Friday, November 15, 2002

Hsieh's essay on capitalism (see next post) reminded me of something I'd meant to blog about a while ago: What are my responsibilities toward someone who is unlikely ever to be self-sufficient? (Examples: severely retarded people; elderly disabled people; people with serious mental problems, like the homeless woman I knew in college who had intense and terrifying hallucinations and who was helped a little by medication but not enough to hold down a job.) What if these dependent people are also very unpleasant to be around? Does that matter? How does helping them benefit me?

Thursday, November 14, 2002

THE MOST COMMON AND THE BEST: This post and the next two are cross-posted at I'm posting the Diana Hsieh ones here for the obvious reason that they're about Objectivism; the one about why I'm Catholic is more out of left field, but I figured it might be at least slightly helpful for anyone who's wondering what my deal is.

My main problem with Diana Hsieh's essay/lecture "The Philosophical Underpinnings of Capitalism" actually doesn't have anything to do with capitalism, or libertarianism, or even underpinnings. It's instead a problem of method, though I do think this method-problem affects the philosophy. (Since this post has some fairly pointed criticism, I should note up front that I got some good, chewy food for thought out of the atheism lecture discussed below.)

Throughout the lecture, Hsieh makes claims about her philosophical opponents that strike me as wildly out-there: "The committed paternalist likely knows that banning drugs and gambling creates and encourages violent crime, but argues that such is a small price to pay for protecting our children." "Again, the economics of redistribution is unimportant for many egalitarians. Even if the egalitarian state makes us all poorer, at least we are all equally miserable." "Intellectual and spiritual matters are considered [by proponents of various kinds of regulation of businesses] to be wholly separate from and far more important than simple materialistic concerns. So the government recognizes rights and freedoms in the intellectual and spiritual realms, but not in the materialistic realms of business and property. The regulation of the material world of business, as with affirmative action or environmental regulations, is justified on the grounds that it serves a higher spiritual and moral purpose, such as a colorblind society or a healthy earth."

Hsieh doesn't actually quote anyone who disagrees with her; she doesn't find representatives of the arguments she opposes. She doesn't allow her opponents to present their case in their own words. I think this makes her essay much less convincing. The actual socialists I know (for example) would read her descriptions of their beliefs and exclaim, "Wait now hey now! That's not what I believe! Don't go setting up that old straw man!"

In order to responsibly address a philosophical argument you disagree with, I think you have to at least attempt to refute: 1) the most common reasons for the position you disdain. You may think, "But ten children die each day in the US because of guns!" is a lousy argument for gun control, but if it's popular you should address it.
2) the best arguments for the position you oppose. This is one of the reasons I wanted to work for the Register: I was impressed by how often they quoted anti-Catholic spokespeople saying sensible or at least understandable, intelligent, or sympathetic things.

In order to do both 1) and 2) it's necessary, or at least extremely helpful, to quote your opponents directly rather than relying on your own ability to summarize their positions or understand their psyches. That way you'll get a better sense of what they believe, and they won't be able to claim that you're just setting up a straw man (assuming you're quoting with sensitivity to context, of course).

Relying on secondhand accounts and impressions of what "the opposition" thinks means you often get it wrong. Like I said, none of the socialists I know would agree with Hsieh's characterizations of their views. They would charge her with creating straw men. Self-proclaimed egalitarians like Matthew Yglesias and Ampersand simply don't think what Hsieh says they think. (For example, they don't think that equality is the only good!) Hsieh may argue that Yglesias and Ampersand don't represent the most common arguments for egalitarianism; OK, but she should show us who does make the arguments she thinks are most common. (Ralph Nader? John Rawls? Karl Marx? Bueller? Bueller?)

And again, even if the "equality is one good among others, and some equality can be sacrificed to promote prosperity just as some prosperity can be sacrificed to promote equality" (sorry for cartoonish simplification there) position isn't popular, it's fairly obviously a better argument than "I don't care if everyone starves as long as we're all starving TOGETHER!" And so it would be useful to know which arguments against her position Hsieh thinks are non-insane or non-idiotic or non-laughable (though wrong).

Anyway, so arguing against positions that are neither the most common nor the best statements of the Opposition leads to two problems: 1) You get it wrong, thus you don't convince anyone who doesn't already mostly agree with you. You're preaching to the choir.
2) You get it wrong, thus you think your opposition is stupider or baser than they are, which is a depressing thing to believe. If the people arguing for a rise in the minimum wage actually don't care if we all suffer and want as long as we suffer and want equally, that really sucks, that's just an awful view of the world and it would be saddening if there were this organized bloc of people who thought that way. Note the use of the subjunctive; such a bloc does not exist.

The atheism essay is better but would still benefit a lot from direct quoting of the Bad Guys.
FIDES ET RATIO: Last night I read Diana Hsieh's essays/lectures "The Philosophical Underpinnings of Capitalism" and "Why Be an Atheist?". I'll get to the capitalism one in a moment; for now I just want to address the atheism one. Hsieh is a good, clear, fluent writer, and I found many of her analogies both helpful and entertaining.

As far as convincing me of stuff, the lecture didn't do much, simply because the arguments she presents for belief in God are arguments I don't believe anyway (first cause argument--why can't the universe be the uncaused thing?), arguments I don't even pretend to understand (argument from order, which she calls the argument from design but which I think would be more familiar to Catholics under the other name), and arguments that aren't arguments ("I had a personal experience of Jesus's presence").

I don't know that there are "knockdown" arguments for God's existence. I do think that a) reason can point out extraordinarily difficult choices, cf. the "Dostoyevsky meets Plato in the Richard Rorty Bar & Grill" stuff I do here (in case you're wondering, yes, that is the SAME LINK that you have seen a million times if you read this blog a lot), and b) theistic, specifically Jewish or Christian, and Christian most of all, explanations of the world better fit our experience of things like wrongdoing, love, and beauty than atheistic explanations. So basically, Hsieh's lecture simply didn't touch on the philosophical paths that led me to pray, to ask with an open heart and mind whether God could be found (while trying not to indulge in wishful thinking, trying not to "have an experience of God's presence" simply because it would be interesting!), to "ask, seek, and knock." That's not her fault, of course! It's just the reason that engaging her actual arguments isn't super-exciting for me. If my scarily scientifically-minded Catholic friends want to take her up on the argument from order, y'all can be my guests, but it's really not a subject I feel qualified to treat confidently. Oh, and Occam's Razor is a lot more complicated than she makes it sound, to the point of not being super helpful in this discussion, but whatever, that's not something I want to blog about just at the moment. Maybe I'll get into my problems with common uses of the razor later.

The one thing I did want to write about (after all that, now we finally approach the point of this post!) is a casual phrase toward the end of the lecture. Hsieh says, "Since people claim to know that God exists and that Jesus loves them for other irrational reasons (like faith)..." and in the margin I have written ARGH!

Rereading the paragraph, I'm honestly unsure what Hsieh means by "faith" here, so let me set out a few thoughts on faith and the non-rational. Faith, at least for Christians, does not mean "believing stuff at random." The proper understanding of the faith/reason relationship is one I should hold off on until I've reread Fides et Ratio, but first let's clear away some underbrush.

There are good but non-rational reasons for believing things. (I take "irrational" to mean "anti-rational, contrary to reason," and "non-rational" to mean "not using the processes of syllogistic reasoning but not contrary to such reasoning.") "Non-rational reasons" may sound like an oxymoron, but let's take a look at one important example: aesthetic judgments. What process of syllogistic reasoning can lead us to conclude that Hamlet is a greater work of art than The Long Goodbye, or that Goodbye is nonetheless a terrific book? Beauty and sublimity are encounters, not conclusions of philosophic reasoning (although the conclusions we draw from reasoning may make it easier or harder for us to see or accept beauty or sublimity in certain places--for example, I'm not sure I could have found El Greco's "Saint Sebastian" sublime rather than horrible before my conversion; I was very anti-depictions of Saint Sebastian in general).

So I think it might help clarify matters if, when we talk about "faith," we cash out a little more clearly what the term means. Loving trust in someone's promises--for example, God's promises? (That's a fairly standard Christian definition of one kind of faith.) Non-rational beliefs that nonetheless can be discussed, justified, or convincingly described? Everything that isn't based on evidence of the senses + axioms of logic ("A is A")? Random belief in whatever toxin happens to be flowing through the culture-stream? Many Objectivists write as if Christians themselves believe that faith is basically irrational rather than nonrational, leading the Objectivists to assume that faith is necessarily either random or a capitulation to an evil cultural trend. Cashing out the meaning of "faith" may be helpful for Objectivists who want to talk to Christians and other theists rather than simply about them. (I do realize that Hsieh's speech was given to an Objectivist group, thus it wasn't necessarily intended to speak to theists as well as about them; nonetheless I suspect that even essays directed toward explanation rather than persuasion will explain better if they take into account the self-understandings of the people being explained.)
ZORAK's post about her journey to the Catholic Church has gotten me thinking about my own bizarro path to Rome. I'm not going to blog about it now, because I haven't got the mental energy (operating on four hours of sleep, blah)... but I did write a table of contents! So you can experience some small portion of my ongoing wigginess.

EARLIEST MEMORIES: Consciousness of personal sin. I wrote a bit about that here. Didn't name it as sin because Christianity was not really on the radar screen except as something for dumb televangelists/right-wing political hacks/my inexplicable classmates.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: Superstition/Credulousness/Imagination/Creativity (the latter term should be taken in the not-very-complimentary, Allan Bloom on Nietzsche sense).
But also, honor and self-sacrifice, gleaned from the fantasy books I read incessantly.

ADOLESCENCE: Disillusionment
Relativism/Queer activism
Disillusionment again (Riot Grrrl did some good stuff, but there's only so long you can ponder your navel and cultivate white guilt before you want to KILL something), and a retreat into Shakespeare
Obsession with Falstaff

FRESHMAN YEAR OF COLLEGE: Falstaff or Hamlet? (ultimately, neither.)
Startled by Christians. Including the Mantis and her Mate. The first conversation I ever had with the Old Oligarch included a section where I tried to convince him that philosophy sucked, and only literature had value. I was, at the time, reading Sistah Souljah's autobiography. Build your own poem.
Startled by Christianity: sin, justice, the body, and honor again. In which I learn what Christianity actually says (for example, the human body is important and good). I read St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, take a class on the history of Christian doctrine and find myself defending the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and try to figure out why art matters and why physical things matter.
Christianity is frighteningly realistic--but is it true?
Stumbling blocks: contraception, homosexuality. Boring, I know.
Yeah, it's true. D'oh. Probably. Argh.

SOPHOMORE YEAR: Upset and uncertain catechumen. I get confirmed despite feeling truly lousy about the whole thing. Fortunately, praying during the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) kept me relatively sane and reminded me of the reality of the Incarnation and the promises of Christ.
Nietzsche: loyalty and the Crucified

SINCE THEN: I've been trying to get my act together. Learning about all the immense treasures of prayer and devotional life that the Church offers. Trying to live a Christian life, not just think about it. Went through a brief "Is Christianity evil?" spate of worry and serious unhappiness (alluded to here, last paragraph), got over it, worked out the basic shape of the post-Platonic arguments I make here (and in the two posts below that).

Mostly, right now, I'm just trying to deepen my faith--Duc in altum!

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