Monday, October 12, 2009


The Nobel committee responsible for awarding the prize in economics has dissed President Obama and awarded the prize to two economists instead. We understand, however, that he's still in the running for the awards in physics, chemistry, and medicine.

We await the inevitable charges of racism at the economic committee's affront to our president who is trying harder than anyone in history to alter the economic landscape of this country and who certainly deserves the economics prize as much as he did the peace prize.


Moral Subjectivism (Pt. II)

Friday I wrote about an exchange at Uncommon Descent between Barry Arrington, a lawyer, and a commenter who calls himself camanintx. In response to Arrington's question about the existence of absolute right and wrong camanintx replied that morality is determined by the society in which people live and is thus subjective to the individual or relative to the society:

Barry: Let's assume for the sake of argument that drugging, raping and sodomizing a young girl was considered moral behavior in Arabia between the years 501 and 600 AD [I by no means concede that, but will accept it arguendo]. On the basis of your response, camanintx, I assume you would say that the fact that it was considered moral behavior in the society in which it occurred, is in fact determinative of the morality of the behavior, and therefore if Polanski had done what he did in that place and time it would have been moral. Is that what you are saying?

camanintx: Since morality is a subjective term, yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

The notion that moral right and wrong are purely subjective is a very difficult view to live out consistently and is devastating to any society in which it's widespread. If one is one's own moral authority then nothing is really right or wrong. No matter what I do, if I think it's right then it is. Thus, if one thinks slavery is right, or human sacrifice, or torturing children or animals, or raping little girls, whatever it is, camanintx would not say that a person is morally wrong either to think this or to actually practice these things. In camanintx's universe moral worth is a matter of one's own choice and preference or that of the society in which one lives.

This view is fraught with problems. Here are a couple:

1) What exactly is the decisive unit of moral authority for camanintx? Is it a nation, a subculture, or the individual? Is it his intellectual or professional peers or is it people of the same gender, ethnicity, or political party? Moral relativists rarely answer this question with any lucidity.

2) But however those questions are answered, how many people in that unit have to hold something to be wrong before it is indeed wrong? A majority? If so, how do we ascertain what the majority thinks? Do we take a daily poll? If 51% of the people today think that infant sacrifice is acceptable it would be moral today to sacrifice infants, but if tomorrow 51% think it's unacceptable then tomorrow it would be wrong. It's a strange view of right and wrong that sees it as so fluid a concept.

3) Suppose someone lives in two different morally relevant societies. The consensus view of this person's ethnic group, say, is that cheating people is wrong, but the consensus of his professional peers is that cheating is the proper way to do business. On what basis does he decide which group is morally authoritative? Ultimately he has to decide for himself which means that the individual is the ultimate arbiter of moral right and wrong, and whatever he think is right is, in fact, right by definition.

4) Moreover, if the majority decides what's right then someone who holds a minority view is ipso facto wrong. It's logically impossible for them to be right since they hold a view contrary to that of the majority, and there's no reason why their society should tolerate their opinion. If this view of right and wrong were held consistently there could be no reform since a minority opinion could never be true and there'd be no reason to consider it.

5) Most ironic, if camanintx is correct that the truth about moral right and wrong is decided by the majority then one who believes as he does, if he lives in a society whose majority disagrees with him, would have to admit that his belief is wrong and he should change his view to conform to that of the majority.

Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography that "One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life ... only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best." Darwin was right about this. If there is no God then there is no real right or wrong. Our action has no real moral value. The problem is that not only is this socially catastrophic, it's personally impossible. No one can live this way unless one is an arrant nihilist. In other words, ironically, few people can live consistently with the entailments of atheism. What's worse for atheism, few people would want to.


In Search of the Conservative Intellectual

Steven Hayward at the Washington Post wonders about the intellectual vigor of today's conservatism. Along the way he makes some observations that are both interesting and puzzling:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and '70s to its success in Ronald Reagan's era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side. Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's new "Arguing with Idiots" and all of Ann Coulter's well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov's dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams's dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman's "Free to Choose," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Paul Johnson's "Modern Times," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don't sell.

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism," which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work. Had Goldberg called the book "Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present," it might have been received differently by its critics. And sold about 200 copies.

I think Hayward overstates his case here. He gives the impression that conservative books are all polemic and no ideas. This requires that he overlook the work of writers like Newt Gingrich, Thomas Sowell, Pat Buchanan, and Mark Levin. Their books are filled with ideas, but perhaps they don't qualify for Hayward since they're written to be comprehensible by the average person rather than just academics. If it's scholarly work he wants, however, he could find it at the Heritage Foundation and in more modest publications like Hillsdale College's Imprimus. The point is that there are plenty of ideas being generated on the right and it's surprising that Hayward seems to have missed them.

Yet it was not enough (for conservative intellectuals) just to expose liberalism's weakness; it was also necessary to offer robust alternatives for both foreign and domestic policy, ideas that came to fruition in the Reagan years. Today, it is not clear that conservative thinkers have compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy. At best, the right is badly divided over how to fix the economy and handle Iran and Afghanistan. So for the time being, the populists alone have the spotlight.

I don't see the division on the right that Hayward apparently does. Conservatives seem to be pretty much in agreement as to how to fix the economy and manage foreign policy. The economy is like a beach ball, and taxes, debt, and burdensome regulations are like a weight pushing the ball under water. Remove the pressure and the economy will bounce back to the surface. Almost all conservatives agree with this prescription which is why they oppose Obama's plans to raise taxes, increase debt, and impose ever more onerous regulations on businesses.

In foreign affairs the most effective policy is to have a strong military and be prepared to use it when justice and our interests are at stake. Again, this is not the Obama view, but it is one upon which most conservatives are united.

The blend of entertainment and politics is not unique to the right (exhibit No. 1 on the left: "The Daily Show"). And it is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree. Consider Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School), William Bennett (Harvard Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas) -- all three of these brainiacs have popular shows on the Salem Radio Network.

All three have written a number of books as well, it should be noted, in case Hayward has overlooked that fact.

With others -- Michael Savage and "Mancow" come to mind -- the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill's adage that you should grin when you fight, and in any case his keen sense of satire makes him deserving of comparison to Will Rogers, who, by the way, was a critic of progressivism. Others among the right's leading talkers, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement (they are not the same thing).

This is actually, in my opinion, too kind to Hannity who to my ear comes off as a callow narcissist bully who doesn't have the faintest idea how to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with him. Ten seconds into his show he hits a vocal pitch that approximates the sound of a faulty blow dryer and maintains that level of stridency for the duration of his monologue. It's as much an assault on the listener's nerves as on the intellect, and I say this as one who thinks that in terms of substance Hannity is usually right.

Hayward goes on to discuss Glenn Beck. It's pretty interesting stuff, especially if you listen to talk radio at all. In fact the whole article is interesting, despite my misgivings about some of what he says. Give it a read.