Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

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Anarchy, State, and Utopia

I’ve been reading Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia because it was recommended by Ian Shapiro. Although I am only about a quarter way through, and he seems to have tried to hit all the angles; unless I missed it, perhaps hits these bits later on.

He thoroughly raises issues and works to resolve them, but, as with Descartes with his Discourse, Nozick seems to exogenously accept certain aspects in an appeal to tradition sort of way. With Descartes, he stripped all belief in the truth of his senses, but then he injects God into the equation from out of nowhere. For Nozick, he just takes property and value as given.

I understand that the Western Enlightenment tradition has a thing for life, liberty, and property—especially Libertarians—, but these are just philosophical notions derived from nowhere. (Wittgenstein, stage left) That he uses utility theory instead of prospect theory as a foundation can be forgiven, but that is shaky ground, too.

And so it goes…

Workmanship Ideal or Convenience?

One of the biggest issues I have with modern, Western political theory is Locke‘s so-called ‘workmanship ideal‘, a concept stemming from the Enlightenment belief that a maker of something should be the rightful owner of something. The Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason) was supposed to have divorced science from other rationale, whether divine rights (as ascribed to kings) or something else. The problem—the same problem Descartes had in his Discourses—is that God (even if vis-a-vis ‘nature‘) is injected exogenously and irrationally into the works. Philosophers even into the 21st century, if barely, have concluded that this concept breaks down when we attempt to secularise it, but we are subjectively comfortable with the notion. Of course, the more our beliefs lean towards ‘higher powers‘, intelligent design and the such, the more comfortable we are apt to feel.

I was originally inspired to write this when researching Rawls and happening upon Ian Shapiro‘s Yale open course, The Moral Foundations of Politics. James Murphy has this to say in his essay, The Workmanship Ideal : A Theologico-Political Chimera?

What’s in Store for 2017?

Going into 2017, I am going to focus more attention on Universal Basic Income (UBI) otherwise known as minimum income. Providing everyone with a safety net in the spirit of life, liberty, and happiness. Hopefully, this will take some focus away from or redirect the negativity I am anticipating under the Trump regime, but I make no promises, expressed or implied. I’ll attend to the detractors as well.

I’ve been peripherally aware of the concept of UBI for a couple of years now—Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, among others. Although I don’t envision it as a permanent solution—after all, what is permanent? —but it is a solution that works within the existing (and woefully wanting) economic framework. It does, however, have a way to go relative to the current socio-political constructs.

The solution is not permanent primarily because the current economic system based on markets, supply, demand, income, and production is tenuous, so building on a platform of shifting sand is bound to fail—not because it is a bad idea considering the given system, but because the system itself is faulty. Capitalism is a house of cards, a tenuous MacGyver-ed system held together with spit and bubble gum (and who knows what else). I don’t have a replacement system in mind, and most people are not quite ready to abandon their cherished ragdoll owing to indoctrination, propaganda, and escalating commitment.  Entropy is at play, and the establishment needs to apply more and more external force to keep it together. We can look to history and the French revolution of 1789 as a guide—or perhaps the fall of tsarist Russia. These systems were inherently unstable.

Regarding these societies of serfs, the gutting of the middle class and the expanding inequality along with technological trends seems to have a trajectory along a vector to return us there, and the results can be expected to be as disastrous.

The United States was founded during the so-called Enlightenment with dashes of a Calvinistic work ethic and rugged independence, whatever that means. ‘Enlightenment,’ like ‘modern’, is a flattering term given to self-describe a period, but this description is mostly wishful thinking. I am not opposed to much of the thought that came from the Enlightenment, from Diderot to Locke to Montesquieu—thoughts such as freedom and separation of powers—, hijacked by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson on these shores, but they, too, were built on shaky grounds—the grounds of gods or God, and nature—, so our laws are built upon nothing; this is worse than shifting sand: at least there was sand to shift.

Language tries to obfuscate the divine with the euphemism nature. From so-called ‘natural laws’ we derive property rights, but take away the premise of natural law, and we lose the basis for such an assertion. And don’t get me started on the further foundationless logical leap to intellectual property rights.