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Rational Choice & Cold War Philosophy

With market fundamentalism dominating the US government, and with phantasms being paraded in the media under the sobriquet of ‘alternative facts’ that you can choose or reject, forgetfulness of the McCarthy era and the Cold War philosophy it spawned is no longer a rational option.

This fascinating essay on Aeon discusses the rise of rational choice theory in the context of the anti-communism of the early Cold War and how its theory about the freedom of choice came to dominate American philosophy.

I have never heard this history and was glad to read it, though it is deeply disturbing.  As a pragmatist I had long been troubled by the abandoning of America's philosophy in the post-War period as analytic philosophy was embraced.  Twenty years ago, had I entered full-time into the philosophy profession, I had considered researching and writing a book on this history and recovering our philosophical tradition.  I did not then realize, nor did I realize until today, the role that Cold War politics played.

Nor did I understand how this philosophical shift underlies some of the political problems we currently endure.


A nice essay on the ethical and social importance of moderation.

Although our democratic institutions depend on political actors exercising common sense, self-restraint and moderation, we live in a world dominated by hyperbole and ideological intransigence in which moderates have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection. Can we do something about that to save them from extinction? To answer this question, we should take a new look at moderation, which Edmund Burke regarded as a difficult virtue, proper only to noble and courageous minds.



One reason I reject reductivist materialism is because it seems to be an empirically bad description of physical reality. Physical reality (as Whitehead noted long ago) is more complex than the reductivists claim. As this view about neutrinos demonstrates.



When I was writing my dissertation almost twenty years ago and defending a panexperientialist physicalism, I was considered to be on the wild fringes.  Now it seems that an even more radical idea, panpsychism, is en vogue, according to this post by Marcelo Gleiser.

Is this coherence an accident or the product of something deeper, perhaps some kind of proto-consciousness that permeates the universe and gives it purpose? This is the question many physicists, cognitive scientists and philosophers have been asking lately, leading to a sort of reawakening of panpsychism.

Daniel Dennett

This morning I read the profile of Dan Dennett in the March 27 New Yorker. It is a delightful portrait, but I found myself surprised in a few places as I was agreeing with Dennett. I've never felt agreement with Dennett other than on the basic point that I'm a physicalist and not a dualist, though I characterize the physical in a way that is pan-experientialist and he doesn't.

But reading here his view seems closer to mine than I had ever thought before. Particularly at this point:

He told Chalmers that there didn't have to be a hard boundary between third-person explanations and first-person experience--between, as it were, the description of the sugar molecule and the taste of sweetness. Why couldn't one see oneself as taking two different stances toward a single phenomenon? It was possible, he said, to be "neutral about the metaphysical status of the data." From the outside, it looks like neurons; from the inside, it feels like consciousness. Problem solved.

That penultimate sentence sounds very like my dissertation.

P. S.  The profile made me a little envious of his rich personal life.

Human Rights

What justifies our claim that all humans are entitled to certain rights?  Especially, in a secular culture, what justifies that claim?  Religious folk might say God does, but that isn't a workable answer for a secular, pluralistic culture.  Yet, if the basis is just human convention, then we have a deep problem--rights are merely constructs and could be eliminated if society was overcome by new attitudes of fear and exclusion.  These are the dangers.

This article from Aeon discusses the issue. For example:

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The author believes that rights must rest on something other than a human construct.  His view is

that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on.

Human rights in American thought derived from a mix of New England Congregationalism (with roots in Reformed theology), Enlightenment reason, and Romanticism.  Kant derived them from his view of autonomy.  Neera Badhwar, in the book I recently read, Well-Being, discusses autonomy within a ne0-Aristotlean perspective which could be helpful in deriving a justification for rights.  

Consider this earlier post on the role of William James in the religion of democracy.

The Biology of Racism

"It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology." This startling article from Aeon reveals how racial prejudice is connected to biological functions, and thus is more difficult to overcome than our Enlightenment-based rational hopes imagined.  

Please read the article.  Here is the conclusion:

On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a better position to correct it. But there is a grim side to the analysis, too. The structures of oppression that shape who we are also shape our bodies, and perhaps our most fundamental perceptions. Maybe we do not ‘misread’ the phone as a gun; we might we actually see a gun, rather than a phone. Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.

This raises an important question in political liberalism.  Mill believed that society should not be overly involved in the effort to morally shape people, instead allowing them the liberty to develop on their own.  His initial radical left-wing idea now sounds closer to libertarianism.  It also sounds naiive, as we've learned that issues like racial justice cannot be solved by simple education of the reason.  

So I think about a variety of inputs--Michael Sandel's arguments in Justice that society must discuss the purpose of what it means to be human, Jonathan Haidt's research into the psychological impulses behind our political views, or Martha Nussbaum's book on how a democratic society must engage in moral education of its citizens by using the emotions.  These ideas run up against the ideas of Mill, which initially sound lovely, but flounder on the rock of reality.

See this earlier post on the liberal paradox.



Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life
by Neera Kapur Badhwar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-Being is a deeply admirable book. I feel better for having read it. The philosophical arguments are strong. The writing is engaging. The conclusions are profound and common-sensical, cutting through the bullshit.

I learned virtue theory from Neera, in her graduate seminar twenty years ago. I also served as her TA for an undergraduate ethics class where we read the great classic works. Reading the book I realize how questions and conversations she was having two decades ago were working themselves into this comprehensive view of the good life.

I plan to adopt the book for my ethics class at Creighton University this autumn.

On a side note: reading this book confirms my moral judgments of Donald Trump and further puzzles me as to the moral failure of the electorate.

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Democracy and Social Ethics

Democracy and Social EthicsDemocracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon.

Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems.

And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual one) in which we must honor the perspectives of a diverse people.

A sample line, "As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be."

I also think her work might be crucial in the progressive movement reconnecting with the working class.

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