Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On social ideals and values

Can you talk about human values, social ideals, etc. in a clear and objective way? Indeed you can – but only if you recognize that value-based claims and commitments cannot be objectively grounded as other sorts of claim can be. Much unnecessary conflict and confusion will be avoided if this fact is recognized and acknowledged.

In a piece recently published at The Electric Agora, I set out my views on this matter, sketching out, as concisely and dispassionately as possible, the implications of a particular (and I think perspicuous) view of logic, language and human knowledge. There was nothing particularly unusual or original in what I was saying, but it is a view which is strenuously rejected in many circles.

As I see it, value claims (which are based in biology and social and cultural interaction) are quite unlike ordinary factual or scientific claims. They are (I argue) simply not the sorts of things that can be objectively assessed as being true or false, correct or incorrect. And this idea has profound social and political implications. Embracing it entails a rejection of dogmatism, fanaticism and all forms of 'political correctness'.

In the essay I deal first with the nature of ordinary factual and scientific claims and then with aesthetic and moral claims respectively. Here is the final section – on morality.

Morality is a more difficult topic, partly because it is an intrinsically vague concept. Moral judgments can overlap with aesthetic judgments (courtesy and politeness, for example, have both a moral and an aesthetic dimension) and also, I would claim, with prudential judgments. (My views here are more in line with Classical than Christian thought.)

Prudential claims could be seen to have a greater claim to being objectively true (or false) than purely value-based claims as they relate to observable effects. Consider proverbs, for example, which tend to have a pragmatic and prudential (rather than a strictly moral) focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Pretty vague and sweeping, but you could conceivably finesse these sorts of claims into testable hypotheses. The same goes for other proverbs many of which (helpfully? – well, perhaps not…) even incorporate numerical values. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

By contrast to factual or prudential claims, we have, almost by definition, no way of testing value-based claims. Which human qualities are most to be valued (and encouraged), for instance? Individuals will differ in their views. Do we favor an ethic based on martial values of courage, strength and self-sufficiency; on justice and righteousness; or one based more on compassion and equality (i.e. a commitment to ‘social justice’)?

Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).

Politics and religion obviously come into the picture also, but it must be borne in mind that many religious and political claims are not mere value claims. Most traditional religious doctrines, for example, involve (sometimes testable) claims about how the world is. Likewise political ideologies (e.g. the social and economic predictions of various versions of Marxism or classical liberalism). So basic value elements often need to be isolated or disentangled from other elements.

But even if in many instances isolating the value-based elements is a difficult task, my central point stands, I think. We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.

Of course, in the event of these anomalous views being associated with antisocial actions or behaviors, it is important that social mechanisms be activated to prevent (further) social harm. Nothing I’ve said here should be seen to deny or undermine this. Robust informal regulatory mechanisms exist in every functioning society. And, with respect to more formal mechanisms, it’s quite clear that efficient and equitable systems of law and law enforcement need not be in any way dependent on a commitment to notions of moral realism, natural law or natural rights.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The personal and the political

Just over a week ago The Electric Agora published a piece of mine (entitled Passionate Thinking) on social and political convictions. In the course of the article, I sketched out how my personal perspectives have changed over the years, especially in terms of my view of America's role in the world. I could no longer, I explained, accept the standard, more-or-less conservative myth of the US and its close allies being basically a force for good.

I also referred to the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, linking to an essay about Berlin's politics by Christopher Hitchens.

The reaction was interesting. Virtually no one seemed interested in looking at the broader political and geopolitical questions which were my focus. The bulk of the comments related instead to an almost parenthetical comment about – feminism!

Of all the '—isms' one might conceivably want to question or dismiss (in the context, at any rate, of certain intellectual circles) this one is the most awkward to deal with. Militarism and pacifism, socialism and capitalism and anarchism, pragmatism and Platonism, modernism and postmodernism: all are fair game. Even perhaps Darwinism. But feminism, it seems, is in a special category. Certain strands of feminism may be criticized or dismissed – but not feminism per se.

A commenter suggested that I was driven by resentment in suggesting that much feminism was mean-spirited and driven by resentment. I don't think I was (or am), as it happens. And the brief remark on which he was basing his suggestion or its context certainly did not reveal any as far as I can see. [See the extract quoted below.]

Given the relatively provocative nature of some of my claims, I was expecting some criticism, and was pleased in fact that various commenters showed a degree support for my views.

The latter part of the comment thread developed into an intense discussion of Joan Didion's take on the women's movement of the early 1970s – she talked of resentment also, by the way – and the surprising relevance of some of her ideas to recent social and cultural phenomena. The thread is well worth a read.

Here is the section from the essay in which I try to sum up my general outlook:

I don’t know that I can satisfactorily describe the social vision or ideal that drives me. It’s a personal thing and I would probably need to draw on certain literary or cinematic sources to make it plain, books and films* which others may not have read or seen. Unfortunately (from my perspective), it just happens to be an ideal which is not celebrated in contemporary Western culture.

I value self-control, a balance between asceticism and sensuality, a non-religious (or anti-religious) stance, good manners, self-reliance, intellectual curiosity, passion – and compassion (and practical help) for those who cannot cope.

I am generally repelled by contemporary progressive thought, by feminism (which all too often is mean-spirited and driven by resentment), and by the current obsession with ‘rights’. The dominant strand of organized secular humanism strikes me as a pale religion-substitute; a watered-down and sentimentalized version of Kantianism or Christianity; a front for progressive politics; a pretext for tedious and superficial moralizing.

These attitudes of mine are largely, no doubt, a function of biological predispositions and a particular upbringing. But the same applies to everyone. The trick is to take one’s deep feelings and intuitions seriously, but not too seriously; to maintain a critical distance. (My dislike of feminism, for example, does not entail a reactionary position or a belief that girls should be discriminated against in terms of education or anything else).

* Someone asked about films in a comment. My response:
I wouldn’t really know where to start (or stop) listing [the films] that were important for me. Old films, focussed on the small-scale and the personal mainly.

Three at random: Victoria in Dover (1954, German-language); A Kid for Two Farthings (1955, Jewish-themed, written by Wolf Mankowitz, dir. by Carol Reed); La nuit de Varennes (1982, includes some marvellous bits, including a scene involving the king's ceremonial cape: it is the symbolism that counts, not the man).

[...] [M]y strongest values are more personal than political – but the personal projects to the political of course.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Real communication between the generations is under threat

From my latest article at The Electric Agora:

"The logician and writer (as Lewis Carroll) of books for children, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, famously (and more or less innocently though I’m not so sure about the nude photographs, etc.) enjoyed the company of prepubescent girls, the daughters of his social circle. I certainly wouldn’t like his chances of organizing similar contacts today. The tragedy, however, is that opportunities for a whole range of perfectly ordinary (and proper) interactions between older and younger people are slowly but surely disappearing.

New technologies are playing a big role here. Apart from their influence on patterns of perception and cognition, etc., there is also the fact that digital media have produced a situation where information and entertainment is directly available and does not need to be sought so much from older people (parents, teachers, gentlemen logicians…). Everything you ever wanted to know about anything but were afraid to ask is now readily available, embarrassment-free, from documentary sources or from a hugely extended peer group; and we are drowning in entertainment options."

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dogs after death.

I recently quoted this remark by the art critic Brian Sewell: "As for whether I fear death – I shan’t know until it’s there. All I really want is to wake up and find that every one of my 17 dogs, past and present, is round my bed. Then I shall know that I’m dead, but happily so."

It brought to mind a (once famous) footnote in chapter XXVI of F.H. Bradley's daunting and difficult magnum opus Appearance and Reality. The remarks come in a section dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view. Bradley wrote:

"No one can have been so fortunate as never to have felt the grief of parting, or so inhuman as not to have longed for another meeting after death... One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied a mutilation of our affections. There are those too who would not sit down among the angels, till they had recovered their dog."

I have now come across another reference to a canine presence in worlds beyond. It occurs around the 8-minute mark of this account of a near-death experience.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Looking ahead

A short essay of mine – a minimalistic, descriptive and perhaps deflationist take on obligations and rights – was published a week ago at the new online magazine and discussion forum The Electric Agora. My name has now been added to the list of contributors: this will involve a certain commitment on my part (basically an essay every month or two, commenting and maybe other odds and ends).

The site in the process of establishing itself and I'll try to do my bit to help. It may not work out but, if it does, it gives me access to a sizable and interesting audience that I would not be able to generate on my own account.

The Electric Agora is a spinoff from Scientia Salon, Massimo Pigliucci's 'webzine' which closed down a couple of months ago. The new site was set up by Daniel Kaufman and Dan Tippens with help from Phil Pollack, all of whom were associated with Massimo and Scientia Salon.

We'll see how it goes. My first essay seems to have been a modest success. The comments were certainly interesting and, judging by the likes on the site's Facebook page and Facebook shares from the original site (which are the only stats I have access to), the essay would seem to have been read by a substantial number of people.

Conservative Tendency will continue. It remains my main site and my personal blog. I'm hoping Google will do something soon to open up commenting to people who don't want to use Google+. There are a lot of Google+ comments on my 'English Jewish surnames revisited' post and they continue to appear. I don't want to lose them or the many archived comments from the old commenting system so I am not wanting to take unilateral action to open up commenting on this (or my other blog).

And – who knows? – with more carrot and less stick the tide might turn and Google+ might suddenly take off!

The digital media landscape continues to evolve and it's hard to make long-term plans. The interactive element of blogs has to a large extent been replaced by social media, it seems. I'm wondering now whether the ready availability and increasing use of platforms like Google Docs will further undermine blogs and blogging.

As I say, I'll stay with my blogs for the foreseeable future, but if blogs in general become redundant or merge or morph into social media or other new forms, there is an upside: 'blog' is a very ugly word and I for one would be happy to see it fade into history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An art man and a dog man

Brian Sewell, the English art critic, had very strong (and not altogether popular) opinions on art and other matters and didn't hold back in expressing them. He was well described [by Clive Anderson] as "a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short."

Three years ago he was asked by an interviewer about old age and death. "I am philosophical about old age," he replied. "As for whether I fear death – I shan’t know until it’s there. All I really want is to wake up and find that every one of my 17 dogs, past and present, is round my bed. Then I shall know that I’m dead, but happily so."

He died in London on Saturday, aged 84.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Living in an alien world

Paul Horwich
In two recent posts at Language, Life and Logic,* I made some observations on a discussion about an issue which is of admittedly somewhat limited interest to a broader public: the nature and worth of contemporary analytic philosophy. The debate was precipitated by a tightly-argued critique by Paul Horwich who suggests that the whole project – or at least large swathes of it – is ill-conceived.

I tend to share Horwich's point of view on this matter which is (as he claims) quite in line with that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Horwich's very down-to-earth (and, again, Wittgensteinian) views on language and meaning also appeal to me.

But in other areas I have problems with both Horwich and Wittgenstein. My disagreements relate mainly to their views on (and intuitions about) ethics, religion and science.**

Clearly there is a (rough) divide between religious and non-religious thinkers. But, this division does not neatly mirror the the divide between classical rationalists and those of a more empirical cast of mind, between those who believe that pure human reasoning can reveal deep, a priori truths about the world and those who embrace the messiness and contingency of life and look to empirical science for a fundamental knowledge of the natural world.

This is mainly because many of those who reject the a priori of classical rationalism – and the claims of many rationalists that reason can access or reveal not only metaphysical but also religious truths – are still committed to religion. For them, some faculty other than reason (faith or intuition) provides knowledge of an entirely different and deeper reality than that with which human reason or logic or science is concerned. We may call these fideists (though the term can be used in a narrower sense).***

Historically speaking, fideism has arguably been more conducive to empirical enquiry than rationalism of the traditional kind. For example, the rise of fideism in the late Middle Ages can be seen to have helped to break the overweening and extravagant metaphysics of scholasticism. Natural theology was called into question, and logic and reasoning applied to more practical problems. This shift encouraged the development of empirical science and new technologies.

Certain religious traditions not only incorporate a rich and sophisticated understanding of human psychology, but also promote a healthy awareness of the pitfalls of pure reason and the limits of human understanding. In fact, when I was religious – roughly, between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one – I identified strongly with such (fideist) traditions.

But – there has to be a 'but', I'm afraid – traditional religious views are, in the light of modern science, just no longer tenable. Even the more sophisticated attempts to justify (often some very ill-defined form of) belief – along the lines, for example, of William James's famous essay, 'The will to believe' – strike me as at best unconvincing and at worst dishonest.

One's overall view of the world will be based on more than just science, of course. It will necessarily derive largely from commonsense knowledge and ordinary observation – and even from intuition (understood as a kind of practical understanding or knowledge derived from experience).

Such direct and personal insights are, however, necessarily limited in perspective. And science – with its objective, impersonal perspective, its 'view from nowhere' – is at the very least a necessary corrective.

So long as science is not too narrowly defined, no one in their right mind would deny this. So why is there so much hostility towards science amongst those educated in the arts and humanities (philosophers included)?****

Petty rivalries between discipline areas and professional resentments play a role, no doubt, but my best guess is that the main driving factor is a widely-felt and profound distaste not for science itself but rather for the kind of (almost alien) world which scientific research in various fields seems slowly to be revealing.

* Anti-naturalism in philosophy (I) and Anti-naturalism in philosophy(II).

** I must admit that I am less familiar with Horwich's views on these matters than I am with Wittgenstein's, and it may be that their views are not as close as I currently take them to be.

*** The term is commonly (and I think rightly) applied to the very anti-metaphysical Wittgenstein. I don't know how Horwich would react to being so labelled.

**** Paul Horwich may not be at fault here: he talks a lot about 'scientism' but generally uses the word in a focussed way – and specifically to highlight futile and inappropriate attempts within traditional philosophy to emulate science.