Sunday, January 27, 2019

What’s so Wrong with Vast Inequality?

Oxfam reports that the richest 26 billionaires currently own $1.4 trillion, which is as much as 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. So a couple dozen have as much as half of humanity. Interestingly, only liberals, progressives, and socialists are horrified by such vast economic inequality, whereas conservatives and libertarians are more inclined to celebrate it. Why is that so?

The Injustice of Staggering Economic Inequality

You’d think one of the more obvious objections to the inequality would be just as compelling to those on the right as to those on the left. The objection is just that no one ever earns billions of dollars, so the inequality is always actually unjust. Granted, I can conceive of a world in which someone deserves billions of dollars whereas most other people deserve to be poor. Suppose someone invents the cure for cancer all by himself, having relied on help neither from the government nor from colleagues or from Lady Luck (such as from having inherited genes that make this inventor a genius), and suppose that the cure goes on singlehandedly to change the world for the better for centuries. Suppose also that most other people accomplish nothing of comparable significance. In that case, because of the colossal difference in the achievements, the inventor might deserve to live as a god while the majority should only languish until they die.

Notice, though, that even in this imaginary scenario, we run up against the contradiction that no one who would invent the cure for cancer and distribute it to humanity’s benefit (by selling it at an affordable price) would choose to horde those billions of dollars rather than use them to further aid the very people he meant to serve with the cure. Only if keeping the wealth were needed to fund additional breakthroughs could we imagine the genius choosing to keep his wealth, although even here the inequality would have to be temporary since the additional breakthroughs would eventually have to benefit the rest of the world in such a way that the masses are dragged out of poverty. For suppose this genius invents only inconsequential advances that don’t affect the quality of life of most of the world’s population. Suppose that after curing cancer, he creates only the equivalents of fidget spinners. Then we’d be right to think the genius has squandered his wealth and no longer deserves it, that his wealth has corrupted him so that he’s no longer interested in substantially improving the world. The scenario would no longer be incoherent only because the genius’ character would have shifted from being heroic to parasitic.   

In any case, in the real world there’s never such stark, asymmetric heroism, contrary to egotists like Ayn Rand. Wealth is either old or new, as they say, meaning it’s inherited or personally acquired. If it’s old, the wealth is tainted by the palpable injustices perpetrated in the less progressive past. For example, George W. Bush’s family money derives in part from his grandfather’s connection to a German banker, Fritz Thyssen, who helped Hitler rise to power. Men’s old money generally is attributable to patriarchal advantages, and white men’s to past imperialism and slave-holding from Europe.

If the wealthy raise themselves from having no money to having billions of dollars, that wealth is bound to be acquired immorally even when no laws are broken. Two frequent immoralities stand out: the fraud inherent in the propaganda that sells most products and the devastation of the biosphere caused by most business practices. Beyond those two, there’s the monopolist’s dynamic whereby the rising company lies or undercuts competitors to gain an edge that puts the rivals out of business (typically by resorting to slave labour), whereupon the monopolist exploits the situation by lowering the quality of its products and gouging the consumers. See, for example, Walmart and Amazon. This kind of wealth is obtained by a war of attrition, and because the motive isn’t saintly (as it’s supposed to be in the above thought experiment), if the scheme works, the dominance corrupts the executives and the shareholders, leading to a degenerative system rather than elevating the living standard.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Brawl of Masculinities

The stirring of a men’s movement on the intellectual dark web, the vengeance of the #MeToo backlash, the lame posturing of the Gillette ad, and the American Psychological Association’s warning that toxic masculinity is bad for mental health—these have all raised the question of the nature of masculinity. Is there an ideal way to be a man? Is that question politically loaded or otherwise socially constructed? Or is there a more philosophical perspective that enables us to see through the political games and illuminate the larger problem?

Conservative and Liberal Masculinities

George Monbiot takes up the question of toxic masculinity in a Guardian article, arguing against the conventional wisdom on the right that ‘a “grown man” requires “oppressive” discipline, aggression and risk-taking.’ On the contrary, writes Monbiot, “growing up—whether as a man or a woman— means abandoning anger, aggression and the need to dominate. It means learning to talk about fear, loss, joy and love. It means learning both to listen and to share, to name your troubles and engage with other people’s.” Far from being tougher than the average liberal softy, the macho right-winger is especially vulnerable, says Monbiot, because he often hides some unresolved emotional trauma that threatens to undo his accomplishments. “What sort of a man are you if you have to go to such lengths to prove your masculinity? The confident construction of identity does not require crude cultural markers, but emotional literacy and honest self-appraisal. The more we proclaim our strength and dominance, the weaker we reveal ourselves to be.”

The problem with these discussions is that there’s no such thing as men, psychologically speaking. Most men have the same biological traits, but in large societies men organize themselves into hierarchies, and men at the top are mentally unlike men at the bottom. Our social position impacts our personality, so the differences aren’t subjective. Broadly speaking, men fall into three groups: leaders, followers, and outsiders. The first two groups are part of a larger group which is opposed to outsiders, so that there’s an even broader distinction between winners and losers. The former three categories correspond to the ethological terms, “alpha,” “beta,” and “omega,” although that terminology is tainted by its association with the alt right. In any case, just as there are classes of men with distinct ideals befitting their social station, there are masculinities rather than an overarching value system that ought self-evidently to be adopted by all men.

Male leaders idolize the psychopath, because what distinguishes these men is the social power that naturally corrupts their character, sapping them of their capacities for empathy, compassion and humour. The set of psychopathic traits that characterizes the action movie star, for example, is the traditional kind of masculinity favoured by “conservatives,” since the tradition they wish to conserve or reestablish is monarchism, slavery to the ultra-ruler or tyrant. Conservatism is thus a social movement that prizes bullying, at a minimum, if not a totalitarian dictatorship, and so conservatives seek to preserve the social systems that enable bullies to emerge and prosper. A bully is just a leader whose dominance is recognized by his followers, because the leader has demonstrated his greater share of social power by conspicuous acts of belittling others in the group. The bully’s psychopathic traits, in turn, evolved out of desperation when long ago hunters needed to psych themselves up to bring down big game. Psyching themselves up to stalk dangerous prey or to guard the tribe against fellow predators meant turning themselves at least temporarily into psychos, that is, into fearless, amoral killers. Once our kind succeeded in lording it over the animal kingdoms, our “leaders” trained their psychopathic traits onto the rest of us, and so they became hunters of men and women—not of their fellow humans, mind you, but of subordinate ranks of human creatures that only outwardly resemble them.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bitter End of “Christian Thinking”

I’ve decided to post the rest of my debate—such as it was—with the “thinking Christian,” Tom Gilson, and with some of his more capable Christian readers, because of the intriguing way the debate appears to have ended. What follows, again, are mostly highlights just from my side of the exchange since my opponents said little that would pique a philosopher’s interest. But near the end I do post Gilson’s angry sign-off, followed by the aftermath and an afterward where I present some lessons I drew from the discussion. Again I include a few explanatory comments in square brackets, and here’s the link to the entire thread on Gilson’s blog, which contains both sides of the commentary. Also, for convenience, here’s my presentation of the first half of this debate, and here’s the first run-in I had with Gilson a year ago.


Tom Gilson,
I said my “Christian” comments “demonstrated I have more than a working knowledge of Christianity,” meaning that I have more than general knowledge of the religion. I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about Christianity since no one does, least of all a non-Christian. There’s no one Christian answer to any question of Christian theology. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” comes from a Charles Wesley hymnal.

You say, ‘I’m opposed to you speaking as if we should accept it as the same, with no argument, with only a story and with “given that…” ’

But I did argue for it when questioned about it—at great length, remember? If you’re looking for stories, with plainly fictional characters and fantastic deeds, read the Bible. You see how easy it is to argue by assertion, like you do? I demonstrated that the criticism of Yahweh’s personality isn’t an arbitrary whim of new atheists, but ironically goes back to Job, Gnosticism, and so on. Then I gave you a logically independent explanation of why we should expect Yahweh’s character to be rigidly tyrannical (it’s due to the nature of syncretism in that part of the ancient world, etc), and I based that explanation on the standard critical historical account of the rise of Jewish monotheism. And I distinguished between assuming awareness of a criticism and assuming general agreement with it.

It’s just baffling that you say I haven’t argued for my position, when I’ve done so at great length and you’ve argued here only by assertion. You’ve even conceded you “didnt specify where your account went wrong because that was never my purpose here,” and that “I suspect you must think me unreasonable for not answering more of your questions.” You say “Bare assertions, stories, and pronouncements are not arguments.” The thing is: you have to know what an argument is to be able to identify one. As I showed in comment #13, you mixed up those two, logically separate arguments and took at most only 24 minutes to digest that long post. Pearls before swine, I suppose.

By the way, I just noticed that in your censored posting of my comment #3, you posted it twice. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Second Debate with a “Thinking Christian”

It’s been a year since my exchange with the “Thinking Christian,” so over the holidays I dipped back into that blog and found an article called, The Death of God, the Descent of Man, the Death of Humanity, in which Tom Gilson argues that ironically, instead of killing God, naturalism kills humanity by explaining away our godlike traits of consciousness, freedom, and reason, and by obscuring our God-given purpose in life. I posted a response and we had an interesting discussion until Gilson derailed it by posting an article about the incuriosity and hubris of atheists like me who dare to attack God’s character as though even Christians had to accept that criticism.

Here, then, is a record of my side of the exchange. If you enjoy reading debates, do check out the threads on his blog for both sides and for the full context. Honestly, though, Gilson didn’t put much effort into his comments and this post will be long enough as it is. It’s best, then, to focus here on the more interesting part of the discussion, which happened to be supplied by me. Note that I add a few explanatory notes within square brackets. Note also that the exchange has continued, but these are the highlights.


We “know” Nietzsche’s atheism and reductive naturalism are false, because of “undeniable self-awareness and experience”? Is that the same intuitive basis that led us to believe Earth is geometrically central to the universe, because just look: even the sun revolves around us! Or are those intuitions of human freedom, purpose, and cosmic worth associated with the dozens of cognitive biases and fallacies we inherently perpetrate, as shown by cognitive science? We “know” we’re meant for something greater, because we feel that that should be so. And we should go with our gut, because truthiness matters more than truth.

This is an argument from unpleasant consequences. To be up-front and honest about your argument, you should identify as a pragmatist and say—along the lines of Pascal’s Wager—that we’d much prefer for there to be a God, an afterlife, and perfect justice, and that that preference is all that matters because utility outweighs considerations of objective truth. But that would be crass, wouldn’t it? You’d rather have it both ways: the pretense that Christians alone care about truth and reality, and the shameless appeal to intuition and to what feels right even when that feeling flies in the face of naturalistic science (of Darwin, cosmology, cognitive science, etc).

You’re also strawmanning Nietzsche. He understood perfectly well that atheism is horrific, that unpleasant reality is too much to bear for most people and that the truth could indeed destroy humanity. That was the whole point of Thus Spoke Zaruthustra. People aren’t ready for the atheistic prophet’s message. Most people aren’t strong enough to stomach the natural truth, which is why, for example, the “Last Men” will distract themselves with superficial pleasures to avoid facing the harsh facts (that there’s no god, afterlife, or cosmic purpose or justice, and that it’s up to us alone to create meaning). This is the problem of nihilism, which Nietzsche said atheism (i.e. natural reality) threatens us with.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mental Health: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

Art by Alex Cherry
[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler has returned with another diatribe. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

How I relish the looks of derision on your faces, you calm and collected pedestrians! “Look at the homeless wreck of a man,” you’re thinking. “See how repulsive he is, with his long, matted hair and beard, his blotchy, wrinkled skin, his hunched back and bony arms! Hear as he spews his venom, how he’s nothing left to lose, not even his sanity!” The bitter madman, haranguing harmless middle class normies at the crossroads. What a cliché you’d make of me. But before you silence me with sedatives and a straightjacket, shall I disclose the secret of how you reward me with your sneers and scowls?

You sane ones, do you know what “sanity” means? Mental health is fitting in. The psychiatrists’ textbooks call this “social functionality.” You’re considered mentally unwell if you’re suffering from an inability to perform your social obligations. You have to want to fit into society and yet be mentally prevented from doing so to be the victim of a mental illness.

So congratulations, you joiners and normies, you who’ve adapted so well to social conventions! You’re esteemed as healthy because of your normality. But have you stopped to wonder what you’re fitting into? What are these functions you perform so efficiently? What’s the total effect of normal human effort? What do human functions as a whole accomplish?

Would it surprise you to learn that your health is supremely ironic? You belong to that which is most alien in the universe, not just to life but to a godlike species that rises above nature and the animal kingdom, surveys the vastness of space and time, and creates a contrary world of culture and technology. As you play your assigned roles as worker or family member, as friend or foe, bully or clown, you submerge yourself in that which most stands out. You’re part of a titanic monstrosity.

Let’s not pretend your happiness is innocent, you spinning cogs. You relax or rejoice in your success at fitting in, but you only outsource the horror and agony that any monster can be expected to inflict. You raise your living standard at the cost of perpetrating a holocaust against all other animal species, which you don’t think twice about enslaving, torturing, or exterminating. And the wealth of you middleclass busybodies depended on the drudgery of human slaves or of impoverished toilers languishing in Western-backed dictatorships—until the advent of the machine, whereupon you’ll be made obsolete and will inherit the pain.

So you bright and shining sane ones, my compliments! You’re one with the savage Anthropocene. You’ve thrown in your lot with the tyrannical overlord of savage evolution, threatening all life with extinction because of your hubris. You’ve sidled up to a starry-eyed little boy who carries an oversized shotgun in either hand and plays at being God; you submit to the whims of this child as he pretends he knows what he’s doing. And if you perform your functions so smoothly that you disappear as an individual, you fit right in with that vicious abomination, as those billions of duties and conventions add up to mammoth barbarity, to ironies so absurd they mustn’t even be whispered. To tell this secret is to be in danger of being locked up as a madman.

A curious title I wear: “madman.” For what have I to be mad about? Only my standing apart from the behemoth of humanity, from the bumbling pack of mini despots, as I’m condemned to witness the grotesque drama and to be ignored even as I hurl rotten tomatoes onto the stage. And what kind of man am I, abnormal and dysfunctional in my inability to hold down a job, own any property, or start a family? No, no madman am I—only one estranged subhuman beholding the antics of alien humanity from my perch on Mount Nowhere.