Monday, February 20, 2017

Can Science Ground Morality?

With the loss of a sense of transcendence that has accompanied the modern era and the concomitant loss of a transcendent ground for morality moderns have cast about for something immanent upon which to base moral duties and judgment. One candidate that has shouldered the hopes of many scientifically-minded moderns is that science itself would be able to provide support for our moral judgments.

Evolution, we are told, can explain why we have moral sentiments, and indeed theoretically it can explain why we have the sense that some things are right and other things are wrong, but evolution cannot impress upon us a duty to do the things we believe are right. A blind, impersonal process cannot impose obligations. One who transgresses whatever moral sentiments may have evolved in our species needs something more than the fact that his behavior doesn't accord well with the mutations which have accrued in the human genome to convince him that he's doing something truly wrong.

Another problem with trying to ground morality in evolution is that if compassion and generosity are the products of natural selection then so, too, must be avarice and violence. How then, if our evolution is our guide to morality, do we say that the former are good and the latter bad? By what principle do we choose between these behaviors and where did that principle come from?

Another possibility is that given that happiness is good, science can tell us how we can best achieve it, but this, too, is fraught with difficulties. Just because I recognize that happiness is good doesn't mean that I have a duty to nurture it in anyone but myself. In other words, my happiness is good, but why should I consider your happiness to be good, or the happiness of people I don't even know?

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky consider the question whether science can provide an adequate foundation of morality in a paper at The Hedgehog Review. The authors examine a number of attempts to provide a scientific underpinning for morality and conclude that the actual science in these attempts is nothing more than philosophical window dressing. After dispensing with several failed attempts to provide a foundation for morality rooted in empirical data they turn to the recent work of philosopher Sam Harris who writes this:
Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science....I think our concern for well-being is even less in need for justification than our concern for health is....And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.
Harris makes two assumptions here that Hunter and Nedelisky think fatal to his argument that science can ground morality:
[F]irst, that well-being is a moral good, and, second, that we know what the observable properties of well-being are. Yet [Harris] doesn’t see these assumptions as problematic for the scientific status of his argument. After all, he reasons, we make similar assumptions in medicine, but we can all recognize that it is still a science. But he still doesn’t recognize that this thinking is fatal to his claim that science can determine moral values. To make the problem for Harris more vivid, compare his argument above with arguments that share the same logic and structure:
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value the enslavement of Africans. But once we admit that slavery is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science. I think our concern for embracing slavery is even less in need for justification than our concern for health is. And once we begin thinking seriously about slavery, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value the purging of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally disabled from society. But once we admit that their eradication is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science.
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value a prohibition on gay marriage. But once we admit that such a prohibition is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science.
Although these parallel arguments are outlandish to our ears today, they all, in fact, have historical precedent—and from not so long ago. Most tellingly, these arguments rely on the same logic as Harris’s. But of course they have little hope of showing that we should approve slavery, prohibit gay marriage, and bring about the elimination of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally disabled. Why? Because these arguments merely assume that we should, then recommend the scientific study and promotion of these ends.
Additionally, Harris makes an error I alluded to above. It's not so much that he assumes well-being to be a moral good, although as Davison and Nedelisky point out, that assumption is problematic, rather it's his assumption that anyone has a duty, an obligation, to promote other people's well-being. That assumption is completely ungrounded. Why, for example, would it be wrong to state that my only moral duty, if I have any, is to myself and that others should see to their own interests?

Someone may reply that if I were to adopt that posture others will resent me, and I will suffer for it, but that's a purely prudential, not a moral, argument. The reply to it is that to which Plato adverts in The Republic: The best course of action is to act selfishly while deceiving others into thinking that you're actually unselfish. Indeed, the wisest course, given naturalism, is to be selfish while encouraging others to be altruistic. Why, on naturalism, would such a strategy be morally wrong?

The problem with attempts such as the Hedgehog article illuminates is that they are efforts to ground morality in human reason, but this is a quixotic task. Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen made the attempt himself and toward the end of his career he finally acknowledged the futility of the endeavor. He wrote:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists....Reason doesn't decide here....The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me....Pure reason will not take you to morality.
Nor will reason's handmaiden, science. Only a transcendent, personal moral authority which possesses the power to impose accountability can be an adequate ground for moral obligation.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peregrine Falcon

The peregrine falcon is a spectacular flyer, the fastest flyer in the avian world, indeed, the fastest animal in the world, capable of reaching speeds of over 200 mph when diving on prey. It's a widespread species (the name peregrine means "wanderer") exceeded only by the common rock pigeon in terms of global distribution. By 1970, however, the species was almost extirpated in the lower 48 states due to frequent nesting failure. The birds were producing eggs with excessively thin shells which broke easily when the mother tried to incubate. The thinning was evidently due to high amounts of the pesticide DDT in the falcons' diet.

DDT was banned in the 1970s and efforts were made to increase breeding success by providing artificial nesting sites for the birds and reintroducing breeding birds into territories which had been devoid of falcons for decades. Over the last forty years they've made a gradual comeback and can now be found nesting on almost every bridge on every major river in the eastern United States. They also nest in urban areas on tall buildings, feeding mostly on medium-sized birds like pigeons and gulls which are abundant in cities and along large rivers.

peregrine falcon

An office building in Harrisburg, PA has hosted a nesting pair for several years and four "falcon cams" have been set up on the site (called an aerie) enabling viewers to watch the progress of the falcons, which mate for life, at close range as they raise their brood.

The birds are presently preparing to lay their eggs and are active around the nest during the day. The Harrisburg cam can be accessed here and if you click on the link during daylight you may well find yourself eyeball to eyeball with a peregrine. Enjoy.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Good Nazis (Pt.II)

Yesterday's post featured the story of John Rabe, a businessman in the 1930s who was also a member of the Nazi party. I made the claim that, despite his affiliation with a political party created by some of the most despicable people who ever trod the earth, Rabe was himself a good man. It's not too much, I don't think, to say that he and the missionaries who helped him save the lives of some 250,000 Chinese in 1937, were heroic.

The Nazi I want to talk about today is better known than Rabe, perhaps, because of the 1993 Stephen Spielberg movie made about him. The man was Oscar Schindler and the movie, which I highly recommend, was Schindler's List.

Like many ordinary people who do heroic things, Schindler was complex. He was a spy and a member of the Nazi Party, but he's honored today in Israel for having sacrificed his entire fortune to save the lives of some 1200 Jews.

Here are some highlights of his story:
Schindler was born in 1908 and became a German industrialist, spy, and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunition factories, which were located in occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He was an opportunist initially motivated by profit who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity and dedication in saving the lives of his Jewish employees.

he joined the Abwehr, the intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936 and the Nazi Party in 1939. Prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he collected information on railways and troop movements for the German government. He was arrested for espionage by the Czech government but was released under the terms of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Schindler continued to collect information for the Nazis, working in Poland in 1939 before the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II.
Oscar Schindler
In 1939, Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed about 1,750 workers, of whom 1,000 were Jews at the factory's peak in 1944. His Abwehr connections helped Schindler to protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe.

By July 1944, Germany was losing the war; the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and deporting the remaining prisoners westward. Many were killed in Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Schindler convinced SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, commandant of the nearby Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, to allow him to move his factory to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland, thus sparing his workers from almost certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Göth's secretary Mietek Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews who traveled to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, by which time he had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers.

Schindler moved to West Germany after the war, where he was supported by assistance payments from Jewish relief organisations. After receiving a partial reimbursement for his wartime expenses, he moved with his wife, Emilie, to Argentina, where they took up farming. When he went bankrupt in 1958, Schindler left his wife and returned to Germany, where he failed at several business ventures and relied on financial support from Schindlerjuden ("Schindler Jews") – the people whose lives he had saved during the war. He was named "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Israeli government in 1963.
He once lamented that it was a source of deep anguish to him that he wasn't able to save more lives than he did.

He died on 9 October 1974 in Hildesheim, Germany, and was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way.

Many Nazis were inhuman - a stunning fact when one considers that they were spawned by one of the most highly cultured and civilized nations on earth - but some, a few, perhaps, deserve to be remembered for their courage, humanity and goodness. John Rabe and Oscar Schindler are two such men. If you've never seen the movie Schindler's List in which Liam Neeson plays Oscar Schindler you really should watch it. It's an unforgettable story.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good Nazis

It may be hard to accept, conditioned as we are to think of Nazis as the embodiment of everything evil (and indeed some of them were), but there were some members of the German Nazi party that, as difficult as it may be to believe, were surely saints.

One of these was a businessman named John Rabe who found himself in Nanking, China when the Japanese invaded that country in 1937 and began one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, brutally raping and murdering some 60,000 Chinese civilians. The rampage came to be known as the Rape of Nanking. At its height Rabe courageously managed to save at least two hundred thousand Chinese from torture and death.

Here's part of his story:
Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking (now Nanjing) and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.

On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter.

He explained his reasons thus: "... there is a question of morality here...I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me." The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.

Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.

On December 1, 1937, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city. Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.

Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. [S]ources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.
In his diary Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault upon and occupation of the city. On December 13, 1937, he wrote:
It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops ... I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel's hotel was broken into as well, as almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.
On December 17, 1937 he added:
In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital... Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls' College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they're shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.
Rabe wrote to the Japanese commanding officer Fukui the following day:
We are sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the 200 000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone... The second man in our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankow Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our associate food commissioner, Mr. Sone, has to convey trucks with rice and leave 2,500 people in families at his Nanking Theological Seminary to look after themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Occidentals cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities ...
At one point Japanese soldiers held a contest to see who could behead the most Chinese with their swords. They carried out this grisly sport until they had to stop from exhaustion.
Rabe gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, "We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000." Rabe was not the only figure to record the Japanese atrocity. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese soldiers, the Japanese soldiers would often go house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Evidence of these violent acts come from diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists who were appalled by what was transpiring.
He managed to leave Nanking and return to Germany in 1938 working in Berlin until the end of the war. After the war he was arrested first by the Soviets and then by the British but was released by each until he was denounced by an acquaintance for being a Nazi. He was subsequently unable to work to support his family.

John Rabe
[T]he family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection, but this did not provide enough to avoid malnutrition. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the British in June 3, 1946 but thereafter continued to live in poverty. The family lived on wild seeds that the children would eat with soup, and on dry bread until that was no longer available either.

In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to $2000 ($20,000 in 2017). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid 1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.
Rabe, who was a diabetic, died in 1950 of a stroke. In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.

Several movies have been made about what Rabe and the Christian missionaries who assisted him did in Nanking, one of which is titled simply John Rabe. It's worth watching.

We'll look at a second "good Nazi" tomorrow, but meanwhile let's pose this question: Who is the better man, one who professes to love mankind but who never does much to help people, or a man who belonged to a party which promoted hatred but who risked everything to help those who needed him? Life is complicated. So, sometimes, is right and wrong.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Climate Change Debate

Debates over climate change often seem to go nowhere. This is partly due to the fact that most people have to rely on authorities, some of whom seem to play fast and loose with data and some of whom are contradicted by other authorities.

Here are two simple rules to keep in mind that will help us, perhaps, to avoid being unduly influenced by one side or the other:

1. No one who is not a climatologist or practices in a field closely related to climatology is unlikely to possess any particular expertise in climate change and his or her testimony should not be taken as dispositive.

2. Of the arguments made by those scientists who are qualified to speak with authority we should be suspicious of the testimony of anyone who is funded by either progressive organizations, the government, or corporations which themselves pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In other words, we should be prima facie skeptical of any argument made by any scientist who is paid by any organization which has a financial or political stake in the outcome of the debate.

Having said that, I offer here three questions I myself would like to see conclusively answered by independent climate scientists:

1. Is the climate definitively changing in a significant way?
2. If it is, is human activity definitely responsible?
3. Whether human activity is responsible or not, is the change certain to be a bad thing?

I have some thoughts on these three questions, but I certainly don't have any answers, and I'm not a climate scientist, so even if I did offer answers you shouldn't pay them any special heed, or any heed at all. The thoughts, however, are thoughts you might have as well:

Regarding question #1: When I was in Alaska I was shown compelling evidence that glaciers have been retreating over the last century, so I'm persuaded that something seems to be going on. On the other hand, despite predictions to the contrary, there's data to support the claim that there's been no significant increase in mean global temperatures over the last twenty years, and considered over the last couple of thousand years today's temperature fluctuations do not appear unusual (see chart below). Moreover, predictions a decade ago that the polar ice sheets would be diminishing have not, as far as I'm aware, been fulfilled. Nor have predictions of massive storms, increased numbers and ferocity of hurricanes, etc. come to pass. In fact, it seems to have been quite the opposite. So whatever is happening, whatever's causing the glaciers to retreat, seems, at least to me, to be very unclear.

Regarding question #2: The current thinking is that by pumping greenhouse gases like CO2 into the atmosphere we're inevitably creating conditions for runaway warming, but there are so many variables and unknowns that it's hard to say what effect our increase of atmospheric carbon is having. We don't know (or do we?) to what extent the biosphere (green plants) assimilate the extra carbon. Nor do we know what effect carbon has on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. An increase in water vapor could increase cloud cover which would result in more solar heat reflected back into space. Moreover, if the earth's climate is changing it's not clear whether the change is caused by greenhouse gasses or by variations in solar activity. Maybe I'm wrong and all those phenomena are actually well understood, but if so that knowledge has not been widely shared with the lay public. It isn't enough for scientists and politicians to urge us to just trust them. They have to give us facts.

Regarding question #3: Plants use CO2 to make nutrients. Increasing atmospheric CO2 (within limits) might produce greater crop yields, which would be a good thing. Furthermore, some warming could produce longer growing seasons. If the polar ice melted that could open up vast stretches of land (in Greenland and Siberia, for example) for mining, agriculture, and human habitation. Too much warming would surely have calamitous effects, but, moderate warming could be, on balance, a boon to humanity. We just don't know. Or at least I don't know, and I wish those who do know would make it more clear.

Because I have these questions and haven't encountered any definitive answers I remain dubious that global climate treaties, President Obama's war on coal, and talk of carbon taxes, etc are actually necessary, and since I'm very skeptical of the wisdom of giving government even more power than it already has I want to see more solid data that shows that the globe really is warming, that the warming really is caused by human activity, and that it really is a bad thing before I support policies that would put thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people out of work and be potentially ruinous to the economic well-being of the country.

So far, the data supporting the conclusion that the climate is changing in potentially catastrophic ways, at least that I've seen, have not been incontrovertible, nor conclusive, and thus not very convincing. I'm certainly willing to be convinced, however, if someone can show me substantial and indisputable evidence that we really are on a collision course with disaster.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On Friendship

A number of years ago I wrote a post on C.S. Lewis' book titled Four Loves because I enjoyed especially his treatment of friendship. He said so many interesting things on the topic that I thought it might be appropriate to once again share some of them with Viewpoint readers on this Valentine's Day. Here are some of his thoughts:

  • "Nothing is less like a friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to each other about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best."
  • "Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden)."
  • "The companionship on which Friendship supervenes will not often be a bodily one like hunting or fighting. It may be a common religion, common studies, a common profession, even a common recreation. All who share it will be our companions; but one or two or three who share something more will be our Friends. In this kind of love, as Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? - Or at least, 'Do you care about the same truth?' The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer."
  • "That is why those pathetic people who simply "want friends" can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be 'I see nothing and I don't care about the truth; I only want a Friend,' no Friendship can arise - though Affection, of course, may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and friendship must be about something."
  • "When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass - may pass in the first half hour - into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other, or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later."
  • "A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing. For Friendship is utterly free from Affection's need to be needed. We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary - and now, for heaven's sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped 'Don't mention it' here expresses what we really feel. The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all. It was a distraction, an anomaly. It was a horrible waste of the time, always too short, that we had together. Perhaps we had only a couple of hours in which to talk and, God bless us, twenty minutes of it had to be devoted to affairs!"
  • "In most societies at most periods Friendships will be between men and men and women and women. The sexes will have met one another in Affection and in Eros but not in this love. For they will seldom have had with each other the companionship in common activities which is the matrix of Friendship. Where men are educated and women are not, where one sex works and the other is idle, or where they do totally different work, they will usually have nothing to be Friends about."
Lewis is famous for his trenchant insights into human nature. His insights into friendship do nothing to diminish that reputation.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Political Philosophy 101

Last year about this time the election season was heating up and to help readers understand some of the terminology that was being thrown around, I ran this post under a different title (Political Taxonomy). I thought it might be helpful to rerun it now that the election is over but interest in the result remains very high: Probably one reason why a lot of people steer clear of politics is that they find the ideological labels (as well as words like ideological) to be confusing. Terms like left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, fascism, socialism, and communism are thrown around a lot by our punditry, but they're rarely accompanied by any explanation of what they mean. This post will try to correct that omission so that as we roll deeper into the campaign season readers might have a bit better understanding of what they're reading and hearing.

For starters, a political ideology is the set of principles which guide and inform one's social, economic, and foreign policies. It's a kind of political worldview. All the terms listed in the previous paragraph denote various political ideologies.

The following diagram will give us a frame of reference to talk about these terms:
Let's start on the right side of the spectrum and define the terms going right to left. Each of them expresses a different understanding of the role of government in our lives and a different understanding of what rights citizens have vis a vis the state. I have one quarrel, though, with the diagram. I personally don't think either anarchy or mob rule belong on it since neither is a stable ideology. They both either evaporate, like Occupy Wall Street did, or they morph into communism or fascism. With that said, let's consider the remaining elements of the spectrum:

Libertarianism: This is the view that the role of government should be limited largely to protecting our borders and our constitutional rights. Libertarians believe that government should, except to protect citizens, stay out of our personal lives and out of the marketplace. They are also very reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts. Senator Rand Paul who was an early candidate for the Republican nomination for president, is perhaps the most well-known contemporary libertarian politician. Ayn Rand (who wrote Atlas Shrugged and for whom Rand Paul is named) is perhaps the most well-known libertarian writer.

Conservatism: Conservatives tend to be libertarians, but see a somewhat more expansive role for government. The emphasis among conservatives is on preserving traditional values and the Constitution and also upon diffusing governmental authority from the central, federal government and giving it back to the states and localities. They're reluctant to change the way things are done unless it can be shown that the change is both necessary and has a good chance of improving the problem the change is supposed to solve.

Conservatives take a strict view of the Constitution, interpreting it to mean pretty much precisely what it says, and oppose attempts to alter it by judicial fiat. They also oppose government interference in the market by over-regulation and oppose high tax rates as being counter-productive. They strongly oppose illegal immigration and believe in a strong national defense, but, though more willing to use force abroad when our interests can be shown to be threatened, are nevertheless leery of foreign adventures. Ted Cruz is perhaps the most well-known contemporary conservative politician, and the late William F. Buckley is the most well-known conservative writer.

Moderates: Moderates tend to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. They see themselves as pragmatists, willing to do whatever works to make things better. They tend to be non-ideological (although their opponents often interpret that trait as a lack of principle). President George W. Bush was a moderate politician and New York Times columnist David Brooks would be an example of a moderate journalist.

Liberalism: Liberals see a more expansive role for government. They take a loose view of the Constitution, interpreting it according to what they think the founders would say if they wrote the document today. They tend to think that traditional values shackle us to the past and that modern times and problems require us to throw off those impediments. They agree with libertarians that government should stay out of our personal lives, but they believe that government must regulate business and tax the rich and middle classes to subsidize the poor. They tend to hold a very strong faith in the power of government to solve our problems, a faith that conservatives and libertarians think is entirely unwarranted by experience. President Bill Clinton was an example of a liberal politician.

Progressivism: Progressivism can be thought of as hyper-caffeinated liberalism. Most prominent members of today's Democratic party are progressives as are many in the mainstream media and on cable networks like MSNBC. Progressives tend to see the Constitution as often an obstacle to progress. Whereas conservatives view the Constitution as a document which protects individual rights, progressives see it as an archaic limitation on the ability of government to promote social and economic justice. They tend to be indifferent to, or even disdainful of, traditional values and institutions such as marriage, family, and religion.

Progressives are essentially socialists who are reluctant, for whatever reason, to call themselves that. A humorous depiction of progressivism can be found here. President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton are progressives.

Socialism: As stated in the previous paragraph, socialists are progressives by another name. Both progressives and socialists desire that power be located in a strong central government (they're sometimes for this reason referred to by their opponents as "statists.") and both wish for government to be involved in our lives "from cradle to the grave" (see this ad which ran in the last presidential campaign). They favor very high tax rates by which they hope to reduce the disparity in income between rich and poor. Perhaps one difference between socialists and progressives is that though both would allow corporations and banks to be privately owned, socialists would impose more governmental control over these institutions than progressives might. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an example of a contemporary socialist.

Fascism: Typically fascism is considered an ideology of the right, but this is a mistake. Fascism, like communism, is a form of totalitarian socialism. Indeed, the German Nazis as well as the Italian fascists of the 1930s were socialists (The Nazi party was in fact the National Socialist Party). Fascism is socialist in that fascists permit private ownership of property and businesses, but the state has ultimate control over them. Fascism is usually militaristic, nationalistic, and xenophobic. It is totalitarian in that there is usually only one party, and citizens have few rights. There is no right to dissent or free speech, and fascists are prone to the use of violence to suppress those who do not conform. Those on the far left on campus who shout down speakers and professors whose message they don't like are, unwittingly perhaps, adopting fascistic tactics.

Communism: Like fascism, communism is totalitarian and socialist, but it's a more extreme brand of socialism. Under communism there is no private ownership. The state owns everything. Moreover, communism differs from fascism in that it is internationalist rather than nationalist, and it doesn't promote a militaristic culture, although it certainly doesn't shy from the use of military force and violence to further its goals. Like fascism, however, communism does not permit free speech, and those who dissent are executed or cruelly imprisoned.

Few completely communist nations remain today though throughout much of the twentieth century the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and many other Asian and African states were all communist. Today North Korea is probably the only truly communist nation. Scarcely any contemporary politicians would admit to being communists though some of President Obama's close associates and friends over the years, such as Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Van Jones, and mentor Frank Marshall Davis are, or were, all communists.

I hope this rather cursory treatment of the various points on the political spectrum will be helpful as you seek to make sense of what you're seeing, hearing and reading in the day's news.