Category Archives: Philosophy

Monday’s Mtg: Was communism right about anything?

Communism?  Really?

Sure, soaring economic inequality and our increasingly plutocratic politics have revived interest in class-based social analysis. But, the 20th century saw communism fail spectacularly as any kind of just or effective governing philosophy. Moreover, the 21st century is grounded in universal values that communist regimes were fundamentally hostile to, like democracy, constitutionally-limited government, and a mixed economy.  A handful of countries still call themselves socialist in the Marxist sense (China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.). But no one thinks they mean it.

Marxism is more than just a failed governing philosophy, however. (You may not even agree it failed; we could debate that.) Marxist thought was also a very well-developed system for critiquing capitalism.  Communist doctrine may be relevant today as a tool for analyzing what has gone wrong with global capitalism – and thus with democracy, even though Marx held that bourgeoisie democracy as a mere cover for capitalist greed and exploitation.  Understanding the ideas behind what some call “cultural Marxism” may help us to understand some of the structural factors that let the few continue to exploit the many in society.

I propose we start the meeting by discussing what Marxism “stands for.” It might be helpful to identify four distinct historical stages of Marxist thought:

  1. Phase 1 (1848-1917): The purely theoretical and academic phase. Mainly Marx’s philosophy and critique of where capitalism seemed to be inevitably heading, plus his vague, Romantic ideas for how to prevent that future.
  2. Phase 2 (1918-1950s or so): The state-centered ascendant phase of Soviet and Chinese led communism. Revolutionary and totalitarian. A fusion of pre-modern absolutism with new “scientific” justifications.
  3. Phase 3 (1960s-1989): The post-colonial/anti-colonial phase. Marxist-Leninism fuses with third world nationalism and adapts to local conditions (including tribalism and local leaders’ lust for power). Per Lenin, severe critique of Western-led capitalism-based globalization.
  4. Phase 4:  Post-modern Marxism (I made up that term).  Marxism as an explainer of underlying power relationships in society that oppress marginalized groups.

The point is whether communism got anything “right” requires more than just pointing out its monstrous cruelty in power. That god has failed and likely won’t be back.  Marxian ways of thinking about modern capitalism may provide insight into how we got into the economic mess we are in and how to get out of it.

On Monday I will briefly introduce the main tenets of Marxist political philosophy (I know a bit but not a lot).  Then we can dive right in. Here are some readings I found interesting.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are kids made or born?

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Monday’s Mtg (4/16/18): Does a good life need to have a purpose?

Next Monday’s topic will be a welcome breather before we tackle some much darker stuff the next week and in early May. The latter will explore the most urgent and important issue in American public affairs in a generation, IMO: How serious is the Trump Administration’s assault on our country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, and will the Republican Party’s current acquiescence to and collaboration with authoritarianism survive his presidency? Told you we’d need a breather, and thanks to Gale for suggesting this interesting one.

She asks: Does a good life need to have a “purpose?” What does that even mean, for starters?  What kind of a purpose can a life be directed towards? Service and altruism? Fighting injustice? Finding love and nurturing close family relationships? Money and material acquisition? Social status and approval? Spreading Gospel’s good word and God’s plan?

How many of us have ever had a single purpose or goal that we used to drive our life choices? Where did we get the notion from? Is being highly purpose-driven a function of personality type or upbringing? Does it come from religious faith or personal philosophy? From our educations and/or personal experiences?

How many people do this sort of thing? We all know of famous people that were driven to have their life turn out a certain way and they succeeded, like Bill Gates, LeBron James, and so on. Are they the exceptions? How do most highly goal-directed people react to disappointment? When should they (and you) give up their dreams? There are many other good questions.

Do we have any answers? I think some of us in CivCon underestimate how good our discussions are in some of our more personal topics. So, I’m looking forward to Monday’s meeting. April 23 is our can democracy survive meeting, so let’s enjoy this one! Here’s a few light reading suggestions this week.

(GALE: Would you like to start us off by describing what you had in mind?)

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is the rule of law under serious assault in the USA?

Monday’s Mtg: Is there a Third Way between capitalism and socialism?

In the last decade anxiety has grown about the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of modern capitalism. The financial meltdown and Great Recession of 2008-10, rising material inequality, and the specter of climate catastrophe have focused a lot of minds and some people wonder if systemic change is in order. No one wants early 20th century-style command economies, of course. But, it might be a good time to dust off a debate that was briefly popular after the Cold War ended: Is a “Third Way” possible, a new economic system balanced between capitalism and socialism with characteristics of each?

I tend to think that our worst problems and inability to act are more products of political failures than of any fatal flaw of capitalism. Yet, others say that today’s hyper-globalized, giant corporation-controlled, finance-dominated capitalism is the root cause of many of them, or at least that today’s capitalism never will be able or willing to act on them. Problems such as –

  • Climate and environmental damage.
  • Soaring economic inequality.
  • Financial system instability.
  • Concentration of corporate power fewer and fewer hands.
  • Loss of interest among economic elites in maintaining high wages and full employment.
  • Disruptive technologies on the horizon (like AI) that could render vast numbers of jobs obsolete.
  • The existence of seemingly successful but authoritarian models of development, especially China’s.

To these problems you can add political ones, like disappearing social institutions that used to help to constrain concentrated private power, paralyzed governments, and a pissed-off public searching for populist scapegoats.

To be sure, capitalism has always been very adaptive and dynamic. A disruptive and painful “creative destruction” has always been the price we pay for the enormous wealth capitalism creates and the personal freedom it allows. Moreover and as we’ve discussed, there isn’t just one model of capitalism in the world. To simplify somewhat, there is a Nordic model, a German one, an Anglo-Saxon one, and several state-led Asian variants, notably the authoritarian Chinese one. Their freedom to experiment is somewhat limited by international law and trade rules, as is ours to a lesser extent.

It’s almost too big a topic, when you think about it. We might get somewhere on Monday if we ask some of the right questions. Focusing on who should own the means of production, how much government planning is needed, and the merits of the profit motive seems a little archaic to me. IMO it also focuses more on means than ends. Maybe my educational/career background can help here. So, I will open us up with a short introduction that frames the big questions we are going to have to ask in the years ahead regarding capitalism – questions I think will bedevil us regardless of what type of “system” we say we have. Here are a few general questions and some reading ideas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Socialism: What is/was Socialism? What was/wasn’t socialized and why? Different types?
  2. Capitalism: How many different models of mixed capitalism exist today? What are the biggest differences between them in term of property ownership; corporate governance; govt planning, tax/spend, regulation; democratic accountability; etc.?
  3. Successes: What makes an economic system successful? What’s an economy for? Do some economic systems support democracy better than others and vice versa?
  4. Failures: Is capitalism in crisis? Which models fare best and are best prepared for the future? Is capitalism or politics to blame and can one be in crisis without the other?
  5. Priorities: What more do we want from our economic system, and what are we willing to give up? (Stability, growth, opportunity, sustainability, social justice, etc.?) Tradeoffs.
  6. Future: Disruptive technology issues, rise of China/India, climate crisis…

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Socialism –

Types of capitalism –

Alternative Third Ways –

  • 10 alternatives to capitalism, some farfetched.
  • Stakeholder capitalism: Change corporations not the whole economic system.  Recommended or shorter version here.
  • Globalization’s one-size-fit-all approach. Its rules don’t leave enough room for democracy nor permit countries to develop different economic models. Recommended.
  • State-owned industries: Maybe sometimes it’s a good idea.
  • Conservative POV: Quasi-capitalism cannot work and should not be tried. Very long but fair.

NEXT WEEK: Religiosity – How has its decline affected the USA?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel and its appeal

If you don’t know what the Prosperity Gospel is and how popular it has become you should. President Trump has been associated with this controversial set of religious beliefs for years. A prosperity Gospel preacher gave the invocation at his inauguration and another one advices Trump.

Moreover, Trump voters’ belief that he embodies the virtues promoted by the prosperity gospel probably explains a lot of his shockingly- high level of support (over 80%) among White U.S. Evangelicals. There are a lot of prosperity gospel-friendly Americans. According to one study (see link below) something like one in five churches in the United States preach a version of the prosperity gospel and about one in six American Christians can be described a lose adherents to its main tenets.

What tenets are those? What is the prosperity gospel and how did it originate in the United States? How Christian is it (that’s fiercely debated)? How American is it (very)? What does that tell us about the interrelationship between the Christian creed and the American creed? Why does the prosperity gospel ring true to so many low-income White Americans and African-Americans? Why are prosperity gospel churches mushrooming abroad, especially in poor but up and coming regions of the world like Africa?

I know most of us in Civilized Conversation are secular in outlook. But, what are the major critiques of prosperity gospel-like thinking from within Christianity? Many Christian leaders – from Rick Warren to Jerry Falwell! – have fiercely denounced the prosperity gospel as unchristian and even heretical. Much of the ire has focused on some of the movement’s leading figures, like Joel Osteen, who runs one of the largest churches in the country in Houston. Pope Francis has roundly condemned this doctrine.

This isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the millions of regular Americans that don’t get much media attention or cultural respect matter, too. So, here are a few readings on the basics of the prosperity gospel philosophy and some critiques of it. Our religious topics are among our best meetings, I’ve always thought. I’m looking forward to it.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

What is the Prosperity Gospel?

  • Wiki’s Prosperity Theology entry; basic explanation. Recommended.
  • Longer explanation + did prosperity gospel suckers help to create 2008 housing crisis?  Useful if you have time.

Trump and the Prosperity Gospel –

Some specific critiques –

NEXT WEEK: Is the American diet unhealthy?

Monday’s Mtg: A New American Nationalism?

We picked a bad week to give up sniffing glue. I mean we chose a hard week to talk about American nationalism, given the fuhrer furor over President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville. Trump’s “new American nationalism” has finally been totally laid bare. It’s ethno-nationalism, pure and simple. It’s a largely symbolic one, too. As was bluntly pointed out today, he has no concrete plans on trade or infrastructure, nothing new on managing the economy, and nothing serious on national security. Bannon/Trump’s Economic Nationalism only works in the areas of (hmmm) immigration and civil rights. We’re deporting more illegal immigrants and changing sides at the Justice Department. It was a con.

Still, the empty content of this one man’s version of patriotism does not preclude the rise of a genuinely new American nationalism of another kind. Americans love their country and want it to succeed again, for them and for their children. A resurgence of patriotism could be fueled by other factors besides chauvinism; e.g., like public weariness with shouldering the min burden of global leadership, long-building fear of Islamist terrorism, or economic inequality and stagnation that needs an explanation (and maybe culprit.  Or, it could just be mostly White resentment of immigrants and globalization’s economic integration and cosmopolitanism.

I am game to try to discuss it all civilly if you are. I’ve been ill this week so I won’t have time to prepare anything. Here are a few optional background readings and the discussion questions I imagine us focusing on.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. American nationalism: How many kinds/flavors of U.S. nationalism it are there? What makes them wax and wane?
  2. Trump’s White nationalism:
    • What is it? How popular is it?
    • How differ from older forms of White supremacy, or same old thing?
    • Why did GOP elites – and voters – ride this tiger for so long? What will they do now?
    • Will Trump profoundly change U.S. nationalism, or be a blip?
  3. Another New Nationalism:
    • Is a more benign “New American Nationalism” emerging, too? What are its main elements (e.g., exhaustion w/global leadership, economic insecurity, anger at Lefty anti-nationalism)?
    • Why has this happened? Is it just a conservative thing?
    • Impacts good bad?
  4. Liberal nationalism:
    • What is the case for a progressive nationalism?
    • Why do many progressives hate all nationalisms? Good/bad thing? When is patriotism just chauvinism?
  5. Global resurgence: Why is nationalism surging in many countries? Effects/will it last?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What do today’s movies and TV say about us?

Monday’s Mtg Part 2: What Does USA Stand For?

[Authored by Ali, this is our topic for Monday:]

“The US moral divide and How the US defines itself.”

I came up with this idea a few weeks ago when I listened to a TED talk (first link) about how to talk across the political lines by using terms and ideals that the other side can readily accept. This got thinking about how most of our political discussions today are useless because we don’t share a basic moral agreement about what the government and the nation as a whole morally stand for.

This, of course, a philosophical question but it has very real ramifications on the economy, the role of government, foreign policy, healthcare, and cultural themes.

Are we group of people who should aspire to be pure of heart and mind (maybe genes) and try to shut all other “pollutants”? Are we guardians of something? And what is that thing? The weak? Our way of life? Civilization? The survival of the species? Should our society try and imitate nature, and if so then is Nature competition or harmony?
Do we have a moral obligation toward others, and does those “others” include all humans, all living beings, all animals, the entire planet, just “our own people”?
Do we have a role in this world? Or are we just one of many nations and should mind our own business and people, or are we inherently wrong (We’re built upon invasion and slavery) and shouldn’t try to infect any other nation until we fix the problems that we have a home?

The subject might seem a little too overreaching, and I agree, but we should try and keep it about morality and its role in our personal and political choices.

https://www.ted.com/…/robb_willer_how_to_have_better_politi… (How to talk across the Moral divide_

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (What is scientifically speaking is the moral divide)

https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/how-science-explains-…/ (The moral divide and how it can affect the political conversation and discourse)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (our moral standing in the world and how it’s changing)

Monday’s Mtg: Which moral standards should we use to judge historical figures?

We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group.  Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones.  (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.)  We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.

Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too.  But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.

Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.

I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?

Monday’s Mtg: Which beliefs have you changed since you were young and why?

Gale came up with this idea. I like it partly because it lets us get off the hamster wheel of reading and intellectualizing over politics, philosophy, history, and the like. But, I also like the topic because it basically asks each of us how much of what we have experienced and learned has really mattered – enough to make us change our opinions.

What people learn from experience is heavily influenced by what they want to believe a priori, of course. Still, as this week’s handful of background readings discuss, our beliefs do evolve throughout our lives as we gain experience and perspective. About what have you changed your opinion? God/religion, politics, personal ethics, marriage and children? What did it for you? Marriage and kids, church, school, career choices?  How hard was it to evolve?

After my 45 minute opening lecture (Note: KIDDING), I am really interested in hearing what you all, with all of your decades and decades and decades (sorry) of wisdom have to say. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you on Monday evening.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: What is a “fair” burden of taxation?

Monday’s Mtg: Are Religion and Science Compatible?

We last did a version of this topic in 2014, led by Carl and Jim Z. If I recall correctly, we talked about the “New Atheism.” This is a moniker given to a group of scientists and public intellectuals that, starting in the late 1990s I think, took a very hard line in opposition to all religious faith. In books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others declared that science and religion are simply incompatible.

The New Atheists – and most atheists I know –  say that religion is irrational and un-empirical, a remnant from a pre-scientific time and the source of way too many human miseries. I think the conventional wisdom is that this movement was spurred to action by Islamic extremism and/or the U.S. religious Right. I have included in this week’s optional readings an article by Harris (“Science Must Destroy Religion” – Tell us what you really think), and a debate between Dawkins and another scientist who is a Christian and advocates mutual respect.

I’m not so sure that faith and science are incompatible.  But, I’m also not sure how best for Civilized Conversation to approach the matter. Not my area of expertise.  I’ve got lots of questions though.  Do science and religion inhabit two different realms? Are they answering different types of questions – or is there only one type of question or evidence, that of materialism and natural phenomena?  Is religion inherently magical; i.e., supernatural and thus only accessible by faith? Is science the only way to truly know the world – or our fellow humans?  Really?  If faith is irrelevant, why has it lasted long past the emergence of a scientific age?

Deep. I’ll skip the opening lecture thing on Monday evening and just ask for people to open our discussion with whatever is on their minds. Just remember the “Civilized” part.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

  • Some good links at our 2014 mtg on this subject (none are repeated below).

Are Religion and Science Compatible, Y/N?

Next Week (Sept 19): Raise/Don’t Raise the Minimum Wage.

 

Monday’s Mtg: When Is War Justified?

It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.

But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us.  Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he  offered no apology for the atomic bombs.  Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis.  That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.”  And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.

The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force.  As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?

Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality.  I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
  2. Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
  3. Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
  4. Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much?  Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
  5. You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention?  What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
  6. 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

CivCon Mtgs on War:  What causes modern warsISISDid we have to drop the bombs on Japan?

Just War Theory basics:

  • An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
    Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
  • Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.

Obama and just wars:

  • Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
  • The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.

Emerging Issues:

Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?