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Archive for September, 2010

Sanity, the prelude to happiness?

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Makes sense to me. We might have a bit less hostility in this country. Rational thought is generally a good thing. And perhaps it’ll encourage politicians to talk about solutions that will help others.

So should utilitarians join Jon Stewart for his Rally to Restore Sanity? I’d say yes. Even though, as Jon says, you may be part of the 70-80% of Americans who don’t go to rallies because you have (bleep) to do.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
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Primary voters vs. reason and reality

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

As a utilitarian blog, we’re all about happiness. Last night’s election results certainly made a lot of people happy. The Palin crowd was happy to get a few more primary wins, and partisan Democrats were happy that some of those general elections are now more likely to go blue in November.

But frankly, we’re not all that happy. We’re with WaPo columnist Ruth Marcus, who sees a scary side to these results.

In some respects, none of this is new. The American two-party system demands that candidates perform a slalom — out to the fringe in the primary, back to the center for the general election.

With yesterday’s results, though, we’re seeing the continuing trend of dumping out qualified politicians who offer anything other than knee-jerk opposition to … well, pretty much everything.

And the scariest part is that this group gleefully reinvents reality and preys on fear, as Esquire’s blog points out:

Maybe these folks are “happy” in the sense that they have a lot of camaraderie as they fight the imaginary demons of socialism. But it’s hard to imagine that their tactics would fit with the utilitarian ideal of greatest happiness for as many as possible. They seem quite intent on making those with whom they disagree as miserable as possible, going far beyond the political world to trash cherished institutions:

1. Intellectualism. Denying climate change and evolution are en vogue.

2. Tolerance. See how the argument over the Islamic center a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site — erroneously called the “Ground Zero mosque” — evolves into lunacy.

3. Compassion. It’s one thing to argue that the government should back off and let Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (though this concept has been overstated by mythmakers) bring us back to recovery. It’s another thing entirely to forget why Obama (and Bush) felt the need to ramp up government spending. They were trying to help. But in the eyes of D’Souza and company, their *goal* is to destroy America.

This is, quite simply, blind hate as a means to a political end. And that should make none of us happy.

The good news is that it’s easy to overstate the haters’ numbers. The truth is that not many people watch cable news. Not many voted in these primaries. And movements like the Tea Party include considerable numbers of reasonable people who would gladly shed their cohorts’ rhetoric if they could. We all know people who say they think Obama has overspent while distancing themselves from Glenn Beck.

But the hateful rhetoric has to be opposed somehow. And that’s something we’re going to explore in future posts.

Addendum: Some hateful conspiracy theories, of course, don’t fit today’s right-wing agenda. One that springs to mind is the concept that AIDS is some sort of government program against black people. These theories don’t draw as much press but must also be confronted from time to time.

Categories: politics, rhetoric

A slightly less frightening group in control of the GOP?

September 8, 2010 1 comment

The Economist’s Lexington column hails a group of “Young Guns” — Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy — as a rare breed of American politicians more interested in policy than propaganda.

Alas, they still fall prey to the demonization of the left that passes for right-wing thought these days. An improvement over Sarah Palin’s blissful ignorance and scare tactics, sure, but color me skeptical.

Three more fingers pointing back at you

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

A mournful blog post on a “culturist” movement (basically, anti-Islam) draws a witty comment: “If I were a culturist, shouldn’t I then recognize that my culturist culture is inferior and violent? Shouldn’t I therefore be intolerant of myself and other culturists, and seek to protect myself from myself?”

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Welcome to Mill’s Revenge

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill — Monty Python (NSFW video | Wiki explanation)

I’m a philosophy student, though not a particularly good one. The Monty Python philosophers’ song stuck in my head far better than anything Hegel wrote.

What has stuck in my head, though, is the concept of utilitarianism that John Stuart Mill didn’t invent but articulated well. The basic idea: Society’s goal should be to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

That’s not communism, which is designed to give everyone an equal share of everything. Utilitarians are too pragmatic to think such a system would be possible. Also, communism sets limits on high achievers, as eloquently stated by Rush (the band, not Limbaugh) lyricist Neil Peart in his allegory of The Trees: “They passed a noble law / And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.”

Nor is it libertarianism, which shares the utilitarians’ love of free will (Mill’s best-known book: On Liberty) but doesn’t do enough to inhibit pure greed.

Utilitarianism has always seemed like common sense to me. I’d argue, admittedly from a gut feeling rather than hard evidence, that most human beings would choose utilitarianism if they kept an open mind and were presented with several options.

But utilitarianism seems to have died out in today’s American political landscape. The Tea Party may claim the banner of individual liberty but reeks of selfishness and intellectual dishonesty. Backlash against Islam and immigrants is certainly an ill fit with the principle of greatest happiness, both in tone and in principle. Christians may be (should be) utilitarians, but mixing church and state shows a lack of respect for others.

The Democrats may be closest to fulfilling the utilitarian ideal, but they often fall short by favoring one special interest over another or by looking too quickly at government as the solution. Mill himself saw a big role for government, and it’s hard to argue against the government stepping in when Wall Street and the banks fail (something the Tea Party apparently forgot), but government need not always be the solution. (Case in point from The Washington Post: Small businesses feel squeezed by Obama policies)

Utilitarians don’t care whether the solution comes from government or from elsewhere. Whatever’s most practical is best. We’re fortunate to be living in an era in which businesses and nongovernmental organizations have offered much to society. But utilitarians also would not have a knee-jerk reaction against government help when it’s the best or the only solution.

And so this blog will not be purely political. Where we talk about politics, the idea will be to go beyond the rigid two-party system and look at guiding principles. And we’ll talk a good bit about society as a whole and whether we’re following the principle of greatest happiness in our lives — our manners, our music, our driving, etc.

Enjoy.