Tag: Philosophy (Page 1 of 2)

The Libertarian Error

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction

As Congress gears up for another round of massive tax cuts whose benefits will primarily go to the wealthiest, it might be worthwhile to consider the underlying rationale for these cuts.

In general, there are two arguments presented in justification for such cuts. The first is a utilitarian argument. The claim is that tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy and make things generally better for everyone. There are many good reasons to think that this is not true, but I am going to leave this claim aside for now as it is largely a practical question concerning how a capitalist system operates.

The more fundamental, and more philosophical, justification comes from the libertarians. The libertarian claim is that taxation for any other purpose than the defense of liberty is illegitimate, indeed, a kind of theft. According to the libertarians, the government simply has no right to impose taxes for such services as public education, aid to the poor, health care, social security, or any other service that does not involve a direct protection from those who might deprive us of liberty (e.g., criminals or foreign invaders).

This libertarian idea has gained a lot of traction in recent decades, even among many who would not identify as libertarian. It provides the ideological foundation for the hostility toward government, indeed toward democracy as a form of government, fostered by the radical right. I believe it is deeply flawed. The following is my attempt to say why.

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Penelope’s Choice

By: Michael Grenke

The Odyssey’s Penelope is a Thinker, a person who is effective in facing her world and its problems by thinking her way out of them. She is, perhaps, even more of a thinker than her much-devising husband, as he is still, occasionally, given to “solving” his problems with brute force. It is in Penelope that Homer more purely explores the possibilities and limitations of Odyssean cleverness. The emblem of Penelope’s cleverness is the device by which she tricks her suitors for three years, her weaving. She uses the weaving to buy herself time, but the weaving is itself an image of time. Time is a weaving and unweaving; it makes and unmakes beings and relations. In her deception, Penelope gives the impression time has no consequence for human beings. And understood thus, time poses a great difficulty that attends and deforms the kind of thinking in which Penelope engages.

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Trump’s Banality of Evil

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

What does fascism smell like? It’s a question the late Christopher Hitchens used to ask, and one that’s worth revisiting. In 1945 it might have smelled like Zyklon B, whose reportedly almondy aroma rose with the ashes from the brick chimneys of Nazi death camps into the skies of Europe. In 1988 it might have smelled like the sick yellow waves of chlorine gas that swept over the northern provinces of Mesopotamia during the Halabja massacre, when the Baathist regime tried, not for the last time, to eliminate the Kurdish people of Iraq. Americans in New York and Washington DC certainly knew what it smelled like in September 2001. Last Friday though, it took on a seemingly more innocuous smell, one that could have been synonymous with any other summer night in America: the bitter odor of a thousand citronella torches in the streets of Charlottesville. 48 hours later, the President proved himself incapable of performing the most basic of moral duties: to stand behind a podium for a scripted ten-minutes and call this stench by its name.

I’ve scanned enough Facebook fights to have seen the word “Nazi” appear somewhere in my feed at least once a month, and I’ve been to enough rallies to have seen a black toothbrush mustache smeared on the face of at least every major world leader, regardless of context. The problem with throwing around hyperbolic clichés so lightly is that they lose what little currency they already have in discourse. Indeed, what makes clichés so tyrannous is that they’re true but useless. As a writer, I have a visceral aversion to platitudes perhaps more than the average person, and the reductio ad Hiterlum approaches the very top of my list. But the cliché of calling someone a fascist is somewhat supported by the fact that fascism is itself a cliché. The irony of the events in Virginia last week and the President’s colossally mishandled response to it, was that this banality was conspicuously absent precisely when it was called for.

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Isolationism – Playing the Devil’s Advocate

By: Siddharth Jayaprakash

Ever since President Roosevelt began using the term to disparage the anti-war lobbyists in the 1940s – lobbyists who lost their last vestige of credibility after the bombing of Pearl Harbour – ‘isolationism’ has had a distinctly negative tone, bringing to mind narrowmindedness and an oafish refusal to accept the inevitability of globalisation. Astute political commentators have learnt to watch out for the rise of this attitude in the populus after every unfortunate mishap in the global sphere – whether economic or military – reminiscent of a tortoise retreating into its shell after a run-in with a coyote. Or perhaps these commentators would prefer to use the image of the ostrich digging its head into the sand – the futility of the ostrich’s evasive manoeuvre, they would say, is a more fitting metaphor of the naïve government policies that ‘isolationism’ has come to signify.

And there is a lot of truth in this attitude. In a world that prioritises the generation of individual wealth it is a matter of fact and not opinion that free market capitalism is at logger heads with economic isolationism. And the success of the development wings of the United Nations – especially UNICEF and the various departments of the ECOSOC – is a testament to the global urge to standardise certain social norms. The empowerment of women, for instance, is non-negotiable – regardless of what one’s culture dictates, the equal status of women is guaranteed by the Human Rights Charter. But this is not the entire picture, and in a world where isolationist tendencies seem to be cropping up not just in the West but also in the East – where nationalist parties are in power both in India and in the Philippines – an exploration of just what ‘isolationism’ could entail has never been more crucial.

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The Pledge of Allegiance: A Reading

By: Richard Oxenberg

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What does it mean to say the Pledge of Allegiance? In this time of national tension, when the President of the United States has pronounced his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” and declared that “from this day forward it’s going to be only America first,” it might be helpful to remind ourselves just what we devote ourselves to whenever we say the Pledge.

To this end, I offer this brief reflection on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It is an oddity of the pledge of allegiance that, in it, our allegiance is pledged, not to any particular, actual, nation, but, first of all, “to the flag.”

What can it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? What is a ‘flag’ such that one can pledge one’s allegiance to it? Of course, if we take the flag to be no more than a piece of decorated cloth this makes no sense. Rather, the flag is a symbol. Our allegiance is pledged to a symbol and what it symbolizes.

This symbol transcends the instantiated nation as it may exist at any moment in time. We do not pledge our allegiance to the United States of America as it exists now, or at any time. Rather our allegiance is pledged to its symbol and what it represents. To understand just what we are pledging our allegiance to, then, we have to ask what the symbol symbolizes.

II. And to the Republic for which it stands

The flag symbolizes – “stands for” – a Republic. The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin, ‘res publica,’ meaning literally, ‘public entity.’ It refers to a society dedicated to the public good, the good of all its people, as opposed to the private interests of any of its people, and governed for and by its people toward that common end. Thus, in pledging our allegiance to the symbol of this Republic, and to the Republic symbolized by it, we are dedicating ourselves to a particular ideal: The ideal of a society itself dedicated to the common good.

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Philosopher-Kings in the Kingdom of Ends: Why Democracy Needs a Philosophically-Informed Citizenry

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction

I would like to begin with a bit of a riddle: How do you turn a democracy into a tyranny? The answer, as those familiar with Plato’s Republic will know, is: Do nothing. It will become a tyranny all by itself.

Plato spends a good part of the Republic developing his argument for this, and yet the gist of that argument can be found in the word ‘democracy’ itself. ‘Democracy’ is derived from two Greek words: ‘demos,’ which means ‘people,’ and ‘kratos,’ which means ‘power,’ and might be defined as ‘power of the people.’ This corresponds with Abraham Lincoln’s famous designation of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – which he hoped would not perish from the earth.

But what exactly are we to understand by the word ‘people’? I can illustrate the problematic character of this word through the title of a book I was assigned to read many years ago when studying for my Bar Mitzvah. The book was entitled, When the Jewish People Was Young. Even as a twelve year old the title struck me as grammatically odd. Shouldn’t it be: When the Jewish People Were Young? No, because the word ‘people,’ generally a plural, was here functioning as a singular. The phrase ‘The Jewish People’ was not intended to refer to a multitude of Jewish individuals, but rather to a singular entity made up of these individuals.

May we say the same about democracy? When we define democracy as ‘power of the people’ are we using the word ‘people’ in the singular or the plural sense? Do we mean a collection of separate individuals or do we mean some singular entity made up of these individuals?

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Progress and its Implications

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]W. Benjamin

DEVELOPMENT OR PROGRESS?

How do we determine whether our society is getting better or worse? Have we experienced progress or regress in the last 100 years? 1000 years? Ever? Herbert Marcuse writes that critical thought when: “confronted with the given society as an object of reflection…becomes historical consciousness; as such it is essentially judgment.”[2] However, this does not suggest relativism, continues Marcuse, because “in the real history of man” we can find “the criteria of truth and falsehood, of progress and regression.”[3] Perhaps Marcuse is too optimistic in his belief that the criteria of truth and falsehood can be found in history, or anywhere else, but he is on to something useful with his historicized notions of progress and regress.

Any claim that something has progressed requires a value judgment. Since progress denotes something good we must have some notion of what is good (or ‘the good’), however vague, in order to defend our claim. For example, one cannot say that community X has made progress when it builds new housing developments unless one believes that new housing developments are something good for the community. It might be the case that the construction of these homes has destroyed something believed to hold great cultural/historical value and so the construction actually indicates a regress.

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Locke and the Right to (Acquire) Property: On the Philosophical Basis of Progressive Liberalism

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction

Do the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes? How do we determine this “fair share”? Does the government have the right to tax some in order to provide services for others? What is the basis of this right? Is redistributive taxation a form of theft, as some on the political right claim, or might it indeed be mandated by the fundamental principles upon which a free society is founded? These are some of the questions that are up front and center for us in this political year.

The purpose of the following essay is to explore the philosophical basis for answering such questions. In particular, I wish to  examine the philosophical underpinnings of what might be called “progressive liberalism,” by showing its derivation from the basic principles of classical liberalism – especially as these are developed by John Locke, whose theory of natural law and natural rights was instrumental in providing the ethical framework for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  I argue that a careful analysis of the right to property as developed by Locke shows that this right is neither absolute nor unlimited. Indeed, analysis shows that, considered in the light of modern capitalist society, to honor this right will demand a fairly robust and ongoing program of progressive taxation, aid to the poor, and social programs sufficient to bring the distribution of property into accord with the “difference principle” articulated by John Rawls. This principle implies that a just economic system must be such as to garner the freely proffered consent of its least advantaged members.

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Liberal Values in Market Society

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

Much of political philosophy concerns itself with devising a priori systems (derived purely from theory) for organizing society. However, in doing so it tends to overlook many extant structures – particularly those of the economic sphere. In this piece I examine what it is that these a priori systems overlook, as well as the ways that the existing structures alter the institutions haphazardly placed on top of them. I devote the bulk of my attention to the frequent attempts made to overlay liberal values into our market society.

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Heart-Mind Cosmos: Panentheism in Mahayana Buddhism And Early 19th Century German Idealism

By: Stefan Schindler

In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton synthesized the European scientific discoveries of the previous two hundred years. This scientific revolution had been built on the scientific method formulated by Francis Bacon, who insisted that nature’s secrets could be unveiled through a combination of rational theorizing and rigorous empirical testing.  This was called the experimental method.  All previous knowledge was thrown into question in what Descartes called “methodical doubt.”

The point was to establish science on a firm foundation.  Assumptions and superstitions were to be replaced with certainties.  Accordingly, mathematics was the language for the formulation of the laws of nature.

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