The Open Mind III: Principia Liberalis*

by A. Jay Adler on November 30, 2009
Read More: ,

When ShrinkWrapped and I announced the inception of “The Open Mind,” we each cited as a motivation behind it the interest, in his words to me, of exploring “how two reasonably bright, reasonably decent people can disagree so significantly in their perception of reality.” One commenter, on one of our posts, suggested that we avoid more general philosophical arguments and address ourselves to specific issues that so often divide left from right, in the hope of attempting some common ground. This was a most reasonable suggestion, and even though, inevitably, it is those issues with which most of our exchanges are bound to concern themselves, it did seem to overlook a compelling truth: except in instances of the most truly open minds – a genuinely common intellectual exploration of ideas, rather than the rigidly maintained battle lines of contest in debate – a forum such as this is not where people tend to find common ground. For nothing is at stake.

As much as we all, left and right alike (ah, here’s common ground) tend to deride the practice of our legislators, when they haggle – excuse me, I mean debate – there are actual gains and losses to be exchanged in the chambers, as in the making of peace between enemies. Real stakes motivate people toward real compromise in real policy action. Under the conditions here, there is no such motivation, and without a spirit of real intellectual generosity and openness, there is no coming together. Perhaps we will encounter that openness at times. In any event there are benefits in clarifying and (I offer this word with very tender care) respecting differences.

Another commenter offered a contrary opinion:

Without delving into the details of either your or his posts, or either ripostes, I feel I must address what I see as the bigger issue: You have not resolved the underlying, fundamental differences between the two of you….

My larger point is that the two of you have differences of belief far more fundamental than what is being discussed here. Until and unless you not only identify, but resolve these differences, you will make no progress in discussing these more specific topics. All you are doing is putting ice packs on a feverish forehead, without attacking the infection.

I agree. Or at least it’s worth a go. So, with plenty of future opportunity for debate on cap and trade (please let’s not), I offer a first attempt at laying a foundation for identifying fundamental beliefs and differences. Accept it not, I beg, as comprehensive. The ending number and idea are determined as much by late night fatigue and the press of deadline as by the cozy comfort of systematic completeness. There may yet be a First Blood Part II. I offer one closing, guiding principle for reception of this effort: note its subtitled denotation of “a” liberal. Your humble and fallible servant is neither the face nor the voice of “liberalism.” (“I am not a number,” our beloved, original The Prisoner cried, “I am a free man!”) There are others willing to play that role; I think and speak for myself. You want to argue with “liberals,” knock yourself out. I’ll be elsewhere, but it’s a free cyberspace.

As of this writing.

Principia Liberalis*

a liberal’s manifesto, conservatively conceived

  1. Our time is spent: Pushing a rock up a hill. Contemplating the rock. Playing on and around the rock. Sitting beside the rock. All are important, none more so than another, each sometimes more pressing than the others.
  2. Human beings aspire to the good and are drawn to the bad. They are both. There is no evidence to conclude which will ultimately rule in them.
  3. Human history is both sublime and horrific.
  4. We should be guided in our aspirations by what is best in us while always protecting against what is worst in us.
  5. There is such a thing as evil. It often conceives of itself as a good.
  6. While civilizations and nations are aimed at the future, they are driven by the past.
  7. Nations, like people, are responsible for their actions. They act as historically and legally conceived and constituted entities, and they are responsible as historical and legal entities.
  8. The animating determinant of historic national responsibility is in the living consequences of past acts: no continuing consequences, no conceivable responsibility.
  9. The past cannot be undone, but the future can be different; this is accomplished through understanding and acknowledgement of the past and accountability for it.
  10. Accountability for the past is policy for the future.
  11. The colonial epoch is ended. Its consequences are not.
  12. Victors record history. This does not make the history false. Neither does it make it true.
  13. Conquerors leave the past behind more easily than the conquered. This is because the conqueror owns the future.
  14. To have been conquered or oppressed, to be weak, does not ennoble a people before or after the fact; the acts of a conquered, oppressed, or weak people are not legitimized by those conditions. Neither is the injustice of their conquest, oppression, or weakness abused, or the justness of redress, negated by their imperfection.
  15. We are a common human race and should approach the future in that belief; however, human affections are stronger the more closely experienced, more abstract the farther afield.
  16. Cosmopolitanism is good, affording wide-ranging experience of human culture and a deeper knowledge of humanity; in its absence people are prone to parochialism, ignorant fears, and prejudice.
  17. Close fields of association and concern are natural. Without them human sympathies are intellectual creations and not affective connections. One must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world. One should love the world. (But is free not to.)
  18. The greater the justice, the greater the harmony. All oppositions are not enemies; the reconciliation of many oppositions leads to greater harmony and greater justice.  This does not mean that all claims are valid, all positions legitimate, or that all demands should be met: many claims, positions, and demands are themselves unjust and destructive of harmony.
  19. Extremism in the defense of liberty or any other idea leads to terror and tyranny. Liberty is best ensured through moderation, including the distance between the people and the ensuring authority of the people: too close and a narrowness of interest and intolerance will prevail; too far and the oppressive abstraction of bureaucracy will rule.
  20. The human species is a technological species. Technology creates meaning in life. However, the consequences of this essential nature are not an unqualified good. The greatest human happiness is not the product of the greatest prevalence of technology. There is no evidence of human capacity to judiciously guide its technological nature.
  21. Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.
  22. Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it. Government is best assigned those responsibilities that are necessary to the commonweal above what is necessarily optimally efficient, though it need not be an enemy of efficiency. Sources of optimal efficiency cannot concern themselves with the common good whilst remaining optimally efficient; they must be managed when applied to the common good so that a balance is achieved between efficiency and the breadth of the benefit they deliver.
  23. A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.
  24. Terror and tyranny must be opposed, freedom and democracy defended, in more than mere word, not only by might. All efforts to confuse these ideas must be combated.
  25. Yankees rule. (The baseball team.)

*Anything worth saying is worth puffing up in Latin.

AJA


25 comments

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Flash Gordon December 17, 2009 at 1:12 pm

we hear quickly from one reader, “Number 24 says terror and tyranny must be opposed and freedom and democracy defended. Liberals do not believe any of that”

…Sigh.

Jay, you put this forward as a liberal principle. You didn’t offer it as something personal to you. If you claim that as your personal point of view I couldn’t argue with you. You say you speak only for yourself but this whole “principia liberalis” is you speaking for liberals in general, isn’t it?

If so, then don’t sigh. Liberals have demonstrated that they do not have those values. Maybe you do. Then you should change the name of this project to “prinicpia Jayis.”

Reply

Sarah Rolph December 4, 2009 at 5:45 am

That’s helpful, Jay, thanks. i will think some more about the difference between the common good and collectivism.

It wasn’t the mention of harmony that made me think you might be in favor of collectivism, but the things you said about government. (Also in your comment above, “divying up the spoils” sounds pretty collectivist, but since I have no idea what you mean there (what’s your context?) we will leave that aside.)

The necessity of government has been addressed here by others, as has its nature and size. But I do want to briefly state that I vehemently disagree you that the size is government is neither good or bad. The smaller the government, the better, because the private sector creates wealth and the public sector consumes it.

On to collectivism. In your point 22 you say:

“Government … should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.”

Judged by whom? To be appropriate by what standard?

Most liberals seem to think this should be judged by elites such as themselves, to be appropriate to their made-up standard. (They also seem to think it’s fine for this to be fluid–today’s standard is enough; in other words, pragmatism rather than principle.)

What is your implication here? Who should judge what?

The founding fathers of the United States of America figured out the best form of government possible. (Or, since you seem to enjoy wry humor, “the worst form except for all the others”.)

Do you agree or disagree with that?

Reply

Marvin December 4, 2009 at 12:41 am

Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary

The quoted sentences above imply that being necessary is orthogonal to being good or bad. This is manifestly false. Chemotherapy is sometimes necessary but I don’t think anyone would characterize it as a good thing to have. Sex is also necessary (for now) and most people would probably characterize it as good.

This aside, nobody seriously argues that government is unnecessary. (The fact that there were and still are people that call themselves ‘anarchists’ only tells that morons will always be there). The question is whether it is necessary as chemotherapy or sex.

Government is best assigned those responsibilities that are necessary to the commonweal above what is necessarily optimally efficient, though it need not be an enemy of efficiency.

This would be perfectly fine if said by a god about angles (or at least Iain Banks’ Mind about other Minds). I am not sure what life experience is necessary to tech you how all organizations of people result in bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy that care for nothing except perpetuating themselves and particularly don’t mind “common good” – whatever that is.

Sources of optimal efficiency cannot concern themselves with the common good whilst remaining optimally efficient; they must be managed when applied to the common good so that a balance is achieved between efficiency and the breadth of the benefit they deliver.

Sadly this never works well in practice. The only way we know to really solve “the tragedy of commons” is to give “commons” an owner and the owner an economic incentive to maintain it.
All the other solutions don’t work or don’t work well. In particular the Americans’ (both left and right) favorite solution – creating a law that says ‘this common good must be achieved’ – doesn’t work well to say the least. (War on drugs is a good example of right trying to solve a problem in this way; you know the results).

Reply

Jimmy J. December 3, 2009 at 10:22 am

Jay, I’m happy to see we do have agreement on some principles.

Yes, government is necessary and the best form of government, IMHO, is when power comes from the governed. May we agree that government is still a work in progress. There are those things which governmment ought to do that shoulld not or cannot be done by individuals. National defense is certainly one. However, and this is where liberals and conservatives disagree most strongly, it is my opinion that the less the national government does and the closer government actions are to the people, the better people are served. How many people go to city council meetings? Not many and yet that is where issues most important to the daily lives of the residents of that city are decided. I go to city council meetings occasionally and I’m usually angered by the fact that the State and Federal governments loom large in those meetings. The cities have to meet regulations and standards sent down from on high and there are usually monies involved which can be gained or withheld. In other words the higher levels use a form of bribery to gain compliance. That is not to say that all these rules, regulations, standards, etc promulgated from on high are bad. (Although, IMO, most are!) Too much power and control emanating from the top. I think this is the best example I can cite of the differences in liberal versus conservative approaches to daily governance.

Unfortunately, I have to attend a meeting and must cut this short.

Anyway, I’m pleased that we do have some common ground.
And thank you, Sarah, for the compliment.

Reply

Geoffrey Britain December 3, 2009 at 7:08 am

“My liberal manifesto would be simpler.

1. I prefer peace and prosperity over war and recession.
2. To achieve those outcomes, we’ll need to work together.

In my experience, contemporary conservative poliitical discourse is not oriented to identifying policy approaches to achieving these outcomes. Rather, it is organized to afford its members the consolations of being a victim and having enemies.” copithorne

In all of history, no advanced democracy with per capita income of over $10k per individual has ever made war upon another such democracy. Social prosperity within the context of democracy eliminates wars because the leaders of those democracies know that the populace will not support disruption of the trade which has established the prosperity both countries enjoy.

Cooperation is necessary. When competition is eliminated cooperation turns into monopolies and social entropy results.

Conservative political discourse is oriented toward achieving a level playing field between the disparate interests naturally active in human societies. Human beings naturally organize themselves into ‘tribes’ in various configurations to be sure, but whether a Sports Team, a Business enterprise or the Sierra Club, the tribal appellation fits. Within that ‘tribe’, there are various degrees of personal competition and cooperation toward shared goals.

Human beings compete AND cooperate. Emphasizing either to the detriment of the other, ultimately reduces the quality of life for ALL.

Reply

Geoffrey Britain December 3, 2009 at 6:48 am

“I’ll continue to narrow my responses in anticipation of Shrink’s reply, but, again, my responses here will further clarify matters.”
In anticipation of and in deference to SW I’ll keep my response brief and your response does clarify your position further.

“I have addressed this issue [torture] before, here and here. However unlikely (hardly impossible) such scenarios may be, discounting them is an evasion of the issue. Circumstances appearing to require it, I would do what was necessary. My first link addresses what I think should then follow. This is why, in my earlier response to you, I referred to a policy of torture, which regrettably, this nation had for some time under the previous administration.”

I’ll address this in the comments section of your prior posts and recommend that others review those posts as you demonstrate an unusual degree of intellectual honesty in presenting your point of view.

“At any rate, however we may have misread each other, identifying a definitive characteristic of the species was not my purpose. You have pointed out, correctly, I think, how technology can lead to isolating behaviors; I am arguing that another profound effect of technology is on the ethical dimension of social and political relations.”
We are in agreement then, mastery of technology is one of the distinguishing characteristics of mankind and technology certainly has its social benefits.

“On the crucial issue of the Yankees, you now seem – having touted the New York farm system as of 2000 – to have narrowed your objection to the 2009 championship, which would leave 28 ethically uncontested conquests of the inferior competition. I could respond regarding 2009, but I think this the appropriate time to call on SW for a little bipartisan Big Apple solidarity.”
SW is quite welcome to ‘stick up’ for the Yankees. My objection is not solely to the 2009 Championship. 2000 was a bit of an aberration, as under Steinbrenner, attempting to ‘buy’ the Championship has been the norm. And yes, I realize what a problematic strategy that is and find that quite satisfying, as justice satisfied is always gratifying.

Reply

Sarah Rolph December 3, 2009 at 6:43 am

What Ayn Rand meant by selfishness is rational self-interest. Her belief that she could redefine a term that was already part of the vernacular has caused a lot of misunderstanding. (Same problem with the word altruism–she rails against it, because she defines it as literal self-sacrifice. In the vernacular, it tends to mean doing good, caring about others, etc.)

One can be ardently individualistic without being vernacular-selfish in the sense that one can be properly focused on one’s rational self-interest without being mean to anyone else and indeed without having to give up whatever social values one may have. (Even Ayn Rand was not against charity–as long as it was truly voluntary, and given because the giver valued it, not out of guilt or obligation.)

True individualism is not, however, compatible with any form of collectivism. Jay’s definition of justice seems to imply collectivism, but his writing is not easy for me to understand so I could be wrong about that.

Jay seems to imply that Ayn Rand believed that “the interests of the one and the many are intrinsically opposed.” I think it would be more accurate to say that she rejected the notion that there is any such thing as “the interest of the many.” One of her key points was that collectivism is completely wrong and completely unnecessary, that the idea of the “common good” is a false concept. That seems correct to me. The abstract concept of society is useful, but that doesn’t mean that society is properly considered as an actor.

I am not an Objectivist nor an expert on Rand but I am married to one, so I have a lot of exposure to these ideas. As far as I can tell, Rand’s philosophy is essentially correct but something like necessary but not sufficient. She does not appear to have understood psychology or love.

Jimmy J, on the other hand, clearly does. Thanks for another in an endless series of great comments JJ. I knew you would be the one to bring the threads together.

Nice work from all of the usual suspects–Geoffrey, nightelf, Gloria. Shrink has developed quite an impressive intellectual community.

Jay, I would be interested in learning more about your posiiton on the issue of the relationship between “the interests of the one and the many.” It is a significant point, but I don’t have any idea yet where you stand on it. I am not trying to be rude when I say I don’t understand your writing very well, I’m just trying to set the context. I really don’t get a lot of it so am reaching for the small nuggets I think I do get.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 4, 2009 at 12:46 am

Sarah,

I used Rand merely as an example. However, rational self-interest is really a kind of tautology, because if behavior is truly in one’s self-interest, it will be rational. All kinds of behavior may be immediately or accidentally pleasing to the self, but not, ultimately, in one’s self-interest. The ability to judge and determine self-interest, in contrast to self-gratification, is a product of the mature exercise of reason. The open questions, vis-à-vis the individual and the social unit, is what constitutes self-interest, which forms a perspective that will determine what is rational behavior in pursuit of it. Rand’s kind of free market of self-interests sets individuals in opposition to each other, since multitudes of radically self-centered interests will inevitably collide. Such would be not even believing in an “interest of the many,” as you proffer it – a disbelief that is patently absurd. Every form of community, however limited, argues for some degree of the interest of the many. Even if the purpose of the nation-state is limited to nothing but the common defense, that is an interest of the many. The first human who said, “You catch some sleep. I’ll sit by the fire” acknowledged an interest of the many and gave something of himself for it – and, of course, gained something for himself, his own period of unworried sleep, when he would have had none at all, because now someone was watching out for him. This is a very simple example of how (rational) self-interest is recognized and served by serving the interest of the many, which is pursued here in the knowledge that individuals will benefit by benefitting all. Conversely, in the same instance, the common good is served by serving the one: the safety and peace of mind the group experiences from fearless sleep in each individual generates a penumbra of additional benefits in human behavior that enhance the community through each individual. It all gets more complicated when, for instance, inequality of ability is added to the mix: no one, perhaps, feels all that safe when the little guy stands guard. However, this is the idea. It isn’t what is called enlightened self-interest, because that tends to elevate the common good above the individual good. In this example, they are at least functionally equal, even if, in the end, the ideal is, in fact, the individual, who nonetheless must give of herself to others to be fully served herself. Concerns about divvying up the spoils – which is certainly a part of the formula – produce in themselves a very limiting field of justice.

I am struck by the suspicion – for that it truly seems – that somewhere in my skeletal expression about justice as many people as did thought they were spying “collectivism.” Interesting that the very words “the many” and “harmony” (what a beautiful idea!) should produce such a reaction.

I do genuinely appreciate your interest in examining the ideas.

Reply

copithorne December 2, 2009 at 11:06 pm

My liberal manifesto would be simpler.

1. I prefer peace and prosperity over war and recession.
2. To achieve those outcomes, we’ll need to work together.

In my experience, contemporary conservative poliitical discourse is not oriented to identifying policy approaches to achieving these outcomes. Rather, it is organized to afford its members the consolations of being a victim and having enemies.

Reply

Jimmy J. December 2, 2009 at 3:03 pm

I, too, would like to examine #18. “The greater the justice, the greater the harmony.”

This intimates to me a belief in egalitarianism. Maybe that is not what Jay intended. If not then I am barking up the wrong tree. I’d just like to copy in a well known quote on the issues of egalitarianism by decree that I think we would all do well to consider:
“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatreds.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
William J.H. Boetker 1916

Okay, I’d also like to make a comment on #17. “One must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world.”
IMO, it is also true that one cannot love one’s neighbor until one truly love’s oneself. To love oneself is to know, deep down and on a basic level, that you are worthy and accepted; that you belong here. Unfortunately, many people don’t have this sense of inner love and peace. If we hold ourselves in low esteem, how can we love someone else? And therein lies much of the discord that arises between humans. Most people with a well developed sense of self-love gain it from the nurturing and love of their parents. Those who don’t get it often feel like they have a hole in their soul or are empty or worthless. They then seek some way to fill that inner hole. Some fill it with hate. Some fill it with drugs or alcohol. Others fill it with a desire to do “good” for others. And some try to fill it through a quest for power or riches. Some fill it, quite accidentally, through a transcendental experience that reveals to them that they are loved and truly belong here. When we have so many people with holes in their souls, is it any wonder that there is so little love of one’s neighbor or good will in the world? Before we can have widespread love of one’s neighbor or love of the world we must first have more people who love themselves. That is why loving parents are so necessary to a society or culture. Without parents who can raise children who are filled with self-love, a society regresses. I know this is a deeply spiritual issue and may well be rejected out of hand by any who reject spiritual or religious beliefs. So be it.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 2, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Jimmy, #18 was not intended to address the question of egalitarianism. However, if by egalitarian you mean equality before the law and systemic equality, i.e. institutional components of society do not recognize privilege of any kind other than that which is the reward for natural talent and ability, then you have indentified principle 26. Systematically ensured equality of outcome is not desirable, though structurally embedded and institutionalized advantages for the wealthy and powerful that tend toward oligarchy are destructive of functional democracy. Of your 9 cannots, 7 are unobjectionable. Number 3, however, is prejudicially formulated: one way to help small men is to prevent big men from keeping small men down. As for number 6, the best way to prevent class hatred and promote human fellowship is for no class to abuse another.

On number 17, I quite agree with you. And here is where 17 intersects with 18. There are many sources of these empty, dispirited lives. Some, perhaps the most crucial, are personal and familial. However, some are, at least in part, the product of historical and social circumstances. A concept of justice would include consideration of how society addresses its role in the lives of such people.

Of the principles, 18 is thus far receiving the greatest attention, and this is unsurprising to me. Justice is a huge subject, and some seem at odds with the fact that while writing a list of principles over the weekend I didn’t avail myself of the opportunity to revise Plato or John Rawls. Next weekend now looms large. Wacky Hermit has some interesting observations, including accounts of mathematical models that don’t offer the strongest support for his argument, which I nonetheless take very seriously. However, he considers the matter as a zero-sum game, equating justice with fairness of distribution – distributive justice. My invocation of the idea of harmony was in a different context – a very non-Western tradition in which harmony is even more important than justice. I don’t mean to substitute one for the other, but to suggest a reconciliation. Many on the left and right alike believe that the interests of the one and the many are intrinsically opposed. This idea is the product of a particular form of thinking. At the extreme, for instance, Ayn Rand explicitly identified individuality with selfishness. I hope we can agree that the most extreme form of a concept – what we might call its pathological conception – need not be the properly understood concept. One can be ardently individualistic without identifying that individualism with selfishness. It was not a definition, or a philosophical tome, but a description when Martin Luthor King Jr. identified as justice whatever uplifts human personality and as injustice whatever degrades human personality. No division of the spoils required there.

Reply

Nightelf December 2, 2009 at 9:41 am

I would like to add just one more thing (like Lt. Colombo) I would say it is a conservative principle that it is not the role of Government to make life fair for people. There will always be inequities, some people will have less than others, and we as individuals or as groups of associates may choose to try to alleviate suffering and help the needy by whatever means are at our disposal. For religious people it is considered an obligation. But it is not the job of government. A safety net, yes, but trying to even the odds of life, no.

Reply

Nightelf December 2, 2009 at 9:29 am

On the issue of justice, one of the most unsavory features of modern liberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, is ‘identity politics,’ the assumption that groups deserve to be treated as individuals. Not only do we have the difficulties of defining what justice is, we now have to define what is meant by ‘groups’. Everybody who can claim membership in a ‘victim group’ now has a claim on what Jay calls the ‘responsibility to the past.’

You can see that there is going to be much eye-gouging and clawing involved in the race to claim a slice of the affirmative action pie. In California this stuff became ridiculous; check boxes on application forms listed a number of racial/ethnic and other categories into which people had to be pidgeon-holed. Before prop 209 was passed for example you had admissions to the University of California heavily weighted in favor of blacks with generally poor academic records at the expense of Asians who were generally more adept at academics. In other words you had blatant racial discrimination at the expense of some ‘people of color’ in favor or others and you can’t by any stretch of the imagination say that was fair. A son of a wealthy middle-class black family with poor grades could beat out a poor white or Asian who has struggled and overcome great odds.

And are latinos ‘white’? Many of them are, very white. But they had to be defined as ‘people of color.’ Jews, considered ‘untermensch’ by the Nazis along with blacks and gypsies, are now considered ‘white’ by the politically correct.

Instead of actually helping the black students it hurt them. They were sent to UC Berkeley where the standards were much tougher and dropped out in large numbers when they would have done much better in other, less prestigious schools. At the same time they were labeled ‘affirmative action babies’ and a stigma was attached to their success. It created in many a sense of entitlement that harmed their chances of success in the real world. Whites and Asians felt the system unfair. ‘Justice’ in this sense certainly didn’t lead to harmony.

The only kind of justice that is anywhere near fair to everybody is to have a set of laws that applies to everybody equally. At one time this was a liberal idea, and a very good one. This was the goal of the original civil rights movement but at some point in the 1960s something went horribly wrong. Blacks no longer demanded equal accommodation they wanted special accommodation and guilty liberals were ready to give it to them.

If it is very difficult to balance the claims of individuals it is impossible to balance the claims groups. So Jay ought to say in more concrete terms what he means by ‘justice.’

Reply

Wacky Hermit December 2, 2009 at 5:53 am

I’ve only got time this morning to address one point with which I disagree, so I’ll address #18, “The greater the justice, the greater the harmony.” I like Marvin’s observations, being a parent myself, but this is mine.

My Master’s paper was on fair division, which is mathematical ways to divide a limited resource fairly among interested parties who differ in their opinions of the value of various parts of the resource. (If their opinions all concur, it’s trivial to divide the resource evenly between them.) And it is on this grounds that I find premise #18 faulty. In order to conduct a fair division, one must first decide what constitutes “fairness” and then choose an algorithm that produces a division that’s “fair” in that way. There are algorithms that produce results where everyone feels they’ve gotten more than their fair share, but that doesn’t preclude them getting a share that’s only slightly more than fair while their neighbor gets one that’s substantially more than fair. So-called “envy free” divisions avoid this, but they can’t be applied in all cases, and in the case of one algorithm, may go on forever without stopping. The stricter you make the fairness criterion, the harder it is to produce a fair division.

But then again, human beings never were ones to listen to such nerdy talk. Human nature is such that even in the most homogeneous communities, people find a way to manufacture out-groups and do them all manner of injustice. Anyone who’s lived for even a short while in a small town, gone to high school, attended a club meeting, etc. has seen this phenomenon in action. In fact we see that the more homogeneous the community, the more people fight over increasingly trivial divisions.

Since a prerequisite to justice is everyone feeling they’ve been fairly done by, and since harmony can fail to be accomplished even in the presence of justice, I fail to see a direct relationship between justice and harmony.

Reply

Geoffrey Britain December 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Mr. Adler,

Thank you for the substantive response, I too welcome the engagement of “ideas, and me, rather than opting for one of a variety of easy outs.”

“Extremism in the defense of liberty or any other idea leads to terror and tyranny.” An ‘unnecessary extreme’ is, of course one thing, but to what ‘extreme’, necessary… to the defense of liberty, to free speech, to freedom of worship, would you refuse?

“Well, a policy of torture, for instance, as I already have.”
Ah, torture. Well… every civilized person is against inflicting pain upon another, correct?

But lets do a little mind experiment and place the ethical issues into the real world for someone that cannot rely upon merely facile, ivory tower pronouncements of idealistic principle.

In the real world it is not beyond the realm of future possibility (in fact, it may have already happened) for a US intelligence operative to face an all too realistic conundrum; a terrorist has information that a nuclear terrorist attack is scheduled to occur in a major US city. If not stopped, potentially millions of Americans will die. Additionally, to make sure there’s no wiggle room in our scenario, no other lead to that information exists.

Time constraints prevent the employment of alternative methods of ‘persuasion’ and so the choice is simple; get the information by whatever means necessary or allow millions to die…now to make the issue crystal clear…you Jay, are that agent and, so what shall you do?

Millions of actual lives and the utter emotional devastation to millions more relatives and friends rest upon your actions, not to mention the financial wreckage to the nation and the national psyche that will result OR you will be forced to live with the stain upon your soul that torturing another human being will bring.

Whether or not this is probable Jay, the question is, if it did happen, what would you do?

Upon that question, rests the responsibility for millions upon millions of lives…

“The human species is a technological species.” Humans are a socializing, pair bonding species. Technology is simply the result of our curiosity.

Human beings are many things. Characteristic features needn’t be exclusive of one another. …It is mastery of technology that has led to human dominance over all other species.”

I believe you implied that human beings primary characteristic is technological. If that was not your intention I would have thought you’d so state. Certainly human beings are many things and I did not indicate otherwise, nor did I indicate that any characteristic feature is exclusive. Human dominance over all other species is the result of our highly developed brain, upright posture and opposable thumb. Those factors allow us unquestioned dominance, and it is technology that has led to our dominance over all species. I simply disagree that technological mastery is the primary distinguishing characteristic of humanity.

“Yankees rule. (The baseball team.)” ‘Ruling’ and justice can be incompatible; Steinbrenner’s ‘buying’ the championship is legal. It also deeply violates the very spirit of both the game and of athletic competition itself. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, as whether acknowledged or not, that violation fatally lessens the value of what has been ‘bought’.

“It is not a mere matter of legality. The entire structure of team building and player acquisition is based on money. All franchises build their teams by – at some point in the players’ development – contracting to purchase the service of those players. This is how teams are assembled and developed. What is the dollar amount – $50 million, $150 million, $350 million – at which the “spirit” of the game detaches from its currency? In addition, the Yankees’ failure before this year to win a World Series since 2000 is only one of many examples that money does not buy a cohesive, championship winning team, as are the many decades of Yankee success in the years prior to free agency and high salaries.”

While true that money is an unavoidable aspect of team building, your analysis conveniently avoids the important factor of the Farm System. In 2000 the Yankees farm system was ranked the best in the AL, it’s now rated at the bottom. A Farm System is the way to develop talent honestly. Purchasing the services of skilled players your Farm System has not developed in a timely manner is fine but not when it becomes your primary method of acquisition.

It’s not so much the $ amount spent, it’s the abandonment by the Yankees of their primary vehicle for developing talent, from their farm system to just buying the best players. They are using other teams farm systems to nurture and develop talent and then swooping in to buy up the best prospects. That’s a fact and it deeply violates the very spirit of athletic competition. No amount of rationalization can change that fact. If ‘winning’ is so important that sportsmanship is abandoned, then the very meaning of athletic competition has been lost.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 2, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Mr. Britain,

I’ll continue to narrow my responses in anticipation of Shrink’s reply, but, again, my responses here will further clarify matters.

Millions of actual lives and the utter emotional devastation to millions more relatives and friends rest upon your actions, not to mention the financial wreckage to the nation and the national psyche that will result OR you will be forced to live with the stain upon your soul that torturing another human being will bring.

Whether or not this is probable Jay, the question is, if it did happen, what would you do?

Upon that question, rests the responsibility for millions upon millions of lives…

I have addressed this issue before, here and here. However unlikely (hardly impossible) such scenarios may be, discounting them is an evasion of the issue. Circumstances appearing to require it, I would do what was necessary. My first link addresses what I think should then follow. This is why, in my earlier response to you, I referred to a policy of torture, which regrettably, this nation had for some time under the previous administration.

I believe you implied that human beings primary characteristic is technological. If that was not your intention I would have thought you’d so state. Certainly human beings are many things and I did not indicate otherwise, nor did I indicate that any characteristic feature is exclusive. Human dominance over all other species is the result of our highly developed brain, upright posture and opposable thumb. Those factors allow us unquestioned dominance, and it is technology that has led to our dominance over all species. I simply disagree that technological mastery is the primary distinguishing characteristic of humanity.

And, of course, it is the highly developed brain and the opposable thumb (being upright doesn’t hurt either) that has enabled technology. Look at the dolphins: no thumb and their all at sea. At any rate, however we may have misread each other, identifying a definitive characteristic of the species was not my purpose. You have pointed out, correctly, I think, how technology can lead to isolating behaviors; I am arguing that another profound effect of technology is on the ethical dimension of social and political relations.

On the crucial issue of the Yankees, you now seem – having touted the New York farm system as of 2000 – to have narrowed your objection to the 2009 championship, which would leave 28 ethically uncontested conquests of the inferior competition. I could respond regarding 2009, but I think this the appropriate time to call on SW for a little bipartisan Big Apple solidarity.

Reply

Marvin December 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm

“The greater the justice, the greater the harmony”

Bull. Consider the following examples:

Justice from young people’s point of view: each child in a society should be given the same opportunities growing up. From the parent’s point of view this would be a gross injustice. A parent who works hard to benefit his kids does it precisely to ensure that his kids get more than the lazy neighbor’s. Which justice would you enforce and how would you achieve harmony?

Justice from the men’s point of view: each man should get a woman to mate with no matter what kind of sucker he is. No man should get more than a few wives (so as not to leave others mate-less). Justice from the women’s point of view: a woman should choose a partner she likes most. If a man is a sucker he might not get a woman. If a man is Tiger Woods women want at least to be able to compete over him. Finally for some it might be better to be 107th wife of a multi-billionaire than the only wife of Joe the Plumber. Which justice would you enforce here? Where will you find harmony?

Justice from the guy with IQ of 80: I work very hard digging ditches all day. Surely I should live as well or better than my neighbor who works 4 hours a day by writing e-mails. From his neighbor with IQ 145 point of view: I produce more value in 15 minutes than this guy in a week. Surely my 10 times bigger salary is just an proper. Which justice do you prefer here?

And so it goes. Justice is in the eyes of the beholder. There is no objective standard of justice and there is no scale of measuring it. Harmony in human affairs is unreachable because human interests are often inherently in conflict.

This issue is one of the deepest sources of disagreement between liberals and rational people. And this is the deepest reason why all your liberal utopias end up being tyrannies. Once you set up to achieve higher justice you inevitably will need to force people who don’t see it as such to obey.

I suggest you at least consider what happens when you base your philosophy on freedom and golden rule rather than justice.

Reply

Geoffrey Britain December 1, 2009 at 6:04 pm

An interesting mix of premises and assertions, some of which and unsurprisingly, I disagree.

“While civilizations and nations are aimed at the future, they are driven by the past.”
Civilizations and nations manifest the stage of maturity they embody. As, composed of human beings, human societies necessarily reflect the stages of growth of individual human beings; there are infantile societies, adolescent, young adult, mature adult, and elderly, calcified ones. Before the west’s conquering of China, it was almost entirely oriented toward the past. ‘Modern’ Islamic societies social orientation is almost entirely ‘aimed’ at preserving a past of millennia ago.

“Nations, like people, are responsible for their actions. They act as historically and legally conceived and constituted entities, and they are responsible as historical and legal entities.”
A premise of limited applicability, as responsibility and accountability necessarily entail authority, for without authority there is no direct ability to effect the decisions and actions of the larger group. Most liberals did not support the continuation of the war in Iraq. They lacked the ability to stop it. As they had no control over the continuation of a war they did not support, by what calculus can they be assigned accountability?

When discussing historical responsibility of prior generations, it equates to “the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children”. In an immigrant society such as ours, justice is violated by imposing burdens of obligations upon people whose ancestors were not even part of the ‘oppressors’.

“The animating determinant of historic national responsibility is in the living consequences of past acts: no continuing consequences, no conceivable responsibility.”
‘Living consequences’ is a ‘slippery eel’ indeed, for to whom shall the decision be given as to where the line of demarcation between others’ social animosities and ones’ individual responsibility is set? At what point does a descendant’s avoidance of individual responsibility obviate a societies ‘historic responsibility’?

“The past cannot be undone, but the future can be different; this is accomplished through understanding and acknowledgement of the past and accountability for it.”
Understanding and acknowledgement of the past are necessary for the future to be different. ‘Historical accountability’ implies compensation. When evil intentions are absent, rarely is a conflict one sided in responsibility. Once responsibility in a conflict is shared, the lines blur as to where justice lies.

“Accountability for the past is policy for the future.”
Only bad policy, counter productive and ultimately unjust to both sides can arise from policies based in ‘accountability’. After WWI, the Allies assigned ‘accountability’ to Germany, it led to Hitler and 50 million dead.

“The colonial epoch is ended. Its consequences are not.”
The consequences of the colonial epoch are the result of individual decisions, on both sides. How is it that on the American continent, the American colonists were oppressed to such a degree that revolt against England was necessary, yet achieved a generally positive outcome? I would argue that more than any other factor it was a combination of societal optimism and the cultural values the American colonists embraced. Cultural factors like a hard work ethic, allegiance to the Ten Commandments, the embracing of education with a concomitant admiration of reason and logic and commitment to the shared goal of creating a new nation worthy of individual allegiance and emulation by other societies.

“One must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world.”
Many neighbors are not worthy of our love because they behave in a way unworthy of respect. In order to love someone unworthy of our respect, one must posit a transcendent ideal, the sole one of which I am aware is the premise that we are all God’s children and, that those who ‘misbehave’ are, in general, ‘lost’ souls. Concomitantly, all one needs to love the world is to accept the concept that it is the creation of a loving God. Then, any neighbor’s lack of character is irrelevant to the environment we inhabit.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty or any other idea leads to terror and tyranny.”
An ‘unnecessary extreme’ is, of course one thing, but to what ‘extreme’, necessary… to the defense of liberty, to free speech, to freedom of worship, would you refuse?

“The human species is a technological species.”
Humans are a socializing, pair bonding species. Technology is simply the result of our curiosity.

“Technology increases affective connections”
Sometimes but as a generalization that is a highly questionable assertion. In fact, frequently technology results in isolation. To list but a few examples; the Internet, work at home singles, teenagers (and adults) in public listening to ipods and even home theaters are not conducive to socialization and social interaction.

“Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.”
Some forms of governance are undeniably bad, such as dictators, totalitarian regimes and repressive religious theocracies. Governance itself is necessary, however size is important and governments larger than “the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it” are invariably bad. You indicate why when you state, “A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement.”

“Yankees rule. (The baseball team.)”
‘Ruling’ and justice can be incompatible; Steinbrenner’s ‘buying’ the championship is legal. It also deeply violates the very spirit of both the game and of athletic competition itself. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, as whether acknowledged or not, that violation fatally lessens the value of what has been ‘bought’.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 1, 2009 at 8:24 pm

How refreshing that a commenter has actually engaged the ideas, and me, rather than opting for one of a variety of easy outs. The principles were intended as a starting point for examination and discussion so that that goal of identifying differences in foundational belief might be furthered. I’ll await Shrink’s response before additionally engaging the ideas at any length, but there may be benefit early on in clarifying (only) a few of the points to which you respond.

“Accountability for the past is policy for the future.” Only bad policy, counter productive and ultimately unjust to both sides can arise from policies based in ‘accountability’. After WWI, the Allies assigned ‘accountability’ to Germany, it led to Hitler and 50 million dead.

The Entente powers after WWI held Germany accountable badly. Any act or process can be performed well or poorly. The Allies also held Germany, and Japan, accountable after WWII. This assignment of responsibility has worked out extraordinarily well.

“One must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world.” Many neighbors are not worthy of our love because they behave in a way unworthy of respect. In order to love someone unworthy of our respect, one must posit a transcendent ideal, the sole one of which I am aware is the premise that we are all God’s children and, that those who ‘misbehave’ are, in general, ‘lost’ souls. Concomitantly, all one needs to love the world is to accept the concept that it is the creation of a loving God. Then, any neighbor’s lack of character is irrelevant to the environment we inhabit.

I was not promoting a religious idea here. I contrast “neighbor” and “world” as markers of scale. The suggestion is not that one must, literally, love all (or, really, any) of one’s neighbors – I am from New York, after all – but that meaningful community association begins close to home and is contentless abstraction on very expansive levels, e.g. world government or a “community of nations,” if it does not arise first out of personal affinities within one’s immediate locale, on a national level, etc. This seemed a principle that conservatives would find agreeable.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty or any other idea leads to terror and tyranny.” An ‘unnecessary extreme’ is, of course one thing, but to what ‘extreme’, necessary… to the defense of liberty, to free speech, to freedom of worship, would you refuse?

Well, a policy of torture, for instance, as I already have.

“The human species is a technological species.” Humans are a socializing, pair bonding species. Technology is simply the result of our curiosity.

Human beings are many things. Characteristic features needn’t be exclusive of one another. But while Aristotle famously said that man is a social animal, so too are many other animals. It is mastery of technology that has led to human dominance over all other species.

“Technology increases affective connections” Sometimes but as a generalization that is a highly questionable assertion. In fact, frequently technology results in isolation. To list but a few examples; the Internet, work at home singles, teenagers (and adults) in public listening to ipods and even home theaters are not conducive to socialization and social interaction.

I did not mean that technology always increases affective connections – it can, indeed, as you point out produce isolating behavior – but that such is one of its profound effects. One cannot, for instance, feel any moral responsibility to intervene and stop a genocide on another continent if one only learns of the genocide once it is over. The sense of moral responsibility that many feel in such a situation grows out of the immediacy of our knowledge, produced by technology. It is, more generally, for most of us, easier to isolate the negative realities of other people’s lives and the consequences of those realities, if we are psychologically removed from those people by a literal, physical distance, a distance that technology removes.

“Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.” Some forms of governance are undeniably bad, such as dictators, totalitarian regimes and repressive religious theocracies. Governance itself is necessary, however size is important and governments larger than “the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it” are invariably bad.

Again, it was the concept of government – governance, as you term it – to which I referred. Of course, there can be bad and, oh, shall I say “less bad” forms and instances of government. With your last statement above, I agree. The whole matter, of course, centers on the issue of “the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.”

“Yankees rule. (The baseball team.)” ‘Ruling’ and justice can be incompatible; Steinbrenner’s ‘buying’ the championship is legal. It also deeply violates the very spirit of both the game and of athletic competition itself. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, as whether acknowledged or not, that violation fatally lessens the value of what has been ‘bought’.

It is not a mere matter of legality. The entire structure of team building and player acquisition is based on money. All franchises build their teams by – at some point in the players’ development – contracting to purchase the service of those players. This is how teams are assembled and developed. What is the dollar amount – $50 million, $150 million, $350 million – at which the “spirit” of the game detaches from its currency? In addition, the Yankees’ failure before this year to win a World Series since 2000 is only one of many examples that money does not buy a cohesive, championship winning team, as are the many decades of Yankee success in the years prior to free agency and high salaries. I could make many analogies to U.S. wealth and power, but I’ll spare us all.

Reply

Gloria December 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

Conservatives believe in human reason. Human reason, if it is not to be mere doxa (Ancient Greek, meaning ‘mere untrammeled opinion’) needs to ground itself on basic principles. Here in the West we have two and one-half millennia of thought about the various possibilities of what these principles are. These possibilities in our time include Kant’s theories of Peace, Hegel’s and Heidegger’s thoughts on the foundations of technology and its growth in the West, Nietzsche’s theory of values and how morality arose, Rawl’s theory of Justice, etc.

Given all that is available in Western civilization, I am sorry to point out that Jay’s list is simply a jumble. I suspect that it is the case that the list actually demonstrates the profound difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives acknowledge and build upon everything good that has been done and known in the past. Liberals take Descartes’ statement literally, “I think, therefore I am,” and posit their own limited egos as the foundation of civilization. I apologize for being so harsh on you Mr. Adler, but this is what happens when you ignore your own civilization’s great works.

Reply

Nightelf December 1, 2009 at 9:50 am

Flash hits on an important point: contemporary liberals appear to be weak on national defense and reluctant to call terrorists terrorists. At the same time many liberals appear to despise both the military and free enterprise. That’s the problem of giving in to the far left. It seems to me to be that contemporary liberalism is significantly changed in recent years from traditional liberalism. I think that a significant number of conservatives were, and in fact still are, traditional liberals who are alarmed at excessive government spending, regulation of people’s lives, appropriations of their wealth and weakness in foreign affairs. Saying that US policy caused the attacks on 9/11 soiled liberalism permanently in the minds of many.

Many of Jay’s ‘principles’ appear to be nothing more than homilies; i.e. “The greater the justice, the greater the harmony.” What does this mean anyway? Unless the terms are defined it is meaningless. What is justice? You might as well say “I believe that justice is good! Peace is good! Harmony is good! Goodness is good!”

Of course I don’t expect Jay to represent all, or even most liberals. He is speaking for himself. If he was representative of liberalism today he’d have to state in his principles that Government is not, as conservatives believe, a necessary evil but is in fact the answer to all our social problems and the bigger the government the better. Some of Jay’s ‘principles’ to me just don’t seem to make sense. “Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows.” Perhaps it’s his rather convoluted writing style. I recall a quote from Dylan Thomas: “Thomas Hardy wrestled with the english language like an arthritic wrestler grappling with a recalcitrant tree.”

What I notice most in Jay’s outline of principles is little reference to the freedoms defined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He states, “[Government] should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.” Ha! So government can and “should” grow to bloated proportions just as long as it fulfills the responsibilities that liberals judge it to require, and who cares about the degree to which liberty is blotted out in the process? To a conservative the growth of government necessarily diminishes liberty. Just look at the rage and dismay liberals show about the ‘tea parties’, “How dare those people object to us taking over their lives. Don’t they know it’s for their own good? They’re just a bunch of ignorant racists anyway!”

Reply

Flash Gordon December 1, 2009 at 8:58 am

Number 24 says terror and tyranny must be opposed and freedom and democracy defended. Liberals do not believe any of that.

They do not believe terror exists, not when a soldier of Allah murders 13 people and wounds 30 while shouting “allahu akbar” and liberals claim it was just a “tragedy,” and definitely not terrorism. Not when the mastermind of 911 is treated as a common criminal and given all the rights of a citizen under the U.S. Constitution and put on trial within a few hundred yards of the place where he destroyed 3,000 lives, instead of being treated as the enemy combatant and terrorist that he is. Liberals are responsible for this; they support this sort of thing, they do neither oppose terrorism nor believe that it even exists.

Liberals are not willing to fight tyranny. They relentlessly try to thwart every effort to do so by weakening the ability of our intelligence agencies to gather information on terrorist activities both in the USA and abroad.

Freedom? Give me a break. Taking over health care and making rules for how, when and where we may see a doctor, establishing death panels to decide who lives and who dies, and taxing us into oblivion to support a boondoggle for Democrat politicians is not supporting freedom.

Liberals hate democracy. They do not want anything decided by voters because the voters won’t support their radical ideas. Instead, the want liberal judges to impose their plans and policies on an unwilling public. Liberals do non even want those few things that voters do get to have a say on to be decided in fair and open elections. Otherwise, ACORN would not exist; SEIU thugs that beat the crap out of a conservative Black man for voicing ideas they don’t like would not enjoy such a prominent voice in liberal politics; and the New Black Panthers would not be given a pass by the Obama justice department to intimidate voters at polling places.

You are a confused man, Mr. Jay. An open mind? Not you.

Reply

Naomi November 30, 2009 at 11:56 am

Dear Scriptor (scriba?)

Very well put. I would very much like to sign my name to this commie manifesto. Bravo!

Best,

Naomi

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: