Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sincere politicians?

It really is unfortunate that we already have presidential hopefuls campaigning for the next election. Presidential campaigns can be interesting at times, and can spark useful debates, but the personality obsessions that usually accompany them are both tiresome and pointless. Instead of discussing real political policies and how to implement them we are treated to the real or perceived impressions of reporters, pundits, and friends (and now bloggers) of the character of the president. As if any of them are in a position to opine on such a topic.

One of the most pernicious characteristics of this species of discourse is the attempt to determine the sincerity of a candidate's statements. Reporters, and bloggers often dig up old statements from prior campaigns and speeches where he argued (or perhaps even voted) for the opposite of what he is now saying. Now, as a matter of pure politics I can see the usefulness of highlighting insincerity. We prefer the candidate we support to be completely sincere in her statements--generally because we support her for those statements and we do sincerely believe them.

But should we? There are serious problems with worrying about the sincerity of politicians. First, and most obviously, is the epistemological. How do we tell when a politician is being sincere? After all, since sincerity is a selling point most candidates will try to present themselves as really believing what they say. And it turns out that the best (or at least easiest) way to do this is to act as if you really do believe it. Thus, it doesn't really matter whether you really think Roe v. Wade should be overturned if you still work to overturn it. And any Republican president who runs as a social conservative will try to appoint only judges that are consistent with this claim, regardless of what he actually believes.

Well, what about those cases where a president says he believes in something, but then does nothing about it? Isn't that a sign that he wasn't sincere in his statements? If someone is truly against, say, criminalizing drug use, won't she do much more than the insincere politician? This might be true, but I would have to see evidence before I will be convinced. There are many reasons why politicians don't vote or support or work for things they claim to believe in. Only one of them might be because they are lying (and as I said above it is not clear that lying about this is even a very common reason for this lack of support). It seems more common might be the exact same reasons why those politicians who do support it are also unable to do anything. Consider gay marriage. Does it really matter what actual beliefs a Republican has? Almost all Republicans politicians are forced to disavow support for gay equality. Similarly with Democrats--they can say they are against gay marriage, but they have to come out in favor of civil unions. Does it matter what they actually believe? Won't their behavior be the same?

Finally, it is not even clear to me why we should want a politician that really does believe everything she says. After all, the candidates we support are campaigning for our votes on the basis that he will represent us, what we would prefer, in Washington. In a functioning democracy the elected leaders will be responsive to the desires of the people they claim to represent. Thus, even if he doesn't believe in something he can still sincerely work for it if he feel it is what is wanted by those he is working for. I would be more interested in a candidate's ability to do this, to act as a true public servant rather than a sincere ruler.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Life soundtrack

I was listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor when I got on the bus this morning, just before that part of Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven! when the preacher starts talking about his vision and there was this black man who was doing the same--the entire time I was on the bus--except he was he was very much not a Christian exhorter. Duelling apolocalypses.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Rudy an asshole?

I suppose it's a sign of how much I've changed that it is Feb. of the year before the election and I'm already beginning to think about the candidates. I used to complain if I had to pay attention before September of the even years. Thanks 9/11.

But I am a bit older now, and hopefully a little more thoughtful about politics and especially who I should support politically. When I was 20 I voted by comparing the three candidates on a list of about a dozen political issues I cared about to see who agreed with me the most and (oh the shame) some kind of intangible "honesty" and "sincerity" in presentation. Yes, I voted for Nader.

Since then I've eschewed the political evaluation based on the character of the candidate. It relies too much on how the media chooses to present certain candidates. Do I really think that Al Gore is "wooden"? How the fuck should I know? Yet that was the image I was given by the MSM during 2000. More significantly, there was the meme that we should vote for Bush because he would be great to have a beer with. I don't know if people actually voted for him for this reason, but the media certainly thought that they would. And somehow these things seem to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The point is that I've become distrustful of any attempt to sway me on the quality of a candidate for political office on the basis of character. That is why I'm not sure how to respond to the recent flux of articles in the liberal blogosphere on how Rudy Guiliani is so very autocratic and thin-skinned. It seems like this is just another way of saying that we wouldn't enjoy having a beer with Rudy.

But the real problem is this: it ends up that Bush's "character," or even more important, Cheney's character is important. That the reason we created this disaster in Iraq is a result of their character. But as someone who will never meet them, how am I supposed to know what they are like except by what the media tells me? And this when I don't trust the media? I don't know.
via The Guardian, here's Auden on Fitzgerald:
"I've been reading This Side of Paradise. Chester gave it to me. Those long conversations between the Princeton man and his girl. One simply can't believe that he cared for her in the least. All American writing gives the impression that Americans don't care for girls at all. What the American male really wants is two things: he wants to be blown by a stranger while reading a newspaper and he wants to be fucked by his buddy when he's drunk. Everything else is society."

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Moral Realism

One of the more exciting things I'll be doing in the next few months is writing a paper for my class about moral realism. Moral realism is about more than rebutting relativism in ethics, as it is entirely possible to deny the objectivity or reality of morality without being a relativist about moral actions. David Hume for instance seems to have held this view. He believed that while the content of moral claims was expressive (essentially, referring to our emotions or feelings), nonetheless humans tend to have similar emotional responses to certain kinds of actions, thus making them "good" or "bad."

What we'll be focusing on instead is the ontological status of morality. Hume notwithstanding, most people seem to think that if morality is objective, then there must be some kind of reality to morality. But even if moral rules are real, they seem to be of a different kind than say, most physical objects.

It seems to me that there are a couple of main ways you might think of the reality of morality.
1) As Platonic or Moorean non-natural entities or properties.
2) As socially constructed relations between human actions and freedom, rationality, desires, actions, etc.

If you take morality to be referring to Platonic forms, it is easy to understand how these these entities are "real" enough to uphold claims of objectivity. The problem is that Platonic forms (or Moorean non-natural properties) are very odd things. I take it that Mackie's Argument from Queerness (that we shouldn't believe in the objectivity of moral claims because moral entities are unlike any other kind of entity) is primarily directed against this view.

If, however, you take moral claims to be referring to constructed relations then these entities no longer seem so strange. We are familiar with the reality of constructed relations such as marriage, games, art, etc. The problem is whether any socially constructed property, relation, et. al. will be strong enough to justify claims of objectivity in ethics. I assume that Mackie's Argument from Relativity (that the difference in moral codes makes it unlikely that they are the result of apprehending objective truths about morality) is meant to claim that it is not.

More on this later.