All posts filed under: Philosophy

Why Everyone Values Freedom

On March 28, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Medicare for All Is about Freedom.” This may strike some viewers as an abuse of language. In a market system, a consumer can freely choose whether or not to pay Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield or no one for health insurance. In a single-payer system of Medicare for All, everyone with taxable income pays Medicare for health insurance—theirs and everyone else’s—whether or not any individual tax-payer wants to be part of that “All.” Such a system may serve many social goods. It may even save most individual taxpayers money. (If X is your current tax burden, Y is the current cost of your private health insurance plan, and Z is the cost of your tax burden after the implementation of Medicare for All, the question that matters for your bottom line is whether Z comes to a figure more or less than the combined cost of X and Y.) It may, however, be difficult for conservatives to understand the contention of …

Has the Postmodern Revolution Come Full Circle?

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives—those based on the enlightened values of science and reason versus those based on authority or faith—this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the hegemony postmodern ideology has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would, I suggest, probably be wrong to believe so. It is important to recognise that postmodernism arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the Enlightenment period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a rejection …

Respect, Rights, and Freedoms in an Era of Identity Activism

Ever since he was awarded a knighthood in the 2001 honours list, the British actor Ben Kingsley, probably most famous for his eponymous role in the film Gandhi, has apparently insisted on being referred to as “Sir Ben Kingsley.” This is his right and he is, by all accounts, quite offended if the honorific is overlooked. Not all recipients of such honours are quite as sensitive to the careful observation of such proprieties. Nevertheless, although it is his right, we are not obliged to comply with his wishes. There is no law that requires us to do so besides the conventions of a polite society, regardless of any damage inflicted on his self-esteem. I have nothing against Sir Ben. I have used him merely as an illustration of the principle that the right to receive a particular good, service, or respect does not automatically oblige other members of society to fulfil that right to the holder’s affective satisfaction. If I have bought a lottery ticket, I have a right to participate in the lottery, but …

In Defense of Scientism

I hear the jury’s still out on science. ~Gob Bluth In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.” On science, the jury long ago returned a verdict: it is awesome. It has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions. It has increased human flourishing and extended life expectancies. It has put humans on the moon and many fathoms under the ocean’s surface. It has uncovered the forces that guide the crudest motions of matter and those that govern the most exquisite processes of life. In short, it has vastly improved human existence while dramatically increasing our knowledge of the universe. Despite all this, skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”—or against what they see as science’s hubristic attempt to crowd out …

Albert Camus: Unfashionable Anti-Totalitarian

Today, it is not unusual to see Albert Camus celebrated as the debonair existentialist—the handsome hero of the French Resistance, a great novelist, and a fine philosopher. But this reputation was only recently acquired. For much of his life, and in the years since his untimely death in 1960 aged just 46, Camus was deeply unfashionable among France’s leading intellectuals. In many quarters, he remains so. Camus came to widespread attention in 1942 with his publication of his novella The Stranger and a philosophical essay entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Stranger portrays a solitary passionless man wandering through a world without pattern or purpose. “The Myth of Sisyphus” grapples with the question, “Why not commit suicide?” Camus argued that we should not, but he finds little evidence of a justified purpose for human beings. If we cannot prove that some choices are better than others, he concludes, we can at least dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of experience. The austerity and boldness of these two works struck Camus’s contemporaries as remarkable and, within a …

Banning Evil: In the Shadow of Christchurch, Quasi-Religious Myths Can Lead Us Astray

On March 15, a 28-year old an Australian gunman named Brenton Tarrant allegedly opened fire in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, killing 50 and wounding 50 more. It was the worst mass shooting in the history of that country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was rightly praised for her response to the murders, declared: “While the nation grapples with a form of grief and anger that we have not experienced before, we are seeking answers.” One answer took form a week later, when Ms. Ardern announced legislation that would ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Will such gun-control measures work to reduce gun crime? Maybe. They did in Australia following a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania in which 35 people were murdered. A 2006 follow-up study showed that in the 18 years prior to the ban, there had been 13 mass shootings. But in the decade following, there had been none. Gun culture is different in every country. But there is at least an arguable case to be made that the …

Why We Should Read Marx

If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas.  Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation has enjoyed something of a renaissance in spite of the atrocities associated with his name. Indeed, even pro-capitalist outlets such as …

Moral Zealotry and the Seductive Nature of Evil

A tempting fallacy about morality is to think that wickedness must arise from transparently abhorrent motives, and goodness from nice ones. Few explicitly endorse this crude dualism, but many breezily equate hatred with evil, love with goodness, or both. This way of thinking makes it difficult for us to see the dangers of moral zealotry, one of the most insidious motives for wicked behavior. The notion of moral zealotry as a vice is somewhat puzzling. Shouldn’t we want people to be as moral as possible? Republican Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater is often quoted as saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That’s true of idealized people who have perfect knowledge of justice and how best to pursue it, and whose commitment to goodness is untainted by less saintly motives. The rest of us are at risk of having our minds hijacked by intense, but not necessarily reflective, moral passions. People so hijacked are moral zealots. A paradigmatic example is early twentieth century anti-alcohol …

Thoreau and the Primitivist Temptation

When Edward Abbey died, his friends honored his wishes. They stopped at a liquor store for a few cases of beer and loaded his body into the back of a pickup truck to take him into the desert. He didn’t want a coffin, a funeral, any pontificating or gnashing of teeth. He just want to be buried at some unknown place in the sand, where, as he put it, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.” It was a fitting send-off for a man whose very name became synonymous with the remote regions of the Southwest where he worked and which he chronicled in his books. He’d come to the desert after finally having had enough of it: the commutes, the congested roads, the small-talk. So he moved by himself to a remote part of Utah and worked as a park ranger in Arches National Park, just north of Moab. Along the way, he wrote in his journal, and the entries, when compiled, …

Why We Should Read Rousseau

At the end of January I wrote an article entitled “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers” for Quillette. I argued that liberals, whether classical or egalitarian, can find insights in the work of authors who—rightly or wrongly—have come to be associated with illiberal and even totalitarian movements. The four authors I examined were Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Although the general point that these authors contribute ideas of value was well received, the article was justifiably criticized for summarizing each individual’s positions too quickly. This resulted in a loss of depth and left some readers wanting a more thorough account of what was valuable in each author.  Over the next few months I will be publishing an article on each thinker, presenting an argument for their enduring contribution. Since even a few thousand words is hardly sufficient to scratch the surface of each thinker’s complex positions, the interpretation I will be presenting will be highly qualified. I will begin each article with a brief discussion on the controversy surrounding the individual author, and why their writing is associated with totalitarian …