Tag Archives: Hegel

Fresh Apologetic Challenges

The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.

One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.

The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.

In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies.  As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters.  The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?

In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.

Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.

As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.

There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:

“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)

And then,

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)

Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.

If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)

jack and jillTo follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.

When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.

Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.

Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?

In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.

Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.

None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage.  (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)

So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that.  But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis.  A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.

Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.

Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.

In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.

The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.

By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration.  From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.

But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors. 🙂


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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Religion, Respectability

My Take on Basic Christian Economic Principles

This week I’ve been reading further into the views of those who claim to want to see government, particularly in the United States, run according to more strictly biblical principles, and in the process I’ve had to plow through some of their particularly distasteful economic theories. I must confess that this has caused me to mutter to myself some particularly un-Christian exclamatives at times, but I believe God has forgiven me. But it occurs to me that rather than simply ranting to myself about these matters and waiting to eventually channel all of my disagreements on such into my dissertation, I should take the trouble here to lay out the basic structure of what it is I disagree with and what I see as a more “godly” and rational approach on the matter. (Warning: This gets rather long and theoretical.)

I have written before here about the problems inherent in an Ayn Rand “objectivist” approach to economic theory, and with assuming that this is in some way compatible with basic Christian doctrine. Rand’s own mistakes did not include assuming that her views were faith-compatible. In fact she was rather dogmatically opposed to being associated with Christianity, or even traditional morality, but that’s rather beside the point. Those who have made “moral issues” their core political rallying cry have rather broadly chosen to associate themselves with laissez faire economic positions reminiscent of Rand –– actually borrowing from Rand far more than they realize: letting the rich decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do to help the poor, and leaving it up to market forces to distribute the bounty that the earth and human ingenuity have to offer. How this came about is a long sad story unto itself, involving more than a little bit of unproven speculation along the way, but the sad fact of the matter is that many have come to think of this laissez faire approach as the “proper Christian position” on economic matters.

ECP coverThe book on the subject that I’ve been trying to finish this week is called “Explicitly Christian Politics,” edited by a guy named Einwechter (1997, Hopeland, PA: Christian Statesman Press). It’s not intellectually heavy reading, but it is somewhat emotionally draining. It’s written by the sort of Calvinists who honestly believe that America would be a finer country and the world would be a better place if they were (literally) allowed to stone gays and adulterers to death. They’re the ones who believe that they have a direct rational understanding of what God wants for humanity based on their interpretation of the bible, and from there their job is to find ways of progressively taking over the culture in order to bring about this divine mandate. “Mainstream” Religious Right representatives who do the actual “king-making” within the US Republican Party these days try to publically distance themselves from this group even more thoroughly than they do from Ayn Rand, but like Rand, this is the sort of material that those in the Religious Right secretly read and occasionally pass on ideas from.

Anyway, between the chapter on taking the Old Testament literally as a source of civil law and the one on eliminating public education (honestly, literally) comes the chapter on the glories and godly mandate of the free market system, written by a fellow named Tom Rose. Like other writers in the book in question, Rose doesn’t bother too much with investigating the historical context of the “proof texts” he quotes from the Bible. That would effectively kill their whole argument. Thus he takes both Psalm 118 about princes (and by extension all government workers) not being trustworthy and Romans 13 about obeying government authorities as God-appointed ministers of the good as being equally normative for Christians today. This schizophrenic premise leaves him to decide where government should be trusted and where it shouldn’t according to the premises of his school of thought: Government should be trusted to protect the property of those who have lots of property to be protected. Government should be trusted to kill off those who we can justifiably label as “evil doers”. Government should not be trusted to protect and provide for the needs of the poor and the outcast.

Rose_TomAs Rose puts it, “God’s purpose in establishing civil government is to foster a climate of peace, godly freedom and honesty so that man’s freedom to act self-responsibly before God is maximized. Such a climate of principled freedom… fosters the free and spontaneous economic interaction of men through mutually beneficial voluntary exchange.”

He goes on from there to claim that, “A spontaneous and dynamic increase in productive economic activity can be observed throughout the world in countries where civil rulers move from state-controlled economies towards free markets.” His list of historical examples of such a dynamic is pretty thin –– limited in fact to Douglas MacArthur’s role as the occupying governor of Japan after World War 2, where after thirteen years he left “as a beloved benefactor because of the godly policies he implemented.” The assertion that the whole reason Japan was doing so well economically in the late twentieth century was because MacArthur established more “godly principles of government” there than their competitors had deserves to be pondered for a moment.

The whole ideal of voluntary cooperation rather than coercive oppression sits rather awkwardly with the Calvinist emphasis on the completely sinful –– totally depraved –– nature of mankind. Other chapters in the book in question emphasize how we need to have threats of capital punishment not only for murder but for “sexual perversion”, juvenile delinquency and other “grievous crimes”; but when it comes to free market exchange somehow we don’t need so many regulations, because we can believe that somehow in this area people are more capable of peaceful cooperation with each other. How can this be? Well, according to Rose this is because “God has instituted [a] deterrent to the general outworking of evil in society… by infusing a self-interested nature in man.”

This deserves yet a longer ponder. The factor that we can trust to protect us against other people’s sinful greed is their self-interest?! The mix of “objectivism” with Calvinism here is getting more than a little funky.

From there Rose turns to the authority of the nineteenth century French nobleman economist, Frederick Bastiat. He quotes Bastiat as saying, “[M]en will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work… It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work.”

Rose misses the historical irony of this entirely. Bastiat was only able to write these words by excusing himself from working life through what Marx later termed “control of the means of production.” Bastiat was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and with great luck and moderate skill he managed to maintain his bite on that spoon for all of his 49-year life. In the latter half of that life, after his parents and grandparents had died, he gave up all pretense of economic productivity, hiring others to manage his family holdings for him and dedicating his time to theorizing as to why the revolutionary forces of his day should not be allowed to curtail or restrict the means by which he maintained his privileged lifestyle. So for Bastiat to have preached that the government’s job is to limit the extent to which people take the easy way out of working life involved a fair amount of hypocrisy to say at the least.

But taking Bastiat’s perspective as godly wisdom, Rose goes on to argue that the “misuse of government power” needs to be prevented in the forms of:

  • Minimum wage and price control legislation
  • Licensing laws limiting access to particular professions
  • Market restriction mechanisms such as tariffs
  • Government support for businesses and for the poor and needy.

hegel50In condemning these practices he sites G.W.F. Hegel as a prime example of ungodly thinking in social policy: “He [Hegel] viewed men as having social rights rather than God-given rights, and he viewed the state as the entity that prescribed rights and duties… This is an excellent picture of what many modern humanist-oriented states… have devolved into… as they have deviated from God’s clear instructions that rulers are limited in power by the guidelines God has laid down in the Bible.” One of his co-authors puts it, cynically rephrasing Job’s lament, the Hegelian position is that “The State giveth and the State taketh away. Blessed be the name of the State.” Whereas in the “proper order of things” mankind is supposed seize dominion over available resources (as justified by Genesis 1:28) and only God is allowed to take from those who have those who have so seized to give to those in need.

The selective way in which Rose trusts in the virtue of mankind and in the function of government –– with the self-interest of those in positions of economic power being the primary exception to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity that he follows –– makes me uneasy for reasons beyond its intellectual inconsistency, its blind fideism and its similarities with “objectivism”. In terms of encouraging innovation, hard work, creativity and social harmony I just don’t see such a system as stable and workable in the long term. The idea that extreme economic polarization can be anything other than harmful to society strikes me as absurd, and the idea that whatever wealth a person is able to seize needs to be treated as his “divine right” even more so. But lest I be labelled as a Marxist or some other form of heretic than what I am, I should follow this up by taking the trouble to lay out my own basic views on wealth and its proper distribution in line with my religious and ideological commitments. Take what follows for what it’s worth. I only ask that if you slap some sort of label on my ideas you do so without associating me with those who would not want to be associated with my ideas.

Essentially I would define wealth primarily as the capacity to acquire important forms of happiness for oneself. This too goes back to my “Five Cs” theory that I was talking about here again last month: Happiness basically comes by way of comparison, comfort, control, confidence and/or connection. Most often wealth is defined in terms of control: the power to get others to do what you want them to, or give you what you want to have, by paying them enough to make it worth their while. As important as that part of it is, I wouldn’t limit it to that. Nor would I want to determine who is truly wealthy merely on the basis of how much they have in the bank. I could go on about this matter of definition for a couple pages, but I suspect that most of you get my point.

So on the basis of this definition then, I would say that there are essentially seven basic categories for means of wealth acquisition –– three which need to be protected for the economy to remain functional, two which are to be permitted as mostly harmless in most cases but not defended as essential rights, and two which need to be prevented as much as possible by people taking collective action against them.

Means of acquiring wealth to be protected:

The Commons:  The most basic factor in maintaining life and happiness is being able to freely have access to “what God has given” without government and corporate interests blocking this access. This would include basic fresh air, sunshine, companionship and many other important resources, which actually vary from place to place and culture to culture. Here in Finland my “commons” rights include the right to freely go out into the forest and pick blueberries this month, so long as I don’t destroy other people’s possibilities of doing the same. No one is allowed to establish a monopoly on the bounty that nature provides in this regard, and there are legal restrictions over anyone attempting to do so. The same applies in Finnish law regarding simple hook-and-line fishing (at least in areas where the fish haven’t been stocked as part of a professional service to be paid for). More efficient means of gathering fish, reducing the amount available for other common folk, does require a license here, but the simple system I used to catch three big breams last month is fully covered under “everyman’s rights” here.

june2013 030Obviously not every country can guarantee free access to fish and summer berries for all of its residents, but variations on the same principle apply in all places. When Gandhi was fighting to protect the common rights of the people of India against the abuses of the British Empire he did so by collecting salt from the ocean, in defiance of unjust laws monopolizing production in that commodity. The law he was breaking was unjust, not because salt per se is something that every person in the world has a natural right to, but because the attempt to monopolize a freely available natural resource is inherently unjust. Every person should have a right to the plenteous natural resources of their local environment, providing they don’t exclude the same right for others in the process. In theological terms, these resources are God’s gift to all mankind, not just to the greedy and the powerful.

One item that I believe should be included in this category very generally, but which I realize might not be fully applicable in all areas of the world still today, is access to clean drinking water. But even if there are cases where there isn’t enough clean water freely available to fully meet the needs of the local population, I believe that the rights of the common person to a just share of what resources there are is a far higher moral priority than enabling those who would commercially exploit this resource to turn a higher profit. In brutally concrete terms, no child in arid lands should have to die of dehydration because Coca-Cola or one of its competitors owns rights to the primary regional water supplies. I believe that the blocking or monopolizing of access to such basic resources for purposes of increasing the power of the powerful is fundamentally immoral, and one of the chief tasks of government is to protect access to such basic commodities for all of the people of the nation.

Productive labor:  Many of the things which contribute to our overall thriving and sense of happiness cannot be freely gathered; they have to be produced, indirectly or directly by human effort. In this regard people need to be encouraged and rewarded for producing means by which others can maintain life and build their personal happiness, which can in turn be exchanged for the sort of goods and services that enable the laborer to keep pursuing his or her own preferred forms of happiness in life.

garment factorySometimes this process gets incredibly complicated and abstract. In fact the vast majority of productive laborers these days perform the sort of tasks that play some small hidden role in complex processes of providing happiness for others, which they cannot take out onto the open market and sell to the highest bidder, as libertarians would like us to believe that they can. Someone who has worked for over a decade at some simple basic task –– like sewing the size tags into t-shirts that I might buy –– plays a very minor but recognizable role in my day-to-day happiness, that I indirectly pay for; but I am not in a position to make sure that what I pay for the service she provides to me actually reaches her, and she is not in any position to individually negotiate with the factory manager to make sure she gets a fair price for her role in contributing to my happiness. Thus there need to be collective mechanisms in place to protect the rights of individual workers to fair compensation for their efforts. Sometimes this needs to be done by trade unions; other times, by government agencies. The important thing is to insure that those who play a role in productive processes get enough back out of it so that those processes which are truly important to our collective happiness are able to keep going without treating those who enable them as disposable.

The form of happiness that these efforts contribute to can me many and varied, but I would tie them to my five pet categories still: helping us feel like we can favorably compare ourselves with others (comparison), helping our basic biological processes to function smoothly and enjoyably (comfort), enabling us to feel like we’re somehow in charge of our own lives and able to influence things beyond ourselves (control), feeling like we’re somehow making the world a better place (confidence), and/or having a sense of being part of someone or something beyond the confines of one’s own skin (connection). Some of these are more important than others in the big scheme of things. Some are more dependent than others on the goods and services we are able to acquire from other people. In many cases we all try to get as much as we can from others while offering as little in return as we can get away with… unless we stop to consider those we are interacting with as important individuals unto themselves. Then it becomes important to my happiness to keep those others from being abused, and I am even willing to pay others to help protect them from abuse, including by way of trying to hire government officials that share my priorities in this regard. In fact I believe that having this sense of connection with others –– loving our neighbors as ourselves –– is at the core of all Christian economic ethics, properly understood.

Distributing goods: Besides the process of producing the items and services needed to preserve life and enable happiness for all of us, there is also the challenge of getting the commodities in question to those who want and need them. In the ever-increasingly complex world in which we live this action within the economy takes on a greater and greater role all the time. Those who play important roles in the distribution of means of happiness include merchants, delivery personnel (drivers, sailors, pilots, dock workers…), broadcasters, publishers, bankers, business managers, salespersons, secretaries, advertising agents, talent agents, literary agents, travel agents, purchasing agents, tax collectors, librarians… The list is really endless. Without such people, I must admit, the computer on which I’m writing this, the particular room in which I am sitting, the food in my refrigerator and the clothes currently on my back probably never would have become available to me.

gerrits milk cartThese people are actually not spoken of to any significant extent in the Bible, or in the Qur’an for that matter, because those books were written in a logistically far simpler time: as a rule producers of goods did their own marketing and delivery, like my great-grandfather’s milk business still a century ago. Capitalism, industrialism and consumerism hadn’t really become social phenomena worth mentioning yet. To the extent that such people are mentioned in scripture the comments made about them are generally not that favorable. It is fair to say that for all of the abuses inherent within these developments though, they have increased our overall freedom, our personal safety, our lifespans and our sense of brotherhood and interconnection with people all over the world. Thus it would be fair to say that on the balance these post-scriptural structural developments have been a good thing for the world. But like all new cultural and technological developments, these complex means of distributing goods and services need to be carefully regulated.

Those who come between the t-shirt sower and myself enable her work to benefit me and my money to benefit her, but they more often than not charge me far more for bringing the fruits of her labor to me and demand more from her in turn for the pay they give her than is necessarily justifiable. More than a few people have gotten obscenely rich not by making anything that increases the happiness of others but by controlling the extent to which those who actually produce useful commodities have access to the fruit of each other’s labor –– more often than not exponentially increasing the prices paid in the exchange. By enabling more extensive trade many of these middle men earn their money fairly quite fairly, so it’s not fair to label all of them as crooks, but enough of them are crooked and abusive so that government has a major role to play in keeping a watch on these middle men and preventing them from abusing their power. It’s not enough to have nominal competition between distribution services; there needs to be an oversight system with more power than even the biggest business interest, answerable directly to the people in need of the protection.

Of all the people who cry foul when their extreme wealth is taxed by the government, those who acquired this wealth by more than quadrupling the prices consumers pay to the producers of particular services have the least right to complain. When these businesses become bigger and more powerful than the governments whose job it is to keep their abuses in check then we’re all in trouble. This is a situation that the writers of scripture never would have imagined, but which they certainly would have condemned if they could have seen it.

Means of acquiring wealth to be permitted

Gleaning: The Bible’s book of Ruth is actually the most touching religious love story that I know of. It is based primarily on the principle of gleaning: poor people being allowed to pick up the leftover products of mass-production. In particular if there was a poor girl who didn’t have enough to eat, she could freely go around to big farms after all of the produce had been harvested and pick up what scraps there were left in the fields for her own needs. As it happened in the story of Ruth a rich farmer happened to fall in love with a girl he noticed gleaning in his fields in just this way.

Book_of_Ruth_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Unlike rights to “the commons” mentioned above, gleaning involves taking advantage of other people’s labor without paying them for it. This is justifiable only in the case where it’s actually not costing the producer anything for the poor person to take advantage of his work. Those who build careers as abusive middle men would argue that in a market economy this is never the case: if anyone gets anything that they would otherwise have to buy for free, it drives the market price down and that in turn decreases the return to the producer (or more likely, to the middle men). There are many cases, however, where this amounts to nothing more than excessive greed. This is particularly relevant to the defense of “intellectual property.” It is one thing to prevent someone from the Far East to steal the ideas in question and flooding the market with knock-off copies of the product –– whatever it is –– thus preventing the innovative thinker from getting any substantial reward for his/her ideas. It is quite another thing for someone who has already profited handsomely from an idea he has come up with to prevent poor children in India or Africa –– who never would have been able to pay for the use of the idea in any case –– to freely benefit from the idea being “out there” once a fair and motivating amount of money has been made on it. Gleaning plays an important and respected role in biblical economics. Not shutting down gleaning operations out of pure greed to maximize middle man profits is a distinctly ungodly way of doing business.

CrapsTableOldGambling: Another means of acquiring wealth is through various variations on games of chance. These games can easily become dangerously addictive and economically destructive to those who make a habit out of playing them, and as such they are broadly discouraged by moralists of many sorts, but in fact the Bible has surprisingly little to say directly against such practices, as long as they are conducted with a modicum of honesty. For many businessmen this is a good thing, because what they are doing in the process of “playing the market” amounts to little more than gambling with other people’s money. This process is morally acceptable as long as all of those whose money is being wagered are fully informed about how the game works and what their risks are. What is not acceptable is when these folks lose their bets and then expect the government to bail them out, especially when they are not willing to surrender any of their previous dishonest “winnings” in the process. Those who have paid even the slightest attention to what the Occupy movements of the past decade have been saying don’t need me to explain this situation to them though, and the rest probably aren’t interested in understanding it any further, so I’ll move on.

Means of acquiring wealth to be forbidden

Enslavement of others: There are biblical precedents for allowing slavery, but there is a universal moral outcry these days against allowing such practices to continue. In fact the most honorable thing do be done in the name of Christianity in the past few centuries was the movement to abolish the slave trade worldwide. The problem is that many still don’t take the risk of enslavement that many face –– and the moral equivalent of enslavement for the working poor –– as serious moral issues. Any form of employment which treats human beings as disposable production apparatuses –– not paying them at least enough to cover the housing, nutritional and medical expenses for a small family, so that “the bosses” are able to get richer off of selling the products of their labor –– is dehumanizing and immoral, and their need to be laws to prevent such de-facto enslavement. If customers aren’t willing to pay enough for a particular product so that there’s enough money being made off of it to provide a livable wage to all of those making the product in question, then the economy would probably be better off without the wasteful exercise of producing such valueless garbage. That excuse aside, there is no real justification for legally allowing businesses, especially within “developed countries”, to disregard the standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with regard to their employees’ basic dignity. A fortiori, we need to forbid the import of products that are made by explicit slave labor, or under conditions that result in the unnecessary death and blatant de-humanization of people in third world countries, regardless of how many powerful men within our societies are benefiting from such practices.

Plunder by means of deception and non-democratic force: Regardless of Bastiat’s hypocrisy in saying so, it is true that if people have an alternative to working (contributing to the happiness of others in order to have something to fairly exchange for the means of gaining happiness they expect others to provide them with) that gives them the same personal benefits for less of an effort, they will frequently take advantage of such an alternative. For some short-sighted individuals various forms of legalized gambling seem like the best means of avoiding work. For many, however, there are convenient forms of cheating and bullying available to them that involve less effort than honest work, and less risk than the various gambling rackets. These include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, extortion, armed robbery, burglary, kidnapping, hijacking, con schemes, resource monopolization and blackmail. It is part of the essential role of government to protect citizens against such abuses at the hands of their immoral neighbors. This much should be obvious.

This would not, however, include democratic institutional structures requiring higher tax contributions from those who have benefitted most extensively from the societal structure for the maintenance of that structure and for the protection of the most disadvantaged within that structure. Regardless of what libertarians and “objectivists” have to say about the subject, democratically regulated wealth redistribution for the basic protection and stabilization of the society in which that wealth was generated does not count as plunder. To equate the rich in modern industrialized countries having to pay over 25% in taxes with the guillotining of the French aristocracy and the nationalization of their property back in Bastiat’s time is more than a little absurd –– especially when that income so often comes not from working in the sense of contributing to the thriving of others, but from blatantly “working the system”.


So if we are going to try to manage national economies according to genuinely Christian principles, I strongly believe that these are the ones we have to be prioritizing. If you believe we should manage economies strictly on the basis of Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest theory and as Dickens’ Scrooge said, allow the poor to die off to decrease the surplus population, I can respect your intelligence but not your morality. If you believe that the best interests of the poor are really served by allowing the rich and powerful free reign in operating according to their own self-interest, I can respect your moral intent but not your intelligence. I deeply and sincerely respect the intelligence of some who disagree with me on this matter, and the moral integrity of others, but I find it very difficult to respect both. Feel free to attempt to change my mind on the matter.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion

KE part 5 (evaluating confidence-based happiness)

Continuing on with this re-blogged series, I am now coming to the part of the general theory of happiness I have written for my son that involves the most philosophical heavy lifting. But before we get to that, let’s start with some relatively simple observations.

There is a fairly strong consensus among philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and people in general that, in terms of my alliteration on Cs here, confidence is more important to human happiness than either comfort or control. If we go over to alliterating with Ps rather than Cs, more significant than pleasure or power is a sense of pride, combined with a sense of purpose in life. In order to be truly happy, we have to be convinced that our lives mean something, and that somehow the world will be better because we were here.

On its most basic level this can be a matter of people just having confidence in their personal abilities at something they’ve chosen to do with their lives. My father has told me, and written in his own memoirs, about how his father took a certain pride in the aesthetics of his farm fields. The neatness and symmetry of the rows of vegetables and grain were part of his satisfaction in being a “good farmer”. Happiness by way of confidence begins with things just that simple. I’ve met other people who have found satisfaction in life through being able to put a perfect shine on a hardwood floor, or to make perfectly fitting joints in their carpentry framing projects, or to knit sweaters exactly to size and made to last, or any number of other practical skills that can be done with pride. These aren’t a matter of competition, but a matter of feeling a certain dignity and importance through being able to “do things right.”

The problem with basing one’s happiness on such basic things though is that technology is making many of these sources of pride and purpose redundant. Skilled workers have been replaced by more and more precise and efficient machines. These machines can be operated by pretty much any idiot, and can produce many times more of whatever the product is per man/hour. The more technology proceeds, the harder it is to find necessary simple routines to take pride in being good at.

But even without the changes brought on by technology, the justification for people taking pride in things like shiny floors and symmetrical fields was probably pretty thin to begin with. I mean, in the big scheme of things, what difference do they really make? Are these things really any more important than my Sudoku skill? What is there that we can do in this world that can really give our lives honest meaning? Perhaps you are now starting to see how this could get complicated, and where the philosophical heavy lifting comes in.

In order to consider what is ultimately important in life, we first have to consider what is ultimately real in life as we know it, and in the universe in general. In other words we have to critically examine the field philosophers refer to as metaphysics. This is in fact one of the most notoriously problematic areas in academic philosophy, where some brilliant thinkers (no less than the likes of Hegel) dive in and make total idiots of themselves, and others (no less than the likes of Kant) step aside and say, “it can’t be done, so stop trying.” And yet all of us, on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis, keep doing things to prove to ourselves that, on some higher level, we have value. Those that don’t find any such functional projects for themselves tend to become mentally ill, literally. So like it or not, we all keep coming back to our different metaphysical assumptions about what is out there and what we should do about it. But how should we go about deciding what is most important in our world?

Being as I am also a religious education teacher, the easiest way for me to open up this topic further is to summarize the Bible’s take on the matter, and then use that as a starting point for looking at other alternatives. I can hear choruses of “free thinkers” screaming “No Fair!” on this just from that last sentence, but bear with me. Have a look at the framework that comes up, and see if you find it useful before you make you final judgment on the matter.

The first four words of the Bible are something that any educated person in Western society should know for their place in cultural history, if nothing else: “In the beginning God…” According to this view it all starts with “God,” however He (or She, or It) may be defined. There is some supernatural force out there that is the source of everything. Given the source there’s no big surprise in this perspective, so what’s next?

Well, this God “created the heavens and the earth.” The next reality that we are presented with here, after the divine, is the basic material realm caused by God. Fine. Straight-forward enough. What’s next?

Well, there’s a chapter’s worth of poetic stage setting, in two different epic styles, as the material world gets properly organized before man is finally formed “from the dust of the ground”. The first man is depicted very much as an individual, on his own in relation to the material world and his creator. Eventually, as the story goes, God had to give him a mate at least, but that was sort of an after-thought. And after that everything started going downhill.

Let’s watch this recording in scan-forward mode for a bit: The woman gets curious about new forms of knowledge introduced by a snake. She then “educates” her husband. They become self-conscious and alienated, and get kicked out of their garden paradise. They start making babies. The oldest starts into agriculture while the second starts herding animals. God likes the herding brother better, so the older brother gets jealous and kills him. As punishment the older brother has to leave the rest of the family with his wife and go start his own city elsewhere. (Yes there are a few narrative problems there, but let’s keep going.) With this mention of the oldest son Cain’s city, we move into talking about societies as a significant factor in the narrative, and usually a negative factor at that.

Anyway, the third brother from the family does alright and his kids start seriously populating the world, but they start getting wild and crazy, and so God decides he’s going to flush this toilet; but first God tells this guy Noah what’s coming and how to save his family from the imminent flood. Noah and his kids ride out the storm in this huge smelly houseboat with thousands of animals in there with them, and eventually the water goes down and they all get to re-populate the earth. Then one of the first things they start to do is build a big city together called Babel. Let’s hit the play button and slow the film down now.

We’re looking at the construction site for the famous “Tower of Babel.” This is where, as the story goes, God got somewhat aggravated with the human projects he saw going on down there, so he decided to mess up their system by, overnight, making them all speak different languages from each other. But why would God do that? Was God really worried that they were going to build a tower so tall that it would end up stretching through the clouds and come poking up through his living room floor? Even imagining a world view where God’s home in heaven is physically directly above the flat world we live on, such a threat wouldn’t seem all that believable. So what were they doing that God got so upset about?

Short answer: they were getting religious.

Their tower, “reaching to the heavens,” was intended to systematically investigate the skies, so they could try to figure out something about what sorts of powers were out there. They were thus setting out to make their own gods. This is the sort of crap that happens in cities. God obviously couldn’t have that, so he scattered them around the world using the language confusion trick.

If we discount this final negation as part of the Bible’s bias, what we have is a cycle of four basic metaphysical factors: God as the source of the Material World; the Material World as the source of the Human Individual; the Human Individual (with all of his social and sexual needs) as the starting point for Society; and Society as the source for God(s).  My basic premise now is that in order to try and prove that our silly little lives have value, people generally need to pick one of these four factors as their starting point, and from there construct a world view where each of the other three follow.

It may seem counter-intuitive in one sense, but this cycle really can be broken at any of the four causal relation points. This results in four categories of metaphysical premises to base our personal values on. In fact all of them are in fairly common use these days, and all of them have their own strong defenders and significant problems. So as to not appear to be stuck on my religious biases here, I’ll begin summarizing them with the next premise after God, coming back around to belief in his supremacy as the last one.

A value system based on materialist metaphysics basically assumes that the world is the product of random occurrences between physical forces and particles, and everything else is an abstraction built on that foundation. Within Earth’s biosphere people evolved, between people societies evolved, and within societies religions evolved; and in fact all three processes are on-going. Based on this premise then, the purpose of life would be to keep these evolutionary processes going in what we might consider to be a positive direction.

Right away one problem with this premise becomes apparent though: Can we really presume that we know which direction this evolution “should go”? History is full of cases of individuals, tribes and nations taking false pride in being the “most evolved,” all with somewhat embarrassing end results. Or maybe it should be a matter of entirely “getting back to nature” and not letting our technologies disturb the natural balance of things so much. In other world we should stop trying to save sick and dying children, leaving them so that “nature can have its way”… or should we?

In fact probably the worst factor that materialism-based ethical systems have in common, beyond their silly false conceits and uncertainty of purpose, is their lack of regard for individual humans as being valuable unto themselves. If humans really aren’t made in God’s image and don’t have a God-breathed soul –– if we are all just accidental products of nature –– that allows us to think of people as sort of like snowflakes: each is a unique individual, containing its own fascinating pattern and intricate beauty that is worth stopping to appreciate; but at the same time it’s no big deal for me to crush a few million of them each snowy day as I drive to work, or to break them up and smash them together as part of playing with kids in the back yard. What’s to stop us from treating other people like that?

It was in reaction to the disregard for individual human beings based on “evolutionary” ideologies during World War 2 that we got what is now known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other ways as well, a new, somewhat anti-materialist, individual-based form of ethical thinking arose in the mid-twentieth century, known as Existentialism. Its most radical and ideologically consistent spokesman would have to be Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre basically claimed that each person is his or her own starting point. No other causes or influences excuse us from taking full responsibility for everything about ourselves and what we do with our lives. Each of us chooses who we associate with and how, what higher ideals (or gods) we will subscribe to, and what significance we will assign to physical characteristics of our environment. We are each “radically free.”

Does such an approach work? Not entirely. In practical terms Sartre had a difficult time saying why he believed some wars needed to be fought but not others, and it is probably no coincidence that his girlfriend ended up writing one of the most famous books in feminist literature about how little respect women get. Beyond that it’s just plain naïve to assume that there is nothing about our genetics and environments that make us into who we are. Existentialism solves some of the problems of materialism, but it creates more than a few new problems of its own.

One way of dealing with these challenges is to assume that society should be the starting point for our functional reality. The most direct statement of this I have seen is by an academic named James W. Carey, who says, “Reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication.” Many other philosophers and social scientists also operate on variations of the premise that language makes our reality what it is. If I can’t explain it in words (or other symbolic performances) then odds are it isn’t all that real to me. So all reality starts with social interaction and builds from there into shared ideals, which effectively become our “gods”. Those ideals in turn tell us how we should relate to the material world, and lastly comes the matter of finding a role for the individual within that system.

This at least has the benefit of limiting our ego-centrism and helping us see our place in a system that is much bigger than we are. And perhaps political agreement can lead us down a more virtuous path than doing whatever makes me feel individually important. But it must also be pointed out that “stupidity becomes concentrated within a crowd,” and just because everyone else believes something, or acts on such a basis, doesn’t mean that you should. In fact it could be argued that it was in reaction to the stupidity of the masses bringing about the death of Socrates that the European philosophical tradition properly began.

After tossing out social consensus as a valid basis for human values, Plato postulated that there had to be some sort of collection of “forms” out there which we should base our standards on –– something which was prior to and more important than the physical. That sort of speculation puts him in good religious company. The search for enlightenment as to what lies beyond the physical is the essence of all mystical traditions, and these mystical traditions are the foundation for all religious world views. The problem, however, comes when those who assume that they have really found the ultimate truth as to what is “out there” then decide that they are justified in killing off any who don’t share their vision, or in encouraging young people to go out and die for the glory of their faith. Enough said about that.

Without going into too much detail, I can think of at least two philosophical approaches which manage to avoid falling into any of the above categories. One is Spinoza’s pantheistic mysticism, which effectively says that all of the causes and effects listed above are continuously operative and impossible to properly separate from each other. We are part of a big cosmic whole which we can talk about in either spiritual or material terms, but none of that effectively changes the fact that we will never be able to control any part of it. We are caught in the cosmic tide and all we can really do is go with the flow.

The other exception to my four-part breakdown of our human search for purpose that I am aware of is Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction. His basic idea is to say that any given metaphysical starting point can do at least as much harm as good, and the follow-through from each premise to the next stage will always be questionable, so we shouldn’t bother to assume that any of the above premises are going to provide us with purpose or confidence. We should just enjoy the randomness of life for what it is and leave it at that. But many have found that trying to build an ethical program based on Derrida’s philosophy is like trying to build a home based on an Escher etching. This sort of belief in randomness, while theoretically justifiable, has limited constructive value. They don’t call it deconstruction for nothing.

Obviously none of these systems provide a foolproof means of establishing my personal importance in the universe. It is also obvious, however, that each of these foundations has been used by particular individuals to reshape the world we live in today. Regardless of which of these premises you base your own sense of confidence on, you have to acknowledge both the harm done and the contributions made by individuals building from each of these premises.

I happen to believe that starting with a search for God –– or the ultimate Platonic forms, or the transcendent, objective source of all virtues, or whatever else you want to call him/her/it –– is the strongest basis for personal confidence, but that’s another essay unto itself. The big question for now is, is confidence of the sort I am talking about here really the highest we can hope to reach in terms of happiness and virtue in life?

Abraham Maslow seemed to think so. Maslow believed that the pinnacle of psychological strength was when people could determine themselves what was actually most important in life as they know it and change their worlds accordingly. He referred to such people as “self-actualized.” A lower level of this same principle would be to have a reasonably strong sense of self-esteem. He further believed that this was only possible for people to achieve after they had solved the problems of meeting their most basic physical needs, feeling safe about their basic survival, and having a basic sense of social acceptance. Loosely translated into my 5 C vocabulary then, Maslow’s ordering of these factors would be: Comfort -> Control -> Connection -> Comparison -> Confidence. I respect his scholarship and his pioneering work in this area immensely, but when it comes to basic priorities in life I have to fundamentally disagree with that order. Then again, Maslow and I are actually asking entirely different questions. Maslow was starting off with the premise that the strongest people in the world psychologically are those who have the strongest sense of self-confidence, and he was trying to find what was necessary to get people to that point. I in turn am trying to determine which sorts of pursuits that we engage in for their own sake are ultimately the most satisfying and useful in life.

On this basis I firmly believe that comparing myself, even favorably, with those around me is really the least satisfying form of the pursuit of happiness. This was the point in part 2 of this series. On the other end of the spectrum I am strongly prone to believe that the most fruitful way in which to pursue happiness is not necessarily by way of strong personal confidence –– as vitally important as that is –– but through a deeper sense of connection with others.  That is where this series is going next.

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Purpose, Religion