Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In Defense of Favoritism

Popular wisdom is often anything but wise.  One statement that irritates me is the oft repeated complaint that "These days, it's not what you know, it's who you know."  This sentiment is objectionable because it implies that there was once a golden age of meritocracy from which our society has fallen, and that there is something terribly wrong with favoritism.

It is obvious to anyone with an historical perspective that we are living in an exceptionally meritocratic age.  In an increasingly individualistic world, our lives are less and less intertwined with our church, our neighbors, or even with our immediate families.  We may "know" more people through facebook, but we have real relationships with fewer and fewer people in our postmodern isolation.  In an agricultural society, people worked primarily with their family and neighbors, often for their entire lives.  Today, people rely much less on local ties and much more on their particular set of skills.  Someone can get a job by sending out resumes to people around the world who have no previous connections with the the applicant.

Society should be a meritocracy to some degree.  People with the highest skill levels should generally rise to more powerful positions in their field of expertise.  However, such technical competence is not always sufficient.  The character of a person matters a great deal, as do the bonds between persons that are essential to a functioning community.  Someone who knows a man personally and has a positive impression of his character will naturally be more likely to hire him or recommend his services.  In addition, the ties of friendship and family that stimulate favoritism are in and of themselves good things.  For a a store owner to hire his son as a cashier over a more qualified stranger is nepotism, but it is a good act of nepotism.

Favoritism ought to have some limits of course.  Favoritism should not be applied simply out of a selfish desire for favors reciprocated.  If your child is an idiot, you shouldn't hire him to run your company.  Some people, such as nuclear warhead technicians, should be hired strictly on the basis of their qualifications.  The comparative emphasis placed on personal relationships and competence should vary with different situations.

The world should not be run exclusively on the basis of favoritism, but it is good that we are are carried through our lives not only by what we know, but also by who we know.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Space Monkey

I finally get my computer to work and all I can think to do with it is post a funny picture of a monkey.

 from Fake Science

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Down with Democracy

I really hate this damn picture.  For one thing, it promotes the unsafe handling of firearms.  The only gun that should ever be used to drive nails is a nail-gun.  Even worse, it serves as propaganda for the cult of democracy. 

The ethos of a republic is conservative, and promotes careful deliberation grounded in the traditions of our fathers.  In contrast, the spirit of a democracy, as exemplified by this sign, is anarchic, and encourages "free" citizens to vote for whatever or whomever feels good at the moment.

Notice, the sign says, "vote as you please."  It does not say "vote for what is good," or "vote for what is just," or "vote for what is reasonable."  Such absolutist sentiments are not welcome in the modern egalitarian West, where everyone's ideas are equally worthy and thus equally worthless.

The relativism espoused on the top part of the sign is especially dangerous when combined with the  imperative to VOTE found in block letters on the bottom.  It is an idea nearly universally held in Western nations that everyone who is eligible to vote should do so, yet this notion is absurd on its face.  Some will insist that they do not really want everyone to vote, but only "informed" voters.  In practice, this is a pretty shallow requirement.  Barack Obama is an informed voter.  Nancy Pelosi is an informed voter.  The NARAL board of directors is doubtless composed of informed voters.  An informed voter is simply someone who can present some sort of reason for their policy positions and can properly identify which candidates are most closely aligned with those positions.  We need good voters, not voters who are merely informed.

A good voter believes in the moral natural law, and acknowledges that just positive law (the law of the state) is nothing more than the limited application of the natural law.  A good voter understands the difference between civil rights granted by the state and natural rights derived from human dignity, and understands that there is no natural right to do wrong.  A good voter knows that true justice consists not of treating all equally, but in treating everyone equally to the degree that they are equal.  A good voter honors his ancestors, and considers the opinions not only of the living, but also of the dead.  A good voter understands that by acting as a part of the state, he wields power over the life, liberty, and property of his fellow citizens, and will vote cautiously, careful not to abuse that power.  A good voter recognizes that the fundamental unit of society is neither the individual nor the collective, but the family, with which the state must not be allowed to interfere.  These are among the most important attributes of a good voter and a good citizen.

There are plenty of citizens who fail to meet this standard and yet are decent people.  Such people can do much that is good, but when election time comes around they ought to do their civic duty and stay home.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

Today marks the 237th year of our nation's existence.  Celebrate our country, and everything we love about it!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Our Place in the Cosmos

Neil deGrasse Tyson does an excellent job of educating the public about scientific topics.  Unfortunately, he is rather less skilled at articulating a coherent moral philosophy, as demonstrated in his preface to my astronomy textbook The Cosmic Perspective.  The astrophysicist writes,
When I pore over the date that establish the mysterious presence of dark matter and dark energy throughout the universe, sometimes I forget that every day-every twenty-four-hour rotation of Earth-people are killing and being killed.  In the name of someone's ideology.
When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dance in a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard fot the delicate interplay of Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land, with consequences that our children and our children's children will witness and pay for with their health and well-being.

And sometimes I forget that powerful people rarely do all they can to help those who cannot hep themselves.

I occasionally forget these things because, however big the world is-in our hearts, our minds, and our outsize atlases-the universe is even bigger.  A depressing though to some, but a liberating thought to me.
Consider an adult who tends to the traumas of a child: a broken toy, a scraped knee, a schoolyard bully.  Adults know that kids have no clue what constitutes a genuine problem, because inexperience greatly limits their childhood perspective.
As grown-ups, dare we admit to ourselves that we, too, have a collective immaturity of view?  Dare we admit that our thoughts and behaviors spring from a believe that world revolves around us?  Part the curtains of society's racial, ethnic, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knows and pulling the levers.
Now imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, holds an expanded view of our place in the cosmos.  With that perspective, our problems would shrink-or never arise at all-and we could celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors who slaughtered each other because of them 
Sometimes the smartest people say the dumbest things.  Tyson's "cosmic perspective" does not serve to make human dignity more valuable than ideology, it instead makes both things equally worthless.  In his vision of the universe, human beings are insignificant specks of cosmic dust.  The ideological reasons for one group of specks to murder another group of specks is meaningless in such a universe, but so are the specks themselves. 

Tyson condemns the idea that humans have some sort of elevated place in the universe, and in his attempt to support his claim, instead proves that humans are in fact centrally important.  He writes about astronomical observations that reveal the majesty of the universe.  Tyson seems to think that the scale and complexity of the cosmos that he sees through a telescope make humans insignificant, but he fails to consider that he can observe nebulas, but nebulas cannot observe him.  We can look at the universe and think about it, but the universe can neither see nor think.  A human person is more important than a black hole for the same reason he is more important than a rock.  We humans are rational animals, and are therefore the most significant things on this physical plane.  Any one of those selfish, closed minded, ideologues that Tyson criticizes is of greater value than the physical cosmos that he studies.  Galileo, who died a faithful Catholic, would probably tell Neil deGrasse Tyson that as it turns out, the universe really does revolve around us.