Sunday, 30 December 2007

Gregory S. Kavka (1947-1994) on Conditional Arguments

Some may not be satisfied with these responses to the Marxist objection to Predominant Egoism. Others will regard degrees of altruism as purely environmentally determined, on different grounds than those offered by Marxists. Yet others will interpret the observational evidence about human motivation quite differently from the way we have and will on that basis reject Predominant Egoism. To those who for these or other reasons decline to accept Predominant Egoism, a final alternative may be offered: Treat the arguments and conclusions that follow as conditional or hypothetical. Regard them as having the form “If people were (or are) predominantly egoistic, then. . . .” This will allow you to follow the reasoning of, and discern the structure and content of, Hobbesian moral and political theory. The only difference will be in the lessons drawn. You will see, through your relatively rose-colored glasses, the implications of what you take to be an erroneous pessimism. Hobbesians, by contrast, will see a system of plausible moral and political hypotheses emerging from a realistic portrayal of human nature.

(Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986], 80)

Note from KBJ: I love this paragraph. Do you see what Kavka is saying? He’s making an argument, one premise of which is Predominant Egoism (the thesis, crudely stated, that human beings are by nature predominantly egoistic). He knows that not everyone accepts this premise and that those who don’t accept it (such as Marxists) will not be persuaded to accept the argument’s conclusion. “Keep reading anyway!” Kavka says. “You might learn something about Hobbesian moral and political theory.” This is exactly right. To persuade rationally, one must use only premises that one’s interlocutor accepts. If your major premise is utilitarianism, for example, you have no chance of persuading me to accept your conclusion, since I’m not a utilitarian. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in your argument, because I’m very much interested in what utilitarianism implies. If I understand utilitarianism well, I may even find fault with your argument! As a philosopher, my goal is to understand every normative ethical theory, every normative political theory, every religion, and every philosophical doctrine. Actually, there’s nothing distinctively philosophical about this. Everyone should strive to understand every important theory, religion, and doctrine. If you’re not at least striving to do this, then you’re wasting what sets you apart from other animals.


Here is a New York Times editorial opinion on immigration. The board asks several questions of the presidential candidates:

What should be the role of immigrant labor in our economy? How does the country maximize its benefits and lessen its ill effects? Once the border is fortified, what happens to the 12 million illegal immigrants already here? Should they be expelled or allowed to assimilate? How? What about the companies that hire them?

And what about the future flow of workers? Should the current system of legal immigration, with its chronic backlogs and morbid inefficiencies, be tweaked or trashed? What is the proper role of state and local governments in enforcing immigration laws? And will a national identity card for immigrants bring on Big Brother for everyone?

I’m not a presidential candidate, but here’s how I expect my candidate to answer:

What should be the role of immigrant labor in our economy? There is no role for illegal-immigrant labor in our economy. Legal immigrants are expected to work, obey the law, and be self-sufficient, like anyone else.

How does the country maximize its benefits and lessen its ill effects? By ensuring that those who come here speak English and have jobs lined up.

Once the border is fortified, what happens to the 12 million illegal immigrants already here? Those who are here illegally must be deported. Once they have returned to their own country, they are free to get in line. Perhaps they should be made to wait a few years as punishment for breaking our laws.

Should they be expelled or allowed to assimilate? How? Expelled.

What about the companies that hire them? Those who hire illegal aliens should be punished.

And what about the future flow of workers? Should the current system of legal immigration, with its chronic backlogs and morbid inefficiencies, be tweaked or trashed? Tweaked. How many people we take in, and which ones, is up to us, not to those who would come here. In other words, that there is a “backlog” is of no moment.

What is the proper role of state and local governments in enforcing immigration laws? Immigration is a national responsibility. Everyone, including agents of states, must abide by federal law. No sanctuary cities.

And will a national identity card for immigrants bring on Big Brother for everyone? There is no need for identity cards. Those who immigrate in accordance with our laws become American citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

It’s pretty simple, really.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

There is a critical distinction between Mitt Romney’s and John Edwards’s wealth. Mr. Romney, as a businessman, made investments that created wealth. Mr. Edwards, as a trial lawyer, made his money through lawsuits that merely took from one pocket and gave to another, and probably destroyed wealth in the process. (Mr. Edwards’s multimillion-dollar medical malpractice verdicts almost certainly hurt the quality of health care in North Carolina.)

Little wonder that Mr. Romney understands that to improve the economy, one needs to expand the pie, while Mr. Edwards’s policy proposals focus entirely on the redistribution of the existing pie without thought for the future adverse consequences to the size of the pie.

Theodore H. Frank
Washington, Dec. 23, 2007
The writer is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

A Year Ago


Dissecting Leftism

Dr John J. Ray, my polymathic friend Down Under, has his usual batch of blog posts, including a humorous one on surnames. My surname, “Burgess-Jackson,” comes from “Burgess” (my mother’s maiden name) and “Jackson” (my father’s name). “Burgess” means “freeman or citizen of an English borough” and “Jackson” means son of Jack.

From the Mailbag


I have just posted the first of the three essays on free-will. The link here is to the main blog, and the paper is actually in Bill’s Big Stuff. It is nine pages long in Word at 10-point type. It took a bit longer to get it posted than I planned, I had two major gaps to be filled. The second paper needs to be created from my notes that worked out most of the ideas this fall. It will be a while before it is ready. The third paper is probably as far along as the first was a few weeks ago. I think it is rather funny that I managed to skip the middle where the guts of the ideas need to be developed. Rather like the cartoon of a professor at the chalk board doing a major calculation, and in the middle is says, “then a miracle happens.”

I would be interested in any comments you might have on the post. I sure there are deficiencies and if you see them I would appreciate knowing about them. My guess is this might be at the level of an upper-division term paper, but I have to start somewhere.

Have a very happy and successful New Year,

Best regards,

Saturday, 29 December 2007


Roger Clemens isn’t the only one playing hardball.

Jonathan Wolff on Freedom of Thought

One of Mill’s most cherished beliefs was that there should be complete freedom of thought and discussion. He devotes almost a third of On Liberty to these vital freedoms, while accepting that there should sometimes be limits to what one is permitted to say in public.

The first thing to note, for Mill, is that the fact a view is unpopular is no reason at all to silence it: ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind’ (On Liberty, 142). In fact, Mill argues, we have very good reason to welcome the advocacy even of unpopular views. To suppress them would be to ‘rob the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation’. How so? Well, Mill argues that, whether the controversial view is true, false, or a mix of the two, we will never gain by refusing it a voice. If we suppress a true view (or one that is partially true) then we lose the chance to exchange error, whole or partial, for truth. But if we suppress a false view we lose in a different way: to challenge, reconsider, and perhaps reaffirm, our true views. So there is nothing to gain by suppression, whatever the truth of the view in question.

(Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, rev. ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006], 107)

A Year Ago


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “More Juice, Less Punch,” by Jonathan R. Cole and Stephen M. Stigler (Op-Ed, Dec. 22):

Someone supposedly once asked Ty Cobb, in his retirement, how he thought he would fare against modern pitchers. Mr. Cobb opined that he would hit about .300. Only .300?, he was asked.

Mr. Cobb answered, “Well, I’m 60 now.”

Similarly, the authors cite statistics to show that Roger Clemens’s E.R.A. was a little bit worse in the eight years, beginning when he was 36, after he is accused of taking steroids.

They say this shows that the steroids didn’t really help; however, the E.R.A.’s of virtually every pitcher in Major League history have deteriorated as they passed age 36, and almost all have quit the game by age 40.

Isn’t it therefore more likely that Clemens’s likely steroid use actually prevented a far greater decline in his E.R.A.?

Donald A. Tracy
Bethesda, Md., Dec. 24, 2007

Note from KBJ: I made the same point a week ago, although not as well.


You owe it to yourself to try this.

From the Mailbag

“By mid-century, Yemen will have more people than Russia, and 60% of Italians will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts, no uncles. Japan offers the chance to observe the demographic death spiral in its purest form.”

Those are excerpts from “The Future Belongs to Islam,” an article published in Maclean’s Magazine that is the object of a Human Rights Commission complaint discussed here.

An English-language version of Steyn’s remarks is here.

Mark Spahn (West Seneca, NY)

Friday, 28 December 2007

All Fred, All the Time

I leave you this fine evening with a story about Fred Thompson.

Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw on Ethical Absolutes

If there are no ethical absolutes, human persons, rather than being the norm and source from which other things receive their value, become simply items or commodities with a relative value—inviolable only up to the point at which it is expedient to violate them in order to achieve an objective. It would then make no sense at all to speak of the immeasurable value of the human person. Far from being immeasurable—that is, beyond calculation—the value of a person would be quite specific and quantifiable, something to be weighed in the balance against other values.

(Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw, “Persons, Means, and Ends,” chap. 2 in Absolutism and Its Consequentialist Critics, ed. Joram Graf Haber [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994], 21-8, at 25-6 [essay first published in 1980])


My new Dell computer is still in the box, unopened, half a year after I received it. As you may recall, I bought it because the graphics on my current Dell computer began to fade. While I was at it, I bought a Dell notebook computer and a new monitor. The graphics are still faded, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not getting any worse. I like having a new computer waiting in the wings, in case the current machine conks out. Both of my new computers have Windows Vista. My current computer (on which I’m writing this post) has Windows XP. James Fallows says that service packs are in the works for both versions, and that—get this—XP is outperforming Vista.