Saturday, August 25, 2018

Frank Li — “All Men Are Created Equal,” Really?

Frank Li begins up many interesting points and, in my view, gets a lot right in this post. It is worth considering in that it is comparison of systems by a person that knows both the Chinese and American.

But Li omits some of the key Western thinking about the philosophical basis of liberalism, which distinguishes individuality from personhood. 

A dilemma arises between individuality and personhood. On one hand, individuality is unique and varied and all individuals are clearly not equal in many respects. On the other hand, "personhood" is held to be the basis of equality among all humans in terms of what makes one human. In the West, all persons are "equal before the law, for example. This is a key fundamental of Western liberalism and "American values."

The reasoning for this is that all natural persons "born of the union of man and woman" are human beings and are therefore assumed to share the same nature. Persons are "equal" in the sense that as as human beings, persons share in the same nature and thus have the same dignity, as well as the same inherent potential for self-discovery, self-actualization and self-realization. 

To paraphrase Emmanuel Kant, being rational and moral agents, persons are ends in themselves; therefore, it is never proper to treat persons instrumentally as means. This is the basis for universal human rights, for example, a concept that has been adopted globally in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights voted on by the UN General Assembly.

This philosophical distinction of individual from person is derived from the Western religious conception of soul, the history of which in the West is traced by to God's breathing life into Adam. The Hebrew term for breath is "ruach," which may also translated into English as "spirit." The Latin root of "spirit" is "spiritus," which means both "breath" as a natural phenomenon and "spirit" as a metaphysical one. 

In this view, all humans inherit that original breath of God or "holy spirit" (Hb. ruach ha qodesh) through Adam. This "breath of life" is common to all. It is the immanence of God in the world as "the spirit of truth." But this "holy spirit" is God in exile, as were. until a human realizes his or her true nature. 

A similar notion of breath and spirit is found Eastern traditions as chi (qi) in Chinese, ki in Japanese, and prana in Sanskrit. 

According to perennial wisdom, this truth is discoverable by anyone at time. For an interesting story of such self-discovery by a contemporary Vietnamese Confician, see the preface to The Monistic Tradition.

With the transition from the mythological age to the philosophical age that occurred in the West with the rise of modernity, the mythological concept was found to be lacking and the Enlightenment thinkers. Descartes made a bold stab at it with the "cogito." "I think therefore I am" is "Cogito ergo sum" in Latin. This was the beginning of modern rationalism. Hume countered with his "fork," which assumes that all knowledge is either empirical, derived from sense perception, or logical operators, which are empty of content. Hume's analysis found no trace of a "soul."

Kant attempted to synthesize Descartes' rationalism with Hume's empiricism and skepticism of "metaphysics." Kant essentially agreed with Hume that metaphysics is unscientific. But regarding Hume's fork as unsatisfactory, he attempted to show why. The Critique of Pure Reason provides a deeper analysis than Hume did, and one that some view as a harbinger of cognitive science. 

But in showing that neither God nor soul could be proved by argument, Kant was left reliant on faith for belief in metaphysical objects like God and soul unless he could show some rational basis. Kant thought he could show a rational basis for agency that is both rational and moral based on pure duty to act universally. He set this forth in The Critique of Practical Reason in terms of the universality of pure duty based on a rational justification of the Golden Rule as morally compelling for a rational agent.

In the transition from the philosophical age to the scientific age that began in earnest in the 19th century, Hume's fork prevailed as the basis for scientific naturalism as a methodological principle, e.g., expressed as positivism and empiricism. However, many equated this methodological principle of naturalism with the metaphysical principle of materialism, which is make an illegitimate jump in reasoning based on its own assumptions. Concluding from absence of evidence naturalistically obtained to non-existence is "magical thinking" in that it exceeds the scope and scale of the assumptions.

But assuming naturalism as exclusive removes not only the mythological basis for equality of persons in the religious notion of soul but also the philosophical basis for personhood in the notion of person as rational and moral agents. A logical conclusion of this train of thought was B. F. Skinner's behavioristic psychology that views humans interns of stimulus-response mechanism, like other organisms pursuing "utility" and contending for "scarce resources." That provoked a reaction as humanistic and transpersonal psychology, for instance.

When materialistic determinism replaces free will, the concepts of freedom and responsibility become cultural artifacts. The notion of equality of persons underlying the rule of law rather than men looses its basis. In this case, instrumentality takes over, and individuals become means. "Might makes right" as a "fact of nature." 

A double standard of justice is not an issue here, since the mighty can privilege themselves, e.g., based on demonstrated "merit" and controlling the levers of power. "The little people" are, well, little people, unless they have the impetus and wherewithal to stand up and join together. The challenge of the "mighty" is to make sure this doesn't happen by smashing threats as it arises, or by creating conditions that permanently weaken any opposition to prevent threats.

This question of equality is one of the enduring questions with which humanity is struggling now, although most people have no idea of the issues, the stakes, or the history of the debate surrounding them. This results in some of the paradoxes of contemporary liberalism and the confrontation of liberalism with traditionalism globally, and humanity at this stage of its development lacking the means to deal with this without conflict of ideologies and interests. 

In addition, the current debate about inequality is framed in terms of individuality and unequal distribution, when the important issues lie much deeper in terms of personhood and rights.
All Men Are Created Equal,” Really?
Frank Li | Chinese ex-pat, Founder and President of W.E.I. (West-East International), a Chicago-based import & export company, B.E. from Zhejiang University (China) in 1982, M.E. from the University of Tokyo in 1985, and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1988, all in Electrical Engineering


Konrad said...

“With the transition from the mythological age to the philosophical age that occurred in the West with the rise of modernity, the mythological concept was found to be lacking…”

In my opinion we still live in a mythological age, but its forms have changed. He who controls the social narrative controls the world, and the narrative includes many myths.

“History is the lies that the victors agree on.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

Calgacus said...

Frank Li is full of shit.

You either understand that all are created equal or you think that your shit doesn't stink.
There is no third possibility.

The difference between China and the US and the reason that China is forging forward by comparison is the reverse of what Li says. Chinese people believe in equality, while too many USAns delude themselves with an imaginary meritocracy. Many other Americans suffer from the Ah Q mentality that China has escaped from. Read your Lu Xun, comrades!

Chinese people now are a lot like Americans used to be. The general similarity of language and outlook has been remarked on by many students of either culture. But I think there is still a lot of rational hope for the US and the UK.

Tom Hickey said...

In my opinion we still live in a mythological age, but its forms have changed. He who controls the social narrative controls the world, and the narrative includes many myths.

Yes, it is all story (narrative).

There are different types of stories, some being "mythological" some "philosophical," and, some "scientific." These are just labels of story types or genre.

Mythological stories are artistic, teaching, etc.

Philosophical stories are rationally based.

Scientific stories and formal and empirical.

But it's all story all the way.

Since humans are socially embedded, the stories are cultural and subcultural, groups being distinguished by their stories aka narratives. All of these cultural narratives are blends of mythological, philosophical and scientific stories organized within frameworks of language and context.

Anonymous said...

Only experience transcends mind and narrative.

After the opera (story) has played - you walk away with just the experience, which fades into a memory. The experience is not in the opera though - it is in you.

Matt Franko said...

Tales says applied mathmetcians are trained to think in terms of inequalities...

No shock to us trained this way that hey exist....

Still doesn’t answer question of whether anything should be done about them...