Sunday, April 29, 2007

Defining Social Justice

Far too often, social justice is referred to without definition. Without clarity, social justice is just a buzz word which can be attacked by the laissez faire right.

Popper defines criminal justice in The Open Society as “equality before the law”. That is, people are judged impartially, without privilege due to income or class status. Social justice, then, can be thought of as a counterpart to criminal justice concerning ones opportunity in life. In short, social justice is equality of opportunity.

Perfect equality of opportunity is far too often thought of as existing in the world’s laissez faire liberal democracies. This isn’t so.

Equality of opportunity, social justice, requires more than an absence of barriers based on ethnicity or gender in the workplace. It requires an equal start in life.

An equal start implies good education, healthcare, and motivation. It implies an equal shot at making it into university for both inheritors of wealth and the poor. Scholarships and government funds are a concrete proposal for achieving such equality of opportunity.

I don’t want anyone thinking I’m an absolutist on social justice. It does come in degrees, with a rigid caste-based aristocratic society being on one end (extreme socially injustice) and a society where everyone has an equal chance at another end (perfect social justice).

I don’t think its’ practicable to achieve perfect social justice. Nevertheless, I think social justice is something we should strive for, with piecemeal and cumulative efforts or reforms.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Social Democracy in Europe

Political analyst Sheri Berman has written a history (PDF) of social democracy. It starts with noting that in the 19th Century, the “Age of [classical] liberalism”; liberal theory was both an explanation and justification of capitalism. Marxism reacted by providing both an explanation and justification for the downfall of capitalism and rise of communism.

Communism was based on historical materialism and class-conflict. Historical materialism claimed that history’s next step would, necessarily, be communism and that this communism would result in class-conflict. This meant that:

a) Wilful political activism was unnecessary (as economic forces would move society towards communism naturally)
b) Other classes would be hostile to communism (class-conflict)

Eduard Bernstein, based on the realities of the politico-economic world, realized that the market system was here to stay and class antagonism wouldn’t gain electoral results. He provided the foundation for modern social democracy, cross-class cooperation and political activism.

When the governments of Europe instituted social democracy, they used the markets to benefit society, not the other way around. The essay ends by advancing a similar position for foreign trade.

If you want a better and fuller description, read the essay (PDF).

It’s interesting to note that Berman does to social democracy what she claims liberal theory did to capitalism, explains and justifies it.

Friday, April 27, 2007


The notion of arationality I’m advancing reconciles these two statements:

You should never be irrational.

Rationality, by itself, cannot get you through life.

Rationality is basing your beliefs on evidence and reasoning from sound premises, while irrationality is the inverse. In debates, (small “r”*) rationalists are told by Fideists that some things are “beyond reason”, and must be taken upon “faith” (believing based on personal prejudices or feelings without justification). Fideists say that we cannot get off the ground based only on reason, sighting ultra-rationalists like Spock.

In response to the Fideists, I’d say no beliefs should be irrational (contrary to the evidence or based on personal prejudice), but human motives and wants are based on non-rational (henceforth arational) desires or emotions.

A desire like “I want to eat” or “I want to continue living” cannot have justification in the same sense a belief like “the sun is the centre of the solar system” can. In this sense, desires are arational but not irrational.

Now, you may be thinking that actions themselves cannot be rational or irrational because they involve arational desires.This isn’t so. If you desired to help the poor and, to accomplish this, decided to flip a coin, you’d be acting irrationally. This is because your intention (to help the poor) and intentional action (flipping the coin to help the poor) has no causal connection.

This concept, arationality, is nothing new. I’ve heard it mentioned many times, from people such as Massimo Pigliucci to Alonzo Fyfe. But this concept is ignored and has gained little notice, so its reiteration is needed.


I say “small r-rationalist” to distinguish between the “Continental Rationalists” of renaissance Europe, like Rene Descartes, or “Platonic Rationalists” of Ancient Greece. These Rationalists thought that, through “pure reason” one could gain certain knowledge of the world.

This is something a probabilist and fallibilist such as I could never agree with. I see reason as justification and justification as tentative.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Why I Am a Dipper

Newer Note: "C-48" link edited again on June 27, 2008 to a CBC article.

Note: "C-48" link edited on July 7 to specific version of Wiki article.

Before joining the Blogging Dippers, I’d like to give a rational justification of my support for the New Democratic Party of Canada. It mainly ties in with my support for Social Democracy in general and how it’s proven effective in Western Europe.

Before one supports a political party, they ought to read the constitution of that party. The NDP constitution specifically states support for what

they call “democratic socialism”. Usually, democratic socialism refers to replacing the market system with a completely planned economy via democratic reform. If this were the case I wouldn’t support the NDP, as I believe in using the market system to generate wealth which the state can use in order to give the public social benefits.

The NDP constitution (PDF) doesn’t explicitly state that they wish to abolish the market system, though. It says, rather, “democratic socialism” is defined as the position goods shall be distributed and produced based on the needs of individuals. This is somewhat vague, and allows for the existence of competitive markets by my interpretation. Markets can produce goods and even distribute most of them based on traditional, transactional means, but some of the goods will be distributed by the state to the more needy through the institution of social welfare, as my interpretation goes. This is identical to my social democratic philosophy.

The NDP constitution does have a rather far-reaching objective, the abolition of child poverty. Especially since Western poverty is relatively defined. Nevertheless, I enthusiastically support attempts to minimize child poverty and extend social benefits to children so they may have a high standard of living.

On more concrete issues, I’m in line with the New Democrat Party’s attempt at starting a Canadian social charter, the senior’s charter. Their housing strategy and ability to get the strategy implemented in the Liberal Minority Parliament also attracts me to the party. Regulating drug costs is another policy of theirs I quite like.

Like all political parties, though, the NDP does have its flaws. They seem unable to compliment any other party when they do something right, explain their policies in a background of negativism (That is, to say, they attack other parties policies viciously as if they will lead to Canada’s collapse.), and tend to speak of their policies in loaded terms. However, so do all the other parties. Intellectual and rational analysis, with fair or balanced description of opposing views, never made its way into politics.

A critique, from a strategic perspective, is that supporting the NDP won't get anything done. As good as the New Democratic Party’s policies are they cannot be implemented as the party will never becoming the governing party. This view ignores the role a strong NDP opposition has in initiating change. The NDP can affect government policy in a minority government and has. Bill C-48, aptly named the “NDP budget bill”, came out thanks to the New Democratic Party’s work in a minority government. Going to history for some more examples, it wasn’t until a significant threat from the left, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, emerged that Mackenzie King’s Liberals began constructing Canada’s social safety net. And it won’t be until a significant NDP threat emerges that the Liberals (yes, more than likely a Liberal Minority would be more negotiable) will begin constructing a Canadian social charter and welfare state.

Book Review on The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato

Well, as I promised my (almost non-existent) readers, I’ll give a fuller commentary on The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. This book was written by Karl Popper, a philosopher, during the onset of World War II. As Popper notifies in the book’s preface, it was written in a time when fascism seemed as though it could prevail, and stern critique of its progenitor ideologies was necessary.

At the start of the book, Popper attacks a view he labels historicism. This is the view that history proceeds following strict historical laws or “laws of cosmic development”. This means that history’s course is predetermined and can be predicted by a select few, dialecticians, with knowledge of these laws.

Popper’s critique, in brevity, is that no such laws are discoverable and that these generalizations have lead to immense harm and destruction. Or, that the general attitude of historicists regarding the predetermined nature of social change has led to the evils of authoritarianism, communism, and fascism.

Popper then goes after Plato. He seems to think Plato was insecure about the change going on as the Athenian City-State became increasingly democratic and humanitarian. Plato, coming from an aristocratic background, saw this as a threat. He saw the change as historical corruption. Thus, he formulated a historicist law, that “over time, the corruptibility of the state increases and it degenerates away from its perfect form”. At the top was his ideal “form” of the state (based on his theory of forms), next in line was a Spartan-style state, then democracy, and finally, the worst variety, most distant from the “perfect form” of the state, was tyranny.

Popper than discusses another side of Plato, that of the Utopian Social Engineer. Plato wanted to reconstruct the state, starting anew, into a Spartan-style oligarchy. It would be ruled by Philosopher-Kings, with a strong warrior class, and with a lower class of slaves and labourers. I’ve done some further research and found out that the Philosopher-King parallels Sparta’s Kings, the warrior class Sparta’s Hoplites, and lower class parallels the Helot slaves. Popper details how Plato’s utopia is utterly authoritarian, anti-humanitarian, and collectivist. He furthers that Plato’s utopian ambitions influenced other ideologues with authoritarian agendas over the years.

While I haven’t read Plato’s Republic, I can say this doesn’t paint a good picture of it. The book is very well written, clear, and convincing. Nearly every argument is substantiated with a quote from one of Plato’s dialogues, and detailed further in the “Notes” section. I didn’t like, however, that he forgot to mention Sparta’s one strong point; their high status of women in comparison with Athens.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Political Progressivism

I’ve finished reading Karl Popper’s The Open Society and It’s Enemies: The Spell of Plato, and it’s given me ideas on how to explain specific political philosophies.

Progressivism, at least in the sense I use the word, means supporting gradual and cumulative change, as opposed to radicals who support immediately restructuring all of society, conservatives who support minimal if any change, and reactionaries who advocate going back to the allegedly “good old days”.

Closely related to progressivism are what Popper calls “Piecemeal Social Engineering” or “democratic social reconstruction”, which he claims is the only rational method of social engineering. Piecemeal social engineering involves changing specific social institutions one at a time, without restructuring the whole of society or trying to get an “ultimate solution” to all social problems. In my mind, progressivism and piecemeal social engineering are one and the same.

Popper contrasts this piecemeal method with “Utopian Social Engineering”, where a blueprint for a perfect society is used to restructure every social institution in society, to uproot all of society. This approach is the same as radicalism.

Popper notes that Utopian Engineers, when “starting fresh”, lose sight of their goal. That’s because their goal developed from a social environment which has been eliminated. Furthermore, Utopian Engineers are even forced to adopt piecemeal engineering and restore many of the former social institutions, like Lenin’s reinstatement of private property under the “New Economic Policy”, if they intend to fix the mess they’ve made.

I’d consider my political philosophy in the piecemeal spirit. Most of my recommended policies have already been implemented in places like Western Europe, and wouldn’t require the radical restructuring of society.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Clean Air Act

In a previous post, I was very pessimistic about climate change. However, there is some hope.

The hope involves air quality. Air pollution is quite different from other climate aspects; it’s easy to notice. Anyone who’s been in a metropolis is familiar with air pollution. Contrast this with other types of climate change, which will take years to become noticeable. Therefore, you’d expect voters and hence politicians to pay more attention to air quality.

The issue of air quality, more precisely of the Clean Air Act, threatens to cause an election. The opposition parties (Liberals, NDP, and BQ) want levies or carbon credits for businesses not meeting emission reduction targets.

Well, the Tories have conceded to some of the opposition’s demands. The Senate Committee’s version includes the carbon credits for businesses.

It hasn’t past yet, but this is a sign of progress.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Political Institutions

I’ve just read the seventh chapter of The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, a book by philosopher Karl Popper. I intend to do a thorough review of this book later on, but for now I’ll focus on what Popper calls the theory of unchecked sovereignty vs. the theory of checks and balances.

The former theory assumes the rulers do or should have unchecked power. Popper dismisses this, as even the autocrat depends on the secrete police and military to do his biding. Popper proceeds to claim we should engineer our political institutions to be resistant against a bad ruler, a would-be autocrat (the latter theory).

Concisely, Popper thinks the question of “How we organize our political institutions?” trumps the question “Who should rule?”

This fits well with my support for a constitution protecting rights and democratic procedures, thereby inhibiting a would-be autocrat’s plot.

Monday, April 09, 2007

He Beat Me To It!

In an earlier post, I criticized the film 300 for glorifying the Militarist State of Sparta. Turns out Ephraim Lytle beat me to it. Lytle is an assistant professor of Hellenistic history at the University of Toronto and saw the film before me, so it really isn’t a surprise.

Lytle mentioned some other fun facts about Sparta which I didn’t know, such as their kings being exempt from the “right of passage” shown in the film or that it wasn’t giant wolves but Helot slaves who were killed in this passage.

Not only did Lytle beat me to it, but he also said it better than me.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Political Philosophy

In my first post I said I’d give context to and justify my support for social democracy. In brevity, social democracy is state-regulation/intervention in the economy with individual freedom and leads to a more prosperous society.

My own social democracy comes from liberalist and democratic socialist philosophy. Despite this, social democracy is not true socialism, but instead a mixed economic system.

From liberalism comes the ideal of individual rights and markets. While traditional liberalism supported completely free markets, I don’t. The liberal ideal of government procedures being openly accessible to the public, an “open society”, is part of my philosophy.

The ideal of extending the type of rights comes from democratic socialist philosophy. Social rights or positive rights are rights such as the right potable water, healthcare, or education. Economic intervention for social justice is another ideal I take from democratic socialism.

Ideals I get from both liberalism and democratic socialism are democracy and secularism. By “democracy” I mean the representative kind, where there are some legal rights to protect the individual or minority from tyranny of the majority.

More concrete proposals include nationalizing or municipalizing industries like water management, healthcare, daycare, education, postal services, and telecommunications. Of course, for most of these (daycare, education, postal services, and telecommunications) there would be private alternatives.

To protect social rights, industries would be under state-regulation. Minimum wage, union rights, tax penalties for businesses causing environmental damage, and high tariffs on businesses with use child labour. Following that note, I support a fair trade, as opposed to a protectionist or free trade, policy.

The structure of government would be a representative democracy, were constituents elect a representative per constituency. It would have a constitution consisting charter of individual freedoms, protecting the individual or minority from tyranny of the majority, and a social charter, listing social rights, like the one in Europe.

The constitution would also inhibit religious inference in government affairs. This secularism would promote a “public sphere” of politics where religion had little say.

Education would be used to get informed participants in democracy. Critical thinking and numeracy would be focused on, after basic literacy.

Some may wonder what separates this view from “social liberalism”, a modern liberal philosophy. The difference I see is the extent of the regulation. Social liberals support a social safety net, but not an extensive welfare state where social rights are solidified with a social charter, a constitutional document.

Such a system is practicable and ideal. Finno-Scandinavia enacted many of these proposals. This has resulted in a lower poverty rate and a higher wage for the working class. Other Western European countries follow such policies, with reasonable success.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


300 is the historical fantasy film about Battle of Thermopylae, based on the graphic novel of the same name. From an artistic point of view, the film was a well done. From an ethical point of view, it’s a propagandistic idealization of a Fascist State.

I know these terms are loaded, so I’ll elaborate. Ancient Sparta was a militarist state, which the film makes evident. Spartans practiced infanticide, leaving deformed infants on a cliff to die. This was part of their rather Socially Darwinian shot at making their populace fit for battle.

Loyalty to the collective, the military and city-state, above the self, were at the heart of Sparta’s ideals.

The film makes notes of it. Yet, it manages to present them as virtuous and good. It manages to get us to identify and sympathize with the Spartans. It inhibits our moral conscience, so to speak (you wouldn't usually agree with such a statement). This is why I say it is propagandistic.

Some of the wronged parties, such as the deformed infant who survives the Spartan eugenicist’s attempt on his life (Ephialtes), turn out to be villains.

The film was also ironic due to inaccuracies. The Spartan King (hero) talked about the “slavery” of Persian Empire (antagonists), yet Sparta itself had an entire class of slaves. Athens is degraded by the Spartans as nothing but “philosophers and boy lovers”, yet pederasty was quite popular in Sparta.

To give the film (and Sparta) credit, the high status of Spartan women was true.

Of course, it could be that I’m just over-reacting. It’s just a film to be seen for fun’s shake. Then again, if someone positively portrayed Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, you’d be concerned too.

Friday, April 06, 2007

More on Climate Change

For quite some time, it has been the consensus of the scientific community that humans are causing climate change. A report from Brussels has specified drastic problems climate change would cause. Among them are flooding near costal/arctic regions, more droughts in Africa, and excess precipitation in the places where it isn’t necessary. Hurricane Ally will be worse and some of the effects are already occurring, according to this report.

I think we should be precautious, especially when evidence cumulates which shows how drastic and irreversible climate change will be. Stricter regulations and incentives for “green technology”, along with other practicable proposals, have been out for some time. Yet, only recently it seems politicians are willing to consider them, and even now it’s painstakingly slow. It’ll take voter action before the politicians take a stand, something which may be too little too late.

I should note, some think the market can solve such problems. This view is flawed as the consequences won’t be visible until long after the decisions have been made. By then, it’ll be too late to reverse the damage. It’ll take intervention before hand to save us the cost of dealing with climate change.


Hello to all those reading my weblog. I’ve decided to write this weblog because I have a lot of views and a strong desire to express them. So, here you are.

Among subjects that’ll touched by this weblog include current affairs, politics, analytic philosophy, and science. A variety, I know.

Politically, I’d consider myself a secularist social democrat. Of course, this is nothing without proper context and justification, which I will provide by some indefinite time in the future.

Philosophy is another area which interests me. I support, firmly, analytic philosophy, which is predominantly based on linguistic and logical analysis (analyzing statements) of traditional philosophy. As far as I’m concerned, this method is successful. Of course, I also agree with more naturalistic methods, which use data from the sciences to aid philosophical discourse.

I’ll elaborate later.


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