Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Good Faith Arguments Without Faith and a Definition of Bad Faith

I have long railed against "faith" as a universal category for understanding religion or even for understanding how people go about being human. I am not a person of faith if the contrast is to evidence, analysis, and facts such as we know them. The latter may be provisional and incomplete but they are sure better than "belief" or "feeling" that flies in the face of the former. You can't tell me that one got up from the dead when all the rest of us stay dead---however if you convey that faith to me, you may not be acting in bad faith. You are just wrong about the facts and we can then decide how much that matters to the rest of us. When someone's faith becomes problematic to the welfare of others then it is no longer a private matter.

I'm wounded about "faith" too because I studied with an eminent scholar who wrote a book called Faith and Belief that I feel confident in saying was among the worst efforts in the theory of religion I have ever read. He was the director of my doctoral program and needless to say we could not get along. My response to him once was, "I refuse to sing from your Protestant hymnal." This did not go over well. 

The obvious counterexample was right before us: Vedic ritualism is not about any kind of faith or even belief. It is about the claim that this makes that happen even when the "this" is mantra and fire and the "that" is prosperity or heaven. Smith just couldn't get that. But I don't think he was acting in bad faith---he was transparent in making his arguments and his intentions were, dare I say, noble. He was just wrong, wrong in the sense of positing a theory as universal which was demonstrably inadequate, as I in good faith was eager to point out.

He didn't dismiss me when my disdain for his theory was palpable (and still is) and for that he demonstrated good faith despite the fact that faith as such was not important. What was important was that he could take my objections less personally and that I think he cared about me---though he thought as little of my talents as I thought of his theory. We were able to argue without being too disagreeable personally. Now, democracy is tedious, cumbersome because it demands negotiation, compromise, and, above all, a good faith effort to include those with whom you disagree. In effect, it is ill-suited to instant gratification, ideological intransigence, and the kind of feel-good and make the other guy hurt that characterizes our Twitter Age.

The core of the problem is that we are not mature enough to understand that a good faith argument, like democracy, takes time to reveal its intentions and outcomes. Much like Professor Smith who may not have liked me anymore than I liked him but was actually willing to continue to act in good faith because I too was acting in good faith. That is what it took for both of us and for me to survive his program. Good faith requires patience; bad faith is rewarded when we convulse into impulses and immediate gratifications. (Krsna makes this point in the Gita, obviously.)

Obama got trounced in 2010 by voters who voted for him in 08 not only by the revivals of racism but also by the fears invoked over Obamacare's putative implications. Bad faith then furthered fueled everything that was untrue or made people dislike everythingObama. That slope isn't just slippery, it's downhill and going back uphill is something very few people are willing to do. Most hard climbs will be avoided and that is said in good faith.

People are easily scared because the world of oligarchs puts all but the oligarchs at their mercy. They have no mercy, which is what we have always known. Don't you also routinely agree to the "terms and conditions of service" set forth by Corporation Oligarch? I just did it again this morning. Why should I read the endless pages of legalese when there is nothing I can do but submit to a system that I think I need to use? When we aren't protected by the government of the people, we are on our own: and that is the operative principle of Republicans nowadays, that being on your own is better than anything we the people can create. Get off my lawn means I can say or do anything I want, no matter how it affects others.

Biden stands in opposition, actually closer to the Eisenhower Republican ethos of government rather than any socialism; that is, he wants government when it can do what individuals cannot, thus closer to "leave me alone until I need us." It's not the nanny state and I suppose I warm to some of that ethos because no one likes to be told what to do. If there were more honest (i.e., good faith) justice and less systemic prejudice we could actually warm to the idea that liberty has a cost but there is too much structural corruption for any individual to change. I doubt we can wait much longer before the world---both naturally and politically---burns down around us.

We need a society, a vast majority, willing to act in good faith. Not with faith or from faith but merely in good faith. And that is what we do not have.

A very imperfect Obamacare bill has in fact made medical care more accessible to millions who previously had none. Did you get screwed? That's wholly possible. We need not debate how utterly inadequate, corrupt, or worse our system is in America when we know no matter how bad it is, it was worse before, at least for most. If you got creamed, that's what happens in systems of compromise that turn problems into intractable disputes without any ability to compromise. But as I wade here momentarily into policy, I miss the point. The real issue is bad faith, which any academic knows is something of a technical term.

The core of "bad faith" has two principal requirements. First, one must assume the stance of a blithe indifference to the welfare of others. This isn't the same as wishing ill on others; rather, one need only fail to consider what happens to others given one's intentions and behaviors. Second, one has to prioritize one's own interests in such a way that the effort to secure one's personal interest outweighs any commitment to reveal those interests honestly. These criteria let spies spy in "good" faith while lying and allows the "faithful" to say (or even believe) in things that might be regarded as patently absurd (e.g., virgin birth).

How does one's own "faith" impact others and so become a positive detriment to the public good? When we question nominees to the Supreme Court about their religion we act in good faith when we ask such a question about their faith. Bad faith is answering knowing somehow that what you are saying ("I will act on the evidence alone...) is in fact a dissimulation. But what about the situation when you don't know or fail to appreciate your position? Can you act in bad faith when you don't know you are? I think not. I think then you are just acting mistakenly and that if such errors are pointed out they can be corrected---so long as there is good faith.

So bad faith doesn't require faith as such, it requires self-consciousness regarding one's intentions and means. When that is possible then a faithless person like myself and a faithful Christian like Professor Smith can figure out how to get along just well enough that we both survived and even flourished.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Perils of Truth and Censorship

I am inclined to err always on the side of free speech. One of the bad faith arguments of the Right is that the Left wants speech codes and censorship and uses political correctness to inhibit speech. When Colin "Weapons of Mass Distruction" Powell came to the UR I declined to participate in a boycott though I signed the letter objecting to the fee they were paying him. He should be able to be denounced in public, I said. When it's not yelling fire in movie theatre, I am strongly of the opinion that censorship is the path of tyranny. Hitch and I agree on this even when I found his opinions deeply offensive (re: that war thing again). So what about COVID disinformation?

Disinformation is rampant. There is a direct corollary between Delta variant infection, hospilization, and death and Trump voters. These people are spreading disease that will lead to further shutdowns and the making of misery for those of us who, you know, can manage to understand science and deal with the consequences of a risky world. So should FB permit this spreading disease of misinformation? Where do we draw the line about censorship?

America rife with conspiracy theories, the Big Lie effectively destroying democracy, and an incorrigible, willfully ignorant, dangerous and proven violent population, what should we do? People are free to be stupid so long as it doesn't "break my leg or pick my pocket" as the inexcusably flawed Jefferson once put it, the hypocrite who also wrote the immortal words.

None of us is without flaws, any who have accomplished much of anything have deep shadows; there's no reason to make excuses but there is every reason to think about how truth makes life more complex, not always easier, and invites inner conflict. If we're not conflicted, we're not paying attention but that doesn't solve the problem either. I am willing to embrace the paradoxes of truth---living with conflicts of interest, value, and truth---but I am disturbed by problems that could be solved were our fellow humans less willfully ignorant and craven.

What should we do? We're going to have to try to figure out the difference between living with human paradox and the problematics of human problems. Problems, well, some problems can be solved. And COVID is a problem with a solution. That leaves us with another question: why do humans act so plainly in violation of their self interests? For that, we have even more opportunities to ponder how humans wager with existence when other living beings know better.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Fourth of July Sermon In the Pursuit of Liberty and Justice for All

In Pursuit of Shared Blessings

The more closely we look, the more to consider. Some writers mean every word because they are inviting our most careful scrutiny. Others are just as careful to take us off the scent of what words could mean because their possible meanings have never in truth occurred to them or have been dismissed and rejected. I have in mind today particularly Lincoln and Jefferson.

Jefferson lived in a world in which he regarded the privilege and power of white men much as any other self-evident truth: an unalienable endowment of the divine. That the words he (and his colleagues) composed and agreed upon did not include people of color or women was not debated. And in that so-called Age of Reason all plausible facts are worthy of debate. That tells us everything we need to know about how power arises from systems and structures that mean to serve themselves.

To break into other plausible meanings, reasonable claims, and so truths we pursue through debate does not test the self-evident but instead helps realize its purpose. Self-evident truths are regarded incontrovertible---and so the threat of disproof by reason alone is treated as beyond the pale. Until it is not.

Jefferson's basis for self-evident truth is that it is not human-made, which must strike us as ironic in light of the prevailing religious beliefs of his Deism. But notwithstanding this invocation of Divine sanction what is regarded as self-evident because it is incontrovertible might just as well be understood as shared premise. Not only must we be willing to make our assumptions, explicit or implicit, a foundation for further reasoned argument, we must understand that human-made claims are more than vulnerable; they fragile when untested.

If we abandon the assertion of the incontrovertible, we are not abandoning truth but rather the divine claim, the assumption of ordanance beyond evidence, reason, and debate. We are then left with very human selves to pursue truth. We the People must make the case that what must be true is something we alone must manifest and claim for all. This is no small matter. The humanist-alone truth is no longer self-evident but founded on premise and proposition.

This is what Lincoln did to Jefferson's argument, even though Lincoln is arguably far more the theist than his predecessor. Lincoln restates what was supposed to be self-evident as a propositional argument, which will necessarily have premises as vulnerable as the arguments themselves. We discover that our search for truth beyond conditions is once again conditional. What we want to be true before and after our analysis must be remade true in every effort, as the continuous argument.

We shouldn't dismiss Lincoln's theism---for it seems clear that he thought a just God would demand from us the pursuit of truth that is continuously true, which would make it for all purposes much the same as self-evident: always true from before, during, and after the argument. But that idea of pursuing truth is, I think, the genius we see in Lincoln reimagining the problem of truth itself. He aims not to dispute Jefferson but to force upon his self-evident claim the plausible argument that we uncover meaning only insofar as we are willing to pursue truth.

Truth for Lincoln is no longer static, a thing we possess or something known. Truth becomes a pursuit, an unfinishable business that needs to remain unfinished in order to be true. Thus the self-evident requires we work with the premises and test the propositions because they need to be made true, not because they "are."

What I'm suggesting here is that America's claims to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness means that we must dedicate to propositions rather than assert, that we must continue to seek what is moving rather than devolve into immovable declarations.

This kind of truth is going to require toil, tedium to learn and relearn, argument and the slower-moving processes of honest debate. There is no arc of justice but the one we create and for any such arc to exist will require re-dedication and re-application of its unfinishable goals. Justice to be just must pursue what cannot be completed but by our continued efforts to remain engaged.

Lincoln was right when he observed that the self-evident was not only unrealized and unwarranted but in effect unhelpful. What we need is not a static Justice (n.b., the capitalization like we would "God.") Rather what is demanded is dedication and the pursuit of justice--- above all that we agree to our shared premises and propositions.

That last requirement, I fear, is where America is currently failing, our greatest peril. Truth is like democracy: it is hardwon, fragile, and in need of continuous renewal and dedication. Truth like democracy is difficult, often messy and unclear; it is a process that tests our patience and requires inclusion and debate. But truth is also a matter of good faith, shared facts hardwon, and demands we reject the insidious purposes of disinformation. We must not accept the facts but win them in the crucible of arguments well-made.

How is it that 156 years after the Civil War we still cannot agree that all are entitled to the blessings of liberty and justice? To this we must rededicate, for those blessings are like truth itself---not things merely to treasure but rather treasures to pursue.