A Head in the Sand is Not an Ideal Source of Rights.

Whether restricting or expanding rights, we need to be very careful about how and why we do it. Expanding rights feels good, but when we do it because it feels good, it can be hard to stop. Restricting rights might sometimes feel moral or make us seem safer, but if we’re chasing an illusion of security, we may never stop running after it.

Americans have a culture of celebrating their freedom of public discourse by expressing their opinions, through news media, letters to public officials, discussions around the bar and the dinner table, and so on. With all of our focus on discussions, we rarely think critically about the way we discuss. We leap on solitary arguments, but often in isolation of other arguments and often miss larger pictures. This not only makes our debates aimless and fruitless, it makes them potentially dangerous for a common law nation: The more prone we are to accepting a single, isolated point as justification for a policy, the more easily that same isolated point can be applied inappropriately to quasi-related situations. While it seems true that the daily activities of other people don’t have an immediate and pressing effect on us, not all possible rights seem well founded in the principle “let people do what they want.” One reason is that we would be unsatisfied allowing truly unlimited rights for people (unless we are anarchists), but another reason is that other people’s actions actually do affect us. (For more information on this, I recommend the book Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon.)

I am inclined to think that the many freedoms of speech and press guaranteed by law in this country are only truly good for society if society uses them responsibly and smartly. It may be that a nation of sloppy, half-thought discourse is worse than government restrictions on public speech.

Philosophy and the everyday

Philosophy is sometimes disregarded as irrelevant and unimportant in the 21st century. I think this shows a misunderstanding of what philosophy is (maybe even by those who claim to be proficient in it). I chose to study philosophy because it was obvious to me that it was a study of the subjects of our daily conversation. Every argument we have, every thought we think, every decision we make, is filled with issues in metaphysics, epistemology, logic (and mathematics), ethics, aesthetics, and rationality. From sports talk shows (almost exclusively filled with counterfactuals and predictions of decisions) to interior decorating to social gossip, our lives are filled with the very stuff of academic philosophy. It seems that even anthropology does not come so close to the useful study of being human as does philosophy. Yet, in the last 50 or 100 years (or last 2000 years), philosophy became the boring and irrelevant study of stupid questions (“does my hand exist?” or whatever).

Shortly after I started studying philosophy, I found a blog post about the need for philosophy in computer programing languages. http://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2006/04/software-needs-philosophers.html The author felt that a philosophy could end the fighting and competition between programing languages and thus move the entire technology forward. Notwithstanding the issues with that, he made mention of his view that philosophers pulled society out of the dark ages and into the modern era; releasing them from the bondage of superstitious beliefs and delivering them into the scientific revolution. He noted that after philosophers taught people how to think, people forgot why they needed philosophy.

I am convinced that a return to the value of philosophy (combined with many, many other things) would be greatly beneficial for civilization. I think that a great emphasis on thinking, wonder, creativity, reflection, with a deeper understanding of rules of logic and reason—as well as the ability to properly question such rules—would greatly enhance the political, economic, and social systems of our time. Even arguing about whether philosophy is important is itself a philosophical exercise. Questions about what is and how it ought to be are both questions of philosophy. If there are other sorts of questions, discovering them would also be a philosophical endeavor.

A Compressed Language for the Digital Age?

Analytic philosophy features some lengthy tomes (Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rawls, etc). The idea is to be thorough, laying out the explanation and motivation for the argument, the counter arguments and replies to them. It isn’t just jumping in and asserting some ideas. It’s a matter of carefully constructing a case, building it from the foundation up. Another reason for the length is to show context for the argument: where does it come from (historically), how does it connect to other arguments, why is it important, what does it do, what are its limits and weaknesses, etc? Between 400-500 words seems about the limit for many people for these blog posts— More than that starts to get too in-depth and too convoluted for people to stay interested. The benefit to me, as an author, is that I am compelled to think about the issue and boil it down to its bare, core bullet points. The downside of this for any reader is the lack of context. On some readings of Baudrillard, this might be a good thing, in that there is no “seduction” or “leading away” of anyone from the thing which we are trying to understand. However, if there is anything to the ideas of the structuralists, maybe placing the issue in a web of context and showing its connections to and disconnections from the rest of the world is actually how we come to understand it. But is the web too complex for this to work? Can we trust readers to place in the web themselves, to link and tag and categorize correctly and appropriately? Maybe they’ll be better at it than authors. Maybe they won’t do it at all.

It makes me wonder if the amount of material available and the increased access to it in the 21st century begins to impose a need on changes in language that accommodate a faster transfer of information. As files began to get big, we started “compressing” (or “Zipping”) them during transfer. To compress is to increase the density of a mass by decreasing the volume it takes up, even as the mass stays constant. We compress gasses with various tanks and pumps, and computer files with languages and applications —can we compress ideas with language and thought? Would the compression of ideas require a new grammar, or only a few new words and symbols? We would still need to trust the reader to “unzip” or “decompress” the information once they received it: to tag, categorize, connect, sort, collate, etc. in their own mind. Are we equipped to do this, as readers?