Monday, 3 December 2007

“Our Last Frontier”

I leave you this fine evening with a review essay by Tim Flannery.

Dogs and Cats

One of my students explained the difference between dogs and cats. Dogs reason as follows: He feeds me, waters me, gives me treats, provides shelter, takes me to the vet when I’m sick, and in general caters to my every need; he must be God! Cats reason as follows: She feeds me, waters me, gives me treats, provides shelter, takes me to the vet when I’m sick, and in general caters to my every need; I must be God!

Leslie Stevenson on the Epistemic Irrelevance of Motivation

[E]ven when a belief becomes an ideology and is perhaps held as a closed system by some believers, I think we can see that rational discussion is still possible for those who are prepared to try it. For we can always distinguish what someone says from his motivation for saying it. The motivation may be important in various ways, for instance if we wish to understand the personality of the speaker and the nature of his society. But if we are primarily concerned with the truth or falsity of what is said, and with whether there are any good reasons for believing it, then motivation is irrelevant. The reasons that the speaker may offer are not necessarily the best reasons. There is nothing to stop us discussing what he says purely on its own merits.

This is why the second feature of closed systems—the technique of meeting criticism by attacking the motivation of the critic—is fundamentally irrational. For if what is being discussed is whether the theory is true, or whether there are good reasons for believing it, then the objections that anyone produces against it must be replied to on their own merits, regardless of their possible motivations. Someone’s motivation may be peculiar or objectionable in some way, and yet what he actually says may be true, and justifiable by good reasons. Even if motivation is to be considered, to analyse it in terms of the theory under discussion is to assume the truth of the theory, and therefore to beg the question. An objection to a theory cannot be defeated just by reasserting part of the theory.

(Leslie Stevenson, Seven Theories of Human Nature, 2d ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], 16-7 [italics in original])

Note from KBJ: In my experience, progressives are far more likely than conservatives to question the motives of those with whom they disagree. For example, Brian Leiter has claimed that those who oppose homosexual “marriage” are latent homosexuals. He refuses to engage their arguments. This isn’t philosophy. It’s an evasion of philosophy. Indeed, it’s an abdication of rationality, as Stevenson suggests. Other examples include calling those who opposed the immigration reform bill “xenophobes,” calling those who oppose affirmative action “racists,” calling those who support capitalism “greedy,” calling those who believe that there are innate sex differences “sexists,” calling those who supported the war in Iraq “warmongers,” and calling those who support law and order “fascists.” It’s easy to see the fallacy in these attacks, for even badly motivated people can (1) say true things, (2) have grounds for their beliefs, and (3) make cogent arguments. This should come as no surprise, since even well motivated people can (1) say false things, (2) lack grounds for their beliefs, and (3) make fallacious arguments.

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From the Mailbag

If half the country thinks the other half to be idiots and therefore a danger if elected, how long is it before elections are effectively done away with?

Is Russia better off with Putin rigging the election? Would/do his people WANT him to rig the election rather than trusting themselves to honestly and fairly decide?

Is it naive to think it always best to let average citizens decide their fate?

And is it not quite natural for the elected in this country (or any free country) to LEAN away from giving “power to the people”? Do not all politicians quietly seek to mute the voice of “the common man” in favor of the elite (them)?

Is not a Putin “election” what ALL politicians secretly dream of and quietly work towards?

It all re-downs to whether a country trusts its fellow-citizens. After all, only idiots would elect Nixon and Reagan and Bush and Bush. Likewise, only idiots would elect Carter and Clinton and . . . Clinton. Obviously we can’t trust our elections and the fools voting.

Will Nehs

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Our Enemy Hands,” by Katherine Ashenburg (Op-Ed, Nov. 27):

In India, where I grew up, most people routinely wash their hands before each meal. Since we use fingers to enjoy the spicy food (Pundit Nehru once told his guest Maya Plisetskaya that eating scrumptious Indian food using knives and forks is like making love with the help of an interpreter), we invariably wash our hands and rinse our mouths after every meal. A good hygienic practice indeed. Paper napkins are seldom used.

In some Indian restaurants, the person who serves the meal brings a bowl of warm water with lemon rinds, a bottle of perfumed soap and a towel, and you clean your hands by plunging them in the suds.

V. K. Balakrishnan
Round Rock, Tex., Nov. 27, 2007

A Year Ago