Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Is the Good?

One of the central questions of philosophy is the question "What is the Good?" What does it mean to say that something is good?

One possible answer to this question is that good is that which conduces to happiness and well-being. If that's so, some argue, then one consequence is that God is not needed either for us to know the good or to do it. All we need do is employ our reason to determine what it is that makes human beings happy and then we can build an ethics around that. This is the argument made by naturalists, i.e. those who believe that all that exists is the natural world of material objects and physical forces. The naturalist does not believe that there is any supernature.

There's a crucial difficulty here, though. How can any ethics grounded in human reason obligate me to care about the good of other people? In other words, why would someone be wrong to be an egoist who cares only about his own happiness and well-being?

The whole point of ethics is to provide an answer to this question and to it naturalism has no answer. All the naturalist can do is define what good is. He cannot tell us why we should care about the good of others, except, perhaps, insofar as we benefit from doing so.

But this is just another form of egoism in which one tends to the good of others so as to benefit from it oneself. If there's no benefit to me in helping others, for example by contributing money to a third-world relief fund, it wouldn't be wrong to selfishly withhold my assistance. If there's much benefit to me in employing slave labor or cheating customers out of their money, then it's not wrong to do so. What's right is what's good for me. This is the reef upon which any any ethics based on the assumption of naturalism will inevitably founder.

Naturalism leads to egoism and egoism leads to "might-makes-right". It's a very bleak basis for human flourishing, but that's what you get in a world that no longer believes in God.

Old Time Rock and Roll

Readers who like "oldies" music will find this website worth visiting. It gives you your choice of year and genre and lets the music play in the background while you work on the computer. Plus it's all free.

Answering Alter

Last week Jonathan Alter wrote a column in which he challenged the president's critics to "Tell me again why Barack Obama has been such a bad president." He wanted his interlocutors to explain why, exactly, President Obama has failed, not as a tactician or as a nice guy, but as a policy-maker. In Alter’s words, “Your mission, Jim [or anyone else for that matter], should you decide to accept it, is to be specific and rational, not vague and visceral.”

Peter Wehner at Commentary accepts the challenge with substantial gusto:
In one sense, the answer to the Alter challenge is obvious: Obama has failed by his own standards. It’s the Obama administration, not the RNC, that said if his stimulus package was passed unemployment would not exceed 8 percent. It’s Obama who joked there weren’t as many “shovel-ready” jobs as he thought.

It’s Obama who promised to cut the deficit in half. It’s Obama who said if we passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care cost curve would go down rather than up. It’s Obama who promised us recovery and prosperity, hope and change. What we’ve gotten instead is the opposite.

What makes Alter’s challenge particularly delicious is during the Bush years he spoke out about the importance of a “reality-based” presidency (as opposed to a “faith-based” one). “They [Republicans] could end up winning in November by distorting the argument,” Alter said in 2006. “But on credibility and the facts, they’ve lost.”
Wehner goes on to argue that on the basis of "credibility and facts" the president's accomplishments are deeply disappointing:
  • Under Obama’s stewardship, we have lost 2.2 million jobs (and 900,000 full-time jobs in the last four months alone). He is now on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era.
  • The unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent v. 7.8 percent the month Obama took office.
  • July marked the 30th consecutive month in which the unemployment rate was above the 8 percent level, the highest since the Great Depression.
  • Since May 2009 — roughly 14 weeks into the Obama administration — the unemployment rate has been above 10 percent during three months, above 9 percent during 22 months, and above 8 percent during two months.
  • Chronic unemployment is worse than during the Great Depression.
  • The youth employment rate is at the lowest level since records were first kept in 1948.
  • The share of the eligible population holding a job has declined to the lowest level since the early 1980s.
  • The housing crisis is worse than in the Great Depression. (Home values are worth roughly one-third less than they were five years ago.)
  • The rate of economic growth under Obama has been only slightly higher than the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression. From the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011, we experienced five consecutive quarters of slowing growth. America’s GDP for the second quarter of this year was a sickly 1.0 percent; in the first quarter, it was 0.4 percent.
  • Fiscal year 2011 will mark the third straight year with deficits in excess of $1 trillion. Prior to the Obama presidency, we had never experienced a deficit in excess of $1 trillion.
  • During the Obama presidency, America has increased its debt by $4 trillion. That is to say, Obama has achieved in two-and-a-half years what it took George W. Bush two full terms in office to achieve — and Obama, when he was running for president, slammed Bush’s record as being “unpatriotic.”
  • America saw its credit rating downgraded for the first time in history under the Obama presidency.
  • Consumer confidence has plunged to the lowest level since the Carter presidency.
  • The number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty is on track for a record increase on President Obama’s watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty.
  • A record number of Americans now rely on the federal government’s food stamps program. More than 44.5 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a 12 percent increase from one year ago. There is more that can be said, but you get the point.
If circumstances don't soon improve this will certainly be a tough record to run on in 2012. Historically, the economy has improved after a recession, but this time we seem to be mired in high unemployment and low growth for the rest of the decade.

It'll be interesting to see how the Obama campaign tries to deflect attention from these unpleasant facts.