Posts from February 2005

Old Time Religion

The latest news from the Traditional Values front comes to us from Roseville, Michigan, where we find that the defenders of public decency are marshalling their forces to preserve our precious culture and heritage–by launching a legal assault against a local artist for his reproduction of part of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s ceiling for the Sistine Chapel:

In Ed (Gonzo) Stross’ eyes, his variation on Michelangelo’s Creation of Man mural is art.

In 39A District Judge Marco Santia’s eyes, it’s a crime.

Santia ordered jail time, a fine and probation — a sentence that sounds a little harsh to a state senator, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and fellow artists.

Santia ordered Stross, 43, to serve 30 days in jail, do two years’ probation and pay a $500 fine for violating a city sign ordinance. Roseville officials said letters were prohibited on the mural and Eve’s exposed chest is indecent.

Besides jail time and the fee, Stross is to tastefully cover Eve’s breasts before reporting to the Macomb County Jail on Monday morning, and to paint over love by May 1.

— Detroit Free Press 2005-02-18: Muralist’s vision has jail staring him in face

(Link thanks to Copyfight 2005-02-23 and No Treason 2005-02-22.)

Of course, a bare-breasted Eve wasn’t too much for Pope Julius II; he not only approved of its public display, but was glad to have it on the ceiling of the most important church in all of Western Christendom. You might have thought that some of our traditional values include glorifying God and Creation through beautiful art, or at least respect for the achievements of our forebearers. But when it comes to the community standards of our day–which are, after all, mostly set by reference to the sensitivities of the most obnoxiously vocal and litigious segments of the Religious Right–it appears that all of these pale in comparison to the importance of ensuring that no child see boobies, ever. Anyway, since when have traditional values had anything to do with history?

This, it seems, is the modern Religious Right: a horde of know-nothing busybodies, apparently hell-bent on making Mencken’s definition of puritanism look plausible, and going to the mat to enforce the values of a past that–fortunately for the achievements of Western civilization–never existed.

Further reading

Dr. Anarchy answers your questions: The Great Divorce edition

Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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. . . No.

By the way, you stole our title. And it was funnier when we used it.

(Thanks to Alina for the link.)

Philosophy Break

A couple of notes on the subject of philosophical follow-ups, before I skip town for the weekend:

  1. After a brief hiatus, the effort to transcribe G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica for the web has reached another milestone: Chapter II of PE–Moore’s discussion of Naturalistic Ethics–has now hit the web. After doing the heavy meta-ethical lifting in Chapter I, Moore goes on to apply the tools that he has developed to questions of normative ethics. The most popular naturalistic theory by far–Hedonism–is left for a detailed treatment in Chapter III (which you’ll just have to wait for); Moore uses Chapter II as a place to first set out the options, and then systematically demonstrate the fallaciousness of attempts to ground ethical theory in appeals to (1) natural propensities and (2) the outcomes of Evolution. (The latter half of the chapter spends some time knocking Herbert Spencer’s ethical theory–which is, if nothing else, remarkable in that it’s one of the few examples of Hebert Spencer being criticized for dumb things he really did say.)

    There is at least one big gap in Moore’s argument: like most moderns, and most Analytics in particular, he doesn’t have much sympathy for teleology, and that hobbles his discussion of what natural might mean when we appeal to natural living or natural function in ethics. Moore shows that, if you’re using natural in the sense of statistically normal for your kind, or in the sense of necessary for life, the only way to make an ethics based on what’s natural for us even remotely plausible is by committing the naturalistic fallacy. But since Moore hasn’t got any real notion of teleology, he just doesn’t consider the meaning of natural that forms the backbone of the Aristotelian tradition in ethics–where what is good for us is made out in terms of what is suited to our nature, i.e., suited to the form of life of rational animals. I don’t actually think that a carefully framed naturalistic ethics in the Aristotelian sense would be in any conflict with Moore’s ethical non-naturalism. Moore has polemical reasons for wanting to distinguish his ethical position from naturalism, but the important thing for Moore is that ethical judgments aren’t reducible to descriptions of a situation’s non-ethical properties; but the Aristotelian appeal to nature always irreducibly involves an appeal to how creatures of so-and-so kind ought to be. So the only thing to fight over so far is whether irreducibly ethical properties ought to be called natural or non-natural; but that’s an issue of more interest to lexicographers than philosophers. In any case, Moore is mostly on solid ground throughout the chapter–and everything he has to say could be directed just as effectively today against the proponents of the oxymoronic doctrine of naturalized ethics, or those who think all you need to do to get your ethics to cook up some sociobiological story about how people came to have the particular sentiments that they actually do have.

    Anyway, you really should read the whole thing. Cite and be merry!

  2. I’m heading South–straight to the Mississippi River, in fact–to present my essay on Hume and the Missing Shade of Blue for the 2005 Mid-South Philosophy Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. The draft I’ll be presenting is available online; I’d love to hear any comments, questions, applause, or brickbats you might have about it. (For the super-condensed version of the argument, there’s my post on an earlier draft of the same essay from back in October.)

I’ll see y’all once I’ve returned from my brief vacation in Tennessee. Enjoy the weekend!

Like hotcakes. Free hotcakes.

Gmail seems to be expanding its tentacles outward; I noticed today that I have a good 50 invitations or so to give away. If you want a Gmail account and haven’t already gotten one yet, feel free to drop me a line. Let the prisoners of Hotmail taste sweet freedom!

Which freedom?

I’ve already mentioned here why I think that (Ward Churchill|Hans-Hermann Hoppe) shouldn’t be fired, even though he’s demonstrably an ass. In the course of doing so, I mentioned off to the side a direction I didn’t think the argument should go–but things seem to be getting steadily worse, so it may be wortwhile to touch on it a bit more.

A lot of people seem to think that the reason to join the fight over (Churchill’s|Hoppe’s) remarks, and the threatened repercussions from his University employers, is to defend his First Amendment rights, or to defend free speech from censorship by (Evil Right-Wing Jingoistic Goons|Evil Left-Wing Thought-Police).

No it’s not.

Let’s start with censorship. In the Roman Republic, the censor was a government official who, among other duties, was charged with safeguarding public morals (and had power to, for example, punish unmarried couples living together or land owners who did not keep up their property). Censorship has expanded and shifted in its meanings since antiquity, but the one thing that all censors have had in common is: they are, one and all, government officials who use force backed by law to suppress free expression. Censorship is a government act, and like all government acts, it is ultimately backed by violent enforcement. (Don’t believe me? Try publishing a censored newspaper in, say, Singapore, and see what happens to you.)

Censorship is, properly speaking, government suppression of free speech. No more, no less. Of course, you might talk loosely about censorious people or organizations without referring to any kind of government enforcement, but this is only a loose analogical usage. More to the point, it’s not the way you’re using the term when you say that the First Amendment bans censorship. All the First Amendment prohibits is invasive acts of government:

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

But that’s not what happening to Ward Churchill or Hoppe. There are lone nutcases calling for all sorts of retribution, of course, but nobody politically in a position to make a credible threat is claiming that Churchill or Hoppe should be fined by the government or thrown in prison or burned at the stake, and given that all of these things have been done to real people in the past, it’s a bit insulting to lump the late unpleasantness together with these victims of honest-to-God censorship. The worst that’s been suggested for either is losing his tenure and his job; mostly what’s been floated are administrative reprimands and punitive cuts in pay or position. It’s true that–in spite of the fact that Churchill’s and Hoppe’s remarks were complete claptrap–they shouldn’t have to face that. It would be foolish. It would be petty. It would be narrow-minded. But it wouldn’t be censorship.

So what’s wrong with it, then? Well, the problem in this whole debate is that two related, but importantly distinct issues:

  1. Freedom of speech, in the sense of political freedom from censorship

  2. Academic freedom, the ability to participate in scholarly discussion without repercussions from academic employers, even if your views are unpopular or controversial

People on both the Right and the Left run (1) and (2) together all the time, but the fact is that they’re completely different issues, and if we want to fight for them both (which we should) then we need to recognize that they’re different and why. Free speech in the sense of (1) means freedom from government coercion; it’s a good thing to have because if you don’t have it, what that means is at some point or another some goon is going to pick up a gun or a billyclub and use force or threats in order to keep you saying only what the government thinks you should say–which is tyanny, even if what you say is mistaken, ill-reasoned, foolhardy, or even hateful. That’s damned important to keep in mind and to act on; but there’s no call to act on it in this case, because Churchill and Hoppe aren’t being threatened with force by any government officer.

Academic freedom in the sense of (2), on the other hand, has nothing at all to do with freedom from coercion. If we intend to defend it in any kind of intelligent way, just pointing to the Constitutional and moral arguments for freedom of speech in the sense of (1) are going to be completely misplaced. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean being obligated to provide anyone with a microphone, and getting the government to force other people, against their will, to print or air views that they find repellant or keep employing the person who airs those views, is no less tyrannical than getting the government to force people not to print views or employ teachers that the government finds unsuitable.

That doesn’t mean that firing Churchill or Hoppe for his controversial (and stupid) views would be a good idea; it just means that it wouldn’t be a violation of his rights. Saying that academic freedom is different from free speech doesn’t mean that it isn’t very valuable. It is. But it’s valuable for different reasons. Specifically, it’s valuable because academic freedom in Universities is an essential part of a third value:

(3) Open debate, the encouragement of vigorous, wide-ranging, well-reasoned public debate

It’s hard to have open debate if even those who are paid to inquire and debate for a living are always afraid that they’ll lose their job or face retaliation from their employers for holding controversial views. Enforcing a party line is a damn good way to get bad research and timid debate. If you rule views you find odious out of bounds for discsussion before you even hear the arguments for them, then you’re not going to be able to make any serious effort at getting to the truth.

That’s why Churchill’s and Hoppe’s cases are important. Not because you need to defend to the death their right to say what you disagree with–the issue isn’t their right to say anything (which isn’t at issue) but rather their opportunity to make arguments for it in a civil forum without fear of reprisal from their Universities. Open debate is important to have if you want to make any serious progress for civilization or human freedom, and you can’t have that if you decide that, regardless of the quality of argument, you’re just not going to listen to, or acknowledge, certain people because you disagree with their conclusions.

But notice the difference from free speech here: the issue isn’t your right to say something, but rather your opportunity to get a hearing for your argument for what you say. It’s a very good thing for Universities (and, mutatis mutandis, other outlets for public debate) to consult, and publish, and vigorously discuss many substantively different views on the important issues of our day–but only in the context of reasonable standards of intellectual honesty, scholarly rigor, clarity, etc. Free speech doesn’t have any constraints of that sort–you have a right to say things that are glib, superficial, wildly dishonest, unargued, or belligerently stupid. The moral and Constitutional arguments for free speech are all for unlimited free speech; leaning on them when what you’re really trying to argue for is academic freedom ends up as a call to artificially pump up the diversity of conclusions, without regard to the quality of the argument, in the name of defending the right of opposing views to get a hearing. And that undermines the very goals of rational, informed discourse that academic freedom and open debate are meant to preserve.

The late unpleasantness is only the most dramatic illustration of a troubling long-term trend in the U.S.: major public opinion outlets (in the newsmedia and elsewhere), and increasingly even Universities, seem to have no qualms about neglecting, ignoring, or even blacklisting far too many people for having controversial opinions, without considering their arguments. But that’s not censorship; it’s foolishness, and dishonesty on the part of those who try to shut down discussion.

This isn’t just hypothetical grousing about bad arguments; the confusion has practical consequences that we see every day. Churchill’s defenders on the radical Left and Hoppe’s radical libertarian defenders aren’t the only people who have used these kind of arguments; it’s now a favorite of raving lunatics, Holocaust-denying weasels, and jingoistic politicians who have repeatedly used phony charges of censorship in order to try to Mau Mau timid University bureaucrats into giving them a stage for their views whether or not those views are presented within any reasonable standards of intellectual honesty or scholarly rigor. Hacks like that ought to be ignored, denied a stage, and denied jobs at serious research Universities; there’s no censorship involved in that. Churchill’s and Hoppe’s arguments were idiotic, but unlike (say) the fabrications of a David Irving or the mad-dog rampage of a David Horowitz, there’s no reason to say that they’re outside the standards of academic standards for argument or for teaching. That’s why it’s worth it to stand up for their academic freedom, not because they have some kind of right to carry on however they please without being called to account.

When you equate the virtue of academic freedom with the right of free speech, you end up with calls for enforcement in law; the logical end-point of the the David Horowitz-David Irving gambit is phony free speech legislation like Title VI or Horowitz’s own Academic Bill of Rights–bills which try to use government force to tilt academic discourse in the name of increasing the numerical diversity of conclusions, out of misplaced free speech concerns. That’s a direct assault on the idea of the University, and completely undermines all the reasons we have to say that open debate is worth having in the first place.

The (Churchill|Hoppe) fracas is important, but not because it’s a threat to free speech or the First Amendment. It just ain’t, and if you keep pushing that line you’ll find yourself muddling the issue and travelling in some really unpleasant company. (And jeeze, Churchill and Hoppe are unpleasant enough on their own!)