The top ten most popular articles from last month:
In his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Peter Singer gives a seemingly devastating critique of our ordinary ways of thinking about famine relief, charity, and morality in general. In spite of that very few people have accepted, or at any rate acted on, the conclusions he reaches. In light of these facts one might say of Singer’s arguments, as Hume said of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism, that “… they admit of no answer and produce no conviction.” While I do think that Singer’s considerations show that people should do considerably more than most people actually do, they do not establish his conclusions in their full strength or generality. So his arguments admit of a partial answer, and once properly qualified may produce some conviction.
Aristotle’s Definition of Citizen, State, Constitution, & Government (Also available as a PDF)
In order to answer the question, “What is a State?” Aristotle begins by asking, “Who is the citizen, and what is the meaning of the term?” This he does because the state is a composite whole made up of many parts—the citizens who compose it. The citizen whom Aristotle is seeking to define is the citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no exception can be made, so that “a citizen is not a citizen because he lives in a certain place; nor is he a citizen who has no legal right except that of suing and being sued; for this right may be enjoyed under the provisions of a treaty.”This latter class are citizens only in a qualified sense, in the same way that children and old men are said to be citizens imperfectly, and not simply. In practice a citizen is defined as one who is born of parents who are citizens, but this is not a satisfactory definition because it cannot apply to the first inhabitants or founders of a state, nor to those who have had the franchise conferred on them by the state. A citizen in the proper sense of the term, then, is one who shares in the administration of justice, and in offices.
Aristotle opens his “Politics” by stating the obvious fact that the state is a community of some kind. (By state Aristotle has in mind the Greek City-State). Like all other communities, the state must exist for an end, and the end of the state is the highest good of man, which for Aristotle means the life of virtue and contemplation. “But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at the good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”
A Summary of Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Values” Also available as a (PDF)
In his essay “The Subjectivity of Values”, J.L. Mackie aims to show that values are not built into the structure of the universe. He begins by clarifying his position, addressing possible reactions and trying to prevent misunderstandings. Some would reject Mackie’s thesis as being morally subversive, others would accept it as a platitude, and still others would say that the question of whether there are objective values is itself illegitimate. Mackie’s thesis applies to all purportedly objective values, not just moral ones. Also, his thesis is a second-order rather than a first-order claim: It states that our values have nothing objective corresponding to them, but one who accepts this claim is not thereby committed to adopt any particular attitude towards private conduct or public policy. One can think that values are ultimately subjective while still valuing things, practices, or states of affairs—or perhaps not valuing much of anything at all—because valuing something does not presuppose that valuing it has an ontological ground.
In this article I provide a synopsis of Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, in which he tries to get his readers to consider, or reconsider, the question of what their obligations are to those who are trapped in extreme poverty. To make the connections between the different ideas and subjects easier to perceive, I will proceed topically, which means that the order in which I discuss certain things is sometimes different from the order in which they occur in the book. As is almost inevitable when summarizing a book of any appreciable length, I will fail to discuss some sections and even chapters, in order to devote more attention to those parts of the book that I regard as the most important. Also, unless otherwise noted, all page references are to The Life You Can Save.
Martin Luther (1486-1543) stated that his pamphlet, “The Freedom of a Christian” contains “the whole sum of the Christian life.” Oswald Bayer, perhaps the foremost Luther scholar of our day, notes that this work “has not yet received from Luther scholars the attention it deserves.” As his best-seller, “The Freedom of a Christian” came out in 38 editions during Luther’s life time. This number included ten editions in Latin and 22 in German. The more popular German edition is shorter than the Latin, simpler, and very spiritually direct, like Luther’s Small Catechism. This edition is mostly unknown, however, because all English translations in America are from the Latin edition. Read this edition available in Luther’s Spirituality and you will find such gems as “One who hears the word becomes like the word, pure, good, and just” (page 268) and “Which is the word that gives such abundant grace and how shall I use it? The answer: it is nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the Gospel, spoken in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you!”
Jürgen Habermas has been called one of the two greatest sociologists in the world today; the other is the late Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). His theory about the life-world and the two systems is a sophisticated social model, archetype, or construct by which to understand and criticize the present late-stage of capitalistic society today.
To oversimplify what is a very comprehensive and complex theory: Habermas argues that the life-world is based on communication, agreement, and consensus. The economic and political systems require instrumental rationality for the sake of control. His theory posits situations embedded in broader “horizons” that are in turn grounded in the life-world.
No matter whether one starts with George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) from basic concepts of social interaction or with Emil Durkheim (1858-1917) from basic concepts of collective representation, in either case, society can is conceived from the perspective of acting subjects as the life-world of a social group. In contrast, from the observer’s perspective of someone not involved, society can be conceived only as a system of actions such that each action has a functional significance according to its contribution to the maintenance of the system.
What is the impact of language on society, and what role does language play in social change? Although Jürgen Habermas calls language the medium of the life-world, the way money and power are the media of the economic and political systems respectively, can language be so powerful to play a role in changing the systems as well? Robert Bellah notes that people have often tried to bring the world closer to the life-world by making it a more human place, and they have tried to do so through language,
In this way Bellah supports the controversial position I am taking: language can change society. But even if I do not want to short change the media of money and power, I believe the role language plays needs more focused attention, and could reward such analysis and investigation in helping to understand how it is involved in societal change. To discount what Emile Durkheim calls the linguistic culture would be a mistake. He places it along-side of the scientific and historical cultures. If a historicization of totality brings reward, introducing evolution into the study of nature and biology, for example; and the scientific examination of totality also brings untold benefit, then despite the reductionism involved, the investigation of the linguistic totality might also bring reward. Reality is more than the verbalization of it. Thus what role does language play in social change and personal growth?
It has been noted (by George Lakoff, among others) that if someone tells you “Don’t think of an elephant!”, it’s pretty hard not to do it. Though it would take empirical research to fill in the details, the answer as to why this is so does not seem hard to discern: To understand the order—to understand what one is not supposed to think of—one must understand the term ‘elephant’, and thus come to think of one. I’d wager that in addition to thinking of one an image of an elephant popped into your head as well. This is probably because the concept of an elephant is an empirical concept—no crisp, abstract definition of an elephant comes readily to mind, so a stereotypical image is needed to make it intelligible. By contrast, if someone were to tell you “Don’t think of the number 2!” it is less likely that an image would come up, unless you confuse the numeral ‘2’ with the number 2—or, at least, that the image would be unlikely to be constant for different people, or for the same person at different times.
What, though, if someone were to tell you “Don’t think of a square circle!” Is it so hard to comply in this case?
Well, maybe it is: Do I really know what it is I’m not supposed to think of? If not, I’m not really complying with the order, because I fail to understand it. I’m merely doing what it says. Nevertheless, what interests me here is not our concept of compliance, but rather that of conceiving or imagining the impossible.
When I was young I grew up watching Star Trek. On Star Trek, goodness prevailed over evil, and intelligence over ignorance. Humankind overcame war and managed to colonize planets. Very soon, aliens and humans put aside their differences in order to form the United Federation of Planets, an experiment in cosmic humanism that could only mean continual progress. The handsome Captain Kirk always stood up for the “American Way” gone galactic, the idea that commerce would overcome borders and cultural differences. The Enterprise was there to defend democracy, not to practice it. Captain Kirk had to be obeyed, but only because he was first among equals and not because of any royal birth. The message of Star Trek was that planetary colonization would only lead to a world of expanding horizons and continuing exploration. It was a message that resonated with the imagination of youth.
What ends the naivety of childhood is not the realization that light is the cosmic speed limit, a fact probably prohibiting easy transport to the stars. I knew that then, and such a trifle did not end the imaginative cocoon of childhood. Nor was it the fact that aliens probably don’t look like humans. This was pretty obvious to me at that time given my basic familiarity with Darwin and natural selection. What ends the naivety of childhood is not scientific fact since that is often more the handmaiden of imagination than anything stifling a young mind. What ended childhood was the realization of complexity.