Column on My Perennial Puzzles

My Perennial Puzzles

Tibor R. Machan

I no longer recall whether I chose philosophy as the discipline I wanted to explore because of some puzzles I encountered or whether I found the puzzles in the field once a got to do work in it. I think it is the former since I recall some odd questions I raised when I was very young–like whether people I was looking at and thinking about without their knowledge of this would then have to be described in a biography with this fact mentioned about them. Or if I looked in a certain direction from the earth and then found myself on the object I was looking at and then did this on and on and on, would it ever come to an end? Or, again, if one wants to know oneself completely, would the bit about wanting to do so be part of what one would have to know and does that not lead to an infinite regress? I once figured, while sitting in church, that the only way I could be truly selfless, as I was being urged repeatedly by the priest giving the sermon, is by murdering all those who just took communion. That way they would all ascend to heaven and I would surely end up in hell, a very selfless thing for me. (But then I was informed that my good intentions might bail me out after all.)

OK, so these are pretty infantile issues probably most of us grow up considering on and off but I kept at it and found a line of work where I could continue keeping at it. Since then I have run across somewhat more intriguing puzzles. Here are a few:

How come so many serious scientists in psychology and neuroscience propose that we are all completely prejudiced when that clearly reflects very badly on the very findings they themselves produce?

Or how is it that people who believe we are hardwired to think and do everything we think and do keep insisting that other people should stop thinking as they do and change their minds–how could that make sense if they are all hardwired?

And how is it that these same people don’t step up to defend BP, tobacco executives and the like by writing Op Ed pieces on how no one can really do anything other than what he or she does do?

In ethics I am always baffled when I hear people urging everyone to be selfless but do not recognizes that others’ selflessness can turn out to be very selfish for them. If you always work to help others, those others will benefit from this, no? Why are those others so deserving of one’s help when one isn’t deserving of it?

In politics one outstanding oddity for me is how people who insist that everyone should be treated as an equal tend mostly to hog very favorable academic positions, at Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, and so forth, without finding this in the slightest quite hypocritical? How come they do not volunteer to exchange their swell positions with those who are at far less prestigious institutions, at least for a while (say switch places with someone at a junior college for, say, a term or two)? I know people who insist that no one deserves his or her advantages in life since we are where we are largely as a matter of pure accident, yet they do absolutely nothing to change this other than to keep proposing government programs that allegedly produce greater equality. Why not start your egalitarianism where you can do something about it, at home or at your place of work?

I once asked a very well positioned and avowed Marxist political philosopher–I believe he was teaching at Cornell University and living a very plush life indeed–how it is he does nothing to help the proletariat and he told me that this is because only when the revolution has succeeded will it be necessary to implement Marxian ideas. I thought, how convenient! Perhaps I should start racking in all the government grants and benefits I, a libertarian, have resisted applying for because I actually believe it is morally insidious to force other people to help me with my life and scholarly work? It maybe that I am simply naive about this–the thing to do is preach one thing and do quite another and everyone will see you as a sophisticated intellectual.

Maybe, as one of my very good friends, a young woman with a sharp mind and a Harvard degree in public administration, told me, I just ponder things to death and should relax more and let things be. But then I would not be me, I figure and I do like it this way, all other options considered.

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