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Updated: 10/27/2009; 10:01:57 PM.



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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION:  Vulgar Morality will turn five in January.  The blog has been hosted by Radio Userland, which now informs me they have decided to "close" their blogging services as of 31 December 2009.


I'm not happy with Radio Userland, but Vulgar Morality will continue, and I'll use the transition as an opportunity to change the blog for the better.


As of today, though, there will be no more postings on this site.  Vulgar Morality has been resurrected to, and all new posts will appear there.  I hope to export all the VM conent before the end-of-year, turn-into-a-pumpkin moment, but until then I'll leave it in the tender care of Radio Userland, and lead a schizoid blogging life.

9:55:55 PM    comment []

Friday, October 09, 2009

The formula

THE FORMULA:  I am born, a nonconscious blob.  I wake up.  A little time passes.  I am old.  Between then and now, one would expect the patterns to become clear, the underlying principles to be revealed.  At some point, one expects to learn the formula for living correctly. 


I expected that -- I thought I'd grasped it when I was young, but no -- I thought it would be the wisdom of my old age, but there's no wisdom, just wrinkles and less hair.  I can discern few patterns, fewer principles of order.


There is no formula for life.


True, philosophers keep looking -- but philosophers have been lost in the dark since Socrates.  Plato abandoned reality and created a phantom world of forms to discover life's formula in his own fantastic creation.  Descartes found his formula while hiding inside a huge Dutch oven.  Thoreau imagined he could decipher infinite nature as the result of living in an Irishman's hut.


Rationalists crave formula; they want to live by the manual.  Who wouldn't?  They call it "utility" or "happiness" then proceed to confusion at the very next step.  For this they blame conspiracies, but it's a flaw in their thinking.  There is no manual.  There is no formula.


How then are we to live?


By a combination of dream and accident:  by integrity and luck.  We are given a community, we are born to it:  whether peaceful or violent, properous or starving, deep or dim, is an accident of birth.  Your family, your body, your basic personality:  accidents of birth.  From a certain perspective, all human life appears as an accident of birth.


But there are other perspectives.  Some are born privileged yet dissipate themselves to misery.  Some are born wretched yet rise above pain and sorrow to greatness on a human scale.  Some part of who we are is ours to determine.  We aren't entirely pawns in the hands of capricious gods. 


Much is hardwired, given.  Much is accidental and unfathomable.  The dignity of our species resides in taking what is given and imposing a noble story on the randomness of everyday experience, even loss, even suffering, even -- and necessarily -- death.


I'm not a philosopher.  I'm not a rationalist.  I long ago gave up on my youthful idea that there should be a formula by which to guide my steps.  I therefore look on my life, my past, with wonder. 


I live in a country that is bountiful and free.  I have my wife of many years, holding me straight like those flying buttresses which support the old churches in Europe.  I have exactly the number of children I asked for, each of them also a source of wonder, all of them vastly superior products to their Dad.  I have travelled to many strange places, seen astonishing things. 


How did such luck happen to come my way?


I'd like to believe it was deserved.  I'd like to think I shaped my fate by force of character, and earned my luck by the goodness of my actions.  But hard as I try, I find this impossible to believe.


I know others who suffer through no fault of their own:  people who are better and kinder than me, tormented by cancer, distracted by bipolar disorder, crushed by loneliness -- people who have lost their spouses, their children, to accidental deaths, or whose luck it was never to marry, never to have children.  None of this was deserved.


Human life is inherently tragic.  That is another way of saying it defies any possible formula.  Much is hardwired and given, much is undeserved, and only the inescapable end is known:  death, not truth, is the daughter of time.  Some lies, I submit, last forever.


Alas, I'm not a Puritan.  I can't believe my good fortune has any connection to my worth as a human being.  For all I know, it will be reversed tomorrow.  But this only expands my sense of wonder.  If life is so fragile, if causality is so disconnected from moral worth, why did I come to be so privileged, even for a little while?


I don't know.  I suspect -- maybe this is intellectual vanity -- no one has ever known the answer to such questions.  But I do know the path I wish to follow.


Let me dwell peaceably in my community:  not just the great big United States of America, though I'm proud to be part of such a magnificent human story, but first and mainly my little neighborhood in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia.


Let me cleave to my wife and watch my children launch their own stories into the unsuspecting world -- if my luck rubs off on them a bit, and they get spouses and children of their own, let me share in their lives and their troubles until the light goes out.


And when someone does turn out the light for good, let me go into the dark in a way that doesn't discredit my own life's story.


Let these things happen, and I will have found my one-man, one-time, one-of-a-kind universal formula for life.


Wish me luck.

2:16:41 PM    comment []

Saturday, October 03, 2009

FRIEDMAN, POLANSKI VS. WE THE PEOPLE:  An often-articulated vision of the world, which Thomas Sowell called unconstrained and I have labelled rationalist, holds that the mass of people are weak, foolish, and easily led astray by powerful, selfish interests.  We the people, to behave correctly, need an adult in the room:  a class of intellectuals who treat moral and political problems like mathematical equations, to be solved with an application of reason.


This perspective immediately collides with the ideals of democracy and equality.  Democracy, to a rationalist, can be legitimate only when it elects the rationalist elites to office, and endorses their policy prescriptions.  Otherwise it gives a bunch of yahoos the right to deny that one plus one is two. 


Equality, in the rationalist vision, gets projected to the indefinite future, when the rest of the human race will catch up with the the enlightened few.  Until that golden age arrives, however, the rationalist's burden is to lead us human donkeys by persuasion if possible, but by force if need be.  One would not debate the fine points of survival with a child about to step in front of a speeding car, after all.


Usually, the rationalist veils his contempt for his fellow-citizens behind populist bromides and ferocious attacks on targeted villains like the health insurance companies.  Yet in recent weeks the veil of discretion has been pushed aside.  The rationalist suddenly stands exposed and unashamed.  He will have his privileges, his special dispensation, and we the people must either follow or be damned.


Case in point:  Thomas Friedman.  Here is a man whose likeness, chins and all, should be carved on the Mt. Rushmore of rationalist self-esteemers.  While surely an intelligent person, he has no discernible qualifications to speak on any subject.  His job is to vent opinions for the NYT.  His style alternates between the axiomatic and the opaque, offering little in the way of persuasive evidence.  In fact he doesn't wish to persuade at all, but rather to pound and pummel the reader into submission. 


What he writes is important because he is Thomas Friedman.  It is also beyond discussion, for the same reason.


Three weeks ago, Friedman gave up on democracy.  For those who think this is an exaggeration, here are his own words:  "There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today."  Friedman, like most rationalists, prefers tidier top-down political systems, among which he finds a golden ideal in the mafia now ruling China:


One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.


"Politically difficult but critically important":  another way of saying "opinions I hold which will never fly with the vast majoritarian rabble."  Friedman's policy prescriptions are (by definition) correct, because he is Thomas Friedman.  He loathes hearing them debated by lesser beings, and looks longingly to those men who, when they were called into question, gave us the enlightened massacre of Tiananmen Square.  One feels Friedman would like to run a few tanks over the Republicans in Congress, who against all reason keep acting like an opposition party -- leaving us a "one-party democracy."


Case in point:  Roman Polanski.  Let us skip over the sordid details of his case.  All that matters is that Polanski acknowledged his guilt, then fled before he could receive his punishment.  He's a fugitive, a wanted criminal.  That he is also a movie director would appear, to most people, a matter of no relevance.


Yet the intelligentsia in Europe and the U.S. reject this line of reasoning.  It's who Polanski is that matters:  an artist, an enlightened member of the elite, a moral guardian and teacher to the people.  Given his privileged estate, what Polanski did is (by definition) acceptable and possibly even admirable.


A petition originating with that old busybody, Bernard-Henri Levy, has been signed by dozens of famous writers, artists, and intellectuals.  It demands that Polanski be released, accepted, and embraced, because he is who he is, and they are who they are.  The wording fairly hums with wounded majesty and disdain; in Friedmanesque fashion, it provides neither evidence nor arguments on Polanski's behalf.  His crime?  "An episode that happened years ago."  The law?  "A politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States."  And so it goes.


Democracies are worthy if -- and only if -- the people understand the difference between their betters and themselves.  Here is the first great beatitude of the rationalist creed.  Moral worth depends on one's cleverness and ideology, never one's actions.  This explains how a sleazy poseur like Norman Mailer could get away with stabbing his wife, and a moral derelict like Ted Kennedy can enjoy, on his death, an apotheosis worthy of St. Francis.  They were made of higher stuff than thee or me.


Alas, the people will never understand.  Americans aren't about to amend the Constitution to appease Thomas Friedman and bring us closer in line with the People's Republic.  Even in France, the intellectuals' frenzy of self-righteousness on behalf of a child molester has left a bad taste with the populace.  That is the cross the rationalist must bear, the source of his unending heartburn and frustration:  to be, like God himself,  invariably right, yet always scorned, ignored, or rejected.

11:29:33 PM    comment []

Monday, September 28, 2009

DEEP THOUGHT"The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of a man as his leg or arm.  It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.  It may be strengthened by exercise, as an particular limb of the body.  This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this:  even less one than what we call common sense.  State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor.  The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."  Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr
10:46:03 PM    comment []

Friday, September 11, 2009

BLOG ON PAUSEThe Vulgar Moralist will be travelling to foreign parts for the next two weeks.  If all goes well, blogging will resume later this month.
11:27:46 PM    comment []

Monday, September 07, 2009

JIMMY CARTER BLAMES THE JEWS:  The worst president of my lifetime, without a shred of doubt, was Jimmy Carter.  He spoke English strangely:  when he meant to say "important" it came out "impotent."  He behaved like the ultimate 99-pound weakling, and was swatted around by the Soviets, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Nicaraguans, and a small white rabbit.  When he finally decided to strike back, he gave a speech and blamed everyone else for his troubles.  It seemed that the American people had let him down.


My own faith in the wisdom of the American people was born the day they turned down Carter's request for four more years of rodent-tormented impotence.


Since then, Carter has been engaged in a cheerless campaign to demonstrate his moral superiority to the rest of us.  I won't dwell on the details of this endeavor; suffice to say it has entailed befriending thugs like Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, and genuflecting before monsters like Kim Il Sung.


Now advanced in years, Carter clearly is pining for a stroke of genius that might be viewed as his legacy:  a Unified Field Theory of World Peace, say.  He has thought hard on the matter, and has finally achieved a dazzling insight into the causes of human conflict.  It's the Jews.  It's Israel.  Punish them suitably, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.


Had it not been authored by Jimmy Carter, this would have been an extraordinary piece to find in the opinion pages of my hometown paper, the WaPo.  In it, Carter claims to belong to a group of travelling "Elders," roaming the world in search of people on whom to pass judgment.  So, who are these ancient moral mariners?  Nobody has elected them.  Nobody has invited them.  They just decided that the earth is their village, and that the human race needed a good talking to.


Particularly Israel.  Among the Elders, Carter tells us, are Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, both known for their hostility to that country and to the Jews who support it.  Their thesis, fully endorsed by Carter, is that Israel is a uniquely racist, "apartheid" country -- deserving far more attention and condemnation than, say, Iran or North Korea.  Implied in many of their statements is a belief in a nebulous conspiracy of neocons, financiers, and political puppet-masters who make of Israel their cat's paw -- villains who fatten on trouble and bloodshed, are the chief disturbers of the world's peace, and happen to be, one and all, Jews.


The WaPo piece appears to have been written by a man who has suffered a stroke, and can only see half of every field of conflict.  It is astonishing in its partiality.  Carter bemoans Israel's sealing off of Gaza, but never mentions that the Gazans elected a government sworn to anihilate Israel.  He criticizes Israeli settlements but reports only "despair" among Palestinians.  He accuses unnamed "Israeli leaders" of aiming to colonize the West Bank, but looks forward to a "nonviolent civil rights struggle" waged by Gandhi-like Arabs.


There is no context, no history of intransigence and terror, no regional balance of power:  only Israel and its victims.  Only on one occasion does Carter, though the fog of his affliction, catch a glimpse of the larger world:


Israel prevents any cement, lumber, seeds, fertilizer and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through Gaza's gates. Some additional goods from Egypt reach Gaza through underground tunnels. Gazans cannot produce their own food nor repair schools, hospitals, business establishments or the 50,000 homes that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Israel's assault last January.


The intent of the passage is clear enough:  Israel is strangling the life out of Gaza.  But wait a minute:  the Gazans need underground tunnels to receive goods from Egypt?  Which brings up the question:  where are Egypt, and the other Arab countries, in all of this?  Don't they share a long border with Gaza, through which they can bring "cement, seeds, fertilizer, and hundreds of other needed materials"?  If not, why not?  Could it be that the Egyptian government, like Israel's, wants nothing to do with the religious mafia now ruling Gaza with Iranian support?


Never mind.  The world at times may seem like a complicated place, but we feel certain all its problems stem from one source.  Why -- I ask -- travel thousands of miles to figure out what we already know?  My advice to Jimmy Carter and his Flying Elders is:  chill out.  Rest your ancient bones.  Sit in that comfy easy chair, relax, and blame the Jews.


UPDATE:  A wiser man than me would have shut his mouth and let Elliott Abrams tell the story.

11:30:42 AM    comment []

Friday, September 04, 2009

QUESTION FOR THE DAY:  How should an irrationalist live?  I'm an irrationalist.  Not anti-rational:  I don't want to bounce from impulse to impulse, or glorify insanity, or join a sect of painted Druid priests.  I expect to apply reason in its proper sphere.  The problem is, reason has been misapplied and misunderstood by unreasonable minds, which hold up abstract formulas as the standard reality must meet.  But reality itself is irrational.


The physical world owes no obligation to mathematical logic.  Human nature and all the moral aspirations of all peoples everywhere are driven by habit, custom, and emotion.  That is true even of the extreme rationalist, who lacks the power to create a universe and a culture and a moral code out of the cogitations of his brain.


The question here is whether being an irrationalist has practical consequences.  How does one behave on irrationalist principles?  In what ways, if any, will my life be different from a rationalist's?


Let's begin the search for answers by flipping the question:  how should a rationalist live?  A popular depiction of the rational life can be found in Star Trek's Mr. Spock, who was cool, analytic, dispassionate, and a little unearthly.  Nothing could be more unlike the rationalists of history.  With a few honorable exceptions, these were angry, carping, impatient, and destructive people.  Each thought he had found the formula for happiness, and despised his neighbors for clinging to their silly superstitions.


When the rationalist was an unarmed prophet -- as with Socrates and Marx -- he vilified his own community and mocked its moral ideals.  When he was armed -- think Robespierre or Mao -- millions died.


Socrates, the father of rationalism, proclaimed that the unexamined life was not worth living.  The statement is often praised -- but what on earth did he mean?  If it was that we should examine with some care the choices in our lives, then he offered sane and sensible advice.  But I don't believe this is what Socrates meant.  In my opinion, he felt certain that an examination of life must lead to a radical rupture with the customs and beliefs of the community -- that's the inescapable theme of the account Socrates gives of his own life in the Apology.


The most astonishing aspect of this claim is the rationalist's faith that he knows enough to transform human life by mere abstract reasoning.  He thinks, therefore he is.  Such powers of transformation make the rationalist into a messianic figure, not least in his own mind:  Socrates, for example, held that he had been chosen by God to teach wisdom and virtue to the Athenians. 


Because his mental powers dwarfs those of his fellow citizens, the rationalist views democracy with distaste if not disdain, and tends to prefer philosopher kings, dictatorships of the proletariat, and unelected regulatory commissions.  Brute power allows his formulas to be imposed on the uncomprehending mob.  And because he is innocent of either modesty or doubt, the rationalist feels wholly unconstrained and will, on occasion, resort to terrorism -- a term coined by Robespierre and much favored by Lenin.


We may ask what any of this has to do with the practical conduct of life.  Let me offer a few suggestions.


One, when the rationalist speaks on private or public questions, he does so from a position of absolute certainty.  This has obvious practical implications.


Two, while the "experiments in living" proposed by different rationalists vary substantially, all converge on an unforgiving hostility to conventional behavior and established institutions.  Pre-existing social arrangements itch to be rationalized.  Sexual scruples, marriage, the raising and education of children, private property, religion, the military, the marketplace -- these require drastic redesign, if not abolition.  Even when, in practice, individual rationalists lead perfectly conventional lives, they are are internal exiles waiting out the end of days.


Three, the rationalist's attachment to democracy is wholly contingent, and his opinion of the citizenry abysmally low.  With a clear conscience, he will make every effort to reduce the choices -- personal, social, political, economic -- available to the rest of us.  Decision-making must belong to a rational, preferably unelected, elite.


With these practical examples of the rationalist in action, we can now return to the the question posed at the top of this post.  How should the irrationalist, his antipodal opposite, live?


The irrationalist speaks on private and public matters from a radical sense of uncertainty.  This is the prime directive, the source from which all his practical decisions flow.  I can't really understand the present, the future, or the past:  none of us can.  We are too subjective, too perspectival, too short-lived:  too ignorant.  The idea that my daily life can spring fully armed out of my head is a hallucination.  Faith in abstractions is the opiate of the intellectual. 


Customs and conventions exist precisely to guide my steps through the mine fields of social life and bring me back safe, despite my ignorance.  I will criticize customary behavior -- that's an American custom, after all -- but quietly, without a pompous noise, from the depths of my uncertainty.


The irrationalist embraces traditional morality because, in a liberal democracy, it is the only possible kind, the only alternative to moral nihilism.


The irrationalist believes in marriage and family, in honor between husband and wife, in duty to one's children:  no calculation of utility will sanction such an illogical attitude.


Marriage and children are the first step to transcendence:  human nature demands that we live for something higher than our persons.  The irrationalist, in his uncertainty, accepts that there are many paths to salvation which are not his own.  He can be a man of faith, active in his church; or civic-minded and engaged in politics; or charitable, a volunteer; or patriotic, serving in the military; or any combination of these and other outward-looking engagements with his fellow citizens.


Transcendence means integrity:  the story I tell about myself must lead beyond myself to the past and the future, to my ancestors and my inheritors, in a compact between generations whose massive gravitational pull keeps me whole and embues my life with a measure of dignity.  Only then can freedom become a possibility.


Individual freedom is part of our inheritance.  It needs no explanation or justification beyond that.  Yet the grounds of freedom can be found in human ignorance:  in the blindness of oracles, the modesty of scientists, the failure of rationalists and technicians, to none of whom can we delegate personal or political decisions.


To the irrationalist, however, freedom isn't an experiment in living, but the collision of his character with a vast matrix of traditional behavioral ideals:  his pursuit of rightness and happiness.


Democracy is the aggregation of individual choices:  a fallible system, hemmed by uncertainty, made necessary by the selfishness and inevitable corruption of all ruling  elites.  The marketplace also is an aggregation of choices:  a breeding ground of unpleasant surprises, yet the only possible way to break the tyranny of privilege and naked power over the bread earned in the sweat of our brow.


The irrationalist is a child of time, a student of context, a lover of moments:  rightness, for him, belongs to particular places, peoples, and times.  Style, manners, and morals are thus different aspects of the same search for right behavior:  the same wish to be good rather than evil.


Universal formulas which crush context and break the bond of generations appear, to the irrationalist -- to me -- a force for dehumanization, barbarism, and moral emptiness.


The irrationalist can never threaten or terrorize.  He owns too many doubts to get his way by bullying -- and what, in any case, would such a victory achieve?


In optimistic moments, the irrationalist hopes to persuade:  that tearing away at convention leaves us closer to the beasts, for example.  That those who claim to know can't know.  That power ultimately serves power, not the weak.  That you and I must choose, because no one else is better placed to do it.  That morality and freedom are two sides of the same coin.


But he will waste few efforts at such persuasion, the irrationalist.  He won't follow Socrates' example and pester his neighbors, or offer a lawyerly argument on behalf his life.  His life isn't worth it, and the world is a lot more interesting than he is.  The irrationalist will thus explain the world as he understands it, and hope for the best. 


He will speak, then be silent.  He will post on his blog, uncertain whether anyone will read it, whether it makes a difference at all, then go to bed and sleep like a baby.

1:54:59 PM    comment []

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SOCIALIST CALCULATION AND MORALITY:  Is central planning of the economy the only moral way forward, given the Darwinian inequalities and predations of the unregulated marketplace?  Advocates of government intervention, including many in the current administration, I suspect, would universally say yes.  Such advocacy tends to rely heavily on moralistic arguments which pit a benign enlightened state against shadowy speculators and plutocrats.


In this intriguing post, however, the Sophistpundit argues the other way around:  it's central planning that is immoral, because it takes decision-making away from the only possible moral agent -- the individual.


Sophistpundit's subject is the Socialist Calculation debate, which I confess never to have heard of before, but which raged among economists and intellectuals for a considerable part of the twentieth century.  The Calculation critique of socialism was formulated by Ludwig von Mises around 1920.  Mises' point was a simple one:  even if central planners have absolute power and total obedience from the citizenry, they would still be unable to do their jobs because they lack the necessary information.


The allocation of resources in a community depends on human need.  The aggregation of human needs is the price system, which provides the information according to which resources get allocated.  Since central planning, by definition, would do away with such an arbitrary distribution of wealth, it would lack the price information with which to proceed.  There is no alternative.


Go read the post to learn about the blows landed and received in the course of the debate.  Great names were involved.  Not being an economist, I'm far from qualified to judge the technical aspects of the dispute.  Yet I am reminded, on reading Sophistpundit, that morality and economics have sprung from the same seed, and deal, from different perspectives, with the same questions.


Both ask how one should act in the radical ignorance of consequences that is the human condition.  The problem of knowledge and right action concerns situations in which the available choices might be good/evil or profit/loss, or some unsavory combination.  A handful of thinkers today -- Thomas Sowell and N.N. Taleb come to mind -- continue to transcend academic departments, and work out the consequences of our radical ignorance from its point of origin in the human predicament.


Less obviously, both morality and economics deal in tradeoffs.  Both owe their significance to scarcity.  In the case of morality, we can never attain all the good in the world, and so must choose one good over another, sometimes one evil over a lesser one.  In the case of economics, of course, it's goods rather than the good which are eternally scarce.  Our choices determine which goods are highly valued.


I think this explains the Sophistpundit's position.  Every community must find ways to manage its scarcities, its imperfections, its all-too-human conflicts and dilemmas.  These can be decided by power, top-down, or by aggregation, bottom-up:  in plainer language, by coercion or free action.  Central planning, lacking any guiding information, must rely on coercion and arbitrary choices:  bad economics, to be sure, but also a negation of morality.

6:01:56 PM    comment []

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A CAVEMAN CONTEMPLATES MODERNITY:  The human predicament according to N. N. Taleb can be described in a few broad strokes.  Our species, he maintains, evolved in an environment of social simplicity.  Individuals knew what they knew by direct observation -- and that included one another.  The past largely repeated the present.  Choices were few and stark.  The decision-making mechanisms evolved by our Paleolithic ancestors were powered by rough-and-ready assessments and played out over a limited number of possible situations.


We still carry that Paleolithic decision-making mechanism inside us, but our social environment has changed beyond recognition.  From a few thousands, we are now billions.  A small fraction of the knowledge in our heads, whether social or material, got there from direct observation.  Global trade and labor specialization have made into a mystery the origins and ends of things.  The present has broken away from the past.  Survival no longer hinges on personalities but on probabilities, and our Paleolithic minds, Taleb insists, are warped by inherited biases that blind us to the next catastrophe.  The modern world, so rich in choices and prosperity, is defined by a terrible uncertainty.


It appears to be an irremediable condition.  The human race is knowledgeable enough to evolve massively complex societies, yet too ignorant to protect itself within them.  We are all cavemen thrust uncomprehendingly into the digital age, congenitally overestimating our capacity to influence the future, thus a danger to ourselves and our communities.  Some unforeseen disaster must, in the end, lay us low.


Without necessarily agreeing with this extreme vision of human incapacity, I believe the same facts can be made to tell a different story.


Taleb is concerned almost exclusively about causation.  Despite his protests, he is at heart a financial trader:  he wants to avoid "being a sucker."  While a worthy goal, this is rarely at the core of most people's aspirations.  Rather, most of us pursue integrity.  We demand that life be more than a series of self-interested ploys, and we strive mightily to impose a theme on our actions which transcends private pleasure and satisfaction.  That's the reason we use words like "duty" and "obligation," firemen rush into collapsing buildings, and most bank employees don't steal their bank's money. 


A powerful need to be true to something larger than ourselves is part of the human endowment.  Interest in predicting how the dice will fall plays a secondary role to this overarching wish.


I would guess our hunter-gatherer ancestors, bound to tight families and clans, had an easier time being true to goals larger than any individual.  They were less free than we are, but possessed far more integrity -- it was imposed on them by the very lack of freedom in their environment.  To endure, they had to become what they aimed to be.


We latter-day cavemen are in many ways freer, but find personal integrity much more difficult to achieve.  An abundance of choices pulls us in incompatible directions -- hours invested in my career must be subtracted from my performance as a father, for example.  Yet we haven't escaped human nature.  Taleb is correct in insisting that Paleolithic decision-making mechanisms still reside within us, but such mechanisms include, and are often controlled by, a craving for personal integrity.  If, in the complexity of present-day life, integrity has become scarcer, this merely means we now find it a more valuable commodity.


Today we shuttle between two interlocked social domains, and our inherited talents help us to navigate both.  One is the small world I described in an earlier post, which is based on direct observation and thus can be compared to the ancestral environment.  This is the domain of family, friends, locality, and all interactions built on personal trust.  In a real sense, we evolved to succeed in this reduced space, where people are known by name, facial expressions are readable, and cheaters tend to be found out and swiftly punished.


The small world is the realm of morality:  the cradle of character and personal integrity.  Here are the people who matter, the critical audience to the drama of our lives, before which we wish to appear admirable and noble; here too are the teachers, alive and dead, who show us by example what admirable and noble behavior must mean upon this stage.  Every virtue is a small-world product.  The question Taleb poses is whether they can be exported beyond the horizon, to distant and anonymous spaces.


This takes us to the second domain:  the realm of freedom and material prosperity, but also the womb of Talebian uncertainty and of the unforeseen disaster.  Here billions interact without knowledge of one another.  Here is the workplace and the marketplace, modern science and medicine, representative government and a flood of free information; here too is the traffic accident and sudden unemployment, terrorist violence and financial collapse, ethnic holocausts and a frightening blindness about what the future will bring.


The small world in which we are nurtured is submerged in a fantastically complex social universe, where people become statistical units and observation yields to probability.  Taleb, obsessed with causation, believes such complexity and radical uncertainty are new things under the sun, never before encountered by human experience.  On this observation he builds the argument about Paleolithic minds defeated by bias in a transformed environment.


The observation, however, is factually incorrect.  Our first ancestors evolved in a world far more riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability than our modern environment.  They were nearly wiped out 70,000 years ago -- a black swan event that makes the current financial crisis seem like a carnival by comparison.  Complexity was probably generated by the natural, not the social, environment.  Paleolithic people left their simple groupings and personal relationships to wrest a living in the face of drought, scarcity, disease, and predatory mayhem.


But this is a distinction without a difference.  If we evolved in the teeth of complexity, Taleb's argument that we are congenitally unprepared for it must at best be incomplete.


The longer one reflects on the conditions of human evolution, the more apparent it becomes that, while character and integrity are taught and nurtured in the small world of family and clan, they were developed for an ultimately unpredictable natural environment.  Personal integrity, that is to say, had to be earned face to face in the dispensation of everyday duties, but was needed most when daily routine collapsed and all hell broke loose.  For such black swan moments a whole range of complementarary virtues were called for:  courage and prudence, self-reliance and public-mindedness, the biblical mercy and righteousness.  Behaviors embodied in these virtues offered our first parents the best chance to succeed in the face of uncertainty -- and to endure in the face of catastrophe.


Thus the original cavemen lived in many ways like their descendants.  They were nurtured in a simple, personalized domain, and earned a living in complex and dangerously unpredictable places.  Using the skills we have inherited, we do the same.


How could Taleb have missed this?  To be fair, given his perspective, he got it right.  Taleb, the Levantine, wants very badly to be a prophet, so he can peer into the heart of causation and dodge black swan disasters.  But he knows he can't, in theory or in practice, and the uncertainty chafes and fills his mind until it spills over into his writings.  We can't see or control the future.  We never will.  For this ignorance, we will pay a heavy price.  This has been an integral part of the human experience from the dawn of time, but for Taleb it's unbearable.


In The Black Swan, he imagines history as a series of numbers, like software code.  That's a peculiar perspective, pure cause and effect.  For the rest of us history is the theater of uncertainty, where persons and peoples play out their characters.  Control matters less than integrity, causation less than endurance, and greatness in the drama of life is unrepeatable but admirable nonetheless, and will always inspire emulation.

10:21:26 AM    comment []

Thursday, August 06, 2009

GONE FISHINGThe Vulgar Moralist is headed north, where he will reflect on nothing deeper than the moral habits of largemouth bass.  Blogging will resume on his return.
11:43:49 PM    comment []

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A MORAL NAVIGATOR ON THE SEAS OF COMPLEXITY:  We evolved in a world where people were known to one another, means and ends were clear, and causation appeared straightforward.  Transgressions were impossible to hide, and the consequences to our actions were understood without difficulty.  Success and failure in life, and the parts played by virtue and by luck, were plain for all to see.


Today, I am surrounded by products that alter my environment utterly, built by people I will never meet working for companies I know little about.  I deal with certain persons at work under one aspect, with others in my neighborhood under a different aspect, and with my family in a far more complete way.  I encounter thousands I don't know under any aspect, even though they share the same spaces I do.  Often I place my life in these strangers' hands:  they fly me up to 30,000 feet, to give one example.  Fame and power are images on a screen.  There I can find photos of the first lady of France, buck naked.  Material success depends on the interactions of billions.  Everything is revealed, yet everything is hidden.


Complexity trumps common sense.  We have been cast out of the primeval paradise our species evolved for, into a Talebian universe of uncertainty and endless surprises, in which probability is king.  We are now clueless about causes and effects.  Consequences seem unfathomably remote:  the beating of a butterfly's wing in Africa, we are told, might result in a hurricane killing thousands in Louisiana.


How am I to seek the good life amid the chaos on this darkling plain?  How do I tell right from wrong, deprived of information about the ultimate consequences of my actions?  What steps should I take to achieve material success?


One approach to answering such questions is to articulate a principle so obviously good that its imposition should become a duty -- then bend all social life, public and private, to fit the logic of the ruling principle.  Examples of the latter might be "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" or "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."  Virtue here consists of the application of the rule -- institutionally, universally, ruthlessly -- while the greatest sin is "revisionism."  Material success is implicit in the principle itself.  My happiness and my needs will somehow be taken care by institutions bent to the logic of the prime directive.


This is the rationalist's way.  I have written enough on this subject, and will only add that, historically, it has failed the test of complexity.  Like the rest of us, the rationalist has no way of determining the impact of his actions over large social domains.  His craving for certainty is bound to end in frustration and calls for drastic action -- the killing fields and the guillotine.


There is another way -- in fact, stripped of the rationalist illusion, there is only one way to navigate the stormy waters of complexity.


I live in a small world which is submerged in a vaster, socially complex universe.  My small world is composed of the people and places I interact with directly, and to some extent resembles the primeval human environment.  Here causes and effects are clearer, consquequences more immediate.  If I stop working, I won't get paid, for example.  If I don't take my son to the hospital, I will be responsible for his death from a ruptured appendix.  If I steal or defraud, the chances of my going to jail increase.


To the extent I can consider the causes and effects of my actions, or factor consequences into morality, the application is entirely to the small world.  It doesn't scale.  If I jump in the river and pull out a drowning man, I am responsible for saving his life.  If I refuse to save him, I am morally accountable for his death.  But if I have a law passed which blocks access to the river, I can have no idea what the consequences will be.


More to the point, if I am a doctor and prescribe the proper medicine, I have a reasonable expectation of achieving a cure.  However, if I impose a universal right to proper medication, I plunge into the seas of complexity and uncertainty, and become vulnerable to improbable disasters and unintended consequences.  This is the fallacy Dickens called "telescopic philanthropy":  projecting from my small world to large-scale domains.


The good life for me concerns the small circle of my family, friends, and acquaintances.  What can be good about my life depends on my relationships with these relatively few people who are near at hand, rather than on the fate of Afghanistan or President Obama's health legislation.


The pursuit of material success presents a more tangled picture.  Complexity and luck are factors from the start, in the form of market forces and inherited political structures.  Still, career choices, together with personal and work habits, will determine to what extent my working life is a crapshoot.  If I become a dentist, work hard at this profession, and behave with integrity towards my patients, the odds are in my favor for making a good living.  If I decide to become a major league baseball player or a market trader, I will, in Taleb's language, almost certainly "blow up."


Uncertainty can be managed in my small world, but it can't be kept out.  Complexity is invasive.  It permeates and confuses even the smallest of small-world consequences.  The man I saved from the river may turn out to be a vicious murderer who can now kill again.  Am I responsible?  My savings as a hard-working dentist may be invested in the financial markets, which blow up.  Economic hard times, born of inexplicable events in faraway places, may change the human quality of my relationship with family and friends.  While peaceably at work, I may be killed or maimed in a terrorist attack.


There is no cure for randomness.  There is, by definition, no way to prepare for the unforeseeable catastrophe:  a Black Death, a 9/11, a financial meltdown.  Prudence minimizes the problem, until it can't.  My small world keeps life focused and comprehensible, until it doesn't.  This will come as a surprise only to the rationalist and to certain modern minds who have lost sight of the big picture.  Randomness has always won in the end, because in the end each of us must die.


I stand on the choices and consequences of my small world, facing a rising flood of complexity.  What virtue and hard work have given, randomness at any moment can take away.  What is the proper attitude for this condition?


In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb recommends an eclectic sort of stoicism.  "We are left only with dignity as a solution -- dignity defined as the execution of a protocol of behavior that does not depend on the immediate circumstance," he writes.  "It may not be the optimal one, but it certainly is the one that makes us feel best."


Dignity detached from circumstances is a lofty ideal, and there is a tradition of American stoicism, going back to Emerson and Thoreau, which will appeal to some temperaments.  I consider it thin gruel, the counsels of fatalism.  I also find stoicism American-style to be less a way of life than a form of insincerity.  To imagine the excitable Taleb in the robes of Marcus Aurelius is to invite laughter.  The same could have been said of Emerson and Thoreau.


We shouldn't scream in pain, but neither should we deny our suffering.  We shouldn't high-five in victory, but neither should we repress the joy of winning.  Forestalling death by killing our emotions seems -- to me, at least -- curiously perverse.


The urge to flee to an invented morality like stoicism is a sign of panic in the face of uncertainty.  This is understandable but futile.  Traditional morality was forged over the centuries by living people in interaction with the dark heart of complexity, and it is wired to our emotional life from the first glimmer of consciousness.  Traditional morality teaches me how to live the good life and how to die a good death, and it does so by taking me outside my skin and placing a transcendental importance on family, friends, community, country, faith.  Against the storm of uncertainty, therefore, moral integrity must remain the highest virtue.


I can't renegotiate my moral life just to make me feel better.  The result would be to act out a pose.  Nor can I parse some mathematical calculation of consequences.  I'm far too ignorant of cause and effect.  But I can keep my small-world behavior constant:  I can be the same moral pilgrim under all conditions, pursuing goals that lead beyond my own luck at the roulette wheel and separate my character, everywhere and with everyone, from the unpredictable outcomes of my life.

10:07:40 PM    comment []

Thursday, July 30, 2009

THE LIMITS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE:  That the sum of human knowledge has grown since the days of Charlemagne is, I hope, an uncontroversial proposition.  Less so is the question of how it has grown.  We no longer take the inevitability of progress for granted.  Mighty Rome, we know, declined in knowledge as well as power, and much classical learning disappeared after its downfall.


To complicate the question, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has put forward two persuasive, if unnerving, claims about human knowledge.  First, social life is ruled by probability rather than mechanical causation.  Second, the human mind did not evolve to understand probabilistic outcomes and is constantly inventing fallacious causes and effects.  In Taleb's view, we lack the information to decipher the present, much less the future, and so, as individuals and communities, we are always colliding into unpleasant surprises.


It's hard to see how knowledge can accumulate under such conditions.


An answer may be found in Thomas Sowell's brilliant analysis of ideological visions.  Sowell examined the positions people took on unconnected issues -- say, government finance of health care and war in Iraq -- and was struck by the fact that the same groups aligned across such issues:  if one is pro-government health care one is almost certain to be anti-war, and viceversa.  Each of these two opposed visions, he concluded, shared elementary assumptions about human nature and human knowledge.


Both visions agree that people are ignorant and selfish, and prone to faulty decisions in the private and public spheres.  But they draw radically different conclusions from this circumstance.


According to the constrained vision, human nature is what it is, making a Talebian existence inescapable.  Experts and philosophers, no less than illiterates, will regularly make moral and political decisions based on bad information.  Social life should therefore abide by those time-tested rules, processes, and institutions which make the best of our bad characters.  Morality should appeal to pride in personal honor and reputation, for example.  Economics should promote transactions which increase the general prosperity as a byproduct of personal enrichment.


These are trade-offs for an imperfect world.  Adherents of the unconstrained vision dismiss such formalisms with contempt.  The flawed human condition, they believe, isn't really the product of our nature but of superstition and malice.  The world of Talebian uncertainty can be transcended -- in fact, it has been transcended by the most advanced minds of the age.  This brilliant elite commands the knowledge to perfect the human condition, and deals in "solutions" to social and political problems.  All it takes is the intellect to articulate a rational plan, and the virtue to implement it.


Once the desirable outcome has been articulated, the only remaining obstacles are, again, superstition and malice.  "Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision," Sowell writes, "is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world -- and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution."


The two visions differ not only on how much knowledge we possess, but on what knowledge is.  In the constrained vision, knowledge is primarily inarticulate experience, which resides in processes and institutions like language and the price system.  The complex, uncertain Talebian world is held together by tradition:  that is, by the evolved wisdom of the many, alive and dead.


In the unconstrained vision, knowledge is identified with rationality, particularly when wielded by a member of the class of advanced minds.  The task of this group is to raise  the rest of humanity to the moral and intellectual plane it has already attained.  Of course, rational solutions will be attacked by predatory interests.  Experience is little more than a cloak for these human wolves -- it's something to overcome rather than heed.  The Augean stables of the past must be cleansed before society can stand on a rational and equitable footing.


From these rather abstract considerations, practical consequences follow.  Because knowledge for the constrained vision is aggregated, individuals must be allowed choices to get right or wrong.  Because, for the unconstrained vision, progress depends on the exertions of the rational elite, the government must be placed in its hands, and every restraint on its power will be an invitation to corruption and injustice.  The many and the few -- personal sovereignty versus an all-knowing regulatory state -- Sowell's conflict of visions offers a clearer view of our moral and political reality than the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concepts we habitually use.


It can also clarify today's policy battles.  President Obama's health care legislation is predicated on the belief that a rational government should curtail the irrational choices of individual citizens, for the latter's own protection.  Trade-offs of cost and choice are disdained.  At present, with this smart and ambitious new administration, the unconstrained vision is triumphant.


In the matter of the accumulation of knowledge, the unconstrained vision solves the problem by denying its existence.  On this account, the world Taleb described was illusory, not real -- a magician's trick pulled by self-interested parties to bilk the gullible public.  There are no uncertainties, no denials of probability, no black swan events.  Knowledge advances in lockstep with the progress of the most rational minds, who are never surprised, and for whom no problem, social or physical, is too complex to lack an articulated solution.


This approach to the problem of knowledge -- or rather, of ignorance -- is, to say the least, implausible.  I don't know whether human ignorance reaches the catastrophic levels suggested by Taleb, or at what point randomness takes over from simple causation.  Certainly, much research shows that human decision-making in difficult environments isn't nearly as foolish as might be predicted.


But the claims and pretensions of the rationalists have a hollow ring.  Who belongs to their elite?  Is it self-elected?  If so, then they are no less self-interested than the greediest of human wolves.  How can there be a single "rational" outcome to every social problem?  The rationalists themselves have put forward many solutions over time and in different places.  Plato's republic was an Athenian dream of Sparta; William Godwin's utilitarian utopia was a nonconformist dream of heaven on earth.  It is never clear what the "rationalism" of the rationalists consists of.  It isn't predictive, or particularly explanatory.  It isn't mathematical.  As I have written elsewhere, it often appears to be nothing more than an emotional cry for certainty:  the very trap Taleb warns against.


For parallel reasons, I find the constrained vision to be an interesting account of how we can exist in Talebian uncertainty yet grow our store of knowledge.  In fact, when describing the constrained vision, Sowell appears to foreshadow Taleb -- only with a cure:


In the contrained vision, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions.  A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. [. . .]  In this vision, it is not simply that individual choose rationally what works from what does not work, but also -- and more fundamentally -- that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other.


Experience is the test.  That is true of our moral traditions, our politics, even of science.  On the whole, and with many trade-offs, the latter succeed in making possible happiness, freedom, and the accumulation of knowledge by an organism often fooled by randomness and confused by complexity in any form.

10:13:35 PM    comment []

Sunday, July 26, 2009

DEEP THOUGHT"In the constrained vision, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions.  A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past.  Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominatly experience -- transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work."  Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions 
11:18:11 AM    comment []

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A TALEBIAN THEORY OF HISTORY:  It occurs to me that the roulette-wheel world posited by Nassim Nicholas Taleb can help interpret a number of historical puzzles. 


In Taleb's vision, alternative outcomes are equally probable, yet the winning bet will be considered logical and inevitable because of hindsight bias.  We will invent reasons to explain the past and, with these inventions in mind, foolishly imagine we can outguess the future.  In fact, Taleb argues, the "problem of induction" guarantees we will never know anything with certainty.  Past, present, and future are skewed by randomness:  the power law rules, and rare or "black swan" events will sweep away most plans and predictions.


From this perspective, the grand rationalist theories of history appear to be elaborate delusions, the product of hindsight bias.  Such theories assume that the social equivalent of mechanical forces are at work in human events.  Once the forces in play are understood, any event can be explained as easily as adding up two numbers.  Individual actions count for nothing.  Innovation and genius are epiphenomena.  The vast machinery of history grinds on inexorably, predictably, objectively, beyond the reach of love or hate.


The most influential theory of this type was that of Karl Marx, who believed ownership of the means of production was the great lever pushing history toward a proletarian revolution -- an event he spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to bring about.  A more recent version was propounded by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond considered geography to be destiny -- in effect, the cause of every means of production.  On this account, a culture must develop like clockwork to the maximum allowed by its environment -- if Europeans and aborigines had traded ancestral homes, the former would be hunter gatherers, the latter conquerors of America.  Every conflict between cultures, like professional wrestling, is decided before the first blow lands -- the Spaniards, being more highly developed, must inevitably trounce the Incas.


Since impersonal forces control human events, the role of persons -- of character and genius -- falls to zero.  Diamond understood the tremendous variation in the way cultures have dealt with change.  Yet he attached no importance to these factors, which "make the historian's task paradoxically easier, by converting social variation in innovativeness into essentially a random variable."  By "random variable," Diamond meant that "over a large enough area (such as a whole continent) at any particular time, some proportion of societies is likely to be innovative."


In rationalist theories of history, human events are ruled by Newtonian mechanics and described by a bell curve.  The explicit hope of the theory-makers has been to convert history into a predictive science.  Marx called his system "scientific materialism."  Diamond ended Guns, Germs, and Steel with a chapter titled "The Future of Human History as a Science."  Both men, in different ways, wanted to change the future, and appealed to the prestige of science to persuade their audience.


The problem is that these theories deliver very poor stories when it comes to explaining the past.  Even if we forgive the details -- the actual failure to predict anything accurately -- the principles feel wrong-headed.  Intuitively, human events behave differently than the orbits of planets.  History bears no resemblance to mechanics.  Another approach to causation is required, which accounts for the indeterminacy of even a single human life, and the massive complexity in the interactions among billions of such lives.


Every person is a cause as well as an effect.  Alicia Juarrero has written the most interesting description of how this might be possible.  Yet the effects of individual actions in a complex society become progressively more random and unknowable.  Enter Taleb, and his roulette-wheel outlook on human events.


Certain propositions, Taleb holds, can be affirmed about this probabilistic state of affairs.


First, complex outcomes are best described by a highly skewed power law distribution, rather than a bell curve.  In whatever domain is under description, the very few at the head of the power law chart far outshine the very many in the long tail.  Innovative genius is thus concentrated among few peoples, times, and places.  Variation in genius becomes determinative of the fate of cultures, and of human development as a progressive enterprise.  That is why today we use so many concepts and practices inherited from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, and practically none from ancient Afghanistan or Nigeria.


Second, historical outcomes, like winning bets in a roulette wheel, are inevitable only in hindsight.  Alternative paths were possible, and -- unlike roulette bets -- some might have been more highly probable.  Probabilistic thinking assumes a small number of improbable events:  the spike in the power law chart.  The Spaniards who trounced the Incas had themselves been conquered by a technologically superior Arab culture 700 years before.  What were the odds that the Spaniards -- unlike, say, the Syrians and North Africans -- would cling to Christianity and expel their conquerors?  Were the odds higher against the Incas throwing out the Spaniards?


Third, individuals must live with radical uncertainty about the knowledge on which they must act.  The same applies to small cliques and aristocracies.  The more complex the environment, the deeper the uncertainty, until pure roulette-wheel randomness takes over.  The Soviet Union collapsed because too few people were managing a too complex set of activities.  The U.S. government survived the Great Depression because the government was weak and decision-making diffused -- in many fields down to the individual citizen.  (Aggregated individual processes damp down randomness in the long term:  this is not a contradiction, though it deserves elaboration in a future post.)


Fourth, "black swan" events will descend on every culture, often to devastating effect.  These low probability, high impact events are by definition both unpredictable and unavoidable.  They can take the form of a plague, a monetary collapse, or a barbarian invasion, but their arrival, given enough time, is guaranteed by the problem of induction.  We will never know enough to forestall them.  Thus the fall of Rome may, in part at least, be blamed on a shrinking clique of decision-makers faced with a succession of black swan events.  The survival of the weak, cliquish Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years after the fall of Rome may be, in iself, the rarest of black swan events.


Like every solution, my Talebian theory of history creates problems of its own.  The most significant, to me, is that it appears to set a very low ceiling for the accumulation of knowledge.  It accounts for the rare triumph or catastrophe, but has more difficulty explaining the steady progress in wealth, science, and so many other fields, which the human race has enjoyed for centuries.  The persistence of cultures in the face of defeat and oppression -- the Israelites by the waters of Babylon, the gypsies in the Balkans today -- seems particularly difficult to explain probabilistically.  Knowledge being so fragile, one would expect the Athenian or Roman or Egyptian way of life to have lasted a few generations at most, and then, in Taleb's phrase, "blow up."  Yet clearly that was not the case.


These are not unanswerable questions:  but they are grist for another post.

11:42:04 PM    comment []

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A million bloggers shouting

Art and morality

Tyranny of modern art

Women on the verge

Tradition and morality

Doh! Raising my kids on the Simpsons

Disruption and democracy

America and the Machiavellian moment

Freedom through the looking-glass

Moral monsters, viewed from afar

Between the good and the great

The decline and fall of everybody

Morality and the empty cradle

Terri Schiavo and human vanity

I,Robot vs Chinese room experiment

Thoughts on the tsunami

The origins of evil

Resistance is futile

The span of a life

Jefferson and American virtue,1

Jefferson and American virtue,2

Jefferson and American virtue,3

Dictators: Moral universe of totalitarianism

Dictators: Guilt of the people

Protagoras, or two paths to virtue

Gorgias, and the pursuit of happiness