Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Marxism, the Taliban and Plato

Marxism, the Taliban and Plato
Thomas Riggins

Recently Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed "Knowing Right from Wrong," the new book by Kieran Setiya, in the TLS ["Taliban and Plato" TLS July 19, 2013]. The essay deals with Setiya's attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.

Blackburn begins with Plato's position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato's ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.

We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and "scientific" method provided a practical alternative to Plato's views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato's views on this subject.)

 Setiya"s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, "a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable."

Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief-- you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a  guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a "logos" for knowledge claims, "meaning," Blackburn says, "something like reason, justification or some kind of method -- and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness."  But how do we test for "reliability?"

Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on  "cultural and historical forces" operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. "We need," he says, "a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress."

Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won't work. Just to claim we are "reasonable" and the Taliban are not is not  an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn's belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to "human nature." Setiya says "how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should." He uses the term "life form" for "human nature" and thinks, according to Blackburn, "in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse" their true life form will emerge "and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth." This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.

Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be "universally true" but more like natural history statements such as "dogs bark" or "finches lay eggs in the spring" which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, "universally true."  Blackburn says: "So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true."  But this is just asserting the. conclusion, there is no argument here. The Taliban could say "Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true."  Blackburn's belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.

Blackburn sees problems with Setiya's position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: "When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts  which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety" [Styles in Ethics, 1924].

 Blackburn says this leads to "a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate  as a trait of our species." But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge-- neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.

Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: "for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one's life form to believe that it is a virtue." This will not do at all. The Taliban, creature's of our life form, believe  it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl's faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.

Well, we don't think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form ( we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?

Setiya seems to be aware that you can't just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has "a certain faith in human nature." This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don't live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn't already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument-- if argument it be rather than just assertion.

Setiya warns us, says Blackwell, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is "natural constructivism" based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with "a soggy relativism" with one "truth" for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn's operant conditioning.

Blackburn doesn't like this outcome, it "seems intolerable." He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya's moral realism won't work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn's morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system-- so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.

Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this-- but this is only a theoretical possibility.  He even admits he doesn't have "the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban" and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He has hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is "not hermetically sealed from ours" (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be "dissident voices"  and "stirrings of modernity" and half the population "has the burning desire to change." Cultural conditioning doesn't seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?

Blackburn tells us the difference between realism ad pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the "truths" of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no "foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on."

What would a Marxist position be on these issues. I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principals that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.

The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as "to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue" or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.

The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This view point I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Stop and Frisk: Mayor Boomberg vs Minority Youth

Stop and Frisk: What Mayor Bloomberg Really Thinks About Minority Youth

Thomas Riggins

New York City Mayor Bloomberg, speaking before last Sunday's gay rights parade, tried to defend his position supporting the NYPD's massive stop and frisk program directed against minority (mostly Black and Hispanic) youth. His remarks were so out of line that the New York Times wrote an editorial (7-2-13) criticizing his "loopy logic" and U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries (Dem. N.Y.) was moved to say his comments "were sad, disrespectful, hurtful, and quite unfortunate."

The mayor dismissed the concerns of the minority community that they were being disproportionately stopped by the police and were, in fact, being harassed by the department. The fact that only 9% of the stops in 2012 involved whites was not seen by the mayor as in any way evidence that the minority rate was overly disproportionate. In fact he thought too many white people were being stopped and they were the ones who should be complaining about disproportionate treatment. His reason was that only 7% of the 2012 murder rate was due to white people (this was the only crime statistic he gave).

It may come as a surprise to many New Yorkers that the problem with the NYPD is that it is harassing white people not minorities, but that is Bloomberg's position. He is reported as maintaining (Wall Street Journal, 7-1-13) that "The numbers are the numbers, and the numbers clearly show that the stops are generally proportionate with suspects' descriptions and for years now critics have been trying to argue that minorities are stopped disproportionately." The numbers show not enough minority youth are being stopped and too many white folks are. "The numbers don't lie," the mayor said.

Well, if that is the problem in New York-- harassment of white youth by the police, I don't understand what the mayor has against a federally appointed monitor to make sure the NYPD is not violating people's constitutional rights. The federal monitor would at least clear the mayor and his police commissioner Ray Kelly of discriminating against minority youth and thus undermine the charges of racism in high places.

But the mayor also thinks a disproportionate amount of crime is due to minority youth so if they were disproportionately stopped they would really be proportionally stopped because they would be being stopped proportionally to the percentage of crimes they were responsible for and not in proportion to their population with respect to the disproportionately stopped white people. I hope this is clear. It means whatever the mayor does will turn out to be ok, except for being unfair to white folk.

Here is the mayor's view on minority youth. He said the politicians running for mayor would rather try and get votes  "than help us get out of this terrible situation where a disproportionate percentage of the crime is committed by a group of young kids that just don't have any future."

And why don't minority youth have any future? Is it because of the mismanaged educational system where the mayor would rather fight with the teachers than work with them to improve educational opportunities? Is it the lack of adequate after school programs and summer jobs, and employment training opportunities? Is due to slum housing and rent gouging of the poor? Could the NYPD and the mayor by targeting millions of minority youth as potential criminals because they "have no future" except crime be sending that very message to them-- no future for you!

I think it pretty clear that the mayor and his police commissioner have written off the majority of Black and Hispanic youth and are subjecting them to an unjustified program of stop and frisk harassment. The city council has just passed a bill creating an independent inspector general to check on abuse of power by the police. The mayor says he will veto it. The mayor should ask himself-- if the NYPD isn't doing anything wrong, what's the worry?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Who Turned the Lights Off? Jonathan Israel's Take on Pagden's "The Enlightenment"

Thomas Riggins

The world today is in the grips of the irrational and anarchic system of global capitalism dominated by the United States and characterized by international economic and political disorders, wars, poverty and environmental destruction.
In order to arrive at solutions to the problems facing humanity we will have to devise methods to overcome the capitalist system of irrationality and replace it by a rational international order based on the principles of democratic control rooted in a rational approach to solving the problems of war, economic inequality and environmental degradation by means of reason (logic and science).

It is important that those concerned with trying to bring about a transition from the unworkable present to a better future, which is not dominated by predatory capitalist super powers and their hanger ons, have a clear understanding of the most important historical movement before Marxism that attempted to bring about a better world and the lessons it has for us today.

This movement is known to history as the Enlightenment  which dates, more or less, from the middle of the 17th Century (one could almost say from the writings of Spinoza and his heirs) until the mid-19th century when nationalism and class warfare turned the ruling elites against the Enlightenment's values of  social justice, equality, and human rights and turned off the lights, or tied to, which had illuminated and revealed the problems facing humanity and their solutions. Lights that were reignited by the world socialist movement initiated by the works of Marx and Engels.

Today these values are again on the agenda, at least as far as lip service is concerned. This article will review the analysis of Anthony Pagden's new book, "The Enlightenment And why it still matters," by Jonathan Israel published in the TLS of June 21, 2013 ("How the light came in").

Israel has some initial good things to say about this book but then he mounts some very strong objections to its view of the Enlightenment-- so strong that I don't think this book would be a good introduction to the importance of this historical period.

Israel begins by telling us the Enlightenment is much more significant in the creation of "modernity" than the Renaissance or the Reformation (as important as these other movements were).  Pagden's book is, he says,  "one of the better surveys of the Enlightenment." From what follows the others must really be bad! Israel gives the following negative evaluations.

First, he finds the book's views on the beginnings of the Enlightenment and its "overall interpretation" to be "unsatisfactory." Who would begin to study a 436 page history book based on this evaluation? What is the reason for this negative view? The book is too anglo-centric with respect to the origins of the early Enlightenment (late 17th to mid 18th centuries.) The stress is on Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson "and other British and Irish thinkers." In reality these figures were of minor importance compared to the Continental writers such as Leibniz, Wolff, Bayle, Thomasius and Spinoza and were rarely cited by them.

In fact, the really important early writings were in French (or Latin) but from a Dutch "milieu." It was Holland, not England that in 1700 or so "counted internationally as the world's foremost model of a tolerant, prosperous republican ethnic  and religious melting pot." Locke, for all his British acclaim, "was of practically no significance" to such major radical Enlightenment figures as Pierre Bayle  and Denis Diderot. In fact, as Israel points out elsewhere, the most important thinker for the entire Enlightenment period, was Spinoza. One might also conclude that in the whole era between Descartes and Marx the two most outstanding philosophical giants were Spinoza and Hegel.

Israel considers it a "serious omission" that Pagden practically ignores the major role of the Dutch Republic in favor of Britain as the inspiration to Enlightenment thinkers favoring political reform and a republican form of government. The first big struggle for democracy in the modern world was not the American Revolution of 1776-83 (it was "not fully democratic") but the Patriottenbeweging (Patriot movement) of 1780-87 in Holland which was referred to at least as often by the Enlighteners leading the French Revolution as were the English revolutions of the previous century.

The book's greatest flaw is the failure to identify properly those Enlightenment figures responsible for the creation of "democratic modernity" which Pagden thinks was a principal achievement of the Enlightenment. Instead it concentrates on the traditional standbys of Anglo-American scholarship-- Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire and Adam Smith-- all of whom were "moderates" [Hume was an outright racist]  "who made no particular contributions to furthering racial and gender equality, anti-colonialism, full freedom of thought and religion, press freedom, universal secular education or general emancipation."  They were the least revolutionary with respect to changing the status quo in a radical manner and so have become the most well known and taught in anglophone countries.

Besides a greatest flaw (Israel says "principal weakness") there is a "key vulnerability" as well. This reveals itself in the last chapter on the role of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution. Pagden sees only two major phases in the Revolution: the first Enlightenment phase that reined in the monarchy in June 1789 and under the rule of the National Assembly created the constitution of 1791 and the second the Terror under Robespierre which, as Israel agrees, "denied the Enlightenment's core values" [a libel I think against Robespierre and the Jacobins.]

There were, however, not two-- but three revolutions according to Israel-- there was a middle period between 1791 (the date of the "monarchist constitution" put forth by moderates led by the marquis de Lafayette and other liberal monarchists, and the Terror. Pagden ignores this "tragic middle phase" led by the kind of radical philosophes favored by Israel and better known as the Girondins as opposed to Robespierre's Jacobins.

Israel says the Girondins were radical democrats who wanted universal male suffrage, were opposed to slavery, and favored the rights of women, as well as universal toleration and an unrestricted free press. Israel also says Robespierre was completely opposed to these radical democrats  and that after the Jacobins seized power in 1793 they instituted the Terror and went "all out to suppress the Enlightenment in government, social theory and education…."

This may be a bit unfair to Robespierre and the Jacobins who thought the Revolution itself was on the verge being overthrown by reactionary counter-revolutionary forces and that Girondin polices were not forceful enough to prevent this. The Jacobins seized power not because they rejected Enlightenment ideas but because they thought a temporary people's democratic dictatorship was required to save the Revolution and that the Girondins, by opposing them, had placed themselves on the side of counter-revolution whatever their subjective attitudes toward the Revolution might  have been.

The Girondins did not trust the revolutionary masses and were against direct democracy and in favor of indirect representative democracy whereby the people's elected representatives (educated and cultured folks such as the Girondins) would represent the real interests of the people who were too ignorant and uneducated to properly represent themselves. The Jacobins came to power by means of a direct democratic appeal to the revolutionary masses to save the Revolution and whatever the ultimate evaluation of the Terror may turn out to be, many, if not most, historians credit the Jacobins and Robespierre with reversing the counter-revolution and preventing the collapse of the Republic.

Under the Jacobins Feudalism was abolished in France and a new democratic constitution was enacted in 1793. This Jacobin constitution was ratified by a vote which was undertaken with universal male suffrage and it was based on the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" and it supported popular sovereignty and instituted rights for the French people such as the right of association, the right to work, to public welfare, to public education, the right to rebel against any government violation of the people's rights. The Jacobins  also abolished slavery throughout the territories governed by France.

This constitution shows that the values of the Enlightenment were not foreign to Robespierre and the Jacobins. However, despite coming up with this great progressive constitution supported by the revolutionary masses, the Jacobins also decided to postpone implementing it until the counter- revolutionary threat was over and the Terror was no longer necessary. The Jacobins were overthrown in 1794 by a milder counter-revolution than the one they had saved the country from so their constitution was never really implemented and was replaced by a less revolutionary one in 1795 which was nevertheless influenced by it.

Israel only half agrees with Pagden's assertion that the Enlightenment was a reform movement not a revolutionary one that, in his words, it 'had , in fact, always been identified with reform rather than revolution." Pagden misses the point that there were really TWO Enlightenments-- a moderate conservative and/or reformist one [e.g., Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Burke, Ferguson, Gibbon-- just to mention anglophones], and a radical one [Bentham, John Jebb, Price, Thomas Paine, Priestley, Mary Wollenstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Godwin, Barlow, Jefferson, Elihu Palmer]. This same split could also be found on the Continent where such "super" radicals as Diderot, d'Holbach, Helvétius, Lessing for example, faced off against moderates such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Wolff, and later Kant and their followers. The counter Enlightenment attacked both these Enlightenments sometimes confusing them as just one movement-- which many counter Enlightenment intellectuals continue to do in our own day.

The "fundamental idea" of the radical Enlightenment was, according to Israel, "that the true human moral order is based not on divine revelation or intervention but exclusively on social utility, especially equality and secularism." Moderate figures fudge these distinctions and reactionary counter Enlightenment thinkers (if thinkers they be) deny them completely.

The great rift created by the radical Enlightenment between those who appeal basically to reason (logic and science) to solve our problems and those who want to "balance" reason "with religion, existing institutions, the prevailing social order and tradition" still exists today  and is at the heart of the political and social struggles that will shape the 21st century.