Monday, July 28, 2014

Green on revolt

At the request of commentator "Mr":

"No precise rule, therefore, can be laid down as to the conditions under which resistance to a despotic government becomes a duty. But the general questions which the good citizen should ask himself in contemplating such resistance will be, (a) What prospect is there of resistance to the sovereign power leading to a modification of its character or improvement in its exercise without its subversion? (b) If it is overthrown, is the temper of the people such--are the influences on which the general maintenance of social order and the fabric of recognized rights depend so far separable from it--that its overthrow will not mean anarchy? (c) If its overthrow does lead to anarchy, is the whole system of law and government so perverted by private interests hostile to the public, that there has ceased to be any common interest in maintaining it?" -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 86

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Collateral Damage in War

As someone said recently, there are always going to be gray areas when it comes to moral questions like "How great a risk of harm to innocents am I allowed to impose when defending myself against an attack?" But we can set out obvious cases to act as boundary markers, and then ask which of them a real situation more closely resembles. So: If someone is shooting at me out of the window of an occupied apartment building, I can shoot back at that window. If I hit his hostage inside, that is very unfortunate but I am not culpable. However, I cannot launch a rocket at the building that will take down the whole edifice. In the latter case, I am culpable.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Historical documents, detached from life

"La storia, staccata dal documento vivo e resa cronaca, non è più un atto spirituale, ma una cosa, un complesso di suoni o di altri segni. Ma anche il documento, staccato dalla vita, è nient'altro che una cosa, simile all'altra, un complesso di suoni e di altri segni: per esempio, i suoni e le lettere nelle quali fu già comunicata una legge, le linee intagliate nel marmo e che manifestarono un sentimento religioso mercé la figura del dio, un mucchio di ossa con le quali si attuò un tempo l'organismo di un uomo o di un animale." -- Benedetto Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, p. 23

"History, detached from the living document and made into chronicle, is no longer a spiritual act, but a thing, a complex of sounds or of other signs. But the document also, detached from life, is nothing other than a thing, similar to the other, a complex of sounds and other signs: for example, the sounds and the letters in which there was once communicated a law, the lines cut in marble that manifested a religious sentiment submitted to the figure of a god, a pile of bones that once shaped the body of a man or of an animal."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Heartwarming news from the right

National Review has just run a piece decrying the wave of police brutality and violation of rights that we have seen of late.

This is great news, and may signal the rise of a broad movement that could check such abuses.

Two notes:

1) Efforts to demonize every police officer as a brutal thug are going to be counterproductive. There are many good cops who do a lot of good work, and the average citizen knows this, and may even know some of these good cops personally: if this movement is to succeed, it will have to be made clear that it is not anti-police, but anti-police abuses. To the extent it seems to be merely anti-police, it will only cause average citizens to rally behind police forces.

2) The effort is inherently political, and must use political means to achieve its ends. Anyone whose misguided understanding of politics leads them to view it as inherently immoral is going to have a tough time contributing to its success. It is precisely because political life in the United States still has some life in it that there is a chance that we can check these abuses.

Croce: First history, then chronicle

Croce discusses the idea that history is formed out of the more elementary material of chronicle. He rejects this, concluding:

"Ma dall'indagine sul carrattere, e perciò sulla genesi, delle due operazioni o dei due atteggiamenti, consegue invece proprio l'opposto: prima la Storia, poi la Cronaca. Prima il vivente, poi il cadavere; e far nascere la storia dalla cronaca tanto varrebbe quanto far nascere il vivente dal cadavere, che è invece il residuo della vita, come la cronaca e il residuo della storia." -- Teoria e storia della storiografia, pp. 22-23

"But from the investigation of the character, and therefore of the genesis, of the two operations of the two engagements, there follows instead the opposite result:
first History, then Chronicle. First the living body, then the corpse; and for history to be born from chronicle would be as though a living body were born from a corpse, which is instead the residue of life, as chronicle is the residue of history."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why should one submit to the power of the state?

"To ask why I am to submit to the power of the state, is to ask why I am to allow my life to be regulated by that complex of institutions without which I literally should not have a life to call my own, nor should be able to ask for a justification of what I am called on to do." -- T. H. Green, The Principles of Political Obligation, p. 90

Green on social contract theory

"In fact, the condition of society in which it could properly be said to be governed by a law of nature, i.e. by an obligation of which there is no imponent but the consciousness of man, an obligation of which the breach is not punished by a political superior, is not antecedent to political society but one which it gradually tends to produce. It is the radical fault of the theory which finds the origin of political society in compact that it has to reverse the true process." -- The Principles of Political Obligation, p. 48

In other words, it is politics itself which produces our recognition of each other as rights-bearing individuals.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Late capitalism

When I hear Marxists use the above phrase, I always imagine the subtext "late (let's hope we got it right this time) capitalism."

Kant and the universalization of a rule of conduct

Kant famously held that the criterion for an action being moral is that the agent should be able to rationally will a universal rule under which his particular action falls. So, if I am generous to a homeless person, I can comprehend that action falling under the universal rule, "Those who have more than enough should be generous to the destitute." But if I steal from my neighbor, I cannot do similarly: "Everyone should steal from their neighbor" is irrational as a rule, since the very goal of thievery is to take lasting possession of the stolen object, not to have it stolen back immediately.

So far so good. Kant was a very smart man, and was certainly on to something here. But there is a well-known problem with the permissiveness of this guideline: it is too easy to generate a universal rule that will justify almost any action. So, imagine Immanuel confronting Alexander the Great with his principle. Alexander could respond, "Immanuel, I am down with your idea. And the rule that justifies my actions is, 'Any person
bold, courageous, and resourceful enough to conquer the known world should do so.'" But Kant probably did not mean to permit wars of aggression, so long as the aggressor was likely to win.

However, I think there is a second problem that has not drawn you same amount of attention: Kant's principle also is, at times, too restrictive. Consider: At the grocery store, I am very fussy about the freshness of the food I buy. For instance, in choosing a carton of milk, I will search for cartons with a later expiration date toward the back of the shelf. But if we apply Kant's principle in a straightforward fashion, this might be deemed immoral: after all, if everyone did this, it would result in all of the freshest milk moving first, which would just lead to grocery stores keeping that milk off the shelf until all of the older milk had sold, meaning no one could buy the fresher milk.

Nevertheless, I believe what I do is okay: I don't seek a special privilege that allows only me to act as I do. What I count on is that others differ from me in their preferences: they may go through milk faster than I do, or simply not find my search to be worth the bother.

Of course, I could formulate a rule like, "For anyone for whom it is worth the trouble to seek out the fresher milk from the back of the shelf, it is okay to do so." But this looks suspiciously like Alexander's maneuver above, which we would want to block in his case, if we are to give Kant's principle any teeth.

In short, I think we see here how Hegel advanced beyond Kant, in formulating the concept of the concrete universal. In our actions, we ought to always strive to embody the universal concept of "the good," but in every particular case our judgment of whether or not we are doing so must take into account all of the concrete circumstances in which we act.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Did Berkeley have a "radically subjective" view of experience?

I am reading an excellent introduction to British Idealism: British Idealism: A Guide for the Perplexed. If you are at all interested in this subject, I highly recommend this book.

But I do have a minor complaint: the authors repeat the common misperception of Berkeley as having had a "radically subjective view of experience." (The book only treats Berkeley peripherally, as a forerunner of 19th and 20th-century idealism, which is what makes this a minor quibble.) I am writing a paper at present tracing the history of this error, as well as that of the repeated attempts to correct it. (Collingwood is among those who sought to rectify this mistake.) The key oversight behind this misperception, from Hegel onward, has been to ignore the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's metaphysics.

I don't intend to summarize the historical work from that paper here. Instead, I offer a metaphor intended to clarify the objective nature of reality as Berkeley sees it: Berkeley's God is like the creator of the video game, Mind of God: from Genesis to RevelationTM, and all other conscious beings are akin to players in that game. (Note that this is only a metaphor, and as with all metaphors, if pushed too far it will yield ridiculous results. For instance, if you find yourself asking "What program debugger did God use?" or "How many lines of code did he write?" you have taken the metaphor too literally.)

For Berkeley, the ideas God had in programming Mind of God create the sights, the sounds, and the rules of the game. For the players in the game, these ideas are objectively real. If they travel down a road that comes to a fork, every one of them who is not hallucinatory will see the fork and have to choose the left or right path. And for someone who is hallucinatory, their attempts to neglect the fork will be thwarted. If a player tries to ignore the fact that in Mind of God there is a drop off of a tall cliff down to some jagged rocks immediately ahead of him, he will find his game player body smashed to bits on the rocks. If she attacks a monster  too many levels above her rank, she will lose. If a player pretends he doesn't need to eat, he will see his life force points draining away. If a player tries to move something God has deemed immovable, she will fail.

Within the parameters set by God, the players are free: they may choose to fight a monster or not, to take a road heading east or one heading west, to unite with other players or to go it alone. They will also have their own judgments about the game: they may think a particular forest looks frightening, or be soothed by a seaside vista. But in so far as those judgments concern the actual "coding" of the game, they are susceptible to being tested against that reality, and being proven objectively true or objectively false. If the player believes that the frightening forest is filled with goblins, when he heads into it he will discover either that it actually is and his judgment was correct, or it actually isn't, and he was wrong.

Michael Oakeshott once said that reality is "not whatever I happen to think; it is what I am obliged to think." And for Berkeley, what one is "obliged to think" are the thoughts in the mind of God. The question any idealist metaphysics must face is, "Why do we seem to perceive a common reality with certain intractable features?" Berkeley may not have answered that question in a completely satisfactory way, and perhaps other idealists have done better. But he did provide an answer, and that answer is why, in his view, (human) experience is not "radically subjective," but is an objective world of ideas.

NOTE: The mind of God provides an objective reality for all lesser conscious beings, such as humans. But there is another question one might ask: In Berkeley's view, is reality objective or subjective for God? It tomorrow God decides that 2+2=5, does Berkeley think it will? I am not sure he ever addresses that question.