Feb 192007

A few weeks ago, I told Boaz Simovici that I’d be interested in publishing an essay from him on Robert Tracinski’s recent “What Went Right” series, if he were interested in writing something formal. (I was impressed by the perceptiveness of his comments in the sordid debates on SoloPassion.) He was able to write the following two-part essay before other matters demanded his attention. (I mention that only because the essay ends without a proper conclusion.)

I did carefully re-read Tracinski’s essay in preparation for posting this response. I noticed many of the same problems that Boaz explains below, problems that I didn’t see so clearly initially. So that makes me particularly grateful for Boaz’s contribution. So without further ado…

In what follows, I’m presuming that the reader is well acquainted with Robert Tracinski’s (still unfinished) essay, “What Went Right,” enough to judge whether I interpret him fairly.

Rational Egoism by Osmosis?

By his own account, Robert Tracinski’s working theory of history is consistent with the Objectivist view of the role of philosophical ideas in social change. But the core of his argument tells a different story — and his story of the role of philosophy in the destiny of a culture is unconvincing.

Tracinski argues that western institutions are the mechanism of philosophical change in today’s world. The experience of scientific education, capitalism and liberal democracy leads to a wider acceptance of enlightenment ideals: reason, individualism, the pursuit of happiness. Men are “inducted” into a rational worldview — they form new and better ethical concepts implicitly — by experiencing the rewards of certain virtues (honesty, thrift, initiative). This mechanism constitutes nothing less than a “virtuous cycle,” at the end of which a philosophy of reason takes over the culture. Western institutions –> implicit philosophy –> Moral revolution:

…But observation of today’s world indicates that these institutions [scientific and technological education, global capitalism, representative government] are self-reinforcing and self-propagating. And I think the evidence suggests something more: that these institutions are not just a product of the influence of Enlightenment ideas across the world; they are the leading edge and specific mechanism of that influence…

…Both an individual and a culture have to learn a rational method and world view, not just from instruction in explicit philosophical tenets, but first from learning the specific methods and world view of the sciences and seeing the validity and power of that method in all of the myriad concretes it can explain to them and in all of the concrete problems it allows them to solve. If people who have been trained in a scientific education then encounter the basic tenets of a pro-reason philosophy, they will regard them as practically self-evident [italics mine]… because the broad philosophic truths are implicit in so many of the truths that the individual has grasped in his studies of mathematics, geometry, physics, engineering, medicine, and so on…

…Wherever it goes, and to the extent that it is adopted, global capitalism is not merely a practical or material force; it is a moral force. Capitalism does not have a moral impact by preaching any particular virtues; it is mute. It simply re-arranges the incentives that men face, lowering the resistance and massively increasing the reward for certain kinds of behavior… If the main effect of scientific and technological education is to induct men into a rational method of thinking, the main effect of global capitalism is to induct them into rational egoism [italics mine]. And in both cases, I mean the word “induct” in an epistemological sense: capitalism encourages individualism inductively, by giving men the experience of being independent agents seeking self-interest through rational, productive effort. ["The Metaphysics of Normal Life"]

Much of this argument has the ring of truth. It’s true, for instance, that existential and political conditions play an important role in the spread of ideas. This is hardly an original point — within or outside of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff made a similar argument about how values can spread indirectly, once explicit philosophy has set the stage for a given political system:

…Philosophy works in two ways to produce such a psychology [of dependence or independence]: indirectly, by shaping a nation’s institutions, and directly, through the explicit statements of its intellectuals…Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system. Then the political system encourages and appeals to a certain kind of psychology. For instance, under a statist system…the average man has less and less control over his life. He becomes increasingly dependent on the government and/or on a pressure-group simply to get by. At the same time, since statism doesn’t work, he is confronted by one crisis after another — inflation, depression, riots, war, etc. The average man soon comes to feel that he is out of control, that he cannot trust his judgment, that he cannot make sense of events, that he is helpless on his own…these consequences arise quite apart from any abstract message he is given explicitly…A rational philosophy works the same way, but in a positive direction. Such a philosophy leads to the establishment of a free country…the system demands and rewards independence. Men’s daily existence is not dotted with inexplicable crises; the general standard of living and of well-being is constantly rising… ["Philosophy and Psychology," The Objectivist Forum (October 1985)]

What is also true — and, again, this is old and undisputed ground — is that fundamental philosophical ideas penetrate the culture indirectly, inadvertently, by shaping how people are taught to think and giving rise to a characteristic pattern of life. So it’s true that Aristotle’s influence in India (and Lebanon and Iran and Iraq) comes in the form of scientific education and the benefits of an industrial economy, however tenuous (and quite possibly short-lived) such benefits have been.

This does indeed constitute the spread of good implicit philosophy, and that’s precisely the problem. Good ideas, so long as they remain unidentified and unintegrated — so long as they remain deathly silent — can only go so far.

For if Tracinski were right, and the right existential conditions (politics) and the right combination of pajama epistemologists (people doing good work in specialized fields) could enact rational egoism on the scale of a whole culture (!!) — if a thriving civilization could result from these factors alone — then we should have expected our leaders to incinerate our enemies in the Muslim world long ago. For “What Went Right” to be right, we should expect Pakistanis in London and Moroccans in Amsterdam to wage war against Jihad — not cheer it on, or (at best) acquiesce in their own slaughter.

If Tracinski were right that an implicit rational method, embodied in scientific education, could render self-evident a rational, this-worldly philosophy, then our legions of engineers, doctors and scientists would long ago have thrown off the shackles of religion. Sure, most of them don’t pray or believe in miracles, but they won’t challenge those who do. They admit of the “possibility” that Jesus rose from the grave; that “meaning” transcends truth; that virtue is about giving things up; that killing our enemies is evil.

What in the American experience, in the “induction” into freedom and (semi-)capitalism of our own citizens, is prompting our current healthcare policies? Has any of the inculcation of good values wrought by previous policy — say, the 80′s boom — taught America anything important about what happens to any industry under “managed care”? Not in the least. Sure, people balk (and politicians bristle) at the phrase “socialized medicine,” but the urge and political will to subsidize and regulate the field remains, accelerating with each attendant crisis. The economic arguments have been there for two hundred years; the “inductive” base of a capitalist civilization, decades of immersion in the glories unleashed by the unfettered mind…all for what? Mirabile Dictu! Socialized Medicine!

Theory and Practice

The salient, tragic truth about our culture is that we are heirs to warring traditions, theories about the meaning and purpose of life — about where our loyalties should lie and our moral boundaries begin and end — and these theories collide everyday. The result is an unstable mix, a civilization in profound tension with itself. So it is exasperating to watch Tracinski wax eloquently about the myriad strides forward in many fields, as if no Objectivist before him had recognized such developments, as if any Objectivist of note has even intimated that the work of philosophers is the fount of all knowledge or that Objectivism was an indispensable blueprint for innovation in the sciences.

Is there any doubt that the veritable phalanx of new technologies (and massive profits) we’ve seen in the last decades represents progress? Don’t Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and the Biotech industry move our civilization forward? Of course they do. Great minds and great new ideas can have an impact in almost any culture. The question is how — and how deeply — such strides would indicate meaningful cultural change, a change in philosophical outlook that can alter the course of a nation. And on this point I agree entirely with Noumenal Self’s analysis: “Insofar as special sciences make concrete discoveries that can improve human life, civilization will move forward in concrete ways.” (italics mine)

For it is precisely in the realm of all these discoveries and economic achievement that we see the nature of the clash between good implicit ideas and destructive explicit philosophy. Great businessmen can achieve much despite their casual adherence to bad moral precepts — they operate on a good implicit philosophy — and their accomplishments inspire thousands of new entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own happiness. But if these same men bow to affirmative action shakedown-artists on Monday and Tuesday, intone (on television and in their mission statements) on their fundamental duty to consumers on Friday and Saturday, endow environmental causes with millions on Wednesday, and applaud the president when he spits in their faces in public, they do nothing to halt the steady and stealthy pace of socialism. The implicit philosophy serving them well in one field — where it doesn’t overtly conflict with the bible — is impotent when it comes to changing the deeper fundamentals of their culture.

What applies for a philosophically mixed individual applies equally for a good country beset with philosophical poison.

The story of Israel’s war with Hezbollah in July of 2006 will reign forever in history as a spectacle of self-inflicted torture and humiliation. On one side, a largely pro-reason culture wielding superior technology, with all the resources of years of army intelligence in Lebanon and training in guerilla warfare in the stench of Gaza; on the other, men so cowardly they would stoop to firing on fleeing civilians in order to seal them inside their villages, the better to ratchet up the death-count on CNN.

Israel knew where their enemies were; they knew they could bomb villages in the south and thus draw Hezbollah’s foot soldiers out into the open, where they would stand no chance. They knew that bombing Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut wouldn’t be enough, that only a significant invasion in the south (after using airpower to destroy village bunkers and soften up Hezbollah’s supply lines) would ever eradicate their enemy. They did none of these things. They chose a political half-war, knowing full well that it would mean another flare-up in a year or two…

They’ve chosen a permanent war of attrition.

Israel isn’t a methodically altruist country, not by a stretch — not if the standard is implicit philosophy. Its better premises have preserved it largely intact, its economy has bloomed in recent years, its secular culture lends joy and excitement to many of its people. (At least for the moment.) But when push comes to shove, the same pattern emerges in each of its conflicts: fight only to survive and save face — never to win. In doing so, the Israeli leadership genuinely believes it is being “realistic” — which would be true, if realism meant that you could never indulge in mere “theory,” that you have to play the game by the world’s standards. But Israel has its own standards, too: their morality tells them they need to be humane, that they uphold the right cause by sacrificing their children to avoid civilian casualties. They say it openly — and proudly.

Now, I ask you: is it plausible that what Israel needs philosophically is more science, markets and democracy?

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha