Adam Smith Revisited

The usual take on Adam Smith is that he was the father of modern capitalism, an apologist for man’s greed and ambition, inventor of the notion of the “invisible hand” that would lead to prosperity and happiness for one and all in a capitalistic economy — trickle down, as it were. The fact is that he was much more famous in his day for his moral philosophy as author of  The of Moral Sentiments in which he insisted that human beings were born with a natural sympathy for one another that would temper their dealings and — in the case of capitalism — keep them from gouging one another and making huge profits at the cost of exploiting their workers and screwing one another.  As he said in Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render this happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s reference here to the supposed selfishness of human beings is a direct reference to the cynical Bernard Mandeville who insisted that thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith were all wet to insist that men were naturally virtuous because, in fact, they are selfish and self-seeking. Mandeville’s infamous little book The Fable of the Bees, which develops this theme at length, was severely attacked by an eighteenth century English audience led by thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler, Francis Hutchinson, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith who agreed that Mandeville was all wet. The group even included such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, though he was not as vociferous a proponent of the moral sense theory as the others. And these thinkers were supported by John Wesley and his Methodistic followers who were very active, especially among the very poor.  In any event, these  folks were all great minds that comprised what came to be called the Scottish “moral sense” school of philosophy, insisting that humans are born with a natural sensitivity to others, that we all exhibit the “social virtues” of sympathy, benevolence, compassion, and fellow-feeling. As Smith notes, sympathy cannot be a disguised form of self-interest or we could not explain how a man could sympathize with a woman feeling the pains of childbirth. Sympathy is primal; it is not self-interest posing as something else.

The theme was presupposed when he later wrote Wealth of Nations. Very few have read the 900 page book, but they have perused the pages and picked out passages that reinforce their own particular views of the nature of capitalism and the desirability of the capitalistic enterprise to guarantee human happiness. It is not necessary to repeat here what I have written before of Smith’s reservations about raw capitalism, nor to repeat the excellent comments on my blog by Jerry Stark, except to note that Smith had serious concerns about the deleterious effects of the profit motive on human beings.

To be sure, there is no question but that capitalism has improved the lot of most people in this society. We live in a country where the average person has so many things that would have made kings jealous in Smith’s day, we live longer, and we are healthier. But what is noticeably lacking today is the social virtue that Smith presupposed in his treatise. And without moral sensibility, the “fellow-feeling” of which Smith speaks, capitalism is reduced to fierce competition among people who are all reaching for the same goals of fabulous wealth, status, power, and prestige. Somewhere along the line the social virtues that Smith simply assumed were prevalent in humankind have all but disappeared, and the ugly qualities that are accompany capitalism are left unrestrained by the gentler, human sympathies.

The fact is that the eighteenth-century thinkers who founded this nation, who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution,” all presupposed the very same social virtues that Smith speaks of. They assumed, as James Madison says quite clearly in a number of the Federalist Papers, that virtuous people would elect wise and virtuous leaders who would promote the common good. This was axiomatic in English and American political and moral thought at that time, and was regarded as the sine qua non of a republican government. And yet we look around and fail to see much virtue at all; it has been replaced by the greed and avarice that capitalism breeds when it is not tempered, as Smith simply assumed it would be, by the social virtues. Recall Madison’s comment in Federalist Paper #55:

“Were the pictures which have been drawn of the political jealousies by some among us [Mandeville?] faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

I have spoken before about the transition of the word “virtue” into “value,” and the consequent reduction of virtues to feelings that are not in the least bit shared by all, but are purely subjective and personal. You like what you like and you value what you value; I like and value what I like and value. And that’s an end to it. But this seemingly innocent alteration in the way we look at things and speak about things reflects a deeper attitude toward our fellow human beings, a lack of sympathy and fellow-feeling accompanied by a conviction that there is nothing that is valuable or true, and that human happiness can be bought and paid for by grubbing about in the market place, trading stocks, exploiting our fellow humans, accumulating as much stuff as possible, climbing the political and social ladder, and ignoring our responsibilities to one another.

We have come a long way, baby, in the name of “progress.” What is not so clear is that we are any the happier or that what we have thrown away was not more valuable than what we have kept.

Am I Dreaming?

Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass focus on a perennial philosophical question first propounded by Bishop George Berkeley in the eighteenth century: the things we take to be real, material, and substantial are merely intangible, “sorts of things” in the mind of God. We do not know what is real and what is merely apparent. Further, we cannot say at any given moment whether we are awake or dreaming because there is no reliable criterion that enables us to distinguish the two states from one another.

Bishop George Berkeley
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a conversation Alice is having with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Looking-Glass Land we hear the following exchange that follows their discovery of the red king sleeping under a nearby tree:

“I’m afraid he will catch cold with lying in the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he is dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you would be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere, Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”

“I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”

“Ditto,” said Tweedledum

“Ditto, ditto,” said Tweedledee.

Both of Carroll’s tales have a surreal quality and throughout Alice is constantly wondering if she is awake or just dreaming. This generates the pithy problem: how do we determine that we are awake? Berkeley was convinced we could not, that is, we cannot say just why it is that we know we are awake at any given moment and not dreaming. We may have strong feelings. Common sense insists that we are awake and not dreaming when we ask the very question. But the problem is HOW do we know this? We cannot distinguish dreams from reality with any certainty. And this is because any claim to knowledge must produce the criteria that make the claim knowledge and not a pretender.

If I claim that this computer before me is real I can say I know it because I can see it and touch it. But how do I know I am really seeing it and touching it and not just dreaming that I am seeing it and touching it? As you can see, it’s a tough one! No one really answered Berkeley satisfactorily in the many years that have followed his suggesting the paradox and it is still out there.  David Hume suggested reality has greater “force and vivacity,” but this won’t work because many people have very vivid dreams and for many people reality is a blur — especially if they a prone to the occasional tipple. So Lewis Carroll is having great fun with it in his Alice stories. Children’s stories, eh?? I don’t think so!

Carroll later wrestled with the problem in his book, Sylvie and Bruno in which the narrator shuttles back and forth mysteriously between real and dream worlds.

“So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” he says to himself in the novel, “and this is not reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie and this is a dream! Is life a dream, I wonder?”

If it is, perhaps we will all wake up soon and discover that this is so and breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise this dream is a nightmare.



On a recent blog post I received a very carefully considered response to a question from a young woman who played tennis for me while I coached and also took a class from me while an honors student. She is bright and well-trained in her area of expertise, which is biology. She is now a mother and active in her community. She refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton and, I suspect (though she never said) she will vote for Donald Trump. This has given me pause and deep concern

To this point I have dismissed the supporters of Donald Trump as mindless minions. And while this may be true on the whole, it is obviously not the case with this young woman, whom I respect and am quite fond of. But I think she is dead wrong when she says that critical thinking has lead her to the conclusions she listed as the reasons she cannot vote for Hillary Clinton. In the end it comes down to what a person will consider “good reasons.” One person’s notion of “reasonableness” is obviously not that of another. I do suspect it is largely a matter of intellectual training (like recognizing good literature), but it is also a result of the fact — noted by David Hume ages ago — that reason is largely a slave of the passions.

The young woman in question lists six reasons why she cannot vote for Clinton, two of which are religious. I cannot dispute those reasons because they do not count, in my view, as reasons. Matters of faith are not subject to philosophical debate and are seldom, if ever, altered by critical reasoning. This is a good thing, by and large, since there are things we humans are simply not equipped to know and things we must simply accept on faith. I have always held to that view. In politics, it comes down to a separation between the state and the church, one of the founding principles protected by the Constitution.

But a couple of the reasons she gives strike me as rather weak and subject to criticism. I will discuss one. She worries that under a progressive president, such as Obama and Clinton (if elected) the defense of this country would be weakened. Indeed, she thinks, it already has been weakened.  Clinton’s own position on defense has been carefully spelled out:

Ensure we are stronger at home. We are strongest overseas when we are strongest at home. That means investing in our infrastructure, education, and innovation—the fundamentals of a strong economy. She will also work to reduce income inequality, because our country can’t lead effectively when so many are struggling to provide the basics for their families

She has not advocated cutting the defense budget despite the fact that this country spends 3 1/2 times as much on defense as China, which is second on the list of countries that spend billions on defense. In the case of the United States, we spend $581,000,000,000 annually on defense. But if cuts were to result from her presidency, surely, a cut of 20% (say) would not cripple the armed forces that defend this country? And Hillary Clinton hardly rates as a dove; indeed, she has shown herself to be rather hawkish.

And there are a couple of other reasons on her list that are subject to question as well, including her personal reflections on the failure of the Affordable Care Act which in large part seems to have been a success; but I won’t go into them. I do not want this young woman to feel as though I am holding her up to ridicule. On the contrary, I applaud her for speaking up and sharing with all of us the reasons she finds compelling for voting against the woman I honestly believe would do an excellent job as president.

What has me most deeply disturbed is the fact, which I shy away from, that reasonableness — which I have taught for over 40 years and which I embrace with both arms — is powerless when it comes to deeply held beliefs and fears. For those who fear terrorism, for example, this country does not spend enough on defense. And for those who believe that life starts with conception the notion that a woman should be the one to choose whether her fetus lives is far from reasonable. No reasons whatever will dislodge those convictions so strongly held. Arguments become mere rationalizations.

Thus, I am doubly disturbed by this young woman’s response to my question because I know she is convinced her position is reasonable whereas I am not, though I know full well that I could not persuade her to my point of view. I find myself having pursued a lifetime of seeking to help my students become more reasonable only to discover that, in the end, conclusions are often, if not always, based on emotion.

Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

Standards of Taste

In my view one of the most interesting debates, and one I have discussed before in these blogs, is the one among those who insist upon or deny the possibility of standards of taste — especially in the fine arts. We hear all too often that beauty, for example, is a matter of taste. You like popular music and I do not. I prefer Rembrandt to Rockwell, whereas you think I am a snob. Indeed, the disagreement can become heated and often lowers itself, as do many debates, to the level of the ad hominem — attacks on the person. I may or may not be a snob, but my preference for Rembrandt over Rockwell doesn’t rest at that level. There may actually be something about Rembrandt’s work that makes him a better painter and his works truly more beautiful (if we can use that word any more). Or is it all a matter of taste about which there can be no dispute?

It is assuredly the case that taste differs widely among various people and that one’s taste changes as he or she grows older. But it is also the case that the change may well mark an improvement and that there is such a thing as “refined” taste. If I grow up listening only to pop music and never hear a symphony I am not really in a position to judge whether classical music is or is not somehow better (more beautiful?) than popular music. If I have read a great deal of literature it would seem that I am in a better position to judge of a new work if it is truly worth reading or a waste of time than I would be if I never read anything but comic books. I may even be in a better position to say if it is “great” — though, again, we retreat from such words these days. The point is that there may not be such a thing as a standard of taste, but there may be subtle differences in works of art and literature that are only perceived by those in a position to recognize them: those who have a more refined taste, which is acquired with wide experience. This is true even in the case of fine wine and tea. It is said that there are experts who can discern hundreds of different varieties of tea just from tasting them. And we all know folks (I am not one of them) who seem to be able to detect certain qualities of the wine they are tasting that the rest of us seem to miss.

The man who addressed this interesting issue and seems to have made the most sense of it was David Hume in the nineteenth century. In his essay on the “Standard of Taste,” he remarks:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

In a word, if I am color-blind, I am not in a position to judge the worth of a painting. If I am tone-deaf, I cannot possibly discern the subtleties of a complex piece of music. And if I have no experience whatever with great art and literature, I am not qualified to judge such things. The notion that there is such a thing as “good taste” is often labelled as “elitism,” which once again lowers the discussion to the level of the ad hominem. It is not elitist to recognize the differences among persons who are or are not in a position to judge the worth of various objects. There may not be an indisputable standard of taste, as Hume suggests, but, as he also suggests, there are qualities in objects that announce themselves to those who are in a position to hear them or see them. As Hume admitted, the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice . . .” Some people are simply in a better position to judge of works of art, say, than are others. I do not speak of myself, but I know of people whose opinions seem to me to be well informed and I know enough to listen carefully to what they say. There may be no disputing taste, but it makes perfectly good sense to speak about those who have “good taste,”  those who know whereof they speak, and those who do not.

Culture Of Sharing

A good friend of mine who  is kind enough to read my blogs when he isn’t chasing whales and seals around the world has recently challenged me to write about the generosity that is exhibited by significant numbers of people — who stand in sharp contrast to the people like the Koch brothers who get all the attention and all the well-deserved criticism for being grasping and selfish. He’s right, of course, and I will attempt to rise to the challenge as set forth in these comments:

Now I want to hear your thoughts on the merits, joys, and feelings of worth experienced by practicing philanthropy. I am very impressed how many people give from their heart to accomplish so many varied, worthwhile and often important activities. Your piece today emphasizes that the miser never considers what might be done with his amassed resources. In my view, real joy comes as a result of hard work and then what folks do with their subsequent financial success. . . . [W]e have all seen folks of modest means practice a culture of sharing.

I like to think Dante was right to put those who love only money deep in Hell at the edge of a pit of fire with bags of gold hanging around their necks. While experiencing intense heat from the flames they are forced to stare at the bags through eternity, transfixed forever on what they have loved all their lives but which has little real importance. But I also agree that there are a great many people who get real joy from giving to others, as my friend suggests. Indeed, it has been shown that Americans are extremely generous when it comes to helping those in need — especially after natural disasters. But even during tranquil times, such as last year, such charities as “Feeding America” collected $1,510,622,608  to help feed many of those who go to bed hungry each night in this country. An astonishing figure! While we might be able to attribute the motives of the miser to a hardening of his heart to those in need, there are a great many more whose heart goes out immediately to those same people. Generosity is even more common than miserliness, though it is less spectacular and therefore ignored by smart-ass critics such as myself. In the end, I suspect, charitable giving comes down to a natural feeling of sympathy that can be found in most, if not all, human beings.

While some might insist that charity cannot be found in our secular age, one thinker who would disagree is professor Charles Taylor. His position is supported by figures like those noted above in the case of “Feeding America.” He has analyzed in great detail our age in an attempt to understand it better and is convinced that the roots of our charity toward others stems from the remnants of religion that can be found even among those who reject the very notion of religion and appear to be the most self-involved. As he put it in his book The Secular Age:

People still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like. What has all this to do with religion? The relationship is complex. On the one hand, some of these events are unquestionably “religious,” in the [strict] sense that it is oriented to something putatively transcendent (a pilgrimage to Medjugorje or a World Youth Day). And what has perhaps not been sufficiently remarked is the way in which this dimension of religion, which goes back to its earliest forms, is still alive and well today, in spite of all attempts at Reforming élites over many centuries to render our religious and/or moral lives more personal and inward, to disenchant the universe and downplay the collective.

One of the great minds to address this situation was David Hume who, in the eighteenth century, takes another tack entirely: he analyzed the “virtues” that were much talked about in his day — though we hesitate to even use the word any more. Most of the virtues, according to Hume, come down to utility, or their benefit to society as a whole — such things as justice, veracity, and honor. He argued in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that these virtues are valued entirely for their utility while there are others, such as benevolence, friendship, and charity that are partially valued for their utility but also for the feelings of sympathy they give rise to in the recipient or the virtuous persons themselves.

But a third class can be noted, according to Hume, and those virtues are entirely due to the fact that they express in themselves the natural sympathy that humans feel toward one another (though it can be stifled when other feelings become paramount, such as the love of money and power). Those virtues, due entirely to what we might call fellow-feeling, are such things as cheerfulness, modesty, and courtesy. These things have no utility whatever, according to Hume, but we admire them and approve of them when we witness them. And, he insists, we hope to bring up our children in such a way that they will exhibit these virtues along with the others that may be wholly or partially of benefit to society in general.

Thus, whether we take the approach of Hume and argue that humans generally  feel a natural sympathy toward one another or we agree with Taylor that there remain the remnants of religion that teaches us to love one another, we can agree that there are sound reasons why a great many people still care about one another enough to help them when they are in need and we know that, when acted upon,  such fellow-feeling does indeed make the giver feel a genuine sense of joy. Despite people like the Koch brothers and their ilk, ours remains to a large degree a “culture of sharing.”

Playing With Fire

In the Wikipedia discussion of nuclear weapons, we are told that “A thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg) can produce an explosive force comparable to the detonation of more than 1.2 million tons (1.1 million tonnes) of TNT. Thus, even a small nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation.” We are also told that there are approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons worldwide.

While you surely know about the concerns world-wide over the leak of nuclear waste from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan not long ago, you may not have read about the revelation that a near-calamity was avoided when, some years back, a plane carrying two nuclear bombs had engine trouble and had to release its bombs in North Carolina where they fell harmlessly to the ground. Apparently there are three “triggers” that must be tripped before the bomb will ignite but they discovered that two of the three triggers in one of the bombs had tripped leaving only the third one as a last-ditch safety measure against certain calamity. As the Guardian recently reported:

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Goethe's version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Goethe’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

You may also have read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that focuses attention on the determination of one man to create another in his image: Jacques Ellul called it the “technological imperative.” If we can do it we should do it.” This is the reverse of David Hume’s formula for ethical action: “ought implies can.”  If a person cannot do something we cannot say he or she should have done it — save a child’s life if they cannot swim, for example. The technological imperative reverses this formula and tells us that “can implies ought.” If we can do it, we should do it. Ethical questions are simply not raised. Thus is born the determination to create another human being, as Shelly suggests. The genie comes out of the bottle, the sorcerer’s apprentice messes with things he doesn’t fully understand and creates a broom to do his work that goes completely out of control. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. In a word, we have gone so far down the path toward control of nature and the determination to demonstrate our own technical ingenuity that we are now unable to put the genie back into the bottle. We are very good at asking the question “how?” but we completely ignore the basic question, “why?”

I have always wondered if the story in the Bible about the Garden of Eden was a parable for our times. The earth as we have come to know it is the Garden in all its glory. But we have eaten of the apple of knowledge (technical knowledge) and are about to destroy the beauty around us and ourselves in the process. We will not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, we will annihilate ourselves in the process. It’s a sobering thought and one that is hard to dodge when we read about nuclear accidents and near-misses like the case of the nuclear weapon that nearly went off in North Carolina not long ago and which would have caused untold human and animal life. And to what end, we might ask? But that is a question that is never asked by the technical experts. They only ask: can we do it?

Weighing Evidence

A most interesting article has come to light about the unwillingness (inability) of persons like you and me to weigh evidence fairly if it touches on an issue we feel strongly about. In fact recent studies showed that a balanced perspective presented to people who have strong feelings about such things as capital punishment simply made them cling all the more strongly to their original point of view. Consider the following two paragraphs that address the question of whether presenting a balanced argument to people who are deeply committed to a particular point of view will help them change their minds:

The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides. Surely, we might speculate, such information will correct falsehoods and promote mutual understanding. This, of course, has been a hope of countless dedicated journalists and public officials.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

This is disturbing. What it amounts to is “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!” And I gather we all succumb to this intransigent position on most issues we hold dear.

What we do, apparently, is weigh the evidence that supports our own conviction more heavily than we do conflicting evidence — which we tend to dismiss. So much for John Stuart Mill’s notion that an intelligent person will attempt to see both sides of an issue before making up his or her mind. If we already lean in one direction or the other on an issue (and who does not?) we will simply find the evidence that supports our point of view compelling and the evidence on the other side weak and unconvincing — even if an outside observer might insist that what we regard as the weaker evidence is in fact the stronger.

As a person who spent his life dedicated to trying to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become thinking human beings rather than performing robots, this article is  disturbing. But please note that my deeply held conviction that people can learn to be reasonable is being shaken by an argument I am not comfortable with — and yet I see the strength of that argument in spite of the fact that it calls into question everything I have taught for nearly 50 years. Isn’t this in itself an argument against the conclusions of the study examined in the piece for the New YorkTimes? An interesting paradox!

In any event, the article goes on to tell us that the only way we can really change a person’s mind is to have someone they respect — say someone they identify closely with or someone whose opinions they have always revered — evidence a radical alteration of opinion. If, for example, I revere George Will and read that he has decided that the Republican party no longer stands for the ideals and values that he holds close to his heart, that he has decided to become a Democrat and vote for Obama — if, I say, I read that this has happened, then I am likely to change my mind as well. I was always told that this was an appeal to authority and that it is a fallacious way to reason. But apparently it works. This would mean, if it is true, that reason is a slave to the passions, as David Hume told us more than a hundred years ago. And he had no psychological tests to revert to. He just found it to be the case.

But then there’s that nagging factoid hanging out there: I find the study summarized in the above article convincing even though I also find the conclusions of the research cited in conflict with my most deeply held beliefs. I am not aware of anyone I admire who has changed his mind about this question, yet I find myself increasingly inclined toward a disturbing point of view. That seems to make the conclusions of this study a bit less disturbing.

A Moral Dilemma

I am convinced by such minds as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that when people are simply handed things they become dependent upon the handout and consequently lose their freedom. David Hume thought that giving alms to beggars was a mistake for the same reason. Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor puts it in theological terms, but the point is well stated that humans want bread and miracles and they want things handed to them even at the cost of their freedom. But that is a price many think worth paying. Freedom, after all, is accompanied with responsibility and that is a terrible burden. Dostoevsky thought socialism was the offspring of the devil precisely because he thought humans become dependent upon the state; they must be free or they cease to be humans, they become “denizens of an ant heap.”

On the other hand, I am aware, as were these men, that there are those in our society in genuine need, people who are born into poverty and need and simply cannot work their way out. There are cynics who say these people get what they deserve, the social Darwinists who insist that the fittest should survive and the rest be damned. But I note that those who say this are almost always among the survivors — and in many cases they prosper precisely because have had things go their way and have never known need, much less dire poverty.

So the dilemma is clear: we deprive humans of their freedom by giving them a handout and running the risk that they become dependent upon that handout and thus become less than human. On the other hand, we ignore those in need and turn our backs on them so they will retain their freedom, even if they should starve to death.

The solution seems almost too simple: we err on the side of charity which, as the New Testament reminds us, is the “greatest” of the Christian virtues — a virtue that is missing in many Eastern religions that embrace “a tolerance devoid of charity,”  as Arthur Koestler reminds us. Those who are charitable are rewarded in helping others by becoming more human themselves. Socialism is not a viable economic system, in my view, because it undermines initiative and rewards laziness — both serious character flaws. But it is more charitable than capitalism with its stress on greed and the attendant corruption. Socialism’s appeal is moral, not economic. And as such it is the preferable alternative. But in between the two economic systems one would hope to discover a system in which those with talent and ability can accomplish much and acquire wealth proportionately while at the same time those less fortunate than themselves are encouraged but not ignored. In this dream world, all remain free and fully human. Whether or not we could ever realize such a system is doubtful, of course. But we make a mistake to embrace one or the other of the economic poles while ignoring the possibility that there might be a compromise in which all win out. The problem is to find the middle ground, where people and governments are charitable and help others without those who are helped becoming “denizens of an ant heap.”

Improving Taste

My good friend and former student, Paul Schlehr, read my previous blog on “Disputing Taste” and raised some excellent points. To begin with, he asks how we could possibly know that our taste “improves” and doesn’t simply change? He also doubts that by hanging out with artists or even tea-tasters our own taste could be markedly altered, much less improved. If I have no eye for color, going to an art gallery with Ed Evans isn’t going to help me much.

These are good points. He is right, of course, that if I have no eye for color — or if I am tone-deaf — I probably won’t learn much by hanging about with artists and musicians. But short of those extreme cases, it does seem to me that we can learn a great deal from those people and our taste does indeed improve with exposure — though Paul correctly questions whether increasing awareness necessarily leads to improved taste. Not necessarily, but very likely.

Ed Evans read my blog and said that he doesn’t really know what makes art good but he “knows what he likes.” Indeed. But that liking (which is what we call “taste”) comes from years of experience and training. Ed noted that in his student critiques his students frequently resisted his comments by saying “my friend likes it.” Ed’s response is standard: “that may be so, but your friend doesn’t have the years of experience that I have had.” And experience, as mentioned in my earlier blog, counts. It allows us to compare and contrast different works. It tells us what kinds of technique the artist employs, what goes into the making of a painting, for example. It teaches us about composition and color, balance and harmony. And knowing these things does deepen our awareness and improve our taste. “Improve” in the sense that it moves from the naive, gut feeling, to a more sophisticated level of appreciation that demands more of the object because we are more aware of what is going on.

Now, no matter how much two people see in the painting, there is no guarantee that either of them will like it, or that they will both like it, that their taste will be similar. These are separate issues altogether and do not show that taste cannot improve. Even in the case of something as simple as interior decorating, my taste will improve as I learn what colors clash, which complement one another, and what kind of statement certain forms can make in specific surroundings. As I learn these things, as I learn more about the world around me, the sharper my senses become and the deeper my sensibilities. My taste improves. In the end, I have better taste than I did in the beginning. To use Paul’s example, I will move from liking paintings of Elvis done on black velvet to a preference for paintings done by the masters. I demand more, and in doing so, I may be disappointed more often, but I will also gain in my appreciation: my taste will improve.

It may be a loose way of talking to use terms like “good taste” and “bad taste,” and it may mean no more than taste that does or does not agree with mine. I think this does happen and this concern lies behind some of Paul’s comments. But this language can also suggest a deeper sense of realization of what is going on in our world, a turning of attention away from my subjective responses (or “reactions” as we like to say) to things going on in the world. In any event, I would prefer to use Hume’s terminology and talk about “refined” or “vulgar” taste — or perhaps “discriminating” as opposed to “undiscriminating” taste  — to suggest that improvement requires greater sensibility and wider experience.

I do think we could learn a great deal from the tea tasters in China about how teas differ. We can, and do, learn about wine by listening to experts and directing our attention to what is happening on our tongue as we swirl the wine about and focus attention on the specific properties of the wine itself. And I also stick by my analogy between the physicians who are expert at what they do and the artists who are also experts at what they do. Even though there are clear differences between the two, they both draw on their teaching and years of experience, as do the wine tasters and the tea experts. As Hume noted in his essay on “The Standards of Taste,” the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice [as much as possible] . . .”

Taste does not only change, as Paul suggests, it can (if it does not in fact) also improve by virtue of those properties that are grounded in the objects around us and because we focus attention on those properties and don’t dwell on our own particular responses to those properties. If we attend to what is going on around us and listen to the experts, our taste will not only change, it will improve in our appreciation of wine, painting, music, or even tennis. We demand more and the satisfaction, though less frequent, is greater.