Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?

 


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be naïve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Does Kahlil Gibran's prophet present an inspiring view of human flourishing?

 


The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, seems designed to appeal to people who are looking for inspiration. That is why I have dipped into it at various times in the past – and it may explain why I have previously put it aside after reading one or two of the 26 poems it contains. My mind does not seem to be capable of being inspired more than a few mystical messages at a time.

The Prophet, published in 1923, made Kahlil Gibran the best-selling American poet of the 20th century. I have previously thought of Gibran as a Lebanese poet and artist, but he apparently lived most of his life in America. Although The Prophet was hugely popular, its “earnest, didactic romanticism” found little favour with America’s literary critics.

While dipping into the book recently, it struck me that Gibran had been successful in reaching a large audience because he used mystical poetry to put words into the mouth of Almustafa, an imaginary prophet. That technique did not appeal to literary critics, but it helped make the messages seem profound to many other readers.

However, I have struggled to get a clear overall picture of the views Gibran was presenting. In an attempt to come to grips with the main themes, I have identified what seems to me to be the main idea in each of the 26 poems and then allocated each idea among the following six categories: physiological needs, personal relationships, psychological well-being, self-direction, living in harmony with nature, and transcendence. The first five of those categories correspond broadly to the basic goods of a flourishing human, as identified in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

What follows is a summary of what I see as the main ideas in the book. As far as possible, I have tried to use Gibran’s words.

The main ideas

Physiological needs

The activities involved in meeting basic needs should be seen to have a higher purpose. Eating and drinking has potential to be a process in which “the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man”. Work has potential to be joyful, “love made visible”. Market exchange has potential to serve a higher purpose because “it is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied”.

The “lust for comfort” can be harmful. A desire for comfortable housing “murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral”. Those who seek the “the freedom of privacy” through excessive clothing “may find in them a harness and a chain”. It would be preferable to “meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment”.

If we must measure time into seasons, “let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing”.

Personal relationships

You should “let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit”. “When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market-place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.” If love is accompanied by desire, let that desire be:

“To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness.”

Marriage partners should give their hearts, “but not into each other’s keeping”:

“For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Psychological well-being

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

If you “wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy”.

If you want to know the secret of death, “open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

When you make gifts, “it is life that gives unto life - while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.” People have different motives for making gifts. Some “give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

Self-direction

No teacher “can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge”. You seek self-knowledge because “your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge”. … “And it is well you should.”

“Pleasure is a freedom-song.” … “Even your body knows its heritage and its rightful need and will not be deceived. And your body is the harp of your soul, and it is yours to bring forth sweet music from it or confused sounds.”

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”

People view the law in different ways. Some “delight in laying down laws”, yet “delight more in breaking them”. Some “see only their own shadows, and their shadows are their laws” because they stand “with their backs to the sun”. … But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?”

In order to be just it is necessary to look upon all deeds in the light of knowledge “that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self.”

You can only be free “when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment”.  … “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?”

You do not own your children: “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Living in harmony with nature

[Respect for nature pervades the book, but the prophet is not asked a specific question about living in harmony with nature.]

Transcendence

When asked to speak of religion, Almustafa asks: “Have I spoken this day of aught else?” … “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.”

When you pray, “God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.”

When you have spoken of beauty, “you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied”. “Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy” … “a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted”  … “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil.”

“You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good. You are only loitering and sluggard” …  “In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.”

“To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy. … And though in your winter you deny your spring, Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended.”

Comment

There are at least two major themes in The Prophet.

One theme encourages readers to ponder how all aspects of their lives can be directed toward purposes beyond survival and personal comfort. Religious traditions have long promoted similar ideals.

Another theme is the importance of individual self-expression and self-development. Individuals are urged to recognize their own potential for good and to express that potential in their relationships with others.

I cannot defend all of the messages of Gibran’s prophet. However, I support the broad themes of his teachings, while recognizing that those themes are not original.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

What does "A Dream of Red Mansion" tell us about place-seeking culture in China?

 


A Dream of Red Mansion, which was written by Cao Xuequin in the 18th century, is often claimed to be China’s greatest classical novel. The book is sometimes also referred to as Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone.

After reading the novel it is easy for me to see why it is considered to be a great novel. It is impossible for translations to capture everything conveyed by Chinese characters but even in translation (I read Gladys Yang’s version) this is one of the best novels I have read.

What is the book about?

The book is about many aspects of life of a wealthy aristocratic family living in the Chinese capital. It follows the life of the central character, Jia Baoyu, through childhood to early adulthood. Baoyu spends most of his time playing with girls – his cousins and servants. He is spoiled by his mother and grandmother, but is frequently reprimanded by his father.

In terms of broad structure, the novel is about destiny – the story of a piece of jade, with prophetic inscriptions, that miraculously appears in Baoyu’s mouth at the time of his birth. The novel is also a story about love and arranged marriage. While suffering from some kind of mental illness, Baoyu is fooled into thinking he is being married to the person he loves during the ceremony in which he is being married to a different person.

One of the features of the novel is the author’s obvious admiration of girls and young women. Baoyu’s cousins have greater skill in composing poetry than he does, and provide the competition he needs to improve his performance. The novel suggests that females in the Jia household had somewhat idyllic childhoods, but were at great risk of suffering from heartbreak, disease (particularly TB) and early death, or from spousal abuse if they survived long enough to have a marriage arranged for them.

The novel is also a story about the role of place-seeking in a family of government officials whose fortunes were declining. In that context, Baoyu is under pressure from his father to study hard and to learn to write essays in a manner that will enable him to perform well in the imperial examination. Baoyu, however, is more interested in engaging in poetical activities with his female cousins. Those tensions were of particular interest because of the role of civil service examinations in China’s place-seeking society.

The civil service examinations

By comparison with Western Europe, in China the accumulation of wealth over several generations seems to have depended to a greater extent on securing an official position and maintaining favor with government authorities. Emperors of China seem to have been more readily able to confiscate the property of wealthy people who fell out favour than were the kings of Western Europe, who often had to share power with barons and popes.

I turned to Linda Jaivin’s book, The Shortest History of China, for background information about place-seeking in China. In writing about the Tang dynasty (618-907), Jaivin emphasizes the links between inherited wealth, education, and official position:    

“Unlike the hereditary aristocracy of Europe, China’s landed gentry owed their influence to a fluid mix of lineage, wealth (including land ownership), education and official position. It was a stable identity insofar as inherited wealth made it easier to get an education, making it easier to secure an official position, making it easier to accumulate wealth.”

Civil service examinations had ancient origins, but were reformed under Empress Wu Zetian. The principle of meritocracy was advanced by making the examinations accessible to candidates of humble background and by using blind marking to eliminate favouritism. She mandated that the examinations were to be held regularly and to focus on subjects she deemed useful for governance, such as history and rhetoric, rather than the ancient classics. However, the ancient classics once again became the basis of the civil service examinations during the Song dynasty.

Civil service examinations did not remain a constant feature of government in China during subsequent centuries. They were effectively abolished during the Yuan dynasty, following the Mongol invasion. During that period, top appointments went to Mongols and were made hereditary.

During the Manchu Qing dynasty, the civil service examinations were upheld by Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) who had studied the Confucian classics as a child. The tradition was continued through the reign of his grandson Qianlong (r. 1735-1796). It was during that period that Cao Xuequin wrote A Dream of Red Mansion.

Baoyu’s predicament

Baoyu’s father, Jia Zhen, did not expect Baoyu to perform spectacularly at the imperial examinations. When he saw that Baoyu was not fond of study, but had some understanding of poetry, he decided that this “did not really disgrace their ancestors; for they themselves, he recalled, had been the same, and although working hard for the examinations had never distinguished themselves”.

However, that didn’t stop Jia Zhen from threatening his son with dire consequences if he did not study hard:

“I’ve also heard that you spend all your time in the Garden playing about with your girl cousins and even fooling about with the maids, forgetting your studies completely. You may write a few lines of poetry but it’s not up to much, nothing to boast about. After all, when you come to take the examinations, it’s essay-writing that counts; but you’ve neglected that. Here’s what you’re to do from now on. Stop versifying and writing couplets, and concentrate on studying eight-section essays. I give you one year. If you’ve made no progress by the end of that time you can stop studying, and I shall disown you!”

Baoyu loathed the eight-section essays, “taking the view that as these were not written by sages or worthies they could not expound the wisdom of sages or worthies and were simply ladders by which later examination candidates climbed up to bureaucratic advancement”. He had a low opinion of place-seekers. In commenting on his meeting with a person who had a strong physical resemblance to himself, Baoyu says:

“He talked and talked but said not a word about seeking for truth, just holding forth on scholarship and the management of affairs, as well as loyalty and filial piety. Isn’t such a person a toady.”

Baoyu was fond of the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Taoism, which tends to promote carefree attitudes. In Chapter 21 of the book he is delighted by a passage suggesting the existence of some weird paradoxes, for example that “all men under heaven will learn skill for themselves” if the fingers of deft artisans were to be cut off.

By the time we reach Chapter 118 of the book, as the examinations are approaching, Baoyu disturbs his family by hinting that he intends to renounce the world. At that point, he is absorbed in reading the chapter “Autumn Water” in the Zhuangzi. The author does not tell us what passage he is reading. Perhaps it is the passage about what the “truly great man” does:   

“He struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. … The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. …”

When his wife, Baochai, sees what Baoyu is reading she takes this to mean that he is seriously considering “leaving the world of men” and giving up all human relationships. This leads them into a heated exchange in which Baochai emphasizes Baoyu’s responsibility to his family. The exchange ends with Baochai giving some final advice:

“Since you’ve run out of arguments, my advice to you is to take a grip on yourself and study hard; because if you can pass the triennial examination, even if you stop at that, you’ll be paying back your debt of gratitude for your sovereign’s favour and your ancestor’s virtue.” Baoyu nodded and sighed, then said, “Actually it isn’t difficult to pass. And what you said about stopping there and repaying my debt is not far wide of the mark.”

Baoyu does study hard. He performs exceptionally well at the imperial examination and then disappears to become a Buddhist monk. The emperor decrees that the brilliance of Baoyu’s writing must be due to his being an immortal, and the whole household is overjoyed.

My view

The struggle that Baoyu experiences in coping with parental expectations is no doubt heightened by the Confucian culture in which he lives. However, individuals can feel conflict between their personal values and a desire to meet the expectations of parents even when they grow up in a culture with little reverence for sovereigns or ancestors. The novel can be read as an account of how a young man was eventually able to reconcile his Taoist values with the Confucian culture in which he lived. As I see it, the novel has wider relevance as a story about personal development and the need for individuals to take responsibility for directing their own lives as they approach adulthood.

Friday, May 28, 2021

How does it feel to be holding a copy of my new book?

 


It feels good!

I am one of those people who extols the virtues of eBooks. They don’t take up space on bookshelves. They don’t collect dust. They make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for by searching for particular words, rather than relying on an index. Their production probably does less damage to the environment. And they are often available at a lower price - that is certainly true for readers who are eligible to purchase the Kindle version of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing from Amazon.com.au.

However, there does seem to be something special about being able to hold the book I have written in my own hands. I think there is more involved than just being able to have one’s photo taken holding the book as a physical object. I could have had my photo taken displaying an electronic version on my iPad. It is a mystery to me why I feel that there is something special about holding a physical copy of my own book in my hands. Perhaps I should consider acknowledging that I have a deep-seated attachment to the idea that books are physical objects.

Enough of that!

In the preceding post on this blog, Who should read “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”? I briefly outlined the contents of the book and some responses by reviewers.

The main purpose of this post is to acknowledge the fine work of the publisher, Hamilton Books, an imprint of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. Readers wishing to purchase my book from Hamilton will find it here.

When I was writing the acknowledgements in the book itself, it seemed premature to acknowledge the excellent work of the staff at Hamilton books. Now I have seen the results of their efforts, I have no hesitation in praising them.

I can’t claim great expertise in assessing the quality of the work of publishers, but it seems to me that the standard of publication of my book compares favorably with that of many of the books on my bookshelves. I was pleasantly surprised that publication of the book has occurred on time, in May, as the publisher foreshadowed.

The people I have dealt with at Rowman and Littlefield who have been particularly helpful include Julie Kirsch (Senior Vice President), Nicolette Amstutz (Director of Editorial), Brooke Bures (an editor I have been dealing with throughout the process), Mikayla Mislak (who helped me meet formatting guidelines), Catherine Herman (production editor), and Ashley Moses (Customer Service Department). These people were all friendly and helpful, and responded promptly to queries. I am also grateful for the efforts of other staff, with whom I have not had direct contact.   


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Who should read "Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing"?

 


I have dedicated the book to those who reflect on what it means to be a flourishing human.

When individuals think about their own personal development, they are reflecting on what it means to be a flourishing human.  I believe that reflection on what it means to be a flourishing human also holds the key to understanding the importance of liberty, and its role in economic development.

What is the book about?

The book explains how freedom (liberty) enables individuals to flourish in different ways without colliding, how it fosters progress and enables growth of opportunities, and how it supports personal development by enabling individuals to exercise self-direction.

The importance of self-direction is a theme of the book. The introductory chapter explains that wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to flourishing because it helps individuals to attain health and longevity, positive human relationships, psychological well-being, and an ability to live in harmony with nature.

Part I discusses natural rights and the evolution of freedom since ancient times. It explains how most people living in the liberal democracies today came to enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors.

Part II discusses progress. It explains how cultural change made economic progress possible by supporting the rule of law, liberty, and interpersonal trust, as well as the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators and tolerance of diversity. It notes that progress has led to increasingly widespread opportunities for people to meet their aspirations. It also discusses reasons for apprehension about the continuation of progress.

Part III considers how it is possible for individuals to meet the challenges of self-direction and to enhance their potential to flourish by investing in personal development. It explains that while the exercise of practical wisdom has always been integral to the flourishing of individuals, it has become commonplace for people to aspire to exercise meaningful self-direction over their lives to a greater extent than has ever been possible in the past.

The main message of the book is that people who live in Western liberal democracies should count their blessings. They have many blessings to count!

What are reviewers saying about the book?

Doug Rasmussen, a philosopher, and joint author with Douglas Den Uyl of a trilogy of books about liberty and human flourishing writes:

“Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing is a highly informed, but not an unduly technical, account of human flourishing and the need for a political/legal order that has the primary goal of protecting individual rights. This work is informed by not only philosophical but also by psychological and economic studies. This work provides an excellent entry point for deeper discussions of these fundamental claims.”

Readers who are seeking deeper discussions will find much to think about in the books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism.

Ron Duncan, a distinguished Australian economist with particular expertise in the economics and governance of developing countries, writes:

“With so much attention on identifying issues we should be unhappy about, Winton Bates' book is a welcome relief, given its emphasis on how much the lot of most people—particularly those in western liberal societies—has improved, why the improvements have taken place, and why they should continue. Its historical coverage of the philosophical issues underpinning the role of liberty in western progress should delight all serious thinkers.”

Ed Younkins, author of Flourishing and Happiness in A Free Society and Capitalism and Commerce writes:

“This masterful feat of integration of a wide range of literature from philosophy, economics, political science, and the social sciences will inspire scholars to bring their disciplines together to advance the argument for a free society.”

What are my qualifications to write such a book?

I am an economist. I first became professionally involved in broad issues concerning human flourishing in the early 1990s. Before then, my career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. Whilst retaining my professional interest in such matters, I have become increasingly interested in economic history, happiness economics, behavioral economics, self-help psychology, politics, and Aristotelian philosophy. I have written extensively about freedom and flourishing and have been blogging on this site for about 12 years.

How do I perform when interviewed about my book?

Potential interviewers who need to make such an assessment should take a look at me being interviewed by Leah Goldrick. The interview entitled “Freedom Helps us Flourish” has been published on Leah’s Common Sense Ethics channel on YouTube. The interview is also a useful source of background information about the book and its author.

Where can the book be purchased?

The book has been published by Hamilton Books and can be purchased at the Rowman and Littlefield web site: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780761872665/Freedom-Progress-and-Human-Flourishing

It is also available from Amazon and some other book sellers. Australian readers interested in obtaining an electronic copy will find an attractive option at Amazon.com.au.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Does evolutionary psychology shed light on the source of human intuitions?

 



I have difficulty thinking of Aristotle as a blank slate theorist. The view that evolved psychological adaptations play no role in determining human behavior seems impossible to reconcile with Aristotle’s teleological view that living entities contain in themselves the principle of their own development. It is worth remembering, however, that Aristotle saw personal development as linked to formation of good habits – he saw roles for both nature and nurture in human flourishing. In order to make sense of the passage quoted above I need to allow myself to imagine a blank writing tablet that has functional specialization allowing information relevant to the flourishing of our pre-historic ancestors to be most readily written upon it. (Incidentally, the quote is from On the Soul, Book III, Part 4.)

Evolutionary psychology has promoted the view that evolved psychological adaptations play a role in determining human behavior. To consider the light it sheds on the source of human intuitions I will begin with Steven Pinker’s list of the cognitive intuitions (also referred to as modules, systems, stances, faculties, mental organs, multiple intelligences, and reasoning engines), and then move on to Jonathan Haidt’s list of ethical intuitions. I will then consider whether attacks on evolutionary psychology should cause us to be wary of the evolutionary reasoning associated with such lists.

Pinker suggests that we are equipped with a range of different cognitive intuitions that evolved through psychological adaptations to keep our ancestors in touch with reality. These intuitions emerge early in life, and are present in every normal person. His list includes a basic intuitive grasp of physics, biology, engineering, psychology, and economic exchange. It includes a spatial sense, and senses of number and probability. It also includes language, and a mental data base and logic that are used to represent ideas and infer new ideas from old ones. These intuitions are suitable for the lifestyles of small groups of illiterate people living several thousands of years ago. They do not give people a spontaneous intuitive understanding of modern science, technology, or economics. (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, 2002, 219-21)

Haidt argues that moral intuitions evolved to meet various adaptive challenges faced by our ancestors. He suggests that moral intuitions relating to care and harm evolved to protect children; intuitions relating to fairness and cheating evolved to reap benefits of cooperation; intuitions relating to loyalty and betrayal evolved to protect groups from challenges; intuitions relating to authority and subversion evolved to obtain benefits from hierarchies; and intuitions about sanctity and degradation evolved to avoid contamination and disease. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, 123-127)

The views of Pinker and Haidt seem to me to be plausible, but can this kind of reasoning withstand the criticism that evolutionary psychology consists of “just so” stories?  


In his book, Rethinking Evolutionary Psychology, Andrew Goldfinch, a philosopher, tells readers that critics view evolutionary psychology explanations “as shockingly naked in historic and scientific detail”. Massive modularity has been a particular focus of criticism. The strongest form of massive modularity claims that there are no systems or mechanisms that are not dedicated to particular problems.

I came to Goldfinch’s book with the idea that the concept of brain plasticity was opposed to modularity. I had thought that evidence that brains “rewire” themselves in response to experience as people transition from infancy to adulthood would tend to count against modularity. However, many cognitive psychologists stress that when they talk about modules what they have in mind is functional specialization which is consistent with overlap between processing areas of the brain. Plasticity enables brains to develop so that individuals normally have intuitions that are common among adult humans.

However, Goldfinch also makes it clear that the existence of innate knowledge does not require massive modularity. It is possible for domain-specific knowledge to be generated by domain-general processing. Both domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms are compatible with evolutionary theory. I think it follows that the issue of whether the lists of intuitions compiled by Pinker and Haidt are evolutionary adaptations does not depend on the validity of the theory of massive modularity.

The main point that Goldfinch makes is that leading evolutionary psychologists have brought their research program into disrepute by packaging it as a paradigm shift. The research program became identified with claims of a strong form of massive modularity as leading proponents argued that evolutionary adaptation implies the existence of strong massive modularity. Leading proponents used the concept of strong massive modularity to challenge conventional social science based on the foundation of domain-general knowledge and processes that are exclusively social. This prompted excessively critical responses that sought to discredit the entire research program as “just so” stories.

Goldfinch argues that strong massive modularity is not integral to evolutionary psychology. He suggests that evolutionary psychology should be viewed as an exploratory research program aimed at generating and testing hypotheses about psychological mechanisms. Viewed in that light, evolutionary psychology explores whether psychological traits that are observed across cultures could be adaptations, and has potential to guide researchers into identifying new behavioral patterns and mechanisms.

Goldfinch summarizes his view as follows:

“Initial evolutionary psychology hypotheses aim, or should aim, not for the last evolutionary word on a given phenomenon, but the first. They are in constant adjustment—both with the research programme’s own findings and findings from adjacent research programmes and disciplines. If this is done, this should generate sophisticated hypotheses, as well as generate progressive increments to our understanding of psychological and social phenomena.” (200)

I can see the wisdom in Goldfinch’s suggestion that evolutionary psychologists should not be aiming to have the last word. Should any scientist ever be aiming to have the last word? However, I think it is inevitable that a good number of the hypotheses advanced by evolutionary psychologists will challenge beliefs that human behavior is wholly attributable to simple mechanisms of learning and can be modified readily by changing social arrangements.  

Even if the views about human intuitions put forward by evolutionary psychologists only have the status of plausible speculations, they can still help us to comprehend aspects of the world we live in. For example, Pinker’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people tend to perceive the world they live in much the same way as their ancestors who knew nothing about the processes that modern physics describes. Haidt’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people hold ethical intuitions that cannot be readily explained in terms of current social circumstances. The paucity of historic detail supporting such speculations should not cause them to be dismissed unless more plausible explanations are offered. Those seeking truth should find plausible speculations more satisfying than implausible speculations and mysteries.    


Saturday, April 24, 2021

Is the Maga Carta a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom?

 



I was prompted to ask myself this question when reading Zachary Gorman’s recently published book, Summoning Magna Carta, Freedom’s symbol over a millennium

Gorman does not attempt to argue that the freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies flowed inevitably from the Magna Carta. He notes that the history following the Magna Carta “is one of difficulties, setbacks and moments that could have easily set us down a very different path”. He suggests that there is “semi-mystical power” in the history of the Magna Carta:

“The supposed laws of Edward the Confessor became a living Great Charter of liberties; the ancient constitution became the current working constitution.” (238)

My conclusion, after reading Gorman’s book, is that the Magna Carta is a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215 - at Runnymede which is on the Thames, west of London (not far from the location of Heathrow airport). He probably perceived that the alternatives to signing were unpalatable. He had been waging war in France in an attempt to recover lost territory. A large number of barons refused to provide troops as requested, claiming that their obligations extended only to the Anglo-Norman heartland of England, Normandy, and Brittany. Eventually, the rebel barons captured London, with the help of local townsfolk. King John did not have the funds required to hire mercenaries to reverse the situation, so he agreed to meet the rebels at Runnymede. Magna Carta was negotiated between King John and the barons with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (although Pope Innocent III sided with King John and opposed the Magna Carta).

With the benefit of hindsight, the most important provisions of the Magna Carta were those that required the barons to be consulted before taxes were raised (a step in the direction of “no taxation without representation”) and those establishing some fundamental legal rights. The document stipulated that freemen were not to be “taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled … except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”. That provision had limited application at the time because serfdom was common, but was a step in the direction of rule of law.

I learned about the Magna Carta at school, but at that time it just seemed to be one of many boring incidents in English history. My more recent reading led me to think of it as evidence that England had retained some of the Classical Roman tradition which viewed law as evolving via judicial processes (in which precedents were seen to provide guidance) rather than as being created by the edicts of kings (or emperors). Gorman’s book provides the historical background to development of the narrative that the Magna Carta reaffirmed ancient rights, that were observed to some extent during the reign of Edward the Confessor – about 150 years earlier, prior to the Norman Conquest. The book documents how the Magna Carta was re-affirmed and extended, and became a symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

Highlights of Gorman’s book include his account of the central role played by William Penn in bringing the Magna Carta to the American colonies and the role of the Magna Carta in the fight for self-government in Australia. Gorman notes that after Imperial legislation of 1850 failed to provide self-government to New South Wales (NSW), William Charles Wentworth got the NSW Legislative Council to cite the Magna Carta in declaring that the Imperial parliament does not have any right “to tax the people of this Colony”. The argument that taxation required consent, both in its raising and spending, was no doubt intended to remind the British government of the American Revolution, which had occurred because many American colonists perceived that the British Government was violating their ancient rights.

In Australia, the Magna Carta still shapes how the High Court interprets the constitution through the common law. In 1925, High Court Justice, Isaac Isaacs, declared that it is the Magna Carta, rather than the Australian Constitution, that ensures everyone “has an inherent right to his life, liberty, property and citizenship”. However, the ongoing influence of the Magna Carta seems likely to depend on citizens continuing the tradition of viewing it as a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

On Anzac Day (April 25) when Australians commemorate those who served and lost their lives in past wars, speechmakers often tell us that they were fighting for freedom. It is worth remembering that the freedom they fought for has strong links to the Magna Carta.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How can we comprehend the emergence of consciousness?

 


It seems common for consciousness to be viewed either as an inexplicable mystery or as something we will only be able to comprehend if advances in science can explain how thoughts – a rich inner life - can somehow be created from matter. However, the problems we have in comprehending the emergence of consciousness may stem from our habit of thinking in terms of a separation between mind and body.

The idea of mind as separate from body has been part of Western philosophy for a long time, but is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism after René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am”, concluded “I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think … [that] does not depend on any material thing”. These days, not many people believe consciousness to be a substance, but dualism still seems to linger on in much discussion about consciousness.  

Descartes reached his conclusion after going through a process of considering what sources of knowledge could not be doubted, and discovering that he could not doubt that he was thinking. In his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Richard Campbell suggests that Descartes was on the right track in observing that he was unable to doubt that he was thinking:

“If I seriously think that I am not thinking, what I am thinking is pragmatically self-refuting.” (283)

Descartes error arose when he asked himself, “What then am I?” after observing that he could not doubt he was thinking. As Campbell points out, that question “presupposes that he takes himself to be some sort of thing”.

(Campbell’s discussion reminds me of the part of the long speech Ayn Rand had John Galt make in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt proclaims the axiom that “existence exists”, and that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. Galt adds “a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms” (1015). Readers who are allergic to Ayn Rand will be pleased to note that Campbell’s book contains no references to her, or to Objectivism.)


Before going further I should note that Richard Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the ANU. The Metaphysics of Emergence was published in 2015.

Campbell asks what conclusion we can draw from the observation that we cannot doubt we are thinking. His answer:

“Thinking that one is thinking, being aware that one is aware, has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness.

To understand what Campbell is getting at here, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of the general line of argument he develops in his book.

  • In the preface, the author explains that he has come to the view that any satisfactory account of the emergence of complex phenomena has to begin with recognition that “processes underly what seem like stable enduring entities, and therefore should be accorded priority over them”.
  • Campbell argues that everything is fundamentally in process. That line of argument is opposed to the dominant tradition of Western intellectual history (began by Parmenides) which views entities as the norm. The view that everything is a process presents us with the challenge of explaining the emergence and apparent stability of enduring things, whereas under the dominant tradition change requires explanation.
  •  Campbell suggests that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”.
  • The view of stability as the norm led to a focus on particular entities and the “matter” of which they were comprised. Since matter itself seemed to be comprised of entities (atoms and sub-atomic particles) it seemed to follow that everything was composed of entities (countable things). However, advances in physics make that view no longer tenable.  Although sub-atomic particles are often still talked about as though they are well-defined micro-entities, they behave more like processes than entities. Entities can no longer be accorded the role of the primary way of being.
  • Entities, including living things, can be best understood as special cases of generic processes constrained in certain explicable ways. Entities are minimally homomerous – they exist in fixed portions or units. If you cut a cow in two the result is not two smaller cows.
  • Many types of dynamic system retain their distinctive properties even though their constituents are replaced over time. That points to the importance of the constituent processes in maintaining the system.
  • Living creatures perform actions. Interactions between internal and external processes binds them together as cohesive entities and enables them to behave as integral wholes. Their actions are an emergent phenomenon – resulting from the interaction of many processes.
  • As Aristotle recognized, talk of actions carries implications of teleology – actions are directed towards some goal or end. In the case of simple multi-cellular organisms, goal-directedness is directed toward survival, but does not carry any implication of conscious choices or purposes. “The recursive self-maintenance of an organism is what requires the category of action to be predicated of it as an integrated action system and provides the necessary condition for other kinds of action which are directed at ends other than survival.” (176)    
  • As evolution proceeds, living creatures become capable of performing selective actions in response to differences in their environments. In relatively simple organisms, those actions are instinctual rather than choices involving deliberation or calculation. Selection becomes more significant in more complex creatures which need to choose between fighting and fleeing, or whether to search for food or find a mate. Complex organisms can learn by detecting that some action they have performed is in error.
  • The appropriate question regarding motivation is what makes an organism perform one action rather than another, rather than what makes it do something rather than nothing. Living organisms cannot do nothing, or they cease to exist as living beings.
  • When an organism has the ability to learn which kinds of action yields rewards and to select actions on the basis of that learning it seems reasonable to say that it can evaluate the projected outcomes. As organisms become more highly developed, goal-seeking activity becomes increasingly self-directed, more flexible, and more generic (not confined to specific task routines). The behaviors of many species of non-human animals indicates that they have some awareness of their surroundings.
  • The consciousness of humans evolved from the awareness displayed by other animals. Primate awareness includes elaborate event representations in which experience across many sources including bodily feelings are integrated and can be remembered. However, primates seem to lack the “fundamental defining capacities” to develop language skills (unless raised by humans) and do not express any kind of self-description.
  • Human evolution went through several stages: a mimetic culture employing the whole body as an expressive device; the mythic stage in which spoken language evolved (arguably to meet specific cognitive and cultural needs); and the theoretic stage beginning around 5,500 years ago with invention of the first writing systems. The theoretic stage is characterized by “institutionalized paradigmatic thought” – using external symbolic devices to store and retrieve cultural knowledge.
  • One’s sense of oneself is an aspect of consciousness that seems to be distinctively human, although some species of apes and elephants can recognize an image in a mirror as their own. “Our individual self-understandings are informed by our autobiographical memories, whose meaning depends on a shared oral tradition.” (290) Our consciousness of ourselves has been shaped by cultural and institutional factors that influence how our brains develop and function. While we talk metaphorically of the evolution of modern humans, this is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. A child born today differs little genetically from one born 60,000 years ago.
  • The development of human brains is strongly influenced by personal experience. Cultural interactions play an important role in determining the way the brains of children develop. They do not reach their mature architecture until adulthood. 

Some further explanation can now be given of what Campbell meant by writing that being aware that one is aware has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness. He is suggesting that when he detects something with one of his five senses there is more than one operation going on:

I am actively eliciting and processing those sensory inputs, and at the same time reflectively experiencing the qualities of that awareness. If that is right, then the way many philosophers today pose the issue of experience – how is it that certain complex physical systems are also mental – is misconceived. The situation is not that there is one phenomenon which has two aspects: one physical; one mental. Rather, experiencing is an on-going self-organizing activity which involves two distinct types of process: exploratory sensory activity (which is both bodily and neural); and another higher-level process operating upon the former. Being self-organizing, these interactions essentially involve feedback. That is why humans’ consciousness is reflective, reflexive, and thereby self-aware.” (283-4)

Before concluding, I should make clear that I prepared the above summary to improve my own understanding of the line of argument in Richard Campbell’s book. I hope it is a reasonable summary, but it not a substitute for reading the book. I am publishing this article in the hope of encouraging others to read the book.

I would also like to mention that I was prompted to read The Metaphysics of Emergence by a comment made by Robert L Campbell, a psychologist, in his review (published in JARS) of Harry Binswanger’s book, How We Know. I am pleased that I was given that prompt to read the book because I have a long-standing interest in explanations of consciousness - for example, see my comments on Alva Noё’s book, Out of Our Heads, published on this blog over a decade ago.

Conclusion

We cannot doubt that we think. That seems to me to be a profound observation. We may have reasons to doubt that what we are thinking at any moment is related to reality, but we cannot doubt that we are thinking. We are aware of both the flow of inner experiences – thoughts and feelings – and of our experience of the world in which we live. Thinking about our experience of the world enables us to contemplate the goals we seek, to make choices in pursuit of those goals, and to learn from experience. Our observations of the world tell us that many other animals also engage in similar processes - which imply an awareness of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged/evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Awareness of our own awareness has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?

 


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


 

The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Was Kant a friend of reason and liberty?

I began thinking about this question as I was reading Ronald Beiner’s recent book, Dangerous Minds. Beiner’s main point seems to be that rightwing opponents of liberty are finding inspiration in the
writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger. That should not be surprising. Nietzsche inspired Heidegger, who had strong links to the National Socialists.

The fact that some leftwing opponents of liberty find inspiration in the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger requires more explanation. With the failure of socialism to live up to its promise of ushering in an era of productivity and prosperity, the academic left found in Nietzsche and Heidegger a way to continue to embrace socialism by claiming that logic and evidence are subjective. Stephen Hicks gives that as one of several explanations in his book, Explaining Postmodernism.

When we classify thinkers according to various criteria such as their beliefs about reason and individual liberty, it seems natural to ask how they came to have those beliefs. Nietzsche and Heidegger were irrationalists – they believed that reason is trumped
by claims based on instinct and emotion – and they were both opponents of modernity and classical liberalism. To what extent were they influenced by Immanuel Kant?

A friend of reason?

Kant has influenced the way many people think about external reality by raising important questions about the ability of humans to know the nature of things as they are. Kant’s assertion that reason is impotent to know reality may have inspired Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others to become irrationalists.

However, Kant was in many respects a friend of reason. His philosophy certainly does not lead inevitably to irrationalism. For example, following a neo-Kantian approach, Ludwig von Mises asserted that purposeful human action - the fundamental axiom from which he deduced laws of economics explaining real world behavior - is a category of the human mind.  

Similarly, Friedrich Hayek’s speculations about the workings of the human mind share with the Kantian framework the idea that our minds impose an order on what we experience. However, Hayek suggests that the maps that our minds create are subject to gradual change in response to sensory inputs. His theory implies that we can advance our explanations of the objective physical world, and that as we do that we come to ‘see’ it differently. [Accessible accounts of Hayek’s theory are to be found in Chapter 12 of Bruce Caldwell’s book, Hayek’s Challenge, and in an article by William Butos. Hayek acknowledges in Constitution of Liberty that reason “is undoubtedly man’s most precious possession”. He distinguishes his anti-rationalist position - opposing the abuse of reason in attempts to control society - from irrationalism and appeals to mysticism (69).]

A friend of liberty?

Hayek counted Kant as a classical liberal, along with David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, James Madison, and others who advocated limitations on the powers of government. By contrast, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Condorcet were constructivist rationalists who advocated democracy, with unlimited powers for the majority. [Source: Nishiyama and Leube (eds) The Essence of Hayek, 363-4.]

Hayek admired Kant’s categorical imperative (CI) – “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. He viewed the CI from the perspective of meta-ethics, rather than personal ethics, in suggesting that it “proved of the greatest importance in preparing the ground” for rule of law in Prussia during the latter part of the 18th century. [Constitution of Liberty, 197]

James Buchanan referred favorably to Kant’s CI for similar reasons to Hayek – as an ethical precept supporting norms of behavior that produce superior outcomes in social interaction. Henry Hazlitt and Leland Yeager, rule utilitarians, also see merit in a test of universalizability of social rules, but are critical of the notion of “duty for duty’s sake”. [Hazlitt, Foundations of Morality, Ch 16; Yeager, Ethics as Social Science, Ch 9.]

The fact that Kant advanced reasons why individuals should respect the rights of others counts in his favor to be viewed as a friend of liberty. However, if he had been able to perceive it to be meritorious that individual humans seek to flourish, he could have provided a straight-forward argument for a political/legal order recognizing rights on the basis that it is needed to ensure that the flourishing of different individuals and groups does not conflict. [Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl advanced that view in Norms of Liberty.]

My doubts about whether Kant should be considered a friend of liberty are centered around his collectivism. He was an admirer of Rousseau and advocated similar policies. It is well known that Kant claimed that man is a creature made of “warped wood”. I had thought this was just recognition of human fallibility, but Kant also claimed that if man is “an animal that, if he lives among other members of his species, has need of a master”, a government “to break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will”. Kant presented a vision of a federation of states ultimately living in peace, but that did not prevent him from claiming that, at the present stage of culture, peace would be a moral disaster. He argued: “The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society”.  [Source: Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 99-101.]

Antagonism doesn’t seem to me to be linked to any maxims that a classical liberal would will to become universal.

Conclusions

It seems reasonable to argue that Kant was a friend of reason. I am less sure that he was a friend of liberty. The way the categorical imperative has been used in discussions of universalizability of law has probably promoted liberty. Kant’s more political writings may, however, have given comfort to opponents of liberty.


 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Are you getting sauced?

 




It is about time greater recognition was given to the sterling efforts of Australia’s liquor licensing regulators. While some public health officials have become media superstars during the COVD-19 epidemic, the liquor regulators have gone quietly about their business of protecting us from ourselves.  Lack of public recognition for their efforts must be almost enough to drive them to drink.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission – your ABC (or is it our ABC, or their ABC) – is normally a strong supporter of government regulation, but when was the last time you saw the ABC praise liquor regulators for their efforts? Just about everyone that the ABC interviews says, “Aorta do something about that”, no matter what “that” is. The “A” in aorta is the government, of course. Someone should tell the government Aorta get the ABC to praise the liquor licensing regulators.

I can’t remember anything the ABC has done over the last 18 months or so to recognize the sterling efforts of liquor regulators. Liquor licensing regulators have to make contributions that are a long way beyond the call of duty before the ABC recognizes them.

The sterling efforts of the acting director-general of licensing of the Northern Territory (NT) were reluctantly acknowledged by Katrina Beavan and Steward Brash in an item published on 30 July 2019. The headline of the article gives an indication of the perceptiveness and courage of the acting director-general: “NT liquor licensing laws affect sale of household cooking products, vendors warned”.

The acting director-general deserves to be highly honored for making such a magnificent contribution to the welfare of citizens of the NT. Most liquor regulators would be inclined to turn a blind eye to the fact that some household cooking products contain alcohol. After all, regulators are human, and just about as lazy as the rest of us. Regulators could be expected to be particularly reluctant to rock the boat by upsetting food retailers and their customers.

However, the acting director-general wrote a letter to food retailers telling them that if they want to sell any product over 50 ml that contains 1.15 per cent ethyl alcohol or more, they require a liquor licence. Licensing inspectors followed up by visiting a range of stores in Darwin and Alice Springs, insisting that owners take offending items off the shelves.

Some of you might think that the acting director-general was being excessively zealous, particularly since the legislation specifically referred to “beverages”.  I can almost hear some of you saying that soy sauce is not a beverage. You wouldn’t drink it!

Well, you obviously haven’t heard of a “bloody geisha”? As cocktails go, a bloody geisha isn’t too bad in my view. It is more flavorsome than straight sake. I imagine that if you use enough soy sauce, you could reduce the amount of sake, and still get a kick out of it. Some people may even omit the tomato juice.

In my view, a strong case can be made that the acting director-general didn’t go far enough. Why not also specify that methylated spirits and turps must also be sold through liquor stores? You might point out to me that regulations to protect government revenue from sale of alcoholic beverages require metho to be adulterated to contain enough poisonous stuff (methanol) to make people go blind and to kill them. You probably think that the fact that metho kills people is a strong enough deterrent to stop nearly everyone from drinking it. However, that is odd argument. It implies that human nature is such that if you leave people to make choices for themselves, they will nearly always choose to stay alive.

You probably also want to tell me that when you say someone is “on the turps” that is just a figure of speech. You claim to know that mineral turpentine contains no alcohol. If I object, you will tell me that is a scientific fact.

Struth! You probably still think there is a real world out there and that we all tend to have common perceptions of reality. One day you will understand that we live in a post-truth world. Everyone has their own truth. Perceptions are everything. If you have any interest at all in protecting people from themselves, you will agree with me that to discourage people from “going on the turps”, mineral turpentine should only be sold in licensed liquor stores.

How does this story end? From what I can gather, the NT Licensing authorities subsequently backtracked on efforts to ensure soy sauce could only be sold in licensed liquor outlets. Nevertheless, the acting director-general deserves a medal for assiduous efforts in trying to protect NT people from themselves!