Monday, March 8, 2010

David Brooks Reaches A New Gray

David Brooks' reasoning powers have long been pretty much kaput. But now he has really outdone himself.

After noting several stark differences between the hippies of New Left of the 60s and the Tea Party movement activists, such as "One was on the left, the other is on the right. One was bohemian, the other is bourgeois. One was motivated by war, and the other is motivated by runaway federal spending. One went to Woodstock, the other is more likely to go to Wal-Mart." he immediately turns around and says "But the similarities are more striking than the differences."

Uh, it would be hard to find a starker difference than 'one favors liberty, the other collective slavery.'

His reasons only make his position look more ridiculous. Scattered among lesser gems is this 40 carat whopper:
"The core commonality is this: Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence.

Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures."

"Because of this assumption, members of both movements go in big for conspiracy theories."
Right. It's just a conspiracy theory that Federal spending is out of control far beyond already horrendous historical norms. It's just a wacky theory that the Feds have already nationalized two-thirds of the auto industry. It's delusional to believe they already corrupted the financial markets with bailouts, stimuli, and interfering in executive compensation issues. A person is mentally askew if he believes they're trying to complete their control over all health care and insurance.

Still, set all that aside. What's most interesting here is that his brain is so awash with pragmatic, middle-of-the-road mush he would simply wash away the clear black-and-white differences between the 60's New Left and the '10s New Right to declare the Tea Party movement morally suspect.

And why? Because the latter wants radical change (in this case in the direction of freedom), just like the New Left did in the '60s (in the direction of statism). In short, what they have in common is a passionate – and more or less consistent — attachment to a philosophy. To a Pragmatist, such a thing is anathema regardless of the actual content of the philosophy.

And how does he defend this position? By invoking an all-too-common conservative notion that is both misanthropic and inherently self-contradictory:
Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin — on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages...
The doctrine of original sin is not equivalent to a belief that humans are fallible or lack omniscience. It's the belief that we are innately evil, or (in weaker versions) that humans have an in-built tendency toward evil.

The concept of "sin" (actions which violate a moral law) is closely related to that of "evil." But the concepts of good and evil can only be meaningful when one has a choice. Alleging we are born evil, therefore, entails a contradiction.

So, basing one's advocacy of "permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages" is illogical (not to mention ahistorical, considering how often that alleged wisdom has been wrong).

Folks, this is the inevitable mental and moral dead end of living by the philosophy of Pragmatism. It makes you dumb.

6 comments:

madmax said...

Jeff, excellent essay. I despise Original Sin or "Innate Depravity" or any similar Platonic conception. But I have a question. You say this is the outgrowth of Pragmatism but I think this is the outgrowth of Mysticism.

Original Sin is the sine qua non of Christianity and religious Conservatism. These Conservatives' main complaint against the Left is that because of the Left's secularism Leftists are necessarily moral relativists and subjectivists. They argue that this is largely because they reject the concept of a morality which is given by an "ordainer" that is outside the realm of reason. So Leftists are bad because they are too rational, and they reject the moral reality of human beings - namely that we are "lower" than the great giver of moral truths and thus inherently flawed with a tendency to depravity.

This all seem like the legacy of Platonism and Intrincicism to me. I don't know if I would say it is due to Pragmatism. But Pragmatism certainly doesn't help.

Jeff Perren said...

Max,

Thanks, but the essay is flawed, as is made plain by your astute comments.

The final line is intended to apply not to the section on original sin alone, but to the whole. I.e. David Brooks entire approach is the result of his pragmatism, as exemplified in part by his reaching for such a tangential explanation to support his case, not that a belief in original sin is the product of accepting Pragmatism.

The doctrine of original sin obviously predates Pragmatism by centuries so the latter couldn't be its source. Quick, sloppy writing on my part is responsible for any suggestion of that I might have engendered.

That said, I can't see much influence of Platonism here. You might flesh that out if you're interested.

Jeff

P.S. I'm not sure how original sin could be the sine qua non of Christianity. Apart from it being rejected by many Christians, it's also embraced by Islam and Judaism. Even ignoring that, from what I read on the subject (which admittedly isn't much), the doctrine is often thought peripheral. I'm far from an expert on that religion, though.

madmax said...

Jeff,

Actually, I should have said that Original Sin is the sine qua non of *Conservatism* not Christianity. I have yet to come across a serious Conservative thinker that rejects Original Sin. Even a secular economic Conservative like Sowell always goes on endlessly about mankind's "tragic condition".

As I understand it, and the way I have read Christians describe it, Original Sin is the consequence of man being separated from the perfect realm or divine realm of God. True perfection, whether it is a perfect dimension or the Godhead itself, is not this earth which is only a "pale reflection" of the alleged non-material, supernatural realm. Man, being separated from this perfect realm, is therefore less than perfect and flawed.

That's the way I understand it. Although there are some 3000 [!!] different Christian sects and they all have their own "spin". I find that Conservatives make the "innate depravity" argument often and they further add that if you reject this then you *must* believe in "innate virtue" which is just as flawed. In fact, many Conservatives will argue that the essence of "Liberalism" is this belief in mankind's innate goodness. They link this with Rousseau which may or may not be right.

I have even read Conservatives argue that Rand was a "utopian Liberal" because she rejected Original Sin. But of course, Rand rejected innate depravity and innate virtue. But Conservatives are almost by definition incapable of understanding Rand's ethics.

Ken said...

Rand's rejection of "innate depravity" is made pretty clear in Galt's radio speech. I did not know that she also rejected innate virtue, if I follow madmax right. It does leave me wondering what's left, though.

I know I should oughta hunt it down myself, but I really should oughta be working more on my dissertation, so I'll politely ask: Does Rand parallel Locke in advancing tabula rasa, or something like it, or something else?

As for why man is flawed, I have long thought that the mere fact of observed heterogeneity implies that everything in the physical universe is to some degree flawed. If perfection were possible, nothing imperfect could compete, it seems to me. That's about as far as I ever thought it through, though.

Innate depravity is, of course, another matter, although I rather like William Golding's line: "I must say that anyone who lived through those years (of World War II) without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head."

That's fairly harsh, but consider Golding's experience and evidence base. My own view is that humans are basically "okay, but it don't pay to expect too much."

Evil is, but if it doesn't come from something within our nature, nor from some supernatural agency, where does it come from? False consciousness?

Jeff Perren said...

Ken,

Those are excellent questions and points, and in a couple of cases more complex than I can answer with the available brain juice I have left at the end of this day. So, I'll pick the easy ones or give facile answers to the others, and return to your questions later.

"Rand's rejection of 'innate depravity' is made pretty clear in Galt's radio speech. I did not know that she also rejected innate virtue, if I follow madmax right. It does leave me wondering what's left, though."

In a word: volition. Good (or evil) are chosen. Metaphysically, human nature – like the nature of anything else – is morally neutral.


"Does Rand parallel Locke in advancing tabula rasa, or something like it, or something else?"

Yes, according to Rand, Man is born tabula rasa, and not just morally but epistemologically as well. He has no innate values because he has no innate concepts.


"As for why man is flawed, I have long thought that the mere fact of observed heterogeneity implies that everything in the physical universe is to some degree flawed. If perfection were possible, nothing imperfect could compete, it seems to me. That's about as far as I ever thought it through, though."

Sorry, you lost me. It seems you're accepting without examination the Platonic view of perfection, a view Rand rejected. I'd also have to ask what you mean by "complete" and how that's related to "perfection." An acorn can be "perfect" in the sense that it is completely an acorn without having yet expressed its full potential to become an oak tree.

In any case, Rand would likely say, in contradistinction to Aristotle, the issue of "completeness" and "perfection" is epistemological, not metaphysical. Metaphysically, everything is what it is, and that's all there is to say, except this, perhaps:

Being perfect or flawed is a matter of (judging by) a standard. But if the standard of perfection is unachievable, it lies outside of reality. (That's part of what I mean by my statement about Platonic perfection above.) Hence, the concept of "perfection" would become meaningless. It becomes just something chosen according to imagination, not observation.


"Evil is, but if it doesn't come from something within our nature, nor from some supernatural agency, where does it come from?"

This one requires more thought and care, so I'll give an inadequate answer for now. Evil comes from us, but by choice. That is, our nature is such that we can be evil (or good); there is no necessity for a particular one in any given instance, nor overall. (See the first question.)


This: "False consciousness?" phrase from Marxist doctrine I don't understand in this context. Can you amplify what you mean here?


Jeff

P.S. I'm not an Objectivist and any interpretations of that philosophy represent only my own understanding, not any sort of "official position."

Ken said...

Good morning, Jeff, and thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

I don't have all that much brain juice myself at the moment, but let me see what I can do.... :-)

I don't hold with Platonic ideal forms. In terms of philosophy of science I am persuaded by scientific realism. There is an objective reality that we apprehend imperfectly. Imperfect perception is one reason for error variance; another is free will, as Claes Fornell (I think it was) noted.

I argue that perfection is unattainable in reality for a couple of reasons. We cannot draw a perfect circle, nor find (or create) a perfect crystal lattice; as our ability to measure improves, so too does our ability to find irregularities. In both of these examples, perfection can be defined: the circle would show no deviation in radius at sub-micron level. No impurity would appear in the lattice, however long we cared to search it using an electron microscope.

As an aside, our improving ability to measure also drives toxicologists (in particular) crazy, because what was considered "absent" at a detection level of parts per million tends to turn up at a detection level of parts per billion or parts per trillion. It sounds like inside baseball, but when legislation and regulation turn on this stuff, it suddenly matters a lot. It's why the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 replaced the older Delaney Clause of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938. The Delaney standard was "no detection," period. As our ability to detect smaller and smaller amounts of substances advanced, it was clear by about 1990 that the standard was literally impossible to achieve (and not worth the candle even if it were possible, the first principle of toxicology being "the dose makes the poison" -- consider the fun people had with "dihydrogen monoxide" and scientific illiterates).

In terms of living creatures, I was invoking natural selection and individual/species competition in an environment: An imperfect species (or genotype of a species) is unlikely to be able to compete against a perfect species or genotype. The fact of individual heterogeneity suggests to me (recognizing that I could be committing the philosophers' fallacy of high redefinition) that perfection so defined is impossible. Individual heterogeneity is found even in fundamentally identical environmental conditions, and in any case the sources of heterogeneity are often orthogonal to (uncorrelated with) any environmental differences.

However, borrowing a little from your acorn point, any heterogenous acorn may be a perfectly good acorn, and I suppose could be even said to be perfect "within the limit," just as Newtonian mechanics continue to describe physical phenomena adequately "within the limit."

My invocation of tabula rasa and false consciousness are somewhat related, but I guess they needn't be. I suppose that if morality can be derived via reason, the first persons to have tried could reason their way to either right or wrong conclusions, and so we see both good and evil (this is pretty slapdash, I know, but it's the best I can do at the moment).

"False consciousness" is a bit of snark. I have often seen it argued that "everyone would be (fill in the philosophy blank) if they hadn't been gulled by (fill in the bad guy blank)." The bad guy blank can be kings, priests, capitalists, insurance companies, what have you. The argument is not found in the quivers of Marxists alone, although they have a bigger bullhorn than most these days.