Notes

By Peter Wall

Casting Off and Arguing

Winslow Homer, "The Herring Net" (1885)

Ryan Bell asks “From where will our salvation come?” He started out this year asking, “[I]f I remove God and traditional religion as the source of salvation for humanity, what is left?” A few days ago, he recited four “primary narratives”: religion; science and technology; markets and capitalism; and democracy. All of them are problematic. “What are we to do?” he asks. “How can we sustain movements of peace and justice such that they are an actual force for good in the world? How can people be motivated when they are being anesthetized by technology and bought off by capitalism?”

He winds up this way: “I am concerned that atheists and other non-theists are so concerned about weakening their position that they have a hard time acknowledging that the myth of progress is also running out of gas. Where to from here?”

That’s no easy question; I’ve been wrestling with it for a long time, too. (Ryan abandoned “God and traditional religion” at the beginning of this year; I did the same thing fourteen years ago this month.) And for now at least I think that where we go from here is to cultivate and practice moral argument.

Something that science and technology, markets and capitalism, and democracy all have in common is a sense that each can be relied upon to avoid the difficult process of moral argument, that if we simply rely on “the people,” or “markets,” or “evidence,” then solutions to all of the difficult decisions besetting our lives, and how we ought to live them, will simply present themselves. That is, we convince ourselves that a determination to rely on these procedural tools is a way to escape the problem of considering, or determining, or persuading how best to live: the good life will emerge automatically and organically if we just aggregate votes (democracy), material preferences (capitalism), and evidence (science). Those are the bones of the myth of progress.

But that myth not only presupposes our ability to attain the good life by these purportedly neutral procedures, it asserts a value judgment about what the good life ought to be (namely, the life shaped by neutral procedures), and—most egregiously—conceals its own value judgment and encourages us to think in ways that would preclude us from considering and making our own judgments of value. Or, to borrow the terms of political philosophy, the myth of progress prioritizes “the right” over “the good”—by insisting that “the right” is “the good.” That’s the concealed value judgment. And I think it’s concealed because argument about value judgments is moral argument, and we don’t much like making moral arguments.

You are always welcome in polite society to suggest that science, democracy, and capitalism are problematic; there will be much agreement, because it always has been (and probably always will be) fashionable, and fashionably easy, to observe that the world is not perfect. But people will only agree that the defects in our systems are procedural (that is, the way to fix them is by further purging value judgments, or building other purportedly value-neutral systems whose outputs will feed into the existing systems), and that these systems are the least worst (which is really just the avoidance of moral reasoning through the affectation of resignation).

I do think science, democracy, and capitalism are each morally defensible, but moral defenses are never complete defenses. A successful moral argument never enjoys the necessity of a logical or mathematical argument. Even the best and most persuasive moral arguments are risky arguments; that is because they expose the messiness and inconsistency of the values underlying our positions, and they require us to admit these things. Most of us (including, and maybe especially, the atheists) would prefer much safer argumentative techniques—ones that, if they don’t persuade opponents, at least make proponents feel secure in their rightness. Once upon a time, people might have believed that their moral arguments rested on a solid foundation called “God,” and felt a secure sense of rightness that way. But in practice that just meant those arguments rested on the ability to wield power. Maybe that kind of thinking is withering away in some places now, but it’s not been replaced in those places by significant advances. For the last few hundred years, people in my part of the world have been so enamored with the apparent certitude yielded by procedures like science, democracy, and capitalism that, while many of us feel safe in rejecting gods and challenging that oldest procedural tool, violence, we have not really improved our moral reasoning.

That’s not to say that cultivating and practicing moral argument ought to result in a monolithic culture. As Isaiah Berlin observed, “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.” [1] But until we are able to operate the procedures of human society, be they democracy, capitalism, science, and sometimes even violence, without letting those procedures stand in for the moral argumentation entailed by those procedures, and by our diverse circumstances, then we should probably just expect more of the same—or worse, as our environmental circumstances continue to degrade.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1998), page 241.

The Spirit of Nosey is Back

This one is mostly for locals.

If you’ve been in Fresno long enough, you probably remember the 2004 ballot measure for the Chaffee Zoo, Measure Z. The proposal was to increase our local sales tax by a tenth of a percent for ten years, to fund the zoo. Voters approved it.

You might remember the campaign signs featuring Nosey the Elephant, the beloved pachyderm that lived at the Zoo from 1949 to 1993. My in-laws kept one for many years (as did others, apparently—more on that below). Here is a picture of one they picked up at a garage sale:

2004 Nosey Sign

Now in 2014, the ten years are just about run. So Measure Z is back. And so are the campaign signs. Sort of. Here’s a picture of one that we picked up at Me-n-Ed’s Pizza:

2014 Nosey

It looks like the same sign at first, but there are several interesting differences:

  1. The purpose of Measure Z apparently is no longer to “Save Our Zoo,” but to “Keep Our Zoo.”
  2. Ten years ago, Nosey was very sad—her eyes were welling up with tears!
  3. The campaign website is now a dot-org, instead of a dot-com.

(Another feature that’s not apparent from the pictures is that the old signs only had the image on one side, while the new signs are double-sided. Fancy!)

I suppose the changes are  meant to reflect the different circumstances. The campaign for Measure Z in 2004 was an argument that the Zoo was in dire straits without public support. As the ballot argument in favor said, “without Measure ‘Z,’ we will likely lose forever this regional treasure.” But these days the Zoo seems to be doing better. That the signs are still so similar, but with these minor differences, is an interesting reflection of the arguments.

As to the politics, I’m ambivalent. I have no objection to the idea that scientific and educational resources like zoos are worthy of public support through taxation. But I understand part of the reason for the proposal is to ensure that ticket prices can remain low enough that the less wealthy among us, and those with lots of children, are able to enjoy the zoo—and I have no problem with that noble purpose. The more disadvantaged kids that can experience these kinds of things, the better off we’ll all be. Except sales taxes are regressive, their burden falling more heavily on people who have to spend more of their income consuming things that are subject to sales tax—precisely the people from whom Measure Z is supposed to be lifting a financial burden. I’d prefer to see the zoo supported with a property tax, to be a little less regressive.

Anyway, the signs are interesting. So keep your eyes peeled. My in-laws have their vintage 2004 sign out, and my wife says she’s seen others. People really like those signs. And they like having the Zoo, too.

I’m guessing Measure Z will pass again. So what will the signs look like in 2024?

The Romance of Intergenerational National Identity

I have said before, though I don’t think in writing, that our system of law is powerful not for the reasons that it seems to be powerful, like the enforcement of rules or the distribution of consequences, but because it’s a tradition giving basic, slightly concealed form to the discourse about how things ought to be. Participating in that tradition is not just a matter of learning a particular vocabulary, upholding a practice of binding people under rules, or formulating arguments according to certain patterns; joining the legal tradition is a subtle process of socialization into the idea, which is rarely articulated clearly, that even when things change, we keep talking about them as though they haven’t.

Or I might say that the law is only apparently firm, but also only superficially mysterious: it works best when people believe in it so securely that they stop thinking about it, and let it change—and the moment you start thinking about it, things start to seize up. There’s a narrow band of mental states where it really works, and it’s easy to slip one way or the other, into fundamentalism or nihilism. (I have an even pithier way of putting it, but I’m loath to write it down. If you know me, you’ll have to ask.)

Given that ground of my crazy views, it was a pleasant surprise this morning to find a paper called “Enumeration and Continuity,” in which Richard Primus says this:

“For better and for worse, American constitutional law is not only about the mechanics of government; it is also about the romance of intergenerational national identity. Individuals’ sense of identification with the regime is an important ingredient in legitimate democratic government, and in the United States identification with the regime is broadly bound up with a sense of connection to a grand national narrative, one in which fidelity to a vision of government handed down by legendary Founders plays a central role. Discursive practices that link us to that narrative and to those Founders help create that sense of connection. To be clear, such symbolic and even romantic performances of historical continuity are not simply cynical shows for the benefit of poorly educated folks who must be duped into loyalty by theatrical mysticism. Lawyerly elites prize the sense of connection just as much as laypeople do, if not sometimes more so.”

So maybe my views aren’t completely nuts.

Read the rest of the paper for a stimulating take on the legal constitution of our federal government.

Where’s Gene Roddenberry when you need him?

Finally watched The Avengers.

So the moral of the story is that ordinary people are basically cattle: capable of little but watching TV with bated breath, cheering in relief, expressing gratitude, and having perimeters formed around them. Meanwhile, everything that elite purveyors of superhuman violence do, except use nukes on the bovine masses or actually admit their demigod status, is worthy of veneration.

In other words, Joss Whedon isn’t just a hack—he’s a tool of the military-industrial complex.

A Disparity of Ideational Fantasies

Much as I like the idea of science fiction, I can’t help sharing with the late snob of letters Kingsley Amis a qualified sneer at the mechanics of its execution:

With [Jules] Verne we reach the first great progenitor of modern science fiction. In its literary aspect his work is, of course, of poor quality, a feature certainly reproduced with great fidelity by most of his successors.

. . .

The literary critic with traditional aesthetic concerns, Amis declares, will find less to engage him than will “the cultural diagnostician, or trend-hound.” Amis was born sneering and couldn’t resist the chance to mint such a taunt; but he quickly takes pains to point out that an approach to science fiction by way of the history of ideas is “worthy enough, or even praiseworthy.”

From Algis Valiunas, “Fantastic Voyage: The literary (?) career of Jules Verne” in The Weekly Standard, July 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42.

How else to explain why it took me three years to choke down the relatively straightforward Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, but only a month or two to race through the complex Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?

Let’s compare first paragraphs. You can guess which is which.

“Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses—except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.”

Thursday, 7th November—Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon  a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.”

Kim Stanley Robinson is the one that writes like a government committee. Which is not to say government committees can’t do good work, or express important and complex ideas. They just don’t produce the kind of thing that goes well with a glass of Laphroaig.

And in case you’re wondering, the two books are not especially distant, thematically. They’re both meditations on freedom, persistence, and politics across generations and foreign landscapes.

Mars

Symphonic Thrill

Begin with this 1991 recording of Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Zinman. Nobody gallops better.

And then experience the 1982 recording of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto by Marta Argerich with the Radio Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly.

There’s nothing anywhere that deserves cranking up the volume as much as those last two minutes do. It’s like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

Sierra Meadow, May 24, 2014

Alpine Meadow

Glimpses of the Undercurrent

“Never mind whether ‘truth will out’; just concern yourself with whether you’re locked in oppositional embrace. [That's] the ultimate in discursive nihilism and political cynicism: the contents of your ideas mean nothing; what matters is whether you are deploying them to execute political power, or to balance perceived inequalities in political power. But that’s not free speech; it’s just free utterance—words reduced to vocal and orthographical bullets.” [1]

“Why should a citizen bother to consider whether we are making just laws for ourselves, or raise a voice one way or the other, if that citizen can just obtain an exemption from participation? Quieting people with exemptions from laws only kills the conversation and divides the populace into subcultures. In the long view, that segmentation can’t be good. When laws don’t apply equally to everyone, then there is no ‘everyone.’” [2]

People are free to disagree on values, and to formulate moral arguments between their differences. And we ought to examine and critique each other’s arguments. But calling an argument ‘religious,’ at least in our society, is usually just a rhetorical device to mask what is really going on. It conceals the underlying values with presumed certainty, usually in the form of received dogma. If we disagree about whether to value reproduction over the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs, then what’s called for is a frank examination of those values.” [3]

“If we are to give any content to the notion of good faith, we need to refocus on the ‘I’—the ‘I’ that is willing to stand in judgement on itself, on you and on the world in which we both live. For in this judging, we create and strengthen the relationship between us. If I act in bad faith and refuse to judge then I remain indifferent to you. You do not matter. Nor I to you. But in judging, I assert my difference from you but recognise you in the process. There is a shared nature of moral judgement that relies on a common-sense—a common sense rooted in our shared awareness of our freedom and our duty.” [4]

[1] “Repression, Conformity, and Free Speech.”

[2] “A Few Thoughts on Law, Freedom, and Commitment.”

[3] “Life and Personhood.”

[4] Angus Kennedy, “The Vital Importance of Being Moral.

What counts as knowledge?

Pablo Picasso painted Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1910:

Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)

Karl Heinz Hargesheimer (Chargesheimer) photographed him in 1956:

Chargesheimer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (1956)

Is either image more real?

Life and Personhood

Jeffrey Weiss is right that personhood is not a scientific idea. But he doesn’t make much sense when he says that “almost everyone who takes a position [on personhood] does so on the basis of religious belief.” That’s partly because “religious belief” just isn’t a useful category for human behavior—as Brent Nongbri has observed, determining whether something is a “religious belief” is usually just an exercise in determining whether something is “sufficiently similar to modern Protestant Christianity.” [1] It’s also because people use “religious belief,” coherent or not, to conceal the contingencies of their positions.

For personhood, consider instead that people’s positions are moral arguments, which we generate based on our values. And comparing different moral arguments might reveal something about the differences between the underlying values. Why, for example, do some people argue that personhood begins at “conception” (when a sperm joins an egg to form a zygote), while others argue that personhood begins sometime later, based on the decision of the people in a position to support the organism (first the mother exclusively, and then others)? No matter how people dress up their positions in rhetorical finery, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable interpretation of the dispute to see it as a conflict between valuing the process of reproduction and valuing the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs. That is, it has nothing to do with “life,” which is always there anyway, or the dispute wouldn’t exist.

To be continued...

In other words, life continues at conception; personhood begins when people decide it begins, for whatever reason. And personhood doesn’t have to begin instantaneously; it might begin gradually. (It can end at once or incrementally, too. Consider, for example, the difference between immediate death and the loss of “capacity” to make decisions in the advance of dementia.) We have these values, and we make decisions about the ways to promote them, and then we try to persuade others to agree. The purpose of the exercise is to decide how our society ought to work (or, as the wonks would say, to “formulate policy”).

People are free to disagree on values, and to formulate moral arguments between their differences. And we ought to examine and critique each other’s arguments. But calling an argument “religious,” at least in our society, is usually just a rhetorical device to mask what is really going on. It conceals the underlying values with presumed certainty, usually in the form of received dogma. If we disagree about whether to value reproduction over the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs, then what’s called for is a frank examination of those values.

[1] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press 2013) p. 18.

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