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.

Rhetoric and nothing more

Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.

Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular claim as truth does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim does not make it false.

I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.

Movement Is Not Progress

Before creating this, I searched online for instances of ‘movement is not progress‘ and ‘motion is not progress‘. I got results, but these results were generally either motivational or spiritual, which may amount to a different side of the same coin. To this contingent, movement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. The dictionary defines progress as:

1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination

— or —

2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition

Progress appears to be related to a specific type of movement: forward, but this still doesn’t seem to capture the essence of what we mean by the word progress. This is captured by the second definition by the inclusion of improved or advanced, but on what dimension are we assessing this improvement? Except in the minds of the adherents, this appears coincidentally to be arbitrary; anything in line with their wishes appears to be an advancement.

Unfortunately, progress is more than this still. Take the expanding universe model as an analogy—let’s not even discuss how a multiverse would further exacerbate things. Imagine that I can travel from Earth to Mars, and if I define Mars as the destination, then I have satisfied definition Nº 1, as I have made progress towards Mars (my stated destination), but I haven’t actually made any improvement. All I’ve done is changed position. I’ve gone from here to there, but now there is here, and here is there. If I retrace my route from Mars to Earth, again I’ve made progress under the first definition, but, in fact, I’ve just completed a circuit. Sure, I can argue that I may have done something on Mars that I can label progress: perhaps I’ve planted a flag or started a colony, but how is this progress. Following the same logic, is a cancer in your pancreas colonising your, well, colon progress? A disinterested observer taking the perspective of the cancer might say that the cancer has progressed or spread, but the patient may disagree with the assessment of progress.

In the sense that history is (anecdotally) written by the victors, we may have the illusion of progress, but as notables from Rousseau to Thoreau have quipped, progress is no progress. Even so, this progress presumes a wholesale concept of worse and better, yet there is no objective measure. This can only be claimed within some context. So, if I accept, within in the human domain, that Capitalism is better than Feudalism, then I can claim to have progressed. If I build a house on a plot of land, I can claim progress. Of course, to the previously standing wood, this is no progress. To the creatures who had occupied the wood, again, no progress. So, is progress a zero-sum game that I can qualify as a positive sum game by narrowly defining the system boundaries? Probably so, but let’s leave that for another day.

“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” ― Alfred A. Montapert

So what’s my point? My point is that there is only the illusion of progress, and that only in the realm of jingoistic specieism can we accept this illusion. In reality, there is no progress; there just is. We just are.

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

Justice or nonsense?

Why should justice be the foundation of a society, and why not something else, say, honour or valour or wealth? What do we mean when we say justice? Do you mean the same thing as me? Dating myself to be sure, but would a Klingon from the Star Trek universe share your definition? So what is justice anyway?

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‘Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of divine and human affairs and knowledge of what is just and what is unjust’, or so writes Justinian in Institutes 1.1 in 533 CE.

“Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.  Iuris prudentia est divinarum atque humanarum rerum notitia, iusti atque iniusti scientia.”

This is Justinian’s answer to the question: What is justice? In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss relates that ‘justice is the constant and unflagging will to render to each person what is due to him’ (or perhaps ‘what he’s entitled to’), and therein lies the rub: what exactly is one entitled to?

Geuss goes on to point out that entitlement was contingent to one’s place in society. Citizens were entitled to some things, resident aliens another, and slaves, pretty much nothing at all. In fact, giving a slave more than s/he was entitled to would be considered unjust, as it would be considered to be undeserved. As Geuss writes, ‘that to treat a slave as if he or she had any entitlements would be a gross violation of the basic principles of justice’. Of course, you are thinking, post-Enlightenment ‘all men are created equal’, or so the saying goes.

US-Camp_x-ray_detainees-Guantanamo-Bay-Jan-11-2002-Phot-Shane-T-McCoy-US-Navy-Creative-Commons-513x239[1]In practice, it’s been easy to sidestep the application of justice by redefining a certain group to be outside of some protected group. During the illegal aggression by the United States against Middle Eastern countries that resulted in extraordinary rendition of civilians spirited off to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, off the coast of the United States and outside of their jurisdiction, their acting regime declared that the detainees were not people, strictly speaking, and as such were not subject to the protections afforded to people, therefore they had no access to justice.

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

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Hermione’s Time Turner

The ancient Greeks had a different idea of justice, so perhaps we just need to break out our trusty time turner to see what Aristotle had to say about it.

Here Aristotle rather equates the notion of justice to that of equality, but that begs the question: what equality? as we understand that equality comes in a variety of colours, so I won’t belabour the point any further here.

Instead of asking about justice, why don’t we focus on the root of the word, just? This yields the following definition:

Just: (adj) based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair

This brings us into the normative domain of morality, fairness, and reason, so it’s not much to work with—basically, we are in the realm of opinion defended by rhetoric.

For ‘all’ intents and purposes, we’ve got four forms of justice. We’ve been focused on the distributive type, but there are also procedural, restorative, and retributive varieties. In many cases, not just one form of justice is satisfying and so multiple varieties are deemed, well, just.

  • Distributive or economic justice is about fairness in how things are distributed, about getting a fair share.
  • Procedural justice is also about fairness, but it’s more about fair play, an even playing field.
  • Restorative justice is about compensating for an injustice, about restoring some perceived balance.
  • Retributive justice is about punishment—retribution.

A problem arises when we try to quantify and measure justice. Consider distributive justice: If two people work in a field and each cultivates 50% of the crop, are each entitled to 50% of the yield? If the cultivated land was the ‘property’ of some other landowner, what portion would s/he be entitled to? All of it? Some of it? None of it?

What about the court system? Procedural justice comes into play here. Should a wealthy person have access to better attorneys than a poor person? Is this just? The poor person may argue no, but the wealthy person may argue that s/he earned the ability to pay for a better lawyer, so s/he is entitled to this benefit.

Restorative justice sounds simple at the surface. If I steal a loaf of bread, wouldn’t returning the loaf (or, at least, a similar loaf) be restorative—no harm, no foul? Many people will argue that this is not good enough. Balance has not been restored.

This is where retributive justice comes into play. Retributive justice is a poorly veiled euphemism for vengeance. This is where Hammurabi‘s code (or Leviticus‘)  eye for an eye—but not Matthew‘s turn the other cheek rendition—comes in. Let’s not get into Nietzsche’s take on forgiveness as being unjust and part of slave morality.

Keep in mind that in Hammurabi’s code, as with Roman law, justice was relative: Given eyes, (Nº 196) ‘If a man put out the eye of a nobleman (amelu), his eye shall be put out’, yet (Nº 198) ‘If he puts out the eye of a freedman or breaks the bone of a freedman, he shall pay one gold mina’.

Through all of this, we are still left wondering: just what is justice besides some vague notion constructed solely to preserve the status quo.

Sources:

  1. http://legalhistorysources.com/LisbonRights/JusticeDefinitions.htm
  2. http://changingminds.org/explanations/trust/four_justice.htm

Leibniz’ Blockchain Revolution

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain.

Polymath, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), coincidental discoverer of differential calculus with Isaac Newton, was also an Age of Reason (or Rationalism) philosopher. Whilst listening to a lecture (Nº 5) about Leibniz’ monism (whence: monads), wherein he believed that all substance is comprised of monads—think of them as like atoms—, which  contain ‘entelechy‘ (from Aristotle’s Greek, ἐντελέχεια*), « an inner principle that unfolds all the changes it goes through with respect to other substances, that everything true of the substance, including its relations to all other things, must be deductible from it ».

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain, that a thing would contain within itself the entire history of itself, in particular, it’s spatiotemporal relationships. Of course, this is not a very tight analogy, but I thought I’d share it anyway.

 

*Etymologyentelekheiaen– (within), –teleos– (end or perfection), and –ekhein (to be in a certain state).

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.

God is Dead. God is Necessary.

I stumbled upon Professor Jordan Peterson and his defenders of virtue morality, like Dr Stephen Hicks, and I decided to watch some vids.

Full Disclaimer: Not a fan

I ended up on his lecture about Carl Jung.

I’d been interested in archetypal and depth psychology for ages, and I’ve read most of Jung’s work. I still own all of the volumes of his complete works. The difference between me and Professor Peterson is that I take it as metaphor and, by his words, I presume that he doesn’t.

The video clip is cued to the location where Jordan says, speaking of Nietzsche,

“…‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ led Nietzsche to pose another question, which was: What are we going to do to replace him? Because Nietzsche believed—and I think he was absolutely right about this. I can’t see how it could be otherwise—, he believed that the morality that had structured Western society was predicated on the fundamental axiom of divinity, and so, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, the whole purpose of morality was dependent on that axiom being true—or at least being accepted as true. And when that axiom was knocked out by, say, the conflict between science and religion—because in some sense that’s what did it—, then the whole system no longer had anything to stand on and could become entirely questionable…”

The whole purpose of morality was dependent on [the existence of divinity] being true.

As I’ve said time and again, this is the primary reason people—especially those defending or seeking some sense of status quo, conservative vanguards, and morality warriors—insist on the existence of a real, objective moral centre or a good-enough version of it—one that coincidentally conforms to their worldview.

I’m afraid that I am going to need to hear something well more convincing than that because I’m not buying what these guys are selling.