Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some Inconvenient—Politically Incorrect—Truths?

Tibor R. Machan

The famous Nobel Laureate, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA with the
late Francis Crick, got into hot water in the UK recently for suggesting
that blacks may have some problems with coping with the enormous
challenges faced in Africa. Yes, this suggests that many blacks may suffer
from some deficiencies, an idea that has been bandied about for two
hundred years not always out of racism but out of a certain kind of
physical anthropology. Even Karl Marx believed that those who live on
infertile land, Slavs (in Siberia) and Negroes (in Africa), would suffer
from malnutrition and other maladies and this could have an impact on
their brains, which is, after all, part of the body and the body responds
to nutrition big time.

Watson was roundly condemned and felt the need to apologize. On this
side of the Atlantic Justice Department official John K. Tanner got
roundly attacked, in particular by Senator Obama, one of the main
Democratic presidential contenders, for pointing out that “minorities
don’t become elderly the way while people do. They die first.” This, too,
is an old idea, one that had been aired often during the social security
privatization debate not long ago. It points to the very likely and
uncomfortable fact that a great many black citizens will never receive the
money they paid into social security because they do not live long enough.
The reasons are many, including the poverty that is increased for them by
way of taxing them to death, liberally in this case.

But never mind about the truth or falsity of Watson’s and Tanner’s
remarks. In a free country one is supposed to have one’s freedom of speech
vigorously protected, even when it is a prominent (partly) black
presidential contender who would want to shut someone up. Yes, if one
misrepresents official policy in an official capacity, it may not have
first amendment protection. But what if one is saying what is actually
true or at least widely believed among professionals and academics who
address an issue?

Back in the heydays of academic feminism there was a similar attack on
speech from one Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon of the University of
Michigan School of Law. She argued in her little book Only
Words—published very prominently by Harvard University Press—that
pornography is a form of assault and should not have First Amendment
protection. And there is a theory that is fairly influential that certain
types of speech involve “fighting words” and thus must be viewed
differently from normal speech that can be ignored and thus cannot
justifiably be considered injurious and therefore criminal. Never mind
that pornography assaults no one even if it may insult and denigrate
women. Speech, of course, and art can do that aplenty but given that
these are nonetheless peaceful activities, they should not be made
criminal in a free society.

One might say the same thing about the unpleasant and perhaps even
offensive findings about the death rate among black citizens and the
difficulties Africans may face because of malnutrition. More generally,
factual hypothesis advanced, especially in good faith, ought never to be
banned, nor should anyone be penalized for considering them—which is what
was so wrong about the firing of ex-Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers
when he suggested that maybe women don’t embark upon scientific careers as
much as men do because there is something about their brain that is less
suited for science or math than the brains of men. Maybe all wrong but to
consider it unacceptable in the world of academia is absurd.

There are dozens and dozens of cases of hypotheses
being advanced, considered, and eventually rejected or accepted throughout
the history of science, including the sciences that bear on human affairs.
To politicize this process is unbecoming of a free society. (Remember, by
the way, that it was the very famous and much beloved-by-liberals Supreme
Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a serious believer in

Maybe the lesson is that we are still suffering from the influence of the
kind of thinking that makes issues of values incapable of rational
consideration. This is what positivists argued in the early parts of the
20th century. So when values enter a discussion—and they do all the time
during political disputations—many people resort to ad hominems instead of
rational arguments. They charge their opponents with having the wrong
biases! But they do not see a way to showing that those biases are bad, any
more than to showing that their own are good.

Positivism, however, is dead. Values can be rationally discussed and
it is possible to conclude in favor of some and against others. So instead of
banning controversial ideas, politicians and others ought to just argue with them.
If they win, that’s to their credit. If they lose, it civilized thing is to admit it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Tragedy of Medical Commons

Tibor R. Machan

Perhaps you think that all that stuff about abuse of medical services is just bunk, an attempt to discredit Hilary and the other advocates of socialized medicine for Americans. Well, you can never be sure about the motivation of people you hardly know but I bet there are good reasons for doubting the viability, let alone the morality, of socialized medicine.

I have a good friend in Birmingham, Alabama, who is a medical doctor who does emergency room service on a regular basis and his stories confirm the fear of the tragedy of the medical commons. When people believe they are getting something for nothing, when they draw on the common pool of resources to finance their medical maladies, a great many of them will give very little thought to prudence, thrift, and cost. As my friend tells me, the emergency ward is being visited by people, many of them taking advantage of free ambulance service as well, for the slightest of problems. They come in and take up the time of doctors and nurses even though all they have wrong with them is something like a bloody nose or a sore throat. When the doctor tells them that theirs simply doesn't qualify as an emergency but for a measly $3 they could be looked at, most of them refuse to pay and leave, all the time chugging on a can of beer and smoking them good old smokes, which costs them far more than the $3 that would get them to a doctor. Week after week these kind of scene replay in the emergency ward and there is nothing that can be done about it since America's government supervised medical system, which is as near to a socialist one as one can be without actually being fully socialized, makes it all possible.

All the while these kinds of episodes are multiplying around the country, the English and Canadian systems of socialized medicine are coming under scrutiny and severe criticism for driving competent doctors away and creating fatal shortages. The trivial use of hospitals, nurses and doctors will, of course, have deadly consequences on the few but serious emergencies that do show up. The lines of patients get longer and longer by the week. The entitlement mentality has no restraint--if a service is deemed to be due someone as a matter of his or her basic right, why worry about the fact that making use of it will bankrupt the system?

I remember a good friend of mine--actually, an ex wife--once joined a commune in Oregon since some friends of hers were already there and she liked their company. Maybe she thought all those in the commune would be agreeable folks. To her dismay, however, a great many of the people turned out to be leeches, ones who simply want to get a free ride off the few who actually tried to make the experiment work. Instead of pitching in with their fair share of work, they waited for the few diligent, conscientious members of the commune to get things cleaned up, restock the pantry and so forth, while they sat about doing nothing to pitch in.

The Clinton ideology, derived as it is from Karl Marx's Utopian vision of a future communist society (via her mentor the Marxist Rabbi, Michael Lerner), fails to accept that there really are people who lack good will and commitment to flourishing in their lives. Instead, if they are given a chance by kind and gentle and gullible politicians and bureaucrats, they will sit on their butts and let others take care of them not because they are in great need or suffering impediments but because they are plain lazy and shiftless. Such a "judgmental" outlook on human life is cast to the side by the Clinton crowd, who knows why except perhaps to make sure that no one's vote is lost at election time. The price of it is a disastrous health case system that will produce fatalities for which of course no one will take the blame.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Child Care Politicized

Tibor R. Machan

Gail Collins writes for The New York Times pleading that the presidential candidates address child care as one of their main topics, that they promise us that the government will address and confront the task of child care. As she puts it, “Right now, the only parents who routinely get serious child-care assistance from the government are extremely poor mothers in welfare-to-work programs. Even for them, the waiting lists tend to be ridiculously long. In many states, once the woman actually gets a job, she loses the day care. Middle-class families get zip, even though a decent private child care program costs $12,000 a year in some parts of the country.”

Collins writes as if it were simply self evident that a proper government take over child care from parents. She never even raises the issue of why this should be the case except to say that “You need certification in this country to be a butcher, a barber or a manicurist, but only 12 states require any training to take care of children. Only three require comprehensive background checks. In Iowa, there are 591 child care programs to every one inspector. California inspects child care centers once every five years.”

One may assume, then, that Gail Collins thinks parents, too, need certification and that there should be government inspectors checking on how children are being raised. Her argument, if you can call it that, is simply that government has gotten into nearly everything else in people’s lives, so it should be involved big time in child care as well.

But this is all question-begging. Just because government messes with nearly everything, it doesn’t follow by a long shot that it ought to do so nor that it should expand its role in people’s lives. Collins is upset that when in “1971, Congress actually passed a comprehensive child care bill . . . it was vetoed by Richard Nixon.” She frets that “The next time the bill came up, members were flooded with mail accusing them of being anti-family communists who wanted to let kids sue their parents if they were forced to go to church.”

The only person she believes is addressing the issue to some rather minimal extent is, of course, Hilary Clinton. After all, Clinton wrote a book titled “It Takes a Village And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” Collins fails to mention that the claim that Clinton’s statism about raising children was inspired by a UC Berkeley educated Marxist thinker, “Rabbi” Michael Lerner, editor of the Left Wing Jewish magazine, Tikkun and that the it takes a village idea is indeed communist.

I don’t raise the point because I hope to scare people, as Collins claims must be the case with those who make the charge that Clinton’s is a communist notion. I raise it because it is a rotten idea to remove responsibility from parents for the care of their children and to transfer it to the state. It was a bad idea when first suggested in Plato’s famous dialogue, Republic, even though Socrates only advocated this policy for the supposedly ideal society—thus it was for him only a kind of model, not a practical recommendation. But it was a very dangerous notion, envisioning leaving strangers, especially politicians and bureaucrats, in charge of bringing up the young.

I lived in a country during my early years where it was taken as a given that the government is responsible to raise children, to “educate” them, care for them, to nourish them. The result was, not just there but throughout the Soviet bloc, the alienation of children from their parents, the widespread snooping by children who were taught to turn in their parents for political incorrectness, and, of course, the eventual collapse of the society.

Child rearing is a serious challenge, which is why the lesson folks like Collins and Clinton should be teaching is for people not to have children unless they are well prepared for doing so, economically, psychologically, morally, and in all the other ways required to be good parents. It is no answer to avoid this personalized approach to parenting and to bring in government which, as should be known by all, including columnists for The New York Times, is pretty bad at nearly everything it sets out to do. Never mind it isn’t its proper task in any country, let alone in America.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

America’s Lasting Principles

Tibor R. Machan

Do the principles of the Declaration of Independence have lasting significance? Are they stable and enduring—or applicable only to a given time and place? What about the principles expressed in our Constitution? Is that, as some political leaders and even jurists of our time have claimed, “a living document,” meaning, is it something malleable, flexible, to be adjusted to different historical periods?

What matters is whether such principles are fundamentally applicable to temporal yet ubiquitous human community life. Are they consistent with human nature, and do they reflect how we ought to live in each other’s company?

It is known, for example, that when studying adolescent psychology, the principles involved cover only an early stage of human life. Are the principles of the Declaration and those that underline the US Constitution principles of this kind, able to inform us only about a given historical period, maybe even only in a given geographical area? Or are they "universal" in the sense of being relevant to every known human society?

Certainly the founders thought they were in fact appealing to enduring principles. They did not make this claim casually. Only after they had studied the basic principles of human organization as articulated by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu, and as manifested in history, did they affirm what they regarded as lasting ideas and ideals.

These they regarded as derived from our basic human nature, which doesn’t change from year to year and place to place. A human individual was Aristotle's "rational animal" 2000 years ago, and this is still so today. Which is why we can still read the ancient authors—Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and the rest—with profit. All these and millions of other people—historians, poets, novelists, scientists, explorers and jurists—speak to us intelligibly across the ages. If we could resurrect them, we could sit down and have a discussion. Maybe not about the Internet, but certainly about child-raising, friendship, politics, beauty, all the elements of our shared humanity—all the values and concerns that do endure. Because human nature endures.

For example, all human beings, in all ages and places, have been creative. They invent things. The don't merely rely on what happens to be available in the environment, as do other living things. Plants and lower animals survive and flourish by following built-in directions. Much of our own physiology is also hard-wired. But most other living things don’t have to learn, don't have to figure out how things work and how they might contribute to their lives. We need to learn—and, as we well know, some people refuse to. We face alternatives, and therefore have moral responsibility for what we do.

If human beings foul things up, we know well enough that it’s often their own fault. Unlike animals, people can make bad choices— as when they judge others not by the "content of their character" but by their national or ethnic or racial background, or when they molest children, or betray their country, or engage in professional malpractice. We are able to betray the principles we ought to live by.

All this is in the nature of a creative being. What the Declaration gave eloquent voice to is that certain basic principles of community life rest on these lasting, stable, fundamental facts about our nature. Accordingly, those principles, too, are lasting, stable and fundamental within any community of human beings, recognized or not.
Today's Fundamental Philosophical Threats against the Free Society

Tibor R. Machan

Some would have it that we can have a philosophy of freedom without, well, a philosophy. In other words, they find it rather pointless to dwell on various philosophical topics, such as free will versus determinism, the problem of knowledge, what is the nature of right conduct and so forth. Instead they wish to focus on so called practical issues, such as how much prosperity or science or satisfaction is produced in a relatively free versus planned society. As if these considerations didn't have some philosophical dimensions.

Without by any means implying that philosophical issues are exclusively central to a defense of a just system of human community life, it would be of some value to see what philosophy can—indeed, needs to—contribute to such a task. Let me take a brief look at some of the most important of these.

Knowledge of what is Right
Among classical liberals there is a sizable group that would eschew the belief that human beings are able to know what is right, how they ought to act and organize their communities. Value-skepticism, we may call it, is rife among these champions of liberty. Examples include many members of the Austrian School and Chicago Schools of economics who embrace what they call value subjectivism, the view that what is right for someone to do is really something that only the person involved can say, based on his or her preferences or desires. So knowing anything about how another person ought to act is impossible because that is entirely up to that person to say.

The fact that this view tends to backfire, despite being thought to be a bulwark against tyranny and authoritarianism, does not appear to disturb too many who embrace it. How does it backfire? Well, when classical liberals proclaim that the free society, as they understand it, is what we ought to promote and accept in our legal order, they are themselves saying something about a value that supposedly applies to us all. Some, such as the late Milton Friedman, have bitten the bullet and accept that theirs is but a preference for freedom, not something they can justify for everyone. But others continue to make it appear that the free society is just and good for all human beings. But if values are subjective, how could this be defended?

Also, the late Roy Childs's point to von Mises seems still telling: if legal positivism is true, then why complain about government actions that redefine what you can do with property? Indeed, why should consumer satisfaction be the measure of efficiency? If there is no moral knowledge, then there is no basis for complaints other than ultimately one of influence and power.

So it is clearly a concern for those who champion the free society how this matter of our capacity to know what is right—not just for each of us subjectively, personally but for people as such—is resolved. That is especially so in the current era of globalization, wherein the ideals of liberty are promoted for all people around the globe, not only for special modern or “advanced” societies. After all, one of the grounds for rejecting globalization—that is, the extension of the principles of the free market to all corners of the world—is what is called cultural relativism. It’s ok to have free markets in, say, the USA or Western Europe but not in Cuba or Somalia. Indeed, this very point was being stressed at the conference on human rights in Vienna, held a few years back, by many heads of government from Asia and Africa. If one is to argue that this line is but a rationalization for maintaining oppressive regimes, one will have to show that the cultural relativist stance is misguided. And for that it is necessary to show that what is right for people to do, especially regarding the organization of their communities, can be known to us.

I will not attempt to make this case here but I do wish to indicate where I would look for the solution, namely, in a theory of truth that does not require for us to have final or timeless knowledge in order to be able to lay claim to knowing something to be so and so. From this I would then proceed to show that what economists have called subjective are, in fact, individual or agent relative but also quite objective cases of knowledge. It's analogous to the value of, say, nutrition, medicine or clothing: While there are some clear enough general principles in these areas, when it comes to applying them individual and type differences will matter, too. So while it is right to take pain killers when one hurts, how much and which kind one ought to take will be dependent on one’s own physiology. Similarly, it is right for someone to raise his or her kids to prepare them for adulthood, the specifics of how to raise them will, however, vary depending on the details of one's circumstances which are objectively real yet not at all uniform.

Free Will versus Determinism
Not unrelated to the former concern is this one about whether human beings have the capacity to make basic choices, to take the initiative in their lives, including their economic conduct. Just for starters, entrepreneurship is directly related to this issue: if we lack free will, we are not really taking any kind of initiative in our economic undertakings and the entrepreneur has done nothing different from one who lacks his or her skills and aptitudes.

More generally, one concern that brings in the free will issues is personal responsibility for how one conducts oneself. Another is whether those who invade someone’s moral space or violate their rights, may be said to be doing what they ought not to do and perhaps ought to be stopped from doing it. Here a famous philosophical slogan, coined by Immanuel Kant, comes to mind, namely, “Ought implies can.” It permeates our legal and moral thinking: if someone is deemed incapable of making a choice, holding him responsible is impossible. Thus, the insanity defense or the claim, in moral talk, that, “But I couldn't help it.” And if a Hitler or Stalin or Fidel are simply compelled by impersonal forces to act as they do, then their conduct is just a lamentable event of reality, no different from a plague, hurricane, mad dog or rained out picnic.

Some have replied to this by claiming that in the context of political theory we need no discussion of this topic because we have all we need with the idea of initiated force. If what I do involves just myself, not someone else who physically compels me to do what I do, we then have personal responsibility a plenty and any talk of free will is superfluous. The freedom or liberty that's of interest to us is of this kind: not having people behave intrusively, we might put it, but clearing the way before all to carry on unimpeded.

Trouble is that imploring people to abstain from intruding on one another is entirely pointless unless they can have a say in how they conduct themselves, unless they are the one's who determine their conduct rather than its being produced by impersonal forces. Let's recall Kant's insight, again, reinforced by Rand with her observation that at the point of a gun morality ends. What could be the meaning of “You should not invade the moral space of another,” or “You ought to respect people's rights,” or again, “You ought not to trespass,” unless people have free will? That is, unless they have it in their power to determine what they will do rather than this being determined for them by forces over which they have no control.

Indeed, all the lamentations about the persistent and often increasing power-grabbing of governments, here or abroad, are entirely beside the point unless those in government (and those they claim to represent) can make choices as to how they will conduct themselves. In other words, these will reduce to nothing more than, well, outcries of dismay, as would be damning the skies because it's raining or a virus for invading one's body. Yes, these matters are often devastating but they are not anyone’s fault that could have been avoided. From slavery to kidnapping, from rape to robbery, it would all be just bad things happening, no different from—well, the point need not be repeated.

But there is more. The issue of personal responsibility is no less important when it comes to assessing the merits of the free society. If indeed all of what we do is beyond our control, if we are powerless to do much about our lot, then imploring the poor or disadvantaged or inept or lazy to get going with self-improvement rather than promote measures that rob Peter to help Paul are also pointless. And, perhaps more importantly, any resistance to wealth—or other advantage—redistribution could be rejected on grounds that those with more are unfairly benefited. They not only sometimes but on no account could have had anything to do with their better lot. It is not only that sometimes luck favors people but that all benefits are a matter of luck, while all harms a matter of misfortune. Nobody ever deserves his or her faring better in life than do others. We are all in the same boat, so why are some at an advantage? The only public policy that would seem to be just in the light of this situation is some kind of effort to even things out. If merits is out of the question, so is being better off, if we can do something about it.

Sure, it is paradoxical to claim as does John Rawls, that we deserve none of our advantages because our very character is just a matter of forces outside of our control, so we should , therefore, proceed to even things out. After all, if nothing is under our control, neither is whether anything gets evened out or not.

Still, the first part of that story does suggest that something is amiss. People who believe we are all equally helpless can then easily make the move, well we must, therefore, do the right thing and divvy up the wealth equally among all. No one deserves to be better off! Not that this follows logically but it does have emotional appeal!

There is also a good deal of talk among classical liberals about voluntary and free actions and institutions—trade, commerce, consensual sex, drug abuse or churches, clubs, corporations, and so forth, respectively. Yet, do we even know what "voluntary" and "free" mean unless we have some way to define these terms and distinguish them from what is meant by their supposed opposites, such as “coerced,” “compelled,” and “regimented.” Moreover, none of these terms are value free, suggesting, as they seem clearly to do, that something untoward is going on when the latter situations obtain.

Or, again, why isn't the gunman's offer, "Your money or you your life?" simply acknowledging a choice someone has, instead of something insidious, called a deadly threat which ought not to be made? Further, the concept of "intervention" seems to be normative.

So the free will versus determinism issue does have bearing on whether and how we might defend the free society. If it's all a matter of que serra, serra, there is nothing to complain about.

Individualism versus Communitarianism
Are human beings, as many classical liberals hold, essentially individuals, unique and irreplaceable, or are they, akin to say bees in a hive or members of a choir, interchangeable? Is it as Karl Marx believed, namely, that “The human essence is the true collectivity of man”? Or is it rather as classical liberals, Objectivists and libertarians hold, namely, that human beings are in their very nature to be understood by reference to who not just what they are? Is it the case, in other words, that what they are is largely a matter of who they are?

Back in the early 70s, in my first book, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (Arlington House, 1974; Hamilton Books, 2007), it was to me striking that the famous Harvard behaviorist psychologist would identify the individual human being as no more than a theoretical point that is, in fact, no individual being at all, just an arbitrary point-event in an endless string of events from time immemorial to eternity.

Just how successful my attempt was to refute this might be assessed by reference to the fact that Professor Daniel Dennett, the president of the American Philosophical Association in 2001, gave a presidential address in which he contended that none of us exist as individuals and that, as a result, none of us can claim authorship to anything at all. Even his own talk could not be construed as being his own doing—it's, as Skinner had argued, but an arbitrary point in a river of events proceeding through time.

Here, too, classical liberals have, I am convinced, a philosophical topic to address. Is individuality vital to our humanity or is it, like Marxists, neo-Marxists and many communitarians claim, an invention that serves the class interests of the bourgeoisie? Are we, rather, specie-beings whose very identity is a matter of “belonging” to communities, as Charles Taylor argues in his famous critique of classical liberal social thought, “Atomism”?

What if anything hinges on this? To start with, however much the free market may facilitate prosperity, knowledge, the arts or whatever, if somehow it is suited to a being other than ourselves, by accommodating our non-existent individuality—through its capacity to accommodate enormously diverse groups of individuals, with all their variety of needs and wants—it can be criticized for being bad for us. Even such famous arguments as that offered by von Mises and his students, namely, that there is a calculation problem with planned and even regulated economies, and the somewhat related one that such systems fall pray to the tragedy of the commons, rely on the truth of individualism. Who cares, as Professor Mishan has noted, that some arbitrary set of preferences by diverse individuals isn't being satisfied by central planners if what they aim for is, in fact, the uniformitization of human community life (illustrated so nicely by the Communist Chinese mass rallies in which all the people wear blue pajamas)? As Mishan notes, the Mises-Hayek critique

"...would be more compelling ... if the declared aim of [e.g.] a Communist regime were that of simulating the free market in order to produce much the same assortment of goods. We should bear in mind, however, that the economic objectives of a Communist government include that of deliberately reducing the amounts of consumer goods which would have been produced in a market economy so as to release resources for a more rapid build-up of basic industries." [My emphasis]

The Mishan critique rests on the recognition that what matters to von Mises & Co., albeit inexplicitly, is that markets serve up a great diversity of assorted goods to suite the varied needs and interests of human individuals. Socialists and communist regimes, however, do not recognize human individuality as central to human life. Their version of a productive economy is to serve human beings qua members of what Marx called in his posthumously published book, Grundrisse, “an organic whole (or body).”

Last Reflections
As we see, several famous philosophical issues, in the last case the exact nature of human beings, emerge to confront the champion of the free society. And there are others—some of the perhaps with a theological dimension, such as whether human beings possess original sin, what is the precise nature of human evil and what can community life do about it, is evil to be dealt with politically, and so forth—but for now my aim has been to suggest that there really is something that philosophy as such can contribute to the struggle for the free society. I am a pluralist, one who holds that there are many disciplines needed to get at the broadest, widest accessible and possible understanding of human life. Economics, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, psychology, sociology or any other single field isn't going to do it for us. This, indeed, is just another aspect of the division of labor resting, in this instance, not only considerations of efficiency but on those of the nature of reality itself, metaphysics and ontology.

Contrary to what some friends of liberty hold, there is no one Archimedean point from which we can begin and gain a full understanding of the world, including human affairs. The more we encourage within our scholarly community a diversified approach, the better the chance of getting it right and explaining it to those whose support we need to advance the cause of bone fide human liberation.

Let me add a point in conclusion here about something many people not only outside but also within the discipline of philosophy find annoying about the field. This is that there seems to be no progress made in it, that all the topics keep reoccurring, in every era or generation. So, the critics ask, “What's the use of this kind of inquiry anyway? It's making no advances at all in how we understand the world.”

Yet philosophy is probably just the sort of inquiry in which progress isn't the goal, but basic understanding, something each generation of human beings would need to gain for itself, not simply inherit from the past. In this regard human beings are akin to adolescents: they want to do it on their own, at least when it comes to answering the most basic questions.

This does not mean there are no good or even best answers to the questions being asked, only that once we get a hold of them we cannot expect things to just settle down, with no more work facing us. Yesterday's perfectly good answers will need to be rediscovered by the new crop of inquiring minds!

Thus philosophy may seem to be spinning its wheels but is in fact often embarking on its proper task, which is to get a justified, sensible, rational understanding of the world for each new generation of inquirers. This suggests, rather strongly, that those who have confidence in the comparative merits of the free society, will always have some philosophical work awaiting them, in every generation. That, in part, is the meaning of the famous slogan, coined initially by Wendell Phillips, namely, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Ethics, East and West

Tibor R. Machan

My title may suggest a sharp difference between East and West and that would be inaccurate. After all, we are all human beings, even though some of us grew up with different ideas from the others and over time these ideas may have divided us throughout the world, though by no means permanently or irrevocably. So, even though there are certain differences between the way ethics is understood in the Arab world by Islamists—especially by those embracing radical Islam—it doesn't mean that this is something frozen or cast in stone.
So although I will point out certain differences between how ethics is viewed in the West and the Middle East, this should not be understood as saying that these differences are impossible to overcome. For example, when not long ago someone suggested that people in Iraq are not ready for democracy, Condoleezza Rice responded that this is wrong; she insisted that they are as ready as anyone can be. Well, both sides are correct but in different respects. Many who live in the Middle East are not ready for democracy—or more precisely, the limited constitutional democratic type of political system professed by many in the West—in the sense that their thinking does not usually conform to the ideals and assumptions of a democratic society. But Condoleezza Rice is also correct because they are capable of changing their minds and with enough teaching and enough attention to the facts that need to be considered, they could very well change and become more sympathetic towards the democratic way of life.
Here, however, the focus will be on ethics, the area of concern human beings have about how they ought to act, the principles of good human conduct. A central point about how ethics is understood in the West—both as part of most theological as well as philosophical traditions—is that we tend to believe that in order to do the right thing one must do it voluntarily or choose to do it. No one can gain moral credit for telling the truth because someone holds a gun to one’s head and orders one to speak truthfully. Generally, one cannot gain moral credit if one acts justly, generously, productively, industriously, prudently, or courageously because one is being forced to do so. Thus, one sign of children becoming more mature and becoming closer to adulthood is that they become more and more responsible for their conduct.
Generally, throughout Western civilization most of the ways that ethics has been understood include the assumption that an ethical life presupposes that human beings can make choices and that their morally right as well as morally wrong conduct is a matter of their own free will. Acting morally right or wrong is not something people do instinctively, nor something that they are forced to do by others. It is, rather, up to them to choose to do so. There are intimation of this view in Aristotle, not to mention St. Augustine and Immanuel Kant. But it needs to be made clear that saying this does not mean that what is ethically right and wrong is up to us. No, only acting ethically or morally is up to us. However complicated, what is the right thing to do is not a matter of personal preference or choice.
The reason why most Western political theories and systems, however mixed and inconsistent they may be, tend to be anti-authoritarian and anti-totalitarian is that they recognize that such an approach to dealing with human beings politically ignores people’s moral agency and is, thus, in violation of their basic human nature and inalienable rights that derive from it. Human nature involves, in a significant measure, that some very significant portion of what people do is a matter of their own initiative or free will. This is also one of the reasons that we find ourselves so different from all other animals we know of (which doesn't necessarily mean that some couldn’t arise that will surprise us)—to the best of our knowledge all other animals operate instinctively. They are hard wired and thus behave without having to choose, to think up what they will do before they do it. Even as a cheetah “decides” when to pounce on its pray, it does so guided by instinct.
In contrast to this, human beings have to learn what to do, including what is right versus wrong. It's not built into them. If it only were, we would have very few problems since everybody would be doing the right thing automatically just the same way as birds fly south and forage about and make nests automatically. No one needs to teach them in classrooms in books but their elders inculcate them as a matter of routine or instinct. No on needs to reprimand them if they don't get things right because it's all in their genetic make-up.
Whereas, there are a lot of things fixed in our genes but what is morally right versus wrong doesn't happen to be amongst them. Right and wrong is something we learn from our parents, teachers, novelists, movie makers and sitcoms (I'm unhappy to say). Most adults around us think about these matters, exemplify them in literature, poetry, musicals, movies, and so on, for better or worse. This is how we come to become aware of what is the right thing to do and what is not the right thing to do, and in this respect freedom, including political freedom, is at present a distinctive part of the Western way of life.
In the Bible, for instance, from the very beginning of Adam’s and Eve's human lives what distinguishes them from their prior life when they were effectively mere animals is that they eat from the tree of knowledge and thus become capable of sinning because they have the capacity to do either what is morally right or morally wrong of the own free will. Aristotle, writing much earlier, already noted that the moral virtues are a matter of choice.
Unfortunately, however, this idea is by no means universal. In many places throughout the world—including in some circles in the West—it is believed that good conduct can be regimented, commandeered, or forcibly imposed on people and that their freedom is of no great significance when it comes to whether they are good or bad, act properly or improperly. So, to take a somewhat mild case, it doesn't matter very much whether women in Iran wear the veil as a matter of free choice or because the clergy and government require it. As long as women behave as is deemed to be proper, that's all that counts.
So there's a fundamental difference between how ethical ideals are understood in many of the Arab nations versus how they are understood in the West. That fundamental difference isn't mostly about what is believed to be right versus wrong conduct—although, of course, there are many difference between, roughly, the West and the East on that front as well. But on that issue there is plenty of disagreement in the West as well. Not everybody has the same idea of right and wrong. There is one thing that most Western ethical teachers and practitioners believe, namely, that whatever is the right thing for someone to do, the only way that one can be blamed or praised is if one’s choice is involved. If a person’s choice is not involved, he or she can not be blamed or praised.
Look also at the criminal law, which is largely based on people’s moral convictions. It is crucial that most defense attorneys are dying to find someway to prove that their clients couldn't help doing the wrong thing because if they really couldn't help it, then they're not blameworthy or culpable for what they did. So, this, too, illustrates that in much of western civilization human beings are viewed in such a way that right and wrong conduct must be a matter of their choice. Otherwise, we see them as something less than human—as invalids, as deficient or incapacitated, and so they aren’t deemed deserving of punishment. Maybe they become subject to therapy or placed into mental hospitals. The point is that they're no longer dealt with their full human dignity—the capacity for choice—in tact.
In contrast, in many other parts of the world and especially the parts with which right now we're geopolitically most engaged, this is not the case. That is one—though not the only—reason that there's so much hostility towards the West and, especially, towards America. American culture does have as one of its ideals, albeit often violated in practice, that morality may not—even cannot—be legislated or force upon people. That is why we have the concept of a victimless crime. Because there can be something that is wrongful but if it does not violate someone’s rights the law should not interfere since interference would rob people of the liberty to make their own choices between doing the right or wrong thing.
Obviously there are serious disagreements, for example, among conservatives, libertarians, and liberals on just how much liberty people ought to have about how they conduct themselves in areas where they do not interfere with others but in the main there is a Western tradition, especially in America, that wrongful conduct has to be chosen before it can be punished and that some wrongful conduct may not be legislated, may not be controlled. The bottom line is that it has to be up to the individual whether he or she does the right thing or the wrong thing. Instead of somebody holding a gun to one’s head or threaten to imprison one, ethical conduct needs to be left to individuals and may not be enforced.
Most of us recognize that as someone becomes a grown-up, adult, mature human being, he or she is gradually accorded greater and greater responsibility for choosing between right and wrong and is supposed to choose on the basis of the merits of the action and not on the basis of fear or adverse repercussions from others. This is something most parents try to teach their children. They hope that they will become aware of what is right and wrong independently of a mere fear or of sanctions. They work to bring about in their children a recognition that something is right and that it is to be done for that reason not because somebody is standing there threatening them if they don't.
Of course, this notion of personal responsibility has unavoidable risks. Quite a few people will not live up to the expectation of choosing to act properly, ethically, morally. So a free or approximately free society is marred with the distinct possibility of moral decadence—excessive gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drug abuse, and even much worse, such as irrational violence. That is because we don't believe that the government should be a totalitarian organization that has any authority to micromanage our lives. So there is never any guarantee that such an approximately free society is always going to be squeaky clean, morally perfect, no. But what can be attested to is that in a free country when people are good, they are good of their own accord. Whether they will be good or not is up to the people themselves—up to others, including the government. Virtuous conduct is not something that can be imposed on us. (Aristotle is sometimes invoked as a critic of this idea. But he may only have argued that educating the young to be virtuous will involve some measure of force and pressure from family and friends.)
Cultural guardians in regimented—paternalistic, authoritarian, or totalitarian—counties often find this extremely upsetting because they consider the kind of freedom that ascribes to individuals personal responsibility—in other words, one that leaves it up to ordinary folks whether they do the right thing or the wrong—offensive to goodness. They want goodness to be totally protected, enforced, and guarded against even the possibility of failure. They do not accept as most people in the West do that what it comes to the human good, it has to be a matter of choice, otherwise it is worthless.
And so, when many from such cultures look at America and see that there it is mostly left up to individuals whether they choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing, they consider that offensive and degrading. Many in the West, however, are extremely proud of the idea. They are proud of it because most recognize that their outlook is more in accord with human nature, which is characterized by the freedom to do the right thing or the wrong thing and that it must be up to them whether they do one or the other. They see this is central to our moral nature or agency.
This point is made quite clear in various parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights since when one has a right, for example, to liberty, it means that other people may not intrude. When one has the right to one’s life, that means that others may not govern one—individuals are sovereign and get to govern their own lives, while others get to govern theirs. As Abraham Lincoln noted, “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”
Such a conviction stands four square against the kind of culture in which leaders would impose on everyone full compliance with what is deemed to be standards of right conduct. Anybody who believes that sort of imposition is the way to govern a society will obviously regard America as indeed a most guilty society, a most morally depraved civilization, for respecting the right of individuals to choose whether they would do the right or wrong thing.
It is crucial to realize that this isn’t an issue about whether the standards are objective versus subjective or absolute versus relative. In the Western tradition of philosophical and theological ethics there is considerable support for objective or absolute standards of right versus wrong. And this is accompanied by a parallel tradition that to do the right thing is something one must choose to do, otherwise one isn’t really one’s doing of the right thing at all. Of course, there are other traditions in the great variety of Western ideas on ethics and morality.
Not everybody even in the West embraces the idea that morality must not be forced on people. There are many organizations, churches, institutions that would just as soon impose upon us all, whether we like it or not, certain standards of conduct. Authoritarianism, the “totalitarian temptation,” is global and isn’t confined to Iran, Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else. In fact, it is right here in the midst of us. There are many people who are terribly impatient when something goes wrong, and immediately ask for laws or public policy so as to remedy matters.
In the last analysis it's only the individual’s commitment or resolve that prevents him or her from acting immorally, viciously. There is no formula that one can create that’s going to make people good. Just look at societies that have tried to do that, such as Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Russia. And in less Draconian ways, look at all the monarchies throughout history in which the royal house had been deemed the “keeper of the realm” and taken to be assigned the job of making the society good, to be “the keeper of the realm.”
All such systems tend to go aground because they violate a fundamental fact of human nature, namely, that a human being has free will and is neither a robot nor an animal driven by instincts. To ignore this fact in a society’s laws and public policies, and various institutions is going to bring a society to ruin. And nowhere is this being tried more aggressively in our time than in the Middle East. One reason is the oil that enables most of the countries there to carry on without much human creativity and productivity. If the oil had not been discovered and developed by entrepreneurial effort in the East, the people there wouldn't have anything much prosperity. Their current systems do not encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
Also, in most of those societies people tend to be tribal in the way they think about themselves. That is why so many killings of innocent people can occur. Most of us in the Western tradition tend to have the view that only those may be punished for a crime who have perpetrated it. No one may be held guilty for a wrongdoing who didn’t choose to perpetrated it—not their sisters, brothers, parents, or friends.
But this idea, again, is far from universal. It's not a global conviction. That is very much a part of the Western and, especially American, legal tradition of due process of law. The law may not act against people who are simply near the guilty. One must only go after those who are actually guilty, so that if the authorities can't catch the guilty then one must give up. No one may be substituted and punished for the guilty.
This general principle of the law does not bother too many people who send suicide bombers to blow up a bunch of school children or fly panes into skyscrapers. Why? Because for many of those people, especially the leaders, if you disapprove of an entire country, like America or Israel, you may hurt and kill any citizen there since they are taken to be one tribe, a collective entity.
By the Western legal tradition, however, maybe America or Israel doesn't always have the best policies but no one may kill American or Israeli babies or civilians in retaliation. That is what in much of the West is called prejudice and is seen to encourage a lynch mob mentality whereby people are hanged merely because they belong to a group the angry mob hates. According to such tribal thinking one may, even ought to, kill anybody from the West because that hurts “the West.” Osama bin Laden has spent some of his time on his videos laying out this position quite explicitly.
But the idea tends to be seen as rank absurdity by most Westerners because their traditions tend to be individualistic. Most don't accept the collectivist notion that has treated entire societies as if all members were guilty for the deeds of a few amongst them.
In conclusion, the fundamental difference between at least those on the East on whom we are now very much focused and ourselves is that we tend—in the main though by no means universally—to view individuals as responsible for their conduct and capable of choosing between right and wrong and their moral life would be demolished if we forced them to do even what is really, actually morality right. Once one is an adult, one’s moral or immoral conduct is one’s responsibility, not anyone else's. And this assumes that every intact human being must be free to choose.
Other societies, especially the ones that I've focused upon, don't have this conviction widely enough embraced throughout their culture and through their legal and political tradition. That in part explains our major differences between the dominant ethical outlook in the West and much of the Middle East.