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.


At November 23, 2004 at 6:02 AM, Blogger Mithras The Prophet said...

But no one can claim to have earned what he was given for free.Except perhaps the racist or the tribalist, who considers his group to be an extension of himself that has earned special treatment from the world? I would dismiss this idea as irrelevant, except the nagging feeling that many Americans feel that due to the struggle of their forebears, they have earned the privilege of American wealth and power...

Can you characterize a capitalist perspective on ownership?

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Dizamn Matt. I thought your blog was going to be about your favorite recipes for Rice Krispie treats (you gotta add those M&Ms, boy), how to get out those tough olive oil stains from a pair of jean (is this possible, by the way?), when the next full moon is (soonish, most likely), and if Be Cool is any good (a resounding critical chorus says "No"). Then I stumble on a very good question indeed.

I'd like to offer an opinion. I think that you're most likely right when you say that Christians and Christianity oppose Communism, and vice versa, on historical, rather than theological or philosophical, grounds. Also, another reason for this rift, is that, especially in America, a lot of Christians don't view a state-control as charity and think that the people who run the state are basically atheist Hollywood abortionists. They'd rather run charity through their churches, just as many liberal anti-WTO folks in cities run their charity through non-profit community organizations.

An instance where Christians and Communists/Socialists did link up was the "liberation theology" that was very popular in Central and South America in the 1970s which fused economic/social revolutions and Catholic theology. I must confess tremendous ignorance of it, but I actually have been hankering to learn more about this. Of course, liberation theology also led to the CIA murdering nuns, so... Also, I believe that the current (as of 3:52 Central time, March 4, 2005) Communism-hating Pope--and any time someone wants to tell you that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, you can reply that, no, John Paul II did--essentially ended this movement's acceptability as a subset of Catholic philosophy.

As for the traditional loggerheads of Christian and Communist, I think it has to do with who holds the dough. Communists hate Christianity because it is the opiate of the masses, and rich people tend to give lots of money to churches, which in turn preach against armed Communist uprisings. Christianity is a socially conservative vehicle.

Oh, and one more point, in The Comedians by Graham Greene, there is a doctor who is both a Catholic and a Communist. The main character is an atheist on both issues, but I remember him telling this doctor that he envied his ability to believe in both.


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