Notes From Babel

Archive for December 2008

"The Pragmatic Conceit" on National Review Online

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Anthony Dick points out:

To the extent that it performs any conceptual function at all, pragmatism seems to boil down to the more mundane concepts of flexibility, open-mindedness, and deliberation. A “pragmatist” might be said to be someone who, though inevitably laden with policy prejudices, is willing to put them aside and adapt to new situations as needed. But if this is all that pragmatism means, everybody would self-describe as a pragmatist.

Quite right. I have always thought that pragmatists never quite escape the arguments they lodge against natural rights. In fact, pragmatism is simply a myopic and less articulated version of natural rights theory. Where natural rights theory begins at the beginning, with epistemology and teleology, pragmatism jumps right into social studies and polls to build an argument for some end or another. This skips the hard work of prioritizing the ends and purposes that law means to achieve. And that is precisely why we have our outgoing president making statements like this.


Written by Tim Kowal

December 21, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Reverse Psychology

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Bush recently told CNN, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system to make sure the economy doesn’t collapse.” Given that the public’s estimation of Bush renders everything he says false almost by definition, can we give him a list of all the other wrong-headed notions that are ruining this country and stick him back in front of the camera?

Written by Tim Kowal

December 19, 2008 at 5:28 am

Posted in Politics

More Take-Down on So-Called Secular Conservativism

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A very good post on the “Secular Right” by Daniel Larison. It’s not that I have any aversion to big tents — I just don’t see how it makes sense to be a part of a movement that is, at the very least, deistic in its philosophy, while disavowing all religion as either unnecessary or outright evil. Any movement seeking to instill virtue in a society must take morality seriously. Whether a philosophically cogent moral code can be constructed in a wholly secular paradigm is arguable, but I have not seen such an attempt made by the so-called secular right. The best I have seen is something like a “respect for tradition,” which really boils down to nothing more than unqualified opinion. And there’s already a political movement that has the market cornered in that regard.

The test is not whether one comes to the same conclusions. Conclusions are intolerably boring. It is the means employed to arrive at a conclusion that defines an ideology. I just don’t see where secularists and religionists have a whole lot of meaningful ideological common ground, no matter how often they might find themselves saying “me too” on individual issues.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 4, 2008 at 8:02 pm

How "Scienceism" Hides the Ball

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I have been trying to find time to formulate a position on the schism between the “religious right” and, well, what is now apparently called the “Secular Right.” Although there are several posts on that site that raise familiar frustrating issues for me with “scienceism,” Heather MacDonald has this post that prompted a comment from me, which I thought I’d post here:

Ms. MacDonald,

The trouble with attacking paradigms is that of finding common ground to do so. Various religions of course attack the validity of other religions, and when they do so, they start by finding the common threads between them. Mormons are a great target for Christians, for example, because Mormonism purports to share all the same presuppositions, but then purports to add a whole slew of additional tenets. This is easy pickings for Christians, who will say that the New Testament, which both religions share, specifically forbids this. (I’ve been a bad student of the Bible the past several years, so forgive the lack of a citation.)

The problem with your meta-attack (i.e., an attack on sectarian attacks) is your incorrect assumption of neutrality. I find this to be the most frustrating aspect of secularists — they believe by disavowing religion, they take a paradigm-neutral position by suggesting that science is the only necessary and sufficient common ground allowed. But as David Hume (the pudgy dead Scotish one, not the blogger on this site) showed, science doesn’t come out of the box ready to use. It requires certain extra-empirical preconditions. Nor is it readily apparent that we can talk about things like morality and teleology without laying out your views on what things like “human flourishing” means, what “the good life” entails, and so on.

Religionists have their own internal problems, but at least they give us an instant sense of their presuppositions. We don’t get that with secularists [or “science-ists”], as they tend to take a “shopping cart” approach to values and preconditions of science and rationality and intelligibility. (E.g., “since science requires induction, and I cannot observe induction empirically, and I really really want to use science, I will just assume the uniformity of nature and that the future will resemble the past.”)

This may be fine for most purposes, but secularists ought to be honest about it. Before attacking someone else’s paradigm, then, a secularist ought to first put the terms of his or her own on the table in a philosophically cogent way.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 4, 2008 at 6:09 am

Prop. 8 financial supporters named on Web site – Press-Telegram

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A Long Beach resident has compiled and posted the names of all contributors to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign. Raphael Mazor is reported to have said that these contributors “voted to undermine families by taking away someone’s right to get married. It was a personal attack, so you cannot call this just another political disagreement.”

This seems to be another example of how our legal culture’s enshrinement of super-democratic standards seeks to antagonize our traditional democratic legislative processes. What a shame.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 1, 2008 at 6:58 am