Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Another bit of Good News

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, yes, I am desperate--I am digging into in-flight magazines for my good news since I cannot find too many in such places as The New York Times, TIME, or Newsweek. But I am a firm adherent to the Seventh Day Adventist motto, "Notice the good and praise it!" So.

In a book of hers on marriage and its benefits, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (Viking, 2010), Elizabeth Gilbert outlines a view related to the nature of marriage that I find encouraging. She was impressed with a comment from the European writer Ferdinand Mount that marriage is a revolutionary act. In relation to this observation, which isn't my focus here, she has said "Put in that way, marriage starts to look less like a stuffy old institution and starts to look more like a giant social battle between the forces of good--individuals who want to follow their own hearts and choose their own spouses--and evil--the controlling instincts of repressive authorities who fear that love. Somebody who likes to think of herself as somewhat bohemian, I found that idea exciting, inspirational, and really reassuring" (American Way, January 2010, p. 58).

Think of it--the practice of individuals following their own hearts and choosing their mates is good, while arranged marriages, imposed customs and traditions (which, among other things, give rise to honor killings and such) are evil. I don't know whether Ms. Gilbert realizes this but she has a very basic point, one that in historical terms is indeed revolutionary. The rights and value of the individual have only recently become acceptable and even today they are not widely embraced but mostly scoffed at.

It has occurred to me in the past, in relation to this point, that one area where altruism is not much promoted is in psychology and psychiatry, where people are advised about how to improve their lives. It seemed clear that if a therapist spent the hour with clients or patients advising them how they ought to sacrifice their lives to others, they would soon be fired.

One needs here to consider just what altruism amounts to. As the philosopher W. G. Maclagan made clear back in the 1950s, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” As presented ordinarily, by ministers or priests or in fiction, altruism means ranking the policy of looking out for others as one's priority in life, as first on one’s list of moral duties. And of all professions the helping ones, such as psychology and psychiatry, could hardly follow this policy. Self-help books, too, would not be such good sellers if they preached altruism.

Sadly, however, when it comes to addressing the public at large, in political speeches, in punditry, from the pulpit an the like, altruism is the norm. Not that people actually practice it--they could not and also remain functional. But there is a lot of lip service being given to this ethical system despite how confusing it is. As I have quoted him before, W. H. Auden put the source of confusion best when he remarked on "the conceit of the social worker," which is (quoting the Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth) that "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." The problem is, of course, that basic ethical principles need to be generalizable, something that everyone can practice in his or her life, but altruism clearly isn't. And there is that other problem of how come other people are deserving of our care and attention above everything else but we, who are also human beings, are not. Why?

In any case, it is nice to learn, right at the beginning of a new year, that the altruistic nonsense has its skeptics even among mainstream writers. I do hope that all those who read the little interview of author Gilbert while flying about the globe on American Airlines during the month of January 2010 take away the important lesson her remark teaches.
Phony Righteousness

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last decade we have heard much talk about how the rights of those held in Guantanamo Bay must be protected since they are human beings and since the American political system regards all human beings as having basic rights, including rights to due process. Indeed, this has been a theme of the American Left, when it comes to how all those who are accused of crimes should be treated. It would seem, then, that the American Left is a principled bunch and judging by how vigorously its members denounce those in the George W. Bush administration for giving advice about the legal permissibility of presidential powers, such as have some of Mr. Bush's legal advisors, one would be justified in thinking so.

But then consider another area of public policy where the American Left cares not a whit about due process. I am talking about anthropogenic global warming. In this area mere probabilities, built upon other probabilities, issuing in weak predictions, surrounded by fishy methods and the like, seem not to be at all objectionable to the Left. Millions of people are going to be forced to change their lives, incur major costs and other burdens, but never mind; the American Left favors doing something, anything, about this hazard and so due process can be cast aside and mere suspicion is sufficient to implement burdensome and costly changes.

Why is it that enemy combatants are so important to the American Left that it advocates meticulous attention to due process when it comes to dealing with them but ordinary American citizens can be imposed upon big time, with no need for rigorous proof that what they are doing causes anybody any harm at all? Why is there this double standard afoot?

I should, I think, be forgiven for suspecting that there is some hypocrisy afoot here, indeed, hypocrisy born of anti-American ideology. Since the anthropogenic global warming theory imposes burdens on Americans who engage in business and the ordinary affairs of life, they aren't worth any concern when it comes to violating their rights! Why should those in American industries be treated with respect for due process when they are being burdened by increased taxes and other hefty commitments made in places like Kyoto and Copenhagen? They are Americans which is to say unworthy human beings, at least as far as the American or any other kind of Left would have it. But when people set out to murder Americans, plot terrorist attacks against them and so forth, it is quite OK to extend to them all the protections due a human being. You tell me if there isn't something rotten afoot in all this.

But is any of this all that new? Even back when the American Left was all up in arms about the way accused communists were being treated by, say, the House un-American Activities Committee in Congress, they had no trouble with besmirching all those who voiced some criticism of labor unions and groups that clearly had America in their crosshairs. But when it came to socking it good and hard against American businesses, imposing Draconian regulations on them merely because they might possible engage in in hazardous practices, the American Left--including the ACLU--did not stand up and speak up in defense of the rights of these men and women, no sir.

Right now, after the financial meltdown which was most likely caused in large measure by public policies that wanted to provide everyone with cheap mortgage rates, the American Left is promoting public policies of more onerous government regulation of Wall Street and the banks instead of reigning in the federal government's easy credit policies. And government regulation is a form of prior restraint, acting against people who have not be proven to have done anything wrong but merely might do so and is thus inconsistent with due process.

It is time to recognize that a great many American Leftists aren't consistently principled but invoke principles only where it helps their special agenda. The righteousness of those folks has to be seen for what it is, very lopsided, very selective. All that good stuff about respecting people's rights can be cast aside when it comes to the agenda of the Left, including anthropogenic global warming.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

On Uniting the Country

Tibor R. Machan

On January 3rd, just after Meet the Press, NBC-TV broadcast a radio address by President Obama and while I have become nearly completely pessimistic, even cynical, about expecting anything uplifting from politicians these days--I think there could be some and have been a very few--I listened to the whole message. I never quite foreclose the possibility that people will change course, improve, gain new insights, and otherwise depart from their bad habits. Yes, the governmental habit is so pervasive that this expectations does appear pollyannaish to many of my friends, still I never quite give up hope in human beings. And there were a few elements in the president's talk that I found somewhat agreeable. It was probably accidental, I admit, but even that is better than nothing.

In particular Mr. Obama called for unity among Americans in their commitment to fight terrorism and to weather hard economic times. Moreover, the call sounded like he meant for us to stand up against the bad guys of our own accord, to volunteer to do so, to come together as free men and women. Yes, it sounded like he meant for us to take care to thwart terrorist efforts with courage, tenacity, and attentiveness of our own. And to come up with ways to meet the current economic challenges as a matter of our own initiative, to figure out ways to cope and overcome.

This kind of call makes room for both, individual and special efforts, the kind that cannot easily be generalized except for one thing--all are efforts in the right direction but using possibly quite different approaches. That is quite fitting in a free country. Trust people to figure out what they need to do to get ahead instead of regimenting them to follow a one-size-fits-all method. For some this may mean saving for others spending more, as an example. For some it may mean staying around the house, for others getting out. And so forth and so on, as many ways as there are people, perhaps, just to so long as they do make the effort to solve their problems. Urging Americans this way amounts to the sort of leadership that's fitting for free men and women.

Unfortunately so many of Mr. Obama's policies are quite different in both spirit and substance from such appreciation of human diversity. In this country perhaps more than in any other, acknowledging the enormous differences among us is absolutely indispensable to forging proper public policy. The American Founders showed this by their example when they identified the public good in America as the principled adherence to and protection of every individual's basic rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Beyond this very general idea of the public good there is very little that is really good for everyone the same way, in the same measure, at the same time.

But instead of carrying on this revolutionary tradition in pursuing the public good, the country's politicians have reverted to the ways of early European monarchs who set out to determine what all their subjects must do and forced them to do it--be this in matters of religion, science, the arts, commerce or whatnot. So when it comes to health insurance, for example, Mr. Obama and his team insist that what they cook up must be followed by everyone--so much so as to make it a matter of law for everyone to purchase insurance, never mind their individual circumstances, their age, health, goals, etc. No, instead we all have to follow one vision. And this is so with other projects as well--education, environmental policy, scientific research and the rest.

It did, however, give me, at least, a bit of satisfaction to hear Mr. Obama sound as if for once he recognized that any sort of unity in this country, one that once aspired to be genuinely free, has to be voluntary, just as the beautiful music produced by a choir or orchestra or jazz band, while a result of the cooperation of many, many individuals, must come from free choice an not from orders above.

Maybe Mr. Obama will heed this part of his message, although I doubt it.