Sunday, November 21, 2004

4 Puzzles - Part 1

The last entry closed by focusing on a puzzle about how we can have knowledge of causes. If our knowledge comes solely from experience; yet we don't experience causes, but only the constant conjunction of events, then from where does our knowledge come that those events are related as cause and effect?

This is an epistemological puzzle, a puzzle about how to make room in theory for a sort of knowledge we typically think ourselves to have.

In the following entries I will present four more puzzles. Fortunately, these puzzles are less obviously "philosophical" than the one involving causality.

(1) At the Republican convention Bush mentioned the notion of an "ownership society." The idea behind an ownership society is that individuals do not have their earnings forcibly taken from them against their will (as in taxation), and that they are therefore able to invest and spend their money as they see fit. One plank of the ownership society CW says we are likely to see Bush recommend in the next four years is the privitization of social sercurity through various devices of individual investment.

Ownership and property are important ideas, especially to economic libertarians. But what does ownership entail? How do I get to "own" something? How does something become my property alone?

Locke thought that something became an individual's property when he performed work on it. For example, if I transform flour and water into bread, and if I rightfully possessed the flour and water to begin with, then I "own" the bread I've made. There are various limits Locke proposed in addition to this principle, but the basic idea was that something about my work invested me with a kind of title to its product. But what?

Work is something not everyone does equally; and which not everyone who works does equally well. Work demands a certain sacrifice on the part of one who does it. Hard work demands more sacrifice; barely getting by demands less. The sacrifice of work, then, can be seen as a unit of value, which one can justifiably trade in for the result work creates. If you put the work in, you justifably reap the benefits of the work. (Incidentally, this is why having a sinecure is somewhat like theiving from whomever employs you.)

This idea is attractive, but unfortunately things can't be that simple. For work isn't the only thing that the products of work depend on. That is to say, my hard work alone cannot produce desirable products. Much more is required. As I pointed out, if I desire to produce bread, my hard work is useless without flour and water. If I desire to produce intellectual goods of various sorts, such as solutions to problems which confront me or my employer, then I require not only the hard work of careful thought, but a whole host of resources-- some of which were given to me for free. For instance, I require sufficient intelligence, the relevant training, a place to perform the work, and materials the work requires.

But this is just the beginning. For whatever it is I work to produce-- whether it is bread or solutions to difficult political problems-- I require many things that I cannot possibly claim to have in turn earned. Most notably, many of us were given resources by our parents or community; we were born with certain native abilities that gave us advantages as against our peers; and we were granted the good fortune not to meet with an early end to our lives through accident or foul play. But no one can claim to have earned what he was given for free.

Another way to think about it is this. Imagine a child born to a mother addicted to drugs, which itself as a result suffers from wide-ranging developmental disabilities. Did the child deserve to be born this way? Did I deserve, on the other hand, to be born in relative health?

Hard work is often necessary for success; but it is never sufficient. When someone says, "I built myself up from nothing," he speaks figuratively (if we are to be charitable and not interpret him as unjustifiably boasting).

Ownership as Locke defines it, based on work and the idea of desert, is flimsy at its foundations.

There have been many different philosophical reactions to this observation. Christian theology is keen to recommend modesty in the face of the recogition that we do not owe the vast majority of what we enjoy to ourselves, our communities, our parents-- or to any human or human institution, for that matter. We owe them, says the Christian, to God. For this reason the rich person who refuses to give some of what he enjoys to those who unjustly suffer refuses, then, to be generous with what God has been generous in granting him. It is easier, says the Christian, for a rich man to gain entry into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Communism, for different reasons, has similar attitudes about private property. The communist theory of desert also recognizes that work, or labor, is instrumental in transforming materials into goods that can be used by humans. Those who appropriate the goods that others manufacture and themselves profit from the sale of these goods are, says the communist, engaging in a kind of theft. They don't create the surplus value that they appropriate when they sell something someone else has produced.

The puzzle is this: why aren't more Christians communists? Their views of property and the justice of ownership coincide in conclusion, or at least the spirit of their conclusions. Furthermore, how is it that the Christian right can support someone who wants to create an "ownership society"? (I will comment more on this when I come to the discussion of 'liberal'.)

Undoubtably the answer is "historical" in nature, and not philosophical. That is to say, the answer most likely has little to do with the substance of ideas, but with non-rational forces operative in human history.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Mark Bauerlein and the Liberal Academy

Mark Bauerlein has written a rather courageous article in the November 12th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual." (Available online at, in the opinion column.)

He argues quite rightly that the academy is unfortunately and unfairly dominated by Democrats, something everyone has known for some time, but which was only recently statistically confirmed by an American Enterprise Institute poll.

The poll results indicated that at the time of the canvass several years ago, 9 out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or the Green party. Bauerlein is right to infer from this (although he is not explicit about it being an inference) that Democratic thinking influences many of the course syllabi and affects classroom atmosphere. The result is that college classrooms and scholarly research programs are missing some of the intellectual diversity that university representatives have rightly argued is a requisite for successful education and university function.

(It should not be overlooked that, in addition, having 9 out of 10 professors be of one political persuasion makes for an unpleasant atmosphere for anyone toeing anything other than the offical party line.)

And although Bauerlein doesn't mention it, those in academics should reject superficial pledges from professors and Deans that their politics won't enter into teaching and research-- just as we should reject pledges from judges and other appointed officials that they will be fair despite a history of extreme partisanship.

But in many ways Bauerlein's essay misses its mark. For it doesn't occur to Bauerlein to reflect that there is a difference between the presence of Republicans in the academy and, say, the presence of blacks. You can choose your political party. You cannot, on the other hand, choose your skin color or (in most cases) your income bracket or your sexual preference. So if you want to know why there aren't many Republicans in the academy, you should ask: is there any reason someone in the academy would've wanted to vote Republican on November 2nd?

Consider the following:

1. A central strategy of the Bush team during the campaign was to paint Kerry as an obscurantist and a flip-flopper. Just to pick one example, during the debates Bush often scoffed in response to Kerry and suggested that he didn't understand the distinctions Kerry was drawing. Recall in particular Kerry's answer in the second debate to an objection from an audience member to the funding of abortion with tax revenues. In response Kerry distinguished between having personal religious commitments and legislating those commitments on others who didn't share them. Bush responded, "I'm trying to decipher that." (

The careers of many academics are made and destroyed on subtleties far finer than that or any Kerry articulated (or tried to) during the campaign.

I think it is fair to say that Bush spent much of his 2004 campaign mobilizing implicit prejudices many people have against the well-educated. As a result of their efforts Kerry eventually came to embody a synergy of the worst features of an intellectual: he was out of touch, pedantic, boring, cold, European, and amoral. (Thus the now-departing Secretary of Commerce, Don Evans, who remarked at one point that John Kerry looked "French.")

For these reasons, listening to Bush often felt like a personal character attack to academics. Would many evangelicals have voted Republican if Bush had, at every chance he got, ridiculed home-schooling, or prayer, or the notion of "revelation"?

2. In the same edition of the Chronicle, sources report that we can expect in the federal budgets to come for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities to receive either the same funding or a modest increase. (This is certainly reasonable during a time of tight budgets; but it's not as if Bush isn't proposing to increase the budget anywhere, or to cut taxes.) Scientists receiving government money further expect Congress to push for oversight so that watchdogs can monitor what some in the Congress consider to be morally objectionable research. Finally, the direct-loan program, which is extremely profitable for universities, is being "ignored" while private loan companies are being deregulated to encourage their growth.

Are professors supposed to vote for a party that doesn't prioritize their needs in the federal budget? Are Deans and Presidents of public universities supposed to vote for a party that has passed educational stewardship on to the states, who in turn cannot afford it? This would be expecting something of academics that no one expects of any other group of citizens: to vote against their own interests.

It is true that the academy has more Democrats than Republicans. But it is not the case that the academy lacks "conservative" voices. It all depends on how you understand 'conservative'. In political theory, for example, it is patently false that Republicanism, here understood as a particular view about "rights" in a democracy, is not taught. There are leading Republican scholars on the syllabus each term at every major university in the country. Or, if you understand 'conservative' to mean a certain view in economics about the optimal structure of the tax system, then again it simply isn't true that there aren't prominent conservative voices in the academy. Gregory Mankiw, the head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, who suggested that outsourcing was good for the American economy, will return to his post at Harvard when he finishes his position as a civil servant.

Bauerlein is understandably frustrated about the experience of being vastly outnumbered by Democratic colleagues (or very sensitive to it, if he is not himself a Republican). But he may not be sufficiently sensitive to just how politically "conservative" some of what he suggests is. For example, take his diagnosis of the OSU librarian who suggested that a goal of college education was to open the minds of white students to the privileges they've received because they're white. According to Bauerlein, the librarian doesn't realize how "extreme" her words sound to some. Not being sensitive to this is supposed to be evidence of the damaging effect of liberal group-think.

We can examine privilege in a society by looking at the distribution of various races in institutions like the university. For the university is, as is often noted, the gateway to success. And it is sad, but true, that only 11% of college students today are black. Furthermore, at prestigous universities like Bauerlein's, only 3.6% of full-time faculty are black. (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education)

How is it that Bauerlein finds it fair to say that Democrats dominate the academy when only 1 in 10 of his colleagues is Republican, but "extreme" to say that whites are privileged when only 1 in 10 of his students is black? Is it the mark of the politically conservative to be sensitive to Democratic dominance of the academy but not to the fact that less than 1 in 25 of professors at top universities are black?

Bauerlein is insightful and brave for pointing out what he has. But surely if we need diversity in the academy, we need it all around.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Being Out of Touch, Revisited

The discussion of the Democrats' loss last Tuesday has taken an interesting turn.

First we heard, from Democrats as well as from Republicans, that the sleeper issue of the election was "moral values," particularly the moral values of those in opposition to gay marriage. Thus: the consitutional amendments banning gay marriage and/or civil unions passing in all 11 states in which they were on the ballot; and more voters citing moral values than any other single issue as the most important factor for their vote.

This interpretation of events has been used both by Democrats to wring their hands over the forces of intolerance which seem to have put Bush back in office; and by the Republicans, who blame the Democrats for being out-of-touch elitists with a snobbish disregard for the values of mainstream America.

In recent days, however, pundits and columinists have begun suggesting that this reading of the election is itself "out of touch." E.J. Dionne from the Post and David Brooks from the Times have both argued in recent columns that it was not the "moral values" zealots who won the election for Bush and for the Republicans in the Senate. According to Brooks, it was the judgment of ordinary Americans about the war in Iraq and the war on terror that gave Bush the victory.

As Brooks put it, "He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror." ("The Values-Vote Myth")

Again the conclusion is supplemented by a little snicker: evidently the former interpretation of Bush's victory was a way for the Democrats to feel superior to the Republicans, even in defeat. And as such, it just reinforces the charge of elitism.

Brooks and the others who have defended this view are confused. The original analysis, that the "moral values" crowd gave Bush the win, was based on exit polls in which voters identified the most important issue to them. This doesn't mean that more people voted on the basis of values than did every other issue combined. It just means that, had those who voted on "moral values" gone 80-20 for Kerry instead of Bush, it would have easily made up the difference of 140,000 in the Ohio popular vote, as well as the 3.5 million popular vote difference across the country. Overall, roughly 20% of the 120 million voters, or 24 million, were self-described evangelicals. Bush's 80% of 24 million is about 19 million votes-- obviously far greater than the 3.5 million by which he won.

This is also true of those voters who voted for Bush because of the war on terror or the war in Iraq. Had that group voted for Kerry in the percentages it voted for Bush, Kerry would have won.

Being a deciding factor in an election doesn't entail being a majority. I've argued before that the Democrats aren't out of touch with regards to values of mainstream America; but they did lose the election to the "moral values" minority.

What exit polls indicate, then, is the influence of both the mainstreamers and the evangelicals. So whether Brooks and Dionne like it or not, Bush owes his victory, in part, to the "moral values" crowd. This is why Rove appeared on Fox News two days after the election and promised that only judges who strictly interpret the constitution would be appointed to federal positions. (This is code for overturning Roe. v. Wade, since the right to abortion isn't "in" the constitution per se. It's implied, say defenders, by the right you have to control what happens to your body.)

What about gay marriage or gay civil unions? Well, desipte Frank Rich's assessment that Blue is winning the culture war, we'll have to wait and see. (As far as I can tell, by this Rich only seems to mean that Reality TV, the latest Jackson-family perversions, and other choice programming are plugging up our TV screens. I'm not sure, however, that this is the culture war the Democrats really want to win.)

None of this prevents Brooks from reiterating the charge that Democrats are out of touch. This time it has something to do with not being familiar with life in what Brooks calls "exurbia." But the elitism charge doesn't even make sense when it's not applied to values. Those who voted for Kerry because of Iraq aren't "out of touch" because they don't hold the same opinion as do the folks living in exurbia. You aren't "out of touch" with someone you disagree with; you're in touch with what you think is wrong. Polling right before the election indicates that 1/3 of Bush supporters think weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. As of November 2nd, that was just plain wrong. 70% of Bush supporters think that evidence of a clear collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda has been discovered. I suppose that some conservatives would insist that there were some meetings somewhere between affiliates of Iraq and relatives of Al Qaeda; but anyway according to the nonpartisan 9-11 Commission Report, there was no significant collaboration between the two.

Anyone with a mild interest in world affairs and a radio or TV knows these facts, since he has heard them repeated indefinitely. Is the charge that the Democrats aren't in touch with those who don't have even a mild interest in world affairs?

It's a good thing, Republicans, that David Brooks isn't replacing Karl Rove as lead election strategist. According to Brooks, just about the most sophisticated thing we can say about the election results is "In the first place, there is an immense diversity of opinion within regions, towns and families. Second, the values divide is a complex layering of conflicting views about faith, leadership, individualism, American exceptionalism, suburbia, Wal-Mart, decorum, economic opportunity, natural law, manliness, bourgeois virtues and a zillion other issues." (Ibid.)

Thanks, David. Incisive. I hope for their sake the Democrats will keep that in mind come 2008.

What's really under discussion here? I don't think it's who did vote for whom. I think it's whom you, Sir, ought to have voted for!

You ought to have voted Republican, says Brooks, since the majority of reasonable Americans regarded him as successful in the war on terror; and you ought to have voted with the normal, reasonable folks.

You ought to have voted Democrat, says Gary Wills, since (hopefully) you don't regard the Virgin Birth as something that ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution by natural selection. You do like the Enlightenment, don't you?

In a way all this assessment comes down to is a minature post-campaign campaign. Sheer insistance sometimes feels as if it can reverse the course of actual events. But it cannot. It can't make Kerry win, and it can't make all those folks on the coasts vote Republican.

We already cast our ballots.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Arrogance, Education, and Courage - Part 2

Education changes individuals in several ways. This is why, although it is often taken for granted by us Americans today, education was in former times and is today in other places quite controversial. Let's use a simplified model of education to highlight one way in which it changes a person.

When you learn something, say, the history of your country, your understanding of yourself changes as well. For the more I know about the world around me, the more I know of others besides myself who have done things differently than I have. This isn't supposed to be beneficial because "diversity" or some-such is intrinsically valuable to me. The point is just that the history of the world contains a great variety of human lives and events. It is a mere matter of fact that in different places and in different times, people have gone on differently.

When I learn about other people in other times and places, doing things differently, my own way of going on comes to seem less than necessary. By this I mean, how we do things here isn't determined by natural laws, but is a matter of happenstance and chance. If how we did things around here were determined by natural laws, we wouldn't observe all the different ways of going on that we do in fact observe elsewhere.

Incidentally, there are two senses of 'law' that we ought to keep straight. For some will say that there are natural laws governing the behavior of human beings. It's just that some humans, elsewhere in time and space, have broken those laws, either through choice or habit or whatever. This way of looking at natural laws aligns them with the laws composing our political body. This isn't the kind of law I'm talking about above. I mean 'law' in the sense of the term as it is used in natural science. There is no breaking the law of gravity, or the law of inertia, or Newton's Law of Cooling. These are laws in another sense, a sense which implies in particular that it is not possible but for us to abide by them. In this sense, merely observing significant divergences in behavior from a particular standard is enough to establish that there is no law that the standard is followed.

Education, on the simplified model of the acquistion of facts about, e.g., our history, often shows us that how we go on is not a law for human behavior. It shows us this when it adduces examples of sustained divergences from how we go on. Thus how we do things is a matter of some happenstance.

And as I said, this changes how we think of ourselves. If things need not be the way they are here, then the idea that they must be that way begins to lose force. Some will insist that things ought to be as they are here; but in the face of examples of sustained divergence their insistance can begin to seem dogmatic. This is the liberating power of education, and the reason that education has been and still is controversial. The educated person comes to see his ways of doing things not as a necessity, but as one particular way among others. The educated person understands himself as a particular person, in the sense of 'idiosyncratic', not in the sense of an instance of a generalization. If being this way and doing these things are not necessities, then perhaps we shouldn't be this way, or do these things.

This way of thinking about education connects to the charge of arrogance I discussed in Part 1 of this post.

For being educated is challenging. The effect that I identified above, of revealing ones way of doing things as a matter of happenstance, is an implicit challenge to the validity of doing things that way. In particular, when we discuss moral views, the vast differences in moral conclusions to which we humans have come can seem to challenge our moral judgments' legitimacy. It can even seem to challenge the very idea that our moral claims are judgments as opposed to mere opinions. As mere opinions, moral claims aren't even subject to rational dispute.

This feeling-- that moral claims are mere opinions and thus not rationally disputable-- is widespread among today's more educated youth. And although I have no evidence for it, I think it is not too far-fetched to suppose that it is behind the rise in home schooling among Christians. Home-school allows for a parent to control the exposure of the child to the kinds of facts that would implicitly challenge the moral claims in Christianity.

(I did not say that home schooling must have that effect; but that it can, if carried out in a certain way.)

The language of tolerance has further encouraged us to regard our moral beliefs as non-negotiable and outside of the reach of rational challenge. Thus to argue that someone is wrong about abortion, say, can be seen as disrespecting this person.

There are obviously benefits that encouraging a culture of tolerance has for a society. I regard it as one of the twentieth century's finest achievements. But in a strange way it can have precisely the opposite of the intended effect, by inoculating certain views from rational challenge. This exposes that it was implicit in the encouragement of tolerance that only certain views were to be tolerated. In particular, racism, xenophonia, anti-semitism, and misogeny are not to be tolerated. It is safe to say, however, that with the flowering of the religious right's complaint that the government is "discriminating against religion," this second part of the culture of tolerance has been left behind. For many of the religious right's moral views are close relatives of the very sort of intolerance that was supposed to be extirpated.

Because students often have this understanding of moral claims when they come into class, challenging those moral claims can seem an act of unjustifiable arrogance. As these students understand them, moral claims are opinions in the sense that they don't go in for rational foundation at all. In the case of those morals which emerge from religious texts, they are taken at "faith." For you to challenge my moral beliefs, then, is for you to insist that your opinion take the place of mine. This is condesencion and arrogance defined.

As I said above, tolerance is surely a great political achievement. But it is a great acheivement because it protects individuals with different ways of life from harm, pain, and from the frustration of not being able to go on as they see fit. It protects them from being unduly interfered with; for it is a good thing to be able to live one's life as one sees fit. But the effect that the culture of tolerance has had is not just to allow for this; it has been to encourage a certain sort of moral relativism that has actually undercut the achievement of the ends towards which tolerance was pointed.

Moral claims are relative, in some sense; but we certainly can and do engage in moral argument. So that what your morals are depends on some kinds of happenstance does not entail that your morals are rationally non-negotiable. And this is important. For if we expect a democracy structured on the so-called exchange of ideas to produce a moral society, we must assume that exchanging ideas-- engaging in rational debate-- can help us determine what is moral. If it cannot, then democracy is impotent to do the right thing and avoid the wrong.

Facing a challenging professor, then, who impertinently asks for a justification of a moral claim that you had accepted from those around you with the reverence attaching to tradition, requires a certain virtue from you. It requires you not to dismiss the professor as arrogant; or, rather, it requires you to carefully distinguish the arrogant professor from the challenging, educating professor. And it requires you to suspend your commitment to the moral claim under question long enough to manage some kind of rational evaluation of it. Such is the bread and butter of democracy, and the reason why education is essential for a democracy to function.

I think an apt name for this virtue is 'intellectual courage'. For it is scary to suppose that you and your parents might have been wrong about something so central as a moral belief. It is frightening to turn the lens of reason on what you had previously protected from others, and even from yourself. For your commitment to this moral claim may not survive the challenge. It may survive; but it may not, and you can never know before you examine it. So to risk so central a part of yourself surely requires courage of a kind: intellectual courage.

Rational argument is a difficult thing to do and to withstand. It is difficult for all the reasons I have listed; it demands a kind of courage. But if you do not insist on rational argument, particular with regards to morals, you lose much. You lose the very force those morals carry with them. No moral will be reasonable through-and-through. It is impossible to derive moral claims from pure logic. But that is not to say that moral claims are not defendable using reason. And it is not to say that challenging a moral claim is tantamount to arrogance.

This is no doubt a very simplified view of the the relationship charges of arrogance and education have to our political system. But, schematic as it is, I think it exposes part of what is at issue when we encounter charges and countercharges of arrogance in contemporary public conversation.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Arrogance, Education, and Courage - Part 1

When I taught I encountered all sorts of students. Some were hard-working, some constantly failed to show up for class, some were loud, and some were quiet but attentive and sharp. I had all the sorts you would expect.

There was one sort of student, though, that has stuck out in my mind as time has passed-- even more than the especially bright or the "problems." These were the students who would accuse me (as well as on occasion their fellow student) of arrogance.

I mention them because I am often reminded of their accusation as I listen to the course of public conversation on divisive contemporary issues. I have addressed in another entry the post-election assessment that the Democrats lost because of their elitist disregard for the values of mainstream America. But the issue of arrogance is really much broader than just this, and it will no doubt survive the election season and continue as a theme of public discourse. Furthermore, the charge of arrogance is connected in systematic ways to other very fundamental ideas we have about who we are.

What is arrogance, or elitism? There is a Greek notion I admire, transliterated as megalopsuchia, which literally means something like "great souled." This person knows what he deserves and demands just that from those around him. (The term emerged in Latin as "magnanimous," which sometimes is understood today as "generous." The idea was, roughly, that the person who knew what he was worth wouldn't sweat being generous to his inferiors.) Opposed to the person with megalopsuchia is a person who has what the Greeks called 'hubris'. 'Hubris', of course, is a contemporary synonym for 'arrogance'. Someone with hubris desires to humiliate those around him in any way he can. He does this, in part, because he suffers from an exaggerated estimation of his own importance. He wrongly feels himself to be better than everyone else. Likewise, the arrogant person regards himself as better than he really is.

Intellectually, we could say that an arrogant person regards her own beliefs as better than others'-- without any justification for doing so, or without those beliefs really being any better than others'.

The part after the dash is important, and I want briefly to say why.

In the American Radio Works documentary on Kerry and Bush, President Bush is quoted as remarking that the professors at Yale "thought they knew all the answers." I think anyone who has gone to college can appreciate the President's frustration. Sometimes professors seem to think of themselves not only as, say, working to open their students' minds, but as converting them. Yet at the same time-- especially at a place like Yale-- it seems reasonable to admit that the professors do have some of "the answers." Who else would have them, if anybody did? In some cases, professors at my college had been thinking about the issues under discussion in the classroom longer than I had been alive. That doesn't imply that they were absolutely correct about those issues; but they certainly had answers I did not have. They certainly knew how to think about the issues under discussion with considerably more sophistication and precision.

When we confront someone like a professor at a prestigous university, who is an expert in his or her field, we face a kind of dilemma. For surely in one sense of the term 'know', the expert knows it all. But in another sense of 'know', the expert is in no better a position than we modest beginners are. For in no field-- and here I include the fields in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities-- have we arrived at the definitive true theory. In some cases we humans have been working on the problems for thousands of years, with the brightest of us spending lifetimes battling the riddles, and we have at best a partial understanding, half-way knowledge, of the way things really are. The vast majority of physicists in the 450-year history of modern science have been wrong about the world (most of their theories have been empirically disconfirmed). It is a dramatic misunderstanding of even confirmed scientific theories to regard them as definitively or certainly true. At best these theories accord with all our observations; but what we have observed until now may be anomalous in the course of the history of the universe.

For this reason, when we confront a person with a high estimation of their own beliefs, it is very difficult for us to determine whether that estimation is deserved or not. That is, it is very difficult for us to distinguish "megalopsuchia" from "hubris" or "arrogance."

And while the point applies to the natural sciences, it is especially pertinent for our moral evaluations.

So when we argue over moral evaluations, like whether or not it is morally permissable to abort a fetus or for a man to marry a man, we are tempted to accuse of arrogance those of our opponents who are absolutely convinced of their position. We could call this problem, "the inseperability of judgment from mere opinion." For since mere opinion is not justifiably regarded as true, it is arrogance to try and force it onto someone else.

I'm not saying that we can never know the truth. We know many truths; and we have come to know some of these through centuries of investigation and some through the quickest of glances. But for most of the things we care about (such as whether abortion is morally permissible), assuming that there is a correct answer to be had, I think it is safe to say we don't know what it is.

Here is an example of the problem of the inseparability of judgment from mere opinion. Since his debut at the New York Times in 1999, economist Paul Krugman has become one of the most influential opinion columinsts in American journalism. Recently, however, an awareness has developed of how singularly focused Krugman is on attacking the Bush administration. Krugman's attacks concern not just economic policy, but foreign policy as well, an area ostensibly outside Krugman's scholarly bailiwick. Ken Waight, whose site uses statistical methods to measure the partisanship of pundits, ranks Krugman second in the country-- just behind Ann Coulter. Can we trust Krugman to be fair?

Krugman writes opinion pieces; so we expect judgments from him. But at the same time, we expect him to exercise a certain amount of care in coming to the judgments he does. It is unlikely that any one administration is uniformly malicious, unsuccessful, or incompetent. Reading Krugman, though, you might think that the Bush administration was an exception.

But on these grounds it is impossible to say whether or not Krugman is partisan. For this observation-- that he consistently attacks the administration-- is perfectly consistent with the possibility that Krugman is correct in many of the accusations he makes. And if that is the case, then Krugman shouldn't be regarded as partisan at all. In that case he should be regarded as an incisive and unyielding journalist. The observation, then, is consistent with two entirely different conclusions about Krugman; it provides us no means to choose between them. Unfortunately, this is just the choice we needed to make.

Likewise, as they stand Waight's statistical measures provide little in the way of distinguishing between an incisive and courageous journalist who continually debunks one source, and someone blinded by their allegiance to a certain cause. The measures just count negative evaluations. Even the mention of "simple facts," such as a candidate losing an election, are counted as negative evaluations, and thus increase the measure of partisanship. ( But this is surely flawed; what ought to be measured are unfounded negative evaluations, not true or well-justified ones! Only consistent unfounded evaluations are evidence of the "blindness" by which Waight himself defines partisanship.

I don't think we ought to fault Waight too much for this. For it is not clear how we could in this case, with any kind of certainty, systematically separate founded from unfounded evaluations. This is just the problem of the inseparability of judgment from mere opinion. For judgment is distinguished from mere opinion by virtue of its being well-founded. The intellectually arrogant person is distinguished by virtue of an unfounded allegiance to his or her own mere opinions, even in the face of significant rational challenge.

When my students accused me of being arrogant, then, this is what they were accusing me of. In part this surely resulted from the force with which I expressed certain ideas, and from the rough treatment I gave the opinions of theirs I thought superficial. At the same time, I was sensitive to their accusations of arrogance. I sometimes worried that I was too charmed by my own beliefs.

There is a general question here. How can I determine of myself whether I am intellectually arrogant? How can I see of my own beliefs whether or not they are unfounded mere opinion? They are, after all, my beliefs. Can I stand "outside" them? Can I suspend or ignore them?

Look for Part 2 of this post, coming in the next few days.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Elite and the Majority

Are the Democrats out of touch with the majority of Americans? Are the Democrats arrogant or elitists? We ought to try our best to understand these questions before we turn to the pundits to answer them for us. Just what is the accusation, here?

Sometimes when the accusation is leveled, it seems to amount to the claim that Democrats don't share the values of the majority of Americans. Now there are two significant parts to this understanding of the charge. First, there is the claim that Democrats and Republicans don't have the same values. Second, there is the claim that Republican values are the values of the majority of Americans. Let me take a closer look at each part.

Do Democrats and Republicans have the same values? This is actually itself a complex question, but I want to ignore the complexity to pursue a different issue. And I think that in one sense of the question, it is patent that Democrats and Republicans differ on issues of right and wrong. Sometimes this is presented by partisans as a difference over whether there is a (moral) right and wrong; but I think it is fairly clear that this isn't an accurate characterization of the issue. We might more accurately paraphrase the divide as one between those who regard certain behaviors as permissable and those who regard them as impermissable. Just because you permit a certain behavior doesn't mean you think there is no question of right and wrong about it.

But the simple point, which is, surprisingly enough, not often made, is this: if two people are morally different, then one of them can't be legitimately accused of arrogance for simply differing from the other. For if you differ from me, then I differ from you; so you aren't, on your own, any more "arrogant" for differing from me than I am for differing from you!

Perhaps this sounds like an academic riddle but I think it's a point worth making. For I have heard on several occasions the accusation that the east coast doesn't share the values of America. But the east coast is part of America; it's America's east coast! So what is really meant is, the east coast doesn't share the values of elsewhere in America. But that is no fault especially of the east coast-- at least, not any more than it is the fault of elsewhere in America that is fails to share the values of the east coast.

All the weight of the accusation, then, is placed on the second part. This, remember, is the claim that Republican values are the values of the majority of America. For it is one thing for two individuals to merely differ from each other on moral issues. But it is another thing for one person to stubbornly insist against the throngs that his view is the right one.

So are Republican values the values of the majority? Here I think the pundits are quite misleading. It is true that in the 11 states that had constitutional amendments banning gay marriage on the ballot November 2nd, every single one passed. And most of them passed by double-digit margins; the closest was Oregon, which passed 57% to 43%. That is roughly the margin by which George Bush lost the state of New York to John Kerry. (I.e., it wasn't close.) But of all the people that cast ballots on November 2nd, 60% told exit pollers that they favored gay civil unions or gay marriage. (NPR Weekend Edition, Nov 6)

What's going on here?

No doubt there was some confusion as to just what the initiatives on the ballot asked of the voters. But beyond this there is the question of majorities within states versus majorities across the country. It doesn't take a degree in statistics to understand that what 68% of Ohio favors, much less of the country may. This may account for why in Ohio the majority of those who voted on Tuesday may want to constitutionally disallow for gay civil unions, while the iniative for a US Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a women couldn't make it past first base in the US congress.

Furthermore, consider this. Most of those opposed to gay marriage cite religious beliefs as the reasons for their position. But polling over a long term has indicated that only between 30 - 40% of Americans attend church at least once a week. (There is a wide range in this number due to the fact that people tend to overreport what they perceive to be virtuous activities.) This is a clear minority. Are we supposed to believe that there are 100's of millions of Americans who don't feel strongly enough about religion to go to church once a week but strongly enough to amend the constitution to prevent gay marriage? Or is it that the rest of the "majority" comes from those Americans abstractly concerned about the dangers of mere "redefinition" of an institution itself?

I doubt this is right; but if it is, then the gap the Democrats face really isn't one of deeply held "moral values." Redefinition isn't a value at all. We redefined the franchise by giving it to blacks and women; and I take it a majority of Americans regards this as a moral triumph. We Americans redefined government by making it "by and for the people." If you polled people about these institutional "redefinitions," they would no doubt agree them to have been wise and moral.

Again, what group of people are asked the question about gay marriage makes a large difference in the answer received. According to a New York Times poll in December of 2003, among those 65 and older, roughly 60% of people think not only that gay marriage shouldn't be allowed, but that sexual relations between individuals of the same sex should be illegal. But ask those between 18 and 29 the same question, and roughly 60% go the other way.

I do not mean to suggest, though that a majority of Americans favor allowing for gay marriage. That is not true according to the New York Times poll cited above. What I do want to suggest is that the idea that the Democrats are stubbornly insisting on allowing for gay liberties (like the liberty to marry) in the face of overwhelming and reasonable opposition of the rest of America is inaccurate. And if that is what it the charge of being out of touch with the majority of Americans is supposed to amount to, I don't think the charge is correct.

(Really, this is more of a caricature than anything. 8 out of 10 voters in the Bronx voted for John Kerry. Are these folks the arrogant, out-of-touch elitists that supported the Democrats in 2004?)

I want to be careful here, however, since the point of my argument is not to construct a partisan defense of the Democrats. I'm more interested in understanding what the Democratic party is or isn't "doing wrong." I do think there are a lot of Democrats on both coasts that do think of themselves as more sophisticated than those in the heartland who voted for Bush. If we interpret this in terms of something we can evaluate, like the amount of education, then it may or may not be true. But often the sentiment is more like: mid-America is populated by hicks.

This feeling is a defensive reaction. I am sure it is no better or worse than what we would have heard out of Mississippi and Texas had George Bush not managed to win. In fact, it's no better or worse than what we are hearing: which is, the Democrats are a bunch of latte-sipping elitists who are out of touch with mainstream America and their values.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Faith, Flip-flop, and other 'F'-words

There is an Excel file making its way around the internet that lists the median IQ for each state and to whom that state's electoral college votes went in the 2004 election. Although I doubt it is an instance of the bipartisan cooperation President Bush recommended to Democrats during his victory speech, the file is being forwarded by liberals as well as by conservatives. And, as far as I can tell by reading the margin-editorials on the email forward the file was attached to, it's being sent by members of both groups for exactly the same reason: sheer derision of the other guys. The Bush supporters take it to be proof of their crudest caricature of east-coast liberals: arrogant, elitist, and condescending towards the rest of the country. And Kerry supporters red with rage let themselves get carried away by these sorts of statistics into regarding the rest of the country as childish and backward. Neither side's use of the data surprises me.

(Kerry supporters: there's all the difference in the world between showing that the states with the smartest people on average voted for Kerry over Bush, and showing that they voted for Kerry over Bush because they were the smartest.)

Despite what Paul Begala said yesterday in the New York Times, I don't think that all the negative campaigning in 2003-4 helped the country. Begala seems to think that it was connected to higher voter turnout. He may be right about that; or he may be wrong. But in any case, going to the polls out of a sense of hatred for the other guys isn't all part of the rollicking fun of life in a democracy. It's deeply inimical to the spirit of deliberation that is part of democracy's internal logic. So I'm hoping Begala's wrong.

Democracy depends on there being a difference between fighting and debating.

(It is just this difference that shows like Crossfire do their best to obliterate, and this is one reason why I appreciated Jon Stewart's attack.)

Both fighting and debating, to be sure, are ways of arguing with someone who doesn't share your beliefs. But the argument sense of fighting, the one that the fire-and-brimstone pundits like Coulter and Begala specialize in, is one in which having a reason for believing what you do counts for little. A fight is won by the strongest person, not the person with the (furthest) justified beliefs. Ideally, it is just this that differentiates fighting from debating. A debate is supposed to be won by the person, or team, or party that presents the best views and defends them adequately against rational attack.

As an old professor of mine used to say: "No one cares what you believe; they only care why you believe it."

This attitude is an idealization specially suited to the college classroom, yes; but it is the sort of attitude that is also crucial to the success of democracies. Why? Two reasons.

First, there is nothing special about the people that makes rule "by and for the people" any more immune to error than, say rule by the landholders or rule by the clowns. For "the people" can go just as wrong in their beliefs as can any ruler or group of rulers. The people, after all, don't have their collective ear to the Door of Heaven. And when the people go wrong, it is just as bad as in any other type of political society. Tyranny by the majority is no less a tyranny for coming from the neighbors rather than the king. If "the people" are to be any better at deciding on the appropriate course of action, then it has to be because they can, between themselves, examine all the possibilities and determine which is the best. Fighting is simply no good for doing that.

Second, what is it we imagine happens in the legislature? Senators stand, I imagine, and argue with each other over the merits of various bills. But what are they doing when they do this? Aren't they supposedly offering reasons to support the bills they support? If not, then why go through this process at all? Why not just push through with your party's preferences and leave it at that? I imagine that this does happen, probably much of the time. But the idea, I take it, is that our congresspeople are supposed to rationally determine the best laws for all of us.

Debate, then, requires you both to take your opponent seriously and to be open to changing your mind. Yes, it requires being a flip-flopper. Because being a flip-flopper, in this sense, is just being subject to the force of the better reason. If you discover that you didn't know all the facts, or that you weren't thinking of all the possible cases, or whatever, then you had better reevaluate your position.

I recently heard a New Jersey political personality say in an interview that she supported Bush because she knew where he stood on the issues. He wouldn't decide his opinion for that day when he got up in the morning. I'm not sure if this is a fair description of President Bush; but even if it is, is it good to "know" what you out should do before you've examined all the options for benefits and drawbacks? What then do we need legislators for?

Flip-floppers and purveyors of the Kerry "global test" aren't shrinking violets who can't hold their own. Flip-flopping is part and parcel of being a disputant in a debate, since no one is lucky enough to never be wrong. And the global test is for similar reasons a key strategy in the war on terror; for if we take the concerns of the world seriously, we will be perceived by its inhabitants as truly democratic and not as imperalistic. And this is a central part of the oft-mentioned battle for hearts and minds.

Beneficial democracy demands taking each other seriously. And that demands not forcing articles of faith onto each other, but doing our best to make collective decisions for reasons that many accept. But citizens who despise each other, like those inspired to circulate nasty emails about the other guys, never manage this kind of mutual engagement. This is why I hope Paul Begala is wrong.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Democracy and Leadership

I read once about a paradox the ancients discovered with regards to political leadership. It began like this:

The good leader possesses certain virtues. I suppose today we would say that he is honest, intelligent, kind, inspiring, understanding, and so on. And in many cases, although not in all, it is because of these virtues that this leader has risen to his position of leadership in the first place. The honest, intelligent, kind, inspiring, and understanding person is someone to whom we all quite naturally turn for advice, for support, for ideas-- well, for leadership. What makes him a great leader is what made into him a leader in the first place.

But then he becomes a leader. And as a leader, to accomplish anything, he must do what he can to preserve his place. Preserving his place in turn depends ultimately on the consent of others governed by him, maybe the people, or a circle of advisors, or the nobles, or the generals, or the priests. Because he depends on these others to preserve his place, however, he becomes beholden to them. He must listen to their needs, desires, wants, and plans, and he must accede.

The paradox is this: this leader becomes beholden to those people he was suited to lead.

I am reminded of this paradox today because of the talk in the Democratic party about what went wrong. Conventional Wisdom is, John Kerry was wrong in his off-hand remark that he could just as well concede the South. He couldn't. In any case, he certainly couldn't concede the Midwest and the Mideast, by which I mean the states between Ohio and Minnesota, south to Missiouri.

Exit polling in these states shows that the majority of those who voted for Bush did so because of "moral values." (I will come to just what those are in a later post.) So CW says, now, that the Democrats are paying, particularly in the Senate, for having allied with the east coast elites and not the folks in the Midwest and the South. To ally with them, the Democrats will have to adjust their "moral values," in particular, they will have to be more vocal about the role of religious faith in their lives and in their governing.

Here is where the paradox comes in. If it turns out, as some desperate commentators have suggested, that the country is really right-wing in its morality, then will the party have to become center-right? That may be required to avoid becoming the "opposition party." But drift to the right enough, and the Democrats will begin to resemble the Democrats less and less. (I am reminded of Paul Wellstone's old quip: "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.")

The Democrats are beholden to the electorate; if the electorate changes, then so must they in order to remain a coherent national political force. (As opposed to, say, the Greens.)

But how can the Democrats provide leadership if they must follow the electorate? What about, for instance, the center-left causes that are worth fighting for? Are we to give these up in the face of the glacial momentum of the Midwest and the South?

Some will say, "But that's the whole idea of democracy! The people hold the power. They govern the country as they see fit!" Which I immediately concede, with the quiet observation that we are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy.

But what I think the paradox shows us is a difficulty with which democracy must constantly struggle. For no one, not the strongest advocate of democracy, is, I take it, under the humble impression that "the people" are never in error, even en masse. The people are often in error, and often in error en masse. The social democrats who elected Hitler and supported him we in error, en masse. Those who opposed the franchise for women or the freeing of the slaves were in error, en masse.

To whom, then, can we turn to provide us with moral leadership, if we dare not elect leaders with "moral values" other than our own?

But how could we elect leaders with morals other than our own? Why expect people to ignore their most closely held beliefs in the polling booth? Thus the paradox.

How can the Democrats lead us? Instruction can be had from observing the Republicans, but not too much. For what everyone acknowledges the party to be skilled at is election strategy. Whether they are better at political leadership than the Democrats is much less clear.

What is clear is that if the Democrats drift too far right, they will at some indefinable point cease to be themselves. But if they refuse to drift-- say by nominating Hilary Clinton in the 2008 primaries-- they may cease to be a coherent political force on a national scale.

Leadership is required. And as always, leadership begins with a leader. Hilary certainly possesses some qualities native to great leaders like the ones with which I began. But whether she can lead the people of the Midwest and the South away from the intolerance that brought them to the polls Tuesday seems doubtful.