Saturday, October 21, 2006

Freedom of Religion Misunderstood

by Tibor R. Machan

One of my guilty pleasures is watching Boston Legal, a current David E. Kelley television product. Kelley created The Practice, as well as Ally McBeal, and most of what he does is intelligent and often quite funny.

In a recent episode of Boston Legal, however, one of the topics, the right to freedom of religion, got a serious mistreatment. A favorite character has started his own law firm and hired a fellow lawyer on an "at will" basis—meaning, strictly, the relationship could be terminated by either employer or employee if either of them so chose—and shortly afterwards, because the lawyer was an outspoken Scientologist, the protagonist fired the lawyer whose religious babbling in the office he couldn't stomach.

He was promptly sued—the whole show is about everyone suing everyone about nearly anything. In many of the cases on Boston Legal there is at least a semblance of accuracy vis-a-vis American law and there is, also, a strong bias in favor of the contemporary liberal agenda: anti-big business, pro-affirmative action, anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-capitalist, anti-Patriot Act, pro-environmental harassment of everyone, pro-government regulation of nearly everything under the sun (mainly under the guise of helping the downtrodden), etc., etc. Pretty typical Hollywood fare, only a bit more clever and funny rather than, say, the moroseness of nearly all the rest (e.g., West Wing).

However, in this episode there was a glaring misunderstanding of the concept of the right to freedom of religion, so much so that in trying to make the case for the protagonist's right to fire the avid Scientologist, the firm's top lawyer Alan Shore, played by James Spader, actually advocated compromising the First Amendment protection of the right to freedom of religion so as to make room for the perfectly reasonable dismissal of the scientologist. Instead of standing up for the principle of employment at will, an extension of the principle of the right of free association—which means, insisting that the protagonist could let the lawyer go with as much justice as the lawyer could leave if he wanted to—Shore argued that we are taking the principle of the right to freedom of religion too far and the law is treating religion in general too uncritically by defending everyone's right to his or her religion, period. (One item on Kelley’s agenda is to bash religion but usually indirectly!)

Apart from defending the employment at will doctrine, which was mentioned but then quickly left aside, the defense on this particular program could also have used a private property rights defense. After all, on the premises owned by the defendant, there is no freedom of religion. Just think—your work place isn't there for you to advocate your religion, politics, or any other conviction. It's there for you to do your job.

Even in my profession, university teaching, where a special doctrine of academic freedom is widely accepted, it doesn't mean one can just do anything in one's classes. No, one has to teach one's subject matter but if one writes a book or gives a special lecture, one may say nearly anything (well, provided it is not too politically incorrect!). And certainly if you visit me and start spouting views I detest, if I make you leave my home I am not violating your right to freedom of speech!

Similarly, if you own a law firm and hire an attorney, he or she may not make the premises into some personal bully pulpit. In short, the right to freedom of religion exists on one's own premises—one's own home, office, plant, farm, book, newspaper or magazine pages, etc. One may not just up and sermonize in someone else's office! If I go to a restaurant to have a meal and instead stand on my table and try to deliver a political talk or religion sermon, and then the proprietor throws me out, I have no grounds for protesting that my freedom of speech was violated. (Of course, the proprietor could permit me to make my pitch but that isn't a matter of my right but his or her choice!). Even on so called public property one's right to freedom of speech will usually conflict with the rights of some other member of the public—a version of the tragedy of the commons and one good reason to reduce the public realm to a minimum!

Sad thing is that Mr. Kelly & Co. appear to be so hostile to the free marketplace, with its firm adherence to the right to private property (as well as employment at will), that they are defenseless against irrational demands (such as wanting to keep one's job against the employer's will) ruling the day. Not even another basic right, namely, to freedom of association, can gain a good hearing at the hands of these modern liberal Hollywood types—after all, what would such a principle make of mandated affirmative action or all the anti-discrimination laws? For these folks in the marketplace all rights are subject to being abrogated by the government for various worthy social purposes.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is Asking for Consistency Extremism?

by Tibor R. Machan

In my business ethics class, someone recently brought up the issue of consistency—why is it desirable to be consistent, why are contradictions frowned upon? Maybe it is some kind of Eurocentric prejudice, all this emphasis on logic and rationality.

Certainly among the famous thinkers and writers there have been some who complained about insisting on these ideals that were hammered out in ancient Greece, mostly by the philosopher Aristotle. Herman Hesse, the poet, and the famous Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky—especially via his main character in Notes from the Underground (who may or may not be giving views with which he sympathizes)—have advanced the idea that reason and logic are restrictive. Indeed, much of contemporary multiculturalism carries that implication—all that emphasis on logic and rationality has no universal validity at all but amounts instead to virtual coercive impositions by those of one culture on those of the rest.

OK, this is a huge topic and only a bit of it can be treated here; namely, why consistency is desirable. First of all, because reality itself is governed by principles that are the basis of logic and rationality. It really is the case that one cannot both be at home and not at home at the same time, in the same respect; nor can one be both a fireman and not one, nor can something be round and not round all at once. And so with everything—the law of identity just isn't flexible. This is why a proposed scientific theory which contains a contradiction or inconsistency is dead in the water. And why self-contradictory testimony given in court completely discredits the witness.

As already noted, some have argued recently, along lines of the Underground Man, that all this stress on logic and reason is nothing more than Eurocentric prejudice, indeed a kind of wrongful cultural imperialism. Why should we adhere to views hatched in ancient Greece, by such folks as Socrates and Aristotle? Their prevalence is but a sign of their power, not of any superior virtue or wisdom. That's one of the themes of multiculturalism. All cultures are alike; none is superior or inferior to any other. That's not only a point about the ethical views being championed but even about the fundamental criterion of what makes sense and what cannot make sense.

A milder version of the multicultural thesis is that insisting on consistency in human affairs is too idealistic, certainly unrealistic. That is often said about politics, especially, where we are urged by some to be more tolerant of messiness, of murkiness, of fuzziness.

Here the problem is not only that trying to remain consistent and insisting that public officials do so as well is exactly the same as insisting on being reasonable, on staying true to the nature of reality. Another problem is that such a request confuses what is reasonable to expect with what is reasonable to insist on.

Of course human beings aren't likely to be consistent, logical, and rational all the time and in all matters. Some may well be so but most are likely to fall short. That's a bit like expecting total fitness from people, or only healthful eating practices. Such expectations are unreasonable themselves, which is why one should be wary of them.

But as far as insisting on logic and rationality, consistency and abstaining from self-contradiction, these are completely unobjectionable, indeed fully justified. We ought to strive to be consistent, logical, sensible, and rational—it is indeed our basic human responsibility to do so. Just as standards of good health should be kept in mind whenever possible, so with standards of sound thinking.

Moreover, just because it is not likely that everyone will live up to such standards, it doesn't follow that trying and urging us to do so is unreasonable. In fact, failing to try is just what produces more and more confusion, more and more incoherence and, indeed, chaos, say, in politics, marriage, child-rearing and so forth. It also gives people the excuse that there is nothing amiss when they hold contradictory ideas and promote contradictory policies. That we aren't likely to constantly live up to those standards is not a reason to abandon or especially deride them, anymore than the improbability of living a completely healthful life supports the idea that we ought to deride trying to do so.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Respect our Enemies— Why?

by Tibor R. Machan

Freeman Dyson, who is a famous physicist and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University, wrote the following lines in The New York Review of Books that are, in my view, worth reflecting upon:

"Yes, I wrote that we should respect our enemies as human beings in order to understand them. I do not tract or apologize for this statement. I would like only to add a more general statement, that our lack of respect for our enemies made it harder for us to deal with them effectively." [11/02/2006. p. 63]

OK, where to begin? Why should one respect someone as a human being? Does being a human being amount to some worthwhile achievement? No. Why then respect one merely for being human—Hitler was human, Ted Bundy was human, slaveholders were human, child molesters are human and it is pretty preposterous to consider all of them worthy of any sort of respect (although perhaps some did some few things that may be so, say, kept a clean house or treated their pets nicely). So, that part of Professor Dyson's claim is arguably false, unless, at least, it is seriously modified or amended.

Why would lack of respect imply lack of understanding? Much of the world around us deserves no respect at all, yet we can understand it pretty well. As a physicist, does Professor Dyson respect the electron or the quark? Do these inanimate, non-conscious beings go about earning our respect? Just how would that be, since they make no decisions, good or bad, worthwhile or not? Or are we to just respect anything, in which case the concept loses all of its distinctive meaning.

It looks like, then, that we could well come to understand our enemies, too, without respecting them. Of course, if "respect" amounts to nothing more than "giving something its due," including anything at all, regardless of accomplishment or merit, then, yes, by all means let's respect our enemies, as well as everything we need to understand—hurricanes, viruses, the plague, vicious crooks, and so forth. But then, once again, "respect" is being used quite idiosyncratically.

Now if "respect" is really synonymous with "understand," then the last part of Professor Dyson’s point is a tautology, an empty utterance—let's understand our enemies because if we don't, we won't understand them. No big news here.

Actually, often to understand our enemies it is imperative that we have no respect for them. Respecting them could well prejudice our understanding of them. We may be tempted to ascribe to them good qualities they do not have and by such means be tempted to misunderstand them quite seriously.

Now I am not familiar with Professor Dyson's complete philosophy and do not know whether, as a physicist, he believes in ethics, in the idea that some people are more deserving than others because of how they choose to act. It is often the case with natural scientists that they view the world as morally neutral, through and through, to the point that ethics is precluded even from an understanding of human existence. It is all just que sera, sera for them, with no personal responsibility, no freedom of will possible.

In such a case talk of respect is, of course, superfluous—at most it means being awed by the world, by all of it, by what are deemed vicious and virtuous deeds equally. But then, of course, the idea of an enemy goes by the wayside, too. At most some things may have adverse impact on some other things but there can be no enemy since all sides are simply playing out the ways of impersonal nature. Sure, the lion may be the enemy of the zebra and the zebra of the grass, but all such talk is myth, without any possibility of truth to it.

But as I said, I am not sure if that is how Professor Dyson looks at things—I suspect his ideas on such matters are complicated. So let us just stick to what he believed is worth presenting to the readers of The New York Review of Books.

And all in all those ideas, albeit put cryptically, don't amount to much that's useful or true. The implicit doctrine of tolerance that they contain—let's respect everyone, enemy and friend alike—is, I submit, more dangerous than the occasional mindless moralism some of his adversaries may evince. To tolerate the intolerable, as that famous neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse argued many moons ago with his doctrine of repressive tolerance, is not a virtue but a vice. If nothing else, Professor Dyson might acknowledge this fact as he considers the worthiness of those who disagree with him about these matters.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Society isn't Government

by Tibor R. Machan

David Brooks, The New York Times's conservative columnist, gave us a good example (in his Sunday, October 15 column) of a widespread confusion, especially among pundits, wonks, those too close to Washington. Let me quote his non sequitur for you. Presumptuously speaking for us, he states: "We don't think government can be neutral on values issues," like social libertarians do. "Nations are held together by shared beliefs. People flourish because they have been encouraged by society to adopt certain habits and behaviors. It's a chimera to believe individuals come up with solutions to moral questions alone: human beings are social creatures whose actions and views are profoundly shaped by the social fabric that binds them." OK, do you notice the problem?

Why on earth does Brooks assume that government's neutrality about values—and of course social libertarians mean personal moral values, not the character of law and public policy, which all libertarians claim ought to favor individual rights and thus aren't neutral about at all—implies that society, which is to say all those others with whom we all associate in our lives, should not encourage us "to adopt certain habits and behaviors?" Nothing like that follows from the idea that government's business is with a very narrow set of values, namely, as the American Founders put it, "to secure [our] rights."

Consider this: Social libertarians do not believe government ought to cook our meals, devise our exercise regime, select for us our careers, determine whom we date, decide how we should amuse ourselves and so forth. None of that is the job of the government in a free society. Yet these libertarians certainly don't have the utterly absurd idea that the people with whom we are close should have no say about any of this. Our friends and relatives and even colleagues and neighbors do and certainly should encourage or discourage us in how we act and in our behaviors. Society is very much part of the life of free men and women—society is where one learns to flourish, with the advice and encouragement of all those whom one respects.

What does government have to do with any of this? Why is the sheriff, who has a big enough job keeping the peace in the village, become not only the peacekeeper but also the dentist, preacher, teacher, editor, and whoever else influences our daily lives for us? By getting all entangled in what is a job for "society," which is to say for all those civilians who surround us, a very dangerous shift occurs. Instead of focusing on the difficult task of keeping the peace, and keeping it in a civilized rather than barbaric fashion—with what is called due process of law—the busybody sheriff will neglect his proper duties and employ his forcible means to try to shape our lives. That, I submit, is the road to totalitarianism and the only reason we haven't quite gone all the way there is that the social libertarian attitude is still live and kicking in much of our culture.

It won't be long, however, if the likes of Mr. Brooks get their way. Their careless equivocation between government and society is just what has fueled the totalitarian temptation throughout the world, whereby government takes over the totality of the lives of the citizenry and refuses to stick to what it could do well, namely, deploy its unique tool of physical force and its threat only where it is required—where crimes are being committed.

It is a sad thing that conservative pundits like Mr. Brooks have forgotten the main thing they are supposed to conserve in this country, namely, the principles of a free society. Once they start drifting in the direction of conservatives elsewhere around the globe—where the past that's to be conserved does not include the classical liberal or, if you will, social libertarian ideas of the American Founders (who believed in limited government)—they will steer government astray. They will, instead, encourage, in their capacity as vocal members of society, very bad actions and behaviors on the part of both government and the citizenry.
What’s the Fuss About Materialism?

Tibor R. Machan

You may recall that Osama bin Laden’s big complaint about the West and Americans in particular—resting in large part on his Islamic faith—is just how materialistic they all are. What’s that, this materialism, of which so many people are supposedly guilty and for which they may be killed with impunity? (Yes, Virginia, the animosity by Muslims toward infidels and such isn't based on US support of Israel or any such recent particulars--just check out Efraim Karsh's account, in his recent book, Islamic Imperialism [Yale, 2006].)

Before getting to the charge of materialism, it should be noted that whatever this doctrine is, assuming there are billions of us in the West who are materialists, that by no stretch of the imagination justifies terrorist attacks upon us. Nor does our supposed infidelity, whatever that is supposed to be—atheism, Christianity, refusal to convert to Islam, whatever. None of that authorizes anyone to attack us, not for a second. Sure, it may provide Muslims with a motive for trying to convert us—every religion, indeed, every point of view, inclines those who believe it to try to spread the thing but it does not entitle them to use force in the process. There is absolutely no merit in believing something because one has been forced to do so even if it is God’s greatest truth. Belief must come from free ascent, not fear, not, certainly, from mindless compliance. So, even if Islam is indeed God’s truth, the only proper way to spread it, to get nonbelievers to adhere to it, is peacefully. Anything else makes "conversion" entirely phony, artificial, and thus totally worthless even in terms of the faith itself even if the faithful and their holy book would have it otherwise.

OK, but what is this materialism of which so many millions are accused and which is given as a strong reason for unleashing brutal, merciless violence upon them?

Actually, materialism is many things. First, it is a metaphysical position that claims that everything that exists is made of nothing but matter. This is a very obscure idea, of course, since just what matter is supposed to be has always been in question. One idea is that anything that has mass is matter, or material.

A second prominent understanding of materialism is that it consists of liking and desiring stuff, of wanting more and more stuff, and stuff is whatever is made of matter.

The two senses of “materialism” are related. If the first is true and everything that exists is indeed matter, than one cannot escape being a materialist except by being terribly mistaken about what the world is like. Suppose you believe in ghosts. Now ghosts are supposed to be disembodied living things, so if everything is made of matter, there can be no ghosts and those who believe in them are flat out wrong. And wanting stuff is thought to follow from believing there is nothing but stuff in the world.

Since, however, the nature of matter is obscure, no one can be a materialist in any meaningful sense; no one can make it out what it is to be one. As to the other sense of materialism, namely, that one who is a materialist prefers to have a lot of stuff—likes to shop and accumulate various goodies and so forth—it has its own problems. That’s because there simply is no stuff people want that is, well, just stuff. Perhaps if someone simply collected a lot of raw dirt or sand or other shapeless mass, it would qualify as being interested in having stuff but there aren’t folks like that, not in the West, not in the East, nowhere.

What most of us do want is this and that—cars, houses, vases, CDs, home videos, books, chairs, paintings, gardens and the flowers and vegetables in them, and so on and so forth. If one is a collector of classic cars or of fancy watches or ancient artifacts—you name it, whatever it is that is being collected—none of this is simply stuff. What people tend to want, more or less of, is various kinds of things, most of them shaped by the human imagination, most of them created with ingenuity, most of them useful for this or that purpose. No one wants just stuff, although some may want more of something than makes sense.

In fact, there is no mere stuff lying about to want—it is all this or that, something or other. Even if one wants fancy rocks or gold or silver or petrified wood or sea shells, these are all desired mainly because of the beauty people see in them, not because they are simply stuff.

So, then, what is all this hostility toward materialism when either it doesn’t mean much or what it means is very, very benign indeed. (Consider, if one wants church artifacts, or merely admires them, even uses them for worship, these too are some kind of stuff but never just stuff, anymore than furniture or dishes or clothing amount to just stuff.)

I submit that the hatred of materialism is really something quite different from what it sounds like. It is the hatred of those who want to enjoy life by taking an active part in it, by trying to relate to all the different things that make up the world and to whatever can give people joy. This kind of anti-materialism is, indeed, hatred of life itself.

So, when people identify bin Laden and his followers as lovers of death, they are right and it is shown clearly by all their ranting against materialism, which is pretty much nothing other than the cherishing of this life we all live here on earth.