Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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Why are you a conservative?

This is addressed to people who consider themselves fundamentally conservative, and not libertarian, and, also reject the supernatural. By this, I mean that if you do support libertarian policies (I often do) it is not necessarily because you are at the root someone who is motivated by liberty as the summum bonum. By rejecting the supernatural I mean that you don’t accede to the plausibility of gods, spirits, etc.

Sometimes the answer can be somewhat vague and general. For example, by conservatism, as I implied below, is rooted in the social dependence of human flourishing. This necessarily entails that individual freedom is not the ultimate ends, and means that I am opening to diverging from libertarian logic in many specific cases. Or, more precisely, in the case of the United States I think that this nation-state is a good thing, that it has legitimacy, and that it’s coherency as a nation-state should be defended as a long term project. It’s not a mere convenience for the execution of legal prescriptions.

I throw the question out there because I’m wondering how people will take the ideas I’m going to present at the Moving Secularism Forward conference this March.

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Wisdom of the East

SuperSnail asks:

Hey Razib, could you compile a list of Chinese and Indian religious history/philosophy books?

I’ve actually made the call for books on Indian religion and philosophy elsewhere. My knowledge set in this domain is very thin, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending anything. I have read primary sources such as The Bhagavad Gita and The Rig Veda, as well as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, but I have no sense of the lay of the land. To be frank Indian religion and philosophy has minimal appeal for me. The materialist school, the Carvaka, is generally characterized by its opponents, so it isn’t as if I find any succor in that direction (imagine that everything you knew about classical paganism was purely through the polemics of Christian apologists).

When it comes to China I am a bit more comfortable. Unlike the case with the Abrahamic religions I assume many readers are not so familiar with the primary texts. So the list below is more weighted toward the “sources,” though I think one can argue that Confucianism as it is lived has as much to do with The Analects as Christianity does with the synoptic gospels. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make an inference as to the lesson one takes from this analogy!

I am personally rather positively inclined toward the “black sheep” of the early Confucian sages, Xunzi, who I suspect would be most comprehensible to those with a “Secular Right” perspective. Xunzi’s emphasis on the necessity of social order and regulation had a more jaundiced tinge than that of Confucius, and especially Mencius, but some have argued that in practice the Confucianism of Chinese civilization owes more to him than to his more well regarded predecessors.

Because of its concrete and “this worldly” emphasis Chinese religion and philosophy can’t be understood well without a reference to the broader history of China, so there are many general history books on the list. Additionally, the final section has a periodic temporal focus, going from dynasty to dynasty. I’ve omitted any books on Buddhism because I think in the Chinese context this religion can be decomposed mostly into its “foreign” and “indigenous.” The synthesis may be novel (e.g., Chan Buddhism, more commonly known as Zen in the West), but usually I think its antecedents in indigenous Chinese or exogenous Indian & Central Asian traditions are pretty clear.


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The philosophers as types

I don’t know what to make of this David Brooks column, Bentham vs. Hume. I will say that the main reason I lean Right is a suspicion of the efficacy of managerial technocracy. And I speak as someone who is positively inclined toward scatterplots & regression.


One of the strange things one observes in political discussions is the selective usage of the “precautionary principle.” For example, in general the modern Left tends to be sanguine about disruption of accepted social norms and institutions. It believes that society is robust and resilient enough to be periodically disrupted from its equilibrium. That human flourishing will persist. Similarly, many conservatives are skeptical about too great a concern about disruptions of the environmental equilibrium, believing that the earth is robust and human ingenuity inevitably will avert various natural resource catastrophes. Libertarians and some strains of cultural conservatism (the latter more prevalent outside of the United States) are consistent, but these are minority factions.

I thought of this when I saw this comment in response to my pointing out that liberals are out of step with scientists in regards to nuclear power:

I agree with Sam C. Even if there is a medically significant difference in the background radiation levels, there is every reason to believe that the levels at Cornwall will remain stable regardless of the state of the infrastructure and of the diligence (or lack thereof) of the people who live and work there.

And one suicide bomber or rogue missle could also significantly change things for the worse at Sellafield.

I responded that it seems everyone has their own private “One Percent Doctrine.” The objection above is logically coherent, but one wonders about the utility of a police-state as a solution to the terrorist threat? Of course most people would object based on the fact that such actions have other consequences which we might not enjoy. Similarly, the presence of nuclear power plants does entail a certain level of risk, but their lack is not without consequence either. Both action and inaction in many situations have consequences, but partisans tend to be very careful in terms of weight or noting the alternative outcomes based on normative or cultural preferences. Rationality and rationalization are generally found together.




Choice & authority

What Conservatism Should Look Like by Andrew J. Bacevich has elicited a massive retaliation on the part of Damon Linker. I tend to lean toward Bacevich myself, though your mileage may vary. I believe that for all of Linker’s coherent objection that Bacevich’s argument is a fundamental attack upon the premises of Western liberal individualism, broadly understood, it is also grounded in an empirical reality as to how the human mind engages the world. Rather than a demolition of the critical principle, I believe that Bacevich’s criticisms cast a rare skeptical eye toward the idols of our age.




Mozi vs. the Confucians

From Wikipedia on the bête noire of the Confucians, Mozi:

…Though Mozi did not believe that history necessarily progresses, as did Han Fei Zi, he shared the latter’s critique of fate (?, mìng). Mozi believed that people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, judging objects and events by their causes, their function, and their historical basis. (“Against Fate, Part 3”) This was the “three-prong method” Mozi recommended for testing the truth or falsehood of statements. His students later expanded on this to form the School of Names.

Mozi tended to evaluate actions based on whether they provide benefit (?, lì) to the people, which he measured in terms of an enlarged population (states were sparsely populated in his day), a prosperous economy, and social order. Similar to the Western utilitarians, Mozi thought that actions should be measured by the way they contribute to the “greatest good of the greatest number.” With this criterion Mozi denounced things as diverse as offensive warfare, expensive funerals, and even music and dance which he saw as serving no useful purpose. Mozi did not reject to music in principle — “It’s not that I don’t like the sound of the drum” (“Against Music”) — but because of the heavy tax burden such activities placed on commoners and also due to the fact that officials tended to indulge in them at the expense of their duties.

Mozi tried to replace what he considered to be the long-entrenched Chinese over-attachment to family and clan structures with the concept of “impartial caring” or “universal love” (??, ji?n ài). In this, he argued directly against Confucians who had argued that it was natural and correct for people to care about different people in different degrees. Mozi, by contrast, argued people in principle should care for all people equally, a notion that philosophers in other schools found absurd, as they interpreted this notion as implying no special amount of care or duty towards one’s parents and family….

What we know about Mozi is colored by the fact that the losers do not get to write history. But, I think it is easy to see the distant affinity to the radical utilitarianisms of today. Confucians, despite their lack of perceived direct practicality because of their focus on rituals and cultivation of personal virtue while some starved or there was injustice abroad, served as the philosophical cement which bound together the Chinese state for nearly 2,000 years. Note by the way that Mozi’s school of thought was ancestral to the School of Names, logicians (though I caution too direct an analogy to logic in the Western tradition).

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The wages of reason

Just to be clear, I support the program of experimental philosophy.  Some of the arguments on this weblog have seen me be extremely dismissive of reason. If one is not ambitious, and keeps the chain of propositions suitably modest, there is certainly much utility in the use of reason.  But if you read a book like Experiments in Ethics you see that there is much empirical data which confirms that the verbal arguments of extremely intelligent philosophers do not capture the generality of the human condition & cognition.  Philosophy has ceded to natural science much of its ancient ground, and the intuitions and rationales of the savants of yore have been found wanting.   Induction tells us therefore to be suitably skeptical of the contemporary confidence and certitude of some philosophers who survey the domains left to their discipline.  Grand system building in the physical sciences have yielded us the age of affluence, while in social and humane domains it has by and large resulted in folly. That is why I am sympathetic to the position that we should do what has worked in the past in preference to what we think should work in the future.

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Metaphysics & mathematics

Edward Feser, An open letter to Heather MacDonald:

Now I have claimed – as a great many other thinkers, both secular and religious, would claim – that philosophy, and in particular the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, is another form of inquiry which is both rational and at least in part non-empirical. It can be thought of as being similar to both empirical science and mathematics in some respects, and different from both in other respects. Like empirical science, metaphysics often begins with things we know via observation. But like mathematics, it arrives at conclusions which, if the reasoning leading to them is correct, are necessary truths rather than contingent ones, truths that could not have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that the metaphysician is infallible, any more than the mathematician is. It means instead that if he has done his job well, he will (like the mathematician) have discovered truths about the world that are even deeper and more indubitable than the most solid findings of empirical science.

1) The last sentence takes sides in a debate within mathematical philosophy as to the nature of mathematics. A minor point, but I think not trivial.

2) I don’t grant that metaphysics is very analogous to mathematics at all.* There is a reason that powerfully predictive sciences such as physics use mathematics in preference to verbal reasoning. Humans are really bad at reasoning without the formal structure of mathematics. Really bad. Mathematics straitjackets human cleverness, and prevents one from slowly inching toward their preferred conclusion through a sequence of plausible, if not definite, chain of propositions.

Natural science & mathematics know progress. We cede to them pride of place in intellectual disciplines precisely because we see their fruit all around us.  The method of mathematical proof is so robust that Euclid’s The Elements is still used as a textbook today because it is of more than historical interest.  And yet mathematics does move on at the same time, the elementary techniques learned by most students in the natural sciences (e.g., introductory calculus) are no longer of great intellectual interest.

Note: I do on occasion enjoy reading pre & early modern metaphysicians, but only because of their relevance to the history of thought.

* On second thought, perhaps it is analogous. When I was last interested in philosophical apologetics I would run into a fair amount of logical notation. But, the relation is similar to that of particle physics and social physics (i.e., a quantitative understanding of the dynamics of human societies).  I hope that one day social physics can add some genuine value, but it is not even a shadow of what particle physics is.

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