Friday, February 19, 2010

Is There Progress in Philosophy?

Tibor R. Machan

Often those who study the history of philosophy and compare it to the history of other, especially scientific, disciplines, complain that in philosophy no progress is made, that philosophers keep talking about the same thing in each age, that nothing ever gets resolved, etc., and so forth. (Articles on this topic are available in many forums, e.g., Todd C. Moody, "Progress in Philosophy," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23 [January 1986]:34-46) and the entry "Philosophical Progress," in the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia [at]).

Here I am taking it as true that there is no progress in philosophy, not comparably to what is evident in, say, chemistry or physics or anthropology. It appears clear that in each age most of the same philosophical issues are debated, theorized about or reflected upon as are explored in others, albeit in somewhat different terms. Thus the topic of free will may get rechristened "human agency" yet the basic problem in focus is the same--are people free to determine or cause some of what they do? Ancient, modern, and contemporary philosopher all address it, with only a few exceptions and opposite positions are defended in every age. Whether God exists, does the universe have a beginning, what is the nature of moral goodness and evil--all these issues keep getting revisited and though answers are defended, they do not seem to have lasting power but seem to need renewed support again and again.

I want to suggest a reason why this is how it is with philosophy and why that fact doesn't diminish the discipline's importance, nor its capacity to arrive at true conclusions. It isn't a very complicated explanation, actually. It is modeled somewhat loosely on individual developmental psychology. To whit, it is well recognized that teens tend to resist explicitly stated advice from elders. Arguably they do accept, at least subconsciously, leadership if it comes in the way of examples set for them by intimates. Becoming financially responsible, for example, may involve encountering one's parents' or guardians' repeated responsible conduct--if they routinely pay their bills, keep their promises, etc., so the teens can witness this without however preaching the practice at them, this is quite likely to carry influence.

One reason may be that teens are in the process of taking over the management of their lives and want to learn about this from their very own experience and practice rather than from explicit instructions. They need to know directly that they are doing what they choose to do, not merely blindly following other people's advice. Even the more complex matters of accepting their family's values, religious or political, seem to follow this process. If the teens are not being badgered about what they should believe, about the convictions that their parents want for them to embrace, they are more likely than not to follow their parents. Teens are about to assume the governance of their affairs and to do this they would naturally want to start thinking for themselves. So they, or at least the bright ones among them, are likely to resist just being told everything.

It is quite probable that human beings confront their most important and basic issues, ones treated within philosophy, similarly. A new generation will not take kindly to just accepting, without question and personal involvement, the vital ideas from past generations even if these ideas turn out to be right. It seems more likely that they will want to reconsider the basics on their own, with just some help from those who dealt with them earlier. And philosophy is where the basics are studied, examined, criticized, accepted or rejected.

Philosophy is also a discipline in which discussions are not thoroughly fraught with specialized jargon but are conducted in fairly ordinary terms. Everyone can, with a bit of effort, access these ideas, in other words, instead of submitting to the authority of experts as one would normally do in the case of most of the sciences, even when these bear directly on one's life, such as medicine, nutrition, biology, psychology, or sociology (although in some of its special areas philosophy can get quite complex and even convoluted, just as do the sciences). Thus most who have an interest in philosophy will want to and are likely to be able to explore its topics directly or through participation in the work of contemporaries, not by reading up on the topics as dealt with in the past.

This, then, places into the hands of a certain group of people in every new generation the task of revisiting the topics of the field. These would include, as already noted, "Is there a God?" "Is there free will?" "Can we know the world?" "Is it possible to be objective?" "Are principles of conduct made up or discovered?" "What exactly is justice or equality or liberty?" And so forth and so on.

No new generation will want such matters to be simply handed down from earlier ones. Sure, help from those who have addressed them will be welcome but not decisive. So there is not going to be rapid progress in the field, if any progress at all. Refinements of well travelled solutions are more likely to be the products of philosophical inquiry and reflection and, significantly, there is not going to be any "at the end of the day" about them. The day of such investigations never ends. And that is just as it must be--anything else would go contrary to human nature!
Tiger Woods Dishonored Himself

Tibor R. Machan

So Tiger Woods apologized for his "selfish behavior." Of course, what he did was to dishonor himself, his human self that is, not benefit it at all. Indeed, this allegedly selfish conduct of Mr. Woods has produced a few hours of sensual pleasure at the expense of his very own happiness at home, millions of dollars, a stellar reputation, etc., and so froth. Nothing really selfish about it, if you think it over responsibly.

Dr. Nathaniel Branden, the well known psychologist and reported father of the self-esteem movement in his discipline--he wrote The Psychology of Self-Esteem back in 1969 (Nash Publishing)--wrote a wonderful book in which this stuff about the alleged selfishness of cads like Woods is ably cleared up once and for all. The very apt title of this work is Honoring the Self (Bantam 1985). It discusses extensively and brilliantly just how the concept of the human self became debased in modern intellectual history.

Consider, for example, what the world famous ancient Greek philosopher Socrates told his pupil Crito (in his dialogue Phadeo) about the way his students could best please him--meaning live up to his ethical expectations--namely: "follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too." The reason Socrates believed that following one's self-interest is morally proper is that he held a view of the human self that included honorable attributes, traits the development of which would make for someone who is practicing the highest virtues. Human nature, for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many early thinkers--some of them those detested "dead white males"--amounted to having the potential for excellence, even greatness. While this did include generosity and liberality as praiseworthy ways to be, it was, first and foremost, a matter of being rational, of thinking about one's life and acting by the guidance of that thinking rather than haphazardly, recklessly. That's the way to living a successful human life!

It all changed with the very influential English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not to mention the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli. For these thinkers people were mostly potentially bad, power-seeking, driving by untamed passions like brutal animals in the wilds. Even the influence of Christianity enhanced a lowly view of the human self, what with the stress on original sin, on how once Adam and Eve tasted the apple of the tree of knowledge, they became sinners and we have all inherited their sin and need to be purged of it (e.g., by being baptized).

Then came, a bit later, Sigmund Freud, the notorious father of psychoanalysis for whom deep down we are all driven by a death wish and by other unsavory motives. No wonder the human self acquired a lousy reputation. How could something so constituted act for oneself and exhibit any virtues at all? By such a conception of the human self Tiger Woods and members of the Mafia and all the other vicious people are indeed selfish. They are servicing, after all, something loathsome. This modern idea breads one of the most prominent views in our time, namely, rank misanthrope, hatred for humanity, including oneself.

But is this idea right? Are people by their basic nature evil and loathsome? No. They have to become either good or evil but have no predilection toward either to start with although at first they are mostly innocent, gentle and lovable--just recall most any baby you have met! And if they are taught to acquire pleasant attributes rather than detestable ones, these babies are very likely to grow up pretty nice, if not out and out admirable.

Sadly, the dogma of the mean and nasty human self is widespread. Among other things, it aids and abets those among us who are eager to rule others, who spread the lie that it is only with their intervention that people can be made likable. (Politicians and the clergy love this idea!) In fact, however, Tiger Woods was anything but properly selfish. He caused himself immense harm, as well as those who loved or even just liked him. Shame on him.
From Health Care to Tyranny

Tibor R. Machan

Once government takes over the health care and health insurance provision system in a country, it is very easy to move on toward a regime of practically total micromanagement of the citizenry's life.

Do you remember when helmet laws began to be enacted and there were those motorcyclists who protested? Their pitch was simply, "We love to feel the wind in our faces and our hair; we associate it with freedom. Do not rob us of this feeling."

"Ah," came back the quite predictable answer, "but you are driving on public roads where government is the boss. Moreover, any mishap on public roads leads to some county hospital where the government usually picks up the bill for the medical care you receive. So don't whine to us about your freedom when we, the government, pay the bills for your indulgences."

Now since there are very few private roads and highways available to people where they might pay an extra premium to cover the risk of a traffic mishap, this argument has initial plausibility. Also, if you take seriously the connection between property ownership and responsibility, then so long as governments own the roads, they will have to be responsible for how these roads are managed, for keeping down costs, etc., etc. How then could you defend the liberty of some wild motorcyclists to abstain from taking care to be as safe as possible?

Well, once government takes over the total health care system, as the current administration would like it to--always, of course, out of a sense of public service, doing good to everyone, never out of a desire to wield power over anyone--the idea that you ought to be free to eat as you choose, to exercise or not, to dress warmly or not so warmly winter or summer--all this will no longer plausibly be something that must be up to the citizenry. Their near total dependence on government will have rendered them children of the state who need to answer to their politicians and bureaucrats on all matters that could relate to their health.

I can already see us all being herded out on various parade grounds and sports fields, like those millions of North Koreans in their blue pajamas in our day and those millions of Germans under the rule of the Third Reich or Young Pioneers under the Soviets, so that we keep as fit as we can and avoid imposing the cost of any possible health problems on the public that is footing the bill for the care and insurance. Any protests that this may well be a massive extension of governmental power over the citizenry will readily be met with the retort, "Well, but you asked for it when you accepted government's provision for your physical well being." Similar retorts are being made already to complaints about bans on smoking--"Just consider who will be paying your medical bills when smoking will have taken its toll on your health! We cannot let this be. He who pays the piper...." Well, you know the rest.

There are numerous lies involved in such retorts, starting with the one about having asked for it. Maybe some folks are asking to have their medical care be handled by government but a whole lot of them are being threatened with being pressed into such a system, like it or not. Then there is the issue of not everyone being better of by being supervised about health care and insurance matters--they are managing it just fine themselves. But the most important lie is that using public facilities like roads and highways implies having given up one's liberty.

Certainly not everyone is choosing to make use of those facilities; they were imposed on us by ancient habits of thought and practices that took it for granted that government is the sole possible provider of roads and highways. And even if it were, there was no package deal involved--"You provide the roads and highways and now you get to rule us to your heart's content!" The idea of limited government, so much a part of the American political tradition, was meant precisely to rebuff such package deals. Yes, some government, a little bit of it, but by no means total rule! This is not some benign dictatorship we have here in these United States of America, no paternalistic monarchy, no nanny state, even! Some few matters have been left to government to manage, maybe not wisely but only from the governmental habit that hasn't quite been given up. Maybe it is also a huge confusion between government as the protector of our rights and government as dictator of our way of life!

But mark my words--soon we will have more and more, even Draconian, intrusion, shortly after the health care and insurance systems have been appropriated by those people. One may well wonder, with the young Anne Frank, "I wonder how they let people like them grow so powerful?"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Sandel's Misguided Thinking

Tibor R. Machan

In 2004--not that long before he got to be a TV star on PBS-- Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University professor of political philosophy got the enviable job of presenting his views on justice via the support of PBS television to a great number of viewers, made the following observation: "Today, in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking, we are all too tempted to think of democracy in economic terms alone. That is why it is worth asking whether we are a commonwealth still. To put that question at the center of our public debate, we need to remind ourselves of the civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy."

All this sounds very kind and gentle--who, after all, could object to civic goods? Who could find anything wrong with the idea of a commonwealth? These are the marks of civilized society where instead of the rule of force, we have the rule of law. But don't be fooled. If you have listened to Professor Sandel's PBS lectures on justice you have by now realized that what the very prominently placed educator actually favors is a highly regimented society, one in which the idea of the consent of the governed is royally demeaned. Instead of choice and freedom, what Sandel champions is order and lock step pursuit of some kind of one size fits all public good that the market allegedly doesn’t sell.

It is scandalous how this man, using a good bit of taxpayer funds, gets to preach his message of collectivism and show his contempt for American values of individualism and liberty all in the middle of the country he seems to dislike and which he seems to enjoy misrepresenting in the middle of his so called educational endeavors.

Just consider the above claim that America is "in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking." If so, how come the majority of Americans elected Barack Obama their president, a man who has been quite up front in his dislike of markets and what he likes to dub the ideology of free markets, not any kind of “market-oriented thinking”? How cam Americans, on the whole, embrace public--government administered and conducted--education from the fist grade all the way to graduate school? How come their only passenger train service is provided by a government funded (and pretty much bankrupt) rail system, Amtrak? And why are they completely complacent about having a government postal service that prohibits anyone else from providing first class mail service? And how come these Americans who are "in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking" did not rise up in protest against the federal governments purchase of General Motors Corporation and bailout of banks and other enterprises that are by no stretch of the imagination market institutions?

What kind of a highly honored educator engages in this kind of rank distortion? Market-oriented thinking my foot! Most Americans, including especially the educated ones and those doing the education of America's youth, do not like the free market. (I have been in the midst of American higher education since 1965 and have found nearly uniform disdain toward the free market except by some economists who defend it mainly because they focus on which system manages to be more productive, more consumer friendly. As some Russians who came to visit American universities after the fall of the Soviet Union pointed out, there are far more Marxists and near Marxists in American higher education than there have ever been in the Soviet bloc!)

Now, of course, professor Sandel has the basic human right to be wrong about what Americans are in thrall of, a right he seems very eager to exercise. In a free society one doesn't get punished for misguided thinking except by the reality that is likely to bite one in the butt in consequence of it.

But while Sandel is free to be wrong, the rest of us don't have to sit at his feet and complacently accept his misinformation, even if it has the prestige of Harvard University and PBS television supporting it. No, we are still free to protest what Sandel is peddling. And we are also still free to point out the specious manner in which he does his peddling, namely wrapping it in the vocabulary of civility and democracy.

Let us, please, not let the man fool us. Freedom and democracy do go hand in hand--it takes freedom for the people to be involved in politics! And freedom is not divisible--you cannot have freedom of religion, speech, and thought without free markets in which books, educational equipment, buildings for churches and newspapers, printing presses, and the labor of educators are available to be purchased instead of conscripted as in the collectivist paradise—a warped commonwealth--that Sandel wishes to impose on us all.

What Sandel has convinced himself of is that he is for the good, the public good, while those who tend to favor the American political tradition are only for human liberty, almost license. But this is bunk.

There can be no human good without human liberty for doing what is good requires the freedom to choose it. Otherwise the good is being pursued at the point of a gun and not as a matter of one's own convictions, the only way it means anything.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are our "Leaders" Superior?

Tibor R. Machan

When people talk about how market agents need to be regulated because, well, without it they could do bad things, it never fails to amaze me how narrow-minded is this line of reasoning. When human beings are fit for regulation by others, they are usually children and the others are their parents or guardians. So it has to do with who is an adult, who is not. Makes sense.

But when it is about adult citizens allegedly requiring regulation by other adult citizens, it is simply baffling. It used to be, back in the really old days (and in some regions of the globe even now), that societies were segmented into separate classes, upper, middle, lower and such, but that is all nonsense. While we may not all be equal in our intelligence, beauty, health, and the like, it is pretty clear now that as far as our rights to our lives and liberties are concerned, we are indeed equal. That means no one gets to rule someone else, not any other adult, not unless there has been someone who is to be ruled has done something criminal, violated another's rights in the first place or consent has been given as we give it to our surgeon. But barring this, no one is supposed to rule anyone else. Equal liberty all around, that is the principle of a free society.

So then where does all this government regulation come from? Does our mutual equality disappear simply because a lot of people may wish to intrude on a bunch of others? Does democracy trump our mutual rights to equal liberty? How could it, when democracy itself is based on such rights--that why we all have the right to participate in public affairs, because we all have equal rights and no one is superior to another in the matter of having rights or authority. Self-rule is the name of the game, not a bigger group ruling a smaller one.

So bigger numbers do not justify greater, unequal authority. Nor does expertise. One's doctor or dentist or butcher or plumber is an expert at something one may know nothing about or only very little but that doesn't support the doctor's or dentist's or butcher's rule over others who lack their skills. They still require full consent from those they guide, their patients or customers. Consent is central to the way civilized adult people interact. You must gain another's permission to give him or her orders, to have them comply with your orders. That is the way of a free society.

But this bothers many people who think that we are all beholden to others, especially past generations, and thus we have obligations to fulfill. And it is indeed plausible to hold that many people owe much to their elders, both intimates and strangers. Surely the inventions and creations from past generations have produced enormous benefits to members of the current one and maybe this creates some obligations, duties, that the current population needs to fulfill.

What is not true is that this entitles anyone to enforce those obligations. Adult human beings must come to see that they owe something to others. That's the origin of contract law. We enter into binding agreements with others. No third party gets to determine these obligations without our consent. And certainly no one gets to force us to comply with obligations we haven't freely assumed except when we are children and cannot be expected to fend for ourselves.

Well then what about all this government regulation being imposed on innumerable professionals, regulation that a great many haven't ever been asked to accept let alone given their consent to? Notice, the government regulations are pre-emptive--those being regulated haven't done anything wrong, so they haven't deserved the regulation, the impositions, the burdens the regulators meet out. (In the criminal law no one gets to be punished or penalized unless it is shown, in line with due process, that they have done something to deserve punishment or penalties. Why not with government regulation?)

How come the regulators--or rather rulers--get to tell people what to do? Never mind that they haven't the moral authority to do this, nor some kind of special status--more naturally virtuous than the rest of us, perhaps--that would justify their intrusions into other people's lives. Never mind that they are all just as capable of making mistakes as are market agents and, indeed, more so because they have power over people which, as Lord Acton noted, tends to corrupt.

So you think free men and women are susceptible to making mistakes? Well, their rulers are far more susceptible to do so, something that is borne out by even a cursory study of human history.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

PBS & NPR, America's Pravda and Izvestia

Tibor R. Machan

It is a feature of American culture that's most upsetting though hardly anyone makes much of it at all. Indeed, I know several avid defenders of the free society who make regularly and eager appearances on National Public Radio and I have to confess that I myself have appeared on one or two Public Broadcast Service programs when allowed to make a pitch for a society that would have no such things, partly government funded TV or radio network.

When I first left Hungary, in 1953, and came to live in the West, I settled for a while in Munich where my father and stepmother worked for Radio Free Europe. This outfit was partly American government--CIA--funded, beaming programs into Eastern European, Soviet bloc countries and supposedly countering communists propaganda. But at heart the idea of the American government doing this turned out to be a paradox since what is wrong with communist countries is precisely that they place everything in society under state control, including broadcasting the news, educating the young, doing science, entertainment or athletics. That is just what is supposed to be so different between communism and capitalism; yet here was RFE doing just what the communists were doing, entrusting government with broadcasting. (I recall how eager I was at one point shortly after I came West to have the American government give massive funding to Olympic hopefuls so they would defeat Soviet athletes and show how much better American athletes can be than Soviet ones, not realizing for a good while how paradoxical this was--sports should not be the purview of government in a genuine free country.)

Yet, what we have had in America and many Western countries for decades on end is, you guessed it, virtually the same thing as they had in the Soviet Union and its colonies, namely, government run radio and TV, just like the two government published and managed "newspapers" in the USSR, Pravda and Izvestia, not to mention all their other media. Instead of showing a confidence in the institutions that emerge spontaneously in a free country, from the initiative of free men and women, Americans abandoned the principles of their system to mount a counter-offensive. Let's defeat communism by becoming, well, partly communist! What a self-defeating policy that is.

These days a good example is PBS's broadcast of Professor Michael Sandel's lectures on justice from Harvard University. Sandel is smart and erudite but at heart a propagandist for a planned society, only in degrees different from what the most earnest of the Soviets had hoped for (but, of course, couldn't bring off because of how it contradicts human nature). There is, of course, nothing objectionable about Harvard broadcasting Sandel's lectures at its own expense but there is decidedly something wrong with Sandel getting even partial government funding for his partisan lectures. He is not a teacher who gives an fair and accurate representation of different ideas of justice but someone who subtly nudges his students and audience in a particular ideological direction.

Am I exaggerating in considering Sandel a propagandist, albeit a subtle one? Well, here is how he handled Aristotle's political philosophy.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defended a fairly intrusive type of political system in which the government or state--although some dispute this interpretation--aimed at making people good. OK, this is a pretty standard rendition of Aristotle but in laying it out one needs to make note of the fact that it may well miss something vital about justice. This is that very likely no one can really make people good--that task needs to be everyone's own (other than those crucial impeded). Human goodness is arguably something every individual has to bring about for himself or herself. Otherwise it is nothing but regimentation and what we get is perhaps good behavior but clearly not morally virtuous conduct. Aristotle, probably somewhat influenced by the experience of the extreme tyranny of the city state of Sparta, accepted the idea that people can be forced to be good. This is what the classical liberal ethos has corrected about ancient political philosophy--human beings need to choose and cannot be forced to be good!

Now Sandel gave no mention of this problem with Aristotle. He made it appear (by failing to discuss the point) that whereas Aristotle had a noble concern with human goodness, the more recent tendency in (especially American libertarian) political philosophy to restrict the power of government and leave citizens to their own resources when it comes to living a morally good life was inferior to it. But it isn't. Classical liberals pay plenty of attention to human goodness but they realize it cannot be engineered! Communitarians and welfare state liberals to the contrary notwithstanding, people cannot be forced to be good! It is a distinctive element of human life that people's goodness must be their own doing not that of behavior modifiers, brain-washers or the bureaucrats.

To make it appear that this approach to politics fails to promote human goodness is a distortion. That is why I call Sandel's lectures propaganda. If they were fair-minded, by presenting this kind of critique of Aristotle and others who want to force us to be good, it would be educational. And by being put on PBS, a partly government funded TV network, the lectures come very close to resembling what the citizens of the Soviet Union and its colonies received from Pravda and Izvestia.