Archive for November 2004

Corporate Feudalism and Modern America

November 29, 2004

The purely privatized society which Neal Stephenson presents in Snow Crash is quite plausible; in fact, it nearly mirrors Europe during the Middle Ages. The hackers, a small cadre of highly educated people who speak their own technical language, are like the Latin-speaking, university-educated priests of that bygone era. The owners of the biggest franchises are kings, and the managers and small-business owners who serve under them are the petty feudal lords. The security organizations which serve the franchises, such as Ng’s company, The Enforcers, and the MetaCops, are like the knights of old who sold their services to the highest bidder. Both systems have harsh and inefficient justice systems which employ heavy physical punishments, dank dungeons, and tattooing for repeat offenders. Dictatorships and democracies have disappeared and reappeared throughout history; feudalism can return, as well.

Modern America is not moving towards this society. The Internet has done much to decentralize trade and to expand our knowledge base, but access to this knowledge was not restricted to the technical elite or to the rich as were the Black Sun, Earth, and the Librarian. The federal government is not shrinking or breaking apart; instead, it is growing and becoming more unified, as evidenced by the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare reform, and the Patriot Act. The Italian crime families are losing power; thanks to improved law enforcement efforts by the FBI, the heads of the five families are in prison. Corporate sponsorship permeates our society, but this is nothing new; advertising has been with us since Greek artisans wrote advertisements on their pots. The middle class, which is non-existent in Stephenson’s society, has shrunk slightly during G. W. Bush’s presidency, but the nation as a whole also suffered a recession during these years, so we cannot say whether the middle class is disappearing or not.

Stephenson’s society is different from ours in terms of business regulation, centralized government, and social welfare. Each change has aspects which make our society better and aspects which make our society worse. Because businesses are not regulated, the market decides which products succeed and which fail, but there is no way to address spillover costs like environmental damage and no authority to keep businesses from abusing individuals’ intrinsic rights to life and liberty. The currency, national defense, and criminal justice systems are less efficient without a centralized government, but people do have unprecedented freedom to choose where and how they will live. Because there is no social welfare system, people have more freedom with their incomes, but they do not have a safety net to protect them if they go broke.

According to Stephenson, the United States of America changes from a federalist, republican welfare state to a conglomeration of feudal franchise-states after the dollar collapses, and the government sells most of its assets including the military, the highway system, the pipelines, and the parkland. This scenario is possible but not inevitable. It would occur if the national debt multiplied to several times its current amount; a protracted and costly war such as Rome’s war against the barbarian tribes, a massive recession akin to the Great Depression, demographic changes making the current welfare state unsupportable, or an overdose of supply-side economics could do the trick. In this situation, businessmen would still be powerful enough to take the reins of government for themselves. In another possible scenario, the federal government will continue its slow growth, commanding more of its citizens’ lives, dollars, and loyalty with each generation. Children learn in the public schools that the government knows what is best for the people, and the people cannot think for themselves. Eventually, the foundation of capitalism, independent thought, is so diminished that the government takes total control of society, and the common people are willing slaves to it.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents a pure capitalist society as a paradise in which everyone is happy, and man can do no wrong. If the United States tried to totally implement Rand’s vision, however, it would probably resemble Stephenson’s society rather than her own. In some disciplines, such as national defense, internal improvements, and criminal justice, the government can act more efficiently and can safeguard individual rights better than the private sector can. Perhaps government is not purely evil, after all.

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Can we please call them the Senators?

November 21, 2004

The new baseball team in Washington is going to be called the Nationals. The city is ditching three score and eleven years (1900-1971) of tradition as the Washington Senators (“First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”) mostly because of the opposition of the mayor. Most baseball fans loved the Senators name and wanted to see its return, but the mayor said that there will be no Senators baseball in Washington until the city receives representation in the U. S. Senate. Never mind that the District of Columbia didn’t have senators when the Senators were playing there before. I’m surprised he didn’t get into “Taxation Without Representation” while he was at it.

To Be, To Have, and Man’s Rights to Each

November 19, 2004

Mankind’s right to property is not obvious. Property is not necessary for man’s existence; animals do not have property, but they survive and propagate, anyway. Aristotelians say that man has a right to have and to acquire property because these activities are inherent to his nature, and he has a self-evident right fulfill this nature. Theistic societies claim that God has given man the right to use the land however he wishes. Native American societies say they have a social contract with the land; they can own it for a time, but after they are buried, it will own them. Each of these justifications has its own possible set of objections; people continue to hold property, nonetheless, and they will most likely continue to do so evermore.

Societies that recognize property do not always recognize private property, nor do they need to do so. The members of early Christian societies held all property in common. In states such as North Dakota, people leave their keys in their automobiles for others to use if they have an urgent need for transportation. As long as there is enough property for everyone, sharing works, but at some point, two North Dakotans might need an automobile, or two children might want to sit in the front seat of that automobile. At this point, the interested parties can either fight over the resource (which is common in the case of the children), or they can forge agreements determining which resources belong to whom at what times. These agreements are called property laws. Property laws determine when a person has a legitimate right to acquire or to hold a resource.

Among societies which recognize property ownership, the just means of acquiring property include first occupation, improvement of resources through intelligence or labor, and purchase from a legitimate owner. Different situations require different applications of the rules. In a state of nature in which there is no government, the man who first encounters a resource can claim the rights to it. A man who devises a unique method of using natural resources can claim ownership of his idea; it is intellectual property. A man who reshapes the physical world for his own use has the right to the fruits of his labor unless he cedes this right in a contract with another person, such as an employer. Any owner of property can sell or give it to another person if both sides consent.

Theft is the acquisition of someone’s property without his consent. A thief has broken his social contract with the rest of the community. A man who is accused of theft is innocent until proven guilty. If the accuser does prove his right to the stolen property, he can justly use physical force to reacquire it because the thief is infringing upon the accuser’s rights. Though a traveler is not a citizen of any foreign society he visits and thus is not a party to their contract, he must learn and respect the society’s property laws while he visits, and he has a right to keep the property he brought with him to the foreign land.

The primary protector of personal property should be the government through property laws. To be legitimate, these laws must be fair, efficient, and enforceable. Fair laws are consistent; each person can acquire or exchange property using the same set of rules. Efficient laws allow a person to gain property in a speedy fashion with as few bureaucratic steps as possible. The government must be able to enforce its laws so that all of its citizens will respect them. If the codes do not meet these requirements, they will hinder man rather than serving him, and the government will have broken faith with the people. If this is the case, the laws are dead, and the people can circumvent them. Similarly, the government can punish a citizen who breaks his side of the social contract. The government can search property if it has a warrant and can seize property if the proprietor breaks the law. Expropriation should be a last resort, and the penalties for wrongdoing should be clear, consistent, and rational.

Of John Locke’s three self-evident human rights, life, liberty, and property, the third is typically the least inspiring and the most ignored. This is unfortunate because the just acquisition and use of property is central to man’s existence. Theft is a breach of contract and an attack on individual rights which must be redressed by the government. If the government ignores these offenses or tries to steal property itself, the people can justifiably ignore it or revolt against it, as did America in 1776. The government’s duty is to serve men, and if it does not serve them by protecting their property, it is not a government at all.

Selfishness: Virtue or Vice?

November 19, 2004

Ever since Plato, political scientists have based their ideal societies on their ideal people. Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand have the same view of human nature; these two philosophers are psychological egoists who believe that man always works for his own self-interest. Yet, their definitions of the good society are very different. Hobbes and Rand both believe man is inherently selfish and creates government to protect his own interests, but Hobbes wishes to control this tendency by building a strong state which assimilates its members and limits individual rights, while Rand wants to nurture it with a weak state, numerous civil liberties, and a capitalist economy.

Hobbes says that a group of men in a state of nature, a situation in which there is no society, compete with each other for resources and inevitably resort to violence. Some men are physically stronger than others, but the weak can defeat them with clever schemes. Eventually, the people realize that war extended indefinitely will kill everyone, so they create a social contract. They choose from among themselves a sovereign to whom they give their liberty in exchange for protection from each other.

Hobbes’s egoism probably made him uncomfortable because it clashed with his religion, Christianity, which teaches man to love his neighbor as himself. Thus, his “Christian Commonwealth” represses selfishness. He says the state should resemble a human body; each member is a part which contributes to the whole, and the sovereign is the head. Monarchy is not necessary, but it is expedient; the benefits of a good king outweigh the costs of a tyrant. The sovereign cannot kill his subjects, but otherwise, he has free reign. It is impossible for him to commit an injustice against the citizenry because they are all parts of one body, and the body does not attack itself. The Ten Commandments of the State teach children to love king and country above all else. Private property is unimportant; rather, individual economic activity should feed the body. The elimination of egoism facilitates Hobbes’s good society.

Rand also thinks selfishness is humanity’s primary motivation, but unlike Hobbes, she considers it man’s highest virtue. The heroes of her novels are completely egoistic; their greatest loves are their work and their wealth. Her villains are social workers, philanthropists, and churchmen. Rand would find Hobbes’s “body politic” analogy revolting. In her utopia, Atlantis, each individual is an end to himself rather than a cell in a body. Political power is divided between legislative, executive, and judicial branches. An individual has total control over his own life as long as he doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others. The state protects citizens’ liberties and property rights as well as their lives. The military and the police force are its only responsibilities. Citizens make their fortunes in an economic system of laissez faire capitalism and don’t care about social welfare. Business regulation is unnecessary because two people pursuing rational self-interest will never have a conflict. This society thrives by nurturing selfishness and giving it channels of expression.

In many ways, a political scientist is like a doctor: he determines that his patient is ailing, identifies the causes for these ailments, and prescribes a remedy to restore his patient to health. Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand both realize that society is imperfect and needs healing, but their diagnoses are radically different. Hobbes says that selfishness is the disease; Rand says it is the remedy. Thus, we see that political science concerns much more than government institutions; it is rooted in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, as well. All political scientists want to achieve what is good for man, but until they agree about what “good” and “man” are, they will never craft coherent public policy. Each government will be a compromise between a hundred different interests; no citizen will be completely satisfied with his state, but he will accept it as long as it doesn’t collapse. That is the true measurement of a successful state: survival. Perhaps, the only piece of political philosophy we need is this: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Crito Revisited

November 19, 2004

Prompt: As Crito, return to Socrates’s cell to convince him not to accept his death penalty and drink hemlock.

Crito Revisited
CRITO: Socrates, I told you earlier that I had nothing left to say, but I spoke too soon. The gods have resurrected hope and reason within me, and I wish to continue our discussion.
SOCRATES: You are not yet satisfied? Very well; we shall continue. I have spent seventy years searching for the truth, and I am compelled to continue this mission to the very end.
CRITO: I am glad. First, I would like to investigate the dream you had last night in which the beautiful woman said you would reach the shores of Phthia on the third day. Did she mention your imminent death at any time?
SOCRATES: No, she did not.
CRITO: In that case, the woman may have spoken literally, not figuratively. Your homeland, Phthia, is in the southeastern part of Thessaly, and in good weather, a trireme can arrive there in a day. I already wished to send you to Thessaly because I have many friends there who would protect you; therefore, the dream fits our schemes perfectly.
SOCRATES: But what if we do not arrive on the third day?
CRITO: Socrates, you earlier assumed that the gods would delay the ship from Delos so it could fulfill the woman’s prophecy. If they would alter reality in that case, they also would in this one.
SOCRATES: This is true. Yet, I am afraid to break my contract with Athens. To do so would be wrong, and I must not do wrong under any circumstances.
CRITO: Socrates, do you think the Athenians truly want to kill you?
SOCRATES: This is the sentence they have chosen. It must be so.
CRITO: I disagree. They prefer your death to a fine of thirty minas, but they desire your exile most of all. Note how easily I have bribed the guards and how little the state cares about whether or not you escape! They do not want your blood on their hands; it might make them reviled throughout history. Though they prepare for your death, they desire your departure even now. The only impediment to this course of action is you.
SOCRATES: For good reason! I will never find a city as accommodating as Athens. I must pursue the truth and test other men wherever I go; if Athens hates this vocation, then every other city will, as well. Doubtless, I will spend the rest of my life being evicted from towns who hate me. This is not good for me; I am old. I would rather die.
CRITO: Truly, such a life would be difficult. Nevertheless, it is your only morally viable choice. You must accept it.
SOCRATES: Why so?
CRITO: You provided the first reason yourself. You have a divine calling to help others find the truth, and you must continue to pursue it regardless of the discomfort it causes you.
SOCRATES: My escape would work against this goal, not towards it. If I flout the laws, I will obtain a bad reputation, and the people will not listen to me.
CRITO: This is not true. When your students learn that your escape was what Athens truly wanted and was the most pious choice, they will understand you acted justly.
SOCRATES: You speak wisely.
CRITO: Also, you must raise your children.
SOCRATES: Crito! We already agreed that this is a matter of public opinion and not of morality.
CRITO: I have put further thought into the matter and decided this is not true. You have an implicit contract with your family which you must fulfill to the full extent of piety. When you married your wife and begat children, you agreed to provide masculine and paternal support to them in exchange for the love and care which they would give you. You can fulfill this contract in beautiful Phthia where Peleus raised Achilles. You cannot fulfill it if you are dead. By escaping, you will fulfill your duty to Athens by leaving, your duty to yourself by teaching, and your duty to your family by supporting them. This is what you must do.
SOCRATES: Crito, your words cement my will. I thank the gods that you have shown me the path to righteousness. We will leave presently.

Dialogue Between Two Great World Systems: Dualism and Materialism

November 17, 2004

In his Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes says that he knows clearly and distinctly that he exists as a thinking thing, res cogitans, but he is not certain that he exists as a bodily thing, res extensa, and because he can distinguish between his mind and his body, the two must be separate and distinct.  These entities work together: the body sends the mind information about this world; the mind processes information and makes decisions, and the body follows the mind’s instructions.  In this paper, I will show that Descartes’s theory is strong, if not flawless, and I will discuss its moral implications.  First, I will detail two particular strengths of Descartes’s argument: (1) it provides an adequate solution to his “evil god” thought experiment, and (2) it explains the physical phenomenon of the near-death experience.  Second, I will answer three arguments against Descartes: (1) a truth, such as the oneness of mind and body, can be true even if I am able to doubt it; (2) recent scientific discoveries indicate that the mind is corporeal and subject to the laws of cause and effect, and (3) it is impossible to prove the existence of an incorporeal mind, so we shouldn’t fool ourselves by believing in such a thing.  Finally, I will discuss the differences between dualism, which is Descartes’s theory, and materialism, the main rival to dualism, relating to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and I will argue that these differences strengthen the case of dualism.

Methodic doubt, which is the refusal to believe anything in which one cannot have absolute certainty, is the vehicle for Descartes’s philosophy.  Descartes argues that he cannot trust his senses because there might be an evil god who is deceiving him.  Because this god is either omnipotent or extremely technically advanced, he could construct an entire world which seems to exist but does not.  I might believe that I am at Duke University in 2004, but the god could really be harvesting me for electricity inside his home in the year 3000.  Having successfully destroyed man’s certainty in the physical world, Descartes turns his attention to the mind: is he really a thinking thing, or is this, too, an illusion?  He realizes that the existence of his mind is axiomatic; because he is thinking about his mind’s existence, he must exist as a thinking thing.  The evil god may have fabricated my body, but he cannot fabricate my mind; I have it, and I am thinking.  Thus, my mind and body are separate.

Materialism, the chief rival of dualism, views the mind and body as one substance, so the existence of my mind necessitates the existence of my body, and I can and must trust my senses.  This explanation is satisfactory only if the evil god does not exist.  If he does, then the materialists are being fooled.  Dualism can address the evil god, and materialism cannot.  Thus, dualism has the advantage.

Many people, after suffering traumatic physical experiences such as car accidents or strokes, recall leaving their bodies, impartially observing these now-empty shells for a time, and then returning and restoring life to them.  These accounts, called near-death experiences, coincide perfectly with dualism, which says that the body can perish, but the mind (also known as the soul) cannot, and at death, the two separate.  Materialists cannot accept the reality of a near-death experience, so they have two responses for a person who claims one: he is lying, or he is hallucinating.  I reject the first because people who claim these experiences, including my father, have proven themselves trustworthy in all other aspects of their lives and would not break character for fifteen minutes of fame.  The second response, while impossible to reject, is nevertheless difficult to accept.  It seems unlikely that a person who is near death would have mental faculties powerful enough to construct an artificial experience which feels completely real and which coincides perfectly with dualism.  It seems even more unlikely that multiple people would report the same experience.  If these witnesses are hallucinating, then they call into question the amount of trust we can place in our senses; this, too, lends strength to dualism.  For a theory to be true, it must prove true in all possible cases.  Descartes’s theory proves true in the case of near-death experiences, while its rivals’ explanation of them is tenuous, so the argument for dualism is strong.

I will now address three objections to dualism.  The first calls into question Descartes’s assumption that the mind and body are separate and distinct things because one can doubt the body’s existence, but one cannot doubt the mind’s existence.  These critics say that something may be true even if one doubts that it is true; for example, a child may doubt that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, but as the rest of us know, this mathematical principle is completely certain.

This is a sound objection to Descartes’s theory.  It does not disprove dualism, but it does show that dualism is not necessarily true.  I can doubt that my mind and body are one, but it is possible that they really are one, and I simply do not have enough information.  Nor can I imagine a scientific discovery that would prove materialism and disprove dualism.  Either theory could be true, so I must choose one or the other based upon induction, not deduction.

The second objection comes from the emerging field of neuroscience.  Neuroscientists claim that all human actions and emotions can be traced to the brain, and everything we think, feel, or do results from a series of cause-and-effect relationships within this organ.  Our minds are corporeal and extended; they are no essentially no different from our lungs or our veins.

The neuroscientists’ claim fails for two reasons.  First of all, this field is embryonic; what we know about the brain is insignificant compared to what we do not know.  We know the parts of the brain where colors and emotions register, but we still have no understanding of higher-level thinking.  Furthermore, their argument suffers from the problem of “Correlation VS Causation.”  We know that certain emotions are linked to the release of certain chemicals in the brain, but we do not know if the mind triggers the emotions and orders the release of chemicals, or if the chemicals from the brain affect the actions of the mind.  It is possible that the activity we observe in the brain is the result of the actions of the incorporeal mind.  This situation would be consistent with dualism.

Finally, critics say that it is impossible for us to scientifically prove the existence of an incorporeal mind, so any reasonable person would disavow this genie rather than believing in it.  The problem with this argument is that no one has satisfactorily disproved dualism, and none of the alternatives to it are superior.  A better attitude would be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  There is much in this world that we do not understand, and so there is no reason to denigrate anyone who believes in a supernatural dimension.  If the dualist is correct, then it is the materialist who is blinding himself from reality.

The differences between dualism and materialism are not limited to the mind-body problem; they extend throughout metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  The mind-body problem is closely related with the metaphysical problem of free will.  According to Descartes, because the mind is independent of the body, man has absolute free will.  He can decide to do whatever he likes, even if he cannot always carry out his decisions; he cannot fly, but he can choose to attempt it.  Thus, man’s faculty of volition is free of cause and effect.  He is an “unmoved mover” of sorts.  God, too, is an unmoved mover in the dualist metaphysics.  He is incorporeal, and he created the world from nothing, violating the law of cause and effect.  Man can choose whatever he likes, and God can do whatever he likes.

The materialist, meanwhile, is a determinist, which means he rejects free will.  Because the mind is completely enclosed within the brain, and because the brain is a physical faculty which must obey the laws of cause and effect, every action that a person takes, and everything he thinks, results from a myriad of previous factors.  Materialists, who reject the incorporeal mind, are also very likely to reject an incorporeal and omnipotent God.

Another interesting element of the dualist ethic is the potential for conflict between the body and the mind.  The body has insatiable desires for wine, women, and song which the mind must regulate and control, as Dr. Jekyll had to contend with Mr. Hyde.  Materialists provide a more unified view of human behavior.  Since the body and mind are one, the possible conflict between them is as not as dramatic as the dualists convey.

The immortality of the soul is a centerpiece of Descartes’s theory.  My body might die, but my spirit will live on forever.  Thus, dualists are much more likely than materialists to subscribe to religions because they provide service for this immortal soul and help a man to ensure that he will spend his eternity in bliss, not in suffering.  Dualists are more likely than materialists to become martyrs for a cause because dualists believe they will be ultimately rewarded in the afterlife while materialists have but one life to lose.

The dualist belief in the immortal soul also provides a compelling argument for the unique value of the individual human being.  A person is partially corporeal and moral and partially otherworldly and immortal.  Unlike plants and animals, he does not belong on earth; unlike angels, he resides there and experiences its beauty for a short time.  Man is not more or less unique depending upon the uniqueness of his genes, and no one is replaceable.  Dualists accept a transcendent moral code; it is written in the spiritual world, not the physical world, so it applies to all times and to all cultures.  Men can receive knowledge on both the physical and the spiritual plane; divine revelation is possible, and if God is good, it is infallible.  Dualists follow the example of Plato, seeking the good while in this world and hoping to fully experience it in the next.

Materialists also believe in the value of human beings.  They have a different reason: whereas dualists appreciate human life because it has eternal value, materialists appreciate human life because it is fleeting, and a person, once dead, will never live or breathe or think again.  While dualists base their moral code upon the perfect ways of the other world, materialists make base their moral code on living well in this one.  Moral laws are not metaphysically transcendent; they are similar throughout history because men and what is good for them have been similar throughout history.  Materialists act morally because they see that they are happiest when they do so.  Men receive all their knowledge from senses and reason, and there is no such thing as divine intervention or revelation.  Some materialists, such as Nietzsche, despair at the brevity of life, but most wish merely to make the best of the time they have.

The ethical systems of both the dualists and the materialists are plausible, and if I met a person who practiced either of them well, I would admire him.  Nevertheless, I must give the advantage to dualism.  Dualism provides much more hope for men than does its rival.  Its justification for acting morally is stronger because its moral authority, an all-powerful God, is much stronger.  I feel that its portrayal of ethics as a struggle between spirit and flesh is quite plausible.  Also, I have experienced many things in my life, including divine revelation, miracles, and the testimony of my father on his near-death experience, which fit into the dualist’s worldview but not the materialist’s.  Finally, I simply cannot imagine myself completely disappearing.  I cannot remember how I became conscious, but now that I am, I feel like it would be truly impossible for me to return to my previous state of non-existence.  The soul must be immortal.

Using the process of methodic doubt, Descartes rebuilt the foundations of philosophy.  His theory of dualism has dominated Western culture ever since, and this is because it has great merit.  Descartes’s theory explains the phenomena we experience in this world while parrying each attack on its logical and empirical foundations.  It provides men a rational reason to hope for immortality and to try to achieve the good.  Dualism will be a sound answer to the mind-body problem as long as men have both minds and bodies.

Reprisal/Rehabilitation

November 17, 2004

I have not taken any tests this year. Instead, I have written papers – dozens of them. I have thrown my heart and soul into paper-writing. Dave Eggers claims one heart-breaking work of staggering genius, but I believe that I’ve written seven or eight of them in the last couple months.

What do I have to show for it? A bunch of a B+’s, that’s what. I’ve found it exceptionally frustrating. This afternoon, I was considering doing something drastic like becoming a Math major. What could possibly be going wrong?

I looked back over some of my work, and I believe I’ve found the answer: I reach too far. I want to discover the conclusive, deductive proofs for capitalism and for transcendent morality which have been dogging mankind for centuries. In the process, I play fast and loose with logic. I skip over the foundations of my arguments so that I can get to the big picture. I build beautiful cathedrals on shaky foundations, and as a result, the work collapses.

Henceforth, I will not try to change the world with every paper I write. Instead, I will pound out papers. They will be dull, but functional, like a trusty Volkswagen. To satisfy my artistic leanings, I’ll have to make time for creative writing. This should also cut down on the time and emotion that it takes me to do my homework.

I know that I have the talent to compete at this school. I know that I came here to get broken down, and this is my first truly important lesson. We learn the most when we are the humblest, and being humble requires more emotional strength than anything else. It means bending but not breaking. It means not needing to assert dominance over others to feel good about ourselves. It means knowing that we’re not perfect but loving ourselves just the same.