West's Founding, II

West has a bedrock notion that he wants to convey. That notion is that equality and liberty, as the Founders understood them, were the same thing: specifically, both terms mean that no one is born a natural slave. We are all born free, and therefore we all are in that strict sense equals.

That puts him at odds with most of the scholarship, which have treated equality and liberty as being different notions -- even opposing or incoherent ideas. If we are really free, then inequality will surely result as natural talents, differential fortunes, and other things create unequal results. (As West points out, the scholars are led astray here by de Tocqueville, whose use of the term 'equality' is the French and not the American notion, and really is a commentary on 'equality of condition.') 

It also creates a conceptual problem because the Founders definitely do believe that some people are natural aristocrats. By this they meant roughly what Aristotle meant, i.e., that some men are more capable of excellence, i.e., "virtuous" than others. Jefferson says this explicitly in his letters, but he is not alone. James Wilson wrote, "When we say that all men are created equal, we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues," which may vary widely. (73; all page numbers in this series will be to West unless otherwise noted.) The Founders, like the Greeks, take it as a matter of first importance to identify those who are exceptionally virtuous for government service and refer to this mission over and over in their state constitutions and similar statements (ibid).

Nevertheless, this capacity for excellence does not create a natural class of masters: the idea is that free and equal men shall choose their leaders from among themselves. The power of legitimate governing arises from this election, without which no superiority in intelligence or virtue (which are not equivalent terms) justifies the exercise of power of one over another.

West's project ends up treating a number of terms as being actual equivalents: "In these documents," he writes, "'created,' 'born,' an 'by nature' are equivalent terms. 'By nature' means as they really are, independent of customs and traditions. What human beings really are -- with respect to freedom -- is individuals who are neither the masters nor the slaves of other people." (25) This gives rise to the concept that human beings have a natural right to be treated in accordance with that equality, which in nature (i.e. pre-politically) is absolute. Social compacts may create a class of governing men with legitimate power, but in nature there is not one.

Likewise, even social compacts end up being limited because there are some parts of this equality that cannot morally be given away. These are the 'inalienable' rights, which include "life, liberty, and property" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but also several variants West finds regularly included in the many lists composed by the Founders in various documents. "Other rights sometimes mentioned include reputation, keeping and bearing arms, freedom of speech and press, and assembly." (27-8) All of those except 'reputation' have survived to us at least as ideals; that one, I notice, is a right to defend one's honor. Our society has tried to dispose of honor as a value, though it is in fact impossible to do that; instead we end up fighting over whether George Washington or George Floyd should be honored with statues and street names. The Founders' earlier model, which entailed a right to defend honor with violence, was defensive: it was not a right to initiate violence, but to demand that no one be allowed to sully your honor without being subject to answering to you for it.

The consequence of this idea of natural right is that everyone is "rightfully free of the violence of others," an idea we usually today hear mostly from libertarians. (28) This also imposes natural duties of others not to impose upon us their violence, within only the limits of ensuring the public peace (e.g., religious liberty is not coherent with endorsing the sacrifice of even one's own children). (33)

This collection of natural rights and corresponding natural duties is, together, what West believes the Founders meant by "natural law." This set of laws must be respected by any decent government, and a government that comes to violate these things is  -- as the Declaration will tell us -- rightfully set aside. It is out of order not only with human nature but nature in general, and thus the will of the author of Nature, however you conceive of that. Jefferson wrote that it applies to all societies and to foreign policy, i.e., the interaction of societies. "[T]he moral law to which man has been subjected by his creator... The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature, accompany them into a state of society." (39)

West points out that this idea does not imply a lack of conflicts, even violent ones. "In the founders' theory, it is possible for one person to have a natural right to violate the natural rights of another," he says, pointing to an example from Jefferson about two ships that meet at sea, one starving and the other well-supplied. The right to life being the first natural right, Jefferson said, the starving ship would have the right to extract food by force should the other ship refuse to sell them food. The right to property, although also a natural right, is derivative of the right to life: you are entitled to collect and use property as a way of sustaining your own life. (40-1) It is surprising to find a right to piracy, you might think, but in fact pirates and the American colonies had an interesting historical relationship and a lot of American ideas were tried out by buccaneers first

Nevertheless West is clear that this "does not create a rightful claim against others to provide [those with unequal resources] with resources -- except in extreme circumstances[.]" (49) "Modern liberal rights are not natural because no one possesses food, transportation, respect, and access to medical care by nature." (ibid.) I note that he is using the term "respect" here as a non-natural right, whereas "reputation" was a natural right -- one rather difficult to disentangle from 'respect' in ordinary language. He has in mind Rawls' usage, which is that those who are not respected by society have a claim on having respect somehow 'transferred' to them, which is unworkable.

This argument exposes West to a large number of criticisms from scholars; he exposes himself to more, as I will explore in later sections. The most obvious current criticism is that the Founding was either hypocritical or racist, sexist, etc., in denying equality and liberty. He has quite a bit to say about that, so I will treat that next.

A Philosophy of Pornography

We were talking at some length here and at AVI's place about the way in which the virtual, and especially pornography, alters the sense of self in the young. Arts & Letters Daily linked to a philosopher who is working on this, and she says some of the nicest things about conservative thought I've ever heard from someone on the left. 
I put it to Srinivasan that her critique shares some of its spirit with conservative objections to porn: the worry that porn’s logic of commodification corrupts the value of sex, manifest perhaps in the creeping feeling—all too easily evoked whenever one finds oneself choosing from a menu with pictures—that one is engaged in something debasing. “I totally agree,” Srinivasan says—“the conservative way of putting it is that we have this kind of sacred thing that’s being degraded by being placed on this screen. I more specifically want to say the thing we’re losing is a certain kind of creative capacity which then gets dulled by its over-reliance on the screen.”

Such arguments, she adds, are another reason to read conservative philosophers—“to understand that part of us, which is very much drawn to and recognises the truth in conservatism, because it’s a very false radical politics that thinks that progress does not come with loss.”

That's a very keen insight as well as a kind word. You may or may not find that you agree with her thoughts on pornography, but that much we can surely appreciate.  

Socratic Humility

A fun exploration of Socrates and his method.
Socrates: What is courage?
You: Courage is being willing to take big risks without knowing how it’s going to work out. 
Socrates: Such as risking your life? 
You: Yes. 
Socrates: Is courage good? 
You: Yes. 
Socrates: Do you want it for yourself and your children? 
You: Yes.  
Socrates: Do you want your children to go around risking their lives? 
You: No. Maybe I should’ve said that courage is taking prudent risks, where you know what you are doing. 
Socrates: Like an expert investor who knows how to risk money to make lots more? 
You: No, that isn’t courageous. . . .

When I first encountered Socrates, it was through the Laches, and so the question of what courage was happened to be the first question I found him considering. I thought, as a teenager, that I would answer thus: "Courage is the quality of doing the right thing even though it is dangerous." 

On the reflection of many years, I still think that's not a terrible definition. It avoids the riposte sketched in the article: "Do you want your children to go around risking their lives?" Not for no good end, but you do want your children to do what is right. Sometimes this might entail risking life or limb, but you want them to have the quality they need to do what is right even if someone or something is threatening them. 

What Socrates would probably say to that is, I think, to press me on whether that means that the virtue is a form of knowledge, and therefore could be taught; and if so, why it was not always possible to teach it, why some men turned out to be cowards in spite of careful instruction.. That was one of his favorite lines of inquiry. As you know from reading much from me on the subject, I think Aristotle gets this one right: it's not so much a form of knowledge, as it is a state of character that is attained by practice and habituation. You can only change yourself so much, and some people thus turn out to have more potential for courage than others just as some have more potential for swimming than others. 

[For all of Socrates'] influence, many of our ways are becoming far from Socratic. More and more our politics are marked by unilateral persuasion instead of collaborative inquiry. If, like Socrates, you view knowledge as an essentially collaborative project, you don’t go into a conversation expecting to persuade any more than you expect to be persuaded. By contrast, if you do assume you know, you embrace the role of persuader in advance, and stand ready to argue people into agreement. If argument fails, you might tolerate a state of disagreement—but if the matter is serious enough, you’ll resort to enforcing your view through incentives or punishments. Socrates’s method eschewed the pressure to persuade. At the same time, he did not tolerate tolerance. His politics of humility involved genuinely opening up the question under dispute, in such a way that neither party would be permitted to close it, to settle on an answer, unless the other answered the same. By contrast, our politics—of persuasion, tolerance, incentives, and punishment—is deeply uninquisitive.

Sometimes it is necessary to be intolerant to preserve a spirit of honest debate and deeper inquiry. It is not ideal, it is not desirable, but it proves to be necessary at times. Yet more often we see people closing off debate not to preserve an honest and reasonable discussion on terms of mutual respect, but to enforce what is merely the preference of the rich and powerful. That seems to be the fate of the current moment, at least. Perhaps we can do better if we can find a way to throw it off.

On The Subject

The Olympics are considering dropping weightlifting

Olympic weightlifting has never been an interest of mine, and in fact it strikes me as extremely weird. None of the lifts that I think of as the core, major lifts are actually in the competition. For example, all three of the Powerlifting lifts from the previous article are omitted. The overhead press is simulated to some degree by the clean and press, and since the legs are stronger you can probably clean the weight if you can press it. Still, for a sport called "weightlifting" it seems to be more about explosive, dynamic movements than the simple ability to lift weight.

The reason they are thinking about cutting the sport is because of doping. Now there they might take a page from Strongman and Powerlifting, and simply stop worrying about it. You want to see how strong a human being can be? Well, let them do whatever they want to prepare for the competition. This has the nice side effect of eliminating any trans*-competition concerns because, if you're going to let them juice with whatever they want, there's no reason to worry about natural hormones. 

(I am myself a purely natural guy; no performance-enhancing drugs of any kind have I ever used. From my perspective, though, the reason to be strong isn't to win the Olympics -- it's to maintain robust good health and physical capacity for as long as I am able. Taking dangerous supplements would be counterproductive if that is the end.)

Rhetorical Techniques for the Modern Age

From the Bee

You Need To Work Harder

While I have doubts that this young man and I would agree on the definition of 'a Nazi,' in principle it's reasonable to want to be strong in order to defend yourself and others from aggression. This is not going to get it done, though:

"At his best, he could squat 335 pounds, bench 200 and deadlift 280."

I don't even warm up at those weights, and he is on the order of half my age. 

West's Founding, I

I have read at this point the introduction and the conclusion of West's Founding, as well as the first three chapters. Reading the introduction and the conclusion first, by the way, is the right way to read any historical monograph. It's not appropriate for most works, but with historical monographs like this one it will greatly ease the process. The introduction tells you what the author intends to say; the conclusion tells you what the author thinks he or she has said. That gives you a clean map of the argument, and so everything in the middle falls into focus quickly and easily.

West is taking up a position in a dispute between academics, one that is (as he says) in basic agreement with a number of other scholars: he names Thomas Pangle, Paul Rahe, William Galston, and Michael Zucker. He is opposed by the great figures of the Establishment, including Supreme Court justices like William Brennan, scholars like Ralph Lerner, and even great names like Gordon Wood and Dwight Eisenhower (who says, in one of his surviving documents, that he found it very difficult to defend the American philosophy against charges of selfishness and immorality brought by a Soviet general he met during the war).

That the weight of names is against him West attributes to a failure of American education. Much of this he locates from the 1960s onward, when he believes the meaning of words like "equality" and "rights" changed so substantially in the minds of scholars that they were no longer able to hear what the Founders were saying in their own writings. There was already a substantial loss of meaning by the mid-20th century, though, when the New Deal's approach to welfare had altered American ideas about justice to such a degree as to account for Eisenhower's inability to defend America against Communist attacks on its principles. (West gives an account of early American approaches to welfare in the conclusion, which he says were present from the beginning of the nation -- though at the state level rather than the Federal level, as the Founders thought appropriate for almost all powers.)

What he wants to argue is that the Founding principles were:

A) Coherent philosophically, deriving from their understanding of Natural Rights;

B) Moral and decent on their own terms, and definitely in contrast to the ones offered by communism and socialism;

C) At least possibly true, and certainly useful.

The third claim is metaphysical and substantial. First of all, it relies on a notion that a claim about something like natural rights could be true, as opposed to what our contemporaries like to call "a social construct." Something about reality must exist that can sustain truths across generations, regardless of what people think about those things. This is an idea that is as unpopular as it is easy to be in the current environment, although it was popular as recently as the gay marriage debate: people asserted that sexuality was true in this way, being in-born and not a matter of thought or choice, and thus that no government could transgress this truth. (That position has since been abandoned in favor of the idea that identification, which is a decision of the mind, is what really matters.)

That there is a human nature that sustains this truth West defends but ultimately decides not to rely upon. Whether or not the claim is true, he says, the claim is useful. Such a claim is perhaps the only thing that can tie down a government to some idea of justice that it itself does not have the power to edit. Thus it is useful because it restrains the powers of the world, and keeps at least some things out of their hands. 

He defends the utility of the claim against both the early Modern model -- that power structures are of divine warrant -- and the Marxist one that inexorable dialectics produce evolutions in power structures. People are free and equal, just as the Founders claim, and thus able to make choices about self-government. These choices, per West, are better than submission to the claims about what God or History would impose upon us, which claims end up being merely the will of the powerful. We are free only if we believe we are, and capable of self-government only when we reject the impositions of the powerful: those who "belong to a class anointed by God, by History, by moral credentials earned by serving the disadvantaged, or by Harvard and Yale."

That is the basic plan of the work. I shall get into the arguments in the next post. 

New Philosophy Reading: The Political Theory of the American Founding

For my next longer work, I'll be reading The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom by Thomas G. West. It is available in several formats including Kindle from Amazon if you want to read along.

West takes an unusual view of the Founding among scholars, although I think it is ordinary among ordinary Americans. Specifically, he believes that the Founders had a pretty uniform view of what made their program right and just, as opposed to being driven by variant ideas of republicanism and liberalism that were in tension with each other. This coherent view is the view of natural rights, which is to say the rights all people have prior to the formation of a government or a social compact. 

These natural rights, he argues, also create moral duties: if you have a right to be free from being murdered, everyone else has a duty not to murder you. Many of these duties must be respected even after a social compact is formed, and cannot morally be surrendered as part of any such compact or formation of government. These rights are the ones the Declaration of Independence calls inalienable

West's view is thus that the American Founding has a lot more moral content than most scholars believe today; but he is also (he claims; I haven't gotten there) to argue that the Founders had a larger moral vision for the inculcation of virtue in the citizen. 

One thing we will be exploring as I post about this book is the debate Joel and I were having about whether the Declaration ought to inform the Constitution. Initially what I find him to be saying about that is that the constitutions and the Declaration inform each other: that is, the state constitutions that pre-date the Declaration often give fuller explanations of what terms like "equality" mean, and how they arise, than the Declaration itself bothers to do. However, later constitutions (like New York's of 1777) specifically refer back to the Declaration's language and project. Thus, the two kinds of documents end up being in dialogue with each other even though they serve different purposes. 

If any of you care to read along, I'll be doing a series of posts about it similar to what I did with Weber's lecture and the recent books of Plato that we've read through. 

A Question Arises

 Because sometimes I have more time than good sense.

There is growing chatter that President Joe Biden (D) will be out as President by November, whether by resignation or by 25th Amendment action. Say that occurs, at some time in the next year or two.

Who would a President Kamala Harris (D) get for her Vice President?

There would no longer be a way to break a tie in the vote to confirm, so at least one Republican would have to agree with the Progressive-Democrats on any nominee, or at least one Progressive-Democrat would have to agree with the Republicans.

Who could make it through that gauntlet that Harris would be likely to nominate?

Or would she finish out the term without a Vice President? In which case no other tie vote could be broken for the duration of that term.

That last would seem a fine motive for the Republicans en masse to Just Say No to any Harris nomination (running the political risks thereof), thereby blocking all further Progressive-Democrat moves until at least 2025 (for the potential political rewards).

Eric Hines

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Lord Dunsany

Not the deservedly famous one, but the current one. He is engaged in a “rewilding” project on the estate. It’s worth reading about. 

Blues Weekend: Some Greats

Blues Weekend: Younger Players & Older Instruments


RIP Jackie Mason

This skit seems relevant all over again:

Blues Weekend: Stevie Ray Vaughn

In his autobiography, BB King praised the musical talents of Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, but he said the only white musician he knew who had the soul of the blues was Stevie Ray Vaughn.

I think Tex can sympathize with "Texas Flood" these days.

Blues Weekend

Let's do one, per Tom. Why not?

Here's Samuel L. Jackson tearing it up on a new blues track. Now, you know who this guy is, so there is a language warning. (For gun guys, there's another warning: he apparently thinks a .44 can carry an inexplicable number of rounds.)

Here's an older piece.

And another very excellent piece, by Johnny Lee Hooker.

And you know what, why not, here's the Blues Brothers -- who built out a first-class blues band -- doing their love song to Chicago.

I guess they'd be called out for cultural appropriation or whatever these days, but mostly it would be by people who didn't have legitimate chops like their band did. 

Music for Freyja's Day

(Or Frigg, who may or may not be the same goddess.)

Following up on Tom's concept, some music for the day.

Here's one for our adventurous truck driver from earlier this week.

This one is more for the video than the psychedelic soundtrack.

That last one came to my attention because of the band's participation in a psychedelic Western story album, which is musically a lot better but lacks the awesome motorcycles.

NSA Reviews Itself

NSA reviews itself and admits that, in fact, it has been collecting and unmasking Tucker Carlson's name... but it denies that it has been collecting his communications. 

Well, actually, they didn't deny it in any sort of official way. Sources familiar with their internal investigation denied it to the media for them. 

The NSA never promised transparency, of course. 

Resisting Jadris

Speaking of COVID tyranny, congratulations to Michigan whose citizens finally managed to strip the evil governor of her ability to arrogate herself tyrannical power.
The emergency powers act had been declared unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court in October, but prior to the repeal the law remained on the books for potential future gubernatorial abuse.

A group called Unlock Michigan led the petition initiative, collecting more than half a million signatures, and the Senate voted 20-15 to approve the initiative last week. The state House then voted 60-48 in favor of the petition to repeal the emergency powers act. Whitmer had previously vetoed attempts by the legislature to abolish the law, but is powerless to veto it this time because the initiative is citizen-led.

Well done, Americans.  

'That's Cultural Appropriation, Karen'

Literally, her name is Karen.

I can see how this probably did irritate people whose grandmothers and great-grandmothers had been making the stuff. Karen's statements do sound like 'I've discovered and improved upon this trashy little dish, and now it's good food that you'll like.' 

The Asian-American experts don't agree on what she should have done instead. They do want to have their culture treated with more respect, which is universal among human beings. 

Learning from other cultures is intensely valuable, and we all benefit from it. 'Appropriation' is not a valid complaint in my view; but being treated with disrespect by those who are taking things up from you is.

Appetite for Tyranny

I read the NYT's morning briefing, in part because it helps me know what the ruling class is telling its aspirational members to think.

On Wednesday, they had a piece urging the FDA to just go ahead and approve the vaccines without completing its full process.
Think of it this way: In the highly unlikely event that the evidence were to change radically — if, say, the vaccines began causing serious side effects about 18 months after people had received a shot — Americans would not react by feeling confident in the F.D.A. and grateful for its caution. They would be outraged that Woodcock and other top officials had urged people to get vaccinated.

The combination means that the F.D.A.’s lack of formal approval has few benefits and large costs: The agency has neither protected its reputation for extreme caution nor maximized the number of Americans who have been protected from Covid. “In my mind, it’s the No. 1 issue in American public health,” Topol told me. “If we got F.D.A. approval, we could get another 20 million vaccinated,” he estimated.
Today there is a lengthy argument in favor of just instituting vaccine mandates.
[V]accine mandates cause intense disputes. But when supporters win the argument, public health has often benefited. Guy Nicolette, an administrator at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out to The Washington Post that colleges have long required other vaccines, like the one for measles. “It’s staggering how well a mandate works on a college campus,” he said.

Dr. Aaron Carroll, Indiana University’s chief health officer, has noted that the country’s victories over many diseases — including smallpox, polio, mumps, rubella and diphtheria — have depended on vaccine mandates by states or local governments. “That’s how the country achieves real herd immunity,” Carroll wrote in The Times. (In the U.S., a national mandate may be unconstitutional.)
Nice to hear that last bit raised as a concern, at least for now. I remember President Obama pointing out that it would be unconstitutional for him to just use an executive order to create something like DACA, up until he did in fact do exactly that when it proved the only way to get his way. Perhaps they mean it this time, though. 

If you'd like to read an argument actually persuading you that vaccines are mostly safe and a good idea, however, here's Paul Goepfert, M.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has what strike me as a very plausible account of why my major remaining concern -- long term side effects -- is probably not worth continuing to carry. I found his account very plausible; whereas I find the NYT's preferences provoke rebellion even as suggestions. 

Nailed it again.

CNN airs hour-long PSA on warning signs of dementia.

Walken Into Friday

Not our usual fair, but fun to watch ...

I had no idea Christopher Walken had a dance background.

Bit o' Music for Thor's Day

 A set best paired with Old Crow, neat or on the rocks.