Archive for April, 2011

April 29, 2011

I had a couple small items in other venues this week:

For Ms.: Rep. Allen West’s Phallocentric Theory of Deficit Reduction
Allen West thinks that one of the reasons our national debt is so high is because feminists are making America’s men “subservient.” Let’s unpack that a bit!

For New Deal 2.0: Why Liberals Need to Take a Page from (Classical) Republicanism
A summary and defense of classical republicanism, and a call for the left to make it their own. This is kind of a mini-manifesto summing up where a lot of my thinking on political principles has been going lately.


Consensus Building for Escalation
April 27, 2011

(en) Libya Location (he) מיקום לוב

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The New York Times gives retired lieutenant general James Dubik a platform to do it.

Unlike the Bosnian Croats in 1995 and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the rebel forces in Libya are too disorganized to take advantage of NATO air support. To give them a fighting chance, NATO must put military advisers and combat air controllers on the ground — not just British, French and Italian, but also a small number of American ones.

These advisers would help bolster the weak rebel army’s organization and capabilities while ground controllers could mark targets, identify the forward movement of rebel forces, and distinguish civilians from fighters more effectively than pilots can from their cockpits. Such measures are essential, but they would require relaxing the Obama administration’s prohibition on the use of American ground forces.

This course of action would not defeat Colonel Qaddafi’s forces overnight, but it would put far more pressure on his regime and potentially protect more civilians in more of the country. If Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos.

But why? Oh, right. Because we’re already in it, but not yet in it to win it. “The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya,” writes Dubik. “Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.”

Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. Dubik could have written this column back when the bombing first started and asked the Times to sit on it for a month. Of course the United States and NATO’s initial military commitment would be barely enough to force a stalemate in Libya. And of course the minute that stalemate became the new status quo our most serious publications would begin running op-eds encouraging the United States to put boots on the ground.

Will we? I hope not, for so many reasons. But I didn’t think we were going to bomb Libya in the first place, and we did. This is the logical next step.

If and when it happens, I wonder what we’ll hear from the folks who actually believed Obama’s promise of a limited engagement. “He lied to us?” Well, maybe. But I suspect he believed, just as they did. The worst lie was the one they told themselves.

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Pragmatism and Scientific Realism: Two Great Tastes!
April 26, 2011

“This right here is some @resnikoff linkbait,” tweets young Dylan Matthews, and he is not wrong. The linkbait he refers to is a post over at his own (all too infrequently updated) blog arguing that Sam Harris is trying to have it both ways with his insistence that science can answer basic moral questions.

Dylan writes:

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.


So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. I get the sense that philosopher Neil Sinhababu’s pleasure-based hedonic utilitarianism is consistent with scientific realism, at least if you think Sinhababu’s claims about the objective goodness of hedonic pleasure hold up. (Incidentally, Neil, if you’re reading this I’d love to get your take.)

But while I don’t believe Dylan has scored a hit, I think y’all already know I find Harris’ theory to be deeply ill-conceived. I encourage you to read the excellent essay that inspired Dylan’s post to find out why.

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Devout Christians: Not So Easy To Caricature
April 21, 2011

Jamelle Bouie brings us the surprising news that a not insignificant plurality of Americans believe that capitalism and Christianity are in conflict. Here’s the graph:

What’s even more surprising is that the number goes up, not down, when you narrow the sample size to Christians only.

I can’t comment on how well the view of Christianity as an anti-capitalist philosophy tracks with the textual evidence in the Gospels, but I will say that numbers like this complicate the argument that popular religion is little more than a form of ideological control used to the benefit of the ruling party. It turns out majority religious views in the United States are not so easily caricatured.

So why do so many atheists waste so much breathe dueling with strawmen? When it comes to the New Atheists, I don’t think we can entirely rule out an economic incentive: the more inflammatory the claims, the more press attention they get. But commerce is surely only a very small part of it. I think atheists are also internalizing what the right has known for awhile: martyrdom is seductive. As much as it makes us rend our garments, it just feels good to be one of the few sane people defending capital-T Truth from the violent horde. Hell, martyrdom is what helped popularize early Christianity in the first place — though, in that instance, Christians were literally being martyred.

I don’t mean to be glib. I understand this intuition that nonbelievers are under attack from all sides, I really do. Certainly there are vast swaths of America where it’s prudent to conceal your lack of faith — and that includes virtually every level of elected federal office. It’s also true that many of the more vehement atheists I know lost their faith while growing up in regions and families where non-belief was simply not an option. It’s natural to feel besieged under those conditions, but calling people of faith either con artists or dumb rubes is no less unfair than suggesting that atheists are morally deficient.

And besides, as I’ve said before, name calling gets boring real fast compared to the sort of debates we could be having. For a good example of the latter, check out Matt Yglesias here. Even if you think the metaethical grounding for Christian values is complete fantasy, scrutinizing it helps us finds new ways to think about our own moral foundations. And it can have some surprising or counterintuitive implications, like the poll results at the top of this post.

Which, as I’ve said before, are fascinating for all kinds of reasons. This is just an aside, but I can’t help but wonder now if American soil isn’t ripe for some kind of Red Tory or Christian socialist movement (albeit by another name in the latter case).

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Not All Atheists Hear The Same Thing When People Debate Theology
April 20, 2011

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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I’m an Amanda Marcotte fan, but I’m also one of those atheists like Robert Farley who doesn’t really get her hostility to theological debates. Nor do I think there’s any reason to doubt that Andrew Sullivan, et al, are sincere in their faith. Lots of intelligent people really are devout believers, and to suggest otherwise seems either profoundly misguided or just plain churlish.

Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf. Back around Christmastime I wrote a series of posts about atheism in which I argued, among other things, that atheists could benefit from understanding theological claims as an indirect way of describing the structure of the claimant’s perceptual experiences.

So take for example Andrew Sullivan’s understanding of Hell. He says:

Whereas in fact Hell is, in orthodox terms, is simply our refusal to accept the love of God. Our inability to accept it. And that exists on Earth as it does after death. We can be living in Hell right now if we do not accept the love that is openly given us by God, the Father and the son. And that is what Hell is. Heaven is simply the ability to let go of your pride and let God in.

One way to react to all of this is just to take offense at Sullivan’s assertion that we nonbelievers are in Hell and ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives to that claim. Or you could just mock Sullivan’s faith and suggest that he’s some kind of dumb rube for believing what he does. But I don’t think either of those possible responses are all that useful or interesting. I’d rather take a closer look at Sullivan’s reasons for believing what he does and consider how those shape his interface with the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of those claims. But for Spider-Man’s sake, at least be critical in an engaged, interesting way.

Since I’ve blogged a bit about Nietzsche recently, I might as well note that he had some very engaged and interesting ways of responding to the sort of doctrine Sullivan espouses above. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls those who speak of Hell on earth as “preachers of death” who “carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration.” The point being that, in Nietzsche’s view, this urge to embrace the eternal and escape from the worldly represents a sort of fear and loathing of the world as it is. His response is to embrace the world — what the preachers of death call Hell — just as those same preachers embrace what they call God and Nietzsche calls death.

I don’t subscribe to Nietzsche’s scorched-earth style, but I think there’s a kernel of insight and psychological acuity in his writing you won’t find in a blithe dismissal of all faith as meaningless bullshit. And even if you disagree, at least Nietzsche’s making a proper argument out of it.

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Conditioned Freedom
April 19, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

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I finished Republicanism last night, so now I feel fully qualified to sing its praises like I’ve been itching to. Liberty as non-domination (which I explain a bit here) makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, and the theory of government which philosopher Philip Pettit builds off of that appeals not only to my squishy leftism, but also to my fondness for republican Rome and the American founders.

If you can get your hands on a copy of the book but you’re not the sort of person who reads 300-page analytic philosophical treatises for fun, I recommend at least skimming the afterword, called Republicanism: Once More With Hindsight. It includes a pretty good quick rundown of the rest of the book, including a couple revealing passages which underscore some of the more radical implications of Pettit’s argument. In particular I wanted to highlight this paragraph:

I argue that not only should the republic seek to remove domination from people’s lives — not only should it try to reduce such compromises of people’s freedom — it should also seek to increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice. It should seek to reduce the influence of factors like handicap and poverty and ignorance that condition people’s freedom as non-domination, even if they don’t actually compromise it. Otherwise put, it should promote people’s effective freedom as non-domination, not just their formal freedom as non-domination.

That argument is one of the major points where Pettit breaks from classical republicanism, and the argument he makes for that break is as complicated and esoteric as it is persuasive. I won’t get into it here — I’ll just note that this is another reason why I think the contemporary left could benefit from borrowing some of Pettit’s concepts. Liberals endorse a lot of the policy ends implied by what Pettit says above, but justified by the need for equality instead of unconditioned non-domination. “Equality” is sort of a mushier concept from a philosophical standpoint, and from a rhetorical standpoint it’s a term the right has gotten pretty good at demonizing. And anyway, I suggest that when most on the left talk about equality, freedom is what they’re really talking about. Skimming Pettit can help clarify those terms.

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A Social Democracy of Fear
April 18, 2011

Over at FireDogLake, Blue Texan catches Republican consultant Mary Matalin making a startling observation:

There is no small amount of empirical data to say we’re at the end of this hundred year, European-originated social democracy welfare state experiment…there’s current data and there’s century’s long data that says we cannot sustain this trajectory.

Those ellipses elide a lot of valorization of the invisible hand that I’ve decided not to bother transcribing. You get the basic idea. Workers’ rights, corporate regulation, a putative social safety net … in Matalin’s eyes, these were all components in an experiment that has failed and left us back at square one, which is to say somewhere in that glorious laissez-faire era of robber baron supremacy.

I’m not so surprised a political consultant believes this, but I am slightly flummoxed to hear her say it aloud. After all, her job is getting Republicans elected, and those voters in the middle like their Social Security and Medicare. Though I suppose the details of the Ryan plan amounted to such a deafening declaration of intentions that there’s no need for anyone on Team Galt to try and keep up appearances anymore.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to outsource the rest of this post to the late, great Tony Judt.

If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

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Zarathustra Shrugged
April 17, 2011

Photograph by Gebr. Siebe. Category:Nietzsche ...

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Nietzsche was a prolific, complicated, and sometimes contradictory philosopher. There’s no neat way to reduce his whole body of work into a few key concepts, especially because that body of work was in many ways one enormous project that was constantly being refined and revised. You certainly can’t reduce that project into a handful of pithy quotes.

But Nietzsche also happens to be that guy who said something about the death of God and the will to power. Everyone knows that! And so everyone seems to feel qualified to opine on his philosophy and legacy without having made a serious study of either.

That’s how you get profoundly misguided assertions like this one from Andrew Sullivan:

The whole point of the Gospels is that Rand’s value system leads to profound misery and spiritual loss. And the whole point of Rand is that Nietzsche was onto something.

Now, that Rand read and revered Nietzsche (at least initially) is indisputable. But does that make Objectivism a logical extension of his thought? I’ll let respected Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter answer that one:

Rand’s “individualism”–if that is what one wants to call her juvenile fantasies about her industrialist heroes–owes as little to Nietzsche as to Smith.  Nietzsche loathed capitalism and capitalists (and the cultural and aesthetic vulgarity he saw as their legacy) and also despised what he called “the selfishness of the sick” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and the “self-interested cattle and mob” (Will to Power).  What he admired was “severe self-love,” the kind “most profoundly necessary for growth” (Ecce Homo).  “Virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality”–all the things “for whose sake it is worthwhile to live on earth” (Beyond Good and Evil)–all demand such severe self-love, and for this reason, and this reason only, Nietzsche wanted to disabuse those capable of such excellences of their false consciousness about the morality of altruism.  He certainly did not think everyone ought to be selfish, or that the pursuit of material goods had any value, or that indulgence of selfish desires was a virtue.  What he did think is what is almost certainly true:  namely, that if someone like Beethoven had taken Christian morality seriously, and lived a Christian life, he would not have accomplished what the actual Beethoven did (one need only read the famous Maynard Solomon biography to see that Beethoven was no moral saint).  The “John Galts” of the world are just a more prosperous example of the “self-interested cattle and mob” Nietzsche always derided.

That Rand drew inspiration from Nietzsche tells us only how easy it is to misread his work. Probably millions of troubled adolescents have projected their neuroses onto his aphorisms and walked away clinging to a deeply warped and blinkered vision of his philosophy. That doesn’t mean we should judge him for it! Nietzsche is no more responsible for Rand than he is for Jared Loughner, or the authors of the gospels are for Jerry Falwell.

It might very well be true that Rand’s “point” all along was that Nietzsche was onto something. But even if that’s true, it’s barely half of the story — because if Nietzsche was onto anything, that means Rand most certainly was not.

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April 15, 2011

Pettit really only addresses it tangentially, but I like what he has to say about free will in Republicanism:

Whatever existentialists may have thought, individual autonomy or self-rule cannot conceivably require that people should have considered and endorsed each of their particular beliefs and desires in a historical process of self-construction; if it did, then no one would be autonomous. What it requires, more plausibly, is that people are capable of exposing each of their beliefs and desires to appropriate tests, especially in the event of problems arising, and that whether or not they maintain such a commitment depends on how it fares in the tests.

This is something he evidently explores in more detail in a couple essays co-written with Michael Smith, called “Backgrounding Desire” and “Freedom in Thought and Action.” I’ll have to read both of those before making a final ruling, but my initial response is to say that both Pettit and the existentialists are correct: the existentialists have the correct standard for full and true autonomy, but Pettit is right to call this an unachievable ideal and craft a more reasonable alternative.

That said, meeting Pettit’s criteria of autonomy still seems pretty damn hard. I’m not sure if he would make this argument, but I think you could fairly contend that one of the greatest threats to the version of autonomy outlined above is what Heidegger would call “failling”: the ever-present urge to just do what you do and believe what you believe reflexively, without ever self-consciously challenging it. To make full use of Pettit’s version of self-rule — which is to say, to expose each of your beliefs and desires to “appropriate tests” — demands constant vigilance and a willingness to self-criticize without mercy. I’d argue that it’s everyone’s obligation to at least make the effort, but I also acknowledge that it’s a total bitch and I fail at it myself pretty regularly.

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Signaling Authenticity
April 14, 2011

Kingdom of Northshield court in the Society fo...

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A friend passes along this study (PDF) from The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography on how members of the Society for Creative Anachronism use what the author calls “bridging discourse” to demonstrate to one another that they’re engaging in authentic group behavior — that, in the terminology of the SCA, their clothes and mannerisms are sufficiently “period.”

The author, Stephanie Decker of the University of Kansas, defines bridging discourse like so (emphasis added):

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

And here’s an example of one member of the group, ostensibly dressed as an authentic medieval warrior, justifying his use of period-inappropriate cotton instead of wool:

Well, I know that they wore wool, but they wore wool because that’s what was available to them, and that’s what met their needs. But if they were in North America I’m sure they would have worn cotton, because that’s what would have been available, and it would have been hot as hell. So I think wearing cotton is totally period, because it’s practical.

The paper’s about a pretty specific and eccentric subculture, but it doesn’t exactly overtax the imagination to try and transplant bridging discourse into other contexts. In the political realm, replace “period” with “seriousness” or “belief in American exceptionalism.” Within the Republican caucus, replace it with “Tea Partier,” “conservative,” or “loves Reagan.”

But what’s most interesting to me about this phenomenon in the political realm is the way politicians sometimes need to use bridging discourse to catch up with evolving standards. American exceptionalism, for example, didn’t used to be the hot button issue it is today — but then conservatives realized they could use it as a semi-veiled way to call into question the American-ness of their opponents, most notably President Obama. Now all of a sudden, even people who don’t subscribe to American infallibility are going out of their way to make public statements about aspirational exceptionalism and the like. It makes you think less of a bridge than one of those stair trucks you see at airports.

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