Friday, July 29, 2011

The Crumbling Idea of the Common Good

When we are born we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.
Shakespeare, King Lear

     I have taught political philosophy for many years, and no matter how often I have shot down the bogus claims of one ideology after another, the idea that a common good was possible always remained firmly in the background of my approach to the issues.  Indeed, all the great political thinkers from Plato onward strove to unpack this idea of the common good and argue for the best ways to make it happen.  Hobbes tells us we get it by contracting with a government that keeps us firmly in line so that we will not resort to our aggressive and self-centered humanity.  Rousseau makes the case for a democracy where everyone votes with the public interest in mind.  John Rawls draws a picture in which the fundamental principles of justice are built into the basic structures and arrangements of the political society.

     Lately, however, one has to wonder if the very concept of a common good might be an illusion--maybe even an hallucination.  Perhaps some such thing might still obtain in the small towns and cities--I grew up in a town that was governed by a Town Meeting where everyone voted on just about everything.  Yet on the national level things are quite different.   I used to believe that even in a society as wildly pluralistic and contentious as ours, it was always possible that the clash of particular interests would somehow result in an outcome that reflected pretty much everyone's welfare.  Of course, most groups would not always get what they wanted and maybe never get all that they wanted, but we all accepted the rules of this game and held that the result had genuine value for all of us.  Some groups, of course, would never get what they wanted--nor should they.  The interests of racists, bigots, and others who did not accept the basic values that anchored the process were clearly destructive of the community's well-being and would not be represented in the end result.

     It was the job of those we elected to reach this outcome by representing our interests, by rationally inspecting these wants from the perspective of what long-term merits they offered the commonweal, by debating them honestly and intelligently, and by finding ways to merge them into policies that worked out to substantively benefit our country.

     Now, I have never been foolish enough to believe that this representative governmental process actually did its business in pristine altruism or Nobel Prize brilliance.  But it was democracy at work, and we accepted it with its warts and other blemishes.  When our elected officials screwed up or screwed us, we believed we generally had ways of handling the problem.

     The current situation in Congress on the debt ceiling is, I think, a perfect illustration of my loss of faith in a common good for the nation.  No matter when or how this crisis is resolved, it underscores how feeble the pursuit of a genuine public interest now appears. Yes, much of the blame has to be pinned on the so-called Tea Party ideologues who seem to think they were elected to stand against any government program, whether they understand it or not and whether or not it actually helps anyone.  Many of these characters, however, are joined by ersatz 'libertarians' who believe we must never seek a truly common good anyway, since it might get in the way of the absolute and glorious pursuit of everyone's own selfish objectives.  Add to this strange mix the many dozens of members of Congress who have signed 'pledges' not to ever raise taxes, or to oppose same-sex marriage, or not to do a whole list of other things, formally announcing by their signatures that rational thought about policy is simply not going to be allowed on their watch.  These 'statesmen' and some of their colleagues live in constant fear of talk show hosts who might make their re-election a slim probability, and so they are sure to follow orders without so much as a visible twitch.  And then plug in the growing list of Representatives and Senators who live their total legislative lives in and on the bulging money clips of the lobbying firms who contribute substantial funds to them in order to make sure their interests are given priority, whatever the benefits to other groups. Bring into the pot those in office who flaunt their colossal and appalling stupidity like a merit badge, and the stew is complete.

     What can come out of this ugly situation we now find ourselves in?  A common good  or impenetrable chaos?  The public interest or gridlocked idiocy?

     We are, I fear, living through the saddest chapter in the story of our Republic.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In God We Trust

     To teach how to live without certainty and yet not be paralyzed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.
          -Bertrand Russell    

     The oddly-shaped Italian nuns who taught me how to read, to write and to pray would often punctuate our lessons with aphorisms, adages solemnly delivered and carefully designed to underscore some key moral or theological point.
     Some examples:  (a) "Familiarity breeds contempt."  (b) "Do good to those who persecute you."  (c) "Pride always goes before a fall."  (d) "God helps those who help themselves."

     I never understood all the implications of (a) and, anyway, Hegel probably said it better: "No man is a hero to his valet."  The idea of (b) made some sense in a Catholic upbringing, of course, but since the nuns were the ones doling out most of the persecution in our daily lives, it was tough to see it as anything other than self-serving. And (c) seemed to flatly contradict what my father always told me, namely, to take pride in my work, so I ignored it.

     It was (d) that gave me the most theoretical difficulty.  Did it mean, for example, that God really didn't need to do all that much, since who requires divine help if you're already helping yourself in the first place? Maybe God just kind of certified what you accomplished on your own, like issuing a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval after the fact, but what's the point of that? And what about the poor guys who are totally unable to help themselves?  Does God simply stand by and watch them go to rack, ruin and rot the way a bank writes someone off as a poor credit risk?  Were these nuns, after all, just unaware that they were preaching old-fashioned deism while wearing the black and white habits of papal infallibility?

     As my nine-year old mind pondered these questions (secretly, of course, or else I would have been beaten for the sin of pondering), I began to realize that we can never, ever be sure that we know what we are talking about when we talk about God.  And I was delighted in later life to find that even some of our greatest theologians agreed with me. Karl Barth knew that faith had to constantly 'seek understanding" but that the journey would never end while we lived. Paul Tillich wrote that "doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it's an element of faith." Saint Thomas Aquinas--often wrongly portrayed as an unrepentant rationalist--said that in the last analysis, everything trails off into mystery, no matter how much we think we know.

     Everything?  Yes, maybe everything.  To make this point does not entail that religion and God-talk are, therefore, meaningless. " Mysterious" isn't equivalent to "senseless." Faith, as the philosopher William James brilliantly argued, can be rational without being the outcome of a formally logical argument, just as art, literature and poetry can be meaningful while not being meaningful the same way chemistry, physics and biiology are. (What would scientific poetry be like, anyway?) We will never have available the human concepts to completely and confidently describe things that are, by definition, beyond the scope of those concepts.

     This is why we condemn the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the fundamentalists of all religions who use their spiritual certitude as both a figurative and literal club to punish--even kill--those who disagree with their dubious dogma.  This is why we must constantly object to those who try to force their suspect religious certainties onto the lives of the rest of us, whether though school board policies, local ordinances, state laws or national legislation and regulation.  Yes, they are seriously invading the democratic and moral rights of others to believe whatever they want to believe.  But by opposing these crusaders we are actually doing them a favor, saving them from error, for they are making a mockery of their own religious beliefs in the very act of brandishing them.

    We are trying to help them. They need to thank us. They might be doing the very work of the Devil himself without knowing it.                       

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Election Seasons and Some Parts of Horses

     In "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell noted that political language seems especially indifferent to whether or not words actually mean anything. The prose, he argued, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

     Orwell's first-rate advice about how to spot--and avoid--dying metaphors (e.g., "ride roughshod over"), verbal false limbs (e.g., "deserving of serious consideration"), pretentious diction ("deregionalise") and totally meaningless words ("patriotic") is as valuable today as it was in the year when he wrote the piece --1946--or any year before that. He also saw the clear and demonstrable connection between this kind of language and the way politicians and governments manipulate citizens into thinking that something intelligible has genuinely been communicated and that something worthwhile actually has been done.

     We are now, of course, coming upon one of the more treacherous times for linguistic coherence in our Republic, namely, election season.  True, our last election campaign does not appear really to have ended, particularly since Congressional leaders keep constantly chattering about the "mandate they have been given by the people" and even proclaim that their main priority is to ensure that the sitting President does not get re-elected.  Things are going to get worse, however.  The garden variety sniping that goes on every day in our political parties and their broadcasting acolytes is bound to reach industrial strength with a Presidential election year just a few blocks down the road.

     "Socialism" will, no doubt, be a favorite word for many of those in the running, since President Obama (and the whole Democratic Party) has been labelled "socialistic" since Day One of his administration.  The odds are that if one were to ask persons using the term what they mean by it, they would not be able to say anything even approaching clarity.  First, the word is difficult to define, and political philosophers have argued about its range for decades.  Is it a political term?  An economic one? A concept of political economy?  Is it the opposite of "capitalist"?  The opposite of "democratic"? The opposite of nothing in particular? But even if that were not the case and the word wore its cognitive credentials on its sleeve, those who like to use the term to characterize an opponent are not interested in its meaning; their aim is only to create an emotional effect in voters, to frighten them into thinking that the opponent is not really "one of us".  The word "communist" was used in the 40's and 50's mainly for the same purpose, as was "anarchist" (a.k.a. "foreigner") in the 20's.

     Many political candidates care only that the terms work effectively as stigmatizers, not as genuine carriers of sense. The term "un-American" is, incredibly, still a favorite in some quarters; "tax-and-spend liberal" another.  And what would election time be like without one politician accusing another of being "outside the mainstream of our way of life"? We've already heard the venerable "social engineering" rise from (what we thought was) the dead, and now its unexpected cousin  "right wing social engineering" has shown up at the family reunion. There will also be bizarre claims about the "real meaning" of this or that phrase in the United States Constitution by many whose next encounter with the document will be their first.  These legal scholars will, of course, decry the "activism" of our judges who keep "making the law" instead of "following the original meaning of our founders."  They will tell us how "Islamo-fascists" are those who "hate us for our freedom". And, to be sure, we are bound to have a great deal of discussion over whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" violate some amendment or other in the Bill of Rights.  (It's the eighth, but don't spread it around.)

     I think my father would have liked Orwell's 'prefabricated hen-house' comparison had he known about it, for he sometimes used animal analogies to get his point across as well.  He often said, for example, that the world contained a lot more horses' rear ends in it than horses.  He said it even more during election seasons.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Torture Argument...Tortured Again

     There is a story told about Thales of Melitus, often called the first philosopher (c. 585 BC), that gave philosophy a pretty bad name from its opening act.  Thales, so the tale went, was walking along gazing at the beauty of the stars shining high over Asia Minor one night.  He was not looking where he was placing his feet as he admired the heavens, and as a result fell into a deep well.
     Moral: If you want to be a realist, get your head out of the clouds (or wherever else it
     happens to be) and see the world for how it really is.

     Not many of us, of course, want to be thought of as unrealistic.  This is particularly true in discussions of politics, where we can quickly lose our credentials as grown ups and be labeled on the spot with Thales-like reputations for being dreamers.  The writer Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary, defined politics as "a strife of interests masquerading as a conflict of principles," and the definition could be emblazoned on the doorways of every political science department and stand as the motto of any 24-hour news channel.  The "realists" can't be sidetracked by any "clash of principles," any consideration of  whether a policy is morally good or bad for our Republic.  They must look rather, for whose horse gains and which one loses, whose oxen are being gored and which ones fed, whose chickens are coming home to roost. (OK, I'll stop with the zoo story right now, I promise.)

     Whether this "realism" makes even minimal sense as our total framework for rational political discourse is a point I'll explore in later installments of this blog.  What I want to underscore now is that this "realism" loses even its superficial  coherence when our talk is about the policy of torture.  The talk has surfaced again with the killing of Osama bin Laden last week.  Several commentators and members of the previous administration (and a few of their relatives) have claimed that the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (like water boarding) that were used for years after 9/11 actually paid off and got us the intelligence we needed to get the job done.  There's not much in the way of evidence for this claim, and no doubt the arguments will go on at least forever. (See earlier blog about stupidity.)

     The moral proscription against torture is about as clear, as universal and as unyielding as any principle we have in our human reason.  It stems almost automatically from one of Immanuel Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative--formulations that define what it means to have a moral point of view at all:

           Human beings must never be treated merely as means to some other end,
          but always as ends-in-themselves

     A policy of torture, then, is precisely a denial of a moral point of view.  Unlike, say, debates about whether or not an economic or fiscal policy makes sense, debates about whether torture makes sense don't really get off the ground.  Yes, some theorists ("realists" who are not comfortable with moral reasoning?) argue that if the United States tortures suspected terrorists, then terrorists will think it's all right to do it to our citizens as well.  But that is not why torture is wrong.  It is wrong because human beings must not be treated as mere means to someone's ends, even when those ends are made paramount by national sentiment. (And, by the way, do we not already know that terrorists are doing it anyway?)  One also hears people say that torture is wrong because it seldom gets really truthful information from the person being abused.  That would make it useless, not morally wrong, hardly equivalent ideas.  Nor is torture wrong because it violates international law.  Those conventions have force only because they embody Kant's imperative; we don't get our moral codes from laws.  It's the other way around:  the rights embodied in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights would have moral force even if the amendments had never been approved.

     Yet, isn't torture sometimes justified?  What about the "Ticking Bomb Scenario" where the only way to save millions of innocent people from imminent destruction is by resorting to the infliction of excruciating physical or psychological pain on someone who has the requisite information?  Well, more on this in the later blogs mentioned above, since even the most frightening case imaginable has more moral complexity than is usually supposed. Yet even without a lot of subtle analysis, these cases should still trouble us, and only someone completely insensitive to the moral point of view would take them lightly.  Indeed, in these hypothetical situations --which seemed to happen at least once a week on the T.V. series "24"-- we appear to be caught in "moral blind alleys," to use an expression of philosopher Thomas Nagel, situations where we appear to have no good choices available.  (There are others we can come up with as well).  Note also that these cases have nothing to do with torture as a policy, which is where the focus of our moral discussion should be.

     Political "realism," then, turns out at least sometimes to be a pretty unrealistic option for those of us who resist throwing our moral--our human--frameworks overboard.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Birth, Death...Stupidity

Scene: An upper room where some people are hiding out a whole bunch of years ago.  A man suddenly appears in their midst.
Man: "Thomas, come here. You doubt that I'm real, right?  Put your fingers into these wounds.  What do you say now?"
Thomas: (Puts fingers into the wounds.) "Yeah, well I still don't believe.  It could be a trick."

     Some recent articles (e.g., Kate Zernike's in today's New York Times) have tried to explain what's going on in the minds of the 'birthers' who continue to believe (in spite of the newest incarnation of his birth certificate) that President Obama is not a natural born citizen of the United States. Many of these people insist that they are not racists, despite now wanting to see proof that the President actually went to the schools he says he graduated from--or if he went to them, to prove that he was as good a student as he claimed--or, if he was that good, then we need to know how he got into such schools in the first place.

     More than a few of these doubters are motivated by the view that there is just something wrong with a black person holding such high office.  They would not admit it to themeselves, of course, but engage in Olympic class self-deception about the racism at the root of their doubts about the President's citizenship. 

     Yet, let's grant that not all of these recalcitrant doubters work from some clear or muddied racial ideology.  We still need to remind ourselves that racism is only one of the many ways to be very stupid, and that these other ways are also powerfully destructive of democratic value.

     Do we remember Senator John McCain during his run for President having to correct the woman who said that she didn't trust Obama because 'he's an Arab'?  Have you ever had the frightening experience of sitting next to someone on a plane or train who tells you that "the Jews" are behind rising gas prices?  And how difficult is it to find internet sites offering  'evidence' that the World Trade Center towers actually collapsed because of bombs placed inside the structure itself?

     Democracy is valued, among other things, because it is tolerant of many different-often even contradictory- views about what we should be doing, why we should be doing it, why it matters, and so on.  And the belief of the great John Stuart Mill and others that error will not find a solid resting place in the discussion, so long as we allow all sides to be heard and make sure that no views are suppressed makes a good deal of sense.  But error is one kind of thing; blatant stupidity is quite another.  Perhaps even industrial strength ignorance can be handled in a democracy, provided it is not valued for itself, that it allows for the possibility of its being mistaken and correctable by facts.  The still defiant 'birthers' are just one example, however, of the stupidity that is extolled as prized precisely because it cannot be refuted by fact.  No sets of facts, no matter how incontrovertible and no matter how high the sets are piled before these kinds of believers, will ever make a difference.

     This kind of stupidity is a vice, a habit of reactive behavior that is second nature to anyone who has it. To these holders of the vice, it looks like courage in the face of attack..  The principal reason why thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle had serious doubts about democracy was not the fear that democratic decisions are sometimes mistaken and in need of correction, but that the vice of stupidity would come to be seen as the real virtue, that reason and intelligence come to be seen as threats to the common good.  The American philosopher John Dewey warned us that genuine democracy absolutely requires intelligence as its most important characteristic.  It's time to read him again.

     An elderly woman friend of my mother's--let's call her 'Aunt Francesca', because in Italian families everyone you know merits a family title--once told me that she had ghosts in her house.  She could hear them making banging noises at night.

"Aunt Francesca," I respectfully suggested, "couldn't the noises simply be the radiators clanging as the furnace gets them going in this cold weather?"   She replied: "You don't understand, filio mio, that is exactly how those clever ghosts make their presence known!"