A Harder One

The wisdom of strangers

From a PowerLine comment: Programs are voluntary until people figure out they're rubbish, then they become mandatory.

Songs of Doom

Two country pieces, both of them odes to lost times as well as sorrowful worries that the world to come will not be one we will like. 

Waylon Jennings played off the last one during a cameo he made on Married With Children. He said, “Men like us are dinosaurs. Real, live, dead dinosaurs.... The only thing wrong with being a dinosaur is there’s no future in it. But there is one hell of a past. Be like the mighty Tyrannosaur, and while you can, leave deep prints so everyone remembers we were here. Leave deep prints.”

No More Masks

I passed through Asheville today, expecting to find a total resurgence of the mask mania that characterized it last year. In fact very few people responded to the CDC by returning to their masks. 

One young lady at a raucous bar explained: “I did the right thing, but I’m not going to let a bunch of Republicans screw up my summer.” I assume she meant ‘by not getting vaccinated,’ since Republicans hold no power at the Federal level and even at the state level only control a legislature whose power has been largely usurped by the governor and the courts. 

The non-Karen voters

Instapundit reports both an encouraging outbreak of sanity among voters and an opportunity for Republicans to makes inroads into Democrat strongholds:
Overall, a majority of voters — 55 percent — agree that “despite good intentions, shutting down businesses and locking down society did more harm than good.” Only 38 percent disagree, with the rest unsure.
But the really interesting part is the racial breakdown: White Democrats reject the idea that lockdowns did more harm than good by a 30-plus-point margin. Nonwhite Democrats, on the other hand, are evenly divided.
The divide widens on the question of whether government officials will hold on to too much power in the future: 62 percent of voters say yes. Nearly two-thirds of white Democrats disagree. But note well: By a whopping 64-27 margin, black Democrats fear that officials will abuse their vast new powers.

Stands to reason

Numbers don't lie.

West's Founding, III: Against Criticisms

West is aware of the need for someone writing today to defend the Founding against claims that it extended its allegedly universal claims only to white men, and only in defense of their power. He attempts this in Part I, Chapter 3.

First, he distinguishes between rights and power. "The language of the founding documents did not exclude either blacks or women from equal natural rights," he says, then quoting Congress' 1774 declaration, a 1776 address to foreigners fighting for the British that appealed to their notion of natural rights, Georgia's revolutionary 1776 constitution, and another 1777 affirmation by Congress. (62-3) If West is right about what was meant by equality -- that all are rightly born free of masters -- then the fact that political power was not distributed equally was not what the Founders intended by 'equality.' They had hoped (as per the last section) to enshrine political power among the especially virtuous, not all people equally. The rights of all to be free of slavery, though, were recognized as universal.

Of course that leaves the actual fact of slavery. West cites the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (Pennsylvania), which states that there is a "duty" to "release them from thralldom" because though "the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference in feature or complexion.... it is sufficient to know that all are the work of the Almighty hand." (63) He also cites in the same place the abolition law in Rhode Island, and the fact that the Revolution was in fact accompanied by an intense period of manumission: "By 1810, more than a hundred thousand slaves had been freed." (ibid.)

As for those who kept slaves in spite of the Revolution, West has several citations from them in which they acknowledge the injustice of it. (65) Jefferson, he suggests, regarded it as both an intolerable injustice and yet a necessity because there was no practical way to release slaves without tempting a mass murder similar to the one that occurred in Haiti. (41) The fact that a hundred thousand slaves were indeed released without a mass slaughter is evidence against Jefferson's position, but the fact of Haiti's 1791 revolution and massacre gives evidence that Jefferson was not completely out to sea on this possibility. Jefferson knew and admitted that he knew that what he was doing was a violation of natural law and therefore a monumental injustice. The Founding was tainted by bad practices, but it was not unable to see the injustices being committed among its members.

Furthering this discussion, West cites pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun in a few places where Calhoun is condemning the Founders for being too devoted to this whole equality notion. Rather than the Founding principles being easily transferrable to the Confederacy, as is sometimes suggested, the Confederacy and its predecessors needed to reject the Founding explicitly. (64, 75)

On women and Native Americans, West has different arguments but claims that both were considered equals in the "natural law" sense he is framing as fundamental. Women are equals in that sense, he writes, but considered themselves to have a different role in society than the exercise of political power (a complimentarian view still defended by some communities, e.g., the Amish and some Orthodox Jews). He quotes Abigail Adams, certainly no shrinking violet, on this score, and a number of her contemporaries. (66-7)

Native Americans were not considered racially different at the time of the Founding, West says, only culturally so. He cites in support Patrick Griffin, who "argues that white settlers 'did not vie Indians as an alien race and did not refer to Indians by their physical features." (71) This may have some weight, because in the Colonial and Revolutionary period intermarriage was quite commonplace on the frontier. It is clear that a racism that embraced Native Americans arose later, of course, just as it is clear that the 1915 era KKK disliked Jews as well as Blacks even though Jews seem to have been regarded as equals in Antebellum Savannah (where they fought in duels against Christian gentlemen, the fullest proof that they were regarded as equals who must be answered even at risk of one's life). 

What the Founders looked down upon about the Native Americans was their way of life, which they regarded as "savage." We know this because they say so, for example in the Declaration of Independence. In fairness, West says, just as the Declaration says the Native Americans did "often fight by means of indiscriminate and merciless killing of all ages, sexes, and conditions," and the British really did use them as irregulars on the frontier. (71) That did not remove their equality under natural law, but it did mean that they were criticized as barbarous and dangerous.

Maybe that's true. Certainly the record of interactions there involves a mixture of ruthless war and negotiated peace (the latter of which infamously often ends up being betrayed and treaties broken). There is intermarriage, there is cohabitation, there are frequently people of mixed heritage who seemed to be accepted without prejudice in the early era. I don't know that it's right, but it isn't completely out of order with what I know of the time and place.

West buys some trouble for himself in trying to rope in a discussion about relative intelligence for different peoples, citing Charles Murray et al. His claim is that the Founders would not have accepted that a difference in relative intelligence justified a reduction in rights, or an inequality in the natural law sense he has been defending. He might have been wiser to have avoided bringing what is really a historical debate about what the Founders thought into a contentious present day debate about whether race is in any sense 'real.'

That said, West has good citations in support of this position to Jefferson ("whatever may be the degree of talent [of blacks] it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others") Benjamin Franklin (who remarked after a visit to a school for black children, "Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children"), and Alexander Hamilton ("their natural faculties are probably as good as ours... The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience"). (69)

Likewise, he has Declaration signatory Benjamin Rush condemning the principle that intelligence ought to give power over others. "But supposing our author had proved the Africans to be inferior...: will his cause derive any strength from it? Would it avail a man to plead in a court of justice that he defrauded his neighbor, because he was inferior to him in genius or knowledge?" (70) That implies that Rush was not convinced of the proof, but also that he thought the proof was irrelevant to the question of rights. 

West is trying to put a lot in this short section, which has to carry the weight of defending the Founding against a set of vicious attacks as well as a large number of misunderstandings (if West is right) by major historians and scholars. It is clear that he has found and marshalled at least a lawyerly defense, which should give us reasonable doubt about the condemnations to which the Founders are often subject. Whether it proves his case requires longer reflection and further study.

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.