Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

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Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!


Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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The Tie that Binds: a Meditation on Love and War

Why are people violent?

Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.

People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.

Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.

It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?

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On the Christmas Tree

We received a most interesting Christmas card from a family friend recently. (Our family friend doesn’t yet know about our religious affiliation…) The card had a lovely picture of a family bringing home a tree in a sleigh, and inside the card was a remarkable story about the origin of the Christmas tree:

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The Victory of the Sioux

Last week I had lots of opportunity to look at a map of South Dakota. Notice the shaded areas that represent the Sioux Indian Reservations. Go ahead, look. I’ll wait here…
Did you notice? A full one fifth of South Dakota belongs to the Sioux. This is an area about the size of Wales. A chunk of North Dakota is theirs, as well.

colignycalendarI wondered how it was that the Sioux had managed to keep so much territory in the face of everything the United States threw at them. Surely it was not because of our government’s bighearted generosity.

I wondered if the land there was so awful that the white folks didn’t want it. Ha! It turns out most of that land is just fine for ranching and farming. The US would have taken it if it could. (In fact, large portions of these reservations are now owned or rented by whites.) Compare that to West Texas or Arizona, where the land is much worse, but there are no reservations of comparable size.

So how did the Sioux manage to keep all that land?

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