November 18, 2004
Less contempt; more mutual ground
Gerald Dworkin: November 18, 2004
A first step in getting our message across to those who disagree with us is to stop expressing contempt for them. Garrison Keillor made a joke recently about denying the right to vote to born-again Christians (since their citizenship is in Heaven) .. That’s not funny.
A second step is to seek to find common ground despite higher-level fundamental disagreements. Both parties to the abortion debate can agree that it would be preferable if there were fewer abortions. So both parties can agree that better access to birth-control is desirable. Both those who advocate gun-control and those who oppose it can agree that trigger-locks and other safety devices are desirable. Both those who support affirmative action and those who oppose it can agree that primary education has to be improved and supported for minority kids. Both can agree that extensive out-reach, and the most diverse pool for hiring, entrance to law schools, etc are desirable.
Of course, this does not mean that we should be any less firm in our convictions about what is right or wrong on these issues. Nor that we should be any less energetic in trying to convince others that we are right and they are wrong. But it does mean that, at the political level, we stand a chance of building coalitions with those who disagree with us.
December 03, 2004
Gerald Dworkin: December 3, 2004
So far –rather surprisingly—there has been no discussion of the issue of domestic security. In this post I define that issue rather narrowly—the prevention of further domestic attacks by Al-Qaeda or other jihadist organizations. I believe many voters chose Bush on the basis of a belief that the policies pursued by the administration in the prior three years were effective, and would continue to be effective, in deterring and preventing such attacks. And that they did not have a similar confidence that Kerry and his policies would have a similar effectiveness.
December 10, 2004
Is Terrorism Important?
Gerald Dworkin: December 10, 2004
A commentator on my post Domestic Security says: “I don't think scant attention to civil defense sunk the Democrats. Kerry addressed domestic security over and over again. He talked about the absurdity of x-raying airline passengers and not cargo holds. He promised to do something about the huge number of cargo containers that enter our ports without being inspected. He promised to double the number of special forces operatives...”
This is true, but it seems to me that this did not convince enough voters who were concerned about domestic security issues so the question is why not. Well, if I were an undecided voter I would be concerned about things like the following. The New York Times asked delegates at the Democratic and Republican convention about which issues they thought were most important. 2% of Democratic delegates said terrorism; 15% of Republican delegates mentioned terrorism. Only 1% said homeland security was important. Michael Moore went around the country proclaiming there was no terrorist threat. Those who attacked the Patriot Act rarely proposed changes which would be more effective in protecting us against domestic attack, as opposed to changes which would protect us against increased governmental surveillance. It wasn’t clear that the Democratic activists or Kerry saw domestic security as a central issue comparable, say, to preserving Social Security or to doing something about the health care mess.
It is one thing to attack the Administration for incompetence, ignorance and arrogance in fighting terrorism. It is another thing to think that the goal itself is mistaken.
December 29, 2004
Posner and some distinctions
Gerald Dworkin: December 29, 2004
David takes on our fellow blogger Richard Posner for his moral skepticism. “The rhetorical punch of [Posner’s] diatribe comes in its penultimate sentence, which is of course a rhetorical question: "One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations?" Here Posner concedes that reasons can be given for our moral strictures against infanticide, animal cruelty, and so on; but he then poisons the well for anyone who would attempt to give those reasons, by tainting them wholesale and in advance with the label of "rationalization". There is then no arguing with Posner, because any argument would give reasons, which would be nothing but more rationalization.”
There may be no arguing with Posner but, in the general spirit of our blog which is to at least try and argue with those with whom we disagree, let me try to interpret his claims in a way which leaves them open, in principle, to reasoned disagreement. It seems to me to be an empirical issue, perhaps a very difficult one to find evidence for, whether the typical reasons, arguments, considerations in favor, we (any of us) give for our moral opinions are the basis on which we hold, believe, accept them.
We have to distinguish at least between the historical explanation of how we came to hold our moral convictions (which will at least in many cases be of the sort that Posner makes reference to—what our parents believed, who we liked to hang out with, our native culture, etc) and the reasons we now give to justify our beliefs, It can’t be simply a coincidence that most of the medical personnel in Istanbul that I once gave a lecture to about patient autonomy thought there was no such thing—that the family of the patient is the only unit that has the right to make decisions about the patient.
the fact that I originally came to hold a belief because of certain
historical considerations is compatible with my continuing to hold it for different, justificatory reasons. I might have reflected on the causes which led me to hold the belief, come to think they are insufficient, but continued to hold them on the basis of what I now believe to be good reasons. The
question Posner raises is whether these reasons are (always, mostly)
rationalizations, and the true explanation(s) for out continuing to
hold these beliefs are the various, non-justificatory causes.
Analogy: I came to believe there were an infinite number of primes because a friend passed on this information to me when I was 11. But he also, I learned later, passed on lots of other things which were not true. But I now actually have a proof of this fact and so hold the belief now on that basis. The claim that my belief is just a rationalization requires showing one of two things. Either that such proofs are not themselves good reasons or that I would have continued to believe the claim even if I had no such proof.
Posner must believe one or both of the these things about moral beliefs. Either there are no good arguments for moral beliefs or that even if there are these do not explain why we hold them.
Arguing about the first claim is a philosophical task. Nothing in Posner’s post is evidence for the radical claim that there are no better or worse reasons for accepting various moral positions.
Arguing about the second is a very complex empirical issue. Relevant evidence would include things like the following. After having shown someone that the justificatory arguments she presents for some conviction are faulty, and she concedes this, she continues to hold the belief. This is not by any means irrational. I find this to be true of many of my normative beliefs. Of course, I believe (hope) that a better argument can be found. But suppose I never discover one. Do I, must I, abandon the belief?
If people hold their beliefs on the basis or reasons, then reasoning should be the way to get them to change their beliefs. But we know that in many cases getting them to look at things differently, or to have a certain kind of experience, or allaying their anxiety, or appealing to their sympathy, or shaming them, will be the effective lever of change. Of course, one could tell a story linking these to arguments or reasons, but will this story be explanatory?
My own conjecture is that some substantial number of our moral convictions are (in fact) held for the kinds of reasons that Posner refers to. But this is compatible with there being good reasons that could justify holding them or abandoning them.
January 30, 2005
Agreement and Disagreement
Gerald Dworkin: January 30, 2005
The film director Bertolucci once said that one can only disagree with those with whom one basically agrees. This is an interesting idea and I would like to explore what might be meant by this.
February 02, 2005
Gerald Dworkin: February 2, 2005
Here is the full text of the article that is causing so much
controversy regarding Churchill’s invitation to speak at Hamilton College. So far he has had to resign as chair of the
Ethnic Studies department at Boulder and his speech has been cancelled because of “credible threats” of violence at Hamilton.
While some of the language is disgusting (little Eichmanns for those killed in the WTC) and some of the claims are bizarre (were the secretaries, janitors, fireman, waiters in the restaurants, stock clerks, etc. also part of the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire"?) the main theses represent moral, political, and empirical claims about the cause of the attack, and its moral character. No faculty member should be dismissed because of such claims. Whether someone who has, and publishes, such views should continue to be retained in an administrative post is a more difficult question. It is plausible that the head of an academic unit represents that unit to the public and, in any case, serves at the discretion of the administration. A similar case occurred a few years ago at the City College of New York where Leonard Jeffries, the Chair of Black Studies, was removed from his position for, among other things, calling a fellow professor the “head Jew at City College". A Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the dismissal was legitimate, which doesn’t settle the issue of whether it should have been done. Being a free speech fanatic I will hold my nose and defend Churchill's right to speak at Hamilton (if there are threats of violence then protect the speaker), and against any attempts to dismiss him from his academic position.
February 08, 2005
Gerald Dworkin: February 8, 2005
1) Ward Churchill has had a talk on his own campus cancelled because of threats of violence. (Update: The University reversed its position and Churchill spoke the next day. Another piece of good news: The University of California backed down from its position that a blogger with the website "darksideofucsb" could be prosecuted for using " UCSB" in the url!)
2) The Chancellor of the University of Colorado is setting up an internal review committee to determine if Churchill should lose his tenured position.
3) An economist at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas is under attack for asserting in a classroom that homosexuals tend to plan less for the future than heterosexuals ( partly because childless couples tend to plan less than those with children).
4) An item in the New York Times today reports that some firms are firing employees for smoking at home.
Perhaps we ought to start spreading liberty and freedom here at home.
February 12, 2005
Deja Vu all over again
Gerald Dworkin: February 12, 2005
I highly recommend, both as entertaining and informative, Corrupting the Youth by James Franklin. It is a history of philosophy in Australia. In light of recent developments it is interesting to read of the attacks on John Anderson who was a highly influential and (in his youth) radical Professor of Philosophy at SydneyUniversity. He attacked traditional religion, the idea of King and Country and said that war memorials were idols.
He was attacked on the floor of the New South Wales Parliament in these terms: “…when a man stands up and traduces in unbridled terms institutions that are revered, and that appeal to the highest sentiments and the noblest motives in the community, he transgresses the reasonable bounds of propriety and all the canons of decent conduct.”
Update: Some readers have asked me where to get this book. I don't know whether it is on sale in the US. It is not on Amazon for example. It was published in Sydney by Macleay Press. Your best bet is a good university library.
February 24, 2005
Liberals, Conservatives and Values
Gerald Dworkin: February 24, 2005
Jonathan Chait has an interesting piece in the current New Republic
The relevant part for my discussion is the following.
…conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about--greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich--are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, "[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself."
We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.
Even if we confine our attention to the question of the optimum size of the government the issue is more complicated than Chait makes it out to be. First, there is an issue of what is meant by the size of government, i.e. government expenditures, number of government regulations, nature of the regulations (administrative, criminal, civil), proportion of GDP collected by the government, etc. Second, liberals may also view government regulation as restrictive of freedom, and value freedom intrinsically. They may not view taxation as an interference with freedom –as some of the recent discussion of “it’s my money” and taxation shows. But they may.
Finally, if the issue is defined as simply size of government then, of course, for liberals that is not an end in itself. But if the issue is defined as something like the following—is it better that the poor be helped by private charity, or by contractual arrangements (self-insurance against poverty in retirement) , rather than collectively financed payments? —then this is not simply a matter of which system will do the job more efficiently. Liberals may believe that a society which collectively determines to provide this form of security is better (for that reason) than one which leaves it to individual charity or the prudence of its members. In a similar fashion, some believe that it is better that blood be collected from volunteers rather than paid for—quite independently of whether such a blood supply is safer. All these judgments can be questioned. But one can also question whether freedom should be valued for its own sake. And Chait is wrong when he says “This preference for removing power from Washington is simply something that either you accept or you don’t.” It is harder to talk about what things should be regarded as ends in themselves rather than as means to accepted ends. But it can be done.
March 13, 2005
How Not to do Investigative Reporting
Gerald Dworkin: March 13, 2005
There is an extremely interesting document available here. It is the independent investigation of the CBS handling of four documents relating to President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report was commissioned by CBS and headed by Richard Thornburgh, former US Attorney General. It is 234 pages in length, so one is unlikely to read it in its entirety, but even spending half and hour skipping around in it is fascinating and rewarding.