Friday, August 15, 2014

The World of Big Ideas

Nicholas Kristof is correct to say that we should not dismiss the humanities. By his reasoning, we live in a digital age, so we are tempted to ignore the great ideas. Doing so imperils our ability to think clearly.

I have often opined on this topic and agree with Kristof on the basics. And yet, he errs when he makes digitality the culprit.

The real problem lies with the humanists, teachers in major universities who no longer have any use for great ideas or great thinkers. They have not wanted to learn from the canon, so they have deconstructed it. In the academic world they have largely succeeded.

To be fair, Kristof himself rarely grapples with big ideas. He is a natural-born reporter. He offers up facts. Beyond reporting news, he has taken to expressing moral outrage in his column.

Perhaps we should feel grateful that he does not pretend to be a thinker. 

Since Kristof excels at moral outrage, two of the three great modern thinkers he chooses are John Rawls and Peter Singer. Both of them, he says, teach us to feel more empathy.

Rawls wrote an important book on justice. In it, Kristof explains, he wants to teach us all how to have more empathy for the disadvantaged among us.

Singer is a bioethicist who wants us to have more empathy for the feelings of animals. He believes that we should feel guilty for murdering these near-humans for our own nourishment. Following his thought would apparently cause us to become vegans.

Singer is a very controversial figure, but Kristof does not mention it. Among other things Singer has found ways to justify acts of infanticide.

Both Rawls and Singer find inequality to be unacceptable, and their arguments certainly have an influence on the larger public debate on these issues.

For example, Kristof summarizes an argument from Rawls:
Rawls suggests imagining that we all gather to agree on a social contract, but from an “original position” so that we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, smart or dumb, diligent or lazy, American or Bangladeshi. If we don’t know whether we’ll be born in a wealthy suburban family or to a single mom in an inner city, we’ll be more inclined to favor measures that protect those at the bottom.

Or, in the context of today’s news, we may be less likely to deport Honduran children back to the desolate conditions from which they have fled.

We still will allow for inequality to create incentives for economic growth, but Rawls suggests that, from an original position, we will choose structures that allow inequality only when the least advantaged members of society also benefit.

Based on Rawls’ narrative fiction of an “original position,” one that never has or will exist, people can be persuaded, for example, to denounce white privilege, or any other inherited privilege.

And they can also be persuaded that human societies must embody the idea of justice, though, we recall, Plato said it first.

Kristof adds that, if we accept this reasoning, America must accept all immigrant children who are fleeing poverty in their home countries.

As for Singer, he believes that since we are wealthy and since others are poor, we are morally obligated to share the wealth.

Of course, none of these great minds has noted that when you share the wealth, through welfare, you end up with less wealth for everyone.

It’s easy enough to critique these theories, and yet, to be fair and balanced, conservative thinkers are not on very good terms with big ideas either.

Almost by definition, their thinking is more pragmatic, and their focus is limited for the most part to politics, economics and the law… with some social criticism thrown in.

Conservatives never really engage with the debates over deconstruction, critical theory or psychoanalysis… debates that animate the teaching of the humanities in today’s universities.

Since Kristof mentions Isaiah Berlin, it is worth considering that Berlin is responsible for making an important distinction between two concepts of freedom: freedom from responsibility and freedom for responsibility.

After all, free will means that you are responsible for your actions. See the story of Adam and Eve.

And yet, as libertarianism is becoming more popular, how many libertarians make the distinction between freedom from and freedom for? How many of them know enough about formulating a concept to know that they need to deal with the distinction?

If you are making the case for freedom, especially for free market solutions, you will need to have a very good conceptual grasp on the concept of freedom.

Surely, no one seriously believes that the free market is a free-for-all, though some libertarians seem to lean toward that definition. And, no one believes that a free market economy should be giving people things for free.

One appreciates the political value in allowing people to think what they want to think about freedom. And yet, those who march under freedom’s banner should be able to grasp the concept on a deeper level.

Otherwise they will not be prepared to sustain the intellectual argument against their critics.


Kaiser Derden (aka TDL) said...

Conservatives never really engage with the debates over deconstruction, critical theory or psychoanalysis ...

maybe because those are actually all small ideas that are nothing more than appeals to emotion ...

Anonymous said...

Singer is a crackpot of Rosseauean dimensions. He demands that we live in extreme austerity, and give the rest of our resources to poor people worldwide.

Naturally, euthanasia of sick infants and the elderly is on the agenda.

He doesn't practice what he preaches. In any way. However, unlike Rousseau, who discarded his own children and their mothers, Singer has a saving grace.

Last I read, he provides the best, highly-expensive Care for his elderly ailing Mother.

Ridiculously Hypocritical, of course. But commendable (I did the same thing). A man who loves his Mother so much can't be All Bad.

But a cockeyed zealot like Singer has no place in a respectable university. I think he places the same value on a muskrat as on a human being. -- Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should feel grateful that he does not pretend to be a thinker. That would turn him into a David Brooks, and one of those suffices.

Hahahaha! I snorted scotch out my nose at that and it burns!

I can synthesize the ideas of Rawls and Singer:
"We should allow all the poor children of Honduras to emmigrate here. And eat them."

Libertarians? Dope-smoking anti-semites throwing punches one inch from my nose....


Stuart Schneiderman said...

For KD... Freud, Heidegger and the rest may be grievously wrong, but they are certainly not minor thinkers. They are trafficking in very big ideas. Most often these ideas go unchallenged by conservatives because conservatives do not understand them. Thus, they function like a virus, infecting minds... without there being an antidote or a response that would lead anyone to challenge them.

Ignore them at your peril!

Dennis said...

Is it that Conservatives don't understand them or they keep thinking that nobody would be that dumb? I have been continually amazed at how many people are so controlled by their emotions that they don't take the time to carry these so called big ideas to their ultimate conclusion. Any interviews I see of the "Man in the Street" sometimes leave me wondering if there is intelligent life there.
Kudos Rich Lara for knowing the deeply flawed nature of most of the supposed thinkers like Rousseau. One of the reasons that many of them were so against money et al was because they were incompetent at managing it and lived off of others. For the most part they were terrible human beings much like Singer.

Anonymous said...

The classical approach to the humanities engages the intellect to find what it means to be human, and what it means to live a good life. In Alisdair Macintyre's model, this is driven by virtue over emotivism. The individual makes choices and builds a truly moral and ethical society. Education is about building these virtues so the student becomes a better person -- from the foundation of being an individual actor in the world, bound by relationships, secure in his deep understanding of justice. With the traditional European overlay of Christian virtue (faith, hope and love), you get freedom from vice, freedom to act, and encourage just contribution to society. We BUILD a better world in community through contribution. Those who truly cannot contribute (through physical or mental incapacitation, for instance) are cared for.

This is a simplistic explanation, of course, but such is the nature of a blog comment. One might say this is all a pipe dream, and cynics might say we should look at the mess we're in today in the most powerful nation on earth. Let's not use the insanity of our predicament today to set the bar. Let's look at truly great societies in their ascendancy or at their peak. This kind of "freedom from and freedom for" is a given. People are responsible because they are educated enough (and a STEM curriculum is not necessarily a prerequisite) to know what's at stake for themselves and those they love.

Thus, you can be:
- A conservationist without being an environmentalist
- A charitable person while viewing entitlements as anti-social and pernicious
- One who believes negative rights provide better protection from the State than positive rights
- A person who believes in ethical husbandry and slaughter without the nutty concept of animal "rights"
- One who is kind person to homosexuals, yet can vote against a State sanction of gay "marriage"

The problem with the modern humanities -- of which Rawls, Singer, et al are but a symptom -- is that all issues are viewed through the prism of our relationship to the State. It's all zero-sum politics, a solution in search of a problem. We end up with a radical sort of individualism masquerading as a complex or nuanced view of justice that makes a mockery of justice. That's the problem with today's academy, and education in general. STEM is great, and supports economically beneficial outcomes, but it has nothing to do with educating the human person. One can be a virtuoso in mathematics and be a narcissistic monster. A virtuous person who happens to be a math genius has something greater in mind as he practices his craft -- he's able to do more than just work.

Continued below...

Anonymous said...

.... Continued for above:

Politics is all about power, and that brings us to Nietzsche's dystopian vision. Conduct is divorced from virtue. National politics is the major-league career track for the "will to power." The State becomes a tool, rather than a social construct. This transforms our view of the State's role in relationship to the citizen, as Supermen rarely lay claims to high virtue. Citizens follow their leaders, asking "What do I get?" Academics frame their views in terms of the State's power over the citizen, with other power structures, and for those deemed disadvantaged. In their proletarian chic, academics claim to detest State power; but they all know they're dependent on the State's funding to exist. So humanities departments obsess over the State, creating it as some living, breathing, rational actor (particularly Rawls). They cry "The State will bring justice and fairness!" Policies, laws and programs come to be viewed as replacements for individual virtue. It's B.S., yet ideology leads to blindness. Theories become promises. Results are not viewed as results, but as data points, and the ruinous experiments continue. This view of State is fast-evolving into a Minotaur, or it's modern pop culture version: the Death Star. The State becomes this vast, intrusive contraption that can't possibly deliver on all the promises. We've moved from the divine right of kings ("l'etat c'est moi") to the secular hegemony of the Superman ("Because I can"). There's nothing liberal or virtuous in it at all. It all serves the promise of having more better "stuff."

The truth is we are human persons before we are citizens, yet the theoretical constructs coming out of today's humanities departments have this all backwards. Instead of "What does it mean to live a good life?" we get "What can the State do for you, your values, and what you want?" Hence, we have libertarianism as a justification for moral cowardice, unyielding conservatism with no social compass, Leftism claiming using the poor to achieve disastrous ideological ends, and atheist activism to satisfy metaphysical narcissism. And all this is driven by a hodgepodge of worldviews defined by one thing: the individual's relationship to the State. It's all backwards, as the dignity of the human person gets pushed to the periphery (if it gets mentioned at all). The result: our news media becomes like SportsCenter, and people become fans of political ideologies and parties that degrade humanity.

Man is not perfectible. We will not create Heaven on earth. We need to get back to the foundational principal of classical humanities: What does it mean to lead a good life? Today's education establishment -- run by educrats employed by the State -- isn't capable of delivering that kind of a conversation. They will say it's hard. Of course it is. But what is our alternative? We're living it, and we all know it's like watching a train wreck in slow-motion. It's time to get off. Kristoff's intellectual giants are midget-dwarves, and will make us Lilliputians serving the puppet masters of a totalitarian State supported by humanities academics who are devoid of humanity.


Anonymous said...

More Big Ideas about human rights separated from a Creator. It all follows Nietzsche's subjective "will to power." Pardon me if I'm a tad skeptical.

"Since Kristof excels at moral outrage, two of the three great modern thinkers he chooses are John Rawls and Peter Singer. Both of them, he says, teach us to feel more empathy."

Empathy has nothing to do with morality, nor ethics. Empathy has nothing to do with what Isaiah Berlin said, as Kristoff's linked piece shows. Berlin said we should be cautious about certainty, and allow for a plurality of values. Kristoff has never written/spoken of anything without certainty. Berlin did not say we should have a moral relativism, nor did he avoid the scrutiny of value clarification amidst plural values. If empathy is the highest value (rather than what it is: sharing or recognizing emotions), then we will fail to distinguish or evaluate any values. We will just have emotions. Everything will be subjectively justified and we'll have social chaos. But this is the Oprah world. Case in point: Kristoff often rants like the pedantic child with great certainty -- the very mindset Berlin cautions us to fear, and with the "passionate intensity" Yeats credits to the worst intellectuals (both as quoted in Kristoff's piece). Kristoff continues with his piece making the case for Rawls and Singer. So Kristoff is saying there's a "plurality of values" -- claiming we should all be understanding of others and show empathy -- and then, in the end, advocates that we should all follow a dogmatic, fundamentalist secular view using materialist morality and ethics. Where, pray tell, is the "nuance" in that? Where is the "acknowledgement of doubts and uncertainty" he praises Berlin for? He is actually betraying Berlin.

Love all the other comments above (asking your forgiveness for my own, which I know is quite long).

Rich Lara: Thanks for always bringing us back to Rousseau, one of the founding fathers of this intellectual disaster.


Anonymous said...

"Or, in the context of today’s news, we may be less likely to deport Honduran children back to the desolate conditions from which they have fled."

But America used to be a desolate place without cities and factories.
But Americans built cities and created prosperity.

Why can't Hondurans do the same?
Why not do for their country what Americans did for America?

If Kristof feels Hondurans can't do anything on their own, isn't he suggesting that they are naturally stupid?
Isn't that 'racist'?

Dennis said...