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Rant of the Moment: War and Taxes

11/13/2010 1 comment

I don’t always have an essays worth of thoughts on a particular topic. Even if I do, I don’t always have the time or effort to write long, thought-out, sometimes drawn-out essays. Sometimes this is due to laziness and sometimes this is due to the fact that I would rather write short soundbites about multiple topics than a long exposé on one. The rant of the moment serves that purpose. I call it a “rant” because I plan on focusing my attention on arguments or positions that annoy me or that I think are wrong or misguided in some way and because the briefness of these comments will not usually allow for comprehensive analysis. Whether or not this will actually end up being a weekly thing, a monthly thing, or a one-time thing, remains to be seen. So let me begin with:

1) The War Tax: why exactly is there no war tax in the United States? What is a war tax? It is as it sounds: a tax that is placed upon the people of a particular society when they are at war. The purpose of a war tax is, I would argue, threefold. First, to pay for the war. Wars cost billions of dollars in today’s currency and the money needs to come from somewhere. To be sure, some of the taxpayer dollars already goes to pay for military research, personnel, and so on. But that money is meant to cover the cost of a standing army at peacetime. The second purpose for a war tax is a matter of civil responsibility: a tax will ensure that the entire society plays its part in the war. Wars are fought by countries–or so one would think–not by distant so-called “volunteer” armies. This leads to the third reason: complacency. It becomes too easy for the citizens of a nation to not only start a war but let it drag on indefinitely if the war has no tangible influence on their lives (out of sight, out of mind). This is a recipe for mass injustice. I suspect that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would either never have started or would have already seen their end if a war tax would have been in place. At the very least, there would certainly be a much greater call, from both sides of the political spectrum, to end these wars and a much greater hesitancy when contemplating new ones. My proposal: 10% increase to all income taxes during wartime (and perhaps an increase in or implementation of a federal sales tax) .

2) While I’m on the topic, let me address one more issue relating to the military. As insinuated above, is there, and has there ever been, such a thing as a volunteer military? We certainly like to think so. It makes us feel good when we think those killed and those injured in war were not coerced into serving but acted freely. But how free is it when the majority of those serving are from poor backgrounds? How free is it when someone sees military service as their only legitimate chance at a college education? Why aren’t the rich, preppy Harvard graduates signing up? If it was truly voluntary, shouldn’t we expect a roughly equal demographic distribution?

3) Why does it seem that when the public hears the word “philosophy” they either hear Socrates, Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand? WTF? I like Socrates, but guess what, he wrote nothing. Nietzsche seems to be talking nonsense most the time. And while I don’t know much about Rand (other than her atheistic libertarianism and the mysterious linkage between her and Objectivism, which seems to me to break down to views accepted and made famous by those long before her) I will bow to the satirical, yet very insightful Philosophical Lexicon: 

rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. “When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand.” Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. “When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist.”

4) I recently learned that Sam Harris, famed atheist author, released a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Without having read the book, but having read about it, I want to make a few tentative comments. First, I am a big fan of making philosophy accessible to the masses, so I praise Harris for that. Second, and less praiseworthy, the moment I read the subtitle, an uncontrollable “ugh” or more like a “guh” came out. Why do these atheistic thinkers have to be so scientistic, by which I mean an adherence to the idea that all phenomena are reducible to science? Two problems immediately stand out (and have always stood out since this type of project was attempted). (1) Science can’t answer why one ought to act morally in the first place, but perhaps even more importantly (2) it can’t, by itself, determine the moral worth of an action (it can’t determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action). From my understanding, Harris is a utilitarian, which helps him address (2). But even then it’s not science that determines human values but science + utilitarianism (an ethical theory that is itself not grounded in science).

Consider the following scenario: a young woman was kidnapped and tortured by some monstrous villain last week. Fortunately, she was saved recently and is now in the hospital just about to undergo physical and psychological examination. Now, I think we can agree that the villain’s actions were evil, immoral, wrong,  morally impermissible, and so on. But how can we tell? Well, let’s bring in the scientists. They examine her. They determine that while undergoing torture she was in immense physical pain. They also determine that she is likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. So was the villain’s action wrong? Yes, they say. So no need for the  moralists to come in? Not at all. Bedazzled by their confidence, I pose to them the following question: You were able to determine, by knowledge of what happened, that she underwent immense physical and emotional pain, but where in your analysis was the wrongness? I then go on to explain to them the Is-Ought Problem, about how empirical facts are not sufficient in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. I then ask them one more question: why did you think the villain had committed a wrong action? Well, they say, because he harmed her and its wrong to harm someone in that way. Their response was rather vague but I left it at that.

So what did these scientists mean by saying that it was wrong to harm someone in that way? Being scientists who enjoy quantification, I suspect that they meant that the villainous actions were wrong because they caused the women immense pain and suffering. And when you act in such a way so as to create more pain than pleasure (or happiness or desire-satisfaction), you act wrongly. But they could have meant something else. They could have meant that  the young woman’s rights were violated and that, in itself, is what made the action wrong. Or perhaps they were focusing less on what happened to the woman and more on the negative character of the villain: his actions were wrong because they were produced by a malevolent character. Or perhaps they had more than one of these responses in mind. These responses are all derived from moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, respectively. So while science could potentially help determine the moral worth of an action–by measuring pain states for instance–determining which theory is ultimately correct/incorrect or most plausible/implausible does not seem to be within science’s grasp. To think so is to make a categorical mistake. It is to make a false reduction. But ethics is no more reducible to science than history (think World War II) is to quantum mechanics.

There are other types of value as well, like epistemological values and aesthetic values, which certainly can’t be determined by science either. In fact, it has long been argued by some 20th century thinkers that science is guided and even grounded in our values. Reason and observation is not sufficient in determining theory choice, so the argument goes. What ultimately determines theory choice once the data is in is our values, values like simplicity, coherence, and what some have called the elegance or beauty of a theory. It is these values that allow us to choose between two theories that are otherwise consistent with the data.

A Different Take on the Bodily Pleasures

Many people place a large amount of value on the bodily pleasures and, consequently, believe that their fulfillment is necessary to a good life. I have in mind such pleasures as food and drink and sex. Much of our time is spent thinking about and striving for ways to go about achieving such pleasures. We schedule our lives around our eating habits. We desperately seek after romantic relationships, in large part because of the physical aspects involved. This is all well and good. After all, these are not mere pleasures but requirements for a healthy and happy life. But there is a sense in which I wish this were not so. There is a sense in which these are not pleasures but pains in disguise: pains in need of neutralizing. This view does seem to fit some of our culinary and sexual experiences. The pleasure received from filling one’s stomach does seem to derive from appeasing the pain of an empty one (much like the pleasure received from scratching derives from the appeasement of an itch). These pleasures, in other words, are dependent on antecedent discomfort. Not all pleasures are like this (e.g. watching a film).

Many people will not be bothered by this realization. Some may want to contend that the pleasures of food and sex, however they are derived, are mighty and powerful and our lives are better with them than without them. This may be so, although I do not think it is obvious (our lives seem quite enjoyable when full on food or free of nagging itches). The real pain of such so-called pleasures, however, is that they serve as time-consuming distractions, drawing our attention away from other areas of real importance. One area of importance that I have in mind is the vast amount of projects that people undertake for the betterment of society. A second area of importance, one dearest to my own life, is that of scientific discovery and philosophical reflection. Without such overwhelming bodily desires, we could devote increasing amounts of time and effort to such areas. All too often it happens that in the midst of efficient and productive work or of moments of entertainment, we are interrupted by the unnecessary naggings of our nature. It appears that what may at first seem like a gift from the gods is but an unfortunate side-effect of our biology.

As harsh as this view may seem toward the bodily pleasures, none of it takes away from the enjoyment derived from them. I merely wish to point out that there are conceivable alternatives to the way in which minds such as ours could exist that are, in my view, preferable to the way things turned out. Stated differently, there are logically possible alternatives to the way we could have been that are better geared toward the fulfillment of our (or at least my) higher-order values.

I was pleased to learn that my very sentiments were echoed by Plato (or Socrates) over two thousand years ago in his work, the Phaedo.

For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food, and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth.