Saturday, May 26, 2012

Philosophy: the infancy of knowledge. Or worse!

What is philosophy's relation to theology, and to other fields?

A recent CBC ideas podcast series was named "After Atheism", but was, disappointingly, all more or less blithering theology. Yet it had one perspective that piqued my interest, which is that religion is a sort of questing/seeking of classically philosophical questions. It is indeed remarkable that people of all places and stations are so persistently interested in those perennial, even esoteric, philosophical questions of the nature of being and of reality. Indeed, we quake before the core existential conundrum, and are more or less desperate for an answer. As the grand inquisitor says, "I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born."

An easy solution is to nail all the doors and windows shut with boards named "God". Fundamentalism is proud in its certainty, though terribly insecure in its intellectual surrender, always seeking social, even political, validation for a solution that doesn't command sophisticated appreciation, inside or outside the citadels of theology, let alone philosophy. It knows the doors are there, and can't shake the sense that something a great deal more interesting, if less comforting, lies beyond.

The CBC show was devoted to slightly more sophisticated theo-babble, which acknowledges the existential questions with some philosophical appreciation, even acknowledging the logic of atheism given the moral and cosmic desert we find ourselves in, but all the same insists, tic-like, that one is "grappling with God".

It is a testament to the cultural entrainment performed by our forebears and institutions that so many people are convinced that naming the void in this way is "fulfilling", and even philosophically "reasonable". Some of the guests on the show were indeed Jesuit-trained! But it isn't. Additionally, many of the questions they are grappling with have expired some time ago. For instance, humans have no more purpose than we see in evolution. The way we are destroying the biosphere should be clear enough evidence of that. We are neither gifted with special goodness, nor with any cosmic role. What we make of our various biological, (even geological, meterological, hydrological), social, and cultural bequests is up to us, frighteningly enough. The trick is not to be frightened by this answer- by this radical freedom.

Is there life after death? No. Is there free will in any basic, physical sense? No. Do we have "souls"? No. Is morality objective? No. These are answered questions, insofar as we are willing to make simple inferences from a large body of scientific and psychological knowledge. Behaving otherwise marks the philospher as a theological tool, not a true seeker in the vineyard of serious questions, whether big or small.

Other philosophical questions do remain out of reach, whether the cosmic one of how everything began, or the metaphysical one of whether our conception of reality is all there is ... whether there might be some Matrix-like "outside" of which our reality, rich as it is, is a shadow(1). Here again, the human gifts of imagination have found their m├ętier, filling up these questions with theological wishes and dreams like some Egyptian tomb, before locking the door and saying that that is really the way it is .. out there.

Another oddity is the role of intuition in philosophy. On the one hand, nothing delights philosophers more than to "problematize" some intuitive or even sacred notion. Reality itself- may not be real! Consciousness- may be a property of electrons! Who knows? Science certainly agrees, holding intuition as one our weaker capacities and especially prone to go wrong on any non-social, non-human scale, such as the relation of the sun to the earth, to take a simple example.

On the other hand, intuition forms the bedrock of other kinds of philosophy. For Kant, it was part of his a priori- the logical and perceptual foundation allowing us to bootstrap our way into a working relationship with whatever it is that reality is for us- our inborn sense of space, time, etc. And then there is theology, which drives through brick walls of reason to reach its intuitive destination: god. In this case mysticism may be treated as "evidence", and subjectivity given absurd "veridicality" in ways that no philosopher would dream of doing for any other topic. Skeptical problematicization is replaced by ideology and gullibility. To top it all off, as theology wanes as an acceptable mode of philosophy, practitioners (notably those in the CBC series above) have taken up the mantle of "edgy", transgressive, and postmodern, as if they were not revanchists for the oldest and most regressive psycho-political tropes to which humans have ever been enthralled.

It is disappointing to see so much bad philosophy, however heartening it is that some of these questions can animate so much searching and thought. But what of the professionals? Do they do much better? I would say that it is a disappointing mixed bag. In the interests of professional relevance, philosophers need to keep their questions alive, sometimes well past their expiration date. For questions that remain current, they aren't getting any answers, so the best they can do is to make novel arguments about favored questions, and critique those of others. Calling this progress is rather generous, but is the bread and butter of professional philosophy. Doing this well necessitates knowing all the arguments and counterarguments that have crossed through the field previously, obviously a daunting prospect and the main barrier to the speculating guild, as it were.

But when a bad question remains a pet topic in the academy, something has gone disastrously wrong. Of course I am thinking of theology and its persistent place in academic philosophy. Memo: god is dead. Theology has become a problem of normal and abnormal psychology, anthropology, and allied fields. Just because people in all walks of life seek spiritual expression, and want existential answers, doesn't mean that their answers, (whether individual or from a larger tradition), or even all their questions, merit philosophical credence and discussion in a professional philosophical context.

Philosophy has lost many questions. Some, like physics and other natural philosophies, have become so productive and fertile that they have grown up, as it were, and taken a place far beyond the sort of loose speculation that is philosophy's stock in trade. Others, like many of the theological questions above, have dissolved in another way, by being so clearly empty and psychologically driven that good philosophers no longer care about them. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no. It is critical for philosophers to recognize when this happens, even if it crimps their horizon. Success is not a bad thing.

To make the case in a concrete way, I will compile a list of evident theologians at publically supported institutions, (i.e. major state universities), who not only stand in the way of critical philosophy, but violate the separation of church and state. Most open theology programs are private, thankfully.
The study of religion is important, indeed wonderful. The promotion of religion in  academic guise is quite another matter. I'll note incidentally that these are Christian theologians almost exclusively- again calling into question just what is happening with public dollars in the higher education system, in constitutional terms. This may be updated periodically.

1. An example is "A beginner's guide to reality", by Jim Baggott, which ends up precisely where it began, in common sense mode, after an excursis through numerous philosophical thought experiments, movie references, and bizarre theories.

Publicly supported theologians, with sample work. I may add to this on an ongoing basis, to make it a comprehensive resource. The intent is to isolate evidently pro-religion advocates, though the zone between doing philosophy or study of religion and philosophy for religion (i.e. theological apologetics) is very broad.
  • University of North Carolina, Marilyn McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God"
  • University of North Carolina, Robert Merrihew Adams, "The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology".
  • University of Texas, J. Budziszewski, "Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law"
  • University of Colorado Boulder, Wesley Morriston, "Omnipotence and Necessary Moral Perfection: Are they compatible?"
  • SUNY Stony Brook, Peter Manchester, "Kinds of Eternity: Temporal Problematic and Historical Horizons"
  • SUNY Stony Brook, Gary Mar, "The Modal Unity of Anselm's Proslogion"
  • UC Irvine, Bonnie Kent, "Happiness and the Willing Agent: The Ongoing Relevance of the Franciscan Tradition"
  • University of Kentucky, David Bradshaw, "The Concept of the Divine Energies", "A Christian Approach to the Philosophy of Time."
  • University of Virginia, Trenton Merricks, "The Resurrection of the Body", "'The Word Made Flesh: Dualism, Physicalism, and the Incarnation"
    • (Note that the University of Virginia has an enormous Department of Religious studies, teaming with theologians, missionaries, and apologists. Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave.) "The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia is the largest department of its kind among American public universities. Religious Studies stands among the humanities and social sciences at U.Va., a public, non-sectarian institution."
    • James Childress, "A new dictionary of Christian ethics"
    • Jennifer Geddes, "Evil Lost and Found"
    • Gregory Goering, "Sapiential Synesthesia: The Confluence of Light and Word in Ben Sira’s Wisdom Instruction"
    • Vigen Guroian, "The Fragrance of God"
    • Kevin Hart, "The Experience of God"
    • Paul Dafydd Jones, "The Atonement: God's Love in Action"
    • Charles R. Marsh, "Share Your Faith With a Muslim"
    • Charles Mathewes, "A Theology of Public Life During the World"
    • Margaret E. Mohrmann, "Medicine as Ministry: Reflections on Suffering, Ethics, and Hope"
    • Peter Ochs, "Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews"
    • Vanessa Ochs, "Words On Fire: One Woman's Journey Into The Sacred"
    • John Portman, "A History of Sin"
    • Karl Shuve, "Entering the Story: Origen’s Dramatic Approach to Scripture in the Homilies on Jeremiah"
    • Heather Warren, "The Discipline and Habit of Theological Reflection"
  • University of Oklahoma, Neal Judisch, "Sanctification, Satisfaction, and the Purpose of Purgatory"
  • University of Oklahoma, Linda Zagzebski, "Omniscience and the Arrow of Time", "Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology"
  • University of Indiana Bloomington, Timothy O'Connor, "Theism and Ultimate Explanation"
  • University of Massachusetts, Lynne Rudder Baker, "Persons and the Metaphysics of Resurrection"
  • University of Illinois, Robert McKim, "Could God have more than one nature?"
  • University of Arkansas, Thomas Senor, "Drawing on Many Traditions: An Ecumenical Kenotic Christology"
  • University of Arkansas, Lynne Spellman, "Unbolting the Dark: A Memoir: On Turning Inward in Search of God"
  • University of Minnesota, Jasper Hopkins, "Hugh of Balma on Mystical Theology: A Translation and an Overview of His De Theologia Mystica"
  • University of Kansas, James Woelfel, "The Existentialist Legacy and Other Essays on Philosophy and Religion"
  • University of North Dakota, Gayle Baldwin, "From Sole Learning to Soul Learning"
  • University of North Dakota, Charles Miller, "The Experience of Teaching a Course to Train Teachers of Biblical Studies in a Theological College"
  • University of North Dakota, Troy Troftgruben, "Jesus: A Christological Perspective"
  • University of Idaho, Janice Capel Anderson, "Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies"
  • University of California Riverside, John Martin Fischer, "God, Foreknowledge and Freedom", "Why Immortality is Not So Bad"
  • University of California Riverside, Howard Wettstein, "God's struggles"

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How deep is my debt

Understanding the federal debt- economic peril or stalking horse?

Perhaps the most important political issue of the era revolves around our perception and understanding of the US federal debt. If we regard it as "high", "spiralling out of control", "skyrocketing", "sea of red ink", "inferno", and so forth, then, however many tears (crocodile or otherwise) we shed for the unemployed, we will agree with "serious" opinion that "there is no alternative", aka TINA.

On the other hand, if the deficit/debt is not a problem, now or in the future, then in policy terms we could all breathe a sigh of relief and turn towards the unemployment problem with new vigor and effective tools, like ... expanding the deficit. This is the fork in the road, and its importance can not be overemphasized.

I am going to make the case that the deficit is not very important, and moreover that if we were smart about it, we wouldn't have to add to it at all, while at the same time accomplishing all the goals we need through the government spending that customarily adds to it.

The first thing to say is that the federal debt never gets paid off. Really. If you have rich friends who own bonds, are they clammoring to get rid of them? No. They pile them up like ye olde horde of jewels and gold, ready to pass on to their heirs, pretty much in perpetuity. Overall, government bonds are a store of wealth, which pay steady interest and never go broke. So the constant refrain of how much there is to "pay off", or better yet, how much each man, woman, and child owes ... all that is irrelevant. While most wealth in the US lies in real estate, much also is in bonds, and no one has much interest(!) in seeing that level of stored wealth decline.

And what would a person get if they redeemed a federal bond? The government would hand over dollars, which it prints just as it prints up bonds. So bonds are a sort of flowery high-class dollar bill that pays a little bit of interest. And since bonds are used as savings, someone redeeming a bond for dollars would typically, on average, just stuff those dollars in her mattress and store them, just as she had stored the bond before. So the net effect of exchanging dollars and bonds is not very much.. it doesn't generate inflation or any other problem.

This is all to say that issuing bonds doesn't really address inflation risk, or fund any needs of the government. It could easily print money without issuing bonds, indeed. Bonds stem from the old days of the gold standard, when governments had not (yet) come across the alchemy needed to create gold out of baser elements (or thin air). If the government wanted to spend money, it had to get money, just as any other business or household, and one way to get gold was to borrow it on the open market in return for bonds. It was a true commercial transaction.

Now we live in a completely different world (excepting the Euro zone, which put itself back into a quasi-gold standard straightjacket by having German bankers control everyone else's currency). Currency-sovereign governments like the US create and issue a fiat currency that people have to get before they can spend or even pay taxes back into the Treasury. An initial issue (or deficit) is essential in the first place (as Alexander Hamilton understood) as a means to provide currency to get the system started. After that, continuing deficits continue to be essential to accommodate economic expansion, in addition to the credit extended by deputized banks, which can multiply the money supply (in good times) to some regulated extent by their lending on top of capital/reserve requirements.

So deficits are essential for economic growth, so that the private economy has enough money to work with, which the government can in turn again skim in the form of taxes, etc. to make room for its own real economic requirements. The big question is: how much deficit is too much? Whether net government spending over intake is reflected in bond sales or not, there is a simple metric for how much is too much, which is ... inflation.

Inflation in the overall economy is the consequence of too much money, either issued directly by the government, or over-lent by the banking system, or drawn out of savings, or relative to shrinking real economic resources. One of these problems must be at work. Not to be all Milton Friedman about it, but inflation is really a pretty simple problem, which the Federal reserve has plenty of tools to address.

It is obvious that in our current situation, which resembles Japan's over the last two decades, inflation is extremely low, even declining. We continue to flirt with deflation, which is far more damaging than inflation. The ideal policy interest rate continues to be negative. So by that metric alone, the deficit is not big enough. For all the trillions the Obama administration has added to the debt, the simple answer is that it isn't big enough.

Lastly, there is the issue of paying the interest on the federal debt. Obviously, interest rates are so low now that they make little difference to the government's finances for the foreseeable future. And printing a little more money to pay this interest is actually a good thing, insofar as government spending has been insufficient to restore aggregate demand in the economy (and fight deflation).

But as mentioned above, if bonds are not really necessary in today's world, why pay all this interest at all? It is in essence a future-promised economic transfer system from the poor (taxpayers and those who could otherwise get government services) to the rich, who own bonds. It makes very little sense, and is simply an annuity system for the rich funded by our antiquated ideas of a constraint by which the government cannot create money ex nihilo, which is false and has been for decades.

Some time in the future, when interest rates go back up and normal economic conditions resume, the government may find it has to pay slightly higher rates for bond sales. In the first place, such rates are always tied to the inflation rate, and are very low in real terms, the insolvency risk being zero (as long as idiots don't take over the government). In the second place, as mentioned above, the whole practice could be ended at any time, at the government's discretion. Remember when the Clinton administration went into surplus? Who complained? Financiers complained, because they were not getting their free annuities anymore.

So from an economic perspective, the government debt is a non-issue, more of a symptom of other economic conditions (and reflection of our accumulating national wealth) than a problem in its own right. Clearly, the-party-that-is-unworthy-of-national-office also feels that way, since both Mitt Romney's and Matt Ryan's budgets do nothing to reduce the debt or even the deficit, while screwing the poor and rewarding the rich. It is a stalking horse, based on the false analogy of household debt and national (sovereign) debt, more pernicious now than ever before.

  • Just how corrupt is the banking system? We shall soon find out.
  • Worse than Keystone. Bedeviled by demon coal.
  • Working and having a job, is really, really important.
  • Equitable and stable social institutions underpin prosperity, not "freedom".
  • Facebook- feature or bug?
  • Our society remains class-based.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Keynes, writing on Europe, 1923, and just as relevant to the euro mess. But also to the public pension crisis, to financier bonuses, etc.
"The absolutists of contract are the real parents of revolution."
"They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Train lines though the mind

New papers about gross brain anatomy find a few interesting things.

A pair of recent articles gave new insights into the organization of the white and gray matter of the brain, respectively. They represent the forefront of trying to learn in a holistic way how the brain naturally develops and organizes, and provide a few intriguing results.

First off, the grey matter. A large research group sought to define how much different people's brains vary genetically, and how this variation maps on the brain surface. That is, do whole areas like the frontal cortex co-vary between people as a coherently expanding or contracting surface, or do smaller sub-regions have more independence to grow and shrink, depending on genetic background? Does brain anatomy vary at all depending on genetics?

They did this using that warhorse of human genetics- identical vs faternal twins, in this case drawn from a registry of Vietnam-era twins registered for the US military draft, who were all male and now middle-aged. They put pairs into MRI scanners and used some sophisticated math to abstract the shapes of everyone's brain, after which they could measure how they all compared in some detail.

One would think that, since the brain remains functionally quite plastic in adulthood, volume-based differences between people might be influenced by experience as much as genetics. Or more. But in most of the gray matter (outside the hippocampus and a few other areas), there is no cell division in adulthood, so while those neurons can re-wire and re-purpose themselves to new tasks, (itself quite a mysterious process), the overall morphology is set by early adulthood, changing only by way of decline and senility. Speaking of which ... where are my reading glasses?

The researchers find that genetic relationship corresponds to broad volume concordance in a jig-saw like map that divides the brain surface into twelve large regions. These regions mostly match regions that have already been recognized by other anatomical and functional maps, like for instance, area six, the superior temporal cortex, important for speech and hearing.

The interesting findings are that there are genetic variations in brain construction that are consistent and can be detected at all, and also that they conveniently resolve down to large-scale anatomical structures that have for the most part been long recognized for their functional differentiation from neighboring areas, for instance when tested with electrode probes in live patients. This of course leads to the question of just how different consciousness and other mental capabilities are between people, (though the differences here are tiny- on the border of detectability). And whether perhaps genetic structural variations correlate with genetically-driven variations in temperament, personality, and other mental characteristics / abilities. Phrenology might be making a high-tech, if minor, comeback!

The other paper dealt with deeper issues, which is to say, the white matter wiring pattern beneath the gray matter surfaces of the brain- how this pattern compares between different species, and how simple rules of development might result in the complex resulting pattern.

This novel method of MRI that isolates myelinated nerve pathways is truly remarkable (although fiber tracts have been studied in other ways for a long time). I only wish we had some analogous chemical/mathematical/technical magic to see live cancers in similar isolation. Anyhow, they visualize the long-range myelinated nerve bundles in the brains of humans, rhesus and owl monkeys, marmosets (a new world monkey), and galagos (a relatively primitive old-world primate). Importantly, they also group the pathways by an algorithm depending on extended proximity, which allows them to automatically color-code them into sheets of nerves that are structurally and developmentally coherent. You can see that this leads to a striking map of major internal brain pathways.

Aside from the artificially colored beauty of all these pathways, one can note a few things. Unfortunately, the colors of homologous pathways are not kept the same across species, but there are clear homologies, like of the sagital stratum which conducts visual signals to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. To the untrained eye, the tangles seem almost chaotic, but the researchers put them into a developmental context where the brain is the developmentally deformed result of what originates as a sheet of cells, expanded into three dimensions. Unfortunately they don't detail graphically quite exactly what they are talking about in this respect.

Secondly, there seem to be coherent sheets of nerves, supporting, as does the paper above, a natural structural division of white matter into wiring with plainly differentiated functions., One might presume also the possibility of natural genetic variation in these structures as well, incidentally.

Thirdly, the most interesting observation is that each sheet of nerve fibers meets others at roughly right angles. You can see this theme of 3-D criss-crossing immediately in the images, and as the researchers note, "geometrically, this configuration is highly exceptional". From a statistical standpoint, if the only rule were that each nerve had to find its target, winding pell-mell through the volume of the brain, you would see spaghetti.

What this means is that these observations are consistent with models by which the brain develops by relatively simple rules where bundles/sheets of related nerve fibers travel in tight groups as they migrate through the brain in development, and make rather simple cardinal coordinate decisions whenever they meet other such bundles, typically growing right through them. There is a substantial history, in the molecular biology of neural pathfinding, of nerves making such simple directional decisions during development, so this study shows the same procedure writ large, as the rule more or less throughout the brain.

The researchers summarize: "We have found that the fiber pathways of the forebrain are organized as a highly curved 3D grid derived from the principal axes of development. This structure has a natural interpretation. By the Frobenius theorem, any three families of curves in 3d mutually cross in sheets if and only if they represent the gradients of three corresponding scalar functions. Accordingly, we hypothesize that the pathways of the brain follow a base-plan established by the three chemotactic gradients of early embryogenesis. Thus, the pathways of the mature brain presents an image of these three primordial gradients, plastically deformed by development."

So, sort of like the grids of wire bundles you see in server racks and similar computer installations, or schematic train line maps, neurological development generates grids of myelinated (fast) fiber pathways to efficiently conduct data all over the brain.

  • Wealth doesn't happen in a vacuum.
  • What it's like to be alive.. Tilson Thomas on music.
  • The end of Ecotopia.
  • Profiles of cults... scientology edition.
  • One party is unworthy to participate in a national election. Or serve in the Senate.
  • We'll never get there on a credit binge.
  • Where is China headed, economically?
  • Where are we headed, employment-wise?
  • Economics quotes of the week, first from Standard and Poors, April 2008, rating Lehman as A+:
    "Lehman maintains an excellent risk culture, which results in the firm’s comparatively lower risk appetite than that of peers, and its strong liquidity and funding profile." 
  • Second from J. Galbraith"Instead, we became a credit-driven economy. What the evidence in the U.S. shows is that the rise in inequality is associated with credit booms, which are often periods of sometimes great prosperity."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hume and morals

David Hume's "An inquiry concerning the principles of morals".

Well, those were the days, before abstruse language and academic pedantry shot the practice of philosophy all to heck! Hume writes a practically stream-of-consciousness consideration of where morals come from, and arrives at a very simple answer: utility.  [Hume was not the first with this idea- in 1690, Locke offered a book heading: "Virtue generally approved, not because innate, but because profitable."]

To back up, I should say that I greatly admire Hume, from what I have read secondarily. He was an atheist, (which only became crystal clear posthumusly), a wonderful writer, and one of the greatest philosophers ever. So I looked forward to reading what little my public library had to offer from his work, which is this book.

The question is simple enough- why do we have morals? Are they legislated from above objectively and forever by some divine command that we need professional divines to discern? Are they, in contrast, completely relative, unobjective and amenable to the taste of whatever society we happen to be in, indeed to whatever person we happen to be?

Societies have in practice not had much problem knowing their morals and setting moral rules. It is always at the top of the list of child-raising and political discussion. But unfortunately, religious ideas got mixed up in the matter, to the point that by Hume's time, morals had become thoroughly theologicalized, claimed for the eternal wisdom of god and his representatives. Yet somehow, these eternal rules kept changing, whether in defiance of the original intention, as the many purifiers of religion (Luther, Wesley, our current fundamentalists, Christian and Islamic) would have it, or by the natural course of social evolution, as one can see with one's own eyes.

As Hume puts it:
"And here there occurs the fourth reflection which I purposed to make, in suggesting the reason why modern philosophers have often followed a course in their moral inquiries so different from that of the ancients. In later times, philosophy of all kinds, especially ethics, have been more closely united with theology than ever they were observed to be among the heathens; and as this latter science admits of no terms of composition, but bends every branch of knowledge to its own purpose without much regard to the phenomena of nature, or to the unbiased sentiments of the mind, hence reasoning, and even language, have been warped from their natural course, and distinctions have been endeavored to be established where the difference of the objects was, in a manner, imperceptable. Philosophers, or rather divines under that disguise, treating all morals as on a like footing with civil laws guarded by the sanctions of reward and punishment, were necessarily led to render this circumstance of voluntary or involuntary the foundation of their whole theory. Everyone may employ terms in what sense he pleases; but this, in the meantime, must be allowed, that sentiments are every day experenced of blame and praise which have objects beyond the dominion of the will or choice, and of which it behooves us, if not as moralists, as speculative philosophers at least, to give some satisfactory theory and explication.
That we owe a duty to ourselves is confessed even in the most vulgar system of morals; and it must be of consequence to examine that duty in order to see whether it bears any affinity to that which we owe to society. It is probable that the approbation attending the observance of both is of a similar nature and arises from similar principles, whaever appellation we may give to either of these excellences." 
[I'll note that theologians have an obvious out here, that god made our feelings (conscience) just so, so that we would know what is right, even if we seccumb to temptation, etc. Of course this looks a bit weaker today if one takes Darwin seriously, which leads to several other issues ...]

Not only were morals eternal and divine, but they just happened to support patriarchy, hierarchy, and monarchy. It is the oldest story in the book. Hume sets out to demolish this conception, and put morality back on a simple, sensible foundation. He asks why we have morals, and in every instance, the path leads back to the same conclusion.. because they reflect what is useful to us, either immediately, or in the long run; either individually, or, more commonly, in the communities that are so essential to our existence.

In a particularly interesting excursion, he considers our position vs animals. He has already demolished the scenario of Hobbes- the war of all against all [see quotes at bottom]. We are brought up in society from the very first moment. Fairness, justice, empathy, sociability, are all instinctive, as are greed and the dark emotions. So society is our involuntary habitat, and structures like justice, rules, morals, etc. exist to negotiate optimal ways of getting along, indeed to train ourselves in social existence.

But what if we have complete power over some other being, like an animal? What morals apply? What does justice mean?
"Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign. Our permission is the only tenure by which they hold their possessions, our compassion and kindness the only check by which they curb our lawless will; and as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of power so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy. 
This is plainly the situation with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them and make us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them. In many nations, the female sex are reduced to like slavery and are indeed rendered incapable of all property, in opposition to their lordly masters."

He then traces out the build-up of societies from family to a larger compass of more or less equal units, and shows how concepts of justice and morals become essential to regulate their relations.

But why is all this not completely instinctive? Why do we need cultural rules and structures, if evolution furnished us with all the necessary sentiments? (Hume of course knows nothing of evolution, but takes our natures as innate / given.)
"Had every man sufficient sagacity to perceive, at all times, the strong interest which binds him to the observance of justice and equity, and strength of mind sufficient to persevere in a steady adherence to a general and a distant interest, in opposition to the allurements of present pleasure and advantage, there had never, in that case, been any such thing as government or political society; but each man, following his natural liberty, had lived in entire peace and harmony with all others.
It is evident that, if government were totally useless, it could never have place, and that the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the advantage which it procures to society by preserving peace and order among mankind."
"If usefulness, therefore, be a source of moral sentiment, and if this usefulness be not always considered with a reference to self, it follows that everything which contributes to the happiness of society recommends itself directly to our approbation and good will. Here is a principle which accounts, in great part, for the origin of morality: and what need we seek fro absgtruse and remote systems when thre occurs one so obvious and natural?"

That is just a taste, of the argument whereby morals and rules are placed in a utilitarian perspective as being ways to promote our long-term good over our various individual stupidities, temptations, egoism, and other failings.

  • Morality is natural. A lot of humor, plus a few observations on philosophers.
  • What is (or was) social responsibility"Again and again, capitalism reached points where, if the state did not intervene in such ways as to induce more competitiveness, it would collapse under its own weight. In other words, what Braudel saw was this continuing evolutionary balance between the state and capitalism, in which the state needed to support capitalism but at the same time needed to guard against its excesses."
  • The story of Higgs.
  • Hmmm- maybe fruitless peace talks with the Taliban are an effective offensive strategy after all.
  • Pity the billionaire.
  • Problems with using intuition .. in economics.
  • A little history on one of the classic religious cults- the People's Temple. It's all about power.
  • One state goes after the MERS monster.
  • We are all banks, in a manner of speaking.. more on Minsky and banking.
  • Whom do corporations serve, and whom should they serve? "They say that shareholders are the only ones who bear risk in the corporate economy, and so they should also get the rewards."
  • Economics quote(s) of the week, as a special bonus, also come from Hume, who is under-appreciated as an early economist, indeed a Keynesian MMT economist.
"It is easy to trace the money in its progress through the whole commonwealth; where we shall find, that it must first quicken the diligence of every individual, before it encrease the price of labour."
"From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches."
"If the coin be locked up in chests, it is the same thing with regard to prices, as if it were annihilated; if the commodities be hoarded in magazines and granaries, a like effect follows. As the money and commodities, in these cases, never meet, they cannot affect each other." 

"Fanatics may suppose that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers and teaches them, by the serverest discipline, that a rule which in speculation may seem the most advantageous to society may yet be found in practice totally pernicious and destructive. 
That there are religious fanatics of this kind in England during the civil wars, we learn from history; though it is probable that the obvious tendency of these principles excited such horror in mankind, as soon obliged the dangerous enthusiasts to renounce, or at least conceal, their tenets. Perhaps the levelers, who claimed an equal distribution of property, were a kind of political fanatics which arise from the religious species, and more openly avowed their pretensions; as carrying a more plausible appearance, of being practicable in themselves as well as useful to human society.
It must also be confessed that wherever we  depart from this equality we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity in one individual frequently costs more than bread to many families, even provinces.
But historians, and even common sense,  may inform us that, however specious these ideas of perfect equality may seem, they are really at bottom impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render posession ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence and, instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community. The most rigorous inquisition, too, is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance; and the most severe jurisdiction to punish and redress it. But besides, that so much authority must soon degenerate into tyranny, and be exerted with great partialities; who can possibly be possessed of it, in such a situation as is here supposed?"

"There is another principle, somewhat resembling the former, which has been much insisted on by philosophers, and has been the foundation of many a system- that, whatever the affection one may feel, or imagine one feels for others, no passion is, or can be, disinterested; that the most generous friendship, however sincere, is a modification of self-love; and that, even inknown to ourselves, we seek only our own gratification while we appear the most deeply engaged in schemes for the liberty and happiness of mankind.
An Epicurean or Hobbist readily allows that there is such a thing as friendship in the world without hypocrisy or disguise, though he may attempt, by philosophical chemistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another and explain every affection to be self-love twisted and molded by a particular turn of imagination into a variety of appearances.
What a malignant philosophy must it be that will not allow to humanity and friendship the same privileges which are indisputably granded to the darker passions of enmity and resentment? Such a philosophy is more like a satire than a true delineation or description of human nature, and may be a good foundation for paradoxical wit and raillery, but is a very bad one for any serious argument or reasoning."