Why it’s so difficult to unify modern politics

“The organization we call modern republicanism is based on multiple values and principles that conflict. We can identify at least five basic values of most modern republican political theories:

  1. popular self-governance by the political community
  2. individual liberties from government and social interference
  3. equality
  4. communal or national preservation, and
  5. economic and material modernization

“All of these matter; none can be ignored. But these values conflict. If you consistently emphasise or choose one over the other or pull on that thread, you move toward an exclusive political view of one kind or another.

“For example, if you emphasise self-governance over all other values and are willing to trade the others for more of it, you become a civic republican or a populist or a participatory democrat.

“If it’s individual liberties and rights, you value above everything else, a Libertarian, a neo-liberal, or a Natural Rights theorist.

“If it’s social equality, you become a progressive or social democrat or even a socialist.

“If it’s material progress above all, then you are probably an ethical utilitarian, believing the politic’s aim is to enhance general happiness.

“If it’s preservation of the forms of community life, then you’re a conservative.”

This is excerpted from the first chapter an excellent Great Courses lecture series by Lawrence Cahoon, The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. (This PDF course guide provides a summary view.) It’s an interesting dimensionalisation of the problem with trying to reconcile politics into some unified theory, as it becomes necessary to optimise across these dimensions, some of which are polar opposites to other goals in a zero-sum relationship.

This series is available on Amazon as well as at Audible at good prices.

The Ones Who Walk Away

As a (slightly) more considered response to Marvin Edwards’ comment in response to a prior post: ‘I’m working under the presumption that “the best good and least harm for everyone” is behind every rule that our consequentialists have created…’, I wanted to bring to the forefront the adolescent-appropriate short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (PDF). Among the key themes,  author Ursula K Le Guin paints a thought experiment that showcases the weakness of the foundation of Utilitarianism.

To summarise, Omelas is a utopian city, and the residents are copacetic—all but one. The one is a veritable scapegoat. The one suffers all of the pain, to create a system wherein the best good and the least harm could be experienced. Whilst the concept breaks down well before this scale, this thought experiment illustrates the absurdity of the claim.At a more basic (and classic) level, we can simply look at the various trolley experiments or the conceptual dilemma proposed in the scenario wherein some number—4 and 5 seem to be popular—of ill people may be saved at the expense of 1 healthy one.

At a more conceptual level, at its inception in the Age of Reason by Bentham and Mill, a time where Scientism was wrestling the reins from the Age of Superstition Scholasticism, utililty was thought to be able to be quantified and measured. As with other non-ontic concepts, it can’t be.

As with other non-ontic concepts, utility is specious. Like a Pointillist painting, it looks coherent at a distance, but upon any scrutiny, it becomes incoherent, and the best an adherent can do is to step back until it again feels rational, arguing that to get any closer is to make perfection the enemy of the good. But that’s not the point, to ask for a workable definition prior to engaging in discourse is not about perfection; it’s creating a common basis for discussion. Utility offers little utility.

Henri Cross - Three Nudes
Henri Cross – Three Nudes

Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

Absurdism: Myth of Sisyphus

I am re-reading Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.

I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.

 

« If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. »


Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)


« The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. »


 


« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »


When Camus cites Nietzsche,

It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,

he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?

Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.

The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.

Completed Anarchy

I finished the first section of Nozick‘s book—the Anarchy section—, and I am not in a better position than my past two posts. Nozick and Libertarians are obsessed with a normative, teleological world, where there is some objective, absolute truth and reality. I can’t argue whether there is some absolute truth, but I feel I can argue, like the God argument,  there is no reason to believe that we can know what that truth is, absolutely.

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M0Я3 Anarky

I am still reading, having just finished chapter 5 of Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and I am still concerned that he invokes normative morality and the invisible hand (even ignoring the religious implications of this) as de facto premises and without justification. He eviscerates so much, parsing so much finely, and he hamfistedly adopts these concepts without pause or discussion.

Still reading…

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

I’ve been reading Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia because it was recommended by Ian Shapiro. Although I am only about a quarter way through, and he seems to have tried to hit all the angles; unless I missed it, perhaps hits these bits later on.

He thoroughly raises issues and works to resolve them, but, as with Descartes with his Discourse, Nozick seems to exogenously accept certain aspects in an appeal to tradition sort of way. With Descartes, he stripped all belief in the truth of his senses, but then he injects God into the equation from out of nowhere. For Nozick, he just takes property and value as given.

I understand that the Western Enlightenment tradition has a thing for life, liberty, and property—especially Libertarians—, but these are just philosophical notions derived from nowhere. (Wittgenstein, stage left) That he uses utility theory instead of prospect theory as a foundation can be forgiven, but that is shaky ground, too.

And so it goes…