Sunday, March 30, 2008

Am I an Idealist? Yes! ... and No.

When I raised the question of whether people become more conservative as they age, an anonymous commenter wrote this provocative comment:
I think it'd be more accurate to say that people become less idealistic as they age. Whether Iron Guard, Green Peace, tie-dye, or Brown Shirt, a movement, which takes with it the greater part of or a sizable chunk of culture, attracts weak minds who barnacle themselves onto it as a means of producing movement in their lives, eliminating existential inertia.

In a way, I thought, this answer was very close to mine. I had said that people's lives and thinking becomes more constrained. The opposite of a constraint is a goal. When a goal has enough of a moral tinge to it (equality, heroism, racial diversity, racial purity, etc., etc.) it's called an ideal. One reason to ignore constraints is commitment to one of these "ideals." Conversely, one reason to accept more constraints is that one has given up some of one's commitments to these ideals. What we are seeing, perhaps, is a shift from one sort of moral principle to another. From moral goals (like brotherhood) to moral constraints (like the rights of others, which you would be violating if you tried to ram brotherhood down their throats). So becoming more constrained can very easily go with becoming in a sense less idealistic.

You find the same distinction, between moral goals and moral constraints, in this article. It's an interesting report on a paper by Scott J. Reynolds and Tara Ceranic in the November 2007 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. They found that people who characterize themselves as moral ("I'm a caring person") tend to indulge in cheating behavior in school or in the workplace more often than people who do not. How can this be? Are these people simply deluded? If you look at Reynolds and Ceranic's explanation of their results, you see that they are thinking of morality in terms of goals, not constraints. The psychology they see here is something like this: I'm a caring person. I want to help people. If I cheat on my exam, I will be more assured of becoming a doctor, and that will enable me to help people more. It's for the greater good. And besides, caring people like me are special...

There are these two radically different senses of what "a moral person" is, so different that one of these sorts of people can seem immoral to the other. One is the person person who pursues lofty moral goals, and might cut corners to get there. The other is the scrupulous one who never lies or cheats.

It occurs to me that there are also two different senses of being "an idealist." On the one hand is Greenpeace, the Red Guard, the Brownshirts. On the other hand... Well, admittedly, no one would ever call you an idealist just because you scrupulously refrain from ever lying to or cheating others. Idealism isn't just about The Right. It must also include some reference to The Good or The Best. But what if you try to refrain from ever defrauding or aggressively coercing others, and also believe that it truly is for The Best if people's rights are observed? It's true that these constraints prevent you from designing an ideal world and forcing it on them. But, you believe, people are fundamentally rational. And though they seldom care terribly much about the whole world, or pause to take in the big picture, their ties on the micro-level, their links to family and friends, are intense and profound. They will go to great lengths to make them happy. People can also be amazingly inventive and imaginative, if given a chance. In the long run, they will find what is best and do it. Most of the bad things in the world are caused by institutions that actually punish rationality, stifle innovation, and extinguish imagination, not because people are bad in themselves.

This too could be a sort of idealism. It is mine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Conference: The Nature of the State

This is mainly a re-post of an announcement I put up a couple of weeks ago, about a conference that is coming up on Saturday here at UW-Madison. You can now access some of the papers for the conference here.

As with all the events announced here, it is free and open to the public. If you register for it, you will get a spiffy name tag and other conference materials when you show up on Saturday. You can register simply by emailing

Below is the conference schedule and other pertinent information. I hope to see you there!

A Conference Sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy
"Dominations and Powers: The Nature of the State"
Saturday, March 29, 2008
UW-Madison Fluno Center

Conference Schedule

Welcome and Introduction 8:45 a.m.

Session I 9:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.

"The Definition of the State"
Dr. Chandran Kukathas

"How to Define the State?"
Dr. Christopher Morris

Dr. Daniel M . Hausman

Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Session II 12:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.

"The Citizen, the State, and Loyalty"
Dr. Russell Hardin

"How Not to Justify the State"
Dr. Lester Hunt

Dr. Howard Schweber

Session III 3:30-6:00 p. m.

"Order Without the State: Theory, Evidence, and the Possible Future of"
Dr. David Friedman

"Imagine There's No Country"
Mathias Risse

Dr. Harry Brighouse

There is no charge for the conference. For further information about the Conference and the speakers, go to

Monday, March 17, 2008

Do People Become More Conservative as They Age?

Well, duh. No, I'm not going to oppose the conventional wisdom on this. In some sense, the answer has got to be "yes." But I've been thinking about David Mamet's turn, and an interesting little article in the the UK's Independent about famous right-faces (here you see William Wordsworth, grandaddy of them all), and I'm wondering what this phenomenon really amounts to.

I keep coming back to a little book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. Of all the things I 've ever read, it comes closest to making conservatism sound like an intellectually coherent position.

Sowell speaks of two different visions of human life: the unconstrained (or Utopian) and the constrained (which he calls the Tragic).

I would add that there are two elements of the constrained view: your world can be naturally constrained (Sowell's main concern) or it can be morally constrained.

The naturally constrained vision would go something like this: It might be nice if everyone could live in mutual love and caring, like one huge nuclear family, but human nature does not allow it. People really care about themselves and a very small group of family, friends, and colleagues (ie., they are "narrow," "selfish," "sinful"). Also, there are insurmountable practical problems (insufficient knowledge, coordination problems, etc.) involved in achieving the Giant Happy Family concept.

The morally constrained vision would be something like this: It might be nice to force people to serve the Giant Happy Family, but you would be violating their rights to do so. Without your leadership, people will devote their lives to narrow, petty pursuits, but they have a perfect right to do so. Their lives are theirs, not yours, to dispose of. Maybe you would spend their money on the Greater Good, and they will just spend it on themselves and their families, but that's tough. It's their money and you can't have it.

If your view is naturally constrained, you are a conservative (like Sowell). If it is morally constrained, you may be a libertarian. (Other morally constrained visions include pacifism and vegetarianism.)

Maybe what happens as you get older is you come to appreciate constraints more. You stumble over those natural constraints. You see Utopian dreams turn into Stalinist nightmares. You see moral constraints enabling hopelessly diverse people to get along peacefully. And maybe, as Mamet suggests, you also find that the constrained system really doesn't work out so badly after all.
Added later: I just found an article that describes a study that supposedly shows that people become more liberal, not more conservative, as they get older. You will find it here. Before you figure they must be right, notice that among the synonyms for "conservative" these people use is "rigid," "stuck in their ways of thinking" "not open to new information." They also seem to use racial prejudice as an index of conservatism. Wow. How many different things are wrong with that? Would you trust these guys to do a careful, unbiased study of ... anything?

Added still later: Jonah Goldberg has found more examples of this if-you-are-not-a-left-liberal-like-me-you-must-be-narrow-minded phenomenon. Given that this attitude, in itself, is a transparently obvious example of narrow-mindedness, I find it actually pretty funny. To paraphrase Saint Oscar, you'd have to have heart of stone not to laugh at it.

David Mamet Turns

David Mamet has an essay in the Village Voice, "Why I am No Longer 'a Brain Dead Liberal'." The blogosphere is abuzz about Mamet's "turn to the right."

I've seen many "turns to the right" in my day, and some are turns for the better while others are for the worse. Some (eg., Irving Kristol and the neocons) are simply turns from one sort of coercive authoritarianism to another.

To me, Mamet's "turn" seems fundamentally goodhearted and wise. I would describe it as libertarian rather than conservative.

(Uh-oh. I noticed I just said he's so good-hearted and wise ... he's becoming more like me. Oh, well, let it stand. Let him who is without self-serving bias cast the first aspersion!)

My favorite passage from his essay:
But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

The director, generally, does not cause strife, but his or her presence impels the actors to direct (and manufacture) claims designed to appeal to Authority—that is, to set aside the original goal (staging a play for the audience) and indulge in politics, the purpose of which may be to gain status and influence outside the ostensible goal of the endeavor.

So he is putting his trust in the ability of individual humans to solve their problems, without the dubious guidance of morally superior masterminds. Good for him!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Making a Living, Honorably

A student recently wrote to me to raise the following interesting issue:
I'm writing to ask you about a question my friends and I have been discussing for some while. One of my friends is going into sports broadcasting, and I remarked to another friend that I would feel like I was wasting my life if that were all I accomplished, since I feel I could do a great deal more to benefit society (as, I would argue, could my friend). This eventually evolved into a discussion of whether there are some jobs that are more "valuable" than others, and it seems that there must be, when we compare, for example, a doctor and a fashion consultant. Having doctors benefits the populace considerably more than does having fashion consultants, and so we agreed that a standard for determining the value of a career may be the detriment to society created by its absence.
Such a standard is simply an application of "utilitarianism," the idea that what makes things right and obligatory is the good of society as a whole. I'm against it, especially as it applies to choices as intensely personal as that of one's life work. So applied, it means that you are working for the collective, for masses of strangers. Society has no right to be given such a massive gift. Your life is yours by right. Hang on to it.

My own standard would be something like this: that providing something of value to others in exchange for pay is always honorable. Further, this condition is always met when one sells one's labor in a free market (assuming there is a legal system that enforces individual rights). After all, if your clients freely paid you for what you did, then they would rather have your services than the money they are paying for it. This clearly shows, at any rate, that the service you provided had value for them. Of course, this standard is met by a working as a sportscaster.

Still, I admit that there are deeper issues about how valuable your services really are, and whether the mere fact that other people value them enough to pay for them shows that they are valuable enough. What if the product the consumer is happy to pay for is pornography, or psychoactive drugs?

I'm willing to carry my standard pretty far, but there is a dimension to the issue here that is very personal. I guess I would give it over to the deathbed standard: how will you feel about your career as you look back at it in the end? This is one that will get different answers from different people. You may find that working as sportscaster or storyboarding animated TV shows (which is what Uncle Eddie Fitzgerald is doing in the picture, above) is not sufficiently meaningful for you. Then don't do those things. Fortunately for sports fans, or fans of animation, there are others who will feel differently.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

See "Persepolis"!

Here are four things to love about this movie:

1. I take art very seriously, maybe more seriously than art's pale imitation, life. So the first reason, for me, is that this is hand-drawn animation. With an actual visual style. Like Betty Boop or Mickey Mouse. Remember them? Like that. Not like that soulless robot-drawn computer animation that is usually offered us nowadays. Better yet, its style is distinctive, memorable, and powerfully conveys its disturbing content. (Like the Boopster, Marjane is conveyed mainly in glorious, living black and white.)

2. It is completely original. An autobiographical cartoon, about real life in a vicious dictatorship. Need I say more?

3. Amazingly enough for an animated feature, it is actually enlightening. You learn from it. I learned (well, relearned) that tyranny touches and corrupts every facet of life. Also, that you sometimes shouldn't be too eager to get rid of a tyrant (eg., the Shah) because what comes next can be much, much worse. Also, that tyranny is often a sort of madness that goads itself into worse insanity, that tyranny means being stuck inside someone else's crazy nightmare.

4. It's one last chance to hear the voices of Chatherine Deneuve and, better yet, Danielle Darrieux, who was Madame de ... in Max Ophuls' great classic of that name. Be still my heart! (Thumpathumpathumpa.)