Existentialism, or the Missing Ingredient?

Posted July 24, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

The other day I read about a popular Harvard professor who was still attached to the existentialists of the recent past, such as Sartre and Camus. Without knowing much about them, I too have thought that something like existentialism must be the life philosophy of the enlightened. Unfortunately, when I then went back and looked a little at what the existentialists had to say, I was not so enamored. What I think I like is the word and the bare bones of thought that go along with it.

I have long realized that rational, enlightenment thinking does not meet all the needs of real human beings. They need some basis on which to answer the larger questions, such as “Why”. Why are we here at all. What comes before and after us as individuals and a race of beings? If the world will someday end as a frozen blob or else a fiery sphere, why do we work so hard for good outcomes for ourselves or others in the short run that we are necessarily confined to?

To me, existentialism is the philosophy that meets these questions head on. The answer, basically, is that these are all unanswerable questions. All we can do is understand as much as we can about our own lives and those around us and make all we contact feel better about what they do and can do. We must all be heroes continuing into uncharted darkness. We must all arbitrarily shorten our grasp of time to what we can comprehend and to some degree affect.

I exist, you exist, our communities exist, and the world and everything in it exists. Let us live with this existence as best we can, and enhance existence according to our own lights.

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Economics 101: A New Look

Posted July 12, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

When I was a beginning “soft social scientist” around 1950, it was always assumed that there was only one “hard” social science — economics. The reasoning was simple. Economics dealt with real figures and it used mathematics to manipulate these figures. This had been the road to success of the natural sciences and it was assumed it would soon be that of all science. Psychology, political science, and sociology are still struggling with this assumption.

Meanwhile, over in economics, there seems to be something of a revolt. More and more economists are starting to reject dependence on “hard numbers” and on simplistic mathematical formulae. A long article in the New York Times (July 11) refers to some of these revolutionaries and their arguments. As one says, “Economics is often a triumph of theory over fact.” They are starting to notice that open markets and free trade are not always good, that the level playing field is never level, and the players may have quite different goals. They are noting that government regulation is not always bad, particularly when compared with absence of regulation.

Of course, one alternative to mainstream economics has been “behavioral economics”, which is rather closer to sociology. It has been a round for a good while, but seems to be having a renaissance.

I particularly noted that the conversion of some economists to the new thinking was based on studies of the actual effects of the minimum wage. It has been a basis tenet of standard economics that the minimum drives up costs for everyone and puts many people out of work. However, a recent study in New Jersey showed that an increase in the minimum wage actually resulted in a rise in employment. I was struck by this because when I was at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s, an institute heavily infused with the standard economics, I had occasion to look at studies of what happens when minimum wages were imposed or raised. Unlike what our speakers confidently asserted, I could not find a study that supported their opposition to the minimum wage. The vaunted association of minimum wage and unemployment was a good example of a triumph of theory over fact.

All this is becoming increasingly important as we struggle with the demands of globalization. On the one side are those who will profit from it (large corporations and some poor countries especially) and the economic fraternity that treats opponents like biologists treat the critics of evolution. On the other side are those who will clearly suffer in the short term and those who are not attracted to the vision of a thoroughly homogenized world. The economics of globalization needs at least a long hard look that goes far beyond the attractiveness of shifting production to the country with the greatest comparative advantage.

Comparisons

Posted July 12, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: ways of life

One notices that the enlightenment value given to inter-country comparisons in the consideration of policy is becoming more generally recognized. This is particularly true in regard to medical systems, as many writers have recognized that the United States has lagging infant mortality and longevity rates at the same time that it has by far the most expensive health system in the world.

Taking off from this, a recent NYT Op-Ed (July 5) informally asks friends in Italy to compare the country with the U.S. Of course, health care is first on the list and Italy is far ahead. As to leisure, America ranks last among developed countries in the number of guaranteed days off. Twenty-five percent of Americans have no vacation days. The average American takes 13 days vacation a year; the average Italian 42. We work 100 hours a year more than even the Japanese. The Europeans do pay more taxes, but they do not invert the tax pyramid, as is American practice. As Warren Buffett has pointed out, he paid a 17% tax on his taxable income last year while his receptionist paid 30%.

The author concludes, however, by pointing to one area where he believes America shines. There appears to be more equality of opportunity than in other advanced states and there is certainly less prejudice against ethnic minorities. Italians and advanced peoples are on the surface, at least, much more inclined to put down those who belong to other groups than their own.

Wikipedia and Enlightenment

Posted July 10, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

A recent New York Times magazine article on Wikipedia (Magazine, July 1) reminded me just how significant this encyclopedia is. It provides an instant access, free source of knowledge on almost anything (now over 1.8 million articles in the English section alone; it offers articles in 250 languages). Anyone can contribute, adding anything from a misplaced comma to an extensive research article with footnotes. The enterprise is run by a non-profit foundation, controlled by a small board. There are 30 “stewards” and 1200 administrators. The “admins” are the only ones who have the power to check content, remove articles or additions, and even permanently ban certain persons from access. Everyone involved seems to take their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. The amount of work put in by all contributors, but especially the administrators, is mind boggling — and all for free. (I would think it would not hurt to develop a compensation policy, but this could weaken the monkish self-abnegation that seems to infect all involved.)

In spite of the way in which it is organized, and the lack of “recognized authorities” behind its articles, studies have shown that it is about as accurate per line as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another study here found that experts rated Wikipedia articles as more accurate that nonexperts unfamiliar with the material. My own experience is that it is often a waste of time to use the Internet for information on a topic. It is much easier to just go to Wikipedia and review their material. The great success of this “democratic” approach to knowledge compilation reminds one of the success of juries in most kinds of trials and of recent studies that have shown that a group of non-experts will come to decisions at least as useful as experts (which is not to say that in manifold ways, the contributors to Wikipedia are not themselves “experts”).

The project is guided by what are called the five pillars.

The first and more general pillar defines the enterprise as an encyclopedia, which is not a place for personal opinions or trivia. It is not a soapbox or a directory etc.

The second pillar sets the objective as “a neutral point of view”. The user or contributor is told that “verifiable, authoritative sources should be used whenever possible, especially on controversial topics. When a conflict arises as to which version is the most neutral, declare a cool-down period and tag the article as disputed; hammer out details on the talk page and follow dispute resolution”.

The third pillar is that it is free and entries can be changed by anyone. All revisions are kept, so that the article can be changed back to an earlier form if necessary. No copyrighted material is allowed.

The fourth pillar emphasizes the importance of good manners by all involved. There should be no editing wars. Good faith should be assumed on the part of all involved.

The fifth pillar is that there are no firm rules. People should be bold in editing and writing. Perfection is not required. They are reminded that all prior versions are kept, so there is no need to fear the destruction of good material.

What seemed truly remarkable to the writer of the NYT piece was the dedication of those involved to these principles. He particularly noted that in an age in which many social scientists and literary critics have concluded that it is naive to believe neutrality is possible or that there is “a truth”, he has found a community in which these values are treasured. Noting that most of those deeply involved in the project (including many admins) are in the 20-35 age group, and many are still in high school, he asks “Where did they learn these values?” What this suggests is that there are thousands of teachers throughout this country who are instilling in the young firmly held educational values in spite of the chaos that surrounds so much of modern life.

The Wikipedia phenomenon is one of the most hopeful signs of the possibility of a new age of enlightenment that I have come across.

Sex and the Social Order

Posted June 21, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, ways of life


The obsession of Americans with sexual behavior diminishes both the common welfare and sense of justice of both Islamic and American people. It leads both groups to exclude from society large numbers of people who would otherwise be of service to the larger society, people who have, in any event, a right to liberty and happiness equal to that of any other group.

Both Islamic and American societies rigidly exclude homosexuals from the community of the accepted. This is lessening in the United States on the popular level, but we still have the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that in effect means that many homosexuals fail to serve in the military or are forced out before the end of their terms. One cost of this policy has recently been highlighted by a soldier’s report that he and many others who have trained as Arabic translators, soldiers willing to serve in Iraq in this badly needed role, have been forced to leave the military because of their sexual orientation.

Comparing our sexual obsession with the much freer world of other Western countries, we should take note of the recent election in France in which a woman came close to being elected President in spite of the fact that she was an unmarried mother of four who continued to live with the father (the head of her political party). The recently elected President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, is an unmarried mother, who after divorcing her first husband has had several affairs, at least one of which has produced one of her children. The French and Chileans rightly regard such behavior as private behavior that should not impact the public roles of these women.

Pedophilia is another area where Americans obsess in ways that does potential damage to both the supposed culprits and our sense of law and fair play. One cannot help but notice that the revulsion that lies below the surface in the minds of many Americans inhibits a more rational and fair approach to the problem. Certainly the tendency of conviction for such crimes to be open-ended, either openly so, or through exclusion of residence within x feet of where children might be, makes a mockery of the legal system.

This harshness reminds me of the whole area of law and practice regarding the more general crime of rape. I have often thought that rape should be viewed like any other assault, with penalties assigned carefully so that the perpetrator never comes to the conclusion that he might as well kill the victim. One suspects that many more molested and abducted children would be alive today if the vengeance of society were more tempered.

These considerations should make us all the more determined to control our public emotions rather than fall to the level of societies that prescribe the stoning to death of adulterers or homosexuals or allow relatives to kill one another to defend the honor of the family from being blackened by the sexual exploits of their errant women

Sexual behavior is, after all, natural behavior. Laws, the enforcement of laws, or the expression of social disapprobation of certain forms of this behavior should be as relaxed as is consistent with the rights of those directly affected. Definition of a “healthy society” and a “healthy relationship” in this area should be carefully and thoughtfully developed. The punishment model should be replaced by the treatment model wherever possible. The terms “sin” or “crime” should be replaced by “mistake” or “mental aberration” in most cases. There will be cases where this is not appropriate, but we should come to such conclusions only when we are free of the raw emotions that I see too often expressed in the discussion of such issues.

Democracy Demands an Informed and Rational Public: Al Gore

Posted May 31, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

In his new book, “The Assault on Reason”, Al Gore makes the case that our democracy is in trouble, and indeed our civilization is in trouble”, because of the decline in rational thought on all levels, especially in regard to public policy. He is not saying that we lack rational thinkers, but rather that the public is not actively involved in discussion of the issues of the day. His great example, is the attack on Iraq, where the media, even Congress, allowed the assumption that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 to go unquestioned. This has been such an egregious blindness to facts that even today, half of Americans believe that this is the reason we are in Iraq. A recent PBS discussion with National Guardsmen posted to Iraq would seem to confirm this interpretation of the state of public discussion.

Many have long noticed the massive decline in the role of reason in the public arena after the passing of the Founding Fathers. Even in 1858 at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the question of slavery, we had an attentive public that was willing in town after town to listen to carefully reasoned debates. In the debates one of them spoke for an hour, then the other candidate spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first speaker was allowed a half hour “rejoinder.” People traveled from neighboring states to listen, and major papers published full texts of the debates.

The difficulty I find with Gore’s thesis is that I do not know where it leads. Is there really a road back for the American public. It would make sense to allow no advertising on TV, or at least nothing under 30 minutes. But I cannot see this happening. Gore has faith that the internet will help bring us back. But I fear the internet drags us in all directions, with a tendency for the most absurd and outlandish to get the largest audience.

A couple of days ago, David Brooks had a long Op-Ed in the New York Times attacking Gore’s thesis from every angle. He tried to make him out to be some kind of inhuman monster who would replace the mixture of emotion and logical thought that we all work with by an inhuman and purely logical approach. It was a surprisingly sophomoric column (apologies to sophomores). I was glad to see that there was today (or yesterday) about seven letters in response, all good and all supporting Gore against this ridiculous attack.

Religion in Politics

Posted April 15, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, Uncategorized, ways of life

Paul Krugman, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist offers (4/13/07) some worrisome facts about the influence of the Christian right in the present administration (and beyond that more generally in Republican circles). He points out that Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, boasts that it has 150 graduates working in the Bush administration. We should remember that two days after 9/11 on Robertson’s 700 Club program Falwell blamed the attack on “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians” as well as the ACLU and People for the American Way. Robertson chimed in to say, “Well, I totally concur.”

Krugman also points out that the Texas Republican Party in its official platform pledges to “dispel the myth of the separation of church and state” He tells us that Kay Cole James, former dean of Regent’s government school, was the federal government’s chief personnel officer from 2001 to 2005, and identifies many of the persons that were appointed, some notable for subsequent illegal behavior.

Krugman’s picture gets darker and darker. These are people determined to take society back to the world before the Enlightenment.