On the Future of Illusions

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In 1927 Sigmund Freud published a short book entitled The Future of an Illusion.  The specific illusion he had in mind was the combined illusion not only of the existence of God but also the impact of God’s activity on human life and particularly on what Freud liked to call “civilization.”  For Freud, and illusion was a belief originating not in empirical evidence but in wish fulfillment.  Illusions for Freud are the things we “would were so”  and help us cope with all of the threatening aspects of life.


What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. – Sigmund Freud

In this short essay, I would like to take this kernel of Freud’s thought and draw an analogy to current considerations of race relations in the United States.  To this day, many Americans (and I would venture to say many people globally) think there is a biological phenomena called “race” which refers to a group of people who not only share biological characteristics like skin pigmentation but other characteristics like temperament,  intelligence, industriousness and moral rectitude to name just a few.

These “racial” differences are assumed to be largely a function of biological destiny and to explain differences in the life outcomes of what are thought of as “racial groups.”  Some have even imagined a kind of hierarchy of races often with their own race in the superior position–a wish fulfillment of sorts.

In the absence of verifiable empirical evidence, imagining these sorts of racial differences has provided humankind a handy way of explaining differences in behavior between varying groups.  The science of past centuries new nothing of DNA and the workings of the human genome yet we (humankind) wished to be able to account for difference not just in appearance and economic/social outcomes but in how differing groups should orient themselves to one another in order to secure their future and even to prosper.

The concept of race is a bit like the concept of God from the Freudian point of view.  It is a kind of wish fulfillment: We would that it were so.  We would that race explained fundamental differences between people. We would that if some races were better than others, we would be a member of the better race, share in its blessings and take comfort in being able to ‘justifiably” keep others in their biologically ordained place.

In this sense, racial difference, beyond the most superficial, is an illusion. illusion Modern genetics has given the lie to this illusion just as science and the general advance of human knowledge has given the lie to all manner of previous illusions: the sun orbiting the earth, bleeding a patient being an effective medical intervention, evil spirits bringing disease to our communities, or the salubrious impact of sacrificing animals or one’s first born.

One thing that is not an illusion, because we have plenty of empirical evidence for it, is that we human beings make lots and lots of errors.  We do, however, continue to wish that we did not and thereby give birth to new illusions; for example, the oft repeated declaration racism no longer exists, America is the land of the free, social and economic oppression are things of the past, enlightened self-interest is an effective regulator of excess etc. etc.

Perhaps the greatest illusion of all–that hubris is the other person’s problemcontinues to rule the day.  Illusion may be part of the human condition. We will surely continue to wish for things we do not have but, as we do, we cannot afford to let what we wish were the case to take on the status of settled and all inclusive knowledge.  In fact, abandoning known illusions is the only path to the a viable future.  Clinging to illusions is deadly.  Race as we have used the word for several hundred years is a meaningless term.  It is an illusion to think otherwise.

racist-save-white-americaRacism is, however, not an illusion.  It is all too real.  Combatting racism is a pressing issue especially as the world shrinks in size daily.  The illusion of race has had a large hand in creating the reality of racism.  Perhaps, one of the first steps in the right direction is for each of us to examine our innermost selves and root out the vestiges of the now illusory definition of race ensuring that this particular illusion does not take another step into the future.

Cultural Dialogue and Humility

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is difficult to observe the world these days without being struck by the ubiquity of conflict both in the US and around the World.  All our politicians seem to do is fight with one another. A new terror attack is an almost daily occurrence as are shooting incidents in schools, homes and stores abound some even perpetrated by toddlers. Racial tension and strife continues. The rich get rich and the poor get poor.  Income inequality grows and society grows less and less civil.

In all this we do not seem to be able to talk to one another and to work through difficulties.  Real dialogue is becoming more and more elusive.  Why? In this short essay I would like to suggest two among myriad explanatory contenders: the lack of social humility and courage.

As finite beings, you and I really can not interpret the world around us from anyone else’s perspective.  We can empathize and try to see things from the perspective of another but we can not, for example, actually leave ourselves and look back at ourselves from the other’s point of view. We can imagine. We can project. At best, we can approximate.

This reality is very easy to forget.  The experience of our own self-awareness–our consciousness– can fool us into thinking that we have stepped out of ourselves and taken up a kind of universal and decontextualized perspective from which we perceive ourselves and others objectively, clearly, truly. The fact that we experience, to one degree or another, what psychologists call, a subject/object relationship with ourselves can deceive us into thinking that we can have an almost unlimited and disembodied point of view on all of reality. While most of us have no trouble acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to vexing life issues, we much less frequently acknowledge that our perspective itself is radically constrained by the conditions of our finitude.

One of the conditions of that finitude is the fact that our lives are deeply contextualized.  We exist in time and space–we live in a particular time and place.  We all enter that time and space with specific genetic potential and limitation. Experience, both profound and apparently insignificant, teaches us about life, shapes our identities and our views of what is good/bad, wise/unwise and right/wrong.  We become who we are and live as we do within a context of past and present experience.  We do not live or perceive outside of that context. The notion of decontextualized perspective is an illusion.

One aspect of our radical contextualization is culture.  We are all encultured and see our world through the lenses of the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and which we continue to shape in turn.  Enculturation is both a good and somewhat problematic feature of our lives.

On the one hand, enculturation enables us to interpret the world around us in the real time of everyday life.  Without a cultural framework we would be, metaphorically, stumbling around in the dark without any sense of the “lay of the land” and without reference points and “aids to navigation.”  In this sense, culture affords us what Archimedes, over two thousand years ago, called “a place to stand.”


archimedes 1

On the other hand, because cultures seem to those who live in them and have been shaped by them to define the natural and normal way of things, they make cultural realities other than one’s own seem unnatural, odd and in many cases even invisible. For example, it is difficult to see economic or racial privilege for what it is from the point of view–cultural perspective– of privilege itself.  In other words, each culture limits the perspective of its members to its own confines and because members of a cultural group see their own cultural norms as the natural “way of it,” they default to the assumption that their own cultural lens is more revelatory and less limited than it actually is or can be.

These qualities of contextualization put us in a difficult position.  We need the guiding light of our cultural cues but if we follow that refracted light alone, we will miss the guidance of other refracted beams and fall afoul of the dangers no single cultural light can illuminate.  Are we stuck? Must we simply stand still or continue going along merrily oblivious to our cultural myopia.

To proceed we need the virtues of humility and courage simultaneously.  The Latin root of the word “humility” is humus which means earth or ground. The humble are those who recognize that they are of the earth.  Dust we are and to dust shall we return.ashes

The humble person is the person who realizes and accepts his/her earth bound finitude–their humanity in all its limitations.  The humble person embraces and accepts the conditions of finitude and does not fall victim to imagining themselves on high free of all the conditions of finite existence and enlightened by some universal light.  The humble person takes themselves to be seeing their way through life lighting their path with their own unique light along with all others who are doing the same.  The humble person takes their light to be a light like any other–no better no worse.  In this sense, humility shares a great deal with being firmly grounded.

The Latin root of “courage” is cor which means heart and, by extension, innermost spirit.  In its earliest usage, the word meant to speak or act one’s heart and later to mean an inner strength in the face of fear.  Accepting that we are finite, mortal and profoundly limited in a variety of ways can be a fearsome prospect and requires real courage but without a courageous acceptance of finitude (humility) we sentence ourselves to a future of tunnel vision confined to our own limited context and unable to see beyond our present cultural limits.

Real social dialogue requires both humility and courage.  Without a deep acceptance of our finitude and the humility that ensues, we can never really open ourselves to the individual and cultural lenses of others.  While we consider ourselves “mighty,” “exceptional,” “special” and “more enlightened than thou,” dialogue remains a pipe dream.

Dialogue & Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Society (Part 2)

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2This is the second part of a two part essay on issues related to dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.  Part I made the point that in order for real dialogue to take place between parties, those parties must be able to communicate clearly, understand one another and at least agree on the existence of the first principles that ground their view of reality.  Dialogue between believers and nonbelievers in “god” is problematic because nonbelievers do not think that “god” is anything more than an idea that some people have and in that sense does not exist and cannot serve as a referent in an argument.  Part 1 concluded with the idea that, perhaps the use of a thought experiment, following the model of the philosopher John Rawls, could serve to circumvent the first principles problem between those who believe and those who do not and allow for a continuation of meaningful dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.

A thought experiment is the use of  imagination to investigate the nature of things. In a thought experiment, a person visualizes a situation with specific conditions, carries out an operation within the visualization, notices what happens or is what most likely to happen and then draws a conclusion from which further extrapolations are possible. One of the most famous thought experiments of all time was performed by Einstein who used his imagination and  “pursued a beam of light” to the discovery of the theory of general relativity.  The History of Science is replete with examples of thought experiments.  Click here to see some amusing illustrations.

The late political philosopher John Rawls used the device of an extended thought experiment to develop a theory of the nature of justice that he thought could be assented to in a pluralistic society (or world) where differing languages, cultures, belief systems and values made consensus on first principles on which to ground social dialogue difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. 

Rawls proposed the following thought experiment:

Imagine a condition in which human beings were brought together under what he called a “veil of ignorance” and given the task of deciding what basic rules should govern human social interaction and institutions in order, following the thinking of John Locke, that as free agents we be able both to have liberty and live together in harmony.  The “veil of ignorance” he proposed was the hypothetical situation in which all parties knew that social and personal inequalities existed but not which individual people or groups were advantaged or disadvantaged; i.e., a state where we knew that some people would be smarter than others, have more money or other resources than others, be more attractive or stronger than others etc. etc. but NOT which one of us was the stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, healthier or unhealthier.  We would not even know if we were a believer or not.

Assuming our hypothetical group accepted the task of answering the question of how our life as human beings should be arranged, Rawls argues that the first thing the group would do is to decide how to deal with fact that the group knew some members were advantaged and some disadvantaged but not who was in which category.  He concludes that the first rule the group would establish is one that establishes that whatever rules they arrive at cannot disadvantage the least advantaged in the group. Rawls continues that the first rule this hypothetical group would establish was that any rule they created could not adversely impact the liberty of the least advantaged among them.  

Or as Rawls put it more formally:  

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Rawls calls this the first principle of justice.  A first principle arrived at in this way would be one that would be agreed to by both the believer and nonbeliever.  Under the “veil of ignorance” both believer and nonbeliever (since they did not who was who) would have to agree on a first principle which left either option (belief or non-belief) open and unconstrained.

Rawls moves on from the formation of this first principle to extrapolate a more elaborate theory of social justice in which the disadvantaged are always protected to one degree or another from being disadvantaged further by laws and social regulations. Space does not permit a full examination of Rawls and  his contractarian theory of justice. ( Click here for a summary of this 1971 publication.)  Suffice to say, that it is the use of a thought experiment and the “veil of ignorance” device that enables Rawls to circumvent the actual variations within the human family in reaching a formulation of a first principle that would likely be agreed upon by all members of the human family under the conditions of the experiment.  It is an also an ingenious way to get at a philosophical version of the Golden Rule.

While thought experiments and veils of ignorance may not be the route to the solution of all complex ethical discussions in which the parties have incompatible first principles, they do offer one avenue that could be explored much more widely in order to preserve pluralism (an thus liberty) in our society.  Imagine the thought experiment/veil of ignorance technique applied to a hot button issues like gay/lesbian marriage or stem cell research.

All this is of importance only if we are interested in preserving pluralism and the liberty that it implies.  Some may feel that it is their duty to work against pluralism and that humankind would be better off were there no difference of opinion on a topic like “god.”  Believers and nonbelievers may feel that the only proper course is to eradicate the view of the other through conversion or other means.  The historical record is filled with failed attempts to achieve social harmony by eradicating difference.  Tolerance and the nurture of what might be called “positive pluralism” with devices like thought experiments hold more promise for harmonious existence than social stalemates or the use force–social, intellectual or military–to build consensus.  Enforced consensus is an oxymoron of the first order.

In the end, the maintenance of a positive pluralism requires all parties to step back from their own position, at least momentarily, to find a common first principle from which to begin any discussion.  Believers, nonbelievers and agnostics may not always need to be at loggerheads when it comes to debating ethical issues.  Thought experiments are just one among a variety of methods but they worked well for Galileo, Einstein and John Rawls and have it all over war, genocide and social disintegration. 

Dialogue & Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Society (Part 1)

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2This is the first of two essays on the issues related to ethical debate and decision making in a pluralist society.  This first essay examines how language and issues of defining what is real and what is not present unique problems.   The second essay examines John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice as offering one approach to dealing with the problems of pluralism described in this first essay.

There are a great many advantages to living in a country like the U.S. where we are ostensibly free to believe what we choose to believe and free to express those beliefs with only very modest restrictions.  Freedom of speech opens the door to dialogue between persons of  both similar and differing points of view.  We can discuss important matters as a society in an open manner and use the representative democratic process to regulate our society as a nation of laws.  In addition to being a nation that enjoys freedom of speech, we are also a very diverse nation made up of people from a large number to cultures, religious traditions, countries, political persuasions, educational backgrounds and an increasing number of  languages.  

In this sense, we are a pluralist nation.  In the US there is no official, national or established church as  in the United Kingdom or Spain.  There are a variety of political factions and conceptions of how a people should be governed (or govern themselves).  There are real political differences vying for public attention unlike in countries like the Peoples’ Republic of China or Myanmar where political disagreement and challenges to the government are suppressed, sometimes violently.  Issues are debated by politicians, in the press,  among individuals and interest groups.  Laws and regulations are challenged in courts. Arguments are made and judgments rendered. Our religions traditions range from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist  Hindu, Naturist, Agnostic to Atheist.  There is no prescribed set of beliefs about the nature of humankind or the cosmos itself.  There are many views, some more powerful than others, but all are officially not only tolerated but also (with the exception of the most vile) generally welcomed.

In the main, this pluralism, to the extent that there is real sharing between and openness to  differing groups, enriches our society, expands the horizons of those who participate in that sharing and leads to a greater national solidarity and sense of purpose without the loss of each group’s or individual’s uniqueness. (e pluribus unum.) In fact, pluralism like this is one of the sine qua nons for a functioning democratic republic and in that sense a significant social good.

While essentially a social good, in practice pluralism presents a number of functional problems when it comes to engaging in productive problem solving and ethical decision making. One of the most significant of these problems, and the focus of this essay, is the problem of finding fundamental or central points of agreement upon which to build a coherent philosophical or political case that will be meaningful to all parties.

Some of the problems of communicating across differing groups are evident and well known.  Communication across differing groups can be limited by differences in language.  Spanish speakers may not understand English speakers and English speakers in turn may not understand French or Russian or  Mandarin speakers.  Interpreters can help but subtle nuances are often lost especially when the speakers use idiomatic language.

In cases where these superficial language barriers are worked through, communication can still remain only partial because of differences in the meanings of words in differing cultures.  For example, while a term like “marriage” in whatever language it is spoken may denote or name the same thing, connotative differences will remain from culture to culture.

For the sake of argument, assume that most, if not all, language and cultural barriers to clear communication could be overcome in the US and that as a consequence, citizens could communicate in a manner that everyone understood and that public debate was therefore carried on in a manner understood by almost everyone.  One road block to enjoying the full benefits of being a pluralistic society would certainly have been removed.

Clear communication would, however, not ensure that those engaged in public debate had similar values or even aims in life.  In addition, people vary in intelligence, articulateness and other important things like capacity for empathy.  Some of this variation would likely be a good thing as those who could now talk clearly with one another learned about others values, abilities, cultures and a multitude of other things.  In the course of this dialogue, some values would likely become more widely shared and even grow in the depth of their meaning.  At the same time, sharp differences in values and life aims would also likely arise.

Shared values and perspectives would bring our society closer together at the same time that sharply differing values and aims would contribute to lack of agreement and some degree of social fragmentation.   We would come to agree on the things we could agree on and continue to dispute those issues upon which we could not agree.  If decisions needed to be made on disputed issues, we would, and do, turn to the ballot box or the courts to settle a dispute for the moment.  For example, there remains substantial disagreement around the question of abortion.  The Supreme Court in the Roe v Wade decision determined that citizens have the right to privacy and that the question of whether or not to have an abortion was a private decision between a woman and her medical provider.  Those who do not agree with this decision generally abide by it even as they continue to forcefully articulate their point of view in public debate or the courts.

Differences of this sort are to be expected and they are part of what makes for vital society. Public debate, learning, growing, improving our arguments,  and abandoning misguided notions are all part of a free and vibrant community.  In this country, not everyone will always have his/her way but current social regulations and priorities will at least approximate the outcomes of the national conversation.

There is however one type of difference that provides a pluralistic nation unique difficulties.  Religious and non-believing people can agree in practice on a great deal.  For example, a religious and secular person could probably agree that it is good to be kind and at least less good to be indifferent to others.  However, they are unlikely to ever agree on the existence of a “god” who created the universe, has a personal plan for each of us, defines how we should treat one another (what is right and what is wrong) and yearns for our allegiance and devotion.

The theist/believer takes it on “faith” that this divine entity exists.  The believer believes that when he or she uses the word for “god” in whatever language they speak that they are referring to something that is “real” albeit in a spiritual sense.  Unlike Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or any of a variety of other mythological beings, “god” is a “real.”  God “exists” maybe not quite like finite things, such as humans or trees, but “god” is “real” and when we refer to god we are not just talking about an idea.

For the secularist/non-theist, references to “god” refer only to an idea that some people have but to which there is no corresponding reality.  For the secularist, there is no actual entity referred to as “god,” and because of that it is literally nonsensical to refer to a “god” as the source or telos of anything.  “God” does not wish anything, create anything or guide anything because he/she/it/they is/are nonexistent in this or any other dimension of reality. “God” is a word without an existing referent.

The atheist or even agnostic and theist have very different first principles that seem to be irreconcilable.  One believes that something exists and starts from there while the other finds no empirical evidence for the existence of an entity named “god” and lacking evidence regards language that speaks about “god” to be speaking about a reality only in the sense that some, if not most, people believe in something for which their is no empirical evidence. For the atheist or agnostic “god” can have no authority because “god” is nonexistent for the former and of indeterminate existence for the latter.

Since there are numerous religious traditions in our pluralistic society there is an accompanying pluralism of “gods.” This godly pluralism further complicates social dialogue by pitting, from the atheist’s point of view, vying nonentities against one another and further obfuscating reality:  yielding  a multiplicity of delusions.

Believers and nonbelievers can, of course, agree that the difference in point of view I describe above is accurate; i.e., one regards “god” as “real” and the other as not “real.”  One regards “god” as having authority while the other regards “god” as having as much authority as any other non existent thing–none. Once this point is reached and if the interlocutors insist on building their arguments from their first principles, no real progress can be achieved.  The interlocutors might be able to reach similar conclusions using completely different methods:  one using what they feel is the inspired word of god and the other deductive reasoning.  We might, for example, agree that killing without justification is wrong in one moment  and in the next, when one party to the discussion concludes that a justification for killing is the commission of the sin of blasphemy, be in utter disagreement:  why execute someone for saying something insulting about something which does not exist!

Attempts have been made especially by the Roman Catholic ethical tradition to deal with this problem of first principles using the concept of the “natural law.”  Ironically, attempts at reconciling Christian Ethical thinking in this way had more to do with illustrating how Christian thought related to the great minds of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle



than establishing a common ground for debate with contemporary nonbelievers.  The ancient Greek thinkers were widely revered in Renaissance Europe and the Church was keen to illustrate how its thought was supported by that of the ancients even those ancients that did not have the benefit of “knowing Jesus.”  What these thinkers of old could see, the Church argued, was the rational order placed into creation by the rational creator; i.e., god.  Reflection on this natural order could reveal a natural law which while only reflective of divine law was fully congruent with it.  As a consequence, they argued, those things contrary to the natural order–which could be easily seen by believer or nonbeliever–were immoral and vice versa.

Tomas Acquinas

The Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas adapted Aristotle and contributed substantially to the Roman Catholic “natural law” tradition.

The appeal to “natural law” to enable ethical debate between believer and nonbeliever proved quite useful for several hundred years until views of what was clearly the natural order of things began both to diverge and become less clear.  A simple and current example of this divergence is the view of same gender relationships.  For years, both believers and nonbelievers alike thought of same gender relationships as contrary to nature.  Both believers and nonbelievers alike regarded this type of behavior as unnatural and perverse.  Believers had little need to turn to the authority of revelation in the Bible since natural law arguments sufficed.

Gradually, the scientific study of humankind has revealed that same gender orientation is perfectly natural; i.e., gender orientation is a function of the genetic structure of an individual and that approximately 10% of people are same gender oriented. Gender orientation is not a choice nor is it contrary to nature.  Natural law, which once sufficed to arbitrate the morality of same gender sexual behavior, could no longer fully support arguments against same gender relationships in our age.

Believers had to revert to divine authority to bolster their public case.  In practice, they therefor turned  to texts in which believers believe that “god” has revealed his (usually his) divine will.  These texts are taken by believers to be supremely authoritative and literally true.

Nonbelievers, of course,  think that since god does not exist he/she/it/they has/have never said anything.  Belief in these texts as authoritative is therefore as delusional  as the belief in the spiritual entity who is said to have inspired them.  Since “god” does not exist, communications from “god” do not exist either.  While there may be cultural history interest in understanding what the priestly authors of  Leviticus had to say or in what Paul of Tarsus

Famously pictured here by Caravaggio, Paul of Tarus was said to have been directly converted by God on the road to Damascus after which he spread Christianity widely in the Mediterranean Basin.  Called, "The Apostle to the Gentiles."

Famously pictured here by Caravaggio, Paul of Tarus was said to have been directly converted by God on the road to Damascus after which he spread Christianity widely in the Mediterranean Basin. Called, “The Apostle to the Gentiles.”

said about homosexuality, pedophilia or slavery, there is nothing divinely authoritative about these texts if there is no “god” to have shared the divine will with us.

With progress in science and other fields of human study gradually whittling away at the Aristotelian and Catholic natural law tradition almost daily, it is becoming more and more difficult for believers and nonbelievers to find common first principles from which to build compatible ethical frameworks.  If there were no way around this problem, dialogue (at least on first principles) would cease and any sort of rational ethical consensus become much, much harder (if not impossible) to achieve.  “Conversion” of one group to the other group’s position would be the only solution and “pluralism” would be shaken at its roots.

Fortunately, philosophers are a creative lot and have offered a number of “ways-to-think-about-it” that hold some promise for enabling interlocutors who have fundamentally different understandings of reality–like believers and nonbelievers–to not only continue real dialogue but arrive at a point where they agree on a few first principles to which they can both assent.  One example of such a philosopher is the late political and moral philosopher John Rawls.

       John Rawls

John Rawls

 The second part of this essay will explore Rawls’ approach to thinking about justice as a way of illustrating one technique which offers hope for potentially working around the believer/nonbeliever problem; i.e., the thought experiment.

“Entitlement” is not a Bad Word?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The word “entitlement”  is much in the news these days.  It is usually coupled with “program” to name a government initiative which bestows a benefit on various segments of the citizenry (and maybe even undocumented individuals).  Often entitlement programs are referred to negatively implying that they are government budget busters that provide the type of support to the indigent that subsidizes sloth at the expense of hard work.

The second meaning given for the word “entitlement” in Oxford Dictionary of the English Language is “right of possession.”  The first meaning has to with getting an actual “title” as in a noble or professional designation.  The second meaning derives from the first in the sense that a person with a specific designation is “entitled” to being not only addressed in a specific way but also to the rights, privileges or duties of a person with that designation.

Entitlements come in various forms.  A land owner is entitled to certain rights by virtue of legal ownership of the property.  A mother is entitled to certain rights vis-a-vis her infant child and the infant  is also entitled to certain rights by virtue of being a living human being.  A bank customer is entitled to reasonable access to his or her money.  A wounded veteran is entitled to our gratitude and even support.  A customer of an insurance company who has paid their premiums in a timely manner is entitled to the protection or compensation for which he or she has paid.  A worker is entitled to his/her agreed upon wage.  This list could go on and on.

What is common to all these entitlements is that an individual or group of individuals is rightly provided with that to which they should be because of their designation and/or behavior:  paying customer, veteran, infant, citizen, worker etc.. In most of these situations there is also an implied contract; i.e., if I am or do something (simply exist in the case of the infant), I am entitled as appropriate.

Social entitlements come in two basic forms: need-based and contribution-based.  Most public (e.g., Social Security) and private (e.g., insurance) entitlement programs are contribution-based; i.e., while they may help to meet a particular need, any benefit or support is funded by those who benefit via things like taxes or private payments.  Those who have paid in are entitled to their benefits.  Contribution-based entitlement accounts for the vast majority of entitlement programs both public and private.

Need-based entitlement programs are those where people benefit irrespective of having made any contribution.  Typically, their lack of contribution is not voluntary but rather the result of some condition of life that makes contribution, at least in terms of funds, impossible.  We generally regard those who receive benefits in this way as entitled by virtue of their designation as “human being.”  Most people in the United States have no problem with this concept in the case of infants and other obviously 100% dependent members of the human family.  These people are in need and unable to assist themselves. Therefore they are entitled to a level of “basic” support.  Most Americans ( and people generally) would not welcome the sight of people starving in the gutter while they themselves dined opulently on prime rib.  Nor would they want to create an economic situation that allowed such an eventuality.

Most would agree with Jefferson, who himself was inspired by John Locke, that we are endowed with the rights of (we are inalienably entitled to)  “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  These hallowed words are not just a declaration of national independence from a colonial overlord but also a declaration of entitlement for every human being wherever she or he may be.

Entitlement and human rights inspired our national foundation.  Entitlement is not a dirty word in this context.  Rather, it names something each one of us possesses by virtue of our humanity.  Each of us is born into this world entitled and not because we have contributed a single thing.  We are entitled because we are needy and dependent first on our mother and close family and although  we may gain some degree of independence and even contributive interdependence, we remain fragile, at risk and vulnerable and never lose the need for others and their support.

That said, I want to be clear on the  point that for a society  not only to grow but also to maintain a healthy level of social cohesion, all who can contribute should contribute.  Certainly a situation in which the members of society only needed and received benefits and no one contributed would be untenable.

This later situation is not the one we have in the United States.  Most entitlement programs are contribution-based and the vast majority of people in the country whether citizens or not contribute or did contribute before receiving benefits.  Further it is not the case that there are large numbers of people saying things like, “If the government is going to pay for my basic needs without me working or doing anything to help myself or my family, I think I will just live in these poor and squalid conditions with one or two little luxuries like a cell phone or pair so sneakers because that is much better than working, earning a decent living, having my own car and going day-to-day without worrying about how to make ends meet.”

Yet, if you listen to many of the pundits on the right, you would think that not only were many people saying just that but that an even larger number were being converted to this way of thinking and that our society was growing into one where more and more people not only wanted but thought that they were entitled to something for nothing.  We are said to be becoming an “entitlement society” and to be failing economically as a result.

Those who make this case argue that we have lost the work ethic we once had and that one of the most effective ways of restoring that ethic is to have less social benefits–need-based or contributive–so that people will be forced to sink or swim–or is that swim or drown.  Apparently, according to these commentators, we are making it just to easy to be a member of the living poor.

Those who advocate this way of thinking have twisted the concept of the “rights of man” [sic] beyond recognition so that in the entitlement society they envision the poor aspire to their condition because it is easier to achieve and the more they aspire to this poverty the more they drag down hard working, independent thinking Americans.  “Just make it harder to be poor while simultaneously remaining alive,” they argue. “Then, they will realize the foolishness of their slothful ways.”

I supposed those who propose this twisted notion are “entitled” to their point of view but in holding it they are doing a grave injustice to the enlightenment ideals that inspire America’s inception: liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Economic Irony

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The mind boggles sometimes at the way political and economic rhetoric turn themselves into nonsense; i.e., something that does not make sense.  Nothing could illustrate this more dramatically than the view espoused regularly that if we give the rich more money they will do more with it to help the economy and that if we assist the poor and generally less well of they will do less to help the economy.  Assisting the poor, some even argue, will harm the economy since it remove the incentive of the poor to work harder.

There is something extremely ironic about this way of twisting things which was not lost on the late great satirist and comic George Carlin:

George Carlin 1

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post echoed Carlin in a receipt column in the Post:


We might forgive the twisted logic of the rich working harder if provided with more resources and the poor or even ordinary citizen less hard if provided with less if we were not already in the process of expanding the gap between rich and poor and driving the median ordinary household income down:

decling median income

This twisted logic is no more than the typical line the “haves” use to explain the sad fate of the “have nots” in every age:  the less well off deserve their economic status because they spend frivolously, fail to save and are unwilling to work hard while those who do well do so because they have worked hard, saved for the future and “merited” there status.  Just think how much harder Bob Crachit would have worked had Ebeneezerscrooge paid him even less!  Not to mention decent health care for Tiny Tim.

Becoming a Millionaire: Norway vs the US

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2As I read the electronic news this morning, I ran across this interesting chart that illustrates how long it takes to become a millionaire in various countries of the world.  Not surprisingly the US is the country in which it takes the least amount of time to become a millionaire.  It is certainly the land of opportunity in that sense.

Note the second country on the list:  Norway.  Must mean that the social and economic policies of Norway and the US are very similar!?!  While they are both democracies, the social and economic practices of the two countries differ dramatically.


The US is number one & Norway number 2

Norway is a much more socialist country than the United States. Tax rates are relatively high and social services provided by the state are extensive.  In Norway, there is both private and public ownership of the means of production.  In that sense, Norway is not a purely “socialist” country but one in which there is a mixture of state programs and private enterprise.  Norway’s policies are more socially democratic than pure “free market.”  Income inequality in Norway is much less than in the US and Norway has the highest GDP per capita in the world.

In the US the ratio of the lowest 10% of income earners to the top 10% is 15.9 according to the United Nations.  In Norway that ration is 6.1–more than half of that of the US. If we look at the lowest 20% the US looks much more like Russia that Norway, Sweden or Denmark all of whom have substantially less disparity than the US.

In pointing out these facts, I am not trying to argue that what works well in Norway will work well here in the US.  I am only pointing out that those right wing pundits and politicians who speak about “socialism” as if it were some sort of dirty which can only serve to hurt our economy and crush the entrepreneurial spirit ought to take a more clear-eyed and dispassionate look at the global economic scene.

In our economy a small number of people have become very rich at the same time that an even larger number of people are getting poor and poorer.  Perhaps, there is really something to be learned from our Scandinavian brothers and sisters that would enable us to take the “best” from both capitalism and  socialism and marry those elements into both a prosperous and more equitable society.  What President Obama sometimes calls a “balanced approach.”

There are many differences between the US and Norway.  I am not trying to compare them fully but only to point out that there may be aspects of what the Norwegians do that could benefit us and vice versa. In addition, I am also pointing to the irony of the fact that the first two countries on the list of countries where it is quickest to make a million dollars have very different economic and social points of view.  So, from the American point of view, “socialism” ought not be anathema anymore than “capitalism” should be to Norwegians.  In practice, neither system seems to work well in its “pure” form despite the protestations and inflexibility of the ideologues currently holding the US hostage to their dogmatism.

A “Living” Wage or a “Devolving” Society

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2A society in which large numbers of people who work a full-time job cannot earn a “living wage” (i.e., provide themselves and their families with life’s basic necessities without governmental or charitable aid) is a  “devolving” society. Hyperbolic? I don’t think so.

Devolution is degeneration that is often characterized by the splitting apart of a whole into lesser piece parts.  For example. we might speak of the once great Roman Empire devolving into a group of fractious principalities or of a nation, like our own, devolving into a state of bitter infighting in which no one can ever seem to agree on anything or act in concert.  Scanning the current political landscape for rifts, intractable chasms of disagreement and situations in which what is good for one group is characterized as life threatening to another the signs of national devolution are everywhere.  Nothing hyperbolic in that, although caught as we are in a period of devolution, I am sure there are many who will want to violently disagree.

Social divisions do not necessarily have to end in devolution.  Differences and divisions per se are not the culprits. Difference, division and debate are essential for the growth and development of  individuals, communities, nations and humankind globally.  Rather, it is the degree and character of these differences/divisions that lead either to positive or negative outcomes.

In this essay, I want to point to two areas that can easily lead to social devolution:

  1. Intellectual/Ideological Absolutism, and
  2. Economic/Opportunity Disparity.

Intellectual/Ideological Absolutism

Intellectual/Ideological absolutism is the idea that one’s own view or set of ideas is absolutely correct and that any other view is absolutely wrong.  Absolutism tends to put a damper on meaningful debate because both parties to the debate assume that the other has nothing to say that could possibly be correct.  This lack of conversation may not matter much if the topic under consideration is itself insignificant.  The parties simply agree to disagree and go on with their lives.

However, in those circumstance when one absolutist regards the other absolutist’s views not only as incorrect but life threatening or dangerous in some other way, the parties cannot and therefore do not agree to disagree but engage in combat that divides the parties further usually reifying the absolutist positions.  Where the power is more or less equal this situation leads to a stalemate at best and out- and-out warfare at worst.  Actually, it really only takes one absolutist to tango in the sense that  only one party needs to be completely closed to the possibility there being anything of merit in the other’s view for the situation to degenerate into one in which the absolutist and non-absolutist absolutely cannot deal with one another. Devolution, in one form or another, is sure to follow and grow.

Economic/Opportunity Disparity

Growth in economic/opportunity disparity is a kind of devolution in action.  For example, the lives of those who currently need to work 80-100 hours in a week (have two full-time jobs) just to approach, not even obtain, a “living wage” are nothing like those of  the wealthiest in society or even those who have modestly comfortable existences with well paying jobs.  The more the gaps widen between  various income groups and the more the percentage distribution of wealth in a country is skewed to a wealthy minority the more divided or devolved the society becomes.

The inability to earn a “living wage” in a normal or extra-normal work week is a key driving factor for societal devolution.  Two-parent and single-parent families where the parents have to be out of the home working just to earn enough to eat suffer–often in a way that leads to the devolution of the family itself as a social unit.  Malnutrition, neglect and consequent lawlessness etc.result from the renting of the social fabric in this way.  Better off people begin to look down on the poor and assail their character rather than address the social conditions which have had such disastrous effects. Devolution deepens and social fragmentation accelerates.  I have even heard some of my conservative colleagues says things like this of the poor, “I am no longer willing to give a crap about anyone who chooses to be a tick on the back of our nation. I used to pity them now I despise them.”

For their part the wealthiest bemoan the disintegration of society while seeking to maximize return on investment even as that drive to maximize return ensures that the lowest wage earners will be denied the the level of wage that might help ensure a “living” rather than devolving society.

In his State of the Union Address, the President called for an increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00/hr.  Making that change would go some way toward minimizing the inequality gap in this country without dramatically impacting small business people.  Any move toward closing the income disparity gap is a move toward stopping the current head long rush to social devolution that we are currently experiencing.  $9.00/hr won’t fix the problem but it will go a long way to helping those most disadvantaged in our society.

Without most of the population being able to earn a “living wage” social devolution is an inevitability that this or any nation can ill afford if it wants to consider itself in any sense UNITED.

 For a data-based and very sound analysis of the history of wages and the need for a minimum wage increase  by Brian Lynch:  Click here. 

John Locke: Natural and Social Liberty


The English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1623-1704) is sometimes called the father of liberty.  His thinking about freedom and liberty, along with that of Rousseau, influenced America’s founders and the authors of its seminal documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. In the course of our modern debates about the role of government in society, Locke is alternately portrayed as championing both the conservative and liberal side of the debate.  Liberty and human freedom itself are important to all sides of the debate and it is not surprising to see both sides return to the roots of the Western notion of liberty to bolster their opposing views.

John Locke

John Locke 1623-1704

One of the reasons that Locke is useful to both sides of this debate is that he, like many other Enlightenment philosophers, seemed to see human beings as existing in two states: the pure natural state and as members of a society.  In the Second Treatise on Government Locke distinguished “the natural liberty of man” from “the liberty of man in society.” (Chapter 4,Sec. 22)

He argued that “the natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.” Since human beings, as Locke well knew, do not live singly in nature but rather are always members of a more or less developed society, his observation is a theoretical one which helps him to establish the importance of liberty as an inherent quality of human beings and therefore in need of preservation in the actual societal situations in which human beings live. He is arguing against those who characterized human beings as being naturally part of divinely created social hierarchy in which liberty was not distributed equally–the sort of argument that would be made by divine right monarchists and princes of the Church.  In this way, he is firmly linking liberty with equality.  This key philosophical insight is echoed later in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and that among this are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence)  What was a real “sea change” in thought in the writing of Locke took less that a century to become “self-evident.”

Locke thought that human society should only have constraints on liberty that allowed all members of society to exercise their liberty in a manner that allowed all other members of society to exercise their liberty and pursue their ends.  For him liberty in society did not permit “… every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws… .” (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec. 22)

Locke further argued that the “freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man… .” (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec 22) The power to make social regulations was  vested in a legislature whose powers arose from the governed and did not descend from a monarch or even God. The power to legislate and regulate arose “by consent, in the commonwealth.”  (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec. 22)

Locke saw the legislative rule of law as the means of establishing what we might call “liberty in practice.”  The commonwealth was to govern itself and to enact those laws necessary for the actual exercise of liberty.  Following Locke, government should only legislate those things the commonwealth feels are necessary to ensure the exercise of liberty.  This idea is central to any notion of “liberalism” no matter where one stands on the political spectrum–on the conservation or the liberal, on the right or on the left. (Note “liberalism” is not synonymous with being a liberal in the modern political sense.)

The political rub comes when we try to answer at least these two questions:

  1. What things or social conditions are necessary for “liberty in practice?”
  2. What role should government (at any level) have in helping to create the conditions for liberty to be a reality for all members of a society?

Does government have a role in ensuring that people have decent nutrition, are not dying of disease, going bankrupt paying for the necessities of life,or held prisoners in the own neighborhoods by crime and overwhelming poverty. What role, if any, should government have in ensuring that children learn to read and that their are viable pathways for social advancement?  What role should government have in improving public health, public education and public safety.  Certainly, the answer to these questions is not no role.

Another key insight of Locke’s may help us to arbitrate some of these questions.  For Locke human beings were essentially social.  Yes, they were individuals with individual hopes and dreams but the individual did not exist outside of the context of society and a multiple series of relationships with others upon whom humans depend and who depend onthem.  Life is therefore lived in society in which we are all responsible to and for one another.  That for Locke was the natural state of affairs. The words of one of the greatest of the metaphysical poets, John Donne, were, no doubt, well know to him.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Put another and less poetic way:  you are you and I am me but we are all inescapably and quite naturally in this life together.

And Inequality for All?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Yesterday morning a conservative/libertarian friend of mine posted the following quote from F.A. Hayek on his Facebook page.  His post got me thinking about the notions of equality and inequality in US society and how some misguided notions about equality may in fact be major contributors to the ever widening income and political gaps of recent years.


In this quote Professor Hayek is clearly playing with the words “equally” and “equal” and  suggesting that while it is possible to treat everyone the same way (equally) it is not really possible to actually make then the same (equal).  On the surface, this seems like an innocent enough and quite accurate claim.  Human beings come in all sizes, shapes, colors, degrees of athletic prowess and levels of intelligence and it is not possible or even desirable to make them all the same by any natural, governmental or miraculous means.

Hayek is not arguing against the possibility of homogenizing the human race.  He is rather making a point about economics and saying that the economic system or the market can be arranged to treat everybody equally but that it can not and probably should not seek to equalize the economic outcomes derived by people as they engage the economic system.  He is saying that the in the free market, citizens who are treated equally will have different economic outcomes resulting from the choices they make, they effort they expend and simply the luck of the economic draw.

From a political and economic point of view Hayek is arguing that governmental and economic systems can be created that treat people equally but that the outcomes of this equal treatment are likely to vary considerably and that attempts to equalize these outcomes by redistributive or other means will not only fail in the long run but will also remove the economic incentive to create, innovate, manufacture and otherwise take financial risk.  Hayek, like Milton Friedman and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, believed that those who benefited unequally from relatively unregulated commerce would be guided by “enlightened self-interest” and checked by “market forces” in such a way that, although a degree of economic inequality would exist in society, that inequality would never grow to a point where it became unhealthy for society as a whole.  In fact, this school of economists would argue that some inequality was a kind of requirement for the generation of the capital needed for all to prosper even those who benefited least from these inequities.  In short, the rich could get richer and the poor less poor–a net plus for both groups.

Over time the gaps between different economic strata, if Hayek et al are correct, should remain relatively stable or even shrink somewhat.  Inequality should not grow.  These economists would further argue that  as inequality diminishes or remains relatively stable, via the natural mechanisms of market forces and enlightened self-interest, more people, through hard work and perseverance, would be able to move upward from one economic strata to another or at a minimum not take a precipitous slide down the economic ladder.

Following this line of thinking, we are supposed to conclude that although free market capitalism is not a perfect system in the sense of benefiting all equally, it is the best and most efficient alternative available and that attempts to engineer more equitable outcomes by the imposition of government regulations, procedures, tax policies and social programs will only have deleterious affects on both the self-correcting and economically animating forces of that free market.

The line of thinking I have been summarizing is the line of thinking that under-girds the seemingly self-evident quotation from Hayek posted by my friend who is, somewhat wryly, suggesting that there is something foolish and naive about any view that suggests that it is possible for a society to structure itself to achieve greater economic equality without at the same time sentencing itself to an overall economic decline.

However, the data of the last thirty years which corresponds with an easing of governmental regulation on the free market has not produced  a diminishment or stabilization of income inequality but rather the opposite.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting relatively poorer.

inequality 2

A recent survey of Americans’ perception of how wealth is distributed in the US reveals just how off the mark many people’s perception of the situation is.


This trend in disparity should prompt us to question the economic arguments of Hayek, Friedman and Greenspan.  The gap between rich and poor is growing and this growth in wealth at the top is not lifting the entire economy. Rather we have only recently recovered from a disastrous recession and are only improving at a modest rate. The free market failed to self-regulate and enlightened self-interest seems not to have shed very much real light on our economic circumstances at all.  Rapacious greed seems to have taken over from enlightenment and eaten away at our sense of interdependence and social solidarity. As the economic gaps widen, a kind of every person for themselves attitude overtakes many, political polarization increases and a cynical darkness covers the land.

I would therefore like to co-opt and alter Hayek’s sentiments quoted above:

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally, attempting to make them equal and allowing economic inequality to increase to the point where it fragments the fabric of civil society.