Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Pleasures of Humiliation?

Tibor R. Machan

Call me old fashioned, and in some matters I proudly am, but for me entertainment needs to contain a solid dose of enjoyment. So when I select my movies or TV fare, I usually check whether I will be enjoying what I am about to encounter. Of course, sometimes I want to experience tragedy, information, complexity, and other ingredients in what I chose for my entertainment but even then some upbeat stuff must be a feature of it.

I have only very few contemporary television programs I choose to watch -- mostly some science and wilderness shows (the latter usually with the sound muted so I don’t have to hear the lopsided pleadings of environmentalists while I get the benefits of learning about and witnessing the Russian or Alaskan wilderness). Then there are some news programs I watch almost regularly, although if they are too lopsided in their viewpoint, like Bill O'Reilly or Fareed Zakaria, I will quickly, after watching for just several minutes, delete them from my list of recorded shows.

As far as entertainment is concerned, there are again only a few offerings I find pleasurable. One is White Collar, another Burnt Notice (most of the time, especially when Michael’s mother, played by Sharon Gless, who’s a consummate guilt warrior, is absent). Mostly I stick to reruns of Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Rockford Files, or Maverick. I did enjoy Boston Legal, even though the political and public policy values guiding it, apart from the respectable bits of the rule of law, were often despicable -- corporation and profit bashing were running themes.

I usually check out new shows, once or twice, and that’s what I did with the recently begun Suits. So far it has proved to be a disappointment for me, mostly because the two initial shows contained orgies of humiliation among the characters as the primary means of entertainment, of the fun being offered up viewers. Yes, the repartee has been bright and fast but mostly at someone’s expense. Indeed, the most likable character, the one with the brains and with solid work habits and ethics, is constantly subjected to one-upmanship by other characters who are cads and usually play his administrative superiors. And those, then, are also subjected to humiliation by their superiors, and on and on and on. I suspect that somewhere down the line most of these arseholes will get their comeuppance but in the meantime viewers must endure this ongoing torture by the nitwits of their betters. It is like those violent programs, including movies, in which a great deal of brutality is depicted, relentlessly, before finally the perpetrators get what’s coming to them.

I am just not one who finds such cruelty, whether psychological or physical, enjoyable. Some of this may well have to do with me personally, since I have experienced a fairly hefty dosage of both early in my life. And, yes, entertainment is, to a significant extent, personal, maybe even subjective -- although that is a misleading characterization of playing to people’s idiosyncrasies. But in fact I am quite baffled when I find that someone I respect and like finds programs enjoyable in which such devices are routinely deployed. In Suits -- and the two installments I’ve seen may not be representative of what’s coming -- not only is humiliation a constant among the players but there is little of substance beyond it. Boston Legal, even when morally obtuse, had at least the steady dosage of fictional law to keep one’s interest. While most television fiction, as well as movies, dwell too much on relationship issues, at the expense of seeing anyone doing any kind of creative, productive work, the legal fictions tend to have some substance, too. But in the two episodes of Suits there was nothing much to demonstrate the competence of any of the characters. Mostly it was all about mutual and nasty manipulation, with very few admirable attributes on display.

By the way, I am an avid reader of novels, especially WW II spy stories by, among others, Philip Kerr, and also of legal thrillers (when they get to the attempt to solve crimes, resolve disputes in court, etc.), as well as a few plain old whodunits. (I am a fan of Henning Mankell, despite his naive politics. And I am a great fan of Daniel Silva and Alan Furst.) But I also readily put down a novel even if I have reach the halfway point if something annoying starts to dominate it.

The cynicism and misanthropy of the two installments of Suits that I have seen are for me very unpleasant. Still, on the advice of family and friends, I will give the show one or two more chances. Yet time is precious when one gets old and so I think I may be looking for some more reruns, like Barney Miller, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Morality, the Professions and Politicians

Tibor R. Machan

While I see strong merits to an ultraminimal government idea, whereby the state has no other function than to protect the rights of the citizens from criminals and foreign aggressors, I do not share the view that politicians are necessarily corrupt. Sure, a welfare state attracts the kind of politicians who see little wrong with taking from some people to make available for others, including themselves, when they feel it is important enough. This is no different from how vice squad work attracts moralizing or puritanical police officers rather than ones who believe that victimless crimes should not exist and police should stick to guarding the peace -- they used to be called “peace officers.”

Any corrupted profession is likely to be a Haven for people who yield to various temptations to do wrong because they can now do it with legal approval. The Nazi doctors who experimented on innocent victims were certainly that segment of the medical profession that had already gone bad. And going bad in this way is a subtle, psychologically complex process, beginning with the person convincing himself, first of all, that the policy being followed is acceptable, even necessary. So most of these people are quite sincere!

How does one encourage genuine ethics in the various professions? First, the profession must itself be morally upright -- Murder, Inc., certainly isn't going to be manned by saints. So if a profession already embodies some measure of evil, it's going to be tough to ask of its members to behave themselves. Politicians in a system which legalizes theft are not likely to resist the temptation to steal! Medical or legal professionals whose prestigious associations support monopolies will probably lean in the direction of some immoral practices, ones that reflect the organization's policies.

Yet apart from all this, much else is wrong with current thinking about professional ethics. For one, the prominent moral teachings of our time are confusing, indeed. Perhaps the best statement of this fact came from Adam Smith, who is known mostly as the founder of scientific economics but was in his own eyes and by his university appointments actually a moral philosopher. Here, in a someone lengthy passage, is the gist of our problem with contemporary thinking on morality: "...In the ancient philosophy, the perfection of virtue was represented as necessarily productive to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life. In the modern philosophy, it was frequently represented as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life, and heaven was to be earned by penance and mortification, not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man. By far the most important of all the different branches of philosophy became in this manner by far the most corrupted" (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations [New York: Random House, 1937], p. 726.)

Smith got it right: moral teaching for the last several centuries has been mostly of the self-sacrificial variety: those who care to live well aren't morally worthy, those who care to make others live well are, period. One reason for this is that much of theology and even some social science claims that people are innately selfish, so why bother teaching them how they need to care for themselves, how to be prudent, how to do well at living? Isn't that hard wired into everyone?

Actually, no it is not. But another thing that suggests that unselfishness is the height of ethics is that professionals do often take an oath to help others who seek them out. But they do this mainly because they find the profession rewarding to themselves. Indeed, nearly all parents urge their children, and teachers their students, to find a line of work that is self-fulfilling instead of a constant drudgery or chore.

But the ethics most widely championed tells us mainly that it's good only if it hurts. Not that simply self-indulgent conduct is ethical, no. If one lives by following his or her desires, nothing else, this can neither promote one's life or that of other people. It is senseless, helter-skelter. But it is the business of ethics to guide one to the true, actual, serious enhancement of oneself as a human being.

If one understands that the human being has a self that can flourish only by being alert to the world, including other people, a self-enhancing moral code will leave plenty of room for generosity, kindness, compassion, without being self-sacrificing, self-denying.

It is especially pointless to talk about business ethics, for example, if all one means is that people in business should give up trying to succeed in order to be ethical. That simply means business people will disregard ethics altogether. And disaster waits along such a route.

If, however, it is clear that business -- or education, art, science, medicine, etc. -- is a professional calling that requires success within certain limits, just as, indeed, all life does, ethical business can make clear sense. It will not include, for example, trying to profit from deeds that are unethical, since profit itself will have to be understood as meaning prosperity that is productive, not destructive.

Unless moral education changes toward teaching folks to be ethical because that is how happiness is achieved in life, many folks will indeed try to avoid doing the right thing. If you think that cheating, lying, stealing, and so forth are the road to happiness, while honesty, justice, prudence, generosity and the like make you a looser in life, it is not surprising that you will often choose to do the wrong thing.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. Ethics is a discipline that's supposed to help us live, to flourish. Even when we are generous or charitable toward other people, such policies are supposed to enrich our own lives in the process. The virtuous life is suppose to be something beneficial to those who live it.

Once morality is recognized as life enhancing, it is not going to be very difficult to champion it among our professionals, including politicians. A culture that makes morality constantly painful, however, cannot very well expect morality to be well received.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Times’ kudos to European Petty Tyrants

Tibor R. Machan

In The New York Times of Monday, June 27th, an editorial heaps compliments upon the bureaucrats of many European cities who have imposed innumerable obstacles to their fellow citizens who want to use the automobile for transportation. This piece of cheer-leading in support of these would be tyrants is an embarrassment in a country that’s about to celebrate its becoming independent of precisely such meddling European governments.

First of all, "cities" are people. They aren’t some kind of supreme consciousness sitting atop the inert bodies made up of the rest, the serfs. So in fact the story should have begun as follows: “Some people in Europe want other people not to drive.”

OK, but then so what? Why are these people privileged with power to have their desires imposed on their fellows? (Why not have an editorial about that very important issue?) "Cities" aren't some holy persons who know best and who are all virtuous. Cities--meaning the people who rule them--can be tyrannical as all get out. And too many people in Europe's cities are guilty of just this one-size-fits-all rule about driving. I say break it up, let folks discover their own best form of transportation.

So, you may say, but the roads are public spheres and require making all conform to a set of one-size-fits-all rules, isn’t that the truth? No, it isn’t As with everything else, a principled approach to governing, including governing cities, requires finding out and implementing policies that do not do violence to the principles involved. One may need to get to the grocery store quickly but it is not an option to trespass on the properties of one’s neighbors. One may wish to have a constant companion but it is not an option to enslave some unwilling “partner.” One may wish to spend more on amenities but it isn’t an option to go into endless debt so one is able to do it, nor to rob one’s neighbors so as to build up one’s resources.

Of course, the people who rule cities in Europe and elsewhere, including sadly in the United States of American which is supposed to be the leader of the free world, are eager to forget all this and make the cities their own personal domain where they can impose policies that they prefer, never mind the rest of the citizenry. They have that typical governmental hubris of believing that their preferences trump those of everyone else.

It is perhaps time for prominent advocacy journalists such as the editors of The New York Times to affirm the principles of the American Declaration of Independence and promote liberty instead of all the bits and pieces of tyranny that pleases the meddling bureaucrats around the globe. How about teaching them a thing or two about why freedom matters, including the freedom to make use of whatever transportation one can afford? And if this doesn’t appear feasible at this point, why not investigate the option of, say, private roads (one that has been laid out by several scholars, such as Professor Walter Block of Loyola University of New Orleans) instead of following the discredited and immoral practice of subjugating everyone to the methods of transport-imperialists.

Of course, it is difficult to teach liberty when one refuses to practice it. And those at The New York Times have only one liberty they scream about all the time, namely, the liberty of the press. Which is, no doubt, a vital species of liberty but it ought not to function as a special privileges others may not enjoy because they want to be free not in writing and publishing but in using a great variety of transport. By making it appear that public roads are the only option, these champions of petty tyrannies give clear evidence of the famous insight William Pitt (the younger) who taught that “Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” (1783)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Machan Archives: What to Promise Voters

Tibor R. Machan

Do voters actually believe it when candidates promise them health, happiness, vacations, clean air, and all those other goodies while also demanding that they stop being selfish, stop joining special interest groups and dedicate themselves only to the public good? I doubt it very much. This sort of pitch seems to me to put most reasonable voters on guard. Something is up, a ruse is afoot, for no one can deliver on these promises. (Or are voters like all those gamblers flocking to Las Vegas who think they will come away big winners?) So a great many people stay away from the voting booth and it's all left in the hands of dreamers.

I am not sure if candidates have actually given this a try but I would count on a different strategy. How about promising voters just one thing, namely, a competent defense against the violence of those of their fellows who are inclined to be violent, against those who wreak crime and war. And then urge them not to stop being selfish but to be intelligently self-interested. That would be thinking of some broad benefits that we all should be striving for, such as freedom, the security of our rights, peace, and justice. These are benefits all voters would gain from big time! So they are objectives that are quite reasonably considered self-interested, for everyone.

But such self-interested benefits need some education to be effectively appealing to voters. Too many people shun being thought of as selfish because they associate selfishness with trivial pursuits. Yet, genuine, serious, big time selfishness is about broad, lasting values such as justice and peace. Those are what is really good for us all!

In that very famous movie, Casablanca, Rick, the character of Humphrey Bogart, turns to Ilsa, the character of Ingrid Bergman, near the end of the film and delivers a little speech that goes like this: “Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid….”

Unfortunately a great many who’ve seen the film take Rick to be talking of self-sacrifice whereas, in fact, what he is talking about is devotion to great values, such as liberty and justice--values that Ilsa will in time realize outweigh those she would like to have now, namely, romantic bliss.

If those running for office were truly devoted to high ideals, they could explain to voters that these high ideals are of great importance to all. They are to everyone’s self-interest both short and long term.

That is what proper, uncorrupted politics is about: devotion to very high human community values, such as rights, liberty, justice, the rule of law, peace and all those conditions that are indispensable for people aiming to live flourishing lives in their communities. To think that devoting oneself to these amounts to unselfishness, self-sacrifice, is bizarre. These are everyone’s most important values, with everything else--including (and this comes from a died in the wool romantic) a great romance--paling in comparison.

Urging people to renounce their self-interest will simply never fly for very long. The idea that serving others is more important than serving oneself just sounds nice--yes, nice--but is by no means noble. Noble objectives are all elevating to those who pursue them. Saving one’s child from a blazing fire is noble but not because it is unselfish. (Is there anything that’s more genuinely selfish than saving one’s family from disaster? And one’s friends, and sometimes even strangers?)

No, candidates need to educate voters about how utterly selfish and proper it is for them to vote for those who will secure for them justice, the protection of their rights, peace and other social conditions that make a decent, good human life possible for us all. And if they cannot do this, then they are not good candidates for political office. Then they are merely vying to gain power so as to implement some kind of agenda they can never fulfill.

Bona fide politicians, serving us as honest political representatives, are very much to our self-interest. And the candidate who can deliver on that promise must also see it as something of grave importance to him or her! That is the way constituents and politicians can come together without cynicism, without suspicion.