Thursday, January 14, 2010

Category errors in politics (the rage of the left) and mind science

Hendrik Hertzberg, in an interesting piece in the Jan. 11 issue of The New Yorker 'Talk of the Town' section, comments on the alienation and disappointment of the liberal left with the health care reform bill in congress.  He cites this as an example of John Ruskin's "Pathetic Fallacy' (Violent feelings producing in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things - as in anthropomorphic treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations).  A more recent description would be philosopher Gilbert Ryle's 'Category Error' - ascribing a property to a thing that could not possibly have that property. (We do this with our minds, taking our 'selves' to be 'real,' rather being a illusory model generated by our brain hardware, cf. The I-Illusion). Anyway, from Hertzberg's article:
...It's the false attribution of human feelings, thoughts, or intentions to inanimate objects, or to living entities that cannot possibly have such feelings, thoughts, or intentions...The American government has its human aspects - it is staffed by human beings, mostly - but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, andits independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) make it more like an inanimate object. In our sclerotic lawmaking process, it is not enough that the President, a majority of bothy House of Congress, and a majority of the voters at he last election favor extending health care to all citizens.

The left-wing critics are right about the conspicuous flaws of the pending health-care reform - its lack of even a weak "public option," its too meager subsidies, its windfalls for Big Pharma...etc. But it is nonsense to attribute the less than fully satisfactory result to the alleged perfidy of the President or "the Democrats." The critics' indignation would be better be direction at what an earlier generation malcontents called "the system" - starting, perhaps, with the Senate's filibuster rule, an inanimate object if there ever was one.
Hertzberg goes on to point out that the senate defeat of John F. Kennedy's health care reform attempts in 1962 was reversed only after his assassination, and establishing Medicare required both Lyndon Johnson's landslide election and his legendary legislative talents.
The health-care bill now being kicked and prodded and bribed toward passage will not "do the job," either - only part of it. Are Barack Obama and the Demoncrats in Congress doing enough? No. But they are doing what's possible. That may be pathetic, but it's no fallacy.

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