Thursday, December 27, 2012

Philosophy for Everyone

In the distant past one could not have been considered a well-educated person if one had not studied philosophy at the university level and could converse with some degree of familiarity at least about the ideas of Socrates and Plato, Kant and Hegel.  In the 19th century philosophy truly was "the first science" and along with classics was considered an indispensable part of a young man's formative education. 

That all changed in the 1960s, when universities began to abandon their commitments to the liberal arts and philosophy began to be viewed as an esoteric discipline with little practical application.  Members of the elite might study philosophy, but it was hardly the sort of discipline that would attract the kinds of middle class students who were beginning to attend college in larger numbers.  Today most students could probably pass safely through college without ever even having to take a single philosophy class.  But at prestigious intuitions like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford philosophy continues to have the kind of cache that has made it attractive to the sons and daughters of the new aristocrats of American society.

In 1999 a group of idealistic young faculty members in the Department of Philosophy at Molloy College in New York decided to reclaim their discipline and sought to make it accessible to just about everyone.  The result was the creation of the Sophia Project--an online repository of philosophy resources that included thousands of pages of primary sources with commentaries, original articles, and even entire online courses.  What was truly amazing about this project was that ordinary people from around the globe were accessing the information provided on the site and using it for their own intellectual edification. 

The Sophia Project was removed from the Molloy College website for reasons too complicated to go into here.  But it has now re-emerged, better than ever, in a new form on its own website.  The same animating spirit that drove the original Sophia Project was behind its re-creation: that ordinary intelligent folks should have access to philosophical wisdom in a format that is "easily digestible." 

We didn't include all the resources from the original Sophia Project on the new site, but there's certainly enough there to stimulate even the most voracious reader of philosophy.  I'd encourage you to check The Sophia Project for yourself and let us know what you think.  You might just find that you rather enjoy reading some of the greatest selections from some of the greatest texts written by some of the greatest thinkers that mankind has ever produced. 

Visit the New Sophia Project!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Ethics of Quid Pro Quo, Part Two

I’ve got to acknowledge that my moral perspective has gotten much more restrictive in recent years than it was when I was younger.  As a college student, I had a wonderful, idealistic moral vision that was founded upon the radical altruism of the Gospels, the progressive social activism of the 1960s, and the example set by the great social exemplars of the 20th century—Gandhi, Bishop Romero, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Nader, in particular.  Back then I honestly believed that selfless compassion for those in need was possible and that through collective sacrifice we could transform the world into a much better place.

As I entered middle age, I began to recognize that there was little likelihood that I would ever become a saint and that personal and collective sins are not quite so easy to eradicate as I had assumed they were.  My moral position at this point is the happy mean between the Christian altruism of my youth, which I now find far too idealistic to implement in any kind of meaningful way, and the libertarian ideology which is running rampant throughout the United States, and which I find abysmally devoid of any concern for the common good.  I call this approach the Ethics of Quid Pro Quo and wrote about it in an earlier piece.  

In a nutshell, my position is that real reciprocity is the key to authentic moral interaction with other human beings.  Our obligations extend to autonomous others to the extent that they have entered into a relationship with us in which there is a balance between what is given and what is received.  Those who take without ever giving are moral pariahs who ought to be shunned; and those who give without ever expecting anything in return are moral fools, who almost deserve to be taken advantage of.  In the balance between the quid (that which is given) and the quo (that which has been received) a true moral relationship is formed in which the mutual needs of the parties involved are recognized and respected, and as a result both parties are morally and existentially affirmed through their interactions.

I’ve come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting others to reciprocate in some form when we care for them or do some act of kindness for them.  The expected reciprocation (the quid) should be roughly comparable in significance to the initial act (the quo), although, depending on the specific circumstances of the other, the act of reciprocation can at times be as minimal as an expression of appreciation (a sincere and heartfelt “thank you,” in other words).  I also think that it is a sign of decent moral character to consider how to reciprocate—and to what extent to reciprocate—when one has been treated kindly or generously by another person.  The person who never thinks about reciprocating at all is either a moral imbecile, and therefore not responsible for his actions, or, as I’ve already indicated, a moral pariah, who is best not associated with by anyone but the most committed masochist. 

As I contemplated how this ethics of quid pro quo might be implemented, I began to wonder what exactly our obligations are towards those who are not able to engage in the kind of exchanges demanded in this kind of moral system.  The answer quite simply is that, if an individual is incapable of truly reciprocating because of mental or physical incapacity or limitations (the seriously mentally or physically disabled or ill) age (young children), lack of free will (animals), or by virtue of the fact that they do not yet exist (future generations), then, individually and collectively, we have an obligation to work for the good of such individuals regardless of whether or not they can reciprocate.  Once again, however, we must be careful not to demean such individuals by automatically assuming that they are completely incapable of any sort of reciprocity at all.  Young children, for example, are able to give back much more than we typically assume and should be trained from a very early age to contribute to the good of their families and to the larger community in whatever way they are capable.

I also think that it has been a mistake of otherwise well-intentioned liberals to treat the economically disadvantaged as though they lacked the ability to either care for themselves or provide some service in kind for the public generosity bestowed upon them.  When charity, for example, is given to the poor in the form of food stamps or below cost public housing, with no expectations of any kind of reciprocating action on those receiving it, we treat such individuals as though they were not fully autonomous and therefore not quite as human as we are.  It really is an insult to their dignity as human beings, and does little more than make the distributor of charitable offerings feel morally superior to those who are the recipient of his or her largesse.  On the other hand, a well-constructed workfare program—and I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists right now in the United States—asks recipients of taxpayer support to give something back to the lager community, and in doing so allows those individuals the dignity of feeling like full participatory members of that community.  

One should not assume that my focus on reciprocity in moral actions means that I reject the value of charity completely.  There are those towards whom charity is certainly appropriate.  Victims of natural disasters, wars, and famines, for example, deserve our sympathy as well as our financial and emotional support; the same is true for those who fall victim to circumstances beyond their control (sickness, disability, mental illness, etc).  We have an obligation to individually and collectively care for such individuals, if they are not able to care for themselves.  And this is true, even if they are strangers who might never be able to repay our generosity in any meaningful way. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The New Religious Landscape

The 2012 Presidential Election has shown us that the religious landscape of America appears to have changed dramatically and perhaps irrevocably. White Christians overwhelmingly desired Mitt Romney to be the President of the United States, but discovered—much to their surprise—that they lacked the political clout necessary to achieve this goal.

Evangelicals, in particular, seemed shocked that they had so little power to affect the course of the election. In the election of 2000, Evangelical support helped George W. Bush win the White House and win re-election in 2004. In 2012, their overwhelming support for Mitt Romney was almost futile.

The country is changing rapidly and the changes that are occurring don’t bode well for the future of religious conservatives in general. For example:
  • One-fifth of Americans now claim no religious affiliation at all (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2012). 
  • One-third of Americans ages 18 to 22 self-identify as atheists, agnostics, or claim no religious attachments at all. 
  • These younger Americans, furthermore, are more likely to have a liberal outlook (70% of those who had no religious affiliation voted Democratic in the 2012 presidential election). They are also more likely to have tolerant views on abortion and same sex marriage and to take environmental concerns, like climate change, very seriously. 
In short, conservative manifestations of religious belief definitely seem to be on the wane throughout the United States and one could image a time in the not-too-distant future when the United States will look more like Europe: people might still identify themselves culturally with a particular religion and participate in services to celebrate significant transitional periods in their lives (marriage, childbirth, death, etc.), but they’ll keep organized religion at a distance and all but ignore the political and moral exhortations of religious leaders completely.

If one looks at the Catholic Church, for example, one can see this sort of change already occurring. The Church continues to rail against abortion, contraception, gay marriage and pre-martial sex. But its message is all but ignored by its members. When it comes to contraception in particular, Catholics clearly like their condoms and birth control pills and are not likely to give them up, no matter what the bishops—or the Pope for that matter—have to say on the subject.

What impact will these religious changes have on the politics of the United States? For one thing, I think that it is going to be very difficult for the Republican Party to win over younger Americans in the future if it continues to identify itself so closely with old white angry Evangelicals. The party might regain some influence if it could move beyond social issues, like abortion, and focus on its more traditional “small government, lower taxes” message. If it can’t do this, the Republican Party will increasingly become politically irrelevant—a party of fringe wackos who have nothing practical to offer the American people.

On a more positive note, I think that the death of religious conservatives and religious fundamentalism will ultimately be a good thing for the country. For the past decade the country has been held hostage by a group of religious extremists who really do believe that the end of the world is coming almost immediately, and that, therefore, it’s a waste of time to try to solve long-term problems like climate change. Once these extremists go the way of the dinosaur, perhaps we can begin to take a more long-term view of what’s ailing our country and our planet and actually create rational policies to address the issues that face us.

At the very least, it will definitely be a very good thing to be in a country in which the next generation actually begins to take its responsibilities to our planet more seriously and are not fixated on teotwawki (the end of the world as we know it). I might actually enjoy living in a world like that!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reflections on Leadership

One election; two candidates.

Both candidates did a very nice job attacking one another viciously for months and creating gross caricatures of each other's positions.  By the end of the election Obama became a a misguided, big government, tax-and-spend socialist from another planet and Romney became an out of touch plutocrat who would drive your dear old momma out into the street with his nefarious plans for social security. 

Unfortunately, neither candidate demonstrated the least bit of interest in discussing the really, really big issues facing us as a nation and as a planet.  These big issues, I believe,  include global warming, immigration policy, the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political system, the proliferation of assault weapons on our streets, and the failure of our educational system to adequately prepare students to excel in an increasingly competitive world.  There are other significant issues confronting us, certainly, but these are the ones that both Obama and Romney chose to ignore during the entire course of the election. 

This to me represents a failure of leadership on the part of both candidates for President.  I know exactly why they ran from addressing these kinds of issues -- because they're very contentious and also incredibly difficult to solve.   But isn't that precisely what a real leader is supposed to do: solve difficult problems?  And, if the country doesn't care about these issues or doesn't understand just how important these issues are, doesn't a real leader get out there and use the bully pulpit to educate and mobilize his fellow citizens? 

That's precisely what my own leadership role model, Franklin Roosevelt, did during both the Depression and World War II.  He saw there were problems facing the nation (millions of people out of work and fascism on the rise), understood what needed to be done to solve these problems (stimulate the economy through public works and mobilize the country for war) and then used his fireside chats to get the nation behind him.  And the nation did get behind him in the end.  The end result was that we got out of the Depression, defeated the forces of fascism, and became the economic and political superpower of the entire world. 

The philosopher Plato, in the Republic, argued that a real leader is one who has an understanding of the Good and then is trained to carry that good out for the betterment of the society.   That's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and 40s and that's precisely what our leaders today seem unable to do. 

But perhaps I don't fully understand what a leader really is and maybe the old paradigms of leadership no longer apply in a world that is so complex and fragmented. 

So what is a leader anyway?  Why do you think we seem to have so few real leaders guiding us today?  And what do you think the solution to the problem might be?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Natural Aristocracy

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (October 28, 1813)

"I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi [aristocrats]. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency.?I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi [pseudoaristocrats], of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them, but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society."

What we have in the United States at the present time is a situation in which there exists, for all practical purposes, an artificial aristocracy that is based upon wealth and social status.  The members of this aristocracy are no better than the rest of the citizenry, but they were lucky enough to have been born into privilege. 
Our founding fathers were naturally suspicious of such hierarchies among citizens based upon socio-economic class distinctions.  But they were also well versed in classical moral and political theory, and believed that, in fact, there existed natural differences among human beings.  Jefferson and Adams, for example, believed in what they referred to as "a natural aristocracy among men" that was based upon the possession of talent and virtue.  Some have it, they believed, and some don't. 
Furthermore, they believed that it was in the interest of society as a whole for these natural aristoi to be given the opportunity to rule their less gifted and less moral fellow citizens. 
Naturally, we Americans prefer not to believe that some of us are just plan better than others.  But that doesn't mean that such a natural aristocracy doesn't exist among us.  And if it does exist, wouldn't we all be better off acknowledging this and getting out of the way of those who might actually be better able to lead society?
My question, therefore, is:  Do you think that there is a natural aristocracy among human beings that is based upon the possession of talent and virtue?  And, if so, what might the implications of such an idea be for the way we ought to organize political society?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Importance of Absolutes

We live in a world in which there is a strange dichotomy concerning absolute truth.  An absolute is a truth that transcends our own subjective beliefs or opinions; this would be a truth that is not my truth or you truth, but The Truth. 

On the one hand, there are plenty of people who live their lives passionately defending absolutes that probably reflect personal bias, rather than being truths that can be defended rationally.  I'm talking about supposed absolute truths like:
  • There is a God (somewhere up there) and he'll caste you into hell for all eternity if you don't follow his commands to the letter.
  • Free market capitalism is the only legitimate way to structure the economy of a country.
  • Every sexual act must be open to the transmission of new life.
  • Only one religion is true, and it just happens to be mine.
The problem is that we often inherit ideas about what is true from our families, our communities, from the political groups to which we belong, and from our religions.  These supposed truths may not make much sense at all, but they become our eternal truths, our sacred dogmas.  We live are lives according to them, engage in conflict when they are challenged, and sometimes are even willing to die to defend them.

I have no doubts that the world would be much better off if people exercised a but more discretion when choosing the absolutes that are going to guide their lives.  And, if you can't come up with some rational arguments in defense of your Absolute, then that should tell you something right there.

But in my humble opinion, philosophy is precisely about about the search for absolutes.  We don't do philosophy or ethics for the purpose of obfuscation (despite what undergraduate philosophy majors might believe), but for the purpose of clarifying reality.  The quest for absolute truth, therefore, is the goal of the philosophical enterprise, and if there are no absolutes, then we are probably wasting our time doing philosophy at all.

I also think that it is logically impossible to negate the possibility that at least some absolutes exist.  The relativists says that there are no objective truths.  But doesn't this claim itself take the form of an absolute?  The atheist says their is no God...again an absolute.  The skeptic argues that very search for the truth is misguided...but this rejection of the truth becomes its own absolute. 

In short, if you are doing philosophy, you can't really help making Truth claims, and there's Absolutely nothing wrong with that.  A good absolute--whether it is metaphysical, religious, political, moral, or aesthetic--can provide the kind of order and meaning to life that we are all looking for. 

I have plenty of absolutes in my life.  Some have served me extremely well in life and have withstood the test of numerous challenges from men and women much smarter than I am.  Others haven't born up quite so well under scrutiny and I am in the process of re-evaluating them.  In fact, as I get older I find myself continually reexamining the sacred truths that have hitherto guided my life. 

So what are your own absolutes, anyway?  Can you argue rationally in defense of them or have they taken on the form of unreflected dogma?  And if you had to, could you defend your absolutes if they were challenged by the contemporary equivalent of a Socrates?

You might just be surprise where this kind of reflection take you, so give it a try!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Undecided Voter: Or Why Plato Hated Democracy

Mitt Romney is right: 47% of Americans will never vote for a Republican. But another 47% will never vote for a Democrat like Obama.  That's means that this extremely important election will basically be decided by the votes about about 6% of Americans.

This wouldn't be so bad of these 6% were the wisest, most politically astute, most intelligent individuals in our country.  Unfortunately, they are what has come to be known as "low-information voters" -- people who are either too lazy or too apathetic to adequately inform themselves about the issues facing our country and the differences between the two candidates running for office this year.

Some political pundits have celebrated undecided voters as being somehow more discerning and contemplative than those of us who know damn well who we are planning to vote for this year.  But I for one find it very troubling that the votes of the most politically ignorant among us count more than the votes of those who have actually taken the time and trouble to study the positions and records of those running for President.  So, instead of celebrating the undecided voter this year as paragons of civic virtue, let's just call them what they really are (in Bill Maher's terminology, not mine): ignorant dipshits.  

Actually, the Philosopher Plato believed that democracy itself was the problem.  When political decisions are made by those who don't have the proper knowledge, training, and expertise, the end result can only be harmful to society.  That's why he had his special elite -- his Philosopher-Kings -- be responsible for running the society.  These men and women would live a spartan-like existence, uncontaminated by the lure of filthy lucre, and would have the vision of the Good (not your good or my good, but THE GOOD) to guide them as they rule.

Now, very few people in contemporary society would probably support the idea of a political aristocracy led by a small philosophical elite.  But Plato's critique of democracy -- government by those who really don't have the knowledge or temperament to govern themselves -- is worth considering, especially in our own society, where our democratic institutions seem to be in crisis. 

The solution, however, is not to eradicate democracy, which may be not be the most perfect system of government, but is certainly the best of all those that have been tried.  I tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

If Jefferson is right, the solution to our own political malaise is to better educate Americans -- that is, to provide as many of our fellow citizens as possible with the knowledge and wisdom they need to exercise prudent self-governance.  What we need, in other words, is for the vast majority of our citizens to become Plato's philosopher kings and queens, and to have a vision of the good that can help guide our country through the 21st century.

Of course, this is almost an impossible goal.  When you consider those millions of undecided voters out there and millions more that are simply focused on their own economic self-interests, you have to wonder whether true government by the people (as opposed to the fictitious sort that we currently have in our own country) could ever be possible.

Hence Plato's wholesale rejection of democracy as a viable political system.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Political Leanings and Civic Dialogue

In a previous post, I encouraged people to take a short survey to find out which candidates running for office had views most similar to their own. This survey is useful to get people thinking about why they support one candidate over another and whether such support is actually warranted. But the survey doesn’t help the average person to understand their own political perspectives in a meaningful way.

It was for this reason that I exhorted those who were interested to take the Political Compass survey that’s also available on line. It’s a bit more involved than the “On the Issues Survey” and from past experience I’ve found that the typical college student is unable to interpret some of the questions. But this survey, when completed correctly, has the possibility of shedding light on one’s true political leanings in a way that can help clarify exactly where one stands on social and economic issues.

First things first. Take the test, answering the questions as honestly as possible:

Political Compass Survey

When you’ve completed the survey, you will get your results that place you along a spectrum in terms of your social and economic views. Socially, people are either more authoritarian (socially conservative) or more libertarian (socially liberal). Economically, people are either further to the left (economically liberal) or further to the right (economically conservative).

Political Compass Scale
Here are my own results from taking this survey:

Results for Mike Russo
As you can see, I am fairly libertarian (socially liberal) in my social view, and also fairly far to the left (economically liberal) in my economic views.

Now take my nemesis Lance B. Dowd’s results:

Results for Lance B. Dowd
As you can see, Lance is fairly authoritarian (socially conservative) in his social views and somewhat far to the right (economically conservative) in his economic views.

Based upon these results, you could assume that Lance and I would never see eye-to-eye on almost any issue, that we would almost always vote for different political candidates, and that there would be very little possibility of political dialogue between us. Our worldviews are just too dissimilar. But if Lance was either more libertarian in his social views or further to the left in his economic views, fruitful dialogue might very well be possible between us.

My own experiences engaging in political argumentation on the Occupy Wall Street site seem to bear this idea out. I’ve had wonderful dialogues with economic liberals who I might disagree with on social issues, but we could at least agree that our current economic system is causing harm to working families. I also have had some great conversations with libertarians who were fairly far to the right on economic issues, but we agreed on the importance of defending civil liberties.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I believe the current left-right divide in this country is far too simplistic and often gets in the way of fruitful civic dialogue. A survey like the Political Compass one forces people to separate their social views from their economic views and thus paints a more nuanced picture of the political leaning of different individuals that might allow intelligent civic discourse—rather than typical partisan rancor—to occur.

So take the survey, and let us know your results and how you feel about them. 

Watch the 2012 Presidential Debates

Friday, September 28, 2012

On Civic Engagement and Political Education

It really distresses me how little average Americans—even supposedly intelligent, college-educated people—know about the political process and the very serious social and economic issues that confront our nation and the world. I always loved the following quote from Thomas Jefferson, because it seems self-evidently true: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society,” he wrote, “but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Americans need to be educated about the issues, if we are to become a citizenry that has the wisdom and the understanding to govern itself, and if we are to avoid slipping even further away from the democratic ideals of our Founding Fathers. The first step in this process, I believe, is to clarify where we stand on the issues and to assess which candidates running for political office have positions most in line with our own.

Recently, Meritta Cullinan, a colleague in the Sociology Department at Molloy, sent me a link to an on-line survey that in a very simple way attempts to do just that:

It took me about 3 minutes to do the survey and the results were somewhat surprising in my case:

Apparently, the candidate whose views on the issues are closest to my own is someone I didn’t even know was running for President, and whose party I didn’t even know existed until now—RockyAnderson of the Justice Party. 
It wasn’t too surprising to me that I was close in political leaning to Jill Stein of the Green Party: I was a member of that party for several years and environmental issues are extremely important to me. But Rocky Anderson? Who the hell is he, anyway, and what exactly does he stand for? As I explored his website, I began to realize that he was indeed a candidate that I probably could endorse without feeling as though I was polluting my soul.

In an ideal society, the Rocky Andersons, the Jill Steins, and the Gary Johnsons of this world would have at least the possibility of becoming President, because there are an awful lot of Americans whose political views are probably more in line with those of these candidates than they are with those of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. But the two major parties seem to have the system completely locked up. They have all the funding, they have access to all the advertising, they even control our presidential debates, so that third party candidates can’t even get their views heard by the American people. We essentially have a two party political system that exists almost exclusively to prevent any other political voices from ever being heard.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And the first step, as I’ve already indicated, is to clarify your own views on the issues and look for candidates who share your own values and ideals. The second step is to stop worrying so much about “electability,” because if you feel compelled to support someone whose values and ideals are not in synch with your own, you will always be disappointed in the end.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on the 2012 election, you know who I feel compelled to vote for in November. But in this election, I’m basically voting against a party that I believe has such horrific positions on the economy, the environment, and civil liberties that I almost have no choice but to support the other guy and his lame-ass party. In a sense, I’m voting to stop what I consider to be moral evil, and that is what’s driving me right now. But I have absolutely no regrets voting throughout the years for Green Party candidates like Ralph Nader and “Grandpa” Al Lewis, because I know that my vote was for a candidate I could truly believe in.

In a few weeks each of us will have to step into the election booth and make our own choice about who we will be supporting for President. In preparation for this act of civic engagement, I’d strongly encourage you to take the “On The Issues”survey to see who your ideal candidate might be. If you’re interested in exploring your own political leanings in a more involved way, I’d invite you to spend a little more time going through the excellent "Political Compass" survey that is also available for free on-line.

The worst that could happen is that you spend five minutes of your life and realize that the candidate you were planning to vote for anyway is the one most in line with your own positions on the issues. But, like me, you may just be surprised at the results you receive. And these results might even inspire you to start questioning your allegiance and loyalty to candidates and parties whose positions on the issues may in fact be quite far removed from your own.

So take the survey, and let us know your results and whether you were surprised about them or not. 

Watch the 2012 Presidential Debates

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Average Joe and The Dilemma of Justice

Yes, he's average and his name is Joe, but what does he think about justice?

Book 1 of Plato's Republic.  Polemarchus, a character in the dialogue, has defined justice as "treating your friends well and your enemies badly."  This position wouldn't seem all that far from the view of justice accepted by the average "guy on the street" even today.

Most people intuitively feel that they have some obligation to promote the good of those who are close to them (friends, family, neighbors), but that this obligation doesn't extend to anyone outside this circle of interest.  They also feel that enemies deserve retaliation as a matter of justice.

Of course, most Americans, at the same time, would also describe themselves as "Christians."  And we know that the Gospel promotes an ethic of radical altruism and forgiveness.  Jesus exhorts us to sacrifice our own good the sake of the other, to care for strangers as though they were our brothers and sisters, and to forgive our enemies.  This, for a Christian is the true meaning of justice.

So who is right:  Polemarchus (the man on the street) or Jesus?  And why is there such a divorce between what most Christians actually believe justice to be and what the founder of their religion actually taught?


The "objective" part of this post is officially over, and now I feel compelled to muse about the issue at hand in my own clearly partisan style:

I suspect our average Joe gets more of his information about justice from Rush Limbaugh than he does from Scripture.  And his view of justice owes more the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye" than it does to Jesus exhortation to "turn the other cheek."  One need only to read some of the writings of a typical Christian evangelical to see that the position of average Joe on justice is just about as far removed from the spirit that animates the Gospels as it can get.

So, if our average Joe doesn't really buy into the ethos that's at the heart of his most sacred book, then why does he persist in his allegiance to the very faith that is founded upon the ideals in this book?   Habit probably.  He was most likely brought up as a Christian, his family is probably filled with Christians, all of his friends are probably also Christians, and he simply can't conceive of a life apart from the faith of his childhood.  

But to call average Joe a Christian in any true sense of the word is like calling a hyena a lion because they both have tails.  Average Joe may refer to himself as a Christian, but like Polemarchus in Book 1 of the Republic, his moral system is intellectually simplistic, extremely limited in scope, and overtly retributive in nature.  Taking good care of those you like and getting back at those you dislike might be a framework for justice that makes sense in a place like Texas, but it certainly will never promote the common good or create a society of anything more than the most self-interested individuals.  And it certainly has nothing in common with any legitimate version of Christian that I am aware of. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Plato's Republic: What is Justice?

The new study edition of the Republic that I put together with Stephan Mayo is now out and I'm using it this semester with a core group of very bright philosophy majors (The Elite!).  The text was based upon a series of course notes that Steve and I  put on-line over ten years ago, and it has been at least six years since I've explored the wisdom in this masterpiece of philosophical literature.

I've always felt that the Republic deserves to be called the greatest work in the field of philosophy, not only because of the influence it has had on the entire history of philosophy, but also because it treats virtually every important issue that any serious student of philosophy should care about. 

Of course, the main question that Plato/Socrates addresses is, "What is Justice?"  Now, this work was written almost 2,500 hundred years ago, but it seems that we are no closer to answering this question than the ancient Greeks were.  Liberals would argue that justice is caring for the most vulnerable members of the society, libertarians that it is allowing for maximal personal freedom and the most minimal government possible, and religious conservatives maintain that justice is only possible in a society which respects biblical values and ideals.

Everyone has his or her own ideas about what justice is and often these ideas come into conflict with one another.  As a communitarian and distributivist I certainly have my own ideas about what justice is.  Of course, the kind of society that I would create if I were the Philosopher-King would probably alienate just about everyone, except the three other people in the country who share my rather peculiar world-view. 

Some day soon I hope to articulate my own distributivist position on justice on this site, but right now what I'd really like is to find out what other people think justice is.   And I'd like to see if there's any commonalities among these views.

So, if you have your own ideas about what justice is--no matter how wacky they might be--feel free to share them with the rest of us!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Nice Propaganda

Everyone loves cheese;
No one loves hemorrhoids.
Romance is sweet;
Frowns are not.

So eat cheese, avoid afflictions of the posterior, get giggy (if you haven't taken a religious vow that would prohibit this), and break out that winning smile (provided you have teeth).  This is the secret to a happy, meaningful, and productive existence on this planet, and the guarantee for eternal happiness in the next life, for...

God enjoys cheese (or why would he have created the cow?),
and hemorrhoids make him very sad (or they would exist in heaven, which they do not),
and romantic love is good (for God is good, and God is love, and therefore...use your logic here),
and God truly approves of the man who smiles, or 

Pagliacci would never have so wisely said:  

Vesti la giubba,
e la faccia infarina.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t'invola Colombina,
ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!
Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto
in una smorfia il singhiozzo e 'l dolor, Ah!

...and, if you can't read this, it is entirely your fault, because Italian is the language of Dante and Rocco Capamezzo, and it is the most beautiful and melodious language in the whole world according to Il Progresso, and they should know! So learn Italian, and God will love you, and you will have all the cheese you want in life, and you will never have to experience the horrors of anal misery, and you will find romance with the man/woman/small woodland animal of your choice, and, as a result, you will no longer disgust others with that sad, unappealing frown that is always on your face.

...and now for my propaganda:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: A Political Review

I hate going to see films anymore in movie theaters, multiplexes, cineplexes, or whatever the hell they are called now.  I just can’t see spending $12 (or $25 if you are foolish enough to buy soda and popcorn) to be crammed into a sterile-looking theater with a relatively small screen and have to deal with hordes of annoying teenagers who just won’t shut up.  But I was persuaded, against my better judgment, to go see the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”  I have to confess that I wasn’t overly smitten by Nolan’s busy, loud, overblown take on the Batman myth or Christian Bale’s deadly-dour version of Bruce Wayne (Where’s Michael Keaton when you need him?).  But I was intrigued with the stories that I had been hearing about Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane, so I ventured forth from my own version of the Batcave to embrace the world of popular entertainment.  

First a quick review of the film:  The story is basically a rehash of the Joker film with anarchists taking over Gotham/Manhattan instead of the Joker and his gang wreaking havoc on the city.  Like Nolan’s previous films there are some wonderful special effects and some nice action sequences, but also plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.  The cast is all more than competent, although I am weary of Bale’s soulful Batman, Gary Oldman’s annoying method acting as Commissioner Gordon, and Morgan Freeman’s new spin on the righteous black man that he has played in every film that he has ever been in.   Anne Hathaway is a completely pale and uninteresting  “Catwoman” (Oh, for Julie Newmar!  Purr!!!) and  Michael Cain is wasted once again as Alfred.  But Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were both wonderful, as they are in every film they are in, and watching these two terrific actors on the big screen was definitely worth the price of admission. 
The bottom line about the film?  To appreciate any of Nolan’s films—and this is true of “Inception” as well as his Batman movies—you’ve got to completely suspend disbelief, ignore plot inconsistencies, and simply go along for the cinematic ride.  If you can do that, you’ll have a hoot watching “The Dark Knight Rises.”  If you start asking too many questions like why the villains of the film, who seem rather self-interested, don’t just leave Gotham before the nuclear bomb that they have set goes off, or how Batman gets his broken back healed in just a few months, while festering in a third world prison, or how he gets from that prison, which is in the middle of nowhere, back to Gotham City in just a few days without any resources or friends to help him…if you start asking questions like these, you might as well just give up on the film. 

Now for the politics of the film.   The plot seems simple enough: fanatical anarchists led by Bane take over Gotham and usher in their own version of the French Revolution.  There’s been much debate, however, about what exactly Nolan is trying to say in this film about our contemporary political situation in the United States (if anything at all). 
Blowhard conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh, for example, has suggested that the film’s villain, Bane, is actually a liberal attack on Mitt Romney:  “Have you heard this new movie, the Batman movie, what is it, The Dark Knight Lights Up or whatever the name is. That’s right, Dark Knight Rises. Lights Up, same thing. Do you know the name of the villain in this movie? Bane. The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, B-a-n-e. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran and around which there’s now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time. The release date’s been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing four-eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bain?”  If you actually watch the film, however, there’s no way that you could possibly view it as a liberal Hollywood conspiracy against Mitt Romney, expect perhaps in Limbaugh’s own oxycontin-riddled mind. 
But there definitely is a case to be made that this film, consciously or unconsciously, represents a reactionary attack on the values and beliefs of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Here are just a few bits of evidence for this interpretation:
  • The film is set in lower Manhattan and mostly around Wall Street—ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • Commissioner Gordon has been responsible at the beginning of the film for initiating Gotham City’s own version of Bush’s Patriot Act, and it is clearly viewed as a good policy that has kept Gotham safe for the past eight years. 
  • Bane is a self-professed anarchist, and this is what the Occupiers were accused of being by the media and right-wing pundits.
  • The city is “occupied” and “held hostage” by these anarchists.
  • The very language that Bane uses about income inequality in particular is lifted right out of Occupy Wall Street.  If the film doesn’t actually use the term, “The 1%,” (and I honestly can’t remember if it does or not) to describe the objects of Bane’s ire, there’s no doubt from the scenes of the elite being driven out of their “Park Avenue” apartments that this is who is being represented.
  • Although the wealthy in the film are portrayed as being completely callous to the plight of those less well off, Nolan’s film treats the rich who are forced to experience “wealth distribution” as the ultimate victims in the film.  Batman is seen as the only one who can right the wrongs that they have experienced and give them back all their ill-gotten wealth. 
  • In the end the city is saved by a millionaire who hasn’t worked in years, lives in a big mansion with a butler, and has more toys and gadgets than he can ever use in his lifetime.  Even after Bruce Wayne loses Wayne Manor, he still apparently has more than enough money to live high off the hog with his latest fling, Selina Kyle, in France.  Apparently, even in bankruptcy, the rich live by a different set of rules than you and I do!
As someone who had been greatly enamored with the Occupy Wall Street movement and who even made a film defending the protestors, I have to confess that I found some of the political themes in the film annoying and simplistic.  I almost wish that Nolan had just stuck to making an action film and spared us his attempts to be “relevant.” 

On the other hand, whether he realizes it or not, with “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan has done a great service to the Occupy Wall Street movement, by keeping it alive when it is all but moribund.  Despite its reactionary tone, the film also revives the always important topic of income inequality—the issue in the film which seems to motivate Bane. 
And here’s the ultimate kicker: more than a few people who I have spoken to have said that they found the character of Bane as portrayed in the film to be strangely compelling.  One went so far as to say that he almost was hoping that Bane would defeat Batman.  Bane is a violent, sociopathic thug, who is willing to commit the mass murder of millions of people, and audience loves him!  What could possibly account for this strange phenomenon?  My explanation is that the audience digs Bane because he believes in SOMETHING, because he clearly demonstrates passion and commitment, and because he is able, through his example and his lofty rhetoric, to inspire his supporters to follow his vision for Gotham City.  All this actually is what a leader does.  And perhaps the audience simply appreciates the fact that Bane has any values at all in a world where our own political and economic elites seem to value only the perpetuation of their own power and wealth. 
Turning a self-professed anarchist into the true hero of “The Dark Knight Rises” was a really neat trick—especially when that character was supposed to be the villain of the film.  Nolan is also producing the new Superman reboot that is coming out next year.  If he can just turn Lex Luther into a contemporary version of Leon Trotsky and have General Zod spout some nifty Leninist doctrine, who knows, the Marxist International might come sooner than any of us could possibly imagine. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Catholicism in Crisis

Last week National Public Radio did a fascinating series of interviews about the Church’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a body that represents 80% of the Catholic nuns in the United States. The first interview was with Sr. Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR; the second was with Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, who participated in the investigation and censuring of that group.

Listen to the Interview with Sr. Pat Farrell

Listen to the Interview with Bishop Leonard Blair

Naturally my sympathies lie completely with the sisters. I’ve had the pleasure of working for most of my professional career with women religious in many different orders (Sisters of Mercy, Felicians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, most notably), and what I’ve discovered is that they typically represent what is best and most ideal about the Catholic Church. Women religious are the ones who are usually in the trenches, ministering to the most vulnerable individuals in our society. They are also the ones who do most of the grunt work that keeps the Catholic Church running, and, as a reward, they are often treated like second class citizens within their own Church.

Concerning the substance of the discussion between Farrell and Blair, I have to confess that my feelings are decidedly more mixed. On the one hand, I think that the Church’s fixation on issues of “pelvic theology” (contraception, homosexuality, and abortion) represents an antiquated vision of Christianity that is completely out of step with the reality of most practicing Catholics' lives. The outright rejection of female ordination, likewise, reflects the most misogynistic traits of contemporary Catholicism. Finally, the idea that intelligent human beings shouldn’t even be allowed to discuss issues like gay marriage, the legitimate use of contraception to limit procreation, and the arguments in favor of allowing women to become priests similarly strikes me as an ecclesiastical vision more appropriate to the Middle Ages than to the 21st century.

I am also extremely distressed by the notion that these women religious should be condemned, not for what they actually did and said, but for what they didn’t do and didn’t say. Apparently, it’s not enough that Catholic nuns are on the front lines of doing battle against war, poverty, homelessness, hunger, the death penalty, genocide, racism, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. It seems that they are also expected to spend a significant amount of their time verbally assaulting married couples who find it necessary to use birth control, homosexuals who for some strange reason prefer not to be celibate, and women forced by dire economic circumstances to have abortions (and I thought that’s what parish priests were for!).

That having been said, I think that Blair’s position is essentially correct. The Catholic Church, as it currently exists, is a hierarchical organization in which essential doctrines of faith come from the bishops and are promulgated downward to the rest of the Church. For better or worse, the magisterium of the Catholic Church has spoken out quite clearly on matters such as abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and female ordination. More enlightened members of the Church might want to see some or all of these teachings modified to better reflect the world in which we live, but in Catholicism it’s the bishops—wise and caring shepherds that they are—who establish the rules, and it’s for the rest of us—members of the flock—to follow them willingly and joyfully.

In the end, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will only really have one viable option. Compromising with a Church that sees total obedience and complete submission as the only legitimate responses to ecclesiastical authority seems unlikely without female religious sacrificing their deepest moral and spiritual principles. The other option is some form of resistance to ecclesiastical authority. But that’s a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to a rupture within Catholicism itself. It seems that Pope Benedict and his bishops are willing to risk such a rupture in their misguided efforts to ensure total doctrinal compliance.

What makes this issue so fascinating for me is that, when one listens to the two positions laid out in the interviews, one is presented with what are essentially two incompatible views of the Catholic Church. The first is much more democratic in nature, open to sincere dialogue, focused on issues of social justice, and totally engaged with the world; the second is hierarchical in nature, autocratic in style, focused obsessively on issues of “pelvic” theology, and completely out of touch with the reality of most normal people’s lives.

I know which Church I’d like to belong to…and it’s most assuredly not the one being run by old white men wearing dresses.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


The birds are silent in the woods.
Just wait: Soon enough
You will be quiet too.

(Robert Hass, "After Goethe")

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Debate on the Free Market

Required Reading for the Debate:

Arthur Brooks, "Five Myths About Free Enterprise"  (Washington Post, July 2012)
Joseph Stiglitz, "Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1% " (Vanity Fair, March 2011).

A conservative colleague, Scott, sent me the above piece by Arthur Brooks in order to persuade me that my hostility towards our American free-market system is misguided.  The piece got me thinking seriously about the huge divide between libertarians/conservatives and progressives/liberals in this country.  At times it almost seems as though we are speaking completely different languages and that any sort of reasonable meeting of the minds is impossible. 

I'll admit that more than a few times I've been guilty of baiting and provoking conservatives, but this time I thought I would try to see if it could be possible to have an honest, intelligent dialogue between the left and right on this very important issue.  We who are living in the United States in 2012 are at an economic and political crossroads: the country will either move in a more libertarian direction (smaller government, more tax cuts, less regulation) or a more liberal one (more government programs for those at risk, tax increase for the wealthy to pay for these programs, and increases in government regulations on corporations).   Since these ideas about our future are basically incompatible, it behooves all of us to think seriously about them. 

So I asked associates from across the ideological spectrum to weigh in on this issue.  And here is how they responded:

Mike Russo (Distributivist)

Scott, although I disagree with some of your positions, this is one case where we are in agreement. I believe in free enterprise--as much, or maybe even more, than any libertarian does. Remember, I own my own small business (it may not be a financially viable business, but it is a business nonetheless). And, as a businessman, it would be idiotic of me to attack the free enterprise system, which enables me to earn the meager profits that I do.

That having been said, I do believe that what we have in the United States today is not free enterprise in the true sense of the word--or in any sense that someone like Milton Friedman would understand it. What we have is actually a kind of corporate fascism, where a very small percentage of the population controls most of the wealth, rigs our economic system for its own advantage, and uses the ill-gotten wealth that they basically steal from the rest of us to control our system of government. 

So, although I agree that free enterprise in the true sense of the word might actually help to distribute wealth broadly and this would certainly promote the common good, this is most definitely not what we have in the United States at the present time. We might have had something of a free-market system in the post-war period, but is certainly doesn't exist any longer (especially after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision).

The one thing I would take issue with in the piece is with Brook's claim that Wall Street and the banking industry had nothing to do with the financial crisis that we are in. This is typical conservative nonsense.  Wall Street  and the banking industry are almost totally to blame for our economic melt-down, and this is the very reason why we need much more government regulation of these industries.

But other than that, I'm glad that we can agree that free markets are a very good thing. We just need to define a bit more carefully what a true free market is...and what it is not.

P.S. Since we are exchanging required reading, here's something you might want to look at. It's by a Nobel Prize winning economist, but you can just call him a deluded liberal if you prefer:

Christopher Salute (Pro-Business Centrist)

I agree, for the most part with Brooks' five points. Though, I find anyone who stands completely on one side of any playing field more ignorant than those reading their articles. At least those reading the paper and educating themselves are attempting to find middle ground. And, I think that's where we'll all find peace with corporate and governmental policy.

I'm baffled at the stances I'm seeing against free trade, lately. I see it in students and even my own colleagues. We play the blame game and debate in circles. It comes down to a few inescapable facts:

Yes, many large corporations are corrupt. This is the case all over the world. The difference in the US is that they are not DIRECTLY tied to the government, local law enforcement, and exploiting their employees for pennies a day in unsafe work environments. And, you have the freedom to protest this without lethally being shot at.

The financial landscape exists this way for a few reasons. One is that bankers are constantly looking for higher margins. This is true. And, I think that there is a ridiculous amount of unshared wealth, out there. But, I'd prefer that over being allowed 2 pairs of shoes, a sack of flour, and a mule after working my tail off to become a doctor. Because, that's the other side of the coin.

What we forget are the other few reasons that the financial landscape is this way. The first is that corporate banks (unless they hold on to and service their "paper") borrow and sell to and from the US government. This is regulated. In order to remain competitive, loan agencies will push the legal limit to how far they can lend because they have to hit their quotas to be able to sell their loans back to the fed.. And, they depend on the government banks to say "yes you can" or "no you cannot do this." I think that is where the major breakdown was during the meltdown. Loan agencies are going to do everything they can to make money. This is to be expected. If you are the regulator, you must regulate. This is the difference between morality and LEGALITY.

The second is that consumers are no longer doing their homework. I have worked in finance, communications, human resources, marketing, sales, etc. etc. And, the silliest thing I hear from co-workers, colleagues, customers, alike is "Well, nobody ever told me that." Did you really think that borrowing another $100,000 against your home at a volatile interest rate was a good idea? Prime and other rates like this were jumping all over the place. Loans are subject to change based on this. You MUST know what you're doing before you jump into the deep end with all or most of your money.
  • "Nobody told me this rate could jump to 12%"
  • "Nobody told me that my art history degree wouldn't get me a job"
  • "Nobody told me that this product I paid $1 for was inferior to the $20 counterpart."
I think that what happened this decade was a perfect storm of uneducated (but more importantly irresponsible) consumers who expected someone else to do their work for them, definitely corrupt large corporate bankers, and a lending/government system that LOOKED more regulated than it actually was.

But, free enterprise? THAT is what creates jobs. Nearly 90% of us work for small businesses (under 1000 employees). They are responsible for the most job growth, innovation, and revenue in the US. So, why attack them?

I am all about job growth, giving back (believe me when I tell you I give a larger proportion of my earnings to charities all over the world than most anyone you'll meet), etc. And, I am the last one to buy a new car, 20 new suits, or a rolex. But, as a small business owner and executive in the top 10% of US salary earnings, I can tell you I have earned every dime I've made. And, if I were in the top 1%, I'd have earned that, too. What probably keeps me back is my desire to educate myself and see my family more. The career track I was one would have put me in that same bracket had I not gone back to school and chosen a different path. And, nobody is entitled to that money but me! Tax me all you want. I'll donate at my leisure. But, don't penalize me because you don't think I worked hard for it. I'm sorry that I don't have my own reality show for you to watch.

I continue to struggle because I live just outside the largest city in the world, am earning my PhD, and graduated college just a few years before the recession. I have debt, I have sat up at night wondering if I could make my mortgage payment, couponed my way through a grocery store so I could eat, etc. etc. I woke up the next day and I figured it out. But, thank GOODNESS I am in a country where I can do that. This sense of entitlement is the biggest barrier to getting us out of the recession. Nobody owes anyone a job, a suit, and a meal. If you think that, you'll be waiting for those until your last day. There are thousands of employed illegal aliens doing manual labor. That Art History degree is doing nothing on your wall so use it to dig up some potatoes in the midwest if you're that hard up for work.

 To generalize this group of people and say "all business men are criminals" is just as bad as saying "all protestors are bums."

Peter K. Fallon (Christian Progressive)

I think it comes down to a fundamental problem, one that no one really wants to talk about. That is ideology. Not any particular ideology, but the phenomenon of ideology itself: any idea, flexible in its birth, that becomes increasingly rigid and rule-bound to the point that it becomes "the one true way" and anyone with the balls to suggest a modification finds his/her loyalty or "purity" questioned.

That has happened to American Capitalism in the last thirty years (and, consequently, to global Capitalism after the fall of the rigidly ideological Soviet Union).

There is only one acceptable form of Capitalism -- out of many, many iterations -- for the American economic right today: global, unregulated, laissez faire, (so-called) "free-market" Capitalism. Any other form, for this group, is not Capitalism at all, but an evil masquerade of Capitalism (I can imagine some reading this right now thinking, "but it IS an evil masquerade! It IS!"). By this reckoning, FDR was a Socialist -- or even a Communist. Barack Obama is not only a Socialist or even a Communist, he is also a Nazi, a Kenyan, a usurper, and the embodiment of evil (I can imagine some reading this thinking, "but he IS the embodiment of evil! He IS!"). Government, this rigid, ideological perspective says, has no role to play in a marketplace: not consumer protection, not environmental protection, not the health and safety of workers and consumers, not the protection of investors and/or bank depositors, not the investment or subsidizing of new technologies that might release us from dependence on old technologies (which, oddly enough, this same group seems to have little objection to government subsidization).

Furthermore, government must not help the poor and unemployed (make them "dependent" on a "nanny state") lest they become lazy and spoiled. It is not insignificant that Adam Smith made note of the relationship between redundant labor and wages. Blessed are the poor, for they shall work more cheaply...

The fact of the matter is that Capitalism is a philosophy, not an ideology (or, at least, it is in principle if not in current practice). Smith's "Wealth of Nations" is not a rule book; it is a description of principles Smith observed at work in the emerging economy of the (English) industrial revolution. It is one of a number of Enlightenment documents, every bit as much as the distinct social contract theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, as Montesquieu's separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers. And just as we've seen the changing nature of the social contract, as well as the changing nature of separation of powers (there were no multinational corporations with unlimited access to legislators until the 20th century), the nature of Capitalism legitimately changes, because the relationship between its constituents must change.

One of the biggest changes we have seen came in the 20th century and the rise of an image culture made possible by photography, the lithograph, and half-tone printing, and, of course, television. The digital technologies continue this change. Smith described a Capitalist system rationally organized around capital (including technology), resources (including labor), and a marketplace. Each market has its own needs, rationally identified; resources (including labor) are available to differing extents according to the various characteristics of the market; and capital goes to work organizing the resources and producing the commodity necessary to satisfy the market's need.

This situation no longer exists. It is gone the better part of a century, and completely gone a half-century or more. Capitalism as we currently play the game is more or less entirely irrational. Needs are trumped by mass-manufactured desires. Satisfaction is replaced by saturation. Quality of content falls to attractiveness of presentation.

But even Smith saw, 240-something years ago, that economic advancement -- especially when spurred by technological change -- has negative consequences for society.

I'm always curious whether the most rigid, ideological Capitalists have ever even read "Wealth of Nations;" however, I'd bet what little money I have in my 401k that most have not read Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments." It was Smith, indeed, who pointed out the problem of greed and selfishness; not merely pointed it out, but actually labeled it a "problem," one damaging to the social fabric. And he acknowledges that this greed sometimes results in objective social injustice. And -- AND! -- Smith actually points to the role of government in enforcing just interaction -- not simply by punishment once an injustice occurs, but "enforcing the practice of this virtue":

"As the violation of justice is what men will never submit to from one another, the public magistrate is under a necessity of employing the power of the commonwealth to enforce the practice of this virtue. Without this precaution, civil society would become a scene of bloodshed and disorder, every man revenging himself at his own hand whenever he fancied he was injured." (Theory of Moral Sentiments, VII. 4. 35.)

So if we could drop the ideological demands of "purity" and begin to see that there IS NO ONE "TRUE" Capitalism, and that Capitalism well-regulated is Capitalism still, and -- in Adam Smith's views -- one morally superior to a Capitalism that refuses to deal with anti-social attitudes like greed and selfishness, it would be a good thing.

As for Brooks's analysis of the five "myths":

1] Mark Twain's three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. There may be a greater proportion of the world's population living on more than $1/day now than in 1970. So what? In aggregate numbers there are a half billion more people living on $1/day now than in 1970. This is a desperate, de-contextualized piece of bullshit that ideological Capitalists (and, no, not all Capitalists are ideologues) trot out whenever they feel on the defensive. Poverty is growing in raw numbers. Hunger is growing in raw numbers. Globally. Stop with the "proportion of the world's population." Asia has grown far faster than Africa -- mostly because of a totalitarian, tightly-controlled Capitalism in China. In some places, like Zambia and Mozambique, the proportion of people living in desperate poverty has grown.

2] Brooks creates a false dichotomy. It's not either/or. Free markets don't have to be driven by greed. If they weren't driven by SOME greed, however, they wouldn't need regulation. And even when greed is present in a free market, not all the participants are greedy, self-centered, and anti-social. But greed drives a free market when market values replace humanist or spiritual ones, and no regulations are in place to inhibit selfish, anti-social behavior.

3] This is a scare tactic, closely related, I think, to calling any criticism of the (current) system of redistribution of wealth "class warfare." Americans DON'T resent the wealthy. They DO admire them. There's no class warfare going on. Americans simply want the wealthiest Americans to pay -- ooops, I almost said the nasty, class warfare-based phrase "their fair share." Americans simply want their wealthiest neighbors to pay in proportion to the benefits they receive. Even yesterday's Rasmussen poll -- that reddest of all red pollsters -- shows a majority of Americans (67%) in favor President Obama's tax plan. Envy has nothing to do with it. Justice has.

4] This one is just nuts. I have nothing to say -- except this: this is as good an example of the influence of ideology on opinion as you're ever likely to find. It becomes impossible to see something that is objectively manifest and measurable to the world if that something is in opposition to your ideology. It's a kind of cognitive dissonance. Or a refusal.

5] Free enterprise is not unfair, no. And I must say I find this one to be something of a straw-man argument, easily destroyed, that I've never heard from critics of Capitalism (as played right now). Free enterprise is NOT unfair. Free markets are NOT unfair. All of this, however, is a distraction from the real issue. What is unfair is the rigid, ideological orientation that demands the illogical conclusion that because they are NOT unfair, they must therefore be fair. This is an anthropomorphizing of a system -- a technique -- into a sentient being with will and intention. Saying a free market is unfair (or fair) is like saying a gun is fair or unfair, or a nuclear warhead is fair or unfair. What we DO with that gun or that nuclear warhead or that free market is really the question. What are the intentions of the man holding the gun? What are the intentions of the players in the market?

The fact remains that markets are not morally neutral. They are a technique founded on the values of profit, efficiency and expansion. They are no longer rational, being motivated by the desires of developed marketplaces as opposed to the needs of undeveloped ones. They tend to exploit the undeveloped markets for the benefit of the developed ones. Especially when they're not regulated.

And THAT, not Capitalism or a market, is what is unfair.

Thomas McNamara (Libertarian)

What is striking are the diametrically opposed views of capitalism of Michael and Peter. Mike starts off by saying he is a strong believer in free enterprise, perhaps more than me, and what he is railing against, without calling it by name, is crony capitalism. Mike points out that the capitalism we have now is not that advocated by Milton Friedman (who was my economics professor at Chicago). With all this I agree. There is a difference between being pro free market and pro big business. Watch Ron Paul on Youtube and you will see that libertarians are the biggest opponents of crony capitalism.

Peter likewise rails against crony capitalism. Peter argues that there is more than one type of capitalism, and capitalism with regulation is still capitalism, and we should get away from advocating just free market capitalism.

However, it is government intervention in the free market, whether by regulation or otherwise, which brings about crony capitalism. George Stigler (also University of Chicago) pioneered studies decades ago in the economic theory of regulation showing that big businesses or other political interest groups usually wind up "capturing" the regulators and using regulation for their benefit or against newer smaller competitors. The reason we have so much lobbying and crony capitalism is because the government has largesse to hand out, whether it be government loan guarantees in favor of Solyndra, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac,, or government bailouts of banks. Minimize government intervention in the market and the government has less to hand out, and there will be less lobbying and crony deals. Thus, government regulation is not a solution, it is part of the problem.

Much of what Mike says is discussed in a recent book by Luigi Zingales (also of the University of Chicago), entitled A Capitalism for the People.  So, Mike, you have been exposed as a closet Chicagoan (Friedman, Zingales, et al.). Welcome. Your real argument is with another resident of Chicago, Peter Fallon, and his pro-regulation position.

Thomas Trottier [Marxist]

I guess I would say the following regarding this debate, from the perspective of a Marxist:

1. Capitalism creates a growing divide, with a few very wealthy at the top and a larger impoverished mass at the bottom. This is true world-wide or from just looking at the USA. When I look at this, I don't just look at income [although that can also show dramatic differences], I look at I look at ownership of property, particularly financial wealth. As an example, the richest 400 individuals in the USA in 2008 owned wealth directly that equaled 10% of the US GDP! This is a country of more than 300 million people.

2. Under capitalism, corporations that are successful and grow bigger push out the other businesses. Therefore there is greater concentration of wealth. Even if these corporations contract-out some of their work to small businesses, it is the corporations that dominate the economy. Look at how CVS and others have almost eliminated the mom & pop drugstore. Home Depot and Lowes have had a similar effect on the small hardware stores. That is not fascism, that is capiatlism.

3. Marx explains that capitalism has a tendency to over-production [and over capacity]. This leads to crisis. The 1930's crisis was ultimately caused by this. World War II, with its massive destruction eliminated the over-production and allowed the post-war boom that came to an end in the 1970's. Capital's use of credit, speculation and gimmicks allowed the economy to move forward, at a slower pace, but this prepared the world for the present slump and "credit crisis."

4. We are now in for a long period of world-wide capitalist downturn. All the governments have no choice but to implement austerity. The coming election in the USA is not a choice between bigger and smaller government, it is a choice between someone who openly proclaims austerity and someone who will basically pursue similar policies, but with maybe a few small taxes on the wealthier part of the population to convince people that we must share the pain. Neither party can solve this crisis.

5. Unemployment and poverty will grow, in an overall sense, as capitalism will not invest in any major way in production. Why would they? They have excess capacity.
6. As the reserve army of the unemployed grow, the capitalist will continue to cut wages and benefits and make workers [those luck enough to have a job] work longer and harder.

7. Like it or not, there will be many more movements [see Greece, Egypt, Spain, Quebec] in countries all over the world, including the USA as the masses struggle to defend their standard of living. Eventually, a layer will come to see that what is needed is Socialism. This will be a long and complex process given the capitalist control of the media and the confusion added to the movement regarding the experience of Stalinism and re-formism.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Marxist approach to the economy, check out Socialist Appeal's website

Peter K. Fallon (Reply to Thomas McNamara)

Tom, one of the dangers of ideology is its dismissive approach -- frequently descending into ridicule -- toward ideas that appear to threaten, simply because they question, the central "truth" of the ideology.

So when you weren't cha-cha-ing upon the supposedly diametrically-opposed views of Mike and myself (in fact, there is very little opposition between our statements, none of it diametric, all of it a matter of nuance -- and ideology hates nuance), you appeared to be two-stepping around my major point: whether you see Capitalism as a philosophy or an ideology; whether you think it is a "science" with "theories" supporting it, or whether it is really nothing more than a set of observations based on a constantly-changing human nature.

More importantly, you give no indication of whether you teach it as an ideology.

Finally, you misrepresent my stance. I am not "pro-regulation." I am anti-ideological. I am against the dismissal *before the fact* of the possible need for regulation to right wrongs the market fails to correct, or to balance a playing field that looks fine to the *human beings* playing on it, but not so fine to the ones who are left out. That may be a nuanced point, but it's not a terribly difficult distinction to recognize. So I wonder whether you simply missed it, or chose to dismiss it?

Thomas McNamara  (Reply to Peter K. Fallon)

First, let me point out that, as a practising attorney who does not have the summer off, I did not have the time to address everything with which I disagree in your email, when I responded to Mike's invitation to comment before leaving to go to work this morning. Nor did I think it was incumbent upon me to do so.

In successive emails you have expressed concern about what I teach my students about capitalism. I would never question you about what you teach your students in your class as I would not want to impinge upon your academic freedom. Since you asked, however, you should be aware that I am an adjunct instructor who teaches business law and I do not teach economics or capitalism.

My views about capitalism were formed based upon my study of economics at the University of Chicago, my reading, my observations of the world, my understanding of history, and my experience. I believe that free market capitalism is the economic system which leads to the most efficient allocation of scarce resources, is responsible for improving the quality of life of humankind, including poor people, and is the system most consistent with individual freedom. It concerns me not whether you want to refer to it as philosophy or ideology.

I respect your points of view, with most of which I disagree, but I am not dismissive of them a priori. For example, my views of the harmful effects and counterproductiveness of government regulation and intervention are based upon the work of George Stigler and others concerning the economic theory of regulation, and numerous examples of government regulation or intervention making problems worse (e.g., minimum wage laws intended to help poor people leading to greater unemployment of them, federal mortgage loan guarantees leading to the housing bubble and foreclosures, federal student loan guarantees leading to students being burdened with opressive debt and increases in tuition which far outstrip the pace of inflation, rent controls leading to reduced housing, price controls leading to scarcer supplies, stimulus and bailouts leading to debt crises and bubbles, antitrust laws supposedly intended to foster competition instead leading to government action against more succesful companies instigated by competitors who can not competer in the makerplace, the machinations of the Federal Reserve leading to the suppression of interest rates, less savings, and massive declines in 401K and pension fund values, etc., etc., etc.).

I am not dismissive of your views a priori.. I just find these writings and economic examples more persuasive.