Thursday, July 23, 2009

Economics and Ethics

Had a discussion with a friend who is a staunch libertarian that caused a few things to click for me that have been rattling around for a while.

I studied economic and political philosophy for a bit before I began studying theology. Something that interested me about both economic and political philosophy is that they have at least at some level an underlying question that is about ethics. Both are, in some foundational sense, concerned with the question "how can society best provide for all its members?" We can see this historically in political philosophy in the development of feudalism in the middle ages: a society that was falling apart and facing great danger developed a system designed around the idea of protection for its members.

In economic terms, this question is explicitly in the mind of many of the founders of modern economic thought. Adam Smith, for instance, when he wrote The Wealth of Nations was certainly trying to answer this question. And he believed that answer lay in human self-interest. He believed that self-interested humans will always make economic decisions that are "in their best interest" and that allowing this process to freely play out would result in the most efficient economy, which to him meant the one that best provided for the needs of society's members. In other words, he felt that a free market was the most ethical system not because of concerns about property rights or about the authority of the government but because he felt that the end result of a free market was the best provision of peoples' needs.

So in my discussion with my libertarian friend, he argued that the free market was the best system. So far, we are in agreement. He then argued that government action like "The New Deal" were bad and were messing up the marketplace. This is where I begin to disagree. I think that a free market is ideal not as an ends but as a means to an outcome that is best for society. But because the free market is a means and not an ends in itself, I do not believe that when the market fails we are required to sit and wait on the market to fix itself (in the name of preserving a free market). Lets take the historical example of the Great Depression. Initially, preserving a free market was the policy of choice. However, three years later when unemployment was at a record 35% with no sign of getting any better, it seems fairly apparent that the preservation of a free market is no longer in societies best interest. Letting people starve for the sake of preserving the free market is of dubious morality, I think. So I think that the government was obligated at that point (and maybe should have reached this conclusion earlier) to step in and act in a way that relieved the strain on the country to provide for its own peoples' needs. In that case, the New Deal was economically and ethically an advisable strategy.

In a nutshell, this is what I'm arguing. Economic philosophy is not about making efficient markets or making the most profit. Sure, those things are products of good economic philosophy. However, the real motivation behind economic philosophy is an ethical one- the greatest good for society as a whole, the greatest provision of the needs and wants of societies' members. As such, I would argue with the general consensus of economists in the western tradition that free markets are usually the best way to accomplish this goal. However, I would strongly differ from libertarians in that I think the market is only a tool, a means to an ends. So when the tool doesn't work, you fix it or scrap it for a new one. Likewise, when the market fails, I believe it is acceptable for the government to intervene and attempt a solution that better provides for society.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Extreme Sports and Deeper Living

An article I read the other day may force me to revise a little bit of what I said in an earlier post.

Basically, the article deals with the psychology of those who participate in "extreme sports" or high risk athletic events. The study is very narrow in its definition of these events, concentrating on those activities that require a high degree of skill. The aspect that interests me is that this showed several "character developing" effects. For instance, two specific effects outlined by the study were that participation in these activities developed the athlete's courage and their sense of humility. However, I'm sure other similar effects could be seen by different participants. The general idea seems to be that participating in high risk, attention and skill intensive activities can contribute to developing positive character traits because the experience itself alters your view of life in some way (namely, by helping you realize the fragility of it through your experience of facing fear). That would suggest that such an activity might be more "deep" than I may have given it credit for in my earlier post.

However, I will still maintain that thrill seeking is not "real living." This study differs from other psychological studies into the effects of extreme sports in that it defines them as things that involve a high degree of skill. In other words, you have to be a very highly trained athlete to participate. This is not a tourist bungee jumping or sky diving. Those types of activities, when studied, seem to have similar effects to a drug high- a purely chemical "rush" that leaves the person momentarily elated, but certainly not better off in terms of things that really matter.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Greg Boyd and "The Patriot's Bible"

I highly recommend you read this post from Greg Boyd. He decries the dangerous and idolatrous connection of Christianity to American Nationalism found in the recently published "Patriot's Bible." For more thoughts, look at this post.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Alternative Take on Free Will

My apologies to anyone who reads this and finds it too technical. This is a more "philosophical" post than most that I have written lately, and its going to read more like a paper than a blog post.

A while back I wrote a post about the tension between free-will and determinism and the seemingly negative consequences both sides of this debate take us to when followed to their logical conclusions. Essentially, it seems to me that determinism logically implies a radical form of skepticism, and at the same time libertarian freedom seems to imply atheism and a lack of causality to the universe. Neither road seems particularly desirable, but I was then unaware of any potential solution.

Lately I have been reading quite a bit on ancient philosophy. Two thoughts have been in the background of this reading. First, I have often wondered if there is an inconsistency in ancient philosophy over the issue of free will. Most ancient philosophers conception of deity (I'm using this term loosely) is one of a completely transcendent deity whose being produces by emanation the world. This is Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" or Neo-Platonism's "Perfect Being." Many of these concepts have been adapted by Christians to form the ideas of Classical Theism- an omnipotent, omniscient God who transcends space and time. In modern terms we consider these ideas to imply determinism. However, in the ancient world, they firmly believed in free will. Is there a logical problem in the ancient systems here?

Another thing that has been in the background of my reading has been a belief that the questions asked by Modernist philosophers off track. For a more thorough discussion of what I think on this issue, look over this post. Basically, though, I think that Modern philosophy, which has replaced the ancient concept of "telos" with scientism, is self-defeating and absurd. Thus, I find the ancient concept of "telos"- that all things are striving toward an innate purpose within them, to be a very appealing concept for explaining not only the regularity of our scientific observations but also avoiding the absurdity of naturalistic scientism.

I think that this concept of "telos" has answered my first question about the consistency of ancient philosophy and provided a solution to the free will dilemma.

In a nutshell, here is how the concept of "telos" works: Everything has a "purpose" or a "goal" that is innate in it. This goal stems from the defining characteristics of the thing- a tree has the "telos" of being a tree- growing tall, sprouting limbs, making fruit, etc. If it doesn't do these things, we consider something to be wrong with the tree- it is defective, it doesn't do what trees do. This idea of innate "purpose" applies to everything, including humans. We have a "goal" of being a human, and maybe more specifically of being a particular kind of human. Its in our "DNA," so to speak, that we will be a certain way. And so subconsciously all our lives we work toward that end because that is what we are meant to be. It is our "telos." As a side note: from a more modern perspective, this is a very similar concept to Heidegger's Dasein (Being).

So far, this sounds very much like determinism. And in a way, it is a form of determinsim/compatibalism. However, I think there is a crucial difference from the more standard versions of compatibalism that prevents us from falling into the trap of skepticism that I have discussed earlier.

This "telos" is internal and subconscious. I don't consciously set out to be a human, I am one. I don't consciously decide that I will like ice-cream, I do. So our "telos," without our thinking about it, sets parameters on what we do and do not do. I don't breathe through gills underwater because as a human, that is simply something I do not do. And I don't eat other people because subconsciously without even having to think about it I believe that to be morally wrong as a human. Yet, specific actions are not really laid out by my "telos." Whether I will walk across the street or not is not really defined by my "telos." Either walking across or staying on this side of it are perfectly consistent with my being a human and being the kind of human that I am.

Lets use DNA as a metaphor again. DNA may define the kind of species an organism is and may define many particular traits of that organism. But it doesn't lay out every action the organism takes. Two oak trees may have very different layouts of their branches. Two children with the same parents may have very different traits. Even identical twins can have drastically different personalities. The cloned sheep Dolly doesn't do everything exactly the same way its clone-partner does, its life is somewhat different.

And so my "telos" may set parameters of who I am and what kind of person I am, but it also leaves a lot open to choice. Exactly how much so may be debatable, and I'm not going to get into that. But this means that ancient philosophers could be consistent in believing in a transcendent deity and in free will. The transcendent deity may impart "telos" on creation, a deterministic act, but this "telos" does not govern every individual action, it simply sets a course to be followed. Hence, I think the theist can consistently embrace both a belief that God ordains how the world will operate and that we participate in this freely. Thus, we neither have to be skeptics or atheists, nor do we have to be hard determinists or radical libertarians.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thought- flying rebel flags on Independence Day is a little out of place...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Musical Journey Toward Deeper Living

On my way to a pool job today my rather eccentric boss (I love you David) was flipping between radio stations and for a while we landed on what I assume was a country station. Two of the songs that we heard back to back started me thinking and that eventually led to this.

The first song was "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw. The verses paint a picture of a man who is dying. When asked what he did with what he believed to be his final days, the answer we get is several things that I found disappointing. Primarily, though it seems that most of his answers have to do with simple thrill seeking- mountain climbing, sky diving, bull riding, etc. The point of the song is to say that when you are on the verge of death you "really live"- you do what seems most valuable despite whatever risks might be involved. Somehow, though, I feel like this must mean something deeper than just seeking thrills.

The second song was "Who Says You Can't Go Home" by Bon Jovi. I found this progression ironic- the first song proclaims that to really experience life you have to get out and enjoy all the thrills life might have to offer. The second song starts out with someone who has in essence done just that and says "all I want to do is go back home." There comes a point when chasing thrills looses its thrillingness and becomes empty. Is that just the nature of the beast or is that an indication that chasing thrills is not really what living is all about? Is there something deeper to life?

I think there is, though I sometimes have a very hard time expressing what that might be. Certainly we all want to "do something we love." Certainly we all want to "enjoy life" and "live life to the fullest." But when we say those expressions, what do we mean? Do we just mean going out and doing things we might not otherwise do, collecting experiences that we might one day be able to tell stories about? Maybe. But honestly, as much fun as I have had in various experiences- as much as I enjoy rock climbing, as much of a thrill as I get out of rappelling down a cliff face or white water rafting, as enjoyable and relaxing as I find sailing- when I stop and think about my favorite memories, those aren't usually the ones that come to mind. Its instead usually a late night talk with a good friend, a week spent working for an orphanage in a developing nation, helping a friend or a family member move, teaching, etc. Maybe I'm just more of a nerd than I like to think I am, but to me these things seem much more meaningful. They seem like experiences that really matter. And so to me, they seem to much more fulfill the meaning of "living life to the fullest."

Later in the day we switched to a Christian music station. I categorically despise Christian music, for the record. Its cheesy, its mostly superficial, its too formulaic, and its just terrible art (with a handful of exceptions, like the song I'm about to mention). I'm ashamed to be associated with it most of the time. However, one song played while we were listening that stood out to me because, for one thing, it was musically appealing in some respects, and for another it was exceptionally honest lyrically. The song was "What Do I Know of Holy?" by Addison Road. The song very poignantly points out the emptiness of much of our "spirituality" by asking what it really means for God to be who we say he is. If God is greater than anything else, what point of reference do we really have to even begin to comprehend that? When we say things, are we just saying them because we think they are supposed to be said, or because we actually understand what they mean and so mean what we are saying? I think too often, it is the former and not the latter. Now, while this message has a context particularly related to Christian worship (and I think the singer is intentionally targeting the emptiness of a lot of Christian worship, maybe even alluding to some other bands in the industry), I think a broader principle can be derived that hits our topic more directly. Often, when we say things about life, we say them without understanding them. We don't think through what it means to "really live," we jump to the conclusion that this means something our culture is conditioning us to think it means. Sure, you can have a lot of fun when you go Rocky Mountain climbing. But I guarantee if that becomes a "real living" experience, it will not be because of the mountain so much as the people you climbed it with, the conversations you had, the camaraderie that was built, etc. So when we talk about what it means to "really experience life," my challenge is to ask how deep are we thinking? Are we looking for thrills or are we looking for meaningful, lasting experiences?

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