Saturday, May 29, 2010

Education: Philosophical versus Political Correctness

Tibor R. Machan

You will know what I am after here when I tell you how much I dislike it when people talk of "her majesty" or "his highness" as they talk of various pretenders to heads of countries around the globe and throughout human history. For me such terms are like ones out of fairy tales because, well, there are no kings or queens or any such thing except in myths and fabricated political regimes. In other words kings are really not what they pretend to be, namely, God's chosen leaders here on earth. As with all in-born status that places some above others not in height or even talent but in political authority--some may rule and others will be ruled--the whole monarchical idea is a lie. Yet even now one can encounter references to these pretenders, right here in the United States of America, as if these were the real McCoy! Poppycock. Was it not the American Founders who participated in the revolution that demoted, demythologized these pretenders and declared that no one is by nature the ruler of someone else?

Of course in all of history, wherever there have been human inhabitants, such pretentious ruses and the accompanying distortions of language have been ubiquitous. It is not so much that the thought of it ought to be banned by law. No ideas should be regarded as subject to censorship, which is the ultimate objective of construing certain ideas as politically incorrect. The Pope, the Reverend Moon, Father this and Sister that--all these are titles dependent on a dubious narrative. Most of them are phony offices with no rational reason for them. But the idea of them all, however debatable, has to be tolerated in a free country, even if those ideas are a threat to the freedom that's so central to such a country. Yes, then, folks ought to give them all up, just as they have given up superstitions of any sort. However, this has to happen through enlightenment, education, reflection, conversation and other peaceful means, not through government intervention. A free country defers to the market place of ideas when it comes to what ideas will be deemed worthy of embrace even if the market place doesn’t always produce sterling results. So, for example, it should not be government that chooses between creationism and Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, any more than it should be government that chooses between one or another religion or ethics.

It is another thing, however, for citizens themselves, independently of government, to consider some ideas philosophically incorrect. Just what is and what is not will, most probably, be subject to eternal disputation, especially in societies where ideas of any kind have the protection of the legal system. Even racist ideas, or anti-Semitic ones—indeed any kind of bigotry—must be given legal protection and their criticism needs to be confined to argumentation, ostracism, disputation, debate and such.

There is just one big problem with this in our time. When a country tries to combine freedom of thought and speech with government-administered education, there will be irresolvable conflict. In a system of private education competition among schools would take care of philosophical correctness. In some schools certain books will be featured in the library, in others they will not, and students and their parents will be able to select which they want to be exposed to. Biology will be taught as creationists wish or as Darwinians do. No official doctrine will be imposed, period.

But when government delivers a coercive system of "education"--actually mostly indoctrination, since no alternative is available to the bulk of us who have to pay for and use such a system--any selection of books, magazines, films shown in classes and so forth will amount to censorship of the materials not chosen. They will be deemed as having been banned--whereas in a private system selection by the administrators of some schools, library officials, or teachers will not preclude exclusion by others. It is government's nearly one-size-fits-all approach to education that stands in the way of free inquiry.

Unfortunately, in many societies people want to mix elements of liberty with elements of coercion, as if that were something trouble free—health food with some poison! It isn't--the courts will struggle forever with trying to square that circle and politicians will engage in varieties of demagoguery to gain the power over the “educational” turf.

Only by getting government out of education can that matter be made consistent with the principles of a free society and fit for human beings whose minds must forever be free to think.
Looking at Some Bright Points

Tibor R. Machan

My specialty as a columnist is political economic commentary, with a good bit of cultural observation thrown in to round things off. So what my columns focus on tend to be unwelcome news and trends, such as the widespread loss of commitment to liberty, the abandonment of natural rights jurisprudence, the virtual abolition of the legal respect for private property rights, freedom of contract, and the growth of the scope of governmental power--all those calls for more and more regulations, as if the regulators were a special omniscient and virtuous species--by leaps and bounds.

But just as people's political convictions aren't all that constitute their character, so political economic features of our world are but a fraction of what is important. I like to check things around my own premises--my family, friends, colleagues, the home in which I live and spend most of my time, the restaurants and shops and stores I frequent, so as to gain a proper perspective. (One point I have made again and again is that for a half hour of news from, say, CNN or Fox-TV or MSNBC, I usually turn to a half hour of the travel channel or science TV or some other source of mostly positive news and information. Even the history channel can cheer up a person, given how often it shows how much more miserable matters were in ancient and medieval times, on average, than today.) And on my trip back to Budapest a year ago I observed, in a follow-up column, just how much worse was much of the twentieth century for the bulk of the world than it is now.

I am, then, in full accord with the outlook of the late Julian Simon who was what is certainly optimistic about where the world is headed (and who won a bet with Paul Ehrlich, the doomsayer from Stanford University and author of The Population Bomb [1968], about how bad things are going to get in soon when Ehrlich swore the world would go to hell in a hand basket and quite incredibly is holding on to his views despite the fact that his predicted doom by the 1970s never materialized). A book that recently came out, contrarian in its way as well, is Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist (Harper, 2010). It follows in the footsteps of Simon's work, much of it conveyed in his follow-up to his The Ultimate Resource (1981), namely, The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment (1996). You want to cheer up a bit, read the Ridley book ASAP.

My reason for listing these works and reminding readers of the dismal failure of doomsday predictors like Paul Ehrlich is that I consider it one of the media's major disservices to us all that so little time is spent on good news. I suppose it is understandable, since there appears to be little profit in discussing welcome information--most people run across it all the time anyway, right around their lives, at home, work, school, the market place. Just the other day I decided for once to indulge myself and do my grocery shopping at Whole Foods and the abundance of exceptional grocery items therein just took my breath away. I have shopped in one of them near where by daughter lives in New York City but never actually bought a basket full from the place, nor sat down to have a proper little (health food) meal there, which I did this time. And when one considers the kind of grocery shopping my mother was doing back in Budapest in the 1950s and what millions of people faced in earlier times, who can doubt that things are looking up all the time, at least as far as the non-political dimensions of our lives are concerned.

Of course not all can be beneficiaries of all such welcome development. One thinks of the people of Greece who, ignoring the teaching of their great ancient thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle, forgot all about the virtue of prudence and seemed to have fully embraced the entitlement mentality that helped bring about the recent financial fiasco there and elsewhere.

Still, amidst all the irrational exuberance of the last several decades--not to mention the growing governmental habit--there has also been a great deal of useful innovation, creativity, initiative, entrepreneurship, discovery, and engineering in most areas of human concern. So it seems to me that Ridley is on the right track to chronicle what should give most of us a sense of optimism rather than doom and gloom.

And it makes sense to keep in mind that one reason doom and gloom are so evident--only one among many--is that the delivery of news from all corners of the globe happens so much more rapidly these days than it used to. Given, then, that news reporting agencies seem to believe, rightly or wrongly, that audiences want bad news, they can dish it up much faster than before. Which contributes to the misperceptions that can get anyone into a funk. But don't believed it--turn on your iPod, put in on "shuffle," and listen to your selection of wonderful music and leave the doomsayers in the dust.
Rights May Never Be In Conflict

Tibor R. Machan

If rights were no more that fancy ways of expressing preferences—in short, if morality and politics could only produce emotional expressions—there would be no doubt about the possibility of conflict between rights. Those who embrace the emotivism of the likes of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume (e.g., Michael Oakeshott, Karl Popper, and, I assume, many economists) must admit to the possibility that an assertion of a right to, e.g., private property or freedom of speech, could be in conflict with an assertion of a right to, say, political participation. That is because these asser tions are for them, in the last analysis, no more than expressions of private or collective emotional preferences.

There is, however, the alternative of the natural rights classical liberal tradition. Within its tenets, which I believe make better sense than alter natives do, a conflict of true rights claims cannot exist. It is one vital contention of this tradition that when a claim is made as to someone's having a basic right, the claim may be confirmed by reference to a correct understanding of human nature. That such an understanding is possible is itself a controversial issue. Yet it seems to me that skepticism here, as in many other cases, stems from a wholly unrealistic conception of what it takes to know something. With a conception of knowledge such that when we know something, we have the clearest, most self-consistent, and most complete conceptualization possible to date of what it is we supposedly know the problem is solved.

The natural rights position sees human nature as one category of reality that rests on our achievement of a grasp of reality. And with human nature we discover, according to this tradition, that a new aspect of reality, unlike that we are familiar with outside the human world, has come into focus, namely, morality and politics. We need to answer a question concerning ourselves, namely, "How we ought to live?" —since we haven't the programming of other living beings that will just take care of living for us, that will avoid mistakes automatically. We need, also, to answer the question "How should we organize ourselves in communities?"

In both these human spheres of concern we are dealing with reali ty and just as anywhere else—say between economics and biology—no conflict is tolerable between true claims, so in ethics and politics no such conflict is possible. The reason is metaphysical, in the last analysis, justified in Aristotle's defense of the Law of Non-Contradiction, a defense that still hasn't been adequately challenged and the challenge of which will always be self-defeating.

In particular, the natural rights classical liberal tradition identifies the rights to life, liberty and property (etc.) as basic for human community organization. These rights are not, however, basic to human life—no concern with rights arises on a desert island for Robinson Crusoe. They derive from human nature and the ethics of individualism, to whit, that each person ought to live an excellent human life, a life of freely chosen rational conduct.

From the right to life and liberty there emerges, with suitable analysis, the right to private property. It rests on two considera tions: (a) human beings require sphere of individual or personal jurisdiction, so that they may carry out their moral responsibility to choose to do the right thing; (b) the choice to acquire valued items from nature or by trade is a moral responsibility, the exercise of the virtue of prudence.

Any bona fide political system must be organized in large measure so as to protect the rights to life, liberty and, in the practical respect of both of these, the right to private property. Thus any political rights—to be free to engage in decision-making vis-à-vis political matters (Sen)—must not violate those basic rights. Political rights include the right to vote, serve in government, take part in the organization of political campaigns, etc. Practically speaking, the exercise of one's political rights may have an impact on who governs, various internal rules of government, and the organization of political processes. But there is no political right to override anyone's right to life, liberty or property. Any evidence of some community's legal system overriding these rights is ipso facto evidence of the corruption of that system from a bona fide political one into one of arbitrary (even if majority) rule.

As we judge communities across the globe, we must keep in mind that what is comparatively best is not always the best possible. Thus we can affirm the greater merits of certain political communi ties or countries despite their evident violation of basic rights. Just as in personal assault cases we can distinguish between major and minor ones, as well as those in between, we can also tell when communities rest on principles that render them entirely corrupt, those that simply are confused and messy, and those that come reasonably near to meeting the standards of basic human rights.

In an informal way we already apply this method of judging communities, even if not for all purposes. We should go much farther and apply it more strictly and substantively, including as we appraise our own country's laws.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Are Kids Altruists?

Tibor R. Machan

In The New York Times Magazine an article recently discusses whether babies have an inherent moral sense. It beings as follows: "A video featuring adorable cherubs — what’s not to like? But 'The Moral Life of Babies' addresses a heady topic: are babies inherently amoral, or can they actually distinguish right from wrong? In a laboratory at Yale University, researchers stage puppet shows in which one character does a good deed, while another does a bad deed. The babies are then asked, wordlessly, to express their preference for one character over another. It’s a video that is both thought- and smile-provoking."

I will not address whether babies have a sense of right versus wrong, only the way this matter was reportedly tested by the researchers who investigated it. Paul Bloom and his wife, Karen Wynn, of the Infant Cognitive Center at Yale University, conducted studies with babies and reached the conclusion that, indeed, babies have a moral sense. One piece of evidence supporting their conclusion was that babies tended to show a preference for people who were nice to other people and didn't much like those who weren't.

For my money this is where a big problem arises with their findings. From the fact that babies liked people who helped others, Bloom and Wynn conclude that the babies preferred altruist as opposed to selfish behavior. This is because they liked people who were helpful to others.

However, based on what they report, their conclusions does not follow--or, more precisely, another conclusion, quite different from the one they drew, could be more reasonable. If the babies liked people who were being helpful to others, this may very well be explained by reference to their preference for people who would help them in case they needed help. And that would not point to a preference for altruism, quite the contrary. The babies, maybe quite naturally, saw who among those whom they were observing would be better for them, who would prove to be to their own interest.

When people help other people and this is welcome by us, it could very well be because we realize that the help could come in handy to us. Whereas the behavior of those who show no care for others would not suggest that they would be helpful in case their assistance may become useful. So then what at first appears to be a preference for altruism is, quite possibly, a preference for egoism.

Of course throughout history it has often been assumed that human babies are indeed quite self-interested. And there seems to be ample grounds for thinking that people in general are quite self-interested. When they get up in the morning they usually first take care of themselves--wash up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, select suitable clothing to wear, etc., and so forth. They are not likely to turn to helping their neighbors with their chores instead of caring for themselves. Later, once they are done with this self-interested behavior they often do, of course, reach out to help other people.

In any case, there is much to be explored here but it is worthwhile to just take a step back and notice that what the researchers concluded is by no means the only result that could be reached from the evidence that was given in the article about the morality of babies. Moreover, it is noteworthy, also, that the research team equivocated between morality and altruism.

There are numerous moral systems, ethical positions, that have been advance throughout human history and it is simply misleading to assume that being moral must necessarily mean being altruistic. Indeed, there is something quite misanthropic about such an assumption--why would it be commendable for people to work to benefit others while neglecting themselves? Who will then take care of them? They are more likely to understand what they need and want and so attending to these matters would probably be more efficient than imposing one's idea of what others need and want on these others.

But let that go for now. What Bloom and Wynn present us in with their findings calls to mind, once again, the quip that is associated with the poet W. H. Auden, namely, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who is Free to Discriminate?

Tibor R. Machan

Everyone who is awake discriminates—it is what people do with their minds, it’s the way they know the world, more or less well. The kind of discrimination that’s objectionable is when people use irrelevant attributes of others to classify them—like their race when hiring them for jobs where race is irrelevant. The race of a CPA has no bearing on the work of a CPA, so taking it into account in the hiring or promotion process is morally wrong, a kind of professional malpractice.

In a free country such discrimination may not be forbidden however offensive it is. No more than one may ban dirty talk or filthy movies or indeed any conduct that doesn’t violate anyone’s basic rights. (A legal right not to be discriminated against doesn’t amount to the same thing. Legal rights can be granted by government, independently of anyone’s basic natural rights, even opposed to them.)

In the US, however, some features of the civil rights law have made discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, etc., illegal for most people though by no means all. A clear case in point is that customers may indulge their racial and similar irrational prejudices with complete impunity.

If racists go shopping at the local mall, there is no law against their refusing to patronize stores where Jews, blacks, women or people with obvious ethnic backgrounds happen to work. Throughout the market place anti-discrimination laws actually discriminate mainly against sellers, vendors, proprietors, employers, and so forth. If a prospective employee stay away from places of work for prejudicial reasons, there is no law against this. If racists stay away from a restaurant because it is owned or employs people against whom they harbor racial prejudice, this is not legally forbidden. You will not be able to turn in such potential customers to the EPA and get any action taken against them.
It is probably quite impossible to force such customers to stop acting on their irrational prejudice but it is also quite clear that this amounts to the unequal application of the spirit and even letter of the civil rights laws that were enacted to prohibit prejudicial conduct throughout the American economy.

Perhaps this contains an important lesson. Conduct that does not violate others’ rights may be very ill suited for governmental action. When people do violate the rights of others, this is usually evident by way of some actions that can be publicly observed—assault, battery, kidnapping, rape, murder, and so forth. But conduct that doesn’t involve such violation is not available for control. This is akin to the problem with hate crimes—how can it be verified that someone commits a violent crime out of hate?

Of course there are some measures that can be taken to counter prejudice at a certain point of its manifestation. For example, if one opens up one’s commercial establishment to all a sundry but then tries to inject criteria midway through the deal, when one notices that a potential customer is gay or black or from Bulgaria, that can be countered since the offer has already been made and to arbitrarily withdraw it can be legally actionable. Not unless the criteria, be these valid or not, are announced before the invitation has gone out to all a sundry to come and do business, may they be deployed.

Ok, but this of course has no impact on the great majority of market agents who are free to indulge their racism, sexism, ethnic prejudice and such by refusing to deal with merchants who may well have just the product or service, for the right price, they are in the market for. People who insist on using the government to make people behave well are facing a big problem with this.

But there is one avenue of recourse against the market agents who act irrationally, namely, to work very hard and vigilantly to educate them and to condemn them whenever their irrational discrimination comes to light. The trouble is that there has emerged such a heavy dependence on fixing moral failing by way of the law that such non-governmental approaches are not even explored, let alone practiced.