A blog about belief

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Looking to the future

In Culture, Politics on October 29, 2011 at 5:16 pm

In the Sixteenth century, the word “innovation” connoted a rebellion or an insurrection, a violent affront to the prevailing order. This usage suggests a small-c conservatism that’s largely lost out to the big-L Liberal value system in the West: in just about every sector of Western society we can locate something like a desire for progress, even if only on the personal level – personal progress being for the left, roughly, fulfilling one’s potential, and for the right, charitably, earning rewards. We can perhaps locate a descendant of the old contempt for the new in the religious-right emphasis on “family,” although that is debatable since a family is meant to be generative. Maybe it subsists in the anti-immigrant fringe, but it is difficult to find in its pure form. Unlike monarchs, those with the greatest interest in maintaining today’s institutions, financiers, are too embroiled in the quest for new markets to be small-c conservatives. But I wonder if those two different fundamental values, preservation and progress, are not really of a piece. In The Typological Imaginary Kathleen Biddick argues that the Christian idea of the present superseding the past, as the New Testament supersedes the Old and (in some theologies) the state of the soul at death supersedes what comes before, has dug itself into the foundations of Western thought more deeply than the religion itself. Perhaps this supersessionary notion of time makes it difficult to imagine a value system that doesn’t have something to do with the future, whether in the desire to make it better than the present or the desire that it be like the past. The thought of values that don’t involve the future in some way is alien indeed. Imagine valuing neither the continuation nor the change of a particular state of things, but something purely within a state of things, and purely in the present: imagine that what one fundamentally values in life is to eat apples, and nothing more, with nothing about the assurance of future apples underneath.

This would be, I suppose, to be satisfied being a ghost for Halloween, rather than struggling to be original.

Making judgments

In Philosophy, Politics on July 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm

(This post was has its roots the discussion of a paper presented by Ronni Sadovsky at the 2011 Strategies of Critique conference.)

An attitude can be prejudiced even if the beliefs it is based on are true.  Although it may be the case that blue-collar workers in the U.S. don’t tend to be well-informed about French literature, it would seem a prejudiced thing to do to assume that the people on the maintenance staff of your building probably don’t know much about Marcel Proust and, for instance, condescendingly explain to one of them who Proust is without bothering to find out whether they already know.  What makes this action prejudiced is not an epistemic deficiency – you may well be justified in believing that the person you’re talking to is probably unfamiliar with Proust – but an unfairness that crops up at some point on the path from knowledge to action.  Is information about correlations between groups of people and traits simply inadmissible in how we choose our actions?

It isn’t so simple.  To continue with the example, imagine that you approach a group of maintenance workers and ask, without prompting, whether any of them has read À la recherche du temps perdu.  Instead of coming off as charitable, this could, in certain circumstances, give them the impression that you are lording your superior education over them.  Assuming that it is plausible, this serves as an example of a case where it’s actually necessary to make a judgment based on correlations between traits and groups to maintain a respectful attitude – namely, the judgment that the topic of Proust should be broached in a different way among the maintenance staff than it should be among, say, the attendees of a French Literature colloquium.

Why is it acceptable to make a judgment based on group-trait correlations in the second case and not in the first?  One way of answering this would be to claim that in second case the judgment that one has to make is not about blue-collar workers but about French Literature colloquium attendees.  The approach that you should take with the maintenance staff is the same that you should take with anyone unless you have a particular reason to think they know about Proust.  The question, then, is why it is not an example of prejudice to assume that French Literature colloquium members are probably familiar with Proust.  Two answers immediately come to mind, but I don’t think that either of them is right.  One would be that it is not an example of prejudice because the assumption being made is of a positive valence.  This would also imply, though, that assuming that all young black males are knowledgable about hip-hop is acceptable (because knowing a lot about hip-hop is generally speaking a good thing), while it is clearly still an instance of prejudice.  Another answer would be that the difference is in relevance.  One could claim the property of familiarity with Proust is relevant to the identity of the French department group in a way that it is not to the maintenance staff group, and that this is the difference.  But relevance is a slippery concept, and it could lead to question-begging – one could claim that knowledge of hip-hop is relevant to the identity of young black males.  This way of thinking leads us nowhere good.

I think that any satisfactory solution to this problem is going to have to account for the fact that categories of class and race are, in an ethically significant way, different from categories of profession.  I wouldn’t say that the difference is that one can choose one’s profession – choice is another slippery concept – but there is a sense in which one’s race and class are necessarily prior to one’s membership in other categories that is significant, and this is, perhaps, why acting on knowledge about them in certain ways is ethically wrong.

As another data point, take this article from the Onion.

Arguing about religion

In Politics on June 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

You may have already heard about the Christian-right campaign against Ayn Rand (Brian Leiter on it), which aims to point out the incompatibility of Rand’s ideas with Christianity. Peter Laarman has an article in Religion Dispatches that makes a good point about something that Fred Clark at slacktivist has also written about recently, the relative importance of community and personal anecdote over such logical argumentation in the way that our beliefs change. I have to take exception, though, to Laarman’s invocation of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s much-discussed-but-apparently-little-read article “Why do humans reason?” (about which I’m hoping to have a detailed post soon):

What is the point here? The point is that there IS no point to endless argumentation. Hearts and minds don’t change that way. They change when we share our stories and when we become present in a different way to those whom we wish to influence. The further point is that hearts change before minds do. It rarely works the other way around.

And now some scientists believe that we don’t actually argue to arrive at clarity or truth; argumentation is a “social adaptation,” they argue: we are in debates to win, and we will readily use flawed arguments if we think they will sway the other side. Irrationality is not merely a “kink” in the process of truth seeking. […]

Of course we are in debates to win. What Mercier & Sperber are arguing is that the primary function of reasoning is to produce arguments that are convincing to others rather than to produce better beliefs for oneself. This conclusion would obviously be false if it were uncommon that people be persuaded by arguments. It’s true that it’s not always logical validity that makes arguments persuasive (we’ve known that for millennia), but that’s not the issue here. The anti-Ayn Rand video is not going to fail for being too logical, because it’s not – it’s loaded with ad hominems of just the same sort that have been employed in scare-tactic campaigns for ages. I don’t think it’s likely that this campaign will cause hordes of people to change their beliefs individually, minds-before-hearts, but it could spark change if it becomes an object of discussion among churchgoers and in other community settings. Direct human relationships often do have more of an influence on our beliefs than arguments do, but arguments don’t exist in isolation from them.

Addendum: I was going to argue that the video is calling for people not to change their religious beliefs but to act on them, but being a holist I can’t say that adding a belief that Jesus is at odds with objectivism doesn’t change one’s belief in Jesus.