Ben Franklin on Nationalized Health Care

In 1778, while serving as Minister of the Continental Congress to the French government, Benjamin Franklin received an insulting anonymous letter from some British “gentlemen,” expressing contempt for the American Revolution and the scorn felt by ruling elites in all ages for the common people. His answer was interesting in the context of the current debate over nationalized health care. An excerpt:

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

We’ve wandered far from the vision of our Founding Fathers, haven’t we? They valued Liberty. Today the sine qua non is Security, not Liberty, whether for “liberals” or “conservatives.” The left would secure Security with state power. The right would secure it with torture, indefinite detention without trial, and the assumption that “terrorists” are guilty until proven innocent.


On Justifications of Morality

There is no justification of morality.  Period.  That’s the bottom line. 

Before one sets forth boldly to justify morality, it is always a good idea to first acquire an understanding of what it is.  Morality is a human trait resulting from predispositions hard-wired in the brain.  The exact manner in which it manifests itself in the form of behavior and perceptions is influenced to some extent by the environment.  Human beings are an evolved life form.  Therefore, traits such as hands, feet, eyes, ears, and morality exist because, at least at some point, they promoted our survival. 

Eyes did not suddenly spring into being in perfect form as a result of some remarkable chance mutation.  Their development can be traced back over hundreds of millions of years, presumably to the emergence of light sensitive cells on some primitive life form.  The same may be said of morality.  It is a manifestation of physical processes that take place in the brain.  Related physical processes take place in the brains of other animals, as they did in the brains of our ancestors going back tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions, of years. 

Until quite recently, our ancestors did not have the mental equipment necessary to speculate wisely about Kant and Schopenhauer.  Morality would not have promoted our survival if it had taken the form of a predisposition to read tomes of philosophy, and then draw our own conclusions.  It promotes our survival by modifying our social behavior in a much more efficient manner, and one that worked for our animal ancestors as well as it does for us today.  It causes us to act according to moral rules or imperatives that we obey without thinking about them.  Other primates don’t have the luxury of thinking about why they act morally.  They just do it.  We can think about it, and the results have been very interesting.

On evolutionary time scales, human intelligence evolved with great speed.  There may have been some alterations in the mental wiring responsible for moral behavior during the process, but it’s most unlikely the related changes took place in perfect harmony.  We still experience morality in the same way as other primates, in the form of imperatives, or absolute rules.  As a result, it seems to us that those rules must have an objective existence of their own, independent of the mental processes that give rise to them.  For thousands of years philosophers have been seeking this object, this holy grail – in vain.  Even though we experience it that way, morality as an objective thing does not exist.  The holy grail was never there.  Morality exists, but its existence is in the form of physical processes in our brains, not as an object with an independent existence of its own.  Because morality is not an object, attempts to give it objective legitimacy – to “justify” it – are necessarily in vain.  One cannot “justify” behavioral traits that evolved in response to a social environment that no longer exists.  At best, one can understand what they are and why they are there.

It occurred to Darwin that the behavioral traits associated with morality had evolved, and many thinkers since his time have come to the same conclusion.  It was, however, a conclusion that seemed to fly in the face of any number of ideological narratives, not to mention most of the world’s organized religions.  As a result, it has taken us a long time to accept the obvious.  However, our knowledge has continued to expand, and recent scientific advances, particularly in the form of powerful tools that allow us to watch the brain in action, and the ability to unravel the human genome, have made it increasingly difficult to deny any genetic component to morality.  The idea has gone mainstream.

All this comes as bad news to those philosophers who have devoted their careers to the search for the holy grail of objective justification.  It completely upsets their apple cart of nicely arranged epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies.  In spite of that, they no longer have the luxury of pretending that the idea doesn’t exist.  One way or another, they have to address it.  One can find an interesting response to this troubling state of affairs by Jan Gorecki, one of the guild of grail seekers, in his book, “Justifying Ethics; Human Rights & Human Nature.”

Gorecki is aware of the idea that morality is there as an adaptive function.  He is also perceptive enough to grasp the implications of that idea.  Speaking of the genetic explanation of morality he writes,

If true, it precludes not only the validity of the functional justification, but also of all other traditionally claimed justifications. Within the view of the world and of ethics accepted by proponents of this explanation, there is no room for such normmaking facts as divine will, intuitionist ontology, existence of pure reason as the source of ethics, or of human nature understood otherwise than as a genetic fitness implement. That is why no proponent of the genetic explanation supports any kind of objective justification of morality; they understand that, once their explanation is considered true, all justifications fail.

Precisely!  I couldn’t have said it any better myself.  What’s even more remarkable is the way that Gorecki, in spite of this realization, manages to maintain the precarious balance of his own particular apple cart.  Here are some relevant quotes:

… the very idea of morality being with us as an adaptive tool is enigmatic… In a living organism, the adaptive emergence of various organs is reasonably clear in the light of natural selection. But how can anyone explain, short of a miracle, an analogous role of moral evaluations in human society? (!)

Morality is, from this perspective, just one such technique. It is claimed that the human ability to ontogenetically develop the specifically human moral experiences emerged as a mutation over five million years ago, among hunters-gatherers living in small, endogamously breeding kinship bands. By providing a strong altruistic and cooperative motivation, this ability enhanced the inclusive fitness of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!)

This brings us to the basic question: is the genetic explanation true? The question cannot be answered in a publicly convincing way. It may well be true; it is possible that whatever exists is matter, that life can be reduced to physicochemical processes and mind to physiology, and that human morality is there since it promotes replication of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!!)

During this discussion, Gorecki cites several of the works of E.O. Wilson, such as “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature.”  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  If professional philosophers can so grossly misunderstand ideas as they are set forth by one who writes as clearly and elegantly as E.O. Wilson, are we really to believe that they understand Kant, who wrote in obscure German sentences a page and a half long?

The rest is predictable.  Gorecki buries his head in the sand, and insists that the rest of us do likewise;

…the belief “that human values are determined or fixed genetically…is doubtful to say the least,” and possibly untestable. (It’s certainly doubtful in the form he understands it.) Thus, we are not, and may never be, able to determine whether the genetic explanation of ethics is true. This indeterminacy is most relevant for our analysis; unproved and uncertain, the genetic explanation cannot be used for rebuttal of the functional justification (and other justifications) of morality.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s a time tested way of denying the obvious, if the obvious happens to conflict with a cherished world view.  Just hold the obvious to an impossible standard of proof, and then pretend it’s rational to ignore it by virtue of the fact that it can’t be proved.  Of course, one can always close ones eyes, hold ones hands firmly over ones ears, and declare that anything one doesn’t want to believe “can’t be proved.”  For that matter, it would be true.  Infirm creatures that we are, with a limited, and generally grossly overestimated, ability to reason, we can’t “prove” anything.  We must act according to probabilities.  It is highly probable, and becoming increasingly so as our knowledge expands, that morality is an evolved trait.  Failure to grasp the implications of that knowledge, and to act on them, is risky now, and will become increasingly risky in a world in which our powers of self-destruction expand with each passing day.  Assuming we value our own survival, we had best learn to know ourselves.

The Eunuchbomber: “Spilling his Guts” without Torture?

Apparently Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutallab is a walking treasure trove of information about his fellow terrorists. According to FOXNews,

The Nigerian man accused of trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas has been cooperating with investigators since last week and has provided fresh intelligence in multiple terrorism investigations, officials said Tuesday.

Could it be that Cheney and the rest of the Rabbit People are exaggerating when they claim that we need to torture people to be “secure?”

German Christians Escape Teutonic Oppression!!

Well, all right, maybe that title is a little bit over the top, but it so happens that a German family of evangelical Christians has actually been granted asylum in the U.S. after fleeing the country because of some unpleasantness with the police over their desire to home school their children.  The story has been pianissimo in the US, but its been front and center at the Spiegel website all day.  The Amerika haters who call the tune in the German mainstream media are surely gnashing their teeth, but still haven’t come up with a way to spin the story that will allow them to strike their customary pious poses from the moral high ground.  The story in Spiegel, for example, limits itself to quoting a diplomat to the effect that “Germany disposes of a wide range of of educational opportunities.  Parents can choose between public, private, and religious schools, including alternative facilities such as Waldorf or Montessori schools.”  The editors throw in a sneer about the Washington Post’s suggested pronunciation of Romeike, the family’s name.  Sure enough, it’s given (incorrectly) as (roh-MY-kee). What’s with that, Wapo?  Have all those layers of fact checkers and editors let you down again, or are you just giving us the pronunciation in Pomeranian dialect?

Germany’s evangelicals are having none of it.  Related stories on the Spiegel site have such titles as, “Fundamentalist Christians Celebrate Victory over ‘Embarrassing Germany,'” “Three Months in Prison for Home Schooling,” “Baptist Parents Lose the Right to make Decisions for their Children,” “Fine for School Boycotters,” and so on.  I can’t say as I blame them.  When I attended a German University back in the mid-70’s, the political activism of the students was much in evidence, in the form of posters, signs, and placards posted all over campus.  They were broadly and about evenly divided among pro-Soviet Communists and Maoists, normally in a state of bitter hostility to each other.  I happened to be taking Chinese, and our textbook was from Red China, back in the day before her leaders had discovered that what Marx really meant by “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was laissez faire capitalism.  There were inspiring homilies about “Lenin’s Old Overcoat,” and the joys of life on a collective farm.  If our experience in the US is any guide, many of these young “idealists” are now firmly ensconced in positions of influence in the educational establishment.  It is unlikely that they are excessively delicate in their respect for the religious freedom of fundamentalist Christians.

Marc Thiessen’s New Book: The Rabbit People Tremble On

The rabbit people are a strange breed.  In one breath they will shout paeans to Liberty, repeat platitudes about how “freedom isn’t free,” and shed crocodile tears in remembrance of the great wisdom of our Founding Fathers, whose bitter enemies they surely would have been had they lived at the same time.  In the next, shaking with fear at the thought of how the CIA, by its own account, just barely saved us from devastating attacks that were invariably “in the final planning stages,” they will demand more torture (er, “enhanced interrogation techniques”), more arbitrary imprisonment without trial for unlimited periods of time, and carte blanche for domestic spying.  In fact, they are more than willing to jettison anything that could reasonably be associated with the word Liberty if only their government will promise them “security.”  “Security” is the sine qua non of the rabbit people.  “Liberty” and “human rights” are reduced to things one shouts about on suitable public occasions accompanied with much waving of flags.  However, genuine liberty and human rights, which are meaningless unless they apply to others as well as oneself, are jettisoned for anyone the rabbit people deem a “terrorist.”  For them, “security” trumps any other value you could name.

It happens that today is the official publication date of “Courting Disaster:  How the CIA Kept America
Safe and How Barack Obama is inviting the Next Attack,” by Marc Thiessen, who, we are informed, is eminently qualified for penning such shocking revelations by virtue having been a Presidential speech writer.  Based on a foretaste Thiessen has been kind enough to provide for us, it will send many a shiver up and down the spines of the rabbit people as they cower in their beds.  Here are some examples that will surely make their blood run cold:

On Christmas Day, a new terrorist network–a mysterious branch of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula – almost succeeded in bringing down a commercial airliner over one of America’s largest cities. If the plane had exploded and crashed into downtown Detroit, thousands could have perished. Only luck saved us from catastrophe.

Never mind that it took four planes, three of which were deliberately crashed into buildings full of people, to actually kill “thousands” of people.  Never mind that airliners have occasionally crashed in large cities before, including Manhattan, and the death toll on the ground came nowhere near “thousands.”  Never mind that, if you stand near Detroit’s Metro Airport you can easily see for yourself that approaching planes don’t fly over downtown Detroit.  After all, we live in the 21st century, and any hyperbole is justified, as long as it sells books.  After reeling off any number of spine tingling tales about all the attacks the CIA “saved” us from, just by the hair on our chinny chin chins, Thiessen repeats a self-congratulatory claim by a former CIA director about how torture (er, “these techniques”) were a huge success:

Former CIA Director Mike Hayden has said: “The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work.

Never mind that intelligence agencies have long had a penchant for claiming “victory” whenever they could get away with it by virtue of the impossibility of fact checking those claims.  Never mind how often those claims haven’t passed the “ho ho” test when subjected to even mild scrutiny after the fact.  In their trembling little hearts, the rabbit people breathe a sigh of relief, deeply grateful to a government that has been wise enough to torture and imprison anyone they see fit to call a “terrorist,” in order to “make them safe.”

It never seems to dawn on the rabbit people why our forefathers condemned torture and established basic human rights to begin with.  It never seems to occur to them that they may actually have done so for reasons other than waving flags on public occasions and striking heroic poses from the moral high ground.  In fine, it never seems to occur to them that they might have established those rights for the very reason that they are absolutely essential before any society can truly consider itself safe or secure.  In spite of the fact that the 20th century seemed tailor made to rub their faces in the truth of that conclusion, they’ve learned nothing.

Consider the Spanish Civil War, which I just mentioned in an earlier post.  It was a perfect demonstration of what happens when governments are unconstrained by respect for human rights, and when the need for “security” is allowed to take precedence over any other value.  Franco’s fascist regime shot tens of thousands of people in cold blood, often without even the formality of a kangaroo court, in the name of “security” for the church, the middle classes, and anyone else on the right of the political spectrum.  His anarchist and Communist opponents on the other side shot tens of thousands of people in cold blood, and subjected them to torture and arbitrary imprisonment, in order to defend the “security” of the workers and the people.

The rabbit people never seem to realize that this “security” that the Spanish people enjoyed during their civil war, or the “security” of the German people under Hitler, or the “security” of the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the “security” of the Cambodians under Pol Pot isn’t just something that could only happen to “others.”  Liberty and human rights are worth defending, not because they are noble causes, but because they are the antidote to that kind of “security.”  Osama bin Laden and his ilk can certainly harm us, but what they can do is child’s play compared to the harm that our own governments can do to us once we have allowed them to jettison fundamental human rights in order to “make us safe.”  Governments have always been, by far, the deadliest killers, the most fiendish torturers, and the most merciless jailers.  No historical analog of bin Laden has ever held a candle to them when it comes to slaughter and mayhem.  The rabbit people fondly assume that they will never be among the murdered, the tortured, or the imprisoned.  They are wrong.  In a world in which the need for “security” justifies any crime and any abuse, nothing is more certain than that they will eventually be among the “others.”