Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

Julian has gone and written a great little piece on themes I've been struggling at great length to express half as well.

What worries liberals about progressive indexing, and about the shift to a more overtly welfare-like Social Security system, is that welfare benefits tend to be politically unpopular—and much easier to cut than benefits perceived as universal. Social Security, in other words, is a massive Rube Goldberg device, an ornate and utterly superfluous system of transfers from the middle and upper classes to themselves, the sole purpose of which is to construct—and conceal—a much smaller welfare machine for elderly retirees nestled deep in the guts of the meta-contraption. Some defenders of the status quo are now attempting—though they scarcely seem to believe it themselves—to argue that Social Security is no less vital for the middle class. But corner a progressive over a quiet drink and he'll probably admit that, in fact, the only defensible purpose of Social Security is to ensure that nobody retires in poverty. There may be political reasons for cutting a monthly check to Bill Gates when he turns 65, but there are no sane policy reasons.

Word.

And I've just discovered this excellent piece by William Voegli, who seems to have been reading my books and my mind. I liked this paragraph especially:

Forty-five years ago William F. Buckley noted liberalism's penchant for turning “the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.” Those dark skies serve a purpose. As more and more dollars fly around, the confusion about where all of them start out and end up increases. The dollars often arrive ostentatiously (Social Security checks in the mailbox) but depart surreptitiously (payroll withholding and employer “contributions” to Social Security). This contrast makes it easy for each household to regard itself as a net importer rather than a net exporter of the dollars that make up this green tornado. The ultimate goal is to leave people believing an impossibility: that an enormous but nevertheless finite number of dollars can be vacuumed up and airdropped in such a way that the vast majority of people wind up gaining more than they lose.

Nicely done! (Other than leaving me wondering if green tornados leave the sky black.) And spot on!

I am truly delighted to see the Social Security-as-ignoble-lie meme catching on. With luck, my own thoughts on the illiberal manipulation at the heart of Social Security will see the light of day in the near future. Upshot: any kind of liberal who purports to cherish public democratic deliberation among free and equal citizens should want to beat down the Social Security status quo like a narc at biker rally.

  • Thomas

    Sam Harris–one of the prominenet “new atheists” Brooks refers to–wrote a response to Haidt for Edge. And, really, it’s a fantastically bad piece and, yes, Harris is vulnerable exactly as Brooks says.

    • Duncan

      Well if you read… I think it’s chapter 7 of The End of Faith; the chapter about his preventing what appeared to be a rape taking place in Prague, Sam comes across very obviously as a) a moral realist and b) one with strongly Kantian overtones, which is to say a moral rationalist. If that picture is accurate then Sam is one of those whose conception of morality is being most directly challenged by the work that folks like Haidt and Greene are doing. But that doesn’t have much to do with his atheism; indeed it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the ‘prudential ought’ as opposed to the ‘moral ought’.

      So, I ought not to torture people. Why? Because it’s a bad thing to do. That would be a moral ought, and if the sentimentalist is right then thinking that thought cincerely and acting upon it requires an appropriate sentimental setup as regards torturing which may or may not be innate and may or may not be culturally universal and which psychopaths appear to lack the capacity to form for whatever reason and so on. But not tortuing people in open view of a community who will run me out of town or worse for doing it; saying I ought not to do that seems to stray closer to being a ‘prudential ought’. That is, it’s still governed by the same affective processes as seem to be behind all action (Damasio) and to a certain extent requires the ‘desire’ to want to save my own skin, but that’s a desire that all of humanity has other things being equal – psychopaths have it; it may even be a presumption we use in interpreting the actions of people in the first place (I’m thinking of Donald Davidson’s discussions of interpretation if you’re familiar with the philosophical literature). It seems to me there’s a pretty strong case for thinking that ‘epistemic norms’ will fall into the latter camp. After all, ‘wanting one’s beliefs to be true’ might be a ‘desire’ according to some ways of describing things, but it’s so basic that I think it’s legitimate to presume all people share in it. So if the worst charge that can be leveled against the new atheists is they go about saying ‘you ought not to believe in Christianity’ but neo-sentimentalism has shown that all ‘oughts’ need to be grounded in desires so it presupposes a desire for one’s worldview to be correct… I don’t think it’s a particularly strong charge.

      All that’s just a roundabout way of saying that it doesn’t make any less sense to say to people ‘you ought not to believe in the truth of Christianity’ (or for that matter, it being topical ‘you ought not to beleive in the Easter bunny’) in light of the research on sentimentalism, the worst that happens is you have to tell a longer story about what that claim means and what you’re presupposing about the desires of your audience.

  • Sometimes we fail to recognize the mongrel philosophy we naturally develop throughout life if a concerted effort is not made to consciously develop a non-contradictory philosophy of life — these value-judgements, as Nathaniel Branden pointed out, are part and parcel of an unconscious, or semi-conscious philosophy, and emotions are the reactions which place values of good and bad — when we interface with some aspect of reality, the emotional response is so lightning quick it seems as if the emotions are the decision makers, the controller, yet behind the emotion is the value-judgement, and it many cases these value-judgements aren’t re-evaluated through reason in adulthood. In the not fully developed mind, emotional morality exists, but in the fully developing mind, reason is used to slow the process between stimulus and reaction to reassess the value judgements so that we aren’t slaves to the unconscious and the attendant emotions.

    I think this was Branden’s point, if i remember correctly — I have grown accustomed to using reason, so I’m not as driven by emotions as I once was. So any belief system, religious or atheistic, unexamined by reason is a faulty guide. Plus, what does Brooks make of morality developed in groups which oppress women, or find human sacrifice emotionally appealing?

  • Damn it, Will, I was planning on ripping Brooks a new one over this latest travesty of his. But you’ve already done it with your characteristic skill and flair. Sigh. Oh well. Nicely done!

    The only things I might add are these. First, Brooks is acting like this is revelatory stuff, when in fact philosophers have worried about this very issue since at least Hume, who famously said that reason is, and ought to be, the handmaid to the passions, or words to that effect. And as you pointed out, even if this is what most non-philosophers do, it hardly follows that this is what everybody does, or should do, or is capable of doing. He should do some reading on the Naturalistic Fallacy.

    Second, given the close tie between ethics and politics, I’m wondering how Brooks would characterize his own enterprise as a political commentator. If reason is truly impotent as the medium for discourse, wouldn’t that make political commentating sort of useless? Unless, perhaps, he sees it as his job to appeal to people’s emotions to get them on board with whatever he believes in. But that sounds more like a propagandist, or at best, an advertiser, than a public intellectual, which surely is more how Brooks would like to see himself.

  • Paul G. Brown

    Jason –

    What Hume is reported to have blurted out (in the pub, after the seminar) is that the passions were a hand-job to reason. But he was always a cut-up, The Great infidel. Especially on his third dram.

    Will –

    Outstanding journalism. Really. No hold bared applause here. Only … a pretty cheap target for your lede, no? Brooks is a conventional chap, writing for a very conventional broadsheet. He’s stretching to defend the marbled gates of his magenta-tie convention against the metaphysical barbarians led by Harris/Dawkins/Dennet(most acutely) and Hitchens (who is truly the Samuel Johnson of our day – would that he had a Boswell!)

    Why not push this critique (of the way ‘science’ is viewed as good when it accords with one’s own ideology) into … say … global climate change? Or second-hand smoke? Or money-illusion and what it implies to Hayek’s ideas as to how prices convey information?

    Further, I withdraw my earlier poking about the utility of research into the human mind that post-dated the 18th century. I would recommend Hauser’s _Moral_Minds_ to you.

    Also – coming to Halifax in August?

    • Duncan

      “I would recommend Hauser’s _Moral_Minds_ to you. ”

      If you’re interested in the philosophical side of the arguments, incidentally there are good papers to be had on Joshua Greene’s website, Stephen Stich’s Jean Nicod lectures on the subject are online here; http://www.institutnicod.org/lectures2007_outline.htm and the following books are excellent

      Appiah – Experimental Ethics
      Nichols – Sentimental Rules
      Prinz – The Emotional Construction of Morals

      P.S. – To be fair on Hume, he was on doctors orders to drink a pint of claret every day. Sadly you don’t hear about that being given out as a cure for depression on the NHS these days.