Monday, February 21, 2005

"The Simplest Thing in The World," or Pragmatics come from Principles

This is an excellent time to clear up a misunderstanding I had with Billy Beck in an old discussion on Q and O.

In the course of attacking a purely pragmatic/utilitarian defense of Wal-Mart's right to pull out of one of its Canadian stores, I wrote:

"I contend that "Homo Economus" doesn't exist. We are not ants in an ant-hill (i.e. the minimal hedonists of classical economics) merely satisfying basic desires. Freedom and genuinely human values exist on a higher plane than that, contra the classical economists and Marx."

To which Billy Beck replied:

"I could not disagree more with your final sentence, but you know that."

I think that Billy thought that I was referring to God as the source of ultimate value.* I actually was referring to the fact that human freedom and human values come from human nature and are not meant for economic exchange. You can trade ON your values, i.e. if you have a reputation for honest work, you not only can earn more money but you DESERVE to earn more money. You cannot TRADE your values, or else they cease to be values. If that were the case, prostitution would be the highest form of human love for someone like Ayn Rand.

I'll take the blame for not being clearer. "I contend that "Homo Economus" doesn't exist" is too extreme. Obviously, we employ our values in trade everyday. The point I was inexpertly trying to make is that taking the assumptions that economists use and then applying them to policy decisions on basic issues of human rights and existence is an inappropriate use of the methodology, a category mistake, since those assumptions, if they are of any value, must be based on an understanding of man as he is.

Using economic ideas as if they are disconnected from the philosophical premises to which they are connected generally cashes out to philosophical pragmatism in the long run. Pragmatism is based on a premise of ignorance about ultimates which I contend is ultimately UNpragmatic {in the conventional sense of the term} since it directs us to concepts that it attempts to deny to us under "the veil of ignorance." It leaves us teetering on the edge of either denying metaphysical propositions, and thus leaving us open to the sort of anti-scientific skepticism that undercuts empiricism and the "pragmatic project" or affirming them and denying that same skepticism, thus directly attacking the premises of Pragmatic philosophy.

How is this an "excellent time" to bring this up? Well, the death of Hunter S. Thompson moves Billy to say:

That "very little to do" part is the root of what must be my ultimate condemnation of Thompson. All day long, I've been loosely paging through a two-foot-tall stack of books and trying to recall if I ever saw him use the words "social justice". He might not have, but there is no question that he swallowed that goddamned evil bullshit, hook, line & sinker. You see, for all his vaunted "individualism", it was half-assed. He always took the government premise at face-value: the idea that some people -- a duly-processed herd at democratic poll -- could wield the force to rule others' lives by right. Everything about politics that we got from him must first be taken through that lens. Yes: all his work was filled with enraged tirades against "fixers" and all the rest of it, but serious observers know his attenuation whenever it looked like his herd had the angle. Never forget: when The Lying Bastard came along in 1992, Thompson settled: "He may be a swine, but he's our swine."

I am without any HST at the moment, but, if my memory serves me correctly, towards the end of F&L '72 he comments that one of the Democratic ops makes a "brilliant" argument for gun control and HST hopes that he doesn't find out about Thompson's "gun fetish." This symbolizes the sort of bad faith Billy refers to. When you read Thompson, you are struck at the palpable divide between his desire to "live his own life" as an "outlaw journalist" and his dumbstruck "ashamedness" at not being a bigger participant in the overall left/liberal drive for 60's style collectivism and mass action, hence his desire to "hide" his instinctive desire for the right to self-protection from the Democrat in question.

This fundamental contradiction between actions and values ultimately saw Thompson become a "mal pensant" regurgatator of the "conventional media wisdom," with only vulgarity and a fake patina of Hemingwayesque machismo to individuate him from the NY Times editorial page. The promise of his early years (yes, I am a fan of his pre-"Lono" work) was betrayed, and betrayed badly by selling out the value of individualism in favor of a "consensus" that was and is not only an illusion, but an evil one to boot.

*as a natural-rights advocate who is also a theist, I certainly do think that they ORIGINATE from intelligence [Billy doesn't, that's our real disagreement] , but one doesn't need to be a theist or religious believer to assert the truth of natural law.

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