Random thoughts: from human uncertainty to hog butchering

A quick, less-than-cosmic post today… I just wanted to call your attention to Nick Kristof’s column in this morning’s Times, on philosophy and the humanities. (There I go again. But I’m only the messenger <grin>. And I know how much you admire Kristof — someone you really should find a way to introduce yourself to).

Kristof picks up on some of the usual suspects. Rawls’ veil of ignorance, which you yourself mentioned a few weeks ago. Singer’s animal ethics. And, of course, his reference to my fave-rave Yeats line didn’t hurt.

But my favorite part is his discussion of Isaiah Berlin (who I haven’t yet read but have gradually realized I need to read — he’s also the guy who thought up the famous Hedgehog and Fox metaphor):

Sir Isaiah argued for acknowledging doubts and uncertainty — and then forging ahead. “Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed,” he wrote. “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

I wonder if Kristof isn’t thinking about some of the criticism he’s received lately about supporting individuals and causes that turned out to be rather humanly imperfect. Regardless, Berlin’s quote is where it’s at. You can’t be sure. And you won’t always be right. But you still have to act based on your best and most honestly-arrived-at understanding of what needs to be done. The alternative is paralysis. (Just look around!)

In responding to Kristof’s broader praise of the humanities, a commenter cited Robert Heinlein, of all people:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I couldn’t help thinking: you’re lucky you’re not his kid <grin>.

Heinlein loved war too well and there are some aspects of human experience which seem jarringly absent here (where are love and sexuality? Maybe implicit in sonnet writing — maybe, barely). But his point stands.

I was thinking about this in myself. Even putting aside the stuff on his list that I can be forgiven for being incapable of (I can’t butcher a hog, but I’m no longer asking anyone to do it for me) I can barely cook a meal anymore. As you’ve noticed.

And if you don’t focus on it, you’re likely to be even worse.

(Some of what Heinlein is alluding to is why I was hoping you’d read Shop Class as Soulcraft, which helped me understand the deep human wisdom and fulfillment that exists in manual, physical craftwork… something that’s never come naturally to me — or you, I suspect.)

BTW, I wonder why people read Rand’s Fountainhead and not Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress these days. If arrested-development libertarianism is what you want, Mistress has a rollicking plot, more wit, and above all, none of Rand’s sociopathy.

Maybe I just answered my own question.

Thoughts on any of this morning’s ramblings?



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