowship for which our emotions long. Bertrand de Jouvenel has well described this instinctive nostalgia for the small group – ‘the milieu in which man is first found, which retains for him an infinite attraction: but any attempt to graft the same features on a large society is utopian and leads to tyranny’.

The crucial difference overlooked in this confusion is that the small group can be led in its activities by agreed aims or the will of its members, while the extended order that is also a ‘society’ is formed into a concordant structure by its members’ observance of similar rules of conduct in the pursuit of individual purposes. The result of such diverse efforts under similar rules will indeed show of a few characteristics resembling those of an individual organism possessing a brain or mind, or what such an organism deliberately arranges, but is it misleading to treat such a ‘society’ animistically, or to personify it by ascribing to it a will, an intention, or a design. Hence it is disturbing to find a serious contemporary scholar confessing that to any utilitarian ‘society’ must appear not ‘as a plurality of persons… [but] as a sort of singe great person’.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of Hayek’s death. His was a great mind, and we could do well to have more thinkers like him.