Opinions on various topics....
Libertarianism. As with any overarching theory of how society ought to be arranged, libertarianism has its limitations. Nevertheless, I have a great deal of sympathy with any point of view that makes liberty its central theme. On the other hand, I do not believe there are absolute rights that inhere in nature or rationality, even in the case of the negative rights libertarians emphasize, which, collectively constitute the right to be left alone. There are times, for example, when security...freedom from death and pain...takes precedence over liberty, or at least some liberties, as in certain cases of war or when others in society experience great privation. More to the heart of libertarianism, property rights are not unlimited. Because I own a house, I do not have the right to set it on fire and burn down the neighborhood. Similarly, the owner of a plant cannot be left to his own devices if it means that he will spew toxins that will cause others to suffer, even if that involves generations not yet born. With all of this said, universal morality as dictated by impartial rationality is more compatible with libertarianism than with collectivist outlooks, for impartial rationality requires us to avoid harming others, which includes restricting their liberty without justification.
Illicit Drugs. There is no legitimate reason to deny others (assuming they are otherwise rational adults capable of conducting their affairs) the right to seek pleasure as they see fit, with one major proviso, which is as long as they do not harm others. Thus, for example, we do not want people hallucinating while they are driving on the road. The so-called "war on drugs" is an utter failure. Criminalizing drug use springs from puritanical motives, as with Prohibition during an earlier era, and it is an immoral restriction of the liberty of others. Society would benefit if it were to treat drugs much the same way as it does alcohol, which is to say, rational adults who behave responsibly ought to be left alone.
Prostitution. There is no good reason to prohibit anyone from selling sex as long as the seller does not harm others (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases). Indeed, I suspect this might be a great advantage to many who would otherwise be deprived of sexual comfort. Bringing the oldest profession into the open as a legitimate business also would undoubtedly be good for the prostitutes who are often abused by criminal middlemen.
Homosexuality. Homosexuality and bisexuality are perfectly natural and acceptable human behaviors. I suspect characterizing our sexuality as such is more a matter of describing our individual tendencies towards heterosexuality or homosexuality, rather than there being uncrossable chasms that separate them. In other words, I think most heterosexuals have or have had homosexual desires and vice versa, or that they are at least capable of having them in the right circumstances (prison being perhaps the most obvious example). Those who would deny this fact most vociferously strike me as having been even more likely to have had these desires. Ostentatious homophobia is a rather transparent attempt to coverup latent homosexual tendencies. The fact is, we are mostly just sexual, and the prefixes are not nearly as invariant as some would like to believe.
Homosexual marriage. There is no moral or practical reason, insofar as I can discern, that should stand in the way of homosexuals marrying one another, which would allow them to have all of the same legal rights as heterosexuals, and, something that is often overlooked, but of equal consequence, to enjoy the satisfaction of making their emotional commitment to one another publicly known. Some opponents say that this would open the floodgates to sanctioning all manner of perversions. I even heard one talk radio host say that it will cause society to countenance pedophilia, which, of course, is preposterous. Pedophilia is wrong because children are not rational adults, and they are incapable of making the rational choice to have sex, which has potentially dangerous physical and emotional consequences, and can be a source of great suffering. This is why pedophilia is immoral, which is hardly analogous to two, rational adults choosing to have commit to one another, cohabit, or have sexual relations.
God. I suspect there is no god, for there is no evidence for one, and the usual reasons (arguments from design, first cause, the ontological argument, scripture, revelation, etc.) strike me as consisting of either wishful thinking or defective logic. Still, I myself do not take a definite position on the matter. While I lean towards atheism, I cannot be as certain as those who show religious zeal in their non-belief. Agnosticism, properly understood, would suggest that we cannot know, and this also strikes me as being overly certain about things. In any case, I cannot accept a god who is at once all-powerful and all-benevolent, for there are too many horrors in the world to make this intelligible. I am not persuaded that a completely munificent god, one who is also omnipotent and omniscient, would allow Stalin, Mao, and Hitler to exist, or that he would permit man's inhumanity to man to occur as it does, even if it were result of man's free will, given that god knew beforehand that this is what would occur. If he does exist, such a god is not worthy of a free man's worship. Moreover, I have a hard time believing a being of infinite power would depend upon on my trivial praises or my belief in him. Therefore, I do not worry about it.
Hedging Our Bet. Some have argued that it is prudent to believe in god just in case he exists and there are adverse consequences for non-belief. I think it is preposterous to suppose that omnipotence would be deceived by such insincere motives. God is good, bad, or neutral. If he is truly good, decent people, including non-believers, need not concern themselves about the sadistic, vengeful and petulant father figure depicted in the Abrahamic religions. If he is bad, he is certainly not worthy of our piety. And if he is neutral, it really doesn't matter.
Religion. Religion is little more than organized superstition. To be sure, it has helped to produce some good music and art, and, it has given comfort to people, especially those who have experienced privation of one kind or another. On the other hand, it also has been a major cause of war, intolerance, oppression, and a serious impediment to human knowledge and progress. On balance, I think we would be better off without it. Even so, I believe we should tolerate religious belief, as with any other kind of nonsense people choose to believe, as long as religious practices do not harm others. However, our governmental institutions ought to be strictly secular. Government should refrain from endorsing or supporting religion, not only a particular religious view, including one to which the majority subscribes, but even more generalized religious overtones, such as the belief in a superior being or creator, as has been suggested in recent years. If history has shown us anything, it is that there ought to be an unbreachable divide between religion and the state. Moreover, the money-making activities in which religions participate ought to be subject to the same tax rules as any other, for-profit enterprise.
Abortion. I think most arguments in favor of abortion rights are deeply flawed. Feminists make the mistake of basing their argument on a "woman's right to choose" on matters concerning her own body. The fact is that a fetus is a rather like a parasite, one that depends on its host for its existence. But this is not substantively different than the dependency of an infant or child, who can nearly monopolize the life of a mother (or a father). Therefore, the "it's my body, and I'll do what I want to" argument would seem to pertain equally to children. A zygote possesses all of the fundamental ingredients of a human being, and the fetus, at a very early stage, has many of the attributes of a person already born, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to experience pain, to suffer. Consequently, we ought to be very careful about inducing a termination. Arguments about when personhood begins are essentially arbitrary, and those that center on rights pertaining to the mother's body (unless she is in imminent danger), strike me as very problematic, that is, unless we are also willing to also say that dependency after birth can also cause undue strain, which therefore should also serve to justify infanticide. I think it best to discourage abortion altogether, that is, unless there is a probable danger to the mother, one that is greater than being simply inconvenient.
Death Penalty. Some people undoubtedly deserve to die. I do not think each life is sacred. On the other hand, on practical grounds, I am opposed to giving the state the power to carry out the ultimate penalty, the termination of life, for states with this kind of power are apt to abuse it. In addition, we cannot be certain that the penalty will be applied impartially to everyone. Those who are poor and some minorities have an unfair disadvantage in capital cases. The evidence that leads to convictions is seldom, if ever, of an apodictic nature. Jurys and judges are not infallible. Indeed, there have been a great many cases where DNA evidence has shown that people were wrongly convicted. We can tolerate a certain amount of imperfection, but not to the point of risking innocent lives when there are alternatives (e.g., life imprisonment). Finally, and not inconsequentially, I think both abortion on demand and the death penalty both share in promoting the devaluation of life and brutalization of society, generally. These practices are simply uncivilized, which, no doubt, explains why so many people support them.
Globalism. Economic globalism has its dark side, as does capitalism itself. Developed economies and multi-national corporations often take advantage of less developed nations. Notwithstanding their largely selfish motives, however, their economic activities often result in real benefits for these developing societies, including new industries, occupations, training, improvements in standards of living, and increased self-sufficiency. Of considerable importance is the potential to export certain values (democracy, individual rights, property rights, principles of contract law, etc.) to oppressed peoples as a result of these commercial ties. Nevertheless, we must attempt to control some of the most egregious economic practices of multi-national corporations and governments, especially when these practices give sustenance to the entrenched rulers in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes (as has been the case of the Middle East). Also, nations and corporations are sometimes free to exploit the environment abroad in a way that would not be allowed at home, which can have deleterious effects on the developing country and the world at large.
CEO and Chairman of the Board. These ought to be separate positions in a publicly-traded company and in organizations where persons other than a few shareholders have a direct, beneficial interest, such as mutual insurance companies. When the chief executive officer of a company is in charge of the board, he usually has the capacity to select or influence the selection of board members, to direct them, and to set the board's agenda, an extreme conflict of fiducial interests, for CEOs and other senior managers are in a unique position to act to serve their own interests at the expense of shareholders. A properly constituted board of directors, which often consists of shareholders, is more directly concerned with protecting the interests of owners than entrenched managers.
Nationalism and Nations. I cannot help having the same emotional, tribal feelings about my nation, which constitutes my major social group, as many others have. Nevertheless, as the world becomes smaller, I think the day will come when the world itself constitutes the major social group for most of us, at which time our allegiance will be more properly directed to humanity as a whole. We will all be better off as a result. Nationalism, unfortunately, can provide the impetus for committing all kinds of horrors against our fellow man. It is hard to imagine a world without nation states, but I think that we can already observe the seeds of transformation during the last century with formal, regional alliances and confederations of nations. While world government frightens many, especially given the ineptitude and the questionable moral authority of the United Nations, I think it is inevitable and, on the whole, desirable.
Winston Churchill. Long before others, Winston Churchill saw the dangers of the twin evils of Soviet Bolshevism and German Nazism. His actions in the 1930s and early 1940s rallied Britain to hold off the Nazi juggernaut until the United States entered the war. Had he not taken these actions, in a short time it would have been impossible for the United States or the Soviet Union to overcome Hitler. Indeed, it is unlikely that the United States would exist in the form we know it today. At best we would be isolated, at worst, a Nazi client. In other words, more than any other person, Churchill preserved the liberty we hold dear. While it is true that he made peace with the Devil, Joseph Stalin, in order to fight Hitler, he quickly reverted to his old form after the war, and he became the first Cold Warrior. Churchill was not a perfect man, but tempered by several lifetimes of experience, possessed of extraordinary physical and moral courage, and with a deep sense of right and wrong, he became the greatest figure of the 20th Century, perhaps even of the modern era.
Vegetarianism. I myself am weak, for I love to eat meat. I hope one day to practice what I believe and sometimes preach. Understanding morality is not nearly as difficult as putting it into action, though, which is where the moral rubber meets the road. I have little doubt that we ought not to kill animals for food unless we have no choice. Most of us in the developed world do have a choice. I believe that morality requires us to treat equal suffering, equally, unless we can come up with a very good justification, and I therefore believe that farming or hunting other animals for sport is morally wrong. Short of this, and at the very least, we ought to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of suffering that we inflict on other animals. I am convinced, if we survive long enough, there will come a day when harvesting and killing other beings for food are vestiges of our primordial past. [Note to reader: Berumen is now a struggling vegetarian. See his essay on the subject: http://meberumen.blogspot.com/#111076097609180605
Presidents. Fortunately, most American presidents have been mediocre men. This will be the usual result of the democratic process in the future, too, for by their very nature, democracies tend to promote men of average talents who appeal to middling tastes. This is an acceptable tradeoff for liberty, for great men often have inordinate appetites for power, and, as history has shown, this can sometimes lead to disaster. Nevertheless, Americans have had several great men at just the right time. The three greatest and most important presidents in American history are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Washington gave the nation and democracy a good start. He could have easily been king, had he wanted to be, but he never deviated from principle. He capably managed Jefferson and Hamilton, both brilliant and necessary, but also prone much mischief. Had Adams or Jefferson been president first, the nation might not have survived. Lincoln changed the nation from a collection of individual states to one that was truly is one nation, and he ended slavery, the country's greatest moral failure. Roosevelt gave the nation the will to continue during an era of great privation, when communism or fascism could have easily spread like a cancer, and, to his everlasting credit, his partnership with Churchill and his leadership of our country against countervailing, isolationist forces at home were among the principal factors in the defeat of Hitler.
Cultural Relativism/Multiculturalism. I reject the idea that all cultures are morally equivalent or that all cultures are worth preserving. For example, I do not believe repressed and ignorant men ought to be allowed to stone women to death simply because it is a central part of their society's traditions. Cultures that promote all manner of superstition and stupidity are not ones that need to be preserved. A great many practices that are important to cultures (e.g., genital mutilation, slavery, women in burkas) are abominable, and they ought to be consigned to the dustbin of history. I will also submit that I unabashedly in favor of best parts of the Western tradition...those first established by the Greeks, transmitted by the Romans, and refined during the Enlightenment...insofar as science, philosophy, and political principles go, and I believe they ought to dominate. That is not to say that other traditions are not instructive or valuable in these or in other respects. But no other major tradition has thus far shown comparable worth in terms of providing for the betterment of the human condition and understanding the universe we inhabit.
Conservatives and Liberals. Conservatism is a relational term. It is not a doctrine consisting of constant, core principles. It is a time and place-sensitive perspective that only can be understood in terms of something else, namely, the ideas and practices which one wants to conserve. A conservative today is very different from a conservative of, say, the 17th century, someone opposed to democratic rule and who wanted to preserve absolute monarchy. A conservative in certain countries, today, would want to preserve the existing theocracy. One could make similar observations about progressivism. Given their frequent and unfortunate use of the word "liberal" as an epithet, nowadays, it is ironic that self-proclaimed conservatives also want to preserve and export some of the most liberal principles. The bedrock principles of liberalism are private property, individual liberty, and government by the consent of the governed, principles articulated by the likes of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. The conservative liberals and progressive liberals usually disagree on the degree to which each of these principles is emphasized, but not on their fundamental importance. The fact is that conservatives and progressives in modern democracies are both liberals, and they have much more in common than either group would like to admit.
Good Old Days? The idea that we are worse off today and that the "values" of halcyon days gone by were superior is simply mistaken. Consider the millions of lives lost to war in the last several centuries. Nearly 100 million were lost to the two world wars in the last century. In nineteenth century China, nearly 20 million people died in the Taiping Rebellion, and at least a million Europeans lost their lives in the Napoleonic wars. What were the values that caused nations to enslave millions of people over the millennia, a practice that goes on even today in some places? Describe the greater moral sense that inspired the methodical slaughter of over six million in German death factories barely more than fifty years ago. What set of values caused entire populations to deny people of color from quenching their thirst at a public drinking fountain but a few decades ago? And how superior of us was it to deny half the population the right to vote? Missing the good old days still? Today, world life expectancy is sixty-four years, up from forty-six years at the middle of the last century. In 1960, only 41% of the U.S. population completed high school, and only 8% had four years of college; in 1993, the figures grew to 80% and 22%, respectively. You can have the good old days.
Language. To read a good sentence is one of life's pleasures. To write one is even more delicious. A perfect sentence, though, is an exquisite, rare thing to behold, as is a flawless diamond. In our language, Shakespeare is the undisputed master of the perfect sentence. Many of us would consider ourselves fortunate to write just a few of these over a span of decades. Shakespeare wrote one after another.
Mathematics. Consider the glory of a mathematical proposition. Its truth stands alone, pristine, unalloyed, and elegant, true in all possible worlds, for all eternity, and it is true though no one might ever think of it. The power, beauty, and mystery of mathematics have beguiled men throughout the ages. Taken as a whole, it stands at the pinnacle of intellectual achievements, perhaps equaled only by the development of language. The sine qua non of all branches of modern science, it can also be used to describe and support our understanding of nearly everything else, including such diverse subjects as harmonics, cooking, agriculture, engineering, construction, finance, even artistic perspective. In brief, it is everywhere, and it is an indispensable part of everyday living.
Politicians. Americans have a rather low regard for politicians as a class. Politicians really ought to be viewed with suspicion, for their vocation is to control other people's lives, though usually under the guise of helping them. The purity of their motives is not what really matters, anyway, for throughout history, the most malevolent tyrannies have been instituted by the most pious of people, those who would inculcate their version of virtue on their countrymen. Beware of politicians who want to help you.
Quantum Physics. Determinism is on the ropes. Quantum physics has shaken the classical foundations of our well-ordered view of the world. It tells us that we cannot know the universe as it actually is when we examine its most fundamental properties (Hume and Kant were both on to something!). We find we are constrained to making mere statistical assertions about the building blocks of the cosmos. Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle shows that there is an absolute physical limit to the precision of our measurements, for the more accurately a particle's position x is determined, the less accurately its momentum p can be determined, and vice versa. In fact, the very measurement of a particle can change its most fundamental attributes. Strictly understood, quantum physics suggests a species of solipsism. It doesn't end there, either. It would appear that particles even "know" what other particles are doing instantaneously, a violation of a fundamental principle of relativity. The new "quantum reality" is a once counterintuitive and discomfiting, but it has withstood all manner of experiment, and it has overcome every competing deterministic hypothesis that has come along. Einstein remained suspicious about all of this quantum spookiness to the end. So far, he has not proved to be correct; however, one should never underestimate Einstein.
The Invisible Hand. In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith said a man of commerce "intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." Indeed, he went on to say, by "pursuing his own interests, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he intends to promote it." As we observe the unintended consequences of economic tinkering by governments and the moribund monuments of central planning around the globe, we can only marvel at Smith's prescience. Of course, Smith certainly understood most capitalists are latent monopolists, for they would just as soon not have competition in their markets. He knew the capitalist would set aside the libertarian verities of free enterprise as fast as you can say laissez faire if it were to his advantage. In particular, Smith was suspicious of those who purported otherwise, for he has not "known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."