Sunday, December 17, 2006

First-Day Thoughts on Relativism and Religion

I was walking on a village street with my ten-year-old this morning, responding to her questions about how to respond to people who say things she doesn't believe (not only religious; for her, the issue is the same when someone says that there was a bug in their eye that was bigger than the eye). And I found myself thinking of Weinberger's Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought which I just read, which talks of course about Ben's development of non-disputative disputation, though it mostly argues that Ben really didn't even believe in the basic Deism that he mostly claimed:

I believe in one God...he ought to be worshipped. ... the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.
(Interesting and fun, though somewhat repetitive in style, but not really convincing: Ben could take an ironic stance towards anything, including his ironic stance towards anything, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a Deist. Still, it's true that with everything he wrote you have to figure that he was very likely thinking -- with irony -- about its effect on you, and adjusting his words accordingly.) And I found myself thinking of the recent Volokh Conspiracy discussion of
the most common fallacy in discussions about atheism - the belief that atheism necessarily leads to moral relativism
And of the almost-as-recent related argument by the Rev. Sensing at One Hand Clapping on "Can atheism be justified?"
If atheists are true to their own creed, they must admit that the entire concept of human rights crumbles to dust according to that same creed.
Well, it's interesting; it's sort of like saying that if you believe in quantum mechanics then you have to stop believing in objects; there is no such thing as a thing. Well, sure, in a way, but I would tend to say that the meanings of words like "thing" (or of "right", in this case) doesn't crumble; these are words which we understand as having complex meanings. I'm personally not an atheist, I believe that approximately five out of seven Universes are created by Deities, and some of Them are benevolent and Others aren't, and our Universe is -- well, it's a Universe. Maybe yes, maybe no. But my notion of rights is neither relative nor religious; my notion of rights has to do with my notion of right and wrong.

And what is my notion of rights, you ask? I'm not telling, at least not right now; that's not what this note is about. I'm thinking right now about the relationship between God and Truth and Right.

You see, back when I was about ten myself, I did a moderate amount of Bible-reading, and I made a discovery which a zillion other people have made: I discovered the anger of Moses at Numbers 31:15:

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?...
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Now, there are of course many ways of dealing with that passage, and many others like it. Maybe it's all a mistranslation, or God's spokesguy was having a bad day, or whatever. Maybe God (who is giving Moses detailed directions through the whole process, and continues after this) strongly disapproves, and it just gets left out for some reason. But when you get through it all, it seems to me that there are two possibilities: either what Moses ordered is not what God wanted, or God was wrong. If you think that Moses' orders were morally justified then I think there's something wrong with you, and I don't see anything relative about that judgement.

The best religious answer I can imagine is one along the lines of "Yes, it's wrong: the Bible shows us a progression, an evolution, and many of the pre-Christian policies were in fact wrong". Or something like "Yes, that's wrong, and it is God that tells us it's wrong -- directly rather than through the Bible. If you read the Bible carefully, you'll see that that doesn't fit, and those other passages don't fit either."

Well, maybe, but you're no longer using Biblical revelation as core justification. You're deciding what the Bible really really means, making it make sense based on what you know (and I agree) is RIght. So, does that matter? Yes, it does to me: it tells me that the Biblical God is not the source of my moral judgements. They come from inside, or from the basic logic of The Way Things Are. My personal guess is that they come from whatever I've evolved to be, and that this may or may not be due to the planning of a Person. It doesn't really matter. Well, if God is an evil God who did approve his spokesguy's orders and will put me in Hell for thinking independent thoughts, then that really really matters to me -- and it's possible. (I suspect that the Rev. Sensing thinks that this is not possible, which is just one of many things that we disagree about.) But it wouldn't turn right into wrong, or vice versa.

Sensing does have a very strange stance on evolution:

Since religious beliefs are simply the product of evolution, they may be changed or discarded as we might wish.
Wow. I guess we can change ancestors as we might wish? But that might not help; maybe the basic logic of The Way Things Are would give us convergent evolution in the usual way, pushing any sufficiently-thoughtful social animals to perceive the same underlying logic. Maybe he means we can change universes as we might wish? I don't think so.

But mainly, my guess is that Rev. Sensing, and some of the commenters on the Volokh thread, are using internal judgements which basically work the same way mine do, the same way as in any reasonably healthy or (I strongly suspect, though with less confidence) any sufficiently advanced critter from Betelguese, but are then attributing those judgements to God in the hope of a kind of logical coherence which I as a computer geek would love to see but don't expect; Ben Franklin's ironic stance seems about right.

Meanwhile, somebody wants me to read Dickens' Christmas Carol to her again. And I have no problem with Dickens' sense of morality.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Plan for Victory, Part IIa: Basics

I just made my annual donation to Spirit of America; it's a significant chunk of my income, and I don't grudge it but I don't believe it's the best way to be handling this. I've described SOA before as a way of helping our armed forces act more like Barnett's "SysAdmin" force, a "pistol-packing Peace Corps", but Barnett's quite right that the current armed forces -- the "Leviathan" forces -- are and should remain focused on breaking, not building. (Sure, they can do about as much building as they do now, but the more we dilute their training the more people die, civilians as well as soldiers.) Yet our effort on building should exceed our effort on breaking, and we need more builders than breakers. What to do?

My answer, which seemed obvious to me even in the fall of 2001, is an extension to the armed forces which I might now call a SysAdmin force but which I would then have called a constabulary force; it was one of the PNAC notions, though my idea of it was and remains idiosyncratic. My version of it would be labelled the "Freedom Engineering Corps" or the "Liberty Builders Legion" or some such, and we'd recruit worldwide, and (adapting a Roman notion, if you like) veterans would be offered American citizenship. I don't believe recruiting half a million or so quite qualified men and women would be that much of a problem, I really don't. Paying for them? That's a problem, but not worse than the problems we've got and a lot better than problems I expect to come up if we can't make this work. [UpD: Austin Bay says of General Schoomaker that he "is quoted as saying every increase of 10K in troop strength costs $1.2 billion." That sounds reasonable to me, and I don't think that SysAdmin will be much cheaper (or more expensive) than Leviathan.] Way back then I wrote a letter to my Congresscritter, saying that I certainly approved of the invasion of Afghanistan but that we should commit in advance to spending as much on building as we did on breaking. Oh, well.

My SysAdmin people would swear an oath (or affirmation, or whatever; my non-pacifist Quaker dad was affirmed into the Navy straight out of Swarthmore in WWII) but it wouldn't be about defending the US. It would be something about serving the ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of property by assisting transparency, consensuality, and generally the rule of law. They would all read de Soto on the way that appropriate law is crucial to getting out of poverty; they would listen to guys (like my dad, except that he's been dead for some years) who have experience with the kind of situation de Soto documents, where it can literally take years to get the signatures you need just to start a small business, even when someone with moderate clout is helping.

My SysAdmin force would move into a region right behind Leviathan, and they would pay everybody. (Do you get the idea that I expect to pay for results?) They would pay a few people that they'd hire to help them get going with roads, water, electricity and sewage and trash disposal going: also cell phone towers, which I'm counting as basic infrastructure. More important, they'd pay literally every adult to fill out a survey. Who are you, where do you live, who do you live with, what do you do, who do you work for and who works for you and what do you own? Is there a business that you are associated with that could help your area make money? That's nice, now who do you trust to represent you for the next few weeks, after which we'll hold a preliminary election just among the few hundred people whose names seem to be grouped together by their answers on this survey? And so on. Thank you: now, here is your RFID/bar code/photo/fingerprint/biometric ID, linked to a bank account which already has a couple of bucks in it, and here is your personal cell phone. Your bank account is also linked to a microcredit plan where we are willing to make small loans to just a few people in your group, and then to other such people after it's repaid...larger loans require security, but we are busily doing deSotoish things to make credit work, in large part by clarifying land titles, and we are paying people to work on it.

Yes, seriously. Is this a huge expense? Yes, it is, but I think a plan along these lines would drastically reduce our expenditures in lives, and drastically increase our chances of success. It's not all about property. Road checkpoints would mostly be unmanned; as cars went by, their RFIDs (or possibly bar codes) would be registered, and the people inside would hold up their ID cards to be scanned automatically. Still it's mostly about property; about using 21st-century techniques to bring countries up through the 19th and 20th centuries. Yes, it can be done. "The Gap can be brought up, so long as we continue to grow the Core". (Barnett)

Most banking would be done by ATMs with webcams, and human tellers far away. We would also use transaction-register machines: if you both hold up your IDs and your thumbs to the webcam and both approve a transaction, then it's done and money moves from one account to another. And so on...minimize the cost of transaction. (The cost of setting up a business should usually be approximately zero: you just fill out a form.) The cell phones might not be camera phones but they would be usable by WML as well as SMS, with printed pamphlets in Dari and Pashto and Arabic and whatever explaining how to do business with a computer by phone. The Sears Roebuck catalog might return.

And we would label everything; my SysAdmin people would be setting up a system that would be fairly high on liberty but quite low on privacy. They would pay people to survey every piece of land and geocode-label the survey points, every vehicle (including bikes) and every firearm would get a barcode (easy to read but might come off) and an engraved code. Everything would be photographed, all the photos would be in the database. The core of my Corps would be the database.

But then, I'm a geek. A pro-capitalist geek. Oh, well.

Update: Barnett reports:

ARTICLE: Military considers recruiting foreigners: Expedited citizenship would be an incentive, By Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, December 26, 2006
Hey, that's my idea! But his description, which may be partly accurate, is
Scary to some, but this is internationalizing the SysAdmin force on the sly. Afraid to recruit nations, recruit individuals instead.
Personally I'd be happy to recruit nations as well -- and given that my SysAdmin would be dedicated to universals, not to the US as such, I think we could. But it's not the starting point.