Archives for category: Ethics

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“You keep using that word. I don’t think you know what it means.”

Or so said Inigo Montoya in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

He was reacting to a repeated use of the word “Impossible!”

But he might have well been reacting to “Racism!”

I eagerly plunged into Matt Zwolinski’s essay “Why Laissez-Faire is NOT Social Darwinism.” This is one of my favorite subjects, in part because most discussions of it are so hopelessly muddled that it has become my favorite sport to vivisect each argument as it appears before me, wriggling in front of my eyes, tempting my scalpel. Thankfully, this essay starts out well; it looks promising from the first paragraph. Zwolinski has set out to defend William Graham Sumner from Richard Hofstadter’s infamous “social Darwinism” charge. And yet, it quickly gives me pause. Here is the fourth paragraph:

“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim. To be “fit” is not necessarily to be “better” or “more virtuous” than one who is unfit. All that fitness means, in the evolutionary sense, is adaptation to environment. Thus, in Sumner’s “colorful” words, “rattlesnakes may survive where horses perish . . . or highly cultivated white men may die where Hottentots flourish.” The point is easily missed in the face of Sumner’s unfortunate racism, but even racism is not the same as social Darwinism, and the substance of Sumner’s point here is clearly at odds with the popular interpretation of that idea. The fact that a rattlesnake will outlive a horse in a desert doesn’t make the rattlesnake morally better than the horse. It just means that the rattlesnake is better adapted to surviving in the desert. That is all.

My problem here? I almost missed Zwolinski making a good point because of his unfortunate mistake about the nature of racism.

And so, before I move on to evaluating Zwolinski’s deconstruction of Sumner’s putative social Darwinism, I must dissect the racism charge that he makes.

You might be saying to yourself, “What’s going on here? Why is Virkkala distracting himself from the main point?”

Well, “racism” has been associated with social Darwinism for a very long time. So, when Zwolinski identifies something in Sumner that strikes him as racist, he is already finding something that lends support to the Social Darwinism charge — if only in a sloppy, association-of-ideas manner. And, also, if the author makes hash of the racism aspect, it might shed light on any deficiencies we may find in the main argument. (If any there be.)

But the simple truth is that I am deeply distracted by Zwolinski’s comment about Sumner’s “unfortunate racism.” For, from the example he gave, there was no racism involved at all.

None.

Not even a little bit.

Sumner has compared the survival-fitness of the “cultivated Englishmen” of his day with the “Hottentots” of his day. Where is the racism here?

Sure, the Englishmen Sumner was referring to were “white,” a variety of what was then known as the “Caucasoid” race, and the Hottentots were “black,” of what was then known as the “Negroid” race.

To notice racial differences is not racism. Racism isn’t “belief in the utility of distinguishing between genetic groupings of humanity.” It is the “making too much of race,” usually by imputing statistically discernible characteristics of a race to individuals of that race. One does this either because one has fallen prey to an error typical of folk statistics, or because one is engaging in some out-group antagonism, usually in service of some play of in-group solidarity. Racism is inherently anti-individualist, by this understanding.

But it is not anti-individualistic to notice that there are racial differences. So, by identifying Englishmen and Hottentots, recognizing their typical differences, one has made no racist error. None. Not one. Not even a little bit. Racism is not, I repeat, about the recognition of “race” as a useful category of thought and speech. It is about the abuse of the category.

But, but . . . Sumner called Englishmen “cultivated” and implied that Hottentots were not! How cannot that be racism?

Because “cultivated” is not a racial concept.

Anyone can be cultivated, given the right circumstances. “Cultivation,” as here used, is a cultural concept.

The very word derives from agriculture, as in “cultivating the fields.” A culture that engages in elaborate structures of production in agriculture and industry and marketing, not to mention the many arts and sciences, is, by definition, “cultivated.” When Sumner was writing, England was quite cultivated. There is no doubt of that. And the Hottentots of central and south Africa were not. They had a fascinating primitive culture. But it was still primitive. And, as such, much less complex than the English culture. Most Englishmen were “cultivated” compared to Hottentots because they were adapted to their more complex society, and that is a simple and unavoidable truth.

Oh, but “Hottentot” is an offensive term for the Khoikhoi! Well, sure. Now. But this was not known to be any more offensive than calling a German a German or Finn a Finn, back in Sumner’s day. The Germans did not use the old Latin name of “Germany” to refer to their country, not very often; the Finns called themselves “Suomilainan,” inhabitants of “Suomi,” not “Finns” from “Finland.” Similarly, the Khoikhoi did not call themselves “Hottentot” — that was a Dutch name for them, just as Finn is the outsiders’ name for the people of Suomi, and German is the outsiders’ name for inhabitants of (or from) Deutschland. Hottentot is considered offensive, now, but so are many other words that were once the only words that folks had access to.

I do not know precisely why Matt Zwolinski thinks comparing “cultivated Englishmen” to “Hottentots” is “unfortunately racist,” but I guess it is the “cultivated” part. And this is simply an error. If you think it is racist to acknowledge cultural differences between a modal Englishman and a modal Khoikhoi, or “most Englishmen” compared to “most Hottentots,” then I am not sure what to say further. It is just a category error.

What this seems to indicate, though, is something quite common among the young, these days. It was certainly not unheard of among the old when I was a child — I remember a great aunt of mine speaking this sort of offense-taking nonsense back in the 1960s — but it is especially common now. And it has a geneology:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. I have been trained to react negatively to anything smacking of racism.
  3. Talk of “race” itself reminds me of racism.
  4. Therefore: this mention of race is itself racist!

This can best be described as the thinking of lazy minds. It happens all the time with “sexism,” too. I have heard people say that rape is sexist. That pornography is sexist. That . . . well, you get the idea. But  just because rape has something to with sex, and is bad, does not mean that it is sexist. Sexism does not encompass all the bad things that relate to sex.

To believe that it does mean this? It is to not really understand how language works. It is to lose track of definitions, and think that any association of ideas that pops into one’s precious little head warrants some drastic identity.

My interpretation of this passage runs like this: Matt Zwolinsky read the comparison between Englishmen and Khoikhoi; it made him uncomfortable; therefore: “unfortunate racism”!

I will not try to make a similar mistake by taking my annoyance with this one error and imputing it to the rest of the essay.

All I am going to do is let it stop me from reading the rest of it tonight. Stay tuned for further discussion of this important subject — and what I hope will prove to be an important essay, regardless of Zwolinski’s infelicitous misattribution of racism to this one statement by William Graham Sumner.

twv

 

 

The news comedy shows are, for the most part, denunciation shows. This description fits Jon Stewart’s old topical comedy show and Trevor Noah’s lamer version; Bill Maher’s HBO warhorse, and John Oliver’s hipper variant on the same network; and, especially, the best one in the business, RT’s Redacted Tonight

The worst of the lot is surely Samantha Bee’s, but perhaps I err. I have not really been able to watch her after she left The Daily Show. Larry Wilmore’s is a little better, but, last I checked it was relentlessly race-obsessed. I feel icky after watching it — like other people feel after they’ve experienced Milo, who has a touring show, not a TV show.

Red Eye with Tom Shillue on Fox is a little less denunciatory (perhaps by being more defensive?), and Greg Gutfeld’s new weekend show is . . . well, you explain it to me. These latter two are the only non-left-leaning of such shows that I am aware of. That is, the hosts are not leftists.

Many people miss Stephen Colbert’s parody show of Bill O’Reilly. Not me. I tired of it after about the second episode. It is worth noting that YouTube’s The Young Turks works as a self-parody show — an unintentional self-parody show.

Topical comedy is hard, I am sure. Being fresh and always witty? Maddeningly difficult. That is one reason these topical comedy shows resort to relentless denunciation. When you are not being truly funny, you can rely on your audience’s out-group hatred and loathing — and self-righteous sense of in-group superiority — to maintain passion and high-pitch enthusiasm. Thus delighted laughter is replaced with derisive howls

The problem with all this is that they become uncomfortably close to the show depicted in A Face in the Crowd, the great Elia Kazan film starring Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes: grand examples of demagoguery. This is especially the case for the shows with live audiences. They want red meat (or the leftist soy-and-quinoa equivalent), and there is usually one guest who serves as the lion pride’s delectable Christian treat.

Most of these shows sport panel “debate” segments. These, of course, are played for comedy, but also for argumentative purposes, too. The better to serve the denunciation game. And yet sometimes one actually witnesses productive, honest debate. Not often. Sometimes.

Last week, mere days before the aforementioned Milo Yiannopoulis was publicly hit with a disgrace campaign based on some pedophilia-related comments he had made, the gay conservative free-speech provocateur appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Last week I wrote about his one-on-one interview with Maher at the top of the show. I could not bear to watch the panel segment with Milo . . . until yesterday, at which point I hastily put together a video about what went wrong. The problem was more than mere denunciation, though denunciations there were, all around:

I briefly comment on Vee’s explanatory video, too, so I should put up his link:

The key concepts that I tried to add to the debate are the two main problems we see in modern discourse all the time, especially on television topical comedy shows:

1. Data impasses, and

2. Contractual impasses.

Either kind of stalemate-inducing situation scuttles profitable dialogue. And, frankly, neither serves as humor, either. Sure, the second kind usually takes the form of mutual denunciation, but such cases do not seem funny to me. Not at all. They are usually excruciating.

The denunciation shows might consider growing up.

Or die. That would be good, too.

To be replaced by real interviews and real debates.

twv

I cannot conjure up the effrontery it would take to scribble marginal notes in a borrowed book.

I remember borrowing a copy of George Santayana’s Life of Reason (the one-volume edition) from a local library and reading the inane commentary of a previous reader. It actually turned me off reading the book.

I made up for this by buying the book in its first, multi-volume editions. Alas, I have only read two of its five parts, and own a mere three of them. This is not the origin of my entry into the ranks of the bibliobibuli, or of book collectors, but it may have been a turning point of sorts.

So I may owe something (what, you decide) to one particular Pacific Northwest graphomaniac.

twv

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Pro-choicers regularly defend abortion with “life of mother” as well as rape and incest cases. We should allow abortions, the arguments run, because sometimes doctors and families must choose between the life of a pre-nate in peril, on the one hand, and the imperiled mother herself. Or, we must allow abortions because, in some cases, the pregnancy is the result of rape, or December-May incestuous molestation.

Such arguments are often persuasive. Even most folks prone to adamantine opposition to abortion think that if a tough choice must be made, the mother should be saved. Similarly, making a woman carry to term a rapist’s baby, or an older-relative molester’s, does seem awfully unfair, if not necessarily unjust. Perhaps excusable, even if the life of the pre-nate is to be sacrificed. Maybe.

But it is simply the truth that only a minuscule percentage of actual abortions — the abortions regularly performed in this country — fall into one of these categories. Indeed, there is a far higher number of third-term abortions — grisly, ghastly affairs — than abortions done for those above-mentioned extreme cases that most people see as more than arguably allowing of abortion.

And it is not as if I do not hear pro-choicers rush to defend against anti-abortion arguments by resort to percentages, but reversing their logic. I often hear defenders of legal abortion* rush to inform me that third-term abortions are very rare. Indeed, recently, when I was discussing second-term abortions, and the methods involved (often also quite grisly), a pro-choice young woman immediately informed me that late-term abortions are very rare. And we were not even talking about late-term abortions!

On the one hand, a small number of abortion cases are used to justify all abortions, while on the other, a different small (though larger) number of abortion cases are declared irrelevant to the case against abortion.

The old switcheroo; a changeling argument.

You see the utility of the first ploy. Defend a large number of abortions not on the grounds of their exact nature, but because a few abortions within the broad category seem reasonable. It is a form of deflection. Evasion, really. It changes the terms of the debate while seeming to fall squarely inside the context most pro-lifers insist upon.†

This got me thinking. What if we switched subjects? That is, stick to defending large numbers of “unpleasant” events by recourse to a small number of putatively justifiable actions that form a small subset of the events.

Most of my progressive friends, like me, are very concerned about police shootings. We think that it is quite obvious that many police shootings are unjustified. We also frequently lament the fact that police too often successfully band together, along with prosecutors and the whole state system of police power, to defend murderous and careless and cowardly cops who abuse their power and privilege with gunfire.

But it is also undoubtedly true that many, many police shootings of suspects are indeed justified. There are bad people out there, criminals. And many of them resist arrest with violence, or are caught by the police committing violence, and threatening more. These situations do not merely allow police to shoot, but in some cases even morally require the police to shoot.

And it may very well be (I really do suspect it is the case) that most police shootings are justified.

So, in this context, engage in a thought experiment.

What if the current number of self-defense and other justifiable shootings by police were used to excuse the shootings of innocents by the same ratio‡ of life-of-mother/rape/incest abortions to the vast majority of abortions?

The blood would be flowing in the streets.

twv

* In full disclosure, I believe that early abortions, at the very least, ought to be legal. I have a justification of this practice, as abhorrent as I find it. Sometimes one is required to set aside one’s feelings and moral prejudices and acknowledge that our power over others must be limited, in part in recognition of our limitations as moral beings, as what Immanuel Kant called our status as Legislators in the Kingdom of Ends. Though, in actual fact, my argument pertains to Means, not Ends, but we shall leave this for another time.

† The second ploy is of course directly contradictory to the first. The standard of an appeal to a small number of cases is not consistently applied. But let us leave that hanging.

‡ In the course of the above thought experiment I did not give actual numbers for the multi-million killer abortion industry for a reason. I want the reader to think about how important (or not) the numbers and percentages are. Imagine yourself bargaining with The Lord over the status of Sodom and Gomorrah. How important are the numbers of righteous men? What does the percentage of good and evil mean to us, when contemplating great evil? (The percentage of life-of-mother abortions, I read, is less than 1 percent. In 2015, there were about 400 fatal police shootings of suspects in the U.S. Arguendo, if only three-quarters were justified, that would mean 30,000 fatal shootings would be justified given pro-abortion apologetics.)

Aspartame reminds me of homosexuality.

Why?

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham spent a great deal of effort trying to figure out a rationale, based on his utilitarianism, to make homosexuality illegal. He could find none. According to his principles, homosexuals must be treated like other adults, as basically free to do as they please so long as they do not harm others.

Sadly, Bentham would not allow his research and reasoning made public in his lifetime, for fear that it would tarnish the utilitarian emprise.

And here is the parallel story: Aspartame has been examined by scientists more than most other food substances.

They are always looking for a way to call it dangerous. And thus worthy of prohibition.

Aspartame’s like homosexuality: condemning it doesn’t pass muster.

Of course, the idea that you should ingest it no more follows than you should “be homosexual.” To each his/her own.

twv

The newly sworn-in President of the United States has been saying quite a few idiotic things, and doing some interesting things, as well. I wish to look at only one of the things he has said: “Torture absolutely works.”

“Does torture work? . . . Absolutely I feel it works.”

In his favor, he had asked “people at the highest level of intelligence” whether torture works, and that was their answer, “Yes.”

And Sen. Rand Paul responded with a resounding “No,” citing more specific studies.

Now, to me the question is irrelevant. Whether torture gives us good information or misinformation or even poisoned disinformation, torture is an abridgment of human rights. Furthermore, it has a long history of harming innocents; as Rand Paul noted, recent torture procedures in rendition zones turned out to have harmed quite a number of innocent — misidentified or set up — suspects. Our whole system of jurisprudence developed around the idea of protecting innocents from incorrect punishment and outrageous moral horrors. And the method of torture is not just using pain and damage and fear to gain information, the method is also one of secret proceedings apart from normal judicial processes.

When we say torture abridges human rights, we are not merely expressing a preference, or establishing some arbitrary cultural norms. There is a reason for our rights-imputation to counter torture. For we find that not only does torture harm innocents, it abuses the guilty and — more obviously than anything else — it empowers government personnel to take license rather than uphold justice. Torture corrupts.

And one of the grounds of universal human rights is to prevent the corruption of that most dangerous of institutions, the State. To give government functionaries the lattitude to torture foreigners or citizens gives them way too much power, power that we know very well cannot be handled by frail humanity.

So, when POTUS Trump — or even Rand Paul — pretends that “does torture work?” is a relevant question, we should be very concerned. Torture should be opposed even if it does give government functionaries “reliable information.”

Further, the language of Trump is, obviously and characteristically, sloppy in the extreme. Who cares if he “feels” torture works? On important matters we must demand higher epistemic standards than “feels.”

And there is no way that this contentious issue can be responded to with an “Absolutely.” There have to be some points of contention here. Nothing I have read in the literature surrounding torture gives me enough confidence to use the word “absolute,” in adverbial form or otherwise.

Thankfully, Sen. Rand Paul expresses a reasonable desire to extend more oversight over the federal government’s intelligence community. If “people at the highest level” of this community have a hankering to torture — as their confident answer seems to suggest — we must indeed keep a close watch on them .

twv

“No Peaceful Transition,” promised the protest/riots organizers’ Web page, earlier this evening. The page later ditched the motto.

Since the 1960s we have been living a myth: protests that disrupt public traffic and private ingress/egress are “non-violent” and heroic. But the myth is merely a self-serving story, a crucial lie, that those on the left tell themselves and everybody else, thereby taking license to lord it over others.

We now witness the moral depravity that is at the heart of the notion.

Protesting something is staying on the sidelines and making your views known. Rioting is a mob abridging others’ rights. Most unlicensed protests turn riot because they are riot in ovo.

The mob is now a tyrant, and the worm, as they say, may soon turn — the worm, here, being the masses of truly peaceful people, who may now at last see the tyranny at the heart of the self-righteous mob.

The culture war may be going bloody this week. Someone was shot at a Milo protest in Seattl. We will see how far the violence goes.

“No peaceful transition” indeed.


Mr. Sotomayor has a dim view of the rioters:

The Young Turks seem to accept the nonsense from the folks dressed mostly in black:

But here is video without commentary:


When a friend or sibling advises me how to be safe, I attribute the concern as earnest, perhaps even as “heartfelt.”

When my insurance agent advises me in a similar manner, I infer self-interest on his part.

In both cases, I consider the advice in a spirit of equanimity and good feeling.

But when an agent of the government lectures me on safety, I check for ready exits, and eye any official weaponry with deep suspicion.

twv

The Truth About Donald Trump’s Lies” (Jamelle Bouie, Slate) is one of the few articles on the President-elect’s relationship with truthfulness that breaks out of the humdrum, placing its author outside the corps of earnest scolds.

img_1569The Slate author, Jamelle Bouie, begins by explaining the use of prevarication by fascists, as explained by Hannah Arendt. Then he expands on Arendt’s analysis:

Put in plain language, fascists didn’t lie to obscure the truth; they lied to signal what would eventually become truth. Or to use Arendt’s analogy, “It is as though one were to debate with a potential murderer as to whether his future victim were dead or alive, completely forgetting that man can kill and that the murderer, by killing the person in question, could promptly provide proof of the correctness of this statement.”

Americans aren’t living under a fascist government, but they have elected a president with an unusual relationship to the truth. Even when they lie, most politicians care about the truth. It’s why they lie, why they try not to get caught. But Donald Trump doesn’t appear to see a difference between truth and lies. He lies as a matter of habit about matters large and small. His lies are often obvious: easily disproved by available information. For a strong example, look to Twitter. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” tweeted the president-elect on Monday. This charge is groundless. False. Frankfurtian bullshit. There is no evidence of “illegal voting,” no evidence of the mass fraud necessary to give Hillary Clinton a significant lead in the national popular vote.

But, following Arendt, debunking Trump’s lie as a lie misses the point of his lying. Since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck key provisions from the Voting Rights Act, GOP lawmakers in states across the country have pushed and pursued strict laws for voter identification and voter suppression. Republicans in Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin (among others) have tried to burden voters with cumbersome requirements, convoluted procedures, closed precincts, and reduced time for voting. In each case, Republicans began their push with broad accusations of voter fraud influenced by figures like conservative activist Hans von Spakovsky, a key architect of ID laws and other methods of voter suppression. “We call this restoring confidence in government,” said Thom Tillis, then-speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, in support of a strict voter ID law. “There is some evidence of voter fraud, but that’s not the primary reason or doing this. There are a lot of people who are just concerned with the potential risk of fraud.”

The author, of course, doesn’t take kindly to the idea of tightening up voting requirements. And here we get to the problem with his take on Trump. After an initial foray into the interesting, he reverts to the usual partisan knee-jerkery.

He calls the Democratic Party’s approach to voting rights “broad and inclusive.” Yikes. This is part of the modern Uplift approach to democracy, the trivial “rock the vote” nonsense, wherein we encourage everyone, including those who know next to nothing about politics (much less history, economics, sociology, war, taxation, etc.) to vote, which seems hardly prudent.

Making it “easier” to vote just increases the number of marginal, uninformed or uninspired voters. Precisely the kind that can be moved by unreflective, uncomplicated political pitches.

The Democratic Party, in pushing for this kind of voting, suggests, to me, that it relies upon uninformed and easily-manipulated voters.

But of course the elites defend it in “racial” terms. Which is a fine example of the party’s over-reliance upon identity politics to solidify subsidy-based allegiance.

The Slate author thus derails his essay by turning it into yet another case of special pleading, preaching to the Choir Ideological.

Apparently, Democrats just cannot help themselves.

The essay’s title focus, however, retains interest, no matter how botched. Certainly it is the case that no matter how one feels about voting rights, the President-elect has never been known as a stalwart for the truth. Mr. Bouie gives us at least some small purchase on Trump’s modus operandi. Though it run off the rails by not looking into the basic notion — and questioning whether Hillary Clinton’s long string of whoppers might not also fall into the same not-quite-familiar fascist mode — in greater depth.

That’s up to the reader, I guess.

Just not the marginal voter . . . from whom nothing insightful about politics should be expected.

twv

One of the fundamental errors of today’s socio-political thought can be summed in one simple equation, an equation quite without validity:

Diversity = Equality

Diversity does not even imply equality; it contra-indicates it.

But that identity is the foundational notion of pomo morality and “identity politics.” Only a highly nuanced analysis of the diverse things (or persons) themselves, and the diverse standards that might apply to them, would find an important connection between the two concepts. But the connection would be an identity only as a “term of art.”

But it is not highly nuanced thought that we are given. We witness, instead, relentless and hysterical assertion after assertion of the dubious identity. The notion that Diversity is Equality is the dogma of the day.

And it is corrosive to the basic habits and institutions of a liberal society. It is the latest attempt to apply coherence to the mirage of “social justice.”

twv

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