All my thinking lays on fragile ground

Credit: Gregory Koop // paper:

This diagram depicts how people come to make a decision- YES means a utilitarian (greater good) response. Personal means the crisis affects you.

I’ve started watching the recorded lectures of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course, a philosophy series (that feels like a rock concert), that is one of the most popular in modern Harvard history. The first episode focused on the nature of murder and how it can be ethical or unethical, depending on the situation and what emphasis you give the actions.

What I think is interesting  is something that happens in philosophy but also in social science, my field of study. He begins with two scenarios, each with two forms. In the first one, most of the audience agree in the first forms that it’s morally right to sacrifice one to save five others. In the second form it’s the opposite- most people oppose the sacrifice.

The shift in focus changes how people defend their choice. The first forms have people thinking in terms of consequences, while the second creates an unpleasant twist that makes people think in terms of the action- to most of us, some things are just wrong to do.

This ties into how opinions are solicited on political and economic issues. The answer you get is influenced heavily by the language used to ask the question. Just like these moral questions of sacrifice, it’s pretty easy to make a question about same-sex marriage garner heavy approval and heavy disapproval. The above picture, one of those online “polls” that’s actually an ad, is shoving the viewer towards a “no” vote. The objective isn’t to gauge opinion, but rather tie the obvious answer to opposing the president.

It ultimately creates a bit of chaos, at least in my mind. How much of our political and moral opinions exist because we haven’t been asked enough challenging questions? Take an online political quiz- the results are frequently used as a shorthand for our worldview. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz wants to push participants into a libertarian mindset. Political Compass has a clear socialist and, most noticeably, anti-corporate flavor. Am I a socialist? The latter seems to think so. Am I a small-government libertarian? The former wants to make the case. In each context the result makes sense, but if I want to think of myself as a single person with a single morality, it’s not coming out so well.

In the kind of moral philosophy Sandel teaches, the single morality is something that is valued. To a pollster, morality can be pushed around to meet certain goals. In fact, one of the most exhausting endeavors in all of science (social or otherwise) is to make a survey that’s representative, comprehensive, and doesn’t have a certain goal besides getting “honest” information.

There’s no big conclusion to this piece (this is more thinking out loud). I was part of Sandel’s majority in his examples- in one case thought killing one person was clearly justified, in the other it was far more difficult. The mental feeling of that shift is…powerful. It’s strange to think how fragile our opinions could be.

John Galt is a fictional character in an imaginary world

A musing, more than anything.

Chris Kluwe is a pretty good NFL punter and unusually good at tearing apart bad ideas. He’s been the leader in the movement to end homophobia in sports and went out of his way to endorse same-sex marriage and equality. He’s profane, intelligent, and a true Californian. Not surprisingly, I like him a lot.

This Salon article is an excerpt from his new book, focusing on his reaction to having read the gigantic tome that is Atlas Shrugged. He pretty much distills the major issue with the book as a corner piece of a variant of libertarianism- it’s a work of fiction. I don’t mean that in the idea that only serious peer-reviewed papers can contribute to political philosophy, but rather than a work of fiction gets to get rid of all the issues with the world that exists today.

The nomination of Paul Ryan as MItt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate sparked a number of articles that look back at Ayn Rand’s body of work. The 2012 consensus- it’s terrible. This is consistent with the reception upon the release of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, in which Whittaker Chambers of the National Review stated “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve.”

John Galt and all the sorta-Messiahs of Rand’s books, are people who live in a world where unavoidable tragedy and endemic inequality aren’t an issue. Or rather, they’re not an issue to the titans of business that get to play the heroes. Kluwe points out that society exists in many ways as a way to not let unavoidable catastrophe cause swaths of the population from being ruined and without hope. The welfare state exists and in many circles should be expanded because it’s trivially easy to see people getting hit in the gut by random chance.

Besides living in a place where unexpected crap just doesn’t exist, it also ignores what President Barack Obama was getting at when he said “You didn’t build that.” Yes, you can exist apart from the tyrants in government and he weak people who rely on society- well, unless you count the roads you need to succeed. And bridges. Airports. Electrical infrastructure. Some system of justice. Regulation of the coal mine that’s belching pollution onto your mountain resort for the elite. And so on.

The surge in outsider articles in the past year have a common theme- authors were very into Rand until at the latest about 20 years old. Thus they thought it was a great ideology until they learned of all the other ones.

It seems that on the free market of ideas, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is valued pretty low.

On a night long since forgotten

When the shimmering strip of our home galaxy

Illuminated faces of silent wonderment

Our place was settled, and the cosmos reached out

And welcomed us as its children

The cosmos never forgets, to a degree that

An elephant would find excessive-

It sits, Indian-style and whispers amongst itself

As though Earth is a grand theater and

The cosmos has not been shushed by a

Red-clad usher

Do its children remember that night,

Before the calendar informed us that we

Were hurtling forward, when every night was a festival

Of the always-renewed covenant

We, the children borne of stars and time

Gaze up into the mother’s eyes

And see with perfect clarity and see

The unity of the past