Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Morality and Facts in Public Debate

Why do reasonable citizens disagree? For many different reasons, of course. In particular, though, there are two kinds of public debate which we would do well to distinguish, because one is worth having and the other worth hastily fleeing.

First, there are debates focused on empirical problems, which are simply arguments over the way things are in our society. There are plenty of useful debates like this: Will it make us safer if we invade Barataria? Will gun control reduce violent deaths? Will the proposed artichoke subsidy be good for the poor? Is there any such thing as a witch?

On the other end of the spectrum, though, are debates that don't have much at all to do with empirical evidence but instead with moral questions. Is slavery evil? Is it okay to be naked in public? Should incest be prohibited? Should we burn a witch if we ever find one? Empirical analysis, if it exists at all here, is often an attempt to duck the fundamental moral question at the heart of the issue.

File:Cheetahs San Diego CA.jpg
Everyone agrees on what's going on here. The only question is its moral significance.

The abortion debate belongs to this  second class. Almost everyone is clear on the facts. (Of course, there are a few empirical disputes—take, for instance, the debunked hypothesis that abortions cause breast cancer.) But the major grounds of dispute are moral, and mostly boil down to two questions: how bad is it to destroy a fetus? and what are the rights of a pregnant woman?  These questions cannot be answered with empirical data. They are questions of transcendent morality, and thus fundamentally unsuited to public debate. A citizen has his convictions, and he can certainly attempt to tug on the heartstrings of any of his fellow citizens if he chooses to. But a Catholic who believes that abortion is murder and a liberal who thinks it's fine will be at an impasse until one of the two gives up her a priori moral convictions.

This isn't, though, a polar divide. The gay-marriage debate, for instance, falls in the middle of the spectrum. On the one hand, it is an area in which there is tremendous empirical confusion, filled with answerable questions like: what are typical outcomes for children of same-sex couples? will allowing same-sex marriage damage traditional marriages? is gay marriage likely to lead to legal polygamy? I've personally seen reasonable people change their mind on gay marriage after being exposed to empirical evidence. On the other hand, though, there's a strong moral undercurrent to the debate that doesn't have much to do with the facts. The result is that if I support gay marriage, I have no chance of persuading a fundamentalist Evangelical who believes that it is an evil in itself. Last year, I found myself in a conversation about gay marriage with a nonreligious man whom I respect very much. "I don't think it's right," he said. "It's against the values I was raised by." And there were no two ways about it.

And now for my prescription: when it comes to moral debates, we're better off not having them unless we're simply interested in what our fellow citizens think, or unless we think that our opponent is working from inconsistent moral axioms. By and large, we should solve moral debates by voting, not by arguing.

With empirical debates, full steam ahead.

And when it comes to mixed debates, we must separate out the empirical disputes and focus on them exclusively. For when it comes to debating morality in public, we don't have a logical leg to stand on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Jewish Whalers

Last week was the publication of the third issue of Makom, a journal on Jewish thought for which I'm the academic editor. Read the latest issue here; if you want a print copy, email me at

This is the article that I wrote for the last issue's symposium. My thinking has changed substantially since it was published, so ascribe this post to the Jonathan of last October.

File:Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen - Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (Abraham Storck, 1690).jpg

Imagine a whaleship, and bear with me. 

The ship is at sea for a specific purpose: to hunt and kill whales for their oil. If there were no market for whale oil, there would be no whaleship. If no one believed that sperm whales existed, there would be no whaleship. 

But the ship is full of activity that has nothing to do with whaling. The cook has developed a unique menu. The sailors have invented an ingenious variation of contract bridge, which they hardly ever play on Sundays. And as a sign of their membership in the gallant crew, they cut off the tips of their right pinkies, even if they think it’s gross. 

Moreover, the population of the ship is not uniformly committed to the project of whaling. Some crewmembers deny the very existence of whales, even though they’re willing to stay on board because they grew up on the ship. Others, seeking a direct experience of the Cetacean, declare organized whaling to be an impediment to their happiness and threaten to strike off on their own in small whaleboats. 

I propose that Judaism works on a similar principle: Judaism is a nation whose raison d’être is a collective religious history. Starting with the generation that crossed the Jordan, the Jews have been sustained by a national memory of revelation, if not a direct experience of revelation itself. 

But Judaism is also filled with activity that has intrinsically little to do with this religious experience—consider Israeli dancing, the Hebrew language, borscht, and latkes. Institutions like these are important to Judaism and common to most Jews, but unconnected to religion. 

Moreover, many Jews renounce the religious aspect of Judaism. Though this decision separates them from the central Jewish project, it does not remove them in the slightest from the Jewish nation. An atheist Jew can still be important to her community, can still find prayer beautiful, and can still look forward to Shabbat dinner every week. In much the same way, the ship’s cook has no interest in whaling, but he is just as much on board the ship as anyone else. (The only difference between the cook and the whalers is that a ship full of cooks would have no reason to exist.) 

All this granted, though, theology is at the root of Judaism, in three different senses of that phrase. In the first place, theology has historically provided the basis for the forms of Jewish practice. A completely secular Friday-night dinner is conceivable, but it is difficult to imagine its having been sustained over the millennia without its status as a commemoration of Creation. In the same vein, the only reason that Passover is today a dynamic and empowering cultural experience is that Jews over thousands of years believed that they should recount the story of the Exodus as real history. 

Second, theology it is the only thing that unites every Jewish community on Earth. The Jews have very little national history beyond the Revelation and the few centuries that followed it: Iraqi and Ethiopian Jews had already left the scene, for instance, by the time the Romans occupied Jerusalem. There are also next to no cultural practices that are common to all Jews. (I find gefilte fish revolting and Ashkenazic music vapid. Less trivially, put a Jew from Latvia in a room with a Jew from Cape Town, and they’ll stare at each other without a language in common.) Even the Rabbinical Law came too late to reach some far-flung communities. But there is no Jewish community on Earth that does not recognize the Revelation as a national event. 

Finally, and most importantly, the theological element of Judaism is the only thing that gives Jewish practice special meaning. There is no society on earth that is not filled with idiosyncrasies, and Jewish idiosyncrasies are perhaps more notable, and certainly more ancient, than those of other groups. So the cultural anthropologist might want to examine the sociological innards of Judaism in order to satisfy his curiosity. There is no reason, though, why that anthropologist should be more interested in Jewish culture than that of any other ethnic group: a bagel is no more intrinsically noteworthy than a slab of pork, and the hora is simply a Balkan dance. Seen from the outside, though, the Jews are marked by a central project more important than all of their idiosyncrasies, and which sets them apart from other nations: responding to a revelation at Mount Sinai. 


“Who are the Jews?” 

“A group of Hebrew-speaking Europeans and Africans that complains endearingly, tells sardonic jokes, eats bagels, doesn’t pick up the phone on Saturdays (though different Jewish cultures have variations on this custom), and is committed to the ethical principle of tikkun olam.” 

“And what was the Pequod?” 

“It was a ship of men who always used to sling their hammocks from the third hook up the post, some of whom hunted whales, and who ate each piece of toast with two squares of butter…”

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Morality Has No Floor

[Caution recommended. Though I still agree with the basic point, I made it in an extremely misleading way.]

I was criticized after my post on vegetarianism for sneaking an ethical subtext into what was ostensibly a post about killing animals. So to clear up all doubt, I will be completely straightforward now with what I believe about morality:

Morality does not exist in the world. It is not logical. There is no such thing as a true or false moral statement. And it is impossible to rationally persuade someone of a moral conviction that he does not already hold.

I want to distinguish morality here from what I'll call ethical norms. By norms, I mean codes of behavior that human beings enforce—both socially and legally—in much the same way as they enforce rules of language. Norms are abundant in the world. It is an empirical fact that if I walk down the streets of Teheran with a bottle of brandy, I will be punished. If I hit someone with a baseball bat in Hyde Park, I will not only go to jail but also lose favor among my friends. Norms vary from place to place, but most societies on earth have many precepts in common. This is partly because in general, human beings have good reason to try to prevent things like premeditated murder.

But norms like this are not what people usually mean when they call something immoral. Morality, rather, refers to what people think is the essential badness or goodness of a thing. Morality is what makes it just-plain-wrong to murder and lie, wherever I am.

The problem, though, is that this kind of essential badness is not something we can point to or whose existence we can test. We can only make testable, meaningful statements about the way things are in the world. Here's a bird, there's a pebble. There's a bird eating a pebble. Here's the Biblical prohibition of sodomy, there's Lawrence v. Texas. There's a California legislator defying both. But a moral statement is not a description of the way things are. As Wittgenstein said, if I wrote a scientific history of everything; describing the whizzing of the stars, the composition of the earth, and the history of human beings; nowhere in my enormous book would there be a single normative sentence.

So whatever moral values there are, they have nothing to do with the way the world appears. They have everything to do with what the world means—and that's not an question that can be answered with an informed rational discussion. Morals are, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, mystical.

I should be clear about the implications of what I am saying. If I am asked: why it is immoral to murder a baby? I will have no answer. I won't even know where to start.

Let me illustrate my point with this dialogue between Joe, who's gay, and a homophobic Republican:
Republican: Your way of life is immoral and an offense to decency.
Joe: Says who? You have no right to impose your morality on me.
R: You are imposing your morality on me when you insist on this arbitrary principle of non-intervention.
J: All I'm saying is that whatever consenting adults do behind closed doors is none of your business.
R: Morality is of course my business. And what difference does it make if you sin in private? By the way, how do you know that consent is the criterion of morality?

And so on. To give another example, f I had been born in pre-modern Igboland, I would have been condemned to death for being a twin. If I had cried: stop! you are acting immorally! I would have received the response: your very existence is what's immoral. And there would have been no judge on Earth to tell us who was right. To arbitrate the dispute would mean talking about things that do not exist in the world—and that is something that our language is incapable of doing.

None of this means that I do not have moral convictions or try to act morally. But morality is something that I simply practice, not something I can reasonably defend against someone who disagrees with me.

Doesn't this make you a cultural relativist? In one sense yes, and in another no. It is an empirical fact that different societies have different norms, and also that societies (and people, for that matter) often attempt to impose their norms on each other. But I do not derive from that fact any moral duty to respect the norms of any given society or person. In fact, I believe that I am morally obligated to reject the cultural norms that I think are immoral. It was appropriate, for instance, for the British government to ban the Rajasthani practice of widow-burning.

Are you a post-modern nihilist? To the contrary! I believe that I am commanded to live for other people and not for my belly. The problem is that I can neither talk sensibly about this commandment nor convince you of it: it does not exist in the world. (On the other hand, the absence of morality in the world means that it is conceivable for a person to run joyfully down the road to hedonism without stumbling.)

Don Giovanni stumbles.

P.S. My thinking on ethics has been heavily influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who explained what I have said much better than I did.

Updated 1/28.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Rule Applies to Everyone: Ending the Usage Wars

I come not to bring a sword, but in peace. I'm writing to plead for an end to the Great Usage War, which has taken the soul of many a college-student. As it stands, it seems like educated English speakers will be eternally divided into two camps:

First, the Prescriptivists. To these schoolmarms and librarians, usage is a matter of careful speech. Cultivating proper language breeds good habits of thought and allows a speaker to express himself effectively. It's thus lamentable that standards of usage have declined in the West. With the advent of Twitter and texting, there's no one left to defend traditional English in all its clarity and good form. O tempora! O mores!

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg
This, by the way, is the fate of those who mispronounce dénouement. 

Second, the Descriptivists. To these vagrants and graffiti-artists, usage is simply a matter of how people talk. It's useless to set down rules of speech, because 1) language is constantly changing, 2) people who really drive the language have little concern for rules, and 3) who the hell are you to stop me from putting a preposition at the end of a sentence?


But the whole debate is nonsense, utter nonsense. Let me start with two obvious facts about English.
  1. The earth will not swallow me up if I split an infinitive, dangle a participle, say "applicable" instead of "applicable", or substitute the quetzal munched on the bones of Nebuchadnezzar for do we have any napkins left?
  2. I will, however, be subject to some degree of social scorn at the University of Chicago if I say any of those things. In some cases, I might not even be understood. It is therefore to my advantage to say none of them in a classroom, or (to a lesser extent) when I'm with my friends.
So in some sense, I can talk about the "rules" of standard English: they are the standards that I must abide by if I want to be taken seriously or understood by other speakers of the dialect.

There is no human language that does not have rules in this way: in order to communicate, we need to agree on certain conventions. (E.g., the mouth is the organ that conveys meaning, and "banana" isn't a command to take out the garbage.) The idea is to make sure that "pass the salt" can be expected to bring about consistent results each time it's uttered.

Rules, though, go beyond simply aiding communication: all languages also have conventions that could be jettisoned without causing confusion, but which are nonetheless socially enforced as part of the language's structure. So there's a good  reason why we spell island with an s and write (bizarrely) with possessive apostrophes. If we didn't, we would be subjecting ourselves to derision and contempt.

But that's it. A rule is nothing but a prophecy that if I violate a certain usage, I will pay a social penalty among speakers of standard English. The most useful set of predictions varies from place to place: you won't get very far speaking punctilious, WASP-y English in Washington Park or in Tokyo. 

Sometimes, it makes sense to formulate the rules as prescriptive commands. Think of a parent saying to an six-year-old: "Don't say brang. The right word is brought."  It's also convenient for a dictionary to say: "Meerschaum is a form of magnesium silicate used to make Turkish pipes" rather than: "we're not judging you at all, but if you're speaking to an English speaker it's to your advantage to use meerschaum to mean..." But we shouldn't be seduced by these statements into thinking that the prescriptive command is anything more than a cautionary prophecy.

So the case against prescriptivism is clear: there is no cosmic significance to a rule of usage, and it's not an offense against God to break one. But the case against descriptivism is just as simple: it doesn't help anyone to simply describe the way people speak without describing it as a system of tacit rules, some of which involve punishment if they're broken. A good dictionary does more than just note that ain't and isn't exist together in English.

So let's stop making a fuss. People speak how they speak, but they also choose their words for good reason. There ain't nothing more to it.

P.S. If we disregard transcendental morality, ethics work in almost exactly the same way. So do courts if the legal Realists are to be believed. But that's a subject for another post. 

P.P.S. If you want to see this case made at greater length, read this article by David Foster Wallace or this one by Steven Pinker.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Vomiting up Plato's Poison: A Guide to Thinking

"One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 114.

  1. What is justice?
  2. What does it mean to really know something?
  3. What makes something art?
  4. Is a thought experiment the same kind of thing as an empirical experiment?
  5. Was imperialism good for the world?
If any of these questions seems interesting to you on its face, I know exactly how you feel. This post is meant to free you: you are living in a prison of words.

There is an assumption behind all of these questions: a word corresponds to an essential thing, and if we can clarify exactly what the word means, we can understand the essence better. The process will help us understand the world that we live in.

But defining words can't do that at all. As Wittgenstein says in the book I cited at the beginning, words are simply devices for communication, and they only bear meaning insofar as we use them successfully to get our point across. If I use the word "justice" in a conversation about the Nuremberg trials, and my listener understands it and responds, that's all there is to it. Perhaps Plato used the word differently. So be it! That's none of our business. After all, I would have used the word "artichoke" if I thought it would have the same effect.  We only want to make a specific point about Nuremberg.

Along the same lines, sometimes we'll use "democracy" to describe a slave-holding Greek city-state with a low land requirement for voting rights, and sometimes we'll use it to distinguish the United States from China. But the similarity of the uses should not lead us on a hunt to discover the hidden essential connections between the United States and ancient Athens. Of course, there are similarities. But the cities are not related because they are both called democracies.

Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it very well: Consider, he says, the paradox that has driven many a nine-year-old bananas: "if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" A difficult question, until you realize that the answer is trivial: it depends on how you define "sound." If a sound is an auditory sensation, then the answer is no. If a sound is a vibration in the air, then the answer is yes. There is nothing more to say.

The best replies to the questions that I started with should now be obvious. But just to drive the point home:

  1. People use "justice" in all kinds of ways. Let's figure out what those ways are.
  2. 〃        〃  "know"  〃 〃 〃    〃  〃    〃      〃    〃   〃    〃     〃    〃.
  3. 〃        〃    "art"     〃 〃 〃    〃  〃    〃      〃    〃   〃    〃     〃    〃.
  4. It's similar to a regular experiment in some ways but not in others. Let's make a list if we care.
  5. My God. Let alone "good", what do you mean by imperialism? In what period? In which countries? Do you have all of next week to hash it out?
Colossal octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort.jpg
If you ever see question 5, sail away really, really fast.
(Credit to my professor Constantin Fasolt for bringing this one up.)

Though the forms of these replies differ, they are motivated by the same corrective urge. When we stop insisting that words are sacred, and that only things matter, we burn away the thick brambles that can ruin our thought.

I should give a concrete example. First, this is what can happen when words ensnare us:

Teacher: We only have a minute or so left, but I'm curious as to what anyone thinks about the last part of the article. Is history a natural science or not?
Student A: [eagerly raising hand.] History is infested with too much interpretation to be a real science. Can you imagine a chemist telling a story about calcium? That's just way too open ended.
Student B: Yeah, but think about how empirical history is! Historians are subject to just the same standards of proof as chemists when they publish their work in journals. The proof looks different, but it's really the same kind of thing.
A: I don't think that what historians do counts as proof in the same way. Can you show that the American Revolution was fundamentally ideological just like you can show that cesium explodes in water?  That's why it just doesn't make sense to me to call it a science.
Teacher: Really good questions being raised here, guys. We're out of time, but keep thinking about this kind of thing as you do the next reading.
(I just read an entire book that read exactly like that argument.) This is how to do it better:
A: Well, history is like science because it makes testable empirical propositions just like in chemistry and biology.
B: It looks like you're using science to mean "a system of testable propositions." But if you define science as a discipline that excludes ideological narrative, then it might make sense to distinguish it from history on that ground.
A: Okay, that's fair. I guess my definition of science is just as well founded as yours. We don't really disagree.
[Bell rings.]

Once you realize that you don't have to worry about definitions, you can start focusing on real problems. Problems like: "Is gun control a good way to prevent death?" "Why did the Weimar government succumb?" "What problem is the doctrine of Grace designed to solve?" Intellectual life gets much easier after you banish the demon of confusing language, but that's only because it's basically impossible before you do.

You must be the master of your definitions, not their slave. And a master must be watchful. So to free yourself from words, pay a lot of attention to them. Make sure you are either consistent with your definitions or conscious of when you change them. And let this be the refrain in university classrooms from Chicago to Beijing: What do you mean?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Vegetarianism is Unjustified

I used to be a believing vegetarian. Now I'm a vegetarian.

I remember the moment of my first conversion: I was sitting in my political-philosophy class last May when I realized, not that I should stop eating meat, but that I could. I felt like it was already obvious why it was wrong to eat a mammal. But once my vegetarianism became public, the pressure was on to give a precise justification. So after much tinkering, I hit upon a mantra that made it easy to explain it to other people: "it's wrong to kill animals in order to eat them." But why that was the case, I discovered, I couldn't really say. I wrote a convoluted email to my skeptical brother trying to make my ethical position consistent. I wrote an elegantly styled blog post refuting all the reasons for vegetarianism except the one I said was true.

But after nine months of my brothers' bemusement and my grandmother's despair, I realized: I have no idea why it's wrong to kill animals for food. I don't even know whether or not it's wrong at all. I don't know whether fish are in a different category from mammals, whether killing is worse than suffering, or whether it matters how an animal is slaughtered.

The problem is worse than that I haven't heard a good argument yet. In fact, I don't even know what a rational ethical argument for not eating meat would look like. (By "ethical" I do not mean "advisable" like the so-called desirists do in an intentional obfuscation. I mean "good beyond material phenomena, and for whose sake I should suppress my natural inclinations.")

If you'll bear with me for a moment, imagine coming across the following shape:

(In fact, no need to imagine, because it's right here.) You might say to yourself: "I see a left-facing angle with a teardrop attached to the upper ray and a dot on top of it." You might also say: "I like this shape, and so do my nineteen friends."

What you don't know is that it's a symbol in the Inuktitut Syllabary understood by thousands to stand for the syllable vaa. But that meaning is utterly underivable from its form: there is no hidden vaaness in a set of squiggles. It's a geometric shape with a meaning beyond geometry.

The same goes for ethics. We are concerned with a meaning that our actions carry to an observer outside the universe, who understands something by our behavior that we do not. We can only observe the technique that a butcher uses to kill and the consequences that befall him; if we try to explain that what he did was transcendentally evil using only what we can observe in the world, we're looking for something that does not—cannot—exist.

This is similar to the symbol above.

For that reason, I do not know whether or not it is transcendently bad to kill an animal. I am as ignorant of animal rights as I am of Inuktitut.

Do you claim that killing an animal inflicts unbearable pain on it? I ask: why should I care about an animal's pain? What makes it morally relevant? If I feel nothing, why should I make myself feel pity?

In other words, you might make an observation as to the mental state of a cow, but you can tell me nothing about whether that mental state is transcendentally bad. One could only understand that killing a cow was bad if one sat outside the world and understood the significance of the phenomenon. In other words, God knows and not us.

In some cases we think we know what God wants. "Thou shalt not murder" is an attempt to communicate the transcendental significance of murder to humankind. But in the case of animals, I do not know what God wants of me. Of course, I might say: It is my vivid experience that God despises slaughter. But in the realm of feeling, a feeling can be countered with another feeling, and there is no unfeeling judge to arbitrate the dispute. 

So much for ethics. I don't know whether or not it's my duty to spare a cow, and since I like steak, I might as well err on the side of eating meat. All that's left to my vegetarianism, then, is habit and pity for the afflicted piglet. On top of that, I have a vague sense that I will be held to account for inflicting death on an animal, just like I will for not finishing David Copperfield. But that's it.

P. S. Wittgenstein makes this point beautifully in the Tractatus (see §§6.41–6.422). Reading this passage removed the last strut from a bridge that was already on the point of collapsing.

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The At-Least-One-State Solution

(Note: for background on this post, I recommend this article on the West Bank.)

In this post, I propose a unilateral resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is intended as an alternative to a negotiated solution, in which countless rounds of failed negotiations have made me lose faith. These are the assumptions that I use as starting points:

1.   Israel should remain both a democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people. It should keep a solid Jewish majority.
2.   There should be relative security in every part of Palestine.
3.   Palestinians in the West Bank should no longer be subjected to Israeli rule—no matter how benign—if they cannot vote.
4.   Questions of past fault (“Israel was defending itself in the Six-Day War!”) or legality (“the occupation is against international law!”) are irrelevant.

In my proposal, I am not paying attention to what I think the current Israeli government is likely to do; nor am I recommending that the current government execute the plan if it wants to stay in power. But I do think that it would be good for Israel’s long-term health. I also think that it would solve the issue quickly, fairly and without painful negotiation.

1.   Next Sunday, Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet sit down and draw up a map of the settlements that they want Israel to keep. Take a look here or here for an idea of what this involves. Basically, Israel would keep its major settlement blocs and relinquish settlements that are sparsely populated by Jews or inaccessibly far over the Green Line. The goal is to draw a relatively straight line that incorporates a solid majority of the West Bank’s Jewish population into Israel. So does Israel keep Gush Etzion? Yes. Ariel and Ma’ale Adummim? Maybe. Furthermore, if the cabinet wants, it can decide to give up some uninhabited territory on the Israeli side of the Green Line. This isn’t necessary to my plan, but it is a sign of good faith and in keeping with almost all two-state solutions up to this point. 
2.   On Monday, the Knesset passes a bill unilaterally annexing all the land that the cabinet decided to keep. Then it passes a second bill ceding Israel’s claim to all the rest (effective, of course, after full evacuation). 
3.   Over the next three years, Israel withdraws from all the surrendered land, evacuating its settlements and ending the occupation.
4.   Since Israel has already annexed East Jerusalem, it does not need to touch it now. It may either cede part of it or preserve the status quo until a later date.

My plan contains no provision for the structure of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. That’s because all questions of Palestinian government would be left to the Palestinians themselves. Could the PA declare sovereignty? Perhaps. Could Jordan renew its claim to the territory which King Hussein renounced in 1988? Perhaps, and that might even be the best outcome. Could Hamas take over and install a violent, authoritarian theocracy? God forbid, but perhaps. Regardless, it would not be Israel’s responsibility to decide that question for the Palestinians. (Naturally, Israel could encourage some outcomes over others without imposing a solution directly.)

That’s a sketch of my proposal. Let’s consider its advantages and then some objections.

My proposal’s greatest advantage is its simplicity. There is no need for international mediation or UN supervision. There are no negotiations involved. It relies on the good faith of only one actor. It demands no political capital from Mahmoud Abbas. In short, the likelihood that it would work is logically higher than plans that rely on the confluence of many improbable circumstances. 

I also think that my solution reflects a broad consensus across Israeli society, among Palestinian moderates, and in the West. Since at least the early ’90s, there’s been tacit agreement that Israel will end up keeping a small portion of the West Bank in exchange for land-swaps and that at least 90% of the West Bank will go to the Palestinians. (East Jerusalem is the exception: I’ve talked to entrenched Israelis on both sides of the issue.) By removing the necessity of messy and controversial negotiations, we can take advantage of substantial agreement on what the final status will look like. 

Finally, I think that this is a fundamentally fair way of resolving the issue, and in keeping with the moral convictions of most judges of the conflict. The Israelis get security and an overwhelming Jewish majority, and the Palestinians get independence—whatever that ends up meaning. The Constitution, I should point out, was not a provision of the Treaty of Paris.

Jerusalem on Tuesday morning.
Now it’s time for some objections.

1.   The West Bank would become a Gaza-like autocracy that would be ruinous to its citizens and dangerous to Israel. This is possible, but there are good reasons to doubt it. First of all, the PA already controls most of the West Bank with no symptoms (to my knowledge) of serious instability. It could likely declare sovereignty pretty easily after the Israelis withdrew. Moreover, there is no reason that the United States and Israel could not give significant military support to the PA even after it became a sovereign government. Even if democracy faded, something like what happened in Gaza might happen, but it is likely that something like Egypt would emerge instead: an Islamist autocracy that would be largely benign despite its anti-Zionist rhetoric. In any case, even in the case that Hamas or another Iranian puppet took over the West Bank, Israel would almost definitely be able to protect itself, just as it has managed to protect itself in the southwest. Israelis do suffer from rocket fire, but Iron Dome did wonders in the last war to prevent civilian deaths. Hamas would certainly pose no existential military threat to Israel.
2.   The plan unfairly denies Palestinians the opportunity to negotiate an acceptable settlement. Perhaps the ideal would be for Palestinian negotiators to have a role in a final-status agreement. But we’ve tried the strategy of negotiation for decades now with no satisfactory result. Israel is the party that has the power to end the geographical conflict, so it should solve it unilaterally. 
3.   There is no incentive for Israel to withdraw to a new border by itself. To the contrary. To Israel, the alternative to a unilateral withdrawal is not annexation of the entire West Bank. International pressure is too great for that—to say nothing of the interests of justice. The alternative is instead a negotiated settlement that would involve at least as many concessions as an unforced disengagement. Israel can protect its interests best by unilaterally preempting that settlement. 
4.   The converse: Israel would run roughshod over the Palestinian's territorial claims. Israel would also have an incentive to be generous in its cessions, for its annexation would be recognized by other governments only insofar as it practiced restraint in its annexations.
5.   The plan is unrealistic given the current Israeli government. I agree. But if you’ve been convinced, it just became less unrealistic.

I am not sure of my proposal, and I will abandon it the moment that I am persuaded that there is a better alternative. If you have the time and interest, I would appreciate hearing what you have to say. (In particular, I am unsure as to what to do with East Jerusalem.) 

P.S. I did not address Gaza in this post. In brief, I think that Israel should maintain the status quo there.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

How to Enjoy Yourself: The Danger of "Experiences"

If you're looking for a good time, there's a strong chance you're missing out. Are you on a road trip? It's likely there's a beautiful moonrise behind your car that you're not noticing. The most romantic rest stop was eight miles ago. You probably just passed a small clearing in the woods that houses the secret tomb of John Wilkes Booth.

But that's all okay. As long as you're enjoying yourself, and even if you're not, you're doing okay.

I write this to argue against an attitude to leisure that's as common as it is tempting and poisonous. According to it, enjoyment comes in packets that must be swallowed whenever they're available. The quality of our lives is enhanced by the number of good experiences that we accumulate, and a life well-lived is one that ends with an ample collection of remembered pleasures.

There are many behaviors that can only be justified under that understanding of fun: take large weddings, for instance. The main function of a wedding is simple, and I need not elaborate on it. But many a couple has insisted that a wedding be a perfect day, and accordingly procured dead flowers, solemn violinists, and buckets of mousse to make it so. It's as if there were an invisible judge in heaven who nodded his head in approval at the end of every perfect wedding. (Even if there were, why would we care?)

Take also photo-collecting. It makes sense to take photos if your only intention is to prod your memory later about the trip. It doesn't make sense to swallow experiences down the gullet of your camera as if they're more valuable on an LCD screen than in real life.

In fact, we shouldn't consider experiences valuable in real life either, for experiences aren't inherently worth anything at all. They might be fun—that's great! They might be emotionally moving—that might be great! But don't be seduced by the illusion that an experience is inherently worth anything more than the pleasure it gives you in the moment. Nor is it worth anything to anyone but you.

Readers fall into the same trap. That was the point of last week's parable: many people's reading habits seem to be based on the assumption that they're going to be held to account for the number of complete books that they've read. But books are not trophies to be put on a shelf: they're arguments to be followed or worlds to be explored. (Most people forget what they read, anyway. Even if we remembered every word, though, what would be the point? How would it make us happy?)

File:New Year's day dip - - 1102482.jpg
Thank God it's New Year's Day.
Otherwise none of the swimmers would be enjoying themselves.
I therefore propose a new method for enjoying ourselves. We should take pleasure in what's in front of us. We should enjoy the company of the people we're with. We should do things spontaneously if they seem like fun to us.

But we shouldn't do things for the sake of the "experience". Still less should we do them to tell other people about them. And it might make things better to leave your camera behind, or to tear out Chapter  XLIII without even looking at it to prevent yourself from finishing the book.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Reader's Heaven: A Cautionary Parable.

Commentary to follow in the next post.
Francis Omnilegens sat up in bed one night, reading a volume of Tolstoy. It was not, God forbid, War and Peace. Francis had read that last summer. No, it was much more important: The Sevastopol Sketches, an account of the Crimean War, was the last of Tolstoy's works that Francis had never read. (Francis, who had dabbled in a little Russian, preferred to call it Севастопольские рассказы to himself, though of course not to anyone else.) Arriving on page 144—the last—he smiled and leaned back. Tolstoy was now all his, a part of his mental vault that would subtly shape his worldview in innumerable imperceptible ways.

Suddenly, Francis felt a cramp in his stomach. He yelled downstairs to his wife, Frances, for a glass of water. Frances dutifully put down her Ugaritic grammar (her eighth Semitic language!), filled a cup with water from from the kitchen, and went upstairs to her husband. By the time she arrived upstairs, she found Francis lying on the floor: he had died of a ruptured gall bladder.

While Frances dialed for an ambulance, Francis opened his eyes to a glorious dawn. He was surrounded by ethereal clouds, which were somehow substantial enough to support his weight. The sun was rising exquisitely on the horizon. Francis reached into his pocket for his phone to take a picture, only to find that he had neither phone nor pocket. In fact, he was completely naked.

Suddenly, he heard the blast of a horn behind him followed by a piercing, pure voice. "Son of Man!"

Francis turned around. A tall, broad-shouldered man was standing in front of imposing golden gates. He carried a flaming sword in his right hand, and a halo of swirling flame crowned his bronze helmet. His fair brow was radient, and his eyes burned with celestial fervor.

"Thou hast arrived at the gates of paradise. I am the Archangel Michael, judge of Man and guardian of eternal life. If thou art indeed just, thou wilt surely enter into these gates. But woe unto the unjust soul; for I am like a refiner's fire."

Francis gulped, remembering that very afternoon, when he had decided not to mention to the Wal-Mart cashier that she had given him double the right change. And he remembered last week, when he had pretended to be busy in order to get out of visiting his half-sister in the hospital. Thinking about those incidents, and beginning to think of more, he stood silently in front of Michael, who continued speaking:

"If thou canst satisfy my interrogations, you may enter. First tell me: how much Jane Austen hast thou read?"

Francis breathed out, immensely relieved. "Every bit," he said with a smile. "Even Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan. I read them for their own sake, too: I didn't enjoy a single one for myself."

Michael kept his stern look, but he allowed a faint smile to disturb his lips. 

"Tolstoy?" he asked with unabated fervor.

Francis exulted in his heart, delighted at his narrow escape.

"I just finished him this evening. If you want, I can even explain to you why Allan Bloom is wrong that Anna Karenina is an elaboration on Rousseau's Émile."

"That won't be necessary, for I, the knower of secrets, know that thou hast complete knowledge of the Prolific One. But so much for thy secular learning. That is a trivial part of the soul."

Now Francis began to tremble, fearing that the real test was coming, which he would surely fail.

"Hast thou read the entire Bible?"

"I—I have, sir. I made a point of reading all the way to Revelation about four years ago."

"And the Apocrypha? Francis son of Frederick, have you read the Book of Tobit?"

An icy terror gripped Francis's soul, for he he had only read the exciting parts of Tobit. Under Michael's terrifying glare, he suddenly realized the major fault of his life: despite his best efforts, he had not stored up enough complete books to make his life worth anything.

 Suddenly, the cloud beneath him gave way, and Francis was hurled headlong flaming from th'Ethereal sky. In the vast caverns beneath, the Demons of Illiteracy hungrily devoured another ignorant and proud soul.