Elevated Opinion

— There's quite an interesting debate going on in the comments to the Carelessness and Inattention post. I thought I may as well drag some of the action out the shadows of the comments box and into the bright light of the front page.

The prodigious Robert Light continues to treat us at length to Jaffaite gospel. Rob writes:

Will claims that he believes (belief?*) value judgments can be legitimated — but if that's the case why does he persist in referring to these as “_values_”? I'd be most satisfied with a compelling answer to this — but, again, I doubt one is there because, “rationalized” though they may claim to be, at the end of the day, when it all boils down, at root, at bottom, when the fat lady sings, etc., THESE ARE STILL OPINIONS. The “norms” we have endorsed we have done so through opinion. Yes, even perhaps through elevated opinion, but opinion (um, er, _prejudices_) they still are, opinion about what constitutes “the good,” what the right way of life is. And absent an understanding of natural rights, the political order — and everyone else's rights — are meaningless.

Rob keeps plucking on the same string, and it sounds the note of a false alternative. Let me put on my old Objectivist hat for a second. You're giving a classic example of the (in Rand's language) forced choice between intrinsicism and subjectivism.

That is, either normativity is inscribed into the deep structure of reality, or it's just a free-for-all of whims. But that's not the choice. The third way, objectivity, is the path between the Scylla of the Absolute and the Charybdis of the relative. Proper norms are based in, yes, human nature–what we are like, what the mind is like, what we need to survive and flourish–, but also in choice–in our embrace of life, and the things that make our lives worth having.

When we embrace life, our choice entails our acceptance of the way our nature as humans limits and enables the kind of lives we might lead. Ethical and political norms grounded in human nature are necessary. But the FACT that we are human by itself entails nothing. We have no duty to live, or to desire to live, or to want something particular out of life. If we want to live, and if we want to live lives of a certain quality, then we have to be bound by principles of cause effect. If we're humans, then we can't expect to live good lives by fighting against our natures, by trying to get impossible effects, or by trying to get possible effects by the wrong causes. The principles of causation are the source of the objectivity of ethical principles.

Your brand of natural rights theorizing makes us lazy. First, by replacing nature with an ideology or dogma. Second, by thinking that nature itself, independently of our goals, frames the good. So when the issue of homosexuality comes up, you already have an answer; nature has spoken. But, setting aside your mythological conception of nature, we have to regard it as an open question. We have to find out. Are same sex relationships in fact compatible with a good human life? Is a society that recognizes same sex marriages compatible with the kind of society in which everyone, or almost everyone, can successfully pursue a goof human life.

I think the evidence points to “yes” for both questions. It will not do for you to continue simply citing your philosophical ideology. You need to join the actual debate. I understand that your metaphysical illusions will prevent you. But unless you get over them, your contributions will not be regarded as useful.

So let's see if we can get over your bad conditional: If no intrinsic natural rights, then a struggle of unconstrained will.

In fact, this reminds me of the argument David Stove called “the Gem,” and crowned as the worst argument in the history of philosophy: If the mind has a nature, then we cannot know reality as it is.

Of course the mind has a nature, and that's HOW we know reality. Similarly, our nature as humans places causal constraints on what we may achieve in life and society, and principles that relate our nature to our individual and shared goals are neither written in the stars, nor subject to our mere wishes.

The Seed of Liberalism

— While in Iraq, Thomas Friedman had dinner with two muslim liberals, one being the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the other a Shiite cleric named Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine. Friedman is heartened, as am I, of their ambition to secularize the middle-east states.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea whether these are the only two liberal Shiite clerics in Iraq. People tell me they definitely are not. Either way, their willingness to express their ideas publicly is hugely important. It is, for my money, the most important reason we fought this war: If the West is going to avoid a war of armies with Islam, there has to be a war of ideas within Islam. The progressives have to take on both the religious totalitarians, like Osama bin Laden, and the secular totalitarians who exploit Islam as a cover, like Saddam Hussein. We cannot defeat their extremists, only they can. This war of ideas needs two things: a secure space for people to tell the truth and people with the courage to tell it. That's what these two young clerics represent, at least in potential.

I have been stressing the importance of the war of ideas. It has to be won. And it can only be won from the inside. What can we do to help? As Friedman stresses, we need to get the lights on in Iraq in order to create a stable environment for the free dissemination of ideas. But I think that aside from security and so forth, the USG must step aside, and not meddle in the coming ideological/theological controversy. If the locals see the liberals as pawns of US policy, they'll recoil. Sadly, I'm sure we're perfectly capable of fucking it up, to get these guys on the dole, and to delegitimize them to their people. Let's hope not.

Carelessness and Inattention

— Derbyshire has a great encapsulation of the psycho-epistemology of conservatism. Derbyshire likes reason well enough, but wants to put it in its place. If we attempt to reason everything through to its logical end, we will, like Hume, find we can be sure of nothing. In practical affairs, we might find ourselves paralyzed if we attempt to justify each of our norms by means of reduction and analysis. Thus, as Hume says, “carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy.”

Derb's problem is that when we think too hard about the institution of marriage, it's just plain hard to explain exactly why same sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry. So the solution is to STOP THINKING and just carry on. He hopes that all our yammering on about our fundamental social institutions is like foundational questions of math. We don't know how to solve them, but it doesn't make that much difference to the math.

Now, it's not like there's nothing to this, despite the fact that Hume ran into his problem because of his bad epistemological assumption, not because reason is just like that. But we do rely on habituation, tacit knowledge, the internalization of norms, and so forth. And it is impossible to act well (if it is possible to act at all) if one attempts to justify all motivating reasons in advance of action.

But from time to time it's necessary to re-evaluate the norms we have endorsed and internalized. Why? Because the world changes. And our social practices, if they are worth having, are adapted to present circumstances. In general, we don't need to know what those circumstances are, or how our norms are fitting. We can just do our thing. But if it keeps coming up–if acting on a principle or according to a certain practice keeps causing problems for a good number of us–then we'll have to consider whether we want to just keep doing it this way.

If we decide that gays should be able to marry (and, yes, they should), then we can stop thinking about it again, and just go on living normal lives of carelessness and inattention. Granted, it is very uncomfortable to live through a period of revaluation. It throws things into doubt, and whatever we're doubting, it might be central to the way you conceive of your life, so you feel a bit shaken. And you don't know how to think about it, and you don't want to think about it. You just want to yell, “Stop! This is just how it is.” And that's fine, that's a natural reaction. But the issue keeps coming up for a reason. The reason is that “how it is” is flatly unacceptable to many members of society. And all they want is to change how it is FOR THEM, not so much for you. But during the revaluation, you're forced to suffer through the process of thinking too much, and because thinking is hard, the best you can do is justify the practice in the terms that are most familiar to you. And so you end up begging the question, because you assume that if its not exactly how it is, then it will be something fundamentally different, and everything will change.

But it won't. Everything won't change. Some things will change. And it will take some getting used to. Once you get used to it, though, you can just go forward, like number theorists who have only a passing recognition that the foundations had once been called into question.