Thursday, February 26, 2015

Equality for Equals

The conflict over whether a government should promote virtue in its citizens or only protect their liberty stands as the most fundamental difference between conservatism and all varieties of liberalism. A similar controversy exists on the related question of equality.

As in other posts, Aristotle serves as the best starting point for exploring the question of equality.

In contrast to other posts, Aristotle on this question made a bit of a false start.

As Greeks looked about at other peoples around the Mediterranean, they developed sense of their own superiority. (This should not be surprising. Almost all groups believe they are superior to others.) One particular contrast they noted, however, was the apparent docility of the peoples of the near east living under tyrannies. The situation was so widespread that it seemed natural, i.e., as part of their nature. This led Aristotle to reach false conclusions regarding human equality.

In the opening chapter of The Politics, when addressing the question if slavery violated nature, Aristotle writes, “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

Aristotle's ancient error persisted until modern times.

As suggested already in an earlier post, human beings are equal in their humanity. They possess the same human nature and have the same human needs. We know this from modern biological science.

One aspect of human nature—a free will, or the ability to deliberate over different desires and to choose different courses of action-- accounts for the distinctiveness of individual personalities and differences in cultural practices. More importantly, when humans exercise their wills in pursuit of the desires and courses of action, all kinds of inequalities emerge.

So although all humans possess natural equality, over the course of their lives people come to have acquired inequalities. We see people manifest different degrees of achievement in education, business, politics, and sports-- just to name a few. When these inequalities emerge from circumstances free from artificial enhancements that benefit some person's thriving and obstructs that of others, conservatives see those inequalities as just. Under such circumstances, everyone's varying degrees of educational honor, socio-economic status, and athletic achievement are their due—what is owed them. This is where Aristotle is correct: justice is rewarding people according to their due.

In Aristotle's words,

“It is thought that justice is equality, and so it is. But not for all persons; only for those who are equal. Inequality also is thought be be just. And so it is. But not for all; only for the unequal.”

Aristotle—and most conservatives today—see reward as something that should be explicitly tied to virtue or merit.

In contrast, liberals seem to seek some other reasons for inequality than the relative merits of persons. They blame the capitalist economic structure, the wealthy, overt racism, institutional racism, or most or some ill-defined “forces of history.” Rather than apply some standard of justice to individuals and their accumulated decisions, liberals find injustice in external circumstances beyond the control of individuals.

Consequently, liberals attempt to erect artificial enhancements such as seniority, affirmative action, quotas, minimum wage hikes against virtue or merit--all designed to burden the thriving for the benefit of the languishing.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Be Right on Rights

Traditional conservatives deny the liberal claim that government cannot enforce any particular notions of virtue because that would violate the rights of the citizens. Every citizen, so the argument goes, has the right to choose his own vision of the good life. For a government to deny a citizen's right to choose how he will live violates this fundamental right. Conservatives generally disagree.

Does this mean conservatives reject the idea of natural or human rights?


The Right, however, demands a little more thorough thinking about rights.

Liberals over the last several decades have inflated rights claim faster than the federal reserve has inflated the currency. Sometimes the rights claims resemble those television evangelists exhortation about praying the promises of God—just “name it and claim it.” And rights claims also serve as the purported end of many political discussions. “It's my right!” somehow trumps any and all other considerations in political debate. Little efforts is made to establish any philosophical or political basis for such rights claims.

A conservative view of natural rights considers the following.

All human beings possess the same basic human nature. We also have the same basic species-specific needs. Some examples include food, clothing, shelter, knowledge, and friendship. Because these goods are basic to meeting our natural needs—physical and psychological, we claim the right to secure them for ourselves. Natural needs serve the basis for natural rights. Conservatives maintain that human beings possess the natural right to secure what they need. Conservatives deny that which liberals claim for human beings—the natural right to what they want. As stated in the previous post, governments can and do make provision for securing the needs of their citizens because they are the same. Owing to the diversity of human wants, however, governments cannot even begin to satisfy them.

Because rights derive from human nature, conservatives deny the historical validity or philosophical need for John Locke's “state of nature” to explain natural rights and the origins of the state. That idea resulted from a wrong turn taken by Christians in the disputes within the Catholic Church over vows of poverty and the right to property. Theological discussions about property rights both in Eden and after the fall take on a life of their own. Hobbes and Locke sound like a faint and distance echo of those theological arguments.

Conservatives also deny the contemporary liberal replacement of John Locke's man living in a “state of nature” with John Rawls' unencumbered rights-bearing self with no duties but those to which he explicitly consents. No one comes into this world as an autonomous rights-bearing liberal—or anything else. All of us arrive dependent on parents. And we grow older we accept by custom duties to our family, community, and nation. And it is that family, that community, and that nation that enables us to successfully live out our rights to live, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Challenge of Liberalism

Liberals, both egalitarian liberals (progressives) and classical liberals (libertarians) object to the conservative claim that the task of government is to make citizens good. 

They base this on several arguments.

Older liberals claimed that for virtuous decisions to be meaningfully moral they must be free. When someone makes the right moral decisions under compulsion, they really are not morally virtuous.

Contemporary liberals reject the idea that government should develop virtue in its citizens as a matter of individual rights. All citizens, they say, possess the right to choose their own version of “the good life.” The government should be neutral on these questions. The government—and society as a whole—should tolerate the moral choices of others.

Finally, as a consequence of the above view, other liberals reject the idea of virtue altogether. Who's to say, they ask, what is right and wrong? John Stossel asks this question repeatedly on television. What's wrong with recreational drugs? What's wrong with prostitution? Who cares what I do so long as I do not hurt anyone else?

All of these claims pose serious questions to conservatism that every conservative must consider; but they contain serious problems of their own.

The first claim—that moral decisions made under compulsion are not really virtuous--is correct. The conclusion—that governments therefore should not promote virtue in their citizens--is not.

The argument fails to appreciate Aristotle's conception of the morally virtuous person. According to Aristotle, a morally virtuous person habitually chooses virtuous acts for their own sake and with a feeling a pleasure for having done so. For such a person, the laws are irrelevant. They do not restrict freedom. The morally virtuous person freely chooses to do the right thing. Moreover, Aristotle argues that the person who makes a morally virtuous decision and is pained by it is not morally virtuous at all. A person who resents obeying the law and follows it only through fear of punishment is morally vicious. The whole point of education and laws, is to habituate such a person in moral virtue, so that he freely acts in a virtuous manner. Laws are not for the virtuous but those in need of virtue.

The second claim contains several problems. First, those who make the argument that people have the right to follow their own version of “the good life” make the fundamental mistake of choosing the right over the good. Choosing the right to live as one pleases often implies the right to my wants. Choosing the good means desiring those things that are really good--that meet my needsLiberty is a means of securing the good, not a substitute for it. 

Moreover, the right, or liberty if you will, to live as one pleases, imposes burdens on society and the government that cannot be met. Any given populace has an almost endless variety of desires or wants. To claim these wants as rights that the government must protect demands more than the government can give. It cannot provide for every one's wants. Moreover, the claim misconstrues the nature of rights. People can make rights claims for their needs, not their wants. Mankind's natural needs are the same for all, for we all have the same species-specific properties. Government can make provision for citizens securing their needs, because these are the same for every citizen. And it is the acquisition of our needs that partly constitutes human thriving or the good. 

And to claim that the government should tolerate every person's conception of the good life seems a self-refuting argument. Virtue, or values, so it goes, are relative. Government and society should not judge. Toleration should be the rule.

But toleration itself is a value. One cannot argue that values should be dismissed and base that argument on values. One cannot defend the value of toleration once one argues that values cannot be defended.

Finally, John Stossel seems to dismiss ethical questions and public policy controversies regarding them. He simply replaces them with the “harm principle.” Who cares what another citizen does so long as it does not hurt someone else? And who cares if I harm myself?

Well, your fellow citizens do, John. At least they should care. We do not live in John Locke's “state of nature.” We live in an organized society. And part of living in an organized society means caring for the well-being of our fellow citizens and attention to the common good. 

Such a libertarian lifestyle sets low expectations for human potentiality and fulfillment.

Listening the Grateful Dead and smoking a blunt while the wife brings home big bucks as a sex worker may constitute an appealing lifestyle for a libertarian. 

Not for a conservative.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Government and The Good Life

Aristotle wrote that “The moral virtues, then, are engendered in us neither by nor contrary to nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them. But their full development in us is due to habit.”

In other words, we do not inherit the virtues, we learn them through training and habituation.

So where does this begin? In the home. It is there that one begins that training for a well-lived life.

The instruction and habits prescribed by a father have as much force in the household as laws and custom have in the state, and even more because of the tie of blood and the children's sense of benefits received, for they are influences from the outset by natural affection and docility.”

The well-lived life, however, needs life-long reinforcement to retain the habits of virtue. This is done through laws. And because most people will fail to cultivate right desires or will lose them through the development of contrary habits, these laws must have appropriate sanctions for their transgression.

“It is not enough to have receive the right upbringing and supervision in youth; they must keep on observing their regimen and accustoming themselves to it even after they are grown up. So we shall need laws to regulate these activities too, and indeed in general to cover the whole of life; for most people are readier to submit to compulsion and punishment than to argument and fine ideals.”

This, according to Aristotle, is the most basic and fundamental task of government—to cultivate virtuous habits in their citizens.

In his words:

“Legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator and those who do not carry it out fail of their object.”

And it is not just for the good of individuals that the state cultivates virtuous habits for its citizens. It is for the good of the state itself. In Aristotle's fourth century city-state, the success of the community depended upon the moral quality of its citizens, who deliberate about how to govern the community and who take turns ruling and being ruled. That is why the ultimate punishment for the incorrigible, those who fail to develop personal and civic virtues, was ostracism, i.e, deportation. It clearly sends the message that such a one is NOT the kind of citizen desired by the community.

And this, after all these preparatory remarks, is the first fundamental conservative principle: the task of government is to make citizens good.

And this is the principle that distinguishes conservatism from liberalism.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Path to Excellence

Earlier posts noted how Aristotle defines happiness—the end, purpose, or goal of life—as a rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Moreover, he identifies specific virtues or excellencies that a good man should acquire.He notes that these virtues reflect that right balance between intellect and desire, reason and emotion, or head and heart. Right reasoning must be accompanied by right desires.

So how do we actually acquire these virtues?

Aristotle gives a strange answer, one that is counter-intuitive to most people.

Using the example of the virtue of courage, Aristotle writes that the path to become a courageous person starts with performing courageous acts.

Wouldn't someone have to possess courage already to perform a courageous act? Wouldn't someone already have the ability to act bravely under a sudden attack or persevere and overcome the fears that often accompany disease or poverty or some other challenge?

To a point, yes. Aristotle, however, conceives of virtues not as a one time or occasional manifestation. He sees them as parts of a person's permanent character. And that comes through habituation. When one performs that first act of courage, that makes is easier to perform a second, and a third, etc. Soon courage will become an ingrained habit.

The same goes for other virtues as well.

For example, everyone knows people who seem always to be always there for others in a time of need. Sometimes we say they have the gift of compassion, as if they came into the world that way. Not really; they have the habit of compassion. They responded to some one's need that first opportunity and then repeated that response again and again. Soon it became a habit. Now they do even think about it anymore.

Again, everyone knows people who respond to crises with fits of rage. They curse, they throw things, and they hit things (or people). How did they get that way? They made it their habit. They may at one time have reacted in frustrations in all kinds of ways. Through repeated fits of rage, however, they eventually made that their habit. And now people who know them, when a crisis arrives, come to expect a display of a fit of rage.

From the perspective of the big picture, it gets back to the question of human nature.

Everyone has an opinion about what is exactly human nature. Some people, especially liberals, seem humans as essentially good. Others, like Christian fundamentalists, refer to human nature as “sin nature.” Many anthropologists, aware of the endless diversity of customs around the world, deny that humans have a nature at all.

If someone asked Aristotle, he might answer that human nature is potentiality. And we actualize our potentiality through the choices we make by our reason and will. Unlike animals driven by instinct, humans must use reason to reflect upon what kind of persons they will be. In that sense, we are the only creatures that make ourselves.

So through our choices and repeated actions, we create habits good and bad. Many actions or habits become so ingrained that we do not even think about them. They become second nature.

So when our reasoning is right and the desires are right, human virtues or excellencies become part of our character through habituation. When they do, Aristotle evaluates that person as morally virtuous.

Likewise, when the reasoning or desires are wrong, human vices likewise become part of our character through habituation. Aristotle calls people dominated by these vices the morally vicious.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Discarded Tools

In other news, another useful tool has become a useless tool.

A couple of days back, the parents of Kayla Mueller confirmed her death. (How they know for sure is anyone's guess.) Readers recall that Kayla worked as a volunteer activist to help the less fortunate in Syria.

It appears that she spend a great deal of time protesting in Israel.

Israel, you might remember, is a liberal socialist democracy in the Middle East. Israel boasts of free expression, property rights, abortion on demand, and even a national healthcare system into which every Israeli must enroll.

In fact, it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Arabs living in Israel enjoy more political rights than Arabs living in most Arab states.

Like most democracies, however, they have their problems. They engage in shabby treatment of the Palestinians--both Christian and Muslims. Unlike most Arab governments, however, they are at least open to criticism ans self-examination. Hence, the presence of Kayla Mueller.

She knows better than to protest Arab mistreatment of their own citizens.

Here she is, below, with her trendy Che Guevara poster on the all.  That says all you need to know.

Apparently, ISIS thought her more valuable as a hostage than as an activist.

Funny, those contrasting cultural perceptions.

Now she is dead.

She her tribute by International Solidarity Movement.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Another Arab Prodigy

The recent killings in Chapel Hill, NC illustrate again how the politics of identity obscure and distort our understanding of events.

A newly married couple and the wife's sister were gunned down by Craig Stephen Hicks.

Thanks to social media, before the mainstream media could label Hicks a "Tea Bagger" Republican, we learned that he was an atheist who supported progressive causes such as abortion rights and gay marriage.

That did not stop the family of the victims from labeling the murder as a hate crime.

It looks, however, like it involved disputes about limited parking rather than limited toleration of other cultures.

The New York Times has the story here.

Then there are those inconvenient "tweets" by the victim of this horrendous crime, Deah Barakat. Most of the one's posted here , under the name Arabprodigy30 are anti-Israel, anti-American, and anti-white.

Do not look for this on your evening news.

The Arab Prodigy and his family