Moral Bias at The New York Times
Tibor R. Machan
The headline said it all: “Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at I.R.S. Office in Ohio.” No mention of mendacity, of evil, of meanness, of vice, Nada.
For liberals their own pals are never morally amiss. They may make mistakes, be confused and have troubles. But guilty of malpractice never! Only Republicans and others who do not share their own attitudes can possibly be morally, ethically defective. When a Republican votes for reducing increases in welfare budgets or subsidies or other support for what liberals consider right and proper, the problem lies with their moral fiber, their lack of decency and good will. Not so with anything that liberals mismanage–that can only be due to some kind of technical malfeasance–”confusion and staff troubles.”
How do these folks manage, intellectually, to dodge the moral and ethical ire they are so eager to dish out at their opponents?
In liberal circles what is prominent when matters go awry is to give some kind of explanation–poverty, illness, ignorance, the bad influence of culture or the movies or whatever. Liberals must–yes, must–always be basically good, Their intentions are unfailingly impeccable. They always mean well. Accordingly, since it is the thought that counts, they are always innocent. Hope, audacious hope, is what makes one a good person, never mind how botched up one’s actions and even beliefs turn out to be, never mind what actually is accomplished with one’s preferred policies!
There is a prominent moral philosophical doctrine that this line of thinking follows. Immanuel Kant, the very famous and influential 18th century German philosopher, believed that human beings can only be morally good, praiseworthy, based on their intentions. It is their thought that makes them decent or indecent, not their actions or conduct. What they actually do is irrelevant to whether they are good or bad folks because, and here is the essence of the doctrine, there is ultimately no choice there; we must do what we do. Free will for Kant has nothing to do with choosing our actions, only with choosing our thoughts. The mind is free, in this minimal way, but it has no practical impact on human action. The world moves in accordance with deterministic laws, of physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc., etc. We cannot change anything apart from what we think. So we can only be credited for good thoughts, good intentions, of which liberals, of course, have plenty.
The story is rather complex but this is the gist of it. This, mainly, is why The New York Times cannot even fathom liberals being morally guilty of anything. They always intend the best, never mind that they pay very little attention to the likely outcome. In the end, outcomes just happen and we have nothing to do with them.
The IRS folks, for example, just did their jobs and the fact that those jobs contained the seeds of malpractice–given that selectivity is always involved in giving citizens exemptions and breaks and such–is irrelevant.
In contrast, Republicans and their ilk never think right. They are worried about costs and whether a policy works and such, all mundane matters that people of genuine good will never bother about. It is petty thinking, not the noble kind that liberals produce!
My “I told you so world.”
Tibor R. Machan
So all of us who have long concluded that big government–which is to say, government with wide, nearly unlimited scope of power over the population it is supposed to serve–is a menace, no better than a gang of embezzlers and extortionists, can shout out “I told you so.” From the time of the American Revolution it should have been crystal clear that trying to solve the problems of a society with what government has to offer, namely, brute force (more or less subtly applied) is a horribly bad idea. Yes, it was that even before but by then plenty of major interlocutors in political discourse knew it well. Sadly, the governmental habit was by then so ingrained in most populations around the globe that getting rid of the habit became nearly impossible.
My own special area of concern has been government regulation, that insidious practice of meddling with people’s lives on innumerable fronts, and I have been watching just how addicted some leaders and public philosophers are to the idea. So I read such publications as The Economist, Barron’s, Bloomberg Businessweek and the like almost religiously, perhaps because I am hoping against hope that the message that government regulations are nasty as all get out will in time sink in.
The most recent issue of The Economist has a special report on world banking and what jumped out at me when I finished reading it was the naivete of the final paragraph of the report: “Paradoxically, stricter regulation intended to tame banks that were thought too big to fail is leading to the creation of even bigger and more systemically important institutions.” (May 11, 2013, p. 18). The futility of trying to fix economic problems with government regulation has been pointed out long ago–I learned it back in the mid 1960s from University of Chicago economics genius, Sam Peltzman–just as has been the futility of big government intervention itself, but even the editors of the normally sensible magazine, The Economist can pen sentences like the one above, as if they were making some sort of novel observation! They should remember a famous quip attributed to Albert Einstein, namely, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results..”
Guided by the idiocy of the likes of Paul Krugman, thousands who chime in on the topic still believe that using the government to fix things is a worthy notion. The institution may have some merit for purposes of guarding our basic rights, as Jefferson and the other signers thought, but beyond this there just is no excuse for trusting it with any tasks. (When I make mention of this to some liberal friends I often receive a list of state achievements such as the Hoover Dam, the TVA, etc. that allegedly would not get done if government were de-authorized; but all that commits the fallacy of the false alternative: we either have government intervention or nothing. How about developing non-government solutions and institutions to address the problems?)
We could extend this discussion, of course, to all the current fiascoes, with the IRS and the Department of State, etc., where the classical liberal teachings have gone unheeded. But I am sure readers can reach those conclusions on their own, at least here.
Why Free Will Matters
Tibor R. Machan
Let me once again quote George Orwell, who reportedly noted that “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”
The idea that without free will there can be no morality is one of those obvious facts that bears repeating. It was Kant who famously insisted on this but others have signed on as well. For instance, it is arguable a point made by Aristotle, too.) In an age that is highly respectful of the opinions of scientists, even opinions that do not arise from their work as scientists, seem to contradict this but even scientists have affirmed the point!
For a simple view of what nearly all scientists believe is that everything that happens in the world has to happen exactly as it does happen. In short, scientist are supposedly committed to determinism which is, at least in its usual meaning, incompatible with free will.
Free will involves being the originator of one’s actions or conduct. Unlike physical objects, plants and most animals, human beings are supposed to have free will in that they normally initiate what they do. Their conduct is not fully explainable by reference to impersonal factors such as their genetic make-up, their history or race or gender, etc., etc. They are, instead, agents of much of what they do, of their behavior.
Now this idea seems incompatible with how scientists view the world, although in fact scientists aren’t supposed to be prejudiced in favor of determinism or free will, for that matter. Whether human beings have free will is something to be discovered, not assumed.
If nature is so constituted that it makes room for free actions, we human beings would be good candidates for being able to act freely, on our own initiative. Why not? Well, some think that because everything is moved by something else, that holds for what people do as well.
But is this right? Do our thoughts, for example, about free will or political liberty or child raising all spring forth impersonally, without our own agency having a role in the process? Is what we think about free will and determinism or anything else no different from the movement of the planets or atoms? Or could there be some entities in the world that possess the capacity to initiate some of their conduct?
Perhaps one such area of self-movement is where human thinking and intending occur, in our minds, just as the criminal law and morality sees it. If this is denied, what we believe about everything is itself just an impersonal event, not something we produce with our thinking!
OK, much more can be said about this but the gist of it is captured in the few paragraphs above. For now what matters is that if we lack free will, then we also lack personal responsibility. We are, in short, not the source of what we think and do. It is all que sera, sera!
But nature could well be rich enough in its possibilities that agent causality makes perfectly good sense. Some, perhaps few, entities start to act on their own. (This is a capacity usually ascribed only to God but there is no reason why people couldn’t have it!)
Needless to say, free will is necessary for moral and legal praise and blame as well as all the great varieties of creativity evident in human affairs, for good or ill! This includes the activity of trying to figure out whether free will exists!
But one unwelcome results of the existence of free will is that millions of people could act differently from how they actually act, could have acted differently as well, etc., much better than they have acted. Not everyone welcomes this for it leads to the idea that some folks are guilty of misconduct while others are praiseworthy for acting properly, even heroically.
In short, the idea of free will implies, among other things, that egalitarianism is false, something that those who would embark upon regimenting us in life do not like to admit.
Back to Basics Please
Tibor R. Machan
In today’s climate of political theatrics it isn’t very easy to figure out where right stands versus wrong. As Ron Paul points out at The Daily Bell, the Benghazi fiasco pretty much amounts to an illustration of the folly of the American government’s unending involvement in foreign affairs it should stay out of. The way the Obama Administration works hard to obfuscate its role, how it seems (at least to me, who has been trying to follow the mess) to conduct foreign policy that reminds one of the three stooges, seems to be designed to operate like a magician who wants the audience to focus on distractions, never on essentials.
The idea that occurs to me when confronted with the mess is that those who have even the mildest concern for rhyme and reason should press the Obama people on one central topic: Do the rights of individuals concern this government in the slightest? Obama & Co., appear to view the Benghazi disaster as some kind of game, never mind deaths, casualties, professional responsibilities, etc.
The fact that four individuals were killed appears to be beside the point, merely a move on a chessboard. And that itself appears to me to be the implication of this government’s disinterest in the most basic duty of a free government, namely, to secure the protection of the rights of the citizenry. Certainly no one in Washington appears to care about this. Every press conference evades the issue; it seems that the president just wants to wash his hands of any taint of failure, wants to make sure that the opposition party cannot find anything to criticize about his teams conduct in the affair.
What should matter in all this is whether the mandate to the government, contained so clearly in the Declaration of Independence, that government is instituted so as to secure our rights is being properly fulfilled. It seems clear to me that it isn’t. That’s basic and very regrettable.
A Precis on Humanism
Tibor R. Machan
In modern times humanism has been associated with Karl Marx and one of his teachers, Ludwig Feuerbach. The latter was an atheist who believed that it wasn’t God who created man but the other way around. Since, however, this left no one to command us to do the right thing, an alternative source of morality was proposed by Feuerbach, namely, humanism.
A humanist argues, not unlike Socrates did, that ethics or morality rests on an understanding of human nature. What is right and wrong depend on what kind of beings we are. Because of our free will, we, unlike other animals, are capable of doing violence to our own nature. But we ought to choose to follow it, instead.
As it happens, Marx, who took quite a few of his ideas from Feuerbach, held a collectivist conception of human nature. “The human essence,” he said in his famous essay “On the Jewish Question,” “is the true collectivity of man.”
So the desire to find ethical guidance from an understanding of human nature came to the advocacy of an out and out collectivist morality. If, as Marx held, we are specie-beings, so that our flourishing or development in life must be achieved together, in concert; if individuality is a myth and collectivity the norm, then humanistic ethics and politics will, accordingly, be collectivist.
The two most emphatic humanists of this kind were Karl Marx and Auguste Comte. They both thought that only a secular understanding of human affairs made sense but they also embraced a conception of human nature that left little room for the fact of human individuality. As a result most humanists have been socialists, communists, or something close to these and have found capitalism anathema to human nature.
This is very unfortunate because although flourishing among others is a crucial attribute of human life, the essential individuality of human beings cannot be denied. Even engaging in arguments testifies to this, let alone the incredible diversity evident throughout history and the globe, especially involving human creativity. Indeed, it is arguable that the most genuine humanism is individualism.
The issue of humanism is vita for several reasons. Although fundamentalist religions will likely always be part of human life, there is also a growing awareness that ethics and morality, including our sense of justice, must gain a footing apart from theology or religion. The reason is that faith is ineffable, ultimately. It is too personal, too subjective, and thus it tends toward schism rather than harmony. Whereas the humanist idea that an understanding of human nature, based on science and ordinary human reason, holds out promise.
Ethical ideals, if they are part of the human world, need to be ascertained in such a way that everyone who but consults his or her reason can grasp them. Such a replacement of a more religious approach to ethics, now that the world has become so small, is a welcome idea.
However, if humanism remains wedded to collectivism, it will turn out to be a false and dangerous alternative to faith based ethics.