Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Maverick Philosopher: A Note on Ayn Rand's Misunderstanding of Kant

This post by Bill Vallicella ("Maverick Philosopher") sheds some light on why Rand hasn't been taken seriously by professional philosophers.

First a personal admission. Years ago I tried to read Kant to see if I agreed with Rand's conclusion that he was "the most evil man in mankind's history." I didn't get very far! I found his language too obtuse (and my patience way too thin) to get more than a few pages into his Critique of Pure Reason. So I can't attest to the accuracy of Vallicella's interpretation of Kant. Per his profile, Vallicella "taught philosophy at various universities in the USA and abroad before abandoning a tenured position to live the eremitic life of the independent philosopher in the Sonoran desert."  

I won't try to summarize Vallicella's analysis here; I recommend reading his post.  

His conclusion:
the question is not whether Kant's ethical doctrine is true or reasonably maintained; the question is simply whether Rand has fairly presented it. The answer to that is in the negative.
So I persist in my view that Rand is a hack, and that this is part of the explanation of why many professional philosophers accord her little respect.
That being said, I'll take Rand over a leftist any day.
While I disagree with Vallicella's harsh labeling Rand as a "hack" I believe he makes some key points about Rand's approach to Kant. My impression is that Rand didn't have the patience (or interest) to digest Kant (and other thinkers). She read enough to get a sense of the thinker's direction. She thought in broad strokes, identifying key principles, but perhaps did not have the temperament to dig into the details of how these principles played out when applied to tough test cases. (I recall an interview with John Hospers in which he pointed out an issue with applying one of her ideas to a real world case that he felt wasn't so clear cut. [I don't remember the issue he brought up.] If my memory is correct, I recall that Rand's response to the point Hospers made was, "You bastard.")

Rand laid the broad groundwork for her philosophy but didn't write a definitive treatise to define and defend her philosophy in the kind of patient detail that is expected among philosophers.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Recommendations to Change Minds (on both sides)

Arnold Kling links to a post by Cass Sunstein titled Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds. Sunstein, a legal scholar and professor at Harvard Law School is also known for his book (co-authored with Richard Thaler), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. The authors argue that “People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.”

While I agree with Sunstein that achieving objectivity is much, much harder than most people realize, I have philosophical issues with the government trying to steer me into making choices that officials deem are better for me. I'd rather that private institutions apply these ideas for a number of reasons that I won't go into here.

Having said that, I like Sunstein's intro to his post.

It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

I see examples of this insular thinking all to often. We all gravitate to news sources that reflect our conclusions. Liberals prefer PBS or MSNBC while conservatives glom onto Fox or the Drudge Report. Personally, I occasionally visit “enemy territory” not just to see if there is a valid alternate view or explanation but also to understand how the opposing side thinks so that maybe I can communicate my ideas better or (horrors) maybe modify my position!

The books he recommends are:

Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott

A Matter of Interpretation,” by Antonin Scalia

Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform,” by Casey Mulligan

The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt

Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes,” by Robert Ellickson

Of these five I've read one and a half. Read all of The Righteous Mind and started Side Effects and Complications but haven't finished it yet. Other books have barged into my queue! Haidt's book instantly lodged itself onto my short list of favorites. Highly recommended!

Kling in turn offers a list of books.

On education: Goldin and Katz, “The Race Between Education and Technology” and Elizabeth Green, “Building a Better Teacher.”

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. [I've read most of it and agree with Kling's recommendation. It has a lot of information on the subconscious influences on our objectivity and decision making.]

Joseph Henrich’s “The Secret of Our Success” - “a good reminder that there are other social norms in the background that are important. Another book on the importance of culture is Peter Turchin’s 'War, Peace, and War.'”

On economics: L. Randall Wray’s “Why Minsky Matters” and George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, “Animal Spirits”. Scott Sumner’s history of the Great Depression, “The Midas Paradox” [Another one on the towering pile of books to be read.]

On family life: “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam who “coined the phrase 'bifurcated family patterns.' Isabel Sawhill’s “Generation Unbound”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kling’s Three Axes: How Do Conservatives Explain Communists?

A reader on Arnold Kling’s blog asks this interesting question about his three axes model of political language as it applies to communism versus conservatism.

“how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.”

I’ve been thinking whether there are key concepts that lie at the root of the axes Arnold has identified. I’ve been considering whether the desire for order explains the civilization/barbarism axis, autonomy for the libertarian freedom/coercion axis and equality for the liberal oppressor/oppressed axis. When the question came up about how Communism falls into this I thought at first that this might refute my attempt to identify the underlying premises. I say this because a totalitarian regime seeks order too although it is not based on the religion or tradition foundation that conservatives favor. However, I’d say the ultimate purpose of the order communism imposes is to achieve equality. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is the statement that captures the intent behind communism. Anyway, food for thought.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Righteous Mind and Narratives

I've written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt who has influenced my thinking on morality and politics. This essay by The Independent Whig does a nice job summarizing Haidt's work while also touching on the role of stories. In fact here is a quote from early in the article.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor, and every ideology has its own story in the form of “grand narrative” that describes the social world from the perspective of that ideology.

He then outlines the Grand Liberal and Grand Conservative narratives.

Anyway, I recommend reading this essay.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Another Example of Narratives: Unwinnable Arguments and Normative Sociology by Arnold Kling

This post by Arnold Kling on the different explanations of crime.

Progressives: racism in the criminal justice system
Conservatives: high propensity of young African-American males to commit crimes
Libertarians; the war on drugs
Progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, which makes racism the desired cause. Conservatives are most comfortable with the civilization-barbarism axis, which makes criminal behavior the preferred cause. Libertarians prefer the freedom-coercion axis, which makes the war on drugs the preferred cause.

He then makes this point: "Each of these causal forces has an element of truth, or at least plausibility. The chances are slim of coming up with an empirical analysis that decisively rules in favor of one cause and rules out all other causes." I come to a similar conclusion in an earlier post: that each language has some element of truth. This is one reason why it's hard to win an argument (if that ever actually happens).

Friday, June 12, 2015

Narratives (or languages) in action: an example

I’ve written about Arnold Kling’s three languages of politics in which he claims liberal use language about the oppressed and the oppressors, conservatives talk about civilization versus barbarism and libertarians explain things in terms of freedom versus coercion. At dinner with friends who are very liberal we talked about the Middle East and Africa. He claimed that there never will be peace in the Middle East because of the perpetual fight over oil and that the people in Africa haven’t prospered because outsiders take Africa’s natural resources. (He was referring to businesses but conveniently ignored the role of Russia and China.) Both of his “explanations” echo the oppressor-oppressed theme.

A conservative probably would counter with saying that these cases show the lack of civilized values while the libertarian (and Objectivist) might point to the lack of understanding of individual rights. An Objectivist might also go a bit deeper and say these are examples of wrong philosophical premises.

The problem, as I see it, is that all of these answers have some merit to them. Naturally I lean toward the Objectivist explanation. Nonetheless I think being able to understand the framework of these other views can help in trying to communicate and influencing the other person. I’d say you can acknowledge their concerns then gently steer the other person into considering that their conclusion doesn’t dig deeply enough, that the actions and their consequences are rooted in more fundamental ideas about the nature of rights and civilization which can determine whether there is oppression.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2011/04/narratives-that-guide-our-lives.html. While his application to politics can be found here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2012/10/election-2012-and-clash-of-narratives.html.

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.


I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.