Monday, March 2, 2020

Serious People

     Good morning, Gentle Reader. Welcome to another Monday in the Land of the Free. If your prospects don’t exactly fill you with enthusiasm for the day, perhaps this tirade will help you along, though I shan’t promise in which direction.

     This will be a screed of parts. Yet it will display a curious, compelling unity: a cohesion around a theme of overriding importance. Its cumulative impact will widen your vision, allowing you to see more of the world, and more of its details, than your previous mundanities would support. After you have read it, you can never again be what you were beforehand.

     Of course, that last statement is true of a trip to the W.C., as well. Read your Heraclitus.

     In every place and time there have been persons whose most ardent desire is to regard themselves as superior to others. I have no doubt that this will be the case for as long as Mankind is permitted to exist. Indeed, the tendency is so pervasive that it touches every man who has ever lived or ever will: that terrible, irresistible need to measure oneself against others near or far.

     I can’t condemn it in its entirety. The desire to be better tomorrow than today is linked to it. It expresses itself in many forms, including the adoption of role models and the desire to equal or exceed their accomplishments. I’ve ventured in that direction myself, as I noted in this piece. It’s an ingredient of hope, a necessary counterweight to the impulses to surrender and despair.

     But there can be no ignoring its dark side. To want to be better than you were is understandable and laudable. To want to be better than Smith over there, as an explicit statement of intent, is dubious. To make beating Smith your central aim, unless it’s confined to the context of a sporting event, is deplorable. Yea verily, even if it should never eventuate in any harm to Smith whatsoever.

     One of the greatest contributions of Christian moral teaching is its emphasis on humility: not self-denigration nor self-disparagement, but the acceptance of others as children of God no less valuable than oneself. We are all limited, fallible human beings – all sinners. We owe the greater part of what we are and have to others. Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientific genius our race has produced, wrote that “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” If he could say so un-ironically, how true must it be for the rest of us?

     That tendency to want to be better than the other guy is humility’s mortal enemy.

Kuato: What do you want, Mr. Quaid?
Douglas Quaid: The same as you; to remember.
Kuato: But why?
Douglas Quaid: To be myself again.
Kuato: You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memories.

[From Total Recall.]

     While ever so slightly off-target, Kuato’s assessment is far more right than not. It accounts for a phenomenon widely acknowledged but seldom discussed: the tendency of those who have been shorn of their occupations, whether by retirement or involuntary action, to dwindle and die for lack of purpose. Their lives cease to have meaning for them. Without meaning, we cannot continue on.

     Ponder that connection for a moment. Why should “meaning” proceed from “what you do” — ? Why is a living man, whole and healthy, not “enough” in some absolute sense? Is it not enough to enjoy existence, to glory in the beauties and pleasures of the world, without troubling oneself to contribute something to it of one’s own contriving?

     The only answer we have is an empirical one, founded on what we have observed: Apparently not. Moreover, we are all but unanimous in regarding the idler as a worthless creature no matter how riotous a revel his life appears to be. Whether rich or poor, we look upon him with disdain. We might even call him “unserious:” “Why doesn’t he do something with his life?”

     I feel that this is connected to another subject. I’ve written about that subject several times. But as it’s early in the morning, I suppose I should leave that possibility for exploration after a second pot of coffee.

     There are many skills pertinent to living an agreeable life. One that has been badly neglected in recent decades is the skill of the mandatory disaggregation. Those who lack it are made conspicuous by their denunciations of groups when individuals are their proper targets: the offense all too often called “racism” when the proper term is collectivism.

     A few examples of when a disaggregation is mandatory:

  • Yes, many Jews have been socialists, and contributed to the erection of socialism in the old Soviet Union. Many Jews still believe in and advocate socialism today. That does not mean that all Jews are socialists.
  • Yes, Negroes, particularly young Negro males, commit a disproportionate share of our nation’s violent crimes and crimes against property. That does not mean that all Negroes are criminals.
  • Yes, many Muslims – approximately 15% of the total –advocate the violent overthrow of all systems of government and society that do not recognize Islam as the supreme law. That does not mean that all Muslims are Islamists or would willingly collaborate in the subversion of the United States.
  • Yes, a substantial fraction of “the rich,” however one might choose to define that status, regard themselves as superior to those not so blessed and would gladly accept the power to rearrange every aspect of our lives. That does not mean that all “the rich” are aspiring dictators.
  • Yes, a goodly number of homosexuals actively encourage the young to try homosexuality for themselves, or to identify themselves as homosexual. That does not mean that all homosexuals are evangelists for their condition.
  • Yes, many atheists regard theists as “stupid” for our belief in a Supreme Being who decreed the laws of this universe and of human nature. That does not mean that all atheists are supercilious and self-important.
  • And yes, many Christians even today are intolerant of persons who deviate from the Christian ethos. That does not mean that all Christians are bigots.

     I believe that covers the currently most important cases.

     The recognition of the facts cited above can – in some cases, “should” – give rise to personal policies concerning the avoidance of situations in which particular demographic cohorts have concentrated. But when individuals interact, the strengths, weaknesses, and personal ethics of those individuals are what count. The source of those characteristics is unimportant. Nor is one’s assessment of Smith a valid reason to generalize about others in his cohort.

     The relevant technical term is the “Undistributed Middle.”

     I suppose I should round this off and present a summation.

     What lit my boiler this fine morning was a piece from another writer, who shall go unnamed, in which appeared the assertion – paraphrased, to defeat search engines – that “the libertarians I know don’t care about morality....If they’re against [specified obscenity] they should condemn it and help us put an end to it.” I’ve been seeing a lot of such slander in recent months, and I’ve had enough of it. Hence this essay.

     It is possible that the statement quoted above is correct, but take careful note of the phrasing: “The libertarians I know.” If the writer is inclined to generalize from his / her / its own sample space, that writer is doing an injustice. Here is the proof:

I am a libertarian.
I care deeply about the morality of our nation.
Therefore, not all libertarians are unconcerned about the morality of our nation.

     Similarly, with application to a slander evoked by a different sociocultural phenomenon:

I am a libertarian.
I have absolutely no interest in “recreational drugs.”
Therefore, not all libertarians “just want to get high.”

     [As we mathematical types like to say, quod erat demonstrandum.]

     This could hardly be clearer. Indeed, I am reasonably certain that what propels the opposite, false conclusion is the desire for devils to blame for what the writer deplores. That desire can be strong enough to warp anyone’s thinking, especially one deeply anguished over a social or cultural malady.

     But anguish is not a justification for slander, especially slander of a philosophical-political conception championed by persons who – very much like myself – just want to be left alone in the enjoyment of what is rightfully ours. Especially as John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman are our beloved brothers. If the writer whose sentiments I paraphrased would condemn them, he / she / it is a contemptible fool – especially as it can be demonstrated that the massive overexpansion of the public sphere, in consequence of which so many institutions are owned and operated by a government and an even greater number of others are closely “regulated” by governments, is closely correlated with most social maladies.

     Serious people think seriously. They admit to their own fallibility. They learn how to recognize patterns of pseudo-reasoning that lead to false and dangerous conclusions. They resist premature generalizations and they perform mandatory disaggregations. They strive to remain aware that all sample spaces are partial, and may not accurately represent the larger whole.

     And they restrain themselves when writing for a general audience: some members of which, were they not slandered as contemptible enemies, might well become valuable allies.

     Have a nice day.

1 comment:


In watching my younger child, I see a child's dead-certainty about things (the older one too, to some degree, e.g., their insistence no plane can go faster than sound).

I see echoes of this dead-cinch surety on the Left.

They KNOW Socialism can work if they are in charge.
They KNOW the earth is doomed unless we stop emitting CO2.
Et cetera.

Humility is the key; the willingness to acknowledge you might be wrong.