Monday, December 17, 2018

Not Quite Speaking Truth to Power



From the time I began reading this book, I had been looking forward to this chapter, chapter 8 entitled “Christian virtue in peace and war.”  Several factors contributed to my anticipation:  first, combine this title with the title of the book – regarding war, in what manner would Wright recommend that we speak “truth to power” in this world; second, Wright had made several less-than-flattering comments regarding the post-911 militarism of the US and the UK; third, as the example for us, he emphasizes Jesus speaking to the high priest and Pilate in John 18 & 19; fourth, he offers that Christians must hold their government leaders to account.

I was anticipating a call to Christian leaders to come together and denounce the militarism (and other similar evils) of their government leaders.  Imagine my disappointment when what I read was not a lesson on how to speak truth to power using Jesus as a model, but why it makes sense to base our virtue on the military model.  Even as I write these words, I cannot fathom that Wright would make this connection – not that I have read much of him beyond this book.

Wright begins by examining the etymology of the words character and virtue.  He considers how one can develop the strength of character into a virtuous pattern of thought such that one will almost automatically act virtuous in any circumstance (a ‘second nature’).  He offers, as one such example, the actions of Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) in landing his plane full of passengers in the Hudson River – having studied and practiced every possible scenario over a career of flying, Sully did not have to “think” before he acted; he knew how to act in order to save the passengers of the plane.

“Some people at the time called it a ‘miracle’.”  Wright prefers not to label such events in this way:

…I think sometimes our culture reaches for the category of ‘miracle’ because we haven’t wanted to face the challenge of character, of virtue.

Wright offers four mainstream theories about how practical ethics actually works, with our culture stuck somewhere amongst the first three: the first way is the way of rules, a list of dos and don’ts; the second is just to do what comes naturally; the third option lies somewhere in-between, determined via utilitarian or consequentialist methods – the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, or some such (not at all subject to calculation, of course).

The fourth is the approach that Wright would commend: that of virtue via a development of strength of character.  Having done the hard work of thinking through what ‘justice’, for example, means, one develops the means to always act justly.

Of course, nothing about this fourth approach works without considering ‘ends’, and living within a society that values the same ends or goals or telos.

Vice can be, just as much as virtue, a fixed habit of the heart.

Like I said, one man’s vice is another man’s virtue.  Aristotle considered the goal to be ‘happiness.’  The meaning of this, of course, has shifted over time.  Herein is our challenge today:

…the challenge for us today, in peace as well as in war, has to do with a fresh glimpse of the goals we should be setting ourselves right across Western society, and then the character strengths we need to develop in order to come at these goals.

Aristotle offered the four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence.  For any of these to exist, one needs all four.  For this we need moral teaching, as moral teaching will produce human beings who do the right thing by second nature:

…a full, genuine human life is found not by blindly following rules but by becoming the sort of person who acts in the right way because that’s the sort of person they have become through the sheer slog of character building. (Emphasis in original.)

Our present culture, instead, values spontaneity, or authenticity.  Of course, these might be a vice, or might be a virtue – this really only can be addressed in terms of ends.

Wright offers an interesting aside: it is the left – the left of spontaneity and authenticity – that has been the side, while in government, to introduce the most cumbersome and detailed ‘rules’.  This isn’t surprising: as the left devalues culture and tradition (and religion) to the point of irrelevancy, rules for living must come from somewhere.  There will be governance – either from culture and tradition or from man-made rules; governance cannot be avoided if there is to be any meaningful society.

It is the right that is after strict moral rules, desiring to put the genie of liberalism back in the bottle.  This, of course, cannot be done.  So, what is the way forward?

Once more, we need education. 

Given the ends necessary for liberty – let alone for a theologian of Wright’s standing – you might think that it would be education through the church that Wright suggests.  Well, not exactly:

If the schools can’t or won’t provide the development of character and virtue, then, as before, it’s up to the professions, not least the armed forces, to provide it instead.

Yes, you read that right.  Wright offers examples of virtuous behavior to be found in the armed forces – throwing one’s self on a grenade to save his comrades, things like that. 

There are too many problems with Wright’s statement to unpack simply: when was this “as before” time; what “professions”; why not the church; the “armed forces” are the most rule-based institution in the world – there is no virtuous behavior, there is only following orders…or else.

There is nothing to be learned about virtuous behavior from any government institution, least of all the armed forces. 

Wright has the most perfect example of speaking truth to power in his own backyard – and example of one being made a martyr.  This courageous and virtuous individual has been held as if a prisoner in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than six years.

Julian Assange has spoken truth to power.  If the Christian church would do a fraction of what he has done, the world would be a much different – and safer, and more peaceful, and more free – place.

Conclusion

Did Jesus mimic the “virtue” of the Roman soldiers when speaking truth to Pilate?  Give me a break.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

You Are Not Viable


I have not discussed abortion for some time.  I have written my most comprehensive post on the topic specifically in response to Walter Block’s evictionism argument; given his “evictionism” argument, I took the approach of a rental real estate transaction and contract.  Walter and I went back and forth on it a time or two. 

Given that this was written four years ago, I might refresh it a bit today, but overall it offers my view – specifically taking the contract / property approach.  My primary view on this topic, however, is driven by other causes.  Causes like murder of innocents.

It is curious to me (I have no better word) that those who advocate for a society based on the non-aggression principle advocate for the ultimate aggression on the individuals least capable of defending themselves, individuals that are most vulnerable to aggression by another, individuals who are totally innocent regarding their circumstance. 

If libertarianism based on the non-aggression principle supports such aggression, it is a philosophy that offers no defense against any type of aggression.

Why am I discussing this today?  Walter has written a brief blog post, followed thereafter by a comment from Michael Rozeff.  It is not to Walter that I will reply, but to Rozeff.  I have to say, I had a difficult time reading Rozeff’s post; he offers, first, some facts:

What are we talking about? “In 2015, 638,169 legal induced abortions were reported to CDC from 49 reporting areas. The abortion rate for 2015 was 11.8 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years…” That’s a little over 1 woman in a hundred. There’s a lot of women in America, so the absolute number is also a lot; but it’s not large relative to the population.

More than any other statement in his post, it is this one that I cannot stomach.  Yes, I am used to libertarians favoring this type of aggression; few have had the courage to put numbers to it and – more so – suggest that six-hundred thousand is no big deal.

Over six-hundred thousand deaths in one year, all due to the same cause.  Reminds me of Madeline Albright – 500,000 Iraqi children’s deaths were worth it. Relative to the total population, not such a big deal.

He then offers the breakdown by the time elapsed after conception.  This is important to him for the following reason: almost 99% of all abortions occur before the twentieth week of the unborn child’s life.  And guess what?

The facts of abortion show that virtually all abortions are of fetuses that could not survive outside the womb.

Nor can any new-born babies, without assistance.

The question is when does a fetus gain the right to life. A sensible answer as well as one not at variance with actual abortions is that it gains this right when it is capable of surviving outside the womb, with assistance, of course. (Emphasis added.)

Wait a minute.  If a newborn baby has a right to this assistance, why not an unborn child?  What is different in any meaningful sense?  The newborn baby is entirely dependent on others for food, drink, sanitation, safety, protection from the elements, etc.  Basically, the exact same items of “assistance” that the unborn child – even one less than 20 weeks – requires.

To be a live human being, one must be capable of be-ing, even if it requires assistance that pregnancy or medical substitutes provide after 24 weeks. Fetuses that cannot survive outside the womb are not yet human beings, according to this theory.

Babies outside of the womb cannot survive without virtually identical assistance. 

“You are not viable.”  If this is the criteria for one to have the right to not be victim of aggression, well…let’s open the door to eugenics, assisted suicide, final solutions to the mentally and physically disabled, individuals with IQs below 70, etc. 

Where do you draw the line?  On what basis?  Who will decide?

Conclusion

In my estimation, abortion is not a major problem in America.

More than six-hundred thousand deaths per year all due to the same cause, and this is not a major problem. 

Epilogue

Rozeff begins early in his post with the following:

If a woman wants an abortion, I do not see how anyone can make her not have it. She cannot be forced to carry to term. Call that her right, if you want to.

I am not suggesting that I have an answer.  However, it is pointless to work on an answer if we cannot agree that murder is aggression.

The unborn child is the only innocent person in this exchange.  The woman took an action to become pregnant, as did the man in impregnating her.  If no responsibility comes to either of these two with this action, society (to say nothing of liberty) is 100% lost.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Two Sides of the Same Coin


We seem to be heading into a confrontation between the two forces of Modernism: the primacy of the individual versus the increasing technological and economic might of the central state.
-          Charles Hugh Smith, The Conflicting Forces of Modernism: Kafka and Kierkegaard
The individual on the one hand, the all-powerful state on the other.  Are these two opposite and antagonistic forces, as many believe, or are they merely two sides of the same coin, with one feeding the other?
If two things are two sides of the same coin or opposite sides of the same coin, they are closely related to each other and cannot be separated, even though they seem to be completely different. (Emphasis added)
Returning to Smith:
The primacy of the individual is the core of Modernism, as each individual discovers the mysteries of God in their own way and time, and creates their own identity via their own choices and commitments. 
Hasn’t western society – and certainly US society – maximized this “individualism” already?  Tattoos and body-piercings in places known and unknown, hair in every fluorescent color, an infinite variety of gender possibilities, family units of every type, gods of every type?  Yes, I guess “more” is always possible, but western society does not suffer from a deficit of “God in my own way and time” or “my own created identity.”
As much as we have maximized individualism, in what manner will we be able to resist the state?  With whose support?  “You and what army?”
As each of us is now our own unique individual, for what reason would I join with you to defend your individualism – an individualism that might be completely contrary to anything that matters to me?  Yeah, yeah, I know the poem: “First they came for the socialists….”  What good are such words when we know that no one has acted on these?  What are you willing to die for?
If, in fact, individualism stood at the opposite side of a mighty central state, why does the mighty central state support, advance, and subsidize all manners of behaviors that allow each of us to create our own “individual”?  It is very easily possible to make oneself free from all interpersonal support systems, institutions, cultural norms, etc. – in other words, as individual as imaginable – thanks to state support.
Conclusion
“The primacy of the individual versus the increasing technological and economic might of the central state.”  Two sides of the same coin; these two cannot be separated, even though they seem completely different.
Nothing better for the increasing growth of a centralizing state than ensuring – and even supporting – the “individual.”

Monday, December 10, 2018

Lessons From Our Past


The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray N. Rothbard; June 1, 1970

It has been some time since I last probed the pages of this semi-monthly newsletter edited by Murray Rothbard.  For various reasons, I find it appropriate to dive back in.  When we last left the story, Rothbard had concluded that the new left was hopeless when it came to prospects for liberty – having abandoned a radical anti-war stance and embraced various social and even libertine causes, none having to do with the objective of liberty – in fact, destructive of this objective.

Rothbard titles this edition “The New Movement: Peace Politics.”  Unfortunately, many who fancy themselves as libertarian cannot even grasp this simple concept – peace, as in anti-war, anti-interventionism.  This issue – and so much more – is covered in this edition, starting with the opening sentence:

There is no doubt about it: Richard Milhous Nixon is the most effective organizer that the anti-war movement has ever had.

There is to be found a small handful of libertarians – of which I count myself as one – who find in Trump similar benefits when it comes to advancing liberty. In Trump’s case, not because he is coalescing the anti-war forces so tremendously destroyed by Obama, but because he is making a mockery of the state – both through his positive and negative actions. 

Positive: he is unafraid to point out the hypocrisy of the state and the establishment; negative: the concept of dignity is not to be found in the same paragraph with the word president. 

Lesson 1: Making a mockery of the state is valuable if shrinking the state is one objective for libertarians.  That someone can be elected president with this mockery a major part of his platform is even more valuable.  That the elected president continues to mock the state after his inauguration is priceless.

It was this issue of war and peace that drove the handful of non-interventionists from the right to the new left in the 1950s; Rothbard now sees that it is driving him and others from the new left.  Describing an anti-war meeting that he attended with Leonard Liggio, the vast majority of left-leaning attendees booed the message.  Instead, they were after civil rights and socialism. 

Lesson 2: nothing surprising here, at least in concept; revolutionaries are all against something but rarely for the same thing.  Lesson 2.5: revolutions get coopted, usually by the worst elements in society.

However, Rothbard finds hope.  The new anti-war movement is made up of “real people”: businessmen (other than those employed by the merchants of death) and members of the President’s cabinet; people who are repelled by the antics of the new left.

Lesson 3: as the establishment today has made it unacceptable for “real people” to hold non-establishment (statist) views, pretty much anything that tears at the established narrative (e.g. Trump) is good for liberty.

The next essay in this edition of the newsletter is authored by Jerome Tuccille.  What is replacing the new left – the left that has fled the anti-war movement?

…a familiar two-headed beast: the old scarred and ugly face of doctrinaire Marxism and the more hideous visage of self-righteous nihilism.

Marxism at its root destroys the idea of private property.  Libertarianism has an answer for this.  But nihilism is “more hideous” than Marxism according to Tuccille.   An interesting thought. 

Lesson 4: libertarianism offers no defense against nihilism.  Yet, being more hideous than Marxism, maybe it should.

How to avoid the errors of our past?  Tuccille cites the success of Atlas Shrugged in the late 1950s, “the last best chance for free markets in the United States.”  Yet what came of this?  The novel offered no meaningful answers to the problems of the day.

While Objectivists engaged in the exclusive luxury of abstractions and ideology, a war was going on, housing and education among other vital institutions were coming apart, the cities were exploding with violence, the American middle class was falling into a daze, and government grew increasingly more repressive.

What was the Objectivist cure for this? Selfishness.
What was the cause of all our ills?  Altruism.          
What should we do about exploited minorities?  Leave them alone.

Tuccille wrote the eulogy of Objectivism only a decade after Rand’s novel – rightly, of course, but only a decade nonetheless.  Keep this in mind….

Instead of replying “rational self-interest” when people want to know how to meet these concerns, we will have to demonstrate how a strict enforcement of property rights will [provide answers]…

It has been forty-eight years since Tuccille wrote these words.  There has been phenomenal work done in the area of demonstrating how property rights can resolve many of the concerns of society – frankly, this discussion has been exhausted. 

Walter Block is correct when he offers that we are now working to move a fraction of an inch closer to the truth when we engage in debate and dialogue; yet we have already covered more than 99 out of the 100 inches on this path.  Will the straw of last remaining fraction of an inch be what breaks the camel’s back?  If ten years was long enough to write off Objectivism, what do we do with the libertarian reliance on property rights after half a century?

Lesson 5: libertarianism is no less an “abstraction and ideology” than is Objectivism.  Man doesn’t do well with abstractions and ideologies.  Perhaps instead of remaining focused on the last hidden corners of private property, a libertarian narrative is called for.  Leave it to Hans Hoppe to begin this conversation.  I think I will soon examine his lecture.

Conclusion


Epilogue

The closing essay in this edition is offered by Edwin G. Dolan, writing of “The Lenin Centennial” – 100 years since Lenin’s birth.  Dolan identifies “many sound principles of importance to any movement opposing the status quo,” taken from Lenin’s famous pamphlet “What is to be Done?

These and many other passages deserve the attention of libertarians as the 1970s begin, for our movement today has much in common with the bolshevism of the Iskra period.

Iskra was the political paper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).  Lenin’s “Iskra period” was from 1900 to 1903.  Fifteen years later, Lenin was victorious.

Revolutions all end the same way – with most revolutionaries greatly dissatisfied with the outcome, and most of these ending up on the guillotine or in the Gulag.  Is this the form of revolution we want?  Can we now, after fifty years, come up with a different path?