Saturday, March 28, 2009

Murray and Philosophy

Well, that was a rant. What can I say? While, as a liberal, I am uncomfortable with thick theories of The Good and collectivists' inclinations to impose them on those of us insufficiently enlightened to realize what is good for us, I accept this as an important tradition in socio-political thought. But, when someone wants to impose their vision of The Good only on others, I become suspicious. And when, as in Murray's case, the reality of the vision will cause suffering for those on whom it is imposed, I begin to get downright angry. Hence, the rant. (How Bette Davis got in there is another question.)

Leaving ranting behind, let's think about Murray's reference to Aristotelian 'happiness' - eudaimonia, presumably. Murray's choice of Aristotle as an authority for his own view of human flourishing is odd, because Aristotle quite famously denied the possibility of true flourishing for those who must labor and toil for a living. Indeed, Aristotle was confident that only those favored with enough wealth to pursue higher intellectual pursuits could be truly 'happy;' working for one's living meant too little leisure time for philosophy and political activity.

Furthermore, unlike -arguably - the Roman Stoics, Aristotle did not hold that suffering or misfortune make one a better person. He certainly did not think them conducive to well-being. To fully flourish as a human, according to Aristotle, one must achieve excellence (arête) in all modes of human functioning: intellectual activities, physical health and attractiveness, and what we would call psychological or emotional well-being.
Murray seems to be conflating Aristotelian virtue ethics not only with Roman Stoicism, as noted, but also with Nietzschean transcendence through struggle. The latter element explains Murray's concern for 'transcendence' over ordinary comforts and pleasures. But this is not an Aristotelian notion. Aristotle was very much a thinker of the here-and-now, of this world and of living well in this world.

In fact, if Murray wants the average American to have a chance at Aristotelian flourishing, he should advocate for social structures that would provide the average person with a life of comfort and leisure comparable to that enjoyed by Aristotle and other Greek males of his class - absent the slaves, of course. Such a life would be the envy even of those nanny-state-coddled upper-middle class Europeans. But, to offer that chance for happiness to most of our population would require extending our 'safety-net' far beyond what we currently have - far beyond what the Europeans have.

And this is why Murray is not really calling for our society to enable Aristotelian lives of flourishing for all. It is the elite classes he addresses who will have the opportunity for Aristotelian eudaimonia; the rest of us will get Nietzschean suffering and struggle.

Which brings us back to hypocrisy. You go first, Dr. Murray. After all, what does not kill you will make you stronger.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Grass is Greener - and More Authentic - Outside the Gated Community

I seem to be on a hypocrisy kick this week.

Here, we have a nice example from the inimitable Charles Murray. Yes, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life has favored us with two outings of his celebration of American exceptionalism and his fearfulness for the collapse of our social vitality. First, in his Irving Kristol Lecture at the AIE, The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, and in a shorter version of the same in the Washington Post, “Thank God America Isn't Like Europe – Yet,” Murray bemoans the weakening of the American character, the creeping insipidity of contemporary life, and the growing tendency of U.S. citizens to want comfortable lives.

Murray’s ‘argument’ has been nicely sliced and diced by Damon Linker at the New Republic (“
Murray’s Miserable, Happy Americans”) and by John Holbo at Crooked Timber (“The Totalitarian Temptation and All That”), so I’ll forego the analysis and head straight for the rant.

Murray’s main concern is that the ‘welfare state’ is taking all the challenge out of American lives, leaving us coddled and without a sense of deep purpose (“transcendence” seems to be his preferred term) just as, according to his two anecdotes from visits to Sweden and Switzerland, has happened to Europeans. Linker aptly summarizes Murray’s view thus:

....because genuine happiness, for Murray, requires spending one's life striving to overcome an endless series of challenges and obstacles, the lavish European safety net ensures that individual Europeans will never experience spiritual contentment or satisfaction. The assumption seems to be that a life of leisure -- or at least a life with open access to health care, quality child care, generous unemployment insurance, and 4 - 6 weeks of guaranteed vacation time a year -- will be an unhappy one.

In Murray’s own words,

…. the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish—it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness.

Let’s put aside for the moment the lack of real data (he swears it’s out there), the apparent ignorance of differences among European nations and peoples, even the strangely unexplicated allusion to Aristotle (more on that next time). Let’s just focus on the message: suffering, difficulty, and insecurity add zest to life; indeed, without real struggle and more or less constant peril, we can never achieve true happiness.

I think there is some plausibility to this claim, or to a more carefully stated and considered version of it. A life utterly without challenge, a life of indulgence, a life that never plumbs deeper than the purchase of the next material ‘must have’ – this would be a life lacking vitality, meaning, and purpose. In other words, the lives of the most advantaged members of the leisure classes are not examples of human flourishing ( a far more Aristotelian term than ‘happiness’). But this is not what Murray is on about. No, he is arguing that guaranteed access to basic health care, affordable child care, and some degree of material security prevents us – as citizens of a nation - from flourishing.

One might find this a bracing, Spartan-like – perhaps, early Stoic – vision of the good life: hard, demanding, and rewarding to those who fight the good fight. Really, very John Wayne western film style. And that’s fine if that is the life one chooses for oneself. But Murray is not recommending this as a self-selected lifestyle; rather, he is urging ‘the elites’ (his phrase) to impose this life on everyone.

More precisely, he wants it imposed on the poor and disadvantaged. He does not quite say that, of course, but it is the only reasonable inference. Taking away the social safety net will not impose a rough and tumble life on the already advantaged, after all; they do not need the net. It is only the disadvantaged and the close-to-being-disadvantaged who will enjoy the benefits of being cast into the stormy seas to swim or sink. Murray and his ilk will watch, no doubt with envy, from the safety of their privately owned yachts while the lucky masses thrill at the chance for true happiness, a chance the wistful wealthy will never have. We can imagine the pitying looks with which the struggling swimmers will look back at those safely on-board and the joy with which they will sink beneath the waves, knowing themselves to have found transcendent meaning in their lives and deaths. Perhaps, if they are very fortunate, they can watch their children drown before them.

Of course, romanticizing the lives of simple folk is a tradition of sorts. But Murray is not pretending that lives of sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil are other than they are. Rather, he celebrates precisely those painful possibilities as necessary conditions for meaningful happiness. This is not romanticism; this is hypocrisy. For, do we picture Murray giving up his own rather privileged position to leap into the waters of strife? Is he suggesting that the pitiable rich should be stripped of their wealth and privileges and made to work as janitors (for whom he seems to have some special respect) or dish washers so that they, too, can have a chance at happiness? No. He is encouraging the privileged to use their power to force this idiosyncratic vision of the Good Life on those not in a position to either choose it or decline it.

I cannot think of any way to understand this other than as hypocrisy. Murray is an educated person (B.A. in History from Harvard; Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT) and, if we resist political hyperbole, he seems to be sane. Murray gestures towards scolding the elites for separating themselves from the ‘real’ people (janitors), but he does not suggest they leave their gated communities to live in slums or marginal neighborhoods. Instead, he seems to recommend a bit of uplifting slumming. You know, sort of like Bette Davis’ ‘Jezebel’ getting down and homey with the pickaninnies on the lawn, all authentic-like while the silly Yankee wife of Bette’s former beau gets politically-correctly upset about an impending duel between the leading men. Or, like those young college men of the thirties and forties who took their dates to Harlem to see black performers be earthy, in white-only clubs.

I’ll end my rant with a bit from John Holbo’s 2003 blog piece on a similarly hypocritical ‘let the little people suffer for the sake of their better selves’ musing from David Frum:

But if it is good for the poor and middle-class to suffer and toil, surely it would do the well-to-do some good as well. We could stiffen upper-classes spines quick by raising the top tax bracket to, say, 95%, while firing all the cops, letting all the criminals out of jail, giving them guns, and busing them to the richest neighborhoods before letting them go. Not a good idea, obviously, but a lot of rich people would learn a lot of important, genuinely meaningful life lessons.

Surely, this would only be fair. Why should the poor and the marginal classes get all the advantages of meaningfulness, while the wealthy only get health care, security, and comfort?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Still Angry, After All These Years

This probably falls into the 'I'll be sorry for this' category, but what the heck.


Tummino v. Torti, (ED NY, March 29, 2009). A NY Federal District court ruled that the FDA must revisit its current ruling on the ‘morning after pill,’ Plan B. Under well-evidenced political pressure from the Bush administration, the FDA dillied and dallied between 2001 and 2006, when it [finally] ruled that Plan B – first approved in 1998 – would be available over the counter only to women 18 years of age and older, with proof of age for the pharmacist. Moreover, the OTC drug had to be kept behind the pharmacy counter. Any woman under the age of 18 needed a doctor’s prescription, which effectively made the ‘morning after’ use of the drug unavailable to the vast majority of women less than 18 years of age.

The remarkable history of Plan B’s wanderings through the Bush FDA is recounted at the
Center for Reproductive Rights website. The CRP was among the petitioners seeking to force the FDA to, first, arrive at a ruling and, secondly, to change its politically determined ruling, once made. Among the highlights of this strange history, as revealed in depositions and testimony noted by the CRP, are these:

“Late Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004: After a panel of FDA experts recommends approval of the Plan B application, Dr. Steven Galson, the head of the office responsible for making the final decision, informs his staff that regular procedures won’t be followed this time, and that they won’t make the final decision. (Jenkins deposition)”
“Dec-Jan 17, 2004: Galson confesses to a co-worker that he has to reject the Plan B application because he’s afraid he’ll lose his job. (Jenkins deposition) Dr. Janet Woodcock, the second in command at the FDA(??), tells a colleague that the agency has to reject the application, then approve the drug later with an age restriction in order to ‘appease the administration's constituents.’ (Houn deposition)”

The full decision is more than worth reading, both for its detailed analysis of the intrusion of political and religion-based intrusions into the drug approval process and for the clarity of Judge Korman’s opinion.

Some highlights of the opinion:

“Plan B is an emergency contraceptive that can be used to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy after sexual intercourse. When used as directed, it can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. Plan B acts mainly by stopping the release of an egg from an ovary. It may also prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg that has been released or, if fertilization has already occurred, block implantation of the resulting embryo in the uterus. Plan B does not have any known serious or long-term side effects, though it may have some mild and short-term side effects, such as nausea or abdominal pain, in some users.” (emphasis added)

Compare this with comments from the Christian News Wire:

Ignoring patient safety and the damage high dose steroids have on developing female bodies, Korman petulantly insisted the FDA revisit the controversial previous ruling on the abortion drug. Hundreds of women have had serious side effects from Plan B as it has killed millions of preborn babies.”

Sure, because, as we all know, Federal judges are frequently ‘petulant’ in their decisions and far-right Christian news sources are the authority on women’s health matters – more authoritative than the FDA’s medical scientists who recommended that Plan B be more widely available:

“The FDA rejected that application too despite nearly uniform agreement among FDA scientific review staff that women of all ages could use Plan B without a prescription safely and effectively.” (from Tummino v. Torti ; emphasis added)

Admittedly, Judge Korman does seem to have been angered by the Bushies’ shenanigans in interfering with the FDA process (all emphases added):

“…the gravamen of plaintiffs’ claims is that the FDA’s decisions regarding Plan B – on the Citizen Petition and the SNDAs – were arbitrary and capricious because they were not the result of reasoned and good faith agency decision-making. Plaintiffs are right. The FDA repeatedly and unreasonably delayed issuing a decision on Plan B for suspect reasons and, on two occasions, only took action on Plan B to facilitate confirmation of Acting FDA Commissioners, whose confirmation hearings had been held up due to these repeated delays.”

“These political considerations, delays, and implausible justifications for decision-making are not the only evidence of a lack of good faith and reasoned agency decision-making. Indeed, the record is clear that the FDA’s course of conduct regarding Plan B departed in significant ways from the agency’s normal procedures.”

“FDA upper management, including the Commissioner, wrested control over the decision-making on Plan B from staff that normally would issue the final decision on an over-the-counter switch application; the FDA’s denial of non-prescription access without age restriction went against the recommendation of a committee of experts it had empanelled to advise it on Plan B; and the Commissioner – at the behest of political actors – decided to deny non-prescription access to women 16 and younger before FDA scientific review staff had completed their reviews.”
Now, there is much that could be said here, from this being yet another instance of the Bush administration’s obsession with courting the religious right to its indifference to science to its eagerness to corrupt any process for political purposes. But, what intrigues me is the persistence with which self-proclaimed ‘pro-life’ advocates claim to be concerned with the health of women. You know, the already-born and old enough to be indisputably full persons kind. ( Remember when good old C. Everett Koop infuriated the same group of folks by announcing that – despite his expectations to the contrary – there was no evidence that having abortions seriously harmed the psychological well-being of most women who had gone through the experience? )
I don’t buy it. Never have, never will. In the case of Plan B, the façade is especially thin. There is no evidence that there are any serious side effects for any notable number of women who use the medication to prevent pregnancy. Put another way, Plan B is as ‘harmful’ to most women as, maybe, aspirin is to most people. (Just the facts, Ma’am.) And, if we were to think about the ‘side-effects’ of pregnancy – particularly unwanted pregnancy – the possible ill effects of Plan B pale by comparison.

Opponents of Plan B and other contraceptives are not genuinely concerned with the health of women or girls. This is a dodge to cover the on-going effort to impose on the rest of us the rather odd notion that fertilized eggs are '[pre-born] babies' . Since the imposition has not succeeded epistemically, those who adhere to this notion of personhood try to achieve their conception [pun intended] by coercing others in practice.

The falseness of this dodge is offensive enough to those of us into that whole reality-based thing. The hypocrisy is worse. I recognize that ‘hypocrisy’ is now a much devalued accusation. But think about it: these are the same people who claim that anyone who has an abortion or uses an abortifacient is a murderer, that women/girls who become pregnant outside of marriage are sinners [‘sluts,’ in the vernacular], and that pregnant women/girls should be forced to carry every pregnancy to term – their mental and physical health be damned.

So, thanks for the crocodile tears, but I would prefer if these people kept their private religious views, their peculiar biological notions, and their choices for themselves out of our government, our law, and other people’s lives.

Yup, still angry after all these years.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Flower Show

The Philadelphia Flower Show is an annual event that draws visitors from all over the nation. Within the relatively drab confines of the Convention Center, the Show participants create gardens and garden vignettes of astonishing complexity, typically inspired by a governing theme. Trees, shrubs, ponds and other water features are brought together with such skill that the visitor can easily forget she is indoors at all. Additionally, there are competition displays on a smaller scale; my favorites are the bonsai display, the ‘table-setting’ display, and the ‘window box' display. Of course, there is a large section for vendors of anything remotely related to gardens and gardening of every type.
I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed this year. It may have been my lingering flu or the theme – Bella Italiana – which muted my enjoyment, or it may be that contributors were feeling the pinch of a poor economy and invested less profligately than usual. Or, it may be that I have been spoiled by the spectacular shows of recent years and could not see this year’s show with appropriately appreciative eyes.
At any rate, I post some pics. (I did think the lighting, which is usually low, was especially dim this year.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Off For A Break

I’m heading to the Philadelphia Flower Show, on my annual Spring pilgrimage . I’ll return with pictures.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Advertising and Stating the Obvious

This one bothered me for several days as I surfed about the WWW:

There is a film titled "The God Who Wasn't There.' It seems to be a film debunking Christianity, primarily on historical grounds. Ok; I get that. What I don't get is the film's advertisment, which features this line from Newsweek "Irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed."

Well really, how could it not be 'irreverent' to believers? And, how would it be 'irreverent' to non-believers?

Am I just being fussy?

Race, Stereotypes, and Sheer Idiocy

A CA mayor is resigning (maybe) after being outed by a black woman to whom he sent a fundraising email depicting the White House front lawn as - yes - a watermelon patch. His catch line: "No Easter egg hunt this year." Even better, Mayor Dean Grose claimed that he did not know there was a stereotype linking African-Americans and watermelon-eating. Well, no, of course not. The choice of a watermelon patch was just, you know, coincidental. Because, when one thinks 'no eggs' one naturally thinks 'watermelons,' instead.

Dissing the Ancients, Again

In “Naked Strong Evaluation” (Dissent online), Andrew Koppelman reviews Charles Taylor’s new book, A Secular Age. The book is also reviewed in the NYTimes by J. P. Diggins. Neither reviewer is terribly sympathetic with Taylor’s critique of secularism, but Koppelman is most interested in Taylor’s views on human rights. According to Koppelman, Taylor believes “that secularism and Christianity reveal a common ancestry in their shared commitment to human rights—a commitment that does not follow from atheism as such.” Although Koppelman seems to accept this premise, he argues that secularism has the advantage in requiring fewer ‘leaps of faith.’

What puzzles me about Koppelman’s review, and Taylor’s work, is their shared conviction that “the idea of human rights, at least in the West,” emerged “from Christian doctrine.” Koppelman claims that Taylor has done a “more thorough” job of showing this than anyone else, and I do not feel I am in a position to debate that assessment. But I think we can debate the claim itself.

It is not a new claim or an unfamiliar one, by any means. Christian religionists frequently assert that human equality and human rights are specifically Christian notions. This overlooks the fact of the derivative character of much Christian thought. With respect to human equality and human rights, we ought to look first to the Roman Stoics and their conception of the human community, humanitas, and the ius gentium, or law of peoples (often translated as ‘Natural Law’). Given Taylor’s rather longstanding debate with Martha Nussbaum, his overlooking this Stoic connection is surprising.

Now, the disclaimer/caveat/mea culpa: I have not read Taylor’s new book. So, as I said above, I’m not in a position to disagree with Koppelman’s claim that Taylor has done a particularly good job of locating the origins of human rights discourse exclusively in Christian intellectual history. Perhaps Taylor has surpassed Alasdair MacIntyre’s dismissal of the ancients from the arena of human rights discourse in After Virtue; that would not be terribly difficult. I promise that once the snow has melted I’ll get the Taylor book. But, unless he can do more than insist that the Stoic conception of human community and equality just wasn’t a source of Christian thought, I’m not going to be moved by this newest effort at Christian revisionism. After all, can’t Christianity find enough to be proud of in its own intellectual history without claiming utter originalism?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Better Picture for This Stage

The pic below was taken by my daughter at an abandoned prison. Cool, but probably not suitable for the 'neonatal' metaphor.

Be Nice - I'm Just Starting

This site is in its neonatal stage. I assume it will grow and thrive with adequate care. On the other hand, it could shrivel and die if I lose interest. We'll just have to see.