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A critical look at secular humanism
Posted: 10 February 2007 07:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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[quote author=“Barry”]Mark said:

When you pay someone for land, what are you paying them for? It is not something that they have produced. You are paying them for the privilege of them letting you live. And this fundamental injustice must be corrected otherwise poverty will only continue to get worse.

Yes, Mark.  I agree (again).  This is a major issue for libertarian-socialism and anarchism ... Perhaps a key issue.  Michael Albert, Takis Fotopoulos and others have addressed this issue in recent years.  So have, I think, Joel Kovel, Michael Perelman and Robin Hahnel.  Again, a problem with capitalism.

I would rather pay for land than having to fight for it. It’s either one of those two.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]I would rather pay for land than having to fight for it. It’s either one of those two.

Well put, George. The problem is that if you give up on private ownership and the use of monetary payments for exchange, what do you put in their place? The most obvious (and popular) substitute is brute force.

With land as with all other things, there will often be more than one person who wants it. Land is in finite supply. Well-located, fertile, desirable land is even scarcer. The standard law of supply and demand brings demand into balance with supply by the natural process of price fluctuation: when something is in limited supply with high demand, prices rise. When something is in great supply or with little demand, prices fall.

BTW, Barry, I thought you’d given up on the bolded messages.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“George Benedik”]I would rather pay for land than having to fight for it. It’s either one of those two.

Well put, George.

Its not an either or situation, George/Doug.  We do not need to pay or fight for land.  Libertarian-socialism, anarchism and inclusive democracy has already laid out the ways to avoid both.  You both are once again appling a Hobbesian notion of human nature - assuming cooperation for land is impossible.  Of course, world wide, humans need to curb their procreation so as to avoid overpoulation problems, but even today, most of the problems suffered by what seems to be overpopulation is really due to resource management problems.  As for the US, there is no real population problem (yet), and no reason land can not be shared.

Wikipedia: In What is Property? Proudhon argues that while “property in product ... does not carry with it property in production ... The right to product is exclusive ... the right to means is common” and applied this to the land (“the land is ... a common thing”) and workplaces (“all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor”). Proudhon had many arguments against entitlement to land and capital, including reasons based on morality, economics, politics, and individual liberty. One such argument was that it enabled profit, which in turn led to social instability and war by creating cycles of debt that eventually overcame the capacity of labor to pay them off. Another was that it produced “despotism” and turned workers into wage workers subject to the authority of a boss.
=========

In What Is Property?, Proudhon wrote:
“Property, acting by exclusion and encroachment, while population was increasing, has been the life-principle and definitive cause of all revolutions. Religious wars, and wars of conquest, when they have stopped short of the extermination of races, have been only accidental disturbances, soon repaired by the mathematical progression of the life of nations. The downfall and death of societies are due to the power of accumulation possessed by property.”

For those who hold this position, land (and all natural resources) are not man-made, so they cannot be owned. The theory that labor creates ownership and land is “commons” goes back to Locke, and was supported by Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson and many others. The Georgist idea is that people should pay rent to the community for land they use. When Georgism met with Oppenheimer’s anti-statist sociology, the result was Geoanarchism.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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Just added more to my previous post ...

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Posted: 10 February 2007 10:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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[quote author=“Barry”]Libertarian-socialism, anarchism and inclusive democracy has already laid out the ways to avoid both.

Perhaps you could explain how.

[quote author=“Barry”] Of course, world wide, humans need to curb their procreation so as to avoid overpoulation problems, but even today, most of the problems suffered by what seems to be overpopulation is really due to resource management problems.  As for the US, there is no real population problem (yet), and no reason land can not be shared.

Certainly we are agreed on the problem of overpopulation. Fortunately population growth seems to reverse as citizens (particularly women) become better educated, better fed, and generally happier and more secure. It also helps for them not to belong to certain religious sects that promote larger families, like the Catholic church.

But I have no idea what you mean that land in the US “can be shared”. I am sure given the option, large numbers of people would love to have a house on the beach in Coconut Grove, Florida, or with a beautiful view of the harbor in NY, or Central Park, etc. Some land is more desirable, and more people will want it than there is room to be shared.

One additional problem with holding land in common is that one quickly ends up with the “tragedy of the commons”: the best land will get overused, as everyone prefers to live in, and utilize, the best land. So, once again, how do we solve these problems? If we allow for the law of supply and demand, of course, these problems solve themselves. The best land will become the most expensive.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 12:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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Mark,

First, with respect to Gandhi and Hitler, I stand gratefully corrected. I have read that Gandhi stated his methods would have been ineffective aginst Hitler, but in doing further research, he clearly stood by the principle that they should be applied for moral reasons, though he seemed to suggest that this might well lead to the deaths of millions anyway. From his point of view, that would be the morally preferable choice to the deaths that would inevitably follow from violent resistence to Hitler. I can’t say I agree entirely, but you are right he was absolutely consistent and steadfast (the quote I am referring to: “I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”)

I appreciate your offering a specific example we can debate. I still disagree, however, with your assertion that “Basically these problems are not so complex. The solutions to them are fairly simple.” You (and the essay you referred me to) state the problem and solution in simple terms, but I disagree that such simplicity is correct. You (and the essay, which I will take to be, essentially, your opinions on the question) focus on one issue, lay the blame for all or most of the problem on that issue, and suggest only in very vague terms how the problem could be resolved and how the subsequent effects would play out. This may be simple a way of drawing attention to the point being made, but I submit it ignores many complicating variables including, as Doug points out, the response to such a change on the part of people who have not come to your realization that it is the simple and correct answer to the problem of poverty.

Certainly, the “land problem” is an interesting one, and I admit I have not considered seriously the potential pros and cons of some effort to abolish private ownership of land entirely, so I can’t offer an informed opinion on it. I already have suspicions about how practical such a policy would be, or how effective in eliminating economic injustice, since I am guilty, as Barry charges Doug, of a fairly Hobbesian notion of human nature. Still, I will watch with interest the points made by those who do have formed opinions on the subject. I will, as you urge, keep an open mind. But I stand by my earlier arguments that the opposition to the idea is likely to be not mindless tradition or public opinion, or fear of radical change, as you suggest, but real rational objections to the proposal and its foundations. The problem I have with simple answers to complex problems is, though I know we disagree, that I do not believe the problems nor the solutions are really so simple.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 04:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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The problem I see, in common with Doug, George, and Brennen’s responses, is in turning this from an individual moral question to one of “How do we get everyone to do it?”. If you are asking this question it is not only complex, but impossible.
If this is injustice and a moral concern, we should be asking ourselves, “How do I stop contributing to the problem, and what can I then do to help fix it.”
The debatable (Hobbesian or otherwise) nature of others should not come into play, unless we are trying to justify our lifestyles or the way things are.
If we acknowledge our individual moral responsibility to not contribute to any injustice, and we feel strongly about this, we will not wait for the majority to get on board.

According to this reasoning, a slaveholder in the early 19th century should not set his slaves free if it seemed likely that another slaveholder might then take his slaves. So would he be in a position where it was moral to own slaves then, so long as he treated them better than the other slaveholders? If it is a moral consideration, there are no excuses for owning slaves. We must first recognize (“give them”) their freedom. If someone else enslaves them, then we should help try to get them free from this other slaveholder. But at least we have stopped being part of the fundamental problem, and can then help fix the problem.

Waiting for the majority on moral issues, or hoping first for some sort of miraculous, more-or-less spontaneous shift in public opinion, only shows how weak our moral sentiment is, or how little we know about the issue.

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Posted: 11 February 2007 03:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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Mark,

It sounds like you are recommending a solution to a problem (abolition of private land ownership to solve poverty) but you don’t feel it matters whether the solution can or will be adopted or effective. If you personally manage to opt out of the economic system (land ownership) that you feel is the problme, you consider that morally sufficient regardless of whether it helps anyone who is actually poor. Doug, George, and I are looking for solutions that actually work in the world, not just to ensure our own moral standing but to fix real problems.

Now I believe it is improtant to consider moral questions and take individual action even if the entire problem cannot be solved. “Do your part” is an appropriate maxim. But one consideration for what the morally correct thing to do is, should be what pratcical effect will it have in the world. Let’s take your slaveowner example. You present the options as 1. free your slaves regardless of whether they will be immediately captured and held by another slaveowner because this is the morally correct thing to do as an individual or 2. Keep your slaves and try to treat them as well as you can. You presume these are the only options, and you believe the second is immoral even if it means a better life for the slaves because it condones/contributes to the immoral institution of slavery. I wonder what the slaves would think? I at least think that this is exactly the sort of oversimplification and moral absolutism without regard to consequences that I keep criticising. If you admit the problem is more complex and there are no perfect solutions, this opens up the possibility of doing real good even in a morally imperfect world. SO maybe you treat the slaves well, educate them, allow them their own land to work for their own benefit, loby against slavery, and begin working towards an ultimate solution you may not see accomplished in your own lifetime. Imperfect, but arguably better that washing your hands of the problem by saying as long as you don’t participate in the injustice you’ve done your part.

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Posted: 11 February 2007 06:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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Brennen, when you say “Imperfect, but arguably better that washing your hands of the problem by saying as long as you don’t participate in the injustice you’ve done your part.”...I did say that after you have “freed” your slaves you then work to help others do so. So its not just a wash your hands clean, then turn your back scenario.

What you say boils down to this and this seems to be the fundamental difference between us. You seem to believe that the end justifies the means. (ie if you have to keep people in slavery longer until the time is “right” to free them). Where as I have come to the belief that this is an illusion. Although this is a noble end, the means are very backwards and now seem irrational to me. In matters of morality, especially, the end cannot justify the means because resorting to immoral means destroys any possibility of a moral end. I can try to explain further, but it seems obvious to me. You are falling into the trap of the conservative crowd, and many slaveholders did put up the argument that “the timing isn’t right” and “its in the slaves best interest” and a host of other reasons why justice should be denied until a future date. And their motives were not evil, but their thinking was backwards as they did not see the immoral means as truly immoral.

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Posted: 11 February 2007 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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Mark, I think you missed the most important part of Brennen’s post, “I wonder what the slaves would think?”  Rather than making any decision unilaterally, the slave owner should give them the right to make their own choice.  If he can fairly present the information on all sides of the question so they can make an informed decision, they may decide to remain slaves for a while under that owner. 

Since you are strongly against slavery, would you say that this choice should not be available to them?

Occam

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Posted: 11 February 2007 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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Mark,

It’s not so much that ends justify means as that ends, that is the practical consequences of the action, are important too. An action cannot be truly moral if it is taken without consideration for the practical consequences. We agree slavery is immoral. I believe this is true not only because it deprives slaves of an abstract quality we call freedom, but also because it causes real suffering and degredation in their lives. If the hypothetical slaveowner chooses to stop participating in the institution of slavery, the moral correctness of this decision is affected by the actual consequences this has for his slaves. If it leads to their condition of life being the same or worse under another slaveowner, then the moral value of the action is minimal. What I am suggesting is that in the real world a morally perfect solution may not exist. I propose that circumstances could exist in which improving the quality of life for his slaves and working through their education and political/economic means to achieve an end to the institution of slavery may be a more moral choice than freeing his slaves and allowing them to be enslaved or brutalized by others. As even you admit freeing them does not accomplish all his moral duty to them. And, as Occam says, the slaves feelings is of great improtance.

In more general terms, I think you’re saying that one is ultimately responsible for perfect adherence (at least in theory) to one’s own moral codes/conscience. This means that if you believe, for example, absolute non-violence to be the ultimate morally appropriate response to violence, then no circumstance justifies violence regardless of the practical consequences in the immediate situation. Or if slavery is immoral, no circumstance justifies owning slaves. I disagree. I believe the practical consequences of one’s actions are an important part of evaluating what is moral for one to do. I also believe, as I suspect you do not, that balancing moral theories and complicated real-world circumstances often leads to the necessity to adopt imperfect moral solutions. You, I suppose, believe there is no such thing as this situation and that compromises are solely based on insufficient understanding of the true moral issues or insufficient courage to do what is morally correct. If this is true, than I think we’ve come, through your example, to the heart of our disagreement. You believe in simplicity and absolutism in ethics. I believe the real world is more complicated than that and that contextual considerations are improtant in defining and choosing moral actions.

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Posted: 11 February 2007 09:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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Brennen, I do believe the real world is very complicated and all life is compromise in practice. However its not a matter of the right solutions not having come along, so much as a matter of putting these solutions into practice. This is more the rate-limiting factor.

What you say does boil down to the end justifying the means. And this is the difference between us.

This “...but you haven’t asked the slave what he wants” argument is not very deeply thought out. We know how they are being exploited, they may or may not know this because they are too preoccupied with merely staying alive and feeding their families. They do not have the benefits of an education in economics, or in knowing where the fruits of their labor end up, and most of the time do not even know how people outside of their plantation-life-existence live. Should we be so cold as to say “Ignorance is bliss, if they are content because they aren’t educated about the injustice of it all, then let them be, meanwhile we will continue to live in a much more materially well off way, while they toil away for us, and while their children grow up with the same ignorance”. Surely this is no way to handle the situation. You are both still arguing that exploiting (keeping them enslaved) could, in circumstances, be the best way helping them, and not only does this not help them, but it makes things worse overall.

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Posted: 11 February 2007 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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What you say does boil down to the end justifying the means. And this is the difference between us.

This is NOT what I’m saying, but your need to simplify apparently makes my attempts to explain fruitless.

 

This “...but you haven’t asked the slave what he wants” argument is not very deeply thought out. We know how they are being exploited, they may or may not know this because they are too preoccupied with merely staying alive and feeding their families. They do not have the benefits of an education in economics, or in knowing where the fruits of their labor end up, and most of the time do not even know how people outside of their plantation-life-existence live. Should we be so cold as to say “Ignorance is bliss, if they are content because they aren’t educated about the injustice of it all, then let them be, meanwhile we will continue to live in a much more materially well off way, while they toil away for us, and while their children grow up with the same ignorance”.


And now we’re missing the point entirely. By ask what they want I mena, of course, consider their interests. I do think their opinions matter as well, but you are correct in saying that these are limited by their opportunities for education and the circumstances in which they’ve been held. You probably go farther than I would in discounting their opinions and playing the role of father who knows better than they what they want, but the point I was making was that their interests matter, not just the dictates of your conscience. I still don’t agree that their interests are best served by the approach you suggest, but I’ve run out of ways to explain myself.

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Posted: 13 February 2007 03:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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Perhaps we might approach these issues from another tack.

Recently, Barry, referring to the current issue of free inquiry (February/March 2007), objected to the confrontational attitude and tone of some secular humanists as doing little to foster acceptance of secular understanding and humanist values. An article in the same issue, Supply, Demand, and Secularization, by Norris and Inglehart, suggested to me that secular humanists place too much hope in education, and should work more for social change.

Norris and Inglehart present data indicating an inverse correlation between economic security and religiosity. Religiosity is greater in those countries, like the United States, where there is greater economic inequality and insecurity. In those European countries, on the other hand, where there is greater economic security, religion matters much less.

Then in the March issue of The Atlantic, an article by Joshua Green, They Won’t Know What Hit Them, suggested something of a tactic: focus on local and state elections. By tipping the legislative balance toward favoring programs that foster economic security, secular humanists can reduce people’s need to seek solace and hope in religion. In evolutionary terms, secular humanists could apply selective pressure to politics to trend toward a society that would be more accepting of their views and values. As religiously moderate groups also value reducing economic inequality and social insecurity, an agenda that focused on social change rather than ideology would have their support.

Thus, in the long run, secular humanists would gain acceptance as workers for social betterment rather than being perceived, as they are now, as threatening the establishment.

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Posted: 13 February 2007 04:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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Acher,

I certainly think you’re right, secular humanists should be involved in working for these things, both as the natural extension of their own values and for the pragmatic political reasons you suggest. As we see from these boards, however, there is quite a diversity of opinions about what socioeconomic program is most appropriate to achieve greater economic equity. Though there appears to be some positive correlation between self-proclaimed secular humanism and traditional liberal democrat politics, there are plenty of libertarians (both free market and Barry’s socialist/anarcist variety), and you can even find secular conservatives, though arguably not very many secular humanist conservatives. So I wonder if organized secular humanism can have a strong economic agenda given the internal divisions. The new CFI political lobby seems likely to focus on separation of church/state and pro-science issues because of these divisions on economic issues.

I think the Norris and Inglehart paper is quite interesting. There are lots of correlations between education, IQ, etc and an non-religious outlook. I wonder how we can translate this information into a broader acceptance of materialist/naturalist thinking? Certainly, I think we need to find coalitions where possible with moderates with religious affiliations because otherwise we guarantee marginal status for our agenda, in America at least. Deliberately antagonizing is occassionally a useful way to draw attention to ideas, but it can have negative practical consequences as well, and I think Barry’s right that too much “evangelical atheism” serves only the interests of one part of the overall humanist agenda, diminishing the role of religion in society. More is needed, and as I’ve suggested before a variety of approaches by different people, each working with their own strengths and interests, is needed.

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