Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

On Happiness

Interesting, philosophical discussion at the NY Times on happiness, and, in particular, how our use of language and our stated preferences for some conssonance between activity, reality, effort, and ethics, on the one hand, and our feelings of pleasure, on the other, in some measure defy the materialist and reductionist spirit of the age.

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I have to confess, I’ve found Andrew Sullivan quite unbearable for some time.  He is an emotional basket case.  His opinions, overwrought.  He switches from position to position without apology and without acknowledging the strident, uncompromising, and directly opposed stances he took earlier. This is nowhere more evident than in his embrace of the nation building project in Iraq, only to turn on it at the first sight of (predictable) trouble.  But the area where he really bugs me is more subtle:  his use of conservative philosophers to shore up his standard-issue liberal beliefs.

Sullivan is an educated man.  He studied philosophy at Oxford and had a particular interest in Michael Oakeshott.  I read Oakeshott rather carefully once upon a time.  He is incredibly interesting.  And his most important insights appear in his major essay, “Rationalism in Politics.”  This essay diagnoses much of the folly of the modern age.  His key insight has to do with the nature of political and philosophical knowledge.  He observes that much that is “known” is not written down and cannot be written down.  By this he means the subtype of knowledge embedded in the experience, folk wisdom, and traditions of everyday life.  What he calls political rationalism is deliberately blind to the existence and importance of this kind of knowledge.  He concludes that only a foolish, cocky, immature, and somewhat immoral man would proceed, as the liberal rationalist does, to tear all of this experiential knowledge down because it deviates from an untested and overly certain vision of the good concocted in the mind of the rationalist.

Oakeshott writes as follows in Rationalism in Politics:

The general character and disposition of the Rationalist are, I think., difficult to identify. At bottom he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself. . . .

To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform.

Who does this remind one of?

Sullivan apparently wrote his dissertation on Oakeshott, while at Harvard.  He clearly knows Oakeshott’s ouevre.  However, he crystalizes this teaching for his readers into the insight that liberal change must merely be gradual.  As in his use of Burke, for Sullivan it’s obvious that certain liberal ends–equality, gay marriage, devolution of religion in public life–need to be accomplished. All right thinking people think so.  The conservatism he embraces, at most, relates to tactics; the end goals are unmistakably (and unquestionably) liberal, egalitarian, and contemptuous of “superstition” and “prejudice.”

Of course, this view of things did not always prevail.  It was certainly not true for Oakeshott himself, who found much of liberalism troubling, not least because of its denigration of alternatives due to the rationalist blinders which are coincident with the whole of liberal thought. Indeed, Oakeshott was a little curmudgeonly, taking occasional digs at feminism and much else that is obviously correct to the rationalist, liberal and “educated man” of today.  But Sullivan abstracts from his writing only that we must move slowly.

Let’s be clear:  Sullivan imagines himself the arbiter of conservatism and finds others wanting, but this is chiefly because he misreads and misstates conservatism’s philosophers, especially Burke and Oakeshott.  Consider Sullivan’s latest:

Following Oakeshott, I have long believed that the liberal and the conservative strands in Anglo-American political tradition and discourse are complementary. Oakeshott sketched these two ways of seeing the world – enterprise association (collectivism at worst, patriotism at best) and civil association (selfishness at worst, individualism at best) – and believed the genius of modern European politics and the Anglo-American tradition lay in using each resource as befits changing circumstances. There are moments in a country’s history when collective action is required; ditto when a resurgence of individualism is necessary. The question is judging when, a matter of prudential judgment that true statesmen or women alone can discern.

That’s why I see no contradiction between backing Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s and Obama today.

It’s true that in politics balancing interests and proper timing are appropriate concerns.  Oscillation between town and country, strong and weak government, democracy and elitism, and the like are natural features of all healthy self-government.  These oscillations were true, for example, in the age of Tories and Whigs, neither of which was identifiably liberal.  These differences were also true of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Jacksonians and American Whigs, and other strains of early American thought.  Yet all these different strains–Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, etc.–only find a home on the right.  The liberal tradition is entirely new and entirely hostile to large swaths of the earlier American traditions.

Sullivan chooses not to recognize how different liberalism is from other political views, in particular in its uncompromising approach to advancing its ends, its denigration of other modes of politics, its high regard for itself, and in its contempt for all that is traditional and inherited.  In other words, in spite of all of his Oakeshott research, Andrew Sullivan denies and misstates the main theme and the most important insight of Oakeshott.

Indeed, if nothing else, we can agree that the grandeur, triumphalism, self-confidence, and quasi-religious fervor that surrounded Obama’s campaign and the ambitiousness of his policies are very un-Burkean, regardless of whether one thinks he is a “necessary man.”  Obama’s approach is just short of revolutionary, with little regard for how things have been done before or the increasingly distressed cries of resistance from the common people.  He is the visionary politician, imposing a social justice vision on a society hidebound by outdated ideals from a bygone era. Sullivan is impressed, and he is impressed because he thinks this is exactly what America needs right now.

Oakeshott knew, as all real conservatives know, that the teachings and insights of liberalism were not “obviously true” for many men for many generations.  And he also knew that even true ideas must show some decent respect for the habits and values of the people upon whom they would be imposed.  As for the substance of liberalism and its supposed connection now to our common life:  much of it would not be considered true by anyone at all, but for the massive propaganda campaign undertaken over the last two or three generations in our media, universities, and public schools.  This has been a campaign designed to stamp out all that does not fit the liberal program, whether it is race prejudice, prejudice in favor of traditional marriage, preference for one’s own and aversion to change, skepticism of pseudo-scientific plans and political utopianism, and all the rest. The widespread consensus favoring such liberal views among elites–and their widespread rejection by those who have not had a certain kind of education–suggests that the liberal program is false, fragile, artificial, or, at the very least, not obviously true.

Now, change of a certain kind is natural.  Circumstances change, and institutions rightly change to accommodate these.  Even justice itself can often be advanced from some former blind spot, as it has been in different times and places by once insensitive rulers.   But this kind of change, which happens everywhere, is far different from what Sullivan wants with regard to gay marriage or national healthcare  For Sullivan and other liberals, it’s obvious that the old regime is only rooted in prejudice and thus definitely wrong on that basis alone.  What he sees as likes are being treated unalike, and this will not do. It all must fit!   The possibility that some damage may happen to society from tinkering with age-old customs of marriage or undoing a working, but mish-mashed, health system is far from his mind.

For Sullivan, it is obvious that the historical direction of change is a liberal one.  He believes himself a conservative solely because he wants to take it slow.  And by slow,  he means what everyone else would call blindingly fast:  after a sustained propaganda campaign of ten years or so by everyone from Oprah to MTV and Harvard Law School, he and his peers have concluded that the time is right for undoing 10,000 years of exclusively heterosexual marriage.

What Sullivan cannot see is the way rationalism skews this and every other debate through vilification of opponents, rejection of whole classes of evidence, and unquestioned assumptions about the “natural” direction of society.  While views have been changing, gay marriage in particular has not been much of a debate.  The opponents of this change have been mocked and rejected and silenced by every institution of liberal authority in our society.   And when advocates of traditional marriage have nonetheless succeeded at the ballot box, entire masses of people–more than half the state of liberal-minded California for example–are castigated by the liberal intelligentsia as haters.

What Sullivan wants with regard to health care, gay marriage, and Obama is hardly conservative, and the writings of Oakeshott to which he appeals (but does not often quote for the benefit of his readers) make this plain.  Since Sullivan undoubtedly knows what Oakeshott really wrote and really thought, this reduction of his philosophy to an anodyne counsel of “taking it easy” makes Sullivan a propagandist, a con artist of the worst type.

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One interesting phenomenon of our times is that the old-fashioned view that one may act on the basis of sincere belief has been hammered out of existence.  We don’t even say, “I think” or “I believe” anymore.  It’s “I feel.”

When a Muslim Pakistani tries to blow up Times Square, the establishment immediately search for an explanation in something demented about his individual psychology:  his economic circumstances, personality, and social relations.  The news media say, literally, “Motive a Mystery.”  Really?  But what of his beliefs?  His religion?  His ideas?   These real motives escape notice.  This can’t be the actual reason.  Such events can happen a million more times, but, for the liberal observer, the cause still must be found in individual psychology and possibly by something our evil society did.  It’s Rousseau on depressants.  Mayor Bloomberg and Contessa Brewer were both sad to find out the perpetrator was a Muslim.  Not because they are Muslims, but because the sincere, believing conservatives and Christians in their midst, those whose apparent motivation is sincere belief, find encouragement for their non-materialist worldview when men like Faisal Shazad rear their heads.  Genuine, religious conservatives understand and can explain their mirror-image opponents, the Muslims, with greater fidelity than the liberal who thinks all human action derives from the individual and his psychological impulses.

And why this assumption by the liberal?  I suspect it’s because their stated ideas–concern for the poor, a belief in social justice–are not what motivate those who talk this way; their beliefs are a thin veneer that do not explain their real drivers, an inner psychology made up of a will to pleasure and power coupled with half-thoughts such as guilty feelings about privilege, unease with inequality (including their own), fear of death (and therefore terror at suffering), and discomfort with the world in general.  Ideas and their explanatory power are denied entry into his mental universe by a thorough-going materialist nihilism.  “That’s just, like, your opinion man!”

For him, man is just a sophisticated ape, a mere bundle of atoms, impulses, and instincts.  Ideas don’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense in this world, because this world is defined by an all encompassing meta-idea that says every alleged idea is the mere epiphenomenon of some material cause:  thanatos, id, primitive group identity, or the residue of an abusive childhood.  Real ideas don’t exist as ideas to such people, and thus they can’t imagine they really exist for others.   So the ideas that actually explain things–that men are not really equal, that there is real evil in the world, that all people can’t live together peaceably so long as their ideas are in conflict, that the material explanation is incomplete–are immediately rejected, disappearing like idealist antimatter coliding with the materialist pseudoreality of existence.

There are many glaring gaps of illogic for the materialist; under this worldview, real human connection becomes impossible.  It becomes impossible because the highest connection, the search for truth, cannot occur under such circumstances.  Real truth is not considered to be intelligible, and this single simulacrum of a philosophical idea alone is allowed to exist.  The humane bridge between men of reason and thought and discussion can’t be allowed.  Sex and pleasure and distraction assume disproportionate significance, as these intense and also human experiences allow in a limited way the connection erased by the anti-philosophical materialism.  Villains who dare to expose these inconsistencies must be punished and psychopathologized.  And thus the Muslim is just treated like an alien force–a “human-caused catastrophe,” inexplicable through the perpetrator’s beliefs and ideas.  The more well known and hated idealism of native conservatives and Christians must be rejected with the greatest possible vigor.  Such men, unlike the foriegn Muslim, might actually persuade your fellows and retake control of the world wrought by the liberal revolution.

For the liberal anti-culture, the stated beliefs of the conservative are more familiar and more seductive.  There is almost no chance your daughter would go off to Harvard and become a Muslim fundamentalist.  On the other hand, she may become gripped by a conservative or Christian impulse, dissatisfied at some point in your life–perhaps when barren–by the false promises of feminism and materialism and nihilism.  And thus those who might lead her this way, are hated, rejected, and minimized by psychological reductionism.

For the man of ideas, the terrorist’s motives are obvious:  he thinks what he is doing is right, he believes God wants him to do it, he thinks those against whom he is striking are evil, and he is read and deduced this from the Koran which he takes to be divine revelation.  And this forthright and clear explanation, an explanation with predictive power, actually disempowers the terrorist more than the patronizing willful ignorance of liberals, whose entire worldview is threatened more by the acknowledgment of ideas (any ideas) than the conservative is by the violent expression of false ideas by the Muslim.  The false idea can be argued against or suppressed by force barring that.  For the liberal materialist, to acknowledge that anyone is sincerely motivated by ideas would expose the poverty of his own worldview.

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While I don’t always agree with him, I do think Charles Krauthammer is one of the most articulate observers of foreign policy and often makes a great deal of sense, particularly when he’s adhering to realism and not getting distracted by his monomania on certain Near Eastern countries.  His discussion of why the Democrats persisted on their Armenian gambit is quite sensible:

So why has Pelosi been so committed to bringing this resolution to the floor? (At least until a revolt within her party and the prospect of defeat caused her to waver.) Because she is deeply unserious about foreign policy. This little stunt gets added to the ledger: first, her visit to Syria, which did nothing but give legitimacy to Bashar al-Assad, who continues to engage in the systematic murder of pro-Western Lebanese members of parliament; then, her letter to Costa Rica’s ambassador, just nine days before a national referendum, aiding and abetting opponents of a very important free-trade agreement with the United States.

Is the Armenian resolution her way of unconsciously sabotaging the U.S. war effort, after she had failed to stop it by more direct means? I leave that question to psychiatry. Instead, I fall back on Krauthammer’s razor (with apologies to Occam): In explaining any puzzling Washington phenomenon, always choose stupidity over conspiracy, incompetence over cunning. Anything else gives them too much credit.

It’s really true that many of the bad things that big organizations do can be explained conspiratorially, when really a combination of bad luck, group think, and sheer stupidity often turn out to be the real causes.

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Lawrence Auster has an interesting post today that notes that one of the prime engines of neoconservative folly is this idea that everyone “deserves” liberty and that we, therefore, having the ability, owe it to strange peoples to “give them freedom.”

His post reminded me of something I read long ago in the Liberty Fund’s collection of John C. Calhoun’s works, which is now generously available on line. While often a callous defender of slavery (which had little regard for justice and the interests of the people it was supposedly civilizing), like most free people in slave societies, Calhoun had a very detailed and nuanced sense of what it meant to be free and was, accordingly, a thoughtful defender of freedom at least for his own people.  He writes something here of universal application that shows the inherent folly of the neoconservative utopianism:

[T]he worst form of government, is better than anarchy; and that individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction from without; for the safety and well-being of society is as paramount to individual liberty, as the safety and well-being of the race is to that of individuals; and in the same proportion, the power necessary for the safety of society is paramount to individual liberty. On the contrary, government has no right to control individual liberty beyond what is necessary to the safety and well-being of society. Such is the boundary which separates the power of government and the liberty of the citizen or subject in the political state, which, as I have shown, is the natural state of man—the only one in which his race can exist, and the one in which he is born, lives, and dies.

It follows from all this that the quantum of power on the part of the government, and of liberty on that of individuals, instead of being equal in all cases, must necessarily be very unequal among different people, according to their different conditions. For just in proportion as a people are ignorant, stupid, debased, corrupt, exposed to violence within and danger from without, the power necessary for government to possess, in order to preserve society against anarchy and destruction becomes greater and greater, and individual liberty less and less, until the lowest condition is reached, when absolute and despotic power becomes necessary on the part of the government, and individual liberty extinct. So, on the contrary, just as a people rise in the scale of intelligence, virtue, and patriotism, and the more perfectly they become acquainted with the nature of government, the ends for which it was ordered, and how it ought to be administered, and the less the tendency to violence and disorder within, and danger from abroad, the power necessary for government becomes less and less, and individual liberty greater and greater. Instead, then, of all men having the same right to liberty and equality, as is claimed by those who hold that they are all born free and equal, liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances. Instead, then, of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won—and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.

They have been made vastly more so by the dangerous error I have attempted to expose, that all men are born free and equal, as if those high qualities belonged to man without effort to acquire them, and to all equally alike, regardless of their intellectual and moral condition. The attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined. While it is powerful to pull down governments, it is still more powerful to prevent their construction on proper principles. It is the leading cause among those which have placed Europe in its present anarchical condition, and which mainly stands in the way of reconstructing good governments in the place of those which have been overthrown, threatening thereby the quarter of the globe most advanced in progress and civilization with hopeless anarchy, to be followed by military despotism.

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