, , ,

People who are not participants are welcome to comment to give book recommendations, talk about what other people are reading, or talk about books that they’ve read recently that they disagree with. If you are confused about what the epistemic closure challenge is, read this.

General Notes: I would like to thank this article for giving me such excellent reading recommendations; two of the books I read came from that list, I have started the other two books it suggests, and I am already a big fan of the Righteous Mind. I encourage my conservative readers to check out its companion article.

The Virtue of Selfishness: My beliefs and Rand’s are very similar in some ways, and yet they are so strikingly different in others that I want to poke at our areas of disagreement.

There are a lot of parts of Rand that– don’t just move me, but do a good job of capturing what my personal eudaimonia is. I believe in rationality, productiveness, and pride as cardinal virtues. For me, productive work is central to my happiness. Rand’s description of love is eloquent and beautiful, leaving aside its slut-shaming: “In spiritual issues—(by “spiritual” I mean: “pertaining to man’s consciousness”)—the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.” And yet so much of her ethics seems… not precisely wrong, but incomplete.

One difference, I think, is that Rand believes very strongly in objective values related to humans’ nature qua humans, grounded in what it means to survive qua human. She believes that one’s values ought to be objectively worked out from first principles. For me, my sense of my own eudaimonia is… perhaps not an emotion, but certainly a felt sense. It is not precisely what Rand means by ‘whim’: after all, it is quite common for my eudaimonia to be something I don’t particularly want to do in that moment, such as every time I have to wake up when my bed is nice and warm. But it is also not rational, and I am suspicious of the whole “making one’s feelings rational” project. Rand says that it is better to die a free man than live a slave, but she grounds her morality in what is necessary to maintain a human existence. To me, this just seems unprincipled: a slave’s existence is still more human than a corpse’s.

Rand is strongly opposed to what she calls the malevolent universe metaphysics: “The altruist ethics is based on a “malevolent universe” metaphysics, on the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them.” I don’t precisely believe in a malevolent universe, but I certainly don’t believe in a benevolent universe; I believe in a pitilessly neutral universe. And thus I have no problem with the claim that right now we happen to be in a decades-long state of emergency– in which both global poverty exists and we can act to reduce it– and once that problem has been sorted out we can go back to selfishness. Rand, conversely, believes that decades-long emergencies are simply not a thing the universe allows to exist.

But I think the crux of our difference is that I seem to have– an emotion? a drive? something like that– that Rand simply does not. You might call it “lovingkindness” or “compassion” or “pity” or “empathy”. I don’t like it when beings suffer, and I want to make it stop. I have more of this emotion when I am generally otherwise virtuous– when I have more of the rationality and productivity and integrity and justice and honesty and independence and pride that Rand praises– and far less when I am cruel and petty and slothful and weak. It is distinct from what Rand calls “altruism”, which I have felt as well: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value. Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.” (This quote is from Philosophy: Who Needs It, not The Virtue of Selfishness.)

I think Rand believes that the only reason one would have for wanting to help people you don’t know is a sense of what she calls altruism, and I don’t think that’s true, at least for me. When I am least desirous of self-immolation and self-denial, I am the most concerned about animals and people in developing countries. Indeed, the concept of not having those concerns feels like what-Rand-calls-altruism to me: like cutting out a bit of my soul to offer it up on the altar of someone else’s approval and someone else’s sense of what I must value.

Rand and I agree in the usefulness in making firm moral judgments instead of reserving them; it is important to be able to call good things good and bad things bad. However, I think we have very different ideas of what the correct moral judgments to make are. In nearly all situations, when I am making my best and most objective moral judgment, it tends to be something along the lines of “this person is trying to pursue a good, but their tactics are hopelessly counterproductive and they won’t get the thing they want. It’s sad how people wind up trapping themselves in these awful situations.” Rand, however, seems to generally respond to such situations with “that person is a brute and an altruist and does not have virtues.” I think the former is generally a far more accurate description of situations.

The Virtue of Selfishness contains a very facile criticism of anarchocapitalist thought: “what happens if a person from Defense Company A murders a person from Defense Company B? They might go to war!” Obviously, most defense companies would have contracts covering this sort of eventuality, including perhaps a specific arbitration company they go to. War is expensive and a rational company would not engage in war unless it had to. One might very well expect companies to be less warmongering than governments.

The Communist Manifesto: The Communist Manifesto is funny! I had not expected it to be funny.

I think the first part about the bourgeoisie is mostly correct: cosmopolitanism, conquest through cheap things, subjection of nature to humanity. Unfortunately, Marx seems to have been incorrect about what would happen in the future; the proletariat in the US existed for a brief time but has passed away to be replaced by the service economy. There seems to me to have been a rise in the importance of human capital (e.g. medicine, programming). The gig/sharing/freelancing economy seems really interesting to me from a Marxist perspective: the exploited worker has access to some capital (their car, their laptop, their ability to write articles) and indeed would not be employed if they didn’t, but they’re still exploited. I’d be really interested in reading a good neo-Marxist analysis of all this if anyone has a recommendation.

I have a lot more respect for Marxism, I think, than I do for Leninism; I think one could make a very reasonable case that we’ve tried Leninism and it clearly doesn’t work. But the idea of the vanguard party seems (to my admittedly uninformed mind) to go against a lot of Marxist thought: one notices that there was no vanguard party in the transition from feudalism to capitalism; while the bourgeoisie has its philosophers, they didn’t really take their marching orders from their philosophers, and the philosophers had almost no class analysis. They talked about the Rights of Man– which happened, because of class relations, to be the Rights of Man As Defined By The Bourgeoisie’s Class Interests– but they didn’t actively talk about The Rights of the Bourgeoisie. The idea of a vanguard party seems almost anti-materialist to me. And of course it’s absurdly undemocratic and leads to the authoritarianism of actually existing communist countries.

My favorite part is this bit:

But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus.

The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health Care Reform: This book has So Much Math. I did not understand all the math that was contained inside this book. It made my head spin and I cannot assess the accuracy of its analysis of the situation.

That said, I did manage to grasp the broad outlines of the argument, and it seems correct. While the ACA does not officially raise very many taxes, its exchange subsidies and employer penalties create a lot of de facto taxes, many of which are poorly implemented and mean that people would earn more money by working less. They can be expected to respond to incentives by doing so, even if they’d rather have worked more and had more money. I don’t know how large the effect is but that sounds like the sort of thing that is probably true.

Philosophy for Dummies: Topher found out that I learned almost everything I know about analytic philosophy from Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview and then in horror bought me this book. I very much question his choice of introduction to analytic philosophy book.

Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview might be (as the title implies) Christian, but at least it treats you like a grownup. Its discussion of epistemology includes words like “foundationalism” and “coherentism” and “Gettier cases”. Philosophy for Dummies’s discussion of epistemology, however, talks about skepticism a little bit and defines “knowledge” as “justified true belief” without once bringing up the many difficulties with this definition. Admittedly, it is an introductory text, but the author had plenty of time to spend on his half-baked self-help theories. Personally, when I read a book entitled “Philosophy for Dummies”, I expect a discussion of what problems analytic philosophers are working on and what their areas of consensus and disagreement are. If I were looking for people’s half-baked self-help theories, I would be reading Tara Brach and Cal Newport, because I already know their advice helps me.

There might be two advantages of Philosophy for Dummies over Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview. First, Philosophy for Dummies might more fairly represent the views it discusses. This is not true; Philosophy for Dummies had a cringeworthy two-page discussion of ethical subjectivism that is best summed up as “sometimes people argue about whether sex before marriage is wrong! CHECKMATE ATHEISTS.” (Well, (a) people argue about all sorts of dumb shit, (b) you can, in fact, argue about whether sex before marriage causes harm, is unfair, is disloyal to your future partner, etc., and that doesn’t mean that subjectivism is wrong about the issue of whether you care about fairness, harm, both, or neither.) Second, Philosophy for Dummies could better reflect philosophical consensus on issues on which there is a philosophical consensus (e.g. the existence of the external world, scientific realism, the nonexistence of God, the existence of a priori knowledge). Unfortunately, the author of Philosophy for Dummies is also a theist and definitely gives the impression that theism is what philosophers agree on. At least ‘Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview’ doesn’t give you the illusion that it’s saying what real philosophers think about things.

[content warning: abuse; the statement that people sometimes do wrong things because they’re abuse victims]

Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin: Half of this book is an excellent and inspirational exploration of the nature of sin that really captures the Christian mythological viewpoint, although honestly there wasn’t much I hadn’t gotten from C S Lewis or Francis Spufford. The other half of this book is Old Man Yells At Cloud.

Like, come on, dude, saying “I could care less” is understatement and linguistic change, not the sin of sloth. There is no psychological consensus that listening to violent music or watching violent media leads to more violent behavior, it is a little weird to concentrate on rap music without ever once bringing up Brown Sugar, and anyway the rates of violent crime are going down.

The other thing that upset me is that he talked about abuse as an example of hurt people hurting people, which I think is a great thing to do. But he talked about it solely in a context of abuse victims becoming abusers themselves. But while being abused increases your risk of being an abuser yourself, most abuse victims never abuse anyone! I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have brought up cycles of abuse. But there are lots of other kinds of harm people can cause because they’re abused. What about the man who becomes frightened and suspicious and lashes out against innocent women who happen to look like his abuser? What about a person who becomes a heroin addict to cope with their abuse history and winds up stealing thousands of dollars from their closest friends? What about a man who is chronically depressed because he was abused as a child, wasting all his potential in endless days and nights of numbness? Just talking about abuse seems like a very shallow analysis to me.

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: help I think I’m a textualist

Scalia believes that the proper role of the court is to interpret the text of the law in the way a reasonable person would, in the context of the rest of the law. He dislikes thinking about the legislators’ intent. Many cases involve things that the legislators couldn’t possibly have an intent about, because they didn’t think of them; if they had thought of them, they would have put them in the law. Paying attention to legislative intent appears to go against the Constitution: the Constitution says that things that legislators vote for are law, even if they are confused about what the law is or never read it, not that their intent is law. He also dislikes activist judges. In his opinion, not only are activist judges an unwarranted usurption of the legislature’s constitutional role by the judiciary, they also go against the point of a government by laws and not men. People should have reasonable expectations about what is and is not against the law, instead of having to guess about the whims of whatever judge is assigned their case. (This is why, incidentally, Scalia also likes precedent, even precedent that he feels goes against the Constitution; precedent makes the courts more consistent.)

The Constitution is interestingly different from most law, because it’s much older. Scalia argues that it should be understood the way a reasonable person would have understood it at the time the Constitution or amendment was ratified. For instance, the First Amendment should be understood to protect the free-speech rights in the Colonies at the time of ratification. To do otherwise, he argues, leaves speech with no protection. At any time, a judge who doesn’t like free speech can decide that “freedom of speech” actually means freedom to say things that aren’t hateful (what is “hateful” is of course decided by the government). It’s true that courts have trended in the definition of more free speech for the past century or so, but there is no law that says that that has to continue. (Indeed, one could make a very good case that the Second Amendment was hollowed out in the same period, eliminating protections the Founders would have considered to be obvious.) If freedom of speech de facto means whatever judges think it means, there’s not much point to having a constitution at all, instead of just letting judges make up whatever they think is a good idea.

I think I do agree with Scalia that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment, because the Constitution makes provision elsewhere that you shouldn’t kill people without due process, and it would be really weird for the Constitution to limit how you can do something that is unconstitutional in the first place.