iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Politics

Politics in general and in contemporary society

Three kinds of racism

I believe there is only one race – the human race. Distinctions between people that use the word “race” are really about something else. I think there are three main ways that people use the word “race” and consequently may act in discriminatory ways toward people they believe are of other races.

(1) Racism of ancestry. This is the oldest kind of racism. It is a racism of “blood”. The one-drop rule says that “one drop” of blood from (sub-Sahara) Africa makes a person a member of the Negro or black race. The appearance of the person does not matter. Their culture or mannerisms do not matter. Only their ancestry matters.

This is the purest racism, which is built on feelings and ideas about racial purity, inherited character, and immutable destiny. There is nothing a person of a deprecated race can do to earn the respect or approval of someone who has this kind of racism.

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Centrist virtue

According to Aristotle (as noted here), the nature of virtue is to seek a mean or middle between extremes, which is an intermediate state between them.

These contrary extremes are often called vices, but that implies the operation of evil, which is contradictory to the good, and should be completely rejected. It would be better to call the contrary opposites semi-virtues as we shall see.

The issue concerns two goods that are contraries in some way so that preferring the one reduces the other and vice versa. In order to affirm both one must seek an intermediate state between them that balances their legitimate value. Let’s look at an example often used:

With respect to acting in the face of danger, courage is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice.

That is to say:

With respect to acting in the face of danger, courage is a mean between acting excessively imprudent, which would be rash, and acting excessively prudent, which would be cowardice. Thus courage is a mean between prudence and imprudence in action.

The contraries of prudence and imprudence are not vices, but neither are they virtues to be affirmed in general. In some way they are excessive, or from the opposite perspective, deficient.

Call them semi-virtues, for they are partially virtuous, but are not fully virtuous by themselves. They are imbalanced alternatives to the real virtues.

This is applicable to political life as well. Liberty and equality are both goods that are opposites in some ways. Liberty allows the inequality of abilities and interests to induce inequality in society. Equality stifles these differences, but that entails a loss of liberty.

Thus liberty and equality are semi-virtues in political life. Political virtue is a mean between these contraries. It doesn’t have a name but is a balance between liberty and equality. It is a centrist politics.

One further note concerning virtue ethics and theology: God has no contrary (one might say it’s nonbeing but that’s another way of saying it’s nothing). So in relation to God, there is no middle state. The problem is not contraries but contradictories: good and evil, righteousness and sinfulness, truth and falsehood. The former is to be unreservedly affirmed, and the latter unreservedly rejected.

Politics and character

It is perhaps good that societies go through occasional paroxysms of outrage over abuses and vices among the high and mighty. That’s one way to reiterate the boundaries of acceptable conduct. It would be better if boundaries were in general supported on a daily basis, but societies have their ways.

In a representative system of government, it is often felt that representatives should represent all that is best in society, that they should reflect the self-image of people as good and wholesome. That may be asking more than elections can deliver, but it’s a noble sentiment.

The foremost task of a political representative is to represent the political views of the people in the district or state they represent. Alas, that includes the selfish side of the people. This is shown annually in budget battles for shares of the public purse.

A candidate whose words reflects the positions of the people is normally the best candidate without further ado. But if there are questions about character defects in the candidate, then the electorate has to take that into consideration, mainly to discern whether or not the candidate’s actions and voting would be consistent with their statements and promises.

If a candidate’s consistency is not an issue, they may still be questioned for their suitability if their character does not reflect the self-image of the people. What if the electorate has to choose between a candidate who does reflect their views but not their self-image and a candidate who reflects their self-image but not their views?

The choice is clear if unpalatable: elect the candidate who reflects the political views of the people because that is the purpose of an election. The integrity of the political process is what is the most important in an election.

Remember that democracies are not refined affairs. For example, promoting candidates with rum was an old trick in the early days of the republic (see here). If representatives reflect the political views of the people, that is sufficient. To insist on much more would be to expect some form of aristocracy.

Custom-made disagreement

I’ve written a few times before about U.S. Supreme Court cases, without claiming legal expertise. This time it’s the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, with oral arguments presented yesterday. This case is important because of the culture war implications and interesting because of the need to draw a line between behavior the state can prohibit and behavior the state can’t prohibit.

The case is complicated by several factors: it concerns a business, not an individual; it concerns a corporation, not a sole proprietorship; it concerns a message without knowing any text associated with that message; it concerns freedom of speech, though it seems like freedom of religion; and it concerns food, which seems removed from freedom of speech.

The justices seemed to see the case in a larger context, which is good because that’s the rub. Where do we draw the line? The principle that a business must serve all comers is well recognized and accepted. But can a business refuse a customer on the basis of their purpose for buying the goods or services?

In most cases, a business does not know what that the customer’s purpose is, other than the obvious one – e.g., food is purchased to eat. But in the case of a custom product or service the business needs to know the customer’s purpose. What if the business does not want to be part of fulfilling that purpose?

There are straightforward cases of a customer of a print shop who wants a message printed that the print shop objects to. The customer has the freedom of speech to speak the message but the business has the freedom to refuse to assist them because of the message. The refusal is focused on the message, not the customer themselves.

Although a message wasn’t yet part of the transaction, the parallel with the cakeshop is clear. The cakeshop objected to the purpose of the custom-made cake the customer wanted. The state should not be able to force a business to make something for a purpose they object to.

The cakeshop could advertise that they custom-make wedding cakes for traditional weddings and (perhaps in small print) they don’t custom-make cakes for non-traditional weddings – except that a customer may purchase any off-the-shelf cake and use it for any purpose they choose.

Is that too difficult to understand?

Political balance

Balance and centrism go hand and hand. One cannot have balance without a center of balance, and one cannot have a center without balancing opposites. Politically, the main balance needed is between liberty and equality. Economically, that means a balance between economic liberty and economic equality. And similarly for health, education, transportation, and so forth.

One who focuses on liberty emphasizes freedom of action over a wide range. A free society is one in which people, as individuals and as groups, are free to act. The state exists to protect society from its enemies, both foreign states and individuals (e.g., pirates), as well as domestic groups and individuals (e.g., criminals) who would take away society’s freedom.

Those who focus on liberty are concerned that without it there is tyranny, which leads to depression (inwardly), anger (outwardly), and oppression toward those lacking political power.

One who focuses on equality emphasizes similarity of condition over a wide range. An egalitarian society is one which which people, as individuals and as groups, are in a similar condition. The state exists to protect society from its enemies, both foreign states (e.g., imperialists) and individuals as well as domestic groups (e.g., bad corporations) and individuals who would take away social equality.

Those who focus on equality are concerned that without it there is disparity, which leads to envy (inwardly), resentment (outwardly), and oppression toward those lacking political power.

These opposites are both legitimate concerns that should be balanced. The result will be imperfect no doubt but should then progress toward greater balance. True progress is movement toward balance.

Centrists and extremists

There are a variety of centrists, as there are a variety of means (e.g., arithmetic, geometric, harmonic, etc.). But all centrists share certain characteristics, which differ markedly from all extremists.

Centrists reside in the center, the middle, from a long-term perspective. Unlike moderates, who go with the flow of current politics and culture, centrists resist change away from the center. As I’ve noted before, that often makes centrists contrarians, trying to turn society away from movement toward any extreme.

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Conservatives and liberals

The terms “conservative” and “liberal” are used in a variety of contexts but what is the distinction? They have come down to us through 19th century politics, but that turns out not to help much since many conservatives today would consider themselves as “classical liberals”. One can use alternate terms such as traditionalist and progressive, but they have various associations of their own.

I would say that the basic distinction is this: conservatives are most concerned with saving something – souls or money or traditions – and liberals are most concerned with spending something – lives or money or resources. That is, conservatives focus on what is worth keeping and liberals focus on what is worth spending.

Religious conservatives want to save souls, to promote what it is that brings salvation, to keep people from being or becoming infidels or unbelievers. Religious liberals want to spend their lives helping people, making the world a better place, doing something that needs to be done.

Economic conservatives want to save money, to buy only necessities, to keep money safe for future needs. Economic liberals want to spend money, to give to the poor, to use money to improve the world now. In the past, this has meant that conservatives had more money than liberals but that is not necessarily true today. Contemporary culture is a spendthrift culture, where most people do not save money either because they have more than enough already or because they live for the present.

Environmental conservatives are “preservationists,” those who value nature for its own sake and want to save it from development. Environmental liberals are “conservationists,” those who want to spend natural resources optimally for the sake of humanity. This is the inverse of what political conservatives and liberals want to do regarding the environment.

Political conservatives want to keep traditions that have worked for generations, to maintain the solvency of governing institutions, to preserve culture and society. Political liberals want to spend resources on improving society, to change what is wrong with society, to remake everything in light of their vision for the world.

In short, conservatives see the glass as half-full, and liberals see it as half-empty. Liberals see what the have-nots need, and conservatives see what the haves could lose. In the past conservatives were considered more pessimistic – seeing what could go wrong – whereas liberals were more optimistic – seeing what could work for the better. But today liberals are almost paranoid about the future – warning of disaster if society doesn’t change radically – whereas many conservatives are content to stay the course with only modest changes.

I have written before, here, about an inversion that can take place between conservatives and liberals. If liberals succeed at changing society enough, then conservatives may long to change things back to where they were before, whereas liberals want to keep their gains. Then liberals will resist change and conservatives will promote a return to what was lost. So conservatives become liberals and liberals become conservatives.

We save in order to have something to spend, and we spend in order to have something to save. The wise counselor advocates balance between these two movements. That is the centrist approach.

Modernity and parsimony

I’ve written before about modernity here and parsimony here.

An age begins by repudiating something essential about the previous age. The middle ages started with repudiating the ancient gods and myths (cf. St. Augustine’s City of God). The modern age began with the Reformation, which repudiated the history of the Church and the pagan past of the Gentiles. It continued with scientists repudiating Scholasticism and Aristotle. And it came into its own by starting anew, whether in religion or science or politics.

If modernity starts with breaking free of the past, then what keeps it from flaming out into insignificance? The key for science was parsimony, commonly called simplicity. In contrast with the middle ages, which specialized in ad hoc explanations, the modern age adopted Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, which privileged the fewest number of assumptions and kinds of entities.

Modernity took the law of parsimony to an extreme. It led to questioning, if not overthrowing, every tradition, every non-empirical entity, every metaphysics. The absolute minimum ontology was considered the best, which turned out to be the physical world.

Even the nature of physical things was questioned as unknowable, until the only nature left was the nature of the physical world. This nature became the idol of modernity, the one thing that could not be questioned. It became Nature, reified as something with a will of its own, something that led to human life, something that substituted for God.

As we break free of modernity, we can see its limitations and failures more and more. One is the bias of the law of parsimony: it meant qualitative parsimony but not quantitative parsimony. That is, only one or a few kinds of things could exist, but the number of them available for explanatory purposes was unlimited. This bias fit well with the use of mathematics as the language of science.

But mathematics is more than the study of quantity. It is also the study of space, structure, and change. And there is no good reason not to apply parsimony to all of them in finding the best explanation. Once we open up to the possibility of a balanced application of the law of parsimony, we can see some of the weaknesses of modern science.

Deep time was invented in the 18th century and exploited in the 19th and 20th centuries to explain the history of the Earth and the universe. What started with geology expanded to human history, biology, and cosmology.

It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. Carl Sagan

Time is in fact the hero of the plot. … Given so much time, the “impossible” becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait; time itself performs the miracles. George Wald

The flaw is simple: it’s too easy to “explain” anything. The violation of quantitative parsimony was the Achilles’ heel of modernity. The temptation to explain everything was too much to resist. And so, as with every age, modernity ended in failure. A great failure, but a failure nonetheless.

We can only hope that the current age will learn from the failure of modernity and seek a balanced parsimony.

Centrism and extremism

I’ve written on my understanding of centrism here and here.

The essence of centrism is an acceptance of a limit for everything. This means there are limits in all directions. The image of this is a closed convex curve with a center in the middle of the region enclosed.

Without limits, there is no center. A center is always within limits. If there is any direction without a limit, the curve is not closed and there is no center.

Non-centrists are extremists in at least one way. They reject a limit in at least one direction. They are not only not in the center, but they reject the existence of a common center.

The slogan “No enemies on the Left” is a left-wing motto that goes back at least to the 1930s. It reflects an attitude that in the direction of leftist politics, there is no limit. Because it lacks a limit in at least one direction, it is extremist in at least one direction.

Most political groups promote some cause or idea that takes precedence over all other causes or ideas. They may hold these in a limited way, but unless they have ways of limiting the range of their support, they will tend to go further and further in that direction. They are or will become extremists.

Marriage and semi-marriage

In abstract algebra, a semiring is an algebraic structure similar to a ring, but without the requirement that each element must have an additive inverse.

Analogously, what could be called a semi-marriage is like a marriage, but without the requirement that the persons be of opposite sex. (Compare here.) How would this work?

First, a marriage is also a semi-marriage so the legal requirements that apply to a semi-marriage apply to a marriage as well. For example, age requirements for semi-marriages would apply to marriages also.

Second, a semi-marriage is not necessarily a marriage so one cannot assume that every property of a marriage is also a property of a semi-marriage. Each property of a marriage must be evaluated to determine if it applies to a semi-marriage. For example, a business that offers services for marriage ceremonies may not need to offer the same services to semi-marriage ceremonies.

The law may focus on semi-marriage rather than marriage because semi-marriage has a larger extent. Yet it would be possible for some laws to apply to marriages but not semi-marriages. The decision as to which way to go is up to the political process.

In the U.S. since the Obergefell decision, civil marriage is semi-marriage.