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It is in the prosecution of some single object, and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application of his moral and physical energies, that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development, consists. Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with repose; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm our eyes. If we consider the position of man in the universe,—if we remember the constant tendency of his energies towards some definite activity, and recognize the influence of surrounding nature, which is ever provoking him to exertion, we shall be ready to acknowledge that repose and possession do not indeed exist but in imagination. - Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government (The Limits of State Action) (1854 ed.)

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Letter on Reinhard's: The Moral Landscape of 'Juno'

David Reinhard just can not understand why anyone does good:

Oh, the characters generally do the right, life-affirming thing in the end. But I'm not sure they -- or anyone else in "Juno" -- could tell you why. There are no moral or ethical structures to guide them. There's no overarching belief system. The characters are at the mercy of their feelings.
. . .
An actual belief system provides a sturdier moral foundation, though I'll admit it might not go over big in a hip movie about teenage pregnancy. It might smack too much of morality and, egads, religion.

Here was my letter:

I have read all the "New Atheists" books (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens) but I must say David Reinhard's piece ('Random acts of kindness, senseless acts of beauty?', Jan. 6) almost has me convinced as to the benefit of religion. He says that without an "actual belief system", eg. religion, good deeds are inexplicable. The "New Atheists" assert that, basically, our moral intuitions come to us via evolution. But I am beginning to wonder. Thank goodness for religion! Undoubtedly, without it Reinhard would be raping and killing as desired.

Tally: Week of Dec. 28 - Jan. 3

Letters Received: 449
Letters Published: 71

Most Popular Topic: The Bush administration
Number of Letters: 56
Opposed: 50
Support: 6

Second Most Popular Topic: The presidential campaign
Number of Letters: 34

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Klein stumps for vapidity

Ezra Klein here analyzes the speeches of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton:

Listening to her speech, it occurred to me that there's a second, less thematic, way to separate the various candidate's speeches: Scope. Obama speaks at the level of narrative. Edwards speaks of individuals. Clinton speaks of governance. Because of that, her speeches are less grabbing than theirs, but convey a greater impression of competence. Listening to the three of them, I tend to buy Hillary's argument that, on a technical level, she'd be better at this governance thing. But being president is only partially about carrying out your daily duties and greeting foreign dignitaries. It's also about inspiring the populace, moving them forward, mobilizing the population to press for change that would be impossible within the current contours of the political landscape.
As you may recall, one of George Bush's slogans was this exactly: "Moving America Forward".

  • inspiring the populace - Well, Obama is never gonna get my vote if the main modality to do so is via inspiration. First, I do not find him inspiring; nor any of the candidates. Second, I work to not be inspired in politics. Instead, try reading various candidates' speeches. Or go and read the 2000/2004 presidential debates. Then decide who has substance. Third, too much Chomsky has convinced me that Americans place too much "hope" in their leaders and not enough in themselves. Part of Obama's rhetoric is on this topic exactly. At the top of his website right now is: I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... I'm asking you to believe in yours. I suppose this is the inspiring part. Just does not inspire me. I want substance.
  • moving them forward - What does this mean? I recall a discussion with a Bush supporter in 2004. I asked "Why Bush?" Answer: "He is moving us forward." Requests for further detail only elicited the same answer.
  • mobilizing the population to press for change - It may be the case that he is the candidate most likely to "mobilize" people. But for many of the same reasons above, I will just not be one. Nor am I convinced he is terribly mobilizing anyway.
Here is a comment on Obama.