Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Importance and culture

A key indicator of how perfective a society is, is how important the typical subject matter is in the popular culture and media (including cable news media and the internet).

Concretization question: How important is the typical subject matter on Glenn Greenwald and Glenn Beck's (call 'em "The Glenns" for convenience) columns/programs, as compared with (i.e., contrasted to) the rest of the media?  How about Noam Chomsky?  Whatever else you think of him, the shit he typically talks about is damn important.  And how about what representative members of the Ayn Rand Society have to talk about, as it relates to contemporary political culture?  Why aren't they prominent in today's mass-media discussion?Wouldn't they have the most of importance to offer in explanation of this whole "Ayn Rand phenomenon?"  (One of them is a prominent Aristotle scholar currently at the No. 3 ranked department of philosophy in the English-speaking world, for crying out loud - and is editing a volume on Ayn Rand's epistemology due out this summer, as well another, much-anticipated Wiley-Blackwell volume due out hopefully in the very near future.  Which would be of greater importance for understanding Rand's Objectivist ideas, that or the next rendition of Ayn Rand Nation by a fuckin' amateur?  Which will the leftwing interblogs devote their attention to this time around?  Last time around, with near-identical publication dates ca. March 2012, it was Gary Weiss's Ayn Rand Nation getting all their attention, with Leonard Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism getting none of their attention.)  I mean, how fucking low does a culture have to be for their voices not being the most prominent in media discussions of Ayn Rand?  Isn't that pretty much as pathetically bad as Chomsky not being all over the popular media?

Relevant distinction: "Intellectually high-brow" and "Important" (also consider: "Relevant")

More to come . . . .


P.S. Another checkmate to come . . .

P.P.S. 24 days left...

Friday, March 22, 2013

The "bad guys" in the Wikileaks saga

UPDATE: There's a necessary edit below, which I'll re-state in slightly different form here: [EDIT: A better google search than the one I conducted before brings these results.  The March 2006 military incident in Iraq highlighted below was investigated by the Pentagon, which in June 2006 cleared U.S. soldiers of wrongdoing.  So, um, I fucked up.  Lesson to be learned here.  I figure I'll leave this posting up for now, as an example of how fuck-ups can happen.  I mean, how plausible is it that both (a) the incident happened as Iraqi police claimed and (b) the alleged perpetrators got away with it?  More epistemic discipline is called for.  Still, the rest is at least very nearly spot-on.]

Our federal government - the same entity that granted final immunity to CIA personnel who tortured two detainees (Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi) to death, the same entity that a human rights court determined had tortured and sodomized another detainee (Khaled el-Masri), the same entity that has conducted a well-known extrajudicial assassination of at least one American citizen - has charged Pfc. Bradley Manning with, among other things, "aiding the enemy," when he released classified documents to Wikileaks.  Many people in a complacent and complicit American lamestream media have echoed the government's claims in this instance.  How much credibility does this government have, though, really?

One of the documents leaked by Wikileaks concerns this incident:

WikiLeaks: Iraqi children in U.S. raid shot in head, U.N. says

[Original photo caption] This cell phone photo was shot by a resident of Ishaqi on March 15, 2006, of bodies Iraqi police said were of children executed by U.S. troops after a night raid there. Here, the bodies of the five children are wrapped in blankets and laid in a pickup bed to be taken for burial. A State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks quotes the U.N. investigator of extrajudicial killings as saying an autopsy showed the residents of the house had been handcuffed and shot in the head, including children under the age of 5. McClatchy obtained the photo from a resident when the incident occurred. |

(h/t: Matt Taibbi)

What has the federal government's response to inquiries about this episode been?

Silence.  [EDIT: A better google search than the one I conducted before brings these results.  This March 2006 incident was investigated by the Pentagon, which in June 2006 cleared the soldiers of wrongdoing.  So, um, I fucked up above.  Lesson to be learned here.  I figure I'll leave this posting up for now, as an example of how fuck-ups can happen.  I mean, how plausible is it that both (a) the incident happened as Iraqi police claimed and (b) the alleged perpetrators got away with it?  More epistemic discipline is called for.  And, now, how about Matt Taibbi's dropping that link the way he did? ;-) ]

Now, who is the bad guy (or guys) here again?

Who's the one (or ones) being targeted by the federal government for punishment?  Who's the one (or ones) being held to the accountability of the rule of law?

And all those lapdog media outlets accusing Bradley Manning of treason -- what have they said, if anything, about the CIA's acts of torture and sodomy (sodomy - a moral crime in itself according to many of the very same pseudo-patriots who've cheered our government on), or about the un-responded-to claims concerning execution of Iraqi children and air-raid coverup?

Jack shit, that's what.

(Apparently, since the rights of American citizens are at issue in the case of extrajudicial assassinations, these people are "concerned" all of a sudden; this one hits too close to home, apparently.)

How can these people display such righteous outrage (or, in the case of the fedgov, vindictiveness) about Bradley Manning's supposedly horrific transgressions - which are, arguably, by a sensible analysis, roughly comparable to the "transgressions" involved in the leaking of the Pentagon Papers - but remain so tight-lipped or willfully ignorant of these activities carried out by the federal government, the very sorts of activities Bradley Manning believed needed to be brought out into the open?

What kind of credibility, moral or intellectual, can these individuals claim?

Along these lines, individuals in our political discourse who are ignorant of (or choose not to mentally integrate) Glenn Greenwald's column can claim no intellectual credibility, either.  And that goes for just about all our political "leaders."  That goes for the so-called constitutional lawyer whose main prima facie credential for the presidency was that Harvard-cultivated legal expertise.

What would Thomas Jefferson think about all this?  Patriots and tyrants and all that....

P.S. Reminder: 29 days left....

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Some notes on integration

In my cognitive experience, I've arrived inductively at certain observations as they relate to the prescribed thinking methods of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, with its key concepts of integration, context-keeping, and rigorously maintaining the hierarchy of knowledge.  (All of this ties in to induction as a regulative cognitive principle, which I'll get to shortly.)  Serious students of Objectivism - the ones who've taken Rand's advice and listened to serious amounts of Leonard Peikoff's lecture courses - are continuously immersed in these concepts, continuously actively "chewing" them mentally.  Their grasp of Objectivism - their context of understanding - pretty much puts them at radical odds with how Objectivism is so often "understood" (i.e., not really understood at all) in the mainstream of our intellectually-deficient culture.  If Rand's critics don't so much as have an effing clue as to how the concepts of integration, context, and hierarchy regulate the daily thinking processes of serious Objectivists, then they really haven't a clue at all what's at the root of Ayn Rand's philosophy.  They might know that Rand says things about the need for human beings to live by reason, but that would only be lip service on her part if she didn't provide some detailed picture of what living by reason consists in - namely, in terms of how one organizes one's mental processes in such a way as to know for sure, independently and first hand, how one's practices accord with the facts of reality.

Rand wasn't bullshitting around here and wasn't into the standard-issue "self-help" game of buzzwords and bromides.  We have an absolute, indispensible need for a philosophically-formulated cognitive method that assures us that our practices accord with reality, because that's what's inescapably necessary for functioning optimally in the world.  I submit that were people to read carefully through Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, and the "expanded" version of that speech, namely, Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (the closest thing in print (meaning both in book form, and still in print *) to an "authorized" primary source on the philosophy outside of Rand's own writings, and lived by the principles presented therein, the culture would be well on its way to another, and better, Renaissance, and that's despite whatever flaws and errors (and readily correctable ones, if one employs the very self-correcting methods prescribed therein) exist in the book.  (* - Nathaniel Branden's Basic Principles of Objectivism book - based on a course Rand endorsed - is not still in print, and is superseded anyway in key respects by OPAR.)

That's just preliminary stuff (context-establishing, if you will) to get blog-newbies oriented and regulars re-oriented.  Now the notes, in no specific pre-ordained order:

Induction: I think of induction in terms of "adding-on," that is, in terms of integrating new information into the accumulated body of existing knowledge.  This differs somewhat (though perhaps not in substance, if you perform the correct reduction) from the "popular" or Phil-101 understanding of the notion of "induction," which is about going from particulars to general propositions.  That "logical leap" from particular to general has been an unending source of confusion and red herrings for students of philosophy, thanks (or no thanks) to David Hume's framing of the "problem."  Induction in Objectivist terms, as I understand it, has a kind of open-ended quality with regard to how one mentally organizes the particulars or new incoming bits of information, which relies on a certain practical need (whether or not this approach reduces to "pragmatism" is another, and complicated, issue) for unit-economy given the inherent physical limitations of homo sapiens cognitive powers.  In what most likely involves what Rand identified as a process of measurement (whether qualitative or ultimately quantitative) and measurement-omission as a key to how concepts originate, we quite normally and virtually automatically order concrete particulars along various dimensions of characteristics they possess in common.  That is, if we're good at having and maintaining an efficient and orderly mental process, we (implicitly or explicitly) rank concrete particulars in various ways.  The rankings can be cardinal or ordinal, though a scientifically-rigorous thought process will involve making the best effort one can to base ordinal rankings in cardinal measurements.  ("List-making" is one well-known form of such activity, like in, how do we go about ranking the greatest athletes or filmmakers of all time?  Quantitive cardinal measurement adds a genuine scientific rigor to these things, as much as the idea of that is cynically mocked by many, "as only providing a pretentious mask of scientific rigor."  Don't buy into that cynical horseshit for a second; the only issue here is not whether scientific rigor can be had, but how one gets there.  It's the cynicism that's a mask for cognitive sloppiness and intellectual laziness when it comes to justifying - or not justifying - one's "opinion."  Perhaps this explains how - in stark contrast to such attitudes - Rand honed in on the phenomenon of measurement as the root of optimal cognitive functioning.)

The issue then becomes how one places this or that grouping of particulars under what cognitive-conceptual classification, in such a way as to allow for cross-classification as and when the need for such arises.  How does one classify, for instance, The Big Lebowski?  What are key features of this unit that more or less necessitate our placing it under a genre classification, for instance?  It usually gets classified primarily as a comedy - and that's cool; that's cool - but we need a philosophical accounting for this that doesn't make it arbitrary.  Why isn't it primarily classified as a mystery?  I mean, it could be classified as a mystery, but in measurement-terms is it as much of a mystery-narrative as The Silence of the Lambs?  Conversely, aren't there darkly humorous elements of the latter film?  (Of course there are!)  In some way I haven't thoroughly formalized in my mind yet, I think this process of classification is ruled by what Rand identified as the Rule of Fundamentality.  I think it's this (i.e., fundamentality) that is at the heart of any inductive-classificatory process.  Again, induction is about a certain kind of process of adding-on (or re-adding-on, as and when one needs to come back to the original concrete particular in spiral* fashion and re-integrate) plus classifying the added-on concrete particular or unit in accordance with the requirements of unit-economy and cognitive efficiency.  Fundamentality is also at the basis of efficiently comprehensive explanation* of observed phenomena.  (* - Myself, I look at the search results of these asterisked links, and quite immediately perform - or is it re-perform? - a certain kind of induction.  Notice, by the way, how Google search results are ranked on the basis of relevance, according to a scientifically-rigorous heuristic-algorithmic procedure, which I'll call "hal" for short.  And that's before applying the full powers of our own cognitive machinery to mentally organize such search results.)

Anyway, that about covers my to-date ideas concerning the process of induction.  Now some other points:

Some things integration entails in practice: First off, integration in the originative sense - the uniting of sense-particulars into mental units or concepts - is a process of induction in the sense I've been discussing.  But what else does this mean?  It means, as a cognitive habit, the virtue of rationality, which requires a constant, unrelenting focus on bringing new items of information into the sum of one's knowledge, and always expanding one's knowledge.  Put another way: it's all about intellectual curiosity, man.  It's a constant striving to add on the new bits, to always be learning, to expand the range and scope of one's cognitive awareness to fullest of one's abilities.  If this is a "bromide," then you'd think it'd be so ingrained into the everyday culture that it would go without saying.  But maybe that's just it - maybe it's "ingrained" (i.e., not really so) only as far as being a "bromide," something that gets paid a lot of lip service but isn't attended to in the way responsible philosophers would attend to it.  As long as the intellectual kids get marginalized, mocked, bullied, and beat up at school while the so-called educators and so-called parents just resign themselves to accepting it as a "normal" part of youthful upbringing, then the message hasn't really gotten through to the adults (and needlessly, tragically so).  And it certainly as shit ain't happening for real when you listen to the utter crap that flows from the boob tube and the politicians.  (How on earth did we get complete morons on the House "Science" Committee, or obviously unqualified ignoramuses kept on a presidential ticket, or a pseudo-intellectual head of state who's clueless about a key cultural figure?  A big fat fucking failure to integrate, that's how.)

Now, here's something - I base this on extensive exposure to many self-styled "Objectivists" over the years - where all too Objectivists themselves need to clean up their acts and follow their own methodological advice.  And what specifically do I have in mind here?  Their attitude toward the rest of the philosophical community, of course, that's what.  Provincialism is pervasive in human cognitive and other behavior, but the whole idea of philosophy - of intellectual curiosity, of integration, of context-keeping, of hierarchy-recognizing - is to break free of such limiting cognitive biases, to the best of one's abilities.  It's a two-way street here; on the one hand we have a philosophical community that has been by and large dismissive of Rand and Objectivists, and on the other we have the same thing only in reverse.  Mutual contempt and dismissal, with (tragically) little productive dialogue.  If there's something that Objectivists could have learned from their other intellectual hero, Aristotle, it's that the traditional Randian approach to polemics is just piss-poor when you compare it to the way Aristotle and other serious philosophers responded to different viewpoints.  There's no way that a serious philosopher could imagine, with a straight face, someone of Aristotle's philosophical temperament saying a bunch of the things that Rand said about Kant.  Her views about Kant listed under the "psychological techniques" section of the Lexicon entry on Kant are particularly atrocious.  Not long ago I gave myself the assignment of going through the entirety of that entry and determining which excerpt was the least worst at providing an intellectually-empathetic characterization of his views.  The result of this exercise was not encouraging.  Even where you get some straightforwardly traditional interpretations (particularly concerning the "appearance/reality dichotomy" Kant constructed), it's usually one mostly-sensible sentence couched in a terrible paragraph consisting of bad inferences.  This is, in short, a failure to integrate.  What Objectivists need - and, again, they are far from being alone in this regard, and the Rand-bashers themselves are some of the worst offenders - is to practice what I term intellectual empathy.  It took me a while to induce this principle (and all that it entails) as a requirement of integration, context-keeping, and hierarchy-respecting.  In brief, unless one has made a connection to the cognitive context of the "other," one isn't doing one's job of integrating.  What does it mean to make such a connection?  Here's the eminently reasonable standard I would propose: that one characterizes or represents the viewpoint of another to the satisfaction of that other.

You know how cool things would have gotten, that much quicker, had Rand done that with Kant and the rest?  (Seeing as Kant wasn't around to vet Rand's or anyone else's representations, you have to do some imaginative integration here.)  Or, for that matter, if a great many of Rand's critics did that with her ideas?  Note that this is easier said than done; it took me a good deal of time and practice to make it a cognitive habit and discipline to do my best to hold myself to that eminently reasonable standard, which has also led me to recognize how much some of my older blog postings are offenders in that regard.  But hey, you know, perfectivism.  Can't be refuted.  Now.  What needs to happen, as far as putting integration into practice goes, is a much better dialogue ("dialectic," which Dr. Sciabarra poignantly describes as the "art of context keeping," only to be dismissed by all too many Objectivists who failed to live up to that aforementioned reasonable standard) between Objectivists and the academy, and basically between everyone and everyone else.  It's not easy.  Actually, I take that back.  It is easy, but also time-extensive.  It's a cognitive habit that has to be developed over time.  What would not be easy would be to make it happen overnight; but baby steps in that direction are easy, and then it snowballs from there.  Habituation is key here, a concept which most likely ties into the concept of integration as such.  Just throwing a lead out there off the cuff, for whatever it's worth.  And, of course, integration ties into (integrates with) the concept of perfection (which, of course, is not an end-state but an ongoing process in humans, hence eudaimonia-as-activity).   So the cultural Singularity (defined by culturally-pervasive cognitive integration, which would be "utopian" by the lackluster standards of the present-day) is going to necessarily presuppose that the folks have been habituated over time.

If such a potential integrative dialogue were to be actualized, I think you'd have people coming to a consensus on some things despite their differences; I mean, a consensus on real substantive issues of tremendous importance - like about the vital need to integrate, for example. ;-)  Anyway, we'd have people meeting and overcoming (in some quasi-Nietzschean, quasi-Hegelian sense, I suppose) the barriers presently erected between people's cognitive contexts, so that they aren't clashing (to use Peikoff's term) as they used to.  That's quite a challenge to embrace, but the payoff would be amazing, I think.  Objectivists, Kantians, Aristotelians, pragmatists, theists, Christians, Muslims, atheists, the whole variety of viewpoints . . . with a proper mutual understanding between them ("Oh, so that's what Thinker X was getting at!  Now it makes sense!"), they would discover not only how much they have in common but also have an enhanced approach toward Getting Things Right.  Plus humor quality and irony-detection might explode exponentially (especially with the aid of Sagan's favorite brainfood).  Perhaps when all is said and done they'll all get together and sing Kumbaya.  Oh, don't you laugh, you cynical fucks, damn you, don't you laugh.  (Movie reference there of course.)  It's like Lennon said....

(I was originally going to title this posting "Brief notes on integration," but it didn't turn out so brief.)

P.S. Reminder: 30 days left.  Tick tock, tick tock.  (Movie reference of course.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

One month to go: 4/20/2013

4/20, which should in a just world come to be remembered as Cannabis Freedom Day, is the day I have set for when I go on strike (namely, ceasing publication of this blog and withholding any further products of my mind from public circulation) unless the eminently reasonable demands I have set forth here are met.

I want also to reiterate the point I made here, concerning this nation's monumentally stupid (i.e., in the terms I used there, fucking ridiculous) and anti-American drug policies.  We have a head of state who has unashamedly sold out his own youthful party base, for no explicitly stated reason, since no reasons are being so much as offered these days by the anti-American, freedom-hating prohibitionist segment of this nation.  All the good ideas in circulation are on the legalization (for adults 21 and over) side, and what's more, any sober and honest observers of today's political scene know this beyond any reasonable doubt.  It's a goddamn shame that the head of state, a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law, hasn't either the decency to voice a bully-pulpit opposition to these disgraceful drug policies or the courage to come out and explain himself to the American people when his drug czar says he's going to continue enforcing the idiotic federal drug policies in those states where majorities have voted for sensible legalization.

And this is one of only several no-brainer issues (see my list of demands) that the political Establishment - save for a few good apples in a rotten, rotten bunch - is either too ignorant or too malicious to so much as lift a finger to address.  Anyone with a lick of sense knows that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine wouldn't stand for this disgraceful state of affairs for a single minute, that what we have now is a bastardization of the nation's founding ideals - and a thoroughly pointless and unnecessary bastardization at that.  It defies common sense (a favored ideal among the Framers and supporting authors).

Many signs point today toward a crumbling republic.  We now have a gross federal debt meeting or exceeding the nation's Gross Domestic Product, a situation seen only once before in the nation's history - at the end of World War II, when the U.S.'s position of dominance in the world was locked in for decades to come.  We don't have that today.  We have a population falling behind in global competitiveness, due to a decadent culture which fails to convincingly promote intellectual values.  This is due in good part to an intellectual class that has - in a way that is quite self-aware, I'll add - made itself all too irrelevant to the "mundane" concerns of the people, and which has failed to achieve even in the modest task of incorporating Aristotelianism squarely into the curriculum.  We have a political Establishment corrupted by money and ignorance.  We have a ticking fiscal time bomb to the tune of $107 trillion (present value) that our politicians have no idea how to defuse.  There's a looming retirement crisis to go along with that $107 trillion time-bomb in the old-age-insurance schemes.  We're pretty much at the mercy of whatever climate change happens in the coming decades, with too many global-warming-denialists and downright lazy sonsofbitches around for there to have been intellectual energies directed toward contingency plans by now.  We have the Chinese already choking in their own smog, which is sure to have ripple effects that will hit home one way or another.  We have theocratic regimes hell-bent on getting nukes, in an age when theocracy and dictatorship as such should easily have been relegated to the dustbin of history.  And so on.

Our potential saving grace will be the wonders of technology, but we can only be best assured to win the race with the coming Cluster Fuck if we actualize the human potential that makes such wonders possible: the human intellect.  Aristotle had some choice things to say about that subject, words which we as a culture ignore or overlook at our own peril.  There are modern-day neo-Aristotelians that have been shouting this theme from the rooftops, only to be marginalized and shunned by the very intellectual class that's supposed to be promoting the interests of the people, to be serving as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge.  Whatever else people of all different creeds believe and/or disagree about, there can be no reasonable disagreement with or disbelief in something all true wisdom-lovers would agree with, and that's the vital need to maximally actualize our intellectual potentialities.  It's the key to everything else of positive value in human life, the basic principle of a defensible ethics, the underlying solution to socio-political challenges, the basis for cultural flourishing.  From the standpoint of this philosopher, it's a no-brainer, the basis of all received wisdom ("common sense") throughout human history, a principle that should permeate ethical, social, cultural and political life like it's second nature.  Jefferson and Franklin grasped it (what would this nation's history be like without these two?); philosophers as such pretty much endorse it implicitly if not explicitly as a way of life; educators grasp it well enough to grasp the importance of their profession; scientists, inventors, and visionaries grasp it well enough to be in the line of work they're in.  Cultivating human intelligence should be our highest priority, whatever other admirable priorities we have.  And yet, where and when do we ever hear this theme being broadcast loud and clear, affirmed loud and clear by individuals of our acquaintance, and so on?  If it were a widely-received cultural norm, I think we'd know about it - and experience its life-enhancing effects - by now.  So, whence this disconnect?

For the next month, I will make it a task to diagnose, to uncover the source of, this disconnect, for therein lies the way to a sweeping solution.  Who knows what I'll uncover by then, or what is to happen after that calendar date.  One can only hope that cannabis will be minimally available to me during this period of time, to expand the range of cognitive opportunities - just as Jefferson (and, in all likelihood, Thoreau) would have wanted, of course.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Time magazine: "Who Needs Philosophy?"

Full title: Who Needs Philosophy? Colleges Defend the Humanities Despite High Costs, Dim Job Prospects

This has the ominous flavor of a Catch-22 situation.  The nation's intellectual state leaves much to be desired as it is, which fuels the fire for those wondering what the use of academic majors such as Philosophy is, which only further fuels the fire of anti-intellectual sentiment and helps to stigmatize "the humanities" among college students who are understandably seeking degrees that are both intellectually-enriching and marketable in the employment world.  And we get quotes like this from the Time article:
“We should all be blessed enough to pursue life’s passion, but not everybody is,” says Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, who says that the economy cannot support more art-history or philosophy majors.

And 'round and 'round goes the vicious circle.  The article itself doesn't even helpfully distinguish between Philosophy majors and "humanities" majors.  What we have here is a failure to differentiate.

That makes this quite relevant.  Besides the STEM, economics, and banking majors, what other major stands out here as a promising source of much-needed verbal talent (on top of solid quantitative aptitude) in the employment world?

And, ohhhhh yes, for the very answer sought in the Time article's title, let's not forget this.  It's almost like . . . all cultural roads lead to a certain author; there she already is, ready and waiting, to serve as an answer to just this very sort of question.  And how is it that, like, she was the first and only big-name thinker to pose that very question?  Why the fuck didn't some name-philosopher think to pose and broadcast that particular question (and the answer to it) before then - or, it would seem, since then?  Whatever else she said and did, she knew how to market ideas in a way few have done so successfully.  Something something integrating intellectual aptitude with market aptitude.

Another ultimate hypothetical (which might very well be a variant upon some of those already posed): If everyone adopted and practiced the principles of living that she advocated - the actual principles she advocated, that is, not the sloppy caricatures or malicious smears of them - just how awesome would the world in fact be?  Use your imagination and just try - I triple dog dare you - to think of some plausible way that "things would go wrong."  Integrate your imaginative thought-experiment with the issues raised here.  Enjoy.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What if . . .

Consider this another entry in the ultimate hypothetical department.

What if the mode of philosophizing (guided by a rigorous policy of integration) that characterizes this here blog became a widespread cultural phenomenon?  What would the world come to look like then?

If all the previous postings in this blog were to be condensed (with any contradictions removed) into a single unit for purposes of unit-economy, what would the unit look like?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wealth inequality and capitalism's enemies

Source: The Economist, 10/13/2012

There's some video from 2012 on wealth inequality in America that's gone viral.  Capitalism's enemies - thanks in good part to vast numbers of un-businessmanlike armchair academics - have proven, shall we say, resourceful at coming up with ways to smear capitalism.  The recent and developing narrative holds that capitalistic market principles, without benevolent government intervention, lead in action to ever-increasing inequality (and, presumably, as a result, ever-increasing impoverishment of the non-rich).  I addressed this narrative around this time last year, pointing to a study by a couple ivy-league economists showing that in the past 40 or so years, not only has world poverty declined, but so has world income inequality.  Do you think any such data proves inconvenient to the scummy leftists hell-bent on attacking capitalism?

I encountered the pictorial graph above from doing a Google image search on "world gini index."  The search results provide a dizzying array of charts and graphs that could be used by any number of unscrupulous apologists for this or that political-economic ideology to twist the narrative to their liking.  What hardly at all seems to ever come up is data that conflicts with the graph above concerning world income inequality.  What's more, one who delves into the literature on this subject has to look long and hard for satisfactory explanations for the trend of rising inequality in some nations (such as the U.S.), since what we get from left-wing pundits and bloggers is the usual anti-capitalist stuff, and from right-wing pundits and bloggers a lot of silence or indifference to the subject of inequality.  ("The poor in America are rich compared to the poor in the developing world," is a common right-wing response - one that doesn't address the trend of rising inequality and - nowadays - stagnation or decline in the incomes of the American non-rich.)

One OECD paper provides eight distinct explanations that - quite surprisingly to Yours Truly - minimize the role of globalization, even though in the very paragraph discussing globalization there is mention that "companies have been investing more and more in other countries"!

The Conference Board of Canada covers the subject indepth.  A CTRL-F on "skill" will bring you to a paragraph discussing the role of high-skilled labor relative to low-skilled labor in an increasingly globalizing economy:
Market forces, particularly skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and increased globalization, are creating a rising demand for highly skilled labour. Edward Lazear, chairman of the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisors, explained this in a 2006 speech: “In our technologically advanced society, skill has higher value than it does in a less technologically advanced society.”10 As developed countries import more low-skilled-intensive goods and export more skills-intensive goods, jobs in low-skilled industries are lost in those developed countries.
To provide a fuller context, the article goes on to state:
However, not all researchers agree that market forces are at the root of all or even most of the rising inequality. For instance, in a paper published in the Journal of Labor Economics, David Card and John DiNardo argue that “contrary to the impression conveyed by most of the recent literature, the SBTC hypothesis falls short as a unicausal explanation.”11 An alternative explanation, put forward by economist Paul Krugman and others, is that the increase in inequality can be attributed to institutional forces, like declines in unionization rates, stagnating minimum wage rates, deregulation, and national policies that favour the wealthy.
(So, according even to at least one Nobel laureate, the trend is due in part to a shift away from less-capitalistic to more-capitalistic public policies.  What's unclear, to me, is how these policies don't reduce in more fundamental form to the influence of globalization.  From a businessman-like standpoint, non-unionized non-developed-country labor out-competes domestic unionized labor at the margins.  How are unions supposed to maintain their competitiveness in such a business climate?  Going to the benevolent government for help isn't going to stop the outflow of jobs.  But unionized labor is supposed to be more highly-skilled, right?  It all comes down to skill vs. cost, for one thing.  For another, given the dismal job America has been doing in the educational department, how can the U.S. see much growth in the highly-skilled industries?  Anyway, these are factors to consider that left-wing academics and the OWS crowd don't appear to pay much attention to, and certainly the failures of the American educational system don't reflect all that well on the educators.  (Whom are they going to blame for that?  It's not like the U.S. hasn't thrown enough money into its education system, before we even look at the fast-growing higher-ed-related student debt bubble.)  [EDIT 3/8/2013: I'm not satisfied with the analysis in this paragraph; needs more and better thinking to sort out what's what.  I can't escape the requirements of perfectivism!  For one thing, paying a mediocre (by MLB standards) ballplayer $1M a year to play third base for the Yankees is not going to help fill the team's need to be perennial playoff contenders, as much as paying $27M for its current third baseman does.  Same principle as it relates to the pay of unskilled vs. skilled labor, i.e., it's not a simple "skill vs. cost" equation, as companies usually need at least some people who produce what others can't, at any level of pay.  So what view am I supporting with this revision/edit, anyway?  Just why have unions gone into decline, aside from the easy Republican-are-meanies explanation?  Maybe I should defer to the specialist-economists for the time being....])

The Conference Board of Canada then uses two different world Gini index measures, one (not population-weighted) showing a rising Gini index (greater inequality) and the other (population weighted) showing a falling Gini index roughly in line with the graph above and with the findings of the two ivy-league economists. 

Now, as to capitalism's enemies, a few comments:

First, I don't know whether it's cognitive bias or intellectual dishonesty in any given case, but the opposition to capitalism seems to have become as much a dogmatic religion on the Left as the usual dogmatic religions have been so on the Right.  This isn't to say that the Right doesn't have its share of dogmatic ideologues on economics who in principle would never accept evidence that capitalism isn't so great.

Second, while the Gini index for America is somewhere in the 40s, depending on the specific measurement used, the world Gini index has been much higher than that for a very long time; where were the economic leftists all this time, decrying the world inequalities?  Why is it now such an issue to them?  If it's only because rising inequality accompanied by income stagnation among the non-rich hit home here in America that they started crying about it.  But think about it: decades ago, the income gap between the average American and the average person in China was so huge that it would take a certain cognitive selectiveness or - according to their on worldview - a staggering level of moral blindness to make a big deal about it all of a sudden now but not before.  That bespeaks of cognitive bias and/or disingenuousness about their real motives for concern about income inequalities.

Third, whatever people's ideological dispositions, the truly important thing is to get things right when it comes to the best economic institutions for people, what will make their (material) lives go best, and so on.  (It speaks to another cognitive bias of leftists that they are so heavily focused on material concerns to the exclusion of others.  Try watching MSNBC for a while and notice just how much time and attention is focused on economic concerns compared to their attention on, well, the spiritual ones.  Just have a look at the amount of attention paid these concerns in the works of the Left's favorite and most influential ideological figures.  When their attention does shift to the spiritual matters, it's often about how these matters should be removed from the public/government sphere but little in the way of how private citizens and communities could pick up the slack.  Anyway,...)  It's terribly important to get things right here because countless lives and well-beings hang in the balance.  If, based on a truly objective and comprehensive analysis, socialism (or, alternatively, capitalism) proved to be destructive of these ends, then honest people would certainly want to change their ideological affiliations for the sake of human betterment.  So.  In my case, I look at all the data that I've had available to me up to this point, and have to ask: could I honestly be an advocate of (socialism, or capitalism) at this point?

It's here that I should re-emphasize what my primary philosophical affiliation is, which goes deeper than politics and economics to the very core issues of human existence.  (I suppose, for a traditional Marxian, it doesn't go any deeper than the material aspects of our existence.)  My primary philosophical orientation is an Aristotelian and/or Randian one, that is to say a perfectivist or intellectualist-perfectionist one.  I think that a shit-ton of the problems facing the human condition can be dealt with most effectively, most economically, and most fundamentally at that level.  The intellect has primacy in human existence; it is the fundamental or primary driver of human affairs; the extent to which its potentialities are actualized is the extent to which human life is worth living (morally and existentially).  So, when, say, the schools are doing a piss-poor job of educating the students so that they can enter a high-skill profession, my primary focus is on fulfilling the needs of the intellect rather than calling for this or that change in economic policy.

That said, what can be said about the value of capitalism to human life, given the evidence?  Let's take the graph I posted above - the right side of it, that is.  Now, if a leftist were to interpret the data there for the time frame involved, I don't know what sensible anti-capitalist narrative could be constructed.  I might see some leftist ca. 1970 (assuming these data were readily available then) making the assertion that industrialization leads to greater and greater inequality - that, perhaps, the reason some countries industrialized was that in some way or other they exploited and impoverished the other countries.  (I do believe that this was in fact a commonly-employed leftist narrative for some time; hell, you can still hear it being used in opposition to "the multinational corporations" coming in to less-developed nations to "exploit" the labor and resources there, supposedly making the natives no better off while enriching the absentee corporate shareholders.)  But then things changed around 1970, and I don't know what an ideological leftist is supposed to make of it without looking like he or she is trying to interpret the data any which way possible as long as capitalism ends up looking bad.

What the data suggest to me, is that world inequality rose when some nations industrialized (or industrialized more) and others did not (or not as much).  Then, as more and more nations industrialized, particularly beginning around 1970, that world inequality basically leveled off (with a slight downward trend).  Also during that time, world population exploded, meaning not just rising incomes per capita but also many more capita.  And to cap it off, there appears nothing in this history that points toward some coming future push toward socialism, with this period being some necessary historical transition period exemplified by capitalism, as the traditional Marxian idea (a dogma, by this point?) would have it.

But if you look at the past couple hundred years, in the most fundamental terms employed in a neo-Aristotelian philosophy of history, what does this period show?  Something about the flourishing of human intellectual capacities not seen before in human history, perhaps?  It appears, unfortunately for Marxism, that a materialist conception of history could not account for such a historically revolutionary shift.  It probably comes as no surprise, however, to those familiar with a Kurzweilian-plus-Aristotelian understanding of history.  Of course, I'm always on the lookout for alternative explanations and theories that might best explain the available (or any new) evidence, but I'm not anticipating something much different than this (capitalism-friendly, neo-Aristotelian) one.

(After my previous posting, I had thought of making my next posting about the idea of "looking out for one another," though I don't know really what all there is to say about that beyond, "In a decent society people will look out for one another, should they fall on hard times or whatever, but it's not clear why the coercive force of government is necessary for that - certainly not as a default position."  So even in a capitalist society with some degree of income and wealth inequality, and some degree of economic instability and displacement associated with the process of "creative destruction," a virtuous/enlightened Jefferstotelian (Jeffersonian-Aristotelian) people would cooperatively engage (peacefully) to address individuals' Maslow-hierarchical needs as or when the need arises, in the most effective manner reasonably possible.  That would probably still involve the capitalists re-investing a great part of their earnings in business ventures, as they've already been doing aplenty in "other countries" as well as their own.  The primary key to a solution here is, as always, education - and what's needed first and foremost is a Jefferstotelian curriculum for the young'uns, not the usual array of leftist and socialist policy proposals (or the very un-Jefferstotelian right-wing ones, for that matter).)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happiness and meaningfulness (and Frankl)

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is one of the most well-loved books in the philosophical-psychological literature.  Meaning in life is a central concern for everyone who lives an examined life (and perhaps everyone or nearly everyone lives one, to some extent or other).  Perhaps, as human beings, living an examined life is the very thing that makes it meaningful or worth living, per Socrates's ages-old dictum.  (My modification on his dictum would likely be this: "The extent to which a (human) life is unexamined, is the extent to which it isn't worth living.")

To those who examine the issues and questions surrounding life's meaning, the relation of happiness to meaning is almost sure to arise at some point.  Don't we humans want to be happy more than anything?  Isn't that what ultimately makes live worth living?  Isn't the pursuit of happiness what confers meaning upon our activities?

A recent article by Emily Esfhani Smith in The Atlantic suggests otherwise.  In it, she explicitly distinguishes a life of happiness or happiness-pursuit from a life of meaning, and brings in Frankl as a key figure for the discussion.  By "siding" with Frankl on the fundamental importance of meaningfulness in life, she claims to place herself in opposition to the idea that happiness is what ultimately matters.  As the title of her article indicates, she thinks that "there is more to life than being happy."  But is there some kind of opposition, much less a distinction, between the two (happiness and meaningfulness)?

Smith quotes the authors of a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology:
"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write. 
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry. 
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out. 
"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers, which include Stanford University's Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.
(Bolded emphases mine.)

There are some familiar themes being sounded here, yes?  The pursuit of happiness being linked to selfishness would certainly not be troublesome to an influential ethical egoist such as Ayn Rand, right? (Keep in mind that Rand's conception of egoism and of happiness isn't about "receiving benefits from others" but rather, in its noblest and fully-formed manifestation, about producing or creating benefits for oneself - like Halley and his fifth concerto, for instance.)

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was namedan ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003. 
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self." For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television. 
"Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy," Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. 
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy. 
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. "If there is meaning in life at all," Frankl wrote, "then there must be meaning in suffering."
I imagine Miss Rand having a field day with all this; my present task is to re-create such a field day in my own style and given my background in eudaimonist ethics broadly speaking, notably David L. Norton's version.  Supplementing Rand's eudaimonism with Norton's, do we get any meaningful (ahem) contrast between the meaningful life and the happy life?

In the first bolded emphasis above, in the first quoted text, I highlight the notion of "happiness without meaning."  Does this mean (ahem) that happiness is without meaning, or does it mean that there can be happiness with meaning?  If the latter, it doesn't appear to be addressed at all in the article, so we're left hanging with the impression that happiness and meaning may indeed be quite separate from one another.  After all, happiness is associated with "selfish" behavior while meaning is associated with transcending the self for a "higher" purpose beyond oneself.

I should mention that this supposed dichotomy pervades the popular literature these days, including the "self-help" literature but also the "spirituality" literature (meaningfulness being rightfully associated with a concept of spirituality), with spirituality conflated in many people's minds with belief in God.  (Or, in many cases, this is necessarily associated with the belief that an ancient person named Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead; without believing this, it would seem, a great number of people would find their lives devoid of meaning.  I find this decidedly bizarre, but I've yet to "see the light," as they say.)  Indeed, well-known pastor Rick Warren declares that a purpose-driven life is one that is Christ-centered, not self-centered.  Similarly, rabbi Simon Jacobson writes (in a more intellectually-informed way) that a meaningful life is a "G-d"-informed one.  Eastern spiritual leaders such as Swami Prabhupada tell us that self-realization comes about through becoming one with the divine.  And on and on it goes.

I, on the other hand, think of happiness and meaning as intertwined so closely that I have a term that subsumes them both: a life of fulfillment.  Now, meaningfulness tends to be associated in the non-philosophical popular consciousness with spiritual fulfillment, which is associated either with (again) belief in God (or Christ), or treated in such a way as to be a separate and distinct matter from fulfillment of the rest of one's life, or both.  This latter reeks of a soul-body dichotomy [*], while the former begs all sorts of important questions.  The former tends to associate meaningfulness with hope, and hope with belief in an afterlife.  I offer the film The Shawshank Redemption as evidence that hope need not be bound up in ideas of the supernatural.

([*] - "Happiness," according to the researchers in Smith's article, is about doing the same things other animals do, satisfying animalistic bodily needs.  "Meaning" is doing what is distinctive to us.  Or something like that.  Point being, there's a purported dichotomy here.  Why can't meaningfulness include satisfying the bodily urges?  Hmmm?  Or, alternatively, can we distinguish meaningful bodily-urge-satisfaction from non-meaningful bodily-urge-satisfaction, or degrees (or kinds?) of meaningfulness in such activities?  Eating a delicious and nutritious meal capped off by a perfectly sweet creme brulee sounds a lot more, well, meaningful than eating ordinary potato chips; or, it has more dimensions of meaning to it.  Potato chips do provide some meaningful benefit; so do bland rice and beans.  But what if the good dimensions of these can be integrated while excluding the not-so-good, as per Aristotelian dialectic?  Ah, now we're getting somewhere!)

I think we begin to see here the confusions piled upon confusions in much of the (popular) literature on happiness, meaning, spirituality, hope, and related concepts.  Thankfully there is a philosophical literature that typically seeks precision in these matters, and wouldn't you know it, it's the (neo-)Aristotelian literature that best exemplifies the reaching of said precision.

In the philosophical literature, the concept of eudaimonia goes back to the ancients.  Now, to be sure, the concept of eudaimonia raised many questions and concerns among the ancients, namely: what is it, exactly?  But given what the greatest of the ancient thinkers had to say about it, and what modern descendants of the idea have had to say about it, the questions and concerns have been more productive than confusion-propagating.  It should be noted that the ancients - the Greeks - were worldly enough in their worldview as not to find a dichotomy between life's ultimate meaning and this-worldly pursuits, with all the confusions perpetuated by acceptance of such a dichotomy.  It should further be noted that Plato's ideal of a transcendent Good was radical for his time and place in comparison to Aristotle's much more naturalistic, empirical, worldly ideas about success in life.

(Besides, an Aristotelian might ask, What if a person's belief in the supernatural is indeed mistaken or groundless?  Does that leave the person in the dark when it comes to life's ultimate questions?  Or are there answers to be had through the normal procedures of secular scientific discovery?  Can we locate a telos for us in our nature, a standard by which to determine right conduct given our distinctively human potentialities?  Hell, what would the likes of Thomas Jefferson (a deist - which is practically distinct from an atheist how exactly?) say?)

The concept of eudaimonia is associated in the Aristotelian literature with a concept of perfection (or in the Greek, teleois) of our natures, of bringing to explicit completion (actuality) that which is implicit at the outset (potentiality).  In modern lingo, this lines up perhaps perfectly (ahem) with the concept of self-actualization, defined by Merriam-Webster as reaching fully one's potential.  Then again, it might line up more perfectly with Alan Gewirth's concept of self-fulfillment.  (There's that term again: fulfillment.)  Anyway, let's say that eudaimonia lines up with a concept of perfection in one's life, that is, a life that is not lacking in any significant way - that is to say, that it is an all-encompassing concept that subsumes all the goods one might want out of life.  That includes both happiness and meaning.  Isn't it synonymous indeed with life fulfillment?  What else does it mean to realize fully one's potential?  There's potential in humans that (when actualized) is manifested in both happiness and meaning.  Indeed, what else does self-actualization involve if not the full array of goods; in Maslow's terminology there is a hierarchy of needs at the top of which there is meaning, fulfillment, "transcendence" of some base conception of the self, spirituality, hope, and so forth (including - hell, why not? - happiness).

There is a modern conception of happiness that has been widely recognized as being spiritually impoverished.  The most influential of modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant, apparently had this conception of happiness (the satisfaction of inclination) in mind when rejecting the thesis that happiness is the highest ethical aim in life.  There are materialistic connotations to this conception of happiness, associated with the pursuit of economic good that so preocuppied modern political economists in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.  But even that had its limitations, as when John Stuart Mill, leading philosopher of utilitarianism ("the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness, for the greatest number"), distinguished between the "higher" and the "lower" pleasures, illustrated most famously by his dictum that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."  (It bears mentioning here that before writing on ethics and political philosophy, Mill was himself among those devoted to questions of political economy - indeed, he wrote the treatise in which classical/Anglo/Smithian/Ricardian political economy culminated, Principles of Political Economy (1848), before the Marxian interpretation and marginalist revolution took things in different directions.  That Marx's comprehensive worldview was so deeply immersed in questions of political economy, should indicate how central political economy has been to so much modern philosophizing.)

But the ancient and Aristotelian conception of happiness as eudaimonia doesn't line up with this modern conception of happiness as pleasure, and it is the modern conception of happiness that evidently infuses the discussion in Ms. Smith's Atlantic piece.  Moreover, there is most definitely a confusion when "wants" and "needs" are discussed the way they are.  (See again the third paragraph of the first section of quoted text above.)  In one sentence there is the talk of "a need or a desire" and in the very next there is mention only of getting what one wants (desires?).  But (a) There is a distinction among eudaimonists (and Norton is explicit about this) between mere desire and right desire, the satisfaction of which he defines in terms of eudaimonia or self-actualization; and (b) Maslow's hierarchy is a hierarchy of needs and not of wants per se; it is in getting what we need that we self-actualize.  (Surely the distinction between want and need in that Rolling Stones song is apropos?  There's also surely a tie-in to the House, M.D. television series, as the wiki article points out.  What we have here is an absence of failure to integrate.)  Finally on this point, it's commonly understood that self-actualization has an interpersonal or social dimension that goes beyond the "selfish" satisfaction of one's desires to the exclusion of others (a point that Rand did not disagree with, but might have been much more explicit about).

I'm intrigued by the last quotation above, from Frankl, that if there is meaning in life at all, then there's meaning in suffering.  I don't see a real problem with this as long as we distinguish suffering from despair, that is, a suffering without hope.  And when I, personally, think of hope, my thoughts almost invariably go to that movie with Andy Dufresne and Red.

I think a useful distinction that might be made between happiness and meaningfulness is as follows: happiness is a psychological state or condition that amounts, qua psychological phenomenon, to a feeling of life-satisfaction - or, better yet, life-fulfillment, whereas meaningfulness refers to one's existential condition.  (Existentialism is primarily concerned, after all, with meaning in a world devoid of a discernible cosmic telos.)  Norton, meanwhile, identifies eudaimonia as both a feeling and a condition attendant upon the satisfaction of right desire (which is understood in Aristotelian terms - as the actualization of the potentialities which constitute the self).

Frankl's book on man's search for meaning is a must-read in any event.  There is a clear-cut parallel in my mind between that book (particularly the first half) and the idea behind the Shawshank story - namely, how one can have or discover hope amid suffering.  Indeed, even when happiness or eudaimonia does elude us, e.g., under extreme conditions of unfreedom as found in a prison or concentration camp - even as much as happiness or eudaimonia serves as some kind of ultimate standard of successful human living that justifies pursuits in that direction - there is something we can nonetheless hold onto in such dire times to give our lives meaning (and which needn't imply affirmation of the supernatural), and that is hope.  In Randian terms, this emerges as the benevolent universe premise and is reflected in Roark's attitude toward life as he works in a quarry (when he might have pursued the life of "happiness" by accepting a commission that would compromise his architectural integrity).  In Aristotelian terms, all of this emerges as an endorsement of harmonious integration of the seemingly disparate ends (aims) of human life.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Shelly Kagan's "Is death bad for you?"

Or: for whom is death bad?

Last year, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan posed something of a puzzler.  If we use the classic Epicurean formulation that death is nothing to fear since its presence means one's absence (and therefore there is no being any longer in existence for whom death impacts), and one's presence means its absence.  And yet, Kagan's puzzler goes, we still regard death as a bad thing, something to be avoided and/or dreaded.  An additional part of the puzzler goes something like this: If nonexistence is a bad, and death is to a living being what pre-birth nonexistence was, then never being born is also a bad for those that might have lived.  And yet we don't have the same attitude toward that sort of nonexistence that we do toward death, i.e., the cessation of living activities.  I refer the reader to a fuller statement of the puzzler in the link provided above.

I think I have an answer to the puzzler, and it goes something like this: All else being equal, a sentient existence is preferable, for a sentient being, to nonexistence.  So let's say an animal dies, and we ask, for whom is this death a bad thing?  One might be tempted to offer this answer: The death is in some way retroactively bad for the animal that once existed.  But what is that supposed to mean?  How is something retroactively bad?  Then, you are pushed in the direction of formulating the point in a nearly-identical but more helpful way: A future death is (or would be) bad for the sentient being currently existing.  That is to say, a permanent cessation of one's sentient existence is bad for the being that one is, right now - and is therefore the reason most folks tend to avoid it.  Certainly, as a nonexperience, it is not a bad that can be experienced; the bad involved here is the cessation of one's sentient existence, which is a bad whether or not one has met that fate yet.  Further, in order for something to be a bad, it has to be a bad for an existing sentient being - and so the puzzler as it concerns nonexistent beings doesn't have applicability in this analysis.

Finally, as to how something can be a bad if one never experiences it, let's liken this bad in this regard to a broken leg.  A broken leg is a bad, even if one never happens to suffer a broken leg.  Because it is a bad, it's something we usually try to avoid (although we might risk suffering one engaging in activities we might find sufficiently rewarding otherwise - and we can never get rid of risk in life, anyway, and we do in fact incur some non-zero-percent risk of death in our every existing moment, a risk we incur because life is worth living and the ongoing risk is worth it).

Does this definitively resolve Kagan's puzzler?  I think it does, but seeing as how definitiveness can often be so elusive, and given my sneaking suspicion that I might be overlooking something on this subject, my thinking on the subject certainly isn't over with. ;-)  We also want to factor in, over and above sentience, the value and quality of the cognitive life of the being - i.e., the idea that there is value in high-level intellectual activity that may well be worth some non-trivial risk of suffering, physical-pain-and-pleasure-wise.  We are unique among animals in our ability to (intellectually) ponder our own deaths, for example, which brings us some degree of discomfort, but which comes with the territory of intellectual living (the examined life).  As to this "Schopenhauer-ian" notion often going around in philosophical circles that we'd be better off having never been born: that would of course depend on whether human existence characteristically involves a negative balance of happiness vs. suffering - something that's denied in traditional eudaimonist ethics which point to a satisfactory mode of living usually made possible through virtuous activity (which is rooted in the perfection or excellent use of one's intellectual capacity, at least in an Aristotelian version of eudaimonism).

To be continued . . . ?

Friday, March 1, 2013

The "Ayn Rand is for children" meme, cont'd

[A continuation upon an earlier theme.]

If you pay attention to the cultural discourse about Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism, you will have heard it a thousand times: Objectivism appeals to people in their teens or college years, but then they outgrow it.  Our head-of-state said as much in a recent interview.  This supposedly explains why Objectivism supposedly doesn't get much respect from academic philosophers, who are by and large grown up, responsible, and empathetic human beings.  In nearly every thread on reddit's /r/politics subreddit, the most-upvoted comment on any thread with "Ayn Rand" in the title is that by-now well-worn, brief but non-witty quote comparing Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings.  Ayn Rand's writings are allegedly for the socially awkward high-school rejects, the naive, the naively idealistic, the maladjusted, those who don't understand human nature, those who are self-centered to the point of narcissism, and so on.

First off, I think it betrays a fundamental sense-of-life difference between Rand and her critics when the "intellectual adults" lecture the idealistic youth on their naivete - who demand, in essence, that justice prevail in this world, that most everyone - in principle - can see the moral truth and act upon that recognition, and the like.  The "adults" say that we soon learn "in real life" that we must be practical, that we must compromise, that we must conform, that wisdom comes from a resigned acceptance of the world the way it is, and so on. Ayn Rand's sense of life, what appeals to those idealistic youth, is her outright and absolute rejection of a dichotomy between the moral and the practical - that individual integrity is all that we have in our soul to hold onto, and that it wouldn't be considered "practical" in the mind of a Howard Roark, given his ideals, to surrender his soul.  (Practical - in terms of what?)  Ayn Rand, in other words, endorses the "benevolent universe premise" - i.e., the idea that a rational way of life on earth (to quote her hero, John Galt, near the very end of his radio address) "is real, it is possible, it is yours."  In other words, she completely repudiates cynicism.

Perhaps it says a whole lot about the current state of the world that so many people are cynical - that cynicism is considered to be a sign of maturity and wisdom! - that they did indeed abandon the ideals they held in their youth in order to embrace a life of stale practicality and safety - that, in the most vicious cases, they embraced the divine right of stagnation, to employ a phrased used by former Rand associate Nathaniel Branden, who wrote an essay by that title.  Cynicism is not so much an attitude about the world as it is a statement about oneself - and, tragically and needlessly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the people who accept, endorse, and practice it.

So, is that what the aforementioned Rand-diminishers actually mean to say when they couch their diminishing in the terms they do - as in, say, a defense mechanism for their own cynical sense of life?  Or, as they might purport to explain in explicit terms, it's because Ayn Rand's egoistic philosophy appeals to some a-social, anti-social, socially-naive, socially-insensitive, perhaps even sociopathic aspects of the human personality - that Rand's philosophy amounts, in essence, to a rationalization for such base and inadequate tendencies in human nature.  Now, that sort of objection doesn't exist on a sense-of-life level so much as an intellectual-interpretive one, and in that case what it demonstrates - in short - is an ignorance of her ideas and/or a failure of reading- or ideas-comprehension.

Now to the original point of my post.  I'm going to concretize in such a way as to make it empirically impossible for the "Rand is for socially-awkward teenagers" meme to gel with real-life instances.  The instances I want to discuss here are instances of people who undoubtedly understood Rand's ideas the way they are meant to be understood.  The real deals, not the random asshole who somehow or other latched onto Rand's ideas.  These individuals are the following, during the decade of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s: Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, Allen and Joan Blumenthal, Alan Greenspan, Elayne and Harry Kalberman, Leonard Peikoff,  Mary Ann Sures.  These are the individuals who comprised the "Collective," Rand's "inner circle" of students and associates.

None of these individuals were angsty teens at the time.  None of them were intellectual imbeciles.  None of them (during that period of time, anyway) behaved or lived dysfunctionally, and none of them - many of their various "fallings-out" or breaks with Rand notwithstanding - ever came to repudiate the core of Rand's Objectivist philosophy, most fundamentally her prescribed neo-Aristotelian, sense-based methods of reasoning in dealing with ideas (which have gone on to be explained at length in Peikoff's books and courses on Objectivism, and in such academic scholarly literature as Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, which is the only "outside" secondary literature on Rand to date to incorporate the entirety of Peikoff's lecture course series (along with tons of other material) into its research - and guess what, it ends up being quite clearly enough a very positive assessment of Rand's ideas!).  (Only after the mid-1960s did the Brandens in particular (Nathaniel most pathologically) choose to evade the principles they had accepted and espoused; point being, it wasn't the ideas they espoused that led them to their dysfunctional lifestyles and the 1968 Break that torpedoed a flowering movement and set it back decades.)

So, how is the "Ayn Rand is for awkward angsty teens" crowd to handle these high-level-understanding concrete instances?  There's only one thing it can do, short of abandoning that stupid meme: evade.

This is pretty much what the whole mainstream of Rand-ridicule amounts to.  Pathetic, innit?

All I know is, Rand's (neo-Aristotelian) Objectivist philosophy is an example of a perfectivism, and these ridiculers and diminishers most decidedly are not.  Rand FTW.  Game, set, match.  Done deal, pal.  Checkmate again, assholes.  Ain't integration fun? / You can't refute perfectivism. :-)