Another Interlude

Philosophical Reflections XV

AJ expanded his criticisms of Philosophical Reflections (TableAus, Jan 1996). I don’t wish enter into protracted debates, but as a philosophy is a hierarchical structure which rests on its prior stages, I think a response is desirable.

Arthur charges that I am “arrogant”, don’t define my terms and enter into off-the-cuff “hysterical” defences of free markets; and that productiveness is not a virtue, my philosophy is only for the elite, and justice is an impossible virtue.

As a general point, I have to stress that everything I write is in the context of my earlier articles. Of course any given article might make bald assertions: if those assertions have been proved before.

A Work of Super-Arrogation

I am supposedly “arrogant” for not having answered every criticism levelled at me. While this journal remains TableAus and not 100 Pages of Philosophical Debates, I have to be selective. Unless there is something interesting to be made of it, I normally don’t bother commenting about things I didn’t really say, things I have already answered or intend getting to, unimportant items or arbitrary claims.

I have aimed to build my assumptions from the ground up with justification at every step. So I am not interested in counter-claims derived from different assumptions if those assumptions are not validated, or not even identified. Those are just arbitrary claims which deserve no reply.

I have not admitted mistakes because no-one has proved me wrong. As Monty Python might say, mere gainsaying is not rebuttal. I will be proved wrong if my assumptions are falsified, my conclusions do not follow from my assumptions, or my conclusions lead to demonstrably false implications. None of this has been shown.

What I am concerned with is the truth. If Arthur can itemise any important unanswered criticisms of my philosophy, I’ll be glad to comment.

I admit that I am proud, and furthermore I take pride in being proud. I am far too proud to notadmit it if I make a mistake. If you understand that, then you understand the key to it: that all morality is an intransigent devotion to what is real real in the physical world, the character of other people, and your own soul.

A Definitive Answer

As for not defining my terms, Arthur acts as if I baldly claimed that rationality, integrity, justice etc are virtues. In fact I spent considerable space explaining what I meant, and why I meant it. I was especially careful in Arthur’s own example of pride, given the multiple meanings of the word (which is the right word). I consider that what I wrote is sufficient to explain what I meant, in every case. I’m happy to clarify it if I was unclear.

Market Hysteria

Arthur’s rebuttals of my “hysterical” defence of free markets consist of this:

  1. The lot of the peasants did not improve from the beginning of the Renaissance, before free markets arose;
  2. The peasants were no better off in places like Russia where free markets never arrived;
  3. The industrial revolution made the average man worse off;
  4. A grab-bag of other charges against capitalism made by socialist sympathisers, Luddites and Arcadian idealists.

The first and second are patently irrelevant. The third is false, easily demonstrated by the fact that most people in the “Satanic Mills” were there by their own free choice, because it was a lot better than the alternatives. The result a population explosion wherever industrialisation happened shows how many lives were saved. As for the rest, I suggest a comparison between East and West Berlin would be instructive. Not to mention a comparison between the life of the average man in the Middle Ages and life today.

An historical defence of capitalism is beyond the scope of a philosophy series, but I’ll suggest some books for anyone interested: Economics in One Lesson and The Conquest of Poverty(Henry Hazlitt), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (Ayn Rand), The Myth of the Robber Barons(Burton Folsom, Jr), Selected Essays on Political Economy (Frederic Bastiat), Breaking the Banks (Richard Salsman), and Planning for Freedom (Ludwig von Mises).

A Major Production

Arthur argues that productiveness isn’t a virtue because what about all those people who can’t be, and anyway one day we might have all our needs met by machines and then there won’t be any need for productiveness.

The first point is a failure to consider context. As I’ve noted before, all virtues have to take context into account: for example, if you are a slave then productiveness is not necessarily a virtue. If you are totally incapable of independent thought, then the virtue of productiveness for you does indeed reduce to making your own living by whatever honest means you can. Similarly, if for some reason it is impossible to find any job but some mindless rote action, then a productive person will indeed take such a job (while seeking something better). The unproductive person is the one who drifts along below his or her true potential, without valid reason and by choice. All virtues, by definition, pertain to choice and are predicated on the assumption of the freedom to act.

Virtues are actions which promote the life of man, as man. How anyone can doubt that productiveness is such a virtue is beyond me. While men seek values from reality, which they must while life exists, productiveness must be a virtue: because it is the link between the values chosen by our minds and our achieving those values in fact. And while a man has a purpose, whatever that purpose might be, productiveness is how he achieves it.

Furthermore, it has been the productive, the men of my morality (at least in that way), who over the millennia have discovered new knowledge, invented machines and built industries with a use for typists and sweepers. Were it not for them, all Arthur’s beloved menial workers would be spending their days digging for roots with sharp sticks instead of sitting down typing for 8 hours in an air-conditioned office. And though it isn’t clear whether Arthur actually thinks a robotic economy is desirable, I do: and if it is ever to come about, it will be the productive who create it. A whole army of unthinking typists would sooner produce the works of Shakespeare than create that world. What kind of despicable philosophy depends for the survival of those it claims to care about, and for the achievement of its own wishes (a world in which productiveness is not necessary in order to live), on the very virtues it despises?

As for that hypothetical robotic future, philosophy is concerned with reality as it is, not imaginary other ones. Arthur accuses me of being out of touch with reality, yet criticises productiveness on the grounds of a world which doesn’t exist! Furthermore, even in that world productiveness will be a virtue: unless one thinks that the proper end of humanity is for our brains to atrophy and us to become mindless lice crawling on the carcass of own highest achievement. Of course, the forms of that productiveness will as much differ from now, as the productiveness of a computer programmer differs from that of a Neolithic farmer. But while reality exists, and consciousness exists, there is no limit to what can and should be achieved to further improve and fulfil human life: and all such achievements and improvements depend on the aspect of rationality which is productiveness.

The Elite

To a degree, any philosophy is for the “elite”: a full understanding of anything takes intelligence. But a day labourer doesn’t need to understand the laws of physics to know that the earth goes round the sun; and for all the intelligence that has been applied to Christian theology and the vast library of arcane volumes written thereon, practically anyone can understand the fundamentals of its morality.

Similarly, it doesn’t take much brains to understand the fundamentals of my philosophy. And unless Arthur thinks that people’s interests are served by irrationality, dishonesty, lack of integrity, dependence, injustice, purposelessness, laziness and lack of pride in themselves, then that philosophy applies to everyone with any brain at all.

Just Deserts

We can know the character of people in the same way we know anything else: by observation and reason. Of course we can make mistakes. Fortunately, people tend to squeal if we treat them unjustly so it’s usually easy to tell!

Furthermore, there is no choice in the matter. We have to treat people somehow. All our lives, we have to decide who to deal with and on what terms. If the criterion for that is not justice, then it defaults to injustice. And it is not the good and the innocent who benefit from that.

I might also add that Arthur’s claimed inability to judge anyone, curiously does not prevent him from deciding I am arrogant! Perhaps he is not as unable to come to any decision about anyone as he claims.

Bad Philosophy

Arthur thinks I might be indulging in a rhetorical trick by accusing him of having a philosophy when all he has, he says, is a stew of unintegrated beliefs. I would have thought that my case would be strengthened by accusing him of just that, rather than ennobling it by calling it a philosophy!

Of course, as I’ve noted before, everyone does have a philosophy: as beings who live by choice, our choices must be based on something. That something is our value system, which in turn depends on what we think is right and wrong and on our assumptions about what the world is. In short, a philosophy. We have no choice about that. What we have a choice about is whether our philosophy is conscious or unconscious, integrated or self-contradictory, examined or unexamined, rational or irrational, good or bad.

The Good, The Bad, and the Happy

If Arthur believes that men can be good, should be good, and should seek to be good, then this is an odd thing to say: “most of us have a tinge of dishonesty not to mention our lack of tolerance, ambition, self-discipline, patience and courage. Perhaps our sense of humour will make up for some of our deficiencies.” The response to those observations by someone who thinks men can and should be good is to promote the virtue of pride (as I defined it). Still, by Arthur’s own admission his philosophy is formless and full of contradictions, so I will make no further attempt to try to make sense of it.

Finally, Arthur claims that “a world in which everyone’s sole concern was their own happiness would be a very cold hard sterile place full of conflict and misery”, and we are better off devoting ourselves to self-sacrifice. And his validation of that? Why, only by not seeking our own happiness might we find happiness! Very Zen, but not very convincing.

His statement springs from a corrupt belief which I have attacked before: that our interests lie in the evil, so morality must be designed not for us, not as a benefit to our lives but against us, to protect others from us. That is, happiness can only be achieved by sacrifice: our own happiness, by sacrificing others to ourselves; or the happiness of others, by sacrificing ourselves to them.

In fact, happiness derives from rationality, not sacrifice. It derives from honesty, independence, productiveness and justice: where people deal with other, not as sacrificial animals, but as traders of value for value to their mutual benefit.

Finally, an important point that is implicit in what I’ve written but should be made explicit is this: although your own happiness is the valid purpose of your life, it is not a valid criterion of morality. The criterion is what is good for man as man, i.e., what is good for the life of a rational being by the nature of such a being: not what makes someone feel good on the range of the moment. And what that is, is rationality: and all the virtues that comprise it.

© 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.