Category: Theory (Page 2 of 9)

Responding to Morally Flawed Historical Philosophers and Philosophies

Victor Fabian Abundez-Guerra and Nathan Nobis from 1000-Word Philosophy examine the difficult issue of how to deal with the objectionable moral views of past philosophers.

Many historically-influential philosophers had profoundly wrong moral views or behaved very badly. Aristotle thought women were “deformed men” and that some people were slaves “by nature.” Descartes had disturbing views about non-human animals. Hume and Kant were racists. Hegel disparaged Africans. Nietzsche despised sick people. Mill condoned colonialism. Fanon was homophobic. Frege was anti-Semitic; Heidegger was a Nazi. Schopenhauer was sexist. Rousseau abandoned his children. Wittgenstein beat his young students. Unfortunately, these examples are just a start.[1]

These philosophers are famous for their intellectual accomplishments, yet they display serious moral or intellectual flaws in their beliefs or actions. At least, some of their views were false, ultimately unjustified and, perhaps, harmful.

How should we respond to brilliant-but-flawed philosophers from the past?[2] Here we explore the issues, asking questions and offering few answers. Any insights gained here might be applicable to contemporary imperfect philosophers, scholars in other fields,[3] and people in general.

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Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance

By: Craig Collins

In the first installment of this two-part article we examined the notion that any future without globalization must be an improvement.  But globalization and growth only constitute capitalism’s expansionist phase, powered by abundant fossil fuels.  As energy becomes scarce, boom turns to bust.  But profit-hungry capitalism doesn’t die; it morphs into its zombie-like, undead phase.

Growth-less capitalism turns catabolic.  The word catabolism is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself.  Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by consuming the society that sustains it.[1]  As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.  Unless we bring it down, catabolic capitalism will leave its survivors rummaging through the toxic rubble left behind.

Capitalism is adept at exploiting human weaknesses, especially greed and fear.  During the period of rapid expansion, greed provides the most powerful incentive for investors, while fear comes in a distant second.  Investors are encouraged to take big risks and go into debt in the hope of scoring windfall profits.  Speculative bubbles grow rapidly as people try to make it rich on the next big deal.  But when boom turns to bust, fear takes the drivers seat.  In these troubled times, the most profitable ventures capitalize on insecurity, desperation and scarcity.

In the era of fossil fuel abundance, catabolic capitalists worked the dim back alleys of the growth economy.  But, as the productive sector atrophies and the financial sector seizes up, this parasitic sector emerges from the shadows and proliferates rapidly.  It thrives off anxiety and hoarding; corruption and crime; conflict and collapse.  Catabolic capitalism profits by confiscating and selling off the stranded assets of the bankrupt productive and public sectors; dodging or dismantling legalities and regulations while pocketing taxpayer subsidies; hoarding scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; and preying upon the utter desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.

This looming catabolic future will transform the Green New Deals proposed by eco-optimists like Al Gore, Lester Brown and Jeremy Rifkin into ecotopian pipe dreams…unless we exorcise capitalism’s profit possession from the economy.[2]  Instead of investing society’s remaining resources into a sustainable recovery and renewal, catabolic capitalism will eat away at society like a cancerous tumor.  A malignant alliance of parasitic profiteers, resource cartels and weapons merchants will infect the body politic and poison any effort to prevent them from ransacking the economy and the Earth.  If society succumbs to their all-consuming thirst for profit, life will become a dismal affair for everyone but them.

However, at the risk of sounding over-optimistic, the approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible.  The end of growth seriously erodes the legitimacy of capitalism by undermining its capacity to meet the needs of everyday life. 

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Catabolic Capitalism: The Dark at the End of the Tunnel

By: Craig Collins

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is an apt description of our current place in history. No matter what you think of globalization, I believe we’ll soon discover that capitalism without it is much, much worse.

No one needs to convince establishment economists, politicians and pundits that the absence of globalization and growth spells trouble. They’ve pushed globalization as the Viagra of economic growth for years. But globalization has never been popular with everyone. Capitalism’s critics recognize that it generates tremendous wealth and power for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s seven billion people, makes room for some in the middle class, but keeps most of humanity destitute and desperate, while trashing the planet and jeopardizing human survival for generations to come.

On the Left, a loose alliance of ecology and labor activists, small farmers, indigenous peoples and human rights advocates has disrupted international economic summits for many years. They say malignant capitalism demolishes habitats and poisons ecosystems, wreaks havoc with the climate, destroys indigenous cultures, pushes farmers off their land and into slums and erodes wages by pitting desperate workers around the globe against one another. At annual World Social Forums, these social movements voice their opposition to globalization and growth and unite around the belief that “Another World Is Possible!” They work toward the day when neoliberal globalization is replaced by a more democratic, equitable, Earth-friendly society.

Since globalization is so damaging, most activists assume that any future without it is bound to be an improvement. But now, it appears that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, for all of its depredations, future generations may someday look back on capitalism’s growth phase as the halcyon days of industrial civilization, a naïve time before anyone realized that the worst was yet to come.

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Licensing Parents

Ryan Jenkins from 1000-Word Philosophy examines the potential worth in licensing parents.

Most people think it’s obvious that we have a right to procreate and raise children. In fact, many people think reproductive rights are among the most important rights we have. After all, reproductive rights protect some of the most intimate acts between adults and many people think that rearing children is the greatest source of meaning and fulfillment in life. It’s hard to fathom a government with the arrogance to deny its citizens these rights.

At the same time, most of us think there are some situations where the government is justified in taking away someone’s children. Cases of extreme neglect or abuse come to mind – cases where people have demonstrated that they are not fit parents. If it’s okay to take someone’s children away after the fact, could it ever be okay to deny them the right to raise children beforehand? One way of denying parents the opportunity to raise children would be to require them to procure a license to parent in the same way we require licenses to drive a car or own a handgun. Many would find this surprising, but perhaps there is a good argument for licensing parents.

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Populism: The Long Con

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

Some time ago, likely in a moment of procrastination over some more important task, I found myself browsing through a cache of old interviews from The Daily Show (the Jon Stewart era). One such interview was with Mike Huckabee (2015), which I’d remembered watching live years earlier. Huckabee was promoting his apologia, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy–– another puritanical installation in the great conflict between the provincial interior and the cosmopolitan coasts. After likening Beyoncé to a stripper and mocking the Harvard faculty, Huckabee posed a question: “If your car breaks down in the middle of the night on a country road, who do you want coming by? An MBA in a Beemer, or do you want a couple of good ol’ boys in a pickup truck, with a toolbox in the back?”

These “would you rather” scenarios are a common trope in the culture war. The most famous is probably William F. Buckley’s claim that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the phonebook than by the Harvard University faculty. Huckabee, who grew up in Arkansas and was educated at a Baptist University, might be able to claim membership in the heartland, but Buckley (a Yale man) certainly couldn’t have, no more than most Republicans in the House of Representatives can today.

With decades of this stuff piled high in the American consciousness, the mental conditions required to give rise to a populist like Trump should have been obvious. These kinds of sentiments, aside from being very stupid, are also very insidious, and highly corrosive to the idea of an informed society. For populism’s great peril is in its mawkish insistence on normalcy as a kind of authenticity––on there being a “real America.” And more still, that this authenticity is somehow measured by, say, how much gravy one has coursing through one’s veins. It also produces rip currents of anti-intellectualism and vulgarity (and by vulgarity I don’t mean profane, but simply that which is “of the common people”). The apotheosis of this has been reached (one hopes) with the 45th president of the United States, who is less a portrait of someone with an anti-intellectual posture than someone living an anti-intellectual existence.

Populism is an old trick. It’s been around since the earliest democracies. Plato, Aristotle and all the classical thinkers wrote about it and rightly condemned it, understanding that it would naturally end with a demagogue. And it should come as no surprise that they regarded the most threatening aspect of this kind of politics to be its disdain for the educated. One of the best dramatizations of this in the ancient world is Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Written during a lull in the Peloponnesian War, it’s considered one of the playwright’s lighter, apolitical comedies.

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Capsule Introduction to Capitalism and Socialism

by Victor Wallis

A short introduction to key terms in political theory by the author of Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism

A capitalist society is one in which the major decisions about what is produced (and how, and how much, and for whom) are made by the capital-owning class and/or its representatives. Capital differs from earlier forms of wealth in that it is liquid, i.e., it can be bought and sold on the market. Capitalist wealth includes machinery (what Marx called “means of production,” or capital in the narrow sense), but it also includes land and financial instruments (money, stocks & bonds, etc.).

Most of this wealth is concentrated in large corporations or financial institutions, whose goal is to maximize their own profits. To do this, they must sell as much as possible and pay out as little as possible. Sales are maximized by responding not simply to needs but rather to market-demand (i.e., needs or wants backed by purchasing power). Market-demand is in turn shaped partly by public policy (e.g., if there’s no mass transit, more people will have to buy cars) and partly by a whole culture of advertising and public relations. At the same time, costs are minimized by paying workers as little as possible (including moving production to low-wage areas) and by skimping on such matters as waste-disposal and workplace safety & health.

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Just War Theory

Ryan Jenkins from 1000-Word Philosophy gives an account of just war theory.

War is a profoundly destructive institution, yet most of us still believe there are good wars. Authors as far back as Cicero, and in various cultural traditions,[1] have sought to answer this question: When is a war just? The just war tradition (or just war theory) is one subset of military ethics.[2] Recently, interest in just war theory was ignited by Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (2006), published in the wake of the Vietnam War. More recently, profound challenges to “traditional” just war theory—under the banner of “revisionism”—have shaken the foundations of the ethics of war (McMahan, 2009; Rodin, 2005). This article will explore the criteria of traditional just war theory before briefly discussing the revisionist school’s recent critiques.

Jus ad Bellum: Justice in the Resort to War

Traditional just war theory concerns itself with two questions: (1) when it is just to go to war and (2) how may a war be justly fought?[3] (These two areas usually go by their Latin names: jus ad bellum and jus in bello, respectively.) This way, we can say that a war was just to declare but fought unjustly, or perhaps vice versa.[4]

When is it just to resort to war? (Notice this moral question is separate from when war is prudent or popular.) Traditionalists hold that a state must satisfy several criteria: just cause, right intention, last resort, proportionality, probability of success, and proper authority.

Theorists usually think the only just cause for declaring war is self-defense: that is, as a response to an actual aggression. Pre-emptive war—declaring war on a state because it is believed they will be a threat—is clearly a Pandora’s box. Instead, we must meet a high evidential burden in order to justify war, and a merely suspected attack is not enough.

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On the Precipice

by Victor Wallis

Like many others (unless they are in a state of simple denial), I sometimes feel paralyzed by the enormity of the environmental challenge.

How to break through this?

We must begin with the certainties.

First is the science. Not every aspect of it, of course, but the basic contours. The most in-depth, up-to-date, and accessible account is Ian Angus’s 2016 Monthly Review Press book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (see my review at Climate and Capitalism). When you read this book, you will see how in some respects the point of no return has already been reached. But even if full collapse is only a matter of time, many life-and-death choices will still confront us along the way – over what we may hope will be more than a single lifetime.

The second certainty is that we are being systematically lied to by the most powerful interests in this society. It is now known that the big oil companies, by their own research in the 1970s, confirmed what would later become common knowledge about the climate-impact of greenhouse gases, but they then undertook a deliberate campaign of obfuscation which continues to this day (see updates at kochvsclean.com).

The third certainty is an outcome of the second: hundreds of millions of people who should – and could – be waging the battle of and for their lives, are instead propelled by a structured inertia, part “practical” and part ideological, to continue with their daily routines – of heating or cooling, driving, flying, over-indulging in one or another addiction, and acquiescing in wars of domination – as though nothing had changed.

And yet things have changed!

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The Worth of a State: Tribalism versus Individuality

By: Glen Paul Hammond

Man’s commonest weakness, [is] his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side.

This is what Mark Twain saw as the motivation behind much of the evil that human beings perpetrate in the world.  In his essay, The United States of Lyncherdom, Twain sought to understand how good, ordinary people, “the vast majority of whom are right-hearted,” could participate in the hideous act of vigilantism and the unlawful, public lynchings that took place in the United States after the American Civil War (243).  It was not a deep-seated evil that resided in the hearts of individuals, according to Twain, but a herd mentality that made it impossible for any individual to oppose the group.  He called it Moral Cowardice and stated that it was “the commanding feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000… (243).”  Any group spurred on in a fervor of declared moral correctness would be near impossible for any, but the strongest individuals, to oppose. Although the human propensity to belong to a group can and has been utilized for much good in the world, society must also be mindful of the fundamental flaw in the herd mentality.  This article will attempt to outline this flaw and, in so doing, expose the danger it poses to liberal democracy.

Human beings are social animals and one of the consequences of this is the inevitable tension that exists “between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity” (Aronson 13).  Several empirical studies attest that even when there are no explicit constraints against individuality, the human animal’s desire to belong creates, in part, a propensity to conform.  Examining a set of classic experiments in his book The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson explained that subjects were motivated by two important goals: “the goal of being correct and the goal of staying in the good graces of other people by living up to their expectations”(Aronson 20).  Yet, the studies showed that, even when the group was obviously incorrect, a disproportionate amount of individuals went along.  This, in essence, revealed that  an individual’s desire to be part of the group overrides the need to be correct and that, as a means to resolve any inner conflict, many individuals fully adapt to the herd by proceeding to rationalize the group’s ultimate correctness.  In so doing, the individual satisfies both inherent needs, and popular opinion becomes the moral compass under which the individual happily operates. This, however, is the crux of the problem.  Twain’s cautionary stance against the corrupting power of moral correctness is uncomfortably close to much of the apprehension many feel today toward political correctness (PC) and his concept of the herd mentality is dangerously similar to an understanding of what is motivating the current thrust behind identity groups. Thus, the old dialogue of individuality versus tribalism is re-emerging.

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Against Term Limits

Guillaume LeBlanc from New American Perspective takes issue with President Trump’s suggestion of adding Congressional term limits.

In what was certainly a bid to win more good will with the populist right (and perhaps even the populist left), President Trump recently called for term limits on Congress. The reaction was much more subdued than I expected, although it did play out more or less as this sort of thing normally does: with the populists sharing articles about it, complete with complaints about “career politicians”, while only a few skeptics bothered to chime in to oppose it. And when it comes to the issue of term limits for Congress, put me firmly in the opposition camp.

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