Bad Religion

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of my all-time favorite Christian documents. Written in 1563, mostly by Zacharias Ursinus, the Heidelberg (as it is sometimes called) is composed by 129 questions and answers (the classical format of a catechism), supposed to be studied in 52 Sundays (that is, one year). I believe it is very telling that, being a catechism, the Heidelberg was written thinking mostly about younger people, even children. Ursinus himself was only about 29 years old when he wrote it. Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in that the Heidelberg sounds extremely deep for most readers today.

Throughout its questions and answers, the Heidelberg covers mostly three Christian documents: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in Heaven…”) and the Apostle’s Creed. The catechism is also divided into three main parts: Our sin and misery (questions 3-11), our redemption and freedom (questions 12-85), our gratitude and obedience (86-129). Probably an easier way to remember this is to say that the Heidelberg is divided into Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. That is also, according to many interpreters, the basic division of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, historically one of the most important books in the Bible.

I mention all these characteristics about the Heidelberg Catechism because I think they are worth commenting on. As I learned from a friend, that is the Gospel: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, Christians are divided on how exactly this works, but all agree that our relationship with God is strained. That is the guilt. However, in Jesus Christ, we can restart a peaceful relationship with God. That is the grace. This should be followed by a life of gratitude. That is the way the Gospel is good news. If you don’t emphasize these three points you are not really presenting the Biblical gospel. To talk about grace without talking about guilt is nonsense. To talk about guilt and not grace is not good news at all. To talk about guilt and grace but not of gratitude is antinomianism. To talk about gratitude (or obedience) without talking about guilt and especially grace is legalism. But also, notice how unbalanced the three main parts are: Ursinus dedicated way more space for grace and gratitude that he did for guilt.

That’s not accidental. Also, it is very interesting that he talks about the Ten Commandments when he is dealing with gratitude. It didn’t have to be this way. Ursinus could have included the Law when talking about guilt. He could use the law to show how miserable we are for not fulfilling it. But instead, he wanted to show that obeying God is a sign of gratitude. You are free already. Obeying will not make you any more saved. But it is certainly the behavior of a truly restored person.

If you read so far, I should first thank you for your attention, but also say that I am completely unapologetic for speaking so openly on Christian themes. At some point in history, Christians decided to adapt to the modern culture. That was the birth of Christian Liberalism. Modern man, some of them assumed, could no longer believe in stories of gods and miracles. Modern science was able to explain things that societies in the past thought to be supernatural occurrences. The Bible was at worst pure nonsense or at beast a praiseful reflection of the piety of people in the past, but certainly not a supernatural revelation from God. But if you take away the supernatural elements of the Bible, what do you have left? Good morals, some thought. I believe they were wrong.

The social gospel is one consequence of Christian liberalism. The central miracle in the Bible is that Jesus, a mortal man, was dead for three days and resurrected. That is indeed a miracle. Make no mistake: people in the first century knew as well as we do that people don’t come back to life after three days. Maybe they knew it better than we do, for in the 21st century, for many of us, death is not a part of everyday life. For them, it certainly was. Christians have believed through almost two thousand years that Jesus’ death and resurrection have something to do with us being reconciled to God. But if Jesus didn’t resurrect, and no one really heard from God that he is angry, what do we have left? The answer, according to Christian liberals, is social justice. Reform society. I believe that for this, they own society at large an apology, and I will explain why.

I heard from too many people that the reason they don’t go to church is that Christians are hypocrites. “Do as I say, but not as I do”. Maybe they are right. The balance between guilt, grace, and gratitude if fundamental for Christianism to work. Salvation (reestablishing a rightful relationship with God) is by grace, not by works. Say that salvation is by works and you set the board in a way that you are sure to lose. As I already mentioned, I think it is just wonderful that the Heidelberg Catechism talks about the Law of God (The Ten Commandments) when it is discussing gratitude, not guilt, and I believe this is a great lesson for us today.

I say all this today because I believe that political correctness is (at least to a great degree) the bastard son (or daughter) of the social gospel. See the recent Gillette commercial that caused so much controversy, for example. Are they really saying anything wrong? Don’t men behave sometimes in ways that are less than commendable? I believe we do. Especially coming from a Latino culture as I do, I am more than willing to say that men all too often are disrespectful towards women and also towards other men. However, how the people at Gillette know this? If there is no God, or if he didn’t speak, how can you tell what is ethically commendable behavior and what is not?

I am no specialist, but as far as I know, more than enough atheist philosophers are willing to admit that in a sole materialist worldview there are no universal grounds for morality. As the poet said, “if there is no God, then all things are permissible”. It is always important in a conversation like this to explain that I am not saying that atheists cannot be ethical people. That is absolutely not what I am saying. Some of the best people I ever met were atheists. Some of the worst were Christians who were at church every single Sunday. With that explained, what I am saying is that there is no universal guide for human behavior if there is no God and everything just happened by chance. There are particular guides, but not a universal one, and to adhere to them is really a matter of choice.

The way that I see it, people at Gillette want men to feel bad and to change their behavior. They want men to feel guilty and to have gratitude. But where is the grace? I believe that is why this commercial irritated so many people. It makes people at Gillette look self-righteous or legalistic. Or both! But it definitely doesn’t help men to change their ways, supposing that there is something to change. I believe there is. There is a lot to change! But political correctness is not the way to do it.

Government shutdown – private vs. public responses

The recent shutdown of the government in America has caused a midsize crisis for state employees leaving them unpaid for 35 days straight. Although the shutdown ended on the 25th of January, one can still draw a conclusion about the crisis handling from a public and a private perspective.

A failure of government

When you take a closer look at the history of governmental crisis management, you mostly look at a huge collection of mismanagement. In the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of intriguing works dealing with the failures of public crisis responses, especially the case of hurricane Katrina (Wikipedia here lists more than 100 references), which has been one the of most investigated disasters in recent history.

Crisis can provoke the good as well as the bad inside humans. One might think of the countless volunteers after nature catastrophes doing their very best to help. On the other hand, there have also been stories of grieving and plundering mobs on the streets, after hurricane Katrina for example. So, what we can say for sure is that crises push human behaviour to the extremes. Keeping this in mind it sounds reasonable to leave it to the government to set up an agenda of rules to coordinate humanitarian efforts. However, the government fails most of the time to deliver effective responses to crises, whether they are man-made or exogenous.

Not being able to find an agreement over the federal budget indicates that the government also has very limited options to offer to their employees. And indeed, Lara Trump gave some very handy advice to unpaid workers: “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain but it’s going to be for the future of our country. […] Their children and their grandchildren will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” Yes, please explain to your children how you nearly starved to death because of a dispute over a wall. Sounds reasonable.

Whereas Donald Trump’s kind of clumsy attempt to clarify Ross Wilbur’s statement that government workers should take out loans (Maybe a small loan of a million dollars, huh?) was not too stupid at all. He emphasizes that worker should “work along” with local grocery shop owners they know. He was very clear that employees could not expect help from the government, but instead, they should look out for support on a local level. I do not think that this is a good method of communicating this issue, but it is for sure a very honest one.

Mac & Cheese

A 35-day shutdown, so to speak nearly a missed monthly wage, might not sound unbearable for a central European. But keeping in mind the saving habits of many Americans, a huge amount of government workers are facing existential problems. A recent FED survey found out that about 40% of the American population is not able to cover a 400$ emergency expense without selling or borrowing something.

Witnessing the inability of the government to provide payments for their workers, private enterprises reacted in a remarkable way. The huge food company Kraft rented space for pop-up stores in Washington in which they gave away food entirely for free. One of the most demanded products was Mac & Cheese. The celebrity Chef José Andrés provided free groceries for affected government worker through his NGO “World Central Kitchen.” When the government stopped caring, people started to do so.

Learnings

The overwhelming care for the unpaid government workers by the private sector further strengthened the role and importance of individual responsibility. In situations of crises, people tend to be less submissive to authority and focus on voluntary cooperation of human beings. I feel like it is important to mention here that I do not want to praise crises as a suitable method of bringing people together. But when we take a closer look at the history of humanity it becomes evident that instead of governmental decisions, voluntary human cooperation made our modern life possible. And in times of crises, people become clear about the relevance of these values and processes, which normally guide human progress subconsciously and unnoticed. Private responses to crises are a sign to me that humans are capable to display kindness, cooperation, and humanity beyond the borders of government.

John Rawls had good reason to be a reticent socialist and political liberal

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John Rawls: Reticent Socialist by William A. Edmundson has provoked a renewed attempt, written up in Jacobin and Catalyst, to link the totemic American liberal political philosopher with an explicitly socialist program to fix the problems of 21st century capitalism, and especially the domination of the political process by the super-rich. I found the book a powerful and enlightening read. But I think it ultimately shows that Rawls was right not to weigh his philosophy down with an explicit political program, and that socialists have yet to respond effectively to James Buchanan’s exploration of the challenges of non-market decision-making – challenges that bite more when states take on more explicit economic tasks. The large-scale public ownership of industry at the core of Edmundson’s democratic socialism is plausibly compatible with a stable, liberal political community in some circumstances but it is unclear how such a regime is supposed to reduce the scope of social domination compared with a private-property market economy in similar circumstances once we look at public institutions with the same skeptical attention normally reserved for private enterprise. A draft review is below.

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Selective Moral Argumentation

There are two competing approaches to moral theory. Consequentialism posits that actions and policies should be judged by their consequences: an action (or policy) is good if its predictable consequences are good. Deontologist perspectives, on the other hand, claim that actions should be judged according to their own worth, irrespective of consequences.

Note that the differences between these approaches lies not in the specific policies advocated but in their modes of arguing. Consider the death penalty. Consequentialists are generally against killing people because it’s not a good idea, but will support the death penalty if it can be shown that it is a cost-effective way of reducing crime. The deontologist opposition against the death penalty is absolute, but a deontologist may also support the death penalty because criminals deserve it, even if that’s not an efficient way to reduce crime.

I used to believe that specific individuals are either consequentialists or deontologists, i.e. some people are very sensitive to consequentialist reasoning while others were immune to it, and vice versa. At the very least, I expected individuals to combine both approaches in a consistent way (for example, by being consequentialists only two-thirds of the time). But now I think this is putting the cart before the horses: what happens in practice is that an individual first decides which policy she wants to defend, and then employs the mode of argument that is more favorable to the policy in question.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing military dictatorships were pretty common in Latin America. These governments often committed heinous crimes. When, years or even decades after the fact, the issue of punishing those responsible came to the fore, right-wingers opposed the move from a consequentialist perspective –social peace is worth preserving, isn’t it?–, while left-wingers took the deontologist stance –surely those who committed crimes against humanity should be harshly punished. But when the discussion turned about pardoning left-wing guerrillas, as in the 2016 peace referendum in Colombia, the tables turned: now the right found intolerable that criminals would be pardoned for the sake of social peace. (It is worth noting that in Argentina, where several former military commanders, including some with atrocious human rights records, contested and won elections after the return to democracy, the right never raised deontologist objections against them.)

I see the same pattern in Mexico today. During the electoral campaign last year, then candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was harshly criticized for raising the possibility of an amnesty for members of drug cartels in order to pacify the country. To be sure, there are many ways in which such a strategy could go wrong; but the criticism focused on the moral horror of pardoning drug dealers. Predictably, now that the government of López Obrador cut fuel supplies in order to prevent gasoline theft –something against which his predecessors had done nothing–, his opponents have found the virtues of consequentialism: the policy is creating (serious) fuel shortages. As you may guess, the government highlights the importance of combating criminals, without paying much attention to the consequences.

All of this reinforces the point repeatedly made by Cowen and Hanson: politics is not about policy, but about the relative status of different social groups. That said, the fact that we (unconsciously?) pick our preferred policies/stances first and decide how to defend them afterwards only begs the question: what determines whether we end up positioning ourselves in one side of the political spectrum or another? And given that we sometimes (but rarely) switch sides, what are the motivations behind these changes?

Timothy C. May, crypto-anarchist hero (1951 – December 15, 2018)

Tim May
Timothy C. May

News has arrived that Timothy May, the founder of the crypto-anarchist movement has died on December 15th, 2018. He has been a hero and inspiration for many in the crypto-anarchist/anarcho-capitalist community for his ideas to spread freedom and privacy through the use of cryptography.

Once an Intel senior engineer, he has written extensively about privacy, cryptography, and internet freedom. Without a doubt, he has been a great influence on the likes of John Perry Barlow (declaration of independence for cyberspace), Nick Szabo (smart contracts and Bitgold), Wei Dai (B-money), and Satoshi Nakamoto – the inventor of Bitcoin and blockchain. He has also contributed extensively to the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, the same list that Satoshi initially used to spread his Bitcoin whitepaper and to invite cryptographers to join further developments of Bitcoin.

In his Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities (1994) paper, May describes Crypto anarchy as

the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism, transcending national boundaries and freeing individuals to make the economic arrangements they wish to make consensually.

He furthermore writes that

Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain. “Swiss banks in cyberspace” will make economic transactions much more liquid and much less subject to local rules and regulations.

Acknowledging the possible negative sides of crypto anarchism, May sees the development of crypto anarchism as mostly good. He believes that criminal activity within a crypto anarchist community are mostly exceptions and not the rule. He writes,

Is this a Good Thing? Mostly yes. Crypto anarchy has some messy aspects, of this there can be little doubt. From relatively unimportant things like price-fixing and insider trading to more serious things like economic espionage, the undermining of corporate knowledge ownership, to extremely dark things like anonymous markets for killings.

But let’s not forget that nation-states have, under the guise of protecting us from others, killed more than 100 million people in this century alone. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, just to name the most extreme examples. It is hard to imagine any level of digital contract killings ever coming close to nationstate barbarism.

Few mainstream news outlets today will write about Timothy May’s death and impact on our world, but for us who aspire to uphold Bitcoin’s initial principle to make (financial) freedom and privacy absolute, he will always be remembered for his inspiring contributions to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property.

No Country for Creative Destruction

Imagine a country whose inhabitants reject every unpleasant byproduct of innovation and competition.

This country would be Frédéric Bastiat’s worst nightmare: in order to avoid the slightest maladies expected to emerge from creative destruction, all their advantages would remain unseen forever.

Nevertheless, that impossibility to acknowledge the unintended favourable consequences of competition is not conditioned by any type of censure, but by a sort of self-imposed moral blindness: the metaphysical belief that “being” is good and “becoming” is bad. A whole people inspired by W. B. Yeats, they want to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.

In this imaginary country, which would deserve a place in “The Universal History of Infamy” by J.L. Borges, people cultivate a curious strain of meritocracy, an Orwellian one: they praise stagnation for its stability and derogate growth because of the stubborn and incorruptible conviction that life in society is a zero-sum game.

Since growth is an unintended consequence of creative destruction, they reason additionally, then there must be no moral merit to be recognised in such dumb luck. On the other hand, stagnation is the unequivocal signal of the good deeds to the unlucky, who otherwise could suffer the obvious lost coming from every innovation.

In this fantastic country, Friedrich Nietzsche and his successors are well read: everybody knows that, in the Eternal Return, the whole chance is played at each throw of the dice. So, they conclude, “if John Rawls asked us to choose between growth or stagnation, we would shout at him: Stagnation!!!”

But the majority of the inhabitants of “Stagnantland” are not the only to blame for their devotion to quietness. The few and exceptional proponents of creative destruction who live in Stagnantland are mostly keen on the second term of the concept. That is why some love to say, from time to time, “we all are stagnationist” – the few contrarians are just Kalki’s devotees.

These imaginary people love to spend their vacations abroad, particularly in a legendary island named “Revolution”. Paradoxically, in Revolution Island the Revolutionary government found a way to avoid any kind of counter-revolutionary innovation. It is not necessary to mention that Revolution Island is, by far, Stagnantlanders’ favourite holiday destination.

They show their photos from their last vacation in Revolution Island and proudly stress: “Look: they left the buildings as they were back in 1950!!! Awesome!!!” If you dare to point out that the picture resembles a city in war, that the 1950 buildings lack of any maintenance or refurbishment, they will not get irritated. They will simply smile at you and reply smugly: “but they are happy!”

Actually, for Stagnantlanders, as for many others, ignorance is bliss, but their governments do not need to resort to such rudimentary devices as censure and spying to prevent people from being informed about the innovations and discoveries occurring in other countries, as Revolutionary Island rulers sadly do. Stagnantlanders simply reject any innovation as an article of faith!

Notwithstanding, they allow to themselves some guilty pleasures: they love to use smartphones brought by ant-smuggling and to watch contemporary foreign films which, despite being realistic, show a dystopian future to them.

As everything is deteriorated, progress is always a going back to an ancient and glorious time. In Stagnantland, things are not created, but restored. As with Parmenides, they do not believe in movement, but if there has to be an arrow of time, you had better point it to the past.

Moreover, Stagnantland is an imaginary country because it does not only lack of duration, but of territory as well. As the matter of fact, no man inhabits Stagnantland, but it is indeed stagnation that inhabits the hearts of Stagnantlanders. That is how, from dusk to dawn, any territory could be fully conquered by the said sympathy for the stagnation.

Nevertheless, if we scrutinise the question with due diligence, we will discover that the stagnation is not an ineluctable future, but our common past. Human beings appeared very much earlier than civilisation. So, all those generations must have been doing something before agriculture, commerce, and institutions.

Before the concept of creative destruction had been formulated by Joseph Schumpeter, it was needed a former conception about how people are conditioned by institutions: Bernard Mandeville pointed out how private vices might turn into public benefits, if politicians arranged the correct set of incentives. The main issue, thus, should be the process of discovery of such institutions.

That is why the said aversion to competition and innovation is hardly a problem of a misguided sense of justice, but mostly a matter of what we could coin as “bounded imagination”: the difficultly of reason to deal with complex phenomena. Don’t you think so, Horatio?

What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.