Wednesday, December 27, 2006

God and Evil in Hegel

Hegel talks about belief, and as he untangles the notions of what we believe about ourselves and a possible a separate insight we have about ourselves, Hegel decides that we couldn't, ultimately, have a relation to ourselves that didn't find itself embedded in circumstances.

I couldn't be me, the same me, in a Romantic world as in a Medieval world. None of us can be anything other than we are in the world in which we find ourselves. As Hegel spins this out, we relate to ourselves in a context, and that context is a historical one. There are problems.

Hegel has the notion of "absolute spirit". That's his successor notion to God. Hegel understands God as being the unfolding of human history, and therefore he understands God as history itself. The unfolding of history is God's autobiography. This is very difficult. Awful things happen in history. Any time one looks around, there are terrible things happening. If history is God, God is evil.

For Hegel, if this is his argument, it is enormously flawed. However, some have said that Hegel was an atheist, who uses religious language to cover his tracks. After all, he was "Lutheran" professor. Robert Solomon says that his Lutheranism was his cover. If he was a Lutheran, then he has not solved the problem of evil. Even so, History is evil. Sometime later I will explore the "end of history" and whether history and absolute spirit can ever not be evil.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Only Anarcho-Capitalist City in the World

Somalia fell apart in 1991, when several clan militias clubbed together to remove a dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre (who was a proponent of what he called "scientific socalism" i.e. Marxism) and then turned on each other. A year later US peace-keeping forces fought with Aidid's forces in Mogadishu, chronicled by the film Black Hawk Down. By 1995 the US and the UN had removed themselves from Somalia, leaving the country to continue fighting. Aidid was killed in 1996 in a gunfight.

Two northern regions, Somaliland and Puntland, seceded from Somalia in the 1990s but remain internationally unrecognized. Some have commented that Mogadishu is the only "anarcho-capitalist" regime in the world. But that is false because the city has no legal foundation whatsoever. One cannot have an utterly lawless regime and call that capitalism. It fails even the classical definitions put forth by Smith. Somalia is simply a failed state, which is entirely different in its ambitions and in its purposes.

But Somalia is a resilient failed state, and has some anarcho-capitalist features. Consider its amazing currency, the Somali shilling, which has operated for 14 years without a central bank or reserves of any kind, save the will of ordinary Somalis. Though the country has lacked a government, it has never quite ceased to exist.

Numerous attempts to revive the state, mostly backed by rich-country donors, have failed. A transistional government backed by Ethiopian forces, created in 2004 in the alternative capital city of Jowhar, began with a lot of ambition. But by June 2006, it had lost out to Islamist militias in Mogadishu, whose power is spreading. The Straussian Policymakers at Heritage have linked these forces to Al Qaeda. For any hope of stability in the region, engagement with political moderates would be necessary. There are too many extreme forces in Somalia. The Islamists are fiercely opposed to foreign troops – particularly their neighboring Ethiopians – in Somalia. Since November, war between Islamists and Ethiopians seemed very possible.

Ethiopia has just this week, on Christmas Day in fact, bombed the airport in Mogadishu. The battles now fought are between an alliance of Mogadishu warlords known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) and a militia loyal to Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Habitat, a UN agency that tries to provide housing and shelter, is struggling to bring some order here and in other Somali towns. But it is more trade, not aid, that might improve things the most. Saudi Arabia could help by restoring its imports of Somali livestock that were stopped in 2000, and Somalia needs help developing its offshore fishing waters, which are being plundered by foreign boats. The country also has some untapped oil reserves, which foreigners are too weary to explore for fear of violence. Trading oil wouldn't necessary turn Somalia into a healthy anarcho-capitalist regime, or even a healthy liberal democracy. Would we prefer living in Riyadh over Mogadishu? Islamist militias would most likely still fight over its oil, but the foreign investment this would bring is going to be worth the risk.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Pure Reason on the Meaning of Life

How should we understand the meaning of life?

How can we move toward this, if we don't know what our true nature is? Every time we talk about things like freedom, or whether time had a beginning, we fall into contradictions. Kant says that if we try to prove things about our true nature, as opposed to how we appear to ourselves, we fall into something he calls paralogisms. It means there are fallacies in reasoning involved in every attempt to prove what our real nature is. Everything we experience is through interpretation. We even our experience of our selves, and therefore we never know our true nature, only how we appear to ourselves. Kant's particular account of reason, that we must rely on it: it is our sole confidant and means of knowing. He also tells us how limited our reasoning is, which creates a collision. We must use our reason, but it's extremely limited regarding the things of metaphysics.

The history of Western Philosophy Post-Kant involves philosophers saying things like, "Kant couldn't be right, but yet he says important things..." The question was asked, what was the standpoint from which Kant spoke? After all, Kant said that we interpret everything, even our encounters with ourselves. Kant is not exception. Where does he stand when he tells us we are merely interpreting these things? Kant's pronouncements appear to be self-defeating. Pure reason has already failed us. But now practical reason has failed us too! We are only interpreting that we interpret everything. If interpretations are no good, then Kant's interpretation of our nature is no good.

Kant says that we have to ask certain questions. For example, questions about the meaning of life. He has a notion of the "I", in which this word does not connect us with our inner selves. It's a concept we use. He makes a distinction between (a) the concept of I, (b) our experience of ourselves in categories of subject or object, but underlying all this, he says, there must be our (c) true selves. By the way, he seems to add, it is in the nature of our reason that we cannot know our true selves. Yet we have to ask this question. We cannot be sure of the source of the question. We don't know who "I" is.

Then Kant says something which seems like it comes from nowhere. All of our knowing arises from something he calls the power of imagination. It's a blind but indespensible part of the human soul in which we are scarcely aware. We are supposed to use our reason. But all use of our reason arises from a blind but indespensible imagination. This is something that is the power, the energy, that drives our being. This is a mystery in Kant. I've been thinking about this.

There's an old development that lives on in philosophy. It has to do with the relationship of power on the one hand, and structure or form on the other. One group says that anything, even the energy of the universe, could be altogether understood rationally. But there's another view that says at least some realities, and usually a good candidate is the self, cannot be known altogether rationally. The self somehow goes beneath our rational comprehension. Kant talks about imagination in suggestive and problematic ways. What are we supposed to say about an energy deeper than our reason and drives our understanding--but we cannot use our reason to get down to it and find out its nature. So how does Kant know that there even is such an energy? Is this energy non-rational? Can we become one with it?

At least one thing is important: the search for this deepest energy will continue on.

The New Military Field Manual

I just read some excerpts from the new marines field manual, the "FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency". Apparently, now American troops must be “ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade” and must be “nation-builders as well as warriors”. Under the new doctrine, fighting insurgents involves “armed social work”. “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction,” says the manual. The best weapon is sometimes none at all. The prime objective is not to kill as many insurgents as possible but to maximize support from the local population. Above all, troops must adapt quickly.

Instead of isolating themselves in large camps and driving around in armored vehicles, the manual advises American troops to live “close to the populace”, move on foot, sleep in villages and patrol by day and night. Each company should have a political as well as a “cultural” adviser. Platoons should assign their best soldiers to intelligence and surveillance, even at the cost of firepower. Forget the chain of command: decisions should be taken by consensus where possible.

The 242-page manual reads at times like a list of the things America has done wrong in Iraq. But I don't find anything about troop withdrawal from Iraq. Everyone is talking about Bush's sudden shift from "we're winning" to "we're not winning or losing" in Iraq. His strategies are based on how he believes Publius (that is, the public) will respond. Our government does not tell us exactly what happens for fear that we may lose confidence in the situation. Bush is taking a step in a better direction: that is, admitting there are serious errors in their military strategy. But there are also serious errors in our foreign policy. The new Military Field Manual is also a set in the right direction, but doesn't address underlying causes of failure in American foreign policy and occupation.

If American commanders' response to Vietnam was to foreswear nasty "small wars" as they're called by the military, their reaction to the fiasco in Iraq seems so far to be quite different: to learn to fight them better. The new manual is a first step, but America's military culture is in need of deeper change. A start might be to rewrite the first words of its “warrior ethos”, whereby every soldier declares: “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America.”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Theories of Politeness and Theories of Ridicule

For an introduction to ridicule, an entertaining French film by the name of Ridicule (1996) wonderfully portrays the aristocracy of the ancien régime and their obsession with wit and presige at the court of Versailles during the days of King Louis and Marie Antoinette. This was an era in France where wit could earn you a passport into courtly favor, and one verbal faux pas could ruin a man's reputation and position in society. So much about a person was judged on the basis of how well they could stand to ridicule, and in fact ridicule others, that it's a wonder anything ever got done! Instead of writing a review of the film, I thought it would be more intersting to study politeness and ridicule. One often hears advice on how to go about being more polite, and having better manners. But we hear much less about ridicule, mostly because it's a learned through experience, not by instruction. I find that understanding enough about the social dynamics of ridicule could determine whether you sink or swim in many situations.

One striking thing about politeness is how consistent it remains over time, suggesting that there are real rights and wrongs in conversation, not just local conventions. Ridicule on the other hand, is much more evasive. For example, the principle that it is rude to interrupt another speaker goes back at least to Cicero, who said that good conversation required “alternation” among participants. In his essay On Duties, Cicero remarked that nobody, to his knowledge, had yet set down the rules for ordinary conversation, though many had done so for public speaking. He had a shot at it himself, and quickly arrived at the sort of list that self-help authors have been echoing ever since. The rules we learn from Cicero are these: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.

Cicero's rules of conversation seem to have been fairly common across cultures as well as time, if varying in strictness. It might reasonably be said that Italians are more tolerant of interruption, Americans of contradiction and the English of formality, for example. These rules of conversation also intersect with those of politeness more generally, as formulated by two American linguists, Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson, the pioneers of “politeness theory”.

Probably only two cardinal rules were lacking from Cicero's list: remember people's names, and be a good listener. Each of these pieces of advice also has a long pedigree. Both found a persuasive modern advocate in Dale Carnegie, a teacher of public speaking who decided in 1936 that Americans needed educating more broadly in “the fine art of getting along”. He designed a course on self-improvement and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is still in print 70 years later and has sold 15 million copies. To remember names, and to listen well, are two of Carnegie's “six ways to make people like you”. The others are to become genuinely interested in other people; smile; talk in terms of the other person's interests; and make the other person feel important. Objectivists certainly contend that Carnegie's self-improvement is manipulative in nature, which raises the question of whether politeness is simply indirect manipulation.

It is easy enough to see the usefulness of such tips, but they capture none of the joy which comes from the mastery of conversation. For enthusiasts conversation is an art, one of the great pleasures of life, even the basis of civilised society. Mme de Staël, a great talker and intellectual of the French ancien régime, called conversation “a means of reciprocally and rapidly giving one another pleasure; of speaking just as quickly as one thinks; of spontaneously enjoying one's self; of being applauded without working... a sort of electricity that causes sparks to fly, and that relieves some people of the burden of their excess vivacity and awakens others from a state of painful apathy”.

The conversation of the French salons and dinner tables became as stylized as a ballet. And for a connosieur of the arts, one must know how to enjoy as well as ridicule the ballet. The basic skills brought to the courts and tables were expected to include politesse (sincere good manners), esprit (wit), galanterie (gallantry), complaisance (obligingness), enjouement (cheerfulness) and flatterie. More specific techniques would be required as the conversation took flight. A comic mood would require displays of raillerie (playful teasing), plaisanterie (joking), bons mots (epigrams), traits and pointes (rhetorical figures involving “subtle, unexpected wit”, according to Benedetta Craveri, a historian of the period), and, later, persiflage (mocking under the guise of praising). Even silences had to be finely judged. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld distinguished between an “eloquent” silence, a “mocking” silence and a “respectful” silence. The mastery of such “airs and tones”, he said, was “granted to few”.

The Quality of Conversation in America

The French love to talk. In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville refers to the “strange unsociability and reserved and taciturn disposition of the English”. But for Charles Dickens, another foreign visitor to America in the 19th century, it was the Americans who seemed taciturn. He blamed this on a “love of trade”, which limited men's interests and made them reluctant to volunteer information for fear of tipping their hand to a competitor. If you think about it, the idealization of silence is strong in American culture into the 20th century: for example, the laconic heroes of Western films, or of Hemingway's novels.

Conversation had always been important to the French. I love watching Eric Rohmer's films andthe complexities and beauties he finds in dialogue. Arguably the second golden age of conversation--the first was in Athens--happened with the French elites in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Historians associate the rise of conversation at this time with the prestige enjoyed by women in French high society, which was perhaps unique in Europe before or since. Women ran the salons where the culture of the time was created, and their presence civilized the men they invited there. Another factor was the leisure forced on the French aristocracy by an absolute monarchy. Their political ambitions thwarted, the upper classes turned their energies towards entertaining themselves. A man without conversation was liable to find himself devalued, whatever his other qualities: “In England it was enough that Newton was the greatest mathematician of the century,” wrote Jean d'Alembert, a French philosopher and mathematician; “in France he would have been expected to be agreeable too.”

Conversation was flourishing across the channel in England during the early 18th century, but for a different reason. This was the golden age of the British coffee house. Whereas the French salon excluded politics from polite conversation, in the British coffee house politics was a main preoccupation. It was most likely due to the fact that men ran the coffee houses in England that politics was openly discussed. Foreign visitors remarked both on the free range of speech there and on the mingling of classes and professions. A modern German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, linked the coffee houses with what he called the “rise of a public space” outside the control of the state, or, as we might say now, civil society.

More recently it has been neither trade nor taciturnity, but the distractions of technology, which have seemed to threaten the quality of conversation. George Orwell complained in 1946 that “in very many English homes the radio is literally never turned off. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent.”

Conversations over the internet are quite interesting. From the instant messaging between avatars on Second Life to the headset microphones in Counter Strike Source, we have found a way to talk to each other while sitting alone in a cold apartment room. An American essayist, Stephen Miller, published a book called “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art”, in which he worried that “neither digital music players nor computers were invented to help people avoid real conversation, but they have that effect.” A reviewer of Mr Miller's book found it “striking” that past generations would “speak of conversation as a way of taking pleasure, much as a modern American might speak of an evening spent browsing the internet”.

What the Teaosophers Say About Tea

The following list from is a list of tea qualities every teaospher should know about. The liquid produced from the tea's leaves is known as the liquor, not to be confused with distilled alcoholic beverages. When appreciating the liquor of tea, the teaosophers tell us to pay attention to the following things:

  • Aroma: An attractive smell sometimes referred to as "nose" or "bouquet." High grown teas, such as Darjeeling, are prized for their distinctive aroma.
  • Astringency: The lively, pungent sensation on your tongue that gives tea its refreshing quality. This is not to be confused with bitterness.
  • Bakey: An unpleasant taste caused by using very high temperatures during drying ("firing") the leaves and consequently driving out too much moisture.
  • Biscuity: A pleasant taste resembling fresh baked bread that can be found in some Assam teas.
  • Bitter: An unpleasant bitter taste.
  • Body: How the tea liquor feels in your mouth. A tea is described has having light, medium, or full body. Full-bodied teas have fullness and strength as opposed to being thin. A tea's body will vary according to the region in which it was grown.
  • Brassy: An unpleasant, bitter metallic taste.
  • Bright: Liquor looks lively as opposed to dull. This quality becomes more apparent after the addition of milk.
  • Brisk: A vivacious, slightly astringent taste as opposed to flat or soft tasting liquor.
  • Character: Distinct qualities of the tea that allow the taster to detect the region where the tea was grown.
  • Color: Describes depth of color. The region when the tea was grown and the grade of tea play a part in the resulting shade and depth of the liquor color.
  • Coloury: A liquor that possesses depth of color, sometimes indicating full body or taste, but not necessarily so.
  • Course: An undesirable harsh, bitter taste.
  • Complex: A multidimensional aroma or taste profile.
  • Dry: A slightly bakey or scorched taste.
  • Dull: A liquor that lacks a lively, bright character in both appearance and taste.
  • Fine: Tea of exceptional taste and quality.
  • Flat: Lifeless liquor completely lacking in briskness. This can be the result of tea that is old or has been stored improperly.
  • Flavoury: Tea that has a pronounced, satisfying flavor. Pronounced flavour is more generally found in high grown teas such as Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Kerala, and Ceylon.
  • Full: Tea possessing color, strength and body as opposed to being empty or thin.
  • Hard: Tea that has penetrating and desirable strength, particularly used for Assam tea.
  • Harshness: An unpleasant degree of strength.
  • Heavy: Tea that possesses a thick, strong liquor with depth of color but is lacking in briskness.
  • Hungry: When the characteristics generally associated with the tea variety or region of origin are not present.
  • Light/Pale: Liquor that does not have depth of color but may be flavoury or pungent. Darjeeling tea is a good example of this.
  • Malty: A desirable malted barley taste often found in Assam tea.
  • Mellow: Tea leaves which have matured well produce a mellow tasting tea.
  • Muscatel: Grapey taste. This is an exceptional characteristic found in some Darjeeling tea.
  • Point(y): A desirable brightness and acidity often associated with Ceylon teas.
  • Pungent: A bright liquor that has pronounced briskness and a strong, astringent flavor. Highly desirable.
  • Rich: A pleasantly thick and mellow liquor.
  • Round: A full, smooth-tasting liquor.
  • Stale: Tea that has an unpleasant taste because it is old or has been stored in damp conditions.
  • Strong: Liquor possesses strength of body and flavor.
  • Thick: Tea that has good body as opposed to being "thin". Assam tea is known for producing a thick liquor.
  • Thin: Tea that lacks body. This is not necessarily undesirable as certain tea growing regions, such as Darjeeling, are celebrated for their tea's thin, flavoury liquors. However teas from Assam should never have a thin liquor.
  • Tired: Tea that is past its prime and consequently has a flat or stale character.
  • Woody: Tea that has a sawdust-like character.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge

This evening I went to the Tacoma Actor's Guild to watch their performance of Mark Brown's new play The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge. The "TAG" as it's called is a cozy place on Broadway, next to the Rialto. These actors are extraordinary, with wide-ranging talent, great British accents, and are even so bold to embrace audience-participation.

This is a trial and, of course, everyone in the audience is expected to stand when the Honorable Judge walks in to take his seat at the London Court. The audience is treated almost like jury, the way we're asked to approve of statements made by the defendant and plaintiff. Scrooge is his own defense, by the way, and the prosecution is Jewish lawyer, Solomon Rothschild. But both parties make allegations, shedding further light on Scrooge's past and reinterpreting the events of A Christmas Carol with modern wit and satire without poking fun at it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Neuro-Welfare Economics

During the past decade neuroeconomists have confirmed the insights of Adam Smith. People who trade money with strangers in a laboratory setting have an instinctive sense of fair play and reciprocity. Chimps and capuchin monkeys also possess this instinct. These non-human primates display, just as we do, a sense of trust in response to generosity, and resentment in the face of selfishness. Such brooding resentment, in fact, that volunteers (and chimps) will often forgo reward in order to punish selfish participants. This neuroeconomic research suggests that individuals’ preferences are determined not by what is good for them as a person, as a paternalist moral philosopher would say, but determined by the satisfaction of moral sentiments bound to subjective preferences.

Briefly my argument is that sympathy is a pre-condition of moral behavior. But I will argue that individual preference satisfaction is a better, more preferable, theory for welfare economics. The two theories actually fit together, rather than, as Hausman and Macpherson suggest, they are opposed. Hausman and Macpherson are two contemporary economists who have argued that economic models need to include actual preferences. Not simply what the paternalist moral philosopher argues is good for the person.

In the first chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith writes: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” This principle in man’s nature which no doubt is a true principle, may be thought to negate the doctrine of the Invisible Hand. Smith does not deny selfishness. Not only does he say “how selfish soever,” but he also writes that the benevolent man “gets nothing from it” but adds “except the pleasure of seeing it.” This seems to rule out benevolence the fruits of which cannot be observed (or at best imagined) and that is important in thinking about the principle.

Hausman and Macpherson, two contemporary economists, argue in Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy for a preference satisfaction theory of well-being as opposed to Smith’s “mental-state” theory of welfare, which Parfit considers an “objective-list” view, and which the authors themselves consider to be a “perfectionist” theory. Hausman and Macpherson say that welfare economists ought to find individual preference utilitarianism attractive and embrace it because this is similar to standard welfare economics. “Just define the rough-and-ready utility functions,” they say, “that will represent the preferences of the individual affected and stipulate a way of making interpersonal utility comparisons.” If one looks past the complications of actual life to the central realities captured in standard economic models, one can see that welfare is in essence the satisfaction of preferences.

Smith asserts in the Theory of Moral Sentiments that each individual, though he can have no immediate experience of what other men feel, is endowed with the capacity to form the idea of their feelings by imagining what he himself would feel in the same situation. Hence we are able to derive sorrow from the sorrow of others and happiness from their happiness. This capacity for fellow-feeling, which Smith calls sympathy, is present in all men.

Sympathy, according to Smith, is the basis of our "moral faculties." In the first place, sympathy is the foundation of our judgment of the conduct and character of others. When we see someone else angry we will approve of his anger if, upon examining the situation, we find that we too would become angry if we had been in his position. Though we are only spectators, in imagination we change places with the other person, and our sympathetic anger harmonizes with his original anger. This harmony of sentiments constitutes a judgment that the other person's behavior is proper. But if we find that his reasons for becoming angry are not such that we could share--that we, in short, would not have become angry under the same circumstances--we will not be able to sympathize with him. This disharmony of sentiments constitutes a judgment that the other person's behavior is improper. There is another set of qualities ascribed to the behavior of mankind, distinct from propriety and impropriety, which are also the objects of a species of approbation and disapprobation. These are merit, the quality of deserving reward; and demerit, the quality of deserving punishment. The first quality requires us to share sympathetically in the gratitude felt by the receiver of the benefit; the second, to share sympathetically in the resentment felt by the receiver of the hurt.

Sympathy is also the foundation of our judgment of our own conduct and character. It is significant that Smith deals first with our judgment of the behavior of other people, for he holds that all our moral judgments are dependent on our social situation. A solitary man could not judge of the propriety or merit of his own actions. To be morally conscious, one must look at one's own behavior as other people see it. The device for doing this is what Smith calls the "impartial spectator" within the breast of man. The man who has lived in society long enough to become morally conscious divides himself into two, and judges his own passions as other people would judge them. He carries out this division because he has a natural desire for the love, honor, and gratitude of other people--a desire that arises out of sympathy. He uses the "man within the breast" to humble the arrogance of his self-love, bringing it down to a level with which other people can appreciate.

The sophisticated way in which Smith uses the "man within the breast" is shown by his treatment of the love of praise and the love of praiseworthiness. Because of our desire for love, honor, and gratitude, we love to be praises. Smith then asks whether we love to be worthy of praise for its own sake, or merely because we believe that being worthy of praise will bring us praise. Smith's answer is that we naturally desire not only to be praised, but also to be worthy of praise. If we are praised when we are not worthy of praise, the man within the breast tells us that we do not deserve the praise, and we do not derive satisfaction from it. Contrariwise, if we do a good act we still get satisfaction from the praise of our internal spectator, even though no other person praises us for it. Thus, our love of being worthy of praise comes to be independent of our love of being praised by other people. In this way the individual is rendered anxious not only to appear fit, but also really to be fit, to live in society.

In an attempt to show the extent to which "the man within" corrects the otherwise unnatural inequality of our sentiments, Smith makes a distinction between "passive feelings" and "active principles." Our passive feelings, Smith states, are almost always sordid and selfish. For example, if a "man of humanity" in Europe knew that he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he would sleep securely if he were to learn that a hundred million Indonesians had been swallowed up by a tsunami. Our active principles, on the other hand, are often generous and noble. Despite the fact that his passive feelings would be more disturbed by the destruction of his finger than by the destruction of a hundred million Indonesians, this same man would certainly be unwilling to have the lives of a hundred million Indonesians sacrificed in order to save the finger. Indeed, human nature would startle with horror at the thought. The man within the breast, who regards every situation from the point of view of the impartial spectator, preserves harmony between men in the face of our selfish feelings.

Smith's moral system, then, is based on the single connecting principle of sympathy. Using this principle and its various articulations--the sense of propriety, the sense of merit, the man within the breast--Smith claims to have constructed a moral system more comprehensive than any other moral system. "If we examine the most celebrated and remarkable of the different theories which have been given concerning the nature and origin of our moral sentiments," Smith states at the beginning of the section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments dealing with "Systems of Moral Philosophy."

But in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith never presents his moral system as a mere pleasure or mental machine, like the illustration given by Robert Nozick, nor does he ever suggest that the principle of sympathy does not actually exist within human nature. Yet Smith has no explicit epistemological principles by which he is able to substantiate the existence in the external world of the principle of sympathy. He has never detected this principle in man, nor has he ever observed "moral faculties" to which it supposedly gives rise. As the recent studies in neuroeconomics suggest, Smith’s mental state theory of welfare has been validated. Neuroeconomics has shown us that "the man within" corrects the otherwise unnatural inequality of our sentiments, and affirms our sense of fairness.

Smith's failure to admit the purely mental nature of his moral system may be in part a result of the fact that to do so would be to come close to admitting that his was an unacceptable "hypothetical" system, rather than a system based on fact. Hausman and Macpherson, who are opposed to the idea of a mental-state theory of welfare, argue that moral sentiments are not based on mental-states, but rather, economic models should include preference-based welfare theories.

It must be said that Hausman and Macpherson are not wholly satisfied with preference satisfaction. They say that it mistakenly suggests that all policies should attend to individual preferences, even if they’re antisocial or expensive. They judge preference satisfaction from a public policy point of view. But the overall argument is that we need to include preferences in economic models. A preference-satisfaction theory of well-being is easily and better-suited to work with fundamental welfare economic theory. The mental-state theory of well-being is not the only answer either. The synthesis of mental-state theories and individual preference theories forms the basis of moral interactivity and public policy. Adam Smith’s mental-state theory simply does not disappear; it is not, as Hausman and Macpherson suggest, a defunct theory.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pretentious Waterbaby Bagatelles

The third act of Allan Dameron’s Dancing of the Front Porch of Heaven is titled, with great alliteration, Waterbaby Bagatelles. Twyla Tharp, who is very well known and respected, choreographed this dance. It is a skillfully composed ballet, written in a clean, slightly acid, diatonic style that strongly resembles a sterile swimming pool. It poses some problems of interpretation, especially with the title, but also the dance itself, which demands an interpretive display of virtuosity. It is an ideal piece for variety in the musical score, the soloist being free to concentrate on details of tonal balance in the distinctive contrasts that are relevant to the form of the piece.

Since I don’t know much about ballet, the first thing I did was research the title. In musicology, says the PNB press release, a bagatelle is “a short and unpretentious composition.” The most well-known bagatelle is Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Twyla Tharp’s piece is composed of seven of these. They take place on a pristinely surfaced stage overhung and aquatically lighted by rows of stark, rearrangeable, fluorescent light tubes, like those of an aquarium. The bare-chested men and the bathing-capped women reinforce the dance’s swimming pool connection. The first couple of bagatelles establish a mode a self-pointing that runs through the whole act, and tells us that Waterbabies are desirable creatures. But the act contradicted this by glorifying the male body more than the female body. The bathing caps were clever, but it tended to make the muscular men stand out more. Also one notices that the women are always seen together, in a pack, whereas the men are oftentimes by themselves and free to dance ostentatiously.

The female dancers are more like synchronized swimmers, or perhaps schools of fish, whereas the male dancers have the impression that we are inside a shark tank. At one point a really big fish came dancing out onto the stage, twittering his behemoth feet, lifting up a tall woman effortlessly into the airy waters. The music was slow, steady, as if to suggest we had sunk to the dark disarray at the bottom of the pool. All the other sharks had by this time scattered, leaving him to dance pas de deux (“not as two”) with his fishy paramour under the dim lights. This bagatelle, I’ve lost count which one, was like watching a steady couple, unconcerned with courtship, but interested in passionate love.

As soon as these swimming beasts floated off-stage the more agile and hormonal sharks came back on the scene to impress the eye-batting waterbabies, who were seated as if on the edge of the pool to watch the competitive males show off their “attitude” with twists, turns, en dehors, en dedans, and tours en l’air. At first the men were like quick blurs of curved silver darting away, and then coming back unexpectedly. But then they became more—dare I say it?—pretentious and remained on stage for some time showing off their dances. The waterbabies thought this was quite the cat’s meow, and began clapping for their favorite men, cheering them on as they encircled the women and the stage. This escalated the men’s bravado.

The biggest problem was not with the act itself, it was wonderful, but the description of the act in the press release. If I were a ballet connoisseur, I would have been outraged that it was considered “unpretentious”. If bagatelles are considered to be “unpretentious” then I’m not sure what to call the third act of Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven! The men were certainly pretentious. Their daring dances demanded skill and bravado. It was clearly intended to impress others. All things considered, it was a ballet worth seeing, and I plan on returning to the PNB to see more shows.

Classical Tenets of Capitalism

I have compiled a list of seven classical tenets of capitalism, to be used for later reference. The ideas and terms stated below are to be understood as the classical tenets, i.e., the tenets of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Some would consider John Stuart Mill classical. But Mill came later and even though he still accepted the basic tenets, I wouldn't consider Mill classical.

1) Private Property

Most legal systems distinguish between different types (immovable property, estate in land, real estate, real property) of property, especially between land and all other forms of property. They also often distinguish between tangible and intangible property as well.

In common law, property is divided into:

  1. real property - (immovable property) interests in land and improvements thereto
  2. personal property - interests in anything other than real property

Personal property in turn is divided into tangible property (such as cars, clothing, animals) and intangible or abstract property (e.g. financial instruments such as stocks and bonds, etc.), which includes intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trademarks).

The two major justifications of original property, or homesteading, are effort and scarcity. John Locke emphasized effort, "mixing your labor" with an object, or clearing and cultivating virgin land. Benjamin Tucker preferred to look at the telos of property. He asked "What is the purpose of property?" His answer: to solve the scarcity problem. Only when items are relatively scarce with respect to people's desires do they become property.

2) Self Interest

There are many types of "egoism". Psychological egoism says that individuals are motivated by self-interest. Ethical egoism says individuals ought to do what is in their self-interest. And rational egoism says that it is rational to act in one's self-interest. Adam Smith, writing the Wealth of Nations, espoused a psychological egoism. But he argued further that this was a good thing, because:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

~WON ch.2

The concept of the "invisible hand" is nearly always generalized beyond Smith's original discussion of domestic versus foreign trade. Smith himself participated in this generalization, as is already evident in his allusion to "many other cases", quoted above. And the invisible hand is a natural inclination, not yet a social mechanism as it will be after Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto.

3) Competition.

Seen as the most important pillar of capitalism by many people in that it may stimulate innovation, encourage efficiency, or drive down prices, competition is touted as the foundation upon which capitalism is erected. According to micro-economic theory, no system of resource allocation is more efficient than pure competition. Competition, according to the theory, causes commercial firms to develop new products, services, and technologies. This gives consumers larger selection and better products. The greater selection typically causes lower prices for the products compared to what the price would be if there was no competition (monopoly) or little competition (oligopoly).

4) Market-based.

How are goods and services going to be allocated? A market-based economy is one where the price of each item or service is arranged by the agreement between sellers and buyers; the opposite is a command economy, where supply and price are set by committee or a body. However, while a purely free market necessitates that government does not dictate prices, it also requires the traders themselves do not coerce or defraud each other, and that all trades are morally voluntary.

The ideal of a free market is voluntary exchange. If an exchange takes place under coercion or fraud, then that exchange is not considered a free exchange.

5) Economic Freedom

Economic freedom is different from market freedom. The tenet of economic freedom applies to individual economic agents, and is more like a "Free to Choose" principle, which is in essence what capitalist economics is all about. Some have even called 'economics' the study of choice, because what decisions entities make are important to economists. Modern economics studies Rational choice theory which assumes human behavior is guided by instrumental reason. Accordingly, individuals always choose what they believe to be the best means to achieve their given ends.

In Adam Smith's day, however, this had a much more basic notion. The idea was that economic agents were free to choose where to put their investments, what to consume, and what to do. This free exchange and free choice principle allows the capitalist economy to allocate resources as the consumer chooses.

6) Consumer Sovereignty

Those with money and other assets are able to use their purchasing power to tell producers of goods and services what to produce (and how much). Customers do not necessarily have to buy and, if dissatisfied, can take their business elsewhere, while the profit-seeking sellers find that they can make the greatest profit by trying to provide the best possible products for the price (or the lowest possible price for a given product). In the language of cliché, "he who pays the piper calls the tune."

To most neoclassicals, consumer sovereignty is an ideal rather than a reality because of the existence -- or even the ubiquity -- of market failure. Some economists of the Chicago School and the Austrian school see consumer sovereignty as a reality in a free market economy without interference from government or other non-market institutions, or anti-market institutions such as monopolies or cartels. That is, alleged market failures are seen as being a result of non-market forces. However, it has also been argued (e.g., by Goutam U. Jois) that even a "pure" market system violates the consumer sovereignty norm.

Does the doctrine of consumer sovereignty imply that the consumers of labor (the employers) are the sovereigns over the time supplied by workers? The neoclassical school, would argue no since workers can choose which employer to work for (as long as the employer will have them).

Since the demand for labor is a 'derived demand' what workers produce and how they do it is a direct result of the demand for products, and thus they are sovereigns, albeit at secondhand. Conversely, the Marxian school argues that the concentration of purchasing power in the hands of a small minority (the capitalist) means that the bourgeoisie is the sovereign in both product and labor markets. This is reinforced by the normal existence of the "reserve army of labor" which restricts workers' ability to choose between jobs.

7) Laissez Faire

short for "laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer," meaning "let do, let go, let pass." From the French diction first used by the eighteenth century Physiocrats as an injunction against government interference with trade, it became used as a synonym for strict free market economics during the early and mid-19th century.

The laissez-faire school of economic thought holds a pure or economically liberal market view: that the free market is best left to its own devices, and that it will dispense with inefficiencies in a more deliberate and quick manner than any legislating body could. The basic idea is that less government interference in private economic decisions such as pricing, production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services makes for a better (more efficient) economy.

As said before, Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations argued that the invisible hand of the market would guide people to act in the public interest by following their own self-interest, since the only way to make money would be through voluntary exchange, and thus the only way to get the people's money was to give the people what they want. Smith said you do not get what you need by appealing to the "love" of the butcher, the farmer or the baker. Instead you appeal to their "self interest", and pay them to exchange their products for yours.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tarski and Proper Classes

A "set" is a class which is a member of a class. A proper class is a class which is not a member of anything. In one established theory about classes, viz. the theory expounded by Monk, proper classes are asserted to exist. According to other theories, e.g., Zermelo-Frankel set theory, all classes are sets. Here I will argue for the following claim:

If Tarski's semantical account in Logic, Semantics, and Metamathematics for what he called 'the language of the calculus of classes' (called C) is correct, then Monk's theory is false.

In particular, Tarski's definition of truth for C is inconsistent with Monk's assertion that there are proper classes.

If Tarski's definition of truth for C is correct then the truth conditions of each sentence of C are detrimental. Still there remains the question: which sentences of C are true? Different theories about classes constitute different answers. A theory about classes in C can be construed as a particular subset of C's sentences, viz., the theory's theses. If the theory is an axiom theory this set consists of the theory's axioms and all logical consequences of its axioms.

C is a first order language whose non-logical constant is a sign for class inclusion. Any theory about all classes is formulable in C as long as the theory's primitive non-logical constants are definable solely in terms of the sign for class inclusion. Monk's is such a theory, for its primitives are all definable in terms of class inclusion and it is a theory about all classes. My argument for this is as follows. Suppose Monk's really is a theory about some but not all classes. Then a language L is appropriate to Monk's theory only if L's variables range over some but not all classes. But then Monk's assertion of proper classes is verified by the fact that among the values of variables of L are classes that are members of none of the values of those variables. But this point is trivial, for no one doubts that there are classes among which some are not members of any others. Since it is not this triviality that is intended by the Monk assertion of proper classes, Monk's theory is about all classes.

It is true that according to the standard characterization of an interpretation of a first-order language an interpretation consists of a non-empty class, called the domain of discourse, plus a function that assigns the usual things to the non-logical constants of the language. When one goes to the definition of truth under that interpretation, it is plain that the domain of discourse is the class of those entities which are the values of the variables under that interpretation. But a Tarski-style definition of truth for a first-order language does not require a domain of discourse for either language or metalanguage. All that is required is a specification of the objects over which the language's variables range.

Tense Operators Versus Quantifiers in Modal Logic

Professor Cannon suggested earlier this semester that the English tenses, past and present, behave surprisingly like pronouns, and this suggests encouragement of theories of natural language in which tenses get represented by the use of quantifiers and variables that range over times. He also suggested that these tenses cannot be represented by operators, as is customary in many versions of tense logic. But this is not obvious. Tense operators are in fact capable of manifesting at least some pronoun-like behavior.

Take "variable-binding" for example. Operators do something like this by means of scope. To illustrate with a non-tense example, we can write either:

1) daimond A


2) For some possible world w, A is true in w.

The appearance of 'A' within the scope of the operator 'daimond' serves the same purpose as the binding of w in 'A is true in w' by the quantifier of 2). Similarly with tenses, compare:

2) It was the case that A.


4) For some past time t, A is true at t.

The main advantage of the explicit quantification of times over the use of tense operators is that the former is a more powerful notation--it can be used to express things that cannot be expressed in the tense-operator notation. But if the expressive resources of English tenses do not exploit this extra expressive power, i.e. if the expressive resources of English tenses do not exceed the expressive power of tense operators, then this is an insight about English that is worth noting.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reason, Love and Ontology in Midsummer Night's Dream

This is a review and interpretation of the comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, as adapted by the theater students at the University of Puget Sound.

A good number of people think Shakespeare romanticizes love and celebrates it. But he also finds love absurd in the comedies. Love is moving and profound--one of the most wonderful things that can happen to a young person--but simultaneously makes you behave like a fool. In another play I'm familiar with, As You Like It, the heroines are much more self-aware of how foolish they are. Nobody in Midsummer Night's Dream is that aware. They're absurd but they don't realize it.

It is Puck, Oberon's faery spirit and servant, who actually says they are absurd, "What fools these mortals be?" But Puck is detached from the situation and is manipulating them by making the characters fall in love with the wrong people. Puck himself is not in love. He's not even human. He's a mythological creature who doesn't literally exist. But he represents a kind of narrator who manipulates the characters and then tells us that they behave that way naturally. The theater students conveyed this by giving Gothic style clothing to the mythological characters, which is perfectly suitable. The Goths were in my opinion the best characters of the play. (By Gothic I mean the fashionable post-punk subculture.) Anyone dressed in Hot Topic clothes on stage is of the faery world, or "the wood" as they call it, and should not be thought of as literally existant. They're much more Freudian than that.

In the wood outside Athens, Love is absurd. There are two young men and two young women in the play. Both the young men are first in love with Hermia. Then they fall out of love with Hermia and into love with Helena. The literal reason is because Puck sprinkles them with magical faery dust. The women tie themselves into knots because of what Puck has done. But Puck does not literally exist. So the play is not about Puck's magic. The magic merely brings out the inherent irrationality of love. I say irrational because all the four lovers in this play are equally desirable. They're also indistinguishable. And in Midsummer Night's Dream love makes a difference where there is no difference.

Love first says that Helena is ugly. Then love says she is a Goddess. Love finds Hermia worth running through fire for at one point. Then love says she's sour and commonplace. But both Hermia and Helena are well brought up, highly desirable women of the noble class. Most men would find either of them quite attractive. Helena and Hermia have essentially the same qualities. But love insists on making an absolute difference where there really isn't much difference.

Then love magnifies its irrationality by insisting that its reasons for love are very rational indeed. When people fall in love or change the person they love, the first thing they do is justify the reason why they had a change of heart. At each change of heart in the play, the characters give their reasons for it. These reasons are more like rationalizations. Lysander's reasons, for example, are greatly unreasonable. He says, "The will of man is by his reason swayed, and reason says you are the worthier maid." What a silly answer! He's nothing but a sophist (in the prejorative sense.) To switch from one woman to another is completely rational to Lysander, and his appeal to "reason" without actually having a reason makes it irrational.

The worst example by far is Titania, who is made to fall in love with an ass, or rather an ass-headed man. She says that his singing is beautiful--his donkey singing!--and begins to seduce him. She tells her cute little Goth faeries to pamper him and give him all he wants. The donkey replies by saying, "Methinks, Mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet to say the truth reason and love keep little company nowadays." This is by far the best one-liner in the whole play. And notice too that the donkey speaks in prose: now there's the voice of reason, finally! Immanuel Kant, writing the Critique of Pure Reason, could not have expounded more reasonably than this ass.

Near the end of the play, once the course of love is running smooth, Helena is married to Lysander and Hermia is married to Demetrius. Titania and Oberon are once again joined together in love after their tiff, which is supposed to be over an Indian boy. But I didn't see his equivalent in the UPS adaptation. Oberon and Titania are supposedly the ones causing all this love-trouble which begins in the psychologized faery world. But I don't recall that the cause of their dispute, the indian boy, was represented in the play. (I'm writing this review several weeks after, however.)

The play is nearly over. And now since the marriage unions have been achieved, the whole business of lovers running off into the forest can be safely parodied. This is done with the ridiculous tragedy of Pyramis and Thisbe. This is a wonderful play-within-a-play, seen by the four newly-wed lovers with Hypolita and Theseus. They sit to watch a play about two young lovers who are frustrated by fathers and the law and who run off into the woods. It's their own story! But the lovers don't realize it because it's supposedly acted so badly that they sit scoffing at the performance. In some ways, the students who acted as the amateur theater troupe in Pyramis and Thisbe were more comedic than the four lovers. The audience certainly believed so. The troupe succeeded at making this part of the play wholly absurd. Not to scorn the skill of these actors and actresses, but it's easier to recite lines in parody than it is to act seriously and comedic at the same time. Parody and the postmodern sensibility go well together.

The world of dream and the world of the love may be strange. But it is not merely fanciful. I suggested earlier that it was Freudian. But I now want to leave on a Hegelian note. In a psychological sense the faery world does exist. We cannot say that it must exist because it's confirmed by all the lovers. It isn't an individual hallucination. Everyone participates in it. It suggests that the lovers are not operating on their own individual psychological experiences. They are participating rather in what Hegel calls the Welteist, or the World Spirit. This term he uses is meant to sound supernatural but it's meaning is better understood as group-consciousness, where everyone synthesizes with everyone else and moves forward in history.

The structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream confirms the coexistence of the real world and the World Spirit which we are conscious of and basing our actions from on some level. The faery world is not treated like an odd little Freudian episode, some psychotic hallucination. Shakespeare brings the faeries back at the end. The nature-oriented faeries come out of the wood, and they get the final lines of the play, and with their last words they bless the house and the lovers. By analogy, acknowledging the fact that real world people have blessed the marriages and now the World Spirit does too. In the audience we have seen the whole thing. The fact that the faeries are still there is surprising, and provocative. We have seen the strange and variousness of it and leave talking about the world of daylight and the world of dream, the world of people and the world of faeries. The world and the world spirit.

Femme de l'aviateur, La

Or, The Aviator's Wife, directed by Eric Rohmer. Rohmer is one of my favorite directors and this is one of my favorite films.

The film's proverb is "It's impossible to think about nothing." One thing I love about Rohmer's films is that you cannot predict where they will go. But I'm always thinking about the dialogue and where it would go. Another thing is his incredible attention to authentic detail about how people talk and how they feel without cliche and without any compromise with reality--Rohmer's reality of course, which I find is very much like the reality that I have experienced.

The story progresses around several photographs discussed throughout the film. The Aviator's wife, incidentally does not appear except in a photograph, but that is all to the point. Everything is a bit off stage in this intriguing drama: love especially is a bit off stage. And yet how all the participants yearn. Rohmer's intriguing little joke is about the aviator's wife. Who is she and what is she like? We can only imagine. And this is right. The woman imagines what the other woman is like, but never really knows unless she meets her.

As we follow this talk we see that Anne's heart is breaking or has broken--and all the while we see her skin as Francois does. She wants to be touched, but not by him. And then she allows him to touch her, but only in comforting gestures, redirecting his hands away from amorous intent. And then she goes out with a man in whom she really has no interest.

Such is life, one might say. Rohmer certainly thinks so.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ami de mon amie, L' (1987)

Why does it have to end or not end? Can't it be what it is? But love does that. It either ends or doesn't end. It cannot sit still. It impatiently and constantly demands an evaluation of what it is and where it is going. It's self-conscious to the point of self-destruction. Can't it dissolve all these worries? Ah, boyfriends and girlfriends -- when will they ever learn?

Making Love to Ginger Rogers

"He made love to me," pouts Ginger Rogers in a strange little moment in the 1935 movie Tophat, explaining to her friend why she feels misled by Fred Astaire. That line almost shocked me into supposing that Ginger meant what we would mean by that today, but Tophat was made too late for the line to qualify as a bit of "Pre-Code Hollywood" realism. In fact in 1935, "make love" could still signify any degree of physical involvement, most often just kissing, which the storyline makes pretty clear is all Ginger meant.

A Prolegomena to Any Future Cosmological Argument

Let's consider Taylor's cosmological argument for the existence of God seriously this time. I have heard it before many times. But this time, I will honestly consider it. I will start at the beginning.

First, what of the principle of sufficient reason? It states that for every positive fact or truth there is a sufficient cause or reason why that fact obtains or why that statement is true. I think we ought to accept this because not doing so would lead us to other undesirable problems. There is a sufficient reason for the universe existing. The prove that, suppose there is not a sufficient reason. If there wasn't a reason, there also would not be cause, and the universe would not exist. But the universe does exist, so there is a sufficient reason as to why. But we have to follow the principle all the way through. We cannot pick an arbitrary point to stop simply because the theists stops at an arbitrary point, or the non-theist stops at an arbitrary point. We cannot let the standards of the other position determine ours. That way, we're not taking it seriously, we're only trying to deface the other's position.

Arguing cosmologically, the theist says that the universe must have a cause and its cause is God. The theist stops after "Therefore God exists." We can ask, using the principle of sufficient reason, "Why does God exist?" He says, he always existed. Then we ask further, what is the sufficient reason for His existing always? Likewise, the non-theist says "The universe existed forever". But what is the sufficient reason for the universe existing forever? The argument stops there, as Russell says, because the theists stops shortly after that as well.

The crucial issue, then, with cosmological arguments is that the theist and the nontheist are going to accept different stopping-off points in their respective applications of the principle of sufficient reason. The nontheist then says that he explains the universe's existence in fewer steps, and does not multiply entities beyond necessity. Therefore God is not necessary. "I have no need of that hypothesis," as Laplace says.

I have not considered Taylor's argument yet, because we cannot get off the ground. Before I can get to that point, I have to settle the problem of sufficient reason. I haven't gotten very far! See what taking something seriously gets me! I referred to this in other posts about absurdity. I'm embracing the absurd at this moment. It is not a contradictory position, I contend. Pyrrhonism, ultimate skepticism, has always intrigued me. But I see it as something to at least try to escape from. I always end up falling back into it, however.

I think I'll stop there.

Ballet as a Metaphor for Love

Before we fall in love we know what qualities we are looking for in a lover--or think we do. The profiles on or Eharmony or Yahoo Singles certainly suggest that. Once we have fallen in love, it's a different story.

When people are pressed to explain why they love their lover, they usually have nothing to say except what a simpleminded answer would give: because she's she, and because I'm me! When it comes to explaining why they love, they are tongue-tied. Is it that you can't capture love in a finite list of qualities? How do you explain the reason for love? A list of physical and psychological qualities seems too quaint, like something out of an unsophisticated movie. A list of spiritual qualities seems to be a fabricated reason. Any spiritual reason would lead someone to love all people the same, making people inseparable from love of people.

At this point in my life the metaphor for love is the lighting at a ballet. What we love is well-lit, because love is the source of the light. When the light goes out, the beloved joins the rest of the ballet dancers. Unfortunately, what promises to illuminate love's death darkens its birth. Only lovers turn love on, others do not. But love isn't a searchlight. It's more of a security light that only some things trigger.

Many people in defense of love say that it cannot be captured at all. Still, the illusion that love is grounded in something--some quality or list of qualities--gets things backward. Where I am concerned is the value-conferring kind of love might hold more promise. Someone can value where they love, rather than love where they value. That might explain why what is valued in a lover is not necessarily valued in someone else with the same qualities. The light is not on them. It reflects the subjectivity of the object of one's love. It is simply a value judgment. It would also explain why, when love dies, what we once found beautiful, we now find commonplace or not even our type.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Colonists as Faithful Subjects Under the Grenville Program

The Stamp Act of 1765 is conventionally taken as the beginning of the sequence of events immediately preceding the American Revolution. But it was only the most famous of the series of policy decision concerning the colonies enacted by Lord George Grenville’s prime ministerial rule in British Parliament (1763-5). During this period, the British Government turned its attention at American after a generation of war with the French and a century of neglect. This was a period that forced the colonies to understand the implications of imperial rule.

In order the finance the Seven Years’ War (the French-Indian War as Americans know it), Britain had borrowed money from the Dutch, merchant bankers, the Bank of England (established in 1694), and private companies and individuals at high rates of interest. Lord Grenville believed that it was his duty to pay this debt off, but could not afford to upset Independent Gentlemen and British nobility by increasing their taxes in so doing.

He therefore,

(1) left the colonial land tax at ₤4/-, which was not popular. Under peacetime conditions, the land tax stood at ₤3/- and most people expected the tax to be reduced after the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1763.

(2) He cut expenditures in the army and navy. This was seen as more weakness on the part of the government back home, especially with the growing empire, and unpopular with the colonists since it was mainly they who helped meet these costs.

(3) Grenville also believed that since Britain was defending the empire, the colonies should help defray the costs. Consequently, he introduced a series of policies known as the Grenville Program.

The colonial assemblies, however, were much rather in favor of voluntary financial contributions, as had been done in the past. Central to Grenville’s colonial policy, and certainly central to Britain’s prevailing mercantilist ideology of the time, was the detailed investigation in 1763 into the American evasion of the trade laws: the Customs Board estimated the average annual revenue from the American customs to be a mere ₤1,800.

This was intolerable to Grenville, whose guiding principles were strict adherence to legality and financial solvency. Attempts to enforce the existing trade regulations, as by incentives to naval officers and customs officials, preceded their alterations by Parliament in the American Duties Act of 1764. The most controversial of this new duty enforcement was the creation of a new vice-admiralty court—a court that exercises jurisdiction over maritime affairs—for the trial and punishment of smugglers, but whereas these courts were unhindered by juries.

The prospect of a trial without a jury excited the temperaments of colonists, to whom London booksellers, as Edmund Burke tells us, sold more books on law theory in the American colonies than anywhere else in the British Empire. Also important were the writs of assistance which helped enforce the Acts of Trade by allowing customs officers to conduct general searches of premises for contraband. In 1761, James Otis represented Boston merchants in their challenge to the renewal of the writs. He failed to convince the court, but gained public prominence in arguing that colonists’ natural rights were violated by the writs.

The first deliberative attempt to tax the colonies and to fulfill the Proclamation of 1763 was the Sugar Act, which was an alteration of the molasses duty which converted it into a source of revenue as well as a trade regulation. The molasses duty was originally 6d per gallon. But this was evaded by smuggling or by collusion with the customs officers who charged about 10% of the duty.

The Grenville Treasury Board dropped the idea of a molasses prohibition, accepting that trade was vital to the economy of New England. Thus the rate of duty that would produce the highest revenue therefore became the Treasury’s highest concern. Their conclusions estimated that the point at which marginal revenue equaled marginal cost of productivity lost through taxation was 3d per gallon. Grenville maintained that the molasses duty had the twofold aim of producing revenue and maintaining imperial preference, since there would still be no duty on molasses imported from the British West Indies.

The Grenville ministry also sought to amend the legislation on the status of colonial paper money as legal tender. The Currency Act of 1764 applied only to the nine colonies south of New England, which had had a similar act since 1751. Out of those, only North Carolina and Virginia had a suspect currency, but the British Government thought a general regulation was preferable for discriminatory measures.

The problem centered on the use of depreciated Virginia currency for the payment of debts from that to British creditors. The Bute ministry, Grenville’s predecessor, had warned the Virginia assembly to mend its ways, but without effect. The Currency Act under Grenville immediately prohibited all colonial paper money as legal tender, but would not cancel existing monetary issues. This had little immediate effect and did not incur sustained colonial criticism until after the Stamp Act crisis.

After a century of colonial rule, Britain had essentially perfected the art of taxation. Just a hundred years earlier, during the 1600s, the revenue collected from the colonies was paid for entirely by way of land taxation. By the time the Stamp Act was introduced into Parliament the chief motive of the Grenville ministry had changed from collection of revenue to the assertion of sovereignty.

Despite news of colonial protests, Parliament proceeded with the Stamp Act, arguing that the virtual representation of the colonies was the basis of Parliament’s right to tax. Grenville asserted that even in Britain fewer than 5% were directly represented. In fact, great care had been taken to make the Stamp Act acceptable to the colonies. The wide range of duties, which averaged only about 70% of their equivalent in Britain, had been devised to provide an equitable distribution of the burden.

The defense of America was after all very expensive—the annual cost of the army alone standing at an estimated ₤350,000—and the burden of the colonists’ own internal taxation was very light. The revenue from the stamp duties would increase only as the colonies prospered, and the tax would be largely self-enforcing through the legal invalidity of unstamped documents. There was no foundation for the contemporary and historical myth that Britain would drain money from America.

On the eve of the Revolutionary War itself, a petition was submitted to the Crown to resolve these differences peacefully. It is known as the Olive Branch Petition. The document begins with Congress declaring themselves to be “We, Your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the colonies,” and entreating the King to consider this, “Our humble petition.”

The Congress recalls how British and colonial forces together had repelled the French and the Spanish and, owing to the sacrifice of the colonists, they thought that the victory would redound at least to some extent and would benefit themselves as well as the mother country.

This is addressed now to George III, “Your loyal colonists doubted not but that they should be permitted with the rest of the empire to share in blessings of peace and the emoluments of victory and conquest.”

The petition goes on to say that, in response to Grenville’s Parliamentary measures, which the colonists regard as somewhat disciplinary in nature, the colonists now must arm themselves for their own defense. All of this conveys anything but the true sentiments of a faithful people, the Olive Branch Petition being replete with statements that would leave no doubt as to the sincerity of the Continental Congress in seeking the full restoration of the British Empire.

Was Lord Grenville to blame for all of this? His ministry undoubtedly left a personal mark on American policy. A great deal was done in such a short time. The fact that Grenville’s ministry gave so much attention to the colonies was due not to any particular ideological approach, but to the need to solve problems, old and new.

The phrase “Grenville program” arguably implies a certain coherence that did not exist, since the colonial acts sprang from differing motivations. The policy of maintaining a large army in America, and the crucial public commitment to finance it by a colonial tax, for example, were both legacies of an earlier ministry, that of Lord Bute’s.

Grenville himself, a financier with legal background, was shocked at the disorder and defiance of authority revealed in the American scene. Hence the comment of an anonymous contemporary of his, “Mr. Grenville lost America because he read the American despatches, which his predecessors had never done.”

Further reading:

Thomas, P.D.G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763—1767. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Thomas, P.D.G. “The Grenville Program, 1763—1765.” A Companion to the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. 118-122.

Thomas, P.D.G. “The Stamp Act Crisis and its repercussions, including the Quartering Act controversy.” A Companion to the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. 123-134.

Sheridam, Richard. “The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy for British Sugar Planters.” Essays in American Colonial History.

Ferguson, James E. “Currency Finance: An Interpretation of Colonial Monetary Practices.” Essays in American Colonial History.

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams etc. The Olive Branch Petition. June 2001. Georgia Tech. September 2005.

Unknown Author. Imperial Reorganization 1763—1764. 2005. September 2005.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Eclipse of Modernism and the Rise of Methodological Rhetoric

[An essay on D. McCloskey’s rhetorical analyzes of the economic science, why it matters that economics is rhetorical, why methodology is not over, and some lingering problems. ]

It is not easy to think of a proposition in economics that all reasonable economists agree to have been falsified by the evidence. It seems that no theory has ever been certified as dead. Yet many economists continue to believe that they are marching under the Popperian flag, and many of them wave the Friedman banner of predictive success. Of course most economists don’t worry about the scientific status of economics and think they could do economics without a methodological fuss. Does it matter that when asked what economists are doing or reflecting on that they come up with unsatisfactory answers? D. McCloskey believes that it does, and I think he is largely right about the reasons why.

McCloskey has no difficulty in showing that economic discourse is primarily “rhetorical” and not “scientific” in the Popperian sense. (The same is certainly true in “science”.) For instance he gives convincing demonstration that the use of literary devices in what appear to be formal arguments by Gerard Debreu, he documents the metaphorical nature of well-known propositions of Friedman, he shows the use of tropes by Solow and of quite straightforward rhetoric by various other economists (i). For good measure he gives his readers practical advice on rhetorical analysis in his essay How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. In this and other works the aim is not to show that the economists are wrong altogether but rather that they were doing something other than what they believed themselves to be doing.

They emerge not as hard-nosed positivist scientists but as persuaders who, often, have all the tools requisite to persuade successfully. McCloskey believes that recognition of the fact that this is what economists are about would not only have the virtue of honesty but also the merit that fruitful debates could take place. People who believe themselves possessed of scientific truths or to be searching for such truths are disinclined to take note of the disciplines which are not regarded as “scientific.” McCloskey believes that for instance literary criticism and linguistics have been neglected by economists at some cost. More serious, it seems to me, is the neglect of history and the absence of any sense of history. The project of a history-free understanding of the economic world is not self-evidently plausible.

To McCloskey, the perceived methodology of economists is “modernist,” by which he means an amalgamation of positivist scientific thinking, behaviorism, operationalism, and hypothetico-deductive models of science. He traces all this back to the Cartesian dogma that “only the indubitable is true” (ii) Modernism’s application to economics is even more problematic than its application to other sciences. But economists only perceive they are modernists, while in truth they are rhetoricians. In fact the philosophers have moved on, and the economists are still carrying around their “methodological necrophilia.” When modernism collapses, this supposedly entails the end of methodology. Bruce Caldwell argues that McCloskey is arguing for the end of methodology (iii). But McCloskey argues that “Rhetoric” replaces modernism. Economists already have replaced modernism with rhetoric. To turn a phrase from Nietzsche, “The will to overcome methodology is ultimately the will of one methodology over another.”

Rhetoric is the ‘art of argument’ in the classical sense, reminiscent of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian, and was eventually “crucified” by Descartes. The best way to define rhetoric in the sense that McCloskey means is the study of the ways interlocutors accomplish things with language. It is critical inquiry. This “disciplined conversation” in economics is a literary matter, heavily metaphorical, and uses a kind of Aristotelian poetics when talking about economics.

The purpose of McCloskey’s own rhetoric is to persuade the reader to accept McCloskey’s view of economic scholarship, both in respect to what it is in practice and what it could be if economists paid more attention to rhetoric in their professional practice. “The subject is scholarship. It is not the economy, or the adequacy of economic theory as a description of the economy, or even mainly the economist’s role in the economy. The subject is the conversion economists have among themselves, for purposes of persuading each other” (iv). ‘Conversion among economists’ and ‘economics as rhetoric’ sounds slightly religious. I am reminded of St. Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity which began after his study of rhetoric. He writes in Confessions that he could not separate the substance of Christianity from its rhetoric in the form of St. Ambrose’s preaching. In that sense, we have an idea of what good classical rhetoric is, that is, the inseparability of rhetoric from substance.

McCloskey never explicitly says what good rhetoric ought to look like, but it’s clear from his prose that his own essays are in fact just that: The Rhetoric of Economics is an example of good rhetoric in the sense that it uses language very well in presenting interesting arguments. But how good his rhetoric is in the sense of being persuasive and thus likely to cause major changes in the beliefs and scholarly behavior of economists, I would not dare to predict after being persuaded by McCloskey that economists are not much good at prediction. Impossible! McCloskey’s articles are written with an elegance which is rare of other authors of contemporary economic thought. So one reads his articles with enjoyment and also is easier to assent to many of his arguments. But one is also left with many doubts.

It is clear that the simple positivism of the postwar years will not suffice either as a description of what we do or as an aim for what we should do. Econometrics at best has turned out to be a useful “filing cabinet” but has not been able to deliver the goods as a tool for the falsification of theories. In any case it has been known for a long time that one of the primary roles of economic theory is to provide a means for organizing our thoughts about a vastly complex world and to provide a means by which economists can discuss their scholarship, that is, understand each other. It is a lack of comprehension of this important role of scholarship which has led some to write off General Equilibrium Theory as useless while others have taken it as a sufficiently accurate description of, say, the present American economy. Rosenberg charges that economic theory is nothing but applied mathematics (v). McCloskey argues that this charge applies only to general equilibrium theory, mathematical economics and armchair discussions of philosophers who fail to see the economic science. Reading McCloskey should help to expose and dispel some of the reasons for these misunderstandings.

However, great care must be taken not to go to the extreme of “insights,” “intuition” and all economics as poetry. Without some rules a chasm opens for cranks and madmen to frolic in. Without rules one can only hope that intuition of economists will keep back the madmen. It is no surprise then that McCloskey, who has an aversion to epistemology and follows Rorty with a kind of “no-nonsense” pragmatism, has practically nothing to say on this matter (vi). Indeed he reminds me of some evangelicals who believe that society’s problems can be solved by enjoining everyone to just love everyone else. Just so, McCloskey urges us to engage in honest and open-minded conversation but on the grammar of this conversion he has little to say.

There are rules of logic and indeed of evidence that are desirable even when they are open to some philosophical doubt. Yes it’s all rhetoric, but it follows certain rules. In any case McCloskey opens the floodgates without telling us what, concretely, to do with the ensuing tide. This is the most serious failing of his article The Rhetoric of Economics. My own view is this: no really drastic changes are needed in the manner in which much of economic research proceeds at present, although it would be a great advantage if it were to encompass a great deal more than it does regarding the social ontology as other disciplines have provided. There is much evidence that does not come from a ‘time series’. But it is highly desirable that we should know what we are doing and what sensibly we can hope to do. On this matter McCloskey is a very good guide.

Inevitably McCloskey’s enterprise on meta-economics dips into every aspect of doing economics. Mainstream economists preach and pretend to practice the research in economics by developing falsifiable hypothesis and confronting the data. Such methodology (modernism, logical positivism, rationalism, all from Cartesian methodology), as advocated by Milton Friedman, McCloskey criticizes as being too narrow and misleading the science. His basic insight is that economic science involves more than the strictures of falsification; more fundamentally, it involves rhetoric, the argument or discourse using facts, logic, metaphor, and storytelling. Economists rely quite heavily on stories to make their points.

The example McCloskey uses is the Keynesian and the Monetarist, where the Keynesian tells the story about how “oil prices went up, which caused inflation” (vii). But the monetarist says the story “ends too soon, halfway through the second act.” The monetarist, McCloskey says, is “not morally satisfied” unless the story reaches some morally reasoned conclusion (that is, the monetarist wants to place blame on the Federal Reserve.) The dramatic departure is the insight that it is the economist, the person, who works out the story morally and therein gains knowledge, thus economic knowledge actually relies on his introspection. An economic argument is not complete without an appeal to rhetoric, which appeals to other economists’ introspection. It is clear how important rhetoric is.

I agree with McCloskey’s general argument on economic modernism. But his argument about prediction is troubling. Before McCloskey makes his argument about prediction and control, he says “Economists agree on more than is commonly understood. The disagreement about prediction and politics give them an unhappy reputation, yet they agree on many things: the index number problem, the law of demand, the logic of entry” (viii). But what is the law of demand if it is not a prediction? And what is it that economists agree on? That price and quantity purchased are, or will be, inversely related? But there are many examples of and explanations for a direct relationship.

Nonetheless, I am in general agreement. We would in my opinion be more honest and useful if we would do more ‘economics as rhetoric’. This would mean simply making good arguments to support what we know about economies and positions. We would say in effect that this is the best case I can make. It is based on this evidence and these arguments. I am not certain an am willing to listen to alternative arguments. The assumption is that the discourse among scholars and practitioners will bring us closer to useful descriptions of what is and what might be. To be avoided is the argument that the conclusion must be correct because it is based upon science or a scientifically verified theory. That is dishonest within the framework of logical positivism or without it.

Finally, I believe McCloskey’s argument would have been more persuasive had he expanded its scope to address some of the implications for the current content of economics. For example, are economic theories a series of metaphors used to support particular ideologies? What is the role of ideology in economic rhetoric? If we are persuaded by McCloskey’s arguments we have a lot of work to do in scholarly discourse answering the question—so what?

(i) How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. D. McCloskey. New Directions in Economic Methodology. Routeledge: 1994
(ii) Ibid. (i)
(iii) Comment on McCloskey. Caldwell and Coats. Jstor.
(iv) Ibid. (i)
(v) If Economics Isn’t Science, What Is It? Alexander Rosenberg. The Philosophy of Economics. Cambridge: 1994.
a. Modern Epistemology Against Analytic Philosophy: A Reply to Maki. D. McCloskey. Jstor.
b. You Shouldn’t Want a Realism If You Have a Rhetoric. D. McCloskey. Fact and Fiction in Economics. Cambridge: 2002.
(vii) Ibid. (i)
(viii) Ibid. (i)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wikipedia and its Critics

When Nature Magazine published a study which suggested Wikipedia is far more reliable than is commonly believed, fist-waving librarians were all over the Slashdot scene with their criticisms. The study gave reviewers a blind test to examine a parallel sample of articles from Wikipedia and Britannica, and demonstrated that the average number of errors in a typical Wikipedia science article, which was 3.86, is not substantially more than in Britannica, which had 2.92. Not every error is equally erroneous in the study, but that reflects poorly on Britannica regardless. It meant the most renowned encyclopedia for entry-level reference work is seldom more accurate than the anyone-can-edit-“populist history of the world,” as editors at Britannica call it.

And even though Wikipedia contained an average 0.94 more inaccuracies per article, consider further that it contains 1.4 million articles in the English version alone, while Britannica contains a mere 120,000. If each wiki entry contains the same average error amount, it must be admitted that Wikipedia simply holds more factual information than Britannica. In fact, for Wikipedia to contain fewer accuracies than Britannica it would need more than 25 average errors per article. It’s unempirical to say that Wikipedia is an unreliable source of information. It might even be unscientific to say that, since after all, Nature conducted the study.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has always maintained that The Wiki and its community are built around a self-policing and self-cleaning nature which helps to ensure its accuracy. Of course, vandalism does happen on Wikipedia. But the users have dozens of metawiki tools to check users and watch for errors. The more advanced editors use bots, for example, which allow users to sort thousands of articles a minute, making corrections as the bot moves from article to article. Not just anyone can get their hands on a bot, however, because the peer-review process is the law in world of wikis.

To get your bot approved, one has to be a reputable contributor first. After you run it through some tests, other users discuss the bot on the talk page and decide whether you can use it on Wikipedia or not. The peer-review community is why, when comedian Stephen Colbert told his thousands of viewers to change the article on Elephants to say “the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months,” the errors were quickly found and the article was locked to prevent further vandalism.
In politically sensitive areas such as climate change where the NPOV (neutral point of view) is disputed, contributors have had to battle with skeptics pushing a POV that is out of kilter with mainstream scientific thinking. But this usually requires no more than a little patience. Wikipedia's users are generally interested in the reasoning behind proposed changes to articles. Backing up a claim with a peer-reviewed reference makes a world of difference. And every edit ever made to an article is archived, which allows everyone to see what changes have been made, by whom they were made, and the reasons for doing so.

The MediaWiki Foundation developed wiki technology with the intention of keeping it free and open-source. “Because ideas want to be free,” the MediaWiki logo says. But ever since Wikipedia was launched in 2001, the proprietary encyclopedias began losing their dominance to the open-source community. Microsoft, in an attempt to recapture the encyclopedia market, announced it will be using wiki-like features in its next release of Encarta. All proposed changes to Encarta, however, will be reviewed by a small staff of editors but still wouldn’t keep up with Wikipedia’s exponential pace. Microsoft doesn’t understand that wiki communities are not isolated individuals whom it can easily exploit and manipulate. To run a wiki requires committed people who genuinely care about the community for it to work. Why should anyone pay money to help edit Encarta articles so that Microsoft can become richer? I would much rather edit a Wikipedia article and help make the world more free and open-source.