Friday, February 6, 2009
I was not bringing up an issue of existence, but a definitional, not an evidential, issue. It is a definitional issue that makes a difference, however.
I maintain* that any discourse concerning morality is concerned with defining, legitimizing, or advocating some conception of duty, and duty is the background presupposition for such a discussion. It is something like theology and theism, which are, necessarily, all about God or some such conception. If you enter into a dispute over the reality of God ("exists" is not quite the right word) then you are not engaging in theology. Such discussions are, of course, worth having and are legitimate, but they are not theological in nature, strictly speaking. If you want to doubt duty, you are doubting morality itself, just as an atheist is doubting theism rather than engaging in theology.
The reason that it makes a difference is that "duty" may become a Smuggled Concept®* that lies behind discourse that superficially denies duty. I see this happening all the time in libertarian discussions. This, then, may become the basis of a "transcendental demonstration" of the necessity of duty to such discourse. Aristotle demonstrated the transcendental necessity of "A is A" by noting that you cannot sensibly argue against it without assuming that it is true. Similarly, it is Transcendentally Stupid®* to argue vigorously for some conception of individual rights, liberty, justice, etc. and at the same time maintain that the concept of duty is fundamentally illegitimate.
Let's move from the transcendental to the existential. Of course we should not pretend that we can infer from "what is" that "which ought to be". However the "operational existence" and importance of duty in human life easy to empirically observe. Let's ask why. We are often told, after Aristotle, that man is a "rational animal", and often told further, that rationality is our "unique" mode of survival and thus our "defining characteristic." Speaking from memory (you may correct me if I am wrong) what Aristotle said has been variously translated not only as "rational animal", but also as "speaking animal" and "political animal." All, I believe, are correct, and ultimately interrelated.
To put it into contemporary biological terms, humans are recognized to be "social animals," and while we are not uniquely social animals, our survival (and, truth be told, our rationality itself) as humans depends on our social nature. Since evolution has formed us as social animals, it would be expected (if not known certainly) that some biological mechanism exists within us to reinforce and to insure that our social nature is expressed and maintained. It would seem that regulative drives, emotions, inclinations and aversions would have to exist within the individual in order to bring about our social existence, especially in a "state of nature." Thus we speak of the "moral sentiments" such as guilt, resentment and the sense of duty. "Regulative ideas" such as a system of ethics would be a natural extension of more primitive regulative emotional experience, and perhaps a necessary extension for a rational animal that also maintains a social nature.
*I'm only maintaining what I have understood others to maintain. There certainly isn't an original thought in what follows.
*The concept of a Smuggled Concept® is a wholly owned concept of Ayn Rand. Not used by permission.
*The concept of Transcendental Stupidity® is a wholly owned concept of Immanuel Kant.
Here is a wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice. I'm not sure it is a good overview. Here is my own, but from memory, so it may not be fully accurate:
John Rawls was a Harvard philosophy professor who advanced, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice, and latter in his last work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, a conception of justice that incorporates and respects Western liberalism's concern not only for liberty but also for equality. He takes a two-tiered approach, proposing and defending two principles of justice, the principle of liberty / freedom, and the difference principle, which is the principle of equality. The first principle, liberty, takes strict priority over the second principle.
The first principle is familiar to all libertarians - basically that freedom be extended to all equally in so far that any one particular freedom does not interfere unreasonably with any other. This is familiar to us through the Bill of Rights and other privileges and immunities defined in the constitution. Included in his conception is a reasonable right to personal private property.
The second principle is the difference principle. It states that all positions and offices be open to all based on ability, and that differences of reward, power or privilege be designed as incentives that work toward the advantage of the least privileged and accomplished among us. However, the principle of freedom has PRIORITY over the principle of difference such that NO privilege, power or reward may deprive anyone of their rights, even if it were of net benefit to society as a whole.
One problem that libertarians would face in evaluating Theory is the strong tendency to interpret it as an apology for contemporary welfare-state capitalism. It is not, but it is very easy to get that impression. In Justice as Fairness he explicitly faults Theory for not being more explicit on this point and states outright that welfare state capitalism is unjust.
Robert Nozick, his colleague at Harvard, wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia (I am told) as a response to Theory. In his works after Theory, Rawls sometimes alludes to and offers polite and deferential criticism of Anarchy. In Justice as Fairness, Rawls uses the NBA draft system to illustrate a point, a referential retort to Nozick's use of Wilt Chamberlain as an example in Anarchy.
There are several aspects of Rawls' theory that libertarians may find interesting:
* First and foremost is the priority of liberty. Unlike utilitarianism, Rawls does not allow any compromise of liberty that is not for the sake of liberty itself. Liberty may not be compromised simply to increase social well being.
* Not only does Rawls maintain the priority of liberty, but he also maintains the priority of the RIGHT over the GOOD. His theory of justice is not teleological. He does not try to define an "ultimate good" and then insist that society be ordered towards serving that good. Instead, he FIRST defines and defends a conception of justice and then allows each individual to pursue her own conception of the good within that framework. In his work Political Liberalism he develops this aspect of his theory a little more fully by considering the possibility that multiple comprehensive doctrines (religions, philosophies, worldviews, etc.) may form an "overlapping consensuses" regarding the principles of justice, which would then form the basis of a stable, pluralistic society that respects all reasonable beliefs.
* Rawls' conception of justice is contractual in nature, in the tradition of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. He basis his defense of it on what would be agreed to by rational persons out of concern for their own self interest in an artificial setting termed the "original position." The concept of an "original position" is inspired by the traditional notion of a "state of nature" and, perhaps, by game theory. In the end he hopes that any reasonable, rational person may think it over for himself and discover that, under similar circumstances, she, too, would agree. The conceptualization of the original position and the deliberative procedure it embodies is modeled on Kant's generative categorical imperative procedure for the testing of moral precepts, and it is this that gives his argument its rigor.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Let me start with an anecdote. In the subdivision where I live, I often want to walk over to the local shopping mall. But my house is at the end of a curving street on a cul-de-sac. So to get to the mall, I have to walk down the street a long way to the main road, and then walk almost all the way back to the mall. It is much easier for me to simply cut across a few front lawns and a few back lawns and get to the same spot more or less in a straight line.
But most often I don't. To do so I would have to "violate" my neighbors private property and I don't really feel comfortable doing that. But in doing so, I am limiting my absolute freedom of movement. And my neighbors, by law, can insist that I do. Their private property is an imposition on me and an infringement of my liberty.
If we value our liberty too highly, if we are unwilling to compromise our freedoms in order to avoid conflict and to get along with one another, we would have to dispense with the notion of private property. Private property is, quite literally, tyranny!
But of course, to insist so completely on our freedom and liberty would be completely irrational. It would mean that we would be in constant social conflict and unable to advance our material well being. Such liberty would not be in our self interest, nor in the best interest of others. So we compromise our freedom and accept some notion of private property. For our own good. And for the good of all.
A system of justice is a systematic way of structuring our social interactions so that we can avoid the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise in social life. It enables social intercourse by resolving conflict, and allows us to gain the benefits of social cooperation. It always entails some compromise of liberty, some compromise of equality, some concept of private ownership and some concept of sharing. In a humane and just society no one social value is pursued to the exclusion of all others. To do so would be inhumane, and would ultimately create a society that is unfair and impoverished.
Friday, September 19, 2008
The concept of a "public accommodation" is a legitimate and useful distinction to make in thinking about property, liberty, equality and justice. A system of justice is a means of reconciling conflicts of interest between members of a society. Property is, of course, often involved in such conflicts, if it is not their actual cause. The nature of a particular piece of property and the way in which we make use of it is therefore quite important to understanding and reconciling social conflicts.
The degree to which property is involved in social (for instance, economic) interactions is of particular importance in resolving conflicts of interest that may arise. It is important to make distinctions between the public vs. private nature of property since the degree to which property enters into social interactions affects the ways in which conflicts arise and may be resolved.
Thus we have a concept of "public property", such as a beach or park, and we have come to define patterns and expectations of behavior with regard to it that we consider important to our concept of justice. For instance, public property is not to be used to exclusively promote any one religion or philosophy, if it is to be used in that way at all. To do so would be an injustice.
We also have a concept of "private property", property that is generally not intended for public social interactions and is not used that way very much at all. Our bedrooms are typically not involved in or become a source of public conflicts of interest, and we typically exclude them from the sort of behavioral control and regulation we find appropriate to public places. You might not be allowed to run around naked on the beach, but you probably can get away with it in your bedroom.
Another sort of property that has been conceptualized is that which is private but is used for commercial purposes and, in the current context, for providing services to the general public. This is the concept of a "public accommodation" where there is a high degree of social interaction and where our "public selves" are expressed. For instance, the local bar or theater or hotel.
A public accommodation, like public property, has a greater chance of becoming involved in social conflicts of interest than does strictly private property, because it is intended for social interaction and is actively promoted for that purpose to the public. It is being provided by an individual at personal expense, so it is certainly not "public property." However, it is being provided to the public, and is involved in our social interactions, so the public, as well as the owner has an interest in it. The rules that might reasonably govern the provision and use of "public accommodations" may very well, in the interest of justice, be different from those governing strictly public and strictly private property.
So, we may conceptualize classes of property between strictly public and strictly private and incorporate these distinctions into our system of justice - but why would we want to? What purpose would it serve? A system of justice exists to reduce or reconcile conflicts of interest in our public life. How does a concept of a public accommodation help us to do that?
When a racial group is singled out in public for unfair and unequal treatment, they suffer public humiliation, and a loss of dignity and self respect. However, to prohibit racist ideas, and to punish a racist simply for his beliefs, would also involve a violation of the human right to think for one's self however wrong or onerous those thoughts may be. A racist is a human being and he too has human rights and is entitled to some bare sense of dignity and self-respect, regardless of the fact that he would deny the same to others.
The concept of a public accommodation can help us to to avoid the evil that racists inflict upon our society without at the same time violating our sense of fair play and justice by robbing them of their right to freedom of conscience. By insisting that those who offer a public accommodation treat all members of the public with respect, we deny racists the ability to publicly humiliate minorities and rob them of their human dignity and self respect. On the other hand, within the boundaries of their strictly private property, they may be as discriminating as they like in their choice of friends and who they invite into their home. And they retain the right to engage in debate and advocacy of their cause, while we fight against their hate speech in the appropriate way - with more speech.
At this point it would not be helpful to start a juvenile argument over who hit who first. The libertarian principle of not "initiating force" is of no use in resolving such conflicts. Public humiliation, loss of human dignity and loss of self-respect are real, painful wounds. Telling the victim of this sort of injustice to "buck up" because "words will never hurt you" is useless. The systematic and ruthless infliction of public humiliation on a racial or ethnic minority is a true injustice, and it will result in vengeful and righteous anger, and the intention to strike back in self defense against the violation and the society that allows it. This is the reality of racial and ethnic hatred and we have seen it result in the bloodiest, most damaging and most senseless conflicts humankind has experienced. And we have seen this not only abroad, but even here at home.
History has proven that conflicts of this sort cannot be solved simply by asking minorities to "put up" with public humiliation. The insistence that public accommodations be offered equally to all citizens with no discrimination based on race or ethnic origin provides minorities with human dignity and self-respect, while insisting on freedom of conscience and speech avoids inflicting an injustice on the racist, who, as a human being, is also entitled to basic human rights. The differentiation between strict private property and private property used to offer a public accommodation is a useful means to reconcile, or at least defuse, conflicting interests in a pluralist society, especially a society that has had a history of racial discrimination.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
In an essay recently posted on ACLU PA's blog site by an anonymous poster, Lawrence Auster warns us that we are at war! Well... of course we are at war. Not a day goes by without our troops being imperiled by AK-47 fire, rocket propelled grenades, and IED's. People are being shot up, blown up, maimed, injured and killed. So, we all know we are at war, right?
Not that war! Auster is warning us that we are at war with Mexico. Oh! Right! Got it! Huh?
That's right, Mexico. According Auster "the big picture" is that "the Mexican government is promoting and carrying out an attack on the United States." "Mexico," he states bluntly, "is waging war on the U.S."
The means? "Mexico is waging war on the U.S. through mass immigration." Now, according to reports that I've read some of the activities the foot soldiers have been up to include:
- Picking and Packing Tomatoes. No AK-47 required.
- Butchering Hogs. Leave your RPG at home.
- Hanging drywall. OSHA does not allow IED's on the work site.
No one is being shot up, blown up, maimed, injured or killed. Unless, of course, you include carpel tunnel syndrome.
Since this is not a real war, just what is the nature of the threat? Maybe economic? Nope. The question of whether or not illegal immigration’s costs outweigh its benefits is merely "obfuscation" on the part of the media. It is much, much more important that mere economics; it is about one nation "moving into our nation’s land, in order to reproduce on it their own nation and people and push ours aside." It is "cultural imperialism and national vengeance combined in one great volkish movement."
It is, in other words, yet more right-wing, xenophobic , ethnic paranoia. Those of us who expect America to fully respect the rights of all human beings, including economic migrants, are often accused of "playing the race card". That card isn't up our sleeve.
Obviously we want to address any national problem in a rational, humane manner that respects social, economic and geo-political reality. To the extent that economic migration is a problem, what stands in the way of doing so? The nativist activists whose only reality is their ethnic identity, and who have found a publicly acceptable outlet for their hate. So, take them out of the debate, and we can focus on a reasonable solution to what probably isn't too big of a problem.