Friday, November 29, 2013


When I was in high school, an older student informed me that the goal of a prep was not to be "cool," but "smooth."  I'm not sure what he meant by that (and I doubt he totally was either), but it smoothness makes me think of sprezzatura.  Sprezzatura was a concept invented by Baldasare Castiglione in his book "Book of the Courtier" to describe doing something in an apparently effortless way.  It wasn't important that it actually be effortless; it just needed to appear that way.

Castiglione's book was the most famous of many from the 16th century that offered advice to would-be courtiers.  In an age of absolutist rulers, the quickest way to advance was to be impress the ruler in person.  This was very different in substance from the ideas of ataraxia and patience that ancient authors had espoused; it wasn't a general approach to life, but rather a specific way of getting ahead.  Nevertheless, it wasn't entirely new (of course); there had always been philsophers who had advocated going along to get along, keeping one's true feelings to oneself.  In the 17th century, this developed into a significant philosophical school of "dissimulation," which was prudent for those who lived in absolutist states and didn't always share the political or religious views of the ruler.

If someone appears calm and unperturbed, is he genuinely "cool," or is he dissimulating?  The question of "authenticity" became a major theme of the 20th century.  I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy expresses her frustration to Charlie Brown:  "how do you tell the phonies from the realies"?  I didn't understand it at all when I was growing up, but I appreciate it more now.  People are still concerned with authenticity.  Consider the popular expression "keeping it real."  On the other end of the cultural spectrum, Martin Heidegger denounced "the vulgar temporality of calculation."  We all seem to sense that people are rarely who they seem to be, and that bothers us.

Sometimes, this seems perfectly understandable.  We don't want someone to pretend to be friends with us today only to talk about us behind our backs.  We actually have an innate sense of when a person's smile is not genuine and it really bothers us when someone pretends to be nice.  But why?  Would it be better if people just acted the way they really felt and insulted us if they don't like us?  That might be preferable to stabbing us in the back; at least then, we'd know where we stand.  But it isn't obviously preferable to having someone behave in a civil fashion in spite of their antipathy.  Maybe a person hates us, but doesn't want to show it.  Maybe he has selfish interests, or maybe he just thinks that it is his responsibility to be nice even if he doesn't like us.  It isn't clear (to me, anyway) that we would be better off if everyone acted on their gut feelings rather than put up a polite veneer.

Whenever I think of politeness and manners, I always think of Japanese society, in which it is carried to an extreme.  I value American forthrightness and I can't imagine living in a country where people expected me to lie about my preferences for the sake of preserving appearances.  I want to be myself.

On the other hand, what is "myself"?  On some album notes, I once read Pete Townshend of The Who saying that when we lose ourselves, we ironically find our true selves.  That seems self-evidently true in one sense, but it bothers me.  Everyone has feelings beneath the surface -- unconscious, or subconscious, or limbic, or however you want to express it -- that are beyond our conscious understanding.  We ignore those feelings at our peril; uncovering them can be liberating.  Yet are our unconscious feelings any more real than our conscious ones?  Why should we consider our irrational, gut feelings to be any more indicative of who we truly are than all the rational and emotional structures that are within the reach of our consciousness?  Suppose someone hates you, but goes out of his way to be pleasant.  Is his "real self" the one that hates you, or is it the one that tells him to be nice even if his feelings aren't?

Being inauthentic calls to mind people doing things for the sake of other people:  acting cool, or smooth, or nice, even when that isn't what they are feeling.  But we also sense that we can be inauthentic to ourselves, even if no one is around to see us.  We do things because we think we should, not in a moral sense, but because we feel -- sometimes explicitly, often just vaguely -- that it is the way people are supposed to act.  A common theme among adolescent girls is the desire for a fairy-tale wedding, complete with being swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor.  Some girls go to extremes to make this dream come true, not because they want other people to see them as princesses, but because they want to see themselves in that light.  They want their lives to fit a pattern that they associate with happiness.

Is that bad?  In the case of would-be princesses, it has the obvious danger that a lot of girls will be disappointed to find that life rarely works like fairy tales.  There is even a genre of literature and movies, the "fractured fairy tale," that plays on this theme (think "The Princess Bride" and "Shrek").  But I'm not convinced that striving for an ideal is a bad thing.  People accomplish amazing things in order to live up to positive ideals, sometimes set by specific people in their lives or by real-life heroes, and sometimes just based on general cultural norms.  If a pianist works extremely hard so that he can play as well as Franz Liszt, does that make him inauthentic?  Does it matter if he is inherently lazy and has to overcome his own inertia?  Does it matter if he achieves his goal and feels great personal satisfaction or if he falls short of it and is disappointed?  How about falling short and feeling content that he did his best?

One problem is that we all have models in our minds that we emulate, whether we do it consciously or not.  Another problem is that it is virtually impossible to say what constitutes our natural limits.  If a person who is inherently slow practices hard and becomes a marathon champion, we hail him as a hero; if he becomes a decent marathoner but not a champion, we still admire his devotion and hard work; but if he falls far short, we consider it pathetic and sad.  How is he to know in advance whether his effort is going to pay off?  Or if a man decides to fight in his own defense instead of running away, how outmatched does he have to be before we call him foolish instead of brave?

Physical limitations aren't even the most important kind.  What about a person who is terrified of meeting new people?  If he really wants a career as a salesman where he has to meet new people every day, he might work hard at overcoming his fear, learning people's names, and figuring out how to talk in a relaxed manner with strangers.  Would he say he wasn't being true to himself if he did this?  Maybe he was shy for his first 20 or 25 years, but became outgoing as an adult.  Is he a phony, or is he authentically achieving his own dreams?  What if he goes into sales not because he wants to, but because he needs to in order to make money?  What if he just accidentally ended up in sales because he couldn't figure out where his interests really lay?  Does it matter to his authenticity if he is successful in making the transition?

I often think of Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos," a curious book subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book."  He intends the subtitle ironically, because he thinks that people are too willing to accept the advice of experts and try to change themselves to be someone else -- outgoing and assertive, for instance.  I found it convincing for a long time, but then I started to think of the implications.  Probably Percy did not intend that no one try to change his personality; surely there are people who have debilitating or sociopathic personality traits that they could legitimately want to change.  But then, where do we draw the line?  When does a person's attempt at self-improvement change from authentic to inauthentic?

After all this, I'm sorry to say that I still don't have an answer.  Some people do seem phony, and it bothers me even if they have never done anything to hurt me and never will.  It bothers me when people put too much effort into creating the perfect, symbolic moment, like politicians who frame photo-ops meant to look spontaneous but actually entirely staged.  And yet I think tradition is a fine thing, and getting married in the same style that most Americans have done for the past hundred years, while not necessary, is not only permissable but has certain benefits over non-traditional weddings.  Like people who can tell an authentic smile from a fake one even if they can't explain why, I have a sense of what is authentic even though I have very little way to describe why I feel some things are and others aren't.  But, then, maybe authenticity is like a smile:  what matters is what you feel on the inside.  Even if someone can fake an authentic-looking smile, it would still be fake because the feelings behind the smile are not genuine.  And maybe there is no way to know if someone is being authentic in his actions without understanding his motives for doing it.  Unless we're going to surrender all consideration for other people, self-control is required, and therefore everything we do is a sort of act.  Perhaps there is an authentic way of acting and an inauthentic way, and only the person acting can know for sure which he is doing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Being Cool

When I was young, I was the opposite of cool, and I had a correspondingly low opinion of the concept.  Sure, I liked Fonzie, but when I thought of people being cool, I thought of classmates putting on airs to get attention.

Now I'm much older.  I'm still not cool, but I have a much better appreciation of the concept.  "Cool," it turns out, was not invented in 1957 (pace Miles Davis's album "The Birth of Cool" from that year), and not even in the modern era.  The original cool goes back to the ancient Greeks and the Stoics' concept of "apatheia," or equanimity.  They aimed to free themselves from their passions to attain this state of calm, and what is a cool person but one who remains calm and collected in the face of upsetting circumstances?  The concept was adapted and extended by Epicurus, who used the term "ataraxia," or tranquility -- freedom from stress and worry.

Another philosophical school that promoted ataraxia was the Sceptics.  Since they felt that no knowledge was certain, there was no reason to get upset about the things that we only think we know.  If you believe in being cool, you don't have to be a sceptic, but being sceptical does seem to imply a value in not overreacting.  Scepticism revived in the 17th century.  We are all familiar with Descartes's famous observation that all knowledge begins with doubt, and his irreducible minimum statement of existence -- I think, therefore I am.  Scepticism went hand in hand with the developement of the scientific method, which aims to question all things and test them empirically.  Ironically, therefore, a philosophy that doubts the certainty of knowledge contributed in a major way to the developement of modern science.

But the sceptical approach to cool is secondary, it appears to me.  What is more important to most people is not how we understand the world but how we react to it.  Being cool is one of a few different approaches.  Another one would be Christian patience, in which believers are urged to put their faith in God and bear suffering willingly because it is part of God's plan.  Tertullian (d. AD 225) was an early Christian thinker who emphasized the virtue of patience. Like sceptical ataraxia, Christian patience begins with limited knowledge; unlike the sceptical view, however, the Christian is obliged to patience because he trusts that God has a plan for him.  The Christian concept of patience is more active, implying continued activity in the face of disappointment.

The Romantic notion, by contrast, seeks for authentic emotions, even -- especially -- those involving passionate expressions of one's feelings.  Then there are those people who approach life without theories or preconceived notions, who allow their emotions to carry them along because it has not occurred to them to do anything else.

There is something to be said for just expressing your emotions naturally.  That's the Romantic ideal, after all:  just to be yourself, and not act according to a plan.  Unfortunately, people who allow their emotions to dictate their behaviour are typically considered childish and anti-social, and for good reason.  You wouldn't want someone to say whatever he feels regardless of other people's feelings, and you wouldn't want someone whining every time he didn't get his way.  Self-control is almost a pre-requisite for living in a civil society.

This is especially the case for leaders.  Who would want to be governed by someone who could not control his emotions?  A president might start a nuclear war; a policeman might beat a suspect to death for resisting.  We look to leaders to take measured responses, both for their practical effect and for their ability to reassure us.  Think of FDR explaining that Americans had nothing to fear but fear itself.  (A dubious proposition, but the sort of thing we expect from a leader.)

There is actually a biological basis for cool, which is associated with decreased levels of cortisol and increased levels of serotonin.  Cortisol stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which is the antithesis of cool.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is well-known since the development of drugs such as Prozac that increase its level in the human brain.  It has a calming effect; low values are associated with increased aggression, and high values are associated with higher social status.  And while I suspect individuals with high serotonin levels are more likely to achieve higher social status, it is also true that higher social status can increase serotonin levels (see this TED talk).

So I am inclined to think that being cool is a desirable characteristic and a reasonable thing to strive for.  People understandably look to cool people as their leaders, and strive to be cool themselves in order to achieve social status.  This brings us to the big problem with cool:  how do you separate the people who really possess the ability to remain calm under stress from those who merely want to create that image?  In other words, what is authentically cool?  In my next entry, I will discuss the problem of authenticity.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cardinal Mazarin

Today is Peace of Westphalia day -- the 365th anniversary of the signing of the Peace of Westphalia -- in honour of which I traditionally make a Mazarin cake.  Cardinal Mazarin was the French premier throughout the negotiations leading up to the peace.  Admittedly, I have no evidence that the cake was named after him, but how many other people named Mazarin have you ever heard of?

In fact, Mazarin is the namesake of a surprising number of modern items.  There is the Mazarin cut diamond, which is a precursor to the modern brilliant cut; and the Mazarin desk, or "bureau Mazarin," an early kneehole desk.  He was a renowned collector:   a famous Japanese chest is known as the Mazarin chest because it is believed he owned it, and there is also a "Mazarin Venus."  He was especially avid about collecting books; the Gutenberg Bible is sometimes known as the Mazarin Bible because it was in his collection.  In fact, his personal library became the foundation of the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale).  The library was housed in his enormous Parisian home until a few years ago.  Mazarin left behind a collection of 18 notable diamonds that became the inspiration behind the Sherlock Holmes tale, "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone."

Some of these items may have been mistakenly attributed to Mazarin.  Other things with his name were simply inspired by him, such as the upscale brand of Mazarin socks, or Mazarin yachts, or the rock band named Mazarin (of which there were actually two; the more well-known had to give up their name once the other band found out about them).  A lovely shade of blue is known as "Mazarin blue" in his honour, and the butterfly named after the colour therefore also bears his name, the Mazarin Blue Butterfly.  There is also a pattern labelled "Mazarin" that has been applied to parquet floors, hats, and rugs, but most notably to silverware; I have been unable to determine its provenance.

Mazarin, who was originally from Italy but became a naturalized French citizen, was credited with introducing the new Italian art form of opera into France; the very first opera performed there was "La Finta Pazza," from 1647.  He also brought the Italian passion for stage machinery to France.  He was a notorious gambler and helped popularize card games (instead of dice games) in his adoptive country.

The cardinal certainly made an impression on history.  In addition to presiding over the Peace of Westphalia, which brought Alsace and Lorraine to France, he also directed France at the Peace of the Pyrenees with Spain.  This not only brought France tangible possessions in Roussillon and Artois, but also included the marriage alliance of Louis XIV with Philip IV's daughter, ultimately leading to the dynastic union of France and Spain in the early 18th century.

Not bad for someone who is overshadowed by his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu.  I could be wrong that the Mazarin cake is related to him, but it is hard to believe that there is another Mazarin after whom it could be named.  Oh well, next time I'll take up the Congress of Vienna.  Then I can celebrate the peace with some Beef Stroganov and have no doubts of its origin.

[Note: this entry was scheduled to be published on 10/24/2013, but didn't make it for some reason.]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beyond the Laws (A Nation of Laws, pt. V)

There is another side to imposing the least possible burdens on citizens:  namely, the citizens themselves have to behave in the most reasonable possible manner.  That's vague, so let me pose it in the form of a mathematical thesis:  any sufficiently unreasonable citizenry requires a despotic government.

In other words, the more willing people are to violate the law, the more despotic the government must be.

There can be no legal remedy for a people that will not obey laws in general.  You can tighten the laws and increase the punishments, but that is precisely what you are trying to avoid.  If people will not obey some laws, those laws could be adjusted; but if people will not obey laws in general, there is no solution beyond changing the culture of the society.

People are inclined to obey laws that they think are just (see "Why People Obey Law," which I have not read but it looks interesting).  But it is not sufficient if people only obey laws that they agree with, because there is no hope of getting everyone to agree on the justice of every law.  Neither is it a solution to pass only a very few laws that are very just and therefore enjoy wide support.  Sometimes people view the absence of a law as an injustice; consider government-endorsed same-sex marriage, which half the population thinks is wrong, but the other half thinks is wrong to be without.

People, therefore, need to obey laws that they think are unjust.  Obviously, there is a limit to the amount of injustice that a person can, and should, submit to.  You may well believe that traffic cameras are an unlawful intrusion, but they hardly rise on their own to the level of tyranny.  Other laws violate justice and human decency so fundamentally that they should be ignored, subject to civil disobedience, or even (in rare cases) openly thwarted.  When I speak of obeying unjust laws, I mean those -- presumably the vast majority -- that a person considers wrong without being an affront to his humanity.

Why would you obey laws that you think are unjust?  It isn't difficult to imagine that you think the system of creating laws is fundamentally just, and that you wish to maintain this system, even if it means tolerating laws that you personally disagree with.  The world is imperfect, and the alternative to obeying some unjust laws may be subjection to vastly more unjust laws under a tyranny.  Everyone in principle should agree that the governmental structure is morally sound, so that he may tolerate minor injustices in exchange for the chance to correct them through normal political processes.

One also needs to believe that other people in society are capable of governing in a basically fair manner.  No party or political faction governs forever; eventually, one has to accept the fact that one's opponents are going to be in charge of making, executing, and interpreting laws, perhaps all at the same time.  Laws are just words on paper, and even just laws may be undermined by partial and unfair administration.  If you think that your opponents are fundamentally out for their own interests and will seek to use power to extend control and extract money rather than administer justice impartially, you have little incentive to obey the law and act within the system.  At some point, a common political system becomes virtually impossible to maintain.

For this reason, people in public life are morally responsible to behave impartially and to emphasize that the government exists in the interests of all people.  "Morally responsible" in this sense is deliberately vague because it acts on a sliding scale.  There can be no rule against lawmakers who advocate interpreting laws to partisan advantage or who claim that government is illegitimate because it benefits some people rather than others; among other problems, who would interpret such a rule?  It is a more a principle of good government, that politics will be more civil and government less burdensome to the extent that politicians emphasize the collective nature of government.  Of course, it is also a principle of a democratic citizenship that it will elect leaders who fit this paradigm more than those who pose government as a zero-sum, conflictual game.

Just to restate, I am not saying that no politician should ever challenge the justice of the governmental system he serves.  The principle is relative:  politicians should not challenge the justice of the governmental system to the extent that it remains sound, and in any case should always remain aware that society will function better if people think of the governmental system as fair than if they think of it as conflictual and competitive.  The penalty for not following this principle is nothing at all, except in the long run that society will have less and less confidence in the government and the government will become more and more despotic, the administration more and more partisan as a result.

I have a strongly libertarian bent; I believe that, in general, the fewer the governmental burden on the individual, the better off society is.  But I cannot escape the general principle that government is a collective enterprise.  In the West, it has traditionally been thought of as a res publica, a public good, or a "commonwealth."  People living together share a common interest in making things better, and although I think that this generally means interfering with each other as little as possible through coercive means, in the final analysis we establish government as a collective effort.  (See the excellent "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" for a discussion of how people respond to failed organizations, including governments.)  In business, the customer is king and can spend his money elsewhere if he is not happy; enterprises rise and fall on the basis of consumer choice.  Politics is not so simple, because it is tied to where we live and who we live around.  People do choose to leave one government and join another all the time, but usually only in small numbers, because few have the money to uproot readily, and fewer still want to give up the associations in their home country.

It wasn't always this way.  Anthropologists believe that a common method of conflict resolution in pre-Paleolithic Europe was "fission" -- just leaving.  If a band had a disagreement, part of them could split off and form a new band.  (This is also my favourite technique for conflict resolution with difficult people; I just avoid them.)  That ceased to be feasible when population increased and land use intensified; people had nowhere to go unless they would join another band, which might not want them.  We continue in this situation today, where leaving one government inevitably means joining another one.  Moreover, nearby governments tend to be similar, so there is rarely a dramatic reason to cross a border in the interest of improving one's position; a real improvement would require migrating halfway around the glob.  Only in rare circumstances do we find a despotic government next to a free one, in which people choose en masse to abandon the one for the other.  One such example was East and West Germany, and it shows why this is rarely the case:  East Germany had to devote enormous resources to keep its own people from leaving.

So we are stuck in a co-operative enterprise whether we like it or not.  We can modify the shape of our group by splitting into smaller groups (as several European nations did after the Cold War ended) or annexing one territory to another, but we cannot escape the fact that we must live together.  Arguably the fundamental feature of politics is deciding what group we're going to live with -- who is going to be in and who is going to be out.  This was the argument of Carl Schmitt in his work "The Concept of the Political" (Der Begriff des Politischen), and although he is a controversial theorist, I find his argument on this point compelling.  A similar point was made in a very different way by the 14th-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun.  Having lived in a period of rising and falling dyansties, he identified "social cohesion" as a crucial element of the state.  People need to share something -- a common history, language, culture, set of beliefs or principles -- if they are to be able to govern themselves.  More similarities perhaps makes government easier, but successful government does not require sharing similarities on the level of Japan or Sweden.  The most important feature, I would argue, is a common belief in the values of the political system, together with some hope that those values can be implemented fairly by other people in society.  Differences in all of the other features, such as race, language, and religion, can be overcome provided people accept a common "meta-culture of rule-making," i.e. a common political system.

I believe in a strongly libertarian government, one in which the government interferes as little as possible with individuals and groups in society; but if there is not some sense of belonging to a worthwhile common enterprise, to a government that functions for everyone, then that government is in trouble. This is a very serious problem in places like Iraq, which have different religious and ethnic groups that have little history of co-operation and a long history of quarreling.  (Arguably, Iraq should not even try to form a government, but there are many other factors involved that are beyond the scope of this post.)  It is not as much of a problem for the United States, where people often have different backgrounds but share a general faith in the principle of self-government and in our constitution in particular.  But it could become a problem as people feel they are not served by the existing order and "opt out" (in a passive or active way) from society.  For this reason, I am opposed to ideas like the "Declaration of Individual Independence," by which individuals withdraw their allegiance to the government (without, however, engaging in general lawlessness), as well as to any political idea or philosophy that argues that some parts of society are fundamentally inimical to others and that a free, democratic political order is only a cheap way to paper over oppression of one group by another.  If this were true, it would deny the possibility of combining freedom and self-government; and if people believe it to be true, their belief makes everyone in society more vulnerable to tyranny.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Cult of Safety (A Nation of Laws, pt.IV)

When I was growing up, swimming pools typically had a high diving board and a low diving board.  Swimming pools today only have a low diving board and a lower diving board -- lawsuits have made high dives too costly to insure.  I lived in a neighbourhood where we had a pool and a very popular waterslide.  The neighbourhood association had to increase the number of lifeguards to run the waterslide to three:  one at the top of the slide to tell kids when to go, one at the bottom, and one at the bottom of the stairs to check that kids met the minimum height restriction.  Obviously, this was expensive, because these lifeguards were unable to keep an eye on the rest of the pool while the slide was open, so there had to be at least 5 lifeguards on duty to operate the slide.  Even with all that, there was discussion every year about shutting down the slide, because it was basically uninsurable.

What does this have to do with laws?  It relates to the idea, expressed in part III, that individuals are expected to police themselves.  We expect individuals to take normal care whenever they act, and to bear the consequences if things go wrong.  Or at least, we used to.  Now that we have "strict liability," organizations are responsible for things that go wrong even if no reasonable person could have foreseen the risk, and even if the injured party did not take normal precautions on his way to hurting himself.

People tend to think of liability in terms of large corporations.  They make many millions of dollars, so what difference does a lawsuit matter to them?  Indeed, it can be difficult to punish a corporation adequately for misdeeds because the corporation is so large that any normal fine is easily written off.  Even when it comes to suing small business or individuals, people brush off large settlements by concluding that it isn't the individual's money, it's the insurance company's.  But of course, this ignores the cost of insurance premiums, which drive up the cost of products and prevent many small businesses from ever getting started.

The number of things we can't do or don't have because of strict liability is staggering, and depressing.  I will only provide two more examples, from opposite ends of the spectrum -- I'm sure you have your own.  One is a product that was shut down by the government before there were lawsuits.  The company that created the enormously popular rare-earth magnets known as "Bucky Balls" is no longer in business because small children who swallow the magnets can be seriously injured.  Never mind that the company never marketed the toys to children, and labelled the packaging for ages 13+; the Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed them dangerous because some toddlers had swallowed the magnets and been hospitalized.  The company's owner issued the following statement on shutting down: 
"Due to baseless and relentless legal badgering by a certain four letter government agency, it's time to bid a fond farewell to the world's most popular adult desk toys, Buckyballs and Buckycubes. That's right: We're sad to say that Balls & Cubes have a one-way ticket to the Land-of-Awesome-Stuff-You-Should-Have-Bought-When-You-Had-the-Chance."

The other example concerns my homeowner's association.  People had taken to walking in the office parking lot for exercise.  The association, on advice from its lawyers, had to order the people to walk elsewhere for fear of lawsuits.  Someone could step in a pothole and injure himself, and then the association would be liable.

This is a legal problem, but it is also a social problem.  Citizens sitting on juries continue to rule in favour of massive judgments for injured people in the face of all common sense.  The premise is that other people should make our world completely safe, regardless of how irresponsibly we act.  Computer security expert Bruce Schneier has a timely article on just this question of our obsessive, and self-destructive, pursuit of security.  An article in Reason magazine discusses the scientific side of poor risk evaluation.  (There is a whole branch of science called "prospect theory" that has grown up around this question.)

The social problem is hard to fix, but the legal issue could be addressed by repealing the concept of strict liability.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. devoted a significant section of his book "The Common Law" to the question of liability.  The prominent legal principle in the matter was that "a man acts at his peril," i.e., he was responsible for his actions even if he could not reasonably anticipate their results.  Justice Holmes spends several paragraphs showing the problems with this based on other case law, and concludes his section with what I think is a very apt discussion of the social issue at stake.

"[T]he public generally profits by individual activity," he writes.  "As action cannot be avoided, and tends to the public good, there is obviously no policy in throwing the hazard of what is at once desirable and inevitable upon the actor."  He then explains the practical problems with making the state into "a mutual insurance company against accidents," but concludes that the most serious problem is "one of offending the sense of justice. Unless my act is of a nature to threaten others, unless under the circumstances a prudent man would have foreseen the possibility of harm, it is no more justifiable to make me indemnify my neighbor against the consequences, than to make me do the same thing if I had fallen upon him in a fit, or to compel me to insure him against lightning."

We have become a society in which "a man acts at his peril."  Society no longer encourages activity -- or does so to a much smaller degree than it used to -- but instead hems public action in at all turns with threats of liability, a great hidden tax upon the creative powers of our country.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Nation of Laws, pt.III

Thomas Aquinas asked:  what is the point of laws?  We know bad people will ignore them, and good people won't want to do those things anyway, so what good do laws do?  His answer was that laws help in the marginal cases -- people who might do bad things, but who are deterred by laws.

It is important to keep in mind that laws do not work perfectly, as Aquinas noted.  While some will change their behaviour to obey the law, others will never have wanted to do what the law forbids in the first place, and still others will continue their behaviour even if it violates a new law.  Another group of people will attempt to continue their behaviour within the bounds of the law by looking for loopholes, exceptions, and work-arounds.  That will lead to calls for more laws to close the loopholes.

More laws come at a cost.  There is an administrative cost, of course, but there is an equally important civic cost:  we expect people to obey the law, and to obey it, they have to know what it is -- ignorance of the law is no excuse.  By multiplying the number of laws, we impose a burden on citizens who are obligated to know them.

The civic cost also includes a loss of freedom.  For many laws, such as murder and burglary, this is not a problem; no one should have the freedom to kill or steal.  But other laws prevent things that would be fine if only a few people did them.  No one objects in principle to people rescuing baby seals or baby deer, but there is a danger of too many people interfering in wildlife.  We resort to laws that allow only licensed professionals to engage in such activities, but licensing is only a crude tool for limiting which people are allowed to interact freely with animals.  How much better if people observed the limits on their own; if only a few people used bad judgment, it would not cause a crisis, and we would need no law to prohibit well-intentioned people from doing good deeds.

Laws have to be made to fit the character of the people they would govern, as Montesqueieu argued.  A government can impose unpopular laws, such as Prohibition, but only with an enormous enforcement effort.  Alternately, we can overlook violations of unpopular laws.  But that option is worse, because it tells people the laws aren't important. If you're not going to enforce a law, don't create it.  I have always thought there is something fundamentally wrong with our speed limit laws for this reason.  Clearly, few local or state governments think the speed limits they set are really important, because they don't enforce them until someone is going at least 10 mph above the limit.  They should enforce the limit posted, or raise it until they think it is worth being enforced.

Have you ever wondered why the IRS expects you to fill out your own tax return?  It opens the door for people to cheat in many ways, and the IRS can only audit a small portion of returns; and, naturally, they focus on the ones that exhibit behaviour characteristic of other tax cheaters (such as claiming large charitable deductions).  But what an administrative nightmare it would be if the IRS had to calculate everyone's taxes for them.  It would basically be an unworkable system:  the government would have to hire tens of thousands of more employees to interrogate you about your sources of income and your deductions, and then fill out the forms.  The IRS trusts you, more or less, to do the job yourself because it has no choice.  Moreover, much as most people hate filing taxes, I have no doubt that they would hate the alternative of direct IRS participation even more.

Laws are like filing taxes.  The government relies on people to obey laws on their own; police forces and enforcement agencies are like auditors that go after the people -- hopefully a small number -- who don't police themselves.  If people don't believe a law is just, the government is required to take over enforcement in a centralized fashion instead of "outsourcing" the job to individuals.  This is a very costly way of governing, and imposes a huge burden on the citizenry.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The end of tipping

A recent article draws attention to several high-end restaurants that have eliminated tipping, and suggests that this might become a trend.  If so, I say good riddance.

I'm glad to have the restaurant increase its prices and eliminate tips.  It's not the money; it's having to figure out how much to leave.  Not the arithmatic, of course, but the psychological burden of deciding how much a person deserves for bringing me food.  The whole server-servee relationship is awkward in America, where no one wants to be a servant and all but the very wealthy feel uncomfortable being served.

The practice of tipping goes back to actual servants, whom masters offered additional incentives for difficult tasks or rewards for a job well done.  Americans originally didn't like the implied master-servant relationship when tipping was introduced from Europe, and the practice was fought on several levels:  some private citizens formed an Anti-Tipping League, while a number of state governments passed laws against tipping (which, however, proved unenforceable).

In principle, tipping gives the customer the opportunity to reward good service or penalize bad service.  In practice, there is very little relationship between the amount of the tip and the quality of the service.  No wonder, since we constantly hear how waiters and waitresses need tip money to make a living wage.  Not leaving a tip often consigns them to a nearly trivial minimum wage of under $3 an hour, so it would take horrible service indeed to warrant that kind of reaction.  If restaurants would pay servers what they earn and need, it would not be on the diner's conscience whether a tip would be sufficient.

Even if restaurants paid their staff more but still allowed tipping, I wouldn't be very happy about it.  Tipping would still be an awkward relationship in which the diner declares that he can spare some money for the underprivileged staff.  (One argument against having higher prices instead of tipping is that poorer people won't be able to eat out.  So you don't have to tip if your income is below a certain amount?  I never see that mentioned in articles about how much to tip.  I've read numerous comments from servers that, if you can't afford the tip, you shouldn't eat out.)

And then there is the awkward relationship between the diners who are eating together but picking up their own checks.  Who wants to seem stingy in the face of one's peers?  This is one of the last holdouts of the noble ethos.  Hundreds of years ago, people liked to show their magnanimity by dispensing money freely, even if they couldn't really afford it.  They weren't supposed to worry about keeping precise monetary accounts because they were about greatness of spirit.  In our mercantile culture, this has died out in almost every other way save tipping.  Few people have qualms about packing up their leftovers to take home -- definitely a bourgeois rather than a noble act -- but many people like to show their generosity by tipping freely.

Perhaps that's why the average tip in America has increased from 10% around 1900 to 18.9% today.  I've heard various numbers recommended throughout my life, from 10% up.  Many suggest 15% or 18% as a minimum nowadays, so I don't know what counts as a generous tip.

I admit it, I don't have the noble spirit.  I like to know how much money is required for goods and services so I can calculate it in advance and not have to worry about it.  Now I have to think about it, not only when being served at a restaurant, but when being served by a barista or when eating at a buffet.  (What am I tipping the waiter or waitress for, I wonder, if I am expected to tip someone at a buffet where I get my own food?)  Not to mention pizza delivery, newspaper delivery, postal delivery, haircuts, taxi rides, coatroom attending, and an ever-expanding array of services.

I'm sorry, my mind isn't wired that way.  It adds stress to my life by forcing me to make the calculation myself whether and how much to tip -- and feeling guilty if I choose too small a tip.  Just tell me the amount, and then I can make a regular economic decision about whether it is worth the money.

A Nation of Laws, part II

Let's suppose for a moment that you believe, as I argued in my last post, that we have too many laws.  The obvious question is, why?  One reason is what a friend of mine calls "government by anecdote":  something dramatic happens, and everyone says, "the government should do something about that!"

I agree with him that this is a terrible way to govern.  Sometimes tragedies require immediate action, but usually they do not; often, there is nothing obvious that the government can do.  As a result, lawmakers resort to symbolic laws that have little or nothing to do with the tragedy itself.  There is a school shooting; Congress calls for banning "assault weapons," even though the definition of assault weapons is irrelevant to the shooting in question.  Maybe people would feel better if there were no guns with bayonet sockets or grenade launchers, but is anyone going to be any safer?  How many shootings have occurred using grenade launchers?

The primary political impulse for the government to do something is, of course, liberalism, in which the government is responsible for everything.  But, at a more basic level, the real driving force is people who don't want anything bad to happen.  School shootings are tragic, but they are not necessarily increasing.  The average student is extremely safe in schools, and many students are safer in schools than they are at home.  This is the same point that Michael Moore was trying to make, in his own inept way, about the 9/11 attacks:  they were dramatic and attention-grabbing, but the actual chance of an American dying in a domestic terrorist attack is minuscule.  (I think terrorist attacks are important for another reason, but more on that another time.)

We live in a nation of over 300 million people, with virtually no barriers to the spread of information.  Because unusual, dramatic, and scary stories grab the most attention, they are drastically overrepresented in the news we see and read and hear.  Often, laws are already in place designed to prevent a particular tragedy.  Sometimes, procedures can be improved to do a better job of catching would-be criminals before it is too late, but the effect of adding yet another set of rules to similar situations is likely to be more bureaucracy and little extra safety.

Sometimes, we just need to learn to live with the fact that the world is uncertain.  You've probably seen people on t.v., relatives of someone (often a child) who has been killed needlessly -- maybe a shooting, maybe drowned in a swimming pool, maybe caught in a house fire.  They go on the news and say, earnestly, "I want to make sure that no parent ever has to go through this again."  Thus is legislation born.  But this is an unrealistic standard -- it sounds silly even to point it out, but often, no one does point it out, and people talk as though preventing all future tragedies of a certain type were a reasonable goal.  Tragedies will always happen.  We can reduce some kinds, and we should, but we should always ask whether a proposed law is likely to have a significant effect, and whether it is worth the cost in liberty that we pay to have another law on the books.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Nation of Laws?

Both conservatives and liberals spend a lot of time complaining about oppressive government, so you might think they would agree more often.  I think there are some issues where they do agree, and where they should co-operate because they can do something useful to reign in a government that sometimes get out of control.

I found such an issue when I was reading the DailyKos website.  I visit the DailyKos because the people who comment there can be counted on never to say anything nice about a Republican or a conservative.  In that sense, they are much like mainstream news media, but are less restrained about their views and therefore give me a sense of the motives that underlie liberals' arguments.  On this occasion, I was surprised to find an article that I agreed with almost 100%.  The subject:  the state of Wisconsin was alerted to an animal shelter that held a deer, which is apparently against some state law or regulation.  They raided the shelter with an armed enforcement team and killed the deer on the spot.

Hardly any sane person could be in favour of killing a baby deer named Giggles (yes, that was the name the shelter had given the fawn), yet that is exactly what happened.  Not a deer that happened to be rabid or that had mauled a toddler or anything, just a random deer housed by an animal shelter.  What kind of logic could lead to such an action?  More on that in a moment.

For now, realize that there such government actions are not that unusual.  I don't mean they happen every day in every town, but something like this is so bizarre that you might think it would be an anomaly, that you would have a hard time finding a comparable example.

Not so.  Consider the family in Michigan that rescued a baby deeer after its mother was killed by a car.  They had been raising it for five years when Michigan's Department of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Natural Resources found out about it.  Since they were not "licensed rehabilitators," the family was told they would have to release the animal.  This story has a happy ending insofar as the family got to keep the deer, but only because Michigan did not send in a SWAT team in the style of the Wisconsin raid and dispense justice on the spot.  A campaign of people who are not insane organized on Facebook, a petition gathered thousands of signatures, and the government eventually agreed to bend its rules.  The family could keep the deer, but still has to pay an annual fee of $450 for the privilege of caring for a defenseless animal, as well as having annual disease checkups.

Even a momentary act of kindness can be punished by the state.  A Massachussetts couple who rescued a seal that had been badly mauled by a shark faced a possible $5,000 fine under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal to touch or harass the mammals.  Probably the seal, which was photographed kissing its rescuers, didn't feel harassed, but no one bothered to ask its opinion.  According to the local aquarium, "anyone who thinks a seal is in distress should instead call the U.S. Coast Guard or emergency officials."

This is the overwhelming direction of policy now:  leave everything to experts.  But even when the authorities have the resources to intervene and agree to do so, that doesn't mean that the emergency will be taken care of.  In England, a man who suffered a seizure proceeded to drown in three feet of water while 25 emergency workers looked on.  The fire crew that arrived first hadn't been trained to enter the water, which was shallow enough that they could wade in (and all were able to swim in any case).  A policeman was ordered to stay out when he attempted to rescue the man.  A paramedic was kept out because his lack of "protective clothing" might put him in violation of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.  Thank goodness the government was looking after his interests, otherwise, who knows what might have happened?

This is part of our "safety first" culture, which warrants an article of its own.  The point here is the proliferation of rules that prevent ordinary human charity.  Cities around the country have cracked down people and groups that wanted to do no more than distribute food to hungry people -- in Raleigh, Houston, and Phoenix. In Hartford, a man who had been giving out free haircuts in a city park for the past 25 years was ordered to stop.

Are there legitimate concerns in some of these cases?  Yes, mostly questions of safety and sanitation.  Who is to blame?  While the death of Giggles was the result of an administrator taking things much too far, not all the cases can be blamed on bureaucrats.  The Phoenix church was ordered to stop distributing food after a judge ruled against them, and city officials in Hartford only moved against Joe the Barber because neighbours complained expressed concern about safety and sanitation.

One thing all of these cases have in common, however, is the existence of laws.  Laws with reasonable-sounding objectives, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations.  And the one common solution I can find for these issues is:  have fewer laws.

I am by no means an anarchist.  Laws are absolutely necessary, and I have no doubt that our complex society needs so many that -- sad to say -- a phalanx of lawyers will be necessary to interpret and understand them.  But we could do with far, far fewer laws than we presently have.

A law is a blunt instrument.  It is very solid, in a country like the United States where respect for the law is widespread and enforcement relatively uncorrupt, but it is inevitably blunt.  Regulating the distribution of food, which is normally a commercial enterprise, sounds like a good idea in principle, but it ends up getting used to prevent people from giving out charity.  You can write in exceptions, but that just makes the law more complicated and almost certainly still interferes with some unobjectionable activities.  Already, the laws being cited are obscure enough that the criminals perpetrators accused citizens have no idea what law they are breaking.  "No representative from the Raleigh Police Department was willing to tell us which ordinance we were breaking," said one member of the Raleigh church.  Apparently it wasn't too important, because the church had been giving out free food for six years without any government intervention.  Then, according to the church's pastor, one day "an officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested."

I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that you may be violating a number of laws in your everyday life without even being aware of them.  If the government decides to start enforcing that law one day, you may find yourself in court, or even in prison, without having realized you were doing anything wrong.

That is not my idea of a free society.  It is not truly a nation of laws, but a nation of administrative whim in which no citizen can expect to know even a remote fraction of the laws he is supposed to obey.  And the trend is getting worse.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is 907 pages, long enough that even proponents admitted that they hadn't read it, and it has produced thousands of pages more in regulations.  While the PPACA is a milestone in the length and complexity of legislation, it is just one example of a trend in which government laws (at all levels) are getting longer and regulating things in more minute detail.

Some laws can be fixed; in some cases, it is worth living with the burden of more regulations.  And in many cases, it is better to live with more ambiguity, accept the fact that not everything is going to be perfectly safe or fair, but that it's better to use your judgment as an individual to decide what things to eat or see or smoke or avoid than to live under the weight of massive regulations.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Westphalia visual supplement

The following are links to images to accompany the book Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace

Chapter 1

p.1: Portrait of Queen Christina, source of many of the quotations in this book and reigning Swedish monarch at the time of the Peace of Westphalia.

7: Witch scares: alive and well in the 1640's.

9: D'Artagnan and Cyrano de Bergerac were both duelists as well as French couriers at the Congress of Westphalia

10: Galileo died under house arrest in 1642.

Rembrandt as a young man and as an old man

11: Michelangelo's statue of David (left) next to Bernini's

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa

Fall of the Damned by Rubens

Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I

Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda

Marie de Medici as the Roman goddess Bellona, by Rubens

The coronation of Marie de Medici by Rubens

12: Map showing the disparate realms of the elector of Brandenburg

Map showing the divided realms ruled by Philip IV -- and this just includes the European lands, not those in the Americas, East Indies, or Philippines

Chapter 5

127: Image of Münster in 1622

Image of Osnabrück in 1647

A common site in Münster's streets:  free-range pigs

128: A photograph of St. Lambert's church in Münster showing the cages used to kill the Anabaptist leaders

Painting of a Westphalian meal

Real pumpernickel, quite a bit denser and drier than what passes for pumpernickel in America

129: A woman wearing the distinctive Fellkenhaube headdress

133: Connections between Münster and Osnabrück
134: The Field of the Cloth of Gold:  how monarchs negotiated

136: An interactive map showing where the main representatives stayed in Münster

144: Ter Borch's painting of Adriaen Pauw's entrance to Münster -- quite restrained by contemporary standards

156: Postal connections  to the congress cities

Münster's connections to Europe's capitals

The "peace rider" announcing the Peace of Westphalia.  He blows the posthorn that was common to mail delivery in the Empire

Chapter 11

364:  An allegorical painting on the Peace of Westphalia by Joachim von Sandrart

366: An image of Otto von Guericke's demonstration of the power of the vacuum

Monday, July 15, 2013

Zimmerman and Racism

The liberal argument against George Zimmerman is based on the premise that he was profiling Martin because Martin was black.  Everything else about their defense depends on the idea that Zimmerman was wrongly "stalking" or even "hunting" Martin based on the colour of his skin.  I have seen liberals who, in other circumstances, would argue that it is never right to initiate violence, admit that Trayvon Martin attacked Zimmerman but exonerate him because of his right to "self-defense" against this suspicious person stalking him.  If there was no racial angle to this case, there would be no argument about self-defense against someone who was merely observing.  Indeed, if a white person had tried to claim self-defense to justify an attack against a black person who he thought was stalking him, liberals would be singing an entirely different tune.

The thing that strikes is that the idea that George Zimmerman is a racist is prima facie absurd.  He is one-quarter black; he took a black date to prom; he voluntarily tutors black students.  If he is racist, who isn't?  The next logical step is that a black person will be accused of racism against other blacks.  Lest that seem absurd, remember that Jesse Jackson has admitted to feeling anxious when meeting young black males alone on the street, an admission that would surely be considered racist if uttered by a white, a white-hispanic, an Asian, or any other non-black.

The liberal premise is that Martin was just returning from having bought Skittles and tea, so there is no way he could have appeared suspicious except by virtue of his race (or his hoodie -- although if the hoodie made Zimmerman more suspicious than he would have been without it, clearly that is not a racial marker but a cultural one).  Without hearing Zimmerman's reason for regarding Martin with suspicion, I don't grant this premise, but let's assume for the moment that it is true.  Would Zimmerman have any reason to regard a young black male as more suspicious than, say, a young white male?  What about a young, black female?  What about a 60-year-old black male?  The neighbourhood had been subject to several recent burglaries perpetrated (as far as I have heard) by young black males.  So is it not possible that Zimmerman, who otherwise has shown himself to be entirely at ease around blacks and without any hint of racism, was suspicious because Martin shared some similarities with other burglary suspects?  If the other burglars had been known to be wearing hoodies, would that have been a justifiable reason for suspecting him?  We're not talking about convicting him in a court of law for being like other burglars, only of observing him and his behaviour and his similarity to other burglars and trying to protect the neighbourhood.

Why should we assume that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus rather than by concern to protect his neighbours from crime?  One interesting point that someone raised is that only one of the two people involved in this tragedy is known to have used a racial epithet to describe the other:  Trayvon Martin, who described Zimmerman as "a creepy-ass cracker."  Why does he get a pass for that?  Why is Zimmerman automatically assumed to be racist for considering Martin suspicious, when his real reason is unknown, whereas Martin comes in for no criticism for openly acknowledging his racism with regard to Martin?  If the case had been the other way, and a white person had pre-emptively attacked a black person whom he believed to be stalking him, would liberals consider it irrelevant if he described his stalker as "a creepy-ass nigger"?

One other aspect of this case disturbs me, and that is President Obama's famous statement last year that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon.  Is he saying that Trayvon Martin has a similar nose, or a similar cheekbone structure?  Or is he, as is far more likely, referring to their similar racial background?  If the latter, doesn't that come dangerously close to saying that all blacks look alike?  More to the point, why should this matter?  A president should stand for justice, not for solidarity with a racial group.  If Martin was wrongly killed, I would hope Obama would stand with him even if Martin were white, or Obama were black.  I am uncomfortable with an appeal to the racial unity in a matter of justice.  If there is a racial issue, the president should support justice, regardless of what race he is.  If we are ever going to overcome racial divisions, it will be because we stop grouping people by colour and start treating them as individuals, each of whom deserves justice regardless of his ethnic background or physical appearance.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman verdict

Not much has happened to cause me to change my original interpretation of the George Zimmerman case.  We now know that Trayvon Martin described Zimmerman as "a creepy-ass cracker," and we have definitive evidence that Zimmerman was seriously injured in the struggle.  (I have heard people question whether Martin inflicted the wounds to Zimmerman, but I haven't heard a plausible alternative scenario.  Do they think Zimmerman broke his own nose to create a cover story?  Do they think he was on neighbourhood watch with a broken and bleeding nose?)

We still don't know how the encounter between the two of them went, having only Zimmerman's statement that he was ambushed and little else to go on.  Some people claim he was the one on top in the struggle, and it was Martin screaming for help.  This is only credible to me if Martin managed to turn the tables on him, because I don't see why Zimmerman would have pulled a gun when he was on top.  If he wanted to shoot Martin, why wait until they were in a physical altercation?  That makes drawing and using a gun much more perilous, with no corresponding benefit to waiting.

I visited the Daily Kos to find out what liberals are saying about the verdict.  I read several comments claiming that Zimmerman "hunted Martin like he was an animal."  This makes no sense to me (not that I expected a lot of sense from the Daily Kos, but I try to give the benefit of the doubt).  Zimmerman had participated in the neighbourhood watch before, and I find it hard to believe that he hadn't seen other people walking around unaccompanied.  There is no reason to think he wanted to kill Martin when he had not killed other people.  The idea of someone in a neighbourhood watch "hunting" someone is pretty unlikely in any case.  People who say that must never have lived in an unsafe neighbourhood where a number of robberies have occurred recently.  They can't understand why someone would be concerned for the safety and property of residents and would want to investigate suspicious behaviour.

This is a national story for two reasons.  First, some people think that Zimmerman went after Martin because he was black.  I don't know why they feel comfortable with that conclusion, which seems to contradict Zimmerman's history.  He obviously was on good terms with a number of black people.  His concern with Martin was that he was walking the neighbourhood at night in the way that a burglar might.  He may have drawn unjustified inferences, but I think it as likely that the hoodie concerned him as that Martin's race did.  (As far as I am aware, whites also wear hoodies.)  In any case, we can't know for sure whether race played a role in Zimmerman's suspicions, and I'm not sure why it should matter in a legal sense.

The second reason is that people don't think Zimmerman should have carried a gun, much less used it.  Of course, in their narrative, he was hunting Martin and looking for an excuse to kill him (and apparently wasn't too particular about the excuse, either, if you are to believe their story that he was on top of Martin in the fight).  In the more likely scenario that Martin was beating the crap out of him when he pulled a gun and shot in self-defense, the problem is more complicated.  One can make a case that, even in these circumstances, Zimmerman should not have shot Martin, but one has to accept that he was going to get beaten up and possibly killed in that case.  I don't like the idea of being defenseless, so I would not agree with that argument, but at least it would be an honest debate (as opposed to making Zimmerman out to be a cold-blooded killer).

As an interesting side note to the Zimmerman case, liberals have been making a comparison to the case of Marissa Alexander (also a Floridian) who was sentenced to 20 years merely for firing warning shots at her allegedly abusive husband.  Alexander is black, so I suppose this is meant to show that there is a double standard in justice based on the race of the perpetrator.  It doesn't quite work, because Alexander's husband is also black.  You could argue that it is an example of wildly inconsistent applications of the provision for self-defense, and I would have to agree with that.  Although Alexander was not being physically beaten at the time that she fired the shots, it does appear that her husband admits to being physical with her, to threatening to kill her previously, and to refusing to leave the house.  (See the court documents here.)  And, of course, she didn't actually shoot him, instead aiming for the ceiling.

To all appearances, this is also a travesty of justice.  Guns are especially important to women, who usually lack the physical strength to confront men who threaten them.  Although this incident had not, perhaps, risen to the level of actual threats, her husband's behaviour certainly seems threatening in the usual sense of the term.  Since she was not firing shots that had any chance of hitting him, I don't think she acted inappropriately.  On the other hand, the fact that this case was decided wrong does not mean that the Zimmerman case should have been decided in a manner consistent with it.  I'd rather fix the wrong case than be consistently wrong.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Democrat hate speech of the week

Many items from the link below aimed at pro-life Texas legislators, e.g. "I will drown @Scott_SanfordTX in blood & bile then feed his corpse to territorial crows," but mostly of the more mundane sort -- I hope you die, I hope your daughters get raped.  Repulsive, and enough to make some representatives feel physically threatened.  Of course, I don't blame Democratic legislators for the actions of these crazies, but I do think it is incumbent upon them to denounce it, just as Republicans are expected to denounce violent statements and actions against abortion clinics.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Limits of Stoicism

Stoicism is such an attractive philosophy. How can anyone object to being calm in the face of adversity, undisturbed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? It is not only personally promising, but also appealling in others, because we all admire someone with grace under pressure, someone who is always cool, calm, and collected.

I have always admired stoicism and aspired to be more stoic myself (without much success, I admit).  There seems something fundamentally wrong about railing against fate, whether you are religious or not.  If you are, surely God knows better than you; if not, the actions of inanimate forces are not worthy of your anger.  I think of the line from "The Color of Money," when Paul Newman's opponent loses and says, "I didn't deserve that."  Paul Newman just asks, "Is this your first tournament, Duke?"  What is the point of saying you didn't "deserve" to lose a pool game or to miss a particular shot?  You think the balls owed it to you to go somewhere other than where you hit them?

This seems especially relevant in the modern world, where so many people think they are owed something for nothing.  Criminals sue their own victimsLottery winners continue to collect welfare.  A woman who won $1 million said, "I thought that they would cut me off, but since they didn't, I thought maybe it was okay because I'm not working...It's just hard, you know. I'm struggling."  These are not the kind of people you can expect to deal well with adversity, and, although they are extreme examples, they are representative of millions of people who don't mind gaming the system because they think their lives are hard.

A certain amount of stoicism is a pre-requisite for republican government, I think.  But it is also an attractive path to a quiet mind.  Who likes being upset?  With this in mind, when I finally got around to reading "The Enchiridion" recently, I was swept off my feet with its powerful opening:

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammelled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another's is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another's is indeed another's, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.

What could be more liberating than thinking that everything that happens to us is "slavish," "weak," and "servile"?  Only the things that we do -- our reactions -- are free.

The thing that concerns me about stoicism is not so much the idea nor how it has been implemented, but the logical conclusions which one can draw from its premises.  By dividing things into mental/spiritual (good, in our control) and material (bad, out of our control), it seems to set up a Manichaeanism in which the only thing to do is to withdraw into the spiritual realm.  Of course, unlike Machiaeans or Cathars, stoics do not believe material things to be evil; but since they are "weak" and "servile," it would seem pointless to devote any attention to them.

I am reminded of a scene from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (which I may be misremembering and I don't have a copy of it handy) in which the author goes into a state of pure abstraction, sitting on the floor meditating for many hours, not bothering to get up to relieve himself.  How could a stoic object to this?  He is exhibiting concern only for the things that he can control, and not for external things.  And yet, somehow I find it profoundly disturbing that the idea of a philosophy could be to sit in one's own urine in contemplation.

I should clarify that I'm not saying stoics would approve of this outcome, but I think their premises (or at least, those in the Enchiridion) would require them logically to approve it.  (Unless, to be sure, there is some other aspect of stoicism that I am not understanding -- which is entirely possible.)  Therefore, while I continue to admire the stoic ideal and to try not to be moved unduly by external things, I can't accept stoicism as a complete philosophy.  I am a man, not an angel, and the material world is real and, for better or worse, not meaningless to me.  I pray I would accept whatever happens to me in it, but I can't agree that everything external is unimportant.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Offensive mascots: update

Just a brief update to my post on offensive mascots:  The Washington Redskins have been under more pressure recently to change their name, but apparently not from Indians.  The chief of one tribe said "I’m a Redskins fan, and I don’t think there’s any intention for (the nickname) to be derogatory," and another added, "About 98 percent of my tribe is Redskins fans, and it doesn’t offend them, either."

Should we care what they think?  I'm sure liberals would say something like they have internalized the values of their oppressors.  I would say that getting rid of the name Redskins would represent a loss for Indians more than for non-Indians, and I can't think of anything more condescending or derogatory than telling someone else what to be offended at.  I'm normally a Dolphins fan, but for today, I say, "Go Redskins!"

Same-sex marriage and discrimination, Part II

The most persuasive argument in favour of same-sex marriage is also the most specious:  why should we care what other people do?  It's persuasive because we have a libertarian culture (or a permissive one, depending on your point of view) and we are reluctant to condemn anyone for anything.  It is specious because this has never been about allowing people of the same sex to get married, and it is clearer all the time that this is not the goal.

First of all, the recently-overturned DOMA did not prevent states from recognizing same-sex marriages; it merely defined marriage on a federal level as between two people of a different sex.  The Supreme Court made the bizarre ruling that the federal government has to yield to the states on the definition of marriage, even for purely federal purposes such as estate taxes.  It is a wrong decision because marriages have to be defined at the federal level in some way, and allowing the states to define them differently creates enormous administrative difficulties.  (Let's see what happens when the first state permits polygamy, for instance:  how will federal income tax laws accommodate that?)  It is bizarre because in every other respect the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to allow the federal government to regulate every aspect of our lives to the detriment of states' rights.  To claim in this case that it wants to defer to the states is mind-boggling.

But it's not just the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the states that demonstrates the speciousness of the libertarian principle that this is all about what two people do in private.  Deferring to the states is a good principle, in my opinion, and I wouldn't complain too loudly about the overturning of DOMA if that's all it was.  Instead, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that DOMA was illegal on principle because it demonstrated an "improper animus" against a "politically unpopular group."  This brings up the obvious question, by what definition are same-sex couples "politically unpopular"?  But the more important issue is, how did Kennedy determine that those who passed DOMA exhibited an improper animus against them?  By that logic, every government in every state, as well as the federal government, has been breaking the law from the beginning of the republic.  Or does he mean only that the Congressmen and President who passed DOMA exhibited an improper animus?  In either case, one wonders what other kinds of constitutional principles we are unconsciously violating at the present.  Criminals are a politically unpopular group, do we have an improper animus in creating laws that punish them?  Is it unconstitutional to prohibit people below the age of 18 from voting?  How about people below the age of 21 from drinking?

The problem with this kind of logic is that no one has any idea what is "constitutional" according to the Supreme Court.  Chances are that at least some laws which hardly anyone has conceived of as unjust or unconstitutional will be struck down some day on the basis of improper animus.  You can use a court for that, but I don't think that's it's best or most proper purpose.  The idea of a court with the power of judicial review is to overturn laws that violate on clear constitutional principles.  It might not be obvious that the law is unconstitutional prima facie, but the constitutional principle should be.

So, as many other commentators have noted, although the Supreme Court's ruling is technically limited to section 3 of DOMA, it is hard to see how any state laws that don't permit same-sex unions can be regarded as constitutional under the improper animus principle.  Unless, of course, Justice Kennedy knows something more about the people who passed DOMA than I am aware of, and he and the other justices intended to limit their ruling specifically to that law and not to marriage laws in general.

If same-sex unions are a constitutional right, that means that everyone has to recognize them.  This will have implications for the laws in the 38 or so states that don't recognize them currently, quite apart from issues of "full faith and credit" that will likely require them to recognize same-sex marriages from the other states.  So same-sex couples will likely, in the next few years, have the right to marry anywhere in the United States.  If this were a libertarian/leave-other-people-alone issue, that would be the end of it.

Of course, it isn't.  Because same-sex marriages are now a matter of discrimination rather than personal, religious, or moral choice, people who don't recognize same-sex marriages will be forced to acknowledge them in all sorts of ways.  Companies like Chick-fil-a, for example, will almost certainly have to grant benefits to same-sex married couples.  Moreover, anyone involved in the wedding business is going to have to carry out their services for same-sex couples as well.  Already, states are moving to penalize florists and bakers who refuse to accommodate same-sex weddings, even if their states don't recognize those weddings.  The irony of forcing these people to do something against their will seems totally to escape those who argue that same-sex marriage is all about leaving others alone.

The ACLU is actually supporting the same-sex couple that was denied a wedding cake.  It issued the following incomprehensible statement:  "Religious freedom is a fundamental right in America and it's something that we champion at the ACLU.  We are all entitled to our religious beliefs and we fight for that. But someone's personal religious beliefs don't justify breaking the law by discriminating against others in the public sphere."  We support your religious freedom as long as you don't break the law?  Isn't the whole point of the ACLU to get rid of laws that limit freedom?

Ask a same-sex marriage supporter, and he will immediately counter with, "Would they be allowed not to make a wedding cake for a black couple?"  Once again, the country's history of racial oppression rears its ugly head, providing an excuse for stupid laws.  Liberals want to compare everything to race, but not everything is like race.  In fact, nothing is really like race in America.  Homosexuals weren't enslaved.  They can't be judged by sight.  It is an insult to blacks to compare their experience to homosexuals'.  It is also an insult to marriage to compare not providing services to a same-sex couple to not providing services to blacks.

I like to pose the following scenario:  Suppose you run a catering business, and the KKK asks you to provide food for one of their ceremonies.  Should you be forced to do so?  I don't think many people would agree that you should, since you disagree with them.  On the other hand, they aren't breaking any laws.  Do you have the right to decide with whom you want to do business?  Can you choose not to do business with someone whose practices you disapprove?  In normal circumstances, yes.  Why not, then, with same-sex marriages?  By framing same-sex marriages as a matter of "improper animus" and "discrimination," the government has already decided that you have no basis for your beliefs.  It doesn't matter that your belief is backed up by history -- all of it, prior to the past two decades -- or your religious beliefs or your personal morals.

There is, in short, no room for compromise on this issue.  Or rather, there is, but those who support the idea of same-sex marriage are unwilling to tolerate any.  Already there is pressure on military chaplains to curtail any negative comments about homosexuality, and one soldier may have been punished for his opposition to same-sex marriage.  (The military is one place where the federal government clearly needs its own marriage policy and can't rely on the states.)  Because the issue of same-sex marriage is framed in terms of "discrimination," anyone who opposes it is ipso facto considered wrong and forfeits any right to act according to his own morals.

So much for leaving other people alone.

Of course, liberals don't see it this way.  For them, homosexuality (and, indeed, sexuality in general) has no moral component, so anyone who opposes it is simply wrong.  Christian churches may consider homosexuality a sin, but churches have no bearing on government.  Whatever churches thought or taught in the past is irrelevant because we (i.e., liberals) now know better.

This is, I admit, one way of viewing the issue.  It does not, however, correspond to my idea of freedom of religion, nor of libertarianism.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pragmatism: Not as ridiculous as I thought

The principle of philosophical pragmatism is that we should judge an idea by its practical effects.  This is so contrary to common sense that I have always dismissed it as unworthy of further consideration.  When I listened to a lecture on pragmatism by a university professor, he was apologetic about the apparent absurdity of his subject, but was unable to make it sound any more reasonable.

I gave it yet another try only because I happened to work for a company, Pragmatics, which was named after this very philosophy -- so much so that the main conference room in the headquarters building was named the Charles Sanders Peirce room.  Since the founder of the company seemed to be an intelligent person, and since he was impressed by pragmatism, I figured there was probably something to it that I wasn't grasping.  There is, and I think I understand it better now.

The central tenet of pragmatism is the "pragmatic maxim," in which Charles Peirce explained:  "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."  What I think he was trying to say was simply that our understanding of an object is summed up in our interactions with that object, i.e. our practical experience.  We believe that a rock will hurt if someone throws it at us, that we can scratch the rock with an item of a certain hardness, and that we can sell it for a certain amount if it is at least semiprecious.  Our understanding of that rock is summed up by these practical considerations.

What else would it be?  Well, if we were Aristotelians, we might believe that a rock was created for a certain purpose.  That wouldn't pass the pragmatic test.  Nor would an attempt to get at the essence of rock-ness.  There is no point in trying to understand the true nature of a rock; the only thing we can do is understand how the rock interacts with us and the rest of the world.

To me, this sounds a lot like Kant's empirical realism.  True, Kant believed that there was a fundamental nature of the rock, but he thought we could never get at it -- what he called the "thing-in-itself" (or "Ding-an-sich").  Empirically, however, he believed we could understand things based on our interactions with them.

What separates pragmatism is its ruthless emphasis on practical value, especially by people other than Charles Peirce.  William James talked about "truth's cash value" and wrote that "the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking"; others said that the truth is what "works" or what "gives satisfaction."  James defended his statements as being more "subtle" that they appear on the surface, but he must have realized, in that case, that he was saying something that was not straightforwardly true.  It hasn't helped that contemporary "neopragmatists" like Richard Rorty have carried things even further, saying that "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with."

Whether any of these statements are truly representative of Peirce's original concept of pragmatism, I don't know.  I am encouraged by the fact that Peirce later coined a new term, pragmaticism, to differentiate his ideas from those of his contemporaries, which suggests that he might have disagreed with them.  They seem to hint at an extreme relativism which doesn't suit me and I don't think would have suited Peirce.  (One problem with defining truth as "that which works" is that it implies a complete lack of morality, which really is beside the point, because pragmatism is about epistemology and, as far as I know, does not seem to have a moral teaching.)

On the other hand, I do see a value in Peirce's emphasis on the practical, as long as we distinguish it from the types of statements made by other pragmatists quoted above.  He said that pragmatism was implicit in the definition of belief as "that upon which a man is prepared to act," and I think I philosophy that begins on that basis has a strong foundation.  In other words, you may claim that the external world exists only in your mind, but you still take the trouble to avoid falling into a pit.  You may claim that there is no independent truth, but you still argue in favour of your viewpoint.  I don't know if Peirce would agree with these specific points, but he was definitely trying to create a philosophy that corresponded to how people actually did science, as opposed to the purely speculative endeavours of Hegel and his ilk.