Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Fit to print

I feel for Fairfax. People are seemingly not only turning away from newspapers, but they're turning away from news.

From today's most read stories links on the SMH front page:

  1. Attack victim Lauren off life support
  2. Teen with peanut allergy dies after kiss
  3. It's a girl for Bec and Lleyton
  4. Execution breaches standards: Deane
  5. Parents to twins killed in head-on crash
There's a bit of a common theme here - life and death. Obviously hard hitting stuff, and I'm not scoffing at that, but when it comes to making editorial decisions, it's evident which way the readers are leaning.

But can you imagine a newspaper filled only with grizzly deaths, celebrity shenanigans, and perhaps a third sport?

Oh yeah, that's the Telly.

Friday, November 18, 2005

They deserved it

Just a quick one.

Broadly, one of the fundamental differences between Left and Right thinking is whether people are more self determined, or whether they're steered by the environment.

Conservatives often state that any individual can succeed in life through enough hard work and discipline. Left thinkers often lament the situation that the poor find themselves in, stressing that it's very hard to get out of poverty regardless of how much hard work or discipline you have.

I think a good way to characterise this distinction, as well as the danger of holding to it too strictly can be summarised with the following question:

Do you think the rich deserve it?

If you answer yes, it's probably because you believe they have earned their wealth. They are perhaps talented, and they've worked hard, and achieved a great deal. This is certainly the hard line conservative capitalist view - which is why taxes are considered to be immoral, because they are tantamount to 'stealing' someone's hard earned wealth and giving them to someone who obviously hasn't worked as hard, and will not be inclined to do so as long as they're given handouts.

In which case, this leads to another question:

Do those in poverty deserve it?

That's a harder one to agree with. Certainly, following conservative thinking mentioned above, most of those in poverty have gotten themselves into that situation, and if not, then giving them handouts will not encourage them to get off their arses and earn their own keep.

However, it's fairly clear that many people are born into poverty, and in that situation they clearly aren't responsible for their initial situation. If their prospects of success are in any way hindered by their being born into poverty, then they also don't have the same level of opportunity for success that conservatives assume they have. As such, they don't deserve to live in continued poverty.

From another point of view, many people (especially us Aussies) would answer the first question by saying that the rich don't deserve it. It's that classic old Australian sentiment that those rich buggers are no better people than us, they've just been more lucky. In some respect there may be an element of truth to this - and this sentiment also certainly doesn't discourage the less rich from working hard. In fact, the sentiment expresses that we all work hard, so those who are rich must have gained their advantage through some other (arbitrary?) means - and the assumptions are usually luck, wealthy family, privilege, knowing the right people etc.

The concept of desert is an important one, and these two questions start to reveal some of our assumptions about the world and human psychology. Ultimately these assumptions lead to the old nature versus nurture question - with the Left emphasising nurture and the Right leaning towards nature.

Like many issues, I'd suggest the answer lies somewhere in between.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


There's an interesting opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about intelligent design (ID) and postmodernism.

It suggests there is an element of hypocrisy in the arguments against ID. According to postmodernism, each individual is encouraged to make personal discoveries and challenge orthodox views. The assumption is that each individual has their own truth that cannot be impinged upon by another individual.

This postmodern mode of thought has been popular in many higher educational institutions around the world for the last several decades. Indeed, my own university courses in philosophy, and especially psychology, hinged on this view.

In postmodern thinking, the greatest intellectual faux pas is hypocrisy. As there is no absolute point of view, an individual's belief cannot be challenged directly as being untrue in an absolute, objective sense. An individual can even hold contradicting beliefs, according to some views. However, to assert a belief, and to act differently, is the ultimate betrayal of postmodernism, because all we have is our own truth.

As such, the charge of hypocrisy placed on anti-ID campaigners is a serious one from a postmodern perspective. For an individual sympathetic to postmodern views, it's also a hard one to come back from.

However, in my opinion, this just highlights the chink in the armour of contemporary Left thinking, which has postmodern and relativist leanings in many ways.

The Right has acknowledged this weakness in the Left well before the Left has. And the Right has exploited it very effectively - as in this opinion piece here. Or through the Wedge Document.

In fact, ID proponents tend to fall back on the argument that they are only offering an alternative explanation for the origins of life, and they want to give students all sides of the story, encourage debate, and let the students decide for themselves in the end. On the surface this sounds very acceptable, especially to a postmodernist or a postmodern-inclined educational institution.

However, it's hoodwinking us by turning postmodernism against us.

This is becasue science itself is not actually postmodern in this relativist sense.

Science asserts that there is one true reality, and that humans have access to parts of this reality through experience. Through the empirical method, we can perfom tests on theories and gradually learn more about the nature of this reality. Science does not assert that there is a different reality for each individual (Quantum mechanics aside - but that's another story, and it doesn't support the countscientific view anyway).

There are plenty of scientific theories that have been discounted, such as phlogiston and caloric. However, you don't find proponents of these theories wanting them to be taught to students to let them decide whether their true for themselves. They've already been proven false by science. There's no point in teaching them in the science class. That's not to say they shouldn't be taught in the history or science methodology class, but not as contributing to our current understanding of reality.

In my opinion, it's time for us to move beyond postmodernism and find a new intellectual paradigm. We need to take a view more similar to that of science. Postmodernism has served it purpose, and we must learn from the lessons it teaches us. But we also need to acknowledge its weaknesses, both in terms of offering a useful approach for understanding the world and psychologically. By the latter I mean the human tendency to look for answers. If these answers come from our individual exploration of the world, great. However more often than not they come from the outside - often from some form of authority. This authority could be a school or university, a friend, a book, an 'expert' on television, a church or many other sources.

I personally applaud the concept of being a lantern unto oneself, but I think it's an unfair burden to place on each and every individual to discover reality on their own. It's also unreasonable to expect everyone to do their own exploration. People will naturally turn to outside sources for help and guidance, and for answers - and the Left needs to be there to help provide those answers.

I don't yet know how this will work. But I have some ideas.

Currently the Right asserts its answers, which are often be black and white, uncomplicated, easy to digest, and use a variety of compelling psychological devices, such as force, fear and appealing to the insecurities of people. The Left needs to be equally compelling, but not fall into the trap of using the wrong means for asserting its views.

I imagine this might be like a simple and clear manifesto that lays it all out in black and white, bite size chunks. However, beneath the surface there will be explanation, theories, evidence, and a culture of questioning. This way those individuals who are inclined to just want answers can get them. Yet those who disagree, or who want more information, are encouraged to dig deeper. This also leaves open the possibility that the philosophy can change and evolve. This is nothing like the current Left system of leaving every individual more or less on their own to find their own answers, where other Left people are somewhat reluctant to assert their own views on others.

I reckon we need to ditch this soft approach, and get a bit harder. But leave it soft underneath. Like a Caramello Koala.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Morals and politics

One of the more hairy issues is the moral foundations of politics and society.

It would appear that any consistent and compelling social or political theory needs to get its morals straight and then draw logical lines of argument up the line to justify its higher social principles, such as justice.

As such, I think it might be worth revisiting morality to establish a solid and consistent foundation before building up a social and political framework.

Before outlining a moral theory, the first question we must ask is: upon what is morality based? After all, if we start barrelling forward and suggesting moral principles that are based on fictions, falsehoods or which are simply arbitrary, we'll not get far.

Many existing moral theories are also constructions of convenience that are laced with unsubstantiated assumptions, seemingly for the reasons of practicality. For example, Rawls at one point states:

a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational plan of life given reasonably favourable circumstances

I know he has developed this theory beyond this single sentence, but even so, there are still assumptions that are left unexplored, such as human rationality. Is morality, and 'the good', related to, or dependent on, rationality? There are good reasons (no pun intended) to believe rationality plays a role, but to characterise morality as entirely rational seems to be overly dependent on an idealised model of a human rational agent.

I have much more to say about this point, but I'll leave it at that for now and move on.

I'd suggest that our morality is determined by what we are. By this I mean our properties, and the properties of the world around us.

To give a fairly trivial example, it's commonly accepted that inflicting pain is immoral to some extent. I'd suggest that if we didn't feel pain, or if pain was not an unpleasant sensation - or even further, that if we were not destructible organisms - then inflicting pain would not be considered an immoral act.

The good, and its converse, the bad, are determined by what we are, and how we operate. This includes physically, biologically, psychologically etc.

In the pain example, we need to understand what pain is, why we feel it, and why it is unpleasant. To continue the simplistic analysis, pain is a device that has evolved in us to alert us to dangers that could threaten our survival. It operates using aversion and conditioning etc. It's also not perfect - as many evolutionary devices aren't. There are times when we feel pain for no purpose, and times when we should probably feel pain, but don't.

These kinds of facts should play a role in our formulation of morality, as it would seemingly be overly simplistic to simply say that all pain is 'bad', or that a lack of pain is 'good'.

Perhaps, in the case of pain, it would be better to characterise damage to the body that could threaten our survival would be a better foundation for determining good and bad. This itself is based on the assumption that survival itself is a 'good'.

This brings me to a very important consideration. We might do well to look at evolution in terms of understanding not only human nature, but also to build up our moral theory.

It appears to be the case that evolution has built into us a number of devices that have served us well in terms of the survival and proliferation of our species. To deny these things would be to deny the very things that have got us where we are today, and to deny fundamental human nature.

This in itself raises another hairy issue. What if some of these evolutionary devices are destructive? For example, selfishness. It's possible that a device, such as selfishness, which can cause what we would consider to be immoral acts, is an essential feature of humanity. As such, denying, or blacklisting, selfishness could be denying a fundamental part of human nature, which could lead to an idealistic and impractical theory of morality.

This could, in fact, be part of the common conservative criticism of left thinking that it's too idealistic, and unrealistic - that it's all about people loving each other, and this simply isn't the case, because many people will happily screw over their neighbour for their own advantage.

Ayn Rand (to present one controversial example...) considered selfishness to be a fundamental underpinning of human rights - hence her fanatical adherence to the mutual self interest theory of capitalism. She also considered altruism to be evil because it flatly contradicted selfishness.

Perhaps Rand wasn't entirely off the mark (controversial, I know...). But perhaps upholding a moral theory entirely based on altruism, and which demonises selfishness, is similarly naive?

Perhaps both selfishness and altruism played a role in our evolutionary development, and are both hard wired into us - and as such, perhaps both need to be taken into account.

One possible theory of this is that without selfishness we would never have survived in the dog eat dog (or neanderthal eat homo erectus) world. If it weren't for a passionate ambition, coupled with an ability to seek personal gain at the expense of others', actually helped us to get where we are.

Furthermore, perhaps without altruism we would never have learned to be effective social animals, and would never have developed all the good things that came along with civilisation that helped us become the dominant species on the planet. Perhaps altruism evolved to temper some aspects of our inherent selfishness and let us make the occasional sacrifice for the 'common good' (which Rand hated so much), which in turn served our self interest by allowing us to survive.

If there is an element of truth in this theory, then it's possible that both the selfishness and altruism are still a fundamental part of us today, and perhaps there is no perfect way to reconcile them.

Still, it might be possible for us to sketch both driving forces out, what motivates them, how they work, and in what places they're useful, and we can then look more closely at where they cross over and come into conflict - so we can then deal with these conflicts in a more informed.

Then we'll be in a better position to look at ideas such as hard liberalism, mutual self interest, communitarianism, etc.

I certainly don't know what the outcome of this enquiry would be, but I suspect that the end result would emphasise the altruistic, but acknowledge selfishness - if you get my drift (that could be a good motto...). This would, in turn, result in a moderately communitarian, left politics, but would also acknowledge the role of capitalism, free market etc.

The spanner that comes out of this is that some of these more selfishness-based ethics could lead us to a society which is more destructive to the environment, or which is more inclined to get into conflict with other societies and start wars etc. There's no guarantee that the logical and pragmatic outcome of this enquiry won't result in a society that could quite likely destroy itself. However, the alternative - creating a 'softer' society - might also get destroyed by a more aggressive rival society. As such, there might be no 'right' answer.

In any case, we won't know until we flesh out the morality that is a result of 'what we are' and 'where we're from'. Once we've done this, we can start building up a more robust and consistent social theory and politics.

In a future post I'll put up a possible framework of morality that is based on our properties, and see whether it makes sense.

Also note that this concept of morality, as being based on our properties, which can be (arguably) objectively determined, undermines a fundamental tenet of moral relativism. I'll talk more about this later, but I would like to stress again that moral relativism could be one of the biggest weakness of liberal thinking at the moment, so it's probably not a bad thing to 'revise' it, to some extent.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What's Left?

I'm increasingly convinced that the approach of the political left (small 'l' liberals, the ALP etc - what I call the Left) is way off course. The Left has already suffered a number of telling losses to conservatism, and it'll only suffer more unless it reforms not only its views, but it's fundamental philosophical approach.

There's been plenty of talk about George Lakoff and his new book Don't Think of an Elephant, which is in many ways the sequel to his previous book Moral Politics. While Lakoff sheds considerable light on the ways that the Left and Right think (in terms of the metaphors of parenting), there's still more big picture stuff to look at if we're to understand the failures of the Left, and how to fix them up.

We need to look at the philosophical underpinnings of the Left, and look at why it is losing to conservatism in many areas.

What I hope to do in this blog is outline my theory of the Left, and where its weaknesses are, and then propose a possible new approach.

I'd suggest that much of the weaknesses in the Left stems from its philosophical roots in postmodernism and relativism, and it's corresponding rejection (or suspicion) of objectivity. As a result of this, it's a fundamentally more fragmented movement (try getting a room full of Lefties to agree with each other on any aspect of their philosophy...), and it fundamentally rejects authority (try standing up in that room and 'telling it like it is' in the hope that everyone will accept your authority on an issue - they'll shout you to the floor).

Conservatism has always maintained a belief in objective truth, objective morality and authority. As such, it's a lot more coherent, and it's easier to spread the word of conservatism to the masses than the word of the Left.

Left thinking places an enormous burden on each individual to be a lantern unto themselves. It places tremendous emphasis on freedom, without offering much in the way of solid, reliable guidance in life (remember de Toquville, or de Botton - and I have no idea why these two examples both have surnames starting in 'de'...).

Most people don't want to shoulder that burden - they want answers that help them live their lives, and that appeal to their psychology (hence things like the conservative appeal to defence). This goes part of the way to explain why so many people turn to authoritarian institutions, such as the church, for answers - because the church offers answers, despite the fact that (in the Left's opinion) it just patches over a lot of the cracks with fanciful and wishful thinking.

The Left is a rough path. It requires its adherents to question everything, respect everything, challenge everything, and take no-one's word at face value.

The Right is an easier path. It gives its adherents clear and comforting answers, and it gives them authority to rely on.

As such, the Right has seen the weakness in the Left's approach, and has already abandoned postmodernism and subjectivism, and has moved on - much to the joy of the common person.

Now, the Left also needs to shed postmodernism and relativism by reshaping them into something more workable. The Left needs to re-evaluate its fundamental philosophical underpinnings, and make them compatible with traditional Left values such as compassion, altruism, individual freedom, community responsibility etc.

I don't know if this project can be done. All I know is the Left as it stands today is losing the war for hearts and minds.

So, from here I hope to continue to explain more of this theory in detail, and open up questions that need to be looked at and answered by the Left.