Monday, September 11, 2017

About Those Statues

I have not written much about the removal of Confederate statues, even though my hometown, Charlottesville, is at the center of the controversy.  Honestly, I have a hopeless feeling about it and the subject makes me depressed.  I do feel that the issue is not being approached from the correct point of view by either side, so I wanted to give my perspective.

Statues of Confederate commanders are not about slavery.  I have literally never heard anyone honour these men because they supported slavery, and only marginalized groups outside of the public discourse consider them as standing for anything racial.  The number of demonstrations recently, almost all including members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist groups, gives a misleading impression of how these statues are viewed by most people.  I have no evidence that these protests were organized by members of the left, but I do believe that, if the left wanted to make a case for removing the statues, they could not do better than calling into existence protests by people that no one wants to be associated with (not to mention giving the rallies names like "Unite the Right" that appear specifically designed to link mainstream conservatives with the weirdos who actually came out to protest).  Almost none of the people at the demonstrations have been from Charlottesville, and the KKK, in particular, was imported from out of state.  I have lived in Virginia for about 30 years of my life, the first 20 and the last 10, and I have never heard of a KKK organization here nor heard anyone express pro-KKK views.  My point is that these are fringe elements, almost completely irrelevant to political life; we would not let them influence our policies in a positive direction, and it makes equally little sense to let them influence our policies in a negative direction.

(I hesitate to use words like "weirdos" to describe the protesters, but the term "extremist" implies that they take otherwise normal views to the extreme, which is not the case:  they are outliers in every sense.)

What these statues represent to most people is the defense of their homes against invaders.  Yes, these men fought for the Confederacy.  Yes, the Confederacy was formed to protect slavery.  These are related points, but they are by no means the same.  Fighting on behalf of a government does not mean approbation of its policies.  I came across a striking indication of this recently on a totally unrelated matter:  the British Falklands War.  British politician Enoch Powell told Margaret Thatcher that the war had nothing to do with values:  "We do not fight for values," said Powell. "I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government."  Whether or not you agree with Powell's assessment, I think it is clear that anyone actually fighting a war has far more immediate motives for putting his life at risk than whatever originated the war.  I think it would be about as reasonable to criticize Soviet soldiers in World War II for fighting to promote Communism as it is to criticize Confederate soldiers for fighting to promote slavery.  In both cases, they were fighting because their land was invaded.  No further justification is needed.

(It is true that almost everyone today finds it difficult to understand how Robert E. Lee could choose to fight for his state over the federal government.  I agree that this is foreign to our way of approaching things, as our states have largely become administrative units with quaintly different laws that make our lives difficult, rather than the primary locus of anyone's loyalty as a sovereign government.  Nevertheless, it was a very real and sincerely held opinion in 1861; the fact that the federal government has come to dominate the states since then should not detract from this fact.)

I can understand why the federal government would be unhappy at the existence of these statues, because they do represent, at some level, the right of the states to oppose it.  But that has nothing to do with why the statues are being removed now.  Instead, it is about the alleged racism inherent in anything supporting the Confederacy.

I have argued elsewhere that this is a reductionist view of the Confederacy that leaves out several salient facts (among them, that a number of states, including Virginia, only joined after the federal government declared its intention to invade).  I can understand why politicians and demagogues would benefit from proclaiming this simplistic and historically inaccurate view, but it baffles me to see people whom I know to be intelligent and thoughtful supporting an approach that I'm pretty sure they would not tolerate on just about any other subject.  If the statues are so offensive, I would like to know why it is that we are only just discussing their removal now?  Did people somehow overlook the alleged racism inherent in them for the last hundred years or so?  Or did they think that racism was okay during that period but somehow isn't now?  Or perhaps they waited until more serious racial issues were addressed, and now they have nothing more pressing to fight for in the realm of racial justice than the existence of statues?

Some have argued to keep the statues because they are historical monuments which, good or bad, need to be preserved.  It would be better in my opinion if the statues could be kept, even under that logic, but that is emphatically not why I support them.  Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were heroes.  People came from elsewhere to burn and destroy this state, and they fought against them.  I honour them and everyone who defended Virginia.  I would honour them even if I thought Virginia was wrong to secede.  I happen to think Virginia had a very good case for seceding, but the legal niceties matter little when bullets begin to fly.

There is much I would like to add about the recent attacks on Robert E. Lee in particular, certainly the best the South had to offer and the least likely to warrant removal of his statue.  However, this is a complicated matter than I will save for another time.

On the other hand...Paris Accords

Going back to my youth, I have been concerned that the main sides in the political debate do not talk to each other.  They produce articles and books arguing in favour of their own position, and sometimes arguing against their opponents, but almost never approaching their opponents' arguments with the seriousness that they would want for their own.  It is generally enough to find one person making a bad version of an argument, and refute that; no one feels obligated to refute the best arguments that their opponents have to offer.  The result of this is obvious for all to see, but I find it was nicely anticipated some 600 years ago by Christine de Pisane, who wrote,
Those who plead their cause in the absence of an opponent can invent to their heart's content, can pontificate without taking into account the opposite point of view and keep the best arguments for themselves, for aggressors are always quick to attack those who have no means of defence. (from The Letter of the God of Love, quotation from Goodreads)
There are, of course, some face-to-face "debates" or discussions on various news programs, but they are hardly an improvement since each person has far too short a time to elaborate an argument and the winner is usually decided by the one who talks the loudest.

I am as guilty of this willingness to seek for a weakness in my opponent's argument as anyone, but I am inspired to try to do better.  I have always been particularly struck by a passage from Lord Acton, a man whom I admire the more I learn about him.  He urges the scholar (and, implicitly, everyone interested in the truth) "not to rest until...we have made out for our opponents a stronger and more impressive case than they present themselves."  I am not completely alone in my efforts, for I found that at least one NPR host has tried to structure his show to avoid this problem.

I thought I could add my humble contribution by tallying up the arguments on both sides of a prominent issue and laying them out, as neutrally as possible, for anyone to read who wants to be informed on the subject rather than just those who want to be on the right side without thoroughly considering it themselves.  For my first issue, I chose Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Accords.  This is a bad choice in one sense, because the biggest debate over the issue occurred some weeks ago and it has therefore lost its immediacy.  This makes it a good choice, however, because people have brought forth their strongest case and I have been able to gather many different arguments for both sides.  It is an issue that will not entirely go away in any case, as the Paris Accords will continue among other countries after Trump's presidency and could well become a topic of debate in 2020 or even 2024.  The main reason I chose it was simply that I didn't understand the issue and wanted to be informed on my own account.

Principles of the Paris Accords

This agreement among all but 3 nations (the U.S., Syria, and Nicaragua) aims to cut carbon emissions 26-28% below their 2005 levels by 2025 and provide up to $3 billion in aid by 2020 for poor countries to achieve carbon goals and to deal with the consequences of climate change.  The idea is to hold temperatures down so that they rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels (we are already up 1 degree Celsius) or, according to an alternate goal, 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Countries voluntarily submit goals for cutting emissions and for providing money to the "Green Climate Fund."  Although goals are voluntary, countries are to meet in 2019 to explain their progress, and again in 2020 to submit new goals for ratcheting up their emissions reductions by 2025, and thus into the future every 5 years.  Formal withdrawal is a four-year process.

Arguments

I have broken down the principle arguments into general categories, listing for and against for each.  Obviously, there is significant overlap among categories and this is only intended as a basic tool, not a full ontology.
Pro = in favour of STAYING IN the accords
Con = in favour of WITHDRAWING from the accords

Science and environment

Pro

  • Obviously, the biggest argument in favour is that you believe that man-caused climate change is an immediate and pressing issue and you think that the accords will be a positive step towards remedying it
  • If the U.S. withdraws, it would seem to give a green light to other countries not to meet their commitments

Con

  • Arguably, there are other environmental problems worse than carbon emissions which will be sidelined by focussing so much on this goal.  (These issues include the national flood insurance program and excessive road building.)
  • Depending on how you interpret the data, the Paris accords may have a minimal effect on temperature change even if fully implemented
  • We may not be able to meet our energy needs within the proposed goals.

Economics

Pro

  • Most economic growth potential is in foreign markets.  By withdrawing from the accords, the United States is inviting other countries to restrict our access to those markets.
  • Even industries that are most targeted by climate change proposals, such as coal, have an interest in participating in the discussions so that they can help write reasonable regulations and retain access to subsidies that would allow them to produce cleaner energy using their power source.

Con

  • There is an obvious cost to restricting carbon emissions, which will reduce economic growth.
  • There is an economic cost to the Green Climate Fund.  Although this cost is relatively minor at the moment, there are indications that it would ramp up in the future.
  • A large percentage of the cost of the Fund as well as the actual reduction in carbon emissions would be borne by the United States.

 Internationalism/Sovereignty

Pro

  •  Every other country in the world, save two small ones, is party to the treaty.  By withdrawing, the U.S. risks isolating itself diplomatically.
  • If the emissions goals were too high, we could have adjusted our voluntary goals while remaining a party to the treaty.

Con

  • The treaty was not approved by the Senate.  It should either be approved or we should withdraw.
  • The U.S. is still a member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), signed in 1992, under which the Paris Accords were negotiated; therefore, it still has a voice in future climate negotiations.
  • Since there is no enforcement mechanism, the United States would be at a relative disadvantage compared to less honest countries.  Also, the targets for the United States come early, while those for other countries, such as China, do not come until later.

Thoughts

These arguments are no so much about whether we should or should not be a member of the Paris Accords, since most people will decide that based on their view of climate change, its causes, and its consequences.  It is more a matter of the significance of withdrawing from what is often labelled a "symbolic" agreement (insofar as goals are voluntary and enforcement mechanisms mostly superficial). I do not even want to begin to get into the environmental debate, which would require much more explanation in itself.  However, I find this an interesting case study in international law.

It is interesting to note that not everyone who supports the Paris Accords thinks that America's withdrawal is a bad thing.  The world is moving toward clean energy anyway, and the absence of the U.S. will not stop the rest of the world.  In addition, a number of U.S. cities and localities have already announced that they will attempt to limit emissions in accordance with the Paris agreement, so the lack of an agreement by the national government may not be that important.  Moreover, some feel that it is better than the U.S. withdraw from the agreement completely than that it change its emissions targets, since changing standards might encourage other nations to do the same.  (Obviously, this would have to be balanced against the chance that the United States's withdrawal would incite other nations to withdraw as well, something which has not been evidenced so far.)

I have refrained from inserting my opinion as much as possible.  I do want to add two points here.  One:  Some authors have argued that clean energy will create more economic growth, but I do not take this seriously.  If it is really more economic to produce cleaner energy, companies will do it of their own accord without the need for any regulations.  More likely, this involves retrofitting existing plants and building new plants with new and more expensive technologies.  Two: Trump spoke of blackouts or brownouts as a possible consequence of the accords.  At least one author argued that natural disasters are the usual cause of blackouts, but I think Trump's argument was that insufficient power production might lead to shortages at peak periods, which could produce blackouts or brownouts.

I will only add a word on my biggest concern about the agreement, which does not concern climate change or economics:  sovereignty.  There is a case that the Paris Accords did not need to be ratified by the Senate in order for the U.S. to join, but that does not make me any more comfortable with it. As James Burnham wrote in The Managerial Revolution (1939), and as Mark Steyn has written eloquently about in recent years, we already concede a vast amount of authority over our lives to bureaucrats who make rules rather than legislators who make laws. Laws are passed, very lengthy and verbose laws, but the specifics of implementation are left to officials and often never revisited by Congress. This is bad enough when it relates to domestic laws, but even more dangerous in the area of international treaties, which take precedence over our own laws, including the Constitution itself. There is no recourse if we find it violates a fundamental principle. Admittedly, in the case of treaties, we can normally just refuse to abide by them if we later decide we don't like them. For now. The tendency, however, has been toward ever more carefully regulated treaties, and, in cases like the EU, the developement of an international bureaucracy with enforcement powers over national governments. Breaking "illegally" out of an existing treaty is still possible, but surely it would do more damage to America's international standing than withdrawing from a voluntary agreement.

Sources

(Important details noted in parentheses)

New York Times One & Two
NPR One & Two (Coal companies also wanted to participate in negotiations; U.S. could have stayed in but not enforced regulations.)
CNN (oil companies lobbied in favour of Paris Accords)
The Hoover Institute (solar and wind account for only a small portion of energy output and require many more workers per kilowatt)
National Review (Cites Brian Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute that the effect of full implementation would be only 0.17 degrees C)
CNBC One (Notes environmentally harmful building in coastal areas and in the form of new roads) & Two
The Daily Dot
Conservation.org (America's non-participation will not deter other countries. Also believes that there is no economic cost to following Paris agreement.)
Reuters (Also on coal industry wanting to participate, especially larger corporations.)
San Diego Tribune
Business Insider (Judge economic cost to be .10-.35% rather than .55% that a study reported; brownouts not an issue; America's contribution to the Green Climate Fund was the highest, but not per capita.)
Washington Post (Other nations had already conceded main U.S. concerns, including making it nonbinding.)
Utility Dive (U.S. and E.U. argued for a monitoring and review process.)
WhiteHouse.gov (Likelihood of increased costs and restrictions over time.)
New Republic (21% of total emissions reductions scheduled to come from U.S.; arguably better to withdraw than reduce targets.)


Sunday, August 20, 2017

On the Nature of Things

It was a treat finally to read Lucretius's masterpiece, "On the Nature of Things" ("De Rerum Natura").  I knew it was an exposition of atomism, but I didn't know what to expect in the way of reasoning behind or developement of the idea.  It is actually a poem, and, thanks to the excellent translation, the writing style makes it easier to understand rather than more difficult.  (I can't imagine trying to tackle it in Latin, however.)  It was written explicitly to argue against religion; right at the beginning, Lucretius makes clear that he thinks religion is nonsense and he is going to prove it by explaining physical phenomena without reference to the gods.

The central argument of his explanation is that the world is composed of atoms, and he can use atoms to explain everything from a purely physical point of view.  It is truly extraordinary to see how far reason can work out things about the physical world even when observations are made at such a gross level, without the benefit of any specialized equipment.  Lucretius argues that movement would be impossible without the existence of empty space -- the void -- into which things can move, and from this (and other things) he deduces the existence of elementary particles that constitute all things.  It would take nearly two thousand years before science could demonstrate the thing that he had intuited before the birth of Christ.

Unfortunately, Lucretius's insights do not carry much further than the existence of atoms and the void.  He believes in parthenogenesis, for example.  He also has no concept of energy's being expressed in heat, instead believing that heat and cold are their own special particles.  He identifies the chest as the seat of reason in man (consistently with what other people believed in pre-modern times), but what is really surprising is that he thinks that intelligence itself exists as particles.  I'm not really sure what alternatives could have existed at his time -- certainly a neural network would have been out of the question -- but this absolute materialism strikes the modern reader as quaint, to say the least.

Another curious part of the work is a lengthy complaint about women and marriage.  It is so vehement and seemed so out of place that it made me think Lucretius must have been very unlucky with women.  It's curious, because he actually begins the work with a prologue in praise of Venus, but then in this sections traces so many of man's ills to her.

Materialism has been a strong influence on philosophers, and Lucretius has been at the center of materialist thought for the last 2000 years.  Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on "De Rerum Natura," so there is a fairly straight line between ancient atomistic materialism and the dialectical materialism that has been such a plague on the modern world.  Inevitably, Lucretius expects us to accept some aspects of his world view on faith, such as the idea that there is infinite space and an infinite number of atoms; and, of course, we know now that even atomism isn't strictly true (in the original sense of indivisible particles) since atoms are composed of protons and electrons, which are composed of quarks, which perhaps at some level are best modeled as strings...

Lucretius writes forcefully, with the confidence that he is proving some things beyond dispute, which is hard to take too seriously when some of his speculations (such as the origins of volcanoes) bear so little relation to what we know as physical reality.  Nevertheless, he is clearly right in principle about some very basic ideas, and many philosophers have taken him as a starting point.  Even Marcus Aurelius, who clearly disagrees with the materialist premise, sounds a great deal like Lucretius when he talks about how the life of a man is such a small space of time compared to eternity, and they both draw the same conclusion from this point -- namely, that we should not care so much whether we live another few days or years.  Atomism is such a fundamental part of our world view that it is easy to take it for granted, but reading Lucretius demonstrates to me that the idea had sound foundations long before scientists could even remotely prove it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Can You Fight For an Ideal?

I spend a fair amount of time wondering whether "ideas" count as real things, as I have written about elsewhere in this blog (Things and Ideas, Degrees of Being, et al.).  So it was a matter of considerable interest to me to read about the following exchange between Margaret Thatcher and British politician Enoch Powell:

On one occasion, just before the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher spoke about the Christian concept of the just war and Western values. "We do not fight for values," said Powell. "I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government."
"Nonsense, Enoch," snapped Maggie. "If I send British troops abroad, it will be to defend our values."
Powell stuck to his guns. "No, Prime Minister, values exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed."

(From SteynOnline).  Now, Thatcher is known for having once said, "There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families," so this conversation, if it occurred, runs contrary to some of her opinions.  Nevertheless, it does not seem completely impossible, nor do I expect anyone, including public figures, to be 100% consistent.

In one sense, Powell is certainly correct:  to the extent that values exist, they are ideas and therefore do not exist, like material things, in space and time.  On the other hand, the importance of ideas is that we see their images in the real world and have real-world implications.  How interesting would a triangle be if there were no triangular-shaped objects in the material world, and if we could not draw all kinds of interesting conclusions (such as calculating the height of a tree from its shadow) based on things we have learned from triangles in the abstract?

Similarly, political and moral ideals are important because we associate them with the kind of society we want to live in.  They are, however, rather harder to translate into practical terms than triangles.  I mean, we support our society partly because we like our values, and we oppose other societies because their values are contrary to ours, but when it comes to fighting, how important are those values compared to, say, not getting shot in a battle?

This also calls to mind my recent post about the Civil War, in which I argued that Southerners were, by and large, fighting for their homeland rather than fighting for slavery.  As one Union officer put it, "We are fighting for the Union...a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders."  "Independence" is a value, too, but one with more immediate implications than some of the other values.  In fact, I would argue that it is difficult to see the potential loss from separation of a part of the Union; it is abstract to a very high degree.  Perhaps that is why, over the course of the war, so many in the North saw their motivations shifting toward emancipation.  It is hard to kill people in the name of keeping them in the Union, much easier if you are fighting to free the slaves.

Getting back to Powell, what I find interesting about his statement in particular is the fact that he talks about fighting for "this country."  A country is also an abstraction.  It consists of individuals, of course, which are not abstractions, but which individuals belong to the country is a matter open to debate.  If Scotland declared independence and went to war with England, which "country" would he fight for?  What if the Midlands went to war with the South?  What if there was a coup and France invaded to support the overthrown government?  You see, this could go on indefinitely.  "Democracy" is more abstract that "country," but only in degree, not in kind.
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretth165648.html

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How About a Love-In?

What a crazy day in Charlottesville.  A bunch of people with literally no mainstream political support anywhere gather, there's an even larger counter-rally, some violence ensues, the whole country is looking at Charlottesville now.  Ironically, almost none of the people are actually from around here.  I don't know about this time, but the last time there was a rally a few months ago, KKK members came in from another state.  I assume local members would have come if there were any.

I don't believe this rally was instigated by left-wingers to make the right look bad, but I do believe that left-wingers couldn't have done a better job themselves than these bozos have done for them.  Down to the stupid name, "Rally to Unite the Right," which it has in a way -- even top members of the Republican party who usually disagree on everything have condemned the rally.

I'm not the organizing sort, but I have a pretty good idea of how I would implement a rally to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee.  My first principle is that it is not about race, so no group with the word "white" in their names would be invited.  Beyond that, it would not be an angry rally but rather a love-in:

(a) everyone is encouraged to bring a canned food item for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank;
(b) no torches allowed, but candles are welcome;
(c) minimal speeches, chiefly of people saying what things they are grateful for;
(d) prayers for unity;
(e) all counter-protesters given a flower and thanked for their civic participation.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Reconsidering Secession


With flags being banned, statues removed, and buildings renamed, the Civil War is more current now than at any time in the past 50 years. The Confederacy and everything associated with it is increasingly considered indefensible. People from both sides of the political spectrum often label Confederate commanders such as Robert E. Lee "traitors" and assert that no one who fought against the United States should be honoured with a statue.  When confronted with the awkward fact that the United States itself was founded by a number of traitors who dared to fight against their lawful government, these Unionists fall back on the issue of slavery:  what might have been right for George Washington and compatriots was wrong for Lee and his compatriots because the latter were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery.  Slavery is evil, and anything done in the name of slavery is inherently tainted, Q.E.D.
This line of reasoning is problematic, and it is time to reconsider the arguments for and against secession and the need for an aggressive response to it.  This is not inherently an argument about statues or other memorabilia, although it would, of course, influence those arguments as well.  The question is far more pertinent than that in our increasingly divided nation; after all, some of the leading voices in California dared to call for the state to secede after Trump's election last November.  It did not come to that -- this time; but who feels confident that we will not be faced with a possible secession attempt in the next half century? (A substantial minority of Californians still support independence, according to polls.1)  If so, we would do well to consider in advance whether to treat the secessionists as traitors and begin a new civil war.

In a debate about justice, the Confederacy starts with two strikes against it, since it was based on the morally repugnant foundation of slavery. While there were people, even in the North, who argued in support of slavery in 1861, today there is not one rational person who will defend the institution. Recognizing that the preservation of slavery was not likely to be a popular cause, historians sympathetic to the South developed, almost as soon as the war ended, an interpretation of the conflict that minimized the South's "peculiar institution" in the origin of the war. They argued that slavery was only one of a number of sectional issues that divided the country in 1861. This, and some related arguments favourable to the Confederacy, was later labelled the "Lost Cause" narrative by pro-Union historians. They noted, correctly, that the rhetoric of secessionists in 1861 was almost exclusively about preserving slavery, and that states' declarations of secession invariably listed the threat to the institution of slavery as their primary justification.
There is no doubt that opponents of the "Lost Cause" narrative were correct on this point: South Carolina and the other Deep South states seceded because they wanted to protect slavery. That being said, however, does not end the issue. The justice of the secession may be on dubious grounds because it was in promotion of something that we all now denounce as evil, but it is possible (and reasonable) to distinguish between the reasons motivating secession and the legality or justice of secession itself. We are confident now that slavery was a bad cause, but we are not in a position to judge from the perspective of 1861; and we can assume that any future issue that gives rise to secessionist sentiment will have equally divided opinion. After all, when has a government acknowledged that a subordinate unit has just cause for seceding? If they could agree on that much, they could avoid the secession by making the necessary legal compromises. We must assume that any issue that brings one part of the country to the point of wanting to separate from the rest will be one about which there is the sharpest disagreement, and therefore we cannot adjudicate secession based solely on the justice of its motivation. If abortion, for example, became a divisive sectional issue in our country, which of the two sides would recognize the legitimacy of the other as a cause for secession?
Focussing on the reasons behind secession also creates a false perspective. The "Lost Cause" narrative distorted reality by acting as though slavery were not the cause of the differences between the North and the South. However, the reaction against the "Lost Cause" has created its own distortions. It has produced what I call the "Just Cause" narrative and consists chiefly of this: slavery was bad, the Confederacy existed to defend slavery, therefore everything associated with the Confederacy was bad. This is not the most nuanced expression of the "Just Cause" narrative, but it is surprising how often arguments against the South (and in favour of renaming buildings, removing statues, etc.) comes down to little more than this.
The problem is that the "Just Cause" narrative treats the Civil War as a crusade against slavery from beginning to end, when it was in fact no such thing. From the start, Lincoln made clear that he was concerned to "preserve the Union," and that slavery was of comparatively negligible concern. The fact that the war ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in force and the 13th amendment already passed by Congress (though not yet ratified) makes it appear in retrospect as though the war was about slavery and its abolition. But this was not the case, and it should not be assumed that it was anyone's goal in April 1861. In fact, had the Union won the war in the first year, before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the South would almost certainly have been re-incorporated into the United States with slavery intact, with little chance for an amendment abolishing it. One wonders what Lincoln's reputation would have been if that had happened.
Abraham Lincoln's unambiguous goal in initiating the war was to preserve the Union – that is, to prevent any states from withdrawing from the Constitution. His well-known quotation on the matter states his motives succinctly:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
If we are to give credence to the motives of the seceding states as enunciated by their own statesmen, we own the same to Lincoln. Therefore, we can confidently say that slavery was the cause of secession, but that union was the cause of the war. Lincoln could have chosen to allow the Confederate states to secede peacefully, but he did not. And he certainly did not attack them to put down slavery, as he himself admitted. In fact, there were four slave states still in the Union throughout the war, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them.
The arguments thus far apply only to the seven states that had formed the Confederate government as of February 1861. The remaining slave states (Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri) stayed loyal to the Union in spite of their concerns for the institution of slavery. It was not until Lincoln called for volunteers and insisted on a quota from these border states that four of them joined the Confederacy. When Secretary of War Simon Cameron issued a command to governor John Letcher to provide Virginia militia for the invasion of the Confederate states, Letcher replied:
I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object - an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 - will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South.2
Virginia did not secede until it was forced to make a choice between invading the Confederate states or becoming one of them. Although slavery was at the top of Virginians' minds, therefore, it cannot be said that slavery was the cause of the secession; instead, Virginia seceded in response to a Constitutional question of the legitimacy of secession and the use of force by the Federal government.
So it is not at all reasonable to reduce Confederate motivation to the preservation of slavery, as "Just Cause" partisans do. Some states did secede almost exclusively because of slavery; others seceded primarily over the use of force to attack other states. Still others slave states remained in the Union with no intention of giving up slavery. It is only partially true to say that the Confederacy "fought to preserve slavery." It did, but it fought for other reasons as well. In fact, while many of the officers had a direct interest in slavery, the rank and file by and large owned no slaves. They may have benefitted in some way from the existence of slavery, but, as James McPherson's book What They Fought For shows, protection of this institution played very little if any role in their motivation to fight. Instead, for them it was a "Second War of Independence," with the same basic justifications as the original; second and more basic, it was a war to defend their homes, families, and property. An Illinois officer recognized these goals and how they gave strength to the Southern cause: "We are fighting for the Union...a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders" (What They Fought For, p.19). Somehow, this nuance is lost on those who see every statue of a Confederate soldier as a representation of slavery, pure and simple.
It is ironic to hear our contemporaries, many of whom express the gravest suspicions of the federal government and its motives, argue that there is no peaceful path to secession from the United States. Surely everyone can imagine some contingency in which withdrawal from the federal government would be the only alternative to an intolerable regime. Lincoln himself had said, on the floor of Congress not 15 years prior to his invasion, that "any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right..."3 Ironically, Lincoln seemed not to think that this right applied to those within the United States. He said that he wanted to preserve government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," but it is hard to see how that sort of government would need to be enforced by military invasion. If California were to secede, would the rest of the nation feel honour-bound to invade it in order to preserve our democratic form of government?
There were alternatives, in 1861 as there are today. Some of the most ardent abolitionists, including Senator Charles Sumner, supported allowing the Confederate states to exit the Union peacefully, as did many others. Lincoln chose to enforce the Union in the name of free government, and he did it explicitly without reference to ending slavery. To put the onus of "defending slavery" on all those who died defending against this attempt is reductionist and misleading.
This is not to say that the debate over Confederate statues and flags should necessarily be resolved in favour of those who want to preserve them; after all, this iconography, and race relations in general, have a long history after the war ended. But it is important to consider the issues of secession and civil war from the perspective of 1861 rather than through the distorting lens of how we know things turned out. The United States was founded by an act of secession, and, much as we might lament the possible breakup of our own country, it is impossible to stay consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and yet insist that any attempt to separate from our federal government is a matter of treason.
Moreover, while we all recognize that slavery was the worst possible cause for secession, it is important not to replace the false narrative of the "Lost Cause" with the equally false one of the "Just Cause". If the Civil War had been initiated to end slavery, our discussion of it would be very different. The invasion of the Confederate states can be applauded because it led to the end of slavery, but the decision to invade cannot be justified on that basis since abolition was not its aim. This is an important distinction because people caught up in the justice of ending slavery often end up extending the moral high ground to the federal government against any attempt at resistance or secession. People on both sides of the political spectrum have reasons to be sceptical of federal power and would be wise to recognize that the right of resistance in general is important to maintain, and that a peaceful secession by sovereign states is by far the best way to end a political association that has reached the point where resistance is necessary.


1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes_California
2Cited in the Wikipedia article "Virginia in the American Civil War," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Virginia_in_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=793071110 (accessed August 2, 2017).
3Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess. 94 (1848).

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations

The first thing that struck me about this work was how much it sounds like the Bible.  In several places, Marcus Aurelius admonishes his reader to be ready for death at any point, which is a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.  More often, I find the Meditations to have a resigned tone, reminiscent of Ecclesiastes:  "it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time," which sounds like the oft-repeated "nothing new under the sun" in the Biblical book.   Or a striking passage in the Meditations:  
soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, and like little dogs biting one another, and little children quarrelling, laughing, and then straightway weeping. But fidelity and modesty and justice and truth are fled,
is reminiscent of so many passages in the Bible, such as Eccl. 7:2, "It is  better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone," or 4:16, "There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit."

At other times, the Meditations sounds like something Jesus would have said. "But death certainly," writes Marcus, "and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad."  This brings to mind Matthew 5:45, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  Or, Marcus Aurelius writes about a person who "seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbours, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the daemon within him," which made me think of Matthew 7:3, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"  In another place, he recounts the prayer of Athenians for rain, and adds, "in truth we ought not to pray at all, or we ought to pray in this simple and noble fashion," much as Jesus admonishes his disciples to pray a simple prayer.

It is not surprising that a Stoic would strike a note of resignation, of course.  What struck me was the religious (I'm tempted to write "quasi-religious") motivation behind accepting fate.  I always thought of Stoicism as a sort of heroic response to fate, as there is no point in getting upset about something that has already happened; and, indeed, occasionally Marcus Aurelius writes as though we should treat the world as indifferent to us.  More often, however, he promotes the idea that everything is connected in a grand plan.  "Consider that everything which happens, happens justly," he says.  So, not only is there no point in complaining about it, it is actually counter-productive since it was right for it to happen that way in any case.

Not only is everything just, it is all within our strength to handle:  "Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear."  This surprised me a lot, because it seems precisely like the sentiment -- "If God gives a cross, he gives the strength to bear it" -- that Dostoevsky mocked in "The Brothers Karamazov."  You might think that someone who expounds this idea would have a very strong sense of providence, but Marcus Aurelius actually seems ambivalent on the subject.  "If the gods have determined about me and about the things which must happen to me," he writes, "they have determined well, for it is not easy even to imagine a deity without forethought."  If the gods have determined about him, he is in good hands.  If not about him in particular, at least they have set up a good general arrangement.

Then again, the gods might not actually exist.  As he writes elsewhere, "either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together," and in another place, "either there is providence or atoms."  He attempts to justify his philosophy in either event, but I find some of his arguments pretty weak in the absence of providence.  When he writes, "willingly give thyself up to Clotho, one of the Fates, allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases," it seems to me to matter a great deal whether Clotho is just a personification of random fate, or a deity who is looking after the divine order.

Indeed, I think Marcus Aurelius himself would have trouble following his own philosophy if he were not convinced that there was something divine, or at least transcendent, connecting everything.  He repeatedly returns to the idea that there is a particular order to the universe which is better than disorder:
And so accept everything which happens, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to this, to the health of the universe and to the prosperity  and felicity of Zeus (the universe).
I'm not sure what is more striking about this passage:  the fact that he uses "Zeus" to mean the same thing as "the universe," or the fact that he attributes health and prosperity to both.  If he has any idea what the health of the universe would mean, I cannot figure what it would be, yet it seems essential to him.  Everything has to function together, even if it hurts the individual, for the good of the universe.  He particularly repeats the phrase "that which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the citizen," which is something that challenges the modern mind most severely.  A citizen can certainly suffer and die, but if the state is not harmed, then somehow the citizen is not harmed either?  What exactly does "harm" mean in this case?

Apparently it has something to do with our unity with other people.  Marcus Aurelius seems to have convinced himself (or been convinced by teachers) that logic dictates that everyone is interconnected:  "recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice."  And elsewhere, "to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature."  Therefore, what is good for us is to be in harmony with other people, nature, the universe -- however he phrases it at a given time -- and the things that appear bad (pain, death) are not so by this measure.

One essential part of belonging is fulfilling our responsibilities, which include work.  I found the following passage about getting out of bed (something I particularly struggle with) very interesting:
In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?
I am particularly puzzled by the idea of what "human work" is.  I presume he would include in that governing as well as soldiering and farming, but would he include acting, dancing, or making useless trinkets that people buy?  In other words, how can I be certain that what I'm doing really is "human work" and not some waste of time?  This is vitally important, because Marcus Aurelius himself judges a man by what he does:  "every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself."  What if you think you are worth more than the kind of work you find yourself in?

Obviously, I found this the most troubling aspect of the Meditations.  I find it difficult to reconcile myself with the idea of subordinating myself to a larger purpose, but, to the extent I am able to do this, I need to be pretty well convinced that such a purpose exists and is good.  The only purpose that I find in the Meditations is something vague about the health and prosperity of the universe, which doesn't mean anything to me.  At least Christianity gives people a concrete reason to do good.

Marcus Aurelius attempts to build up the idea of a connected universe and a guiding force from his own reason, on a similar principle (but drastically different logic) as Descartes proves God's existence.  "Can a certain order subsist in thee, and disorder in the All?," asks Marcus Aurelius, where "thee" refers to his reader, which I am virtually certain he meant as himself (these notes seem like personal guidance and encouragement).  From there (albeit in a different part of the book) he draws a connection between all intellectual beings, and
If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state.
Obviously, this is a summary of some very serious thinking he has done at greater depth.  The gist is that everything is connected:
In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.
 And elsewhere he ties this altogether as follows:
For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all  intelligent animals, and one truth
This is really extraordinary, it sounds very much like something a Christian would conclude, only it's not clear what this one God is that Marcus Aurelius is referring to (and indeed elsewhere he insists that gods, plural, exist).  It is almost as though his reason is pushing him beyond his pagan upbringing, but he doesn't bring himself to abandon the ideas that he grew up with.

In my ignorance, I had always thought of Stoicism as a highly individualistic way of dealing with an indifferent fate.  There are, I think, some hints of this attitude in the Meditations.  I particularly like his repeated references to the soul as completely separate from material reality:  "Things themselves touch not the soul, not in the least degree," he says.  This is like idealism, but from a completely inverted perspective:  whereas Schopenhauer talks about how we can't know the things outside us except through the medium of the senses, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes that external things can't touch us, and even the senses are not the "real" us; they are not our soul.  The external world is real enough to him, but we only need to trouble ourselves about it as much as we want to, for "it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul."

There is a touching passage in book 3 in which Marcus Aurelius discusses how even defective things -- those which depart from the norm in some way -- are beautiful in their own right.  This is exceptional, however, because most of the time he is only interested in how everything is in harmony.  The idea that an individual soul is valuable for its own sake, including all of its faults and limitations, does not seem to fit with his philosophy.  It is difficult for someone born after the Romantic era to accept this, and of course it is contrary to the Christian notion of a personal God who cares for every individual.  Marcus Aurelius defines the "self" as the rational part of us; desires are simply a characteristic we share with animals, and there is no room for a distinct individual will.  I was reminded of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, who refuses to accept that 2 times 2 is 4:
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
While this seems perfectly natural to me, I have a feeling that it would leave Marcus Aurelius speechless with uncomprehension.  And why shouldn't it?  It makes no sense, but it is a part of our individuality that we understand and accept, to a certain extent.

In one other place, the Meditations touch on a deep modern concern with individualism, sincerity, when he writes that the soul hurts itself when it "does or says anything insincerely and untruly."  But this is the only remark of the sort that I can recall, and it is difficult to tell exactly what he means by it.  For Marcus Aurelius repeatedly says that we should only do good and stay in harmony with other people; can he possibly believe that we can not only do good, but always force our hearts to accept what our lips say and our hands do?  I can't imagine that he would prefer someone to speak harsh words rather than speak insincerely.  I suspect he would simply say that the person should be sincere when he says nice things, but we all know that is not an option that is always available.

One of the more interesting points he makes is that we all live in the present -- "every man lives only this present time, which is an indivisible point" -- and therefore death can never take from us more than that single instant.  He urges us to embrace that:  "Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine thyself to the present."  And while focussing on the present is something that we still try to do, for Marcus Aurelius it seems to be a part of denying our individuality, since he is denying, in a sense, that the person that we were 20 years ago or will be 20 years hence is the same as the person we are now.  Indeed, this is a major part of his consolation:  "Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them."  Death is nothing but another one of these changes, others of which occur all the time to us.  In spite of a sideswipe at Lucretius ("For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. But thou art thinking only of seeds which are cast into the earth or into a womb: but this is a very vulgar notion."), he seems to embrace Lucretius's view that individuals are just chance combinations that appear and disappear with no fanfare.  He certainly does not attack any moral significance to an individual beyond his contribution to universal harmony while he is alive.

Indeed, what difference is there between Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius in the end, if both believe that everything is predetermined by some laws, whether physical, natural, or divine?  And if, as Marcus Aurelius repeatedly says, everything is pre-determined, how can I feel morally obligated to act in a certain way?  This is not a form of Stoicism that attracts me.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nicomachean Ethics


I have always felt sympathetic toward Aristotle even though I have read very little of his work.  I had to read The Republic and several Platonic dialogues in college political theory classes, and I found the arguments unconvincing, to say the least.  Aristotle seemed much more down to earth as a thinker, which appealed to me.

Now that I have finally read this seminal work, I am glad to say that my impressions have been confirmed.  Not that it was at all pleasant to read; to the contrary, it was incredibly tedious.  I think I got a bad translation, but I'll leave that question to the side.

Early on, Aristotle assures us that "precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions," which already gets my respect.  I'm all for being as precise as possible, but also for recognizing the limitations of our understanding.  In fact, I would say that this is one of the principles of my approach to learning.

After making some basic arguments, Aristotle adds, "we must consider [this matter], however, in the light not only of our conclusion and our premisses, but also of what is commonly said about it."  This is, again, refreshing.  It's not that Aristotle feels that his philosophy has to agree with common wisdom, but he at least feels a need to engage with it.

Aristotle is sort of the anti-Plato, of course, but (to pick a thinker I have read more recently) he is also the anti-Spinoza.  Spinoza tries to create an airtight argument through geometrical logic on a subject that does not lend itself to such reasoning; and, when he comes to conclusions that contradict basic moral principles of society, he doesn't feel any need to justify his conclusions.  This also makes me think of Wittgenstein, who tried to show that mathematical language was not suited for philosophical discussions, but instead required speaking in everyday language.  I might add here that I appreciated how Aristotle tried to name each of the states of vice or virtue that he discussed, but admitted that many had no common name.  If you absolutely must create a new word, or fasion an old word with a very precise meaning that differs from how it is widely understand, do so; but for most purposes, it is annoying when philosophers try to create their own language.

Apart from these premises, I didn't find much particularly compelling or interesting in the arguments, just because Aristotle starts from such a radically different perspective than I do (or, I would think, almost anyone these days) that it is hard to relate to what he is saying.  Of the few things that struck me, I will just mention two.  I liked the way he disagreed with Solon's assessment that you can't judge a man happy until the end of his life, as though the rest of his life was negated by an unhappy death.  "All or most men," Aristotle asserts, "while they wish for what is noble, choose what is advantageous" (VIII.13.), thus making this fundamental principle of economics, and, I may say, Christianity, a central part of his own philosophy.



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

United Airlines

I am not interested in whether it was or was not legitimate for United to remove the guy from the plane, because by the time security got there to remove him, clearly authority was on their side.  The doctor, David Dao, undoubtedly did not know the legal ins and outs of whether it was reasonable.  His whole justification seems to have been:  I am doctor, therefore I am important.  I am more important that anyone else you could remove from this plane, therefore I am not leaving.  This is the kind of "individual exceptionalism" that I see people use all the time to break rules.  In general, we might want to favour doctors in this sort of situation, but he was in no position to determine that.  It's not as though he had an emergency that he absolutely had to deal with; no, he just had patients to see the next day.  At that point, it's not up to him to decide if his reason for going is more important than another passengers.  Sure, he has the right to complain; he has the right even to sue the airline if the situation is egregious.  But he is not in a position to tell the airline that he is not going to get off, period.

The thing that puzzles me about this is what he hoped to gain from it.  Prior to the arrival of security, I imagine he hoped that protesting loudly enough would get the airline to move to an easier target.  I'm sure the airline would have liked to, but letting one person insist on staying aboard is certainly not fair and is likely to backfire when they have to explain to the next person in line that he, and not the doctor, has to get up and leave.

But after security arrived, what then?  According to what I heard on the radio today, security informed him that he needed to come along, and he said that they would have to drag him.  It's kind of hard to imagine any other scenario playing out.  They don't want to drag the guy; it's a hassle, whatever else it is, and their lives would be easier if he walked off.  So it wasn't like they just came up and pulled him out of his seat.  He refused repeated requests to get up peacefully, and he knew that the consequence was that they were going to take him by force.  Had he just lost his mind at this point?  Is he thinking that he will show up United by forcing security to take him away aggressively?  Is he thinking ahead to a lawsuit?  (Also on the radio, I heard that he said something about suing United before they pulled him off.)

I have a hard time imagining myself reacting the same way.  No matter how angry I might be, I would be thinking of what actions I would take after I got off the plane peacefully.  I really can't see asking to be dragged off the plane.  Perhaps if I had a true emergency, like one sees in t.v. shows -- "I have to get to that hospital tonight or a man will die!  I am the only person in the country who knows how to perform this operation!" -- I would have resisted.  Otherwise, no.  Again, whether it was fair or not for this man to get bumped is no longer the question once security arrives.  Someone with more authority than him has decided that he needs to get off the plane.  He is going to get off the plane one way or another.  Why choose the painful and embarrassing way?

As a final note, I wonder what the protocol is for removing passengers.  Surely security has some kind of standard way of doing this if a passenger resists.  They may never use that in their lives, and maybe they didn't remember at the time, but why even have security if you're not going to train them how to do the job?  The reason I ask is that dragging a person seems like one of the worst possible ways.  Heaving him over one's shoulder would seem much easier.  With three security guards there, they could surely have gotten him up and onto the back of one of them, and the other two could have helped support the weight.  It was probably very tight in the plane aisle, which is the best reason I can think of for not using this method.  But if you've ever tried to drag someone, you know how difficult it is.  They seem to have chosen the method most difficult for themselves as well as most embarrassing to the passenger.  But maybe this is what they're supposed to do; I'm just curious.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Trump, Good and Bad

I had been intending to write an entry in praise of Trump last week; in the meantime, I now have reason to criticize him as well, so here is a chance to do both.

I have begun to appreciate one thing about having Trump as president:  he just doesn't care what the media says about him.  No, that's not right; he obviously cares deeply, otherwise he wouldn't take the trouble to respond to every attack.  Let me put it this way:  he cares what the media says about him, but his way of dealing with it is not to compromise his beliefs (whatever they are at the moment); rather, he defends what he does and does it twice as much.

I have suffered through many Republican presidencies, and I'm sure anyone who shares my outlook and experience can tell you that most Republicans are absolutely disheartened by the degree to which presidents have conceded moral authority to their critics.  The whole idea that George W. Bush would push for what he called "compassionate conservatism" indicates the degree to which he had already accepted that regular conservatism was not compassionate.  Reagan had a much deeper appreciation of his own views, but he gave in to Democrats enough that they now hold him up as a model of compromise.  I know Democrats feel similarly about their presidents, an argument that I will not get into at the moment, but it seems certain to me that any other Republican would have recoiled in horror at the attacks that Democrats have made on Trump's decisions, such as his embattled cabinet picks and his executive orders.  Not Trump.  The only way he knows to meet an attack is head-on, so he has responded by going all in.  The first travel restriction was overturned, so he just passed another one.  The first Obamacare repeal failed, but he still wants to see it done.  He defends his positions with weird tweets and questionable facts, but he doesn't back down.  That's kind of reassuring, since he has mostly stuck to his platform so far.

I say "kind of" because we also kind an indication this week that his platform is about as solid as a column of smoke:  after years of railing against Middle Eastern intervention, he was president for less than 100 days before launching a strike on his own authority.  I'm a big Jonah Goldberg fan, and his latest column argues the same thing that I have been saying for a year or more:  Trump has no consistent beliefs.  I do think it's fair to say that one's perspective inevitably changes as president.  This has been demonstrated time and again when ironclad promises have been broken.  A lot of it is just the difference between sniping at the current leader and actually making the decisions that a leader has to make; part of it may also be information that only presidents and other high authorities are privy to.  Any person taking on the responsibility of office is subject to this kind of distortion.  But in Trump's case, I think the issue is much deeper, in large part because he does not have the philosophical underpinning of most other politicians.  He gets a different perspective while in office, but he does not have a life of deeply thought-out beliefs to hold him on anything like the same course and overcome the problem of perspective.  He is likely to change his whole view of a subject in the course of a day or a week or a month.

So far, that isn't really the case.  The attack on Syria was limited and saw no commitment of troops, and I hope that it will not presage any.  But if Trump's mind did change drastically, on this or any other subject, it would hardly be shocking.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

If you care about divisiveness, don't argue about motives

I read a lot about people concerned with our "divisive" political culture in this country (the U.S.).  This is particularly interesting because it is almost always used as a criticism.  One almost never hears someone say that his own party is deepening the political divisions in the country; it is always the other side.  In other words, the problem of divisiveness is used in a divisive way.

It may seem natural that people would see the other side as the source of the problem, but compare this to issues like military armament.  It is not difficult to find people urging unilateral disarmament on their own governments, as though the military problem would disappear if one side had no way to defend itself.  On the other hand, I have yet to hear someone urge his party or faction to stop using divisive language even if the other side continues to take advantage of it.  Arguably this was the tack Hilary Clinton was taking in her presidential campaign when she repeatedly said, "When they go low, you go high."  But it is not unifying language to point out that you are not going to stoop to the level of your opponents.

As long as we continue to batter our political opponents with accusations of insincerity, hypocrisy, and dirty tactics, the situation is not going to get any better.  These traits are used as justification for insulting language, which then gives the opponents justification for ramping up their attacks, and so on ad nauseam.  I am not sure that "divisiveness" itself is a serious problem, but I am certain that believing your opponents are acting in bad faith is one.  Once you believe that the other side is putting forward policies only for certain political interests rather than for the good of the country, the whole basis for having a public debate disappears.  Why debate with someone who isn't arguing in good faith?  If their arguments are just a ruse to distract listeners from the illicit gains to be made by some special interest, there is no need to engage those arguments.  Besides, it's a lot easier to win an argument by "poisoning the well" -- claiming that your opponent's motives are bad -- rather than by dealing with the issues he raises.  This leads to both sides talking past each other, raising arguments that the other side never takes seriously.

If you truly care about divisiveness, then, the worst thing you can do is to make your opponents' motives into your central point.  Argue against their ideas, not their motivations.  After all, even if their motivations are not sincere (and almost certainly some will be just as some will not be), their arguments still deserve to be addressed on the merits.  If I make a completely insincere argument that you have no answer for, it is still a strong argument.  If I am just putting up a smokescreen to cover my interests, you ought to be able to blow my arguments away with a gust of wind.  If the wind blows and you find my arguments still standing, I may have a point worth considering.  You will sometimes see committees appoint a devil's advocate to argue the contrary position when everyone believe that a certain action is the right one.  No one thinks that the devil's advocate believes his arguments outweigh the others, but is important to think of all the possible consequences before taking a decision.  Otherwise, a committee, or a nation, is inclined to rush into something in the heat of the moment without giving it full thought.  Think of your opponents as serving a useful purpose in highlighting the best counterarguments.  Address them.  And, by taking them seriously, force your opponents to defend them seriously.  As you argue about the issue, you will be building a political culture and defeating divisiveness.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unending Desire

I mean the title of this post to convey the idea that humans are never satisfied; each time one desire is quenched, another arises, so we are in a constant state of anticipation.  My thoughts came in direct response to what I read in Schopenhauer, and, by projection, to the general Buddhist approach to psychology.  I was surprised to find that a Google search on "human desire is never satisfied" actually brought back mainly Christian sites, chiefly in reference to Proverbs 27:20:  "Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied" (KJV).  Not that it should be surprising that this subject is present in Christianity as in other religions and philosophies.  In fact, the nature of human longing is central to any study of man.  It is what I think of as the problem of motivation, which indicates that I approach it largely from the other direction:  how to convince myself or someone else to do something, not how to deal with the fact that I always want things that I don't have.  The subject of just about any human science seems to boil down to this, which Ludwig von Mises expressed in his masterpiece's title as "Human Action."  His way of approaching motivation was to say that humans act to "remove unease," which I find as good a description as any, although probably incomplete.

In any case, everyone agrees that humans are never satisfied.  In Buddhism in particular, desire is not only a problem but the central problem, because unfulfilled desire is the source of unhappiness.  The unique solution in Buddhism is not to direct or limit desire, but to extinguish it altogether.  Schopenhauer, who claims to have reached his philosophy independently (without prior knowledge of Buddhism), expounds at great length on the way that desire inherently means conflict.  He also argues that desire never ends, because the satisfaction of one desire is always followed immediately by the arousal of another one.  Moreover, if one great desire is quenched, we pay more attention to the lesser ones, so that they end up causing the same anxiety.  It is a sort of law of conservation of desire (or, more accurately, of frustration).

It is this last part that I want to take issue with.  It seems plausible enough, especially if we think of human action in Misian terms as the removal of unease:  if we act at all, there must be some deficit in our satisfaction; and since we almost always act, we must be constantly unsatisfied.  What I recently realized, though, is that this description of the problem is like Zeno's paradox.  Zeno told the story of Achilles and the tortoise in a footrace.  If Achilles gave the tortoise a head start, he could never catch up.  You see, first he would have to make up half the distance between himself and the tortoise, and during that time the tortoise would have moved forward; then he would have to make up half the distance again, during which time the tortoise would have moved further ahead.  You can repeat these steps infinitely, but Achilles will always have halfway to go, so he will never pass the tortoise.

We know intuitively that this is nonsense (even though, if I understand correctly, Zeno was actually trying to prove that motion is impossible), but why?  Because we are slicing time into ever smaller amounts to leave Achilles behind.  And while it might appear that this can continue indefinitely, we now know that infinitely dividing something eventually converges, so that time will continue to pass and Achilles will eventually catch up with and pass the tortoise.

The problem of desire is quite different, but it makes the same fundamental mistake about time.  Let's say you eat breakfast at 8 a.m.  At noon, you eat lunch again.  Who is going to say, "Look at that guy!  He just ate four hours ago, and now he's eating again!"  That wouldn't make much sense, because we know that humans need to eat every few hours to have enough energy to keep going.  The fact that you ate in the morning has pretty much no relevance to it; you are bound to be hungry again several hours later unless perhaps you stuffed yourself well beyond what you needed.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt completely at ease?  Some time when everything seemed right:  you didn't want anything, you had no outstanding anxieties, you just felt at peace.  Chances are that a short time later -- five minutes or five hours or (if you were extremely lucky) five days -- you no longer had the same feeling.  Does that mean that you created things to worry about?  Well, it could.  We all know that people who get rich often turn out very unhappy.  They thought that money would solve all their problems, and they were wrong.  But the error there was in thinking that everything was perfect, not that they had to create problems for themselves as a matter of human nature.  The fact is, even after you get money, you still have to go on living.  You may not have any monetary needs, but you still have other needs, such as someone to love and something to occupy your time.  Money is notoriously bad at solving those problems.  If you feel at peace for a while because all of your immediate problems are solved, that doesn't mean that you won't face new issues in the future.  In particular, the intangible things related to our minds, such as finding and keeping friends, remain forever.  They even become more difficult, in some respects, if you have money, although the difficulties are of a very different type than if you are poor.  Still, I don't see how we can doubt that a person who has come into money may have had some great burdens lifted, and may feel quite at peace for a time.  He may have his personal issues resolved for the time being, and his monetary issues resolved perhaps for the first time ever.  If he thinks he will never suffer again, he is naive; but if he thinks that things are good at that moment, he is quite right and has ever reason to feel it with satisfaction.  That does not mean that he may not get in a quarrel with his spouse later that day and be miserable, but neither does the quarrel mean that his previous peace was not real.  It was, but he has to go on living, has to go on fulfilling his psychological needs just as his physical needs.  It makes no more sense to criticize a person for having ongoing psychological needs than for getting hungry every few hours.

This is not the same sort of problem as Zeno's paradox, but I think it has a similar nature.  Zeno ignored time, or thought that he could divide it infinitely without approaching a limit of zero when there was no more time to be divided.  People who think that human desire is never fulfilled are correct to the extent that we all have desires that rekindle from one moment to the next.  But the key point is those passing moments.  At a particular moment, your desires might be fulfilled (or, alternately, you may have achieved peace of mind sufficiently that you are content even if there is more you could wish for -- that is another whole dimension to the problem).  What you cannot prevent is that, in living on, your desires will present themselves anew at ever moment.  This is why I have always had trouble with Solon's pronouncement that he only judges a man happy when his life is over, as though how a man dies determines his happiness for the rest of his life.  How you feel at the moment of death may appear to be a summation, but it can't erase all the other moments you have experienced during your life, any more than a person's happiness at one moment can determine how he will feel for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Monoceros Resort

While I was visiting Thailand last year, I came across a sign for the Monoceros Resort.  I was interested because I wrote a post on this blog nearly six years ago about the surprising fact that the mythical horse creature with a single horn is almost always called the unicorn, not the monoceros, in spite of almost all other mythical animals having names deriving from Greek.

So I was shocked to find this resort going by the name of "Monoceros" instead of the more common "unicorn."  Well, I was almost as much shocked to find a resort with either name in rural Thailand as I was of anything else.  It is not hard to find via a Google search, and in fact appears to be a popular resort, at least for Swedes.  It was a small sign and I had no chance to get a picture of it, but you can see their logo below, and it does appear to be some sort of unicorn.  (I don't know what else it would be with that name; perhaps it could have been named after the constellation.)



So at least one place uses the Greek construction.  My first thought would that it would probably come from a non-native English speaker, which would be the case whether the resort's owners are Thai or Swedish.  Perhaps some day I will write and ask how they came up with their name.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Endowment Effect, Part 2

There is a staple of a certain kind of movie in which two people who are basically opposite of each other are forced to spend time together because of one circumstance or another.  They start off hating each other, but by the end of the movie they have become tolerant of one another, maybe even friends.  Does that happen in real life?

I think it does.  Consider married couples, for instance.  Studies show that couples in arranged marriages are no less happy than those who chose their own spouse.  There could be several reasons for this phenomenon.  The fact that married couples go through so many shared experiences is certainly one of them.  "Shared experience" is a sort of psychological buzzword, but I have found that it is a powerful force in my own life.  It's something that you can look back on and talk about, and some time that you probably experienced similar emotions with another person.  I have even read that taking a date to a scary movie is a good strategy, because the strong emotion of fear helps you to bond with each other.

What about objects?  I think of the beat-up baseball glove that a person might value much more than a newer one because it is the one he had throughout Little League, or the barely functioning truck in which a father and son went fishing many times.  These kinds of objects become invested with meaning because they relate to experiences in your life and remind you of what you have been through.

I suspect, however, that there is another mechanism at play in the way that we become attached to people and objects that we have been around for a long time.  Imagine you are in an unhappy marriage, but for whatever reason -- shame associated with divorce, fear of the unknown, etc. -- you stay with your spouse for 50 years.  It seems likely that your mind would begin to justify your behaviour after a time; not consciously, but subtly and in small ways.  Does your mind want to admit that you have wasted your life with the wrong person?  Or would it rather conclude that there was something about this person after all that made him or her the right match?

Or think of a writer who was too poor to afford a computer for a long time, and wrote many works on a typewriter.  He may have resented that typewriter the whole time, wishing he could have had a word processing program instead.  However, he may also develope an attachment to the typewriter.  He had it; it worked for him; maybe it was the right thing for him.  And maybe it was, but more likely his mind is simply justifying the fact that he had to waste hours retyping pages because he couldn't go back and edit what he had written.

I don't want to suggest that there isn't a real element of affection to these sorts of people and objects, because I have no doubt that it can and does exist.  I just think that our minds are likely to think that whatever we have had for a long time must have been the right thing for us, because the alternative is acknowledging that we wasted time with the wrong person or with a poor tool.  And so I think the Endowment Effect, in which people value things they own over identical things they don't own, is explicable partly from ordinary psychological reasons.

The example I gave in the last entry was a class of students who were given coffee mugs.  They would sell their mugs for a minimum of (say) $5, but they would not buy a mug for more than $2, which puzzles economists.  I think their behaviour is rational partly because of this normal psychological mechanism that causes us to think that whatever we have must be valuable, otherwise we wouldn't have acquired it.  The effect cannot, of course, explain why we would value a small coffee mug that we were given 5 minutes ago so much more than an identical one that we could buy now.  However, I think the psychology behind ownership is built into our brains.  If we have had to use an object for a long time, it is understandable if we develope an attachment to it, but it seems likely to me that our brains are already hard-wired to make the choices that we might make anyway for reasons of self-preservation.  What seems irrational behaviour over a coffee mug is probably a remnant of a much more rational behaviour that our brain applies to all objects that we own, even if the surrounding circumstances are quite different.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Endowment Effect

Some time not too long ago, maybe 30 years or so, psychologists discovered that people value things they already have over things they don't have.  One big experiment took place in a classroom where students were given coffee mugs and asked how much they would be willing to sell them for.  Let's say the average was $5 (though I don't remember exactly).  They then asked students how much they would buy the identical mug for, and the average was $2.  So here was a mug that students valued at $5 when they owned it, but only $2 when they didn't own it, which is contrary to economic theory that identical things should have identical value.  They called "the Endowment Effect."

The Endowment Effect seems like an amazingly good thing for society.  It makes everyone happier with what he has than what he doesn't have.  In other words, the net happiness of everyone is higher when they all own things because they will value their things beyond their utility.  If you think people are envious now, imagine how much worse it would be if people didn't value their own things more.  It is theoretically possible that they would even value their own things less than other people's, which sometimes seems to be the way people think.  It's "the grass is greener on the other side" applied to ownership of goods:  you want what someone else has until you acquire it, and then it seems less valuable to you.  Trading in these circumstances would presumably be intense:  everyone wants what everyone else has, and that continues even after they have made the trade.  They both want to trade back.

I don't think the Endowment Effect is as counterintuitive as some people claim, however.  There is at least one thing that it doesn't account for, and that is transaction costs.  Now, if you are a student in class and someone is offering to buy or sell a mug for cash, there is obviously little transaction cost.  In other cases, however, there is.  I know this because there is a minimum value that I'm willing to part with things on eBay.  Even though it isn't really all that much trouble to sell things there, I just don't want to invest the effort for less than $10.  In other words, I'd rather forego $10 than go to the trouble of selling something.  That would appear, in economic terms, like a sort of endowment effect.

But the transaction cost in strict terms is not the major thing driving the Endowment Effect.  I think there are two other features, one of which I will address now, and another I will reserve for my next blog entry.

The first thing that makes you value your own things over others is that you know your own things.  Arguably this is a sort of transaction cost that involves getting familiar with the goods that you acquire.  When you buy a new car, you have a lot of things to get used to:  the steering, the acceleration, the location of the controls, the kind of tires it needs, and so forth.  You may not be willing to trade an old car for a newer one because you don't want to take the trouble of figuring out the ins and outs of the new vehicle.  Obviously, this would only be worth so much money:  you're not going to turn down a new Corvette for a 20-year-old Escort under almost any circumstances.  But it is a real cost.  I don't think it's a transaction cost so much as a matter of the monetary value of knowledge.  The only way to get familiar with something is to use it, and you can't use it (normally) until you own it.  You will also, then, have a propensity for the same model with which you are familiar, and the same brand more generally, which is something that corporations know well:  that's one reason they offer you good deals to switch to their brand.  Even if they lose money in the short run, they stand to benefit by shifting your comfort to their brand instead of the competitors.

Even if you are trading for an identical model, information discrepancies exist.  Imagine, for example, that you buy a new car today.  Tomorrow at work, you find that one of your co-workers bought the exact same model from the same dealer on the same day.  The only difference is that his is red and yours is blue.  Now, if he approaches you and says, "I thought I wanted the red car, but I really would rather have the blue one.  I know red is your favourite colour, how about we just swap cars?"  Would you do it?

On one hand, the cars are ostensibly identical, and suppose you are indifferent to colour.  There would seem to be no reason for you not to trade cars with him.  On the other hand, you might be suspicious that there is something about his car that he doesn't like besides the colour.  With warranties, this is probably moot, but let's assume there could be some problem with the car not covered by the warranty.  Did he really just change his mind about the colour, or is he trying to get out of some other issue?  If you know the person well and trust him, you might assume it was just the colour; but that would be another means of addressing the information asymmetry, not a way of making it go away.  On top of that, there is a hassle in trading cars.  You probably have a loan that you would have to deal with; you would have to sign over the title and get the title to his car, hopefully without any issue; you would have to address the warranty's changing hands.

Just to carry this a bit further, suppose the cars were the same colour and he wanted to trade.  That would make you really suspicious, because there would seem to be no reason to trade identical vehicles, especially not with the paperwork hassle.

These issues do not apply to a coffee mug worth a few dollars, of course, but I think they are relevant to our psychology.  In general, there are good reasons why we might prefer what we have to what we don't have, even if they appear to be the same.  In my next post, I will address another possible reason for the Endowment Effect.