Friday, November 26, 2010

Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

It is often held, by admirers of modern science (which took off around about the 15th century) that if human beings are parts of nature, there can be no room for morality in their lives. They are then simply complicated machines working as they must, with no possibility that they can make choices, which is an essential part of morality. Science and morality are, then, often juxtaposed.

But there are several problems with this. For one, nature is bountiful in its variety; so simply because other parts of it are mostly determined to move as they must, it doesn’t follow that all parts do. Just as there are living things that swim, as well as some that fly or simply slither about, there could also be some that are dumb beasts and others that think, reason and make choices. Nothing unnatural about that at all. And once something uses higher reasoning to get on in its life, choices are just around the corner.

Also, those who insist that we are all fully determined to do as we do tend, paradoxically, to be very moralistic about insisting that this is how everyone ought to think about us. In effect they believe, “No one ought to believe that people have free will, that they can make genuine choices in their lives; they ought to be thought of as complex machines.” However, without the capacity to choose, such admonitions are meaningless. Without the capacity to choose, without free will, our thinking is also purely determined and so if we do believe in free will, we then must believe in it. Yet why then get annoyed with us for failing to heed the advice of those who deny our capacity to choose?

Not only that, innumerable scientific minded folks make moral declarations galore. Blaming and praising are part of this exercise and champions of the scientific way quite often blame and praise. They blame those who reject their imperialism about how nature behaves and they praise those who share it. They often outright denounce those who think they shouldn’t be given extensive government funding for their work.

In the recent discussions by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, the group called “the new atheists,” all kinds of blaming is in evidence when others who don’t embrace Darwinian evolution or do embrace creationism are being talked about. These people, these champions of science insist, others aren’t doing the right thing, namely, accepting Darwin as correct about how the world works. (Not even all of these scientifically minded people deny free will, by the way.)

The point I am making isn’t about whether such blaming or praising is correct but that it doesn’t square with the belief that we are all determined to be the way we are, that we all work like machines.

In more recent discussions of human choice some scientists have suggested that there might be room for it now that Newtonian physics has been superseded by contemporary, post-Heisenbergian quantum physics, the kind that leaves some room for uncertainty (at least at the subatomic level of existence) and thus might allow that not everything is fully determined to happen one and only one way. (Not that the features of quantum physics that they rely on for this necessarily support anything like human freedom of choice!) In particular the late Karl Popper and John Eccles had thought that the new physics allows for free will (presented in their book The Self and Its Brain [Springer Verlag, 1977]).

So while there is wide consensus among champions of the natural sciences about whether human beings have a moral nature--can reasonably be held responsible for the conduct they choose to embark upon--some dissidents do exist who think that, yes indeed, we are moral agents; it’s a distinguishing aspect of our nature but still quite natural. And certainly quite a few scientists and their champions act like we all did have free will, when, for instance, they blame those who refuse to accept their ideas about evolution. As already mentioned, blaming someone implies they have the freedom to choose how they think and act.

Of course, the world of human beings is filled with moral elements. Personal, social, political and international affairs are all replete with moral concerns, with how we ought to and ought not to think and act. And since this is also in evidence among scientists, it is probably the right way to think about us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dogmatism on the Left

Tibor R. Machan

As a loyal reader of books, articles and columns by members of the American intellectual left, I marvel often at just how blind these folks can be to their own dogmatism. Folks like these routinely charge those whose politics and economics they dislike with this sin, as if all those who reject Keynesian economics suffered from mindlessness instead of seriously disagreed with them. The likes of Paul Krugman do not deign to argue with their adversaries only to denounce them and label them something distasteful, such as “market fundamentalists”. (This clearly suggests that those who are convinced of the merits of free market capitalist economics couldn’t possibly have come by their view through study and reasoning but simply signed up to their “dogmas” from blind faith!)

But Krugman and others, like Mark Lilla--both of whom write regularly for The New York Review of Books, which has what its editors and contributors evidently believe the ultimately smart take on anything political and economic--are quite dogmatic themselves. This comes out when one reads them frequently and notices that they often simply assert their highly disputed positions without acknowledging that these require support, argument, evidence, etc.

Take as an example Mark Lilla’s recent contribution to a forum in TNYR where several of the favorite writers offer up their ruminations about the recent midterm elections. As a casual aside in his commentary Lilla makes this point: “The Tea Party remains a real problem for the GOP, and it will grow between now and 2012, as the party must deliver on what it promised, and knows it can’t: without serious cuts in the fastest-growing items in the federal budget--Social Security, Medicate, and defense--about which there is no social consensus, the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised, another taboo.”

That bit about how the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised” is, for Lilla & Co., a simple article of faith, in no need of argument. Never mind that there are quite a lot of serious and bright economists who disagree that raising taxes is the answer. I am no expert but even I can think of at least one reason to doubt that wisdom of raising taxes, never mind about its morality (isn’t extortion a moral problem for these people?). Haven’t the likes of Lilla ever heard of Frédéric Bastiat’s point about what is seen versus what is not seen? Or of Arthur Laffer’s point about how you can tax people only so far after which they stop producing and start spending their assets or simply abandon the market places but for the most essential, minimal involvement? Ok, maybe these points can be refuted--which I very much doubt--but surely serious commentators owe it to their readers to at least suggest how they would handle them.

Bastiat’s position suggested that often when governments take money out of people’s pockets and spend it on so called public works, they overlook the fact that they have also robbed the economy of honest versus artificial spending (spending that does not represent the genuine intentions of those whose wealth is being spent). Sure, officials of the government can easily point to the results of their public spending--all those shovel ready jobs Mr. Obama once liked to mention (but later admitted didn’t really exist); but hidden behind these are the losses of jobs from the fact that income and credit are depleted and in consequence productivity--jobs--are not much needed. The taxes have deprived people of their opportunity to spend their own wealth in favor of politicians and bureaucrats stepping in, as if the latter and not the former had superior knowledge of what sort of spending needs to be done.

In any case, my limited point here is that people like Lilla are dogmatic about their views, seeing no need to justify them, just as they accuse people in the Tea Party of being the same. Sure, being university faculty these folks are probably more articulate and erudite about rendering their positions, invoking their version of history and calling upon their famous experts in various disciplines. But in the end that is not what makes one knowledgeable about political economy. It is what Ayn Rand liked to call “argument by intimidation.” My bunch has fancier intuitions than yours! End of argument.

This way of going about the business of commenting on current affairs betrays lack of real interest in solving problems. Instead it suggests that such folks see it sufficient to rely on appearance as opposed to substance when they confront their opponents.
What’s so Bad About Exceptionalism?

Tibor R. Machan

There is nothing amiss with exceptionalism, never mind the slurs against it by the likes of NYU Law Professor Ronald Dworkin (in The New York Review of Books). To regard the United States of America as a country that’s exceptional--meaning the likes of which cannot be found, provided the reason for this is laudable--is no liability, yet some people consider it so. Let’s see what is exceptional about the US.

For one, it is has a system of laws, via its constitution, that lays out some rather firm principles according to which the citizenry is supposed to have its individual rights to life, liberty, etc., vigilantly protected. For example, this is probably the only nation in which (government) censorship is explicitly forbidden; one in which religion and government are explicitly kept apart; one in which it is against the law to force someone to testify against himself or herself (the fifth Amendment bans coercing anyone to incriminate himself or herself); one in which at least a reasonable attempt was made to protect private property rights (also in the fifth) even though this has been eroded by a repeated and perversely statist misinterpretation of the interstate commerce (Art. 1, Section 8, which mostly likely meant to regularize commerce, not have the government meddle with it constantly) and the takings clauses. And let’s not forget the fact that America has been relatively hospitable to commerce and came quite close in some periods of its existence to amounting to a fully free market, capitalist economic system. All of these were exceptional when compared to most nations around the globe and are so even today.

Moreover, the country began with a declaration that explicitly demotes the federal government from being a sovereign ruler to that of a hired servant of the citizenry. This is quite exceptional, too.

But even if one leaves aside these somewhat legalistic features of America and simply looks at the country’s history, which other country has ever had a civil war that amounted to an adjustment in its laws to conform to its initial revolutionary doctrine of everyone’s equality under the law? More generally, few societies elsewhere have nearly completely abandoned rigid social classes the way these have been in America. (Sure there are economic classes but they are always in flux and membership is never legally inherited.) Moreover, which country in the world, other than perhaps Australia, has opened its borders to so many millions who wanted to live there and absorbed the immigrants so readily as has America?

Of course, the country hasn’t existed without flaws such as its early unforgivable slavery and its vicious treatment of the natives (who, however, weren’t entirely flawless themselves). Even among early African and American blacks some engaged in the slave trade.

Exceptionalism does not mean being pure, only having a markedly better record vis-a-vis justice and liberty compared with other countries in history and around the globe.

When it used to be a struggle to land on America’s shores and millions still made the journey, the exceptionalism was nearly self-evident, for many of the reasons listed above. And hardly any intellectuals disputed this, although there have always been some detractors who wanted to demean the country precisely because of its exceptionalism. But in our time, when hundreds of thousands of European intellectuals have come here, many to take up influential positions at universities and colleges and in the media, the values to which exceptionalism had been related have gotten diluted, muddied, obscured and even denounced.

I have personally sat in the audience when a famous British philosopher, just one among many others, who had abandoned the UK for several US positions in prestigious academic institutions attacked nearly everything for which America has been taken to stand over the years and when asked how come he came here anyway, mumbled something about how it was a personal matter.

I am myself an immigrant and often express criticism toward my new country. Mostly, however, this is because of how determined so many are to throw overboard the principles that made the country exceptional, those laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. There is little question, however, that on the whole America has been exceptional--mostly in a good way but in some measure bad, as well. No one should accept the efforts of too many prominent people to deny this.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are Corporations People?

Tibor R. Machan

Much fussing is in evidence from certain circles--some heavy hitters, like Professor Ronald Dworkin--about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that protects corporations against government intervention when they make political contributions. The common complaint appears to be that corporations are not, after all, people.

When I run across this I always run through a thought experiment or two. I think of a corporation and ask myself, what am I thinking of. Do I think of buildings? Trucks? Limos? Parking lots? The plants that adorn the entry ways to the buildings where the corporation is housed?

None of the above, I conclude. It is people, that’s who. They are the ones I am thinking of, a bunch of human beings engaged in various activities, mostly in offices, sometimes in mail or conference rooms. And I think what else is familiar to me that fits this analysis? Well, universities, colleges, orchestras, choirs, sororities, fraternities, families, and the like--they are all made up of people and without the people they wouldn’t be what they are. Yet they can all act in unison, as well, as “one body,” so to speak, provided those who belong to them see eye to eye.

So then why all the fuss about the court’s ruling that acknowledges that business and other corporations are indeed people? Well, probably because many of the people who make up corporations disagree with the politics of those who deny them their humanity, the folks who keep insisting that corporations are something impersonal and heartless. One way to demean such folks is to write them off as something other than human beings--big faceless entities of some kind, yet with consciousness and the capacity to make good and bad choices and also capable of being sued in a court of law.

The bottom line seems clearly to be that those who make up a business corporation are people engaged in profit making endeavors, something that many folks around the country and the globe deem to be unseemly. In the Soviet Union these people were considered profiteers and accordingly taken to be criminals, given that the USSR was committed to the Marxist communist ideal that wealth may not be pursued by individuals but must be shared among all. Not that most Soviet citizens bought into this but the official ideology adhered to the idea.

What business corporations are, by my common sense understanding, is organizations established by a bunch of human beings for the purpose of conducting commerce and reaping economic benefits from this. The organization usually employs some managers and the like who are responsible to guide it toward economic success. If they fail, they are usually let go but if they succeed, they often get very well paid--after all, they helped a lot of people, shareholders and stockholders, to reap profits.

So what is the fuss all about? Why is a symphony orchestra accepted as comprised of human beings but not a business corporation? Well, I think maybe it is the widespread prejudice among intellectuals against wealth care. This is why public enterprises like PBS, NPR and most educational institutions are deemed by them holier than all get out but private enterprises are besmirched routinely. As if those involved in public undertakings were all morally superior, while those seeking profit must all be cads.

But as public choice theory has so well demonstrated, those standing up for the public interest are by no means without the temptation to pursue their own agendas instead of the public interest, something that hardly anyone knows enough about to actually serve conscientiously.

Let’s stop this business bashing that is, especially now, so damaging to society, what with everyone needing business to forge ahead and succeed so that we can all make a decent living from the employment their profit pursuits make possible. It is utterly bizarre that this kind of an attitude toward business corporations can be in place when those corporations are so necessary for us all to recover economic well being.

So the answer to the question about corporations being people or not is that they definitely are although they may not be the sort of people the critics admire or want to have around much of the time.