A Grab Bag of Intellectual Goodies

A variety of goodies in the world of ideas in today’s New York Times. Here’s a grab bag:

Jim Holt has a well-written, punchy take on the new trend of "state sponsored soft paternalism". Informed, competent people still make choices not in their best interest. Should the state get involved? His example is gambling addicts.

The old “hard” paternalism says, We know what’s best for you, and we’ll force you to do it. By contrast, soft paternalism says, You know what’s best for you, and we’ll help you to do it…

What bothers [Libertarians] is the way soft paternalism relies for its justification on the notion that each of us contains multiple selves — and that one of those selves is worth more than the others. You might naïvely imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent “I” was a fiction. Our mind, Hume wrote, “is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger. The idea of multiple selves may seem like a stoner’s fantasy, but economists who study human decision-making have found it surprisingly useful…

The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.


In his piece on plagiarism and how a sentence-level obsession might go too far, Charles Ishwerood writes this interesting graf:

With the rise of so-called reality-based entertainment and the surging popularity of the memoir as a literary form, it now seems that everybody’s life is a yet-to-be-developed television property or a memoir waiting to spring from the laptop, uncontaminated by the greedy depredations of the artist. The rush for self-fulfillment and self-expression that characterized the “Me” decade of the 1970s has evolved into a desire for maximum self-exploitation and self-commercialization in these early years of the 21st century, which might be dubbed the “Buy Me” decade. We’d be fools to let someone make a profit off our own backs, and so as a culture we become exercised at the idea of a writer making money by making use of experience or words not entirely his own.


In his column on religion, Nick Kristof touches ($) on a new breed of "evangelical atheists". I do not believe in a higher power and I do not affiliate with any organized religion. In one sense, I’m an atheist, but I’m still "spiritual" (whatever that means). I always get a little uncomfortable with the intensity of hard core atheists, as if for them religion is the root of every possible evil in the world…ignoring how religion and religious institutions help a great many people:

The tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is often just as intolerant — and mean. It’s contemptuous and even … a bit fundamentalist.

“These writers share a few things with the zealous religionists they oppose, such as a high degree of dogmatism and an aggressive rhetorical style,” says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Indeed, one could speak of a secular fundamentalism that resembles religious fundamentalism. This may be one of those cases where opposites converge.”


Riffing off Paul Tough’s education piece last Sunday, David Brooks notes ($):

But now, thanks to bitter experience and scientific research, we know that the best environments don’t liberate students. We know, or have rediscovered, that the most nurturing environments are highly structured. Children flourish in homes that are organized, in families where attachments are stable, among people who plan for the future and within cultures that celebrate work.

Many of today’s most effective antipoverty institutions are incredibly intrusive, even authoritarian.

2 comments on “A Grab Bag of Intellectual Goodies
  • I briefly belonged to an atheist list a long time ago which was filled with virulently anti-Christian atheists who condemned me for thinking that many Christians are fine human beings. However, I recently worked at a public school where anyone with the least bit of difference from the devout Christian line of thinking was condemned by the school secretary. I never “came out” to her about my atheism because if I did, she wouldn’t be calling me today for substitute teaching assignments. She has too much power in the school. Although I’m fond of that secretary as a human being, her extreme version of fundamentalist Christianity is scary–as scary as the extreme virulence of those atheists on that email list. My former therapist’s theory was that extremists are necessary because they help us form our own views, so I try to remember that when I’m too afraid to tell anyone about my non-belief.

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