What Kant Did

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

During a walk, I was trying to listen to the Yaron Brook Show, but was having a hard time between the constant wind and the volume being low on that episode. I could make out bits and pieces, but was mostly frustrated.

Fortunately, one of the bits I could make out was a rather topical recommendation: Listen to Leonard Peikoff's Ford Hall Forum lecture (embedded below), "A Philosopher Looks at the O. J. Verdict."

Correctly hoping it would be loud enough to hear over the wind, I took him up on the idea.

I had just started grad school during this trial, and I recall some very strange conversations among my acquaintances about what I had thought was a pretty cut-and-dried case.

Yes, one is innocent before the law unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but the evidence of guilt looked pretty overwhelming to me.

Peikoff was of a similar mind regarding guilt, which I expected, but he quickly had part of me wishing I had listened to his lecture long ago: It was clear I'd be getting much more than confirmation from this one.

But part of me is glad that I -- who'd gotten sick and tired of hearing about the trial at the time -- didn't listen to the lecture before yesterday.

Somewhat ironically, the wish and the relief both spring from the same source, which is that Peikoff discusses why there were such sharp differences on whether the verdict was correct or not, primarily between blacks and whites, but also between conservatives and leftists. Blacks and leftists tended to agree with the verdict, whites and conservatives not.

Listening to the lecture sooner would have helped me understand this puzzling difference much better, as the notes at the Ayn Rand Institute might indicate:
Peikoff looks at the issues raised by the trial and media response -- including reasonable doubt, conspiracy theories, racism, planted gloves and arguments from emotion -- and finds the process deficient from a philosophical point of view. Peikoff pays special attention to the standards by which evidence in a trial should be weighed, and he discusses the difference between arbitrary claims and evidence-based possibilities.

Based on his examination of the motives and attitudes of both jurors and attorneys, as well as the controversial techniques used by the defense, led by attorney Johnnie Cochran, Peikoff describes the trial as "a very ugly and frightening turning point" and "an event that forever embodies the essence of an era." [bold added]
Peikoff both discusses the long (but hastening) process by which American academics implemented bad philosophical ideas imported from Germany starting in the 1800s, and forms generalizations from examples about how the participants in the trial were thinking.

The former gradually undermined Americans' confidence in their founding ideals and indeed in their own minds and is culminating in today's racialist-tribalist mess. The latter illustrates how emotionalism and magical thinking take over once people generally internalize antt-reason premises, such as anything is possible.

Peikoff's exploration of how the defense undermined the prosecution is when I was glad I was hearing this lecture for the first time. The defense countered the straightforward prosecution with fantastic and conspiracy theory-like arguments, only loosely interpreting the evidence when they had anything to do with the evidence at all.

And the jury -- primed with the ideas and manner of thinking induced by the culture's saturation with German philosophy -- fell for this approach hook, line, and sinker.

This they did partly because they didn't know how to think, and partly because they wanted to believe the defense narrative, which fit neatly into the larger racist narrative that the intellectual establishment had already been spinning for quite some time.

I not only found myself stunned at how well this explained the verdict and the reactions to it -- good and bad, and on either side -- but I also had a hair-raising moment of realization: The jurors remind me of today's hyperpartisans in how they approach the crucial issues of the day.

The following list (omitting gloves and adding scare quotes) comes from the excerpt: "reasonable" doubt, conspiracy theories, racism, and arguments from emotion. This is a nearly comprehensive list of what passes for political argument from the far left and the alt-right these days, and note what's missing: evidence, reason, and persuasion.

(A Trump supporter I know occasionally pushes some blatantly nutty book or other, but can't be arsed to read a short editorial from another perspective -- just like a leftist I used to work with who I had to tell to quit spamming my work email with leftist political screeds.)

The Simpson jury was no anomaly: It was a group of people ahead of its time, in terms of America's philosophical dis-integration and consequent de-minding. And now, a plurality or majority of the American electorate processes evidence and arguments in the same way that jury did.

Very ugly and frightening indeed.

-- CAV

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