Kant, the Shopkeeper, and Fear of God

ShopkeeperI’ve been listening to Michael Sandel’s Justice lecture series while I’ve cooked dinner this past week. And most recently, he was discussing Kant and he provided the following example. Suppose that a simpleton walks into a shop and buys something. The shopkeeper could shortchange the customer. But she doesn’t because she thinks it might get around and hurt her business. According to Kant, this would not be a moral act, because the reason that she isn’t shortchanging the customer is only because of the practical considerations of her own self interest. She should, instead, not shortchange the customer because the customer is a fellow human being who deserves dignity.

I have my problems with Kant’s moral reasoning, in as much as I understand it. In a general sense, I don’t think there is any real distinction between doing something because it is “right” and doing it because it is self serving. The problem that I have with it is not theoretical — I would never go head to head with Kant on that level! But I have seen in my life a whole lot of people who delude themselves into thinking that they are morally superior to others. But what I see are people who have an addiction to the feeling of superiority.

A good example of this is the non-drug addict who feels superior to the junkie. They are both addicts — just to different states of mind. Obviously, Kant is dealing with this on a higher level. But ultimately, he fetishizes rational thought. And his entire system becomes little more intellectual tinkering that is at best useless. It also has a certain tautological aspect to it where it assumes what it is trying prove: the intellect must conquer the will because the intellect is the greater good. We know this because Kant deems it so.

Just the same, I do think that there are better and worse reasons for doing things. Valuing fellow human beings as equals who deserve dignity is a greater good than valuing them as mere means to some end. I will take that as a given. I’m not a philosopher. In fact, I think philosophy is largely a farce: a way of justifying what we are going to do regardless for purely mechanical reasons. Had we evolved in such a way that cannibalism was important to our survival, Kant would have used his remarkable mind to come up with a very different moral philosophy.

But I’m interested in the shopkeeper example as it relates to what I see as modern Christian ethics. I’m not talking about the big brained thinkers at the Vatican, who take this stuff seriously. But the right wing Christians, who are forever on our television sets telling us what God does and does not want, are not acting as the good shopkeeper who doesn’t cheat the customer out of respect for her humanity. Rather, they are like the bad shopkeeper who doesn’t cheat the customer simply because of the negative reputation that it might generate — in their case because God will punish them.

I’m not a Christian, so I probably shouldn’t care. But I care about life as a serious endeavor. So the idea that one just follows along with a set dogma and everything is okay strikes me as so wasteful. It’s rather the opposite of Kant’s moral reasoning. His is useless because it is theoretical, without practical guidelines. But following dogma is all practical without theoretical guidelines. And that leads to the very common situation where Christians are easy marks for charlatans who fill in the endless gaps in the Bible. Is abortion is in the Bible? No, but there are plenty of “experts” who will explain to you why abortion is murder — as though it were dogma, right there in the Bible — the Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt treat a fertilized egg as though it were a fully formed human.

Ultimately, we need both practical and theoretical notions about how best to live our lives. The greatest thing we seem to be missing is humility and an acceptance of uncertainty. I would hope we are all agreed that the simpleton should not be cheated. But of course, we aren’t.

Fighting Nepotism With Welfare

Elizabeth Stoker BruenigThe sudden swell of praise for filial favoritism among conservative pundits comes as no surprise: combine a heavy emphasis on family values with an equally intense desire for money, and the outcome is what we from the South recognize as good ol’ boy networks, wherein a hapless dweeb who can barely manage a baseball team stumbles into the presidency because his daddy made a good run of it. Examples of the perils of nepotism are scattered throughout history, with lunatic kings and savage tsars and incompetent princes galore. But these are extreme cases. And furthermore, I suspect Williamson and Brooks are correct when they suggest that there really is neither an effective nor humane way to put an end to the many unearned advantages some lucky offspring glean from their kin.

Families will always prefer their own, and parents will always be inclined to do whatever is in their power to secure a future for their children. None of this is inherently wrong; indeed, these are the same impulses that have perpetuated the human race. The trouble is that some dynasties accumulate so much wealth and influence that the social mobility of other, less fortunate children becomes increasingly unlikely. Where Williamson and Brooks are wrong is to presume the solution to this problem needs to involve some tinkering with families themselves…

So I guess that, in the end, I’m with Williamson and Brooks: nepotism is here to stay, and there’s no sense in fighting the partiality of parents for their children, especially when it comes to jobs. To respect the sanctity of those family relationships — and to save the conservative commentariat the horror of anti-nepotism policies — we need only to make sure no other person’s future is compromised, which means putting a strong system of wealth transfer programs in place. Thus, poor kids everywhere can rejoice: welfare is (rich) family-friendly after all!

—Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
Welfare Is the Best Weapon Against Nepotism

Man Blames Obama for SC Republican Policy

Luis LangYesterday, I wrote, Postmodern Politics and the End of Truth. In it, I bemoaned the fact that politicians aren’t held accountable — largely because the media has a postmodern attitude toward the truth — and that this is a great help to the Republican Party. On Tuesday, Josh Marshall provided an excellent example of how this works on the personal level, Just Shake Your Head.

It tells the truly heartbreaking story of an ignorant Republican. Luis Lang is a “self-employed handyman” in South Carolina. He never had insurance — preferring to pay out of pocket. As everyone knows, that’s a dangerous decision. That is especially the case because Lang has diabetes. In February, he had a series of mini-stokes. As a result, he’s going blind, which greatly limits the amount he can work. If he’s going to save his sight and his livelihood, he needs expensive surgery — which he can’t afford.

So in desperation, he turned to Obamacare. But there was a problem. He’s in the healthcare no man’s land: in that great Republican state government created hole where he makes too much for Medicaid and too little for the exchange subsidies. If South Carolina had accepted the Medicaid expansion, Lang would be covered. Instead, he’s going blind.

And who is to blame for all this? “He and his wife blame President Obama and Congressional Democrats for passing a complex and flawed bill.” But it wasn’t the Democrats who left it up to the states as to whether they took the free money to cover people like Lang; it was the conservatives (Republicans) on the Supreme Court. It wasn’t the Democrats who decided not to expand Medicaid in South Carolina; it was the South Carolina legislature that has a Republican super-majority in both houses.

Marshall sums up the situation:

Lang broke the law by refusing to get health insurance coverage because he prided himself on being able to pay his bills out of pocket. But he got sick and actually had too little savings to cover even relatively small health care bills. By now open enrollment has closed. But he figured he’d be able to buy in if he got in a jam or waited till he got sick to buy coverage. Luckily the ACA’s Medicaid expansion covers him regardless. But the state of South Carolina refused to accept Medicaid expansion even though the federal government would pay for it. Lang is left in precisely the situation that would exist if the ACA had never been passed. So he blames Obama.

It isn’t my intention to put down Mr Lang. We all do reckless things. I truly hope that he manages to get to the care that he deserves. But he is an archetype of the Republican voter who can’t see that it is his own party that is responsible for his hardships. I agree with him: Obamacare is “complex and flawed.” But that’s because Republicans like the pre-ill Lang were absolutely against the simpler and more effective single payer system — the one that would have covered Lang all along so that he wouldn’t have had to spend all his savings just to get to this point.

I suspect that Luis Lang will die cursing Obama and the Democrats for his fate. And until then, he will continue to vote for Republicans who have done and will continue to do everything they can to kill him.

Obama Rightly Gets Slapped on TPP

Barack ObamaIt’s been interesting these last couple of weeks, watching Obama going around acting like a petulant child about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It makes a real progressive like me angry. The president doesn’t act this way when the Republicans disagree with him. But when people in his own party disagree with him, they don’t deserve respect. He described Elizabeth Warren, one of the most earnest politicians I’ve ever seen, as “a politician, like everybody else.” No Mr President, you are a politician just like the rest of the rabble that are destroying this country. You are a politician just like the rest of the craven hordes begging for cash from the billionaire class. No Mr President, it is not Elizabeth Warren who is playing politics by asking that the details of the TPP be made public; it is you who are playing politics with your “Trust me!” act.

Well, yesterday the loyal but not authoritarian followers (which is apparently what Obama wants) struck back. I find the details of all this a bit confusing. But the basic story is that fast-track authority only got out of committee because Ron Wyden made a deal with Orrin Hatch to attach three other bills to it. But Hatch is a Republican and thus not to be trusted. Instead of packaging the three bills with fast-track authority, he made the bills separate. That made the deal pretty much meaningless. And that became clear when Hatch started making noises about pulling two of the three bills.

Behind the scenes, the Obama administration was putting on a full court press. Despite this, Sherrod Brown convinced the rest of the Democratic caucus to only approve fast track if the three bills were included in the same package. And he was successful. Only one Democratic Senator voted to allow a vote on fast-track authority. It’s a stunning rebuke of President Obama — and one that he richly deserves. I’m beginning to see what Republicans mean when they talk about him in terms of an “imperial presidency” — of course, those same Republicans don’t mind it when it is a Republican doing the same thing.

The fight is not over. In fact Sherrod Brown doesn’t think that he and the other Democrats will be able to kill fast-track authority in the Senate. He is simply trying to delay and improve the bill. But there is a good chance that the House — which is never as keen on “trade” deals as the Senate — will kill it. We can hope.

As we wait (in between calling and writing our members of Congress), David Dayen wrote a very informative article, The 10 Biggest Lies You’ve Been Told About the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And you know who’s telling those lies, right? That great truth teller in the White House and his minions. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s the rundown:

  1. 40% — The TPP covers 40% of world’s economic activity. Well, sure; the US alone accounts for 22%. Big (deceptive) deal.
  2. Job Creation — Need I say more? See what Sherrod Brown has to say about that nonsense.
  3. Exports Only — This is something Dean Baker talks about all the time. It doesn’t matter what happens to our exports if our imports increase even more. And they will.
  4. Most Progressive — Have you heard Obama saying that the TPP is the most progressive trade deal in history? It turns out that Bill Clinton said the same thing about NAFTA. Also, Obama’s certainly wrong about this claim. And “most progressive trade deal” is like “least humiliating national sex scandal.”
  5. Changing Laws — We are told that the TPP will not interfere with our laws. Well, John Oliver has a few things to say about that.
  6. Never Lost — This relates to the last lie: we’ve never lost an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) case. Dayen has his own reasons regarding this, but I think agreements shouldn’t just be judged from our perspective. ISDS is already being used to harm weaker countries. This isn’t right.
  7. Weakening Dodd-Frank — I’ve already dealt with this issue. Obama claims he was the big force behind Dodd-Frank. He wasn’t.
  8. Stopping China — This is the idea that we can beat China to the punch with this deal. Again, Dean Baker takes this on all the time. The idea is to eventually have China sign on to this deal. Nothing we do here is going to make China any less of a powerhouse.
  9. Secret Deal — It’s not a secret deal! People will have 60 days to look at it! Right after he’s given fast-track authority. After that, no changes can be made to it.
  10. Just a politician — Well, I discussed this above. The implication is that Warren is a politician, but not Obama! He’s just doing what’s best for the country. As Dayen put it, “His interest in building a legacy, when practically nothing else has the potential to pass Congress the next two years, is a political interest. His possible interest in rewarding campaign contributors who would benefit from TPP is also political, or his desire to earn the respect of the Very Serious People who always support trade deals.”

I don’t expect perfection from anyone. I’ve even been willing to give Obama a pass on his drone program. But the TPP debate kind of sums up his whole presidency. Obama doesn’t get along with the Republicans, but he seems to have a special animus for the true progressives in the Democratic Party. This goes back at least to when Rahm Emanuel called us “fucking retarded.” That was Obama’s Chief of Staff. That’s Obama’s kind of Democrat.

Morning Music: Firesign Theatre

How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at AllThis morning, we do something different. Instead of music, I thought we would do a little comedy. But not just any comedy — Firesign Theatre comedy, which is much more than just skits. In general, I find I have to listen to their albums many times to get a majority of what’s going on. My first introduction to the group was finding Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him that someone was throwing away. I was blown away. I had never imagined that such things were possible. The first track of the album is, “Temporarily Humboldt County.” It tells the story of the western invasion of the Americas in a brilliantly incisive way. Listening to it today, it’s a bit ethnocentric. But given it is comedy, it does a better job than most Americans today do. (I found this in the comments to my article, Ayn Rand and Indians.) Unfortunately, I mostly just find the track sad — brilliant, but sad.

Today, I want to highlight their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All. The second side of the album consists of “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger” — a 28 minute long parody of the hard-boiled detective radio play. It slips back and forth between the story and the telling of the story. And as usual, it is filled with puns. My favorite part is where the character Rocky Rococo — who has the voice of Peter Lorre — says, “I’m dead! This hasn’t happened to me since M!” Brilliant stuff.

Anniversary Post: Revelations of Divine Love

Julian of NorwichJust a couple of days ago, I wrote, Student Refuses to Do Homework — Claims Religious Persecution. In it, one of the essay questions the young Christian refused to engage with had to do with Julian of Norwich, the 14th century Christian mythic, and how the patriarchy responded to her. Well, it was on this day in 1373, Julian was deathly ill and had the visions that she described in her great work, Revelations of Divine Love.

She had sixteen visions involving Jesus’ passion and the Virgin Mary. After she recovered, she wrote the visions down. She then spent the next two decades meditating on them and wrote them down in an extended form with analysis. It was the first book published in the English language by a woman. Julian lived during times of great disease and death. But as Wikipedia puts it, “[H]er theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty.” That’s my kind of Christian!

Her book was radical for its time. In fact, much of it would be seen as heretical today — especially her feminization of God. But the book was not read all that widely in her lifetime. What’s more, she was probably seen as unworthy of comment, since she was basically a female monk — a religious recluse. So she managed to live well into her 70s. Good for her! And good for us! And most of all: 16 year old Christians should definitely spend time studying her!

Happy anniversary Revelations of Divine Love!